In a galaxy far, far away, home-studio visionaries such as Squarepusher, Mike Paradinas, Luke Vibert and Witchman are feverishly reinventing the cult of the breakbeat. This article originally appeared in The Wire 149 (July 1996).
Drum 'n' bass has many claimants to the mantle of lion-king, shadowy figures given shamanic status by their devotees in the temples of boom. Yet such claims become irrelevant when a culture goes public-domain, and those who remain at its centre can end up producing the least challenging work, having the greater vested interest in consolidating territory that has often been fiercely marked out. As ever, it's the nomadic outsiders without a stake in the lifestyle who are freest to roam and pillage, stretching out the edges, expanding the frontiers as they go.
None of the following breakbeat interlopers care to analyse their music: they'll freely admit to having no clearly defined motives or strategies, other than being inspired to do better than the records they're buying, or simply being fired up by discovering a new sound or breakbeat. But what's fascinating is the way the private, domestic studio is transformed in their hands into a kind of digital playground for the invention and exploration of a variety of musical personae. A form of delayed adolescence, possibly: the process of attaining 'selfhood' is forced to defer to the creation of a multitude of parallel 'characters', delineated by ever-multiplying names, pseudonyms and anagrams (Luke Vibert's first Plug EP contained the memorable variant "Rebuilt Kev").
By digging deep into the sounds of the past - and the present -
and taking them further out than everything that's currently
labelled 'future', they've instinctively got there. Theirs is a
music that surpasses the gadgets it's made on: in the bedroom,
technology has become as insubstantial as dreams...
Squarepusher: Pushin' too hard
Tom Jenkinson's fingers, lightning movers on the neck of his fretless bass, curl themselves around a pint of lager. "I just have things for total object value," he says. "The value of them is the value of what they can do. People surround themselves with goods, not just in music, but surround their lives with ornament and decoration. I just like to have the bare minimum, so it's constantly pushing me. Every time I do a track I want to push myself in a different way."
Tom dubs himself the Squarepusher. He has just released an album, Feed Me Weird Things, on Rephlex, the label set up by Richard 'Aphex Twin' James, a record that, among those who've heard it, is causing ripples of bemusement, amusement, wonder and derision in pretty equal measure. It encompasses most mid-90s obsessions - speed, recycled rubbish made good, chaos, digital virtuosity, and the breakbeat. And it was created - like the music of his nearest contemporaries Mike Paradinas and Luke Vibert - in a waystation somewhere between inspiration and boredom.
Tom Jenkinson embodies the contradictions shared by all the music makers who've been touched by the hand of Richard James. The basic line is: I just wanna make tracks, I don't care if they get released or not, it's just something I do for myself, so why bother talking about it? It's a stance that's been as frustrating for fans of their music as it is for journalists; it's also a natural defence mechanism against being taken too seriously.
"I think that idol status is bad for the public, and for that person," says Jenkinson. "That's why I don't feel that excited by having my photograph taken: I don't get turned on by possibly being an idol. It freaks me out, because it devalues me as a person. Especially as a musician or artist: people think you're this channel for divine force, and they think you're a bit weird, but you're not - you're just a normal person who happens to do something else."
Feed Me Weird Things, with its flash-fried chop suey of 160 bpm breakbeats and Jaco Pastorius bass, could easily be passed off as 'nutty'. On first hearing it's like a barrage of windows opening on zany set-pieces - the end-credits of Rowan And Martin's Laugh-In. For its creator, such a description is utterly out of the question. "If I feel like I'm making an effort to make this weird on purpose, then I throw it away. The idea isn't to throw so much at the listener that they can't handle it - that's just something that might happen. I've worked at knowing about music and my history so that I can write more music for myself, that I want to hear. I love things with a really sharp contrast, putting sounds that are quite mutually distinct next to each other. It pushes you around; it's more involving for me to listen to."
So if that's the case, why release records?
"Putting out records is a commercial venture only," he replies, "although I will admit that everybody needs some affirmation of the fact that what they're doing is worthwhile. I had a review of the album, and they pictured me in the studio laughing as I change from one style to the other. I think maybe they're not giving me enough credit. They're thinking: he's just doing this to piss us off. People do get quite intimidated by people who seem to disrupt things. With a lot of the more conservative ends of the music market, a reaction like that doesn't mean to me that I've done it wrong; I feel like they've been intimidated where they didn't need to be. You should be excited by it."
His response to the criticism that his and his contemporaries' take on breakbeat doesn't carry as much weight as 'true' Hardstep, because there's not as much 'at stake' in the music, is to point out the qualitative gulf that already separates the musics. "There's no conflict. It's more to do with my record or Luke [Vibert]'s being reviewed in the Jungle pages of a magazine: suddenly we're Jungle. But we're not. I don't have any lifestyle. Jungle isn't something I have anything to do with. There's room for both, because that's the nature of people and society. It revolves around people who pioneer and lead, and people who form groups."
Does he feel that his 'apartness' puts him in that pioneering capacity?
"We're in the studio every day, all the time. That is our way of
life, and we listen to music coming from all over the place. And
we're not involved in any social network. We stand on our own, in a
way. Apart from anything else, I was brought up a 'Thatcher's
child' - cult of the individual. You follow your own individual
path. And much as I despise the Tory Party and Mrs Thatcher, it
just gets in your brain and makes you the way you are. It's quite
Victorian in a way, you push yourself until you can't go any
farther. So now I try to make myself play things I wouldn't be able
to play yesterday. There's a track on the album where I'm playing
fretless, bassline and chords simultaneously..."
Jake Slazenger: Call that u-Ziq?
"The situation has changed; I'm in a different place... This music business thing: how to work it, you know?" Mike Paradinas looks genuinely thoughtful. With a healthy deal through Virgin to release his u-Ziq projects, and a contract with Warp for his Jake Slazenger incarnation, a nationwide tour supporting Orbital finished the previous day, a new home in Worcester, and the imminent prospect of fatherhood, Mike's circumstances are very different from those that prevailed when I first met him, a sullen 20 year old, over two years ago. Now, although still softly-spoken, he displays 200 per cent more confidence.
I'm trying to piece together the jigsaw of musical personae into which he hacks up his hefty output. The art is increasingly shifting towards the actual marshalling of tracks onto an LP. "The order matters a lot, when you're listening to a record," Mike says. "Compiling - I'm getting a bit anal about that, trying to get the order right. The problem with [1995's] In Pine Effect was that I had a list of about 200 songs to go through and decide what I was going to put on it. I would never have got it right, so I just thought, stop, it's coming out as it is - today's compilation of it." Das Ist Ein Groovy Beat, Ja?, the new Slazenger album, has even brassier moments than last year's Makesaracket - it's primarily a melody-centred thing drenched in zinc-plated Electro-funk percussion. "It looks good as one album, but those tracks were obviously done several tracks apart. I know what track is a Jake Slazenger track, put it like that. They are very melodic. It's really funny, because that's not what I'm doing at the moment, but yeah, it was all influenced by jazz funk, really. I'm still into melody: it really adds to the groove of a song. People say, '4/4 versus the breakbeat', but breakbeat doesn't mean something's automatically funky. It's the bassline: like those Motown records, it's the backbeat, the melody. That's why I hate TripHop: it's the most unfunky music that exists."
Away from London hustle, but buying more records than ever from
the one shop in Worcester, Mike is nevertheless injecting new
elements into his music. While Squarepusher and Vibert raid the
pantry for ever crustier cheese, Paradinas is discovering the
previously unredeemable musics of Frank Zappa and Ornette Coleman
(he plays me a track he's just finished that samples "Virgin
Beauty"). In his recently published Diary, Brian Eno imagines a
future where repetitive music will be recalled with disbelief. To
avoid this scenario, strategies for 'unbalancing' Electronica might
include detuning, perpetually shifting rhythms, generative systems,
a form of harmolodics even. "I haven't managed to get that sort of
feeling into my playing yet, bar sampling," says Mike. "The detuned
aspect of it is what I'm really into. I don't know much about World
Music, but it sounds very Eastern - different scales. You can get
some well dreamy stuff. It's the same with old analogue equipment
that goes out of tune. That's what I really like: detuning and
Jungle. And I've sort of combined them."
Plug: Socket to me
Luke Vibert, aka Wagon Christ and now Plus (his breakbeat incarnation), is the ultimate overachiever. He works to a schedule that would drive lesser individuals in lesser jobs to terminal ulceration - although it may yet do the same for him. "I can go for four days without any sleep at all," he tells me in a Soho sandwich bar after an hour rooting among the fag-end singles in a secondhand record shop. "And you can do so much work: I always work when I want to - there's no distractions." Too right: there's been no girlfriend for six years, he tells me, and he rarely DJs because he doesn't like being watched. Luke seems to relish this lifestyle, but doesn't that kind of isolation get a bit unhealthy? "Only for fleeting moments. I just don't think about anything much. When I do tracks I just do it to get away from everything - get in the computer world." Plug music overwinds your body clock; it comes as no surprise to find that it was created in a similar state. "I eat really well, really rich food: strong cheese, black coffee. When you've been up for three days and you've eaten loads of food like that, your guts are complaining at you, saying, 'You've got to sleep and let me digest some of this shit'. Before my mind goes, my body goes, and says, 'Look, for fuck's sake sort it out. Get some kippage'." A new non-exclusive, five-album deal struck with Virgin will allow him to continue his experiments in mindwarp unchecked. Like Squarepusher, he has nothing but contempt for formulaic music. "I'm nearest to liking the washy LTJ Bukem crap, but not really; it's too boring for me. They're following rules. For a start, you've got to make tracks so that Bukem can mix it nicely; start off with a nice introduction, so DJs can pick up the drumbeat...The nice thing is, I get played at loads of weird dos, where [mine is] about the most acceptable music." Underneath the devil-may-care attitude, Luke does draw distinctions between "electronic future music - something awful like House", and tracks "with heart". Apparently, they're the pieces "that say more about me rather than being just a drum 'n' bass workout". Like Richard James and Mike Paradinas, he's obsessed with 50s and 60s Moog music and musique concrete: experiments in future pop that have resurfaced in the 90s to sound quaint and dumb and trivial (in other words, like the future again). When pushed, Luke concedes that the act of releasing records to an extent influences his output.
"I'm lying, I'm not really just making tracks to please myself.
If I was on a desert island there's no way I'd be making the music
I am making: I'd probably do something totally obscure and
experimental. I mean, I am making it for other people in quite a
few ways, but it's got to please me, and it wouldn't please me if I
did something I thought anyone else would do." Is there anything
that would make him stop making music? "Maybe being deaf, but even
if I was blind I would be fine; one arm - anything like that."
Anything he'd rather be doing? "Oh God, no! It's the only thing I
can do - DJing aside, about the only thing I like doing. It's the
same with everyone I know. But ultimately I want to be a producer
of records. Not be the main person, not be the one who's
interviewed. Be the backroom boy, actually making all the music
still, but nowhere to be seen."
Witchman: I put a spell on you
"Most people have two FX racks: I've got six," says Birmingham-based John Roome, aka Witchman. He shares a label - Rising High - with Luke Vibert, and independently, both musicians affirm a solid mutual respect. The music Roome makes as Witchman is deliberately 'dark', taking its cue from Wu-Tang-style HipHop and saturation dub-bombing; interests that also inform his duo Clinical, in which he collaborates with Justin Broadrick of Techno Animal and Godflesh. With two EPs already out and an album due on Rising High, plus the superb "Leviathan" EP on Leaf, Witchman's alchemy takes individual tracks on an improvisational journey that explicitly sends HipHop's deep grooves to "the flames of Hell", as he puts it. Where does this desire for darkness originate? "Frustration with what other people are doing," he says. "I don't like nice sounds; I feel I'm wimping out. I used to work with people that really love nice, textured sounds, and I hate that. It's also the usual thing of growing up with horrible films when you're a kid, books, and all the music I liked was fairly dark as well. The more offensive the better."
Like Squarepusher, the Witchman's newly built bedroom studio is both physical and mental adventure playground. "If you're sitting at a [mixing] desk and you are hunched over everything, so that you can reach everything, you're just sitting there doing it. When you've got to move around, to physically run around touching things, you've got that extra burst of excitement of having to go there. When I'm mixing stuff down I've got FX everywhere, and everything is hands-on; it is quite manic, so there are never two mixes that are the same." Curiously, Roome's sprawling tracks are produced according to a rigorous, immersive schedule. "I get up at seven, start work at nine, finish at six. For me it's a normal working day: I'm there to work, I enjoy it. You get kind of locked into it, and just as you're coming to the end it really starts to gel. I'm right in the centre: I'm the catalyst for my own tracks, so I've got to be."