Over the years, it's been a fairly meandering shuffle through the swampy waters of music for Mr Beatnick. From instrumental beatscapes and live tape delays to numerous remixes, EPs and collaborations (such as those with Academy participant Ahu), as well as writing for sites like FACT and this very magazine, his exploration into sound continues to run deep.
Nine years after participating at the Academy in Cape Town, Mr Beatnick delivers his strongest EP to date, Sun Goddess on the Don’t Be Afraid label, and looks set to be rewarded for the diligent craftsmanship that has come to characterise his productions over the last few years. Ahead of his EP launch party in London this Friday, we fired up Skype for a chat about Sun Ra’s microphone techniques, the 360 degree artist experience, and why sometimes one name is better than two..
RBMA: Is your studio set up still at your house? Or did you move everything somewhere else?
BEATNICK: The way it works now is that I decided to keep studio and living space separate. There was a moment when things got a bit of a mess with records and equipment, and it just got to the point where things had to move to a separate place otherwise I couldn’t really have a functional normal life. It’s good though, after this phone call I’ll head to the studio, do some work there. Then once that work is done then I’ll come back here, go to bed, watch some TV. Making beats with Mad Men or Eastbound & Down in the background doesn’t really work for me. It’s either total immersion or total switch off really. I think that has played quite a big part in the way the new stuff has been written, but having said that, a lot of them are based on older ideas! There’s stuff that’s been sitting on the hard drive for quite a while, some of it even from the Alpha Grove era [back in 2007 – ed]. After pursuing the hip hop scene for quite a long time, and hanging with contemporaries like Bullion and Paul White, everything was really great but I realised I had a lot of uptempo music that no one had heard, and a lot of stuff that was quite brutish and 4/4 and square. I personally thought it was not that great, but I played it to Benji Semtek [of Don't Be Afraid] and he was blown away. He asked, “Why have you never released any of this?”, and I was like, “I never bothered giving it to anyone because I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously.” We’re always the worst judges of our own material, aren’t we?
"I love buying 12"s. It's a certain kind of experience and the tracks are written for that format more than anything."
This is a classic example. Especially with a track like “Savoir Faire”, which has been on the computer for absolutely ages, and I just thought it was a really silly dance track with multi-tracked synthesizers, Ben was like, “Yeah that’s brilliant, I love it.” That surprised me and continues to surprise me. Especially people hitting me up on Twitter now saying they like “Savoir Faire”, I’m like, ‘wow!’ That’s not to say I think it’s rubbish, I just don’t have that relationship with it. Once it’s done, it’s done and I move onto the next one, and I’m really terrible at vetting my own music or what would make for a good release. Having Semtek has been great, he’s really been the first person who’s been like, ‘yeah, that’s the one we should put out’, or, ‘yeah I really like that one, and that one’s terrible’. He has a much more visceral relationship with my music than I do, and I rely on him for those pointers that I couldn’t give myself, really.
RBMA: Do you feel then that you've just been steadily doing your thing, and people have just come round to you?
BEATNICK: That might be true. I still feel the whole thing is a surprise, and I’m really thrilled that there are people out there who are feeling interested or moved by this music. I mean, you’ve known me a really long time, and you know the kind of person I am. I dabble, I’ve got a poor attention span, I muck about and try not to take myself too seriously. The most surreal thing was when Synthetes dropped, the number of big DJs that got back to us, with positive things to say. I never thought that would happen. I was never very well known in the hip hop or the beat scene. I mean, I had love from a very small bunch of weirdos here in London, who were also doing similar kinds of things, but when you get Jamie xx or Paul Woolford, Deetron or Scuba supporting this new sound, well I never ever would have guessed that would happen.
RBMA: I hope you don’t feel like you have to only make house music now, though. I was just listening to Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton talking about their aliases, and how come they had so many names. They wished that maybe they’d just stuck to one name but done different styles. Do you think that applies to you somehow?
BEATNICK: Definitely. Mark’s someone who’s spent a lot of time answering my banal questions on production and other areas of the business over the years. The story of all the people you meet on the journey definitely influences you. There was a moment before we were looking to release Synthetes where I was thinking to do a similar thing to Jim [Coles], where he went from being 2tall to Om Unit, and me being the great advice giver that I am, was like, ‘there’s absolutely no reason to do that! 2tall is totally fine, you’ll be fine dude’, and actually the Om Unit thing worked brilliantly for him in that context, because it was such a reinvention from the work he had done before. But I discussed it with a lot of people, I have to shout out Dobie on that one actually. He was a member of Soul II Soul and the London Posse back in the day, and he’s ended up being a big mentor for me for all sorts of things, from production stuff to business stuff as well. Dobie was like, ‘just do your thing, don’t worry about the name’. Dobie’s been able to make both hip hop and house, he has a new album coming out on Big Dada which explores many different styles as well. Half the reason people had to adopt different monikers back in the day was there was a business reason as well. Signing some deals meant you had to remain exclusive to one label for the rest of your life, so to release one record on R&S and another on Warp, you had to reinvent yourself. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve not had to sign anything that was particularly restrictive, and people have always understood that I’m a bit strange, and they always kind of let me get on with it and do my own thing.
A lot of the questions I get from interviews recently have been, ‘do you not like hip hop anymore, now that you’re making slightly faster records?’ or, ‘does this mean you won’t be doing your Brian Eno-styled ambient project any time soon?’ But I’ll keep making what I make in its various forms. The last part of the Synthetes trilogy will come out in September I think, and it’ll just appear in the stores, kinda like this one, just ‘boom’ and it’s there, no promo and stuff. That should complete this phase of work I think, and after that there’ll be the album and various things, but if people are expecting me to keep making records in this vein then perhaps they will be disappointed. I will be switching it up a lot. I had this talk with John Talabot the other day, and we were talking about exactly the same thing. When he was writing the fIN album for Permanent Vacation, he had the same sensation that he didn’t want to be the guy to crank out the big house bangers, because he’s got a much wider range of tastes. And I’m the same, I listen to so many different kinds of things, and so when I come to do the album, not saying I’m going to bite John’s style, but it definitely will be all over the place. When you’re writing music for a one hour experience, you’re going to write it very differently than if you’re writing it for a 12” with four tracks: it’s a completely different format. I think half the joy of this period is that I love buying 12”s maybe even more than albums probably, and there’s a certain joy to putting four tracks together, it’s a certain kind of experience and the tracks are written for that format more than anything.
RBMA: It seems music lovers are even more open-minded these days.
BEATNICK: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think we’re pretty lucky these days. I mean, some people are a bit sneery about the way it is now. The fact that if you’re an artist, the sort of 360 degree relationship that people have with you is pretty unique. They expect to watch videos of you on youtube, or check your Twitter feed where you’re chatting loads of shit about what TV programs you’re watching. We have a very different relationship with artists than we used to. Rather than look at it being good or bad, I guess it’s just the way it is. But I do think we’re very lucky to live in this era where we can experiment and do far-out things. People go direct to the artist for everything now. That’s the brilliant thing with Twitter. They don’t rely on people’s management or mail outs, they check you and they follow you. They have a relationship with you in a way that’s different to when I was growing up, with the people I admired. You couldn’t go ‘at’ DJ Shadow and ask, ‘what’s the break at 4min 45 seconds on that tune’, you know? Now you can! In that way, everyone’s in the same boat, and I have the chance to talk to people I admire now. I can say, ‘hey, that third track’s really cool’, and they’ll say ‘yeah, well it’s influenced by this, that and the other’. It’s a great thing for the world to get smaller like that – that benefits everyone I think.
"I'm trying to take that hip hop spirit, where it's about doing a really great take with a drum machine, and apply that to what I'm doing."
RBMA: So did this EP have a concept behind it? Or was it more like a bunch of tracks that were chosen because they went well together?
BEATNICK: Well, for Synthetes, Semtek picked out the tracks. He was like, ‘I really like this joint, that joint, let’s comp them together’, and I was like, ‘yeah let’s get the Architeq remix on there’. With Sun Goddess, I wrote it much more together. Certainly the original ideas they are based on, they all come from a certain period of my life. The change was in taking the raw ideas and developing them into full songs that work as a whole. I think in that last phase of writing them, then I do try to bring them together more. The final EP of the three, because they’re new tracks, I’m trying to work more on its position in relation to the other two, if you know what I mean. It’s all really good for me though. If I’m going to do the album in the next year or so, this is all part of the learning process: knowing which things bring records together in the sequencing. We spend a lot of time discussing things that maybe we shouldn’t, like what the order should be, worrying about intros and outros, and how one thing plays into the next. I do want people to be able to put the needle down on side A and listen through, and know that it just works. I do get a bit pissed off when I buy 12”s and it seems like it just happens to be on vinyl, like people have stitched together a remix they’ve got from there, and a track they wrote there, know what I mean? The tracks often don’t inter-relate. So sequencing is important.
RBMA: This is stuff that you don't learn until you release a few records, isn't it?
BEATNICK: Definitely. And when people are actually listening, you’re going to perform a bit differently. We used to play improvised music at this venue called Guanabara years ago, and the audience weren’t engaged most nights. You’re going to play maybe one way in that situation, and when they are engaged, you’re going to play a completely different way, even though the venue’s the same. It’s quite a joy to entertain a number of people, even if it’s a small number of people – that is quite a thrill. It’s fun to sort of try stuff out, like ‘what’s the most fucked-up thing I could do right now? What would really surprise them?’ That’s the joy of entertaining I guess.
"I wanted that feeling that you can tell it's not really digital, there's somebody doing something there, even if you can't always work out what it is. But you can grasp the human being more, even in the mistakes."
RBMA: Is there anything you'd like people to have in mind when they're listening to these latest tracks?
BEATNICK: Well, if I was going to try and explain what the EP was about, then I guess over the year I realised a few crucial things, mainly from failed experiments more than anything. I used to spend a lot of time agonising over details and it took me a really long time to sequence something, and now the tracks are supposed to be quite live. I don’t know if that comes across in the way you hear them. But part of the reason that they repeat a lot is because I’m trying to trigger the next machine, or get the next bit lined up on the outboard. I’m trying to take that hip hop spirit of the whole thing, where it’s about doing a really great take with a drum machine and apply that a little bit to what I’m doing. In terms of what draws me to make house music, I’ve always had a lot of love for those weird house records, it was always the Pepe Bradocks and those slightly more left-field type dudes who were chopping things up that I liked. I read an interview with Anthony Shakir the other day, who said, “I just saw every vinyl record in my collection as an instrument.” That sort of sloppy, throw-it-in-there type vibe, that’s why I love hip hop in the first place. It’s an element that’s been missing. Not so much the sloppiness, but the sense of ‘let me incorporate all the music that I love into this one piece of music somehow’, and I think that’s part of the energy that’s driving it, it’s a bit laissez-faire. I think it’s fun to write music that way too, just raw and bang it out, and then spend some time tweaking. In the case of this one, me and Architeq sat down with the reel to reel, and tracked the whole thing properly, and did all the EQs and levels live and dropped that onto tape, and pretty much mastered it from there. Even in the mixdown, I wanted that feeling that you can tell that it’s not really digital, there’s somebody doing something there, even if you can’t always work out what it is. But you can grasp the human being more, even in the mistakes. There’s a bit on “Shifting Sands” where a bit of the patchbay shorts out for a second, and one of the drum sounds goes from being stereo to being in the left channel, and then the cable reconnects and it goes to being back in the right channel again. But I think it’s added… well, it’s more like an Easter egg for me than anything else. There’s a certain joy to mistakes.
RBMA: Yeah. Even if people can't even notice it, I think they can somehow feel when a track's captured some dynamic energy in the room, as opposed to when it's been sculpted to within an inch of itself.
BEATNICK: Yeah, I guess that’s why we like Sun Ra records so much. I think that really blew my mind when I finally read that John F Szwed book cover to cover, and he explained that the majority of the Sun Ra records were one mic room recordings straight onto reel to reel. It blows my mind, cause that would mean that there’s only two or three of them that were studio recorded, and half the time the tape machine was loaned from someone, and the mic, someone just slung it up, and yet you’ve got something there that’s so vibrant. Sometimes you can listen to it and it can literally move the room, or in my case, the windows turn into shutters and start to fly away. But that’s the kind of magic you can only achieve with a live band and one mic and one take. Half the time the people playing right then and there thought it was the rehearsal and didn’t even realize it was recording, just like a happy accident. Actually that’s a good title, I’m going to steal that right now. Title of my autobiography right there.
Mr Beatnick's Sun Goddess EP is out now on Don't Be Afraid. Celebrate the release with friends and fam at the Baby Bathhouse in Stoke Newington this Friday 6th April, featuring Videeo, Alex MacPherson, Mr Beatnick, and a special guest from Rush Hour.