|Machine love: Jamie Jones
RA sticks its head around the door of Jamie Jones' East London studio to find out which machines the Crosstown Rebels man is loving.
"Ketamine tech house." Seems like a pretty derogatory tag at a glance. After all, both have been thought of—accurately or otherwise—as watchwords for dance floor monotony these past few years. In 2009 RA's William Rauscher seemed more than happy to apply the phrase to Jamie Jones' debut full-length, Don't You Remember the Future. Only in this context, it was in glowing terms. And you could clearly see what he meant. Ever since his first release, Amazon, for French label Freak n' Chic back in 2006, Jones' output has been shrouded in a sort of dense druggy fog; the peer pressure in this case is from the basslines and synths, baiting you to remain under and out for just that little bit longer.
Don't You Remember the Future sported one of the year's most ubiquitous tracks in "Summertime"; although whether it's been through Crosstown Rebels, Get Physical, BPitch or his own Hot Natured imprint, the productions emanating from Jones' East London studio have consistently been played, supported and danced to more than almost anything else out there. Oh, and there's also been an edit or two. Well, several in fact. The names Electric Jones, Hot Natured (alongside Lee Foss) and Jones/Mizrahi (with Gadi of Wolf + Lamb fame) have all acted as smoke screens for Jones' reinterpretations of hits from the likes of La Roux, MGMT and Radiohead. Keen to gain an insight into the gear and methodology behind his woozy grooves, we called up Jones' studio earlier this month to talk tech.
Tell me about your first set-up.
Top: Jupiter-8. Bottom: Roland Drumatix and Korg Radias.
I first learnt the basics of sequencing and how to put simple tracks together when I got this game called Music 2000 on the Playstation. It was pretty simple, but it got me hooked on making beats and melodies.
I got a PC; I think I got a version of Reason to start off with. I was making loads of little tunes with that but was never really happy with the sound that I got out of it. Finally, when I started putting parties on in London, when I had a bit of money, I bought a little Macbook Pro; just a 12-inch Macbook Pro, got Logic, just started making tracks with Logic and then eventually I bought a microKorg and some monitors. That was what I had for a while and then gradually from there, sort of [it's] gone to what I've got now, saving up... I put a lot of money from DJing and releasing records back into my studio.
It seems that way from the kit list you sent to me...
Yeah, I think it's a good investment, especially if you're buying the right machines—they don't really lose value, it's almost like putting money in the bank. Some of the things I bought are worth more now than when I bought them.
How would you describe some of those early compositions on the Playstation?
They were like proggy, trancey kind of. It was quite musical, actually. I made one one year and I actually played it out. I had a gig at Pin Up in Ibiza, this was going back... Pin Up was—I don't really know if you know about it—but Pin Up was only up for like one summer... I sort of, at the time, was just getting into early Metro Area stuff, and Daniel Wang and early cosmic-y, disco house and there isn't really that much of that going in Ibiza and I convinced the promoter to let me open one of the back rooms early and play in there, playing that kind of music, and I'd made this one tune on the Playstation and I remember playing it out. It didn't sound very good!
How long do you think it took until you were satisfied with the results you were getting? Was there much of a learning curve before you sat back and thought "Yeah, I'm happy with this"?
Totally, massive. I'd been making tunes for years and years and years. I'd made a lot of them and listening back to them, some of the ones I made before I even released a record, some of them I've beefed up the sound and I play them out now. I might even release them. I've become a lot more adapted to doing things myself, mastering them, and they sound... the ideas were there back then, but it was just a case of the years spent training your ears to get things in the right places, get things sounding good enough for release.
Not to be negative [but], a lot of people these days, make tracks, they're not really good enough to release yet or sound good enough to release. But today because of the digital age, a lot of them just get released, but I was of the persuasion where if it wasn't good enough to release on some of my favourite labels at the time, which were Freak n' Chic, Crosstown Rebels, Poker Flat, then it wasn't good enough to release, so I sort of waited and waited and finally my first release was on Freak n' Chic and that was actually the first track I made properly on Logic as well, so I guess that was the major step for me, using Logic rather than Reason.
You mentioned that while using Reason you weren't happy with the sound: is that just because the program didn't suit what you were trying to do, or you just didn't get on with?
No. I got on with it great. I think it's great as far as useability, the actual things that are on there, you get a really good swing. I haven't used it for years but I think now they've improved the sound drivers but it was just, it didn't sound... I could instantly tell when I was making something and when other people were making something... back then, you're going back almost six years, and I know for a fact that they've improved the sound engine now... But back then you could tell when a track was made [in Reason]. Mids were missing, you'd have to fiddle about with it a lot, and it mainly came through when you were playing it through a normal stereo.
Going through the progression of your early stages in production, is there anyone in particular who taught you or influenced what you were doing?
Yeah, no one ever really sat down and taught me much. Even with DJing. I grew up in Wales and I didn't know anyone with decks and it took me a while to even figure out how to beat match. It was the same with producing, and I'm not a manual reader. I have a complete mental block. I've got some machines and I wish I knew how to use them properly. I know how to get out of them what I want but I'm sure I could get even more out of them if I sat down and read a manual.
Whatever I've learnt, Matthew Styles actually, when he lived in London, he's obviously a super geek when it comes to machines and studio stuff, so he did teach me a few things along the way as far as programs and stuff are concerned and he's taught me a lot about machines actually, so if there's one person, it's Styles.
Moving on, can you talk about some of the ways you might approach putting a track together these days. Do you find yourself coming back to any starting points or are there any routines you find yourself falling into?
Yeah, I generally work quite fast, and I have a formula where I start off with—if I'm making a house track or a techno track—I start off with a kick drum. I usually start off with a bass sound, try and find a hook, vocal snippets, whatever, and I try and build a track, the loop up until it'll be at its maximum point, where the main melody or the main hook... pretty much 90% of the elements are there and I'll just break it down to the beginning and build it back to that point.
"Some of my bigger tracks have
taken me like 45 minutes."
So would you build up say a four-bar loop, and then when it came to make the arrangement, copy that across the page and formulate an arrangement from that?
I usually take a bit out of the loop and put it in the beginning. I start off with a sound or a drum and then I build it up. I don't really copy the whole loop across and take things out—I take things out of the original loop and add to them. I guess the only routine I have is I'll work and work up to that point.
I need a break before I start sequencing so I'll take a step back, go have a cup of tea usually, go back to it and listen otherwise you end up... I've sat there for eight hours before, just listening to a loop, playing about with it, changing the filters, just getting really carried away, not even getting anywhere and I find I need to take a step back and go and really start sequencing because that's the bit I hate.
Is that what you find most difficult: when it actually comes to that point of breaking from the loop into a full arrangement?
Totally. Now, I've only just started using the Midas [Venice 320] mixing desk... I used to have a smaller Mackie mixing desk, [on] which I did a few tracks like that... Two out of ten tracks, I record live, where I have all the sounds coming through the mixer and then I record literally just a live mix of the track through the mixer. I've started doing that more. The tracks sometimes sound a lot better like that.
Do you go into the studio with a pre-conceived idea of what you're trying to do? As in, do you sit down and think, "I'm going to make this type of record today"?
Sometimes...80% [of the time] I do that but it never turns out like that but I just go off on a tangent and end up with something different. I've done a couple of tracks recently; when I'm working with other people, I always sit down and I'm like "Right, I think we should make this sort of track today." I made a track with a couple of friends last week: a US garage track, really swingy. That's exactly what we ended up on. So when I'm with people I do that, but when I'm on my own I just go off on a tangent really.
You mentioned in an interview I read a while back about the importance of rhythm and melody so I'm wondering how you go about composing these things?
It's all done on keyboards. Now, I mainly use my Jupiter 8 as the master for everything... I always, when I'm recording, when I'm playing I literally sit there with a drum loop, find a sound I like and then just play a good five minutes worth of stuff, and I'll record the audio and the MIDI. Then I go back on it, I've been doing it a while now so my keyboard skills are quite good so a lot of the time I'll just use the MIDI, but then if there's something really cool, if I played something that's almost there where maybe one note's not right, then I'll go back and change the MIDI and then obviously play it back and record the audio again, change the filters, LFOs, etc.
And you're looking to put that further into practice by doing some music training?
Yeah, exactly. It's made a massive difference. I've been doing some piano lessons for about six months, not every week because I've been on tour. I got to the point where 90% of the time I played things in key, but obviously I was just using my right hand. Now I've started to use my left hand, just learning what the actual chords that I kind of knew already are, and how to structure them better. But the main thing was technique. Now I've learnt scales, my technique moving around the piano is so much more fluent. You just get more rhythmic groovy melodies when you play it rather than them being a bit MIDI-ish and controller-ish.
What about beats? How would you go about putting a drum loop together?
Well, I was using an MPC for the last few years but I found it was just time consuming so over the last X amount of years, I just built up a huge sample library. A lot of them are my own loops I made on the MPC or other drum programs, a lot of them are bits and bobs I picked up off records or sample libraries. Then I chop them up; I run Ableton into Logic and I find the function of being able to drop any loop into Ableton is amazing. And obviously there you can just chop out any bit of drum that you want. If there's a hi-hat from a drum loop you like, you can chop out the hi-hat, play it over another clap or do it like that. I rarely still program any drums because I find I've got so many drums that I don't ever need—even really good—real drums.
I've actually just started working with an electronic band and I've got a drummer for that, she's really cool. We're hooking up not as often as we'd like but I literally just send her the tracks with a click track, tell her what kind of drums I'm after, and she sends me back the real drums, so, I'm getting quite into that now.
Is this a future project then?
Yeah, definitely a future project, it's one of my main focuses.
Are you able to say the name of it yet?
No, not yet!
OK, fair enough. What about the Roland drum machines: are you getting much use out of them?
Yeah, totally. That's the thing: I still use the 909, I still use the [Korg] Electribe sometimes but I've used them, I've rinsed them loads over the years and I've just recorded and I try to record everything I do, so I've done so many really good drum loops on the 909. I had an 808 for a couple of years as well, so I've recorded all the individual hits and loads of loops that I'm into. The 606 was really good for hi-hats. I mainly bought the 606 to run the arpeggiator of the SH101.
And the old Roland synths such as the Jupiter 8?
Oh, absolutely. It's just amazing, the sound you get out of it; it just cuts through any other, you can't compare it to any plug-in, the richness of it. You can sit down and start playing on it and you've got the main element of a track straight away whether it's a bass sound or whether it's a synth sound or a string.
Do you think they're flexible enough to still be generating original sounds? Obviously the pureness of the sound is undisputed but I was wondering if you ever worry that it's more difficult to be truly original?
Well...the good thing about the Jupiter 8, besides being original, is there's only 2000 in the world. There's a plug-in but it doesn't sound anything like the machine, and there's 2000, so how many of them are still going? As far as me making my kind of music, I don't think there's that many people who are making this type of music who have got one.
I don't use it all the time either. I've got so many other machines and I know them quite well now. I use the Nord Lead rack a lot; that's really good, I love the sound of that. The microKorg is a classic, especially the old original analogue one, love the sound of that... The good thing about it is that it was the first thing I bought six or seven years ago, and I've used it loads and I know loads of people with it but I never turn on a track by anyone and go "Oh! That's a microKorg."
You're using a combination of Ableton and Logic: How do you go about that?
I use Ableton to lay down quite a lot of the ideas. I like the loop function so I use it a lot to be in the loop mode and put down ideas, record stuff in, record audio in, then towards the end of it, it's rewired into Logic so I record the sequence into Logic and record that.
People spend too much time saying that the sound in Ableton is not good enough, but to be honest with you, if they were making good music, it wouldn't matter if it were made in Ableton or Logic. I find if people are moaning about sound, [they are] spending too much time thinking about what other people are doing. I really hate that. The truth of it is that Live, especially Live 8, is so user friendly and you can do so much, so much quicker than Logic can.
What is your usual turn around time on a track?
Averagely take me? Average would be about three or four hours I would imagine. Some of my bigger tracks have taken me like 45 minutes? You get an idea and everything just clicks into place, and then you're sequencing it—that takes a little bit longer. Don't get me wrong, a track is not 100% finished in four hours—I'm talking about sitting down, getting the main loop going, after two-and-a-half, three hours thinking right I'm ready to sequence, spending an hour doing a rough sequence. After that I'll listen to it on a couple of systems.
I've just bought a sub-woofer so that makes a massive difference for me to see if there's too much lower-end. I'll go back, EQ a lot of things, pan everything, add things like crashes and noises, little things. Those kinds of things are extended time, sometimes I go back to tracks after I've played them out; they're too long, this middle bits too long, etc. Sometimes I've got something I can play to myself on my iPod or play to my friends at an afterparty, generally within about 4 hours.
You worked with a number of vocalists on your album. Did you feel like this was necessary to take things the next level, so to speak?
Yeah, for me, although I started as a DJ, I'm most happy now in the studio and as a DJ I've become really busy doing two or three gigs a week. I love it to bits but it can't last forever. I do not want to be doing three gigs a week in ten years time. I want to start to produce bands, start to make more "real music," have a band project myself... not that what we do isn't real music [laughs] but I'm talking about real musicians, making music with real musicians rather than machines and synthesizers.
I was interested to know: How much attention do you pay to what's going on in the scene at any given time? Do you pitch your productions accordingly?
Absolutely none whatsoever. I listen to what I listen to. I listen to new music or old music, whatever inspires me. I listen to disco music, I listen to techno music, I just make music that I want to listen to and play out, that's about it really. Sometimes along the way, some artists have really inspired me: Mathew Jonson, when I first started making music was a really big inspiration... Don't get me wrong, I'm inspired by records but it generally isn't what's going on. Too many people sit down and try and listen to what's going on and try and imitate that, and there's no longevity and originality.