Isan: Mastering the Art of the Dark

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Long before Berlin’s Morr Music established itself as the Playmobil to Warp’s Lego, Scotland’s Isan was making pastel-colored, melody-driven electronic music of its own. Comprised of fellow gearheads Robin Saville and Antony Ryan, the duo has been swapping tapes since 1993 and releasing them under the Isan banner since 1997. If your synth had a preset labeled crayon shavings, it might sound like their gorgeous 1998 full-length debut Beautronics, which preceded the twee pop laptop bonanza by at least a few years. With five full-lengths, a few EPs, and a handful of twelves under their belts, not to mention a cushy standing as one of Morr’s cornerstone acts, the pair has since become regarded as the scene’s spiritual godfathers.

The keyboard enthusiasts first met in 1992 through Saville’s sister, who introduced them to each other thinking they’d have loads in common. “We both sat at a pub one evening talking about the bands we liked, the instruments we liked, and what we’d been trying to do with our own synthesizers,” says Ryan. “The synth was the thing that glued us together.” Although they flirted with the idea of putting out a record, it took them years to follow through. “We had some initial experimentation with bad techno,” laughs Ryan. “Isan was formed after we were living in separate towns as an excuse to stay in touch and keep on working together.”

Since then, they’ve sustained their partnership with the help of an unlikely third party: the Royal Mail. Unlike the majority of producing teams, Isan never works together. Instead, they employ a unique system whereby they send each other completely finished songs in the mail; if a member isn’t feeling a particular track, he has the right to veto it off a record. While only about 20% of the circulated material ends up on the cutting room floor, Saville says that the unique arrangement keeps them on their toes. “We’re too polite when we’re together,” he laughs. “We’re not able to tell the other one if something’s rubbish, but we can do it over the phone.”

While they don’t anticipate finishing their next album until next winter at the earliest, the pair has lots to keep them occupied. When he’s not tending to his recently launched label, Arable Records, Saville’s making ends meet as a landscape gardener; meanwhile, Ryan’s quit his day job in order to begin experimenting with a software-only setup under another name. In the meantime, now that they’ve finally started doing live shows, they’re both holding out hope that Isan will find its way to the other side of the Atlantic. “Nobody’s asked us,” says Saville. “But if there are any promoters reading this, we’d be absolutely delighted…”