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Escape Velocity

Compelling Form: An Interview With Bruce
Glenn Raymond , April 14th, 2015 07:58

In the final year of his university music course, Bristol producer Bruce decided to leave behind electro-acoustic experimentation to make self-described 'bangers'. He tells Glenn Raymond why he's hoping to shake people's expectations with his mangled dancefloor constructions

Talking to Larry McCarthy, the Bristol-based electronic producer who releases under the name Bruce, he offers up a useful analogy in trying to discuss his music. "The idea of latching onto a single piece of sound and fucking with it and just manipulating it in different ways is what I try to do. Just compelling it, controlling it and that amazing feeling you have when you play with that elastic putty stuff; just seeing how it moulds yet has a form," he says.

While succinct in content, it's a statement that shows exactly why he makes for such a thoughtful interviewee and encases his musical approach, manipulating genre constructs in a way that manages to be destructive and constructive simultaneously. The dancefloor-aimed devices of house and techno linger in the blurry framework of Bruce's output, but they jostle alongside other sonic forms, pushing the result beyond categorisation. What's left is a nauseous juxtaposition of the alien and the familiar.

Bruce's two releases to date - Not Stochastic on Hessle Audio and 'Just Getting Started'/'Tilikum' on Livity Sound's Dnuos Ytivil imprint - are fine representations of this mix. The two labels' remits form a Venn diagram of sorts for forward-looking dance music in the UK, sharing a willingness to showcase bold steps into sonically ambiguous territory underpinned by an awareness of what can be utilised in a club environment. As such, it's no surprise to find Bruce's productions here: music that disregards convention, but doesn't compromise on emotional content and, crucially, can tear a dancefloor to pieces.

Being capped by Hyponik as their breakthrough act of 2014 probably highlights what's been a frenetic period for you in quite a short space of time. The two releases have been received so well, how have you found it?

Larry McCarthy: You know, despite how daft it sounds, I'd be lying if getting to this point hadn't been some sort of ridiculous plan for such a long time. I guess from around Christmas time during my last year of university, I realised that if I was to graduate and be doing what I wanted to do, I needed to make some 'bangers'. From then on, I didn't think about anything else other than getting releases on the labels I'd dreamed of being on. It turned out the work paid off and/or I got very lucky, as what those labels stand for are what has driven me to want to do what I do.

[It] kind of blew my mind a bit, as I'm a bit of a sucker for getting carried away with my emotions, so being back in my hometown with my parents has definitely kept me grounded. It's been pretty intense but whilst it's been intense, it has become a weird way of reaching normality. A few people unfortunate enough to be around me when I began to fully embrace my tunnel vision-like mission have said that I seem to be at much more peace with myself than before the releases. Which yeah, I can believe in. The drive has manifested into my DJing now.

Building on that notion, it's always interesting to note how DJs interpret their function within the structure of a night. Considering that DJing as Bruce is still a relatively new experience, how are you negotiating this?

LM: I learnt very quickly that the best approach is to embrace as much calm as possible. The more things I find comfort in, the more it feels like an enjoyable experience and of course, that's why you do this stuff in the first place. I've got to not get hung up on the DJing side of things. I've realised it's a very different process to the one I'm used to with making tunes, mostly because of the different terms of responsibility, you know? With DJing, you've got a finite amount of time in a space that is, more often than not, full of non-scrutinising people that want to listen and dance - ideally! Whereas with production, it comes naturally to me to spend so long meticulously beating myself up over details whilst [I'm] on a completely introverted and isolated level.

Considering the prominence of your university, Bath, and its alumni - Batu, Asusu, Vessel, et al - in shaping electronic music culture in the UK, how do you feel it has informed your approach to production and signifying your own sound?

LM: My university course was best suited towards people who were interested in sounds on a real practical or even vocational level. Furthermore, it grasped sound on such a serious, sonic level and it showed us the ways in which sound works in all applicable, modern professions. Yet something that was discussed many times [was that] if people made beats, their best stuff was always produced outside university assignments. Whilst the skills they learnt on the course influenced their ideas and ability, I guess people found it hard to create music that adhered to intellectual criteria yet contextually belonged outside of those constructs. Whilst this was frustrating I found it okay, mostly because I'm a bit of a nerd! Plus, it taught me to work more methodically.

There was an inherent marriage between creativity and technology, which at times did feel like quite a battle. When it came to my final year project, I thought I was going to do electro-acoustic stuff, thinking that it would be respectfully academic and utilise everything the course had taught me. However it came around the same time that the tunnel vision hit, so I changed last minute to make a bunch of beats instead. I had such a connection with my lecturer and he was into it but it was a weird process of separating myself from the educational side of things and realising my mission to make tunes. The core of his teaching remained in the work, but it was funny how I juggled knowledge of what works to get a good mark and what works in a club.

You said you wanted to stray away from the rubric of your course and make tracks outside of that, but the B1 on the Hessle Audio release, 'Trip', was originally a piece constructed for a module at university.

LM: That is true. It consists mostly of a sample - as these things always do - from the Timmy Thomas track 'Why Can't We Live Together'. The finished version used in the submission had a big, emphatic synth in there but the Hessle guys persuaded me to remove it. They said it was too earnest and too emotional, which was something I couldn't disagree with more at the time! But I was just like, 'You guys must know what you're on about', and now I agree and completely see their reasoning. A lot of people have come back to me and said it's their favourite track so I'm grateful they directed me!

Obviously boundaries within electronic music are constantly shifting but as well as being fluid guidelines, they can also be very limiting. Your productions seem to flirt with genre, but deliberately shy away from categorising themselves in a coherent sense.

LM: Well, I find my music really hard to define. It's often described as techno but I don't think it's as simple as that. When my mum or her friends ask, it is techno: 'You know mum, techno! "ush ush ush [fist pumps]"!' But I think genres and sub-genres in the current scene - and it has been this way for a while - have become somewhat pointless outside their journalistic purpose. From how it's seen from the outside world, the [concept of] genre seems to have become a parody of itself. And in a broader sense, both a result and a cause of this have meant that defining this mass of new music has become quite a disorientating task. I can say in all honesty, I haven't got that great of an understanding or knowledge when it comes to defining a genre. But when it comes to making tracks, of course I think about how they are going to be presented but I try not to think about how it will be categorised. I have no time for adhering to a particular sound. Whenever I do, I produce crap as a result.

Well, your production seems to interact with the listener in an incredibly self-conscious way.  By this, I mean, we all listen to music on many levels: passively, emotionally and even critically, yet your music probes a space beyond that, where you seem to be deliberately working with ideas of genre and familiarity to present them in an alien form. For instance, look at the way the audience react during Kowton's Dekmantel Boiler Room set when he plays 'Tilikum'. How much awareness goes into this side of the production, where your music tries to reconstitute the way we experience dancefloor convention?

LM: Well, in the case of 'Tilikum', it's just down to my love of silence and how it works as a dynamic and empathetic device. Such tricks are very effective at shaking people's expectations and I thoroughly enjoy feeding from that. There was even a period where I wanted to make people dance and cry, dance and cry, you know, [make] music that is overbearingly emotional. Another example is when the interviewer in Ben [UFO]'s Red Bull lecture was so convinced there was a technical fault during the playback of 'Not Stochastic'. As a moment, it's easy to laugh at, but it gives me such pleasure to witness. It is so important to me to engage with people on that level and see them reacting in that way. However, it shouldn't involve too much thought; it should manifest itself in its own organic way during the process of the track's production. Sometimes it's a bit of a fluke!

Not every element of a track is controlled and intended to happen - things come about by stumbling onto something and involve a certain level of serendipity.

LM: That's it. Something I'm proud of with the Hessle release is that all three tracks function and relate all in their own way. 'Not Stochastic' just burst out. 'Trip' was nurtured over two particular periods. 'My Legs Wouldn't Go Quick Enough' was a very slow process. I wanted to make a track that constantly builds with rhythm before it sucks you in and envelopes you. It was mostly inspired by a recurring dream I used to have as a child, crawling to the safety of my parents across the hall, but it would always end with me getting a foot away before the indescribable darkness that was chasing me swallowed me up. I've been incredibly fortunate with my upbringing and not been exposed to too much extreme emotion and through my work I've tried to project emotions quite severely on myself to see my own reaction and that of those around me, on an almost guilty level. Even the name, which came from Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange's The Dreams actually came afterwards, when I heard the track in Surgeon's Freerotation ambient mix and laughed at how it fitted the context and theme so perfectly.

It's an incredibly descriptive title and shapes the narrative of the track. Yet in the second half, there seems to be an acceptance of the previously ensuing chaos, as a more tranquil focus laps into it.

LM: Yeah. I tried to capture the sense of an accepted doom that Delia Derbyshire did so brilliantly. To make sure this message was clear yet controlled, [it] took a lot of tinkering of sounds [for them] to interact with the peculiarity of dreams, which by nature are, of course, insular. I wanted people to share that same moment when they listened, whether it be on the dancefloor or tucked up in bed.

Music is by its very nature a vehicle for emotion and a document of self-experience. I guess dance music is often overlooked in its capacity to represent those ideals.

LM: It is a vessel for emotions! Absolutely. I feel sometimes the importance of melancholy is disregarded in favour of big basslines, within club constructions anyway. I guess the trick is to nail both! It's an experience people are used to when it comes to enjoying other art forms, or anything for that matter, that involves you as an individual. So why should dance music be any different?

Bruce plays Start The Bus in Bristol on April 17 and b2b with Chubba at Hoxton Basement in London on April 24