Joe Cowton is something of an overlooked trailblazer of UK club music.
Despite moving to London a few years ago, Cowton’s music has an important place in Bristol’s recent musical history. He started out making dubstep as Narcossist, but quickly adopted the Kowton moniker after moving to Bristol, turning towards a slower, bass-heavy style of club music which anticipated the shift that fellow UK producers like Pearson Sound would make.
Cowton found kindred spirits in Punch Drunk boss Peverelist and Chris Farrell, with whom he would later work at Bristol’s Idle Hands record shop and receive a “brutal education” in music. In 2011 he began collaborating with Peverelist and Asusu as Livity Sound, creating strange and inventive dance music that was arguably the apex of the period when techno started to blend with dubstep rhythms.
Many producers who weathered that same post-dubstep era have gone on to make far less interesting music, but Cowton’s commitment to invention has been tireless. His breakthrough track was 2012’s grime-influenced banger ‘More Games’, but recent years have seen him exploring more emotive avenues with tracks like ‘Glock & Roll’ and ‘On Repeat’, whose unashamedly hands-in-the-air breakdown landed itself a spot in FACT’s top tracks of 2015.
Whatever Cowton’s done though, it’s generally been tough as nails, and his debut album Utility is no different. It’s a pretty succinct distillation of his career’s trajectory from dubstep through house, grime and techno, where the Jeff Mills-inspired loop techno of ‘Bubbling Under’ sits comfortably alongside ‘A Bluish Shadow’, a deep, simmering track with echoes of Kassem Mosse.
Utility is a bold choice of name for an album given the dry connotations of “functional techno”, but it’s consistent with a career that’s tried to make the most innovative music possible out of the bare minimum, shot through with the wrong-footed swing that’s become his trademark. Ahead of the release of Utility next week, I spoke with Cowton about the album, his decade-long evolution and the stigma surrounding making music that’s made for dancing.
“The title of Utility is almost belligerent. There’s always been that stigma about the dance music album”
The album is almost totally at odds with your grime-influenced stuff from 2012. Did you feel a need to break away from that kind of sound?
Everything I’ve ever done has been quite honest. At that point I was playing a lot of grime records, a lot of funky, stuff like that. The records I made in those styles were just me wanting to make stuff I could play in house sets that was influenced by grime. I’m a massive contrarian, so as more people started doing that sound, say like Kahn & Neek blowing up with those Bandulu 12″s, it almost put me off – I like it all, but I’m not and I never was someone who would just be playing that sound. I love that sound, but I don’t and never really did feel best placed to be a flag-bearer for it.
Some of your first rave experiences were at quarry raves in the Lake District. Do you think the harder techno you heard at those has gone into the album at all?
I think that was my first experience of hard techno or straighter techno in a party setting, but it’s probably a bit easy to draw a line from a quarry rave in 1998 to now and say “that’s the same thing”, or “that’s a direct influence”. At that time there wasn’t really any logic to what we owned. My best mate used to buy more house and techno and I’d buy more drum and bass but when we had a mix we’d just swap about. More than anything we were just into mixing, it was only later that I really got a grip on what was what.
I think we went there because we were excited by the idea of dance music. That was it. There are no clubs in Cumbria. There’s no nightlife after 2am when the local club shuts. I’ve said it before but we were just a bunch of stoners sat in a car because someone’s mate said, “There’s a quarry rave on, shall we drive to it?” And then [we’d] probably sit in the car. We saw all this speed garage and hard techno, but we weren’t running the raves, we weren’t playing the records. I’m glad that we saw a very honest representation of British dance music. It wasn’t the vanguard of anything, it was just people that like getting high and dancing, and that was fine.
I’d say I’m probably typical of a generation that was into European techno or jungle and then by the time dubstep came along it was like, right, we’ve been doing these same old patterns for a long time, isn’t it nice to move away from that? And perhaps where I’m at now, or where anyone in a similar neck of the woods is at, is that we’ve the broken thing for… not long enough, but I’ve made a lot of broken tunes in the past few years, [and] it’s quite nice to embrace the 4/4 again and see what I can do within that. I’m probably destined to oscillate back and forth as long as I can continue to make music, I think it just keeps things interesting for me as a producer.
So why did you call the album Utility?
I think the appeal of calling it that was that it’s such a succinct term. I was talking to (All Caps boss) Bake about this idea of what we wanted from music in 2016. He was very keen on this idea that music with a purpose gave it an identity in itself: directness and repetition as qualities that gave the music a certain elegance.
There can be quite negative connotations around the idea of “functional techno.” Are you worried about that at all?
I guess the title is almost belligerent. There’s always been that stigma about the dance music album. The thin line you have to traverse is the idea that if something’s too utilitarian then it’s creatively inert, there’s something of a pre-perceived dichotomy between function and form. It’s easy to assume that one negates the other. With all the Livity Sound stuff, we’ve tried to write records that move people but also do enough to sustain the listener’s interest away from the dancefloor and I don’t think this is any different. The detail is still there, the grooves are still there, it’s just in longer form.
With hindsight if I’d called the record something else maybe this discussion would come up less frequently. At the same time though, I don’t feel guilty about writing a record that’s intended to move people. If anything I think there’s a certain kind of purity in that. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC Four series The Art of Scandinavia talks about the idea that much of the elegance in Scandinavian furniture came about through its purpose: it was stripped of all decoration and that was where the beauty lay.
If this album has any kind of elegance it’s in that it’s free of decoration, it’s free of white noise and clever IDM trickery. It’s meant to stand alone secure in what it is or what it does, and that’s what I wanted to do – a solid, self-assured statement, a piece of music created in the image that I wish it to be.
“Pev is a man of few pleasures – he watches the darts, eats curry and buys records very, very occasionally”
What sort of other artists you were thinking about when you were writing it?
The one album I kept going back to was Robert Hood’s Minimal Nation, just going through that and thinking, does this work in a similar way? Shed’s Shedding the Past was another big one. I played five or six of the tunes off that 10-track record. I look at it now and the sleeve is ripped and the inners have gone, but that to me is a successful dance music album. It’s to the point and it’s heavy, but every tune on there’s different. That’s vital.
You live in London now, but you’ve been annoyed in the past when people have pegged you as a “Bristol-based” artist. How much do you feel like that city has shaped who you are? Or would you reject that idea entirely now?
No, no, I think that’s fair. I moved to Bristol and I wasn’t really doing anything. I’d had one or two records out and that was fine. I moved there, I didn’t know Pev, I didn’t know anyone at Idle Hands, I didn’t really know anyone. I think with Chris (Farrell) particularly, I was definitely friends with him way before he signed a record or anything, we’d just go to the pub or go out and he’d be encouraging about what I was doing or introduce me to other people.
Chris was massively influential on my direction. Working in the Idle Hands shop was a huge thing for me, cos it’s just a brutal education, especially with someone like Chris who doesn’t mince his words. If you’re talking about things he thinks are shit you just get told. And it’s your job to be a tastemaker really – all those people coming in are like, “What have you got?” And you’re the one that’s brought the records in, you’re the one that’s passing them out again.
And obviously, meeting Pev. Tom’s been an enormous influence on me. He’s such a considered character, he’s not someone who does things because he thinks they might be OK, or something like that. He’s a man of few pleasures – he watches the darts, tends his allotment, eats curry and he buys records very, very occasionally. Those are his core activities. I think Tom would be the first to admit he’s not really one to teach technicality or anything like that, but in terms of the ideology of what he wants from music and how best to achieve it, he’s a master really. He’s got about four or five reference points, but he adheres to them militantly, and that’s what you want from a label boss.
In terms of your reference points, you’ve experimented with lots of styles but there’s a Kowton signature that feels quite consistent. How do you think you’ve evolved as an artist over the past eight years?
I think when you’re working with such a minimal selection of sounds all you really have to work with is the way that you fit them together, and it’s almost the bits that you don’t notice that make the tune great. If you could give three or four producers the same sounds and asked them to make a track, not only would the rhythms be different but also the way that they interact would be different. I think if I’ve learnt anything it’s that nuanced way of gluing everything together and presenting a cohesive whole from quite different ingredients.
I hope I’ve got better at answering the challenges of writing minimalist records: how do you propel the music, how do you engage the listener when nothing’s happening, essentially – that’s the hardest thing I think. When it doesn’t work then it’s back to the drawing board. I’ve got so many tunes that could’ve worked but didn’t, and there’s not an obvious reason why, but hopefully I’m better at spotting at what point it works and what point it doesn’t.
What I’ve definitely done is cut down on all the peripheral noises and all the shite that goes in. When I listen to those early records there’s so many incidental sounds it’s almost like punctuation – every 32 bars, have a new noise. Or let’s have another breakdown, let’s have this, let’s have that, and I think as I get older, more and more I gravitate towards this ideal of music that just flows – direct and concise exercises in rhythmic repetition.
Last year’s ‘On Repeat’ felt like a complete anomaly because of the huge euphoric chord over the top. Do you feel like you’re moving towards music that’s a little bit more emotional as you get older?
I think so. I think eight years ago there was definitely a feeling that emotion was unnecessary. I remember in 2005 people were talking about D1 derisively: “Guy uses chords, what’s that about?” So maybe coming out of that there was a phobia of using overly tuneful aspects. But yeah, truthfully, with ‘On Repeat’ I had that pad for about a year, I tried it in about four or five different tunes, and the sequence was good, but I couldn’t make it stick. I think when you’re going out on a limb like that and putting a massive great trance pad over the duration of a tune you need to get it right, or there’s a lot of potential for fucking it up. But at the same time, if it works it’s worth the risk. I’ve definitely got no qualms about doing it.