“I don’t think I’ve ever put a genre tag on one of my songs on SoundCloud.”
Eric Burton has never enjoyed labeling his music. “It wasn’t really intentional,” he admits. “Back when I put out ‘Black Dragons’, the label may have tagged it as ‘grime’ but when I made it, it was just like ‘this is a sound I made’.” Certainly, when the Double Dragon EP appeared on Irish label Glacial Sound in 2013, it was swept up in a wave of renewed interest in grime, which wouldn’t have been so unusual had Burton been saddled with an E3 postcode. That wasn’t the case: he was an American, based in Houston, Texas.
In the years that followed, it’s been easier to to lump Burton in with the legion of global artists working under the ‘club’ banner. With origins in Baltimore (and latterly, Jersey and Philly) the term has been used more recently to describe the burgeoning sound of artists working on the fringes of dance music throughout the world. This year particularly, it’s been a fertile area for experimentation, with records from M.E.S.H., Lotic and Fis challenging the very idea of what club music even is. It feels as if we’ve finally reached a place where canonical dance tropes can be torn to pieces and re-contextualized without having to be given the prefix ‘intelligent’.
Rabit’s debut album, Communion, is packed with familiar sounds and references throughout: the dense throb of a TR-808; the shimmer of trance arpeggios; grime’s gliding squares; Jersey club’s incessant stomp. Despite this, it’s difficult to unravel, lacking the repetition and crowd-pleasing optimism of popular dance music. “That’s a conversation that a lot of people are having,” he admits. “I might play in a club but am I club music per se? The sound and the purpose of it isn’t even the same. It’s funny to me because when I go to the club on a booking, making someone dance is not even in my head. It’s kind of strange because it’s removed from the original use – all these sounds stem from it, but they’re growing towards something else.”
To understand Communion, we need to go further back. Burton was born in Philadelphia, and grew up in South Jersey, “right across the bridge.” This meant easy access to rap shows that he became fixated on as a teenager: “I was a huge MF DOOM fan. I saw him in Philly with Jedi Mind Tricks, Necro, that kinda line-up, and I was pretty much obsessed with beats.” DOOM used an Akai MPC-60, the sampling drum machine that helped forge the dusty sound of golden age East Coast hip-hop, so, desperate to re-create the sounds he was hearing, Burton figured that acquiring one would be his best course of action: “I started out making MPC 2-bar, 4-bar beats, then got weirder and weirder. I’ve just continued to do the same thing until now.”
His obsession with the MPC became useful when he moved 1600 miles across the country to Galveston, Texas. A small island, Galveston is connected to the Gulf Coast by a bridge that is limited to cars only – if you don’t have access to a vehicle, you’re stuck there. “That describes the mindstate of where I lived,” Burton tells me. “When you’re talking about starting production and the roots, I think it’s mental as well. Moving to the South and seeing socially how the South exists was pivotal.”
“Making someone dance is not even in my head.”
Burton spent eight years living in Galveston, and by his own admission rarely left his room. It was an insular creative period that allowed him to concentrate all his efforts into streamlining his skills: “I would go home, make a whole bunch of beats, burn them on a CD and then listen to them on my way back and forth to work, and just hear what sucked and what didn’t. That was basically how I learned to make music.”
It was also how he learned to tame the MPC, an instrument that he became so adept with that even after losing the face plate (which was printed with instructions) he could still make beats by muscle memory alone. “I could use it with a blindfold on,” he says. “I really like that simplicity, I like knowing where everything is and that it has a set amount of functions.” But it wasn’t quite enough: “there were ideas in my head that I just couldn’t do using a loop-type sequencer.” Burton began to find his footing when he realized that “maximizing the computer to the utmost” was the key to creating the sound that was in his head. “I tried a lot with the MPC to get it to do more, like doubling up the tempo, writing shit at 280bpm or something, but as soon as I got into MIDI I just thought ‘I’m not fucking with this’,” he laments. “I do like tactile real-life interaction with machines, so I’m not saying that has no value. But at the end of the day it’s so expensive, it’s so heavy, it’s so annoying – I’m cool. A Toshiba laptop with Fruityloops – I’m good.”
In 2011, Burton left the island and moved to Houston to “discover that all these different scenes existed with all this different music.” Somehow, electronic music in Texas was becoming more of a concern, and he became acquainted with Janus resident Lotic and #FEELINGS boss Ben Aqua, who was responsible for releasing Burton’s debut EP Terminator in 2012. “The strangest thing about it is that there’s no good clubs in Texas,” he says, laughing. “Let’s be real here – there’s some good clubs in Austin, but people think the club is the system and the room but it’s so much more than that. It’s also about an attitude, the vibe and the mood.”
Unusually for an electronic musician, he had resisted the temptation to involve himself with musicians online to garner feedback or praise. It was a simple desire to learn more production techniques that eventually caused him to explore. “I made stuff for about five years before I started going online,” he says. “The first places I started to check were Future Producers and Gearslutz. I was just consuming as much as I could to learn. I was definitely all self-taught, I didn’t have anyone I knew who made stuff and didn’t play it for anyone. I did that for a while and then discovered that people on the internet did the same thing.”
Eventually, Burton started messaging back-and-forth with James Parker, aka Logos, who would prove to be a massive influence. He credits Parker with kickstarting his interest in the grime tropes that peppered Double Dragon, but is quick to note his outsider status. “I started talking to him and making some shit together, and then started digging into a few other producers,” he says. “There’s a couple of producers in grime I really like, but there’s plenty that I straight-up don’t like at all – it’s just corny. That was another thing with being lumped in, a lot of journalists, they don’t even know about the genres they’re referencing.”
Being saddled with a genre label made Burton think carefully about how his music was being consumed, but he didn’t want to let it get in the way of his creativity, either: “I think that’s something that a lot of people like about my music, that I don’t really overthink what I do or who I associate with. There’s pros and cons to all that. On one hand you can get thrown into this genre, for example, but on the other hand as long as I enjoy creating and work with who I want to work with then a genre name won’t matter.”
To help assist the narrative and clarify some of his influences without breaking the mystique, last year Burton pieced together a series of dense, delightfully eclectic mixes entitled Pandemic Transmission. These solidified Burton’s intentions, blending Southern rap with industrial ambience, and made the transition from Double Dragon to this year’s Baptizm EP a little smoother. “That was one of the only things so far that I’ve intentionally done,” he says of the series. “It was me trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to say, and it helped me figure out a lot for the album, too. Some of the techniques I used in the mixes, that’s how I created some of the songs. Just being more freeform and not being as particular with things being perfect – rougher.”
It’s not musical touchstones or advanced techniques that lie at the heart of Communion, however. As Burton was trying and failing to put together his debut album, he began to realize that developing a confidence and understanding of his own personal experiences was the key. He had spent months going through ideas and hitting a brick wall, desperate to exhibit emotion without using traditional means. “It was a struggle with no vocalists,” he admits. “I feel like once you learn to make music, that’s one aspect of it conquered, and so my struggle with creating an album was that I didn’t want it to just be me doing cool sounds. That was a big thing. I probably have a whole other album, or a couple, that I did before this, and that I felt were just cool sounds I can make. But that’s the part of the new grime scene I don’t like, and that’s why I don’t like being associated with it because it’s a bunch of people trying to make crazier sounds than the other person.”
“What people are hearing is my life experiences.”
It was Tri Angle’s Robin Carolan who helped give Burton the push he needed to wrench himself out of his comfort zone: “From early on he heard something in my music and said ‘I think you can do this but even more.’ For a good period of time he’d say ‘this is good but you’re holding back.’ It just came to a point where I had to be totally confident in me just by myself, and not associate with any other scene. I had to get the album finished and not care where it would fit into. Just do it.”
Bizarrely, Icelandic electronic music deity Björk was also a guiding force. The two became acquainted after Burton was lined up to remix ‘History of Touches’ from this year’s Vulnicura, and Björk managed to pass on some important advice: “Something she told me is that making an album is a privilege. That was when I knew I had to go extra, extra hard. Like, this is my opportunity to make something and there are some people who even want to hear it.”
Once Burton had built up the required confidence, the rest fell into place; he looked back at a year blighted by personal tragedy, and realized it was this he needed to interpret on the album. “What people are hearing is my life experiences,” he tells me. “The last year, there was a lot of learning – situations, people that I know, all that had a big impact.
“One thing that happened was that a good friend of mine overdosed. Unfortunately I wasn’t there when it occurred, but I was there right after. They ended up living through it, but that was an eye opening experience for me, I feel like I was with someone who was right on the cusp of death and life. It sounds dramatic but that’s what it was like to see someone pretty much die and all of a sudden come back.”
Burton is quick to address the difference between personal and political too. He doesn’t aspire to be a political artist, but he’s not afraid of it, either: “It’s someone limiting to be a political artist or say ‘this is a political album.’ And it’s not like I’m afraid to take that on because I’m definitely not, it’s not about that.”
Rather, Communion is a piece of art that can be enjoyed aesthetically or fixated on deeply. Burton wants us to make our own connections, and not get tied up in concept any more than we might trip up on the pointless genre classification. “I feel like a concept is cool, but definition can be limiting,” he opines. “It has almost become a pitfall in the last couple of years. It’s been used a lot to sell something. To me it’s like – ‘I don’t care’. Concepts, when they’re done in a certain way, they’re the most overrated things.”
Armed with the language to interpret these events, the album came together in just two weeks. After previous drafts of the record had taken months, it turned out Communion had just been waiting for the right time.