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Escape Velocity

Shaming The Shysters: Circle Traps Interviewed
Angus Finlayson , July 26th, 2011 06:20

Angus Finlayson normally isn't keen on electronic music that isn't designed for the dancefloor, but Circle Traps have changed his mind. Photo by Ella McCartney

Speaking as somebody who listens to jacking Chicago house mixes to 'relax' (much to the bewilderment and chagrin of my flatmates), I often find electronic music not made for clubs a bit... well... wishy-washy. The functionality of the dancefloor can be a disciplining force on music which could otherwise spill out into lengthy, meandering synth jams or sub-Warp electronica.

Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, on hearing the self-titled EP from Circle Traps. Released on Subeena's Opit label - which has had a unique relationship with the dancefloor from the get-go - the EP is the debut release from Jack Wyllie and Duncan Bellamy of contemporary jazz darlings Portico Quartet, along with technologically-minded friend Will Ward. And I really like it. Each track draws heavily on the sounds currently emanating from the UK underground: thrunging subbass and, variously, brittle 2-step and slo-mo house rhythms. But the rich, organic textures which suffuse them suggest a rare musical maturity - and a unique talent for weaving live instrumentation into a distinctive electronic soundworld.

The Quietus found Will, Duncan and Jack enjoying the Dalston sun one May afternoon and, to an unexpected but topical background of live jazz, talked about the inception of the band and their plans for the future.

Let's start with how Circle Traps got started. Have you all known each other for a while?

Will Ward: Me and Duncan have known each other since we were about 16 - we both grew up in Cambridge. Then Duncan and Jack met and started Portico Quartet. We've all got mutual friends.

Have you been making music together for some time, then?

Duncan Bellamy: Well, Jack and I met at Uni, so we've been doing it for five or six years now. Me and Will used to do stuff back in Cambridge, but mostly just bad hip hop. We always wanted to do things together. Last year we were really busy with Portico so we didn't have that much time, but then we just sort of started doing stuff... the first thing we made was a free jazz tune, then we chopped that up and it became one of the tunes on the EP ['Bo! Symbol'].

How does Circle Traps fit around a big project like Portico - do you have to squeeze it into the gaps between touring, recording etc?

Jack Wyllie: Yeah, pretty much. We actually got a lot of stuff done while we were touring; just having the laptop in the back of the van, playing around with bits and bobs. That's basically when I learnt how to use Logic [sequencing software], whilst touring.

People say they're often too knackered when they're touring to be creative. Did you find that?

JW: It got a bit like that, it's not like you can be at your full capacity...

WW: But I guess it is switching off in a way, because it's doing something totally different to what you're doing with Portico.

JW: Yeah it's a different thing - the way of working is completely different. It's nice to have another creative outlet for stuff that doesn't necessarily work with Portico.

I wanted to ask about the process of making a tune. Do you all have to be together to start something, or does a project file get bounced around between you?

WW: Each track has been quite different, really. The first thing we did - like Duncan said - was this free improvisation; Jack doing saxophone, Duncan drumming, I was messing around with some synths. Then we deconstructed it, chopped bits out from it, took the rhythm parts from Duncan's drumming and built it up around that. Similarly with 'Mirrors and Monuments', we sampled drones that Jack had played on his saxophone, and that started the process off.

DB: It'll be interesting to see how it works with the next stuff we make, 'cos I think this EP is just the first ideas really, and they're all quite different from each other.

Do you have a complex studio setup?

WW: It's all done around at mine, mostly. It's not a complex setup in any way, it's just Logic, some MIDI controllers. Then these guys [gestures at Jack and Duncan] bring round instruments: saxophones, synths. A lot of the drumming parts were recorded at Duncan's old house, in a little studio in the garden. So I wouldn't say the studio's complex at all! [laughs]

DB: That's almost what I like about it, is the simplicity.

How important is using live instruments in your music? It's obviously playing to your strengths, your backgrounds, but could you see yourselves working without sampling the sax, for example?

DB: Well 'Perspex, Glass' from the EP, I don't think any of that's live. That's more of a traditional approach - I sampled some Ravel piano music, built it around that. I kind of made the main body of that on tour, then we arranged it and mixed it collectively. I don't know how important live instruments are - in a way, I'm actually more and more up for this project being purely electronic.

You've played live as Circle Traps as well - how does that work? How do you reproduce the tracks?

DB: We had to say, 'Right, we've produced this thing, now how can we make it work with three sets of hands?' But it was quite natural really - I play all the drums live on an MPC and a drum pad. Jack plays keys anyway, so he adds basslines and melodies. Then it suits Will to do all the other loops that can't really be played.

JW: One of the things that keeps it feeling live is that we build in sections where we can improvise - we keep the structures reasonably loose. So each show we've played has been slightly different.

How do people respond to the live show? Do they dance?

WW: Not really. People tend to say - it sounds really arrogant [laughs] - but that it's more of a trancelike or hypnotic experience.

DB: You could have a little jam though... There are certain parts of tracks that you could probably get down to.

WW: But it hasn't got that crispness that a dancefloor track has, that gives you the energy to go mental.

Given how you've fallen in with a dance crowd - in terms of the label you're releasing on, the press you've received - is that crispness of production something you want to move towards?

WW: It is quite fun playing this stuff live - playing 'Bo! Symbol' live feels energetic, quite exciting, and I guess for that reason we've talked about doing more things like that. But there's never a sense that we have to make a dancefloor track. That's not really the reason for it.

Was it always the intention to get this collection of tunes together and try and put them out as an EP?

JW: I think so. We made them and then emailed them out to everyone we know, posted them about. I guess we were hoping that someone might like to put it out. Then [to Will] didn't you bump into Subeena in Morrisons?

WW: Yeah, we and Subeena have various friends in common. She knows Jamie Woon - who lives with Jack and Duncan - through the Red Bull Music Academy. She also lives round the corner from me - we just got chatting around and about. And I'd mentioned the project to her before and she was quite interested. I sent her the music and she liked it and gave me a call.

It seems to me like the kind of exposure the EP is getting is heavily weighted towards the dance music side of things - in terms of the people who are picking up on the release. They see it perhaps as an exotic part of their world, rather than something from a jazz background, or otherwise. Is that something you expected?

JW: Yeah, we were aiming at that kind of thing. It was far more influenced by that world than from anywhere else. So that's where we expected it to sit.

WW: I think it's got the dynamics of a dance track, that's what people pick up on - it's got subbass - but then it's also got less club-orientated elements as well. Essentially it's really influenced by UK bass music.

Is there more Circle Traps music in the pipeline - another release, perhaps?

DB: I'm really hoping there'll be another EP by the end of the year, at least.

Finally, the two of you in Portico have had a lot of experience of the music industry, as it were. Starting a new project now, are there things you feel strongly that you will or won't do - have you learned from your mistakes?

JW: You definitely learn to avoid certain people.

DB: [laughs] Name them Jack! Shame them!

JW: [laughs] You get a sense of the kind of people you want to work with. There are also contacts that we've made in Portico that could be really useful for Circle Traps.

DB: You're basically just a bit more hooked up really. It makes it easier to spread the music around. And like Jack says - not literally avoiding people - but you definitely feel a lot more savvy about who's just a bit of a blagger, who's serious... We did all that in Portico, met loads of funny people who were just... shysters.