In 1997, Photek released Modus Operandi.
It was one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of its era, at least among those interested in all that was new and vigorous in underground music. By the time it arrived, its maker – real name Rupert Parkes – was already well established as a unique talent in drum ‘n bass. For three years he’d been evolving his sound, a sound rooted in deft, fanatically detailed drum programming that is as mind-blowing today as it was in the mid-90s – Burial is but one contemporary producer to have expressed his awe for the texture, swing and precision of Parkes’ percussion.
On Modus, those inimitable Photek drums conspired with the most refined spy-flick jazz atmospherics and eerie, dystopian synth sequences partly inspired by Detroit techno to create an album of both serious muscle and balletic poise. Though not without its flaws, it remains an out-and-out classic, one which will influence new artists for many generations yet to come.
Parkes, by his own admission not one prone to looking back, earlier this week revisited Modus for a special set at Tiger Beer’s Hidden Depths of Hospital Records party. FACT’s Kiran Sande seized upon the occasion to talk to him about the making of the album, and his feelings about it 15 years on.
“I remember when I finished making those tracks, I really did think: these can’t be any better, these are perfect.”
“Well, the request actually came from Tony at Hospital. He asked me to come and play that kind of set because I’ve not done it for a long time, not really since when the records were first out. To tell you the truth, I spend most of my time trying to think about what’s happening next rather than looking back. I mean, last night, that’s probably only the second time I’ve played a retro set ever…the only other one I can think of was in LA a couple of years back, when I played a best of ’89-’95 set on vinyl.”
What exactly was the content of the Modus set?
“90% of the set was tracks from the actual album, and a load of stuff from around that time. Singles that came shortly before and after, remixes…a ‘Still Life’ remix I did for Goldie…oh, and ‘Pulp Fiction’! I think that was only one tune that wasn’t by me, ‘Pulp Fiction’, that was kind of my encore track [laughs]…But yeah, mostly all original Photek stuff from that era.”
“I listen back now and I think hang on, there’s maybe a few too many drum edits in there…”
How do you feel about that music some 15 years on? Anything you wish you’d done differently?
“There’s a few different reactions. With tracks like ‘U.F.O.’, I remember when I finished making them, I really did think: these can’t be any better, these are perfect. You know, with ‘U.F.O.’/'Rings Around Saturn’ I honestly thought, wow, I’ve just made a perfect 12″. And the thing is, they really do stand up today – even now, there’s nothing at all about them that I’d change.
“But then there are other tracks… like ‘Water Margin’, which was just one release before ‘U.F.O.’, that I hear now and think, hmmm, that was a crusty old Amen break, eh? [laughs]. But you know, it’s still got vibes, and I don’t wish that I’d done it any differently…often it was just the limits of technology, anyway. There were a few different programming styles going on in music at that time, and one was that style of really stuttering drum edits…and now I hear them and I think hang on, maybe there’s a few too many drum edits in there [laughs]. But you know, at the time that was what I was into.”
Modus Operandi comes across as a very deliberate-sounding album – not only does the drum programming sound intricate and tightly controlled, the record as a whole seems to be very carefully constructed. How clear about what you wanted to achieve were you when you first sat down to write it?
“I feel like there was definitely a concept behind it…but I’m not sure how well I could articulate it, even now. I mean, that’s how the title, Modus Operandi, came about in the first place: back then so many different people, in interviews or whatever, were asking me to define jungle. The way I chose to define it to them was as a style of programming, a style of using sonics to make music, as opposed to using instruments to make music. This was music purely about soundscapes, space, bass…and you can forget how hard this was to explain to some people at the time. And at the same time , it was quite open: I felt like any style or tempo of music could fit on Modus Operandi if it was sonically right. And yeah, I’d thought a lot about the whole package: I knew what the colour scheme for the artwork was boing to be, I knew what the atmosphere was going to be like, you know?”
“This was music purely about soundscapes, space, bass…and you can forget how hard this was to explain to some people at the time.”
To state the bleedingly obvious, echanges in the way people encounter, consume and collect music, have really diminished the idea of the album as a major artifact. It’s hard to an imagine an album like Modus Operandi, or Timeless, or whatever, having the kind of impact now that it did back then.
“Right. I think I was very aware of it then…and yeah, it’s become more and more relevant in the years that have passed. You know, what is an album all about, what kind of a statement is it? I’ll tell you something: I was very lucky that I started making music in the year that I did. Very lucky. I’m grateful that the planets were aligned for me to do a lot of great things. Have you read that book, Outliers? By Malcolm Gladwell. He talks about the fact that, for example, Microsoft wouldn’t have happened if Bill Gates hadn’t been in Seattle the year that he was…a year either side of that and it really might not have happened at all. Some very simple factors with big consequences.”