Blawan On Impatience, Anxiety And How He Makes No-Frills Techno
The career of Jamie Roberts, better known as Blawan, has come a long way. Since his debut release on Hessle Audio caused a major commotion on bass music dance floors eight years ago, his output has become more techno-infused with each new release. And even though he had already locked into a techno groove by 2012, his music kept shape-shifting, exploring both experimental and straight-up pummeling tropes. It was at this time that he increasingly began to collaborate with Surgeon, and separately, with Pariah—with whom he performs under the live improv moniker Karenn. In these projects’ wake, Roberts has become representative of a new generation of UK techno producers hooked on modular synthesizers.
This new-found interest opened up a sonic world to the sound design fanatic, who then began pursuing extensive sound research in his studio. Fast forward to 2018, and the Berlin-based artist seems to have zeroed in on a singularly unique musical aesthetic. Wet Will Always Dry, his debut album—which will be released in mid-June on his own label, Ternesc—is the result of his recent and fully established confidence. “I am in a state of solidifying,” he explains to Telekom Electronic Beats editor Sven von Thülen on a sunny evening outside his studio, which is located in Berlin’s prestigious Funkhaus. Making sure his dog doesn’t leap into the river Spree, which is winding along gently, Roberts looks back on his musical journey so far and explains how he arrived at the place where he is now.
Your debut album, Wet Will Always Dry, is about to be released on your own label Ternesc this month. Where is your mind right now?
I’m good. Since I finished the album, I’ve been touring and playing a lot. The funny thing is, even though I finished Wet Will Always Dry, I feel that I’m not done with it. I could write another one. I might even do it. If everything works out, I’ll have a second album done and released by the end of the year—or just an EP. We will see.
I understand that your last EP on Ternesc felt like a breakthrough for you personally and that it was the catalyst for the album. What made it stand out?
The last few years, working in the studio has been sound research for me. So far, every record I’ve done has been different. Not radically, but definitely different from each one before. With Ternesc, I spent the first three releases finding my sound, and with each release I started totally fresh. I’ve basically re-wired my studio after every record I’ve done. I was just never really happy. I’m working with a modular a lot, but I’ve never been content with what I’ve gotten out of it. My sound was either too dynamic or too squashed.
When I eventually came up with Nutrition, my last EP on Ternesc, I felt that I finally got it right: the dynamics, the color of the tones…it was exactly how I wanted it to sound. It felt like a sound I could run with for a bit, whereas every release before that felt like it worked as a package, but afterwards I was done with that specific sound. Doing an album then would have been too spontaneous. It wouldn’t have been a cohesive thing. Even though the tracks are quite different from one another now, there’s a thread running through all of them. So after experimenting and learning a lot about synthesis and sound design, I got to a place where I am now confident enough to finally approach a bigger project like writing an album.
How did you arrive at the sound?
When I’m writing stuff, I usually use the same oscillators. It’s the processing that’s changed the most. I also always used the same master chain on Nutrition, and that’s what gave it its glue and made it gel. It’s a really nerdy engineer way of looking at it, because most people would probably say, “If it sounds good, it sounds good.” But I’m really particular about this stuff. Slight changes in tone color get me off, for instance. I could spend weeks trying to recreate a particular sound characteristic of a bassline I came up with by accident. I usually fail, but I learn a ton in the process.
You wrote the album in a short period of time.
Yes. I took January and February off from touring and I gave myself the timeframe to finish it within these two months. I made myself go to the studio every single day, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.
Because you would have been too caught-up in touring again after that?
I am a really impatient person, which translates to my creative process as well. If I write an EP, I can’t write it over the course of a couple of months. I have to do it in a week. It has to be done before I go away for gigs at the end of the week, because when I get back I’m always in a completely different place and mindset. I end up dismissing everything I did a couple of days before. I just delete stuff and start again. I am not a perfectionist in any way—it’s really more about me being super impatient. I have millions of loops on my computer that are really good, but which I will probably never turn into fully-fledged tracks. I can’t go back to them. I’ve moved on already.
I’ve tried to tackle this impatience, but I haven’t been very successful with it. The only rule that I set out with before writing the album was that I wasn’t going to completely deviate from what I’d been releasing in the previous eight years. It wouldn’t have felt right. Maybe I’ll do something more eclectic on my second album, but the first one had to be a representation of what I’ve done so far. Otherwise, I’d be disregarding where I come from. I didn’t want to do that. It’s a dance floor album, which is a sound I’ve become known for.
Since you weren’t gigging, you basically didn’t have a chance to test the tracks on your album in a club. Is that right?
I had no time for that at all, but I’m not really one to do that anyway. I got to test them out at Berghain for the first time because that was my first gig of the year. That worked out really well. I was confident with the mixdowns and the music. And to be honest, I’ve never changed a track after playing it in the club. If it’s done, it’s done. I don’t overdo things. I never do more than one version of a track. If it turns out that it doesn’t work, it won’t get released. Pretty simple.
When I first started to put records out, I didn’t even listen to the test pressings all the way through. That’s me being impatient again, I guess. I simply skipped through and confirmed them, mainly because I’d heard the tunes too much. I couldn’t bare listening to them in full again. I’ve been lucky that there haven’t been any mistakes on these pressings.
You said that you wanted Wet Will Always Dry to be a representation of what you are known for now stylistically. While listening back through your discography, I realized that your transition from the bass music sphere to techno was a lot quicker than I remembered it being. Maybe because your debut on Hessle Audio was such a stand-out record.
It didn’t exactly feel like a fast evolution to me, either. It was a really intense time. I was thrust into a scene I didn’t quite feel that I belonged to. The two tracks that got released on Hessle Audio were the only ones that I had ever done that sounded like that. And suddenly I was in the midst of it all, trying to bring house, techno and the bass music stuff together. Eventually I just felt that it didn’t work. I didn’t see a future for myself in this scene.
When I got the chance to record a second EP on R&S Records, I decided to really go for a different sound. I had written techno stuff before—I had even send some of that to R&S Records—but it was too heavy for them at the time. They were still embracing that James Blake UK bass kind of thing back then, and I was pushing these acid sounds. I could be wrong, but I think Renaat didn’t really like my second record on R&S Records because it was too close to things he had released in the ‘90s.
What bugged you about the post-dubstep bass music thing?
I remember a distinct sense of feeling like, “What the fuck are we doing now?” The music was so sparse and weird at points that it was really difficult to play out. There were no set rules for it, which was great on one hand. But eventually bass music just fragmented into all these different pieces.
What was so appealing to you about techno? Especially at a time when bass music still often felt more adventurous and fresh than the steady pulse of a TR-909.
It’s straight-up club music! Techno is limited, but it also moves you forward and it has a sense of direction, whereas the bass music stuff was kind of going off in all different directions and it just fell apart. Same with dubstep. There was so much going on around the music. With techno it feels like there was and is a shared purpose, even if it’s a limited one. That feeling was totally new for me. The years before I turned to techno, I was struggling to think about the next crazy beat I could come up with. Producing techno was quite liberating for me. I could focus on sound design and I didn’t have to worry about clever rhythms anymore. That was pretty stressful for me back then.
This shift in your career coincided with you becoming one of the poster boys for a new generation of modular synths enthusiasts.
My main interests in modular synthesizers came from a sound design perspective and from an interest in using them as live instruments. Modular became just as much a studio exploration as a hands-on tool for live projects. At the time I started with my modular setup, there weren’t many complex sequencers. It was all pretty basic. But it turned out that it was well-suited for live pursuits as well as sound exploration.
Modular changed a lot for me—my studio, my approach to writing music and my creative process. Some people don’t like it. I know there are some people out there who think modular was the death of my music. But I don’t give a shit about that.
What do you think people mean when they say modular was the death of your music?
I guess they don’t like the simplicity of it, be it structurally or in terms of arrangements. I’m not really sure to be honest, but I’ve heard these complaints quite a bit. At a certain level, I understand; it was a long process of experimenting and learning. It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve felt that I can go to the studio, turn on my modular and really know what I’m doing. It’s been a long way coming. But it’s been worth it, I think.
I guess Surgeon was a big inspiration for you in terms of exploring the world of modular synthesizers.
He was important to me on many more levels than that. Even before I met him, he was one of my main inspirations. I always looked up to him. Working with him was a bit weird at first because of that. But my entire outlook on what I wanted to have happen with my career has been informed by Tony. He really planted that seed in me to not care so much about what other people think. I have to him to thank for that. I was on a pretty confused path before we met. I am a very erratic person, and Tony chilled me out a little bit. Not in terms of changing my personality, but in terms of music and in knowing how to navigate the industry.
I had a two-year gap where I didn’t release any music because I was playing a lot of shows. But I was also really ill for most of that time. That really knocked me back. Playing two or three shows a week, having to deal with this chronic illness and then freaking out because I hadn’t released any music in a long time was really wearing me down. It was only after I moved to Berlin that I managed to sort things out. And Tony was a big support during that time, too.
He introduced me to yoga, healthy eating—all of that stuff. Our friendship wasn’t spawned from wanting to write music together. He found out that I was ill and got in touch with me because I guess he had the feeling that he could help me. And he did massively! He’s been in the business for a very long time and he knows the dangers of it and what it can do to you over a long period of time.
How is your health now, if I may ask?
Sure. I had a surgery just before I moved to Berlin. It’s been good since then. It feels like I left all of that behind when I moved. That’s where I am now. Moving to Berlin reset my life on many levels, both good and bad.
What is the bad part?
Sometimes partying a bit too much. I’m also a pretty reclusive person and I’ve been struggling with the language. That’s set me back quite a lot, because I’m actually really trying. But with playing so many shows, it doesn’t go as fast as I’d like it to.
There are all these little things that I need in my life to feel comfortable, you know. Not being fluent in German and living on the road most of the time has been tricky. My girlfriend, who is German, has been helping me a lot. I am dead set on living in Berlin. This is another thing I mean when I say I am impatient. I’ve been in Berlin for three years now, and I’m not where I wanted to be when I first moved here.
Coming back to DJing and the toll extensive traveling can take on you physically and emotionally—that’s been a hot topic for a while now, especially after the death of Avicii.
I watched the documentary, and it was absolutely heartbreaking to see. Not just to see how nice of a guy he was but also all of these things that I could totally relate to. The anxiety, not enjoying your gigs that much anymore because you’re tired and you’ve been playing too many. And then you feel bad. I should never complain, I have the perfect job. But the anxiety and the stress are real. I think everybody who’s a traveling DJ or is aspiring to be one should watch the documentary because it’s so enlightening.
After Avicii’s death, the Amsterdam-based booking agency Octopus re-posted a long comment from a mental coach who has specialized in working with people in the electronic music business, most notably DJs. It was the first time I saw someone with that specialization.
There is definitely a need for that. You know, I haven’t slept yet. I came from a gig in Paris and then I started with the interviews. This is a regular occurrence. The sleep deprivation is a real factor. I feel alright now, but after time it starts to wear you out. I’ve been touring for seven years straight and I really feel those seven years, if you know what I mean. I had this rhythm where I would take every fifth weekend off, but ever since I finished the album, that’s flown out the window. But I am definitely going to go back to it.
I imagine that having a mentor like Surgeon comes in handy with stuff like this as well. He’s been touring for such a long time now. He’s seen it all go up and down.
He told me that he’s on the road now more than he ever was, and that he’s more inspired now than he was in the ‘90s. Hearing him saying these things is really inspiring to me. Being as young as I am, I was always under the impression that the ‘90s were one mega rave followed by the next. It made me appreciate what’s going on right now even more.
Tony’s been on this rollercoaster for two decades now. He knows how it feels when your career accelerates—or when it slows down (unlike me, who’s been on the same level for most of my career). I always wonder how it’s going to be—if my career will slow down at some point, and if so, how I’m going to deal with that.
A big part of what I do now is planning for the future. I have a five-year plan. I’m anxious that I might not be playing so much in five years’ time, so I’m preparing for it. I’d love to think that I’m like Surgeon or James Ruskin, and that I’ll still go strong and play all over the globe in 20 years, but I can’t guarantee that. That’s also part of the anxiety sometimes…a feeling that everything I have now is not forever. That it’s only temporary.
Blawan will play our open air party this weekend at Landschaftspark Duisburg Nord alongside FJAAK, Ellen Allien and more. For more information, visit the Facebook event here.