Since its inception back in 2004, Rob ‘Pinch’ Ellis’s Tectonic imprint has been one of the most vital, bold and consistent dubstep labels in the world.
As Pinch explains in this interview, there is a certain ambience or timbre which all Tectonic releases share, even though its artists are drawn from different nations, micro-scenes and backgrounds. Ellis proudly represents his hometown of Bristol, putting out records by the likes of RSD and Peverelist, but he’s not afraid to look outside the city’s limits: Skream has enjoyed a long-running relationship with the label, and Benga has recently birthed his first ever Tectonic production; 2562, a core Tectonic artist, hails from Amsterdam and Moving Ninja started out life in Australia.
You’ll remember also that Tectonic was one of the first stables to be lumped in with the then nascent “dubstep-techno” crossover, and while it’s undeniable that the textures and energies of techno are a key influence on Pinch and many of his associates, the music released on the label has always been, and remains to this day, dubstep. Dubstep in all kinds of hues and variations, certainly, but dubstep all the same. Its owner is too modest to ever say it, but the fact is that Tectonic is bigger than the current wishy-washy dubstep-techno vogue; it pre-dates it and will almost certainly outlive it.
Most impressively for a young, underground-focussed label sticking closely to its guns, Tectonic already has three album entries in its catalogue: 2562’s swinging, almost disconcertingly crisp Aerial, Cyrus’s heavy, turbulent debut and of course Pinch’s 2007 masterpiece, Underwater Dancehall – along with Burial, the best dubstep album yet made. Two years ago the first Tectonic label compilation, Tectonic Plates Vol.1, was brought into the world – the first disc comprised of recent and forthcoming productions on the label, the second given over to a deep, ultra-progessive DJ-mix from Pinch. This month sees the release of its eagerly-anticipated follow-up, Tectonic Plates Vol.2, which follows a similar format, showcasing thumping and thought-provoking tracks from Pinch, Peverelist & Shed, Moving Ninja, 2562, Skream, Benga, Joker and more, including L.A.’s own Flying Lotus. FACT called up Pinch to talk about the mix, the running of the label, and the scene and context in which it’s operated. He also offers some enticing clues as to what his forthcoming second album might sound like…
OK, so I’ve heard the first disc of Tectonic Plates Vol.2, but not the second – a DJ mix by yourself. Can you tell me a bit about what to expect from that?
“Yeah, some of the tracks on there [the disc 2 mix] feature on disc 1, current and forthcoming singles, but the bulk of it is really up-front stuff, stuff on dubplate, bits and pieces from across the board; partly representing the Tectonic perspective or aesthetic and also partly reflecting the kind of sets I’m playing at the moment. There are dubs in there from people like Peverelist and 2562 to Skream and Loefah and Digital Mystikz and other people as well, like Distance…I would consider it quite an inclusive mix.”
Am I right in thinking that all of the tracks on disc 1 will be finding their way onto 12″ in the near future?
“The plan was that the 12”s would come out in a much quicker succession than they have done. I imagined one would come out every 2-3 weeks and it’s been more like 3-4 weeks. We’ve tried to release them in the run-up to the CD release; the idea is to give the vinyls life as singles in their own right, and also to keep the CD project a bit fresh. The mix isn’t actually going to be sent out to anyone before it comes out, just because we wanted to keep something held back. I wanted to keep the mix as rich and as fresh and upfront as possible, and if I finished it too early it wouldn’t be…
“I only actually completely finished and mastered it a week and a half ago. So it’s in the process of being manufactured now and should hopefully come back in the next couple of weeks. So really, I literally couldn’t have left it any longer I don’t think. Because I took a lot of time putting it together as well, it’s not like I threw it together at the last minute. Weeks and months of preparation to be honest with you, working out which bits are going to work and flow together. It’s not a straightforward vinyl DJ mix: I am very much for and pro-vinyl, pro-dubplate. But this is more than just a DJ mix – there’s a lot of re-edits, tracks are kind of cut up and re-sequenced – so there’s a lot more going on than me just playing the tune then the next tune then the next tune…
“Each track’s been individually mastered and a lot of attention to detail has gone into the mastering process to make sure the whole thing sounds as good as it possibly can.”
Where do you get Tectonic records mastered?
“When it comes to mastering there’s a lot of different places that specialise at a lot of different things. For Tectonic, the way we do it is that every different format is mastered at a different place – so we use Transition to master the vinyl, because they get the best soundsystem sound, the best bass and the best overall mastering for soundsystem use. We have all our CD products mastered at Optimum in Bristol – I think Shawn Joseph there is an exceptional engineer for this format; he’s done a great job with my own album and the 2562 album. And for digital we use additional mastering houses that specialise in digital mastering, because again it’s a different kind of art. The kind of frequency range that you want to put out for people who want to listen to mp3s on ipods is obviously different from soundsystems…”
Is it more expensive to master audio for each format separately?
“Yeah, of course.” [laughs]
Of all the artists assembled for Tectonic Plates Vol.2, Flying Lotus is perhaps the least expected. Was his track something he’d already made then offered to you, or did he produce it with Tectonic in mind?
“I’m not sure what his original intentions with it were. He just sent me a bunch of stuff and that was the one I picked out. But I think he kind of finished it off for the project – what I heard originally was the demo version, though I didn’t know that at the time. Without wanting to sound like some kind of tempo nazi or whatever [laughs] – I wanted it to be within mixable range and he’s gone for 142bpm which is within the normal mixable range for dubstep. To be honest with you, Flying Lotus isn’t normally a Tectonic artist, neither is Benga, and neither is Joker really – but the tracks that I’ve pulled for this compilation I think have got a very Tectonic feel about them. There is definitely a family element to the label, and you’ll always see regular faces on the label like myself and 2562 and people who’ve sort of come through being part of the Tectonic family, but also I like to think that it’s a place where people who don’t always concentrate on a sound that’s particularly Tectonic have the chance to put something out which does fit in with that sound. So for example the Benga track is quite a techno-y one and Flying Lotus’s one isn’t really a dancefloor tune but it’s got that deep, cinematic sound which I think is quite Tectonic.”
One thing that’s always struck me about Tectonic is how well-organized it is; everything is done efficiently and to a very high standard. So I wondered, is this the first label you’ve ever been involved in running?
“No, it’s not the first label I was involved with. The first would have been Subtext which was 2004, put out a couple of Vex’d tracks. That was really where I first was involved with every stage of vinyl manufacture through to the distribution and things; once you’ve done it once and you’ve made some kind of successful route into it, then following on from that isn’t anywhere near as big a step. We’ve been quite lucky in having a lot of support from the distribution company that we use, Baked Goods: they helped put us in touch with designers who can organise the CD layouts and so on so that we just need to feed them the photographic images and they can arrange it and so on…”
Tell me about Multiverse [a promotion/publishing umbrella which takes in Tectonic, Caravan, Subtext, Earwax, Kapsize and Vertical Sound]. Are you directly involved in the running of all the labels?
“Well, there is a degree of separation. I do tend to look after all the labels, well, the publishing side of things anyway. We’ve got Caravan, a techno imprint, which is really the brainchild of October; it uses the same distribution company as Tectonic, so I’ve helped with some of that, but musically I don’t really have anything to do with it – unlike Tectonic and Earwax, which are my things. We’ve also got Kapsize, which is Joker’s label – I’m a little bit involved with it musically, but not to the same extent as Tectonic and Earwax. There are four of us in the company that work together – I concentrate on the label and publishing aspect, Jabba and Gibbs are involved in a lot of the digital stuff. I don’t know if you’re aware of the ins and outs of digital preparation: you have to create spreadsheets which contain meta-data, ISRC codes, individual track codes and information that they need to have supplied. So I’ll go generate the ISRC [International Standard Recording Code] codes through a program, and they’ll oversee the digital delivery and make the spreadsheets and stuff. So it’s really not like I literally do everything!”
Preparing an album release is, I presume, a great deal more work than a 12″…
“We’ve actually done four CDs to date on Tectonic. The first Tectonic CD project was Tectonic Plates Vol.1, then the second was actually the Cyrus album. So I’ve had a chance to find my feet a little, yeah. But to be honest with you, putting out an album is a hell of a lot more difficult than putting out singles. Or at least I’ve put a hell of a lot more work into them. Tectonic Plates Vol.2 has been in the process of being sorted out and organised for over nine months now, and it’s still not quite signed off, I haven’t got the final thing in my hands! [laughs] So it does involve an awful lot of work. For me getting an album’s never just about having good tracks, it’s about having good tracks that work well relative to each other; getting the right tracks in the right order and working with the artist, or in this case artists – and of course, the more of them that there are, the harder it is to coordinate things – the whole process is quite long-winded. Often one of the main concerns is getting the stuff together so there’s enough lead-in time for the press to run their things, then you have to leave enough room for manufacturing; the timing for CD and vinyl manufacture is different, so you have to have things prepared a little bit earlier for the vinyl stuff, time for the test-presses to come back and so forth; there’s a lot more room for stuff to go wrong.”
Tell us a bit about Earwax, the label you run in parallel to Tectonic…
“The way I see it is that there is a sonic difference in what’s going on between Tectonic and Earwax. I mean, even though it represents a lot of different things that I’m into, Tectonic has actually got quite a specific sound. I don’t want it to be perceived as something that just fits into the world of techno; it’s not really what it’s about – but it is about deep and heavy music; music that has a certain kind of ambience, a certain timbre. Earwax has perhaps a more relaxed attitude: there is more of an overtly dub component and generally it’s something that’s it a bit more dancehall-oriented. Tectonic gets more of my time and attention; it just kind of happened like that naturally. It was the first of the two labels, and was more established by the time Earwax started, and it’s also the label that I’ve been seriously involved with artists and artists albums and that sort of thing. I don’t see it as a case of one being like a little brother label to the other or anything like that; Earwax is just a bit more of a light-hearted sound, a bit more dancefloor.”
You put out a couple of Rob Smith’s productions on Earwax, and later on Tectonic. Can you tell me how you first hooked up with him?
“Yeah, it was a short while after Tom [Peverelist] put out his [RSD’s] first Punch Drunk release, and yeah, that was a real honour: to be working with Rob Smith. I first got chatting to Rob and linked up fairly coincidentally, through a mutual contact – Andy Scholes, who runs 2Kings Records. I hadn’t actually seen Andy for a couple of years and he said yeah, he’s getting ready to roll out with [Henry & Louis’] ‘Answer’ single, with Rob Smith remixing. I’d actually off my own back I’d managed to get a copy of the Japanese dubs version of his album, which had a long (30s) clean vocal section of the tune in ‘Answer’, and I kind of reworked it and made my own tune. When I told him this, he was keen to hear it, and I played it to him and he really liked it and it ended up going out on the single as an official remix. So when he came round to get some tunes he dropped off a few bits and I felt that the two tracks which ended up on Earwax made for a solid single, you know?”
What about Joker?
“Well, that goes back a little further, actually. Joker has sort of been in the periphery of my vision since beginning days, when I was doing Context nights in 2004, about the time we started up the Subtext label. He used to come down through a mutual friend of ours, Henry – he was cutting plates at Dub Studio, which was his company. He introduced me to Joker because he saw a common thread between what Joker was doing and what I was interested in, and you know, it took a really long time to gel with Joker, he was pretty shy back then…”
He must have been really young…
“He was like 14 or 15, yeah [laughs]…And I’d ask him how old he was and he’d say 18 because he knew he was coming to my clubnight. And then I went to his actual 18th birthday a couple of years ago! He didn’t have to lie after that…[laughs]
“I’ve got to know him a lot better in recent years. He used to come down and after a while he gave me some music, and I was really impressed; I cut a couple of his tunes pretty early on, one called ‘Solitaire’, and you know, I just saw a really gifted, talented kid with absolutely no direction or backing at the time. And I tried to help him a bit where I could, and he’s found his feet pretty quickly and things have just kind of exploded for him, particularly this year – he’s gone from being someone who smashed up a couple of raves to someone really known and rated. He’s really put his heart into it and all the hard work’s paying off. I’ve got nothing but praise and admiration for him.
“The track that he’s done for the Tectonic Plates 2 compilation – I’ve always meant to put out a Joker release (the first one was on Earwax, mainly because I didn’t think it fitted sonically with the Tectnic thing), but the one that he’s done on the compilation really is Joker’s sound clashing with Tectonic’s sound – it’s not a 100% “this is what Tectonic’s always been” but it’s got a good edge to it for that. And I think it’s one of the only tracks Joker has done to date which fits the aesthetic of the label.”
Do you still do your Subloaded nights?
“Yeah, but it’s becoming a little bit more random and sporadic, I must admit. I never used to plan the next one and til the last one was out of the way, kind of an ongoing process. The last one we did was in December at the Black Swan, and since then we’ve done a Subloaded room/evening at Bloc, I’ve got the launch party for Tectonic Plates 2 coming up in London, and provided that’s not a complete disaster I’m going to think about doing a regular Subloaded thing in London.
“The Tectonic line-up is in Room 1 which has a wicked soundsystem, full weight – I went down to check it out before agreeing to do the night, because that’s an important thing to me. It’s a really cool association we’ve got going on for the launch night – the Numbers guys are taking care of Room 2 with artists like Floatingpoints, Alexander Nut from Rinse who I’m a big fan of…
“Room 1 is myself, 2562, Joker, Distance, Jamie Vex’d, Cyrus, Hijack, Moving Ninja and Dusk & Blackdown…So it’s predominantly Tectonic label artists. It used to be the case that you could ring anyone up a couple of weeks before a dance and they’d be free to play, but those days are long gone [laughs] – I really wanted to have Martyn, Skream and Benga down, it would have been amazing to have Flying Lotus in the line-up as well, but it just wasn’t possible on this occasion. So I’ve just gone all-out and just rammed it with Tectonic and related names. It’s going to be pretty quickfire, you know, 45-minute sets!”
How has Bristol’s attitude to dubstep changed over the years since Tectonic started? There was some hostility to begin with…
“In the beginning people in Bristol were very suspicious about dubstep. Nobody wanted to be seen liking it, as if they might be betraying whatever scene they’d put their loyalties into. Now I guess the main difference is that dubstep now is one of those genres that people in Bristol put a degree of loyalty into. Really, I’ve watched so many stony-faced people tell me that they hate dubstep – you know, almost as if they’re angry with me for being involved in bringing it to a club. They feel it’s cool to like it but they don’t like it, so they feel annoyed. A couple of years have passed and I’ve seen the exact same people – I won’t name any names – putting on nights and booking dubstep people and you know, they’ve gone from stony-faced absolutely “no thank you” to regularly booking dubstep people [laughs].
“I don’t mean to come across all kind of smug, but the reality is there’s an awful lot of dubstep and dubstep-related nights in Bristol now, even quite relatively commercial clubs are very quick to fling “dubstep” on the flyer if it’s an eclectic, multi-genre night, I mean, it’s almost as if it can’t be left off a multi-genre night. It’s great though. It was really rammed home for me at the last Subloaded, because I don’t usually pay close attention to what’s going on in the week here, very often I’m just glad to have a couple of evenings on the sofa to be honest. The week before Subloaded, I think Monday night Distance was playing in town, Tuesday N-Type was playing, I forget who was playing on Wednesday, Thursday Tes La Rok, Friday was Subloaded and Saturday Benga and Skream were playing. You know, I’ve been flying all over and playing a lot of cities around the world, and Bristol really is quite a small city when you think about it, but there’s not many places in the world where you’d get that kind of week!
“You might get something like that in London, sure, but then there’s 7 million people living in London! There’s load more venues and loads more people. But the fact is, Bristol has taken to it [dubstep]. I kind of knew it would from the first time I heard it, but…it recently really seems to have settled into it.”
So there’s no negative reaction any more?
“I think to be honest with you, most of the reaction was…actually, I don’t think I should get into this [laughs]. I mean, there were a few people who were kind of curious, and there are a lot of people I know who came down early on and who still rep, genuinely…I think it’s the same with everything, anything new of any kind, there’s that process of it being accepted. I think often the more it gets accepted, quite often a lot of the energy starts disappearing from it…”
Are you consciously working towards getting a second album done and dusted?
“Yes and no. I do imagine that I will get round to doing another album at some point. I’ve spent the last two years using a pretty simple set-up at home, a PC and a copy of FruityLoops; and I’ve kind of got to the point now where I’d like to move on from that. Next week in fact I’m expecting a brand new Mac, I’m joining the Mac clan, and Logic, and I imagine it’s going to take me pretty much out of action for a few months at least, til I’ve kind of re-learned the ropes. But I think it’s a worthwhile investment in my time; and anyway I’ve got the point where I feel like I know Fruity inside out, and can do pretty much whatever I want with it. Well, within reason.
“Learning a new program is a good way of getting fresh inspiration. The thing I like about Fruity is that it’s good for track arrangement, it’s very quick to get patterns together, but the closer I get towards finishing it, the harder it gets – as if you’re running downhill but the further you get it starts going uphill, and eventually the last bit’s a bit of a climb. Logic’s different – it’s a bit more of a linear process, so the tracks tend to be built from start to finish; I’ve got a couple of things that I’ll finish off on FruityLoops, but really it’s time for me to move on…”
Your solo album Underwater Dancehall was notable for the prominence it gave to vocals. Have you been surprised at the lack of, ahem, “vocal dubstep” in the wake of what you did?
“I don’t think I’ve got a vocal sound, even though I did an album with vocals. The reason I put vocals on the album was because it was an album, it was more for home listening use. The instrumental dubstep sound is more of a soundsystem experience; the vocals on the album are kind of compensating for you not being bashed around the room by sub-bass. The vocals bring a kind of focus and listenability to it.
“Since then I think there have been a few more vocal dubsteppy tunes, though I doubt that has much to do with me. The fact is, most people are making the tunes in their bedroom, as I did, and they don’t have recording facilities or perhaps even the connections to an up-for-it vocalist, and it’s quite a difficult thing to arrange. And actually, to record a vocal is a whole other kettle of fish, and what tends to happen is you get hold of an acapella and do bootlegs cos it’s already been prepared for you, or remixes or something like that. So yeah, I think recording original vocals is just quite a difficult thing to organise and pull off.”
I remember reading that you were working with this guy from Belarus, Pawel Ambient…
“Well, I was invited to go out to Minsk as part of this “expedition” organised by the Unsound festival which is based in Poland. And they invited a bunch of western musicians to go out there and collaborate. It’s politically and especially culturally quite an isolated place. There isn’t a single place in the whole country where you can buy new vinyl. Second-hand Russian pressings and stuff, but there isn’t anywhere where you can go and buy new music, and everything’s either downloaded or you go to the market and buy the drum ‘n bass DVD with every drum ‘n bass mp3, or the garage DVD, that kind of hting. Part of the expedition was being paired up with people to collaborate – they put me with this guy called Pawel Ambient, who makes predominantly quite minimal, beatless Basic Channel-esque sort of techno stuff. We got on very well, and he had a lot of insights to share; he’d lived in England for a couple of months but apart from that it’s all off his own back, finding out about things. As a result of our work together there was one track called ‘Poison Antidote’, and since then I invited him to come back to Bristol quite recently, and we collaborated on another track which is currently called ‘Jellybean’ – ’cause we had a big box of Jellybeans that we were eating from while we were making the track – and that was the first thing that I clocked on when it came to naming time. I don’t know if it necessarily represents the essence of a Jellybean…it’s a bit more dancefloor-oriented than the first one, which is incredibly dark…I’m hoping to put them out as a plate at some point, we’ll see what happens…”
What about your work with Moving Ninja?
“Well, Jabba moved over from Australia and has been working with us at Multiverse in Bristol – he moved about a year and a half ago. We started a couple of things, and this is the one that went the furthest – I don’t know if it’s one to lighten up the dancefloor or anything, it’s got quite a dark, powerful edge to it. At the time we were watching some stuff to do with the Zeitgeist online film, this film all about predicting the coming downfall of western civilization in various forms, the reasons why, and the convoluted processes behind it…and various other things related to and around that. One part of the film is to do with the US government and how the gold reserves were bought out after the great depression when their value was severely deflated, and the consequence of the American government having some sort of perpetual to the Federal Reserve which can never be met, and is why inflation exists in the form it does. IRS tax money – apparently it’s not stated by law that you have to pay tax on your wages in America, it’s something that no one’s ever put into written law. To cut a long story short, this guy who was a millionaire decided he wasn’t going to pay tax until someone could show him the law, a kind of protest; then he and his wife disappeared and eventually turned up in a prison in America, having been tortured by the US government. An interviewer managed to get a rare phonecall through to him and have a talk, and he’s just explaining about he’d been gassed in gas-chambers and so on, and his voice is all fucked up…So nice upbeat theme for that one.”
Your recent productions on Tectonic and Planet Mu have been, rhythmically-speaking, quite off-kilter. Have you been deliberately striving to make more unusual tracks? Can we expect you to pursue this sound on future releases?
“What drew me to dubstep was the rhythmical variation and the innovation in rhythmical boundaries. Last year I was really trying to resist what I felt was the dubstep mould that was being formed, the predictable nature of dubstep as half-step beat and wobbly bassline. I really made an effort to try to avoid anything like that, and in my conscious decision to do that I was trying to make stuff that had a bit more of an experimental edge. So I made some of these tunes which I think have quite a big weird factor to them; this year I’m concentrating more on stuff which has maybe absorbed some of my weirdness to a certain degree but is actually more dancefloor-oriented – and I don’t mean that in jump-up terms, I’m quite keen on getting to work on something really tribal and experimental but just a bit more grounded in the dance – I’m making this stuff to play in clubs, you know. So yeah, last year I spent a lot of my time trying to keep outside of the mould, and I think this year it’s about not even thinking about the mould. I’ve got quite a clear conception of where I want to go, and that involves a really tribal Metalheadz kind of sound…I can’t really express it, but I know in my head what I’m aiming for.”