Sonic Router 014: Talking Claptrap With The Average Joe
, August 10th, 2010 08:28
This month, our man Oli Marlow interviews the shadowy figure known simply as Joe responsible for cuts including 'Claptrap', 'Watermelon Dub' &c
Historically, even within dubstep's short tenure as a genre, there's been something to be said for remaining anonymous. The enigmatic Zomby has built a career out of being faceless and incredibly prolific behind the boards, and the Hyperdub-signed Burial's mystique and reputation as a shadowy incarnation was only amplified by the fact that he could've been stood next to you at any rave at any time (most notably, his attempt to let his music fully stand on its own two feet wasn't even shook by The Sun's high profile attempt to out the anonymous producer around the time of his Mercury Music Prize nomination in 2008). It would appear that there's something about the unknown that makes musical output all the more interesting, lending mystique and eliminating hype in equal measure. Enter then the average Joe, a producer whose music for the Hessle Audio and Apple Pips labels has, over the course of three 12"s made the wider bass community sit up and take notice.
First releasing 'Grimelight' b/w 'Rut' on the closely watched Hessle Audio in April of last year, the unknown Joe - and his efficient command of stylistically brutal percussion, minimal arrangements, thick sub bass and subtle strokes of melody – has taken over a year to provide a follow up. In the last six weeks or so, though, he has hit out with a quickly succeeded duo of platters: an untitled piece backed with 'Digest' for Appleblim's Bristol based Apple Pips label and his DJ tool-come-party-starter 'Claptrap' b/w 'Level Crossing' for Hessle. Thankfully each piece he's released has been worth the prolonged silence, jumping out from the off with stuttering drum lines and or a sense of groove that's now recognisably his: a playful yet mature exploration of unadulterated percussion and minimal sound colouration.
Choosing to work at the 140bpm tempo when a lot of his contemporaries are choosing to slow down to a more subdued house-y pace has repeatedly given Joe the space to carve out his unique rhythm patterns, and the fact that there are never really more than four or five composite parts going on in any track at once really does enable you to hone in on the interplay between his drums and the bass line. As a result, listening to one of his records loud is a physical thing; somewhat hypnotic in pressure, they're all built for big rigs set in enclosed spaces.
From our numerous meetings out and around London - admittedly mainly taking place in or outside of Plastic People - it's evident that Joe puts the time in to really experience the music, himself feeling firsthand just how it works through different systems and in different environments. His work is all very measured, yet it often feels loose thanks largely his arrangement and to the space and frequencies he chooses to ignore. Plus it truly is a dream to mix.
"I've never decided on a solid plan or anything," the North London based producer reveals when prompted about his somewhat sporadic release schedule. "I have thought about it and I think I'm happy not to rush at the moment. I feel alright about waiting until I've written tunes that I'm happy with and until I can find the right label for them."
Given that Joe's discography to date has had such a sheen, and such an impeccable level of quality it's really is hard to fault his logic. Everything he's put out - even his old stuff like the unreleased 'Watermelon Dub' (radio rips of which are still floating around the internet) - exudes a sense of cleanliness and order; every sound is confined perfectly to its own place within the wider picture and it's this meticulous attention to detail that must take the time to perfect.
Joe's debut 12" besotted a lot of people, including me, and every time our paths have crossed since there's been this expectant kind of excitement on my part, just to ask him, and to try and get him to confirm that there was more in the pipeline. It wasn't really until his mid June mix for BBC Radio 1's experimental harbinger and one of the main proponents in the public broadcasting of dubstep music, Mary Anne Hobbs, that he revealed he was in possession of a glut of new material. She also let out that Joe was a drummer; a fact that goes some way to explain the exploitation of his sense of rhythm.
"I do think [being a drummer] helps. It gives me ideas, and helps me put them into tracks," he tells me when I ask if he thinks his time behind the skins has given him a better ear for a groove. "I often start tunes with rhythmic ideas, rather than something like a synth line. But I don't think anyone needs to be a drummer to write great drums/rhythms/tunes. I reckon my percussion background helps me enjoy other people's music a lot more, and I can get into tracks that way when I'm dancing to them. It might look a bit daft if I'm sort-of-air-drumming in the club, but to me it just feels like a natural way to respond to the music."
Frankly it's impossible not to do just that when listening to Joe's much hyped 'Claptrap,' a song built around an effervescing line of handclaps, staccato coughs, near sighs and what sound like mistakenly pitched hiccups. It's a quick-paced rhythm track that bevels up into rapid shots, of bass loaded kick drum hits; the snare makes its first appearance two minutes in with the first (and only) sign of melody – a sampled jazz piano chord – chiming in a nearly a minute later. It's a stripped back exercise in found percussion that merges beautifully with almost any other track it touches, its energy and booming stabs blending as well over halfstep as they do atop bumpier dancefloor tunes.
After maintaining what is (in my head at least) something of a purist outlook on dubstep – keeping his productions limited to drums, all be it incredibly exciting drums, little flashes of colour and this omnipresent heavy bass - Joe's latest work for the Hessle label finds him exploring the outer possibilities of danceable club music at 140bpm. His 'Level Crossing' tune bubbles with piano, immediately upping the quota of melody on the 12" by 200% before he marimbas that shit out of it, taking a leaf out of Deadboy's book with the 'IfUWantMe' style hi hat shuffles, as he slams his 4x4 kick drums. In essence, it feels like he's harnessed the energy and un-relentlessness of the percussion stamped deep into the current wave of house infused funky and transported it into his own dubstep tempoed productions. "I like the way that different musical ideas work differently at different tempos," he asserts. "140 [bpm] has shown me loads of great music, and it's also the tempo I really started going out to. I do want to keep writing more tunes at this speed, but in the past year I've been really inspired by 100-120bpm and am starting to write tunes at this slower tempo. It can produce a feel I really enjoy, and one which is great for dancing - perhaps because 100bpm would be too slow when halved, and too quick when doubled."
Again, its Joe frankness and his attention to detail even in answering my belligerently obvious questions that is so fascinating. Without shouting about it or even outwardly publicising the fact that it's him behind the music Joe is a refreshing change of pace for an internet gone mad with blog mixes and shorthand Q&As. He's careful, considered and superbly talented at crafting driving music that deserves to be heard outside of a tiny basement.
Along with his passion for the music and the dances ("Plastic People is really important to me," he states; "that system and that club played a big role in me getting into dance music in general") and the flagrantly obvious natural flair for drum programming and beat construction, there's also a deeply rooted sense of humility. Without ever seeming guarded he's coy about his music, modest to a fault without ever letting his mouth run away with him. Seldom playing or DJing out, Joe's scatter of productions hint at a developing artist who's steadily finding his feet amongst the malaise of tortured ideas and dancefloor sonics that is dubstep in Summer 2010.