Over at Pitchfork you can find my column on the incredible debut album from Kuedo, formerly known as Jamie Vex'd. Hear clips over at Mu. One of my albums of the year, no question.
Blackdown: Hey Jamie, so when we’ve talked occasionally over the last three or so years sometimes you’ve been writing music and sometimes you’ve not been. How did you come to decide “I’m going to write an album” now?
Kuedo: Well, without going into too many details, I guess there’s not been so much time to put towards an album because of upheavals and personal life over the last couple of years. But it quietened down and all the “other factors” in life began to subside somewhat and it gave me more time to work on music. And it was then I began writing an album: it had been something I wanted to do for the two years prior but there’d been some difficulties with other stuff, personal stuff. But I think it may be better to have done it later than have done it before because I’d gone through some phases in music that I think were good to get out before I settled into something, which is how I think I am now. It feels a bit more settled than it feels for a while, in terms of a bit more connected to what I’m really into.
B: Did you find that because the direction of the Vex’d stuff was so focused, that you had to spend time to be re-inspired so you weren’t still in the Vex’d headspace?
K: The thing is with that was that Vex’d was really an experiment and a project and it was a collaboration between two people. It had very narrow parameters and a lot of the musical characteristics were really built around Roly’s preferences. That’s not to negate my creative input but it did mean that I was writing within someone else’s sphere of preferences. And that became more the more we did it, with a familiar writing process. But when it came to me to be free from all of that it took some time for me to define my own musical language, myself, particularly for it to be authentically me, in terms of what I was really into and really saying something. Really tapping into what I’d been into and where I wanted to go. So I had to experiment a little before I found out what I should be doing.
B: Kode9’s talked a little about his headspace after dubstep, and to clumsily paraphrase it from memory, he described it as having fun getting lost, in an attempt to fall in love with new types of music whist not trying too hard to convince yourself that you are trying to fall in love again. Do you relate to any of that process?
K: Yeah I think it kinda happens cyclically. I think you commit yourself to a certain direction for a while, to explore a certain territory, to experiment and become confident in a certain territory. And then I think there’s a point that you express or say what you wanted to say. And at that point is a good point to let go of what felt familiar, and re-explore other stuff. You’re detaching what your usual anchors are and get lost a little bit. And then finding something new and recommitting to that as the new idea forms, with new forms, ideas, musical symbols, narrative you didn’t know existed or whatever you are discovering. And then settling in and making it your mission to go in a certain direction for a while. But if you just stay open then you end up adrift you have to commit at some point. But you can stay too committed – and this is why I feel some distance between some people I would have considered peers previously. I guess some people have this kind of commitment through thick or thin, no matter what. And no matter how they feel about it they’ll stay committed to a certain direction, for better or for worse. And that I can’t understand. If your inspiration’s gone, you can’t do anything for anyone.
B: I can think of a few people you and I both know who I’ve had discussions with about this and the crazy thing is that they seem to think that there’s still room for new in these templates or formats when there really hasn’t been any new ideas within that territory for quite some time. And when I put some distance between myself and them and listen to their music I don’t hear new ideas nor ideas better than the ones they came with before.
K: Old ideas are OK as long as they’re viewed with a kind of energy by the guy who is making them. But when that energy starts to dissipate the reasons for pursuing them goes away. That’s been my criterion for sticking with something or leaving it, is either it inspires you or doesn’t anymore. And when it’s done, it’s done. You can only leave it... or come back to it later maybe?
B: This is one of the perennial contradictions in dance music scenes, that on one hand you have to accept that there will be evolution and on the other people say things like “junglist 4 life” and if you’re giving up now you’re selling out, “bandwagon jumping” etc.
K: Well there is one thing that I salute and that’s an allegiance to a certain set of principles. But I think those principles, on analysis, are a lot more fluid than a particular tempo or set of samples. It’s a really restrictive way at looking at what you’re standing for, just having a particular set of sonic signifiers. Also, if they’re being brutally honest, some people have just more an allegiance to an identity... and if they let that go they’d have an identity crisis. And finally, not that I want to be too critical, but there’s a pragmatism as to what people stick with what they do: and that’s because it’s a secure living for them.
B: There’s money in it...
K: It becomes industrialised.
B: I believe in a healthy separation. I’ve never been very interested in making music for money, nor interested in the music of people who seem only to be making music to make money.
K: Yeah there’s great freedom in that and I keep it limited, I do other work as well.
B: So when you went through the process of being re-inspired, did you look to outside influences to excite you or was that internal ideas and places you could dream up..?
K: Um... there’s so many factors to that... where you get inspired. So it’s not really “either/or”. For outside inspiration to be honest it was kinda gratifying the way it worked out, because there’s a weird kind of symmetry to it. I went looking for new music but in fact the new music I found was tying into the music I was into before dubstep, before Vex’d and really even before jungle. The stuff I was into a kid was broadly rap music and synthesizer music, which connected to the modern stuff: coke rap, trap stuff and UK road rap. And this seemed so much more interesting, energetic and inspiring to me, more than the other stuff I’d been listening to from the UK for the last two years. And the more futurist synth stuff, there was so much of that stuff coming around now, as well as stuff I’d missed in that vein from previous years like synth pop and synth soundtracks like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, which I’ve spent an awful lot of time listening to.
B: I can hear the Vangelis in the new album...
K: Yeah, it’s not supposed to be a reference. I try and avoid that nowadays, making a deliberate reference, I just think that I’ve listened to so much of it that when I tried to catch a futurist sentiment, with a sweeping grandeur to it, the sounds that made sense was that Vangelis synth sound. Reaching for that sound captured it, so I went with it. So if you listen to enough of that music, assuming you let yourself be open, it will come out when you go to write a tune. And if you enjoy what you do you start finding new potentials within yourself, that you might not have known before and those things themselves can become particularly inspiring. You suddenly find yourself writing stuff you didn’t think you were capable of wiring a year or two ago. So there’s a link between the two, between what you see going into you and what you see coming out. And the inspiration comes from both of those strengths.
B: There seems to be so much more, colour, light and love in this record, I can hear so much overt emotion than stuff I’ve heard from you over the years.
K: Yeah, I thought I’d have a really concerted go at being expressive, and having content and really saying something. Before I wrote the record I spent quite a long time working out and re-considering what I was doing with the whole endeavour of making music, like ‘why?’ What was the whole intentions of it? And also I thought about the process stuff of how I did it. I thought about what would I really want to do with music if I were to re-consider it and compared it to what I had done. I chose to put more into it in the hope that there’d be more to take from it. If I were to have a ‘point’ to making music, it would be for it to be inspiring to people and for them to take something from it. Otherwise it’s just air. It doesn’t mean anything. It had been quite a hectic year or so there was a bit more to draw from in that sense.
B: When you say you want to “inspire” people, that’s quite general. What would you want to inspire people to do or feel after the music?
K: Yeah that word has a lot of potential different meanings but I guess if you hear something and it leaves you in a state that has energised you to create something of your own. Or probably more often it says something in you that resonates in you, and catches something that maybe you couldn’t form yourself – and that track just says it. Or maybe it introduces you to a new kind of experience, a new thing which in itself is really exciting. All those things are different but they all have the feature that they make you engaged by it.
B: I think when music is really dense, colourful and intense, which your album is, that kind of music can generate almost a sense of lift-off, a rush or blissful state of mind... I often feel this listening to music when in motion: so in the car at night or on a train.
K: Wicked. There was one track I was listening to on the train and that’s when I realised I liked the album. The movement of the train came together and I felt that something good was happening. And there was a particular kind of head space, or emotive space that I found myself shooting for when I was writing the tracks. It was a little bit, erm... trance-ish? A little bit distant, like middle horizon? Whereas a lot of my earlier tracks were a bit more surface, immediate, now, impact. But this one I found myself going for a slightly hypnotic, but not all the way out but half in/half out of reality or the moment. Between reality, the current moment and a kind of drifting, imaginative space.
B: I can see that. The album is really vivid, almost hyper-vivid.
K: One of the reasons I used gridded drum machine sounds is that I found it gave a kind of trance-ness, a slightly hypnotic, slightly unreal element to it which I really wanted to pursue.
B: What I get out of the drums is a sense of contradiction. Some feel very slow and others, at the same time, feel hyper dense and fast. As a DJ I’m fairly attuned to tempo and sometimes on these tracks I can’t tell and that’s a great contradiction, both fast and slow at the same time.
K: It was interesting doing the super-fast rattle-snake hats and then putting a slow beat behind it, it a juxtaposition and I think it’s quite nice you’ve used the word “contradiction” because that was a thing I was trying to do when writing it, to not to be too one dimensional about it, to try to put some ambiguity and juxtapositions in it.
B: Oh I’m obsessed with musical contradictions and if they’re done well they’re the most perfect things, like Timbaland’s really weird beats but turning them into pop records, or Kode9’s stuff that’s so weirdly painful it’s pleasurable.
K: There’s an aesthetic gratification when it’s not so easy to nail down its beguiling in a way but also I think in terms of expressing more real life. You get there more when you’re being ambiguous because life isn’t really that one dimensional. A lot of everyday things that might seem very sad or poignant might have a slight sweetness to them as well. And the other way. Life isn’t that black and white. So on some tracks where I was trying to get that real emotion I found myself avoiding the real “sad sad sad” – I tried to find the mix between the two. And the one thing I did find that if I had really quantised, gridded, machine drum drums, mechanical drums but then played much more human melodies over the top, live, recorded them in, then that had a nice juxtaposition between the two as well. And I didn’t have any principles about different takes but if the first or second one felt like the right one I’d just go ahead with it.
B: Do you think in previous times maybe you would have done another 17 takes?
K: Yeah, so in previous times I would have been too reserved to even have tried to play it. But now I’ve found the confidence within that aspect of recording. Also there’s another thing which is I would have been too perfectionist to have tried, but I’ve decided, before I started writing it, to curtail my own perfectionist tendencies by setting rules how I was going to do it like writing a track in a certain time span and only using certain amounts of channels per track. Using a small amount of instruments and almost no audio. It had a fluid energy to it, which perfectionism and infinite studio options and re-editing can so easily kill. Before I would have done 17 takes and endless amounts of plug ins, to constantly improve it, whereas improvement it not what takes place.
B: I’m really impressed how coherent it is, in a bunch of ways. The tracks seem to relate to each other. And within each track the elements seem to internally relate to each other really well. You don’t seem to be concerned about bringing new ones in “let’s wheel the orchestra in now!” just getting the best out of what you’ve chosen.
K: For better or worse that is what I decided to do. Using the same synth sounds, cutting it down to a handful. A few years ago my method would have been “right, new synthesizers” and just layer them, fit in another sound and it just gets bloated. I wanted to avoid that, I wanted a simplicity to the arrangement itself, even if it’s only me who knows how simple it is.
B: So, I’m not sure what to ask about the track titles because... I don’t want to intrude on them. Are there any you’re willing to elaborate on? I get the sense it’s a quite personal album... Any of the 15 you can mention?
K: Umm... yeah.... they’re personal. [laughs but adds nothing more]
B: Personal but you stuck them on an album to everyone...
K: To varying extents they’re either to do with... um... [pause]... yeah I don’t want to go into too much detail.
B: Haha, OK... that’s almost why I didn’t ask, but I did. Someone else will ask you, I can guarantee it!
K: Maybe it’s not too bad to go into it but I haven’t really thought it through yet. Some of them are self explanatory I think, because a lot of it is to do with I guess, imaginative escapism in a way. Some of it is to do with being close to reality or being far from it. Those track titles speak for themselves.
B: “Reality Drift” and “Ascension Phaze” I guess?
K: “Truth Flood”... some of them have dual meanings, but yeah. Either that or relationships stuff.
B: Well it does sound like an album full of a lot of light and love.... On another topic, it’s amusing to note you’re the only musician in history to move to Berlin and not get into minimal! You seem to have bucked the trend. So how did you manage to avoid falling in love with a hi hat coming in over a kick drum? ;)
K: I didn’t find it difficult not writing minimal. It’s just not in my listening, never has been, not in my peer group when I was growing up or recently. Like, my friends in Berlin aren’t into that stuff. It’s never been part of my world.
B: It’s funny, I went to the 10 years of FWD>> party and ended up talking to some lads about drum programming, which I can be boring about for hours but don’t normally get to talk to anyone but Dusk or Double Helix about it... and I noticed how they would happily flit between dubstep and minimal in this conversation about percussion. Yet I hear so little in that stuff that is rhythmically interesting.
K: Yeah I don’t know... I just don’t know about it. I’ve been getting into Detroit techno in the last month, getting into Robert Hood.
B: I used to be obsessed by Hood, I still think his stuff had swing!
K: Yeah Berlin minimal feels very distant from the landscape of music I know.
B: It’s interesting you say “landscape” as one of the things that has always fascinated me is the relationship between environment and music, which is why I joke about you moving to Berlin and not making a minimal album, because a lot of people do, having made a connection with the environment, but a lot of your stuff sounds more about your own personal headspace rather than your actual geography.
K: Yeah, I think it probably is kinda true. Even when I was in London I didn’t make ultra-London music. I felt like it was connected to it, very much attached to it but it wasn’t trying to be definitive London music at all. And I think in one way I lived in London for long enough that I could take it with me, it was embedded in me. But I think in another way it was good to get away from it because my proximity to it had become restrictive. It was really guiding me away from what was in my head. Also just being too close to a peer group. Like the Forward>> guys [producers who went, not the promoters], as much as I have really close friendships and affections to them, but having good relationships with them as friends brought a proximity to our music together, but I found myself being worried about upsetting what they were doing with my music, which became more of a worry the closer I became to them as friends. So London began to overly dictate my musical directions, decisions and I wanted to get away from it.
B: Sounds like you’re free from it now but then I don’t know if there is one London sound anymore, in the way there was a coherence of vision and a community around dubstep back then.
K: Yeah I don’t think it was a permanent problem of a locale, it’s just that’s what London was like in 2005-07. It was intense. There was a lot of deliberate and self conscious consolidation of direction, which I did not want to be part of.
B: Yeah but also there was this internal agreed set of rules during the ’05 era, when dubstep was small enough, that producers could and should exclusively own very large tracks of land in a very limited space – and from that the tensions started to come through. The 8 or 9 key producers became frustrated when others strayed into their territory and expected everyone who made music to be able to find their own exclusive space. Whereas now it’s inconceivable that now you could say everyone in dubstep should have their own exclusive sound and space.
K: [laughing] it was insane, yeah... very strange. But in retrospective it was nice, it did have a lot of good qualities to it. And that situation is really rare and therefore has a certain preciousness to it and fragility to it. But it really comes down to the relationship you want to have with a scene or scenes in general, the idea of a scene. It can be a really energising, defining place to be, to be within the nucleus of a scene at its formative time but I find myself not wanting to be in that situation now. I want to have space away from scenes I don’t want to be defining them and I don’t want to be defined by them. And it’s not so much in terms of an ego thing entirely, but I would like to be able to say things without it being defined by that scene. It’s just in terms of doing something good. Once you’ve run out of inspiration or energy relationship with that scene you need to get away from it, and that’s the relationship I found myself in. There was no more to give or to take. I never thought my relationship was parasitic, I always felt it was reciprocal or at least natural, but I was getting nothing or increasingly little from them so it was a good idea to physically move away. But now it’s a musical relationship I don’t have anymore with scenes. I have it to an extent but it’s much looser. It was so concrete back then. You know? “The dubstep scene.”
B: But it sounds like you’re now creatively benefiting from that distance. I can hear reference points in the album, some of them are current and some of them are in the past but it doesn’t sound like it falls into any one scene, which feels like a strength to me and what you’ve aimed for.
K: I think if you’re going to detach away scenes the one thing you have to have is a real purpose for doing so. You really need to know what you’re doing without them to support you. I don’t claim I’m entirely free from them, I owe an awful lot to footwurk and rap, which are coherent, legit scenes with defining actors within them but to a large extent am now more detached compared to the way I used to be and it’s not a dilemma, an identity or direction problem because I really know what I want to do, I know what the themes are and the points that I want to reach are and it’s just more a question of what’s the best way to express those. One of the things I’ve always wanted to do and for the foreseeable future is to have some genuine modernity in my music. And it’s those underground scenes that are always the most modern. Footwurk is ultra modern, like hyper modern, compared to anything else. It sounds like alien technology.
B: You say it’s modern but aren’t all those ‘80s drum sounds really retro?
K: The 808 itself is a bit transcendent to a time, it’s just part of the musical language. It’s more the patterns and angles you create with it. I don’t think there’s other drum sounds in footwurk other than the 808, sometimes a 909? I think the date at which a certain drum machine was made or popularised does not restrict it from always being a retrospective reference to that date. That’s just the time it came into the collective musical language.
B: I dunno, it was prominent in the 80s and it is prominent now and I wonder whether some of these sounds having become fashionable again will in turn also date again as well. The cycle will swing back again.
K: Yeah in order to be fresh people are going to have to get away from it. But it’s so new, it’s such a young age for electronic, dance music that we really haven’t got that much to look back on to see how it plays out over time. The stuff that we think of as dated is coming back. We call it retro but I think there will be a real oscillation of coming in and out and once it’s come in for the fifth of sixth time, people will not call it “’80s” or “’90s” anymore because no one remembers that time! It’s just something that comes in and out of phase. I know people call those sounds ‘80s but to me they’re not references to the ‘80s. They’re just the sounds that carry a kind of futurism to me. And whether that’s a real futurism or a sensed futurism, they have that sound to me. It’s of no interest to me when they were first popularised, they convey the thing that I would like to convey and in most cases on this album it’s a kind of futurism or modernism and so it’s odd for that to be retro because I’m not talking about prior times. [pauses] Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
B: I’m confused by futurism, it’s almost an inherent contradiction. You write in the present but try to evoke a sense of the future, but yet because people have been doing this for decades, it sounds retro. Detroit techno was talking about futurism in the mid 80s and their ideas of what the future would look like now aren’t now even our present they feel like our past, they’ve dated so much. The future has history! People have been trying to evoke a sense of futurism for so long, it sounds old.
K: Yeah there’s a few reasons for that, like you say it has history to it. So there are certain cultural artefacts that get handed down from prior times and they come to us and become signifiers for futurism – a particular synth sound or arpegiator sound – and we think of it sounding futuristic but from one perspective it might be just a hand-me-down from the 80s. But it is also possible that that sound has an innate futurism to it. An innate starry...
B: So isn’t this very dependent on the whether your audience has heard your reference points or not?
K: I am of the opinion that those sounds have a lot more innate qualities than they are attributed to have. And I think the past referencing is dramatically overplayed. I think synthetic sounds of a certain kind of sweeping movement with reverb on it, the arpegiated synth arp lines – they always sound somewhat starry and synthetic, as in inorganic and have a certain excitement that people will as a catch-all term will call “futurism.” I think it’s innate, I think if you played it to any human at any point in history they’d have a similar psychological reaction to certain sounds. It’s not to negate all cultural references, because people do use them as such but it’s not their only function or meaning. People were drawn to those sounds and describe them as futuristic because they recognise the innate quality of them. The term “futurism” itself is a difficult one as it’s actually quite a catch all in a way. We use it to describe what tomorrow will hold. Looking forward to tomorrow, a future bound perspective. But we also use it to describe astral stuff, space stuff, stars. A wonder of technology – things that are called that are also called futuristic. I think it’s an approximation of a sentiment and a clumsy one.
B: Maybe because it’s been by different groups in different ways at different times in ways that might not be entirely inclusive?
K: Say Star Wars is considered a classic futuristic film, set “in a galaxy far far away, a long long time ago...” i.e. it was set in the past. The themes within it: space, technology, romance were seen as classic futurist themes. But those things transcend “future” in its exact sense, they’re bigger things. A wonderance of technology or stars – that’s a permanent human thing. But this is where futurism combines and catches them all.
B: I’m curious about the sense of wonder, because that fascinates me because in one sense it is a nice, positive feeling to experience. But then I’m also a little suspicious of escapism. What are they escaping from? Lots of bass-centric stuff I have liked has been very grounded in reality. Futurism has a lot of escapism in it that makes me ask ‘well, what is it you’re escaping from that you’re not telling us?”
K: Well yeah, there’s also two kinds of futurism. There’s a kind of optimistic, escapist one from the deep sci fi, the Star Trek shit that has no reality in it. And then there’s the Blade Runner, closer future where you’re trying to work out the current times.
B: By looking at where they could quite conceivably get to?
K: Exactly and that’s the kind of futurism I find most engaging. But, that said I do have a particular tendency for escapism in myself throughout my entire life, even as a kid. It’s a stage in the imagination and also escaping... well not reality but I drift off from it a lot. And that I’m finding an interesting thing to write about because we come back to reality there’s a point in between the two, when you’re moving from a daydreamy escapist place back to a hard reality, there’s a bit of a transition and a journey.
B: It does seem though that mostly on the album you resisted strong swerves of direction, to pull you back to ground. Instead you just kept on your course with the theme of wonder. You kept your nerve.
K: It’s not wholly escapist and the thing that’s interesting about escapism that we do it in very everyday, often quite mundane situations. Like just staring out the bus when commuting to a shit job or whatever. And I think we all go on these internal fights of fantasy, to different extents. Some of us it’s a bit more extreme – but it’s there. The thing we’re escaping to is interesting in itself. But the contrast of where we really are while we’re doing it and our awareness of where we really are and that relationship, that to me is the really interesting part about people’s tendencies to go into escapism. Where they really are and the relationship between the two. The album itself is not really about space and stars, at all. It’s about being here thinking about that stuff and having to come back here.
B: Yeah, but I don’t think you ever really bump people down to earth hard in the album. There’s much more reality drift and much less slamming you back down, saying “and now you have to get off the bus and go to work...”
K: Yeah but the thing is I have done quite a lot of that in the past [with Vex’d]. I did want to write a romantic album. The stuff I did before had been pretty stark.
K: Well yeah whatever that means. Concrete and... certainly not what this is. I wanted to re-address the balance and I find it a lot easier to write, it comes out a lot more naturally. It feels a lot more authentic, a lot less forces.
B: Well it sounds like you had some constraints with Roly...
K: Yeah to some extent, yeah, I guess that’s right. But after that I had some time to think what I wanted to do myself, which wasn’t a question I posed during that relationship.
B: It is amazing comparing the Vex’d album with this one... because the contrast couldn’t be more different.
K: I think there are some overlap of themes, a little bit. Some... but yeah. It’s not something I think about I’m not trying to get the two make sense. I haven’t thought about Vex’d for a long time and I don’t think about it now. It seems like a long time ago and a different person. When I hear the music it feels like it was written by someone completely different with completely different taste in music. It’s an odd experience. I’m not trying to play it down but if I’m honest that is my relationship to it.