Pearson Sound – ‘Blanked’ (2010)
In one sense, there’s not a lot to ask David Kennedy, the artist known primarily as Pearson Sound and formerly as Ramadanman. In another sense, there’s everything to ask him.
2010 was, undoubtedly, Kennedy’s biggest year to date. It was the year that the drum machine returned to UK dance music – specifically, this healthily category-shy dance scene that came from a love of, and then later, a dissatisfaction with dubstep – and even more so than his peers Addison Groove and Girl Unit, Kennedy found a bountiful niche for himself in amongst the circuitry of 808s and 909s (or 808 and 909 plug-ins); ‘Work Them’, ‘Glut’ and ‘Blanked’ three of his finest singles to date, and tracks that found almost as many fans in the European house and techno hierarchy as they did the UK scene that he still holds very dear.
But as you might imagine, stylistically his music is already somewhere else. Kennedy’s career to date, for this writer at least, has been defined by his working process; the way he takes a specific vibe or set of sounds, and hammers them to the point of a logical conclusion (for the drum machines, ‘Blanked’; for the woodblocks, ‘Wad’, and so forth) before moving on. Of course, things aren’t that linear, and the reason I say that in one sense there’s nothing to ask Kennedy, is because you only need to meet him once to know that he doesn’t think of his music in that way. For him, these stages of his musical development are simply natural processes of exploration, and tellingly, he’s far more comfortable when taking about his record label, Hessle Audio, or memories of producing and DJing with friends than he is the intricacies of his sound. This natural approach is one of the reasons his music always sounds so personal, even at its most dancefloor-focussed (‘Work Them’).
This month, Kennedy will release his second official mix CD, as Pearson Sound, for Fabric. FACT took the opportunity to catch up with him in an interview about trust, anonymity, experimenting and, naturally, woodblocks.
“I find all of these names a bit of a distraction really. That’s part of the reason I’m changing it.”
First off, does the Fabric CD mark the start of Pearson [Sound] becoming your main musical project?
“Well I originally wanted to do the mix just as Pearson, but understandably Fabric didn’t want that – Pearson doesn’t have the same back catalogue as Rama, the bigger tunes I’ve made have been as Rama… so understandably they wanted him present. But yeah, I do want to start focussing on Pearson, and there’s a lot of Pearson tunes on [the CD]… it kind of makes sense. But it has made the title a bit long.”
It would’ve been late ’08/early ’09 that you started using the Pearson name.
“Yeah, some people think I started it really recently but it was around that time. At first I started it because I wanted to see how people would react when they didn’t know who was behind the tunes. And it’s not like it was top secret, but most people genuinely didn’t know who Pearson was when these tunes started appearing – it was good. Eventually it transpired it was me, I mean I wasn’t trying too hard to keep it anonymous, I think if you do that you just have to tell no one, really [laughs]. There’s no point being anonymous and being casual about it.”
Was there any element of freedom in using a new name?
“Freedom, hmm, yeah there was… Though I don’t know if it was so much that people thought Rama sounded a certain way, musically or whatever, it was more just fun really. Though retrospectively people have applied some element of sonic differentiation between the two names, which was never my intention but it’s quite nice, sometimes to see how people interpret it… like, ‘that’s the housey name!’, and it’s like ‘well, I did do a drum’n’bass tune as it…’ But it’s fine, that’s what music journalists do.”
Which leads me quite nicely to something I’m about to say…
“Well the change to Pearson… it’s not like with Redlight, when he went from Clipz to Redlight, and totally changed his sound [from drum’n’bass], I’m not doing that. My process is more gradual, that’s why the CD has two names, that’s why bookings right now are as both names, but eventually they’ll be just Pearson. Plus I haven’t done that many tunes as Pearson still, so I want to get more out there… I figure that’s the best way to do it.”
When you do a track, do you think ‘well, this is more of a Pearson tune’, or ‘this is more of a Ramadanman tune’?
“Well now it’s everything as Pearson, but before it was more just a case of ‘well, I haven’t done one as Rama in a while’… I dunno, I find all of these names a bit of a distraction really. That’s part of the reason I’m changing it. Like if I did an album or whatever, the first thing people would ask is what name.
“I know how the music… well, not necessarily the music industry, but it’s all about branding now. You need a name, a logo, a concept, and I can understand how Rama might seem more of a brand, but I’m not interested in any of that really. I just want to write more music as Pearson and let people judge it on [the music].”
“I love white labels. I think they set a level playing field.”
Personally I think an element of anonymity, or a lack of branding seems to be creeping back in to this scene, with stuff like the Objekt 12” and ‘Sicko Cell’, and I quite like that.
“Well ‘Sicko Cell’’s sent people nuts. I mean it’s a good tune, it’s not the best tune in the world. But the minute people don’t know who it is, it drives them crazy. I think we’re so used to… well, I was with my friend in the car the other day, and we heard this tune on radio, we didn’t know what it was… and within a minute, he’d Shazammed it, and he’d downloaded it on iTunes. [laughs] We’re so used to that instantaneous culture, like you go to a club night, see a DJ play a tune, you record it, and the next day someone’s told you what it is. And that’s cool, to an extent, but I think sometimes that should make you question what you’re enjoying this music for.
“Part of the danger with this anonymous thing… Well I think the ‘Sicko Cell’ thing’s getting a bit out of hand, that was never [the producer]’s intention to have it happen this way, they just wanted to put it out there and see what people’s reaction was.”
It’s not like it’s the first time there’s been an anonymous track on a mix tracklist.
“Yeah, well it’s nice sometimes you know? There are some people who… well I guess we’re all guilty of it; there are moments where you won’t listen to a tune because say, ‘this guy, he’s a drum’n’bass producer, so I already know what it’s gonna sound like’. So in those cases, it does give a certain amount of freedom… and as you say, with the Objekt thing, it still shows that music’s the main focus. It’s done amazingly, and he’s pretty much unknown. Like it’s had a bit of DJ support, but that’s it. And I don’t know if you’ve seen the record, but it’s just a white label with a stamp. I like that.
“There was a stage in like 2008, 2009 where… I think it was mainly Pinch and Peverelist, they didn’t put names on their dubs. I just like the idea of these great, black discs, completely anonymous. I love white labels. I think they set a level playing field, like it’s not about design, it’s not about the label, it’s just about what’s on it.”
I’ve started to like it a lot when people don’t give tracklists for their mixes.
“Well we [Hessle] used to provide tracklists for everything, but we just kind of stopped. There’s been a lot of people nicking other people’s selections… not so much me, but like Ben [UFO], who’s not a producer, his pure appeal is in his selection, and he’s put a lot of hours, and sweat, and love into finding these records, only so someone can read his tracklists, and buy them in five minutes on Discogs… I mean why does he have to give a tracklist? If you ask Ben what a track is, most of the time he’ll tell you anyway. But again, we’re all guilty of it – if we see a mix with no tracklist, we’re less likely to download it. But then again, as soon as you see the tracklist, is there any point in downloading it? You already know how it’s going to sound. So yeah… I think mystery, mystery is good.”
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Pearson Sound – ‘Wad’ (2009)
To get an idea about timeframe, when you started the Pearson work… which for me, you might disagree, is kind of when you hit third gear as a producer, were you based in France?
“Yeah, I went to France as part of my degree, from September 2008 to Summer 2009… so you know, I was in very different surroundings – I had friends there, I met people, but it was quite an isolating experience, being away from London, away from Leeds. It was really good to be away, and I had a lot of free time… I think I had 12 hours of teaching a week, and I was getting paid for that, plus the odd DJ gig, so that was when I made a lot of the stuff that came out in 2009.”
Did France affect what you made in any other ways? Outside obvious stuff like the accordion sample on ‘Gambetta’.
“Yeah, there are literal influences in terms of the sounds I used. In a lot of the music that came out in 2009, maybe even 2010, there’s a lot of field recordings of stations, stuff like that. I was on the Eurostar practically every week, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Lille station… but it’s a bit of a travesty; it’s modern, but it’s very cold, very depressing, big PAs echoing around the station. But other than that, I’m not sure how much I buy into the whole [whispers] ‘music being influenced by my surroundings’ thing. I don’t think it influenced it sonically, not massively.”
Do you still do a lot of field recording?
“Yeah, yeah. Well the first track of the Fabric CD, it’s called ‘Hawker’ because it’s recorded in Singapore, in one of those hawker centres? They’re nuts, they’re incredibly packed and vibrant. Well, it’s either Indonesia or Singapore… I really should know that. But yeah, I love [field recording], it’s fun sometimes.”
“When I got back from France, I lived with my parents for a while; they’ve got a big house in Dorset where I could go up to the roof and make as much noise as I wanted. Harry [Midland, fellow producer and current housemate of Kennedy’s] came down, and we spent a lot of time making tunes… going back and forth, like ‘that’s great!’, that’s shit!’ [laughs]. I’m trying to think what we wrote there. That’s the thing about all the stuff I released this year, a lot of it is old, it’s scary in a way. A lot of the tunes from the Ramadanman EP I wrote in France, ‘Bleeper’ I wrote in 2008 maybe. But then ‘Don’t Change For Me’ would’ve been November 2009, the Swamp stuff I wrote early 2010. ‘Glut’ was Summer 2009, ‘Tempest’ is older than that…”
“Of all the nights that you shouldn’t have to compromise your sound, it’s FWD>> surely?”
Something that always strikes me about your discography, is that you can see how it progresses over time, but rather than being one long chain, it’s like you have these quite specific studies, that you pursue for a period, conclude, and then move on. You had your woodblock-y period, which seemed to reach a natural conclusion with ‘Wad’…
“[laughs] That’s probably true.”
Then there’s the period that led up to ‘Blimey’, and this year, the drum machine-y stuff which seems to have reached a peak with ‘Blanked’.
“I see it as both. I think you can trace it back. There was [also] the housier period, the whole dubstep-techno thing… I mean I didn’t move away from it because it wasn’t trendy anymore, but it was like ‘I’ve already made enough tunes like ‘Humber’, I don’t want to make anymore. I’ve done it, I quite like it, so why make more when I can just explore a bit?’ But a lot of the stuff like ‘Tumble’, and ‘Bleeper’, well I haven’t really spoken about this much before… But I was playing FWD>> quite a lot at that period, and it was a strange time for me; I think it was a strange time for dubstep. I’d play FWD>>, and people would be playing total tear-out.”
Was this when it was on a Friday night?
“I can’t remember really. But I was playing it a lot, and it’s like… of all the nights that you shouldn’t have to compromise your sound, it’s FWD>> surely? You’ve got the club, you’ve got the system… I had a couple of bad experiences there, but generally, I found that a very creative, experimental time for us. It was partly Untold to be honest, he started it to be honest, with his [Gonna Work Out Fine] EP.”
Yeah, he kind of kicked the doors down.
“Yeah… it was like, just try doing it, you know? It might work. I don’t think anyone else would’ve dreamed of doing the stuff he did on that EP. So it’s not that it became a competition, but there was an element of who could be weirder…”
And still have the place go off.
“Yeah, I remember when Joe… Joe dubstep, or Joe Hessle or whatever you call him, one time at FWD>> he just ran up and pulled up ‘Bleeper’. I mean you just wouldn’t have thought to pull it up [until then]. So the EP came out of that period, I suppose. And then I started getting more into the breaks-y side of things, which led to ‘Grab Somebody’, which sort of moved into ‘Glut’, which moved into ‘Work Them’. So I do see it as a narrative, not necessarily a deliberate one, but you can see the progression. I do see what you mean, about making a few tunes at one period with a lot of the same sounds. It’s kind of both – kind of a narrative, but also…”
Well the drums seem to be the constant. They maybe define those individual periods of your work.
“I’ve got a feeling it’s the fact that when I get some new drums sounds I just rinse them [laughs] it’s all about the palette of sounds. A lot of what I’ve been making recently, it’s quite bashy, kind of New York house, and I think it’s to do with using drum sounds from that period. Then my earlier stuff, which is a lot more tribal and percussive, it’s because I got given a pack of, you know, world samples [laughs]. It’s a practical thing, I’ve got some new sounds, I wanted to use them, and it just so happened they were all percussive. Whereas last year, I got a lot of drum machine samples, and I ended up using them a lot. I don’t really think about it too much.”
It’s probably for the best.
“Yeah, it’d send you a bit loopy I think.”
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Ramadanman – ‘Blimey’ (2008)
To focus on the CD, when did you get the call from Fabric?
“It was a bit nuts actually, I was on my way to Japan, on the train to the airport, and got the call. I was actually trying to push it as a ‘Hessle Presents’ thing, as we had the club nights at Fabric, but with three of us it would’ve got a bit messy, and it’s not like Club Autonomic – it wouldn’t have worked in retrospect.
“Fabric work quite far in advance, understandably. The first thing you have to do is license everything, so you give them a list of all the tracks you might want to use, then they go off and take care of that… then there’s the last minute additions, and then I mixed it in December. It’s not out ‘til March, so it’s quite a gap.
“I said in the press release that it’s representative of my club sets, which is true, but there are a few things I play all the time that we couldn’t get cleared. I tried to get in touch with Rod Lee, but it wasn’t happening. I play about five of his tunes in my sets at the minute, then there’s stuff like my ‘Deep Inside’ edit.”
What were your very first thoughts on how to approach the tracklist?
“Well, I did Dubstep Allstars with Chef, so I had some experience with doing a mix CD, which was really good actually. Naturally, at first you start to worry, like ‘should I do it this way’, or ‘should I do it that way’, but you’ve just got to think, they asked me for a reason. Like they’ve heard my sets, they know what I play, just do that. Not in a just boshing it out way, but you now. I was pretty certain I wanted to do it like a club set, starting slow and building up, rather than playing an hour of 130, funky-not- funky stuff or whatever. There’s some dubstep, which I don’t play a massive amount of these days, but I wanted to get it in there, it’s what got me here, it’s what I still love, and I guess I feel the need to… not educate people, because that sounds poncy, but show them where my sound comes from. If you look at someone like Headhunter, he started making that techy, dubstep sound and now does driving, 808 stuff [as Addison Groove].”
Well Headhunter, in a way is like a microcosm of how dubstep’s changed.
“Yeah, to a certain extent that’s true actually. So that’s how I approached it. There’s only so upfront you can get, too, I put a couple of exclusive edits in, but I always knew it was coming out in March, and I didn’t think there was any point packing it with unreleased stuff because it’ll all be out by then anyway. I’d rather have good tunes than unreleased tunes. I also treated it as a bit of a retrospective, like I had to include ‘Different Lekstrix’, I played it every set for about six months, surely it’s gotta go on the CD, it’s a classic. Same thing with ‘Late Night Jam’, I wanted some of the tunes that were backbones of my set around a year ago.”
Was it a different experience than the Dubstep Allstars? With the Dubstep Allstars, I don’t know if you did feel this, but I could see why you might feel under pressure to represent the “other” side of dubstep in a way, with Chef on the other side of the double-CD.
“Not really. It was quite a reverential thing to do, I mean it’s such an important series. I recorded it in July 2009, and I was playing a bit of Funky at that stage, but I made a conscious decision not to put any of it on the CD; for one it’s called Dubstep Allstars, and… I guess it was a bit more of a mission statement – like ‘this is what dubstep sounds like to me, in 2009’. Chef’s always played a big variety of music too, so I never saw it like ‘ooh, Chef’s gonna play the wobblers and I’ll play the deep stuff’. Maybe some people saw it that way, but it was never like that for me.”
“I’d rather not make blind promises; I’d rather surprise people.”
How has running Hessle Audio changed over the years?
“Well we went for a meeting with our distributor the other day, kind of a road trip. And it just really made us think how fortunate we are – starting something from our bedrooms, putting out a few 12”s, and next thing you know we’re releasing our 20th single, planning quite a substantial project, and people are buying our releases religiously, and raving about them. It’s very humbling, in that respect.
“I think our quality control has gone up over the years, not in terms of feeling pressure, but maybe being a bit more militant in terms of what we don’t release. I think there’s a big danger of just releasing filler, or releasing for the sake of releasing, and we’re keen to avoid that; quite consciously, in fact. I think too many labels do that. The way we release stuff has already been very natural, the Elgato tunes for instance, we had for a very long time. In fact it was me that took about a year to be convinced by them.
“I’d rather not make blind promises; I’d rather surprise people. If you come out and announce your six 12”s for the year, by the time the last one’s out after the inevitable delays people will be like ‘oh, this is old now’. We only announce stuff when we’ve got the test presses back, that way we know for certain when it’ll be in shops. It works better for everyone… it goes back to what we were saying about mystery, you know? People don’t really know what’s coming next on Hessle, it’s not a question of us being arsy or secretive, it’s just not making empty promises. Especially in music, when so much can go wrong. I think it’s best to keep your cards close to your chest.”
Do you still try new places for mastering the records?
“Yeah, we’ve used four different mastering houses. Our early stuff was on Transition, along with everyone else’s [laughs] and they sound wicked, but you’ve got to see what else is out there… otherwise you’ll never know.”
I always thought that was quite admirable, when it’s so easy to stick with the first mastering house that does a good job.
“Well different records have different sounds, as well. It’s like we were saying before about different music suiting different mixers, and different music suits different mastering approachs, certainly. We’ve used Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin, we’ve used Precise, we’re currently using Metropolis, they’re based in Chiswick… it’s a guy called Stuart Hawkes, who’s just been cutting for years. Sometimes he’ll cut my tunes, and he hasn’t really done anything, and at first it’s like ‘come on, can’t you do something’, but then I realised it’s really nice, he’s not trying to put his stamp on things. The worst is when you go in and they do stuff for the sake of doing stuff, certain tunes don’t need any drastic changes. So yeah, currently happy with him but you never know, we might try somewhere else. I’d like to try Air, actually.”
I know Floating Points swears by Air. He’s told me he works Matt [Colton, Air Studios engineer] really hard, calling him up three hours before gigs needing dubplates cut and couriered over ASAP.
“Well it should be a good relationship like that; you have to trust a mastering engineer, same as you trust your manager or your booking agent.”
Well you’re trusting them with your music, after all.
“You’re trusting them to not leak stuff, with how it sounds, with knowing your release schedule months before everyone else, with telling you if something’s wrong. I think it’s a very important relationship.”
Are you very hands on with 12”s that you release on Hessle, in terms of making the artist, whether that’s Elgato, or Blawan, or whoever, change things before you put it out?
“Maybe a few years ago, if I got sent tunes by a producer, I’d provide… well I guess you’d call it feedback. But then I realised that a lot of feedback is just telling someone how you would’ve made it, and I really don’t like doing that anymore. If people ask me about a tune, I’ll tell them whether they’ll play it or not, but I won’t tell them like ‘put this in there’. I don’t think that’s helpful. Producers should just do their. With Blawan for instance, ‘Fram’ was the first thing he sent us, and we pretty much put it out exactly as it was. We can offer technical advice, in terms of mixdown or whatever, but generally I think it’s best to let people figure it out for themselves. They’ll ultimately be happier with it, and they’ll learn better from it. I don’t think there’s any point trying to control artists too much.
“I guess it’s a question of A&R, developing artists… are we interested in that? Not massively, we don’t really sign people exclusively, or anything like that. We’re not interested in locking people down, we let them get on with it.”