In 1997, Photek released Modus Operandi.
It was one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of its era, at least among those interested in all that was new and vigorous in underground music. By the time it arrived, its maker – real name Rupert Parkes – was already well established as a unique talent in drum ‘n bass. For three years he’d been evolving his sound, a sound rooted in deft, fanatically detailed drum programming that is as mind-blowing today as it was in the mid-90s – Burial is but one contemporary producer to have expressed his awe for the texture, swing and precision of Parkes’ percussion.
On Modus, those inimitable Photek drums conspired with the most refined spy-flick jazz atmospherics and eerie, dystopian synth sequences partly inspired by Detroit techno to create an album of both serious muscle and balletic poise. Though not without its flaws, it remains an out-and-out classic, one which will influence new artists for many generations yet to come.
Parkes, by his own admission not one prone to looking back, earlier this week revisited Modus for a special set at Tiger Beer’s Hidden Depths of Hospital Records party. FACT’s Kiran Sande seized upon the occasion to talk to him about the making of the album, and his feelings about it 15 years on.
“I remember when I finished making those tracks, I really did think: these can’t be any better, these are perfect.”
“Well, the request actually came from Tony at Hospital. He asked me to come and play that kind of set because I’ve not done it for a long time, not really since when the records were first out. To tell you the truth, I spend most of my time trying to think about what’s happening next rather than looking back. I mean, last night, that’s probably only the second time I’ve played a retro set ever…the only other one I can think of was in LA a couple of years back, when I played a best of ’89-’95 set on vinyl.”
What exactly was the content of the Modus set?
“90% of the set was tracks from the actual album, and a load of stuff from around that time. Singles that came shortly before and after, remixes…a ‘Still Life’ remix I did for Goldie…oh, and ‘Pulp Fiction’! I think that was only one tune that wasn’t by me, ‘Pulp Fiction’, that was kind of my encore track [laughs]…But yeah, mostly all original Photek stuff from that era.”
“I listen back now and I think hang on, there’s maybe a few too many drum edits in there…”
How do you feel about that music some 15 years on? Anything you wish you’d done differently?
“There’s a few different reactions. With tracks like ‘U.F.O.’, I remember when I finished making them, I really did think: these can’t be any better, these are perfect. You know, with ‘U.F.O.’/’Rings Around Saturn’ I honestly thought, wow, I’ve just made a perfect 12″. And the thing is, they really do stand up today – even now, there’s nothing at all about them that I’d change.
“But then there are other tracks… like ‘Water Margin’, which was just one release before ‘U.F.O.’, that I hear now and think, hmmm, that was a crusty old Amen break, eh? [laughs]. But you know, it’s still got vibes, and I don’t wish that I’d done it any differently…often it was just the limits of technology, anyway. There were a few different programming styles going on in music at that time, and one was that style of really stuttering drum edits…and now I hear them and I think hang on, maybe there’s a few too many drum edits in there [laughs]. But you know, at the time that was what I was into.”
Modus Operandi comes across as a very deliberate-sounding album – not only does the drum programming sound intricate and tightly controlled, the record as a whole seems to be very carefully constructed. How clear about what you wanted to achieve were you when you first sat down to write it?
“I feel like there was definitely a concept behind it…but I’m not sure how well I could articulate it, even now. I mean, that’s how the title, Modus Operandi, came about in the first place: back then so many different people, in interviews or whatever, were asking me to define jungle. The way I chose to define it to them was as a style of programming, a style of using sonics to make music, as opposed to using instruments to make music. This was music purely about soundscapes, space, bass…and you can forget how hard this was to explain to some people at the time. And at the same time , it was quite open: I felt like any style or tempo of music could fit on Modus Operandi if it was sonically right. And yeah, I’d thought a lot about the whole package: I knew what the colour scheme for the artwork was boing to be, I knew what the atmosphere was going to be like, you know?”
“This was music purely about soundscapes, space, bass…and you can forget how hard this was to explain to some people at the time.”
To state the bleedingly obvious, echanges in the way people encounter, consume and collect music, have really diminished the idea of the album as a major artifact. It’s hard to an imagine an album like Modus Operandi, or Timeless, or whatever, having the kind of impact now that it did back then.
“Right. I think I was very aware of it then…and yeah, it’s become more and more relevant in the years that have passed. You know, what is an album all about, what kind of a statement is it? I’ll tell you something: I was very lucky that I started making music in the year that I did. Very lucky. I’m grateful that the planets were aligned for me to do a lot of great things. Have you read that book, Outliers? By Malcolm Gladwell. He talks about the fact that, for example, Microsoft wouldn’t have happened if Bill Gates hadn’t been in Seattle the year that he was…a year either side of that and it really might not have happened at all. Some very simple factors with big consequences.”
You were an underground producer – albeit at a time when “underground” could still meaning you were selling thousands upon thousands of 12″s – signed by a major label and given the time and money to create something substantial and challenging. It’s hard to imagine a young producer getting the same sort of opportunity now, isn’t it?
“To do what I did, you had to be a person of that age, with these particular opportunities, in this precise location…and I still feel like I was really very lucky to be one of those people. At that time you could still be a kid making vinyl records of whatever style, doing exactly what you wanted without compromising anything, and sell you could sell those records – there was a whole movement around it that was organic, and enough excitement to sustain it for years and years. I was able to sign to Virgin on what was really the perfect deal – they basically wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do, and they had the budget to back it.
“Thanks to that deal I actually had the time to take a year and think about the album I wanted to make. Economically that’s just not possible now. But back then there were a number of producers – like Goldie, like Dilinja, like Roni [Size] – who were given similar opportunities and were able to take a year to think about their music. It changed music a lot. It’s funny, there was actually a bit of a hole for a year where several key jungle producers effectively disappeared to think about and work on their albums! [laughs] But without that time spent, there would’ve been no Timeless or New Forms or whatever…
“I actually had the time to take a year and think about the album I wanted to make. Economically that’s just not possible now.”
“Nowadays, well, of course people don’t buy artists’ music, basically. You can’t really spend that kind of time on an album, not unless you’re financially free – you know rich, retired and free to fuck around! [laughs] Back then you could be a kid, and you could get lost in it. I really feel lucky that it happened to me. That said, the album as a thing is still a big deal I think, and perhaps even a bigger gamble now than it was back then. In fact I just finished my latest album, I’m about to head back to the States to mix it.
“I remember being proud of the record when it came out, because I felt I’d done something uncompromising. There was obviously a bit of goldrush happening at that time, sort of like what’s going on with dance music in America at the moment, you know – rumours of producers getting signed for crazy amounts of money, that kind of thing. And I managed to do a truly uncompromising record in that environment.
“I felt I’d done something uncompromising.”
“I’m glad I included stuff at different tempos, because there was a lot of pressure at that time to fix yourself to a style, you know – are you prog-house or drum ‘n bass or downtempo or trip-hop? People were quickly getting pigeonholed, and I suppose I subconsciously anticipated that. I wanted to leave my options open. It’s important that the title track, ‘Modus Operandi’, was a downtempo track, you know? You want to make a statement with an album, but then also you don’t want that statement to be what you’ll always be about! [laughs]. That’s the kiss of death of creativity: when people start telling you the kind of music you should be making, even your fans.
“But yeah, looking back, I just feel like I did the best job all-round that I could’ve done. The best legacy to look back on. At the end of the day, I think I got out of it what I put in.”
So you mentioned you were working on a new album. Tell me about that.
“It’s funny now, there’s seems a general sense across the board in clubs and electronic music that, well, everything’s pretty flexible and anything goes. And for that reason, you don’t have to get quite as hung-up on making an album as you used to. You feel like it’ll pass so quickly, things move quickly…I suppose this new album is a sort of Modus Operandi for 2012 – it’s got quite a lot in common with the first album – but less hang-ups. These days, I know I can DJ the week after and play a set of completely different style music and it not be a problem. With the album, well, it’s just a case of what statement you want to put out, and how long it’s going to last. To tell you the truth, it feels like music’s much less permanent and lasting than it used to be.”
“To tell you the truth, it feels like music’s much less permanent and lasting than it used to be.”
You put out a DJ-Kicks mix recently, what was the driving forcebehind that?
“Well, I didn’t want the mix to be too locked in time. I didn’t want it be just, you know, a mix that was hot in 2011 or 2012. No big anthems…a bit like those old mixtaped, old pirate radio mix tapes…interesting, cool new music with that underground feeling, not Smash Club Hits Vol.9 or whatever. I wanted to capture that feeling when I was driving around when I was 17 listening to tunes. You know, when you’ve just got your driving license and you’re driving around, listening to some tape over and over again! [laughs]
“As for the original tracks I made for it…I thought, well, there’s quite a range of styles on there, I should do a couple of typical Photek-sounding things for people who know my stuff from ‘Hidden Camera’ and that era… I thought, yeah I should give them some of that kind of stuff, let’s mix it all up with all the tech-house and broken beat or whatever. At the end of the day, I just wanted to make a journey that people would feel was worth going on.”