Kamal Joory - Part 1 (of 2)
© Brian David Stevens
Kamal Joory is exactly the sort of artist I wish there were more of. I had known, and owned, the intricate electronica records he made as Geiom for some while – indeed, given both of our involvement with electronica through the ’90s, it’s maybe surprising our paths never crossed – but it was in 2006 when dubstep made its big emergence from the underground that I took a real interest in his music. His releases on his own Berkane Sol label put him in a very loose group of interesting artists who were not necessarily of dubstep, but inspired by it; people like Mala, Shackleton, Peverelist, Burial and a few others made it clear to me that dubstep was not going to remain an insular form or a rigid template, but could provide inspiration on a grand scale for an entirely new field of electronic music, and provide fertile ground for strong, individualistic musical personalities to flourish. Out of all these artists, Geiom showed the strongest grasp of how melody could work in this new dub framework, his instrumentals allowing complex emotional equations to unfold at their own pace, and his work with vocalists hinting at a potential to make something with really broad appeal, especially when his lush soul tune ‘Reminissin’ with singer Marita took off in the dubstep scene.
We entered into an irregular correspondence, and since then I have always found Kamal an excellent sounding board, as well as a vigorous seeker-outer of fascinating music from around the world, whether from Mauritius and India where he has family connections, or from places he is merely curious about like Brazil and Korea. We’re of a similar age and both came of age in rural England, with a lot of very similar cultural reference points and milestones, so we speak the same language musically. Like me, he’s someone who relishes a… robust debate, and holds fast to his own opinions, which especially when talking about music can be pretty coruscating. As I am a natural enthusiast and populariser, it’s always good to be held to account by someone who will stop me and say “wait a minute, do you really think that’s as good as all that? Are you getting caught up in the hype?” – and as you’ll see in the latter part of the interview, our discussions about populism and criticism are ongoing.
It’s possible, though, that Kamal’s consistently forthright honesty may hold him back professionally. He is an excellent networker, collaborator and supporter of other artists – via co-productions or releases on Berkane Sol giving a leg-up to many other producers including Bowly, Earlybird, the Wigflex crew and Brackles & Shortstuff, as well as the various vocalists he’s recorded – but only inasmuch as he has time for them as musicians and people: he has a fundamental inability to humour over-inflated egos or lesser talents purely because it might benefit his profile and, although he is often ahead of musical trends, a profound allergy to being “in with the in crowd” just for the sake of it. Add to that the fact he remains firmly rooted in his adopted home of Nottingham, where he has a long-term involvement with musical projects for local young people, when a move to London, Berlin or even Manchester would probably boost his visibility massively, and you can see why he doesn’t have the exposure his music might deserve. And his music does deserve it; with a deep understanding of genre but never beholden to it, Geiom releases will shift from acid house to roots reggae, UK garage to rich and organic soul, Pakistani pop to broken hip hop, but always keep that incredibly distinctive sense of electronic melody that ties all his recent releases together into a cohesive body of work, and really should be heard more widely.
This very belatedly-transcribed interview took place in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall in late November 2009. Since then I’m very happy to report that I have got Kamal to admit that, in the case of Tinie Tempah’s ‘Pass Out’ at least, that modern British underground music can make brilliant pop. The interview spans a period from the peak of early ’90s rave to the present day, but it was particularly interesting to have a viewpoint on the very early days of dubstep and grime from someone who participated, while remaining very much an outsider to both.
Hi Kamal, we’ve just seen you do a show with the London Improvisers’ Orchestra, real free jazz musicians, and your parts seemed as spontaneous and on the fly as theirs – have you got any background in improv or jazz?
No not really, I mean I listen to stuff like that, and I’ve been to a lot of gigs of that kind of music, and I know people that do things like that, so I feel quite well in tune with it – but nah, that was the first time I’ve ever been involved in a setup like that, with my music of that type. I feel a little bit weird about it actually, because if they’d said to me, this is an improv show, I’d have written a set that’s appropriate for improvised music where it’s not actually rhythmic music that’s in time all the time – but what they asked me to do is to do a set of the music I’d do for clubs, and they’d improvise to it. And I said, “really, is that OK?” because it’s tight, and it’s relentless like that… but in the end I think it did work OK.
Oh I think it worked more than OK, the contrast of regular beats with complete abstraction was precisely what brought out new things… especially towards the end, it felt like you’d set something going that didn’t actually “want” to come to a conclusion.
Yeah, I think we’d built into it pretty well, and I think we were really enjoying it by the end, all of us, so definitely I think we could have carried on a bit longer…
Have you always been into having a live element to what you do?
For quite a long time now, yeah, there have been various live things going on. I couldn’t really do it so well before in terms of recording people, just knowing how to do it and having the right equipment. Well, I suppose we did a bit with the Magic Radios album [with Morgan Caney, released 2002], which was in a similar vein to something like Morr Music – kind of ambient, soundtracky, beautiful type of music; the majority of that is live instruments, Morgan played all of them. And that really hard, it took forever to do because we had to put it all into a hardware sampler to hack it up and edit it and get it in time with the beats and stuff – which is very easy now, that’s just audio editing [on a computer] but then it was really painstaking. But yep, I love live instruments, and the possibilities for blending them with electronics are still really interesting… if you do it right.
Well that painstaking methodology and “getting it right” seem to run through your music, was that always the case? What was the first moment you thought “I want to record music”?
Well, I wanted to do that for a long time, probably since I was about… twelve, thirteen, something like that. I had this idea for years: I didn’t play music, didn’t play guitar or anything, and I didn’t sing, but I liked machines, a lot, and I liked machine music because I listened to Breakdance and stuff like that – and I had this idea that one day, you’d have machines that would do it for you, you could make them create wonderful things, even if you could only play or sing badly they’d make everything in tune or time… and that’s essentially what we’ve got now, you can take pretty much anything and mould it. So yes, I’ve always wanted to do this, since I was little.
But it was rave, really, that made us want to make music, and made me start to make a few little bits of beats with my friend Lee – he put out one track on Skam, years ago, where he took the “woo yeah” breakbeat and totally distorted it and filtered it and it ended up being a great little track, that. But yeah, originally we used to just make little rave tracks on a kids’ sampler keyboard and bounce it down to cassette, and that’s how we first got going, and it set going the idea of getting better equipment to do it properly.
So when you say rave, you mean breakbeats and samples, so presumably early ’90s?
Yeah, about 1991, rave had found us out in the countryside. Actually, Lee used to make costumes for Shades Of Rhythm, ‘cos he was really good at sewing – we’d get Mixmag, and see Shades Of Rhythm in there with their dancer in so much lycra they looked like a piece of chewing gum crawling across the stage, and the rest of the band in their raver outfits, and most of them were made by Lee.
Wow, OK, so you were just starting out but you had this connection right into the heart of rave – because they were THE big rave act at one point.
Yeah… I never actually went to their studio, but Lee did a few times, and I’d hear these stories he’d come back with of the equipment they’d use and how they did it, and I’d listen avidly, just going “WOW! Yeah! I want to do that, and I want one of them!”
And they were from Peterborough, right?
Yes, or actually from Whittlesey, this little town outside Peterborough which is where Lee’s from too, the sort of place nobody’s heard of so when they started to be known as we were growing up it was amazing, they were real sort of local heroes. I mean they were the biggest thing around, them, The Prodigy – although actually they came a bit after – and N-Joi. They were the big three, if there was a rave going on, they are who would be playing, and they were really incredible at the time, absolutely awesome. I don’t know if it stands up now… well actually no, in fact I can still listen to quite a bit of their stuff – ‘Exorcist’ and ‘Homicide’ are amazing, maybe their more pop tracks like ‘Extacy’ are a little bit dodge, but it’s cool. When you saw them at the time, I remember one rave where I saw them literally reload a live track, you could see they were going “this is too hype” and starting the track again because everyone just lost it!
So what did this music mean to you at the time? I mean it was becoming well established at the time, acid house had already happened – but did you have a breakthrough moment where it was “this is the stuff for me”?
It all kind of happened at once. We’d already been listening to some stuff like that, like WARP stuff, and people like The Scientist – you know, ‘The Bee’ and all that – and then there was this rave happening in our town and we all went to that, and that was it, basically: just, “wow, this is the best thing ever.” That was it, we were started on it.
And from how I’ve heard you talk about your background before you were, would it be fair to say, small-town misfits?
Yes. Definitely, yeah. Thinking back on it, all the people I knew at the time – all the people I’ve ever known, maybe – were slightly weird in their own particular way, not quite right, never quite fit in… and that’s what leads you to search for weird stuff, I guess. You find the other weird people. It’s quite nice in a small town, in a way, because you don’t just find the weird rave people, you hang out with the hippies and the punks and the goths too, because there’s not enough of you to be that picky. Like, “I like them, they’re weird too, I’ll go to their gigs.” Actually we were all quite into punk too at the time, that was the only other thing that would happen, you’d get Citizen Fish or someone like that come and play at the community centre, and that’d be great. So yeah, it was good – I mean, punks couldn’t really get into rave, some of them: they didn’t really like that ecstasy culture, but we’d go to their things and they’d find that funny. I think it all fed into itself in one way or another.
And the Citizen Fish crowd, the travellers, all did tons of acid, and some acts from that scene did feed back into rave.
Yeah, there was a real mash-up. That is one thing I do find a bit depressing about a lot of dance music now, that it’s really shiny, it’s really fashionable, and people who aren’t fashionable don’t really get into it – and because of that, it doesn’t really have that “experience” feeling any more, although people always advertise it on flyers and things, it’s not really there: you are going to a club, and tomorrow night they’ll have a different set of music there, and it’s just not the same as the one-off things that used to happen. You’d have a rave outside, and you’d get people there who weren’t even necessarily even into that, into that subculture or the music, but just went along to see what was going on and would stand near the speakers nodding and having a Coke. And you don’t get that nowadays – it seems you’ve got to be really into clubbing, and of course clubs are so expensive as well.
I know what you mean… Dubstep’s been quite refreshing on that front, mind you – perhaps because it was never really fashionable from the outset!
Yeah… yeah, dubstep’s brought more strange people together, especially at the beginning: people would dress differently, because they’d all come from different music: garage people, reggae people, technoey people all come together. And for the first time in a long time it’s made someone like us want to bother putting a little local event on, because you go “we like this, it’s not happening in our town, so let’s put something together.” I’ve not felt like that for ages, so yes you’re totally right, it’s been good on that front.
Going back to the rave scene, when did you start to feel you could be a part of it in terms of your music? When did you think “people might buy this”?
Well what happened was that like a lot of people we all crashed and burned from rave, actually. It didn’t feel as good any more, didn’t feel as exciting, the music was going places we didn’t like so much and had all split into different scenes and cliques – but then with that, part of the comedown thing was the whole electronica scene, the ‘Artificial Intelligence’ type stuff where we got more and more upset by cheesy music, and get more into the more abstract, interesting home-listening kind of stuff, and get more of a kick out of that and want to be involved with that. I think it also came from really taking an awful lot of acid, too, all of us – and as a result spending a lot of time at home, really immersed in this music, and thinking more and more “I don’t want to listen to hardcore any more!” And that’s where we went, really. And along with that, it was a matter of getting a bit more equipment so what we did began to sound acceptable, and starting a little label and getting some bits out.
Were you working or at college or what at this point?
No, I’d moved to Nottingham by this point and was just dole scrounging really, trying to spend every possible hour doing music.
And did you feel there was a scene for this music, or at least a circuit where you could get gigs?
A little bit… A little bit. Once it got going there began to be a few connections starting to spring up, people would put gigs on, so in Notts someone put one on – and it was all looked at as “ambient” events really at this point – where on a Thursday night you could see Luke Vibert DJing or someone like that, and that’s where we first met Autechre… just people like that, who were big to us but really very small, you could go and check them out in these places where they’d have loads of beanbags set out and people looking into these weird visual-generating sunglasses…
Yeah! Brain machines, that’s it, there were some guys really into those – also there was a floatation centre in Nottingham, and the guys there were really into the whole ambient thing, so things we did were helped along by all that shit! But really it was getting a record out that helped us get plugged into it all – Rob Hall from Skam bought our record, rang us one day and said “oh this is great” and that got us plugged into the whole Manchester thing, started going up there quite a lot, and we started going to Leeds a lot, got to know all the people doing things there like the Vector people, who I don’t think are doing it any more but were a really great crew, and then getting to know people in WARP, and people in London…
And did you find that places like Manchester and Leeds, in contrast to London, still had that smaller town thing where scenes didn’t separate out so much – so electronica would overlap with drum’n’bass, or with the more party dance music world?
A little bit. I think the actual straight clubbing scene didn’t cross over so much, apart from a few more interesting people who could see the point of the music as a post-club thing. Although what people in electronica wanted secretly was to see a lot of people in clubs going crazy to that music… and we did get there, sort of, sometimes – you’d get the right sort of artists in and put a really good system in and it would go off, on a Sunday night with people you wouldn’t expect dancing to really weird music, and that was great. It didn’t always work but yeah… I was talking to someone else about this – Bass Clef [also playing at the Royal Festival Hall event on the day of this interview] – and he said he always used to do Sunday nights, for just the same reason: we couldn’t find clubs to give us Friday or Saturday nights, because you might fluff it and lose loads of money. So we’d get Sundays, start early, like two or three in the afternoon and run through ‘til half eleven, and that would really work. You’d get people drinking tea early on, we’d get loads of cakes in, get cheap but really nice cakes and give them out to everybody, so it would create this really nice Sunday afternoon tea party thing, which would descend into hedonism in the evening.
I think we were probably doing very similar things around then. We had a Sunday club called Slack Sabbath in Brighton and later in London, which sounds not that far removed. What interests me is that yes, this scene was hedonistic, but with this very crafted music, often with amazing visual art and performance as well – and there was no desire or even interest in being accepted by the wider arts world…
To be accepted as “high art”, you mean? I think around that era there was a little bit of confusion among some people around “is this high art, or is it just funny messed-up rave music?” And I think it was slightly dangerous to start getting too poncey about it, because it was just messed-up rave music really, let’s just get people through the door on that basis, not worry too much about putting a frame around it.
Did you have creative ambitions though? Did you think “in fifteen years time I’ll be collaborating with improvising musicians in the Royal Festival Hall?”
Hmmm, I guess I’d never have imagined this, it’s a bit of a strange gig – but I did want to do new things, I don’t know what the ambitions were as such, I’ve just always wanted to do as much music as possible and not have to worry about anything else. That was my vision as an artist if you like. But I did begin to see after a bit that if you’re just doing ambient electronica in clubs you’re not likely to get enough money to make it work. I remember we booked Plaid once, they used to do full live sets, they’d bring half their studio with them, it was just incredible – and we paid them a very, very small amount of money, and they were really pleased to do it. They were just like “we’re really skint, thanks so much for booking us”, and I just kind of went [face sinks, penny drops] “ahh, right…” [laughs]. I mean, these were people we looked up to!
So what happened as you moved into the late ’90s? A lot of people in electronica kind of drifted away at that point, or became interested in post-rock and things like that… did you just keep on keeping on with electronica?
No, in a word. We got… a little bit… bored of it. It was the boy racer kind of element that spoiled it for me, the million beats per minute tendency with a million edits on every loop, that’s what got boring. I mean I felt some of that stuff, I liked it up to a point, I think people like [I couldn’t get this name from the recording, and he now can’t remember – it sounds like “Homster”?] are wicked at doing that sort of thing, and all the people you’d expect like Autechre were still really good even if they did glitchy stuff. But then you’d get people dominating like… don’t mention names, but there’s one solo artist who was a really bad example of that ego driven thing – I saw him play at Bloc Weekend last year and thought, wow he still doesn’t really get it does he? It’s so impressive, but what is it? It’s more like a gymnastic display or something, it’s incredible what this guy is doing but you can’t get into it, nobody dances to it at all, the room was pretty empty and there’s this insane light show going on and he’s doing all this stuff but it’s like… I dunno, nobody can really relate to it because it’s too clever and too complicated for its own sake.
So that put us off a little bit, and we’d always listened to loads of different music anyway, so yes we started hearing more stuff with guitars and other instruments that felt closer to what we were about, Tortoise especially was one of the things we really liked – it was nice to feel linked, just natural that if you were into electronica you’d find a natural link to the stuff that was coming out on City Slang and Thrill Jockey and all this other stuff, it all seemed part of the same thing. Nobukazu Takemura, the Japanese guy, that was another thing at the time, that was a really big thing for us – we were getting into loads of stuff. And then for me musically, starting to work with Morgan, the guy I did the Magic Radios album with, that was a real turning point for me. He gave me one track to work on, “there’s the live instruments, what can you do with it?” I did that and he really loved it, we pressed it up on 7”, sent it to City Centre Offices, they really loved it and said “can you do an album like this?” - and it took us about two years to put together this album! Partly through working during the week just doing really boring, uninteresting jobs just to get by and having to fit it into evenings and weekends, and partly through, as I was saying, working in this really archaic way.
So that came out, it maybe should have come out a bit earlier but even so, when it did come out [in early 2002] it was a pretty remarkable record – even a year later it wouldn’t have been so remarkable as everyone had a laptop and was sampling their mate playing blues guitar or whatever, and then the bands started getting a laptop too and messing around with their sound… I think that’s one thing that’s been detrimental actually, that as a lot of bands have started dabbling a bit in electronics, adding a few tweaks here and there, that has almost been enough for a lot of listeners, that satisfies their desire to hear something weird and they don’t want to go any further into pure electronic music. I’m digressing a bit but you know what I mean.
But I think what we did sounds alright, I think it stands up pretty well now… So what we wanted to do was tour it, and we got a pretty good live show together, and that didn’t really happen unfortunately, and that really depressed me. What had been a real labour of love and a joy to put together just killed me in the end, I didn’t want to do anything any more, it was just like, this is so fantastic, this record, and we’ve put so much into it, and it hasn’t really done the thing we wanted – it could have sold a good few copies but it didn’t do that, but never mind at least we could tour around off it, but that never happened, and we were thinking the label might do something then we talked to them and it was just “well, we don’t really have any links, we don’t know anyone at festivals and things like that”, and we were just “well neither do we!” - so yes, it was sad, and left me with a very strange love/hate relationship with that whole project.
Well so much of what becomes important and influential musically does rely on synchronicity, and on the right people having the right connections at the right time…
Of course, there’s so much luck involved. Perhaps if one person in the media had decided that was a great record and championed it at the time it would have been seen as something important for its time, but they didn’t so… yeah [shrugs]. I mean that sound did sort of get known as folktronica I guess, and became its own thing. But it was around that time I started doing youth work, and I really threw myself into that and was getting so much out of that, out of making music for other people and trying to understand where they were coming from and that was satisfying in itself. I didn’t really know what to do with my own music any more, that was part of the problem at that time, like OK, nobody really wants electronica as such any more, I don’t really want to make club music, I don’t really know what to do, it seems a bit bizarre. I didn’t even want to go to clubs, I wasn’t into anything that was being played – I’d go out once in a while to see so-and-so famous drum’n’bass DJ, just to give it a go, and it’d just be “nah, nothing happening here, head-wise, not feeling it, let’s go to a decent gig instead.”
Talking of drum’n’bass, is that something you were interested in back in the ’90s as you pulled away from the rave scene?
Nah, not really. We did follow jungle, we loved jungle, and we did start getting into that sort of jazzy drum’n’bass, had loads of those records – didn’t go to the raves so much, but got into those records to mix and play and listen to at home. But my friend identified it brilliantly about ‘95 or some time around then, he just said “hmm, these beats used to go [beatboxes complex rhythm] but now they just go ‘bom-tick-bombom-tick’ on every track”, which we started referring to as “flat-beat jungle” - then someone said “that’s drum’n’bass”, and we were just like “ahh, is that what it’s called? It’s really boring, why are there no real beats in it? Why’s it just go like that?” We just couldn’t fathom it any more and never really followed the scene any more. Now I’m really aware of it as it’s all around me, and it just hasn’t really gone anywhere at all in all that time. The only thing I thought was cool was techstep, when they started calling it techstep – that guy from Bristol, what’s he called…? Tech Itch, that’s it. His records were brilliant, sharp, hard, dramatic. But there weren’t many, I never really listened to Ed Rush & Optical or anything like that.
Well Ed Rush & Optical were rock producers really, you could hear it too in those kind of crashing beats they had.
Mmmm. And that is an odd thing, I like rock music a lot in many ways, but when people bring its influence into dance it always seems to be detrimental, always seems to be a negative, stifling thing.
It is funny that. As with jazz and the improv stuff you’ve been doing today, it’s something you’d think would have been done with more success before, yet actually there’s still so much unexplored territory. With rock, you had that early 90s indie dance, but then rather than exploding into something new it just leaves us today with something like Kasabian or the Prodigy with guitars which is just a bit clunky, a bit neither one nor the other.
Yeah it is odd. I mean that stuff was what paved the way for us to get into rave, the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses getting dance grooves and putting samples in, and you’d get things that were proper crossover like Pop Will Eat Itself, who were absolute genius for that short period – all that Designers Republic graphics and stuff, and it genuinely felt like something new… and then nothing.
OK, back to your story, we’re at 2002 or so, and you were getting into this youth work.
Yeah… yeah, I was basically making hip hop beats for these kids, and leading into grime. That’s where I first heard grime, and I have to admit, to be truthful, that I didn’t really understand it at all to begin with. I was so locked into that hip hop headspace, then listening to the other people who would come into the studio when they would bring in early Wiley instrumentals and stuff, I would listen to it before they rapped on it and just think, I don’t know how you’re going to rap on this, I mean I think this is really wicked experimental music, but it really gives me a mental disconnect that you are bringing this in because I would think you would take one listen to this and go “nah this is too weird.” So yeah that really blew me away, I really couldn’t put together in my head what was going on there.
And this was including those Wiley ‘Devil Mix’ versions which didn’t even have any drums, presumably?
Yeah! That was the weirdest of all, they’d put the needle down on the record and there’d be no drums, just bleep-bleep, bloop, bwarp, bloop… all the little kind of phone bleeps. That stuff messed my head up, in a really interesting, good way. That’s one of the things to respect about grime, that it got a whole generation into electronic music and synths – because the hip hop kids, as soon as you put any sort of synth into a beat, unless it was a portamento West Coast g-funk sort of thing, they’d be going “nah man, this is from Germany” and that would be it. And that would be a bit depressing to me because that’s what I really loved, rather than just sampling a load of soul records – so grime really opened it back up for me, it felt like, right, we can really do anything with this now. And we did so much stuff then, getting them to make their own beats, and I realised that it had so much of this spirit of punk thing: get a kid in there, give them a really aggro ravey sound and get them to go [shouts spiky off-beat melody] “NURR NURR NURR NURR”, and you’d think uggh, that sounds really horrible, but they’d be going crazy about it, and then you put some drums on and suddenly, wow, this sounds really great. It doesn’t need to sound slick any more, as long as it’s tight and it hits hard, and you can get someone with literally no talent and create something that actually expresses what they want to express.
And that goes for the words too, I mean this was the first time people could really use their own accents unselfconsciously, because they weren’t beholden to American speech patterns and rhythms, right?
Exactly, it gave them a new bar to reach, where rather than making rather unconvincing US hip hop tracks, they could make utterly convincing UK grime where nobody could say “this isn’t up to standard” because you’re creating the standards right there and then.
That must’ve been quite an exciting time, and presumably not many people in Nottingham had got into it at that point?
Yeah, it was an interesting split – all the younger people were into it, and thought hip hop was a bit boring, but all the olders hadn’t really got their heads round it, and were really suspicious of it, they were just like [cuts eye] “too fast… too weird…” [laughs]
Of course that was happening in the garage scene too, no young people allowed in the garage raves any more – and that just spurred the young artists on to make their music more extreme and more aggro.
Well yes and of course it was also perceived that that’s where trouble starts, when you’ve got youngsters in who have brought weapons and are going to go crazy.
How did that impact on you?
Well mainly in that the young guys we were working with had practically no outlet for the music, grime events just weren’t allowed. The funny thing was we came up against it in 2004, when the FWD» tour came up to Notts and my friend Alan put it on – it had been cancelled already in Birmingham and Manchester because it said “grime” on the flyer and the clubs that it was booked with said “nahhh, we can’t do that”, but Alan got away with putting the event on in Notts because the club was a bit dodgy and they didn’t really have a clue so they just let it happen…
…and actually it wasn’t grime at all but dubstep.
Well yes. But that same venue would put on other nights, what would be described as “youth nights”, where you wouldn’t get many students at all, just mainly local kids putting on their own grime and bassline tracks and MCing over it all – and actually it had a really different energy to it, some of them were really good dances. Bassline is a really interesting sound, of course, because it ran alongside all the other urban music that was going on, but it’s actually quite closely connected to four-beat and even hard house, all that kind of stuff that has always been there in raves especially up north… and although it often gets written off as quite cheesy, it can be really quite radical and outlandish music, you’ll get these huge classical style melodies and arpeggios, these octave leaps in the bass and weird, pitch-bent sounds…
Yeah and then autotuned pop melodies over the top of it all just to cap it off!
Yeah – you can understand the instant snobbery that goes on when you hear some of that stuff that gets called “donk” from up north, which is plainly ridiculous to me, but then bassline gets derided too and you wonder why, because you can play good sets with this stuff. I play loads of that stuff, and mix it straight, or in and out of dubstep, it works just brilliantly, so I can’t see what the problem is.
OK so grime and bassline were a direct influence on you, and then you started to hear more dubstep too?
Yeah, I’ve said in interviews before I think, that one event, the FWD» tour night that Alan put on really knocked us sideways. There was no-one there, it was pouring with rain, it wasn’t really hyped at the time, nobody really knew what it was, and we went expecting a grime night where it would be a little bit annoying, MCs too loud so you can’t hear the music and what you could hear was distorted – but it wasn’t like that at all. The music was really alright, they’d put in a really amazing soundsystem in and Oris Jay was playing things like a remix of ‘LFO’ – things like that made us just go “wow… OK… this is new”. It was quite hard to get your head round in a way, rather than the MC being up front at full volume shouting, he was just there, saying interesting things pleasantly, embellishing the music as it were, and there’s all this space in it, this music is really poised and balanced and making full use of the soundsystem. Then at the end when it was all finishing and Kode 9 and Youngsta and Oris Jay were getting ready to go back, I wanted to say “thanks, that was amazing” but I couldn’t because I felt really embarrassed for our city that nobody had turned up to see them, I just thought nah, leave it, another time – then eventually getting to know all them from doing events later on was quite funny: I remember talking to Youngsta in Black Market records a few years later and he remembered that night, and he said “well that’s brilliant, it wasn’t a complete waste of time if it got you into it”, which was nice because I guess it made him feel better about the gig, about spreading the word.
So did that trigger you to go “that’s the sound I can make”?
Well, I’d already been doing some things at that tempo just for myself, which more than anything had been inspired by hearing Vex’d, that one 12”, ‘Lion’ and the other side, which were absolutely wicked. They actually remade that for their album and I didn’t like them nearly as much, but the 12” itself was really amazing – and that was one of the sort of paradigms we had, like right, this is a rhythm we can work with.
And that was neither dubstep nor grime but a thing out on its own…
Yeah, it was gnarly, it was almost as close to the techstep stuff I liked as to anything, but at this different tempo. I actually sent some stuff to Pinch around that time – I didn’t know him or his stuff then, just that he ran the label [Subtext] which put that 12” out – and he said he thought it was really good, but said “what we’re trying to do is grimey dubstep music with an experimental edge, and what you’re doing is experimental music with a grime and dubstep edge, so that doesn’t quite work for us, but it’s wicked.” And I thought, well I don’t really know where that leaves me – I mean, that’s what it is, he’d described it really well, and I think pretty much that I’ve continued doing exactly that ever since.
So that set the tone for your relationship with the dubstep world? I mean, obviously “Reminissin” got a lot of play, and you get props, but is your stuff generally seen as not straightforward enough for most DJs?
I think after all these years, I’ve realised my destiny is to be someone that’s critically appreciated by other artists, and that’s OK, I should be glad of that. I make records that are really well-made, and other people who make records can appreciate that that’s really well made, but people in their hundreds and thousands don’t really go mad to it. I sometimes try and make stuff that makes people go crazy a bit more, but it… well, it doesn’t work.
Continued in Part 2