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Black Sky Thinking

In Search Of Hype Williams: Their Final Communication
Rory Gibb , July 18th, 2011 08:50

While attempting to nail down Hype Williams in interview form, Rory Gibb muses on this most elusive of the new breed of bass

Hype Williams are deadly serious, despite the deadpan humour that permeates both their music and public personae. Attempting to make sense of the London-via-Berlin duo's teeming contradictions is a fruitless process, for the most part. They've only given a couple of comprehensive, truly revealing interviews (including an excellent Invisible Jukebox with Lisa Blanning in The Wire), tending instead to stay safely tucked behind a veil of email, net speak, video art and artifice. On the one hand, their music demands careful consideration and involvement - it's insidious in its emotional impact, often unsettling and frequently beautiful, a collage of high and low cultural references distilled into a thick, soupy whole. On the other, its attitude to the listener is guarded and intensely self-aware. It's frighteningly sombre but self-subversive, on last album One Nation as likely to utilise grainy YouTube-ripped samples as droning spoken word (the untitled second track's "Death is the perfect end to life / Life is only good because death ends it").

And then there's the smoke-and-mirrors approach to identity and personality: Hype Williams' supposed membership, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland, as self-professed custodians of a project idea that stretches far backward in time through a multitude of members; their notoriously elusive (and not unwarranted) attitude to press coverage; home-made art flicks. As a result it's been tough to figure out quite what to make of them as a complete entity – I've come across people who've dismissed them as difficult to love. But over the course of the last year their records have developed in intensity and become more streamlined, sensuous synths shifting to the fore, backed by subtle hip-hop swagger. They've also started to sound increasingly paranoid, rattling round the edges a bit, as though their creators really ought to get outside and see sunlight a little more often.

So unsurprisingly, interviewing the duo proves a slippery affair. We've arranged to chat in the lead-up to the release of their Hyperdub debut, the four-track Kelly Price W8 Gain Vol. II EP, but a missed phonecall opportunity leads to a back-and-forth email exchange with Dean Blunt, mediated by the band's shady third member/press guru/spiritual advisor/medium Denna Glass. The resulting conversation is as contradictory as expected: simultaneously direct, dismissive and disarmingly honest.

Your music has a feeling of transience to it, both in the sense of long journeys and physical separation, and also the idea that Hype Williams might merely be one stage in a far longer evolutionary process. Do you think that's in any way true?

Dean Blunt: Let's just say we're not doing this for any particular appreciation, especially not from the present day... We shouldn't be judged by one record, or even the seven or so we've released so far… With a thing like this, it isn't about a particular hit, or one thing, or medium. It's a process, something that will change constantly, mainly because our intentions aren't the same as a lot of people's. And our practice doesn't just lie in one field…

Basically, 'give a fuck about a review, got bigger fish to fry.

The process, so far, has already led the duo through several iterations in a short period of time, from murky guitar psychedelia through the scattered dreamscapes of last year's Untitled debut album to One Nation's violent and cosmopolitan imaginings of new age. Their more recent music is peppered with pop cultural references – Sade covers, screwed Pokemon chatter, Baby T-Pain – and betrays a love of R&B, hip hop and grime (though doubtless, their influence might well be denied by its creators). With its lack of discernable narrative, it's starting to sound more like a disorganized archive of jumbled thoughts and images, an audible representation of an internet-frazzled attention span. It's hard to imagine that the same blizzard-like cultural whirl could have given rise to a band like Hype Williams in a pre-digital age.

Even though the equipment you use isn't, as far as I know, massively advanced, do you think you could have made your music at any time other than now? Could Hype Williams have existed in this form without Web 2.0?

DB: It did. Internet is as much a part of the world as anything else. It's just another source of information. So I'm not entirely sure what you mean. I mean, if you were influenced by different things pre internet age, they were pretty hard to find, but you did find them.

Also, I'm not madly net savvy. Only realised what a tumblr was last week. And I'm not even old.

In March of this year, and a week or so before announcing they'd signed to Hyperdub, Hype Williams played at London's seminal Plastic People club. Well, I say ‘played'; it was more a full-scale takeover, the club's pitch-dark dancefloor transformed for the evening into a sort of meditational space, crowd watched over by a tattered and ash-scorched fabric portrait of Haile Selassie I. Illuminated from behind, it appeared to be suspended in mid-air, one of their many cultural references in physical form. And the duo's performance was bookended by hour-long, similarly weightless drones, drawn out high-end shivers that lacked the physical undertow of bass. If the smoking ban hadn't been in full force, you'd have been able to taste the weed in the air.

It bears mentioning, because hearing the duo's music in that setting – one of the key venues in the development of dubstep in London, and still host to legendary night FWD - had the unexpected effect of bringing it sharply into focus. Its sheer presence in a live setting, especially within a purpose-built, thoroughly immersive space like Plastic People, dwarfs their recorded output. Where their records are smudged and elusive, albeit deceptively complex, on a powerful system their live performance feels coiled and primed for impact, buoyed by organ-shaking pulses of sub-bass and curtains of synth hanging loose in the air above.

Seeing you at Plastic People earlier this year was a bit of an awakening to your music – it's quite easy, even listening through pretty good speakers, to miss just how physically involving and sub-heavy it is. How did it feel to be able to bring your music into that sort of immersive environment – especially given the club's history? And do you think live performance brings out different sides of your music?

Dean Blunt: To be honest, wasn't really feeling that session. Wasn't loud enough. And bunned too much high grade beforehand.

Still, being druggy-as-fuck - regular comedown references, bunning high grade, ecstasy-referencing One Nation track ‘MITSUBISHI', their records' serotonin-addled solemnity – suits the venue. And the music's physical force in a live setting makes the duo's signing to Hyperdub seem even more apt. It would be reductive to suggest that their music bears much sonic similarity to the rest of the label's output. But its soft, vaguely radioactive glow recalls the toxic concoctions of labelmates like Zomby, Darkstar and especially Kode9 & The Spaceape, whose Memories Of The Future album is not too dissimilar from what One Nation might sound like if squeezed into a dancefloor suit. Their enigmatic tendencies are hardly rare in electronic music, and sit comfortably with Burial and Zomby in the ‘who-really-gives-a-fuck-anyway' seat. Several of One Nation's tracks are named after Wiley lyrics. And a recent solo track from Copeland, ‘Trample' – arriving in advance of a full 12” on Rush Hour – is in essence two-step, albeit swamped in an ocean of surrounding noise.

Their presence in Plastic People also draws its own conclusions – no other venue in London would have intensified tracks like ‘The Throning' and the elastic house of ‘MITSUBISHI' in quite the same way. Despite its ostensibly lo-fi sensibility, the full nature of Hype Williams' music is masked when played through home speakers or shitty headphones. Quite the irony, when you consider the half-decayed, crowd-sourced feel of their samples.

How did signing with Hyperdub come about? And did the connection make logical sense to you? Even before you'd signed with them, the sort of glowing synths you use reminded me far more of that really toxic sound they were putting out in about 2007-8 (early bits from Darkstar, Zomby, Ikonika), as well as the sheer amount of bass in a lot of it.

DB: We had a period of releasing music by Inga sticking USB sticks into apples while she was working on the Brixton mkt. Steve (Kode9) must've bought one. Rest is (his)tory. Haven't heard the records you mentioned, but yeah it makes a lot of sense to me nonetheless. Nothing but respect for them, with the level of respect they have, allowing us to come in and do what we do, with no intention of changing anything about us was bless…

They're just on a level, and we all click.

Also, a lot of labels are a bit too defined… People find a formula and stick with it, assuming their roles, selling themselves short.

So how do you avoid repeating yourselves?

DB: Change dealers every two months.

Also, 'trying' to do anything, even if it's trying to avoid repetition, will develop its own trend and particular space of its own, which people will then try to avoid, and so on and so forth.

Just make what you make.

I've always thought your music was closer in tone to London, early dubstep and grime, though pretty well deconstructed. I guess the Wiley bar titles on One Nation also make reference to that. How strong is your connection with London dance sounds? And what impact do you think they have on the music you write?

DB: I grew up around it. Sounds corny but a certain sound and rhythm gets ingrained... This is probably why that record sounded the way it did, especially as we recorded it at Denna's in Tottenham and I used to go raving around there when I was younger. Wasn't really intentional. I think today is pretty funny, this recent obsession with 'bass music', house and techno. Everything sounds natural at its birth, because it is influenced by stuff not so easily identified to its own.

Now things are too easy to replicate... 'Bass music' is jokes also. Last time i checked, Om was pretty fucking bassy, so was Aba Shanti-I or Shaka, or Sabbath... Dance music ain't the only stuff out there... I try to stay as far away from that whole thing as possible. Wasn't too involved or interested in it to begin with. That said, there is still a lot of decent stuff out there as well...

Though hardly lacking in low-end heft, they're far from aligned with the current crop of ‘bass music' producers. Their closest contemporary, in terms of overall approach, is probably shapeshifting arch-trickster James Ferraro, though they're at pains to deny the link. Mention of hypnagogic pop is met by a curt “To be honest I still don't know who or what the hell it is. The less I say about its existence the less likely it exists right?” and an anecdote about a heated email exchange with an online shop who'd listed them as such. It's easy to understand the duo's position - their music is so defiantly and joyfully genreless that to impose limits upon it seems a shame. But what they share with Ferraro is an awareness of life in an augmented hyper-reality. And a similar approach to escaping from that, through drifting synths that impose a kind of sensory deprivation, or through exaggeration, extending everyday cultural signifiers into something almost grotesque (Ferraro's sex-crazed high-school principal; the paranoid thought-loops of Hype's covers of Sade and Cassy).

So how far do you think London as a city has informed what you do?

DB: Right now, a whole fucking lot... This nigga says I robbed his taxidermists with a gun a few months ago, and jacked four raccoons… true I needed a few more animals for a piece I was finishing on Farthing Wood, but not raccoons (I swear there weren't even any raccoons in Farthing Wood ffs)

It's sorting itself out though. Might have to be an out of court situation or something. Things are a bit hazy about that time…

What part does humour, sarcasm and absurdity play in your art/music? Do you think that making them such central components allows you to avoid having to explain it to people?

DB: m8 we are DEADLYY serious. Pokerfaced even.

Interviewing Blunt proves to mirror the duo's music: short and to the point (only two tracks on Kelly Price W8 Gain Vol. II exceed the three minute mark), slightly scattershot, but often strikingly direct (opener ‘Rise Up' and closer ‘Badmind' are among the duo's most affecting tracks to date). While sometimes stubbornly protective, in that light their guarded approach to interviews and eye for self-mythology works to perfectly complement their music's slightly oblique majesty. It's a means of ensuring Hype Williams stays as separate as possible from the daily lives of the people who create it, making sure there remains something to protect.

"Postscript: According to their link to the outside world Denna Glass, this will be Hype Williams’ last interview. In the wake of the Farthing Wood/taxonomy fiasco, Dean’s lawyer has stated that he’s no longer allowed to talk to the press."