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In Extremis

Wayward Circuits: An Interview With Ekoplekz
Harry Sword , March 19th, 2014 06:54

With Ekoplekz's latest album Unfidelity just released, Harry Sword catches up with Bristol's finest crafter of gnarled sound system wreckers to chat head-mashing bass and electronic tinkering

Alien static, aquatic subs and rouge transmitter bleeps; legacy technology guided by hidden hands; a sense that he'd be doing it anyway, regardless of whether anybody was listening - Nick Edwards is every inch the alchemist eccentric of yore, an underground mainstay emitting some of the most enveloping, warm and dilapidated vibrations of recent years, and laying them down on a four track cassette recorder. With an early 1970s Eko Encore synth at the heart of his set up, alongside a motley selection of fuzz boxes, guitar pedals and other half-forgotten gadgetry, he released his debut 12" ('Stalag Zero'/'Distended Dub') in 2010 on sub-heavy Bristolian mainstay Punch Drunk.

Since then he has kept up a torrent from his Bristol base, each new release adding to an already sprawling discography, impressive for an artist who has been releasing music regularly for less than half a decade. Double cassettes for Mordant Music, an album released under his own name on Editions Mego, two full-length Intrusive Incidentalz albums for Punch Drunk, collaborations with Bass Clef and Baron Mordant, all manner of self released material - it's enough to send Boomkat regulars cap in hand to an unsmiling bank manager. But while his back catalogue contains myriad ramshackle delights, his live shows are also beautifully strange affairs, a table full of re-wired hardware being manipulated in front of your eyes.

This month saw the release of his new album Unfidelity. Easily the most satisfying album in the expansive Ekoplekz oeuvre thus far, it's out now on Planet Mu. The Quietus caught up with Edwards on the telephone to talk tinkering, head-mashing subs and the artistic merits of self-imposed limitation.

The new record is perhaps the most outwardly 'functional' material you've written – could you tell us a little bit about working with Planet Mu?

Nick Edwards: It's really a sporadic selection of stuff that I recorded over a year. I'd never really worked like that before. The final tracklisting was chosen and curated by Mike Paradinas – hence his 'executive producer' title on the record – so really I was as surprised as anyone when he came back and said 'this is it, album's done' [laughs] – 'it's these tracks in this order'.

Mike knows what he wants, and he knows the way he wants things. He's brilliant to work with, though, because he left me pretty much to my own devices in the actual writing of the tracks. He never explicitly said 'I don't want this or that', it's more that the material on Unfidelity has gone through his special filter. My own music is pretty hard for me to sort out– I just do stuff [laughs] – so I was sending him the tracks, and as the months went by I started getting a feeling for what he likes and what he doesn't like. With this one, anything that was too noisy - or too 'modern' sounding – seemed to trouble him…

There is a certain whimsical melodic undercurrent to the record that fits with a lot of the current Mu stable.

NE: Indeed, in a sense I feel like this one picks up rather where Memowrekz left off. I'm not sure if you heard that one? It was a cassette I did a few years back for Mordant Music, and that had a similar feel to it, less abrasive perhaps, a strong sense of melody.

Was the relationship that Mu had with the music – hands on - different to your usual label relationships? You've released for a really wide variety of imprints over the last few years…

NE: Definitely. Generally speaking, this has been a completely new way of doing things for me. Normally a label will get in touch with me and we'll sort things out, I'll go off and write the music, deliver the record and they'll put it out – it's usually my choice of tracks in the order that I send them, and that's that. Like with the stuff I did for Editions Mego, Peter [Rehberg] was more of a facilitator for the record, if that makes sense.

How do you approach recording music? You're known for a hands on/live approach to gigging, does this translate to recording as well?

NE: It depends really. I've certainly done some tracks completely live - but then I've also done tunes that have been planned out a bit more. In terms of methodology, the one constant is the recording medium, and that is the same four-track cassette that I've used for years, since about 2001. I started out using domestic tape recorders and got my first four-track in 1992. It gives a certain quality to the recordings. Recording on a four-track impose limitations on the process that works for me, I like the limitations. I'll lay a backing track down and then improvise on top of that. I rarely do anything on the computer, other than an occasional bit of editing afterwards, which is certainly a lot easier than it was in the 80s with physical tape splicing and editing – an incredibly laborious process [laughs].

So does your music making go back to the late 80s?

NE: It does, yeah, but mostly completely unreleasable stuff. The thing is, these days, people can make stuff on a mobile phone that sounds halfway decent! I've got this app on my phone called 'Caustic' and you can play around with it, 808 samples, 707, all sorts of sounds, and it does sometimes make me think 'why on earth am I pissing around with all this analogue gear', but there we go. [laughs]

In the 80s, if you wanted to make electronic music, it was a much tougher and more expensive process. For many people it would involve either spending loads of money on gear or else cutting demos in a proper studio. But I had this Casio keyboard and tape recorder and used to do stuff in my bedroom – I'd listen to Mantronix and all that. That was what I had so that's what I used. In fact, Boards Of Canada have been known to use similar techniques on some of their stuff – it does add a certain aesthetic, tape saturation and the Casio. I kept my old tapes, but nothing got close to being properly released – I sold some, gave some away. I remember making one tape semi-professionally and giving it to Paul Hartnoll from Orbital – who was lovely - in about 1994 which had my name and number on it. He never called, though. [laughs]

And how about your musical journey since? You ran the Gutterbreakz blog; can you tell us a little about that?

NE: I spent most of the 90s trying to make it as a producer – which is a difficult game to get into at the best of times, let alone pre internet – and then I got married, had three boys and we moved house. I had to sell a lot of my gear, so a lot of the original set up went. I was busy being a dad and working, but still loved music. Then around 2003, music blogging really took off as a big thing. Simon Reynolds was one of the first – just a case of him logging on and sharing his thoughts online for free, which I thought was really cool. Then there was Woebot, which was great, and I fell into it around that time. I thought to myself, "well, I'm not doing music any more, so maybe I should just rant about it". I'd never written about music in my life, but I loved it. And of course it coincided with the early dubstep records, the first DMZ releases.

Did it immediately resonate with you?

NE: It did, yeah. I started hearing the early dubstep stuff, tunes by Loefah and Mala and Skream, and then quickly became aware of the music that was being made in Bristol. Bristol was always dubstep's second city, and the club scene over here was great, because it fitted my life really well at the time. I didn't have to travel for hours to hear the music, you know? I could spend the evening with my wife and then go out and get my head blasted by these massive subs all night in some club. [laughs] I'd take my camera with me and write it up the next day. At that point, I was the only person writing anything on the dubstep scene in Bristol – of course Martin [Clark] was doing Blackdown in London and also covering the various mutations in grime, so Martin did the London scene, and I was reporting on the Bristol scene.

But at the same time as writing I was getting all these demos coming, people were sending CD-Rs with tunes and mixes and all sorts. A very young Ben UFO submitted a kind of abstract, glitchy drum & bass mix in 2004, if I recall. Back then it wasn't as easy as just setting up a Mixcloud or SoundCloud account and uploading them – you needed to find a host, it was quite a lot of work. But it was great fun. I made links with a lot of people during that period that I'm still in touch with or working with today, a lot of whom are well known artists now. Joe Kowton, who back then was making Loefah-esque half step under the name of Narcossist, is doing amazing stuff now; Bass Clef, obviously Tom [Peverelist] and Rob [Pinch]. Bristol harboured - and continues to harbour - a lot of talent.

Did your passion for dubstep begin to wane?

NE: Not as such, but it got to a point where I felt like, "ok, my work here is done now" [laughs]. It had started to go overground. The deciding point was that Mary Anne Hobbs show 'Dubstep Warz'. That was the turning point. I kept up with what people were doing locally, but the blog didn't need to go on.

'Bromley Heath Special', from the Memowrekz cassette

What provided the impetus to start making music as Ekoplekz?

NE: I'd had a barren year, a 'lost year', in 2009, where I did absolutely nothing music related. The records I was buying were pretty much all from charity shops, at the time. I got into discovering weird music like that and I was in one of the shops that I'd visit regularly when I saw this machine looking at me. Eko Encore 49-P, a rudimentary, Italian-built synth from the seventies. It was just propped up; I looked at it, it looked at me, and I had to have it. [laughs] And it had a drum machine built into it! Before I knew it, I was buying other kit with it.

So you were never tempted to go down the Fruity Loops route?

NE: Ha! Funnily enough, I think I did get a copy of Fruity Loops at one point and start making a few basic tunes, but I see that in the same way as that phone app I was talking about earlier, good fun but not for me. You know, I can remember talking to Loefah about it at one point in the early days. He saw it as a toy – I remember him saying he didn't know how Skream could get the sounds that he did out of it: "How does he make it sound so good?"

What was the initial response for the early gigs? Am I right in thinking you initially played at relatively purist dubstep nights?

NE: The first gig I ever did was actually at Dubloaded, Pinch's night. He and Tom [Pev] used to live together, and I was round at their house one night when my first Punch Drunk 12" was being planned. Tom and I were talking, and Rob wondered in, and Tom just said, "Oh, and you should do a live set at Dubloaded - shouldn't he Rob?" So I was booked to play. I went on after Joy Orbison. I had no idea how it was going to go down. I set up all my boxes on the table, and everyone was really responsive. The only time I've ever had a bad response was in Switzerland, playing with Mensah. The crowd tolerated it for about half an hour, but I could see them getting increasingly agitated: "Play some dance music or fuck off". [laughs]

I'm interested in the preparation for gigs – how much of your show is improvised?

NE: It's a funny one that, because no two gigs are ever the same… I never know exactly what is going to happen but I'll always have a game plan of sorts, unless it's being billed as an improvisatory thing. I'll start preparing kit a few days before a gig and make sure everything works. I don't consider myself an 'entertainer' per se, but I want people to enjoy it, I don't want to be standing up there with a bunch of malfunctioning kit.

You released a record under your real name in 2012. Is experimenting under different monikers something that appeals to you?

NE: I'm conscious of the fact that a lot of Ekoplekz material got released in quick succession. It was difficult for people to keep up. The thing is, once you hand over the material to the label you have no control over when something comes out – at one point I had whole LPs that were overlapping. For this record I wanted to keep it apart a little, give it some space. I haven't really put out much stuff in the last year so hopefully I can come back with a bit of a bang on this one.

And how about the rest of this year?

NE: Well, I do have a bit of exclusive news, in that I'm doing an EP for West Norwood Cassette Library. Bob [Bhamra, WNCL head] is a good mate, and I love the stuff he puts out on the label. Mine is suitably bouncy! Should be out in August.

Ekoplekz's Unfidelity is out now via Planet Mu