Darkness, the future of music and the productive diversity that comes from growing up in “England’s Last Wilderness”: Angus Finlayson profiles the 2013 RBMA participant.
“If you are really good friends with someone, you can insult them without them getting offended. It’s a demonstration [of] how close you are. It’s the same as throwing snow – a violent action that’s endearing between friends.” Ross Tones is explaining the origins of his producerly nom de guerre Throwing Snow, but he could just as easily be discussing his music.
Take a track like “Too Polite,” released on Local Action in 2011. Essentially it’s an aggressive jungle-footwork hybrid, all galloping kick drums, snarling Reese bass and dextrous breakbeat edits. But it’s preceded by a minute or so of shimmering, dusty chord samples – a delicate preface which makes it clear that the whole thing is meant in good humour. Ross Tones’ discography spans a bewildering array of tempos and styles, but this is arguably its unifying quality: a sense that, though things may get a little dark in places, it’s a darkness shared between friends.
An affinity for the darker things in life was, in fact, what drew Tones to Hannah Cartwright, then a co-worker at music library company De Wolfe, to form the collaborative project Snow Ghosts. That, he explains, and a shared interest in “folk, metal, history and nature.” Cartwright’s music as Augustus Ghost explores a sepia-toned folk-pop style – a neat acoustic counterpart to the gauzy folktronica Tones was making back in 2007, right at the start of his production career. The combined efforts of the two, then, sounded remarkably natural – first on 2011’s Lost At Sea EP for Black Acre, and more recently on an LP, A Small Murmuration, for new Fabric label Houndstooth.
“There are references throughout to specific places and events in English history,” Tones says of the album’s heady mixture of the contemporary and the antiquated. “Hannah had a load of photos taken by her relatives from the 1930s, so we used these as inspiration.” The results are deliciously dread-filled – perhaps not a surprise when you consider that one track features samples recorded in a London graveyard, and that the pair have cited Mark Z. Danielewski’s postmodern horror epic House Of Leaves as an influence.
All of this might be difficult to square with Tones’ recent solo output – the dreamy post-dubstep panoramas of last year’s Clamor and Asper EPs. But Tones has never been good at doing just one thing at a time. “I would get bored of producing the same type of track over and over,” he says. “I always want to keep pushing myself to be individual and experiment a lot.” Might his career have suffered due to his waywardness? He laughs. “Yeah, if I stuck to a genre then I could have probably gained more success. But I appreciate and respect artists that challenge themselves and evolve over time without worrying too much about trends. I think this approach can lead to more longevity.”
“At school we listened to happy hardcore tape packs and Wu Tang. So I guess I’m a result of this weird mix.”
This ethos was incubated during Tones’ upbringing on a farm in Weardale, in the North of England – a place he wryly refers to by its tourist board epithet, “England’s last wilderness.” “I came from playing in punk and metal bands as a teenager, but also listened to local folk music and Kraftwerk on my parents’ record player,” he recalls. “At school we listened to happy hardcore tape packs and Wu Tang. So I guess I’m a result of this weird mix.”
Tones’ sensibility turned out to be a perfect fit for the times. His entry into the wider electronic music consciousness in 2010 and 2011 came at a moment when the dominant narratives of UK dance music were breaking down, leaving an endlessly striated landscape of hybrids and cross-pollinations in their wake. Tones’ music reflected this: few artists would think to release the syncopated, post-Joy Orbison house of “Pyre” and the frantic “Too Polite” not only under the same alias, but on the same 12-inch.
Given the recent vogue for jungle revival – spearheaded by the likes of Tessela and Special Request – “Too Polite” seems rather prescient now. But for Tones it was just a manifestation of a long-held love. “Drum & bass and jungle have always been a big influence on me – mainly the break[beat] manipulation and basslines,” he says, tracing the infatuation back to his university years in Bristol. “I was studying astrophysics in the early ’00s and got heavily into the drum & bass scene. I became friends with a lot of the producers there through Rooted Records – RIP – and met people like Break, dBridge and Fierce.”
Tones’ jungle tendencies may find fuller expression in Alight, a new project on Local Action which he says will be rooted in UK dance music’s so-called “hardcore continuum.” It’s one of a number of different projects Tones is currently keeping afloat, after a recent decision to “compartmentalise” his output – he also mentions Vellico, a “more lighthearted,” house-leaning project in collaboration with his brother Ali, and a string of other aliases that he prefers to keep to himself. Tones’ musical activities don’t stop at production, either: aside from Snowfall, a home for his own material, he co-runs the labels Left_Blank – an imprint for “the more smudged, odd side of music that has grown out of the dancefloor” – and A Future Without.
“I don’t agree with this backlash against new digital based models – streaming etc. – by some artists who seem to cling to ‘the good old days.’ Things aren’t going to regress back.”
The latter, in particular, draws on Tones’ experience with the music industry. Until 18 months ago he worked for music consultancy Hear No Evil, and A Future Without, with its varied roster of artists, is centred as much around a business model as it is an aesthetic. Tones explains it as an experiment in preparing for “a future without records. I don’t agree with this backlash against new digital based models – streaming etc. – by some artists who seem to cling to ‘the good old days.’ Things aren’t going to regress back.” Though Tones focusses solely on his own production these days, his contact with the commercial music world seems to have given him a refreshingly robust worldview. “Having to think about what music suits a particular situation gives you a different relationship with sound. It also means you have to be on top of all trends and all types of music. This has definitely informed my music hugely.”
Still, distilling that breadth of experience into a single, coherent statement can prove tricky – something Tones has been finding while attempting to pull together his debut album as Throwing Snow, due for release on Houndstooth soon. “Because I’ve experimented so much in the past, I could only find four tracks that expressed where I was at that particular moment,” he says. “An album is a very different beast and one that I’ve only been able to attempt over the last year. I get bored pretty easily and I want to feel like I could stomach listening to the entire thing myself before inflicting it on the unsuspecting listener.”