Interview: Bruce

Larry McCarthy, also known as Bruce, has not so much been making waves as crashing into the UK dance music scene and beyond since his first releases in 2014. While his debut release was Just Getting Started / Tilikum on Dnuos Ytivil, it was Not Stochastic on Hessle Audio that really caught people’s attention. Led by a title track that took a split-second Delia Derbyshire sample and turned it into a nightmarish techno melter, the release was underpinned by a refusal to do what might be expected. That’s been Bruce’s calling card ever since, playing with established norms and building tracks as much around empty space as the beats between, making particular use of a deadly silence that comes at you unawares. Following three stellar releases last year on Idle Hands, Hessle Audio again and Timedance, run by his friend and housemate Batu, his latest came out recently on Untold’s Hemlock Recordings. Before You Sleep moves between the anguished low-slung techno of its title track, strange percussion that darts and dances of its own accord on “In Line” and finally, utter chaos in the form of Sweat, used to great effect in the masterful Fabric mix from Call Super. He’s also a warm and affable character, whose infectious laughter and self-deprecation made for a conversation that went on for longer than many standard interviews. We spoke to Bruce last month and covered everything such as his musical origins (not as cool as you might expect), working as a cleaner at his old school and the specific inspirations behind some of his most personal tracks.

“Tilikum” was named after the whale from Blackfish, and the whale died recently. “Yeah, sad times.” Someone posted the video in a music group on Facebook and wrote “RIP”. “And everyone thought I was dead.” What did you make of that? “My relationship with those groups is a delicate one. It’s quite a precious community, it very much perpetuates the idea that artists are the ones out there, and we’re here, so you’re kind of breaking a barrier getting involved. Every now and then people will post these videos and friends of mine will then link me to the video, “Bruce ID”. So I feel like I have to do something. I do like to help, I think it’s good, but just to throw the track in there is giving too much away, so I usually tag a Discogs artist page or a label page – It’s nice to break that wall, break that barrier between the artist side and fan side, because I still don’t feel like it was a long time ago since I was very much still a fan. That RIP one was particularly interesting, I didn’t know where to step in, like “don’t worry I’m not dead”. Ego is a tricky thing, it’s something I struggle with a lot. I try to come across as earnest, but generally it comes across as having a massive head!”

Since you mention being a fan and being an artist, how did it feel knowing there were people out you’d never met who would care if you were dead? “[Laughs] I dunno why I laugh at that! Aw mate, I dunno. Probably that reaction. Ah that’s mad! I’m not really ready for that sort of shit. I put far too much time and thought into what people think of me while I’m alive, that’s too much pressure as it is.”

Someone asked me today about the music that you play in sets; you might have more avant-garde stuff rather than just banging it out. He said he saw you play an event during fresher’s week in Leeds last year for three hours but you played an hour of ambient stuff and still kept a crowd. How do you make that work? “That was a particularly weird gig. The place is tiny, it’s a tiny little bar, it’s an audiophile bar. It’s got these amazing decks, an amazing rotary mixer, everything is room volume, sound wise, and the space is so tiny, the bar is next to the decks. The capacity is probably about 60 people, maybe less, 40? I was playing with Joy Orbison the night afterwards so I assigned a certain amount of records specifically for that sort of vibe, kind of lounge, chilling out, drinking your craft ale, do your thing. Out of nowhere the place packs out, and because it’s so intimate I could feel all 40 faces staring at me. But no, I’ve got to last this out, cause people coming now might come tomorrow! When it came to the ambient stuff it was a case of setting a tone. If people are hanging about and you feel you’ve got their presence, and you feel they’re going to stay, the longer you play ambient stuff – with the intention of playing heavier stuff – the better, in my opinion, or just through my experience so far. I feel it’s just the best thing for tension. And if you’re selecting stuff and you’re as particular about the stuff you pick up that is ambient, as you are about your 4/4 shit, it generally brings quite a tension over the crowd. It just means that when that kick drum drops, not only have they calmed down with you, you’ve brought them down to a level – whereas when you start throwing club music at everyone, it takes a while to get spiritually connected to it, in my opinion, I feel like ambient music does a lot to get everyone on a similar level, cause people listen to it more, rather than dance to it, chat to it. It’s weird how my relationship with “da cloob” kind of dictates everything at the end of the day, so it’ll always be an accessory to that part of my performance.”

You’re known as being a DJ/producer, but at the same time, nearly every record you put out has something either non 4/4, or ambient, or… different. So looking at you as a DJ it would be inappropriate to see you as someone who bangs it out, you’re not that way as an artist either. “Something I’ve only realised recently is that I make club tracks good enough so you can listen to. I don’t know if that’s defined by the current age we’re in or something, I just feel it’s boring making 16-bar 4/4 long intros, which it fucking is, it’s really boring. It’s more just down to the context, if you can engage people to have to listen to the music they somehow manage to connect to it more, and it means you end up writing something that’s probably more propulsive and more interesting. So even when it goes down to what I was saying before, about how if things are ambient, and a bit weirder people just *listen* a bit more, and as an artist you’re self-conscious of that, they’re going to be listening to these parts, so you make sure to try to make it a bit more propulsive in particular areas. It’s that kind of ambient/dance floor relationship again

“I’m Alright Mate” – when I first heard that I thought, this is kind of a banger, but it’s not really a Bruce track! Because all your tracks are quite weird. The first time it really made sense to me – you can tell I’m a parent, I don’t go out much – I was getting ready to go to Unsound, and I was cleaning the house and packing my bag, and I was really tense and full of coffee, and I put it on, and all of a sudden that frantic tension really made it make sense. “I appreciate that!” You must have heard it so many times over the years, but what inspires these tracks? “Moments like that! Specific emotional displacements from the way you want to feel, so think about that in the club sense, you’re in the club and you’re thinking of how you want the vibe to be good, however that might be, whatever your vibe is, if you’re thinking of a techno club you want it to be dark, vibing out, deep rollers, having a good time, having a few drinks, and that sort of vibe, and you get these moments in the club – what I try to do with my tracks is I try to yank you away from that and make you self-conscious and pull you away from that pleasure. It’s the same in any situation, where you’re getting really pissed off at someone and it’s like you’re losing control, and you’re slipping away, but the music is that moment when you’re losing control and before you really fuck up you’re like: “Hold up, wait a sec, I’ve got to stop being such a bellend, I’ve got to take a deep breath.” “The Trouble With Wilderness” is very much like moments where you’re about to burst into tears and then you kind of crumble and you go, “I am going to cry, I think it’s the right thing to do”. “Steals” is an odd one. “Steals” didn’t have a sole inspiration, but they tend to be quite specifically linked to where I am mentally at that time.”

Since you talk about being yanked away or having moments of realisation, is that where the silence comes in? “Yeah. That’s the last thing people expect to hear. Once again, if you’re in the vibe, in any sort of live environment, people assume something’s gone wrong. Just to check themselves. In a megalomaniac sort of way, I’ll admit, to dictate that power, not only the listener but also the DJ, because it’s fucking annoying. I’ve done it myself with my own tracks! Like, I’ve forgotten how it goes, like fuck’s sake, what the – idiot, stupid! But then, the idea that I get a piece of my own medicine proves that I’m doing it right, I guess.”

You mentioned “The Trouble With Wilderness” – is it inspired by the essay that I found online with the same name? “The big essay thing is a paper that my girlfriend at the time was reading. At the time, second year uni, I was starting to realise it could be possible, this whole music thing, I was getting more and more involved with it. We’d been going out since the start of university, a year and a half, nearly two years, and it was getting to the point where she was struggling to find a place and get her teeth into what she was studying geography she didn’t quite have the focus that I did, and there was this one piece that she found, The Trouble With Wilderness, which really resonated with her and made everything come to a lot of sense, a moment of clarity. She tried to get me to read it for ages, for me it was like, cool, this is your thing; this is what you’re doing and from that moment on, it was kind of a milestone. Unrelated to the emotional product of that, which was, generally, pleasure, the fact that she was getting so much out of it, things from that point on took a weird turn, we started moving apart.

“The essay itself is about how people don’t recognise the power and the substance of the wilderness they live in, in the current day, which for the majority of the people in the western world is a modernised city of some sort. There’s a fetishisation to this day of people wanting to go to the wilderness and immerse themselves in this wilderness, which is bollocks cause the frontier has been sorted out hundreds of years ago. We relate to this romantic idea of going back to the land on which we’re born, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s like camping, but going to these National Trust areas and feeling “oh we’re one with nature, we should start building campfires” it’s one thing doing it as a little hobby and it’s another putting down the place we live in, the city “it’s crap, it’s not how humans are supposed to be”  when in reality that is the beauty of our wilderness, our wilderness is where we live and we should start appreciating it. That’s the source of many of our problems.”

I take it you’re on good terms with her still? How does she feel about the release being about her? “She’s good, we’re on great terms. She’s made a real good point of making sure we stay friends. She’s completely cut dance music out of her life, which does upset me a bit, she tells me it’s because it’s very much intrinsically linked to us and the way we were, which is fair enough. But the painting I did for the cover, I gave it to her parents. With all due respect I didn’t want it sitting around. And I knew her mum would love it.”

You studied music right? Are you familiar with West Side Story“Mate, familiar enough to know I don’t like it? I’m not a big musical fan.” The reason I ask is there’s a section of “Post Rave Wrestle” that sounds – to me – just like a bit in west side story [plays excerpt]. I always think of that at this point and I was wondering if there was any relation there or if it was just coincidence. “Oh god I wish there was! It’s usually the sort of weird places I get inspiration from, for rhythms and stuff, but sadly not man. I just don’t agree with musicals very much, I tend to steer clear, but that is a great observation. I’m trying to work out where that did come from. That track was a pain in the arse. The final version was the sixth version. It changed up to about 15bpm up and down before I got there in the end. I’d written “I’m Alright Mate” and it was hard to write something to match it. Omar, we’ve got a good relationship when it comes to that sort of thing, like I said we live next door to each other, so when things get professional it’s interesting how that’s affected by the fact that we’ll walk in on each other like: “what the fuck you want mate” “help with your fucking dishes, that’s what I want!”

What’s the dynamic like? Do you ever work together? “It’s weird. it’s probably something that I’m so involved with that I wouldn’t be able to comment on it, Omar would be much better, he’s very good at observing things from an artistic angle, I’m more intuitive in perception, so I could tell you that, just from his reaction, it doesn’t seem I’m very easy to live with.

We asked Batu what he had to say on the pair’s relationship:

I think me and Larry know each other very well now, both musically and personally. We’ve both gone through our own journeys with both those things since we’ve known each other and learnt a lot from each other. He used to write music that was pretty strange and unfocused, while I was way more down-the-line dance floor (a dubstep/grime etc background)… He would always say my tracks weren’t interesting or creative enough, I would always say he needed to rein his ideas in to make them effective. Over the years I think we’ve both achieved more of a middle ground, and it’s a similar story with DJing. But we both still love to debate things and get each other’s opinions. There’s a really deep trust and honesty. As a housemate, Larry offers a lot of energy and enthusiasm, whereas I’m probably more reserved… We balance each other out, I’d say.

“Sam [Ploy] has moved out, sadly. He’s moved to London, well, not sadly, he’s just moving on. Sam is very much doing his own thing, and Omar and I, our relationship mostly involves me going into his room: “Oh what’s that song?” “It’s a dub someone’s sent me. Larry what do you want?” “Well, what’s his email I might hit him up…” Musically he’s always been very focused on what’s trying to do. It’s the reason why Timedance makes such good sense. It’s the reason why it’s done so well, if I say so myself. But I’m not involved with that – he makes it very clear that I’m not involved with the label, he’s wise to do that because I will take over if he’s not careful. Because he’s been so focused on what he does, he focused very much on quite an academic level of things, he’s very aware of his musical heritage. Of course he does a very good job of pushing forward, whereas I never had that, I never had dubstep. My understanding of electronic music was really bad dubstep and stuff like that. For me, I write from my emotions, I write from my situation, I write from hearing weird shit like West Side Story. I don’t deal very well with collaborations, I’m scared. I’m a massive megalomaniac. I feel my music is very anal and particular about certain things, and to try and translate that into a collaboration just doesn’t work. So far! And I think Omar [McCutcheon, Batu] has copped that a mile off, so we’ve never even discussed that. But just the fact that I’ll hear stuff coming through the door, through the wall, and his advancements and my advancement – we won’t say anything, cause there is always that underlying competitiveness, but we will be affected by each other, and I’m massively grateful that he’s stuck around as long as he has, to be honest. As a housemate. He hasn’t gone “fuck this I’m not dealing with you walking around half-naked all the time, I’m going”.” Sam did tell me that you walk around with your top off all the time, is that true? “I just don’t feel cold, man, I don’t feel the need to wear clothes.”

On the subject of Timedance, one of the things you said in the Quietus interview was that when you were trying to make music you didn’t think about anything other than getting releases on the labels you dreamed of being on – I suppose looking back you’ve got Hessle, Idle Hands and now Hemlock – now you’re on something that is itself becoming something for younger people to aspire towards, how does it feel being part of something new like that as well? “Fucking sick. Really great, it’s exactly what I’ve been wanting to do since day one. it’s weird, in other aspects of my artistry I usually feel quite self-conscious, and a lot of pressure, my only reasoning for that is because I spent so many hours of agonising self-doubt, self-examination, to make sure that my music was getting to the point at which I expected it to be, so now it’s like, what’s next? So it’s even more exciting now, I’m still reacting to how these artists work. I’ll always regard Ben [UFO], Dave [Kennedy, Pearson Sound], Kev [McAuley, Pangaea], Jack [Dunning, Untold], all that lot, Pev, I’ll still regard them as fucking pies in the sky big boys, they are always going to be the sickest, but it’s nice how that’s levelled out cause basically we are business affiliates slash mates, so there’s this nice relationship where I’m going back on interviews they’ve done to get inspiration. The way they said things weirdly always adds a lot of context and definition to what I’m trying to achieve at the time.” Do you think you’ll ever have a label yourself? “Probably not, I’m pretty scatty.” The combination of scattiness and megalomania is not a good one. “[Laughs] Yeah right! We’ll see. If I calm down eventually, maybe. I’m far too involved in what I’m trying to do, it’s massively early days. and I think unlike Omar I don’t have this thing, this nose inside me, it’s very much spontaneous for me, whereas for him it’s channelled, this thing he’s doing. Just in terms of drawing a parallel to why he would and why I wouldn’t.”

Sorry to spend so much time talking about old music, given the fact that you have a new release! “Not at all, it’s super relevant; I never get tired of people talking about it.” I was going to talk about the first Hessle release – only in the past week or two I discovered where the samples have come from. Someone sent me this Delia Derbyshire thing, I heard it and I was like *gasp* and of course I type in “Delia Derbyshire Bruce” and it’s on Whosampled. On the other side, today I found out “The Trip” samples the same thing as “Hotline Bling”. A year before it came out. “Drake fucking owes me, I got there first. I’m kidding, obviously! Just the drums.” Have you continued to use samples? From what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like you do, but given the fact that I didn’t even realise these were samples, who knows? “I’m 100pc samples, man. 100pc, 99pc. No reason to that other than that it’s the way I’ve produced, it’s shaped that process, and I’m very much of the attitude that if ain’t broke don’t fix it, I’ve just carried on doing that. If ever someone comes to me for advice to start tunes, then that’s the first thing I say. Sample stuff. Sample stuff that you love, that really resonates with you, because it means not only you’ll enjoy what you’re working with, but a bit of yourself will come out in the sound. There’s a great Jim Jarmusch quote steal everything and anything you love, there’s nothing original, just make the most of what you’ve got. So I think that’s very much part of it. The sound will have far more character, it makes things more interesting.” Does that tie in with what you said about how everything is inspired by emotional moments? “Entirely. Of course, because if you have an emotional connection to a track, you’re going to try and channel that in an interesting way. Saying that, I think as my production’s gone on I’ve manipulated the sounds more, so “Steals”, like I said, is a weird one. I couldn’t tell you where the samples came from. It was a track that I didn’t expect to come out from the process. It’s interesting that I don’t have a story, therefore I disregard it, although probably a lot of people know me for that track so I guess it’s interesting how that works. But then of course the “Trouble With Wilderness” stuff, that’s all heavily sampled from stuff I’d been listening to at the time. It’s got some Don Blackman in there, Bon Iver, stuff like that, proper souly moody stuff. So it all ties in together, it’s very much a living, breathing mini-me.”

Going back to the ambient artist/DJ thing – your tracks, even the 4/4 ones, they’re always underpinned by something weird, essentially. Do you deliberately pull away from going full banger, is that just how you keep your identity, or is it even that premeditated? “It’s definitely premeditated; it’s just a sense that I want it to be different, usually. As egotistical as that might seem. It’s me thinking “nah, this has got to be better, it’s got to be different”. I just did a Watch The Hype article, and there’s a selection of tracks that inspire this idea of feeling something, feeling a kind of fear and self-consciousness in music, and that’s something I’ve always connected with. It’s all very well feeling happy or sad, but it’s those moments that make you really go [indescribable sound, a sort of gasp for air, related to a feeling akin to shock]. And I think that’s what I’ve tried to create. So that ties in very much to trying to be different. I guess that’s usually it, trying to push yourself further. But something Ben pointed out before I even realised it, in his RBMA conversation, he put it perfectly, and far more concisely than I ever could, he just said “Not Stochastic” plays with typical tropes that people know and love, and they’re used to, and does something more with them. I think I couldn’t have put it better really with how I’ve always looked at my music. I bloody love big white noise drops, everyone loves them, and if anyone who tells you they don’t I defy them that they’re definitely lying. I guess as people progress their musical identity, they try and shy themselves away because they think they’re clichéd, so the idea of being able to showcase that in something that they feel excited about that feels new, because obviously we are working very much in an underground scene, I feel I am at the moment anyway. It’s about trying to please everyone. Please the chin-strokers at the back, and also the kids who’ve just discovered MDMA. All those voices need to be heard.”

What was your introduction to dance music? You had some comment about pop-punk bands being on your wall. How did you go from that to techno? “Bad dubstep! I lived out in the sticks, so everything got to me well late. Much later than everyone else. Torrenting had just become a thing, and everyone torrented Raspa and Cusko’s Labricfive. It set my sixth form form room alight, every fucking lunch time. We were all kind of dipping our toes in Chemical Brothers, poppy stuff like that; it was that album that really changed things. It was the first time we’d experienced the idea of a scene, because it was a load of people getting into something at the same time. All these dudes going “aw this is sick mate, can I borrow your Beats again?” We had this big pair of headphones that would go around, like “aw that drop’s sick”. And it was completely disconnected from where that music’s meant to be. Very much, not in the depths and DMZ. I’ve never been to DMZ! My experience with the actual music is so disconnected, so for me it was very much, once again, trying to recreate that sensation, a sensation of a big bass drop, and screw bass faces, but even back then, I started being a promoter for these awful under-18 nights. They were called Under The Radar and Let’s Go Crazy, basically they’d hire huge clubs like Matter or Fire in London, and they’d get these ridiculous line-ups like Benga, Skream, Caspa and Rusko, Chase & Status.” But no booze. “No booze!

“Tickets were like 30 quid, they were my first experience of dance music going out, I lost my mind to that stuff. Completely sober. People around me chewing their faces off, I had no idea what was going on. “Oh you’re being a bit weird!” There’s this funny anecdote about Lucozade tablets, I always used to take Lucozade tablets to stay up, cause I had to stay up till the first train home, and I’d be stopped by the bouncer, and he’d look at them and look at me, like “you fucking mug”. But even then I was trying to disconnect myself from that initial feeling, as soon as I realised there was a formula to dubstep, a very much contained thing, I got quite bored of it, whilst the whole process of the whole excitement it renders very much remained. So I was churning out horrible, hard techno stuff and then calling it “House Number 5”, I had no fucking clue. The education slowly started filling in the gaps, it was then when I got 116 & Rising things started falling into place, things started to make more sense. Then that combined with, I made a stupid decision when I left school, cause I didn’t really know what I wanted to do just yet, I ended up doing a kind of gap year where I just didn’t do anything. I made the stupid decision to start cleaning at the school I’d just left, and I didn’t have a great relationship with the school, so that involved a lot of time with me and my headphones vacuuming the place, like fucking RAHH, listening to “Stifle”, which I think naturally, organically developed into my sound. An angsty kind of Pearson Sound.” Pearson Sound lite. “[Laughs] It wasn’t very good. He’s still a magician.” Has he given you any tips? “Yeah man! Dave’s amazing. Not creatively, but as someone who’s there for giving tips, he’s fucking great. He’s got a lot of time for recognising that he’s probably made some mistakes, and he strikes me as the sort of person who doesn’t like making mistakes. No one likes making mistakes but he particularly likes being efficient with things. So I feel he gets a lot of pleasure from guiding all of us younger guys, like “Have you sorted out your PRS” and stuff like that, and he gets on us about it. He’s really good. He’s very much a closed book creatively, and I like it that way. There is this sort of mystique around those guys.”

bruce truants shed

Your press shots tend to fly in the face of standard techno DJ press shots. I presume that’s a conscious decision. “Yeah! It’s very much a conscious decision. It’s the first thing people are going to see and it’s the first impression you’re going to get of an artist. The world we live in now is so dictated by what we see online. People see more than they hear, even in the music industry. So I guess it’s my way of marketing myself. Just trying to stand out.” Noodles“That’s a great story. My friend Leon runs a radio show called Noods, which is not the term for well I think the ambiguity is intended, but basically the guys love noodles, and so they did a series of photos of all the artists who did the show holding noodles. And then it just happened, that photo, I don’t know how, managed to lose itself in the internet. It was never intended to be a press photo. I guess I’m happy with that one so it’s fine! They were disgusting, I didn’t even eat them.”

The video is pretty wild. What does it mean? “I think Jack was quite intent on keeping the artist direction separate but I think he did pass on the meaning behind the song. So there was a connection made. The song “Before You Sleep” is about moments of weird suspended pathos and self-doubt, which you feel yourself feeding in the later hours of the night, especially in regards to being sucked into the internet, and finding yourself trying to search for something, that weird kind of wormhole you get in, just kind of flicking through stuff and just avoiding sleep. It was basically a song depicting that weird state before you give in and fall asleep. So the picture of the person is your self and it’s your self over time becoming clearer, becoming less blurred, and in that process over time you literally see a reflection of yourself in the screen and realise this is you, this is how you stand, now you can go to sleep, although the whole process hasn’t really achieved anything whatsoever. I’m really happy with the video, I think it worked really really well. It’s about those weird funks you get in solitude. There’s a great Hemingway quote my girlfriend picked up, you can be hard as boiled eggs in the day time, but once night falls it’s a different matter entirely, which says a lot I think. It’s weird how the night affects us; we get more emotional, we get a bit, for need of a better word, a bit pathetic. Completely unproductively going “uhh” [wilts].”

Bruce – Before You Sleep is out now on Hemlock. Buy here.

Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ...

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