Features I by I 12.02.14

Black light, black heat: Untold on his head-spinning debut album

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Untold’s debut album opens in a confusion of sirens and palpitating sub-bass, as if we’ve stumbled into the fallout from some terrible urban catastrophe.

Closer ‘Ion’ unfolds beneath the hiss-and-crackle of a roaring fire. What happens in between – a charred mess of stuttering loops, grizzled gouts of noise and, yes, the occasional kickdrum – bears little resemblance to the Untold we know and love. A former designer, Jack Dunning’s music has long been about function and precision, even as its exact configurations have been endlessly renewed, from the lasercut grime hybrids of 2009 to more recent forays into pristine peaktime techno. Black Light Spiral works to a different tune.

It’s not the only change for the Hemlock boss and veteran of the UK dancefloor, either. In the past year he has launched a new label, Pennyroyal, which he describes as a “celebration” of the “hard arts”; left North London, his home for over a decade, for the more peaceful surrounds of Hertford; and, perhaps most significantly for his bank balance, developed a vigorous modular synth habit. FACT’s Angus Finlayson gave him a call to find out more.

“It’s a bit like Akira, man. The wires have sort of ingrained themselves.”

You’ve doing these improvised performances linked to the new London Modular shop. When did you get into modular synths?

You know what, I only got into it last year. But I got bitten pretty bad. I was just getting a bit digital-ed out with everything, and was looking to maybe get some hardware and get something more tactile. There’s something really immediate about the way you can control them and the stuff that comes out of it. They’re quite hard to get hold of, these modules, they’re built – not all of them –  in some garage in Texas, so I got friendly with the shop that’s opened up in London, London Modular, and they asked me to come down and play this show in Hackney Wick. And from there they got asked to do some other shows, and I got involved there, really. People seem to really respond to it – I don’t know, just the immediacy of it, and the impending collapse that could well happen at any minute.

Is it a big part of all the music you make now? A big part of the studio?

Yeah, it’s a bit like Akira, man. The wires have sort of ingrained themselves and it slowly seems to be breeding with other bits of my studio kit. I don’t think anything’s come out yet that’s made mostly with modular, but it will, it obviously will.

So the album doesn’t use the modular setup?

No, the album was probably the last thing I wrote before I left my old studio in London, and that was all pretty much in the box I think.

Listening to the album, it sounds very spontaneous and bit rough-edged – I’d assumed you were using hardware. Could you talk about how your approach changed for it?

I don’t want to totally deconstruct it. But put it this way. For a couple of years I got really into mixdowns and making stuff sound as good as I could in clubs. And then I got slightly bored of the amount of time that that took, or the amount of effort, [for] executing one idea. I got more into executing an idea really quickly. For this album, I had it all written out almost bar by bar, or section by section, in this notebook. So I had a really clear concept of each track, bar maybe one. I guess the aim was to do something that was a powerful statement but also was just fun – fun to write, fun to dance to, some of it [laughs]. As far as the techniques, it’s essentially taking the step-by-step editing aspects of writing music on computers away, setting something up as if it was hardware and throwing stuff at it. So I was setting up loads of really complex chains, almost like echo chambers, and then chucking stuff in and out of those. Lots of those delayed loops are from that.

When you say you sketched it out in a notepad beforehand – this is an approach you’ve talked about before. When you first started writing down notes for what the tracks were going to sound like, what was in those notes?

Really, really encrypted, specific stuff about a frequency, a sound, what sort of effects I would use to express that. And then really kind of esoteric visual touch points. Kind of a scrawled mess of VST plugins and… it’s like a Scientologist’s pamphlet or something [laughs]. But I’ve always done that, writing stuff down. I’ve always found it more fun, even if it is a bit cringe-y reading it back.

Did it take you a while to develop that skill – of being able to write down an idea and then execute it?

Well that’s just – I come from a design background. I was a web designer before I did music. So I was used to having to come up with something really quickly, justify it somehow and kind of present it. I did think that was a complete vibe killer [in music] but now I think it’s quite a useful ethic, you know? I’m not saying I’m the most prolific producer at all, but at these periods when I’m busy, when it’s flowing, being able to just do that and realise something is immensely satisfying.

In an interview with Blackdown years ago you said, “I’m making tunes to be played in clubs – it’s design, not art”. With this album, the ‘design’ element is missing to an extent – tracks don’t have the leads and tails, the foursquare structures, the frequency balance required to make them work in a club. So is it art now? Is there an extent to which you’ve left the design aspect behind?

Yeah, probably. I mean, I just got bored of doing intros and outros [laughs]. But yeah, there’s something about [the album] which isn’t in all my music – there’s an unexplained aspect, definitely. I wanted to have an element of intrigue. I liked the idea of discovering an artifact or something – you’ve found something, it’s blaring out some data or some noise at you, and maybe you don’t understand it all. That’s certainly how I feel with some of those tracks. There’s some weird – I call it data, I’m not trying to be too freakish, but there’s some rhythms and patterns that I kind of don’t remember writing. I’m just going through it now and practising it and doing it live. And having had to rip it up again and actually – what’s the word? – taxonomise it in order to put it into loopers to play it live, it’s like, “oh, these structures”. I haven’t written music like that before.

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Was it partly about surprising yourself, finding a way of making something that your conscious, planning self wouldn’t have made?

Yeah, there was definitely a bit of channelling, you know. I wrote it in the last few weeks before I moved out of London, and it was quite a mad time. Without going into details, I just had to get out of London, get out of my flat. And it was sort of like this going into the unknown. I also didn’t know when I was going to be able to set up my studio next. So I just got this notebook, and I was like, “Right, I’ve got to do this now, so…” I tried to realise it pretty much a tune a night, from all these notes that I’d been doing for about a year. Something’s in there that I don’t feel is all from me.

Whereabouts are you based now – are you still near London?

Yeah just north of London, in Hertford.

Have you lived in London all your life?

Most of my life, yeah. After I came back from college I was there for like 12 years. So it was pretty ingrained.

The press release mentions the album was bashed out in July. To me it really sounds like London in high summer – sweaty, slightly oppressive.

Oh cool, well I’m glad that’s coming through, because that’s an element I was vibing off: just really, really intense pressure, heat, steam – either machinery or moving organic structures.

You mentioned the live show. Obviously you’ve DJed for a long time. Why now for a live show?

I just think this album will translate really well. And I’m trying to do it in a way that will be slightly different every time. Maybe some of my older music is a bit too rigid for that. It would sound more like a tracky drum machine live set, which I’m bored shitless of really. This really is not about worshipping a machine or something – I just want to create a crazy atmosphere, you know? And I just felt inspired, after this album, to do it.

Can people expect a peaktime thing, or is it more of a thoughtful show?

Well, it’s got some rowdy moments and it’s got some beatless moments. I just think it’s going to be intense. I hope people dance. There’s definitely that thread there and I’ve put a lot of time into making sure there’s that continuity and that trackiness – that it’s not going to freak everyone out. And I’ve also reworked some of my older tunes as well, and put them into this new format – [with] those techniques that I was using to write the album. So it’s touching on those as well. And we’ve got great looking visuals from a company called Current Current who are based in Stockholm. They’re on the top of their game as far as the technology, and the way generative visuals interact with music. I think it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be interesting. And I’m going to turn up in different places and it will go down very differently.

I wanted to talk about the music you were putting out prior to this album. it was quite striking how, with the Change In A Dynamic Environment EPs, suddenly this part of the techno world picked up on you. I remember Marcel Dettmann raving about ‘Motion The Dance’. Then I saw you play at Sonar 2012, in this massive room, after Richie Hawtin. Will you be continuing to make stuff in that more Berghain-y, techno vein?

To be honest, I don’t have that baggage. I just think it’s a four-four kick. I think I’ve been around dance music long enough that the fact that something’s got a four-four beat on it really doesn’t matter to me – it’s just a technique to use, you know? I think at any point in my career [I’ve been] choosing really defined stylistic elements, be that the really stripped-back vacuum-packed grime extractions that I did with ‘It’s Gonna Work Out Fine’, or Change In A Dynamic…, which was really about digital noise, and something starting out and then growing and fading within the life cycle of a tune. That was my buzz, you know? And I put a four-four kick on it because that helps contextualise it. But I was a little bit freaked out, if I’m honest, about the reaction – whether it was or wasn’t techno, and whether that matters [laughs]. But you’re right – like it or not there is a tribalism there, and that’s brought new fans. So that’s cool. And having played those clubs, and played those tunes now, that’s definitely, I’d say, a fixed element. That’s something I can use to contextualise some of my tracks. There’s kicks running through a lot of the tracks on the album, it’s just they’re not 909 kicks [laughs].

Do you spend as much time these days seeking out old music that you then take influence from? Or are you more comfortable with where you sit in the musical universe?

I’m not doing that much listening to be honest. Around the time of the album, I detached myself a little bit from the – you know, trying to really scour the internet for lost decades or lost things that I feel I have a right to know about and learn. I thought, “Actually, sod it – there’s just too much to realistically digest.” So I really stripped it back, only listened to my favourite stuff. I’m kind of existing in quite a nice vacuum at the moment. It’s all quite quiet apart from when I’m making music. I’m comfortable with that. The ideas, inspiration I’m getting for music aren’t coming audibly, they’re coming from different stuff.

The last thing I wanted to ask about was the label – or labels. You started Pennyroyal last year. which seems to set out to do a very particular thing. Hemlock had a quiet 2013, but this, your first artist album, seems like a big event. So what are your plans for the two labels this year?

I’ll talk about Pennyroyal first. I was really happy with the reception of that. And that’s just a celebration I think – a celebration of, as Surgeon calls it, the hard arts. I just wanted to start a label that could do that and not really have to justify anything. And not take itself too seriously. I’m quite amused by the people that have taken it seriously – and it’s leading on to some cool things. I’ve seen videos of it being played in either, depending on your perspective, very appropriate or very inappropriate places – that’s great. It’s building up a little stable which is nice. We maybe haven’t been able to do that with Hemlock because we shared a lot of our roster. Jesse, J. Tijn, I think has got incredible talent, he keeps sending me millions of tunes, and they’re all really, really good, so we’ll just keep on doing that. With Hemlock, with launching this album we’re going to make the jump, if you like, from doing just singles to maybe doing some more long players. And that’s all I really want to say about that now. This album is the start of a shift into something new.

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