Sonic Router 028: Desto Evades (The) Trap
, June 19th, 2013 11:03
To paraphrase Admiral Ackbar: "Trap - it's a trap!" With this ethos in mind, Finnish producer Desto talks to Oli Marlow about his new album Emptier Streets
I don’t want to start off every edition of this column by saying something elegantly longwinded that pretty much just means: dubstep isn’t cool anymore; so for this instalment I’ll just say this: In ‘Homerpalooza’ - episode 24 of the seventh season of The Simpsons – the family are exposed to a plethora of music icons like The Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill and Peter Frampton whilst Homer explores his status as a freak who’s able to take a cannonball to the stomach. The overall despondency they encounter from the Pumpkins and their legions of disenfranchised followers leads to a particularly poignant conversation in the final scene:
Homer: So I realised that being with my family is more important than being cool.
Bart: Dad, what you just said was powerfully uncool.
Homer: You know what the song says: "It's hip to be square."
Lisa: That song is so lame.
Homer: So lame that it's... cool?
Bart & Lisa: No.
Marge: Am I cool, kids?
Bart & Lisa: No.
Marge: Good. I'm glad. And that's what makes me cool - not caring. Right?
Bart & Lisa: No.
Marge: Well, how the hell do you be cool? I feel like we've tried everything here.
Homer: Wait, Marge. Maybe if you're truly cool, you don't need to be told you're cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?
Now, I always just thought it was funny, another one of those impossibly clever jokes dropped into each classic-era Simpsons episode with freakish accuracy, but after talking to Desto - a Finnish producer whose long been making club-focused music - it also springs to mind as a pretty just and appropriate analogy. An incredibly solid and respected producer whose been making music with his hands on drum machines for twenty years now, Desto’s still making music that operates regardless of his surroundings and is still managing to carve his own peculiarly shaped niche. Informed a bit more by hip hop, Emptier Streets, his new album for the Dutch imprint, Rwina Records, sits pretty between tempos refusing to stick to those 140bpm expectations his previous work on labels like Ramp Recordings, 502 and Noppa might provoke, often lounging instead in the spacious slow/fast territory of sub-heavy 80/160bpm.
But one of the most notable things about the pace of Desto’s productions is that they don’t operate on such a clinically predictable level as half time beats that rev themselves up into a juke-like flurry by the second drop. Most of the time he tends to spend longer wallowing in the slower pools of sound, just letting his drum machines and minimal synth work pull the focus like on ‘4AM’. Even when he does embrace footwork, he seldom goes full mania, rooting tracks like ‘Ink Pit’ with big heavy anchor kicks while the hi hats and synth tendrils scatter to provide the rush of energy. Much like his Rwina label mate Eprom, Desto makes music that properly booms and envelops you when it’s played loud but, massively unlike the glut of cheap, plastic ‘trap music’ labelled productions that run at a similar pace, it’s complex enough to have this weirdly enduring appeal…
“I did have a debate last autumn when TNGHT really blew up and the whole 'trap' word came out of nowhere and started meaning crap music really fast; just like the brostep thing did;” Desto recalls over an early evening Skype connection. “I was actually in a cab with Benji B and Kode9 at Outlook and we were talking about the trap-type stuff were really enjoying it and that night Kode played one of the best sets of it – it was like my first experience at a DMZ type of thing where it really opened my eyes to it - but I was telling them about how I felt there was this brostep danger about to come into trap. And then it happened...”
Using them as a recognisable example, there’s a real borderline pomp and swagger to Lunice and Hudson Mohawke’s BBC Radio 1-storming productions as TNGHT. Since their emergence it’s become an incredibly satisfying formula that’s proved to be pretty dangerous in the wrong hands. Legions of quickly made songs flooded cyberspace in the weeks that followed and now the internet is [probably] alight with at least two or three shitty ‘trap’ versions of your favourite pop song.
“I was in the middle of doing this album where I was making things at like 80bpm, or 160, and I was worrying if it was gonna be lumped in with that kind of thing,” he reveals, half joking. “But like, even earlier today I was actually humming the melody to ‘Higher Ground’. I mean that’s a good example [of trap done right], but a lot of it just got really cheap, really fast with people jumping on the bandwagon. But then again there is a good side and a bad side to the whole thing. Like in dubstep, I started missing some of the fun. You could have a tune that had the same type of build quality but it wasn’t just sine bass and seriousness or meditiation and it wasn’t all mindfuck kind of jump-up.”
And to be fair to him, that’s where Desto’s music has always sat, really. Even from the start of our interaction his early work always had that kind of a bulbous personality to it. Take ‘Broken Memory’ (a b-side released on Ramp Recordings in 2010): essentially it apes the kind of primal, bubbling synth work Skream and Benga harnessed but the ridiculousness of its bassline just makes it fun, and those quickly clipped snares make it one of those tracks that make it impossible for your shoulders not to react to. His newer music definitely feels like it’s operating more as a reflection of him having found his own voice; though that voice is admittedly a bit more guttural and a lot less digitally floral than previously. Desto himself admits that back a few years ago he was putting more effort into sounding like dubstep but it was only after he started approaching the medium indirectly, using the core principles of some of the scene’s left-leaning, anthems that people took notice.
“I made a couple of tracks that were kind of like a tribute to certain songs like Mala’s ‘Changes’ or Peverelist’s ‘Roll With The Punches’ - tracks that were incredibly bold moves at the time, moves which I felt were lacking. Like ‘No Sleep’ was made two years ago but it was a reaction to what was going on at the time because people were really going in with what is the formulaic, dungeon growl thing. The creativity escaped and I felt like it was such a big thing. I just didn’t see it anywhere in that music anymore. People weren’t touching any kind of melody and like ‘Changes’ or ‘Roll With The Punches’, they’ll go around and round the hypnotic melody. I wanted to work around that idea but do it in my own way but it still felt like I was doing a tribute, so that was the last time I really touched on that Loefah-rhythmic dubstep, snare on the 3rd type of thing; something that was done perfectly, so long ago.”
Since then Desto’s really blossomed. Running the Signal Life label alongside his buddy, Teeth, he’s defined a leaner backbone for his drum machines to kick from and his 12-track Emptier Streets album really does look to outline a new era. The same quality and attention to detail is apparent in the music and there’s twists to it that you probably wouldn’t expect, like the beatless dystopia of ‘Drainpipe’, an imaginative stretch for someone who’s always been so outwardly rhythm-focused.
“This year is actually 20 years since I touched a really simple computer music tracker programme, [back] in ’93,” Desto offers on the initial genesis of the record. “I always dreamt about doing an album and for the first years I couldn’t find a label that fit, then all of a sudden Chafik started asking me about doing something for him [on Rwina]. He was saying he could put it out in 3 months which sounded really good because my releases had often been held back and put into release schedules which made a 12” a tiny bit less fresh when it came out.
“Working with him had been easily the best experience I’d had with a label and he just put it out there last spring that if I wanted to do an album the possibility was there. I thought about it for a good couple of months and then I decided, 'yeah, what the fuck?' I’m still sitting here after 19 years of trying to do something with music so I jumped on the idea and wrote the whole thing in like eight months.”
Desto’s Emptier Streets is out on now on Rwina Records