Sully occupies an interesting place in this whole “dubstep” thing. I guess I should call it “bass music” now, whatever your feelings on the label (I’m not calling him future garage, sorry).
For those of us in the know – i.e. familiar with him – the mere mention of Sully’s name should be enough to elicit embarrassing slobbering and heated bouts of hyperventilation and squealing, or something like that. He’s practically legendary, and all the more remarkable because it’s probably just for a few tunes. He started out in dubstep making heavy wobble tunes – the good kind, but heavy and noisy nonetheless – on small labels and then burst out in a big way with a sudden turn to garage, with the mythical ‘Phonebox’ on Frifsjo beats.
There’s something eminently special about ‘Phonebox’. It’s not the most original track in the world, but something about its sensually cultivated emptiness and throbbing basslines, mixed with its lush swing and anthemic melody was, well, kind of special. That specialness is common to most of Sully’s garage productions. He recognizes the value of dynamics, space, and subtlety in 2step, qualities lost on the “future garage” legions who load their tracks up with cheap candyfloss synths and cheaper vocal gymnastics. Since then we’ve had ‘In Some Pattern’ on Martin Clark’s Keysound label, one of the best approximations of this “neon” form of UK garage, again done with utmost style and restraint. An even more handy example of Sully’s power is his 2010 FACT mix, a forty minute journey through his own distinctive beats and the colourful beats of others like Joker – back when that “Purple” shit was the shit – that of course features ‘In Some Pattern’ in all its glory.
Reviewing ‘In Some Pattern’ last year, I said it had a “[swing] so hard it sounded like the track was shrieking in pain at the end of every twisted bar,” and therein lies another key aspect of Sully’s sound: a pervasive melancholia and bittersweet nostalgic slant that makes his music feel notable, put on a pedestal above his peers. It’s not just dance music, and it’s not just manufactured bliss meant to get you pumped up, there’s pain and emotion invested in this music.
If it wasn’t apparent enough already, this is a layer that truly comes to the fore in Sully’s debut album Carrier, also released on Keysound (home to similarly stellar full-lengths from LV and Damu this year). The album’s opening stretch is majestic, proving that Sully’s 2step gift is as strong as ever, before it plummets into the depressive doldrums of Sully’s extremely idiomatic take on footwork, all hi-tempo heart-pumping anxiety and fractured nerves. Carrier is short, focused, and undeniably affecting, one of the strongest dance full-lengths of the year and refreshingly devoid of pretension or grandiosity even when it’s courageously experimental.
Carrier is finally giving Sully the exposure and recognition he deserves, so he’ll no longer have to be garage’s best-kept-secret. One listen to the record should show you why nerds like us flip out over him and have been for the past two years. A Sully release doesn’t come often but when it does it’s an event, which makes Carrier a cause for celebration. In typical Sully fashion the album took a while, and he sat down with FACT for an introspective chat about his history, the making of the album and more.
“I take my time and work at my own pace whatever I’m doing.”
Important things first: a review at the Quietus by someone who apparently knew you earlier in your life “outed” you as a metalhead. What was it about metal (specifically black metal?) that attracted you to it, and what facilitated to the change around to dance music?
“I think Charlie’s perception was perhaps a little one-dimensional. I did love my metal, no doubt about it, and with my long hair and the band I played in I probably seemed pretty reticent, as he put it. But I was listening to electronic stuff all the while too. Funnily enough Charlie is instrumental in that; he made tunes with my mate’s brother and all their music knowledge was passed down to us. That was my link to more hardcore forms of music, anything from Ulver to Autechre. The metal I picked up on, it was all about the atmosphere. The stuff that came out of Norway was out of this world, it could envelop you and even though it was abrasive it could be majestic and ethereal. There were a lot of dodgy actions and opinions in that sphere though, I met some cool people but a lot of strange (and worse!) ones too, I lost interest in it as a scene. The raves and free parties I’d been going to alongside all this were a lot more fun and the crowds were a lot more sound, so I carried on raving.”
Was there anything in garage that struck a similar chord in you that metal did? It’s not a common transition by anyone’s measure, I’d say.
“Like I say it wasn’t really linear. The first garage-related tune I was into was ‘Lion’ by Vex’d, from there I found Distance, Toasty, Search & Destroy then through to DMZ, Burial, Kode 9, which was all pretty dark — way darker the theatrics of metal really. And then the ”proper” garage like El-B, KMA, Groove Chronicles, Steve Gurley. The darkness is the common thread there, all the way through, things just got a bit slinky with it.”
What was the first dance music that really stole your heart, and when did you start making your own?
“My earliest memories are of tunes like Livin Joy’s ‘Dreamer’ and Snap’s ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’, I loved those. Maybe a bit later I remember losing it to Zinc’s ‘Ready or Not’ bootleg, at 11 years old, the drops in that were mindblowing. Stuff like Livin Joy has been quite influential, I’ve even sampled them a couple of times. In terms of playing about with electronic music, that would have been around 2000 / 2001, again as a result of seeing Charles & Linden at work. I had a crack at all sorts; the better stuff sounded vaguely Warp-ish in those days.”
“Risk assessments are good for business but bad for creativity. And I’m no businessman.”
Your earliest tunes were pretty heavy dubstep, tracks like ‘Destroyah’ and ‘Nutopian Skies’ – how’d you get caught up in that world and what caused the sudden shift back towards garage-ish tracks like ‘Phonebox’ only a year after?
“Prior to that release I’d drifted into making off dark techno tunes, I was buying Regis and Gunjack records so when I had a go at dubstep/breakstep it was definitely coming from that industrial direction. The results were a big step up from my previous work, Creative Space picked them up and I started doing similar stuff with Innasekt. I think the switching point away from that aggy sound for me was when that first EP was first mastered and the engineer was perplexed, because it was all just noise. Playing that sort of sound out is great fun and it has its place, but it hit home that I’d missed a certain musicality. Due to technicals the whole EP was remastered and repressed. ‘Flickers’ was a later addition and it was a reflection on that lesson. From then I did a lot of breaky work, a different kind of hardcore, which lead me into 2step. Again things are more gradual than they seem, but because release delays and such the perceived chronology looks a bit wonky. Actually, Frijsfo released a track called ‘Saviour’ last year, which was the very first 2 step tune I made, it kinda bridges the gap between my hardcore/breakstep and garage tunes.”
You made the jump back to garage circa 2008 which was a lot earlier than a lot of current producers did. Did you feel like it was a particularly brave or risky move given the dubstep climate around that time?
“I wasn’t thinking like that, I didn’t have anything to lose for one. Even today I’m sure that risk assessments are good for business but bad for creativity. And I’m no businessman [laughs].”
You’re not a super prolific producer, especially compared to some of your peers; is this purposeful or do you just like to meticulously perfect tracks before you get them out there?
“I’m quite prolific at doodles [laughs]. A lot of the time I’m experimenting. I have a lot of ideas that get lost in translation, so they never make it past 4 bars and I move on, usually having learned a little from the process. The best tracks usually come quickly, but there are a whole graveyard of beats that came before that lead to them, so I suppose meticulous would be fair. On top of that I take my time and work at my own pace whatever I’m doing. I used to work in a kitchen and I drove the boss insane [laughs].”
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Sully – ‘2Hearts’
How did you get wrapped up with Martin Clark and involved with Keysound? Whose idea was the album, and did you have any reservations about making what was essentially a “dance” music album? (Always a tricky prospect).
“I caught the Dusk & Blackdown show on Rinse and thought I fitted into their selection so sent over ‘Trackside’ and ‘Jackmans Rec’, promptly got a call from Martin and stayed in touch since. He recently revealed he had wanted to get an album out of me since hearing those tunes, so I’m thankful for his patience.
“It wasn’t my idea. A few people suggested it, but Martin persevered and I eventually committed to the plan. I’ve had quite a few people tell me my singles prior to the LP work off the dancefloor, and that gave me confidence in making the transition. The format definitely pushed me to try out new ideas, to go even further and forget the constraints of tempo or drop-based momentum. In the early stages I was playing around with poppy, Kraftwerk-ish sounds and although they didn’t stick, it was a refreshing way to put dancefloors and mixing to the back of my mind. Once I’d gone there, I felt all kinds of options opened up and I made some moves I doubt I would have considered otherwise. And even though this was going on, the dance thing has been ingrained in the way I work, so I think it crept out whether it was conscious or not.”
How was the process of recording the album, and was it rewarding enough to have a cohesive artistic statement at the end of it all?
“Like I say I was skittish, the freedom gave me a kind of ADD, every fleeting idea seemed viable and I chased any inspiration either until it was realised or I lost sight of it. So it was up and down, there were times I was churning out ideas and others I was running into walls, but once a few tracks were done I was committed and the work I had behind me spurred me through the dry patches. In terms of a statement, it was worth the time and effort no question, dedicating myself to something more ambitious than a single brought a lot out of me and the format has reached places singles might not have, the process was its own reward and the reception so far has been a very welcome extra.”
How did the album’s side A/side B dichotomy develop, and was that your intention all along?
“In all honesty it wasn’t preconceived. For a long time I thought I had this idea that there had to be a single consistent mood on the record, one palette, one approach, but then I realised that wasn’t how I worked, I’m too twitchy. Once I’d come to terms with that I was happy to try whatever and gradually things started to take shape as a whole. It was clear that there were two poles, ‘Encona’ and ‘Let You’ were the last additions and were an effort to find the middle ground and help the flow but I was totally happy with the split, that’s how records are and scenes evolve so it seemed fitting.”
“The freedom [of making an album] gave me a kind of ADD, every fleeting idea seemed viable and I chased any inspiration either until it was realised or I lost sight of it.”
When did you become interested in footwork?
“I became aware of it when Planet Mu started pushing it. That first DJ Nate EP was mindblowing. It was like he’d turned music inside out, rhythmically and harmonically it didn’t seem to make sense but it still worked. It’s not very often music shocks like that, in the digital age it’s hard for things to develop and creep up on you, because everything is so accessible, but footwork had slipped under the radar. So when I heard ‘Hatas Our Motivation’ and the Bangs & Works compilation, that alien-ness was amazing. And at the same time it has things in common with jungle and hardcore, the skeletal and hyper edited feel of the former and the brazen attitude of the latter. All this rolled into one really did it for me, so I ploughed through the Walacam archives on Youtube and the like, trying to absorb as much as possible.”
How do you feel about what was essentially a niche Chicago scene becoming rapidly more prominent in a place as disparate as the UK?
“That’s exactly what happened with house in the 80’s and where would UK music be without it? Weirdly the influence today comes out sounding more like those older tunes to me, more like classic Trax tunes or Detroit electro. By slowing down, the house-to-juke process is kind of reversed, so it’s a weird one, but some amazing tracks have come out of it and the UK perspective is definitely unique. I’m interested to see if the bubble in Chicago remains or the scene becomes a bit more fluid. I know Rashad has remixed UK artists like Addison Groove and Becoming Real, but it sounds like he’s sticking to his guns and not taking in much of the UK slant, which I’m happy to see. I suppose when a sound like footwork or juke develops in isolation, in a small, specific scene, odd and brilliant things happen. With such a tight focus you’re not going to get the sort of homogenisation that prevents really out-there ideas from developing. So I’m loving the result of the appropriation that’s going on, but I hope the Chicago guys keep hold of their idiosyncrasies, ‘cause they’re great. And as long as the dance culture stays healthy there I’m sure this is guaranteed, because that completely inseparable aspect just hasn’t been adopted in the same way. There’s a kind of language barrier that makes feedback look unlikely.”
What is it about the rhythmic architecture of footwork that makes it so attractive for experimentation?
“There are parallels with the beat structure of old DMZ tunes, usually there’s that core that 3-3-2 rhythm that feels like triplets, it’s got this momentum like a train ploughing forward. And of course those rapid fire fills are fun. But what interested me most was the weird eye-of-the-storm effect that came from having these clouds of melody and atmosphere over the top, it just creates this weird paradox of sound, a bit like good black metal really!”
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Sully – ‘In Some Pattern’
I’ve heard rumours that either ‘2Hearts’ or ‘It’s Your Love’ were meant for the ill-fated Burial DJ-KICKS. Is this true, and if so, what exactly happened there?
“I spoke with Burial a few times about it, but it’s hard to lay any facts down because each time we spoke he had a new idea for the tracklist, which I suspect is why it never happened. ‘2Hearts’ was definitely in the equation, ‘Phonebox’ was mentioned too, as was a dub I’ve kept quiet, but the whole situation seemed so nebulous. Truth is a strong word to use, I doubt even Burial could give you a straight answer. I liked that though, he always spoke like a proper artist and get the feeling it was for the right reasons.”
Is Burial a particularly large influence on you? I think especially around the time of ‘Phonebox’, you can sort of hear him in there, especially with how unnaturally high-pitched your vocals can be, but maybe that’s just me.
“I think so much vocal sampling is influenced by Burial, in my tunes and in a much wider context. I think much of the Post R&B / Drag thing owes him. If someone does something that well, people are going to take from it. And I definitely did. I think ‘Phonebox’ had it’s own thing though and Burial was into it so I hope I gave something back too.”
You’ve talked about how the title represents all the transient influences and appropriations flowing in and out of your music; where do you think something like Carrier fits in the grand scheme of things? Do you feel as if you’re part of a community or are you on your own?
“I feel involved in something, sure. Being in touch with labels and other producers there’s ideas being shared and conversations happening. Obviously not playing out (a changing situation at this point) has stopped me from being properly in a scene a bit, but every time I hear of one of my tunes being dropped I feel connected there. The response to Carrier so far has been really encouraging, so as long as people are listening I’ll feel I have a role in a community of sorts.”
How do you feel about the way that “dubstep” and related music has kind of exploded into the mainstream in the past two years? And in a similar vein, what are your thoughts on this new wave of producers making formulaic garage as “future garage”?
“It’s natural isn’t it? Everything that has legs ends up as pop music. I do think about the fact that when Shy FX and UK Apache (just about) charted with ‘Original Nuttah’ they did it without much pandering, that tune was and is still ruff. There isn’t much dub in the big mainstream crossover tunes though, no space or dread, it’s a shame producers had to shake off some of dubstep’s core qualities to break through. But the big tunes work at festivals and what-not so what’s the harm? I’m pleased to see a pioneer like Skream getting some fame and money, he’s put in the work and deserves it. I don’t see any harm in revisiting old ideas either. Anyone who tries to pass something off as new by slapping the “future” prefix in front of it is kidding themselves though.”
“My inspiration is so often nostalgic, I look back to a place or a time or a feeling to try and bring that vibe to a tune and I think that is the source of it. Because memories are just that, the moment has gone and there’s kind of a sadness in that.”
Your music has – in all its forms, dubstep, garage, footwork – been shaded by what feels like melancholia. Where does this come from? Even your most anthemic tracks are tinged by regret (‘In Some Pattern’) or anxiety (‘Phonebox’).
“My inspiration is so often nostalgic, I look back to a place or a time or a feeling to try and bring that vibe to a tune and I think that is the source of it. Because memories are just that, the moment has gone and there’s kind of a sadness in that. It’s not proper sadness because the memories are usually positive, but the transience adds a blue tint to it all.”
Is there any tension for you about making dance tracks that are simultaneously morose and even depressive, and yet still music you’re meant to dance to?
“Tunes need sweet and sour. Like with Depeche Mode’s ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’ or ‘There She Goes’ by The La’s, if you take those otherwise chirpy songs to be about heroin, they gain a whole new dimension and a lot more weight, to me at least. It’s the same with beats, something energetic feels more rounded if there’s some bitterness there too.”
Where do we go from here? Is this the last we’re going to hear from you in a while or is it the start of a new creative streak?
“I’ve been playing around making some old-fashioned jungle tunes. There’s a lot to work with, you can push the rhythms a long way and still come up with something that flows. I reckon it’ll lead me in other directions and when it does I’ll see where they go. But for now I’m having fun doing it the old way.”
What’s the most important thing you learned through the creation of Carrier, the thing that will stick with you?
“Not to get boxed in. I wasn’t sure how some of the different directions on the album would go down, but the response so far has made me realise things are wide open right now.”