Donnacha Costello - Ten Years Later

Donnacha Costello’s ‘Color Series’ first debuted on his own label ‘Minimise’ in 2004 and over the next year or so, evolved into ten releases which to this day remain some of my favourite vinyl records. With influences ranging from Aphex Twin, Plastikman, Autechre, Model 500 and Farley Jackmaster Funk, Donnacha reached into new territory with this series, combining his love of synths, techno music and in many instances, ambient music, to produce a collectable and sought after series of vinyl, and a defining style of music for many of today’s producers.

It’s not often we look back here on ASIP, but as many of you know, I’m a big lover of vinyl and have recently been reaching back into these records to remind myself just how good they were.

I had the chance to ask Donnacha about the series and give his commentary on my favourite five from the series. Kicking off below, with an introduction by the man himself:

“I had been into several techno series – Concept, M-Series, Studio Eins, Ernst (Brinkmann) and wanted to do one of my own. It wasn’t as conceptually rigorous as those but it was just something I wanted to do. It came off the back of a time when I really lost interest in techno and had been making ambient and experimental electronic music (I’m doing that again now). Also, it was a response to the kind of clicky-tricky nonsense techno that was around at the time. People engaged in really convoluted sound design processes. Lots of people were like “oh, I recorded a car backfiring and pitched it down and combined it with some bees buzzing and 100 plugins to make a kick drum” and I just decided that this was really stupid when you could use a 909 and it would sound way better.

The same was true of synthesisers, people were doing all of this stuff and forgetting that the square bass on a Juno 60 or a 101 sounded immense. So, I decided to do a series of machine techno records. Not such an unusual sounding idea now but in the context at the time, they stood out like a sore thumb or represented a breath of fresh air, depending on how you wanted to look at it  The success they had speaks to the fact that this was the right thing at the right time. Mathew Jonson emerged right around that time too with a machine sound. Real synths, reals drum machines and lots of the personality of the writer on show. It’s a nice set of records I can always look back on and enjoy listening to and I’m looking forward to telling my kids the story”.


5. Blue (B-side)

Starting with a signature Donnacha Costello sound, ‘Blue’ conjures a fizzy undercurrent bouncing off muffled walls. It’s 4am and Donnacha’s just flicked the switch that the likes of Donato Dozzy and Neel still strive for on today’s dancefloors.

Donnacha: “The core of this track is an unmodulated TB-303, around which the other elements do a little dance. Not many people use the 303 that way but it’s really good for that. I tried to keep things as empty as possible. It related back to my love of Richie Hawtin’s Concept series and was “me meets Rich” really. It’s easy to forget, In the context of the past 5/6 years (2008-2014) when things like Sandwell District and other spacious techno music came to the fore, that there really was nothing else around in 2004 that was stripping things back like this. It was a response to the music of the previous 4/5 years (1999-2003) that had become so complex and flashy and, for me, lacked soul and personality”.


4. Grape (B-side)

Listening back to this now, and you could be forgiven for thinking it sounds like so many of the techno tracks that came out around the same time, and indeed many years before. Ame’s ‘Rej’ comes to mind for example – that beautiful undercurrent driving through. ‘Grape’ could be classed as Ambient Techno by some given it’s hypnotic, repetitive feel, and would probably be the standard to which many of todays producers attempt to match. The only difference being, by the time you’ve finished ‘Grape’ you’ll be climbing the ceilings instead of relaxing in your chair.

Donnacha: “Again, the 303 provides the core of this track. The difference being that pretty much everything in this track is gradually modulated over about 10-11 minutes until by the end it’s pretty thumping. And again, it references Plastikman pretty heavily. It was a real nod to Consumed era Plastikman, even down to the purple I chose for the cover. It was pretty much made for Rich to play and he told me later that year that he and Ricardo were regularly using it to ramp sets up from calm to more energetic because of the way it builds and builds over such a long time. I’ve never made any secret of being a huge Plastikman fan so that was nice”.


3. Opal (A-side)

This is straight-up electronic bliss. Out of the gate, blinking lights, and colour transform into an arpeggio of bleeps, claps and pulsating rhythms. Take this out of context and it’s a banging techno-track, but listen to it at the right time, and it’s a state of mind – euphoric, hypnotising and relentless. 4.13… and Jesus said let there be synth.

Donnacha: “This was a nod to my early days and the thin line between trance and techno that was expertly tread by lots of Plus8 records in the mid to late 90s. I was 50/50 about putting it out but I’m glad I did in the end”.


2. Orange (A-side)

I’ve played this track so many times… It normally sits about two tracks into my mixes – those which start off extremely ambient and then veer towards techno or minimal. What begins as a very crisp beat is soon enveloped in Donnacha’s soaring synths and little stabs of magic. It’s a head-nodder. I’s the kind of track that’s played at the start of a night which you anticipate a rather twisted journey.

Donnacha: “Rubine Red was when I realised that I could do anything with this series, I didn’t have to stick to one style or blueprint and when I made myself more free, the results were a lot better. Orange A was one of the best expressions of that idea. I think it’s one of the tracks that stands out as being completely its own thing, free from other associations and classification. There’s a certain link to the Warp Artificial Intelligence series here (a tenuous one but I know it’s there). This track actually has some of my favourite synth sounds from the series in it”.


1. Cocoa (B-side)

Not that Donnacha would have been trying to mimic Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, but for any fan, this is as close as you’re going to get. Closing out the Colour Series, analogue synths conjure a beautiful texture, amplified by a simple melody. Warmth and grace. The perfect finish to an epic ten releases.

Donnacha: “This was pretty much a love song for my then girlfriend, now wife and mother of my children. I don’t know if she knows that, actually. Perhaps I should tell her, ha  It’s actually recorded in a weird time signature but doesn’t really feel that way (I’ve always liked doing that). This and the unreleased ambient track were made on the same summer’s morning just as I was about to move out of Fifth Floor #2, my studio at the time, where most of the series was recorded. It was an emotional time, my career was taking off, I had just bought a place to live (referenced as Studio 23 on the cd) I was in love. All very big stuff. Happy days!”


*Bonus* Cocoa Sessions Unreleased (Only available through the Colorseries compilation)

It just so happens that Cocoa was probably the most ‘ambient’ of the bunch, and this unreleased cut (which was part of the Colour Series compilation later released in 2007) is an extension of the original. However this time Donnacha introduces a rumbling synth undercurrent, turning those textures into a vivid awakening.

Ten years later, and Donnacha is on track to deliver something extra special for us all again: “Right now, I’m really interested in ambient music, drone music and modular synths. I’m about to buy a very unique modular synth that I’ve been waiting for since I ordered it in 2001. It’s being built this summer and I’m going to make a few albums with it. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing some kind of crowd funding campaign for a long time so I’ve decided to do one around my next album Love From Dust to see if I can recoup some of the cost of this synthesiser up front because it’s really bloody expensive  Love From Dust will lie somewhere in between the emotional approach of my Together Is The New Alone album (Mille Plateaux, 2001) and the experimentalism of my Modul.Isol album (Raster-Noton, 2004). I can’t wait to get started on it when my new synth arrives”.

The campaign runs until June 20th and can be supported (and the album purchased) here on Indiegogo.