Ghosts in the machine: Mark Pritchard on retiring his aliases and rediscovering 160bpm
Mark Pritchard: all of the kings are dead, long live the king
Over the past 20 years, Mark Pritchard has been one of England’s steadiest electronic music visionaries. He’s a figurehead who, without a touch of hubris, has been praised for groundbreaking work in both the mainstream and underground press, and has operated across genres – from techno to ambient, jungle to hip hop – with apparent ease. If anyone deserves the badge of ‘pioneer’ today, it’s Pritchard. Just ask some of your favourite producers. And he’s not done yet.
Raised in Somerset but now based in the sunnier climes of Sydney, Pritchard has long had a fondness for aliases that has challenged even the most dedicated musical trainspotter. At my last count, there have been over 20, both solo (Harmonic 313, Troubleman) and in collaboration (with Tom Middleton, Dave Brinkworth, Danny Breaks, Kirsty Hawkshaw, and, most recently, Steve Spacek). As such, the recent announcement that he would be retiring all his noms de guerre and consolidating his work under his real name led many to assume that some of his better-loved musical projects had come to an end. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth: in a day and age where even legends such as him can struggle to expand a dedicated following, Pritchard has simply opted to make life easier for himself.
Tidings of the name change were accompanied by news that Pritchard’s next solo album would appear on Warp, his most regular home since the late ’00s. The album will be preceded by a string of EPs, the first of which, Ghosts, came out a couple weeks ago. It’s a record with a clear club music focus that touches on Pritchard’s varied expertise, tilting from low slung, bass-heavy dubstep riddims to paranoia-inducing drum’n’bass and footwork. The latter sound is particularly important: in the past few years, Pritchard has, alongside Planet Mu’s Mike Paradinas, been one of the loudest supporters of the Chicago sound (I hasten to add the loudness of his support relates to his DJ sets, not his actual shouting – he’s more the softly-spoken type, letting the music, as it were, do the talking.)
With all this in mind, we caught up with the man to discuss the name change, his forthcoming album, and the excitement he gets from the 160/80bpm slow/fast nexus that’s been unfolding at dance music’s edges in recent years.
The latest release is the Ghosts EP, which is the first of three?
Yeah, hopefully three this year. Depending on when the album gets finished, things might move slightly. The rough idea is three EPs and then an album. I’ve got lots of club tracks that I just want to get out, so there’ll be at least three EPs before the album. Maybe even four – we’ll see. And then, after the album, the idea is to keep a flow of them coming.
Some of the tracks on Ghosts and the following EP have been around for a while, right?
There’s a backlog of tunes getting finalised. I’d say it’s also getting to the point where there are new ones in there too, alongside the older tracks. I think the second EP has a track that was done this year, and then the third release will also have a mix of old and new. I’m just trying to catch up with myself really.
It reminds me of the situation with Harmonic 313, where some of the music on that album was made years before release, but remained stuck until you could get the project out. Is this something you’re trying to break away from?
I’d like to get it so it’s not like that anymore – especially with the club stuff, but really with everything. And that’s partly the reason for the name change, because I write stuff all the time and it doesn’t necessarily fit the project that’s happening at that time. By changing the name, I’m hoping it leaves me open to releasing more diverse styles of music at any time, not just having to wait for the correct project. If I do another hip hop tune, I don’t want to wait for another Harmonic 313 album, or if I do a techno tune, where will that fit? Same with an ambient track, and so on. Having it all under one name means I can try and make the releases more diverse. It just so happens that the next three EPs are more club friendly, but that will change through next year. From then on, there will be more varied releases happening all the time. That’s the general plan.
The albums should be broader style-wise. I still need to make them into albums, with the limitations that brings, but there are so many tracks that have been sitting around for ages that don’t really fit anything. At least now, with just one name, I can do something with them. I can vary the styles of the releases and it allows it to be freer and more open. The way I’ve worked so far hasn’t really helped – in the last ten years, it’s been difficult to make all the different styles I write fit. It got to the point where I had to make a change, really, otherwise some of the strongest music I’ve got just sits there for years because it doesn’t fit anywhere. After a while it gets annoying. You have tracks you know are strong and they sit there, then you go back to try and finish them, which doesn’t always work. I want to get to the point where if I write something, I can get it out there into the world quicker.
There are some obvious sonic cues on the new EP, such as the title track’s link to the darker side of drum’n’bass circa turn of the century. Aside from that, was there any particular inspiration you drew from for the new releases?
I suppose these EPs are things I was writing around the time other projects were being done. Ghosts was written around the time Africa Hitech was happening. I was touring so much that I would write ideas when I was back home. There’s a definite link to it all though, which is footwork to a degree, because I wrote all this in the last three/four years at the same time as Africa Hitech. So footwork is one, and also the fact that I’ve been writing jungle and drum’n’bass for a long time but never finished any of it as different album projects would come in the way. There’s some of that in there too, but doing it so it doesn’t just sound retro.
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Ghosts to me definitely has a very retro-while-being-forward vibe, though it’s hard to put into words. Do you think your experience of drum’n’bass in the ’90s comes in handy with something like that?
In the last five or six years, I’ve done bits and pieces of drum’n’bass, but it took a while to get it to a point where it wasn’t too retro because I was always wary of that. A lot of the time, I just write and see how it comes out. The main thing with drum’n’bass to me is trying to make it feel loose and funky, and capture that feel of the original times. What I don’t like about a lot of new drum’n’bass is that it went very clinical. So that’s one thing I was wary of – keeping the funk and looseness of it. And also basslines, trying to get basslines in there because that’s also something that’s gone out of it, I feel. Trying to get all that back in. I didn’t have a big master plan of doing it – the modern production equipment helped, I think. By taking the best from the equipment but not stripping out those things I wanted to keep, I hoped to bring a new balance to it.
Do you think that footwork blowing up the way it did helped to bring back some freshness to that whole tempo again?
Definitely. Playing footwork… hearing it and then playing it out. I was playing drum’n’bass and jungle for a while, playing 140bpm music and then picking it up a level because I didn’t want to play the really hype dubstep or 140 that’s been around. I was using drum’n’bass as a way of stepping up that energy in my sets. Then footwork came along, excited me, and I started playing it. Plus it was obvious those two things went amazingly well together. In the last four years or more, I’ve been playing more music at that tempo and, in turn, writing more music at that tempo. I’m enjoying doing faster tempos again, whereas before I would likely stick to 90bpm and 140bpm when writing club stuff – hip hop and dubstep tempos, basically, but also grime. It’s really nice to write at 160.
Is there more space? The switch between full and half time at that tempo seems to somehow have more space, more potential to it than at dubstep/grime tempos. The potential in that bpm and the full/half switch seemed to get exhausted quicker somehow.
It’s partly that. There is more space. It’s more the energy of 160 that I’ve really enjoyed. It’s fun to write at faster tempos again. I wrote at drum’n’bass speed through the ’90s, but then hadn’t really done anything that fast for quite a long time. It all came together. And then the 80bpm thing you mention too, I’ve been writing a lot of hip hop at that tempo, and the double speed energy seems to breathe life into doing hip hop style tunes again. Using samples and certain things, I would have done at 90 but trying to do something with them at 80, it seems to add extra energy to it all. It seems to open up different areas. In fact, there’s definitely a feeling that at the moment there’s an endless amount of ideas to be done around the 80/160 axis. There’s a whole world of music you can try, endless possibilities at that tempo again, which is really exciting.
Trap and the Dirty South revival also seem to feed into all this, considering it hovers mainly at 150. Almost like footwork and jungle are the rhythmic foundations, with people able to throw in other things for flavour, like what Kode 9 did with his recent single.
A lot of what I’ve written recently is hip hop style at 80, but then the rhythm is at 160 on top of it. The last six months have been spent writing a lot more of that type of music. There’s so much scope there. It opens up lots of samples I’ve wanted to use but couldn’t. At the moment I’m writing down ideas constantly because I’ve not got time to do them. There are all these ideas piling up of what to do, what to chop. I’m doing a lot more sampling too, which I haven’t really done as much of. I’ve been having a lot of fun doing that.
That’s another thing that seems to have been coming back around in both dance music and hip hop. It’s almost like a comedown from the excess of synthesis in the past ten or so years. There’s something quite timeless about flipping a good sample.
It’s becoming a slight pain in the arse, because I have to clear them. We’re trying to clear stuff at the moment and we’re looking for an easy way of doing it and building up relationships with people to make it easier going forward. I’d rather clear if possible. There have been some painless ones and a couple of tricky ones. I always hated the feeling of it being too much hassle to clear something. Then it becomes, “Oh, I’ll just do it as a giveaway or bootleg.” I’d rather do it. But I wish some of the bigger companies weren’t so tricky. You’d hope they’d be more open considering how the music industry is now. They can make money off these things, so why not be reasonable?
There is a sense that the industry still hasn’t caught up to the realities of how intrinsic sampling is to modern music and art.
It did get to a point where many people stopped sampling and some good stuff came out of that. I definitely got to the point of leaving things alone. On Africa Hitech, there were two samples we cleared, both quite easy. But yeah, I’m having fun with that a lot at the moment, though the album is not as sample-based. The rough idea with it is that it won’t be clubby at all. With the name change, there are so many tracks I wanted to put out, as I said, so it’s combining them with new stuff I’m writing. It’s still in the development stage, and figuring out how it will all come together, but the general idea is to keep the albums less club-based.
I just want them to be more varied. Albums that are all club-based are difficult, there isn’t a huge history of them being great. I don’t think many of the albums I’ve done have been out-and-out clubby anyway. I’m definitely looking to get vocals on the album as well, working with a few different vocalists. I’m excited about making music I want to make and not worrying about saving it for other projects, other albums. Now I can really look at all the stuff I’ve got sitting there and see what will fit together. It also means I can keep it quite broad, and still have constant club tracks coming out all the time too.
Do you feel Warp has been a good home for that, allowing you to balance the two?
Definitely. And they are supportive about the name change, they know all the music I’ve got. The album I signed to Warp to do is more avant-garde, I’ve got 30, 40 tunes in that style, just sitting there. Now some of them can actually start coming out and going on the album. And because it will be less clubby, there’s potential to go further out into the avant-garde on the album after that without throwing people completely.
Warp has always made space for artists who want to be versatile and, to a degree, free to do what they want.
A lot of people are always hassling me to do stuff from a certain project. When I released the Harmonic 33 album, which was inspired by library music, people would ask, “When is more of that stuff coming?” I do write stuff like that regularly, but then another project would come up. Once I’d finished Harmonic 313, which took a lot of work, Africa Hitech started happening, and had actually started before the Harmonic 313 album was even finished. As much as I’d like to, I can’t finish two or three albums in a year. I saw comments when we announced the name change that people thought I was killing off the aliases, and so killing off the sounds, which isn’t the case at all. The idea behind the name change is completely the opposite. All those names I’m known for, I write that music all the time – it just so happens that I couldn’t really put a Harmonic 33 tune on the Africa Hitech album. It wouldn’t fit style-wise. But there’s a chance I could fit a couple on the next album now that I’m changing my approach.
The other reason behind it is that, by having different names, I made it hard for myself these past twenty years. I’d build a name up, people would get into it and then I’d do something under another name and people would get confused, or wouldn’t even know. They’d lose track. Even people I know who followed me for certain projects would ask what I’ve been up to not realising I was putting music out under other names all the while. Basically you’re building up something and starting again really. There were reasons for doing that in the ’90s and into the ’00s – it did make the music speak for itself. But with the current musical climate, it’s hard enough having one name and building that up.
It should hopefully also help bring people to your work retroactively, make it easier to trace all the different sides of Mark Pritchard, and perhaps even solidify the back catalogue. I wanted to ask about something a bit broader, but tied into all that we’ve spoken about. It’s the idea that the process whereby an artist finds his own voice has changed. It used to be something that took time and effort – and happened almost always in private – until someone had something solid to bring forward. Whereas now everything is so much more accessible, from the music to the online tutorials…that process seems to happen in the public arena. I was wondering how someone like you, who’s been around for so long, feels about it?
In some ways, I like the idea of being able to do something and getting it out. I’m slightly envious of that in some ways. And the name change is a way for me to deal with that, even now that I’ve been making music for 20 years. It is annoying when you write something and it doesn’t come out for a while, especially for club music. Whereas for the music that’s not club-orientated, it doesn’t worry me so much, because that stuff doesn’t necessarily age the same. Club music follows trends, and sometimes I’ve been lucky releasing stuff I’d made ages before and hitting a trend again.
In terms of generational changes, what happens is that people write stuff inspired by a track that is ‘current’ and set to write something that is like it. If you listen to a footwork track and go write a footwork track in response, there’s a chance you might have something to say and it’ll be interesting, but it depends on your general outlook. Most of the time, though, it’ll sound second rate, and it’s always interesting when someone comes in from another area and puts their own take on a sound, brings a different inspiration to it. That’s why I like the recent Kode9 releases – it was nice to hear because you could tell it was him in there, it was his stamp on that sound. It didn’t sound like it was trying to be current, it still sounded like him, which I think is great.
You mentioned DJing before. You’ve been posting a few of your sets on Soundcloud and you seem to be having fun with them, they’re quite broad too taking a lot of styles and genres in. Have you always had good receptions to them?
Yeah, in the last three or four years I’ve not had any issues at all, just playing what I want and it seems to work. Even over here. The first time I was playing any footwork in my sets it went down well, even if people weren’t familiar with it much. The fact I was mixing it up with jungle and playing other tempos as well seemed to keep people open. Over here, they seem very open to anything really. I did wonder what Europe would be like the first few times I went back, but even there it was good. The same thing happened with the first Africa Hitech tours. We were playing lots of footwork, jungle and some dubstep and grime. Some sets we would play wider, especially if we had more time. We would look to bring more styles in, hip hop and other music, everything we like. It’s been great.
There seems to be a definite return to more acceptance for broader DJ sets, rather than the myopic one-genre nights that dominated for a lot of the ’00s.
It’s always been my style as a DJ too. I want to play music I’m excited about at a certain time. There are different types of DJ, and one approach isn’t better than the other, but I’ve always been someone who wants to play new music that’s exciting to me. I’ve had phases with older music, where there’s not necessarily a lot of new music I like, so I draw on the older stuff. But I’ve always had a weird feeling when the balance isn’t quite right. Even with playing jungle – it was music I’d play in the ’90s, so it was weird, but then footwork came along and helped me with it. It’s been great to be able to play music I was playing in the ’90s again, actually. A lot of it still sounds amazing, and when you combine it with new stuff, it’s great. Ultimately, I want to hear new music or old music I’ve not heard. That’s what drives me.
If I go to a club, I want to hear mad shit, something different. It’s what unites all the classic nights I loved, even something like Balance with Ade. He’d play old and new music, stuff I’d never heard before, and that’s what I want to hear when I go out. And that’s been the challenge with jungle and drum’n’bass – finding tunes that I’d never had, never heard and playing them again.
Do you think that search for the new, for something exciting, is becoming more difficult?
Footwork still really excites me. I get stuff from the Chicago guys, and I still get as excited as when I first heard it. It reminds me of jungle and drum’n’bass in the ’90s again, getting tunes and wanting to play them immediately and being excited about playing them. The house revival that’s massive right now I’m finding less exciting, but maybe that’s just the fact that I was so into techno and house in the early ’90s and was lucky to hear it at a certain time. It’s hard to figure out if it’s growing up with that music and hearing the new stuff and thinking, “I’ve got tunes that are better than that”, or if it’s just where I am at the time. I understand that to younger audiences it might sound mind-blowing to them. But there are new people doing stuff within jungle and drum’n’bass that sounds as good as the old stuff – a guy like Ricky Force, say. Some of the stuff sounds like Metalheadz-era classic tunes, but they don’t sound retro either. I think there’ll be more and more of that happening as well.