Black Humor: An interview with Powell

Words by Louise Brailey

Louise Brailey speaks to the producer, DJ and label owner about hero worshipping Suicide, kicking against the swing and playing “Warbeat” to a club full of Germans.

Oscar Powell makes music that sounds ill right down to its splintered bones. His releases so far, from his debut EP The Ongoing Significance of Steel & Flesh and its follow up Body Music, both for his own label Diagonal, and his forthcoming EP Fizz for Liberation Technologies possess something of no wave’s artful, obnoxious sonic provocation beneath the economical technoid thrust. Indeed, while people have been quick to group Powell with the new dawn of industrial techno (this is undoubtedly music of a certain heft and austerity) it’s a sound that recalls NYC basements more than Brummie warehouses. The flinty, off-beat percussion, the notable lack of reverb, his sudden recourse into piercing frequencies, all have the effect of creating a strain of techno that feels as if it’s clenching in on itself, a heaving, feverish clump of muscle and sinew. Body music indeed. But there’s a bone-dry sense of humor too. His own DJ sets have seen the one-time junglist attempt to redraw the rules of what’s acceptable for an—ostensibly—techno DJ to play. You’ve only to watch his Boiler Room set for an timely outing of Creedence Clearwater Revival… And that’s before we get to the Sieg Heils. Time, then, for some explanations.

 

You’re responsible for probably one of my favorite moments that I’ve ever experienced at Berlin’s Berghain. At CTM you played a record that sampled Adolf Hitler to a crowded dance floor.

That’s a track by the old New Beat band called Bassline Boys called “Warbeat”. I always read it as an anti-Nazi track because, if you listen closely, there are clear remarks about plotting Hitler’s downfall. There are also Churchill samples to offset Hitler’s “Sieg Heil” samples. It’s difficult to know where that band itself stood because they only made a few records as far as I know—probably because of that one, to be honest. But how are we to know their intent 25 years later? All we can do is make our own minds up based on the music we hear. So for me, yes, playing the record was meant to be provocative because it forces you to ask those questions, but it was never meant as anything more than that. CTM gravitates towards music that provokes, so it felt like it would be an interesting time to play that record. I apologize if it caused offense.

You clearly do want to provoke in other ways too. There’s a confrontational aspect embedded within the frequencies you use, too. Your tracks can be pretty abrasive on the ear, especially on a big system. 

It’s definitely intentional, yes. I’ve made music for a pretty long time now and had thought about releasing stuff earlier. I’m relieved I didn’t, because, looking back, I honestly didn’t have anything to say. Everything was too comfortable. It might have been dark, abstracted, odd—all those things we tend to like—but it didn’t really do or say anything. Nothing jumped out. It was boring. Chugging bass frequencies were boring, too comfortable. I like the feeling of being uncomfortable, of being surprised and smacked in the face by music. When I started taking the bass out of the music, for instance, and using new frequencies, it felt liberating. I think that now comes through in high, clanging, physical drum sounds but also the noise frequencies and higher synth bursts. It’s also why I like doing intros that start with tonal stuff that kind of grab your ears and forces you to listen. If you hear that in a club then the record can’t just drift by unnoticed.

You don’t use reverb either which makes a huge difference, it takes a while for the listeners’ ears to adjust to that kind of dry production.

I think that comes from listening to really badly recorded old bands in basements where there’s no mixing or treatment on the records. I fell in love with that dry tom-led drum sound, the sound of a drum and nothing else. Reverb is one of those things that’s part and parcel of music now and many people use it beautifully. Paul Purgas, a good friend, is a great example. He and James Ginzburg [the duo of Emptyset] will rig lost buildings with mics just to build a beautiful impression of how sound travels through the space. The same goes for Raime—that is what they do. And it’s amazing—but I could never do it better. So yeah, I focus on other things. I also think it’s too easy to give the illusion of space in music because of what reverb plug-ins can do. For me, there’s something fascinating and odd about making music that isn’t knitted together by a reverb tail that you can fire up on a computer. The dry sound of a drum or a synthesizer is a wonderful thing if you only let it rip.

The closest comparison I can draw to the texture you employ is Suicide at their most raw and frayed.

I adore Suicide—so linear, so groovy, but also so artistic in the sense that they were doing something that no one could believe at the time. It was a proper stake in the ground. Another moment from that night at Berghain was being able to play “Rain of Ruin” to 1000 people; it was a great moment for me, playing a song that means so much to me to a crowd of people who are up for hearing great records. It was like a perfect combination of things.

I’m not sure if my music sounds like Suicide, although it certainly borrows from them. That’s the challenge with making music that’s so clearly indebted to the past. How do you combine stuff in a way that’s actually new? I think that’s what I’m striving for. But I would much rather be in Martin Rev and Alan Vega’s shoes, having done something that is so obviously different to everything that’s been before. That’s what separates the men from the boys in music, I guess. To find it today, I think you have to look at where music now converges with art. My knowledge of that space is fairly limited, but it does feel like that’s where the magic is happening. If you put a Hecker record on, you can be fairly sure you’re gonna hear something you haven’t heard before. There’s something thrilling about that.

Russell Haswell, who has always been in that space, actually introduced me to Paul Smith, a hero of mine, who now runs Blast First Petite and has been a hugely influential character in British music for many years, and some of the stories he had from managing bands like Suicide, Wire, Nitzer Ebb and all of that Mute lot were great to hear. I felt a bit like a kid being read a bedtime story, listening on wistfully. But yeah, all of those bands—I adore them.

Did an interest in these seminal bands come before the interest in dance music? I read you were obsessed with drum ‘n’ bass as a teenager, so where does the hero worship of Wire, Suicide and Nitzer Ebb fit in?

I was definitely interested in dance music before. I got into it around 1999, 2000, just before drum ‘n’ bass got really bad. It happened when I started going to clubs when I was 16 or 17. Then it became an obsessive dedication to dance music for many years. It was only when I started listening to other bands that I realized there was a whole other world out there. I didn’t really get off on much new dance music after that, but you can’t fully shake those roots, I don’t think—and nor would I want to. I love DJing in a club. I love the challenge of playing club music without playing club music and that’s what really excites me: being able to bring records to that environment that would never normally be heard and trying to make them fit together in a way that people respond to.

Of course, the UK’s post punk sound—with the dub infatuation—and the dancefloor primitism of industrial bands exerted its own influence on drum ‘n’ bass. They’re not so far removed.

I think what drew me away from dance music was hearing the things I loved about it in other music. I used to think I could only find it in electronic music, but all it takes is an introduction to an artist from a different field and, if you’re into music, you’ll follow your nose until suddenly you’re drowning in a world of incredible new stuff. That’s how it works. You just can’t get to the bottom of it, and realizing there was this whole world beyond dance music was really when I fell in love with it all over again—and also when I started to feel like I was getting somewhere with the things I was making myself.

How much of your music is a deliberate kick against the swung, spacious records that have been central facet of British dancefloors for so long?

I’ve never really liked swing in records. I was always into everything except for garage. It never struck a chord with me. In terms of space, I definitely think it’s a reaction because you always hear music that’s perfectly constructed. The bottom end is the bottom end, the highs ping along beautifully, and the snare smack straight down the middle. I like the feeling of music that becomes one solid thing rushing towards you at speed rather than a bunch of segmented parts thrown on top of each other.

A lot of the best post-punk bands were politicized; it was, at its best, a music of dissent. Is your interest in it aesthetic, or are you concerned with making political music as well?

There is no political element to my music. It’s purely aesthetic. That’s why I’ve always tried to keep the label aesthetic-oriented. There is no great meaning or intent with either the music or the label beyond the aesthetic. It’s almost superficial. Politics has never really driven me artistically or creatively.

But you frequently play a record which samples George W. Bush in your DJ sets? 

I just think that’s funny. Humor is something that is definitely important to me. I like to have fun with music. I don’t like to take it too seriously and I feel I’m finally getting to a place where I can actually do that with the music I make. Sampling gives you that freedom; you can literally pull things from anywhere. And also, freeing yourself from arranging stuff in predictable patterns means you can suddenly introduce the element of surprise, and surprises have been something I’ve always found pretty funny—at least when you’re the one in control! It is serious music, of course, but there’s definitely room for more humor in underground circles. Not everything has to be about death and decay.

A few people have asked me about that George Bush record. It’s a comical piece made by artist Lenka Clayton who cut up every single word from a George Bush speech and arranged them alphabetically. It plays on Bush’s absurd reputation and it becomes totally ludicrous when you hear the words back to back. Put them over another track and they take on new life.

What’s next, are you working on performing your productions in a live context?

More and more people seem to be pushing me to do a live show. It’s what you do, right? Release music, do a Boiler Room, develop a live show, tour the world! There are some things that are stopping me from doing it: the first is a love of playing records. My background is in dark, loud clubs where you go to hopefully hear some music that you’ve never heard before. That culture of DJing, of sharing records, dubplates, playing something no one would ever dare to play, something that doesn’t fit but somehow works—I’ve been craving that platform since I was 15 years old. Now that I’ve got it, I kind of want to explore it.

Also, there’s been a lot said about boundaries being broken between scenes recently, and you can feel it, too. The people I’ve met through music, the friends I’ve made—everyone comes from somewhere different. It’s great. And to me I think that can create an interesting new role for a DJ: someone who can combine all of those things we love into something coherent. I’m not saying I can do that at all, but I can at least try.

As for new music, there’s the new EP on Liberation Technologies just out, a remix for Silent Servant on Jealous God which has been fun to do, a few other remix projects and then maybe a new EP before the end of the year. I’m also trying to focus on the label a bit. I’ve not done much with it yet, but am now doing it with an old friend of mine, Jaime Williams, and he’s given me a bit of a kick up the arse, so hopefully we’ll have a bunch of interesting stuff coming up that comes from different places—starting with the Blood Music EP which is just out, and a Shit and Shine EP in a month or so.~

Powell’s Fizz EP is out June 17th through Liberation Technologies.