This coming month, Ikonika‘s debut album Contact, Love, Want, Have will be released on Hyperdub.
A brave, deeply individual record, it’s completely instrumental, and finds Ikonika applying her trademark sound palette of sub-bass and deep red bleeps to electro (‘They Are All Losing the War’), swelling synthesizer epics (‘Fish’) and serpentine dubstep (‘Psoriasis'; ‘Idiot’). Closing on the fragile ‘Red Marker Pens’, it’s an album that thrives on its tense balance between vulnerability and toughness, and travels through moments of despair, anguish, bliss and exaltation. It’s one of the best albums of this young year, by an artist who’s come a long way since ‘Please’, her breakthrough debut single in early 2008.
FACT and Ikonika met for sushi (complete with the world’s strongest wasabi), and talked about fat kids, identity crises and the colour red.
“I think the confusion with my identity is probably my identity now…”
I was reading some old interviews, where you described Ikonika as being like a teenager trying to discover her identity, but secretly hoping she’ll never find it. I was wondering, now you’ve been through the process of making an album, how that has changed?
“I think the confusion with my identity is probably my identity now. With the album, it’s kind of like a hello, an introduction to this confused identity. I’d say I feel a lot more grounded now – I have my own sound, my own formula. I’m just more comfortable with my sound, and Ikonika’s more comfortable with herself. I guess with [early singles] ‘Please’ and ‘Millie’, I was figuring out a lot of things, still experimenting with certain things, and seeing how far I could push those things. I definitely think the album’s a continuation of that development.”
With the past singles, was there a reason ‘Fish’, ‘Sahara Michael’ and ‘Millie’ made the album but ‘Please’ didn’t?
“Just because it’s probably already been rinsed too much – it was on that Soul Jazz compilation [Steppas’ Delight] and also the Hyperdub one , I don’t want to scar anyone with that song again. That’s the only reason – I was gonna do to a beatless version, which was kind of a ‘Sine of the Dub’ tribute to Kode9, and leave it really open, so people can edit it and do what they want to do with it. And that was going to be the bonus stage, on the album.
Kind of like a Devil Mix [Wiley’s name for his beatless mixes] thing?
“Yeah, exactly. But I just didn’t want to annoy people too much with that song I guess.” [laughs]
When you say there’s an Ikonika sound, I was wondering, is that to do with colour? This isn’t in a genuine synthesia way, but I do always associate different music with different colours, and even when you’re recording in different styles, there’s always a red tone that binds your music…
“Well red is my favourite colour. I love the colour red – contrast is really important to me, and the colour red, at its simplest form, it can be love, it can be blood… It’s something I’m really drawn to, and I’m glad you picked up on that.”
I’m guessing when ‘Please’ and ‘Millie’ came out you were still focused on making singles. When did your focus change to the album; like when did the process of making a full-length start?
“I think when Kode9 heard ‘Millie’ for the first time. I sent it to him first, and he was like “this is a banger, but it’s like a different kind of banger, it’s a banger for me. I love it, I want to release it, but I’m also kind of curious as to what an Ikonika album would sound like.” So from there, that’s when we started talking about it. I was in my last year of uni, and when I graduated, he was like “have you got a job yet?”
[laughs] And then he was like “do you want a job?”. I was just after a quiet job; I thought I’d take some crappy temping work and continue to make some singles, and Kode was like “well you can’t have a quiet job, but you can have a really loud job – do you want to do an album?”
So I guess you started approaching music in a different way from that point.
“Well I was scared. Just because I felt – well, I still feel – that I’m not technical enough; I didn’t feel like a proper artist. Recently I do, like it’s my full time job and stuff. But it was daunting as well, like I’m a big fan of Kode9 and Burial, and I didn’t want to disappoint Hyperdub; you’ve really got to do something amazing, or at least work your heart out, and that’s what I tried to do, I really wanted to imprint my personality on the album.
“I completely changed my setup as well, I had to learn Logic proper quick [after changing to an Apple Mac; Ikonika had previously been using Fruity Loops on PC]. Malcolm [fellow producer Optimum] helped a lot in me translating my Fruity Loop skills to Logic. That helped a lot. There was also a bit of a race between me and Darkstar as to who would finish the album first. Or as Steve [Kode9] put it, there was a prize for whoever finished the album last.
“I was working at HMV at the time, like doing stupid shifts, six days a week, and then I’d get home and try to work on the album and I was really getting nowhere with it. And then I quit. But as soon as I quit, I went on holiday for two weeks, and then started writing ‘Yoshimitsu’, ‘They Are All Losing the War’, ‘Video Delays’, those tunes – I was feeling really refreshed, and had a better idea of what my vision was, basically. I wasn’t scared anymore. I think that was the problem; I was really scared at the beginning. But then I figured you’ve got to just suck it up. You don’t know if you’re ready until you just do it.”
‘When I make my tunes, I don’t actually remember making any of those melodies, it just comes out.”
Speaking of ‘Yoshimitsu’ [named after a Tekken character], obviously there are several videogame references on the album – ‘Insert Coin’, ‘Final Boss Stage’, etc. That influence is there under the surface of a lot of dance music, why did you decide to make it so explicit?
“I guess – and I’ve only started to figure this out recently – that it goes back to when I first started listening to music, I was playing Megadrive. The 90s was a really cool time for music for me, whether it’s R’n’B, hip-hop, some pop, UK garage…that was all really cool to me. So I had 16-bit sounds in one year, and the music my sisters were listening to – they were like seven years older – in the other. They were out raving to garage, their bedroom walls were covered with flyers and stuff. They would buy records – we never had decks, just one really nice turntable – and I’d hang out with them listening to those and playing Megadrive. And I guess there, you’re pushing buttons and making sounds.”
On a really simple, literal level, that translates to music production.
“Well yeah, when you’re playing computer games you’re making a beat in the rhythm of the game. It’s really similar.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Like there’s a time where you consciously get into music, where you start buying singles or whatever, and so you have a very conscious nostalgia for that. But most people of our generation played video games before we made the effort to get into music, so we have a subconscious nostalgia for those sounds. And I think that comes out later in life.
“It’s definitely true. With the whole film thing as well [Ikonika’s degree was in film, at Kingston University], I was really into Luis Bunuel, who was all about the subconscious. It’s weird, when I make my tunes, I don’t actually remember making any of those melodies, it just comes out. I use my Mac keyboard for all of it too, I like the feel of it, I like typing, and I think that could go back to computer games.”
You’ve said before that you go into a second state, like kind of a trance when you’re making tunes.
“With ‘Yoshimitsu’, I recorded all the audio for it, and just left it there for two months. It wasn’t until Steve was like “are you going to finish the album”, and I was like “yeah, I just need a couple more tracks.” I was fishing back for some parts, and Malcolm was with me, and he heard the parts and was like “are you going to finish this?”. So I went up and did the entire thing that night. [laughs] It was totally beatless at the time, I don’t remember making the chords or anything. ‘Simulacrum’ I definitely don’t remember making.”
“My musical hero standing right in front of me, telling me how amazing I am. Like shut up.”
I don’t produce but I can get into that state watching DJs. Kode more than anyone actually. I was at FWD>> last Thursday, pretty sober, and I forgot just how disorientating it can be to zone out to a set like that played really loud. I don’t remember much of it.
“I think it was when Kode started playing Funky. There was one set last year [a two hour set at Plastic People] where I was totally in a trance, I was actually hallucinating.”
That’s my favourite ever Kode set.
“Yeah, I was in another world. I think it was when he played that DJ Gregory tune [‘Don’t Panic’], that tune was so old, but it fitted so well with that ‘Black Sun’ sound he had going on at the time.”
Linking tenuously from the videogame thing, I remember talking to Gemmy ages ago, and he said something that really resonated with me, about listening to Megadrive music and how it’s an attempt to make pop music without vocalists; they didn’t have singers so they would have to make the synths sing. You’ve said similar things about your own music, but you’ve also said you’d like to be a behind the boards producer, working with vocalists. Did you ever think about getting a vocalist on the album?
“Yeah, there was one. [laughs] I was supposed to get Daryl Palumbo from Glassjaw on it. I sort of met Daryl on the internet – I hate saying that. You know how I gave ‘Phonelines V.I.P.’ to XLR8R to give away? They were asking the story behind it, and I told them that it was a tribute to [Glassjaw’s] ‘Siberian Kiss’.
So this guy from XLR8R, he knew all those New York hardcore guys, and he introduced me to Daryl, and I sent him a couple of tunes. We were meant to do something, but he was just really busy with Glassjaw, and Head Automatica. But he did put me in touch with Nick Hook, from Cubic Zirconia, who I think plays keys with Drop the Lime sometimes, and I did a remix for them.
“But possibly in the future…I met Daryl when he was over here playing Wembley, which was crazy, like my musical hero standing right in front of me, telling me how amazing I am. Like shut up. He’s producing on Logic as well…[laughs]
“I’m gonna start building a vocal booth in my bedroom though, so I’m gonna start inviting as many people as I can. I think if you’re going to vocal one of my tunes, you need to deal with the bleeps; deal with those leads. I don’t want it to be a competition. I’d need to find a really good balance between them; that’s my only concern really. On a tune like ‘Idiot’, there might be too much going on, so I’d have to strip it down. Saying that, I’ve started making juke, and I chopped up The-Dream’s ‘Shawty is a 10′ over the top of one of those tracks recently and it seems to work.”
“I’m really into the way a producer can play with your emotions like that…”
I find it interesting how often you refer to Ikonika in the third person in interviews. I mean it’s not like The Rock referring to himself in the third person or whatever, but you do do it. Is there a distinction between Sara and Ikonika, and how has that changed since making music?
“It’s weird, because like I said I do try to put my personality into my music. But Ikonika is…It does have something to do with identity. I can’t quite fuse it together, I can’t become one person. There’s the contrast thing, and I do have a split personality, I think that has something to do with it. I am a Gemini as well. Maybe Ikonika’s the evil side, or Sara’s the evil side. I don’t know who’s the bad one.
Well there’s that whole second state thing…
“Yeah, maybe that’s Ikonika taking over? It’s so weird [laughs]”
With Funky, is it fair to say it’s influenced your production a lot over the last year or so?
“Definitely, particularly the more percussive side. I think that’s what dubstep lacked, particularly the half-step stuff, there was too much space. Which was fine, in like 2005, but obviously it was going to mutate and progress. I just want to explore more percussive things, and being a drummer as well, 140bpm is a pretty hard bpm to make if you want to put a lot of things in between the snare and the kick. But if you take the tempo down, then you can.
For me, a big part of your album, and it’s something that obviously you’re into, is that it shares a kind of balance with R’n’B. Something I love about R’n’B is that balance between toughness and vulnerability.
“Yeah, that’s what I love. Really big, edgy hip-hop beats with really smooth vocals; chuck a chord change in there and that’s it for me.
Also in structure, like Electrik Red’s ‘P is for Power’ is so tough and intimidating, and then it’s got that one breakdown that’s so open and emotive. Is that something you deliberately go for when you’re making tracks?
“Yeah, I was really into Rich Harrison. Like that Amerie track, ‘Talkin’ About’. You get really used to the beat, and then he smooths it out, for like one milli-second. I’m really into the way a producer can play with your emotions like that, and a singer that can understand that. I try to do that with my own music, and also incorporate their song structures, ’cause Glassjaw do the same thing.”
“You can feel something on a dancefloor, just close your eyes, put your hands up.”
Whether it’s R’n’B or Glassjaw, those sorts of breakdowns really reflect the unpredictability of real life emotion.
“Yeah, I’m really attracted to that. Dance music should be like that. When I DJ, I don’t just want to give people what they want; I wanna…not educate them, not be an authoritative figure, but show that you can feel something on a dancefloor, to just close your eyes, put your hands up. That’s what I love about dubstep, the sub-bass. That sub is the most emotional, warming sound.”
Your DJ sets have really blossomed in the last year.
“I see them as like my live set. I’m getting paid to DJ, and to me that’s really important, that I give something. I really do think about my sets, and to me it’s important that I say something with them. I don’t want to just play tune after tune, that’s not how I am, I want to try and build a story.
“I don’t think many DJs do that. They look for the glory, rather than taking parts of certain tunes and changing it, dropping it at certain bits. I’m not into jumping about, moshpit kind of stuff. If you want to do that to my tunes that’s cool, but that’s not what I want. I always say that the crowd is like a fat kid, and you don’t want to keep giving a fat kid sugar, and food that’s bad for them. If you give them good food, it’s better for them in the long run.
“I get the “when are you gonna play some dubstep love?” thing. It’s like, I will give you a good time, just give me a chance. And I’m not scared of that anymore, like I have played after some big headliners who’ve caused a moshpit, and you can smell the set, and I will make an effort to build a set.
“I dunno if I should say this, it’s pretty explicit, but from a girl’s point of view, whenever I hear really big wobble sets, I find it offensive. ‘Cause I’m picturing sex, and when these guys are playing big wobble sets it’s like coming on a girl’s face. And you’re reloading it, and you’re doing it again.”
Yeah, it’s kind of obnoxious and self-serving.
“And girls don’t want that. But whatever. I think people book me and know what I’m about – before it was just ‘yeah, this girl made ‘Please’ – that’s a dubstep song”
So you’re starting a label, right?
“Yeah, me and Malcolm have started one, we’re just shopping around for distribution at the moment. We’re going to release some of our own stuff and friends’ music, basically, or whoever we can find. We were actually going to release ‘Please’ on it, but Hyperdub’s a lot better.” [laughs]
Is there anything else due out? Contact’s only coming out on CD.
“There’s going to be three or four 12″s [of tracks from the album; first up is a 12″ of ‘The Idiot’ with an Altered Natives remix], with remixes. FunkinEven’s done one, and Dam-Funk’s hopefully doing one. Well, he’s doing a cover of ‘Sahara Michael’.
‘Dckhdbtch’ is coming out, it’s going to be on a Planet Mu EP. We’re still trying to figure out the rest of the tracks, it might be a double-pack, it might just be a single 12″, we’ll see. Also Mike [Paradinas, Planet Mu boss] might be releasing my juke tracks, we’ll see.
So a last question, which is quite a general, hard one. Obviously it’s been quite a busy couple of years from ‘Please’ to where you are now, with the album ready to come out. What have been the most memorable highlights of Ikonika’s journey to date, and where do you envision it going?
“I guess ‘Please’, not knowing how many people would love it; not knowing what the reaction would be like. ‘Idiot’ as well, that was the first tune I made on Logic, so that was a good achievement. And then having the album in my hands; I got them on Monday, and I was just looking at the CDs and thinking how beautiful they looked, all red. Just geeky, gushy moments like that make me happy. Getting to DJ all over Europe; I love it, not so much the traveling but I love the perks.
And where do I think it’s gonna go? I don’t like thinking about the future. I want the album to do alright. I’d like to make money off records, but no one on Hyperdub does that apart from Burial. [laughs]
“I kind of think about life in terms of branches. Like if this whole UK dance scene is a tree, then maybe I’m on my own branch. And that could either stop growing, or it could start to flower. One thing for the future though, I don’t want people to copy my style. I was actually speaking to Flying Lotus this week, it was for a piece for XLR8R. I asked him, “people in the dubstep scene really liked your music, and it was a real breath of fresh air – did you ever see that coming?” And he was like, “no, but one thing I will tell you is that a lot of you UK cats are copying what I’m doing, and making beat music, and if you just do your own thing, with your own personality, then it’ll be fine.” I mean I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but I wouldn’t like people to clone me, like when too many people start sounding the same, and it cuts off the scene. I don’t think it will, but there’s a chance it might.”