Listen, Move, Dance: An Interview With October
, August 21st, 2012 06:03
Bristol's DJ October plays in Fabric's Room 1 this Saturday. With a number of excellent records released in recent months, he sat down with Rory Gibb to discuss minimalism, punk rock and digital music's "crazy circus"
October, aka Julian Smith, is one of Bristol music's better kept secrets. It's not hard to see why - he's been working away beneath the reach of the media glare for a while now, producing, DJing and releasing house and techno throughout the time when the city's main dancefloor export was dubstep.
I first came across Smith when I caught him DJing a few years ago at a party in Bristol, spinning deep house while wearing a Jesus Lizard t-shirt. Investigating his music a few days later, it was easy enough to detect the connection between his own approach and the rawness and immediacy of bands he cites as major influences, such as Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers. Rough, reductionist, and possessed of a rhythm section that juts from the axis at odd angles, his music frequently gives the impression of having fallen into a loose association whose gravitational force is just sufficient to withstand the pressure of a dancefloor. Especially listening to some of the beguilingly peculiar and druggy earlier records he released through his underrated (and now retired) Caravan label - the bone-dry death rattles of the Houston EP, or the grind of metal-on-metal that carries 'Three Drops' along on its ominous way - it felt surprising that they managed to hold themselves together at all.
Doling out their musical elements carefully - pulses of sub-bass that plunged through the floor abruptly; delicate shimmers of melody rippling like heat into the foreground - those earlier records suggested some idiosyncratic form of minimal techno, allowed to develop in a city scene where UK-centric bass and build/drop dynamics were the norm. Alongside Smith's tracks on the label were those of fellow experimenters: Emptyset, whose recent releases on Subtext have been masterclasses in reduction, released their excellent debut EP and album through Caravan, and other contributors included Jilt Van Moorst (whose 'Oops' is a supremely head-churning bit of techno) and Antoni Maiovvi, whose Thorns Of Love album was an adept blend of Italo disco, John Carpenter soundtracks and kosmische.
More recently Smith has been collaborating with fellow Bristol-based producer Borai, and around the middle of this year embarked on a formidable run of releases that took in 12"s through Will Saul's Simple label (featuring a pair of remixes by Danny 'Legowelt' Wolfers), his own recently minted TANSTAAFL label, Appleblim's Apple Pips, Never Learnt and Skudge. While melodies have crept more obviously to the fore and their construction feels more secure - less chaotic and prone to sudden collapse - they're still recognisably Smith's tracks, brittle, raw and hand-crafted on mainly analogue hardware.
TANSTAAFL, which he co-runs with friend and Berlin resident John Osborn, has been growing in profile recently. As well as releasing music, it encompasses a regular radio show and have recently started putting on regular nights at Tresor in Berlin. Along with his recent run of releases and reputation as a formidable DJ, it's helped gather Smith an increasing amount of attention on dancefloors beyond his home city. Like the New York deep house producers whose tracks are regulars in his sets - the likes of DJ Qu and Levon Vincent - while DJing he allows his tracks to play out across their entire length, the better to show off their contours properly. He's set to make his Fabric Room 1 debut this Saturday, 25th August, alongside the likes of Shackleton, Joy Orbison and Dixon - for details, click here.
So with attention turning slowly towards his music, the Quietus sat down with Smith in a cafe in Bristol to discuss his early experiments with sound and the lasting appeal of taking a minimalist and groove-based approach to music.
In Bristol you were one of the few people putting out house music, a long time before it became a big thing. When did you first get into house and techno?
Julian Smith: I've been into house and techno since like '92, '93. My cousins in Holland used to run these big mega-raves called Cosmos Government, and they were really into Derrick May and all the Detroit stuff, they put on Derrick, Juan [Atkins] and Kevin [Saunderson], all those guys, Lil Louis, everyone.
I was still only 10, 11, 12 at the time. I remember hearing the music, seeing lots of smiley faces and seeing my cousins on TV - they were quite famous at the time - and I had my little Cosmos Government rave t-shirt on. I was exposed to it quite young. I suppose I didn't really get it for what it really was, I guess I heard something totally different to your average person who'd go out to a rave. But then I was also Nirvana and Sonic Youth obsessed, and Melvins, Butthole Surfers, Wu Tang...
So when did you start buying gear, and how did you start making music?
JS: I've always played guitar in bands. Then I came to the UK in 1996 and got really into jungle music. I remember listening to old Jumpin’ Jack Frost tapes, and Hype, real old stuff, DJ Zinc.
There was no internet in my life at the time, and there were no music forums, so I didn't really know how to get into it. So I requested a four-track tape machine from my dad, and after a few years of badgering I got one. I didn't really know what to do, so I used to splice lots of tapes, and my dad had this old Lenco turntable which had this lever you could lift up between the pitches - it went up to 78 - so in between the RPMs, you could pitch it. So I'd sync that with a tape machine and try to do mixes.
[I got Logic] in around 2000. It was after the millennium. That was amazing, the possibilities were limitless. Then I basically just borrowed equipment and stuff from loads of people and tried to do my own thing, you know. I didn't have anyone to teach me so I had to teach myself.
I went to university [to study] Creative Music Technology, then I got bored of that and dropped out in my second year. I learnt what I needed to learn, and was taught the basics of how synthesis worked. All I knew was 'That knob makes that sound', not the knowledge behind it. So once I knew that, and I how a sampler works and everything, it just blew my mind. That was basically everything I needed to know, and I went and took that, and instead of just fucking around on a synth, I could just go 'Right, do it like that'. Think of music in my head, and then [make it].
I did the jungle thing but got very bored of it, didn't like the scene. When the drum & bass thing happened, we all just dealt with it, we struggled with it - some of it was really good, but that was still in certain ways future rave and dubby jungle, it wasn't just straight drum & bass, I hated that Andy C, Tech Itch thing, stuff like that, and Dillinjah. [Though myself and Dillinjah] have quite similar ways of working in the studio from what I've read, we like to smash it up with compressors, have several compressors and just destroy stuff.
Is that something you tend to do quite a lot?
JS: Yeaaaaah... [laughs]
Do you think that's relic of being into rock, creating a really messy sound?
JS: Raw. All music that's raw. All music that comes from that angle. I think raw music is what I like, that goes from blues to jazz to classical music. I discovered Elliott Smith for the first time today. Amazing. Really dark stories.
When people ask me my opinion about music, I'm really apprehensive about giving it. Because I like some pretty fucked up music. David Yow is one of the greatest vocalists of all time – the man can't sing! What does that say about my musical taste? I find music that's really polished difficult to listen to. The Melvins are super tight because they've been playing for years, but I loved them in that 80s period when everything was unpredictable, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers. It's like, 'What is going to happen?’
Is that wish for unpredictability what draws you towards hardware and analogue equipment?
JS: Yeah. When I started out making music I would get really frustrated because I would be thinking 'I want to make this music, but I don't know how to make that drum sound'. So you just do experiments, until eventually you get somewhere you might like. I [used to] get frustrated and think, if I could just telepathically make music, just plug something into my brain and get it out, that would be amazing.
But that's just what everyone does now with a laptop. Skrillex makes all his music on a laptop with headphones. He'll sit there and just plug in. Everything's done like that, all in the box. He's basically got a plug straight into his brain, and with all the limitless possibilities you can have with digital software, it's crazy! Infinite! I get lost!
I don't do [that] because I like the limitations of an analogue thing, it's like, I've got this drum machine, it can only do this, I've got to be creative now. Not 'I can do anything, I don't even have to process this 808 [in order to] sound like whoever'. You hone your craft by making an 808 sound interesting, because it's such a basic sound, and the same goes for 909s, or [whatever].
Now you can basically plug your brain straight into the thing and you're just transferring what's going straight from your brain onto that music. I prefer to believe that most humans are absolutely mental, and all the music that comes out is like a crazy circus.
In the last couple of years there has been a lot of incredibly intense, mad digital music coming out.
JS: Anyone can make music now. And part of me is like, that's so punk rock, that's so DIY, it's like when punk started - pick up a guitar, and all this music can be made. But you were still playing a guitar and it was still going through an amplifier that, say, BB King would have played, it's still coming out through the same medium. This [now] is totally different, there are no limitations - the limitation is your mind.
I like music with groove. All the stuff I'm doing with the band [Smith is singer/guitarist in Bristol-based band First & Last Men] is just a beat that stays repetitive, the bass just loops, the guitar goes 'bam, bam, bam' - it's just stripped, looped, minimal. When you stay on something really repetitive and then you change... [gasps]! I was listening to 'TV Eye' by The Stooges the other day - play it loud and Iggy's voice just shoots through your body like a lightning bolt.
Your sets feel really groove driven - one thing you do that not many others do, in the UK at least, is really let your tracks ride out for their entire length. It really emphasises the groove that's present in those tunes.
JS: Levon [Vincent]-style, Fred P-style, you know: 'This is a great record, listen to it'. It's the whole seamless thing - I want you to hear this whole track. There are some records that I won't play after the drop, but I'll either try and do it seamlessly, or be really obvious about it. So you're going along, and cut it in, cut it out.
You've got quite a few releases out at the moment. There’s the one on Apple Pips you played at Freerotation a couple of years ago ['Palmarosa'].
JS: Yeah, the one with the sax. The other side's better ['I Didn't Mean To'] - it sounds like 808 State! And then there's the Skudge thing, and the Never Learnt thing. I'm quite happy with that, that's about three years old. All the drums on the B-side, 'Vital Ital Rub', were done on a Bentley Rhythm Ace, a non-MIDI old drum machine from 1968. I basically had to destroy that kickdrum to make it sound really hard and flat, thuddy and chesty. That's what I like about it, because it just sounds like an 808.
Do you feel like this is a prelude to lots more happening?
JS: Yeah, lots more stuff's going to happen now. I've got more EPs coming out on Skudge, stuff coming out on TANSTAAFL... I'm trying to keep it minimal on the labels I'm releasing through now. I'm toying with taking a break for a year, not releasing any music, just doing gigs. I don't know, it's a tough one, I'm very wary of the hype machine and I seem to be quite near it at the moment. I don't know if it's a good thing.
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Photo by Tasha Park