Chasing Perfectionism: An Interview With Source Direct
, July 31st, 2014 10:40
Few have crafted electronic music as virtuosic, as moving and as futuristic as groundbreaking drum & bass duo Source Direct did in the late 1990s. In one of his first interviews since returning to action, including a set at Fabric tomorrow, Jim Baker speaks to Harry Sword about Source Direct past and present, searching for futurism in sound, and the tantalising prospect of new music on the horizon
Audio visions of the future, whether galloping day-glo space odysseys or crumbling Philip K Dick-esque dystopian nightmares, have been front and centre within electronic music since near its origins. And although recent years have seen artists from multiple genres looking misty-eyed to halcyon years, mawkishly imagining the 'death of rave' or piecing together second hand memories beneath eighth hand Amen breaks, in suburban St Albans in the mid 1990s it was a wildly different story. Two young teenagers, Jim Baker and Phil Aslett, rigged up cheap synths and rudimentary samplers and started making the most future-facing electronic music around.
Forming close artistic allegiances with fellow St Albans drum & bass maestro Photek, Source Direct focused on sweeping pads, haunting melodies, chest-crushing subs and the most twisted breakbeat work imaginable. They quickly found their tracks being played regularly by LTJ Bukem and, a year or so later, the whole family of DJ's that surrounded the Metalheadz stable. Although the pair only released a few 12"s on 'headz itself, their style of production was intrinsically bound up with the whole 'scene within a scene' that surrounded that iconic label. DJs like Kemistry & Storm, Loxy, Doc Scott and, of course, Goldie regularly played the duo's work at the Sunday Blue Note sessions and also the countless label tours that were undertaken all over the world at the time.
This was music steeped in dark romance; brooding, foreboding and cold, unbearably tense. Check 'Stonekiller' – a colossus of clammy-backed fear, like being stalked through the twisting, flicker-lit basement alleyways of Hong Kong's dilapidated Chungking Mansions by machete-wielding gangsters, through the kitchens with the live hens, past the gambling dens and barbers. Truth be told it's a bloody nightmare of a track, and one that illustrates the fact that, though often black as night, Source Direct never gave into the base nosebleed aesthetics that came to dominate drum & bass just a few years later. Their music was beautiful and, as they scarcely left the studio and were uninterested in pursuing the breakneck DJ schedule of many of their contemporaries, they had the time they needed to craft it to perfection.
But although Source Direct were, and remain, unsurpassed in their ability to conjure dark audio visions, their sound was not one-dimensional. 1996's 'Secret Liaison'/'Complexities' 12", for example, remains one of the most beautifully powerful explorations of time-stretched amen bliss put to vinyl. This was music that took time. It is rare to find a Source Direct tune below six minutes; most surpass eight. [Editor's note: for an introduction to the duo's music, it's worth listening to The Law's two all-Source Direct mixes, which are available here.]
The 12"s rolled on through the late 90s, alongside genre-defining music from like-minded compadres Hidden Agenda, Digital, Ed Rush & Optical, the No U Turn crew and Dillinja. But, as is so often the case with young partnerships, things turned sour once major label pressure and money entered the equation - and in those days the majors were taking a big interest in drum & bass. Tensions came to a head over a deal with Virgin, the resulting LP, 1999's Exorcise The Demons, was underwhelming, and Aslett and Baker eventually parted ways in 2000.
With a back catalogue such as theirs however, interest has only grown since. A new generation of drum & bass producers, including Blocks and Escher, Ulterior Motive and Om Unit, to name but a few, have drawn audible inspiration from the beauty, cinematic power and ambition of the original Source Direct sound. Outside of that genre, many other artists have also been vocal in their appreciation of the duo's work, not least those affiliated to the Blackest Ever Black stable, such as Raime.
Jim Baker has recently started DJing again as Source Direct and, as anybody who has seen him play in recent years will attest, it is an absolute riot, drawing on classic era jungle, hardcore and all manner else, succinctly joining the dots between styles and eras. However, this is no nostalgia trip - Jim has also recently begun making music again after a near decade-long hiatus. Funny, talkative and energised, here Baker tells the Quietus his story.
When Source Direct started out you guys were incredibly young. What provided the initial inspiration? I know Photek was a presence in the town.
Jim Baker: Rupert [Parkes, aka Photek] and I helped each other out, really. I went to school with his sister, he lived right round the corner in St Albans, so it goes way back. He grew up, moved out of town up to Ipswich. I'd just started mixing - a bedroom DJ, doing what you do, buying tunes. A little group of us would put on local parties. We had a load of lights and smoke machines.
Phil [Aslett] was at secondary school and came in after an invitation. At that point we'd put on about half a dozen parties - infamous amongst people of my age group in the area because most of them were stopped by the police after a few hours, numerous goings on, lots of tales. [laughs] Phil was also into mixing, and he and I used to travel up to Blackmarket in London, or go to Soul Sense over in Luton.
Then one day an old girlfriend of mine was down here with Georgina, Rupert's sister, and we were chatting. At the time I'd just bought an old school keyboard with, like, three seconds of sampler time. I was mixing breakbeat vinyl, making a few sounds on the synth, desperately trying to think of ways to make tunes. Georgina said 'It's funny you talking about that, because my brother's just started making tunes, he's made this record 'Under Studio Pressure'.' And I said, 'Well, bloody hell, I've just bought that record, it's a great tune.' Within a couple of weeks Rupert and I met up; [we] hadn't seen each other for a few years. We got all our gear, all his gear, and put it all together so we'd have a few more sampling seconds – valuable time – and we'd crack on for a couple of weeks at a time, sample digging, sleepless nights. The first tracks we did were made under the name Sounds Of Life, and they went out on a label called Certificate 18.
You had a fair few aliases at that time, didn't you?
JB: Yeah, we were doing records under different aliases. One thing led to another. Before we knew it, LTJ Bukem was sniffing around – he liked the music and we'd drive round to see him wherever he was playing and it was like 'Bloody hell, it's blinding hearing our tunes on a proper system, hearing a proper DJ play it'. As soon as we heard it out on a system, we'd want to get back home and get cracking on the next one [laughs].
So that's the foundation of how everything started. A group of friends that were helping each other out, and just really loved the scene and were inspired to make music that wasn't being made elsewhere at the time. Our ethos was, get the best bits, put it together how we see fit, and if someone else likes it, brilliant. Luckily they did.
In terms of the early production process, what were you using back then?
JB: I was on an Atari 1040ST originally. Which to this day is the only computer that came out of production with a MIDI port - MIDI in, MIDI out. After all this time, you still have to get an external MIDI port. [laughs]
Both yourselves and Photek had so many interesting samples going on in the music. How important was the digging process?
JB: I'm a vinyl junkie to this day. I love being inspired by older music, old film soundtracks, the way that textures and sounds are put together in such a way that if you were to watch a thriller and you turn the music off, it's nothing, nothing without the music. All of the senses together create that strong feeling in your mind.
But with sampling we'd go anywhere. Say you have eight seconds of sample time, like with the old Amen break. To get the maximum out of that sample, if it was a record that was originally meant to be played on 33, what we'd do would be to put it on at 45 and sample it at plus eight [laughs], and then you could slow it down later. That's how we got the most out of the sampling. It was a bit of a stress, and we were very much limited with what we could do. As the years went by it was like, right, a new sampler's out, we need to get that one, get it fully rammed up, get on it. Shit, another one's out, trade that one in! [laughs] It just grew as technology grew. But the pace of technology in the past ten years has been insane.
I guess things have come full circle in the last few years - you started out using hardware, during your hiatus things changed massively, and now that previously legacy kit is very much back in vogue again.
JB: It's funny because I've sat back a bit [over] the past decade - I had a bit of a crazy time in my own personal life - and just watched and listened from the outside as a music lover, which is what I've been from day one anyway. And the past eighteen months I've been inspired to come back to making music, and I've been picking out bits of kit. It makes me laugh - now people want thousands of pounds for these old bits of kit! It's crazy. Like an original 909 drum machine, say. I bought one of them a few months back and the price that I paid for it, pfffft [laughs] I was doing a gig in Japan and there was a shop that had all the old Minimoogs and Jupiters and all that stuff, and they had a 909. I asked 'How much are you selling that for?' and he said 'two grand'. I thought, bloody hell, it's a fucking worldwide price now! But you need that hardware for the sound, for the Source Direct sound.
I'm a true believer that you can recreate stuff on a computer but, at the end of the day, the computer's processor and chip is what is making the sound. So no matter what emulator you have on that computer, it's still going through a processor. But on hardware the sound and signal path is going through that hardware, and that is what gives you the varying types of sound.
You seldom played DJ gigs as Source Direct, and in the mid 90's I'm guessing it was possible to make money from selling vinyl in a way that is pretty much impossible now. Was that in order to afford you the time and space to immerse yourselves in your own world?
JB: Literally, it was. Because when I was growing up you had Raindance, AWOL at the Paradise Club - you know the original Heaven? Nights down Leicester Square, Grooverider, Fabio, Randall, Bukem. And Randall was always the DJ for me, who was bang on with the tune selection.
So we just wanted to make the tracks. I wanted to listen to my music being played by those guys and push the music as far as I possibly could creatively. And if it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end, if it's doing that, and exciting you in the studio after you've listened to it five hundred odd times – if it's still doing the business, then you know it's good.
There was one particular time at the Kentish Town Forum when Goldie was doing the Timeless tour. He'd done his live set and then Doc Scott came on afterwards and opened up with 'The Crane' and it got about four rewinds. I'll never forget it, it was one of those moments that's tattooed on the inside of my skull. And Kemistry just gave me one of them looks, like 'hang on a minute, look what's happening here!'
The whole place was erupting but I was like 'I've got to go, right now. I've got to get home, I've got a tune to finish'. So by the time 'The Crane' was finishing I was already out of The Forum to get home and carry on with a track I was working on [laughs]. The way I saw it, it was up to the DJs and the promoters to push the music when it was finished. But that said, if the opportunity to DJ outside of the UK came around, I did like to get out there and push the music, the sounds of the UK and our sound as best as I could. But in the UK itself, I tended to leave it to the DJs that were running the show. It was their game and I respected them and what they were doing at the time, and let them carry on and push the music as they were doing. That worked pretty well until politics came in, and money came in [laughs] but that's usually the way…
It's interesting what you were saying about the Forum, because when you first started making tracks you were making music that wasn't widely heard out and about. But you found a family in Metalheadz, which quickly became almost a scene within a scene. You could go to a Metalheadz night and hear music that simply would not be played at any other rave.
JB: It was a bit like going to church. At the end of the day, people go to church on a Sunday and listen to the organ music or whatever, but for us, going down the Blue Note at Hoxton Square. Or, I don't know if you've heard of Speed at Mars Bar?
Indeed. Bukem and Fabio used to play?
JB: Yeah, Mars Bar was next door to the old Astoria back in the day. And I remember we used to go down there and there'd be no bugger in there [laughs] - only about twenty of us. But the guy that ran it, he just loved the music, and he set this night up on a Wednesday night. It would be LTJ Bukem and Doc Scott and Kemistry & Storm, and it kind of developed, that sound, in tandem with the darker drum & bass sound. So you could go there and listen to all styles, in terms of it being nice and dark, or stuff that was more lyrical or rolling, and from there the Metalheadz thing developed. because they had the absolute cream of the crop when it came to producers. Lemon D and Dillinja, Photek, Hidden Agenda, J Magik. So going to Blue Note on a Sunday was incredible. You could only get about two hundred people in there, and by the time Metalheadz had started, there was such a buzz.
With Speed it was empty half the time, but with Metalheadz there were people queuing up around the block, two-out two-in – and it was never promoted, it was purely word of mouth. It just grew and grew and grew, and before we knew it Goldie came in and gave us all the support we needed - but he's just a incredibly creative and inspirational guy anyway. That was the foundation of it all.
Source Direct in the late 1990s: Jim Baker (left), Phil Aslett (right)
The 12"s you released on Science, Metalheadz and Source Direct recordings defined the SD sound – tracks like 'The Crane' and 'Stonekiller'. Intense music, full of drama, and it still sounds future now. But I want to ask you about the LP you did on Virgin, Exorcise the Demons. Am I right in thinking that was a difficult experience?
JB: You want to visit different themes, emotions, different tempos for an album. Knocking out 12"s, you're only going to do it if you know that people are going to play the music, otherwise you're throwing money down the drain. But with an album… That album we did on Virgin felt kind of half-done, and the rest of it was done just to get it over with. Things were really coming to a head in terms of the business partnership between Phil and I, by that point. To my mind, that signing was more a door of opportunity, like 'Now the real work starts. Let's use the worldwide network, we've put in all these years slaving in the studio'. But, like I say, he'd changed to be honest, [and] perhaps felt that when the Virgin thing happened, you know, 'We've made it'. And for the last six months I felt I was carrying him. So the album felt like a labour - we have to get this thing done.
When we went to sign with Virgin, they had the A&R guy, the solicitors, the MD, a bottle of champagne. We walked in and I said to the bosses, 'I'm not signing it'. Phil looked at me like 'What the fuck?!' and I said to him 'Let's go on a walk down the road to the caff, we'll be back in an hour'. So I took Phil aside and said 'This is getting serious now, and I'm not putting my name on any contract with regards to a 50/50 split, because there is no partnership in the world that is 50/50'. I had always been the engineer, and pushing it from day one. So between me and him it was like, I'll sign the contract in there if we sign separate contracts between us. So we did that, but then once the album was done, Virgin had put a promotional tour together - East to West Coast, in and out of Canada, DJ dates, loads of press to do - and 48 hours before we were due to leave he told me he couldn't face going.
Now, you don't wake up 48 hours before a schedule like that and say you can't do it. This had been building and building for a while though, and that was the final straw, the end of the partnership. And now I feel I can get back to music, with no labels badgering me about deadlines and then sitting on music for half a year [laughs]. It was a steep learning curve; we were only 20 at the time of the album. I had nobody in my family who was in the music industry, I was a kid who dropped out of school with no exams to his name. The Prince's Trust started me back in the day as well, so old Prince Charlie is responsible for Source Direct mate, no joke.
Recently, Source Direct has been increasingly name-checked outside of drum & bass, arguably more so than other producers from the same era. I'm thinking specifically about Raime and the Blackest Ever Black stable, as well as various techno producers. Did you have any idea that this was going on?
JB: Music to me is just music, whether it be drum & bass, house, techno, soundtrack, or anything. If I like it, it's just good music. Everyone labels things, and I understand it has to done for marketing reasons. But privately, I've always collected things and listened to all kinds of music, whether it be deep techno or house or whatever. In the early days jungle could easily have a 4/4 going underneath it; I don't know if you know the track Top Buzz, 'Living in Darkness', but that used 4/4 and breaks at the same time, so if you want to look at construction, that's more of a techno record than a drum & bass record. But you could go down to AWOL and Randall could drop that, and it would be just as well suited to the night as any record that relied purely on breakbeats. So for me, going out in those early days and hearing breakbeat music, house music, music with someone toasting lyrics or a girl singing lyrics – it was all there in one night.
But then everything fractioned off and you had clubs which played just one style all night, and that would be all you'd hear. You could go to one club and it would just be build-drop, build-drop, build-drop, or then you could go to another club and it would be the Bukem style, just 'nice' drum n bass all night. But I used to love the whole range of styles.
So when you talk about techno, I used to listen to that going out - and privately I've always mixed house – I don't know if you know Deep Dish or Dubfire? I've known those guys for many years, I've been out to Washington to play at their club and done various remixes for them. I've got a lot of old Jeff Mills records, Underground Resistance records, stuff that I'd be listening to in the car on my way to a drum & bass rave, and then when I got out, on would go the deep house for the drive home. It's something I've always listened to, and if I've inspired people from those scenes, well, that's nice to know. If you have that musical maturity, you're open to good music and not just whining that 'Oh, it's not got this breakbeat or that breakbeat'.
You're DJing more now than during the mid 90s; are you playing mainly older stuff?
JB: I'm mixing it up. As long as I have the crowd I'll play all sorts, tear-out Amen tracks, something that's just rolling, a whole mixture of old and new, combined and thrown together to make a good, happy party atmosphere. I've had some comments from people that come up to me and say 'What's this tune, when is this coming out?' 'It came out twenty years ago mate!' and the shock on their face, they can't believe it. [laughs]
I went to see Depeche Mode recently, and of course you want to hear them play the classic 80s tracks, but they're not going to just be going round the world playing the hits; people develop as artists and make new music. Funnily enough, I got to know Martin Gore because he lived locally. I went round to his studio years back, and he was showing me how he bought all Gary Numan's original synths - the actual synth that he made 'Cars' on and all that! He had these original synths set up, some of the original patches still set up, and it was kit, floor to ceiling. I was like, fucking hell, this is absolutely amazing, a room the size of a bloody swimming pool.
We were talking about techno music, and dance music in general, and he said 'Between me and you, I don't think I've ever made a decent track in my life; all I want to do is make some deep techno, but I haven't got the time, I'm on the road full time with Depeche Mode'. I remember saying 'I can't believe you said that!' Because obviously the stuff he does is amazing, just incredible, but he was saying that he just wanted to make some deep house and techno, which I found interesting. And you know Vince Clarke, who used to be in the band? I've heard they've made a techno record together, VCMG.
It's wicked – a great record.
JB: Nice one, I keep meaning to hear it. I've seen the cover art, but one thing led to another and I haven't had a chance to hear it yet. But when I'd heard he'd done it I was really pleased, because about ten years had passed since we had that chat.
It's kind of like me now with Alex [Green], Boddika, because I bumped into him a few years back. I've known him for years, we released the first Instra:mental record in 2000 on our label, and he'd recently split from his writing partner as well. It was almost like a parallel universe story in terms of what happened to Source Direct. I'd helped fire them up and got them going and showed them the ropes; I could see the talent that was evolving from what they were doing. But he'd be coming on nights out with me years ago, listening to me playing deep house and techno in the car, and there's him going 'Oh, turn that shit off'. Years later, and there he is running the UK techno scene [laughs] It's hilarious!
It was him that gave me a proper kick up the arse a few years back, though. He basically said 'You don't realise what you built, and how many people are still listening'. But I'd had such a long break. I was going out and about with him, having a few nights out, here, there and everywhere, listening to tunes, and it just fired me up – I feel like I have unfinished business. Also, he and I are working on some stuff at the minute, which is exciting.
And are you working on new solo music too?
JB: Now I'm free to make some tunes, I feel like I have unfinished business. There is a whole new lease of life in Source Direct. When I make the next album, it will be electronic music, dance music, drum & bass, whatever you want to call it. But it's in my head at the moment – I've got so many ideas, sketches, breaks, and it's really exciting. I actually had a new delivery of a compressor the other day, a new valve compressor that really blew the house off [laughs]. I'm just buzzing with the sound at the moment. I'll let the music do the talking, as always. And with the DJing, it's going back to what I originally did – I was a bedroom DJ. To have the opportunity to go out and dance, play tunes, party with people, playing records that I like; it's a steal, it's a pleasure, it's something I love to do.
'Fabric Of Space'
The music you made as Source Direct was concerned with the future, technology and how you could push sounds into interesting new spheres. Whereas now, particularly within techno, for example, there have been many producers looking back nostalgically to, say, the sounds of Detroit fifteen years ago. When you were producing music as SD, what were your thoughts on 'the future' conceptually? Were you literally trying to come up with sounds that had never been heard before, and if so, in the next stage of production, is that going to be an idea that will equally inspire you?
JB: You've hit the nail on the head with that one. [laughs] When Goldie made that tune 'Terminator', it incorporated technology in the way you can twist a break up in ways that I've never heard a break twisted up before. He'd taken the visual concepts from the Terminator film and put it into a track, in a way that enabled you to visualise the whole film and concept. To me that was a very futuristic thing and pushed the boundaries. I remember playing that out at my own parties and thinking 'Jesus Christ, this tune is going off, everyone is going nuts to it', and for me, Source Direct was about trying to create something new. Push the boundaries, while keeping within certain limitations of what you can do within dance music. You need to stick to the sixteen bars, otherwise no bugger is going to be able to mix it; then you've got the little 32 bars at the beginning, giving it to DJs to mix as an intro; fills on the end of the eights for cutting and that. So there are certain methods that we'd employ to make things DJ friendly, but then also I'd wanna bring in a strong concept, be it a gangster theme, or a funky James Brown bassline.
So you start with boundaries, and then you push the envelope and introduce concepts and choose where you want to take it. Obviously, when you're making the tune you hear things thousands of times. I mean, I've sat down and made a tune in a couple of hours; equally I've sat down and made tunes that have taken me two months to make, and done my head in about drum fills that have taken me a week to get right. How do I get what is in my head, out through the speakers? Trial and error, trial and error, trial and error - eventually you get it. But you're always chasing perfectionism in what you're trying to create, [to] get the sound inside out of the speakers.
Source Direct plays at Fabric tomorrow night, Friday 1st August, alongside Dom & Roland, Klute, Loxy GQ, Storm and more. For full details and tickets, click here to visit the Fabric website.
Source Direct will also be playing the closing Contort night at Berlin's Atonal Festival on August 24th alongside Helm, Ike Yard, UF and Tim Hecker. For more information go here. Follow him on twitter for updates here