|Breaking through: Kowton / Narcossist
House: It may have been a dirty word for producers of UK bass music in the past, but Joe Cowton is among a fresh wave of artists that are taking influence from both spheres in order to carve out their own niche. RA's Richard Carnes travels to his Bristol hometown to find out more.
2009 has been an interesting year for followers of UK bass music. Dubstep's rise in popularity has meant a move to bigger clubs for many DJs, with the sound following closely behind. Testosterone-loaded LFO frenzies have been the order of the day, with tunes created to serve the more ravey club dynamic that the music now occupies. There is innovation, though: The rise of UK funky has certainly been a game changer, with established dubsteppers such as Ramadanman, Martyn and Kode9 all experimenting with the form in the studio, while DJs now feel freer than ever to stray from the 140 BPM tempo that has dominated dance floors since the genre's emergence.
While funky may be the inspiration behind much of the hybridization, Joe Cowton has been attempting to fuse elements of modern house music into his sound. The lead track on his recent 12-inch on Keysound Recordings, "Stasis (G Mix)," for instance, takes heavily swung UK garage drums and applies them to a 124 BPM house template, with clipped female vocals and dub techno stabs giving the groove plenty of extra atmospherics. "What I'm trying to do is somewhere between the ideas I'm liking from the UK funky scene, and then the rougher end of house scene like Omar-S and STL," Cowton explains.
"If I can make something that's rough and swinging and bass-heavy, and has got maybe the odd vocal flicker... That old jungle feeling sometimes too—that'd be ideal." The influence of Stephan Laubner's murky lo-fi house is none more apparent than on flipside cut "Countryman," a hypnotic dubby house roller with a stumblingly ominous bass line. "The STL records are really swung, and they sound completely analogue and a little bit rough around the edges, and the progression through them is very deliberate but you don't know what's coming the first time you hear it," he enthuses. "It just kinda does what it's doing, and it's so captivating. You put it on and it's twelve minutes long or whatever, and it just flies by and you can just play it again and again."
The Keysound 12-inch was Cowton's inaugural release for his new Kowton moniker, with both of his two previous singles on Mindset and Clandestine Cultivations coming out under his more dubstep-geared Narcossist pseudonym. "Narcossism" is a term coined by New York University professor Avital Ronell in her Crack Wars book, and is used to denote modern society's inward preoccupation with addition, be it music, love, drugs, or whatever other vice we may choose. Joe was living and studying in Manchester at the time of the Narcossist material's production, and his then low self-esteem and narcotic consumption was something that informed his driving tenebrous beats. "The Narcossist stuff is very much of an age, and has to me a certain feel to it. It might not to other people, but those tracks like 'Brother Creeper' were very fucking dark," he exclaims with a wide smirk. "That 'Cold Brew' tune... Someone wrote to me from Lithuania and said, 'This track is pure depression... Thank you!' [laughs] When I started doing tracks as Kowton, I wasn't smoking any more, and trying to lighten shit up a little. By using my own name, it brings it closer to me rather than being a false reality I might have created or something like that."
Cowton spent his childhood years in the isolated rural village of Grasmere in the centre of the Lake District, getting his musical kicks via the likes of Slam and Two Lone Swordsmen while trying to emulate his heroes on an early copy of Fruity Loops. After going through a drum & bass phase and becoming disillusioned with the way the scene was developing ("It just kind of got to the point where it was a bit laughable. I think people were starting to see through it, and I kinda took a little while to realise!"), his time in Manchester reawakened his zest for music, something which Cowton credits wholeheartedly to Conor Thomas, an employee at Boomkat's now defunct physical store, Pelican Neck.
"He was basically pushing me through all the Basic Channel stuff and... I guess it was stuff like Rob Hall and just when Modeselektor was taking off. It was a weird mix of what Boomkat was selling, basically. We kind of went through all that through the course of about ten weeks, and there was nothing left to buy that seemed right at the time. Conor said that Skream was doing these mixes on Dubway's blogspot, which is what became Dubstepforum. It was literally just Skream home recordings, and I think Kode was on Rinse doing the FWD show about that time too. Boomnoise and Deapoh used to record it all, so you'd get all these amazing sets."
After that first fix of pirate radio, Cowton threw himself headfirst into the burgeoning dubstep scene, snapping up as many 12-inches as he could get his hands on before getting his first taste of dubstep raving in the form of Exodus in Leeds, where DMZ had been invited to play a showcase in the back room of the city's West Indian Centre. "It was mad—there was only about thirty or forty people there in the crowd. That night was the first night I remember going to thinking that this was really down to Earth, normal kinda thing, and maybe you used to get that at dubstep nights until about a couple of years ago. Heads down, everyone smoking, just a nice vibe."
The DJ sets of Youngsta as well as both the DMZ and Tectonic labels had a profound effect on his musical outlook, immediately feeding into Joe's production work and resulting in a collection of halfstep tunes that remain unreleased to this day. One person who began to sit up and take notice at this early stage was London-based blogger, producer and Pitchfork journalist Martin "Blackdown" Clark, who had just started up his Keysound Recordings imprint. "I'd been sending him bits since about 2005. There was one track that I did, a really pitch black thing called 'Nothing' and he really liked it. It was just an LFO sub kinda thing—I've been sending him stuff for forever and a day." Clark had already been keen to show his support for both the "Sunblind" and "Brothel Creeper" releases—championing the former in one of his '07 columns—but it was the Kowton material, and "Countryman" in particular that convinced him to bring Joe into the Keysound fold. "So many people—Micky from [NakedLunch] wanted it, and Liam (AKA Indigo) wanted it, and Scuba was into it. It was just one of those tunes where it was a bit hyped for a minute and everyone was on it."
The track's murky reduced sound was based on a series of samples from the Jamaican-based film of the same name. This process of building them up and layering them together is something that Cowton is keen to espouse. "With films, you've just got to grab the good bits, because they are so many good bits, and just the way that they're all made. I remember that there was a Loefah interview where he talked about THX-1138—the Lucas thing—and how many millions had been spent on crafting the sounds that made that such an immense film. You can have all these sounds and no-one'll ever know that you've taken them. It makes it interesting and it makes it unique," he continues. "You use a synth or you use a sample CD and nine times out of ten, someone else will have come across a similar sound or the same sound. If you've taken it from a film and then you're affecting it, dubbing it out or whatever, it's your sound. I remember Akufen saying in some interview that he'd always layer his kick drums with the sound of doors slamming."
Kowton's trademark, however, remains that aforementioned swing—moving the beats slightly off the grid and injecting a real sense of motion into his tracks. He cites Steve Gurley, Zed Bias and more recently Sully as examples of how to get the perfect swing—"It's a delicate thing, the weight of the hits is almost as important as where they go"—but what distinguishes his recent material from his 2-step forefathers is his use of slower tempos. "The gap between the beats is so much broader," he explains. "It's fractions of a second but you can just move things and it doesn't sound so cramped or forced. That was why I got so sick of trying to make the 'Sunblind' tempo stuff, because if you want it to be vaguely technoid you've got to start with the beat. Unless you want some kind of Jeff Mills-sounding, very rigid, very fast thing, you've got to break the 4/4 up. If you slow it down though, you can maintain the pulse beneath it and then you just knock it off centre slightly, and then you get the groove and the syncopation, but you've still got this drive thing beneath it and it rolls."
While "Stasis" saw him nudge things down to 124 BPM, Cowton is actually looking to take things even slower with his upcoming material. "I'm trying to do stuff at 120, 121... Maybe slower sometimes. That's the Workshop influence as well, and Move D too—just the way that he grooves it. That slow, you can get into the groove and roll it through. I'm trying to do that, but keep it heavy; bring in the female vocals from the garage and keep it atmospheric, but not too dubbed out. I'm trying to stay away from that kind of thing."
Throughout our conversation, it becomes clear that Joe is a music enthusiast first and foremost, one who isn't ashamed to reveal the direct influence that his favourite producers have had on his own work. But does he think that hybridization of styles is the way forward for dance music? "Unless you've already set your style in stone and decided how you're going to be—and being just that—then you've got to take influence, haven't you? It's no good just taking one and saying 'I'll copy such and such.' It's got to be from a broad spectrum. You automatically—I'm sure—recreate the things you hear. You soak all this music into you, and when you're making music, those are the elements that come out again."
Cowton has also been soaking up the surroundings of his recently adopted hometown, taking in the laidback Bristolian attitude and feeding it back into his calmer Kowton productions. But will he ever return to the aphotic dubstep of his Narcossist moniker?
"If I feel dark, yeah," he chuckles. "If I get angry enough again, but I think it would take that. If you're going to write really dark music without being in that kind of mood, it's not going to sound like that. It's going to sound like someone pretending to be angry for a record, which there's a lot of people into. Nowadays, the time where I feel most inspired is when I feel motivated and positive. When I sit down and write a really good track, it's not like back when I was doing those darker tracks which was mainly just to keep my mind occupied. I don't want to be feeling strung out or whatever... I wanna be, 'I'm having a good day, I'm gonna really fucking concentrate and try and put this through, how I want it to sound.' I want to make stuff that someone might hear in a dance and it might make them smile and be, 'This is a tune!' instead of trying to kind of oust some internal angst in the process of writing it, which is really quite a different business!"