As the producer and MPC-drummer behind platinum sellers The xx, Jamie Smith, aka Jamie xx, has been switching between sculpting the band’s stark, indie romanticism and his own club constructions. His reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s final studio album I’m New Here—released in 2011 as We’re New Here—hinted at the scope of his vision as an artist. Several singles later, Jamie xx’s debut solo LP In Colour is due out this May via Young Turks and is heavy on UK bass music influences, as well as his trusty steel drum.
Jamie, it’s been interesting hearing your progression as a DJ and listening to your mixes online over the years. As a British producer, how did you feel when you first discovered the impressive lineage of all these different but related kinds of UK dance music, like hardcore rave, jungle and drum ‘n’ bass, garage, dubstep and grime?
It was a long process of learning about it. But when I first went to Plastic People in London, that was quite a moment for me, and I guess the start of discovering a lot of that lineage. It was the first thing that had really grabbed me musically in a long time that was actually new. Because I used to love—and still do, actually—soul and jazz and that sort of thing. I listened to electronic music, but most of it was from the ’90s, and it wasn’t really dance music. So, when I was able to go to clubs and hear music like that for the first time, that was the beginning for me.
How old were you?
What was it that first grabbed you musically?
Well, Plastic People had the club nights FWD and CDR, so that was mostly dubstep. Mass in Brixton was drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep, and of course DMZ [Digital Mystikz’ club night usually held at Mass]. All that sort of thing.
Can you recall any particular epiphanic moments, particularly in regards to DJs?
With DMZ I can’t remember who was playing most of the time, it was just everybody behind the decks. But the atmosphere in there was people in silence listening to the music. Same at Plastic People and at FWD. I went to see Floating Points there early on, and that was very impressive.
Did it make you feel connected to something bigger than yourself? Do you see yourself as part of that?
I do now, but I didn’t at the time. These were people that I looked up to. Although I’d been playing records in bars and stuff, I was very removed from that. And I’m very happy to feel like a part of it now.
From your mixes over time it sounds to me like something you’ve embraced more. So dubstep was the genre that hooked you, but what about the others?
I think that garage is probably the thing that ties it all together. It’s just fun. And it’s quite a weird era and style, the garage scene. It had this whole culture of going out on the weekends and spending all your money on a night out. It was quite an odd scene and nothing like that had really happened in the UK before. The rest of it—drum ‘n’ bass, jungle, dubstep—was all about dark clubs and head nodding. But garage came out of nowhere and was something completely different. I think that’s why it finished so quickly. It never had time to properly grow until recently when it’s been influencing pop music.
[laughs] I guess it’s changed. I feel a bit older now. At the beginning, I just went to listen to music on my own. Because those sorts of clubs like Plastic People are the best places to do that. Then after we got back from the first The xx tour [around 2010], we all started going out and raving. There were a lot of festivals I was DJing at because of the Gil Scott-Heron record. That was a different side of raving, which I find is an interesting thing. All these people are out, trying to have the best time ever. On the surface, it seems like it’s the best time, but really most of the people that are regulars at these sorts of events are going because there’s something missing from their lives. I quite like that idea, and it’s the same with dance music. The best dance music is music that’s sad, but people are dancing to it. It kind of reflects that in the rave scene. And I probably did the same, raved too much in that year that we had off. But it was all a learning experience.
That’s an interesting idea—that people are going out regularly because there’s something missing in their lives. What do you think that might be?
I don’t know.
But do you think that was one of the reasons that you would go regularly as well?
It did become that for a while, yeah. Because I was playing so much, I was struggling to make music. I just wasn’t in the right mindset. I didn’t have enough time and space on my own to make music. I’d go out instead. It was kind of unstoppable. I wasn’t allowing myself the time or the clear head to be able to make music. But I had a very fun year. I must have been around 20. I always danced, even when I went on my own.
What’s the worst thing about being in a band with your best mates?
They know everything [laughs]. And they can call you out. It’s like nothing’s hidden. But that’s also the best thing.
It sounds like you essentially grew up in The xx. Is that accurate?
How did that affect your journey into adulthood?
I had the choice between going to university or doing a really crap tour of the UK in the back of a van, and I chose the tour. I’m very happy I did. A lot of people that I know who went to university—especially to do music—are pretty lost now. And I feel like I’ve learned a lot more than I would have doing that.
Do you recall anything specific about growing up while in The xx that made you unusual from the rest of people your age?
You have to meet so many people and talk and be onstage and develop some sort of persona—that is, if you’re not comfortable on stage, which none of us are. I think that definitely made us become a lot more confident as individuals as well as performers. And I definitely wouldn’t have been like that if I hadn’t had that whole journey.
Now at 26, it seems like you’d fall into the “millennial” generational category. The term gets thrown around a lot in the media. There’s a lot of stereotypes, I’m not sure if you’re aware of that or not.
I hadn’t been, really. I don’t know, I’m just as much a part of it as anybody else. The Internet is a big part of what we do, and I feel musically, it was a massive help for us in the beginning. We even got discovered on MySpace.
Part of the reason I ask is because you’re now a young adult, and I wanted know what your general feeling is about what’s happening in Britain now. The country about to undergo a general election. You were able to vote at the last election, but maybe you were less aware of stuff then.
Well, I never talk about political stuff in interviews. I don’t think I should be able to influence anybody just because I do music. So I’d rather not talk about it.
Fair enough. So it seems like you have a sense of the influence that you might wield.
I don’t know if anybody would care, but when I see people fronting politics via their popularity as a musician, I just don’t really like it.
You’ve formed a pretty close working relationship with people like [Spanish house DJ and producer] John Talabot. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from the older artists that you’ve worked with?
I’ve learned a lot about DJing just from watching and listening. I’ve learned so much from John, really, and Kieran [Hebden, aka Four Tet] and Floating Points. Mostly just about records and new tangents of records to go and look for and be excited about. Those are the guys that always get me started on that sort of thing.
Yeah. I was playing with Kieran on Saturday night, and we took the train together. He was just pulling out all of these records that were amazing.
What about someone like Gil Scott-Heron? I know you weren’t in the studio together, but surely that experience must have been important.
Yeah, his music was a part of my life before I got offered to work with him. For some reason, I managed to take the importance out of it, so I could actually make the music. I’m really happy that I could. I don’t think I’d be able to do that now. I’d overthink it. But at the time working with him and getting to meet him and stuff, I was honored. It was incredibly special just being able to sit down with him and chat. We rarely chatted about music. He would just tell stories.
What kind of stories?
Just fun little anecdotes. He talked about his dad. Now I look back on it, and I’m very happy that I was, like, slightly unaware of it all. I’m not sure exactly what I learned—maybe just to try and think less.
You mean in the musical process? What’s the alternative? Feeling more?
Yeah. I guess it’s just that whatever comes out is a lot more natural, and less about a concept that you already have in your head. It’s more about enjoying what you’re doing at the time. I can definitely hear that in my music when I’m making something from just the flow of it and the enjoyment, rather than coming into the studio with a specific idea and trying to put it down on paper or the laptop.
You’ve met quite a few big pop stars through your work. At this point, you’ve done a track for Alicia Keys, and your track with Gil Scott Heron was used as the basis of the Drake track “Take Care.” I read that you’ve hung out with Drake. Who have you really vibed with?
In that world? I guess with Drake. I would play him lots of UK stuff while he was making the album Take Care, especially. Then he worked with Sampha on Nothing Was the Same, and he loves Jai Paul and all that stuff. But it’s always a weird thing, or it has been so far, working with people like that. There’s just so many people around them, protecting them or protecting their own interests. It’s hard to have a genuine relationship with these people, I’ve found. And that’s why it’s hard to make music with them.
So has that put you off working with big pop stars?
Yes. I might do it again, but in a way, doing that made me realize that I really just wanted to do my own record. So I’m happy I did it. But I went from having quite a lot of restraints doing that sort of thing and not even having a say in the final product to just being on my own in the studio, and being able to do whatever I wanted, which is nice.
The Gil Scott-Heron album that you refixed came out in early 2011. It must have been a huge confidence booster for you.
How did you know you were ready to make your own solo album?
I didn’t. Up until the end of the summer last year it was still just a collection of music that I’d been making on the road in hotel rooms, or in my little studio whenever I got time to be at home. Some of the music on the record was started three years ago. I was planning to make it into a mixtape, because I wanted to get the music out of my head and out of my laptop, so I could start afresh with the next xx album or whatever the next project was. But then, gradually, the idea formed that it would just be better to put it out as an album. And then I made four or five tracks from scratch when I decided that. One of my favorite tracks on In Colour is “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” with Young Thug and Popcaan.
It’s also kind of a stroke of genius to pair them, because their voices sound so good together. But you’re probably the first one to think of that. What’s the sample that you use that provides the track title?
It’s The Persuasions, an a cappella group. That’s a record that I found in Detroit. Thinking back on your previous productions and also your work with The xx, you seem to have an affinity for voices that your productions will complement. What other vocalists are you interested in working with?
At the moment, I’m working on a ballet for the summer. I’ve been collaborating with Okay Kaya, and she’s got a really nice voice. She hasn’t released anything yet, I don’t think. We’ve been doing weird, abstract stuff for this ballet. I’m not, like, a lyrics guy really. It’s much more just about the sound of a voice for me. And maybe that allows me to be a bit freer with the music underneath, because I’m rarely listening to what the song is actually about.
It’s been a really diverse group of vocalists you’ve worked with. Is there anything in particular that draws you to these voices? Going from Romy and Oliver in The xx, which was maybe a circumstance thing, to someone like Gil Scott-Heron, whose voice you grew up listening to, and then choosing people like Young Thug and Popcaan, together.
I think that with Gil Scott-Heron and with the “Fiorucci” vocal samples that aren’t sung, I can kind of relate to it a bit more because it’s not sung. There I actually am listening more to the lyrics. The Young Thug/Popcaan thing was more like, I was in New York for a while and we were driving around in cabs listening to [renowned hip-hop radio station] Hot 97. It just inspired me, and I wanted to make a track like that. I’ve been into bashment [Jamaican dancehall] since I did the Adele remix, basically. I got to go to Jamaica with Alicia Keys and went to a sound system, a proper party, and it was amazing. It was very inspiring. So the vocalists I choose don’t really come from one place, one idea or one type of vocalist that I like. It’s more just the things that happen along the journey.
What about people who maybe are further out of your orbit?
I love Lana Del Rey’s voice. And I worked on some stuff for her last album that never made it. But it’s great to work with her voice. I don’t know what it is about it, but she’s somebody I’d like to keep trying to work with. I can see why it didn’t make the last album.
Ultraviolence was so rock. But maybe if she moves away from that, it could work really well.
Yeah, I was really happy with what we did. But she recorded the whole album and then went back and rerecorded it in that rock style.
What The xx does tends to be quite moody, which is not the case for your solo work. How do you feel about that contrast between The xx always wearing black all the time and your sound, which is generally sunnier?
I really like that. That’s why my album is called In Colour. It’s like a play on the fact that everybody thinks we’re moody and always dress in black. We do always dress in black, but we’re not moody. We’re quite happy people. That said, I still love sad music. In fact, that’s what I listen to all the time. But I like the contrast between the two in a song. Although a steel pan is quite a tropical, happy-sounding thing at first, the tone of it can also be quite melancholic at the same time.
Gil Scott-Heron passed away pretty soon after you released the collaborative album. I know you weren’t close with him, but you mention growing up listening to his music. What were your thoughts when you heard the news?
It was very strange. I was actually playing at the Primavera festival when he died. I came off stage and everyone told me, which was strange because the last track I’d played was “NY Is Killing Me” from the album we did. It was quite the moment. I guess like everything with that record, it didn’t really sink in until a lot later, the importance of it. And I felt bad that that was the last thing that he’d released, because it wasn’t all him. I just wanted him to have all the respect that he deserved.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from this issue.
It’s been six years since the release of Laurent Garnier’s last album, Tales Of A Kleptomaniac. Like his past LPs, it was quite an eclectic affair that covered considerable musical ground. In hindsight, Garnier decided the diversity did a disservice to some of the tracks on the record, so he headed back to the studio last year with a new vision: to release a series of stylistically varied EPs, each on a different label, and then to combine them into a special set called the Home Box. On a cold February evening, Sven von Thülen met the prolific producer and talked to him about the box, the re-release of his autobiography Electrochoc and the return of his label F Communications.
Sven Von Thülen: Tell us a bit about the genesis of the Home Box project.
Laurent Garnier: Basically, one and a half years ago I made three or four new tracks. I wasn’t sure what to do with them at first, as I didn’t want to make a classic album. In the past, my weak point as a producer was that I sometimes threw too many different things together. There are some strong tracks on my old albums which don’t seem strong because they got drowned in all the eclecticism. So I said to Erik [Morand, co-founder of Garnier’s F Communications label], “Listen, I want to make an album and I still want to be myself. I want to reach some of the young crowd but I don’t want to lie to them. I have to be honest. I still want to be the guy who does many different kinds of music.”
So I had these tracks called “Revenge of the Lol Cat” and “The Rise & Fall of the Donkey Dog,” which were on the second EP on Musique Large. I had a track called “Bang,” which came out on Still Music in Chicago, and I had the one on Hypercolour. Those four tracks already covered four very different musical worlds, so I said, “We need to think about what we can do with each track so that it’s put in the best possible place.” That’s when I had the idea to release the tracks on five different labels all known for a different sound, and then to eventually combine all those 12-inches to one special release.
Was it difficult to convince the labels to agree to this?
Not really. I wanted to bring people together; that’s what FCom was always about. They all got into the idea pretty quickly. The first person we talked to was Jerome [Derradji, owner of Still Music] and he said yes straight away. After that, Musique Large from France agreed to be part of the project, too, then Hypercolour and then 50 Weapons. Funnily enough, I did I send them the downtempo stuff too, but they said, “No, we want to release a techno EP by you.”
To be honest, I was very surprised that 50 Weapons was so interested in releasing one of my records on the label, because I’m kind of old school, you know. But they said, “No, we’d love to have you on the label.” I was very excited about that.
The next question was how to make people realize that all these releases are part of the same project, even though the music is quite different; that’s when we came up with idea of the flight numbers. I really don’t like the word “marketing,” but in terms of marketing, it was a great idea. I was sure that by the second release people would get it without having to explain anything.
Is F Communications back for good, or is the release of Home Box a one-time thing? Have you made up your mind about that yet?
We don’t know what we’re going to do with FCom after the box is released. It made total sense to us to revive the label for this project, but everything after that is unsure. Since we’ve announced the box a lot of the old FCom artists contacted me, asking, “When are we gonna start?” “What can we do?” I also got 20 demos from young artists within two days of the announcement.
The question is: does the world needs FCom to come back for good? There are so many labels that do a great job and basically do what we did back in the day. Why should we compete with them and flood the market even more? I feel that a lot of the interest for FCom comes from nostalgia, and that would be the wrong motivation to restart the label. I am not a nostalgic person. But Erick and I are still talking and making up our minds. There is no final decision yet. One thing is sure, though: now that Home Box is ready, I can focus on other things. I’m not going to release a whole lot more music this year. I have other projects lined up.
Shortly after Home Box is released, the English translation of your autobiography Electrochoc will be published as well. I’ve heard that you extended it quite a bit.
My wife is a translator, and I’ve been telling her “Please, please translate it to English,” because we couldn’t find an English publisher when it first came out in France. It was very difficult. So she did it. Once the book was finished, I wrote my French publisher and said that it looks like we’ve found someone who wanted to release it in English. To be honest, at that stage, we had nothing—it was all bullshit—but I was like, “Can we do it?” and they agreed. And then David [Brun-Lambert, who co-authored Electroshock] gave me his permission as well and suggested that it would a good a idea to add a few more pages since the book came out ten years ago.
When I told my publisher they said, “If you manage to write an extra chapter we’ll re-release the book in France as well.” So we started writing, and one chapter turned into six—120 new pages. We cover a lot of ground, from the disappearance of small labels to the explosion of big festivals, and there’s a big focus on Berlin’s musical history as well as on New York, which we didn’t get to do in the original book. We spoke to Francois [Kevorkian] and LCD Soundsystem, and we did an interview with Gideon [Rathenow, former booker of Berghain], who talked about Berghain, of course.
When is it going to be published?
For the time being it will be a digital-only release. You can pre-order it now.
Photos by Richard Bellia.
Paris’s 50Weapons gun and former Slices star Bambounou discusses how to flirt with the mainstream without worrying about “authenticity” in an interview with EB contributor Peter Adkins.
Jeremy Guindo is a born and bred Parisian, but his music gives little indication as to his origins. His productions imprint elements of bass music with sample-heavy, loopy house and techno, which places him at the forefront of a generation of UK-inspired French trailblazers like his close friend French Fries. This “hybrid-techno” sound, as Guindo calls it, defined his debut album, Orbiting, which appeared on Modeselektor’s 50Weapons label in 2012. Its recently released successor, Centrum, exhibited a more terse and introspective strand to his sonic identity, offering darker shades to the all-out house jams that continue to characterize his 12″ releases. With the presses still warm and his first major US tour on the near horizon, we coaxed the producer out of the studio to chat about Paris and musical authenticity.
On the notes for Centrum you mention that the album emerged while you were reading Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune and watching movies by manga artist and filmmaker Katsuhiro Otomo. How did you translate these influences into the LP?
I think there’s a huge correlation between techno and science fiction in that both are trying to escape something by looking into the future. Those guys from Detroit [who pioneered techno] had lives that were quite hard, and techno was a way of trying to imagine what was going to happen next, a way of escaping from the present moment. It was a way of seeing what was going to be around the corner. For me, reading loads of science fiction and watching lots of sci-fi movies had a straight link to my music in that I was looking into the future. I think that’s different in house music, which is much more about being in the present moment and celebrating things that are happening now.
So with Centrum you were constructing a futurist idea as a means of escaping from the present moment?
Exactly, yeah. When I produce music I’m always expressing what I’m feeling at that moment, but it’s unconscious.
What were you looking to escape when you were writing the album?
The album was informed by the general mood I was in. I used to live in a social apartment with my mum in the 13th District and [when I wrote the album] I was thinking about how more people are going to have to live in cities in the future. I asked myself what we’re going to do as human beings when we all have to live in huge cities.
Do you see a city like Paris changing for the better?
I’m quite optimistic; I don’t think cities are going to be a problem in the immediate future. Right now, I think that architects are answering new needs and I’m really optimistic about the next few years. In 100 years, though, it’s going to be fucked up.
So, on one level, Centrum is a projection of Paris in a hundred years?
Maybe not Paris, but some kind of metropolis.
What was it like growing up in the 13th District?
Basically, the 13th District is Chinatown, so I’ve always been around people from different backgrounds and spent time learning about Asian culture. People tend to hate the 13th District, as they think it’s quite ugly because the area is half [tower] blocks and half really nice buildings, and pretty much nothing really ever happens there. It’s my favorite district, but it is a bit of a ghetto.
Were there opportunities for making music as you grew up?
Not at all. I lived with my mum and she would listen to French singers, but it was not a musical upbringing. I had to give myself my own musical education through the Internet. Because it was all self-taught I can’t play any instruments apart from drums a little bit, and now I’m trying to learn the piano through playing my synthesizers—but I can’t read notation. I don’t think it has held me back; in fact, I really like the fact that I can’t play instruments because it means I have a totally different approach. Also, because I’m not a musician I don’t wait for their respect towards the music I make. My job is to make people dance.
A lot of producers feel quite antagonistic about being excluded from the idea of musicianship.
I’m a producer. I know how to make a kick drum sound.
You rose to prominence alongside French Fries. Is it true that you guys originally met through skating?
When we were 13 years old we would both skate in the 13th District, and that’s how we got to know each other. Then we were sent to different schools, and didn’t see each other for a long while. It was only much later when I was [on a night] out that I met him again, and from there we started to chill again. It was around the time that I had just started out making music on Fruityloops and Valentino [Canzani, aka French Fries] had already started producing in his father’s studio, and we basically just started making music together every day. He was already a DJ, so he introduced me to that too. It was really innocent and easy; I’d hear a sample and decide, “I’m going to make a track with that.” I made tracks so much faster than I do now. I take more time and think about things a bit more.
The records that you and other artists on the ClekClekBoom label have released drew influence from British dance music. Were you consciously rebelling against perceived notions of what French house music should sound like?
No. When I started getting into dance music, I was listening to more UK music than French music so that influence was and is still present in what I do. Do you think that I don’t have a French sound?
Not in the way that someone like Cassius or Apollonia might be said to have a French sound.
I don’t like to be categorized. If people say I’m doing something I always think that it’s bullshit. I’m just making music.
Do you identify as a Parisian artist or is that another categorization you’re not comfortable with?
I identify more as a French producer than as a Parisian one, because Paris is really small.
Authenticity is a perennially controversial topic in dance music. Since you’re often working with sounds that originated in Britain and elsewhere, I was wondering if the question of authenticity is something that you think about when you’re making music?
Do you think I make authentic music?
I do, but I also think that, if I was making something that drew on foreign traditions, questions to do with authenticity would cross my mind.
I never think about genres of music, nor do I ever aim to sound like a specific producer, so it isn’t really something that I feel I should have to think about. I just want to make something that sounds good to me. I never think about how what I make might be received or categorized.
When you first rose to prominence you were associated with ClekClekBoom, so I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how and why you ended up signing to 50Weapons?
I was at a certain point in my career where I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Gernot [Bronsert] and [Sebastian] Szary [of Modeslektor] loved my track “Alpha” so they invited me to play at the launch party for Addison Groove’s album, which they had put out on 50Weapons. At the dinner before the party—out of nowhere—they asked me to make an album for the label. I didn’t know what to say, as I was thinking, “Why would I make an album for you? I don’t know you.” So I said no. Then, three days later, I emailed them and said, “I’ll obviously make an album for you.”
Another debate around authenticity is the never-ending argument about the mainstream and the underground. Your remix of Dog Blood’s track “Chella Ride” turned an EDM track into a wonderfully hypnotic house jam. Did you have any apprehensions attaching your name to something associated with Skrillex and Boys Noize?
When I get an opportunity to do something with people in the mainstream I always try to go for it and aim to make something more hardcore than I usually would. That way, if people love it and it becomes mainstream I’ll have still remained true to myself. I like to be challenged. For example, when I remixed Dog Blood, I thought I would see how people would react if I did a remix that was true to my sound. The fans reacted by saying, “It’s the same loop over and over,” and that the intro is too long, but I found it a really interesting experience. I’m not scared of things like that. If more people listen to my music and I become mainstream, it’ll be because people are listening to my style of music. I’m not going to change what I’m doing.
Interview and words by Peter Adkins.
Every time I speak with Bernd Friedmann, I get a little less dumb. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’ll admit that chatting with the German experimental producer also known as Burnt Friedman makes me realize how much time I waste thinking about unimportant things, because he illuminates the bullshit that cloaks most peoples’ understanding of music.
Bernd’s own work taps into laws that exist outside of Western conventions. His latest album, Cease To Matter, a collaboration with vocalist Daniel Dodd-Ellis, illuminates music’s elemental properties by drawing out powerful codes which aren’t man-made and transcend us all. We had a long discussion over cups of tea that covered the limitations of musical formulas, how Western individualism shapes music, and the role physics plays in building primordial rhythms.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable with your relationship to the non-Western musical tropes that you explore?
I feel very much at home with this. Maybe it’s because I’ve always looked for things I don’t understand in the first place. I’m attracted to music that I don’t understand and that sounds interesting, first of all. It could have been any kind of music. I’m not focused necessarily on Indonesian music, I just want to get over the problem of the territorial grasp on music. We talk about Afro-beat, Brit-pop, Celtic folk—no matter which letter of the alphabet you chose, you’ll be able to find a territory attached to a musical genre. This is the way we handle music, but it’s totally against the nature of music. I think that music’s greatest feature lies in the unities that exist beyond cultural borders, in it’s constant development and mutative nature. All the influences that are now available through the Internet allow us to develop more interesting music than was ever possible, so I don’t get why people assimilate and cling to formulas.
It’s like someone’s social perception of himself has more influence on his music than music itself. There’s often no attempt to think of the singularities or unities in music and sound.
In the West, most music is dominated by [the idea of] people expressing themselves. In pop music, everything is concerned with the singer and the rest of the band members are, more or less, replaceable employees—the emphasis is on the bandleader. The concept of the leader is very strong in Western music, but how can you have a band with a leader? It defeats the concept of a band.
It’s as if, without the voice, people can’t deal with the music. For the average listener, it’s not “real music” unless someone sings. In jazz, it’s about an individual achievement, someone’s individual skills. And look at the way we rate music, for instance. In music magazines, you have the top 100 DJs, ranked first, second, third and so forth. It has nothing to do with music. It reflects the society we live in, which is concerned with marketing and making money.
It seems like people are aware of that, yet there isn’t a huge desire to try and circumvent these narrow aspects of our cultural perspective. It seems like the instinct to resist these forces you talk about is rare.
It’s quite rare, yes—we don’t question these things. To me, one of the fundamental differences between Western and non-Western music is that Westerners must think in terms of differentiation. Each artist has to have his own signature and to develop a set of characteristics rather than sounds. Non-Western music is about concordances. That’s why so much of the global music vocabulary fits together so well. On one hand, there are local variations, but the way different cultures make music is universal. The same rules apply to folk music traditions in Indonesia or West Africa. They may have different harmonic scales, but there are concordances in a lot of the music.
What are some of those concordances that you see between those disparate cultures, which are thousands of kilometers apart from each other?
Simply everything that’s not man-made. It’s also laws in music, cosmic law. All those laws in existence are not man-made, because people cannot invent laws; they can only discover them.
So you’re saying this is more a matter of biology.
I wouldn’t say biology, but physics. “Physics,” from the Greek origin of the word, means “nature.” It’s how you move. (Bernd begins to drum simple patterns on his legs) I claim that, if you don’t have Western influence and you have your hands and a drum, you’ll eventually discover certain natural motion sequences. You’ll find all sorts of rhythm cycles that are not 4/4, but feel as natural as 4/4. 4/4 would just be one of a different set of rhythm cycles that can always be more complicated and longer, so there’s an unlimited variety.
It’s like how it appears in architecture, in the pyramids. Same with the 90 degree angle, it’s a kind of geometry, it’s completely natural, like the octave. The octave is simply doubling and halving: one makes two, and two makes four, and four makes eight. Overtones are also natural. There’s nothing man-made about it. People who play strings will discover the harmony in there and simply apply it.
You can only walk a certain way, dance a certain way. This is where the rhythms come from. I think they have a lot to do with people’s daily lives. In history, when people danced, they’d often have percussion instruments strapped to their feet. When they danced, it would only be possible to move in a certain way. I’m pretty sure that rhythms, beats, and grooves are derived from dance movements.
Sometimes, I ask people how they feel about the idea of locating musical phenomena that are irrevocably true. For instance, a beat at a certain speed is going to turn into a certain pitch, and you can prove that in an experiment, so it’s not man-made. But almost every person I speak to is deeply opposed to it. There are objective things in music that are really important and unify all sorts of music and all sorts of sounds, yet people don’t want to think about that.
I’ve had the same experience. It is simply because their thinking is based on misconceptions. Knowledge is not connected to ancient knowledge anymore. I would probably say that it’s connected to the Western focus on the role of the individual that I mentioned earlier. Maybe that’s why the whole “natural law” idea intimidates your friends. It appears to be a threat for them because this concept of individual value is at stake.
You know the Big Bang theory. Lots and lots of money has been spent on experiments. It’s totally legitimate to confront the notion of this concept, but those interesting, inquisitive people can’t get very far in these institutions because they’re considered a threat to those systems. Lets say there are thousands of physicists involved in the particle accelerator. When they have meetings, who would have the balls to question what they’re doing? They all want to keep the thing going and keep spending money. Every now and again, they deliver some discovery to the public under doubtful circumstances. So to me, the problem is not confined to music, but in music it’s more obvious. And since I know a little bit more about music, I have the suspicion that we’re pretty brainwashed.
Burnt Friedman’s latest album, Cease To Matter, landed earlier this month via Nonplace Records. Find it here.
I will never forget how I learned about Mr. G.
It was early July of 2013, and I was meeting with a few music industry types at Geist Im Glas, a bar on Lenaustrasse in Berlin. One of them was Darwin, a local DJ with round eyes, a thread of slightly-grisly tattoos down one arm, hair so perfectly glossy and wavy that I was suspicious it might be a wig, and a zealous demeanor. She’s the sort of person who makes a strong first impression, in part because she’s super enthusiastic about every topic she discusses—and on that day, one of those subjects was Mr. G.
Her eyes were wide with fervent conviction when she explained that Mr. G is a legend, but hardly anyone knew of him until that summer. His real name is Colin McBean, and he’s produced a steady stream of dance floor 12″s that date back to the 1990s, when he made fast-paced techno tracks as part of London’s BMG-signed duo The Advent. Around the year 2000, he switched gears and started to construct soulful house grooves as Mr. G. His work from the new millennium has appeared under a labyrinthine collection of sub-aliases—which means dedicated fans have had to dig for his treasures—but they’re united by the same sonic recipe: kick drums so taut you could bounce a quarter off them, rumbling blankets of bass, and rustling, jacking hi-hats. As an introduction to his work, she sent me a mix she had made using only Mr. G edits and tunes, and forbade me to share it with anyone.
Despite his tireless and influential output, Mr. G produced in relative obscurity until around that summer, when Radio Slave’s prolific Rekids label released a retrospective compilation of some of the most potent jams in G’s extensive catalog. Advertisements for the collection appeared on little TV screens in Berlin’s subway cars—and I know that because I was in those trains at the time, taking pictures of the ads to protest the militant secrecy with which Darwin protected her mix.
Despite the signs that his profile was growing, I kept Darwin’s mix to myself, and I played it over and over again all summer. By the time I went home to New York, it didn’t feel right to listen to the set unless I was feeling nostalgic for Berlin. Her Mr. G megamix became one of those pieces of music that acts as a time capsule for a certain period in life; it contains and revives a particular vibe and a distinctive emotional timbre.
It’s been over a year since the set was passed along to me, and Darwin’s resolve to protect her secret weapon has dissolved, because he’s not such a secret anymore. In fact, he’s about to release his first-ever solo full length, Personal Momentz, on November 10, and Darwin has allowed us to publish the legendary set here to celebrate the occasion—it’s in the SoundCloud embed below. Each of the 12 tracks on Mr. G’s forthcoming LP and beyond symbolize a poignant time in McBean’s life, much the same way the megamix became a vessel for my memories of Berlin in 2013. That’s what makes Mr. G’s productions seminally brilliant and emotionally potent: they’re infused with vibes and feels and remembers.
“I always put a title for a reason,” he told me over the phone from his home in the UK. “I don’t ever put something stupid—there’s always a link to something. It’s somewhere I’ve been, something I’ve seen, someone I like, or someone I dislike. There’s always an energy in there.”
I was calling to get the story behind my 10 favorite Colin McBean 12”s for the piece printed below. I guess I was able to sense which pieces from his catalog corresponded to particularly cogent memories, because at the end of the interview, he told me that the tracks I had chosen “were all quite personal, which is interesting.” Perhaps that’s proof that Mr. G records are like audio horcruxes—at the heart of every Colin McBean 12”, there’s a bit of his soul.
“Life (One Late Dark Saturday)” The Tolerance EP (Moods & Grooves 2003)
“The Tolerance EP is…I had shitty neighbors. I had no tolerance for them, and they had no tolerance for me, and we ended up falling out. That whole EP is a dig at them, for me to exorcise myself and say, ‘You know what, I’m gonna be bigger than you.’ This particular night, it was late and dark, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is some dark vibe in here today—I’m pissed off at my neighbors for sure.’ So that’s why it’s called ‘One Late Dark Night,’ because thoughts came through negativity, so I put them into the track. If I choose a line or a lyric, it usually says what I wanted to say. This one says, ‘It’s your life’—I can’t tell you what to do, but you’re not really behaving in an appropriate way.”
“Daily Prayer” The Up Hill Battle EP (Phoenix G 2011)
“That one is really painful. ‘Daily Prayer’ was probably one of the first things I wrote after my good friend and mentor, Lex, died. I’d spent eight months looking after him—I gave up my career and everything to look after and care for him. He had a brain tumor. It was a good year later that The Up Hill Battle EP came out, and it was a way of me saying that I’ll never forget him. I do that for a lot of things—if there’s something important to me, I put a marker on a record, because then it’s there forever.
It’s a very serious piece. When people try to license it, I usually say no, because if it’s not going to the right home—no. For me, it’s not about just making money from something. If something’s personal to you, why then thin it down and sell it on? I want to listen to that track, and the specific ones that touch me, every time and know that they’re pure and they’re doing the right thing. That track in particular, someone will email me every couple of weeks. It’s almost like my friend is out there saying, ‘Yeah, Colin, you’re not doing too bad.’”
“Miss Nasty” Don’t Let Shit Get You Down (Phoenix G 2005)
“I think both [the instrumental and the vocal version] of ‘Miss Nasty’ were done at the same time, but if I didn’t use the vocal on the vinyl release, it was probably because I didn’t feel appropriate. Sometimes, I use a vocal that says something about someone, and since that person’s gonna hear it, I have to be sure that it’s right or it’s respectful. At that point, I was way too angry to put that vocal out. But years later, when the digital came around, I thought ‘Yeah, why not release the old one now?’ Things had passed, time had gone on. But that one there, that’s a deep one. I can’t go into that one—the person is still out there. These things come back and bite you in the ass.”
“Spliffhead” The Eye Poke EP (Phoenix G 1999)
“That was just after the Advent days, one of the earliest Mr. G/G Flame releases we ever did. It was, again, someone I knew, and who I thought was just smoking too much. It was like, ‘Oh, you’re turning into a spliffhead.’ The person knew who it was at the time. Again, I just like to mark things so I never forget. All the records I put out have some kind of message or something happened, so I can pick up anything and say, ‘Ah yeah, shit, I forgot about that’—and that’s ‘Spliffhead.’ That was me saying, ‘Make sure you don’t ever follow that route and get too stoned and compromise your music.’”
Tommy Atkins “Ice Cold Yelly” Icecold Yelly EP (Mango Boy 2005)
“Mango Boy is my Jamaican side. My parents are Jamaican. I love mangos. When I go back to Jamaica, I’m eating 10 or 12 mangos a day. The producer of the best mangos is a company run by Tommy Atkins. Anything that has ‘mango’ or ‘Tommy Atkins’ in the title will have a specific sound, taking it back to Jamaica. It’s gonna be slightly more personal, and not so easy to get into, because I’m not doing that for the masses—I’m doing that for me. The ‘ice cold jelly’ is what they call it when you take the top off a fresh coconut and drink the water out of it. So that one’s a really feel-good, because I’m in Jamaica and I’m having fun.”
“Black Breds” The Soulfood EP (Phoenix G 2012)
“Again, that’ll be Jamaican. Breds is a charity in Treasure Beach, Jamaica that works for the local youth to give them some kind of athletics program. I’d just come back from Jamaica and heard about Breds, so I thought, well, why not make it more specific, and make it ‘Black Breds’ rather than just ‘Breds.’ But that whole Soulfood EP is really quite—yeah, that’s one of my most personal twelves, because it really—it works in a completely different way to the way I normally work. It’s more with that reggae-like, twisted bassline, as opposed to what I would normally do. I would never normally release that, and I’m surprised it did what it did, because it is quite personal.”
“No Sell Out” The Stylus EP (Metalbox 1998)
“Well, that says it all, you don’t need to ask that one. We [The Advent] were signed to BMG, and then BMG started a label for us called Metalbox. At the beginning, it was Cisco [Ferreira] and myself; we were called G Flame and Mr. G. But then, as time went on—you know how you get older and different. He decided he’d like to keep the G Flame name if he ever wanted to do house, and I became Mr. G.
I think that’s a German vocal that I got from some rare a cappella LP. Again, it’s basically saying what I wanted to say, which is ‘I’m Mr. G, and I’m making house music.’ That was when I could hear many around me beginning to—in my eyes—sell out, and that’s that’s me saying, ‘I ain’t never selling out, man. No sell out.’”
“Do It Right” Da Playas EP (Metalbox 1997)
“That’s probably from when I was just going to America for the first time, or just coming back from America. I was so happy I just wanted to put down a nice disco vibe like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing OK, we’re doing alright.’ That’s why it says, ‘Dooo it right!’ It’s cheesy and happy, but it’s saying, ‘Life is not too bad, we’re going the right way about things.’ It was quite nice to have gone to the States and gotten the love and seen that people were interested in what we were doing.”
“Song For My Cantor” The Atmosphere EP (Careless 2007)
“My friend was already ill at this time, so the quality of my writing wasn’t particularly great at that point, because I couldn’t put as much time into it, because my thoughts and mind were elsewhere. And then a friend of a friend said he worked with someone who had a label, they would do it right, they really love what I do. I remember saying, ‘Well, at this point, I can’t say yes or no, because I’m balancing my life on a knife’s edge.’ I didn’t know whether I’d find time to do quality work.
If you’ve got a 12”, they labeled it the wrong way. ‘Balance’ is the one with the vocal that says, ‘So Good,’ but I think the other side has been given that title. ‘Balance’ is more like a, a sort of tech-house-y track. ‘Song For My Cantor’— there’s something more spiritual and different going on in there. I had a friend who was the dean of Westminster, and when he passed away, I went to his funeral at Salsbury Cathedral. The people who sing those bits in a service are called cantors, so it’s called ‘Song for my Cantor.’ I must have literally come home from the service and thought, ‘Damn, all those lovely, soulful, choral-y effects,’ so the record has a really soulful, smooth vibe in it. But I never noticed till years later that they had labeled the records wrong. I rectified it on the retrospective.”