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Sonic Router 034: Airhead Blasts The Dancefloor
Oli Marlow , September 3rd, 2014 07:06

The formerly delicate electronica of London-based musician Airhead has just taken a thrillingly warped swerve towards the dancefloor. For our latest Sonic Router column, he meets Oli Marlow to discuss how club experiences have informed his explosive upcoming Hemlock 12"

Photograph courtesy of Angela Stephenson

In a weird way, I kind of feel for Rob McAndrews, aka Airhead. Perpetually thought of in the press as James Blake's sideman and a producer who shares that same sort of roughened but spacious, Blake-esque kind of baroque delicacy, McAndrews released an album, For Years, on R&S that perhaps didn't wholly help his cause. Heady, intricate and full of protracted reverbs and slightly sour secrets, some commentators decided that he'd missed the boat; that his quirky attempt at 'downtempo' 'post-dubstep' was a couple of years too late – quite possibly because they'd spent their load on Warp's double header offering of Darkstar and Mount Kimbie's second albums, and had little patience for Airhead's slightly timid record that certainly required a bit of a bedding-in period.

With the public's collective attention span becoming harder and harder to grab a solid hold of, McAndrews' album work got glossed over, to the point where - even though For Years had moments, like 'Pyramid Lake', that positively ached for a run out on the dancefloor - he was lumped firmly into that moody, pensive Goldsmiths clique. (And for good reason, considering he employed some of the same vocal traits and, well, he's the touring guitarist and sometime writing partner for Blake). But earlier this year, after a rather intense period of running a weekly (now monthly) club night, 1-800 Dinosaur at Plastic People, he came back reborn to attack the dancefloor with a brace of tracks that reformatted his textural sound palette specifically to make people move.

"I think it was quite natural," McAndrews says of his shift in focus, over a windswept Skype call one Wednesday afternoon. "It's just that my environment changed so drastically. Obviously I've been traveling with James a lot in the last couple of years and when I was writing my earlier music, I was alone in my bedroom, with my headphones on late at night, and I was just making things I wanted to listen to. Then all of a sudden I was in a different place every day, and I didn't have time to just sit and sink into that level of concentration. I could only snatch an hour here or there and I was DJing a lot more, and I wanted to be able to play more of my own music out and for it to not be the ambient lull in the set…" he offers, definitely only half-joking.

"With the 1-800 release, it's fairly simple," he continues, trying to contextualise his recent material. "The production is much more direct. I'm not floating little secret sounds in and out of the background. It's like a 'there's your drums, there's your bass, there's your melody' kind of thing, which has much more impact in a club environment because people aren't going to pay much attention to the tiny details."

As Untold puts it in the press gumpf for the forthcoming two track Airhead 12" on his Hemlock label: "Airhead's writing big ones now..." And while that particular label owner's always been gloriously astute at using pithy one liners to describe his label material, this particular one feels fantastically apt. McAndrew's new tracks like 'Shirin' and 'October' underline this whole 'club music' notion effortlessly, with both tracks getting to their respective points quickly and with maximum impact.

Written specifically for the 1-800 Dinosaur club night at the end of last year, this latest glut of Airhead material reflects McAndrews' own listening practises quite honestly. While immersing himself more and more into DJing, the process of searching for and writing dancefloor material became much more important to him – naturally - and evidently it's actually changed a bit of his outlook. Speaking to him, underneath all his self-effacing charm and that rare kind of joyfully detrimental Britishness, it's obvious that he's treating the dancefloor music he's making for what it is and, for an artist who's never been particularly prolific in terms of releases, it's just a very welcome thing to hear him experimenting again.

"I'd written about an hour's worth of music," he reveals, in part discussing the importance of the 1-800 Dinosaur club night on his new output and in part talking about the idea of making music for the crowd. "I could almost play a set exclusively of my own music, and I just thought, 'Why not?' We'd done a good few shows at Plastic People and I was comfortable there and it got a good reaction, and that was the one of the best feelings I've ever had! Like, no one's heard this music before, so no one actually knows it's me - well, maybe some people could tell - but to see people dancing and having a good time and knowing I was responsible for the music as well was... incredible.

"I spend the better part of a year in front of generally quite big audiences," he continues, contrasting his close quarters club experiences with some of the bigger performances as part of Blake's band. "Seeing them react to this music and seeing what triggers different reactions has really seeped in. Seeing people crying and having really emotional moments, all this stuff just reminds you why we do all this, why we make music."

Balancing the poise and intricacy and poignant, extended silences of his performances with James Blake alongside the much more striking, blunt and fluid requirements of a club set, must be a bit of a headfuck for him, you imagine. But in some of this new material it feels like McAndrews is really learning when the emotional temerity needs a vicious culling, and when he should just let rip and leave that drum break to roll on. Even before I spoke to him and heard firsthand of his confidence woes and his 'crippling self-doubt', it seemed pretty obvious that Airhead was a slightly introverted musician (you know, the type of artist whose press shots come heavily obscured in artsy ways, with shadows of in-joke objects or some faded photographic technique). But McAndrews' harder, more rhythmically intense music is still so in keeping with the jagged, home-processed sound palette he's explored throughout his music to date, that frankly it's come as even more of a welcome surprise.

"I just get bored quite easily of doing the same thing, which is why a lot of my releases haven't really had much continuity," he concludes. "I'm not really concerned about being a house DJ or belonging to any particular scene. I'm more interested in keeping myself excited and inspired, and the only way I can do that is by trying new things. I think it's important when writing to try and be ignorant, and make mistakes, and do things in a way that inspires new ideas, otherwise it becomes formulaic and so boring that ultimately you end up not wanting to make music. Or at least, I do."

Airhead's Believe EP is out now on 1-800 Dinosaur. His Hemlock 12", featuring the tracks 'October' and 'Macondo', is out on 1st September

And for more warped club music, frosty beats and more sub-bass than you can shake a stick at, click here to visit the Sonic Router website