What He Does With What He Has: Blawan Interviewed

In 2012, Jamie Roberts, AKA Blawan, was poised on the verge of breaking through to a mainstream that he wasn't sure he wanted any part of and then fate intervened in the form of a life-threatening illness. On the release of his debut album Wet Will Always Dry, he talks to John Doran about how this ended up being a blessing in disguise

Portraits by Marie Staggat

Even a cursory glance at Blawan’s page on Discogs reveals a career of two halves. Jamie Roberts, a 31-year-old DJ and producer from Yorkshire who lives in Germany, arrived onto the already maturing and mutating dubstep scene in 2009, seemingly out of nowhere.

Nestled in among tracks by the likes of Peverelist, Skream and Benga on Chef And Ramadanman’s Dubstep Allstars Vol. 7 was his first ever commercially available track, ‘Fram’ – a twitchy but muscular number bristling with hollowed out, ligneous beats. This lack of precedent and biographical information was due to the fact that Roberts, who had little previous DJ/production experience, had made the track while a student in Leeds as a bedroom producer; only sending it off to the then local label, Hessle Audio, on something of a whim. Within two hours of pressing send on the email he was speaking to David Kennedy (AKA Pearson Sound, one of the three founders of the label along with Ben UFO and Pangaea) and that was that.

The track had its own release in 2010 and it was herald to a slew of increasingly popular twelves slung out all over the shop: the stark but irrepressible, 303-bolstered funk of ‘Bohla’ and the monstrous acid techno of ‘What You Do With What You Have’, both on R&S in 2011; then the popular UK garage deconstruction/R&B cut up of ‘Getting Me Down’, culminating first with an inclusion in Radiohead’s relevancy-blagging TKOL RMX project in the shape of a ‘Bloom’ remix and secondly with 2012’s least likely club anthem.

The Fugees-mangling trauma techno of ‘Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage’ from the His He She & She EP came out on Hinge Finger and there was a mad scramble in a lot of places to find physical copies on vinyl before they all sold out. This awesome, singular track was inescapable in the best kind of way during the last few months of 2012 and early 2013, garnering the support of everyone from Jeff Mills to Skrillex. (The latter gave it an unofficial, unwanted and point-missing bells and whistles remix – its original primal power clearly emanating from its murky, overdriven minimalism, a world of microscopically traced and horrific but giddy detail rising partially out of the dirt when heard on a club system.)

He was a name that was on everyone’s lips, a key figure in the newly reinvigorated scene for industrial techno, but Blawan did nothing to capitalise on this. There was nothing in the way of new releases for nearly three years and bit by bit, even his hectic DJing schedule began to dry up. The main question to me was, did this represent a failure to capitalise or a refusal to?

He returned to production relatively quietly in 2015 with his own label Ternesc and a seemingly new modus operandi, which saw him shifted into a much more considered post-industrial analogue realm created (for the most part) on modular synthesiser. This second phase has recently culminated with the release of his excellent debut album Wet Will Always Dry, which sees him applying the type of punchier, more dynamic production that typified the first stage of his career to his new found analogue sound.

Roberts, who is affable, down to earth and hasn’t lost a smidgen of his Doncaster accent despite leaving his hometown a decade ago for the brighter lights of Leeds, then London, then Berlin, reveals that his temporary absence was both enforced and a refusal. The lifestyle of a touring DJ is undoubtedly as absurd, as it is glamorous but less has been said historically about how clearly punishing it is as well. The popular DJs Complaining Twitter account has been silent for well over a year now and it remains to be seen how the recently published anonymous account of disc jockey excess, Faber’s The Secret DJ, will fare in the wake of the untimely and shocking death of Avicii in April and in the more considered times we find ourselves in.

He tells me that the gap in his CV was unavoidable as it was down to serious health issues but he is quite sanguine about the affair, looking back on it in admirably glass-half-full terms: "During that period I got really ill. It hit me particularly bad because ages before I became a musician, when I was in my teens, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness and it is something that has made my life a little bit difficult.

"Because of this ongoing problem, what happened in 2014 just hit me like a ton of bricks and the music went out of the window. At first I was still playing gigs but it was getting harder and harder. I was cancelling a gig here or there, then a few gigs here or there, then cancelling a week of gigs, then another week of gigs, then cancelling a month…

"My body was clearly telling me that I needed to stop but stupidly I didn’t listen to it and I ended up in hospital. I had to have major surgery. The pre-existing condition was exacerbated by the stress of travelling, partying a little bit too much, not looking after myself. And that’s what happens. Your body just stops.

"I remember lying in hospital waiting to go into surgery thinking, ‘What the fuck am I going to do next?’ I had a choice. I could either really knuckle down and think about how I was going to approach the rest of my career or I could stop doing music. Because the way I was living and working was killing me, you know?

"So I got out of hospital, started my own label and decided to run everything myself instead of working with other people. I knew I had to try and keep it a bit more chill…

"There’s more to it than that… some other stuff… that’s just a potted history…" He tails off, clearly uncomfortable talking about it but when asked how his health is now, he switches up a gear, "Great man. Better than I’ve ever been. I’m not on any medication at all. It’s good. It’s good. It’s… good! [LAUGHS] You know, it was a difficult time, having a two year period where I was always having people asking me, ‘Why aren’t you releasing any music’, and to be honest I was a bit shy about telling them. But the truth of it was my long term health condition colliding with the relentless gigging and that killed me off for a couple of years. It was a really bad period."

Fans of Blawan’s music will probably be aware that one of his many side-projects is Trade – a duo that sees him work with Tony Child (Surgeon), their first EP, Works The Long Hours, came out in 2013. This was something of a coup for Roberts as Surgeon’s music is as close as he can come to locating a formative Damascene experience from his youth involving electronic music: "It was weird me ending up working with Tony because he was a hero of mine. I was obsessed with him and Regis when I was younger. When Surgeon released those Whose Bad Hands Are These? edits… Fusing techno and dubstep together in 2007. That for me completely changed everything."

But if Child was a big presence in terms of music originally, then this influence would become more pronounced when the younger producer got ill.

Roberts explains: "During this period me and Tony started to become friends and do shows together. He was always sending me emails in the past saying he was into my music and that was a massive deal for me. But after we played a show together I guess he could see that something wasn’t right in my life that I was suffering a little bit. After a while he asked me what was going on and eventually I opened up to him. Over a two-year period he made it his mission to get me to be healthier. To get me into yoga. He tried to get me onto a different path basically.

"I didn’t carry on with yoga to the extent that Tony does because it’s a massive part of his life but he really helped me. He also gave me amazing advice on how I should handle myself, regarding stuff like mental stress and the music business. I was too worried about what other people thought of me.

"He has been a pivotal character for me. He came along at the right time. He has played a pivotal role in helping me redefine what I want to do with my music and career.

"I owe him a lot. You can ask quite a few different people about Tony and they will all tell you the same thing. He’s like this healing character [laughs] who produces such a crazy energy."

But as serious as his health situation was, it gave him something invaluable – time to think: "I always had an idea of how I was going to change my sound but this enforced break gave me time to meditate on how I would do it."

His sense of unease with the way his musical path was unfolding grew rapidly in the immediate aftermath of ‘Why They Hide Their Bodies’. He says: "I was happy with it for a few different reasons but all of the attention focused on the track was highlighting where my career could end up going if I wasn’t careful. It felt like I’d lost control of the reins a little bit. So having a break so I could reassess what I was doing was a really good thing for me. It some ways it was a horrible time but I’m also glad it happened in a way because it allowed me to step back and think about where I was going with my music.

"So that record ended up becoming a full stop after all of that stuff."

For such a heavy, psychically bent, gonzo track it has a much sweeter origin, as a present for his mum: "It took me a while to realise that people were really into it. I kind of only made the record in the first place really because it was using samples from one of my Mum’s favourite albums, which was by the Fugees. I said to my mum, ‘If I was going to remix this album for you, this is what I would do.’ [laughs] But then I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually kind of worth releasing’. But it was a tongue-in-cheek record – you can tell it’s not totally serious – but I was surprised at how it took off. And it scared me as well, if I’m honest. It was a direction I didn’t want to go in."

Given the size it reached and the fact it was getting support from DJs like Skrillex in huge festival closing sets, one can’t help but wonder if the Fugees themselves heard it. He bursts out laughing: "No. No, thank god. I think I messed the vocals up too much for that to happen."

Roberts has a close relationship with his Mum describing her as more like a sister: "I’m nearly 31 and my Mum is only 46. She was around when house was first breaking but it wasn’t her scene. When I was younger she was always playing the Fugees and Brandy in the house. She was into pop and R&B."

His main influence wasn’t family or friends or even a local scene however. Born in Doncaster and raised in Barnsley ("I was never part of the Sheffield thing"), nights out clubbing were a rarity when he still lived at home. He is, he says, a hermit. He was then and still is now. Most of his inspiration and research came via the internet: "I’m talking when Napster first came around, and you’d be using shitty dial-up and it would take an entire day to download an MP3!"

When he got to university just down the road in Leeds, his initial introduction to bass music was via a West Indian social club that used to put on reggae and dub nights and then, via a new friend, to the whole sonically "fucked up" world of Hessle Audio and Hotflush.

He’s keen to point out that the title of his debut album Wet Will Always Dry doesn’t actually mean anything but adds: "When you grow up somewhere like South Yorkshire, all of your parents’ generation have these mad sayings and a lot of them don’t even mean anything. I wanted to create something that reminded me of that."

While it’s tempting to couch this album in terms of it being long-awaited he disagrees vehemently quoting inexperience: "A lot of people say this but I don’t see it like that. It would have been so wrong for me to do an album before now." (Although later in the interview he will reveal he has more than one aborted attempt to do this under his belt – the reason it worked this time was he worked on it constantly without a break for two months, which finally led to the consistency in sound he required. With all previous attempts, even the shortest amount of time taken as a break led to a noticeable shift in sound and production technique. "I get bored. My mind wanders," he explains.)

When it finally comes time for producers to switch gear and make an album for the first time you can often get the impression that behind the scenes there’s a sense of panic barely being held at bay. Suddenly, someone used to putting out the odd WAV or 12" here or there has all of this space to fill and a roster of label, marketing and press people to talk to. The need to create the purely functional gives way to the temptations of the textural and suddenly a new spectral figure insinuates itself into the consciousness: the notional, couch bound, slightly older home listener.

A producer with a very clear modus operandi can suddenly find themselves turning off from a very clear linear path into what feels like a boundless arena. The idea of making albums flow dynamically with ambient or experimental tracks rears its ugly head; the time-honoured trap of appealing to a wider market by roping in famous or semi-famous guest vocalists gets suggested and [makes sign of the cross, spits on floor, crosses fingers behind back and throws salt over left shoulder], in the worst case scenario, there is suddenly a desire to prove one’s musical worth by experimenting with surprising new genres.

Blawan – just for starters – should be congratulated for making his debut album a collection of straight up techno tracks that slaps hard from start to finish. No Eno-esque dazzle of celestial pads and beatless Korg washes; no guest vocal from Ellie Roswell; no muscle flexing in footwork and electro ska. Wet Will Never Dry is functional (in the best way dance music can be) from start to finish.

He shakes his head vigorously: "No, no, no. I was absolutely not tempted by any of that stuff. If anything the opposite was the case – the main thing for me while I was making an album was to not end up doing anything which was the equivalent of lying to myself. As in, I wasn’t suddenly going to start doing something that I’d never done before, especially because it was my first album. I especially didn’t want to do any of these filler tracks… these ambient, noisy, wishy-washy tracks that people end up skipping anyway. I just wanted to be truthful to what I’ve been doing for the past ten years."

Referring to Trade, his well-loved duo with Pariah called Karenn and his Trilogy Tapes project, Bored Young Adults, he says: "It just wouldn’t have felt like a Blawan album if I’d done that. I have other outlets to do experimental work."

Regarding the idea of a guest vocalist he says: "Well, I’ve used my own voice a few times on the album. To be honest, I wouldn’t have told anyone it was me singing on this album if I hadn’t let it slip to my press manager. I totally forgot that I’d told her and she got a bit… keyboard happy [LAUGHS]… and now it’s out there. But it’s cool. It’s totally fine. I guess I’m only using it as another instrument. The main things is, can you imagine having to say to a trained vocalist, ‘Right, here’s what I want you to do – LA LA LA LA! Woah! Woah!’ Fuck me. I’d be too embarrassed. So I did it myself."

Things have certainly changed though – not just from the psychotic, grungey vocal processing of ‘Why They Hide Their Bodies’ but also from the monumentally clattered, chopped and screwed vocal sample loop [of a particularly strident sounding Moodymann] that heralds the floor-eviscerating ‘What You Do With What You Have’. One can’t help but assume that the effect he’s after these days is slightly less dramatic: "Yes. What I really want I guess is to add a human, emotional touch to the track… rather than getting super in someone’s face like I used to! Adding vocals is partially a nod to what I’ve done in the past but I do use them in a more subtle way now."

The album is, for all intents and purposes recorded on a modular system but there’s a 50/50 split between analogue and digital when it came to post-production. His last EP, Nutrition from 2017, was close to a pure live modular recording but he says recently he has been "backing away" from that: "Really there was a period where I got really naffed off with having to edit on a computer and using Ableton but over the last year I’ve been really getting back into it. You can do so much cool stuff on it. I’m trying to step away from spending one whole week making one modular patch."

He’s currently working out how he will end up "kind of" reproducing the album live for the lucky guests of Unsound festival in Krakow, Poland this Autumn but admits that a lot of it may end up being new songs, using the same equipment as he did for the LP. He laughs uproariously when asked if he was going to get on the mic in Poland: "No, no, no. I was waiting for that question. No way man. I actually used to do it for Karenn live but not for this."

As much as his music sounds different these days, the basic framework remains the same as it ever did. Since his student days drumming in post-punk influenced rock/electronic groups in Leeds, every time he writes a track he starts with the drums and not even his switch to modular systems has changed this.

When I ask him if he’s bothered about how crowded the modern modular scene has become with arriviste synth bros with deep pockets and hastily assembled Euroracks, the length of time he says, "Errrrrr" for in response tells its own story. He adds: "I’m not sure really… but if you give me a drink I’ll probably bang on about this subject all night."

There’s a diplomatic pause before he adds: “The thing about modular, and it’s something it took me quite a while to learn, there are a few technical reasons why it can sound really shit, especially in a club setting. The number one reason is the dynamics. People don’t really seem to be tackling the post-production side of recording a modular track. You need a lot of compression, a lot of saturation, a lot of limiting, to really get something that’s on par with a track that has been produced on a computer. It can sound as analogue as it likes but at the end of the day, if you play that track and a track made on Ableton back to back in a club, the one made on Ableton is going to cut through so much more and have so much more energy to it… if you’re not doing it right.

"That’s the number one reason that lots of people don’t think that modular music is very good – it’s because of the energy being lost by not approaching the post-production process right. It took me a long time to learn this and I think you can hear it through all of my Ternesc records. The production starts off a little bit weak in the series if I’m being honest but then I start learning how to make it sound different."

Asked who he admires for creating punchy club music on a mainly analogue set-up he is blunt: "I don’t know man, because I don’t know who is lying and who is being truthful about their set-up. One person who really blows me away is Richard Devine but then he’s on a different planet anyway."

It seems like his diary is as full now as it ever was. Trade may have come to an end and there’s no plans to revive it but a new Karenn six-track EP is already in the can and will be out on a new label. ("Name yet to be confirmed, we shut the other one down.") There will be another Blawan EP this year on Ternesc and a Bored Young Adults release which depends on The Trilogy Tapes’ schedules, not to mention four or five remixes. It looks like Jamie Roberts is back in full effect and hopefully for good this time.

Wet Will Never Dry is out now. Blawan plays live as part of Unsound Festival this October in Krakow

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