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Photek: the last samurai

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  • Arguably jungle's greatest ever producer is back. It's time for a catch up.
  • published
    8 Mar 2011
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Photek – ‘The Water Margin’ (1996)

Where do you even begin with an auteur like Photek? The fingerprints of St. Albans-born, Los Angeles-dwelling Rupert Parkes’ unique musical aesthetic are all over modern electronic music, if you know where to look.

Borne out of the rave scene at mega events like Telepathy, Photek was a pioneer in the early hardcore scene, pushing the breakbeat evolution into jungle and drum & bass in the early ’90s under a host of pseudonyms including Studio Pressure, The Truper, Aquarius and The Sentinel. Recording for Good Looking, Basement, Op-Art, Metalheadz and Certificate 18, he settled on the name Photek and began unleashing an increasing extraordinary procession of intricate cuts for his own self-titled label.

Influenced as much by Detroit techno and early acid as the ragga and hardcore breakbeat vibes that pervaded at the time, his records stood out for their extraordinary polyrhythmic drums, intricately chopped, edited and multilayered, and intense cinematic atmospheres. Tunes like ‘Book Of Changes’, with its 10-tons-heavy rhythmic Amen break assault, technoid lazer zaps and dramatic diva wail, contrasted sharply with the Pharoah Sanders-sampling, aquatic jazz fusion mood of ‘Rings Round Saturn’, or the stealthy, clashing-swords-as-percussion of ‘Seven Samurai’, but all stood out a mile from even the best drum & bass of the time. His jazz and samurai obsessions reached their apotheosis on Modus Operandi, an album that remains amazingly fresh today.

Later, he dabbled with house music on the Solaris LP, scoring a hit with the Robert Owens-voiced ‘Mine To Give’, and continued to release drum & bass sporadically through the 2000s, his last major release the Form & Function 2 album in 2007.

After a few years working in film scoring, he’s back, bombing us from his LA base with a new EP, ‘Avalanche’, sporting a fresh sonic identity indebted to dark, druggy slo mo house and electroid dubstep, and a new ‘Influences’ mix for FACT, whose warehouse vibes show where he’s coming from now. We shared a lengthy phone conversation with Parkes to discuss his new music, martial arts, Moby and more.

“I feel like I’ve come out of hiding at the same time that music has synchronized with where I’m at, y’know?”

We’ve not heard from Photek in a while. Why the long break from production? And why return now?

“I talk about it a lot with other music people, in the meantime while you think you’ve been really busy making lots of tunes, if you don’t keep them coming out continually, then as far as everyone is concerned, you’ve bailed. I feel like I’ve been really busy the last few years making all kinds of music, making dance music all the way through that and I’ve got hard drives full of work to prove it. But if you look at it, the last record I did was Form & Function 2 in 2007.

“That got lost between the cracks when Universal bought Sanctuary Records. It was due to come out on Sanctuary, but they got bought out and everyone got fired. Having been away for a couple of years and then coming back with an album that vanished without trace, and then you go away for another couple of years while you work on your next thing… So that’s where I’ve been.”

Your new ‘Avalanche’ EP is stylistically varied. Was it your intention to come back with a show-reel of the different styles you’re into, show your diversity?

“It’s funny because I do refer to the records that some people say are classic drum & bass albums or EPs, and some of them are only 50% d&b. There’s no doubt that I’m a drum & bass artist first. It’s where I got noticed first and it’s where my main focus has been. But coming back with this EP, I took on new management at the beginning of last year, and they’re really looking at, what is Photek all about? Let’s hear what you’ve been doing. This is what we all jointly thought was a good representation. Hailing back to some of the early influences, it’s got more of an element of my first years out clubbing at places like Telepathy, Labyrinth and those old raves. More so than Miles Davis, let’s say, and that jazz, rare groove and fusion influence, which is something I talked about a lot at the end of the ’90s and beginning of the 2000s. I think the way the rest of the music scene is now, it’s definitely more freestyle, and more rugged, than it has been.

“I like how eclectic everything is, it reminds me of the old days basically, where you’d hear something on D-Zone Records, and something on R&S next to early Prodigy and Phil Collins playing in the mix! [laughs] It’s come full circle in that way and it’s fun and immediately effective. I feel like I’ve come out of hiding at the same time that music has synchronized with where I’m at, y’know?”

The drum & bass scene in the past was very purist and constricted — you wouldn’t hear many people making house music too, for example. Do you see the new freedom with tempos and beats as inspiring — the way that dubstep kind of cleared the air?

”I love it. It’s really good timing for that. I remember doing interviews in the past and people talking about the purist aspect, and I think at one stage, I was that guy. It’s great when people get super specialized and purist for a while and then they pull their head out the sand and collaborate with other people, like I was doing with Kirk Degiorgio [like ‘T’Raenon’ for Degiorgio’s Op Art label in 1996] back in the day, and then keep specializing, and then look for new influences all the time.

“I think that pendulum between being militant about one style for a bit and then coming up for air, is healthy. I’m especially excited about the variation that’s going on now. I feel in sync with it and I don’t wanna be making genre-specific music.

“Maybe I’ll get back into it, get sick of jumping all over the place, and I’ll want to hear two hours of an evolving set with the same beat. Music goes in cycles like that. I definitely think that dubstep has been responsible for breaking things right open.”

The ‘Influences’ mix you’ve done for FACT contains a lot of the rave/acid house classics, with ‘Sueno Latino’, ‘Can You Feel It?’, ‘LFO’, that warehouse element. Do you see the freedom musically, and the warehouse aspect of music now as parallel to the early ’90s scene when DJs would play breakbeat/hardcore records alongside house?

“Absolutely, that’s been growing again over the past two years as far as I’ve been aware. I’m out here in LA now, so I’m not as close to the source as I was, but it seems like it’s been getting closer to that vibe. That’s why with the ‘Influences’ mix I wanted to go for something that was more about what came out from ’88 to ’91, which for me was my prime raving years! That’s been echoed right now in what’s being played. That’s the reason I went for a more warehouse mix rather than some obscure jazz-related thing.”

Photek feat. Robert Owens – ‘Mine to Give’ (2000)

“It got to a point a few years ago when every drum & bass DJ, it was like warfare. Who’s got the loudest mastering? Who’s got the most violent snare drum, and raises the energy the highest? And I don’t really want to do that.”

There are elements of that in your new EP. ‘Slowburn’ has an electro, slo mo, Balearic feel, whereas ‘Avalanche’ is closer to a dubstep vibe, but not so clear-cut. What kind of feel were you going for with those tracks?

“‘Avalanche’ I did with Switch, and we sat down to make some beats to put a vocalist with. We didn’t have a vocalist at the time, but the last ones he found were MIA and Santigold, so, we said, ‘let’s do that’. We were both busy and Dave [Taylor] was going off to Jamaica and he didn’t come back for a while, so I thought, I’ll keep bumping this track along, to make it work as an instrumental. It’s rugged, it’s not dubstep but it sits in that world.

“‘Slowburn’, I had this vision that one day I wanted to play a set of extremely slow heavy house music, like what Mirwais did, like ‘Disco Science’. I was imagining that I’d like to play in a club somewhere and it was that, like 105 BPM, really grinding heavy kind of stuff. When I came up with the track I thought that could be the name of the genre, slowburn, and at some stage I’d like to come back to that and make all the songs that make up that set. It’s definitely got a bit of that French feel, but it definitely echoes Depeche Mode and more of a rock style feel too, but without having any guitars, y’know?”

Which producers have you been digging at the moment?

“I really like Flying Lotus, and Gold Panda. But I’m not sure that their sounds have filtered into what I’m doing. I love the texture of it, and my early music like ‘Modus Operandi’ was all about those scratchy textures and spatiality. They’ve evolved that into something way more sophisticated, the technology is better now, and it’s better for building those sonic textures in that way.”

LA, where you’re currently based, is becoming more of an important electronic hub now, with the Brainfeeder crew, Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer and clubs like Low End Theory. Has either the club or music scene in general there been impacting upon you at all?

“You definitely feel the difference now to when I first came out here. It was starving for music and the last thing that had happened was Guns ‘n’ Roses, y’know? When you arrive from London with an attitude, like, ‘this is where music comes from’, and you arrive in LA, you think, the weather’s great but everything else is rubbish, and in actual fact, it’s always been pretty strong off and on. There’s a lot of expertise out here, talented producers, mixers, and for technology we’re not far from Silicon Valley. There’s some real intelligence here.”

Do you go out at all in LA?

“I haven’t really been out much in the last year because I’ve been focusing on getting this next wave of Photek together. I’m working 24-7 on what’s coming out now and what’s coming out next, planning on how to get it all out there and start touring. Before I got my head down into this, I was out a lot more and dubstep was all everybody was talking about. You have people like 12th Planet, I put out one of his early records as a drum & bass artist. Before I started making this music, we did some shows under the name Tech Dubs, and started making tracks that were a hybrid of hip-hop and d&b.

“It was me and 12th Planet, DJ Craze, MCs Armani and Sharpness, and we did some great shows at the House Of Blues. It was really exciting and eclectic. I think we were a touch early, but we were one of the few crews we knew doing that, and how do you follow up with continually new music all the time when you’re the only people making it? It was more hip-hop than it was dubstep. It took a lot of work and it was a lot of fun. I think if we’d done that a year or two later, it would have probably merged better into the scene.”

“There’s a creative moment, a diversifying moment, when things are at their most perfect and then there’s a moment where it gets silly. It’s like with a night out when it starts off with fun and people talking and ends with no-one listening to each other and shouting.”

Your earliest productions as Studio Pressure, tunes like ‘Book Of Changes’ stood out a mile with their intricacy and beat chopping/editing, and also musicality. Was your music a reaction to the other stuff out there? What drove its spirit of invention?

“I think music is often a reaction to what you think is missing. I think a lot of other producers feel that way. At that time, you had jungle and the more dancehall style of stuff going off, and it got to the point where people like Goldie were saying, ‘We need to think of another name for this music, cos it’s very different to what General Levy is doing’. As a reaction, we need this, and ‘Book Of Changes’ and those first Studio Pressure and Photek things were a reaction to music that was crazy dark and aggressive. I just wanted a bit more of a techno feel. You had Black Dog, and labels like A-R-T, Basic Channel, and I was like, ‘It doesn’t always have to be like psycho horror movies’. We want beats, for it to still be street, but with a bit more to it. And you had loose groups of people from Good Looking Records with Bukem, to people like E-Z Rollers, Peshay, there were a few of us who wanted something that was banging and had a bit of funk to it, but didn’t sound like it came from a horror movie. ‘We want those rugged beats, these clubs, this is our crowd, but does it have to be that way?’

“Maybe that’s what I’m doing now, all over again? It got to a point a few years ago when every drum & bass DJ, it was like warfare. Who’s got the loudest mastering? Who’s got the most violent snare drum, and raises the energy the highest? And I don’t really want to do that. It goes from having the killer tunes that blow people away, to being a noise war. At that point I start switching off a bit.”

It always seems like there’s been this schism between tough beats for the sake of the funk and a powerful rhythm, and on the other side of the coin, tough beats for the sake of aggression and tearing the place up. Stimulating versus bludgeoning a dancefloor…

“I reckon it happens with every DJ reliant genre. There’s a creative moment, a diversifying moment, when things are at their most perfect and then there’s a moment where it gets silly. It’s like with a night out when it starts off with fun and people talking and ends with no-one listening to each other and shouting.

“At a certain point, it’s just like, ‘I wanna be heard more’. It’s not attractive for me at this stage, which is why I’m making this music. I’m making diverse points, but it’s not trying to smack everyone everywhere.”


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