Sonic Router 032: Shadow Worlds - Illum Sphere Interviewed
, February 10th, 2014 12:30
For his first Sonic Router column of 2014, Oli Marlow catches up with Manchester-based producer Illum Sphere to discuss the immersive spaces of his long-in-the-making Ninja Tune debut album
Photo by Shaun Bloodworth
Before we'd actually even broached the subject of an interview, Ryan Hunn asked me privately what I thought about his debut album as Illum Sphere, Ghosts Of Then And Now. I replied that it was "deeper than I imagined" and "better than I'd hoped." Sure, I'm a total dick on IM to people I kind of know, but to be honest I'd still stick with that overblown conversational answer now, after living with the record for three painfully slow January weeks. Hunn himself admits that people's utter lack of knowing what to expect was probably a major advantage; but nonetheless, the fact that he's produced something as wide eyed and wondrous, yet as polished and focused as Ghosts Of Then And Now is definite testament to his artistic vision and newfound open relationship with Ninja Tune.
From the get go Hunn's work never really fit in. That's not to say it didn't work on its own - far from it. His early Illum Sphere releases were brooding, dark and experimental, but his EPs on labels like Fat City, 3024, Tectonic and Young Turks managed to simultaneously be too strange to be mainstream, too weird to be overtly dancefloor and miles deeper than a lot of music that came out at a similar time. That's the reason why his debut album feels like both a major personal accomplishment and a massive artistic statement from the Manchester-based producer and co-founder of the city's renowned Hoya:Hoya club night. Giving himself the space and running time to invest in a unified soundworld has created the perfect vehicle for his particular brand of jazz-flecked, hip hop-minded electronic production.
"It's been weird gauging people's reactions to it," Hunn admits first, over a lunchtime Skype call, before also revealing that it's been hard reminding himself that regardless of how old the music on the album is, this will still be the first time some people engage with it. "Because my stuff wasn't really club geared, it felt like a lot of people were waiting, or expecting, me to do an album sooner. But I just wanted to put across as much of an accurate representation of what I'm influenced by without making it a straight hip hop thing or a straight house thing."
Thankfully the album doesn't ever sound disjointed as it veers through its various tempos. It actually benefits from the strain you imagine Hunn put into it - tracks flow, melt and disappear into each other and melodic themes repeatedly crop up, all bound by a more unified sound palette. In a way Ghosts Of Then And Now absolutely hinges on the delicate sort of artistic imbalance that Hunn proceeds to try and describe to me over the next hour. There's a lot of insinuated meaning involved in his answers - something that's probably as much a result of us having spoken on numerous occasions over the last three or four years - but at the core of it, he's simply quite keen for the album's secrets to stay private, and to let the listener figure out and bond with the music in their own way. "There will be more focused, exploratory records that I do… probably," Hunn muses. "But I just wanted this one to end up exactly how I wanted it to sound. To me it's something that's really personal sounding, and I made it knowing that it might not be the biggest hit or whatever, but I also got to the point where I didn't really care about that at all."
Perhaps listening to the album whilst walking through tourist trap Bankside London on cold winter evenings, pacing down Clink Street, all the time looking up at the poignant architecture contrasted against the sprawling grids of striplit office windows isn't exactly the optimum environment. But that's precisely where I've found hours of comfort within it. When layers of instruments, drum hits and percussion lines start to dissect in your head, and you zone in on a single sound's trajectory within a track, then you're totally and utterly lost within it. As a result, for me, it's nearly impossible to listen to the record without visualising the contorting, elongated walking shadows of passers-by, lights reflecting off the dirty shimmering surface of the Thames, and the ever changing hues of neon light projected nightly onto the supporting struts and archways of Southwark Bridge. The music now feels relaxing and reliable to me; like how you're supposed to feel when you go home to your parents' house for the first time in ages, fully comforted by that omnipresent feeling of calm, warmth and communal wellbeing. For some reason I've started to get that from this walk. And now I get that from Illum Sphere's music, too.
"There was no agenda with it," he states, having already braved one Skype disconnect, as I ramble on at length about the route I take when walking home from work. "That's why it took so long. I got three or four tracks into it a few times and realised it wasn't how I thought it should be. It was too focused or leaning too far in a certain direction. So I'd scrap it and start again, a blank canvas kind of thing."
Several times during our conversation, Hunn returns to the fact that he approached the album as exactly that - a complete and rounded body of work - a point underlined by his subconscious repetition of it. He adds later that some of his favourite albums came with little or no information alongside, thus giving them their real impact and emotional tenacity in his memory, something that soon starts to make perfect sense. "It was very much tracked as album," he says. "It wasn't like I made forty tracks and we picked the best ten or twelve or however many. Tracks got moved around and lengthened because of where they are – like at the end of 'Ra Light' where it stops, and then that weird slowed down sample comes in - that was a very, very last minute addition and it definitely sits much better than it did without it."
There are a lot more similar micro moments on Ghosts of Then And Now, which get more and more rewarding the more and more you listen. Fleeting passages like the all-too-brief five note organ riff during the title track that signals the first drop, or the switch from light to dark around the three minute mark on 'Sleeprunner' or, in fact, the whole of 'Near The End' - an up-tempo jazz piano wig out that, surprisingly enough, comes near the end of the album.
"I got really lucky on a lot of things," Hunn reflects. "The collaborations were just really easy and not problematic in any way, and they all massively added something to the tracks. The tracks really feel like our tracks, rather than my track that they stuck a vocal or instrument on. They brought so much more to the album, for me. Obviously with the pull Ninja Tune has, there was a real temptation to try and get some high profile guests on there, but I'm really glad that didn't happen. I don't tend to collaborate too much, so to collaborate on six tracks was strange.
'Embryonic', featuring ShadowBox
"I emailed Shigeto about having some drum rolls at a certain tempo and he sent some back which I used for the opening track," he continues. "The second track has vocals from Mai Nestor, who's part of Facit. They were actually from a track we worked on together at Red Bull Music Academy in London, but never finished. I found the session again and the vocals worked really well with the idea that eventually became 'At Night'. With Bonnie [ShadowBox], the first track we worked on was 'Embryonic'. I'd sent her the instrumental and had actually forgotten that I had. I got an email back one day with her vocal over it and that was that; I knew I wanted to close the album with it. In fact, the vocals on all three tracks that she did on the album are all what she sent back first time. There was no 'this is great, but can you change this?' It was just tick, done. She really brought those three to life; all I did was structure them a little more around her vocals. And the keys on 'Near The End,' they were played by my flatmate's dad, Jeremy Platt."
Much like his DJing, Ghosts of Then And Now reaches for a lot of different things, with Hunn trying to align classic sounds alongside fresh techniques, placing curveballs next to in-jokes whilst playing classic Portishead records at +8, and so on. As a result his is sometimes an incredibly hard body of work to try and define. It's a supple brew with touches of jazz improvisation, sparse drum machine arrangements and these three fantastically haunting electronic soul-like vocal collaborations with ShadowBox, but most of all it possesses a real tenderness and naivety that comes peppered with a bunch of scene stealing moments. I might have said before that it wasn't honesty as a concept that Hunn was shooting for, but what he's made feels so humble, and sounds like everything he can do laid bare, that it's actually almost impossible to look upon it any other way.
"I always wanted my first album to be fairly open ended," he nods, as if partially in agreement. "So if people pick up on a trend or a pattern on the record, that will most likely be down to their own interpretations of what they hear, which is a good thing in my opinion. For example, a few people have been asking what the title means, but I really don't feel like I need to explain it. It may mean something, or it could just be a nice title that has absolutely zero deeper meaning. I'm way more into people finding their own moments on the record than forcing one upon them."
Illum Sphere's Ghosts of Then And Now is out via Ninja Tune today, 10th February