Chris Farrell has been a major player on the Bristol scene for some time now. He set up the Idle Hands label with a release from Peverelist in 2009, and followed that up with releases from local boys and girls like Kowton, Shanti Celeste, Lily and Bass Clef, as well as from artists based further afield like AnD, Strategy and Kevin McPhee. Three years ago he set up a record store under the same name as his record label, where he sells a small but vibrant selection of, in the website’s words, “the best house, techno, reggae and bass music on vinyl.” We caught up with Chris before his DJ set at this year’s Electric Picnic, taking in the past and future of the label, new developments in the store and his opinion on Dire Straits represses.
Hi Chris! For those who don’t know you, can you sum up your musical path to this point? “Like a lot of people, my family’s quite musical, not necessarily in a playing music sense, but my dad’s a soul DJ, my mum’s a big fan of music and we always had music playing in the house. I was taken to a lot of record fairs and stuff when I was a kid and continued to be big into music as a teenager, getting into raving, dance music etc. Then when I moved to Bristol for uni in my second year I got a job at Imperial records. I’ve just been knee deep in music since then in terms of selling music and putting stuff out and what have you. I went from Imperial to another shop called Replay, to one called Rooted, the famous dubstep one, and when that closed down we opened this place [Idle Hands]. That’s about it then.” By that stage you had already set up the label, is that right? “I set up Idle Hands in 2009 when I was at Rooted Records.” That was the sort of semi-famous story about Tom Ford (Peverelist, red.), who was then your boss, calling you in. “Yeah. Tom called me in: ‘What you doing, you gonna start a label then? All right, then.’”
So how did Idle Hands the label become the shop? “I’d been running a label for about 18 months, and it became apparent that Rooted was going to have to close down, because our overheads were too high, and it kind of ran its course. By the time it closed it was just me and Joe Cowton working there. Pev had left a few months beforehand, and it was really Joe who encouraged me: ‘Man, why not just start your own shop?’ I’d always thought it was a bit of a stupid idea and I’d always said you’d be mad to open your own store, but Joe and a few other people were saying ‘you should do it’. We opened this shop two months afterwards, and a happy coincidence was that people in Bristol were more interested in house and techno than they had been in a long time. I’ve always been known as the guy in the record shop selling that stuff, so when people’s ears were turned to that, that was around the time we opened. I think within a month we’d done a feature for RA, a video about Bristol, so even that, with the camera’s glare on us, kind of solidified what we did and what we wanted to do with this place – nothing much more than wanting to have a record shop that serves good underground music to the small amount of people in Bristol who want it.”
You mentioned Joe — how did you fall in with people like him and Shanti Celeste? “Bristol’s a small place. I first met Shanti when she used to do a poster run for one of the big house nights, and she used to come into the shop and we’d just chat about house music, and then her really good friend Kim Oakley, we set up agency together. I was out one night with a friend (we’d gone to see Floating Points), and he’s a really good mate of mine, but he’s very much [the type to] stand in the corner, dissecting what the DJ’s doing, and I was just a bit bored really. I saw Kim and Shanti dancing at the front and I thought ‘fuck it I know these people’, and I went over and started getting down with them. Those two have been quite a big inspiration for me in terms of just enjoying dance music, what it’s meant to be — dancing and having fun and spending time with your friends.
“This was the year before we opened Idle Hands, and also Kim and Shanti knew Joe Cowton, who by that point was a good friend of mine because we were working together. A lot of my friends, a lot of the people I know I’ve met through record shops. Joe and I met when he first moved to Bristol and was coming into the shop, and I was selling him techno records, like ‘mate you’ve got to hear this,’ building up a rapport with him. It’s very important for us at Idle Hands that it is about a community thing, that we’re welcoming of people who are coming in. Especially at the moment in Bristol, a lot of people are moving here from other parts of the country, more so than I’ve ever noticed. It’s crazy. Loads of people moving here from London — that never really used to be a thing.”
Do you reckon that’s because renting and finding somewhere to live is very difficult nowadays? “A little bit. But Bristol has quite a good rep these days. I think a lot of people will always know people who’ve lived in Bristol because there are two big universities here, and most people who come here have something good to say about it — life moves at its own pace. It’s great. I think society works better when we’re all talking to each other, face to face.”
Getting back to the shop — could you sum up what your ethos is in terms of what you sell and what you stock and so on? “To start with, we always listen to what our customers want; I’ve been doing this for a long time so I’ve a good feel for what people are going to want to buy. Generally though, the main ethos is just good, underground dance music, stuff you’re not going to find elsewhere as well, like rare white labels or little grime 12s that only three shops have. That can sometimes be our bread and butter.” Did you get that Stitch-Up record? “I don’t think I know that?” It’s this anonymous record by The Stitch-Up called ‘The Stitch-Up’, one sided, it’s just got one track, and it’s got a stamp that says The Stitch-Up and a little sewing needle on it. “No, I’ve not seen that! There’s always something you don’t know! One of the big things is just trying to keep on top of everything. House and techno is really re-energised and revitalised, much more so than it was a few years ago, With the reggae stuff and the bass stuff that we do it’s a bit easier, it’s more precision, certain labels are always going do well, but the main thing is we try and represent something about Bristol you know, plus records that I like [laughs] and think other people should like.
Absolutely, that’s key. You’ve just had a new addition to the shop, can you talk about that? “Myself and Marco Bernardi had been chatting for a long time about doing something together, and just last week he’s opened up an equipment shop in the back of Idle Hands called Elevator Sound selling synths, entry-level controllers, wires, all that kind of stuff — the idea being you can buy the stuff to make the records in the back, and if it’s good enough you can get it pressed and we’ll have it in the shop.” Nice. I read a short interview with him and he said that it’s not this off-putting thing where you’re going to be scared to ask what equipment to use. “Marco’s a real personable guy. The last few months have been quite stressful getting everything together, but this first week of being open has been really nice, there’s been a nice through-fare of people. He’s got a few people helping him out as well who are all super keen, one of them’s October, he’s also an old friend of mine.” He did a mix for us last year. “Jules is a top, top boy. It’s been nice; it’s been a bit of a kick up the arse for me you know! Sometimes I’ve been just sat in the shop, being like ‘ugh, whatever’, but to have more people about, again the community thing, just building on that, that’s been nice. There’s a lot of people who make music and don’t buy music, so it’s nice to see them coming in.
“We’re doing this thing once a month from September called Escher Music — it’s a bit like CDR in London I guess — people bring in their CDs to the shop, and we have a few beers and just play them over the system and people can have a chat. We’re trying to encourage people like Pev or Pinch to come down, people who actually put this shit out. Again it’s better when people talk to each other.” That’s really cool, it’s a really good idea. “We’ve only done one so far but it was really nice. Like I said, you don’t necessarily see these people all the time because they’re not buying vinyl, these newer producers. There’s some really interesting music being made, and it was interesting to see how coherent it all was with each other, in six months to a year what will be coming out of Bristol on labels.” The Bristol sound? “[Sighs] Yeah, the Bristol sound…!”
Speaking of Bristol sounds, you’ve said the label is very much about pushing the subtle differences that arise in dance music. How you manage to keep that ethos going? “I sometimes look back on the label and think maybe if I’d pursued one of the sounds we’d done we’d be a bigger label, but then I think no, that’s not right. The label’s a reflection, obviously of where my head is at, but also a reflection of things we think we can get behind. I’ve been sent tracks that I’ve thought were fantastic before and haven’t signed them because they wouldn’t quite be right — I try and keep it moving a little bit and not be too fixed on one thing. I know what I want with Idle Hands, sometimes artists try and second-guess what I want, and just make something for me, and generally it’s always wrong [laughs]. So it’s quite often the tunes I get sent, there’ll be the last tune in the bottom of the folder, where they’re not really sure about it, I’ll be like, ‘oh, that one’. Maybe when people aren’t thinking too consciously it just comes out. I think now we’re like 25, 26 releases deep, hopefully people can see the coherence on the label — ‘oh you’ve put out a lot of dark techno’, uh we don’t really. Or ‘oh you just put out shiny house’, we don’t! Or ‘oh you’re a dubstep label’, well, we’re not really any of those things! We’re a dance music label. Dance music for me has always been the whole spectrum. We’re not going to put out a jungle record or a gabba record any time soon, but we’re very comfortable doing what I consider a bit of a wide range of stuff.” So the tracks might be different genre wise, but there’s an overarching theme or approach. “I’d like to think so. A lot of sustained minor chords.”
You were saying about things people send you — do you get a lot of demos? Or does it come out of conversation, chatting with friends or whoever, and suggesting ‘oh you should send me something, see what we can do’ — how does it work? “I get sent a lot of demos but these days I think producers buy emails off people. So I get a lot of Italian trance records and stuff like that. I’ve had EDM producers from America sending me things and being like ‘I love your label’ and I listen to it — and most of the time I just let it go obviously, but one time I asked ‘mate have you even listened to the label?’ and this guy said: ‘If I was you I’d put out more banging shit!’ I said ‘I’ll decide what I put out, thank you very much’. Generally, there’s quite a bit of a culture here, we all listen to each other’s music that everyone’s making and sometimes it’s like, ‘um, can I have that one?’ Apart from that, with the people from further afield it’s always been quite natural — friends of friends. I’ve never signed something just off someone sending me a demo. It wouldn’t really feel right. One of the things I like about putting out Bristol music is the fact that — with producers in Manchester or the States or something I’m constantly emailing them and we have these big long chats and obviously everything’s fine, but sometimes it’s just easy to go and have a pint together and be like: ‘Right, let’s do it like this. We’re gonna press 300 copies and blah blah blah, we’ll get it out.’ It’s just easier.”
Can you tell us what’s coming soon? “Yeah sure! This year’s been a bit of a funny one, because we moved distributor at the start of this year and that took a couple months to sort out, and then Record Store Day kind of fucked every small independent label by delaying things. We haven’t had a particularly active year, but we’ve got a bunch of stuff lined up. The next thing, coming out next month, is an album by Strategy, who we did a 12 with last year. This LP is an ambient dub thing that I really like, for adventurous DJs. Going back to the label thing, one thing I always said was that I could imagine all the records on the label being played in a set together, even if it was quite a wide-ranging set, it still would make sense together. Then after that we’ve got a 12 from… actually I’m not going to say about that one. Then we’ve got a 12 from Leif coming. Recently I’ve been looking a bit further afield outside of Bristol, just for a bit of difference – like with Leif, we’ve been chatting for about three years about doing something. I love his tunes, his production’s fantastic, but he’s another one who sent me tunes and I just haven’t been able to put them out because it wouldn’t have made sense on the label. We’ve got to a point now where we’ve got two tunes that are just perfect and I’m really looking forward to putting that out because he’s one of my favourite UK producers. Then next year we’ve got a bunch of other stuff coming. I’ll leave it there, because I don’t want to give too much away.”
Can you talk about BRSTL? I don’t know how you pronounce it – the label you run with Shanti and Rhythmic Theory. “B-R-S-T-L. Or Borstal as Sam Binga calls it! The name was Rhythmic Theory’s idea – obviously it references the city we live in but it’s also a nod to one of our favourite jungle producers DJ Crystl, and everything that genre has meant to us. We’re really pleased with how that’s gone recently, we’ve got a really good response to some of the things we’ve done. And again that’s very much centred on what we do here in Bristol. The next thing coming up is a 12 from Outboxx, which is a really deep techno thing. After that Shanti’s got another 12 and then we might do something with October or with Jay L, or Samuel. ” So there’s a lot? “There’s quite a lot yeah, but this year everything’s just taking a little bit longer to get out now that vinyl’s cool again. Three years ago, some of the first 12s we did with Kowton – the tunes were made, took it in to master and we had it out within two months, which in an ideal world is what would happen with all releases. Time… Time and everything else just gets in the way. I’m actually thinking about starting another label.” Is this an exclusive? “Yeah! I won’t say too much about that, but it’ll be something completely different from all that as well. Let’s just say I’ve been watching a lot of grime videos recently. Since what you said about vinyl being cool, that was my next question. You’ve expressed a very passionate fervour and favour for vinyl over digital, what’s your take on vinyl in its present state? I’m not going to use the word resurgence, but…
“I mean it’s good. Like everything when there’s something new people rush towards it. So we saw that with the whole computer thing and then people come back from it a little bit and kind of question (it), ‘well hang on, for all we’ve gained what have we lost?’ So I think we’re at that point with vinyl. It’s nice to see people in their early 20s or late teens coming in, really keen about vinyl but even coming up asking ‘I don’t know how to use a record player, how do I put the needle on?’ I don’t have anything against digital music and I think at times vinyl can be fetishised into something it isn’t, but for me it’s a good format to listen to music on and I think sound-system music, music for playing out loud, sounds really good on a good, well cut 12″. Maybe I think too much about this but when you walk in a club, you can hear if someone’s playing vinyl. If someone’s been playing a digital set, and sometimes people don’t take that much care about that, they’re playing these really shitty mp3s, and the next person steps up and plays vinyl, it just sounds great. I mean they might play a shit set! But the sound’s all right. I don’t know if it’s a bit unfair, but I would say a lot of the time with older collectors playing on vinyl, they’ve a different approach to playing music. It’s about finding those rarer bits that people haven’t got. With digital, it’s about playing new upfront stuff. There’s the vinyl culture that goes around it too – there was a record earlier in the year and me, Jay L and my friend Andy Payback, we were all trying to hunt it down, it was a bit of a competition between us all, and I found it! And the week I found it they announced that they were going to do a reissue of it. It was one of these records from the 80s, quite hard to track down. And they reissued it.”
Reissues are a funny one, one of the Record Store Day releases was the Coldcut remix of “Paid In Full”, and you can find it in Tower in Dublin and it’s €20 for a 7″. Not only that, it’s not a true reissue, because it’s not what was on the original release, it’s just two tracks. “Some of these things don’t need reissuing! Definitely some of the Record Store Day things you just wonder why it’s pressed up! Or like you see these guys who are buying 180g Dire Straits records, and you’re like, just go to the fucking charity shop, they’ve got one for 25p.” That’s exactly what Ben Morris said when I tweeted about getting “Paid In Full”, he said you’ll get that for a pound in the charity shop – don’t buy it. “And actually some of these things sound better as well. One of my things is I don’t really like the sound of some of those remasters, they just make them sound like CDs. I think, especially, rock music doesn’t serve being remastered that well, but some of the old 80s dance tracks, when they’re remastered that’s quite a good thing because it means you can play them against modern stuff and they’ve got the punch to really work. But I think rock and jazz loses a bit with all the remastering and shiny packaging and everything.”
Can you tell me a bit about how you DJ? What’s your approach and how do you like to play? “I don’t know, every gig’s different. I love DJing, it is one thing I’ve spent a lot of time on and for years I used to prang myself out about it and think ‘Oh I don’t know if I’m very good’. And then about two three years ago I went: ‘Hang on, I’m actually all right! I’m being booked, I’m playing.” Generally what I do, it’s like the label as well – the thought of playing a two-hour techno set would drive me mad, so I try and incorporate elements of different things and try and get a bit of emotion in there. I quite like playing some vocal tracks as well to create an atmosphere. Sometimes I just like playing records in the pub.”
Does this lead to you playing more ‘warmup’ sets? “I don’t know really! I’m as happy playing warmup sets as I am playing closing sets, and every set is different. I’ve been DJing a long time now so you get a sense of what people might want, but you don’t want to make it too easy for them. Sometimes you go out and you get a crowd and it’s not really working, and there’ll be records in my bag that I’m like, if I play that, it’ll go off. But they don’t deserve it! I could play that but they’re not going to get that. They’re going to have to work a little bit to get that. It’s a cliché, but it is the interaction between yourself and the crowd. Actually sometimes the warmup’s a hard thing to do because if there’s no one there it’s quite hard to get that vibe, because it is about the interplay between you and the audience. I sometimes see these DJs and they turn up and it wouldn’t matter where they were playing, they’d turn up and play that set. I don’t really do that, I try and tailor everything. Me and Joe used to DJ back to back all the time but we don’t really do it so much now, but me and Shanti play together quite a lot. We all come from the same mindset with music.”
To wrap things up, what is your drink of choice? “It changes all the time! I never stick on one thing. But I would say my favourite drug is coffee. That cup of coffee, black, Americano in the morning, is amazing. In terms of alcoholic drinks, I generally drink ale, but I’ve never met an alcoholic drink I don’t like!” And when was the last time you danced? “Last Saturday, when we put on Pender Street Steppers. I’m very into this idea – I like dance music because I like dancing. I’m not ashamed. I’ve got friends who don’t dance at all and I think it’s bizarre. It’s great fun! I love dancing. Not as much as I’d like – this year has been terrible for parties in Bristol so I haven’t danced as much as I’d like to, but the last time I had a bit of a boogie was to Pender Street Steppers last week.”
Words by Aidan Hanratty, 14 October 2014. Leave a comment
For good or ill, techno will be techno. There’s huge space for variation under that umbrella, but for every serious-looking white male photographed in ominous shadows, there seems to be a dozen new different aliases to keep track of. Games Have Rules is the child born of two such men who also share the virtue of experience within the field: Function and Vatican Shadow have both been crafting blistering electronics for many years now, though the latter has collected more monikers and as such is our pick when it comes to techno Scrabble. Vatican Shadow is a relatively recent project of Dominick Fernow’s, hovering around Western intervention in the Middle East, though Fernow’s also been known as Prurient, Window Cleaning By Ian and Dom Guwop. He’s previously ran a record store that had a hand in shaping one of our current favourite noise-makers, Pharmakon, and he’s also responsible for Hospital Productions, the label that Games Have Rules calls home. Then there’s Function, a name of David Sumner’s that released a full-length on Ostgut Ton only last year. Sumner is most notably an alumni of retired collective Sandwell District, a seminal presence in British techno. What with resumés like Sumner’s and Fernow’s, you’d be forgiven for expecting Games Have Rules to proceed with the subtlety and subduedness of a Michael Bay film, though both have proved their deftness and versatility in ambient realms before. This would be one of the first times they’ve had to perform in that vein on such a large scale however, and the pair successfully restrain themselves with great finesse on what turns out to be a soothing stroll through city twilight.
Stream: Function / Vatican Shadow – Things Unknown (Hospital Productions)
Everything about Games Have Rules feels like the city, from its development in New York and Berlin and the Empire State Building on the sleeve to the content of tracks themselves. “Things Known” and “Things Unknown” could pass for field recordings of a sprawling megacity night from the future. Electronic cricket croons and croaks wind in and out of synthetic pulses as rain peppers concrete and traffic passes in the distance. The pair share some motifs and tones but the former is pulse-heavy whilst the latter is fixated on exploring atmospherics. Though the bridge between those two openers is modestly straightforward, transitions seem to be one of the more salient themes explored by Sumner and Fernow on the record: changes inside the pieces, between them and surrounding them as context.
Sumner and Fernow find themselves isolating moments and stretching them out over several minutes on their collaborative album. If tracks don’t seem to go anywhere, it’s because they’ve never attempted to. The pair paint still lifes with their sweepers, and even when the kicks do come in later on in the form of “Red Opium”, the music is a straightforward 4/4 affair that doesn’t serve as the entertainment but rather as an aide for the mind to find its own. Atmospheric pieces that make up most of the album are largely intangible, gently swelling with new textures that seamlessly surface before fading into the overarching soundscape just as effortlessly. It brings to mind the way the chests of the sleeping rise and fall with tranquil delicacy, and Games Have Rules comes across as intentionally attempting to distil that elusive warmth of nighttime solitude. There’s a single instance where Sumner and Fernow push for a more heightened rush of adrenaline, appearing as the final movement “Bejeweled Body”, and their closing gambit proves victorious as the record finishes with a breathless flourish.
Stream: Function / Vatican Shadow – A Year Has Gone By (Hospital Productions)
Some of the tracks appear as partners in sound – the aforementioned introductory pair, “Things Known” and “Things Unknown”, and also “A Year Has Passed” and “A Year Has Gone By”. The direct segues between them initially conjure an illusion of a prequel-sequel relationship (and that model works, too), however it’s more likely that they are simply different ways of understanding the same constants – different paths between points. That brings us to a solitary gripe with the record: sequencing. In Games Have Rules, the water lies still for the most part, but for a few ripples and waves here and there, until the end rumbles the pool and boils it to the point of its acidic outburst. As pleasant as that is the first time round, the record makes for an unbalanced listen. “The Nemesis Flower” sits in the middle of the proceedings and as rivetingly unsettling its eerie submarine radio samples are, they could appear anywhere with little consequence. That said, the artists are clearly focused on mood ahead of narrative with this record and the variety is there, even if it is lopsided.
Whoever wrote the press release for Games Have Rules reckons it has been imbued with “a sense of night turning into day” – that proves accurate considering the contexts we’ve listened to the record in. We’d abstract the sensation further, bringing it into that theme of transition. It’s an album for walks beneath the grey sky, for getting enveloped into the surrounding world or a soundtrack for counting sheep. There’s no static listening experience as the release coaxes the mind to wander, beckoning the imagination out of its cage to make like helium and float the head off somewhere far away. Even the tenth time round and as fans of both Sumner and Fernow’s other works, any sense of unfulfillment seems impossible – experiencing both artists pace themselves and expose facets of their creativity that are usually seen as peripheral is an unexpectedly reassuring adventure. Games Have Rules arrives with impeccable timing, shaking up the discographies of two prolific artists just as nights grow longer and those twilight moments begin to really integrate with all our daily lives. Take it from us – those moments in-between are especially worth looking forward to when Sumner and Fernow are along for the ride.
Stream: Function / Vatican Shadow – Bejeweled Body (Hospital Productions)
Games Have Rules is out now on Hospital Productions in vinyl, CD and digital formats.
Words by Tayyab Amin, 13 October 2014. Leave a comment
Hotline Recordings, a label set on maintaining the mystique of tracking down music by making a mobile number its source of contact, accommodates Hodge warmly. He presents the label’s fifth release, following Kahn and Neek, Lurka, Rachael and DJ Sotofett, and Commodo. When we contacted the label at the start of the year, anonymous fingertips text us back coolly, days later, boasting a no-nonsense approach to releasing music. “If the trax sound hard on a system and get waists moving, we sign it. If it don’t, we send it back,” they said. In light of this, Hodge’s A-side, “Mind Games”, progresses, barefaced, from the pleasing foundation of UK funky’s tribal swagger. Layering up, we’re treated with a low, suction-type snarl that snaps you back to the first bar throughout. Hodge then chucks a grimy steel drum melody on top – urgent, wants to run away fast – and it is this play, between holding back and pouncing forward, that keeps the track centralised, firmly rooted and powerful. Turn it, however, and the approach is different. “Flashback” is introverted and even deeper underground. While the beat is a painful propulsion, the track is more spacious, synths all longing, slipping into the past and, in this way, it is in keeping with Hotline’s ethos: to challenge the dancefloor. Integrity, diversity and quality, tied together with a clear aesthetic and goal, underlines Hotline’s output. And it’s clear they’ve found the right guy in Hodge.
Beneath has been a firm Truants favourite for a while now. His unnerving blend of dubstep, funky and grime has taken him to labels as varied as Keysound and PAN while his skills as a selector are perfectly distilled in his contribution to our own Truancy Volume series. Having used his No Symbols label to house his own productions, Beneath has recently started the Mistry label as an outlet for other producers tracks. Webstarr – a young producer from Hull – contributes the label’s second release, his style certainly sharing some similarities with Beneath. “Aegrus” boasts a ragged, deconstructed rhythmic structure and is a brooding affair dominated by ominously swirling drones and a weighty low end. Chevel’s remix of the title track feels sparser; with the Italian producer opting to strip away much of the percussion which characterised the original mix. Webstarr returns to production duties on the final track. Keeping things dark on “Clocked”, he references the tribal rhythms of UK funky but reconstitutes them in a techno sonic palette. It rounds up a very strong debut release and one which suggests that Mistry and Webstarr both share a bright future.
DJ Sotofett’s WANIA label is pretty special. Their weird and at times beautiful takes on techno and house have been consistently impressive over the last few years and this split release between SVN and AU, both featuring spoken word from Paleo, keeps up the tradition. The A-Side, SVN’s On Tempo, is a twisted peak time club jam which showcases WANIA’s more rugged techno face. However, AU’s track on the flip, It Takes Time, is what really stands out. It’s delightfully chilled out, the chord stabs are relaxed and subtle, creating a mildly uplifting and laidback atmosphere. Paleo’s unassuming voice suits the nature of the track perfectly, bearing similarities to Madteo on previous WANIA release There’s Gotta Be A Way. It’s the first thing either AU or Paleo have released since 2012 but it has been well worth the wait. The release is a testament to WANIA’s versatility and we’re certainly eagerly awaiting their next release, whenever that may be.
At this point, no one needs to be told to listen to Tinashe’s first full-length album Aquarius anymore. It’s rightfully been on everyone’s radar and appreciated as one of the most wholesome and fulfilling records that’s hit shelves this year, which is a hard expectation to meet when the hype surrounding a debut has been as gradual and diverse as Tinashe’s. Aquarius has been a solid year-and-a-half in the making with over 150 tracks recorded, and while it’s doubtful we’ll even hear a quarter of those, one bonus track that’s surfaced is “Little Things”. It’s a fun and dancefloor friendly track that might not have sat right amidst the cohesion of the album, but it most definitely warrants some plays nevertheless.
Words by: Erin Mathias, Matt Gibney, Antoin Lindsay & Sindhuja Shyam.
Previous editions of Sunday’s Best here.
After a long hiatus Functions Of The Now returns with someone who has been bubbling up with some of the most idiosyncratic soundcloud transmissions to come from the nebulous grime-ish scene we’ve been covering. Described by Mixmag’s Seb Wheeler as “Hieroglyphic Being mak[ing] grime”, Sharp Veins (formerly known as William Skeng) has hit a purple patch since his name change, augmenting asymmetric grime beats with fragmented sampling trickery that utilises sound sources as diverse as Grouper and JRPG soundtracks to raw material. Choosing to forego the tropes that have come to dominate modern grime, Sharp Veins instead taps into the sonic novelty of the ’02-’05 era to draw surprising connections between Bow E3 and purely textural noise & drone excursions. Similar territory has been traversed by the likes of Logos and most recently Moleskin on his Satis House EP but in this case the direction of travel is reversed: where those producers stretched out the sound palette of grime into Oneohtrix-esque ambience, Sharp Veins instead carves strangely organic grime instrumentals out of variety of unusual sources.
Suitably, Sharp Veins’ addition to the mix series is utterly unlike any other we’ve had to date, eschewing the dance floor entirely for a 45 minute introspective journey down the rabbit hole of his non-grime influences. Taking in classic ambient in the form of Gas, key influence William Basinski and some of his own noisier productions, Sharp Veins gives a hint at the building blocks involved in the construction of his unique instrumentals.
It’s been a while since we last spoke so there is, suitably, a lot of ground to cover in our recommendations. Over the period there have been some big steps towards the Now as the entropic forces of online culture take a hold on grime, dissipating its already flexible boundaries. The crystalline digital space and unhinged structure of OPN and M.E.S.H. filter back through the Soundcloud-industrial complex, the results evident in this edition of FOTN as well as Sentinel and Al Tariq’s destructive ‘Nothjng js at Rest’, which sonically tracks the atrophying desire for acceleration built into our network and narrative. Pedal to the metal :) To this end, Amnesia Scanner’s AS Live, Faithful and _______V can also be seen tearing at the walls. Elsewhere, in more strictly grimey territory, we’ve been feeling Alex Compton’s reinvigorated, devastating square waves, Ursula’s lush collages and, of course, Weightless Vol. 1, which develops a devilish floatation tank in which the second wave might exist. Oh, and definitely don’t sleep on previous contributor Jacques Gaspard Biberkopf’s free collection, a truly amazing Body of work.
Taking advantage of our mutual relocation to London we met up with Sharp Veins in the back of a Dalston bar to discuss joining the dots between noise and grime, learning to let go of square waves and the move from a New York suburb to the birthplace of grime.
Hey Sharp Veins! How’re you finding London? “I’ve been here for about 3 or 4 weeks, I’ve lost track of time since I arrived.. Just about a month. I love it here so much, it’s such an awesome city.”
Have you managed to link up with any of the grime guys over here yet? “I went to NTS the other day and met Tom Lea from Local Action and Finn briefly: they’re super nice dudes. But I haven’t met too many other guys, it’s mainly still email correspondence. I’m kinda awkward with the whole talking online and meeting up in real life, I find it difficult to do. Once you just discern you’re both into a couple of the same things you can at least enthusiastically talk about those few things though.”
How were things back in America, was there much of a scene for this kind of thing? “I think grime is getting increased exposure. A lot of my friends are into it, and it’s easy to imagine this scene getting transported there slowly but surely, but in general I don’t think people quite get it. A lot of Americans – myself included – thought they got it but it seems like an intrinsically British thing for sure.” What’s been interesting in doing this series has been people from outside the UK who really nail it though. Strict Face for example, he did the first edition and he sounds so authentic. “Yeah, and he has his own set of influences that have taken things in a different direction.” It’s almost like he’s taken the idea of the devil mix and combined it with Japanese ambient. It’s similar in a way to what you’re doing taking samples from noise/drone: even though sonically you wouldn’t necessarily put them together, grime does have abstract qualities akin to both. “Definitely. Like the entire ethos behind the devil mixes, I find that very inspiring as well. It’s possibly another cliche and something that other Americans would say listening to the Keysound track and hearing Logos and thinking ‘I’m gonna make something that floats like that’. But y’know, trying to do it in a different way I suppose – to put the idea in a new light. Like my track Abalone Barrels for example. When I was making that I was thinking of it in a strange way as a weird devil mix 8 bar tune – it didn’t sound like that when it came out of the other end but like that’s how I was imagining it at the time. I think a lot of people have been trying to use grime principles in a strange way.”
Perhaps that’s the the best way forward for people who haven’t been embedded in it – geographically or whatever – for years and years, to just run with one strange element of it. One thing that came to mind from your mix was the this underlying thread of sonic experimentation, and that’s quite an interesting thing from grime that not a lot of people are picking up on right now. A lot of the interesting guys from back in the day, like Hindzy D or the Black Ops crew, they used all these really weird fucked up sounds that are all distorted in bizarre ways – they’re exremely unusual sonically and that makes them interesting – you have no idea where they possibly got the sounds from. Does this kind of thing feed into your music? “Recently I’ve actually been listening to too much drone stuff and in a way it’s like- I’ve got stuck. So I’ve been trying to listen to older grime sets because even if I don’t make stuff that’s directly grime anymore or trying to be grime, I still very much consider it to be an inspirational genre. There’s so much to take from it: the sounds, the way the rhythms attack you and stuff like that. What you said about the strange sound effects and atonal elements, yeah I love that. I’ve been listening to Logan Sama’s last Rinse FM set on repeat for the past week or so and there are so many fucked tunes on there that are also sat next to the better mixed down Terror Danjah type tracks, it’s a weird little intersection. You listen to his tracks on old radio rips back then and when it comes in it’s like someone changes the actual bitrate. All of that stuff though, when you listen to it now it still sounds great: it’s really impressive to have music that has a quality that lasts this long. Just I suppose in a time when things change so quickly.”
A lot of the old grime stuff – to me it’s the best music of all time, hence the series – but so much of it rode on character more than anything. There’s some tunes that sort of sound atrocious in one sense but in every other sense it’s the most amazing music of all time. “That’s absolutely half the appeal. Even if it’s just a really gaudy melody, something that’s really garish sounding that should never work. Or only rhythmic elements that are just disgusting, just really ugly sounding hits. There’s so many aspects that might be considered “bad taste” in other genres but in grime it works perfectly. Until you sit down and try and replicate that and make something of your own you have no idea how taut those productions were. It’s just immediate, it’s so simple, but you also can’t sit down with the programs people are using now try and do something like that and have it sound as good as it did back then.”
A lot of the beauty of those tracks come from the software they were using back then. When you try and throw all that into the latest version of Ableton it all sounds a bit…clean. “Way too clean. I love Ableton but I almost wish I’d started with a program that was more limiting. Especially when you’re first starting out it’s imposing how many options there are and then once you get a basic understanding you feel like you’re not using it correctly because there’s so much to exploit. It’s nice to be able to turn off all the other functions sometimes and just go with just a very clean basic set up. It’s been said a million times but if you start out with some basic limitations about what you can do or are allowed to do, it’s often a serious boon to your creativity.”
Living in the US, what was your route into grime? “Dizzee was my first real introduction to grime, I remember my Mom got me this book of 1000 albums to listen to before you die and “Boy In Da Corner” was one of them. It didn’t describe it very well- I don’t think they even called it grime – but because they couldn’t articulate what it sounded like I was interested. I read more on it and when I listened to the album imagining this young kid making those beats after school or something it’s so inspiring.” And all the instrumentals he was making before the album were so great. One aspect of that time I’d love to come back a bit is these whole lineages of tunes created from the same samples. Yeah I was listening to this old set of Danny Weed B2B Jammer and the amount of times different versions of “Hoe” got played I was like: are you kidding me, I had no idea there were that many floating about. And god knows how many are lost now. It’s such a romantic idea in a strange way, a hard drive dying and you lose some of the best tunes that you forgot you made. There’s something strangely nice about that idea. And what a strange time to be listening to music it must’ve been, spending 30 minutes to download one guy’s 128kbps rip of some producer’s track.
It’s what I think’s interesting about the music you make, since you use a lot of this lo-fidelity sampling. With a lot of that grime stuff the only way you can hear it is as these continuously re-encoded rips that you pick up in some “500 grime instrumentals” pack and they’re only 96kbps. I think that’s a nice, non-obvious connection between the old grime stuff and what you’re doing now. “That’s probably coming from the fact that at the same time I was listening to Dizzee and Wiley I was also picking up on stuff like Stars Of The Lid and William Basinski. And Tim Hecker for that matter. There was a time in my life I listened to nothing but that and a ton of post rock and post metal. I think, especially with William Basinski, a piece of music being defined by the degradation process – I really love that idea. You can find it to a smaller degree in old grime rips and old Memphis hip hop tape rips. A lot of those, they sound like absolute shit but it lends them the mystical quality. Perhaps when the person bought the tape and they were listening to it in their car it sounded alright but now that we have it it’s been passed down through hands for a long time it just sounds like it was recorded in a dingy basement somewhere. I’m quite into that, I really like that idea and that’s something that I wanted to put into my music because I’m not very good at making things sound really clean. So I decided to go in the opposite direction.
On that note there’s some other interesting things with your tracks, particularly “Did U Think”. I love the intro where you make it sound like the track’s buffering, was it intentional? “To be honest, it sounds a lot like that and a lot of people have mentioned it but, to me, that was like a strange rhythmic thing that, when I removed the drums, it sounded arhythmic but I had a balanced version in my head of what it was supposed to sound like. I think perhaps as a consequence of spending too much time on the internet it did invade a little bit. But that was not intentional. I thought about the idea of corrupting mp3s but haven’t got round to it yet, at the moment it’s just making things sound like they’re stuttering or glitched up. I like stuff that sounds that sounds like heavily programmed glitches, the clicks individually set on the screen, but I like it more when it sounds coiled up, like it’s bouncing around in a can- at least that’s how I visualise it a lot of the time.”
Have you managed to bring much gear over? Or are you all in the box anyway? “The one thing I have outside is this really shitty tape recorder made for dictation. It records things faithfully but distorts the hell out of it, so I use that with field recordings on tracks sometimes. That’s about it though, nothing else at all. I tried using stuff outside my computer but it feels strangely unnatural.” It’s funny because there’s something I’ve noticed about your tracks: they’ve got a very organic feel to them. It doesn’t at all sound like a guy with the plugsounds samples and Ableton square waves. “That’s what’s really allowed me to advance in the past year, because before I was really trying to make what was – at least in my own mind – pretty derivative square wave bass grime. Some of it’s OK but there are guys who are doing that perfectly well already and I had this whole other set of influences that I hadn’t yet exploited. So I decided to go all out with the naturalistic, weird sounding stuff. Textural – I’ve been all about the texture this last summer. I went off on this tangent where I’ve been making things that are really really noisy and I’m not even sure if I really like it. But that’s kinda where I’ve been going recently, something I’m trying to explore. I don’t really have a heritage in noise music or anything like that – actually none to speak of whatsoever. It’s just that with the samples I’ve been using when I try to manipulate them that’s what has been coming out. I’m just kinda letting it see where it leads me. Still, I really appreciate the support of the people in the grime scene. When I began to make these things that were kinda shifting away for the most part I thought surely I’d lose their support and they’d think “this guy was a scene hopper or bandwagon jumper”. It’s been amazing the reaction I’ve gotten making stuff I actually want to make and accurately reflects what I’ve been listening to.
Besides the artists featured in your mix, what are the key influences behind what you’re doing at the moment? “The guy that I think is head and shoulders above anybody else in terms of influencing me is probably Tim Hecker. The amount I’ve listened to Harmony In Ultraviolet is kind of obscene. It’s a constant of sorts. I have so much respect for his stuff. The way there’s so much texture that it’s almost rhythmic but you can’t quite discern a beat in it, I love that. With a lot of my stuff I try to emulate him, but I’m not working in a mad scientist lab like him so I can’t quite do it. I’ve heard him talk about “emotional ambiguity” in his music: you feel something from it but you’re not quite sure what it is that it’s telling you to feel. I can’t quite do that – I usually go for quite sad sounding stuff, I’m a sucker for that, I can’t help it.
Now that you’re here, what do you have lined up? “I’ve had a few people hit me up and try and collaborate and I need to at some point. I’ve got something in the works with Kakarot that we need to finish up. Tarquin, he wants to do something, that would sound so fucked up whatever we managed to do. I need to get out to some people’s studios because all I’ve got are headphones and it’s a pretty difficult job to produce just like that. I’ve had a couple of labels express an interest in my tracks and I have something in the works for Glacial Sound- all unheard, new stuff. We’re just about finished and hopefully it should be out by the end of the year. I’m excited as hell about that. At the very beginning of the summer I sent Paul some of my stuff and that was the first tracks that were moving away from the sound I’d be mining at the beginning of the year and I was like “he’s not gonna fuck with any of this” and he hit me up pretty soon after saying that they were great, and that gave me the confidence to start making some really weird shit. The pedigree of that label is amazing with Rabit’s work, their white labels and now the Riko Dan vocal.
I might have some stuff in the works with Boody, the guy who produced for Leif. He hit me up the other day and I sent him over some stems. Looking forward to that. But primarily it’s the Glacial Sound stuff; I’m trying to work on something that could end up as a vocal track for them. I’ve been having the hardest time putting together songs in that medium though, all I’ve been able to put together is pretty abrasive noisy stuff that doesn’t really have a discernible beat. So I’ve got to get back to a point where I can actually have some regular drums on there.” Well back in the day that worked pretty well sometimes too. “I’ve been trying when I open a project to make something in that vein, but when it comes to the drums I either can’t do it or it just gets really crazy really fast.” You could always just go the devil mix route. “Haha that’s what I’ve been thinking: just get a single melody, a bass and a single vocal sample and some delay and just say fuck it, somebody complete it for me with their own voice.”
With grime clubbing in rude health in London for the first time in a while, do you think you’ll start to play out here at all? “I got some CDJs and a mixer for real cheap in the US but I haven’t managed to bring them across here. I like DJing but I don’t particularly want to spend a lot of time learning it and I don’t think that if I was in a club I would actually put on that interesting of a set. It would be great every now and then to go out and do it but I lack the ability and I recently I don’t want to play tracks in a club that much. I enjoy going personally, but just occasionally to get out, that kind of impulse. I enjoy using Ableton to make sets and things like that but it’s taken a backseat to just making music. DJing is something on the side that I might eventually get to. I actually much prefer putting together beatless things like in this mix and my Liminal Sounds mix. Doing that with club tracks on Ableton feels too much like you’re trying to emulate CDJs and you lose the energy. Throwing tempo out of the window and smashing things together is a lot more intuitive and you get a lot more interesting effects out of it – weird phasing melodies and things like that. But yeah, people have been asking about it: Tom from Local Action has been in touch and Paul from Glacial Sound wants to do something with Shriekin at some point. It would be sick but I don’t even have my gear here and I’m also intimidated by the club. In front of people I don’t know very well, even a small crowd, it gets very imposing and intimidating to me very quickly so there’s also that. It would be good experience, I hope at some point I just bite the bullet and do it. This would probably be the best place to do it. At home I’m about 4hrs from NYC and even there they’re not really into anything I’d like to do.”
Given that you’ve been christened the Hieroglyphic Being of grime you could always just do what he does and dip in and out of conventional dance music while playing all this great drone stuff. “I do think it’s really cool where somebody goes from ambient things to something made for the club then back out again, it makes things really tense and strange. It’s not always the most danceable thing at all, but fuck that to be honest.”
Artwork: Joe Jackson
Of the many acolytes known of Obey City’s increasingly seminal and always delivering Astro Nautico imprint, Photay is perhaps the least known or busy. If you let fairly modest online following statistics smother the nascency of his producer status, you’ll let what is one of the most original bodies of work this listener has come across this year drift right past you (though these some 30 minutes don’t exactly play short). Culling a multitude of influences, including a study stint in Africa for music, the 22 year-old Evan Shornstein’s music is emotive, fruitfully experimental, genuinely original and fits well within a mold cast by the host Brooklyn label. Even as a relative newcomer and with a less than definable discography, Photay is effectively one of the sharper needles in a pile of needles, so to speak.
Stream: Photay – Communication (Astro Nautico)
It’s a good possibility that those not among his kinship at SUNY Purchase who knew of Shornstein prior to last month’s debut took cognizance of him after they heard his contribution to Atlantics Vol. 3, last spring’s (and still the latest) brimming Astro Nautico compilation. Also self-titled, but self-released (seemingly to mild fanfare on the Bandcamp medium) in 2012 came a composite of works which marked the unveiling of Photay’s foray into electronic music. But it was that Atlantics tune “Communication”—at times good-vibed with jubilant melodies and juke-ish rhythms and at others melancholic, if not deflating, with decrement chords and a bluesy “I love you” sample—that may have been the impetus to the organization of his proper debut on Astro Nautico. There are only a couple instances on Photay where he sounds at all similar to “Communication” per se, negating the prospect of an unwavering, “found sound,” but an aspect of Photay that can be traced back from as early as the aforementioned composite album is outstanding musicality. Shornstein, the apparently once Aphex Twin-listening fifth grader, has a way with integrating harmony, layering, sampling texture, and incomprehensibly crafting polyrhythms.
Stream: Photay – Reconstruct (feat. Seafloor) (Astro Nautico)
Album opener “Detox” does just as it’s titled: it cleanses the palette altogether, priming your mind for invigoration and an ultimate trek through the mind of Photay at the time of writing. Its revolving melody, transitioning from one timbre to another at one point, and brassy backdrop gently sedates, but there’s an air of curiosity here too. Just as one will find Photay in its entirety, the intro sounds unpredictable, ready to turn one corner or the next yet orchestrated. Rather than a synthetic emulation, there is actually trumpet play on the ensuing “Reconstruct,” the proper first single lifted from the project a few months before the release and which features the vocal of Brooklyn artist Seafloor, another AN producer. A biting synth riff misleads early on, but soon breaks out to become a minor role in the mix. Seafloor is clearly the focal point here: the trumpet responds to his breathy, lithe vocal in an interaction which—instead of polyrythms—is the first fleshed-out influence of Shornstein’s time spent in Guinea, West Africa heard on the record.
The second single we heard from the album might be the best. Originality and inventiveness underline “No Sass.” In a way similar to the preceding track, it seems like Shornstein attempts to misguide here again, initially setting for a dark vibe implementing beedy, rainy textures and tribal drums evocative of some type of sullen ritual. What eventually reign superior in truth though, are climbing, reedy riffs and vibraphone strokes and inarticulate vocal harmony (the source of which is not disclosed in the credits) . One of the more captivating moments on the album happens midway through this track when a lead line appears, cleared through the dazzling fray of instruments, bending in intensification then stopping, presenting a very obvious situation wherein the track has to decide on a path. “Static At The Summit” is less full of surprises than it is focused and rounded. It’s colorful with melody, like a lot of what bears the Astro Nautico label, but not in a lurid way; it’s one of the more beat-centric tracks on the record, and the tight-handed snares and hats (or the sound Shornstein captures to mimick them) are still subtle. Photay is a balancing act (accurately says the press release), of synthetic and natural, but also of genre, so it’s only right that “These Fruits, These Vegetables” chugs along with nearly chillwave-ish (e.g. Bibio) funk. If the idea remains to be unclear, this kid is shifty, elusive, and his work is full of spontaneous movement. That said, the closing “Illusion of Seclusion” seeks not to knock you back into your seat with too many unpredicted thrills, but imparts a sort of retrospective feeling that bookends the record’s eased introduction. The last quarter of the song flaunts a final spurt of unfettered virtuosity that potentially foreshadows a prolific, busy future Photay—and I hope that’s the case.
Stream: Photay – No Sass (Astro Nautico)
The 12″ version of the album is currently sold out, but the digital version comes packaged with three bonus tracks, “Dusk”, “Chrome”, and “Astral Projection”. Photay was released on September 9 on Astro Nautico.
Words by Michael Scala, 09 October 2014. Leave a comment