Features I by I 12.04.17

How Mr Mitch traded grime for minimalist pop on the astounding Devout

Since emerging in 2010 with a string of successful grime EPs, Mr. Mitch, aka Miles Michell, has honed his sound into a uniquely explorative spin 0n the east London genre. As he prepares to release his latest album Devout, dealing with fatherhood, friendship and love on a record spanning pop, dancehall and slick R&B, Chal Ravens meets the man who made peace with the war dub.

Grime is a battlefield by design; a sparring ring where MCs clash and producers fire off war dubs, family dynasties are built and postcode rivalries are signaled. It’s an arena dominated by extroverts, where brags and boasts are the bread and butter of a battling MC; on occasion the fantasy spills over into grim reality.

But between the chest-puffing beef and playground-slaying bars, sometimes you can spot a chink in the armor. Let it all out, Wiley: on 2007’s ‘Letter 2 Dizzee’ he bared his soul over an eski beat as cold as frozen tears. Better out than in, Ruff Sqwad: their white label classic ‘Died In Your Arms’ captured the personal apocalypse of teen heartbreak better than Baz Luhrmann could. In the new school, Stormzy is the gentle giant mulling church and depression on Gang Signs & Prayer.

Enter Mr. Mitch. In 2013, when a barrage of war dubs confirmed the fertile state of the grime underground, the south-east London producer came in peace. Already a mainstay of the scene as co-founder of experimental grime night Boxed, he’d built up a catalog of bolshy, club-ready cuts on his own Gobstopper Records, but with his retaliatory Peace Dubs Vol. 1 – six stripped-back, fogged-out edits of tracks by Spooky, Wiley and Plastician – Mitch peeled away grime’s hard shell to reveal the mopey sweet boy lurking underneath. He refined his minimalist melancholy on the next year’s Parallel Memories, a suite of urban meditations on heartbreak and loss that was one of 2014’s most starkly original albums.

But having established a signature style that’s all about making lemonade from life’s sour patches, Mr. Mitch has turned a corner with his new album. Still driven by raw emotion, Devout finds him reckoning with the next chapter in his life. “It’s weird, ‘cos I don’t consider myself an emotional person day to day. I don’t feel like I have extreme highs and extreme lows, I’m always quite in the middle,” he points out when we meet in his basement studio in New Cross. (The claim stands up; softly spoken and modest in person, he’s also known as one of the good guys on the scene – no one seems to have a bad word to say about Mitch.) “But then there’s events which do make those extreme highs and lows – and becoming a dad is one of the ones that really affects you.”

Devout is a still-rare thing: an album about, at its essence, fatherhood. It’s about building a nest, retreating into the sanctuary of the family unit and getting to grips with the emotions that come with bringing new life into the world. It also finds Mitch taking his palette of shivery synths and levitating kicks into new spaces – pop, dancehall, the kind of slick electronic R&B he remembers from his teens – with a cast of different singers. The album opens, in fact, with three voices we’ve never heard on a Mr. Mitch track. Two of them belong to his kids, with older brother Milo inadvertently providing the hook to ‘Intro’.

“That’s actually a recording I found on his iPad. There was some song in the background and he was just going, ‘I hate this song, I love this song’. So I sampled that,” explains Mitch, “and then the sample of Oscar is the first time he said ‘dad’. My partner was recording it on video.” Yes, he went there – Mitch’s younger son contributes baby babble to ‘Intro’, placing it in a mighty canon of cameos alongside Blue Ivy on ‘Blue’, Four Tet’s godson on ‘Pablo’s Heart’ and Aphex Twin’s little cousin on ‘IS-UZ’. “It’s always been a part of my music,” he says of being a father, “it’s just on this album it’s more apparent.”

Mr. Mitch

“I never hear about the stories of the dads that do their job… it should just be normality.”

The other new voice we hear is Mitch’s own – the first time he’s recorded his own vocals. “I always sing melodies to the tunes I’m making, and a lot of the melodies are basically singing parts without the voice. But I was always a bit scared in my house. Even until recently the place I produced was my old bedroom at my mum’s house, and I don’t want them hearing me. It always made me feel on edge.” Eventually he found a quiet enough spot – the writing room at his publishers, Domino, “with locked double doors and everything to make sure no one can hear me.”

Softly muted as Mitch’s voice is, the outpouring of love on Devout is almost overwhelming. On ‘Oscar’, he sings to his both his sons (“He’s ‘bout to be a big brother to you”) under twinkling, childlike xylophones, and there’s a repeated mantra addressed to his partner – “do you remember when we made our love?” – that’s sometimes sung as “my love”, or perhaps even “Milo”. Just listening can feel like an intrusion on the family’s intimacy. In less assured hands it’d feel cloying and cringe-worthy, but in such a spartan musical environment there’s room for such heavy emotion, and as Mitch explains, he couldn’t have been anything other than direct. “With ‘My Life’ especially,” he says of the album’s emotional linchpin, “I made the melodies and recorded myself singing it on the same day, and after doing that I could never imagine anyone else on that song. I couldn’t have someone else singing my story, it wouldn’t feel right.”

More broadly, Devout is a tribute to three generations of Mitchells, from his newborn son to his father, once a musician in the UK lover’s rock scene spearheaded by Mad Professor’s Ariwa Sounds. “I used to hear about him touring the world as a guitarist, I’ve seen loads of videos of him. I always used to be really proud of him as a kid. He tried to teach me guitar but I was rubbish,” remembers Mitch. His dad is now living with MS, he continues, “so he can’t walk anymore and his cognitive processes aren’t the same as they once were. Seeing him degrade has really made me look back at him bringing me up and made me appreciate that more. In a way this album is in honor of him.” Richard Mitchell swapped music for a job at an IT firm when Mitch was young. “He was by no means unhappy in his job, but he made me want to show to my children that this is what I want to do. I want them to see me being happy in what I do.”

Fatherhood is a rite of passage that’s both personal and universal, and for Mitch, the experience also got him thinking about the particular expectations and stereotypes attached to black fatherhood. “Sometimes I walk down the street,” he says, “this has happened a couple times, and there’s been a bus driver, a black bus driver, who’s seen me walking with my kids and he’s given me the thumbs up – for doing my job. ‘Well done, you’re being a dad.’ It’s like, it should be the norm. And in my family it is the norm. All of the men in my family are still with their partners, or even if they’re not, they’re still being dads. They’re not abandoning their children. Obviously there are dads who don’t do their job, and it’s both races, but I feel like all I hear about are the stories of the dads that aren’t there. I never hear about the stories of the dads that do their job, and it shouldn’t be a thing that you get bigged up for – it should just be normality.”

“I don’t try and make minimal sounding music, it’s just that’s what feels right for me.”

The album’s lead single, ‘Devout’, celebrates that normality in minute detail with a vocal from P Money, an MC hailing from Mitch’s own corner of south-east London who also happens to be a dad: “At first it was scary, but when it sunk in, bro, I just went mad with it / Baby this, baby that, baby cot, baby clothes, break the bank.” P Money “felt like the right person to approach for it,” says Mitch. “He did a freestyle where he covered ‘Forgot About Dre’ and he was talking about his dad “forgetting about P”, and talking about being a dad. I went to the studio with him when he recorded it and I was like, ‘That’s what I wanted!’ It was perfect, he just did it really quick.”

As personal as the subject matter is, the album goes beyond soft-focus tributes to daddies and babies by briefing a crew of collaborators on broader themes of “love and friendship,” a phrase Mitch comes back to several times in the conversation. “I can only understand things from my perspective, so love and friendship are the things I’m dealing with at the moment,” he says, explaining how he worked with smoky-voiced singer-songwriter Denai Moore on the yearning ‘Fate’, and another London talent, Py, on the smoldering romantic dedication ‘Pleasure’. Then there’s Palmistry’s dancehall downer ‘VPN’, a song about loving from a distance with an Auto-Tuned lump in its throat: “Turn on the wi-fi, don’t care where you are / Turn on the wi-fi, I know that’s far.”

Intimate yet spacious, Devout hones the pop impulses of Parallel Memories with the bare minimum of accessory; there are shades of the Neptunes and Timbaland rhythms he grew up with, but Mitch was also thinking of the tightly choreographed electro-pop of Metronomy, Hot Chip and Alunageorge: “I’ve always dreamt of being able to make something that works within a pop formula but was still a bit weird at the same time.” He’s largely stuck to the narrow sonic palette of Parallel Memories, planting subtle echoes of grime here and there, but each element is pared down, isolated by space and silence so that melodies ring out brightly.

“I was listening to a lot of Ryuichi Sakamoto at the time,” he notes. “Anything more than what I’ve already got in a track always feels like clutter. A lot of my music in the past had a lot more elements in it and was a bit more wild. Now I just find it really hard to add things. I don’t try and make minimal sounding music, it’s just that’s what feels right for me.” When it came to getting the album mastered, a job for Rinse engineer Jarrad Hearman, “sending the stems was almost a bit embarrassing, ‘cos it’s got, like, five parts to a track,” he laughs. “There’s nothing to it really.”

Mr. Mitch

That feeling of space and clarity is also picked up in Nick Hamilton’s artwork, conceived as an expansion to the bare white door on the cover of his 2014 EP The Room Where I Belong. “I wanted Nick to create a whole house,” he explains, “like the house where I belong. It’s me making music that’s for me, but also the house represents my safe place, my family.” Protected from the “hostile” rocky terrain on the back cover, he imagines Devout as a place where “everything’s serene, it’s your home.”

His studio is similarly uncluttered, hidden in the basement of an old police station. “It’s very simple setup. Just this laptop. I only use a few plugins for tunes,” he says, gesturing to the near-empty desk. “Then I’ve got this Prophet [synthesizer] that I’ve used on a couple of tracks. One of the sounds is just the sound of me turning this off – it was going through a reverb and it sounded really good, so I recorded it and it became a snare in one of the tracks.” The stripped-down setup is the result of peeling away all the unnecessary extras. “I used to have hundreds of plugins that I’d go through to get loads of sounds, but now I just use a few and tweak them a lot. A lot of the stuff I do is effects on the actual instruments, so instead of having loads of different sounds I just find sounds that I like and then make them different within themselves. That’s how a lot of the space gets filled – effects and good reverb. Even though it’s still minimal, it makes it feel less empty.”

Mitch’s swerve into hybrid pop territory comes as grime enjoys a late flush of mainstream success. He takes pride in what he’s contributed to the scene, particularly since founding Boxed in 2013, citing Skepta’s return to the classic 8-bar sound as evidence of the night’s impact. “I’m not really the kind of person to big myself up like that, but I guess I feel easier saying it because we’re a collective and I’m bigging up other people as well. Slackk in particular, the stuff he was doing on NTS Radio at the time with Novelist, pushing through these new producers, and then Novelist going over the weirder stuff and going on to work with Mumdance… I think Skepta wouldn’t have done ‘That’s Not Me’ without Novelist making ‘Take Time’, and that triggered a lot of other things.” Boxed encouraged a wave of producers like Logos, Murlo and JT the Goon to push themselves harder, “and it got a lot of new young MCs excited about grime, which had this flow back up to the top again,” he adds.

That burst of inspiration has splintered stylistically in the last couple of years, and Mitch now finds himself in a field of his own, ready to make his most direct statement yet. Grime will always have its battlegrounds, but his peaceful inversion of a familiar sound has carved out a whole new space – away from the chaos and the noise, and closer to the pop promised land than ever. Welcome to the house where he belongs.

Mr. Mitch will be holding a launch party for Devout with Slackk, P Money, Logos and Oil Gang on April 20 in London.

Chal Ravens is on Twitter

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