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A Quietus Interview

It All Comes Back To Garage: DJ Q Interviewed
Rory Gibb , September 4th, 2014 04:42

Bassline and garage innovator DJ Q's debut album Ineffable hit 2014 with a thrilling and much-needed blast of UK rave-pop. Following the album's release earlier this year, Rory Gibb catches up with him to chat feelgood music, perfectionism and the demise of bassline

"It all comes back to garage," declares Shollen Quarshie. Sitting in a central London cafe, the man known to most as DJ Q is discussing the origins of his chimeric, ever-shapeshifting vision of UK dance music. It might seem a modest statement from someone so quietly influential. As well as being a former BBC Radio 1Xtra regular and one of the key figures behind the mid-2000s evolution of bassline - a saucer-eyed and steroid-pumped mutant child of house and 4x4 garage - you can now hear echoes of his wide-ranging attitude to production (as well as Q trademark sonic tics) everywhere throughout grime and bass-heavy house styles. Yet he's also got a fair point: even while stretching some of its characteristics to cartoonish proportions, garage - and especially the deft, kinked motion of two-step - still forms the heartbeat of Q's sound. That's highlighted by his recent output for the London-based Local Action label, which feels like a distilling of the impulses that ran riot in his earlier work. On singles like 'Brandy & Coke' and the glorious, often surprisingly cryptic rave-pop of this year's Ineffable album, he's slowed the tempo and cut the excess fat, leaving music that's equally defined by what's left unsaid: glossy drums, pizzicato string pinpricks and semi-nonsense vocal cut ups, and in between them acres of clear space for bodies and minds to explore.

Thoughtful but to-the-point in his answers, on one level Q seems happy to let his music do most of the talking. Throughout our conversation his laptop remains open, pushed to the side of the table, and he admits that he spends most of his time on there, tweaking existing song projects or developing new ideas. "I'm making music all the time, I love it that much," he tells me just after we've met. "I play with ideas all the time, I won't finish them, but I'll be doing that constantly. And then I might come back to them, even years later sometimes, just going through old files. I'm always on the computer - either email, checking tracks I've downloaded, sorting tracks for DJing, or making them."

You can directly hear that personality trait translated in sound, too; listen to several of Q's tracks in a row, for example on 2012's colossal, self-released compilation of his older bassline tracks The Archive, and you can hear specific ideas, motifs and sounds bleeding from track to track. It's as if his mind is racing as fast as the music's 132-plus BPM tempo - a mad scientist roaming through his sample vaults and current projects, busily recombining drum patterns and vocal-cut ups into freaky-yet-beautiful new mutants. "I can be working on three tracks at once, switching between them," he says. Doesn't that make it a challenge to stay focused? "I prefer it like that," he replies. "If I'm stuck on one thing for too long, I get bored and nothing ever comes out. But if I'm working on three things at the same time, I can switch ideas and refresh my brain."

Growing up in Huddersfield, garage entered Q's life as a teenager, and eventually led him to start delving into DJing and production. It was when his music found its way into the hands of DJs at Sheffield club Niche, the crucible for bassline in the early to middle years of last decade, that he became drawn into the sound that was fast coalescing there: a fast, wired, almost aggressively euphoric offshoot of speed garage, with - as the genre's name suggested - an almost pathological fixation on time-warping bass motifs. Later, Q's deliciously madcap 2008 single 'U Wot?' (which cracked the UK charts, albeit to #50), alongside T2's 'Heartbroken', became one of the few widely-known songs from a genre that otherwise struggled to gain much traction beyond its heartlands in the North of England.

I can still vividly remember the first time I heard bassline in my late teens, speeding around suburban North London with a childhood friend from Yorkshire who'd come to visit in his stereo-souped, subwoofer-loaded car, packing a deck of CDRs, including some recorded off the mixing desk at Niche. The music was familiar yet alien; that delirious intensity and gleefully cannibalistic sampling approach characteristic of most rave styles from Northern England, but with sub-bass shuddering up through the seats to make your entire body pulse and distort in time with the music. Though evolving out of garage around the same time as dubstep and grime, in the hands of Q and other producers around Niche, bass wasn't the tarry sludge of halfstep dubstep or grime's pneumatic staccato - it was closer to silly putty, kneaded, squashed and stretched into weird shapes, layered, filtered and modulated to within an inch of its life. Indeed, listen to the music on Q's Archive and the bass seems to have an independent agency of its own, writhing and wriggling around the frequency spectrum like an unruly dog at the end of its leash. His tracks from around that time are the strangest of blends. They're strikingly sophisticated on a compositional and emotional level; full of luscious string harmonies, glistening voices and almost song-like arrangements, they feel like pop bursting free of its linguistic and structural shackles to dissolve into pure, subconscious, tactile experience. Yet they're simultaneously almost impossibly daft, with their caricature-ish nature sometimes verging on laugh-out-loud funny.

Listening back now, you can hear the influence of Q's music writ large on 2014 dance music, not least in London's Butterz collective, whose whirlings together of fluorescent melody, unruly bass and swung, snappy drums pick up and run with many of the ideas he laid down at the time. Tellingly, Q has just released a collaborative single with Butterz crew member Flava D, 'PS', via Local Action. On his album Ineffable meanwhile, released in spring, he dialed down some of his music's most exaggerated traits to leave lovely, spacious dancefloor pop. It does, however, retain that fantastic see-sawing motion between sublime - 'Through The Night' with Louise Williams is a transcendent, heady pop song, a rave-turned-melancholy anthem to rival Crazy Cousinz's evergreen 'Do You Mind?' - and barking mad, with grime MC Discarda taking a hilariously shouty turn on 'Lassie'.

"It was listening to my cousins' tape packs and that, that's how I got into garage properly," Q recalls, as we settle down to talk. "Obviously I was into the speed garage that was in the charts, the Double 99 'RIP Groove', the Armand Van Helden stuff. Then when the tape packs started coming out with the two-step stuff, that's what really grabbed me. It was school age, I was too young to go out, I must have been about 13, 14; I've been buying vinyl since 12, 13, even when I never had decks I'd just buy records, 'cause there was certain tracks you could [only] get on record.

"Garage was different to anything else that was about at the time," he reflects. "I don't know, it felt like it was ours, that's what drew me towards it."

So there was a strong sense of community around it?

SQ: Course. Everyone used to swap tapes with each other, and record tapes.

Was it quite an easy step for you to start making music from there?

SQ: I started DJing before I was making music. And at the time I started making music, it was because all the DJs around seemed to be buying the same records from the same record shops. So I started making my own tracks just to be different. It just came from there. Hudderfield has a big musical community, so a lot of people were doing music, not just garage, there was drum & bass, [people like] L Double, Flex records and that, which was big for me growing up, then you had Andy Jay, part of '7 Wonders'. Seeing more people involved in the music industry made me want to be involved as well. And it made me realise that it wasn't too far away, it was in my grasp, I could get it.

What actually got you into making music?

SQ: I did GCSE Music at school, and my teacher showed me Cubase and I just went from there. I was 14 at the time. [The tracks I made] were rubbish! I used to hear tracks on tapes, and trying to copy the riffs and stuff like that - that's how I started practicing. I was fortunate, 'cause my music teacher came to my house to set up my computer so I could make tracks at home as well. That's how I started practising more, I was 16 I think. When did I make 'FIAT'? 'FIAT' was college. 11 years ago. It still gets played now!

When did you realise your music was good enough to play in clubs?

SQ: You know what it was, right? Way back in the day I used to make songs, and I never used to play them out. I always just used to make bootleg remixes of garage tracks and play them, but not my own actual productions. [But] my friends used to play them out, everyone used to go crazy. That's when I started playing my own music. I'm conscious of what I put out. If I'm not 100% happy with what I'm doing, even if a hundred people might say the track's good, I won't want to put it out.

Presumably you were too young to go to raves at that point. Was it a big shift when you started going out raving?

SQ: It was weird, becuase the first time I went out raving, one of the DJs played my song in the rave! At Sidewinder in Milton Keynes, it was [DJ] Principal, and he played one of my songs in the rave. I've always been in raves listening to my songs...

Were you locked into what was happening in London at the time?

SQ: Yeah, 'cause at that time it was the Sidewinder tape packs that were the big thing. You'd buy a Sidewinder tape pack and then go to the record shop and then ask for every song on the tape! That was the main outlet for music, up north, anyway.

When did you get involved with the bassline scene?

SQ: That just happened. Bassline was just Niche. They used to play house, and then started playing 4/4 garage, and then I think it was Nev Wright, a DJ from Niche, who said, 'Are you Q?' and I was like 'Yeah', and he was like 'I've been playing your tracks at Niche and they've been doing quite well - have you got any more music you can send me?' So I used to send him promos, and then as started playing more in Niche, that's how I got more popular in that scene. At one point Niche was the only place you could hear that sort of music until it became popular enough to branch out to other clubs and stuff. [The music I was making] was 4/4 garage - that's what worked.

Did you see bassline as a defined sound?

SQ: As it progressed, there was a sound that was associated with bassline; the sound changed because of local producers getting involved [when people had been mixing together house and 4/4 garage], so it became a pretty wide sound, it branched down to the Midlands.

What was the atmosphere of the scene like at that time? What I like about the music on Archive is how euphoric it is, it's really rough but not violent - it's bright, euphoric.

SQ: It's feelgood music, man. When those tracks came on, you'd know everyone would be dancing.

There were plenty of reports of violence in the scene, though, and associated police attention.

SQ: It was the usual shit basically - police not policing events properly. It happened with garage - So Solid got blamed for a lot of stuff that wasn't really their fault - it happened with grime, bassline, even funky house, I heard of a DJ getting banned from a club in London for playing funky house. I don't know man, it's like, a certain sort of people get associated with genres and then police just deal with things the wrong way. It's like, you go to a normal pub on a Saturday night, there'll be a big brawl, the pub won't get shut down; but music stuff seems to get shut down. Everything gets tarnished with the same brush.

What impact did that have on the scene in terms of music and dynamics?

SQ: When Niche closed it killed the scene. Apart from the main heads in the scene, the other DJs weren't getting bookings or anything. So rather than keep sticking at it, and making tracks, they just moved to other genres. Now no one makes bassline. People make stuff that sounds like bassline, but no one makes bassline. And I think as well, 'cause a lot of the DJs started off as producers, when they stopped getting bookings, instead of carrying on producing and putting music out they just stopped altogether. Burgaboy, now he sings, makes R&B; Subzero makes house; Pantha makes house now under a different name.

You released Archive a few years ago and it seemed to arrive at an interesting time - you were starting to release on Local Action and Unknown To The Unknown, and it sort of summed up what you'd done previously.

SQ: I had loads of tracks sitting on my computer, people asking for tracks every day, people going 'Q, when you releasing this?' And I wanted to get everything from my back cat out of the way so I could just move forward. [Before that for a few years] I was on radio, and because of that a lot of people forgot I produced. I was releasing bits, I was doing a lot of remixes and stuff, I was in that trap of just doing remix upon remix upon remix. And 'cause I was playing in Niche all the time, I was making tracks [specifically] to play in Niche, but then nothing was happening with them, I wasn't releasing them. A lot of those are on Archive.

When you started releasing stuff on Local Action, it was slower than the earlier stuff...

SQ: That 'Brandy & Coke' was the first proper garage release I'd done. That track was never meant to be a release, I made it for fun, and I sent it to about a hundred contacts on my mailing list. Tom [Lea, boss of Local Action] was one of them. He heard the track and got in contact.

Did that trigger you to go further into that straight-up garage direction?

SQ: Growing up, that's the style of music I always wanted to make. But I never wanted to make it [initially], because I didn't think my production skills could execute how I wanted the track to sound. So as soon as I got them sounding right, I just carried on. It comes natural...

Ineffable goes further down that route - it's a pop album.

SQ: I didn't realise it was a pop album until Tom said it was a pop album! It wasn't the intention. I don't think, 'I'm going to make a pop song' - I just make music. But I love working with vocalists. [Vocalists] that I've heard that I like, I get in touch with, and see if they're up for it. I spent a lot of time [in the past] making bassline instrumentals, and the first proper song I put out was 'Over Me' with Louise Williams, that was 2011, from there I've just always been working with vocalists.

I wanted to ask about 'Through The Night' - it's brilliant.

SQ: Louise smashed it. 'Through The Night' was [originally] vocalled on another beat altogether, it was on a house track that was going to be a follow up to 'Over Me'. But we never did anything with it. Then another old track I had, I put the 'Through The Night' vocals on there; then I sent them back to her, and then she [re-recorded]. That process is what a lot of the stuff was like on the album - 'Trust Again' was built over a different track. I think the only tracks that got written to the actual instrumental that it's on now were 'Closer' and 'Let The Music Play'.

The album feels like a bit of a diary of all the things you've done over the years.

SQ: It was never intended to be like that, there were no plans to do an album to begin with, I was just making tracks and songs, then we brought them together. [The album] is a representation of me - what I'm into, what I listen to, what I've grown up listening to, what I love.

Things in music have shifted a lot in the time you've been involved, it must have been interesting to see from your vantage point.

SQ: It's changed, but I think it's changed for the better. Without the internet I don't think I'd be where I am today. It's played a big part in my music.

It's a different state of affairs than it's been for a while - listening to crews like Butterz, you can hear all these different styles are all mixed together.

SQ: It's how it was back in the day. Garage was 4/4, two step, grime, and a lot of weird bits in between - it's all in one place. Before the last two years, everyone was so held on saying, 'This is funky house, this is bassline, this is deep house, this is grime', separating everything. It shouldn't be like that. It all comes back to garage. It's like it was back in the day. You go to a rave and hear everything you want to hear, not just one specific subgenre.

You've been releasing music for over a decade. Do you think what you want to get out of your music has changed in that time?

SQ: Nah, because when I first started making music, it was never like, 'I'm going to make music to be successful'. It was just, I'm going to make music 'cause I love it. And that's how it is now. I just happen to make a living from it, but I still do music for the same reasons. If I didn't love music, I'd try and do something else. You definitely can [tell when someone's just doing it for the money]. A lot of producers who were around back in the day, and have come back now, you can't hear the passion in the music anymore, they're just making music for the sake of it. I still have that passion in me, and I can't see myself losing it any time soon.

DJ Q's Ineffable was released earlier this year, and DJ Q & Flava D's 'PS' is out now, both on Local Action