Interview: Zomby

By , Jan 1 2009

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“I roll a spliff of high grade skunk and get wonky” starts Zomby‘s response to my email (he doesn’t do interviews over the phone, and he stays anonymous, only photographed in a mask) question about how he makes his tunes.

“I use Gameboys, Nanoloop, LSDJ, Pro Performer, MPC2000 XL, Logic Studio, Macbook Pro, Atari ST Akais, Microkorg, anything that gives me the texture I want.” If he ever writes a book, that opening line should be its title.

Zomby spent 1992 (the subject of his first full-length album, Where Were U In 92, on Werk Discs) “buying white labels and collecting flyers for raves [he] was too young to get into, skating around on Bauers in a Total Kaos t-shirt with my Jordans ’round my neck and a rucksack full of cassette tapes.” It’s devotion to, and reverence of, rave, that defines the record – it explicitly references Kicks Like A Mule’s ‘The Bouncer’, Baby D’s ‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy’ and other touchstones of early ’90s dance music.

You call it rave, but do you know what that means?” retorts Zomby when I ask him whether he’s self-conscious about making an album dedicated to a musical culture that spent 2007 so surrounded by pastiche. “It’s ’90-’94 jungle techno umbrella named hardcore, it’s about the art-form of the music, and how that structure builds a vibe that interests me.” It’s hard to get an impression of an artist over an email exchange, but Zomby’s responses are curt, usually nonchalant, sometimes facetious, and often witty. Which, to be honest, is how I expected him to be. Zomby’s got a reputation for not turning up to gigs, and being antagonistic online – he was banned from Dubstep Forum, which is, for better or worse, the hub of most activity (for both artists and fans) in that scene.

Producer, never turns up, spends his downtime having cyber-rows – ring any bells? Right, Wiley. Easily the most compelling British producer of the past ten years. And like Wiley, despite his indifference to many aspects of being a musician (“I don’t understand why you should have to make effort to do anything other than make the songs I make”), Zomby’s clearly deeply dedicated to his craft. The sheer range of his tunes is unbeatable: Where Were U In 92 is one thing, but when you hear the material from his forthcoming 12″ pack on Hyperdub that he was making at the same time, the time-stood-still, paranoid 4×4 of ‘Bubble Bobble’, the abstract assault of ‘Liquid Dancehall’, and ‘Rumours and Revelations’, which basically out-funks ‘Township Funk’… That sort of scope, with that level of quality, and that level of prolificacy, is something else.

In his interview with Martin Clark last month, Zomby compared himself to a sonic explorer, claiming that he “only had half the map” but “kept finding Xs.” When I ask him to expand on that, he explains that he’s “searching in creative reference for an idea that you may have but aren’t sure of the final scope of. I know the feel I want to put into the song, but I don’t know how the song will sound from that.” It implies perfectionism – or at least, a producer who won’t be restricted or compromised by his equipment (check the list of kit in the first paragraph) and who’s always striving for more facets to his style.

That’s where him and Wiley differ/ Wiley will basically put out anything – and what made his Tunnel Vision mixtapes so engaging was just how anything-goes they were; everything went in, whether it was a cast-off freestyle or a look-back-and-cringe tune about being pissed off at his girlfriend. As DJ /rupture put it when we talked about Wiley this year, “it’s great to have someone who keeps on moving and giving away “too much information” … he’s so generous with his lyrical content and musical ideas.” But Zomby’s perfectionism makes me like him more. There’s no accidental, half-arsed genius here, everything’s finely honed. And the product of hard work.

Although he’s found musical kinship in Kode 9’s Hyperdub label, which brings him together with similarly-talented producers like Darkstar and Ikonika, the overriding vibe with Zomby is that of a musical outsider – not just because of his anonymity, but this sonic explorer aesthetic, the genuine nonchalance he shows to interviews and public relations…You feel this is someone who cares about music – both absorbing, engaging with, and making it – and little else. Is it truly Zomby against the world, or there anyone he feels allied with in this sense?

“Well right now I’m playing chess with Silverlink while Burial’s rolling a zoot. Oh, the doorbell’s rung, it’s Diplo and Rustie with DVDs of Kratfwerk and Jimi Hendrix live.” Make of that what you will.

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