Tracing The Seams: An Interview With DjRUM
, January 31st, 2012 03:54
DjRUM's Mountains was one of last year's most impressively self-contained dance EPs. With a new EP landing soon, Angus Finlayson spoke to the Londoner about his approach to music making and deep-seated love of DJing
It’s been said that for a musician to have an un-Googleable name, in this day and age, is tantamount to professional suicide. The flipside of that is that having an un-pronounceable one isn’t really a problem - your fans will rarely need to say it out loud anyway.
Felix Manuel informs me that his alias is pronounced ‘Drum’ - the ‘j’ is silent. It used to be ‘Deejay Rum’, but he decided he didn’t like it. Either way, it’s a name that has increasingly registered on people’s radars since Manuel’s 2010 debut, the gorgeous, so-relaxed-it’s-horizontal ‘Plead With Me’ b/w ‘Emerald (The Antidote)’ on Smokin' Sessions. Since then, his take on the deep sea hybrid of dubstep and techno - perhaps inspired by the rash of innovation coming out of Bristol circa 2008 (see Appleblim’s Dubstep Allstars mix) - has become increasingly finessed and distinctive.
Last year’s ‘Mountains’ EP for 2nd Drop blows most producers working in the ‘chilled’ dubstep milieu clean out of the water. It coolly walks a tightrope between sampleadelic diversity and luxuriant uniformity, all rich, muted blues, greys and greens. Most strikingly, Manuel isn’t afraid of navigating through a range of tempos and soundworlds, refracting each in turn through his distinctive lens. There’s hip-hop (the opening of ‘Undercoat’), techno - generally of the dub-drenched variety (‘Mountains Part 1’) - and flirtations with two-step garage (‘Turiya’). Disparate sections are dovetailed together expertly. It’s a record perfectly suited to the home-headphones ritual, where listening becomes a captivating wander through landscapes suffused with reverb, populated by half-heard monologues and verdant oases of jazz miscellany. It’s a connoisseur’s dreamboat, as highlighted by T++ naming the EP his favourite of 2011.
Manuel’s easy eclecticism probably stems from his DJing. He was a DJ long before he made a name as a producer, and as part of the Yardcore crew he holds down a regular show on Sub.fm, where his sets can encompass anything from the deepest of dub techno to the giddy rush of ghettotech and breakcore. In fact, the near-subterranean tone of his productions is a pleasantly surprising contrast to the high-energy approach he often takes when DJing. A series of Yardcore-promoted nights a few years back tended to focus on the more high-octane side of things, with breakbeat science a firm fixture. It’s rare for a producer to successfully bridge the divide between the critically ghettoised high-energy rave underground and more ‘tasteful’ environs - but with another single and an album for 2nd Drop on their way this year, it’s clearly a formula that’s worked for DjRUM. The Quietus met up with the ever-loquacious Felix for a long pint in Shoreditch one winter’s eve, to try and unpick this and other contradictions at the heart of his music-making.
So you were a DJ for a long time before you started producing.
Felix Manuel: I definitely am - or was, initially - a DJ, and not a producer. It was DJing that got me into production. When I started DJing I was mixing jazz with jazz-sampling hip-hop - when I started producing, it was all sampled jazz. So it wasn’t that different to DJing really. The DJing has carried on, and the production has forked off from basically the same starting point - just collaging jazz, you know.
What I do now is still pretty much that. But I’ve always held versatility to be really important as a DJ, to be able to put your hand to anything. And I think you learn different techniques from mixing different genres of music. Mixing drum’n’bass, say, you’ve got the opportunity to tweak with effects and EQs, to blend seamlessly. Whereas for a couple of years I played disco and funk 7”s, that sort of thing. And mixing that stuff, things don’t stay in time, it’s music that’s not been designed for mixing. You can’t be seamless, so the seams become interesting - scratching, juggling - rather than the DJ trying to be invisible. I think it’s good for a drum’n’bass DJ to have a go at mixing funk, or vice versa. You learn different techniques - it’s not that one’s better than the other. I started off as a hip-hop DJ, and I bring that style to my techno mixing.
I always have this - getting booked by promoters that book techno, dubstep. They put you in front of a club setup with this huge fucking mixer on a slope, with the turntables like two meters apart [gestures]. And I’m like ‘Can we move this...I can’t scratch like that!’
Have you found that, since you’ve started putting out music, promoters and crowds are expecting a specific thing in your sets? Do you feel pressured?
FM: I totally do. After I got signed and put records out, my bookings plummeted! Because I think people knew me through playing jungle and breakcore. Then I started putting out this chilled melodic stuff, and I guess promoters thought, ‘Oh he’s doing chill stuff now, so he doesn’t know how to rock a dancefloor’. I see why you’d make that connection, but it’s kind of obviously false. I think it’s a real shame that people that make chilled music don’t get booked enough. At the moment I feel that pressure to play what people expect...you look at the lineup and you judge how far you can push it.
Have you made tunes that draw on those other genres you like to play?
FM: Yeah I have, and I think stuff will come out. But I’m not a very good producer - or at least I’m only good at one specific thing ‘cos I’ve worked fucking hard at it. I’m not a Si Begg who can turn his hand to anything. Every tune I make, there are six or seven versions that are shit, and there’s one that works. I try things out and I fail!
Do you think that comes from the fact that, because of your DJing, you’re almost aware of too many options, creatively?
FM: [thinks] Yeah, I guess having that broad spectrum of influences means that I don’t rule anything out. I think if you call yourself a dubstep producer, and write at this tempo, for this kind of dancefloor - then you’re limiting your options. Which I don’t think is a negative thing, at all. Some people just do their thing, and do it well. But for me, I don’t have one goal as such. I have an idea and I’ll try it out, then think, ‘Oh this seems like it’s going more in the direction of being a hip hop tune,’ so I’ll just let that happen. In the past I’ve gone into the studio with a goal in mind, and it doesn’t work. What works for me is seeing what happens, and letting whatever works lead me.
Listening to the Mountains EP, it sounds like maybe you’re allowing yourself to be led by the samples, rather than imposing a structure on them too forcefully?
FM: Yeah. I think if you take the track ‘Mountains’ - which is in three parts. That’s basically a perfect example of how I write a tune and try everything. So I’m making a techno track. I’m fucking around with these dub chords and making these different ambient noises, I try loads of things, I generate loads of material. Then halfway through finishing the techno one I’m like ‘I’ve made loads more sounds that don’t fit in this.’ So then I use these sounds to make this ambient track that stands apart from the original, but is made from the same starting point. And the hip-hop part of that, the soundscape-y bit - they’re all by-products of the techno tune basically. So I tend to just let it go where it goes, then afterwards I’ll piece it together - ‘How am I gonna structure this, what’s the seam to move between that beat and that beat?’
When you’re doing that, do you have the dancefloor in mind?
FM: It’s a kind of push-and-pull, love-hate thing with me. I usually have the intention of trying to make it dancefloor, and I end up making loads of really nice ambient noises, and I don’t wanna leave them out of the tune! You can have a really heavy techno beat, then add some dub chords to it and be like ‘Fuck, I’ve accidentally made a chill tune!’ [laughs] I usually think in terms of melodic elements, so they tend to be the focus with my tunes, and I think that takes it away from the dancefloor slightly.
But with the Mountains EP I wanted to make it more dancefloor. In thinking to myself, ‘What’s the dancefloor end of what I do, how does it translate?’ - it’s like Hardwax-style techno, then garage, and then certain sorts of jungle, drum & bass. That’s the stuff that I play out now. Although I love it, I don’t really do the breakcore thing any more. You know what, breakcore really pisses some people off! It’s great at turning your dancefloor from a crowd of people kinda bubbling along, to four people absolutely loving it and everyone else at the bar. [laughs]
I almost don’t want to say it, but there’s a lot of my tunes that I wouldn’t drop in a club. I’m almost surprised when people tell me that they do. People say, ‘Oh yeah that tune, I play it out all the time,’ and I’m like ‘[nonplussed] You sure? I bet it totally bombs!’ Though I’ve actually become a bit more confident recently about playing my own tunes.
The people that were around you when you were doing the Yardcore nights - are they surprised by the kind of music you make?
FM: There’s plenty of people - mates of mine - who probably wouldn’t say that they hate the kind of music I make, but basically do! They’re polite enough not to tell me. But I’m also often surprised by people that are into my music that I wouldn’t expect to be. I’ve always been into any genre as part of a mixed diet. I dunno... I’ve never really been bothered by genres...and I think lots of people say that.
It is kind of cool at the moment to say ‘I don’t see genres...’
FM: Yeah, everyone says that. But I do see genres. I think what’s great about genre distinctions is that they let you really identify with a particular thing. It allows conversations about music.
Has your music been lumped into a genre?
FM: No I really don’t think it has, which is great. In the record shop I’m in the dubstep section, that’s cool, but for example - namedropping - Gilles Peterson called one of my tracks house. But house has never been an influence. I get close to it in some of the garage I listen to and some of the techno, but this track, ‘Turiya’, I think it’s a garage track.
It sounds like two-step to me.
FM: Yeah. It’s a two-step beat but it is quite slow. Gilles Peterson said something like, ‘That’s my kind of house music.’ It’s like, ‘So your kinda house music is... Not house. Fair enough, me too.’ [laughs] But that’s amazing: five years ago, if someone had told me that people would be playing my tunes in house sets, I’d be totally... upset actually! [laughs] I’ve always hated on house. I’ve always said I’d play everything but house.
Maybe these days, with house being such a big thing, people hear the ‘house’ aspects of techno, garage...
FM: Absolutely. If you’re into house and you hear this kind of tune, it’s house to you. I got into garage through mates of mine that were playing house and garage. When I moved to London for uni, I was the only person in my halls with decks, so everyone used to come round to my room to DJ. At that time my record collection was just jazz, hip hop, Ninja Tune, but I had all these people coming round playing garage, jungle, drum & bass. It wasn’t my cup of tea at the time. But it was really liberating, to go from mixing jazz and funk, not designed to be mixed, to this 4x4 garage - I was like ‘This is fucking easy, it’s ridiculous! This is so fun to mix’. And that’s how I got into that kind of music, through mixing. Now maybe I spend more time making music than I do DJing, but back then I’d DJ anything that was to hand really. So I was playing house even though I hated it!
I guess there’s the satisfaction of the technique - even if it’s music you don’t like, there’s the satisfaction of doing something well.
FM: That’s a really interesting way of putting it.
Do you find the same thing with production - that same sense of satisfaction from technique?
FM: Yeah, to a certain extent - the ‘How do I do it?’ comes first, the ‘What am I doing?’ comes second. It’s technique-led. One day - and this was a revelation - I figured out how to make a dub techno chord, how to set the reverb and stuff. I was like, ‘Fuck, I can make dub techno!’ So now, a lot of the stuff I’ve released has a really strong dub techno influence - but that’s really based on the fact that that’s what I can do, rather than what I necessarily want to do. Having said that, it’s not like I’m a jump up drum & bass producer at heart who just can’t do it. [laughs]
You’ve done a few remixes for people like LV - have you found it difficult to come out with things the label are happy with, because you’re following your nose, so to speak?
FM: No, I haven’t. I’ve had people perhaps not fully expect what they’ve got, but I don’t think they’ve been unhappy - they haven’t said so. For me, because of the way I work, a remix isn’t really any different from an original - it’s sample-based anyway, just having this bank of samples as a starting point. All my tunes have that.
Have you thought about getting specially recorded vocals for tracks?
FM: Yes, I am! I’m working at the moment with a vocalist called ShadwBx, who lives in New York. We’ve done one track together - I put down some loops and sent them to her, she recorded stuff and sent it back. She does her own production, so she fucked around with her own vocals, some layering and stuff. It’s a back and forth thing. It’s a little frustrating, as it’s the first time I’ve worked with a vocalist and I’d really like to go into the studio and be a part of the process.
But it’s interesting, a lot of electronic producers collaborate online, sending each other stems. It lends itself to a certain way of working. I remember Burial saying that one of the reasons he fucks about with vocals so much is he’s not working with a vocalist - you want to produce a vocal, so you do it the way you can. I think any technique you’re using becomes part of the sound. I’m really really hyped about working with ShadwBx. I know she’s really busy but I want to do more.
Finally, what else is on the cards for DjRUM - more releases?
FM: There’s ‘Watermark’, the next single - on 2nd Drop again. It’s this thing I’ve been working on for fucking ages - like a year and a half. It’s been a real labour of love. When you work on a tune for that long - the way I do - you generate loads of stuff. I’ve got it down to 9 1/2 minutes long for the single.
Then there’ll be an album. I’m hoping, but I’ve no idea how realistic I am, to get it done by the end of January. I’ve wanted to do an album since I initially got signed. I think the album format suits the kind of music I make. It’s that thing of having ideas and drawing them out, extending them - ideas that stretch across more than one track. And that’s what an album is, really.
‘Watermark’ is released through 2nd Drop in February.
DjRUM plays at Corsica Studios for Plex this Friday, 3rd February, alongside Anthony 'Shake' Shakir, Objekt and A Made Up Sound. For more information click here.