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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 – ‘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.”

Ben Murphy

Photek photography: Philippe McClellan
Live photo: Teddy Fitzhugh


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