Shark Attack: An Interview With Powell
, May 28th, 2014 06:56
Ahead of this weekend's Diagonal Records night in London, Rory Gibb meets label boss Powell to talk his wild new Club Music EP, provocation and dancefloor disorientation. Photos by Damon Way
"There's definitely an imaginary club in my head, it's open 24 hours a day, and it never bloody stops," laughs Oscar Powell. Outside it's hammering down with late spring rain, and the Diagonal label boss has ducked into a central London cafe to discuss the wild contortions of his new 12" Club Music, which retools his trademark Frankenstein's monster dance sound with an extra shot of malice and rhythmic danger. Where earlier Powell tracks would grind, groan and stumble, its three tunes are swift, predatory and prone to upheaval, whipping the momentum out from beneath your feet, grating away at your eardrums with a saw-edged blast of acid, catching you off guard with a puckishly delivered vocal sample. They trigger the jitters through headphones alone; it's not hard to imagine the shock impact they could have on a suitably lubricated late night club crowd. "I don't think there's a better feeling in the world than DJing when things are vaguely going to plan, you know what I mean?" he enthuses. "That feeling when you get into a place where you know you've got them, the crowd is responding, and you're up for it, and we can go anywhere we want together. That's when I feel like I'm the luckiest man alive to be able to do this, that's what I find most inspiring. It's almost as if I make the tracks so I can be there."
Powell has been a busy presence in the community bridging dancefloor music, noise and experimental electronics over the past couple of years, with both his own highly idiosyncratic productions and the output of his label Diagonal. He and the label debuted at the beginning of 2012 with an EP, The Ongoing Significance Of Steel & Flesh and its follow-up Body Music which showcased an already developed signature sound. Patchwork assemblies of woody drums, flashes of raw distortion and sampled snatches of post-punk and no wave tracks, they sounded like recent urban relics, dredged from the bottom of a canal still clinging to the manky plastic bags and shopping trollies they'd been entombed alongside. The same sonic characteristics have remained broadly similar since, on EPs for Death Of Rave and Mute's Liberation Technologies imprint, but the form has been gradually remoulded; now, with Club Music, they're no longer dead-eyed and rotting, but adrenalised and on the prowl, bristling with twisted ravey humour. The track titles on this new 12" give some clue as to its inspirations and attitude: 'No U Turn' with its junglist flashes, hair-raising static on 'So We Went Electric', a joint production with artist and electronic noise veteran Russell Haswell on 'Maniac'.
The presence of Haswell in particular is an indicator of where Powell's head is at right now. The former's 37 Minute Workout album was released earlier this year through Diagonal; it found Haswell making his most direct (albeit still mangled) nods towards beat-driven club music to date, yet he's long been inspired by and involved in dance music, and is renowned for his provocative club sets. Powell admits to taking inspiration from that approach, something audible in his energetic DJ sets, where tracks collide together in configurations that, while jarring, make a delirious kind of sense. His monthly show on NTS Radio, Melon Magic, showcases that approach, as does his pummeling new mix for the BleeD show on Rinse FM (which I co-hosted, and is embedded below), where his own new music collides with weaponised battle acid and punkish techno and electro.
"It's like the music I make," Powell declares of his approach to DJing. "It's a car crash of things that are violent and weird. Anything goes. Bung anything together." Built up from banks of sampled sound sources, clipped vocal utterances, drums - and, most recently, recordings of synthesisers taken from time spent at Mute Records' studio in West London - there's a palpable tension between the thrashing energy of the (often live) bands he samples and his tracks' meticulous construction. Which makes his music an intriguing, tough-to-place listen; while audibly nodding to past musical forms that have inspired him, the wild yet intricately arranged interplay of elements and references within a Powell track feels as contemporary in its own way as the glassy architectures of the Night Slugs crew, the seismic shifts of Athens collagist Jar Moff, or the dramatic collage and freeform DJing of US artists like Total Freedom and E+E.
"I feel like this EP is a departure from where I was before, a little bit," Powell says, as we sit down to discuss Club Music. "I made those first few records at a time when I was consumed, just enthralled and fascinated, by post punk, industrial music, no wave - stuff that I was, to be perfectly honest, quite new to. I just thought it was incredible, I felt like I'd found the thing that I'd been looking for my entire life. But recently I've been DJing in clubs, and it's not like I've discarded that stuff, but I've just become obsessed with energy and the club. That's because of DJing again so much more, and falling back in love with dance music. Dance music for me will forever be that thing that excited me more than anything I'd ever come across, that first experience in a club, listening to this music, and just thinking 'What the hell is going on?' I feel like I'm recapturing that feeling again, and the new EP is me trying to get back to that, making stuff for the dancefloor again. Whenever I played [in the past] I was never playing my old stuff, because although it was club music I never felt it was going to have the impact I wanted it to have. But now I'm obsessed with the idea of playing my music in clubs, and being able to do it. It used to scare the shit out of me, and now I've got the confidence to do it.
"What I've learned from listening to so much different music growing up and over the last ten years, and recently hanging out with Russell [Haswell] and him exposing me to all sorts of music, and briefly flirting with noise, is the idea of reaction - how can you get a reaction out of a crowd?" he continues. "Russell's been hugely influential in making me more unpredictable and braver with music, when you realise you can do anything you want. Constructing music for dancefloors, [thinking about] how you can shock people or use extreme things to surprise people on a dancefloor. Rather than everything being 'I know exactly what's going to happen next, here comes the drop, it's another sixteen bars and a hi-hat's going to come in', I find it much more interesting thinking 'What the fuck is going to happen next?' I don't think I've had that in dance music since I listened to jungle and hardcore; it was so brave the way they made their tunes, the arrangements were all geared towards creating this 'Oh my God, what the hell's going on?' Even if you follow the hardcore continuum, or whatever you call it, since then, it all became very predictable for me. There were big surprises in terms of the overall sound, but still..."
I actually feel some sonic kinship between your stuff and early grime, though, in terms of dry percussive punch and shock impact.
OP: Totally. I hold my hands up, grime was never something I really got into. Not because I don't like it - It's one of those things I wish I knew deeply, because I know there'd be things in there I love. Whenever I hear an old instrumental track I'm like 'That sounds absolutely amazing', but I just haven't had the time to follow it through. Joe [Andrews] from Raime has got loads of those tunes, and if I go round to their studio he'll pull them out, or we go down to [London night] Before My Eyes where he drops his old grime tunes, they always sound incredible, and I wish I knew what it was and that I had the record. But I like that - when you go to a club and you hear something, you have no idea what it is, and that's the only time you'll hear it in your life. Joe and Tom [Halstead, the other half of Raime] are brilliant for that.
What have the reactions been like to to your new music on dancefloors?
OP: Amazing. They just sound much better in clubs. The way I'm making tunes now is always with the club in my mind, and I also build them so I can mix them in my style. They're not built to be beatmatched. There was a comment on a review last week saying 'Finally he made something that can be mixed at house tempo'. That's the last thing on my mind! They're meant to be chopped and changed and fucked with, in terms of mixing. [In the past] I quite liked the idea of club music that wouldn't quite work. Now I want the music to be the most fucked up shit you'll hear all night, but I still want it to be different, I want it to be like me. I want to be able to put a track on a club where I almost don't have to mix for seven minutes, 'cause it's like the tune does the work for you, it's going somewhere, it feels like it's constantly developing.
It's amazing the confidence you get when you keep making stuff and people respond to it positively. Now I think the new shit I've made is streets ahead of even the EP I've done just now. I've just got the idea in my head of what I want to do, what I want it to sound like. The liberating thing is that anything is possible now, and I'm just having more fun making music.
Was the shift towards club-centred production on the new record subconscious, or did you make a clear decision to take that pathway?
OP: I think it was more like a moment of realisation. With the label for instance - a few releases in we had the chance to put out different kinds of stuff, noise music, drone, bands. I felt it was important to have some kind of identity for the record label. So me and Jaime [Williams, Diagonal co-head] consciously decided we wanted the label to be about club music, and what that can represent, what it can be. We want the philosophy of the label to be club music, because we feel there's so much more for it to give, it doesn't have to fit into traditional boundaries. So in a way [the shift] was conscious. Because otherwise it would be easy for us just to end up putting out everything, and not really standing for anything. And, to be honest, being in clubs is where we feel most happy, that's where we want to be.
'So We Went Electric', taken from the Club Music 12"
Though there is a strong bridge between experimental music in gallery type environments and club spaces, if you think of labels like Raster-Noton or PAN, which co-exist in both worlds.
OP: Labels like PAN and Mego - without them I wouldn't be making the music I am. There's a generation of producers now who've grown up through the age of the internet and been exposed to so much different stuff; whereas ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, the points of reference were very narrow, the people who were making jungle were sampling films and old breaks from funk bands and whatever, and that was it. Now I think the most interesting people are the ones who are like children of the internet in a way. They've heard everything, and therefore they can pick the best shit that goes together. So that's why you see noise music thrown together with techno so violently in the past few years. But what happens when you add another five things to the mix as well? What comes then?
Overexposure [to information], whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, the people that turn that into something new are great. That's why I'm grateful to people like Bill [Kouligas] and Peter Rehberg. It's also why, contrary to what people think about me, I'm not a no-wave connoisseur. I got painted as one, because I used some samples from bands I really like, but it's not like I just go home and listen to those bands from New York all day, every day. I'm constantly listening to different stuff, I could never just be like 'that's me' and forever be that. I want to keep changing.
There's certainly a tension within your music between aspects could be pegged as retro - no-wave and industrial references, samples of post-punk bands - and its overall compositional aesthetic, which is meticulous yet chaotic, in no way retro at all.
OP: That's a really good point. The retro thing is something that actually started to bother me a little bit. Us, the generation that didn't grow up with industrial, we're in our late twenties and early thirties - we weren't there when Coil and Throbbing Gristle and everything was happening, we're getting it secondhand. So for me it became very important to not just reference that stuff. Because ultimately you want to move things forward, you know. I think I established a bit of what I was about by being quite retro-facing, and now it's become more important to think about, how can we fuck shit up, and do something new.
I tend to listen to a lot of my own music. In following my idea of what music I want to make, you form such a picture in your head of what you want it to sound like - every drum sound, how you use synthesisers, the feeling of the track - that I've found that anything that doesn't fit into that, I'm like 'Ugh, I would never do it like that'. You have such a clear picture that you end up rejecting everything else, because it doesn't sound like what you want it to sound like. So that's concerning for me, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand you end up listening to less music, and becoming less informed and versed. But equally you can end up disappearing down your own mad insane tunnel and end up somewhere interesting. [laughs] I don't know where it'll take me. But I'm always thinking about the tracks I'm making at the moment, listening to them over and over again, non-stop. At the moment I feel like I'm having fun down in the tunnel. But I might get lost and not find a way out! [laughs] I do listen to new music of course, but it tends to be more about how I can use it for my own stuff - what is it that I like about that, or what can I sample from that; and also for DJing, can I play that in a club.
How did you first start making music?
OP: I always wanted to make it growing up when I was buying records, going to jungle and drum & bass raves, but it wasn't until I was 18 or 19 that I actually fired up GarageBand. It's the most basic program ever, but I learned all the basics on that. [Making music is] one of those things I never thought I'd be capable of doing, 'cause the tech thing gets in the way, but you quickly realise the tech is incidental - it's about the ideas. So GarageBand was an entry point and I went from there, it just became more and more and more obsessive. I've still got a folder in my iTunes which has every track I've ever made, and it goes back to 2003 or something. It's all awful [laughs]. But it's quite fun being able to see that journey, you know.
When did you realise you were ready to put your tracks out into the world?
OP: I don't know. I don't know how you can ever be sure of your music. I kind of hate everything I've ever made, especially back then, when I was just toying with the idea of doing something with it. All it takes is someone to say 'That's actually interesting', someone who you respect. Karl [O'Connor, aka Regis] has done that with my music. I also played my first record to Raime and they were like 'You should do something with that'. That's when it was like, ok, maybe I could do something with it.
There's a tension in your tracks between their intensely live energy, through that livewire rhythmic motion and samples from live bands, when actually they've been meticulously crafted. Which is fascinating - it's got this air of spontaneity to it, but it's...
OP: It's actually artificial spontaneity. I think I've spoken about it before, that there is this cult of 'live' [in dance music], right? This comes back to the difference between being retro, or having retro influences and doing something new. I often speak about this with Russell, he's obsessive about his editing, and he always pushes me to edit more, edit more, edit more. This is one of the great things we have at our disposal that we didn't have fifteen years ago, and this is the thing that can make us sound different; we don't have to cut up tapes any more and stick them together, we can chop, chop, chop, until we get the perfect edit on every single part of the track. That is a big part of my process. I can't help wanting to dig in and improve every bar, every placement of the drum hit or rhythms, until it's perfect. We couldn't do that twenty years ago. That's how you get a slightly more modern sound - embracing computers.
You shouldn't forget what techno as an idea was about back in the day. Techno wasn't so much what the music sounded like as much as it was an energy, an embracing of the machinery that we had at our disposal at that time. That's why that music sounded so cutting edge, because it was made with machines that could only have been used then. I haven't really thought about this before, but maybe we've lost touch with that idea. So that's why people like Russell, and that world of sound art, is important to me, because they're genuinely exploring that idea - of what is technology today, and how can that influence music?
'No U Turn', taken from the Club Music 12"
It sounds like Russell's been a big inspiration to you.
OP: Yeah, he has been. He's just an extraordinary character, he really is. He's so opinionated but also so right about so many things, and his knowledge of music is extraordinary. More than anything he's taught me to be more aggressive and confident in how I make music, to be more provocative and challenge people a bit more. He's amazing. He's got a [Diagonal] 12" coming out which is the nuts.
Your music is almost defiantly individual - it doesn't really sound like anyone else, and you craft it in a way that's quite specifically designed for the way you want to mix it. Do you ever worry about becoming too individual, and as a result pulling away from prevailing club culture?
OP: If anything, what I hope will happen is that rather than pulling away, you'll see hopefully more people doing similar. For instance, being up in Manchester the other day and seeing Jamal Moss - whenever I see him play it's one of the most inspiring experiences of my life, 'cause he's playing stuff that's totally across the board, mixed together in a way that says it doesn't all have to be perfect, it's about the music and how you present that music in the best possible way for maximum impact, and doing the perfect mix isn't important to that. The effect is disorienting rather than ecstatic. When you're a kid, and something drops and you knew it was coming, that feeling is like, "I know this shit, I knew that was going to happen, that makes me feel great, I'm on ecstasy, everything is brilliant". But now that feeling of disorientation rather than familiarity is something I find much more interesting. Spinning people out in a club! [Jamal Moss] is incredible, but he never loses the energy - it's just this four hour, crazy trip.
So I'd hope that, with everyone listening to so much music, and lots of outlandish and extreme forms of music, people will take that attitude and apply it more to what happens in the club. It astonishes me that there's not more of that kind of performance or provocation in the world of DJing than we're seeing at the moment. Everything is extremely boring and linear, and it's been like that for thirty years. I think the best DJs over time have been the ones that tried to do something different, and had their own identity and presented the music in their own way. So I'd hope that, rather than stepping aside and being different to everything else, I want more people to do the same thing.
'Rider', taken from 2013's untitled EP on Death Of Rave
Lastly, I wanted to ask about Diagonal. Listening to what you've done so far, I can imagine you almost wanting to use the label as a platform to draw together a family of like-minded people together.
OP: I love that family thing. I think all record labels have that desire. When we do a Diagonal night, all the artists aren't necessarily from the label, but they're friends, and people we respect and admire and who want to have fun with us. We want it to be family, and we want it to be fun, and we want people to feel like they're invested in the label; it's not like artists do an album and we forget about them, we all want to get better at everything together and make a difference. You want that feeling.
In terms of music, [through] the club music idea, it's actually become so much easier to curate what we're doing. We haven't done much - we're up to ten releases, but we've got up to sixteen planned or in production. But before it was really difficult to curate, because we weren't sure, what are the references, what are we? Now it's much easier. We've got some good stuff - the Bronze Teeth project, which is Dom from Factory Floor [with L/F/D/M], and then Shit & Shine, which for me is one of the most exciting things we've put out. When he comes to dance music he comes to it totally differently and completely insanely. But he also does it in a way that just feels so exciting. The background in noise means it's always provocative, but he's into weird jazz and stuff, and it all comes through in the music. I'm really excited about that album. And we've got new Prostitutes, NHK, a Skull Defekts album which is killer, it's so rhythmic, so driven, pulsing, that it just felt like club music to me. I think it's important for us not to just go down a purely electronics route - club music doesn't have to be that. I play bands in clubs.
Powell's Club Music EP is out now via Diagonal.
This Friday, 31st May, Leitmotif hosts Diagonal x Hospital Records at Corsica Studios, London. The Diagonal room features Powell, Russell Haswell, Vereker, Raime and Evol, while Hospital Productions play host to Vatican Shadow, Silent Servant, Ron Morelli and Volte-Face. For more information and tickets, click here.