4×4 is less of a trend and more of a default in the UK’s clubs right now, but Jack Robertson feels like an antidote.
Since relocating from North America to North London, Robertson’s productions as Thefft – marked by an agitated approach to drum programming that makes them seem at once human and alien – have caught some of electronic music’s sharpest ears, including Loefah, Distal and Zed Bias. With a trifecta of releases closing 2012 (singles ‘Focus What’ and ‘Name Shame’ on MadTech and Embassy, and the four-track Distronet on Fulcrum), we caught up with Robertson to find out what makes him tick.
Apologies for starting on such a nerdy note… but your drums are what always instantly stick out about your tracks, to me. Did you play the drums before doing electronic music? And when you’re making tracks do you punch them in live, or draw them on a grid?
“I used to be that hyperactive kid that teachers told to stop banging on everything. I did used to play a lot of drums while jamming at my mate’s house when I was younger, but I never took lessons… it was more that I was just fascinated by rhythms and how they could completely change the mood and come out of nowhere. I rarely play my drums in live because I am not a massive fan of quantizing, so I generally just place them where they sound right.”
Do you always start tracks with the drums?
“Yeah, unless I’ve got a melodic idea stuck in my head. I always start with a few layered kick drums and go from there. Recently I’ve found chopping up drums from old jazz tunes with a bit of time stretching to get it off kilter can really add a nice shuffled backdrop.”
Yeah, the shuffle’s what really gets me. It’s kind of a constant with your stuff – plus it means on those odd moments you go fully 4×4 it’s even more effective. Do you find straight 4×4 boring?
“I wouldn’t say I find it boring. I would say I find straight 4×4 restrictive and repetitive. Don’t get me wrong, that sort of stuff is so effective in a club environment – I just like to be a bit more out there when arranging.
“Sometimes I do sit down and try and make a track that’s easy to pick up on and simple rhythm wise, but it never ends up that way… [it’s] just not the way I produce. I mean I always like to keep a track together with 4×4 tendencies like the kick on one and the hi-hat up beat. I leave enough room on the top to syncopate and stutter percussion which is where I feel I get my sound.”
What’s your background in music? You used to live in the States – was that when you got into making electronic music?
“Musically I started singing in choirs, with jazz band and in an acapella group where I also beat-boxed. All of that stuff was when I was in high school over in the States. I didn’t really catch onto electronic music until I heard the early DMZ records back in ’06 and from there moved backwards to the darker Zed Bias and El-B garage tunes, then over the past few years I caught onto techno and house. So… to answer your question, yeah electronic music did come into my life while in the States, but it stemmed from a lot of different musical influences.”
Do you still ever sing or sample your voice on your records now?
“I haven’t actually sang on one of my tunes since I went under my old alias, but I do have plans for a vocal EP next year. I’ve got a few of the instrumentals down now and I’m in the process of writing lyrics. With a lot of my final year performance work to do on the popular music course at Goldsmiths, it’s a good chance to warm up the pipes and get back to a passion I’ve unfortunately moved away from recently. ”
You’ve worked with Zed Bias before, right? How did that connection happen?
“Well Loefah started playing my stuff around this time last year and I think he turned Zed onto me. Zed has always been really helpful… giving me advice on the music industry and opinions on production as well. We connected well in the studio and one of the tracks we’ve done will be coming next year in more than one way, but that’s all I’ll say for now…”
You work with Damu quite a lot too – your last release came on his Fulcrum label and you’ve collaborated with him, plus you play at the Fulcrum nights. How did that connection come about?
“Yeah Sam [Damu] and I get on so well… it’s probably our hyperactive behavior and attitude towards making tunes. I can’t actually remember how we became such good mates, but I really admire his constant work-flow and the fact that he’s more than happy to wait until things are absolutely perfect before putting his music out there. He’s extremely passionate and cares a lot about the music he makes and the music he represents through Fulcrum. It’s nice being so involved with the Fulcrum brand because everyone involved is learning about the way this industry works label wise, and to have people like Sam to talk to about the future of Fulcrum is very comforting. We’re currently sorting out quite a few Fulcrum stages next year with myself, Damu and Paleman.”
What sort of stuff got you into producing? Like was there that one track or artist where you heard it, and were like ‘shit, I need to be doing this’?
“I was fascinated by garage rhythms and the syncopation and what I interpreted as a need to fill sonic space with clicks and pops and punchy drums. I don’t remember a specific tune that made me want to imitate, but as I said before, the music of people like El-B and even Burial made me think that there was definitely more to electronic music than the spacey half-step dubstep I was obsessed with for years. Plus I was getting bored of being an acoustic singer songwriter singing in coffee shops, I didn’t see much future in it.”
What stuff do you have in the pipeline right now? What can we expect for 2013?
“The end of this year has been hectic with three releases on Fulcrum, Embassy and MadTech in quick succession, but I have no plans to let up. I’m currently working on new material for the vocal EP I mentioned and a follow up release for Fulcrum. I will be working with other vocalists as well in the new year, but I’ve also got to finish my third year at Goldsmiths, so… yeah, can’t sack that off!”