“We’ve been making music for over 40 years, so it’s become quite instinctive” Ultramarine interview

Ultramarine are the London/Essex-based electronic duo of Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond. Formed in 1989, their much-loved album Every Man and Woman is a Star (1991) is considered a post-club, pastoral techno, acid-house infused classic of its era.

The group have taken a meandering musical path over the years with their distinctive blend of electronica, ambient and songwriting. They have collaborated with Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers & Anna Domino and toured with Orbital and Björk.

Ultramarine recently announced their only London show of 2024 at the capital’s legendary Water Rats venue this July. Alongside the headline performance from Ultramarine, support comes from electronic maestros Alphabox and Riigs.

Ahead of the event, we caught up with them for a chat.

Your debut album “Folk” was released in 1990. How did the early 90s electronic music scene influence your sound at that time?

“Folk” was mainly written and recorded in 1989. It was only partially influenced by electronic music from that time. I can hear a touch of Acid in some of the arpeggiated synth parts, but House music was less of a direct influence. There’s quite a bit of sampling on the record. We started using samples a few years prior with our previous band, initially influenced by the Young Gods and some of the On-U Sound stuff.

“Every Man and Woman Is a Star” is often cited as a pioneering album in the ambient techno genre. Can you share the creative process behind this album?

“Folk” was made like a conventional band record as there were four or five of us in the group at that time. After that record, the band reduced to just Ian and myself, and we started focusing on working with electronic instruments, writing with an Atari 1040 and Akai S900 sampler. The sampler was our main instrument, and we wrote “Every Man and Woman is a Star” on it as we became increasingly influenced by contemporary House and Techno. Our process was to sketch out tracks on the sampler, then go into the studio to record acoustic instruments and other musicians. We then took it all home and wove the recorded material into the samples and machines before going back into the studio to mix.

You’ve collaborated with notable artists like Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers. How did these collaborations come about, and what impact did they have on your music?

We were familiar with Robert Wyatt’s music from his early ’80s records for Rough Trade but weren’t aware of Soft Machine and the wider Canterbury scene until we started digging for samples in the early ’90s. We were immediately attracted to Kevin’s music; the laid-back feel and lovely organic texture of the production tied in with the feel we were trying to find on “Every Man and Woman is a Star”. We got heavily into that scene for a while, and our album “United Kingdoms” was a kind of homage to it. We were on Rough Trade, so it was easy to approach Robert, who was on the same label. Kevin Ayers was more difficult to find. We thought he lived in Deya in Majorca, so we traveled there in 1992 to look for him. It turned out he wasn’t there and was living in Madrid or Barcelona, but we bumped into Lady June (connected to Gong and the Canterbury scene) in a little Deya nightclub, and she put us in touch with Kevin.

Your music blends elements of techno, house, ambient, and folk. How do you approach integrating such diverse influences into a cohesive sound?

We don’t really think about it too much, to be honest. We trust our writing and production processes. We like the idea of writing without overthinking, just letting the process bring out subconscious influences and ideas. We’ve been making music together for over 40 years now, so it’s become quite instinctive.

Your most recent album “Send and Return” has received acclaim. Can you discuss the creative process behind this album and how it reflects your musical evolution over the years?

“Send and Return” is part of a project we’ve been working on for a few years called “Blackwaterside”. The project is a homage to the area of Essex we’re from; the Blackwater estuary and North Sea coast of Essex. It’s a bit of a side project rather than a conventional album. It was recorded in one day on a Thames Sailing Barge moored at Maldon in Essex. We recorded the tracks live as a four-piece with Ian and I joined by Greg Heath (saxes) and Ric Elsworth (percussion & vibes). The idea was to capture the feel of playing in that setting. Some tracks were pre-prepared pieces, and others were improvised on the day. It was a straightforward process of recording the live session, doing some editing and additional production work, and then mixing in a studio.

Your upcoming show at Water Rats marks your only London performance in 2024. What makes this venue special to you, and what can fans expect from this exclusive show?

We played a show at the Water Rats in Spring 1992, which was a very memorable time for us and I think was the first show we did with our live band at the time. We toured with that band in the US later that year with Meat Beat Manifesto and Orbital, which was quite an experience! For this show, we’ll play tracks from various eras.

You’ve described “Every Man and Woman is a Star” as a post-club, pastoral techno, acid-house infused classic. How do you see its legacy today, and how has it influenced your recent work, including “Send and Return”?

It’s difficult to say how it still influences our music, but I think the spirit of “Every Man and Woman is a Star” is still within what we do. Our music has developed quite a bit over the years and, as you say, has touched on a few different styles. But I’d hope that slightly blissed-out innocence and simplicity are still present in what we do.

Alphabox and Riigs will be supporting you at the Water Rats show. How do their musical styles complement Ultramarine’s sound, and what do you appreciate about their contributions to the electronic music scene?

Alphabox is a project from Andy Dobson, aka Digitonal, which he describes as Plaid-y, Orbitally melodic IDM. Digitonal has explored pastoral themes in Suffolk, which is not far from what we did on “Send and Return”, so there are some echoes there. Riig’s combination of ambient and bass/dub-driven music fits well with us and should be a perfect start to the show.

Photo credit: Andi Sapey

Tickets are available now from SeeTickets: https://www.seetickets.com/event/ultramarine/the-water-rats/2996391