Denounced by Steve Albini and now labelmates with Adele and Jamie xx, Powell has undergone an unlikely metamorphosis into one of the most recognisable figures on the UK underground. But can such a self-assured artist sell his spiky, visceral sound to a wider audience? Scott Wilson meets the musician who wants to sell us all a branded wetsuit.
It’s a Thursday night in October in a basement in Dalston. Dark, cramped and hot, the scene is much more anarchic than the average midweek club night. At the front of the room, unlikely XL Recordings signing Oscar Powell plays his track ‘Frankie’, whose vocal implores us to “accelerate culture” over a mix of gristly bass and punch-drunk drums. Powell-branded duct tape in Olympic colours is pulled through the crowd and stuck to the ceiling by a member of his crew who turns himself into a technicolour mummy by wrapping it around his head. A custom-built LED rig behind the tiny stage is the only light in a pitch-black pit full of sweaty bodies.
The launch party for Powell’s debut album Sport feels more like a DIY punk gig than a rave. But if you’ve been following Powell’s career since his self-released debut 12” in 2011, it makes complete sense: despite ostensibly being a club producer, his music has always seemed tailor-made for electronic music’s misfits and outsiders. His label, Diagonal, releases music from disparate artists such as noise veteran Russell Haswell, “computer rave” act EVOL and Swedish punks The Skull Defekts, acts that defy easy categorisation and tend to clear dancefloors of casual observers. Nothing that Powell releases could be classed as anything other than challenging, but somehow his music and that of his label never loses sight of one important aspect: fun.
“You either want people to hate you or love you. In between it’s just ‘meh’”
“I’ve been so depressed not making any music recently,” he had told me a week earlier at his flat in south-west London. “Doing this album on XL, it’s just a totally different thing. You make a record and it takes five months to come out, and you’ve got five months just to beat yourself up about it.”
In recent years, Powell has become just as famous for his PR stunts as his music. Last year he turned an email he’d received from Steve Albini denouncing electronic music into a billboard in London, and this year he gave out his email address through the same public medium, instructing fans to ask him anything and offering a set of mock interview guidelines. Powell cuts a tall, cocksure figure, but the process of creating a debut album for one of the UK’s biggest independent labels has left him visibly worried about being placed on show. Considering that his monthly NTS Radio show has the anarchic feel of BBC Radio 1 in the mid-90s, this moment of self-doubt is unexpected.
“I wasn’t making music for three or four months,” he says. “I was just getting miserable really. You’re so focused on this record and you put the weight of the world on your shoulders thinking it’s gotta be a success, whatever that means. It can drive you fucking insane.”
Sitting in the basement room where his studio is set up, he excitedly opens a folder on his computer of new tracks he’s made in the past few weeks. “It was nice to realise that making music actually does make me happy, ‘cos sometimes I think it doesn’t. But then when you get back to it and you have something good that you think you like then it feels good. You feel alive again.”
One is a solo track that’s experimenting with a much slower tempo than he’s used to, and another is a throbbing synth track made with his friend Loke Rahbek (of Sacred Bones-signed Lust For Youth), which reminds him of vintage German EBM act D.A.F. Both are subtly different from the music he’s made before; he’s trying to figure out how to move forward with his music having made an entire album, but both still sound unmistakably Powell. No matter how far he deviates from his established formula, his music’s muscular, chaotic signature is always a dead giveaway.
“It’s the most precious thing when people say, ‘That’s a track by Powell.’ To have that kind of identity is really important”
Powell’s production process now is much the same as it’s always been. He samples vocals, riffs, breaks and background feedback from a collection of old rock records, and using obsolete Logic 8 software, painstakingly arranges them between chopped-up synth sounds. It’s one of the most laborious production methods I’ve ever seen, but moving each of his drums by hand by just a fraction gives his sound an off-kilter, human element missing from a lot of club music. His source material and process has earned him tags such as “post-punk techno,” which though not completely inaccurate, isn’t something Powell feels represents who he is as an artist.
“I’m not a massive rock or post-punk fan,” he says, “there’s just something about the grooves and the strumming and the emphasis on hooks and riffs that I found really sexy. I don’t mind [the tag], I just think it’s really easy to say “post-punk techno” or something, y’know? I think I undoubtedly benefited from the massive revival of that stuff around the Blackest Ever Black label and other similar music, and for a while I really enjoyed that world, but then I realised that I was much more interested in pursuing my own sort of thing. Something that didn’t depend on the success of a particular scene or a revival. It’s the most precious thing to me, when people say, ‘That’s a track by Powell,’ y’know? To have that kind of identity I think is really important.”
Powell’s determination to do things his way has served him well. Diagonal has gained a loyal following by offering a sound that nobody else is pushing: gritty but not self-consciously so, colourful but not garish. Though he denies knowing anything about the early ‘00s electroclash movement, Powell’s music has earned comparisons to it for obvious reasons: its anarchic swagger is just the kind of thing you could imagine being played at London clubnight Nag Nag Nag in the early ‘00s. However, even by XL’s adventurous standards, Powell is a challenging artist. His music feels most at home in the club, but the reality is that an institution like Berghain would consider his music at the niche end of the spectrum.
Sport, however, is a new chapter for Powell. Throughout his career, he’s often been pegged as a lo-fi producer with dark, introspective tendencies. Early tracks such as 2013’s ‘Rider’ or 2012’s ‘Body Music’ wouldn’t sound out of place soundtracking low-budget exploitation horror movies, their menacing air making for an uneasy if groovy listen. But Sport is much more vivid. At times Powell almost tricks your brain into believing it’s listening to a pop record. Whether it’s the cartoonish sound of ‘Fuck You, Oscar’ or the bright, jaunty groove of ‘Junk’, Sport tingles with an energy that feels like a significant leap from his earlier material. The secret to this sound? His dog, Teddy.
“My dog ate my speaker so there’s no bass in my room at all,” he laughs, as he pokes the bass cone of his right-hand monitor. “It means when I was making the record I was focusing a lot more on higher frequencies – the fizziness. I just got really bored of bass. If you look at Lorenzo Senni, even PC Music, what I’m excited about is the mid-range, the high-definition sound. I like the contrast between this plastic high-end and then the older drums, it’s just the weird juxtapostion.” This “fizziness” is something Powell has in common with the music of his friend and mentor Russell Haswell, but on Sport he puts these more piercing frequencies to work in structures that are far easier to digest.
“I wanted to find a way of making potentially difficult sounds but in a way that feels… not ‘accessible’ but ‘oh, this is actually quite fun’. It’s really easy to write [my music] off if you hear a sound you’re not comfortable with, but then I love the idea of getting people to see that there’s something good in it. I think the record is as experimental and challenging as anything I’ve ever done, but it’s just got a slightly different colour to it. I wanted it to feel kind of shiny. Rather than my older stuff, which was probably more repressed and depressed as well. I hope it feels optimistic.”
“XL are gonna take a financial hit on my record, but hopefully I’ll still be doing this in 10 years”
The pop feel of Sport is given a boost thanks to the record’s unique use of vocals. HTRK’s Jonnine Standish, Chicago DJ Traxx and London musician Dale Cornish lend their voices to the album in either sung or spoken form, voices drawn from Powell’s own circle of peers rather than bigger names, something he could have gone for with XL’s help.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision at all,” Powell says. “They’re all friends of mine and people I know, so we’d just talk about it. It’s really easy when you’re working with someone like XL to say, ‘Maybe you could get this famous vocalist or old-timer to do it,’ but if you want to present yourself as someone new and it’s all your own thing, I think you have to draw from your own immediate world, otherwise it’s just a bit of a falsity, I think. It wouldn’t feel like a natural extension of who I am.”
Being true to his ideals is clearly important, which is why it’s surprising that Powell’s decided to release his debut album on XL and not Diagonal, the label he’s nurtured for five years. “I’ve realised, in the grand scheme of things, that I have this community around me that I’ve existed in for five years,” he says. “Everyone knows who you are, everyone knows what you do, everyone probably thinks you’re an arsehole, but I’m always surprised at how little people know, not just about me, but about friends that are heroes to me and that I do gigs with. It’s weird because there’s this distinct underground world, and what happens on the internet helps to define it, but actually it’s quite a small world as well. That’s why I think it’s so important when a label like XL puts their neck on the line and says, ‘We believe in this artist,’ and for the right reasons as well – not because they think it’s gonna sell loads of records, but because they generally want to support new music.
“They’re gonna take a financial hit on my record, but hopefully I’ll still be doing this in 10 years. That’s the idea for me. I think, doing your first album, you feel the record’s gotta say everything and be everything in one, but you just have to keep remembering it’s the first small step in your career.”
It’s unlikely that the spiky, visceral Sport will sell as well as XL big-hitters like Adele and Jamie xx, but there’s no doubt that Powell knows how to play the game. It’s unusual for a niche electronic artist in 2016 to brand themselves so heavily – logos, videos, animations and billboards in a slick, chromatic style – but Powell revels in it, and while he has some punk DIY spirit flowing through his veins, in many ways his determined self-belief has more in common with self-made US rappers than the UK noise artists he has on his label. But despite his former life working in advertising, it’s clear that stunts like the Albini emails and off-the-wall merch like the Powell-branded wetsuits are as much a part of his art as the music.
“I spent eight years talking about campaign strategy but I was always really interested in it,” he acknowledges. “I studied art history at university and did my dissertation on Warhol because I liked the way he was adopting popular culture and having fun with it. I think there’s something you learn in advertising, which is that it built its name on exploiting culture, and as a product you align yourself with something or shoot an ad in a way that references something big – you take from culture. I don’t like taking from culture, but I like the idea you can play with pop culture and interrupt people by putting up a billboard and being part of the way that stuff works.”
Towards the end of interview, Powell remarks he’s worried that the billboard stunts have led people to focus on “Powell the ad man” rather than “Powell the artist.” It’s the most difficult aspect of Powell’s persona to reconcile: he makes strange music that rails against even club music’s fragile status quo while marketing himself in a way that can seem incompatible with underground music culture.
“I think it’s easy sometimes to mistake personality for being an arsehole,” he says. “I don’t feel like I ever pretend or try to create an image. It’s all just me doing what feels right. I always remember what Russell [Haswell] said once: ‘You either want people to hate you or love you. In between it’s just ‘meh’.”
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