The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Sonic Router

Sonic Router 016: A Balance Of Past & Future With Distal
Oli Marlow , November 11th, 2010 06:39

As the likes of Joy Orbison and Mount Kimbie find increasing fame over the pond, Oli Marlow talks to Atlanta's Distal - DJ, producer and record label manager - and hails an era in which the sun never sets on dubstep

Affording dubstep and its multifarious offshoots the freedom to incubate and experiment has, over the last two years or so, resulted in some of the most interesting strains of club music. Thanks to its diversity, little to no restrictions - other than a pre-requisite hankering for sub bass - the sound(s) have become a global phenomenon. Chart success for some acts has opened the world to the sound that erupted out of the implosion of garage, which in itself is currently experiencing something of a rebirth with some of the 2-step sound's longest serving pioneers again being booked for club shows the world over, but it's not just the half step sound that is reaching all corners of the globe.

Poland's BBQ Party is striving to keep up their particularly forward thinking booking policy (having hosted acts like Mosca, xxxy and more when they were on the back of their respective debut releases) and Austria's recent Elevate Festival is booking people like Mount Kimbie and Joy Orbison to headline their events whilst strewing acts like Girl Unit and Altered Natives across the lower ends of the bill. Acts that have been forever accessible at some of London's most intimate venues are now racking up the air miles performing the world over for crowds of varying size and digressions. Conquering the States - like the holy grail its often referred to in music folklore – is a big thing for any new(ish) genre and with parties, labels and artists stationed across the US, the UK's freshest aural export is seemingly doing its thing out there too; with parties like New York's Dub War, San Francisco's Icee Hot and Surefire Sound booking some of our nation's finest and freshest producers.

Atlanta's own Distal, aka Mike Rathbun, is one of the producers, label managers and promoters sweepingly referred to above. His enthusiasm, production work and general hunger for newness has brought him across my path numerous times in the past two years. His conversing, constant barrage of dubs and his very own Embassy label's development has seen him become something of a counterpoint for my recognition of the impact the sound I'm so besotted with is achieving in the wider world. It's easy to trap yourself in the 'London bubble'; hanging yourself up on getting to the best new music first, constantly fighting to help define a trend or curve, so it's entirely refreshing to find a kindred spirit half way across the globe. Someone who's taste for extremes exists in its own bubble, away from the endless competition and hype.

"I keep up with everything because first and foremost, I love it; it's who I am," Distal explains when pressed upon his musical motivation. "I'm also a firm believer that good DJ sets require a balance of the past and future. Keeping up with it also involves going backward."

"I remember growing up in Atlanta where liking electronic music was kind of a rebellious movement from the norm. Atlanta has been 100% rap and hip hop since as far back as I can remember; there's never been room for techno!" he recalls coyly. "It's a double-edged sword really. On one side, the masses and popular musicians in America are finally into dance music and dubstep in particular, but at what cost?"

Without commenting too hard on something I'm not particularly up on (see the London bubble admission above), it's interesting to see artists like Rhianna, Britney Spears and several big name rap artists start to acknowledge the power of a 140 beat and a bassline but like Distal goes on to analogise, it's a weird thing when you've been so completely glued to each new shift and twist that the influential producers are taking.

"It's kind of like when a struggling indie director finally lands a big deal with a Hollywood studio, only to find out that by post production his ideas have been stripped down and even his ending is on the chopping block. I have faith in the next few years though; I believe things will come back around and there will be a return to form. There has to be. People age… I mean, I don't think there is as much true-school 'dubstep' anymore, but I'm not hurt by it. I'm just embracing the change and changing it in my own way."

In Distal's own productions there is, a lot of the time, a very welcome near mania. Whether it's the constant smack of his kick drums, the erratic ghetto tech influenced snares or the repetitive vocal samples, there's always something to latch onto - and in some cases, 'Apple Bottom', being probably the best example to date, you get all of these things in the one tune. There's ample variation in his output, whether he's making juke, dubstep or techno it all sounds so utterly his, splattered with what seems to me like overtly American influences: the pace of ghetto dance music and the low down dirt and snare work of Southern hip hop. And honestly, it's one of the most enamouring things about Distal's work. It's different and unpredictable, often coming at you unannounced with a wealth of tracks (and styles) to pick from.

"Honestly I can't stand making a tune at a certain bpm with a certain feeling, finishing it and starting something in the same vein. It's not me," he shrugs. "I love a lot of different styles and rhythms and speeds. I mean I just finished a deep dubstep tune last week and now I'm working on a 160bpm footwork tune… Constantly changing keeps your style fresh; keeps the brain on its feet. Also I DJed for 8 years before I even opened up a sequencer so my brain has been hoarding ideas and sounds for so long it's got a surplus stock now. You gotta have faith in your ideas too, you can't be scared to be different or it will put you a step back."

It's a sentiment that's essential to what Distal is doing with his own record label, the co-run Embassy Recordings, which is at the time of publication on its 4th release. Housed in stock sleeves with different colour ways it's often the only thing could be a signifier to bind the label's output. Between the relaxed and woozy concoction of Distal's 'Attempt At Yellow' on the labels debut release to his hard, kick heavy dancefloor punisher, 'Serengeti', on EMB002 there's practically an enigmatic gulf, but it all comes from the same headspace, the same eclectic soundbank and ultimately, the same dude.

"Our fourth instalment features two up and coming artists, Cosmic Revenge and Acre, and its getting A LOT of international support. Acre brings some reverb heavy chopped up juke(y) stuff and Cosmic supports with a west coast 808 anthem. Our next release I'm also very excited about. We're going to be releasing two big tunes from Moldy, one of the most underrated producers on the planet right now. His stuff is so minimal but so effective. I've been a fan of his work for ages and he deserves all the credit that's headed his way soon."

Speaking to Distal it's his enthusiasm, that's most infectious; and like he says when talking about Moldy, it feels nice to see Distal getting his props right now too. With a track included on Soul Jazz's recent chronicle of modern dubstep, the 'Future Bass' compilation, a track signed to Sinden's Grizzly label and forthcoming work on Tube10, Fortified Audio, Car Crash Set and a juke EP on the infamous Chicago juke label Ghettophiles, it looks like the latter part of this and the early part of next year should see the Atlantan's take on bass music really blowing up in people's faces.

"I'm just trying to put bread and butter on the table, pay bills and support myself through music. Lots of big things are happening lately with publishing and licensing work so hopefully things will start to excel down that route." he tells me when I ask what he's trying to achieve with his music; "Overall I just want to do what every other artist out there is trying to do… leave something when I'm gone. I want my wax to be circulating after I'm gone. I expect at least a few discogs comments a week in 2100 AD. Standard."

Words: Oli Marlow for Sonic Router.

DOWNLOAD: Distal – Sonic Router Mix #59


  1. Distal – 'Amphibian'
  2. Moldy – 'No Means To Smoke It' (Forthcoming Embassy Recordings)
  3. Subreachers – 'Let Go' [Jack Sparrow Remix]
  4. Distal – 'Novocaine Blonde' (Forthcoming Fortified)
  5. Mayhem – 'Freak' (Forthcoming Argon)
  6. Distal – 'Mamanimal'
  7. Rashad – 'Who Tesr'
  8. Distal – 'Boca Ratawn' (Forthcoming GhettoPhiles)
  9. Wheez-ie – 'Barefoot Billy'
  10. Distal & DJ Rashad – 'Stuck Up Money'
  11. Bombaman – 'No Touch' (Aufect)
  12. MachineDrum – 'GYBE'
  13. Ruckspin – 'Shikra' (Pushing Red)
  14. Ramadanman – 'Bass Drums' (Soul Jazz)
  15. Distal – 'EEL' (Forthcoming Seclusiasis)
  16. Mayhem & Distal – 'Frozen Barnacles' (Surefire)
  17. Acre – 'Ghatt' (Embassy Recordings)
  18. Addison Groove – '5 Mins Of Funk'
  19. Distal & HxdB – 'Typewrtier Tune VIP!' (Surefire)
  20. Distal – 'Feed Me'