Snakebitten: An Interview With Visionist

South London's Visionist refracts his history in grime into icy, haunted electronic music, rich in atmosphere and emotion. Having had a prolific 2013, he sits down with Daniel Cohen to discuss his work to date and where he's heading next

Don’t call Visionist a new producer. Born Louis Carnell in South London, where he lives today, he started making grime and MCing over it as a teenager in Nottingham. Today he sticks to making beats, and 2013 was a busy, breakout year, finding him releasing singles, EPs and remixes on a variety of labels while also tending to his own, Lost Codes – and contributing to last September’s online battle of war dubs, sending a challenge out to Bristol producers Kahn & Neek.

At a time when a host of younger grime and grime-inspired producers are attracting attention, as highlighted on the Keysound label’s This Is How We Roll showcase and Big Dada’s Grime 2.0 compilation, Carnell stands out for the singularity of his sound. Unmistakeably born of grime, from bass weight and gunshot drums to delicate, icy melodies and nocturnal atmosphere, each release seems to take him further into his own territory. Last summer he released the I’m Fine EP, which included a collaboration with Fatima Al Qadiri, on the New York-based Lit City Trax label. Composed of little more than tortured, sometimes ghoulish vocals floating in cavernous space, it was a deeply personal collection with a power that belied its seventeen-minute running time.

Having closed 2013 with his take on techno for Ramp Recordings, ‘M’/’Secrets’, as he looks beyond grime, Carnell’s happy wherever he finds himself. "If I hit that area where people just call my music experimental, I’m not scared of that," he reflects. "I’m not scared of the people that I might then be up against." He sat down with the Quietus in his home to talk about London, emotion and Tori Amos.

How did you get into grime? How old were you?

Louis Carnell: I think I was like 14, 15. It was that prime time – or prime age, maybe – where you start looking for music that is away from what everyone else listens to. Just before I moved up to Nottingham, I think I was into So Solid Crew, so there was a natural progression from grime into that. Just because it was something different, something that was UK, something that I could relate to. And then I started MCing and producing.

There’s a lot of excitement right now for instrumental grime. Is that something you share?

LC: [Pause] It’s alright. I don’t know, in parts, yes. And in other parts, no. I think it’s a good thing that people are listening to grime but then… It’s a weird one, because obviously when I grew up with grime, the MC was very important. So they had to call it instrumental grime, which sounds dumb because everyone was making instrumentals anyway.

But then, it’s a funny one, because obviously it’s like, "Ah, everyone’s getting really creative with grime." And I don’t think that’s so, really. I think a lot of people are rehashing the old ideas. See, with my Lit City EP [I’m Fine], that’s not all grime. That’s me going with an idea and using what I’ve grown up listening to, but it doesn’t sound like any old grime tune. Whereas there’s a lot of stuff that does sound like any old grime tune. My problem is [that] this is now looked at as experimental stuff – and original grime wasn’t? It’s a weird one cos I feel like a lot of the original guys were actually being very experimental – because grime was new, so they were experimenting. When you’re being experimental with grime, that’s how it’s should be. So that’s one thing that kind of annoys me a little bit.

‘Cause that was the thing, when I had this idea for the Lit City Record – but it wasn’t yet a Lit City Record, it was literally just me going and writing stuff for myself. I’ve always loved using vocals within in all my tunes, from back when I was first doing grime tunes. There’s always been vocals as such, whether it’s using lyrics or using oohs and ahs. So it was me wanting to take that part and put it to the forefront and then write for myself, I guess. And that’s what happened. I wanted to write stuff with vocals, more so, I wanted to strip things back. It’s all using the eight-bar technique of grime.

When the EP came out, a lot of people were saying that you’d found your voice. Did you think that it was a breakthrough or just a continuation?

LC: It was a continuation, but I can see why people say I found my voice, because yes, it was the most comfortable record I’ve ever written. I was hoping it would have that statement.

What was it like working with Fatima Al Qadiri?

LC: Good. It was literally a matter of stems and then final adjustments here. She had some shows, so she came round. It’s a pretty stripped-back track, but I think that way we both speak equally. I was happy that she was into my music, really, and she agreed when I asked her. We do have different styles in the way we manipulate vocals. First of all, she uses more pads. My things are mainly samples – all a capellas that I’ve just chopped up and reworked. Because I know how to play keys. I do it like that because the voice is from a human. There’s nothing more real than hearing a voice. That’s the most honest thing. So when someone’s singing about something, it’s coming out of them. It’s like reading someone’s face.

Are you taking the vocals from all over the place?

LC: Mainly R&B. Also, Tori Amos – she’s got a really delicate voice. I just stumbled across her. I’m just stumbling across things and then I listen to the voice. And then I’m like, I like this voice, I’m going to play with this. Sometimes it works, but sometimes with a natural voice when you pitch it it sounds crap. Also you start to create your own kind of sound palette.

By now I think there is a Visionist sound, even if the singles are quite different.

LC: Yeah. It’s a sound across genres. With this last record I just put out on Ramp [‘M’/’Secrets’], I think it’s funny that everyone’s called it grime, because that was not the intention. First of all, it’s more techno than it is grime. Obviously I’ve used grime sounds in those two tunes on purpose because ‘M’ was a backlash tune: "Everyone’s writing techno but it’s emotionless, so I’m gonna flip it." So I did. I wrote that tune last year. Again, I didn’t do a four-to-the-floor kick. ‘Cause that’s what I like to do – I like to play with things.

You’re upfront about how making music is emotional for you.

LC: Yeah. It’s not that I don’t like things that are just beats but that’s not what I feel comfortable writing. I need to create a feeling.

Even ‘Snakes’ – it’s one of your more banging tracks, but there’s that vocal sample that’s quite emotional, quite angry.

LC: "You’ve been lied to".

It feels quite raw.

LC: Exactly. That whole EP is the most club-friendly EP, but I’ve added my extra little bits to it. I could probably write those kind of tunes, I’ll play them out. I just don’t make them. I’m not interested in making them.

The London thing seems to be very important to you.

LC: I think it has been. I think that’s the only way I’ve got a proper way of knowing what’s going on and being involved. I was in Nottingham as well – obviously there was bassline, but there was a lot of people making grime as well. And that whole culture around it and engaging in that. The fact I was from London – and when I was in Nottingham, completely dissociated myself from being in Nottingham and all I heard about was what was going on in my old part of London – made me look further into what was going on, like name a bunch of grime tunes that no one would ever know.

And that’s why I can pull out all these tunes and people will be like, "woah, what’s that?" I wouldn’t have been able to look that far if I wasn’t from London. I was like, what’s going on in my old home? What are people doing in my old areas? Not even my areas – just south London. ‘Cause when Southside [Allstars] came out, that was like, "woah, yeah!" Cos everything was east London before that. And when Southside came out it was a statement: south’s doing grime as well.

I wondered about the war dubs. What drew you in?

LC: I think it was when Kahn & Neek actually did one. Before then it was all like Wiley and Jammer – the original guys. I know Kahn, we’ve met and we get along. So I was like, oh, alright, people who know Kahn will probably know who I am. Not all of them. So it made more sense to send for someone like Kahn than a Wiley or a Jammer, because they’ll just dismiss it straight off.

I thought, Kahn & Neek, tag team with my flatmate [Saga] who makes grime. Why not? Let’s make a tune. It’ll be fun. It’s just funny, ’cause everyone thinks it’s mad personal but it’s not. I got a backlash from Bristol [laughs]. Obviously then he did the sendback, which was just for me. So then I did another one. But then I deleted them – not because of who won and who lost. I felt that time had finished and I’ve got other things going on. I’ve got releases coming up – let’s talk about them now.

It was just a little bit of competition. When the original war dubs were happening – when Manic was doing them, or Dot Rotten, or even Scratcha was involved – I was doing them with low-key grime producers then. I’d be on Myspace and MSN chatting away to them and being like, "I’m better than you." We didn’t even know each other, it was all on the internet. But we’d talk to each other at the same time as well. The people I did it with, it was completely friendly. It’s good to have a bit of competition.

What’s next?

LC: I’ve got a follow-up on Lit City and I’m talking to other labels. Next year I will most likely be writing a long project – whether it will come out next year I’m not sure. I can’t say what label that’s on at the moment, but it’s a sidestep, uncharted territory.

The label?

LC: Yeah.

What about the music?

LC: The music will just be a development. I haven’t written the music yet – I’ll start next year. I don’t want to change, I just want to develop. I’ve found where I’m comfortable, but I can’t just play on my comforts, I need to play on my ability and go out and explore again. And this label that I’m talking to will give me that opportunity to really explore. Obviously I have to find a label where I can write music that I want to write.

You’ve always got your own label if you need it.

LC: Yeah. But I haven’t been using my own label. I’ve been trying to help other people get through. The stuff I sign, that’s the stuff I like that’s happening from the new grime. I have signed things that’s not straight-up grime and it doesn’t get mentioned as much, like Glacial Sound. I’m trying to find people who are taking that aesthetic and are playing with it. That’s why the first release was SD Laika, who’s been slept on. It’s why the second release was Filter Dread. I knew him from uni – he was the year above me on the same course. Straight after it was Acre. I really rate Acre, because he’s got this sound of his own. That’s [something], more and more so, I’m trying to find. It’s quite hard to find. The people who have their own sound intrigue me the most, and that’s how I want to be spoken about.

Visionist’s ‘M’/’Secrets’ is out now via Ramp Recordings

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