Above: Evian Christ photographed by Andrew Ellis
The British producer went from posting tracks on YouTube, to a mixtape for Tri Angle to making beats for Kanye within a couple of years. But he’s not bothered.
“I like her a lot. Did you watch the documentary?” Believe it or not, Josh Leary is talking about Katy Perry. Perhaps that’s not a question you’d expect from the twenty-four year-old, raised on rap and producing some of the most sensual, corrupted beats in electronic music you’re likely to hear. But then, you’d probably be surprised to find he’s also a trained nursery school teacher. “As soon as I qualified I went on tour to the U.S., the next day,” he says drolly, clean shaven and politely ignoring the burger in front of him in a pub in East London.
This is Evian Christ, the northern English producer discovered via YouTube and signed to then still-fledgling, now influential label Tri Angle when it was still the image of that fleeting phase of witch house three years ago. Back then Leary was twenty-one, finishing off an accelerated PGCE (postgraduate certificate in education) and indulging an occasional hobby that would soon catapult him across the musical spectrum, from his eerie collages of rap music appropriations made malleable in his debut mixtape Kings and Them, all the way up to production and a publishing deal with Kanye West. Now, he’s between states, staying at his mum’s house in a town just outside of Liverpool until relocating to New York, bypassing London in the mean time: “You grow up in proper north and you just have a chip on your shoulder about the south,” he says while jokingly agreeing that he doesn’t like a single person from the UK capital.
That’s not the only reason Leary is moving to the U.S. It makes more sense, given his sound is more in line with the likes of the grime-inspired experimental and electronic music centered around labels like Fade to Mind and UNO, rooted in hip-hop and adopting a far more aggressive, even audacious approach to production you’re more likely to associate with the States. And there’s certainly a frank attitude, as well as a certain savvy—not without its fair share of self-identified obstinacy—that’s served Leary well in his career, however uncannily ‘accelerated’.
This is, after all, a relatively young producer who’s reached a summit in a career he wasn’t even looking for two and a half years ago. Barely releasing a second EP, Waterfall, out on March 17th, and putting together one of the most bizarre “Trance Party” line-ups—including rapper Travis Scott, Sophie and Powell—you’re likely to come across, it all starts to make sense when you learn a bit about him.
There’s the short-lived and lucrative moonlighting in ‘positive-expected-value’ betting online for one, the complete musical backflip into frosty drum beats and profoundly distorted basslines for two, and what’s probably the worst left-handed pen grip I have ever seen: “It’s very strange, when I’m trying to teach kids how to hold a pen. I’m always like, ‘don’t hold it like this’,” Leary says while clutching his with five fingers tightly wound around it like it’s a club. But, given Leary’s unconventional approach to most things, I wouldn’t take his advice.
Does it freak you out how quickly you’ve ascended in your career?
Constantly. I’ve not been ready for any stage in my career so far. I’ve been completely unprepared and just learning on the job. I feel like I’m constantly chasing after myself. I’m starting to reach a point where I’m technically competent. Not great at all but I can pass. But then, “OK, you have to go and do studio sessions with singers and rappers,”and I’m like, “I have no idea how to approach this, I have no idea what I’m doing.” But then you just have to throw yourself into these things and you can pick stuff up.
Teaching prepared me well for it because it was exactly the same. I did a PGCE, which was a one year accelerated course and it’s like, “Here’s a bunch of theory that you have no context for. Now go to a classroom and that’s your context for it, learn through your mistakes, very publicly, with thirty children staring at you.” That’s why I think transitioning into playing shows, not really knowing what I was doing or going to interviews and not really knowing what to say. I was kind of used to it by that point.
You were quite young too, which is a selling point.
In music they love that, interviews with people who’ve been nineteen for about four years.
You’re about to release your second EP, and you’ve already achieved so much. It’s like you’re going to retire in two years.
Yeah but with me, I don’t have a huge history of listening to music. I wasn’t a huge follower of experimental music until I got signed, really. Just before I started I was like, “Oh cool, ambient music.”
I don’t know how I stumbled on it but it was probably listening to some fuckin’ Brian Eno song on YouTube, seeing some related videos and finding Ben Frost, Tim Hecker and Grouper and all that kind of stuff. I think those were some of my introductions into even vaguely experimental music and that was only two and a half years ago.
I suppose that kind of rapid deviation is both a symptom and a cause of life these days. This kind of necessary adaptability where technologies change so quickly that you have to be prepared to have your entire industry disappear tomorrow.
That’s true. I also don’t care that much about this, in a careerist way. Like a lot of people, all they ever wanted to be was a music producer and they’re in a position where they can do it as a full-time thing, which is incredible, and they have no idea what else they would want to do. Whereas if one day I wake up and no one cares about my music anymore then I’ve done some cool stuff. I’ve travelled, I’ve achieved some things I never thought I’d achieve and then I’ll just go and teach. That’s fine.
I think that gives me quite a good licence to do whatever the fuck I want, make some cool music and not feel under pressure to deliver certain things. As much as I’m ambitious and I want to achieve certain things, those goals are more orientated towards fulfilling my own perfect idea of what the next record should be.
So it’s kind of like your early twenties backpacking period.
Totally. Whereas a lot of people, by the time they’ve reached the point where they’ve released records people give a shit about, they’ve been making music for so long that they’ve already figured out exactly what they want to do and their statement to the world is having figured that out. Mine is, “Watch me publicly change my mind about everything, constantly.”
That’s one thing that the acceleration of my career has done. I feel like it could be fairly interesting for people to watch. I think my interviews have probably been very inconsistent and my music will be very inconsistent. Maybe there’s something refreshing about that. Hopefully.
To a degree I suppose if you spend however many years trying to achieve something, you eventually reach a point of no return.
Part committed, yeah, whereas I’m not at all. It just happened and I’m just making it up as I go along. I’m invested in it to the degree that I take it incredibly seriously and put a lot of hours into what I do, get up and do music as if it was a nine to five job and then eat and go to sleep. But I’m not too invested in it emotionally, in, like, I would be so upset if I had to find something else to do.
You say that it’s taken so long for you to do another release since Kings and Them because you keep giving away the stuff you’ve been working on to other projects. That’s an unusually casual way to approach your original material. You’d think you’d be more protective of it.
I don’t know why but I really care about production and pop music. I think it’s incredibly important and I haven’t figured out why. I feel like that’s because that’s the music that’s consumed by the most people, so there’s some sort of inherent argument you can make for it being the most important to get right.
And it’s also the most challenging. It’s very easy to make bizarre music and release it on an indie, go and do some weird collaboration at Unsound and keep doing that cycle, which is great and I love doing it. But it’s way more challenging to find a way to take all these influences and position them as a pop song that is both creatively satisfying and also that people can enjoy as they’re driving to work or whatever.
The line-up for your second trance party seems to reflect that openness to these different approaches.
It’s all over the place, yeah. The first one I was like, “We should do something where everyone fits together, with mutual fans.” People who like me, like Arca; people who like Arca, like Holy Other. The whole thing makes sense.
Whereas with this one I was like, “No one else is in the position to put a guy from Demdike Stare [as part of Millie & Andrea] and a rapper from T.I.’s label on the same line-up. If I don’t do that, no one else will.” The first line-up I did, that was really cool but that will happen, you will see line-ups like that. This one, you won’t get Sophie and Demdike Stare and a rapper on a line-up, unless I’m the person to make that happen. So for this one I kind thought, “Let’s do the exact opposite. Let’s try to do something with people that make no sense next to each other.”
I think you can do people a disservice by creating nights where the artists are too similar. It’s like, “Here’s a package for you; this is the music you like.” I kind of like the idea that people who’ve only heard of Travis Scott will come and hear Powell and people who like Powell and Andy Stott will stick around and see Travis going crazy rapping on stage.
I wonder if someone like Sophie will get nervous, potentially playing to a Travis Scott crowd, given he appropriates so much rap and RnB in what is essentially camp pop music.
It’s true. It’ll be interesting for sure. I’m just stoked about the opportunity to do it. I can’t believe they’re giving me that budget to be like, “Who do you want to play?” And I’m like, “OK, fly this dude from L.A.” Everyone I asked, we got just because they gave me the budget for it. It’s kinda cool. I think it’ll be pretty bizarre, it’s meant to be. ~
Evian Christ’s Waterfall EP is out March 17th via Tri Angle.
Published March 13, 2014. Words by Steph Kretowicz.