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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.”
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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.”
Photek – ‘Avalanche’ (2010)
Later in your career you graduated to a sort of “samurai” style on tunes like ‘Seven Samurai’ and ‘Ni Ten Ichi Ryu’, characterized by percussive tracks that sounded like clashing swords and stealthy combat. Where did that idea come from and where did you get those percussive sounds?
“Some of the sounds, I made, some of them were different noises misrepresented. Like a weird texture running through a delay and then re-sampled, that to my mind sounded like in a [legendary Japanese film director] Akira Kurosawa movie when hundreds of samurai are moving in wooden armour and you’ve got that rattling and shuffling, and I’d make that out of something else to imitate that sound. Like what blues players used to do, to imitate a chugging train, play a riff that sounds like that.
“In ‘Fifth Column’, there’s the sound of a shuriken throwing star. I made that out of actually flicking one off my fingers, to get that ‘ching!’ metallic sound. But to get the sound of one flying, they don’t actually sound like that when they fly, but it’s like in the movies, you have to make the wrong sound to actually get the point across. To make that sound, I got a bicycle break cable, and whirled it around a bit to make that noise, and then I sampled it hundreds of times and put it in a sampler and played it back really fast so it goes ‘whipwhipwhoopwhup [shuriken star noise]’ (laughs). That’s why my records took so long to make, cos I was doing crazy stuff like that.
“That’s what I like about Flying Lotus and that kind of thing, it reminds me of what I was doing then.”
Another thing you share with Flying Lotus is that interest in the East, an appreciation of Far Eastern culture, Japan in particular. Is that something that also still fascinates you?
“I’m not doing martial arts like I used to. I just do not have the time anymore, but it’s something that always appeals to me. At some point I had to get off it musically, like how many times can you do a complex beat arrangement that reflects combat in some way? I just want to hear ‘Energy Flash’ by Joey Beltram! It became no longer dance music, more a demonstration of technique. I think it goes along with specializing for a while and then diversifying for a while. It’s something that will never go away, I still love Eastern aesthetics, and something of the mastering of a craft or a skill still appeals. I like stuff in life where it’s the best of what it can be.”
Would you say that’s tipped over into obsession at times? Listening to those tracks, there’s an intricacy to them that sounds like you spent a hell of a lot of time crafting them…
“It’s a bit Bonsai, isn’t it? I’ve been growing this in a plant pot for 40 years, whaddya think? [laughs] How obsessive do you want to be? Like, this one is as close to perfect as I can think of it being. The funny thing is that when I met Teebee, he had the same mentality, he had a martial arts background. He was also a complete lunatic in the studio, you were there with your eyes watering cos you weren’t blinking, working 72 hours straight, with tea and cigarettes. How do you get through that? I don’t think it’s sustainable for too long. You can do that for several years of your life but at some point you need a break from it.”
When did you move to LA and what necessitated the move there?
“I came out here in 2001 and ‘Solaris’ had just come out. I was touring and I got asked to do a score for Paramount Pictures. I rented a house and came back a few months later. I was living half in London and half here. After a year and a half of that, you’re spending so much time in airports or on a plane, living in two cities 11 hours apart, at some point, you’ve just gotta choose where you’re gonna live.
“The movie was called Invincible. It was a tv pilot, an hour-long episode. It was a co-production between Jet Li and Mel Gibson, starring Billy Zane and it was a Matrix-type martial arts, futuristic kind of thing. It was the first thing I’d done in that area and it got me out here, and after a while the weather makes so much difference, getting up everyday in flip-flops and shorts, without having to worry about surviving, after a certain point, you’re like, you know what? It’s a pretty good place to live.
“I’m in Studio City now but I’ve lived all over the place. I started off in the Hollywood Hills, then Malibu, then Santa Monica, then Bel Air. You graduate, you live in all the exciting, glamorous places and then after a while, you’re like you know what? This is more convenient for traffic, I need to be out of the city but close to it. And I think I’ll stay in that area for a while.”
“At some point I had to get off it musically, like how many times can you do a complex beat arrangement that reflects combat in some way? I just want to hear ‘Energy Flash’!”
How does it differ to somewhere like London?
“It’s a pretty unique place. It feels like it’s the centre of the world, but it’s not even a proper city. Apart from the film business, what impact does it really have? It’s not London or Tokyo, it’s LA, this weird place on the edge of the map. There’s so much media output from here that it makes its mark in a really weird way on the world. From TV to trash to Hollywood movies, it’s all coming out of here, yet LA doesn’t really participate in the rest of the world. But very convenient. It’s very slow, if you come from London, you can’t believe how slow it is. Even New York feels a little slower than London. Then you get to LA and you don’t feel like part of civilization anymore, you can sit out in the garden all day and forget you’re in a major city. It’s unique.”
Was working on movie soundtracks a natural evolution?
“People always said, ‘Your music is really filmic’, and I thought I should be doing the next Michael Mann movie. And once you get out here and into it, you realize it’s a whole industry in itself, you don’t just slip in and out of it, you better start earning your stripes now if you want to be doing those movies in a few years time. You realize there’s a lot of politics, and a lot of groundwork to be done in scoring a movie, and it’s incredibly demanding. I’d love to be doing a Michael Mann hit movie but I’m not sure if I’m prepared to put my record making career on hold to do that.
“I’ve learned so much from doing it. For a start, I work a lot quicker than I used to. I did one TV series called Platinum and it was five hours of music in 12 days. So four or five albums in 12 days. You’ve also got someone correcting everything you do at the same time, so five episodes takes a whole afternoon to watch, so that’s one of your days already. You don’t even have time, you just have to hit play on the picture and start banging the keyboard, and you better hope that you’re inspired every minute of the day, otherwise you’re gonna find yourself in a lot of trouble.”
“After making a load of Photek records I’ll probably think, ‘Isn’t it easier to stay in LA and work on a load of film music?’ but for the time being I’m really excited about what I’m doing. I’m not up for discussing with executives about how it needs to sound more like Moby, y’know?”
What do you think of some of the contemporary scorers, people like Clint Mansell who’s scored Moon and Black Swan among others?
“He’s great, guys like Harry Gregson Williams, he’s always got his eye on what’s happening in the rest of dance music. I worked with him briefly and he’s worked with Hybrid a lot. His score for Spygame, was amazing, and then you’ve got John Powell, both of them are out of the Hans Zimmer school of film career. They both started out as ghost writers or assistants or back-up guys. They set up their own empires after that. And Cliff Martinez, the Traffic score, amazing.”
What film projects have you got coming up?
“I’m really not doing anything film-related at the moment. I’d like to come back to that at some stage. After making a load of Photek records I’ll probably think, ‘Isn’t it easier to stay in LA and work on a load of film music?’ but for the time being I’m really excited about what I’m doing. I’m not up for discussing with executives about how it needs to sound more like Moby, y’know?”
Is there a Photek album or more EPs on the way?
“There’s going to be more EPs, and what we decided on — we being me and my new management, who are absolutely fantastic, they’ve really helped me get it together and are a big reason why you’re hearing all this music — let’s do a series of EPs where the best content can be cherry-picked for an album at the end of that series. I can fill in the gaps with other tracks that make it sound like an album, cos an album should sound like one, not just a compilation.
“The next thing that’s coming out will be in June, and at the end of March there’ll be a ‘101’ Boddika remix, and there’s some other exciting mixes I’m expecting back from people, and then I’ve got a release coming out on Tectonic called ‘Closer’. It was going to be part of the EPs, but then Pinch was really into it. And then a few more remixes, I just finished one for Daft Punk, of ‘End Of the Line’, off the soundtrack for Tron Legacy. I’ve also remixed Distance’s ‘Falling’ and Jess Mills. Not Jeff Mills, but that would also be nice! And Ray Lamontagne, so I’ve been busy.”
Photek photography: Philippe McClellan
Live photo: Teddy Fitzhugh