In 2012 Joshua Leary uploaded his music under the handle Evian Christ.
Within months the buzz had spread to all corners of the web. Like much great rap music, Leary’s instrumentals were situated at the intersection between the urban and the avant garde. The sound did have its precedents – including the aesthetic of Tri Angle Records, who quickly signed Leary, while the intuition Leary displayed for working in abstract spaces recalled the cut-up virtuality of postmodern electro-collagist Mantronik.
It was almost inevitable that sooner or later the tracks would catch the ear of some very influential people. But exactly who it was that came knocking caught everyone by surprise. Less than 18 months after Kings And Them, Leary, then 23, found himself ward to none other than Kanye West, who had selected him to be one of the producers working on Yeezus. “I was about to go to bed one night towards the start of the year when I got the email saying, ‘Hey Kanye wants you to come to Paris now. Can you get on the first flight in the morning?’ So that whole journey was the most, ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ moment” he told Dazed.
Speaking with FACT in Shoreditch boozer The Barley Mow, Leary gives us the Evian Christ story so far and an insight into the upcoming follow-up to Kings And Them, Waterfall.
Am I right in saying that in 2012 you were studying to be a teacher?
So are you a fully-qualified educator now?
I graduated, yeah. In summer 2012.
But are you working as a teacher now?
No, this music thing has been full time ever since. The very next day after I qualified I left to go on tour in America.
Why did you choose teaching, out of interest?
Well, I was never sure what to do as a career, but I thought, well, I love kids… I always got on well with kids. Adults depress me. And I couldn’t think of anything worse than working in an office. But Id like to get back to teaching after I’m finished in music.
Maybe you can combine the two professions?
Yeah, like ‘Evian Christ DJ School’.
How did you first get into music, and subsequently music-making?
A brief chronology… erm. Well, on the one hand, growing up my dad was into making synth stuff like New Order, Kraftwerk. Then on the other hand, around the time I was 11 or 12 in the late 90s and early 2000s, my stepdad was a trance DJ at the weekends. It was just trance in our house every night.
Right at trance’s peak then?
Ha, yeah – the halcyon days of, like, melodic Dutch pop-trance. I loved that stuff – it was perfect music for a 12 year old, so euphoric and immediate.
And then as I got older I discovered MTV Base on TV, which used to play rap and r’n’b videos. Became obsessed with that.
I mean, in a certain respect your music takes from both rap and trance.
Yeah. Especially on the new EP.
Then what happened?
And then before Kings And Them came out I’d gotten into experimental electronica and ambient. I had stumbled across Grouper, Tim Hecker, that label which that FACT writer John Twells owns, Type. And I got super into Ben Frost. His Bedroom Community stuff was, for me, a big entry point into experimental electronica.
Then what happened?
Firstly it began with messing around with my dad’s equipment when I went to visit him, then finally just over three years ago I started producing. Then about a year after I wrote the Kings And Them EP. I think the first tune I ever did was ‘Drip‘.
So are you, in fact, first and foremost a hip-hop fan? Your music takes technical inspiration from a lot of other genres, so it isn’t clear.
Oh, hugely. I live for rap. Most of the music I listen to is rap. In some ways I only listen to other genres to keep me sane, when I need a break from hip-hop. I mean, if I had to listen to only one genre for the rest of my life, it’d be rap.
How do you go from listening to rap to the Kings And Them sound? Why not produce some backing beats, say?
I think that’s what I thought I was doing. But I dunno, it’s a weird one. Obviously in the end it came out as this kind of deconstructionist thing.
But to me it’s still rap music. It has rap vocals and 808s etc. I think you can listen to Kings And Them alongside any rap album and have it make sense. That said, I suppose my ambient and dance music influences flipped the sound a bit. Especially with, say, ‘Fuck It None Of Y’all Don’t Rap‘.
In terms of the North West scene, is there a whole group of artists doing this same kind of thing, or are you more or less an anomaly in the region?
If there is I’m not aware of them. I mean, I’m still yet to play a show in Liverpool – it’s wild to me that I can play a show in Iceland or in the middle of Canada, but I can’t play a show in my home city. Which maybe suggests there might not be that much of an electronica scene in Liverpool. That said, on Tri Angle at least, a lot of the artists are from the North West. Forest Swords is from The Wirral, The Haxan Cloak is from Yorkshire and Holy Other is from Stockport. And then this new guy they’ve signed who’s from the middle of Manchester. So basically, although there’s no local scene, there’s like a virtual scene. It’s interesting that this particular strain of electronica has sprung from the North West, there’s something in that, although I don’t know what.
But I mean, outside of Manchester, which is more of a hub for electronic music than Liverpool would be, none of us really play gigs in the North West. We have to come to London to do that.
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So what would you say is the North West’s resident dance style?
I dunno. Sort of as a hangover from The Beatles, there’s always been a big indie scene in Liverpool. The city is always trying to find the next Beatles. Like, they had The La’s for a while, then it was The Coral.
At the same time, the dance scene in Liverpool is based around house music, which is a long way from what I’m doing. The Manchester scene is a bit more like London in that there’s more converging British dance styles – as in ‘bass music’, if you want to term it that. It’s a bit more progressive in Manchester, which was great for me growing up, ’cause I went to uni there and we were able to go to, say, Warehouse Project and see acts like Aphex Twin.
Do you feel like your sound fits the ‘Tri Angle aesthetic’?
Yeah, definitely. When I first signed, Tri Angle had a very clearly-defined aesthetic. Almost every record was about putting a weird dark spin on contemporary rap or r’n’b. So at the time, in 2012, Kings And Them was a really good fit. It seemed part of a lineage. But the label’s really changed since then. Now you’ve got pop bands like AlunaGeorge, or insane grime stuff, or drone like The Haxan Cloak. So these days I’m not too sure what Tri Angle is anymore. Right now the label is in flux – like it’s in the process of re-defining itself, which I think is really healthy. There was a lot more variety in their releases last year.
On your early tracks, out of all the rappers you could have chosen, why was it Tyga that you sampled across Kings And Them?
There’s no great story behind that. Basically it just so happened that I had that Tyga single (‘Loading Video…
#t=149″ target=”_blank”>Snapbacks Back‘) on my laptop at the time. Apart from that, though, when I was making ‘Drip’ I realised it was coming out as 70 BPM, and as a happy coincidence ‘Snapbacks Back’ was 70 BPM too. So I thought, ‘yeah, this works’. Beyond that, with ‘Snapbacks Back’ being a very straight ‘club-rap’ song, it was fun to take something made for a very distinct purpose, subvert that purpose, and have the song work towards an opposite goal.
Where Kings And Them was serene, almost spiritual, the Waterfall EP is a more intense, abrasive project. Aggressive, even. What changed?
Well, personally speaking, when I’m writing a track I’m very influenced by the music I’m listening to at that time. Which is something some producers see as a negative thing – they try to shut themselves off from outside influences. But I’m all for it. So at the time of making Waterfall it was loud, abrasive acts like Vatican Shadow and Wolf Eyes, or The Haxan Cloak, that I was into. I was playing festivals with these guys, and when I saw The Haxan Cloak in a live setting, with all the blind-strobes and with Pete Swanson banging his fists on the table to make the bass drum, I realised then that I don’t want to be an ‘ambient guy’ right now.
Obviously the distortion and dissonance on Waterfall is an extension of your Hecker/Grouper influences. But signifiers like those are also a very indie-rap thing. There’s a theory that the indie rap aesthetic, especially the Def Jux sound, is slowly infiltrating the hip-hop mainstream. What you reckon?
I use distortion a lot on Waterfall, yeah. But, no, it’s definitely not an indie-rap thing for me. I’ve always struggled with the backpack-y end of hip-hop – ‘left-of-centre’ hip-hop like Jux. Which is ironic, because I suppose that’s what I make, even if my intentions have been to make rap music that was very ‘straight’. I’ve always been more into mainstream rap. I mean, when I was a kid I had a bunch of friends who were massively into Jux stuff, but I was always more interested in listening to, like, Dipset mixtapes. Saying that, Yeezus is, I suppose, a very left-of-centre hip-hop album and not a million miles away from what the Jux guys were doing 10 years ago.
Regarding your time on the Yeezus project, were you ever given any kind of instruction as to what Kanye West was looking for?
Sometimes. But overall the only instruction they gave me was to make the most experimental, wild shit I could come up with. Initially I sent them some beats, but they were like, ‘This is not weird enough, we want weirder shit’. So gradually the stuff I was sending them just got weirder and weirder. They told me, ‘For now we just want you to make the weirdest shit you can think of and we’ll rein everything in at the end – Kanye will figure it out’. Which is a pretty inspiring way to work – having someone pushing you to be as experimental as you can for a pop record. That’s like the dream scenario for me. Nothing I did was ever too strange for them.
Since Yeezus, have you been offered any more guest producer work?
I mean, I signed a publishing deal with Kanye, and part and parcel of that is being afforded the opportunity to work with other rappers and singers, or to be a producer on other people’s projects. Basically, I’m now working with Sony as an ‘outside developer’, which is great.
So you are interested in working in the pop world?
Oh yeah. But it’s difficult – some artists want the cool factor of working with an underground electronic producer but they don’t necessarily want the music. I mean, you make these artists these experimental songs, but when it comes down to it the only thing they really want is like, a Pharrell song, or some dance-y tune they can put to a flashy video.
But in many ways it’s a great time right now to be an experimental hip-hop producer working in pop. I mean, you’ve got guys like Clams Casino, Ty Beats and SpaceGhostPurrp who are rethinking the way hip-hop sounds, but who are also working in the mainstream on records like A$AP Rocky’s debut, for instance.
It’s interesting. I mean, it’s not as if these guys are on niche imprints, they’re working on major labels and making super-weird pop music. It’s something I’m really passionate about, actually. It’s easy for me to go on making the weirdest stuff I want to and releasing it on an electronic records, or spend my days playing European festivals. It’s harder, not to mention arguably more important, to be able to put your sound in a pop context, and really influence the music that the vast majority of the people listen to.
Every generation says it about the previous one, but in my opinion radio rap and r’n’b is nowhere near as experimental as it was 10 years ago when Timbaland and The Neptunes were at their height. That said, as much as producers like Clams and Hudmo are trying to be ‘that guy’, it’s slow progress. That’s why Kanye is such an important figure – here we had the biggest hip-hop artist in the world who went out and made the most experimental album he could, and people still bought it. It’s proof to the money-men that the general public are ready for this music. I think the success of Yeezus is going to prove massively influential in the future. All the big artists are already starting to take note.
Evian Christ’s Waterfall EP is out on March 17, with a launch party at London’s Oval Space.