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A Quietus Interview

Systems Align: Joy Orbison & Ben Vince Interviewed
Christian Eede , May 24th, 2018 15:31

Following the release of their first collaborative record on Hessle Audio earlier this month, Joy Orbison and Ben Vince discuss the process behind pairing live saxophone and club music and the changing dynamics of London's clubs

“Hessle’s first saxophone record, we’re all grown up now,” DJ and Hessle Audio co-founder Ben ‘UFO’ Thomson joked last month on an edition of the label’s Rinse FM radio show.

That record is Hessle Audio’s 37th release, a first-time collaboration between longtime label friend Joy Orbison and saxophonist Ben Vince which resulted in two tracks: the airy, reedy funk of ‘Transition 2’, and the more pointed techno of ‘Systems Align’ with its wailing sax and driving, bleep-y synths. It may not be the most natural of pairings on paper, but on record their respective talents compliment each other with an effortless panache, coming together to create a pair of off-kilter club tracks that certainly make an impact where it matters most, on the dancefloor.

“I didn’t want to work with any saxophone player, I wanted to work with Ben,” Peter O’Grady, AKA Joy Orbison, tells me as we delve into the workings of the record. “I didn’t want them just to sound like house or techno tracks with some added saxophone, because the great thing about Ben’s live shows if you see them is that it could not be a saxophone that he’s playing. It’s such a different sound and that’s why I wanted to work with him.” Thomson may have been joking about Hessle Audio’s first saxophone record but now 11 years on from their first release - a two-tracker from Romanian producer TRG with its roots in dubstep and dark garage - the progression is plain to see as founding trio Ben UFO, Pangaea and Pearson Sound continue to expand the label’s signature sound, loosely rotating around UK techno.

“This was my first foray into properly working with dance music on record,” Vince explains, having spent an extended period away from clubs following a period of disillusionment with venues, crowds and other facets of the associated scene. Before that, his introduction to labels like Hessle Audio, as is the case with many, came from the dubstep scene, during the period in which a number of producers began fragmenting the 140 BPM template, and slowing their productions down slightly to fold in more house and techno influences. Now he’s also on the cusp of releasing an excellent new solo record, titled Assimilation, on the Where To Now? label. Taking in contributions from Rupert Clervaux, Cam Deas and Micachu, AKA Mica Levi, amongst others, the album sees him riff off the talents of his various collaborators pulling proceedings together with his striking saxophone arrangements.

Meeting in a Peckham café recently, O’Grady and Vince discussed the studio sessions that went into their new record, the benefits of collaboration and the struggle to retain control of your output.

I guess a good starting point is to discuss how you two were introduced. I know [NTS DJ and Levels record label boss] Jon Rust played a part in that so what’s the full story there?

Ben Vince: Jon saw me play with Coby [Sey] at an afterparty for The xx’s Brixton gigs. I play as part of a collective called Curl with Coby and some other people [including Mica Levi and rapper Brother May], so I did a show with them and some saxophonists. I don’t usually do this but I brought some of my records and gave them out to people. Jon introduced himself to me and I liked the parties that he’d been putting on. It’s quite weird because when I first moved to London I was really enthralled by this movement in around 2009 when Jon was doing stuff like [Plastic People party] Standard Place and I was listening to Pete’s records, and Hessle Audio after coming out of university. I was trying to do dance and pop music at that point and then I ran into difficulties and went back into instrumental stuff and picked up the saxophone again. So I had a period away from saxophone and then some time away from dance music, so it was quite interesting for me to come full circle. Jon introduced us and Pete came to one of my gigs without me knowing about it.

Joy Orbison: I think it was one of the Data Quack gigs [with Charles Hayward]. I’m quite a big fan of Charles Hayward and This Heat. Ben was playing with Charles and doing some support shows.

BV: Yeah, Charles and I play in a band together, and he’s recommended me for support for a few of his live shows too. That started a few years ago and I guess it’s been quite formative to my progression.

So, from that point, how did you make the progression to actually working with each other?

BV: Well, Pete just dropped me a line.

JO: Jon was speaking to me about Ben’s music, and we’d been listening to it and following his gigs. We got the impression that Ben was coming at it from a wider perspective than just jazz, because he’s involved in Curl and other projects, so it made sense. We did a recording session first with Jon at Floating Points’ studio and we spent a day trying to do something, but it was very abstract and the ideas were all over the place. The session didn’t really amount to too much.

Did you go into it wanting to create something that would work within a dancefloor context?

BV: That was definitely the idea at the start. I’ve had this situation a few times where you’re in a big studio and it’s quite a pressurised environment, so you don’t want to waste the time and you also want to find somewhere that your paths can meet. I guess that was the point of that session, figuring out how we should approach it.

JO: Working out what we did and didn’t want to do.

Did you establish common reference points at the start?

JO: I don’t think we actually spoke too much about other music.

BV: For a lot of people I work with, there’s a mutual understanding, having each released music, that you know where the other person is approaching things from. When people want to collaborate with me, I’m not fully aware of how much they know about my live show and how different that is to my sound on record, but I guess they can sense some sort of versatility.

Did a lot of ideas get scrapped, or did anything else emerge from these studio sessions outside of the two tracks on the Hessle record?

BV: Not really, it was all quite intentional. I went to Pete’s house and we had a listening session of each other’s demos. I left some stuff on his computer and he came back with what he liked most from it, so we could work that into something. It ended up very different to the original material but that’s how [‘Transition 2’] came about, with Pete working partly on his own. He took my demos into a different zone and then we did a couple of joint production sessions on it. [‘Systems Align’] was the other way around. Pete sent me one of his drum tracks and I recorded some stuff for that. We worked it out together from there, so on both tracks, we were working from ideas that were already semi-existent.

JO: I quite like working in that way to be honest. It can make things easier to navigate. The problem is - well, maybe not the problem because it can be a positive - that when you have somebody like Ben to work with, he’s really versatile so he can take you down loads of different routes and it’ll all be interesting. After doing that initial studio session, with Jon involved, I became more pragmatic about it and saw there was a route we could take. Looking back, it wasn’t a quick process.

Pete, I know in the past that you said you worked more slowly because you were less confident about what you were doing. Is that still an issue now?

JO: I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my production over, maybe, the last two or three years. Even this was quite a big thing for me though, in terms of working with so much audio and controlling so many dynamics.

I guess collaboration is very key to what both of you do. Ben, you have your new solo LP which has a lot of guests like Micachu and Rupert Clervaux, you play with Charles Hayward and are part of Housewives. Pete, you’ve of course worked on the SunkLo records and released with Herron as CO/R.

BV: Personally, I had a feeling that the first two records I released were solidifying my sound too much and weren’t really representing my live shows, and I’ve also been performing with five or six different outfits. Assimilation was put to me by the label with this suggestion of making a collaborations record and I already had some initial ideas. I saw that as a challenge to form something from the new and established relationships I had with different musicians.

I don’t like to rehash ideas when I start working with new people though, so I didn’t do a lot of production or mixing on it. The tracks all came together across different periods of time because I was working with different drummers and vocalists, and people have their own work rates - everyone’s busy. I guess I was directing it overall, but when I was in a studio working on the record with all of these different people, it was a very equilateral process of feeding off somebody’s energy in what they were playing.

That’s the bedrock of what I do - apart from playing with Housewives, all of my live performances are improvised. The Hessle record was different in that it was very focused on crafting club tracks. I usually operate on a more immediate basis, so I don’t really sit down and do much pre or post-production on my records apart from some added delay and reverb. Often I can just snip parts of my live shows and use that as the basis for a new track.

JO: I guess the best thing about working with other people is that it encourages you to step out of your natural, instinctual areas. That’s essential. I don’t want to make loads of similar-sounding dancefloor records, so if you can find ways of stepping out of that comfort zone that make sense, you should, and collaboration is an organic way of doing that. I get revved up really easily working with someone else and the ideas can come more naturally to me that way. I’ve wanted to work with live instrumentation like this for years and I’m glad I finally did it, and it feels like it’s at the right time.

BV: It’s a bit paradoxical but I’ve always believed in the power of limitation. When your role becomes more defined, you can find different pockets of creativity while working within a certain sonic or structural limitation. It’s about trust as well in other people’s attitudes and abilities so you can compliment what they’re doing.

Were there any kind of significant differences of ideas at any point while working on the record?

BV: There wasn’t any between us, although I had to abstract myself from the production process in terms of how it’ll come across in a physical setting.

JO: Yeah, that was something that only made sense to you when you first heard it in a club, right?

When was that?

BV: I went to see David [Kennedy, AKA Pearson Sound] play at Corsica Studios in March and he played both sides of the record. I was obviously really into what we’d made but I was apprehensive about how it would work on the dancefloor, and it seemed to go down really well.

Coming onto Hessle Audio specifically, obviously Pete, you have a longstanding connection with the three of them. This is your first record for the label though.

JO: We’d been talking about doing something together for years and there were a couple of older bits that we were thinking about before, but it never really felt right. I speak to David [Kennedy] a lot about production. I go to his studio, he comes to my studio. We swap ideas. I spent quite a lot of time talking to him about the engineering and mixing side of the record, and in my head, I thought it could find a nice home on Hessle, but originally ‘Transition 2’ was for Ben’s album.

BV: I’m glad it worked it out this way though. It probably would have worked but it might have sounded slightly out of place on my album. Having the record come out on a dance music label - especially an established, trusted one - really defines its purpose.

JO: And they’re really forward-thinking in what they do. It probably would have been easy for us to sign it with a label that had nothing to do with me, but I think you can make better context of records when you put them out with the right label. I’m always conscious of making sense of what I work on in that way while staying true to what I’m about and what I do. They’ve all been really involved in the process as well. There were quite a few different mixes of ‘Transition 2’ and we were slowly working through changes and sharing feedback. Both tracks changed so much. I think that’s a part of this scene that people don’t really see.

Ben, you mentioned your initial relationship with electronic music, and now perhaps people will know you for projects outside of that. What was your trajectory with this kind of music, like discovering Hessle for example?

BV: I guess I was just mad into dubstep [laughs]. There was that point where people started slowing things down and making it more funky. I was obviously really into Pete’s first releases and the Ramadanman records, and I was big into Cooly G. That was what made me follow that kind of sound back then for years, and you would hear these tracks in clubs that people would get really excited about and they’d be released months later.

I feel like that’s such a time-specific memory. Pete, your early records were a massive contributor to that I guess, where so much hype would be built up around certain tunes before they were released. It feels very different now.

JO: Yeah, massively, and I think it feels better now for me at least. I’ll be careful with my words here, but I feel like some of it was getting a little misconstrued. There was definitely a level of it that I didn’t feel connected to.

BV: It all got very popular very quickly.

JO: It made me think very carefully about where I’d play and what I’d release. It’s a fairly small scene when you think about it, and there was so much that I had no real interest in - and I don’t mean that in a shitty way - but I know that when I was working with Al [Green, AKA Boddika] on the SunkLo records, we felt quite disconnected to a lot of what was going on around us. It’s a shame really because looking back at that time, there was a lot of amazing music, but there was also a lot I didn’t care much for. Now, I feel much more connected to what is going on around me. I didn’t just want to ride a wave back then because you never know where it might end.

I think people like to assume you’re quite ignorant when you’re younger, and people maybe thought we were just these kids into jungle and garage and that, but I was interested in lots of styles of music, and getting involved in other things too. It wasn’t hard for me to avoid the parts of the scene I wasn’t into. A lot of the people I looked up to musically came at things from a more punk-y perspective, so there was a lot of things people were doing that I didn’t agree with. I guess if you like certain things, you buy into the whole culture around it, but when you see the corporate side of things - and this exists everywhere - and people aligning themselves with that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

BV: It comes into the music as well. There was a real dip in quality in dance music here at one point, and I felt like people were viewing certain labels and sounds as some kind of brand. You would get made-to-order techno.

JO: Well, it’s a fucking lifestyle now, and that can be so tedious. I only really noticed that a few years ago. I have friends who work in fashion and skateboarding, and they’re frequently having their ideas and their culture ripped apart and misconstrued. Music can really be like that too. You can have loads of attention around this music, but it can sometimes feel like the people with really amazing new ideas aren’t being pushed to the forefront. I don’t want to sound really grumpy. I’m a little older now and I’ve just done a saxophone record [laughs], so I don’t want to sound like I’m having a midlife crisis.

BV: It can get you down though. That’s what put me off going out for years. I started doing more gigs at that point so I was having my fill on that side of things, but I’d really had enough of dance music for a bit.

Speaking myself as somebody that came up listening to dubstep and then gradually discovered labels like Hessle Audio, it must have been a significant departure to just decide to have an extended break from that scene.

JO: I think that’s noticeable in clubs, people like Ben not being there. There has been a shift over the last couple of years.

BV: But there’s also been a shift in people doing things for themselves and I guess that’s what’s restored my faith in… I guess you can call it ‘club music’, but I don’t go to clubs too often. It’s more like, a friend is putting on a party and there’s not too many people, so you support that side of things. You have to live here for a bit to get away from big club culture. I guess my issue with big club culture as well is not wanting to pay £20 to get into a club with a bad atmosphere and audience.

Pete, without wishing to put you on the spot, I guess you’re within a certain world as a DJ now, but I imagine you’re always keen to mix up the kind of gigs you’re taking and where you’re playing.

JO: That links back to the nights I do with Jon [Hinge Finger x Levels] which we started doing a couple of years ago from that perspective. What you do in your home city can reflect what you do elsewhere, so you should start at home first. Also, I wouldn’t pay £20 to go see a DJ I don’t think, but I am often involved in things that are part of that, so it’s hard. Obviously it’s amazing to be involved in this world in different ways, but I wouldn’t want to do that every week, and I don’t like the idea that the only people able to see me play are people with lots of money. I didn’t pay that much to see anyone when I was younger, and I’m always conscious that one of the most political acts you can do is to make things cheap or free. If you really want to reach people, don’t make them spend loads of fucking money, so that’s why we started doing those parties. Even with those, we spend so much time thinking about ticket prices.

Backtracking, how much of the initial skeletons you had starting out ended up on the Hessle record?

BV: I remember you sent me a few things and said ‘I’d really like to do something with this one’, which was quite fortuitous because it was one I had an earworm for as well, so I guess that was lucky.

JO: It all changed so much, even from the initial parts I sent, but I like working in that way. I like to have a basis to work from. I like to know that even if a demo was to be scrapped, as long as it made something else happen… it would feel worthwhile. I’m not a musician and I wouldn’t be able to go into a studio to jam.

Do you have any background in terms of live instrumentation?

JO: I was in a band for a really short amount of time when I was like 18 or something, but I was the weakest member [laughs] and I led it. I had loads of the ideas but was the weakest member, and I played bass, but I can’t really play bass. I wanted it to be really amazing and weird and interesting, but it was never going to work because I was the weakest member.

I feel like a go-to thought of some people is that when working with live instrumentation in the way it’s featured on the Hessle record, you might perhaps dial back on the intensity in terms of how something would sound in a club setting. I’d say ‘Systems Align’ is quite an intense track though.

JO: Yeah, I wanted both sides of the record to be quite intense, in-your-face tracks. I’m very scared of coffee table music and you’ve got to be so careful with that because I don’t want to make records that will just blend into the background. That’s what I love about Ben’s music. You don’t put it on in the background of a coffee shop, you listen to it and engage with it. I wanted the Hessle record to be the same - to be intense, frenetic and kind of make for a weird experience in the club, or even outside that, just as an electronic record.

BV: That is what I want to get from club music though. I want everything I do to be arresting and dynamic, to have space and density. The Hessle record does that for me, especially if I’m hearing it in a club. There are real ecstatic moments, like the ending of ‘Systems Align’ has a more serene counterpoint to the rest of it. I’m going to be pushing forward with this determination to make more club records in the future too, to close the gap between these two interests.

Joy O & Ben Vince's Transition 2 is out now on Hessle Audio and can be purchased here.

You can purchase Ben Vince's new solo LP, Assimilation, via Where To Now? here. He will launch the album at Dalston's The Victoria on June 8, with guests Coby Sey, Rupert Clervaux and more. For more information and tickets, head here

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