The Anniversary

Luxury Problems Turns 10

Modern Love
Modern Love

Before he solidified his place as one of the most singular and influential electronic artists to emerge over the course of the last two decades, Andy Stott spent 18 years refinishing cars at a Mercedes shop. In the time he spent away from the garage, the Manchester, UK producer grinded hard, crafting driving-yet-delicate IDM in his downtime. Balancing the life of a rising DJ with the duties of a blue collar worker, he used his weekends and whatever annual leave he got from his day job to tour. During the week when he wasn’t busy on stage, he’d play his tracks over the repair shop’s low quality speaker system and laugh to himself as he watched his older colleagues react with dismay. This unpretentious background really shines through when revisiting Stott’s early music, which possesses an automotive quality: There’s an engine-like darkness that lurks in its inky, driving beats, and the surrealistic simplicity of his distinctive album art style recalls the tasteful greyscale branding of the German car manufacturer that employed him.

It took the release of four full lengths for Stott to be able to leave the auto repair industry to focus on music full time. The decision was spurred on by being offered so many shows that he ran out of vacation days. Although his colleagues had previously told him that they thought his sound was too wonky and avant-garde to take him anywhere, his boss ultimately pushed him to take the leap into unemployment and live the life of an artist. “I quit my job refinishing cars for Mercedes; if you crashed your car, when all the guys piece it back together, I was the one who put the paint back on. I’m 32 now, and I’d been painting cars since I was 18. But quitting wasn’t that big of a risk for me financially, so it was a luxury problem,” he told Pitchfork in a 2012 interview, when asked about the title of his breakout full-length Luxury Problems, which turns 10 this Saturday.

Before Luxury Problems, Stott explored a lot of different styles – everything from shuffling ambient to aqueous juke (the latter of which he put out as Andrea, a moniker he adopted alongside Miles Whittaker in the duo Millie and Andrea). It seems fitting that he’s spent his entire career a staple of the Modern Love roster, as the label has put out records from similarly austere artists like Demdike Stare, Deepchord Presents Echospace, and Debit. From the jump, there’s been a uniquely dreary edge to his work that’s helped it land somewhere in the gray area between the gnarled IDM of Venetian Squares and the overcast proto-dubstep of Burial. However, even when he was still finding his aesthetic footing, Stott displayed enough prowess as a composer to cut through the static of the booming late-2000s UK club scene – he’s consistently pushed himself to make sure that his music never feels predictable or formulaic.

Around 2010, Stott started to sense that things were getting a bit stale. To remedy this, he dropped the back-to-back mini LPs Pass Me By and We Stay Together. Both leaned into a slow, brooding sound and fully channeled an essence of fluorescent brutalism that had only subtly peeked through on his earlier output. The records also marked the beginning of Stott’s infatuation with field recordings, which would quickly become a cornerstone of his production process. Building on the eclectic arrangements he explored on those two records, Luxury Problems found him settling into a sound that truly felt like his own.

Enlisting former piano teacher Alison Skidmore to provide vocals, Luxury Problems blurs the lines between deconstructed glitch and shoegaze-y songwriting. “It didn’t feel like I was with a music teacher when I was with Alison. It felt really open and really easy to talk to her about anything, or if I was struggling with anything I knew I could ask her about it,” he told Resident Advisor in 2014. Her contributions help inject the record with an unspoken duality; beauty and dissonance seamlessly coexist over the course of its 49-minute runtime. For an example of this dichotomy, look no further than the track “Hatch The Plan.” The cut opens with grating, musique concrète-esque sampling, but around the two minute mark its screeching intro disintegrates into a cloud of reverb. A four-on-the-floor kick emerges from the murky ether, laying the framework for a truly breathtaking performance from Skidmore, which Stott chopped and screwed into garbled echoes of sound. Looking back all these years later, it’s easy to trace the impact of this formula on a generation of emotive 2010s producers like oOoOO and Clams Casino.

If you put Stott’s entire discography on shuffle, it would be pretty easy to tell which tracks were from Luxury Problems. The eight cuts are unpredictable but nonetheless cohesive. On “Sleepless,” chopped-up samples of a man’s unmelodic voice burble beneath a churning techno groove and frigid, minimal synthesizers. Meanwhile, “Leaving” is pristine and lush, Skidmore’s warped vocals underlined by deep keyboard tones and sparse hi-hat flourishes. Conversely, opener “Numb” is so blown-out and pink-hued that it could practically pass for an outtake from My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. And the title track shifts between sludgy psychedelia and downtempo, like the score to some imaginary movie scene set in a chic restaurant or neon-drenched spa. When surveying the contemporary UK dance music landscape, it’s easy to point towards artists like Joy Orbison and Kode9 as the progenitors of the coolest sounds coming from that scene today. But Stott’s contributions to the country’s rich history of groundbreaking electronic music also make themselves felt. It’s easy to pinpoint echoes of his influence on spacier cuts from artists like Overmono, Forest Drive West, and Daniel Avery.

Luxury Problems clicked for me over an uncomfortable semester during my sophomore year of college. Navigating my first real heartbreak on an Orange County, California university campus, I felt almost mocked by the bohemian optimism and the dusty Mediterranean climate around me. Pushed to the brink by the smoggy SoCal sunshine, I decided to spend my spring break vacationing in Portland, Oregon, since I was drawn to the city’s famous gloom. I killed that week up in the Northwest driving around with friends I’d met through Reddit deep into the wee hours of the rain-soaked night. We bumped a lot of records in the car while I was in town, by a disparate array of artists ranging from Björk to Pavement to Famous Dex. But the one that has stuck with me most is Luxury Problems. It captures the bleary, awesome energy of watching the sun creep over the foggy forest canopy after accidentally staying up for five hours post-warehouse party.

I can’t claim that Stott’s work is what initially made me fall in love with electronic music – I was first inspired to move from Virginia to the Los Angeles area as an 18-year-old because I was so enamored with the city’s Brainfeeder-adjacent beat scene. But I can say with certainty that Luxury Problems is the record that finally got me to embrace darker strains of aural art, like techno, ambient, and downtempo. Where I’d previously only been fascinated with synthesizers and sampling as tools for conjuring psychedelia, Luxury Problems perfectly mirrored my sullen 20-year-old headspace. After taking time to grapple with the album’s intimidating atmospheres, I was able to better understand the appeal of artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Tim Hecker, all of whom pushed me further down the experimental music rabbithole at that formative age.

Getting into Luxury Problems marked a turning point for me as a music fan, so it feels appropriate that it also ushered in a new era for Stott. It landed him glowing coverage – including a Best New Music anointment from Pitchfork — which helped thrust him out of the club circuit and into an increasingly refined realm. Suddenly, he found himself spinning at galleries, museums, and other esteemed spaces. With the release of 2014’s Faith In Strangers, he continued to build on this momentum. Recorded using hardware and outboard gear, the album placed an emphasis on the organic aspects of Stott’s sound. His partnership with Skidmore proved to be an enduring one, and her unearthly vocal contributions carried his style into dreamier territory, helping him further veer away from the familiar trappings of techno and jungle. The one-two punch of Luxury Problems and Faith In Strangers cemented Stott’s reputation as one of the most formidable DJs of the 2010s.

This past winter, I got the chance to see Stott spin at the Lodge Room in Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood. The set opened with a number of his slower tracks, gradually evolving into a cascading and danceable climax. As is the case with the majority of leftfield DJ mixes, the music mostly melted into a wonderfully unrecognizable blur. But the tracks that were immediately placeable were the ones from Luxury Problems. Silently nodding along to his taut beats in that crowd of intimidatingly trendy, black-clad fashion goths, I found my infatuation with the album rekindling itself. A decade later, Luxury Problems is still surrounded by an aura of freshness and excitement. It presents a snapshot of a seasoned artist who’s just cleared the precipice of greatness, but is still in a fruitful period of wide-eyed creative discovery.

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