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!”