There’s something about Nick Edwards that feels not quite of the 21st century.
In fact, he’d probably be the first to admit that. When he picks me up from Temple Meads station, there’s a while to kill before his soundcheck, so he gives me a whistlestop tour of Bristol landmarks – starting with a tirade about how much of the historical centre of the city has been bulldozed to make way for characterless malls. We then drive round the district of Stokes Croft, Edwards pointing out key points for the propagation of dubstep in the city, punctuating it with mutterings about gentrification and the shutting down of record shops. In fact, there’s something about the combination of his lugubrious West Country voice and his unselfconsciously middle-aged dress sense (he is, after all, a 44-year-old father of three), that makes it feel like you’re being given chapter and verse not on modern bass music, but on allotment care or VW van engines or fishing flies or something else involving sheds.
However, he is not all about nostalgia, and neither – despite its all-analogue nature and constant signifiers of experimental music of the past – is his music as Ekoplekz. With releases on Perc Trax, Punch Drunk and now Planet Mu among quite a few other labels over the past four years, his murky industrial dub has well and truly infiltrated beyond a world of CDRs and outsider music, and into the wider club continuum. And the live show that I witness at Young Echo’s club session fits absolutely perfectly alongside a bunch of kids not much more than half Edwards’s age exploring new twists on grime, dubstep and other flavours of electronica. The crowd is a good mix of intense nerdiness and party people out for a good time, and though he goes in hard with some skull-scrapingly weird sounds and untethered rhythms, he has plenty of people dancing by the end.
In conversation, too, Edwards is always able to make his interest in and reverence for things from the past sound relevant to now. The interview that follows was conducted at his house the day after the show, but is really a continuation of conversations that went on through the evening before, and one suspects the kind of conversations he spends a large proportion of his time having. Just as in his now-dormant Gutterbreakz blog, though, he is encyclopaedically knowledgable about his specialist fields, his thoughts and recollections are the antidote to “list culture” – his interest in records and their creation is always about music fandom as lived experience, not as dots to be joined in some theoretical game. And it’s precisely this that makes his music so fresh and unpredictable, and which seems to give him the enthusiasm to make and play it, many years after he first tried to “make it” as a musician…
So you’re happy with the reception of the record?
Well yeah, that’s because of the Planet Mu connection. Marcus Scott – who’s Hyperdub’s promotions man too of course – he’s on the case with the promotion, and he’s been finding me all sorts of interesting tasks, like doing 500 words for The Guardian. “Yeah they want 500 words for Friday.” “What on?” “Just about the record” “Oh, uh, OK.” I don’t really write about music much any more, and it’s even worse writing about your own because you’ve got to try and be modest [gurgles with laughter], you can’t blow your own trumped too much. But yeah, I’ve just gone with the flow. I’ve thought, if I’m gonna do a record with Planet Mu, I’ll do it their way, the way they like it, I’ll not try and be awkward about anything. I don’t know if you know but the tracks that were selected, the order they’re in, is all down to Mike – I left it entirely in his hands, which was a big thing for me, because all the other records I’ve done have been me delivering an album.
What did you send to him then?
It’s a year’s worth of stuff, really. Originally, you know that double tape thing I did for Mordant Music? Memowrekz? That could’ve possibly been a Planet Mu album. Mike was interested at that stage, just after I did the first couple of things with Punch Drunk, because I already knew him from previously anyway, and he came on very early with making major invitations. But I felt like I needed to get a few more really underground releases under my belt, you know what I mean? I needed to do some obscure little tapes, get a body of underground work together before I go up a couple of rungs. So in the end, I politely said to Mike, “Mike, let’s just leave it for now, give it a couple of years and if you’re still interested then, we’ll do it then.”
And he was. So how many tracks did you actually send him this time?
As I say, it’s a year’s worth, 30 tracks maybe. I got to know what he did and what he didn’t like, because of this new batch the first five or six things I sent him when we got back into negotiating, he was like, “nah – you’re trying to hard to be a Planet Mu artist, just be yourself, I want that nostalgic thing you do.” So I thought, “Ah right” and that first lot got jettisoned – I think some of them have come out in other places since then in fact – but the first good one was the one that’s called ‘Pressure Level’ on the album, that’s a sort of early eighties Cabaret Voltaire jam thing. That was the first one where Mike was like “ah!”, and once I had that I had an idea of what he was into. So I started feeding in stuff that was more along that way, but also taking it other places, and over the course of the year Mike was gradually getting the bits he liked, and then one day he just said, “This is the album!”.
He sent me all the tracks in the order, and I played it and I was amazed. I’d been trying to keep back from it really, not trying to think too much about the album cos I knew that I was leaving it with him to create it… so when I heard it I just thought, “Wow – I didn’t know I could make a record like that!” It wasn’t just the tracks he’d selected, it was the order – I would never have put ‘Trace Elements’ at the start, but now I think, “Well of course it’s the fuckin’ opener, where else would it go?” So it was an eye-opener – he’s very good at compiling, curating, whatever. He’s been doing it long enough, so he should be, I suppose. So yeah, very grateful to him for putting the hours in, he spent a lot of time listening to it. Real A&R work in the old, digging-ditches, hard work variety.
And what’s the working process like? Do you keep a steady flow of tracks coming?
Depends. Sometimes I go a couple of weeks doing nothing, then I’ll do five or six tracks in a week when the flow is there. Generally it’ll start with me pottering around a rhythm track or something, all my gear’s set up ready to go and I just start jamming. All the stuff you heard on Memowrekz, that was done in the garage, but I’ve promoted myself to a room up top of the house now, to be a bit more comfortable. So I don’t compose in the sense of having an idea first, I just start plugging things into each other, put a beatbox through an effect and a delay, and when something sounds interesting I’ll get it down to my four-track tape… which is a bit different to the MIDI way of doing things, because once you get something down to the tape, you can’t tweak the fucker, it’s done. So I’ll get a basic rough backing track down, then I’ll mess about doing live overdubs on the top. Going back to that track ‘Trace Elements’, it’s kind of like a techno track, as the Boomkat review highlighted, but it’s all hand-played, which is what gives it its particular feel I suppose. It’s almost like it’s dance music created on hand-played, pre-MIDI instruments.
So you’re not over-concerned about sync or locking into grooves.
No no, I don’t mind if I slip out of sync, but only subtly. I wouldn’t do it so it’s ridiculous. Some people I’ve noticed have started doing tracks madly unsynced, things literally start to float away from each other, and I don’t deliberately try to do that… though sometimes it happens and it sounds ok, sometimes it doesn’t. But yes, I’ve noticed that there’s definitely a kind of loosening-up these days with some of the more forward-thinking producers, getting away from the rigidity of the MIDI clock. Getting off the grid, which is where I think I’ll always be now.
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I certainly noticed in the live set, a rhythm would emerge from another and take over, which would make for a moment of confusion in the crowd before they worked out which was the dominant one…
Well, nobody’s more confused than I am. With the live thing, there’ll always be a rough game plan but I like to give a lot of room for… error. Error and improvisation. So some of the transitions are literally me flying by the seat of my pants just trying to get to the next part – but that keeps it fresh for me, and hopefully makes it interesting to watch.
And was last night’s set deliberately a hard set?
It was definitely one of the hardest sets I’ve done with the beats and all that. There was a few people there who saw me play the other day at The Cube – for Birkhouse Recordings, who do little cassette runs – and they were all saying, “Wow, it’s so different”. ‘Cos I do three kinds of sets really: one is a totally improvised ambient thing, one is harsh noise, and one I bring a bit more rhythm and bass – and last night I thought, well, it’s Young Echo, so I’ll give ’em the more dancey version of what I do. I think they were quite surprised, some of ’em. I was quite surprised!
Well you achieved that great thing – I think it was Derrick Carter who said this – that the mark of a great DJ is not someone who can fill a floor, but someone who can empty it and then get everyone back again. You managed that.
[Laughs] Yeah, well I did that drone thing at the start. I often start my sets with that, that sorts the men from the boys… it’s a “who can take it?” kind of thing. That section uses a pedal called the Repeat Percussion, it’s like a tremolo effect but it’s really ultra-hard. It’s a copy of a pedal that was first created in the sixties, but I knew it because it was used a lot by the band Spacemen 3. If you listen to something like the Playing With Fire album, there’s a really metallic sort of “dang-dang-dang” thing he puts on the organ on quite a few of the tracks, and I used to love listening to that. This Repeat Percussion clone pretty much gets you that, and I was using that heavily last night putting the drones through it – so it’s combining a Spacemen 3 influence with dub, that’s what that whole early section was about, and it’s a pretty fierce sound, so I’m sure a lot of the crowd probably wandered off for a smoke at that point, but then I brought the beats in and it got a bit more friendly. But I wasn’t aware, I never am, I’m just lost in it. Sometimes I’ll look up at the end and everyone’s just buggered off, and sometimes I look up at the end and they’re all just [leans forward, stares, agog] and that’s where you know you’ve had one where you’ve hit the spot.
The Young Echo guys seemed pretty locked into it throughout…
I’ve done a guest for them before, a year or so back, but I don’t think I was as good that night – so I think they really saw the best of me last night. I do feel, even though I said I ignore the audience, I do feel I have a certain duty to entertain. You get some artists who are very much, “You will watch while I spend an hour tweaking this drone… very… subtly… and you will sit quietly and observe.” I could never do that. I do feel I need to bring a bit of party to it, even if I’m doing a noise set. I hate the idea of people being bored – but I apply that to all spheres of life. I expect a journalist like yourself to not bore me. A lot of journalism now can be quite samey and boring, whereas the old days of the NME and whatnot, people like Steven Wells and all them, self-opinionated and giving it a lot. Simon Reynolds and that as well…
“Giving it a lot” is a good description of your approach too – the sounds are certainly not austere.
Yeah. Yeah, I’m a firm believer in that. Make people feel something, make them feel excited, don’t just autopilot it. And that goes for you too: we should be making the best, most exciting records we can, and you should be trying to make them sound really exciting to people… OR be really honest and say it’s a pile of shit. Point out things that are wrong with it. It’s almost like people don’t want to upset anyone any more. Do you feel that?
Maybe it’s just that there’s so much more music, and more writing, that extremes of expression get levelled out in the bigger picture?
Hmm, yeah in the pre-internet days, when we didn’t have all the soundclips to listen to and we didn’t have all our mates bigging stuff up on Facebook, marching into the record shop just on the strength of a Melody Maker review, and buying that record without having heard it – that’s powerful journalism. I can remember The Stud Brothers in the Melody Maker, they did a whole page article on Front 242, in about 1987. Now I’d never heard of them… oh look here’s a Belgian band. BELGIAN? I didn’t know there was anything good in Belgium. But it was so powerfully evocatively written, I got into my car and drove into town and wandered around until I found their new record and bought it. That’s the power of it. That’s the kind of excitement I like to have about music.
Can you remember what the first thing that gave you this sense of what music can do was?
Well, I was a kid in the 1970s, listening to pop music like everyone else did – but the first detailed instrumental record I got completely lost in was Tubular Bells, which my mum had bought purely because it was number one in the charts. I just fell in love with that record, it totally opened my head up. I would sit in front of this stereo we had that looked like a teak veneer sideboard, with a radio on one side of it, a record player on the other, one that stacked the records on the spindle – crap, really – but I would sit there, cross-legged, about seven years old, in front of the speaker of it, and just listen. Then I’d turn it over, listen to the other side, then put it on again. I’d be looking at the sleeve, trying to puzzle it out, wondering what all these instruments were and how he managed to play them all at the same time, no concept of multitrack. But yeah, that was the one. Most people listening to pop then, including me, you’d only listen to the topline melody, you’re not really working out what all the other stuff going on was, but that was the one where I went deeeeep in and started picking out all the parts. I’ve still got that copy of that record to this day, because my mum didn’t want it. She never liked the bloody thing anyway! Big up Mike Oldfield.
So was that a turning point? Did you go seeking other, more immersive music after that?
I think that was the start, yeah. But also as I’ve always said there was the subliminal thing from the television too. Being an only child I’ve always spent a lot of time being babysat by the TV, and then we had a lot of weird sounds on the telly. Not just the Radiophonic stuff, there was a lot of independent people producing, a lot of library music that’s very strange which would’ve been soundtracking all kinds of kids programmes. I remember Vision On – which was a programme for the deaf, but was entertaining for everyone else too – they had some crazy library music tracks on there. And, of course, now with YouTube you can search through and validate what your memory thinks was the case – you can go through and go, “You know what, it really WAS that weird!” I was a little kid in a room on his own, watching this stuff and it’s all going in.
I didn’t know what it was, of course – I think the first time I even became aware of the name Delia Derbyshire was in about 1982. There was an album that the BBC put out called Dr Who: The Music and I remember buying that. It was mainly stuff from the current era then, mainly the more digital stuff, but it had the original Dr Who theme on as well and I remember looking at it. “Delia Derbyshire? Hmm, never heard of her…” She was scarcely ever credited anyway! The TV credits just said Ron Grainer wrote the music “with the Radiophonic Workshop”, no mention of her contribution – no wonder she died a sad alcoholic! Her greatest piece of music, up there with Stockhausen probably for technique, and nobody knew she’d done it!
Well, going back to Spacemen 3, Sonic Boom from the band did eventually track her down to pay respects…
Of course! From the phonebook! I read the interview with him, and he literally went through the phonebook phoning up all the “D. Derbyshires” until he got the right one. Incredible. Just before she died, I guess she was just starting to get an idea of how highly people thought of her, which was nice. It’s funny how things come around – me being a big Spacemen 3 fan, then it turns out that Sonic Boom’s really into the same stuff I’d been into earlier. I had some brief contact with him years ago, he bought some keyboards off me – he was one of the first people to get into circuit bending, rewiring Speak’n’Spell machines and all that for that Data Rape thing he did [as EAR in 1998]. I wonder what he’s up to now…
I saw him not long ago, playing with Silver Apples. He was really good.
Ahh, Silver Apples – there’s more pioneers, but I didn’t get into them until later. Revolver Records in Bristol, always an important place for me, run by Flying Saucer Attack, they got me into them. There were these reissues in the mid-’90s, and the guys in the shop just went, “You need this. This is you all over.” They were right.
Back to your tastes as a kid, though – if you were just picking up weird sounds sat at home on your own, it doesn’t sound like you had much concern over whether music was cool, or socially acceptable, or otherwise.
Oh no, it was just sounds on TV programmes or records. You didn’t really think about it. Then getting older, I’d got the idea into my head that I was into electronic music, that probably came from listening to Jean Michel Jarre as much as knowing anything consciously about TV soundtracks and that, though. But going into the eighties, I was too young to have really got any clue about any post-punk stuff that wasn’t chart-bound, so I started out with yer Ultravoxes – the Midge Ure Ultravox, not the John Foxx version, I didn’t know anything about that – Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Yazoo, Human League of course.
But the thing that did it for me was The Max Headroom Show, do you remember that? The Max Headroom Show was really way out for its time: Channel 4 playing all these weird videos that the BBC would never have played, and this opened my ears to all this other music. Being an only child I had no older brothers, I was living in a provincial little town outside Bristol, where at best you were either into goth music or new romantic, and there was no guidance to get me head round electronic music. So I remember seeing ‘Sensoria’ by Cabaret Voltaire, the video for that was on The Max Headroom Show, and it was one of those moments where your brain just goes *CLICK* [mimes brain turning through a few degrees] like that slightly, and I was just, “Fuuuuck! This sort of music exists?”
Next day, I went down Kay’s Records & Tapes, the only shop in the area that sold anything interesting, and there in the “C” section was the Crackdown album. I was 14 then – and back then, an album was a big dent on your pocket money. I don’t think I actually bought it then, I went [wide eyed] “Ooh they’ve got one”, went away, thought about it, then scraped my pennies together and bought it. And that was it… I don’t deny it was a difficult record for me; I mean listening to it now I think, “Wow, it’s full of hooks” – but when you’ve been into the pop music stuff, at the time it didn’t seem as hooky as, say, Ultravox did. It didn’t have the big choruses, it was all about repetition. And I remember studying for my O-Levels listening to that record a lot, being reprogrammed in the brain as it were. So when house came along, and techno, a couple of years later, it all made total sense because I’d been listening to Cabaret Voltaire records.
Of course, from Cabaret Voltaire you start to pick up the threads of where they’ve come from, you start to go back through their old catalogue, then you discover Throbbing Gristle, Robert Rental, all the post-punk stuff… So I spent a lot of the eighties, which had a lot of crap music as I’m sure you remember, kind of backtracking and discovering stuff I’d been missing – which was great. I listened to On-U Sound and a lot of stuff like that too, like Mark Stewart… Of course he was one of the only people in Bristol to really get into the industrial sound. As the Veneer of Democracy Starts To Fade, that was the one: such an extreme record. Tackhead are on it, and a grainy picture of a guy with mask and goggles on the front. I think the whole concept of it was to have it mixed to sound like a bootleg of a DJ set, where everything is distorted like it’s recorded on a ghetto blaster. He had all these tapes he’d got of live soundsystems, DJ sounds, and everything’s distorting, and so he said to Adrian Sherwood, “I want my record to sound like these DJ tapes”. Er, okayyy”. “Yeah, so everything’s got to be in the red!” Incredible record, actually, I don’t think he ever made one quite that intense. That’s industrial Bristol to me, totally intense all the way through, all in the red and all the echoes and delays smashing into each other.What you heard me do last night, there was probably a bit of that in there – and thinking about it, I really haven’t done enough to big up Mark Stewart over the years. I have kept that influence quiet, but I must rectify that. In fact, you can rectify that now, cos that’s going in the interview. [leans forward to mic and shouts] I LOVE MARK STEWART!
But yeah, I did a lot of playing catch-up through the ’80s. Of course, the other thing was the lack of information. People of our age always go on about “pre-internet” times, but it’s true. I used to buy Depeche Mode records and stuff, and there was this one time, probably mid-’80s, that Mute Records did this insert that went into all their releases – a 12” by 12” bit of paper, with a potted history of the label, and a complete discography. Just one bit of paper but this was incredible stuff to me, truly educational, and I would pore over this stuff and all these names of artists I’d never heard of – NON, and Einsturzende Neubauten, and Fad Gadget and all this stuff – so from buying Depeche Mode records you got to know about it all. And The Normal, of course! ‘Warm Leatherette’, the first record they ever put out, I spent about three years trying to find that…
Whereas now you search the name, YouTube, click, there it is.
Exactly. I remember there’s a one-sided Rough Trade record, called Robert Rental and The Normal Live at West Runton Pavilion, which was recorded on a tour with Stiff Little Fingers and the band William Bennett was in before Whitehouse – like a roadshow going round the country. This was Rough Trade’s idea. They’d have the main act, the punks: Stiff Little Fingers’d be the main draw, to get this audience to be exposed to all this experimental stuff. So there was this document of this tour, recorded at West Runton – I actually looked this up on a map and it’s a godforsaken little coastal town in Norfolk. Why the hell anyone’d want play there… but there you go. So I spent years trying to track that down, years and years, I eventually found it in a record fair in Reading. I think. That was a real “Yes!!!!” moment. [mimes clutching a record to his chest] “Oh my god, I’ve found it, thank you God!” Now, of course, you could either find a download, or find it and order it on Discogs in two minutes. In fact… [opens laptop, types] there you go, seven copies for sale from £7.82! But we’d hunt forever for a record. Great days.
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Did you start to connect to other people who were into this stuff though?
The years of loneliness, mate. Years of it! When you live in the suburban sprawl of Bristol, and no-one else is really into it… well I was just a freak really, when it came to music. In the eighties, well, I had a lot of mates, but they fell into different musical categories. I had my lefty mates who basically listened to Style Council, Housemartins and Billy Bragg, and all had that particular haircut and look, vaguely mod-ish with Harrington jackets and brogues. I had mates who were in the goth thing – Cure, Sisters Of Mercy, Mission fans – and I had me other mates who were the jocks, the casuals as it were, who were into U2 and Dire Straits and Simple Minds and whatever. I flowed around all those, but I was the only one who was into hip-hop too, for example, because that was something else I got into at the time. They all despised it! I remember being in sixth form and marching into the common room with a copy of Mantronix’s Music Madness – their second album which I’d just bought – going up to the record deck in the common room and going, “Listen to this you cunts!” or something, expecting to blow their minds. Of course, they all went “Turn this bloody rap crap off”, and I genuinely couldn’t understand, I was just like “This is genius! What is wrong with you people?” But they frisbeed it off the record player and put on, I dunno, probably the Style Council again. Yeah, I felt very musically alone – it wasn’t until I was older, the nineties came in and I started going clubbing more, that that passed.
You didn’t get a sense of what Bristol had to offer in terms of soundsystems and suchlike then?
No, because I lived in a place called Yate, which is about ten miles out of town, in my teenage years. Socially, it was an enclosed little thing, an isolated little place. When I started working though, actually in town, I started to meet people who were inner city kids. Now, they’d all been following The Wild Bunch, the crew that would become Massive Attack, which I knew nothing about, and they all knew how to build a spliff! We were so bloody naïve out in Yate, all we knew about was beer and cigarettes, so meeting all these inner city guys in this office I was working in opened me up to the real Bristol scene which’d been there under my nose all the time.
And as well as the Bristol scene as such, rave was starting to happen about this time right?
Yep, I started full-time work in about 1989, just after the initial buzz of acid house had kicked in and we’re starting to get into the full raves – great times. A great time to be a young person. I was never a big raver in the sense of going out to fields in the middle of nowhere, mind – I’ve always been an urban, cosmopolitan, basement kind of guy. So I got into going out regularly, and checking out a few dances too for reggae stuff, mainly through these new mates I was starting to make in town who showed me all the right places to go in St Pauls and that, which I didn’t have a clue about and would probably have got killed if I went in the wrong place… There was this cafe in St Pauls called the Black & White Cafe but it was still a complete no-go area if you were a white man, they still had a lot of tension back then, so it was good to have friends from over that way who could take me places where I’d be OK and not get in trouble. Good days. But at the same time I’d be going to places like the Bierkeller which is one of the big venues in town, to see people like Jesus Jones [cackles] – we weren’t so discriminating then, people are so picky now about putting things in brackets but back then it seemed quite normal that you could see Jesus Jones at the Bierkeller then off to some really obscure thing in a cellar somewhere straight after. Ooh, I remember seeing Ice T at the Bierkeller before he became mega-famous. It was a hit-and-miss show, but he had his woman with him – she’s on the cover of one of his records, ummm…
Power! With the machine gun behind her back!
That’s the one. He said, “I want you all to meet my lady now!” and we were all, “Wuhhhh” [mimes slack-jawed gawping teenager] – sex on legs, that woman! When you’re 20-odd and hormonal, well… [far away look] …anyway there you go, next question.
Haha, OK well you were enjoying an actual music scene at last – when did you decide you wanted to make your own music?
Oh, I started making my own music in 1988 – just with a little Casio keyboard and a domestic tape player. I was so into it, but the problem was getting the technology, it’s almost impossible when you’re a young guy with no money. Nowadays, you get an app and you’re going, but then it was ridiculous: first working out what did you buy, and then how did you afford to buy it. So it was slow progress. It was all good experience though. Some of the things that I learned how to do, like overdubbing: I’d record stuff onto cassette on a normal music centre tape recorder, then pressing play, playing that through the music centre speakers and playing more stuff on the Casio keyboard, and while all that’s floating around through the air I’d be recording that through the inbuilt mic on a little ghetto blaster. You’re getting this really basic kind of overdubbing, literally catching a field recording, the ambience of my own bedroom being captured as it’s bouncing off the walls. Then maybe take that, put it back in the other tape player and repeat the process. By the end of it you’ve got this really weird, warped, muddy sound… BUT I read this interview with Boards Of Canada where they said they’d done exactly the same thing, and that their sound was influenced by doing exactly what I had.
At the time it feels like you’re up against unsurmountable odds, but then you realise there was actually something special about the sound you got. So I started like that and then over the years built it up and built it up, but eventually I built it up to one point then had to start all over again. I was trying desperately, anything I could think of to get anywhere with music through the nineties. Very hard work: sending demo tapes to all the labels and all that – I’ve still got all my rejection letters from Warp Records and them – trying to do gigs with live electronic music, and without the internet it was very difficult to get past the local promoters in Bristol. You were reliant on them to give you support gigs here and there, and if you were lucky you might get a little travel money but no more.
This was you as a solo producer?
Oh all sorts. I had duos, little bands I was in, sometimes using DATs for backing tapes because it was very difficult. Some people I knew were taking Ataris on stage, which was pretty risky stuff back then, but there weren’t many live electronic bands then so we’d be supporting rock bands and stuff and it wouldn’t always work out so well. I was DJing in clubs too, but the live stuff ended up on the band circuit more often than not. Once in a while you’d find a mate who knew a mate who knew another mate who worked behind the bar at The Bull & Gate, or the Camden Falcon – you know, the classic toilet venues in London – and I played both of them with bands I was in. You’d go up there, bring a minibus, bring all your mates up, thinking, “Ooh here we go, all the journalists will be there”, then you’d get there and find you’ve been put supporting some godawful band, no-one turns up and you go home totally crestfallen. “I played the Camden Falcon and… nobody turned up. Oh.” Of course, all those venues are shut now. I was listening to something on Radio 4 the other day, a little feature about the closure of the toilet gigs – it’s just not there any more, the infrastructure for young bands to come up on the toilet circuit. I was glad to have done it, though! But anyway – then when I got married and started having kids and moved here, I started having this big cull of all my studio stuff. I got to the point where, well, it wasn’t happening, and I needed all the money I could get for all the expense of moving house and solicitors fees and all that… so it was, “Right, go on, get rid of it all, the dream is over!” Little did I know it wasn’t over at all.
So were you using the same kind of lo-fi kit back then?
Oh no, I was more MIDI-oriented. But I was still quite retro, I had what they used to call Kenton interfaces, these boxes that would turn MIDI signals into control voltage signals that let you connect up the analogue gear – which was still just about affordable back then – to a MIDI sequencer. So I was using the MIDI to control it all, but as soon as I could afford analogue synths I was in there. The stuff I ended up accumulating would be worth a fortune now. I mean, I still made quite handsome profits when I did sell them in the late nineties, but now it would be ridiculous. I had a 909, 808, a load of the classic Roland kit… but no, I just never managed to get it off the ground. Maybe the stuff I was doing was too personal, too off the grid, because there were so many rules about what club music had to do back then, how your kick drum had to be mixed and all that, you had to be really on it stylistically and production-wise. I’ve never been that way inclined, to follow production rules, which I guess is why labels didn’t fancy taking a chance on me. I’d always hoped that Warp or Rephlex might’ve thought, “Hrmm, he’s different”, but nope, never happened. There you go. I did have a real thing for Warp, because they represented the link from Cabaret Voltaire and all that post-punk industrial stuff into techno – in fact I was always a bit obsessed with Sheffield for just that reason, there’s been so much music from there that I’ve loved. I always felt like a little part of me was from there!
OK, so did fatherhood become your focus then, after this purge?
Well, I moved pretty quickly to doing the Gutterbreakz blog, actually. I’d moved over here to this new house, and I’d said I was going to give up music but I couldn’t quite give it up, I was still pottering around with a few things. Then the blog started in 2003, inspired by people like Simon Reynolds and K-Punk who started that whole wave of blogging – I’d never written about music in my life, but I just thought this is such an exciting platform, you can express yourself out there like that, and I suddenly realised that I had an awful lot of stuff to talk about… so I just started doing it. It would have been just another music blog of course, but then dubstep came along. There were a couple of other bloggers that picked up on it early on, but I was the one that really ran with it where a lot of people focused more on the grime stuff. I think I was one of the first to really focus on what DMZ and whatnot were doing – and of course, that locked in perfectly with what Pinch was doing. Once I met Pinch, it was just, “Ah well, here we go!” It was a double-pronged attack: Pinch doing it at street level with the clubbing, and me doing all the online stuff. Pinch was completely offline at that point, he didn’t have internet at all, but I did the first ever Pinch interview, his first ever online mix was on my blog and all that. Then there was Tom Peverelist, he was the Rooted Records shop man, and before we knew it we had a scene and we were all part of it. And before I knew it, my readership had gone from a few hundred to several thousand, and I started getting emails from people in eastern Europe and America – it was incredible. For a while, until it went really overground, it was just me and Blackdown really – Martin Blackdown was covering the London thing, I was covering the Bristol thing, and we were pretty much the blogs to read about it. So yeah, to feel really involved like that, it was a special time.
How did you manage the clubbing side of being part of a scene, if you had young kids?
It worked out pretty well for me. The dubstep clubs wouldn’t really get going til midnight – so as long as I was willing to forgo sleep, I could do all the family man stuff, get them all packed off in their beds and cots, get me wife settled, then go off for the night and go raving. If I’d been into more rock and the live circuit that starts about 7, it would have been a whole other ballgame. Us men, see, we’re expected to take a big role in the family now – my dad, I never saw him! Get home from work, bite to eat, fuck off down the pub. We’re expected to be around though. But because it was a club thing, I could bugger off out about ten, roll back in at four in the morning, get up at eight – absolutely exhausted, with me ears ringing, but it was just about doable. So we’d do all those Dubloaded nights, I didn’t want to miss a single one, plus my name was on the door of every single club that was doing it. In fact, people would actually ask me – “Please come! Write about our night!” – and, well, it’s great to feel wanted isn’t it?
It had to come to an end eventually, and for me it was around the time Mary Anne Hobbs got inolved. No disrespect whatsoever, but that ‘Dubstep Warz’ thing was an obvious turning point. Like, “Right we’ve gone overground now.” 2004, 2005, that was my high point, but then the start of 2006 and after that I did ease off a bit. I was still blogging, but I just felt I wasn’t as needed any more. It had moved on. I did actually get a few people saying, “Oh ,you should try and get into professional journalism.” I remember Rob, Pinch, trying to get me to do reviews for one of the magazines, but my heart was never really in it. It was more of a hobby thing for me. I think deep down I was still really an artist, I didn’t want to write about it for the rest of my life, I wanted to make it. It took a while though – there was a long drift period where the writing died away before I made the next move. In fact 2009 was my lost year, when I didn’t do anything at all: it was the end of Gutterbreakz, and 2010 was the start of Ekoplekz, so there was this year-long break of me just vegging out. I needed to just empty my mind, as it were, before moving on to to the next stage.
And what kicked that off was going into a charity shop – because as you might imagine, I’ve always been a charity shop vinyl obsessive, always looking on the off-chance – and there was this keyboard just propped up by the counter, because it had just come in, a seventies Echo organ, Italian… I’ve still got it in the garage, and all the early Ekoplekz records were done with this organ. That was the start of it. I just happened to have some money on me – they wanted £30, I dithered for a minute then thought, “Yeah I’ll take it.” So I took it, and I tinkled with it for a bit, didn’t do anything interesting, then I bought a delay pedal, then a couple of other pedals, and dusted off me old four-track – which I still had, one of the few things I still had from the old days – and started up. This was the start of 2010, and once I got going, suddenly the floodgates opened. And every night, as soon as the kids were settled, I was in that garage. My wife didn’t see me for a while. Well, we’d been married a long time by then so she was probably glad of it – but I basically disappeared into the garage for about six months. It was so good to be making music again. What I’d do would be working on headphones so as not to disturb anyone while I was recording on my four-track, then any time I got the house to myself I’d hook it all up on the speakers and do the mixdowns. So I did two or three CDRs worth of material like this, in this very short period of time and those CDRs are all bona fide rarities now… hang on [flicks open laptop again, searches Discogs] – how many people want Volume 1 on Discogs now? Ekoplekz Volume 1 was a limited edition of 50 to start with – no, wait, it was 20, all just done for friends. But some of those friends happened to be people like Woebot and Simon Reynolds, so they wrote about it, just briefly, on their blogs, and then I got people asking if they could have one. So I did a second edition of Volume 1, of 50 copies, with a PayPal button on my blog. Here we go, 60 people want that Volume 1 now…
…So that’s more than acutally exist of the publicly released copies, not bad.
Yep, again it’s nice to feel wanted! So that was 2010 I did that, then I did Volume 2, another CDR, then a couple of tapes, and then the first official record… Stalag Zero… that was Punch Drunk number 20. That was entirely down to Peverelist – I’d just given him some tracks to listen to as mates, never occurred to me that this was something that Punch Drunk would’ve put out – they did all this high-tech crisp sounding stuff for DJs and here I was with my sludgy tape noise stuff. So I was just “whaaaaaat?” when he asked. But he did ask, and put it out, and that was November 2010: the first official Ekoplekz record. It completely bemused me that he’d do it though, I remember really fretting at the cutting plant as we were getting it done, going, “Tom are you really sure you want to do this?” Listening to it really loud in the monitors there, I was really… [goes cross-eyed] I mean, I liked it, don’t get me wrong, but I just couldn’t see how Punch Drunk buyers are gonna buy this. But they did! It was an edition of 300, I think, and it sold out really quick, and before I knew it it was in stock at Hardwax, and they loved it. You know you’re doing something right when Hardwax support it I suppose.
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Was there a moment of realisation that this bodged-together tech you were using was a more natural way of working for you than the more conventional MIDI setup you’d had before?
I dunno. By this point I’d really discovered a lot of other stuff that I hadn’t heard before, a lot of the German stuff from the seventies like Cluster and Harmonia and Neu! and all that stuff which I hadn’t been so aware of when I was working previously. I was hearing all this pre-MIDI electronica, and seeing how it related to the early industrial stuff as well in some way, and I had some kind of idea that I wanted to go back to this seventies sound. With a twist, though. There’s a subtle difference between being just retro, or copyist, and doing something that’s relevant to now – it’s always been important to me not to just sound like an old record, it’s got to in some way say something about the time when it’s made. So having that balance is the challenge.
Having the connection to this Bristol dubstep scene that was very much of its time must have helped on that front, right?
Well yeah, but actually in the end I realised that the best approach was just don’t think about it too much. Just let everything flow out of you, so you can have a dub bassline with X or Y sound, that’s OK, it’s just what you do. Just because Harmonia wouldn’t have had a dub bassline doesn’t mean you can’t. Just let it all flow. And the more time goes on, and the more I do that, the more I’ve started to allow the nineties techno influence to come through too as I have on this Planet Mu album. I guess I’d been suppressing it, trying to get this pre-nineties, pre-MIDI sound, but now I just think, “Why am I suppressing it, why am I blocking this? Just be honest!”
Is there a sense you were trying to escape from the music you’d made before then?
It’s possible, yeah, very possible that I was running away from my own back catalogue. Which you never know, that might see the light of day one day, a retrospective – because there’s a lot of it! All those years of DAT tapes… never more than demos, apart from two 12”s, which flopped. The one that did slightly better than the other one, I wouldn’t even play to you because I can’t stand it – it was a mid-nineties trancey techno thing, done at a time when I was desperately trying to just get anywhere, so I was starting to sell out a bit. I just wanted to get on the platform so I could subvert it – doing anything I could to get in there. I was called ‘Patchwerk Man’. [taps at Discogs again] Yeah, it was a 12” called Retribution on a label called World Music in 1996. Its average rating is about two, which is more than it deserves. Three people actually want it! [laughs hard] Best of luck to you guys, because I wouldn’t want it… but there you go. That was the nearest I got. It was getting quite a lot of club play, as it happens, but as it turned out the record label were a bunch of twats who hadn’t got their distribution sorted out, so even if you wanted to buy it, it wasn’t in the shops. A cock up. And that was the last thing I did before I gave up, because 1996 was the year my first son was born and changed everything. That was my last shot – I remember making that record and thinking, “If this one doesn’t make it, I’ve had it.”
So essentially it was a 14 year break from music!
Well like I say, not a total break. I had a little band going on with some mates and this and that, but nothing serious – I completly gave up trying to make it, or even release anything. But by the time Ekoplekz started again, I was so desperate for it once again. I didn’t realise how much I needed it until I started again, but yeah, the floodgates opened.
And did gigging start again at the same time?
Well, that was down to Peverelist again, to Tom. My first gig was at Dubloaded – I can’t remember who I was on before, but it was some real mainstream dubstep DJ on, and me. I remember being round their house, because Tom was still living with Rob Pinch at the time, discussing how we were going to go about doing this record of mine he was going to put out – and Tom just said, “Well, of course, now we’re doing this record, we’ll get you down Dubloaded, you’ll do a live set, it’ll be good promotion!” I went. “I don’t play live!”, because this was all multitrack stuff, I couldn’t do this live!. But he just said, “Well figure out a way of doing it!”. So I had to figure out how to do it – but once I did it, the lightbulb came on, like, “Ohhh, I can be a live artist too.”
How was the reaction first time around then, from what was essentially a raving crowd?
Good natured bemusement, I would call it. They were very patient with me. The thing is, that first gig actually turned up on a record! That was the Live at Dubloaded record that Further Records in Seattle put out. The engineer on that night just happened to record it, and Tom was doing all these schemes about how he was going to promote the Punch Drunk release, so when we found out we had a good clear recording of the live set, Tom convinced FACT to stream the whole thing on the site as a promotional thing for the 12”. Then this guy Mark in Seattle heard this stream and said he wanted to do a vinyl issue of it. So the next thing we know, we’re asking FACT to pull down the stream and sending him over the audio. The first ever Ekoplekz live set I’d done, and there it was streaming on FACT, and then the master file’s going off to Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin for them to tart up, and it ends up coming out on wax. Surreal.
And you enjoyed it on the night?
Yeah yeah, that was the moment I realised I could do it. But I’ve never pushed it, I just sit and wait, and people ask me to come and play places. I still haven’t got an agent or anything like that. I’ve had a few offers to do tours, but when you’ve got the wife and the kids and you’re earning a living other ways, you can’t just go swanning off for a fortnight. So now I’m a weekend gigger and raver. As and when. It’s always great to get the opportunity to do it. But yeah, it was Tom and them who pushed me into it.
Do you still feel part of a Bristol scene, now that the spotlight’s swung away from dubstep?
Well, I still take some comfort from things like last night. The Young Echo guys are trying to do something to keep an experimental edge to clubbing. You take what you can out of it. And, of course, outside of dance music Bristol’s got…well, I wouldn’t quite say “healthy”, but an active experimental improvisational electronic scene going on, which is more based around Cafe Kino and the Cube Cinema. And I’m quite involved with all that, it’s not just the bass scene as it were – I’m able to intermingle between those groups. Then there’s the Arnolfini, which is run by another bunch of good guys who put on some interesting events which I get invited to from time to time. It’s good enough for my purposes, let’s put it that way.
And outside Bristol? Do you feel connected – as Ekoplekz – with any other musicians or movements?
Of course, a lot of my mates, who I met through the blogging days, have come up as artists. Hacker Farm – they’re all my blogging colleagues from years back, and I guess you could say we’ve all come up together. They’re the Yeovil crowd, and there’s the guy Saxon who’s based in Bridgewater, it’s a little South West scene… and Kemper Norton, of course, from Cornwall originally but now in Brighton, and very much involved with Joe Stannard’s Outer Church thing. We’re all this certain age group who’ve finally found an outlet. The Hacker Farm guys are in their 50s now, even older than me! But these are the guys I consider my peers, and we’re inspiring each other. Also people like Lewis Johnson – Wanda Group – me and Lew… well I’ve never really met him properly…
Is there anyone to meet though? Sometimes I wonder if he’s just a Twitter-bot-with-random-ambient-sound algorithm…
Yeah, is he really that mad? But yeah, he’s a regular correspondent of mine. Then there’s people like Nochexx of course, I’ve got a few friends in Cambridge – people like that, keeping ourselves happy, entertaining each other. There’s plenty of stuff out there if you know where to look. I’ve got a few friends out in America, Robert Beattie – Three-Legged Race, he calls himself, he’s from Hair Police – he’s done some fantastic stuff. And though I don’t know them personally, I love all the Wolf Eyes and splinter stuff, the things Nate Young does on his own, that’s very impressive, a lot of inspiration there. Then the stuff Baron Mordant does with Mordant Music – I know you have a problem with Vindicatrix, Joe, but on a good day he’s great, and there’s a ton of other great music round that label, so there’s that whole little scene as well. There’s plenty about there you could be happy about, I’d say.
There’s a lot of collaboration that goes on in the scenes you’re mentioning – any plans or desire for any team-ups soon? Or anything more ambitous? Jamming with jazz musicians like Wolf Eyes do?
Well, I collaborate with Ralph – Bass Clef – for the live stuff now, and with Baron Mordant for the Emmplekz stuff. But yeah, I was just thinking the other day, wouldn’t it be nice to reproduce Ekoplekz records live – like the actual multitracks, if I had a band. But there’s the practicalities of it. I remember reading a thing on the internet recently about the proliferation of one-man acts, because it’s the only affordable way to do it. So regardless of how interesting that might be, in terms of the practicalities, the one-man-band is the way to go, or you end up losing money on every gig. One man, everything in a suitcase, the only way to make it work.
I don’t discount the possibility some sort of Ekoplekz band might happen in a studio environment, but I can’t see how it could ever pay itself as a touring act. There’s better pay on the European circuit, mind you – especially countries like Belgium where there are still bits of money from the government. I played a Belgian squat with Hacker Farm back in November, it was a real rough dive but they were still getting government money! [laughs] It didn’t matter if no-one turned up, the gig was already paid for! Fantastic, and totally unheard of here of course. Once in a while there’ll be some Arts Council funded thing in England – like I got paid £400 for a set here a while back, and that was like, “Wow!” – but that’s such a rarity now. 99% of the time, it’s just if nobody turns up, or nobody buys any drinks, you’re not getting paid. We did a Mordant Music night in Whitechapel recently – it wasn’t that well promoted obviously, and I didn’t even get any travel money, that was the worst one ever. They paid the headliner because it was in his contract, but nothing else for anyone else. I did a great set, but to ten people and for no money. Hey ho, these things are sent to try us.
As you said earlier on, though, the Planet Mu album is a step up for you, a platform on an international level – have you considered what you’ll do if significantly better paid tour offers come in?
Yeah. It’d take a lot of planning, because my wife works full time as well, so there are the basic practicalities of who’s going to get the kids from school and so on. We’ve never, ever used childminders – between us we’ve always made sure we had time for them – so it’d be something new to work out. But of course it’d be very tempting if there was some decent money in it. We’ve all got to earn a crust, and I’d love to do it. Having said that, if I did go off on tour I’d probably be homesick and missing my kids after two or three days and wanting to go home again. I can just see that happening, so maybe it’s best to keep it as it is. I’m not going to push it, anyway – I could never be like my old friend Tony Headhunter, “the nomad” as he called himself. I think he spent about two or three years not even having a permanent home, just travelling around DJing non stop. Young man’s game, see!
So you’re not ambitious in terms of reaching out for bigger audiences – but I’m guessing if Radiohead, say, came knocking for a remix, you wouldn’t say no?
Ummmmmm… [five second pause] No. No, I probably wouldn’t – but it’d have to be on my terms. But then they’re the type of artists who wouldn’t insist on some pantsy commercial mix would they? Yeah, thinking about it, that’d be nice I reckon. I did get turned down recently as it goes – I won’t say the name of the artist, but their bass player is a big fan of my stuff and convinced the singer that he had to have a remix by me. I did this remix, sent it to the bass guy and he said [breathless] “Oh yes, that’s fantastic,” and played it to the artist. Of course he went [stern] “NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. BLOODY AWFUL.” So yeah I got rejected there, but hey ho. The bass player was eating humble pie, “Really sorry to waste your time mate” and all that, but y’know, it was a worthwhile gamble.
So no big vision for two years down the line, then? No big plan for Ekoplekz?
No, no, see how it goes. I think Mike is quite happy with how this album is going, so there might well be another Ekoplekz album for him. He’s still got all that other material I sent him, and I’m making more all the time – and he’s always saying, “Although I picked these tracks for this album, there’s still a lot of other ones I like,” so we can do a different slant on the next one quite easily, take it down a different direction. So hopefully there’s another good Planet Mu album, but if Warp or Mute or one of the big ones come calling, well, I’ll be here!
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