That’s, obviously, misleading – he’s released a healthy dose of white labels, remixes and collaborative 12″s in that time – but as Bok Bok explained to FACT’s Tom Lea, this latest EP is a major step forward for him. Lead track ‘Melba’s Call’ blends the innovative pop of Kelela’s Cut 4 Me (Kelela provides vocals on the track) with an instrumental varnished with the same glossy finish as Jam City’s Classical Curves and Girl Unit’s Club Rez – two of Night Slugs’ most high-definition releases to date.
Accompanying this interview: first listen of an unheard “deleted” mix of ‘Melba’s Call’.
In the last couple of years, the Slugs artwork has gone from a grid system to more high-res images – on Club Rez, Classical Curves, ‘Melba’s Call’. Is that designed to reflect the music, which also seems to have become more high-res?
Yeah, 100%. It’s more high-def. It came out of the plastic environment and into the wooden environment, so to speak. It’s thinking about what textures people are working in.
Musically, we just got better [as producers]. We started to use different equipment. The textures came out of being better producers – more creative sound design. I don’t think any of us planned that, and there were no conversations. It’s always reacting to pieces of audio, like people hearing demos and reacting to that.
Well I can give you an example. With Club Constructions, a lot of the series heavily took inspiration from Classical Curves… I really would not underplay the influence it had on our crew, on me, on everyone. You can clearly trace some of the genomes – if there’s a metallic crash happening on the two, that probably comes from ‘Hyde Park Pt. 1’. Then there’s taking a Jersey kick, and flipping it a certain way, that comes from Jack doing it on ‘How We Relate to the Body’, and to some extent ‘The Courts’.
For instance, the first track on Girl Unit’s Hysterics EP. Phil [Girl Unit] sent me that before Classical Curves came out, but he’d clearly drawn from it. And to me, that’s a positive thing. Even when people from outside our camp borrow things from us, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing either, as long as they bring something of their own to it and pull it off. If they pull it off then great, because I want more good tracks.
I’m really interested in the relationship between structure and music with Night Slugs – it’s there in pretty much all the artwork, there’ll be some kind of structure…
Usually monolithic in some way.
Where do you think it comes from? And in terms of your relationship with structure and music, what comes first? Do you always build music with a structure in mind?
It used to be more structural, but it’s become more environment-based; a setting, essentially. Well, even before it was kind of a setting – thinking how this release lives in this temple, or something like that. I guess I’ve always been that way inclined, it’s a big personal interest, stuff like the modernist movement and brutalist architecture. I’ve been interested in that from before I was doing music, so it’s natural for me to bring them together. But I guess it’s just how my brain works, it’s hard to get from, so I end up not fighting it and just embracing it, I suppose. It’s hard to explain why, as it’s kind of an experiential thing – in the past I’ve talked about it as synesthesia, but it’s not quite that as that’s a sensory thing.
I guess it’s more conceptual, or more abstract than just a direct response?
I suppose to an extent it’s a feeling. See with my new one, ‘Melba’s Call’ and the EP that’s coming out around it, all the tracks sound as if they were built in that space [in the artwork / video] or as if they were played out into that space. So that will affect the way that I program certain reverbs or delays, thinking about how sounds might bounce off concrete and reflect off glass. And there’s a plant in the room – how does it sound different?
Like how does it soften it?
Yeah, or even just how does it feel? Hearing these reverbs but in the corner of your eye you can see greenery and lushness. It’s got to a point where it’s almost thinking about what real world textures apply to what element, or something.
I actually thought about it in parallel, this time. Me and Egyptrixx talked about this in an interview towards the end of his album campaign… he worked with ANF to create an environment, and they were working in parallel – ANF was working on the visual environments, and Egyptrixx was soundtracking that, reacting to each other. I think that’s the way to go, with us, to develop that relationship between the art and the music in tandem.
You know that track ‘Wheel’, by [Dizzee] Rascal? I always thought it sounded like it was recorded… well, not recorded, but if elements were playing out into a live space, it sounds like it’s in a lift shaft, or a stairwell, with it all bouncing off and resonating around. Then if you look at something like ‘Goat Stare’ by Loefah, or one of those classic Loefah tracks that are so spacious, that sounds like… again, there’s concrete there, but there’s a vast space between it, so it’s like there’s two buildings, and it’s bouncing between them.
I’m sure you can tell from ‘Melba’, there’s quite a solid grime foundation to the new EP. So those kind of tracks, the ones that are quite stripped back and just have a bass and drums, I was thinking about how you’d illustrate that sort of environment. But then, equally, I was thinking about the other elements that I’m introducing that aren’t from grime… I think about it as something organic, but in captivity. Something organic that I’ve taken and made mine, and subdued, if you see what I’m saying.
Which could also be greenery within glass.
Exactly. It’s actually really literal – super-literal.
It’s funny you talk about grime in that way, because when I first heard those really grandiose, industrial Ruff Sqwad tunes like ‘Lethal Injection’, I always used to think of silos. Then you made ‘Silo Pass’, and I was like ‘oh shit’…
I’d love to do it as a project, if I had time. How do you illustrate Ruff Sqwad’s music in the way that I illustrate Night Slugs artwork? So there’d be that industrial side to it, but then a series of automated trumpets, or a horn section that plays itself. It’s really literal, the way I think about things now. I suppose it’s my graphic design background coming through…
But equally, when you look a lot of those grime tunes, it’s just six channels or so. It’s quite easy to translate that literally.
I did this back in uni, precisely that – I did some work on mapping out how these tracks work. Because they’re so modular, and made of building blocks that are so blatant, you can actually draw them, on a timeline, in blocks or bars.
You’ve released a lot of music through Night Slugs, but ‘Melba’s Call’ is only your second ‘proper’ release in those years. Is that just the label getting in the way?
Yeah. It’s a full time job and a half. I wouldn’t say got in the way, as it makes it sound like it’s a burden, but it’s been my focus for a long time. In the last two years I’ve almost had to cut myself off. If you ask my people they’ll tell you that I was away from the world for a while, I wasn’t seeing anyone. It’s almost like that’s what it takes for me to get shit done.
I was just in that room, in the video. On my own for a long time.
I’ve definitely been drilling down to what it is that I wanna do and what my interests are, and really trying to get down to the core of that. That’s what this record’s all about. It might be challenging to some people, as I’ve been quite brutal. As you know, us guys have always been into a broad range of stuff – especially when it comes to my DJ sets. You won’t hear, for instance, any African house on this EP, even though I play that stuff. It’s a specific set of influences and me figuring out where my head is at, as an artist… taking those influences that I’ve been trying to nail in the last few years, and really, really nailing them, you know?
What did you conclude that they were?
Remember that track ‘MJT’? It really all came out of that. With that, there was this brutalist foundation – a quite uncompromising set of drums – but it all revolved around a sample that’s quite romantic, and from a song that’s about dedication. It’s love music, but I flipped it into this pneumatic, almost irritating element. Through repetition it becomes almost an industrial weapon. It’s to do with taking certain binaries – like masculinity vs. femininity – and trying to flip them against each other.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how males in our world talk about music – all this stuff about ‘destroying the dance’, ‘war dubs’, ‘you got new weapons for the weekend?’. This whole vernacular. Then I’ve also been thinking about how people perceive pop music. I hate this whole thing where people are like ‘oh, he’s doing pop now’ – as if that means the music’s become softer, or nicer. It implies ease, niceness, and something more feminine, perhaps. I kinda wanna break down these [supposed binaries], as I don’t think it’s a good way to go into a new era of pop.
Well with the DJing thing – people say destroying the dance, but by definition if you’re making people dance you’re not destroying anything, you’re creating something.
It’s about masculinising your own activity, whereas actually you’re mixing two records together. It’s a funny way to think about it.
Tell me more about this ‘new era of pop’ thing you said, earlier. It seems like something you guys have always searched for – Kingdom worked with Naomi Allen and stuff – but with Kelela it’s like you’ve found the right vocalist.
I just think it’s an interesting time. Things are closer than ever, and the boundaries between mainstream and underground… They’re not quite dissolved yet, but they’re dissolving. There’s many examples of it happening, and it feels like there’s a lot of possibilities at the moment. It’s a really interesting time to think about what we want from this new, different pop. We’ve [Night Slugs] always had one eye on the radio, and it doesn’t come from a patronising place – or guilty pleasures, anything like that. In the same way that I’ve always said we don’t see genre, we don’t see those boundaries either. We feel closer than ever.
It’s like with grime. When people got involved in grime back in the day, it was almost like there were two schools – you had guys that were making their tracks for their blog, and doing it for the internet, being on the outskirts, and then there were other guys who were from outside of the scene but would get involved and jump straight in. I always respected that so much more – if you love that music, why would you take that influence and bring it to a new audience, rather than engaging with that music’s original audience? I’m an eternal optimist with the stuff I play in the club, and that optimism can be applied to radio too. People don’t need to be patronised, people don’t need to be talked down to by pop music – it can be both challenging and accessible. I want to play around with ideas of what is pop, what is music for love, what is music for progression, and just implode them into each other.