Almost exactly a year on from his Commotion EP, Signals finds Wen relying (slightly) less on the MC samples that were peppered across that EP, often causing damage with little more than a thick bassline, atmospherics and a snare. Of course, this being Wen, he still often lets his carefully-sourced pirate radio samples speak for him, most memorably on the album’s penultimate track ‘Nightcrawler (Devil Mix)’, which revolves around an unholy dialogue between Ghetto, Wiley and more.
We caught up with Wen to find a little more about Signals, which will be released through Keysound on March 17.
Signals is your debut full-length. How did you approach the challenge of making an album? And how would you describe the results?
It was daunting for sure, an album was something I imagined doing at some point but didn’t expect the opportunity to come so soon. It definitely felt like the right way to focus where I have been going these past few years. I love what the underground scenes in the UK represent, and that feeling is deeply rooted in my music – I work hard to let that seep through. The album needed to cypher out my best work that captures those styles and lay them down in a coherent way, I think it spreads out evenly across those scenes whilst still holding on to my identity and stamping the style as my own.
A lot of Signals feels ghostly, elegiac – is it fair to call it a tribute to a sound and a time period that’s now long gone?
I like that it sounds ghostly, but I don’t think the sounds – or vibe – I tribute can be considered long gone. Sure they are of a time but when I feel a vibe it’s a constant thing. If anything with time that vibe matures, there is less hype to cloud your judgement and you relate with the music in an honest way. I think that has a lot to do with the reason I sample older material, its stuff that has longevity and has held its value with me.
It very much feels like a record in two parts – the instrumental first half, followed by the vocal-heavy second half. What motivated the sequencing?
It was important that I included some beats that stand up without relying on vocal sampling, which over the past year or so has become my recognizable trait. The sequencing was just a gradual build of energy and tension, in a similar style to the way I play my sets. Playing music to people in clubs became a big part of my life through the process of making the album, this definitely had a knock on effect to the way the tracks are arranged. The vinyl version is laid out so the tracks can be mixed together in a similar order as the CD, and the title track is on the white label record with ‘Strings Hoe’, which is a track I loosely consider part of the album.. a bonus track I guess.
From the Wiley rips to the Riko feature, Roll Deep hangs heavy over the album. Which MCs and producers would you say cast a particular shadow over Signals?
I think Roll Deep only hold that presence because they are the most recognizable vocalists featured. The Wiley feature was more of a homage thing to that unforgettable moment he and Roll Deep sprayed on my tune. From my point of view the rest of the vocalists I sample are MCs who are heavily representative of the underground scene in the UK, but are slightly overlooked by the masses despite their talent. Not to say they are unsuccessful, far from it, but these are some of the vocalists I rate the highest yet they seem to stick to the shadows. Riko, Youngs Teflon, Frisco, Squeeks, Sgt Pokes, Ghetto, Trim, No Lay – perhaps by choice / motive, I dunno, whatever the reason that ‘dark horse’ characteristic they hold definitely draws me in.
Plenty of ink has been spilled about the UK’s “instrumental grime new wave” – do you self-identity as part of that, or do you think it’s too baggy a term to be useful?
[laughs] Touchy subject… I’m not really too sure about being identified as part of that – but its hard to argue against it. If I’m honest I don’t feel i’m explicitly pushing grime, I think I’m doing something a little different. If i wanted to present myself as a grime producer the album would have been at 140 bpm and featured more recorded vocalists, the one vocal collab I did is closer to funky or broken beat. It’s slower, and quite danceable. When I sample vocalists I use them like hosts to guide you through the track, rather than a rapid-fire MC fully taking the reigns and telling his / her story. There’s no doubt grime is a huge influence on me, and my music on first listen will immediately trigger similar reactions to those grime creates – but really I’m more up for not giving definitive terms to my music, the harder it is to define it… the fewer constraints and expectations there are for what I’m going to come up with next.
The less predictable we are the further we can take this thing.