Interview: Bwana

Canadian artist Bwana is a rare breed. His tracks and edits have found their way into sets from DJs as diverse as Space Dimension Controller, Mr. G, The Revenge, his heroes Sasha and John Digweed, Tasker, Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve and B.Traits. The LuckyMe-released Capsule’s Pride, a musical reimagining of Akira for the modern day, was a massive success last year, winning fans across the musical spectrum. His exhaustive DJ schedule sees him play everywhere from Panorama Bar to giant student unions. What caught our attention most recently, however, was mix he put together for Groove. Showcasing tracks from his latest release, Three Way Is The Hard Way on 17 Steps, it leaned heavily on the psychedelic sounds of 1990s trance. While his releases have opted for bright and floral arrangements, riven with weighty sounds and big riffs, this was nonetheless a surprise. How did this come about? We caught up with him in Dublin ahead of a DJ set that saw him reach for classics from Kings of Tomorrow and Nalin & Kane as well as newer cuts from the likes of Fantastic Man. Our lengthy conversation moved from trance to Capsule’s Pride and in a host of other directions, including future projects, his move to Berlin and his friendship with Avalon Emerson, who remixed the title track of his latest EP.

How did you decide to do a trance mix for Groove? “Obviously a lot of trance is 140+ bpm and you can’t really pull that off unless you’re playing at 4am in Berghain, but in a lot of my sets I slow it down to 115/120. I’ve been wanting to do that in a mix for quite a while, so I spent about a month doing that, and it wasn’t quite working for a mix to listen to at home, so I said I’d build it up slowly. I had all these tracks that are too slow to play in the club at the moment but they’re so happy-go-lucky I wanted to put them in the mix.”

And how did the mix come about? “It’s really weird. I was in Manchester Airport last October with xxxy, we were just chatting about what I wanted to do next year and I said I’d love to do a Groove mix, ’cause I think it’s a really cool series. Apparently the editor of Groove was sitting behind me, overheard the whole conversation, and then I got an email two nights later saying “Hey I overheard your conversation, sorry to be a creeper and eavesdrop but would you like to do the mix for us still?” They didn’t really give me any guidelines, they just said do about an hour. And against the advice of many people, I made a trance mix – it’s what I love. If you go through my other mixes they’re probably not as full-on trance. Actually that’s a lie, I did a mix for fabric two years ago that’s pretty damn trancey. That mix, I started with the same track that James Holden’s Balance mix starts with, that’s sort of an ode to the greatest mix of all time. That’s the mix that changed my life, I didn’t really know that much about all of it, I guess it’s not really trance trance, but that mix was the beginning of the rabbit hole for me.”

That answers my next question – how you got into it in the first place. “I had taken a hiatus after my first little bout in the music industry because I’d had a pretty bad injury while I lived in Leeds. I still have issues from that, there were two years where I couldn’t do a thing. But labels started falling by the wayside, there wasn’t anyone really putting out anything that was really doing it for me, like James Blake was the god for us at that point, but that next album didn’t really do it for me in terms of how exciting music was in 2011. I don’t know how I came across the James Holden mix – I remember seeing it on my recommended videos on YouTube, and at that point it had 2,000 views and now that link has like 500,000 views, and I listened to it, and I listened to it again. This is only disc 1! I still haven’t listened to disc 2 all the way through. I’ve tried but I’m so obsessed with disc 1. Then from there I went through all of Border Community and then from there I read the old RA review of that mix, which is the most enthusiastic RA review of all time. It seems like everyone was more excited about music back then in general. Maybe it’s because of the scarcity of releases, I’m sure as much or more was being released, but I guess the exposure of a thousand promos a day, whereas back then it was like, oh my god, this CD, I’ve been waiting for months, whereas now it’s like, oh, this mp3 mix, whatever.”

Even Sasha’s album Airdrawndagger, that was 10 years in the making. “There’s parts of it, the breaks-ier tracks I’m really into, but for the hype – obviously I didn’t get into it until a couple of years ago but if I had been a fan leading up to it, I probably would have been pretty let down. There’s a great documentary about the Delta Heavy tour, there’s a whole thing where he plays that album on a boat, and he’s like I’m so happy, I’ve been working so hard on this, and you can see John Digweed like… [smiles awkwardly]. I don’t know. I probably would have been pissed off. But it’s weird for me now, I idolise Sasha because I’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole, I guess I don’t know his early days of parties in northern England, but once Northern Exposure came out, I’ve covered it all, I know it so well, and to discover all that and get so excited about an artist and then ask what are they doing now? But it was pretty cool that he did that Boiler Room a few weeks ago.

“Now I’m getting into the old Hardkiss stuff, Scott Hardkiss – from what I can tell he was San Francisco’s answer to Sasha. Really, really good. He died of some rare eye injury, but I’m starting to dive into the American stuff, and there’s just so much. And I’m starting to find mixes by DJs that nobody knows anymore. I live for it, going on YouTube and finding mixes with like 2,000 views – and the comments, these people who are loving it, ‘aw god this guy was the best’, nobody knows them anymore and I don’t know what they do now, but the mixes are incredible.

“Do you know the show Samurai Jack? When I was a kid it was one of Cartoon Network’s flagship shows. It won an Emmy every year. It’s so ahead of its time, and the soundtrack is unreal. It’s about a samurai who has to fight this giant evil thing named Aku, and he gets flung into the future, like the year 5000, and at that point Aku controls the world, and he’s trying to get to the past. Every episode is a standalone adventure. It’s one of the best shows ever. Anyway, it ended in 2000/1 without any closure, and they’re just doing a new show now on Adult Swim. So it’s very mature. ‘Cause its audience has grown and grown. But for instance there’s one episode where Jack – this is probably what subliminally got me into music – there’s one episode where Aku has an evil DJ, it’s called Jack and The Rave, and he has to beat all the kids who are being brainwashed by this evil music, so he’s got a pacifier and he’s fighting these kids with dance moves, and he has to fight the evil DJ who has turntables that turn into a robot. It’s just so amazing. it’s my show.

“Obviously I like being alive now, it’s an interesting time, if not terrifying. Musically, it’s nice to be able to get things [so easily], but at the same time, I was like 10 or younger when all this was happening, I wish I could have experienced the excitement of getting a CD – I’ve been buying all these CDs cause they’re so cheap. I just got this CD by an artist called Om, the album’s called Instant Enlightenment, and it turns out it’s Dennis Ferrer. It was a real pain in the ass to buy! It was like €35, you could only get it in the United States, so I ordered it to my friend Cooper’s in LA, he has it, he burned it for me –” So you don’t even have it! “It’s the most unsatisfying thing. That’s the most expensive one so far. I just got a CD in the mail called Kraft Audio Sex Svei, it’s like, German goa trance, I bought it for one track, because the vinyl was some ungodly amount of money. It was like €2 for like a triple-CD pack. So right now in my apartment, I’ve got my vinyls, and this growing stack of CDs that I’ll never use except for ripping them. But they’re fun. I’m the only guy who goes to Space Hall in Berlin and looks at the CDs. It’s in Kreuzberg, it’s overwhelmingly large. They have this one section called ‘rave’, but really it’s trance. I’ve combed that thing, crazy. The problem is that they charge €8 for everything. But you can get a lot of those for a euro – I’ve got Discogs as I do it. I’ve found a few gems in there – I found I’m So High by Eden Transmission.

“I usually bring a bunch of vinyls with all this trance I have, but I took Ryanair today and I thought their policy was like EasyJet where you can’t bring two bags, but it turns out you could. I played in Cardiff and it was like 2,000 people, a student union, it was fucking huge. I brought all this vinyl, I put on my first record and it only came out of the right side! So then I took that record off, tightened the needle, put on the next record and it only came out of the left side! It’s so typical, and I spend so much money on these records I’d rather just rip them and you know it’s going to work. I usually bring vinyl as a backup to the CDJs, tonight I have four USBs – I was joking this morning, what if I brought all these CDs and tripped everybody out? They probably have those CDJs that don’t take CDs. That’s what everyone’s getting now. My computer is so old that the CD drive – it works, it’s just the computer makes these noises and I feel like it’s fragile enough I don’t want to fuck it up.

“I didn’t realise when I first started up after the hiatus that I would be so deep into this trance thing, and I kind of wish I’d done a whole new project for it. But at the same time, I was 20/21 when I started up again, so I didn’t really think about ‘projects’. I’m thinking about maybe in the future just being Nathan Micay. I’m also doing film scores now. I’ve just done my first two.”

Is that coming out of the Akira thing? “No – well that probably helped – but it’s because my friend Alex worked on a project that got nominated for an Oscar last year, and I guess now he’s been involved with more projects and he gave me the chance. One is a feature length film, which was a learning curve to say the least, so those are all credited as Nathan Micay and it’s getting confusing for me to have the two.” Are you allowed say what they are? “I don’t know if they’re out yet, they’re both Canadian-made. One is with him, my friend Alex. So he worked on a film about Claude Lanzmann last year, which got nominated for best documentary short for the Oscars, and I think it’s in collaboration with these women who are behind that show Orphan Black. So they’re pretty well-made movies – I wouldn’t have said yes to them if they weren’t! It was definitely a learning curve – I don’t want to be a DJ forever, so that’s the goal afterwards. To meld the whole body of work under Nathan Micay eventually, that would be ideal.”

You’re never going to be sad old raver who drank too much or took too many drugs! “If you spoke to me when I was 20 – I think I got it out of my system. But now because of that injury I had in Leeds, I just don’t drink. I still didn’t drink that much back then – right now I go to the gym to keep healthy, back then I was bodybuilding, like I was deep into it. I was walking home from the library on Halloween, it was 5ish, I had all my books, middle of the afternoon, that’s what made it so shocking. In relation to where the majority of the students live, you have to go through this moor, and they don’t have lights in it. I went in there just as evening was starting so it wasn’t dark, it was turning, there were people in there so I assumed I would be fine, but I just got the shit kicked out of me. I guess because my online persona people think I don’t drink because it’s a fitness thing, but really it started mostly because I have to take codeine occasionally for migraines, and I just don’t want to mix the two. I’ll have a drink. Also I’m writing so much music all the time, I don’t want to wake up and not be productive.”

Do you ever wake up with ideas or do you just wake up and go? “I generally have an idea of what I want to do that day, like for instance, this new EP coming out is pretty electro-influenced, and just because that week I made it I was listening to a lot of electro. That’s generally how it always happens – ‘I wonder if I could make that?’ – and then I do. The EP that came out before on Fort Romeau’s label (Cin Cin 004, with Lor), ‘I wonder if I could make Italo disco’, and sure enough, there’s an EP. I think my goal at this point is that every EP has trance meeting a different element. So the last one was obviously trance meeting Italo, because I don’t think it was just Italo. This one is trance meeting electro, which, I guess a lot of electro already is! I have my own little flair on it. With the album on LuckyMe, the Akira thing, that obviously was a concept and I had to have an idea for it. I had a drawing board in my room where I drew everything out. It wasn’t just sampling Akira, I had to draw up a storyboard – how much of this track represents this scene etc, and then there was supposed to be a live show for it – I finished it, it’s ready to go, it just didn’t happen. We got an inquiry about rights and stuff when the album went on NPR for a stream – within 10 minutes we had an email from somebody in Japan being like: ‘Explain yourself.’ I guess LuckyMe dealt with it. As for the visuals, we spent so much time cutting up the movie, micro-editing like crazy, that we had to do a storyboard. I’ve gotten better story-boarding for releases, so now I’m working on an album – I probably shouldn’t say – I’m story-boarding that because I want it to be a follow-up to the Akira thing – not in the sense of the theme of Akira, but in the sense of creating a world with continuous tracks and ideas. Because I think that’s what made the album work.”

When I listened to it I hadn’t actually seen Akira. “Most of my friends hadn’t. I think that’s what makes it more exciting though, because you can listen to it as just music.”  In my head I was thinking: Am I missing something here? “That’s true I guess, a lot of the quotes make sense in the context of the movie. On the other hand, you’ll go on Reddit and see me get destroyed by Akira fans – like ‘how can you not use the Japanese?’ Well I don’t speak Japanese so I would have butchered the language. I don’t know, I tried to convey the story as well as I could.” Did you go in and explain yourself? “There’s one YouTube comment where someone got on my case about using a particular dub, I’m just like, that’s the dub I grew up with. I either would have had to bring a translator to come and help me do the whole thing, or have an app listen to every piece of dialogue; I don’t know if you saw my phone but I barely have the CPU to do Google Translate as it is.” The reason I ask is that I saw you did leave a comment on the RA piece that Andrew Ryce did. (The feature showed his home setup, and commenters pointed out that his turntables were missing slipmats and needles.)“Yeah, I’m not big on involving myself on the internet.” Well as long as you’re not being outrageously homophobic or advocating that people take knives into clubs… Those are the two big ones that have happened recently. “I keep my knives in the kitchen. I don’t know. That one I had to comment. If it’s one person commenting that’s fine, when it’s seven people bullying you, about something as pedantic as that, I had to say something. It’s such an obvious thing too, I remember reading that comment and thinking ‘oh yeah I did leave those [slipmats] at the club!’ Also that was my first time ever commenting on RA, and I didn’t realise you couldn’t delete a comment. I remember writing that out and immediately after I was like ‘oh god were there spelling mistakes?!’ and I tried to delete it and I was talking to my friend Kevin, and he said ‘oh you can’t delete it, they’re there forever.’”

What’s funny is that the top two comments are yours and someone insulting you. “I know. That’s become my thing now. I just did a video for Ableton Live, they got 15 producers to give their technique in a minute, so if you go on that one the top comment is ‘Damn Bwana’s head is abnormally small for the size of his body’. I wrote underneath like ‘hey thanks for the love guys, any questions…’ I was trying to out-like his, so now his is above mine. The same thing happened, I did a video for FACT Magazine, Against The Clock, it’s definitely the nicest comment section I’ll tell you that. Before doing it I looked at it, and they’re brutal. It is the most brutal comment section other than Alex Jones. There are a few nasty comments, but I think mine has more comments than any of the other ones. It really blew up, and they’re pretty nice! But that one I went in there early, like ‘Send me any questions!’ I had about 60 responses and I answered all of them.” It’s hard to be mean to someone if they’re there and talking to you. People’s perceptions change. 

How did you and Avalon Emerson get acquainted? “The whole moving to Berlin thing was kind of spur of the moment. I had an arts degree and I did my thesis on slave law in the United States, so my plan was to go on to be a lawyer, and I guess from that trajectory probably work in immigration law, help out or whatever. There wasn’t much of a job market, and I didn’t want to just jump into law school. So I made a deal with my parents to stay at home, and the deeper I got into that, once I signed to Aus, and Will [Saul] became my manager, I realised I needed to leave Canada for a bit. So I was like, where can I go? Berlin! I didn’t know anyone in Berlin, and then Avalon moved I guess a year ahead of me. I was reading about the whole visa process, I was so lost. She gave me a package of all the stuff for the visa, and I made a similar package for my own visa and I’ve handed that off to a number of people since, I think it’s something you have to do once you move here. That was pretty much how the Avalon connection came about. It was just from a Twitter DM! And then the week I moved to Berlin was my first time playing at Panorama Bar, which was also for CSD [Christopher Street Day], essentially Gay Pride, so the pressure was on! So she came to that and we all bonded after that. She was my first friend in Berlin, and remains one of my closest friends here.

“I live in the north of Berlin, just to keep away from everything, it’s not distracting. It was a complete accident that I ended up there, it was the only place I found an apartment, but it ended up being great ’cause I think I work harder – not harder – I definitely get a lot more done than everyone else I know in terms of writing music, and I think a lot of that comes down to – ‘Hey we’re going to the club!’ I’m 25 minutes away…” Twenty-five minutes is nothing! “In Berlin, try getting people to come up to visit me! I go down there every day to train people, so it’s not a big deal, but I go down there, I come back, I’m done. I’m not going out again.

“Living in Berlin has been great because I moved there like ‘let’s go for this music thing’ without any fall-back plan. I’ve always been pretty good with money, and budgeting, but living in Berlin has given me perspective. If I get to point where I am able to maintain a $500,000 house [we had been discussing this hypothetical household], I will be the best $500,000-a-year house [resident] ever.” You’ll probably live in a four-bedroom semi-d in the suburbs. “Four bedrooms? Please. The kids can sleep on the couch.”

Bwana – Three Way Is The Hard Way is out now on 17 Steps. Buy here.

Aidan Hanratty
Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ... @adnhnrt | @Bandcloud

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