|Shackleton: Man on a string
One of bass music's most enigmatic figures has broken cover. RA's Ryan Keeling enjoys an extended sit-down in his Berlin studio to talk about the life and times of Sam Shackleton.
"For me, music should transport you out of this earthly way and take you to another place, another dimension somehow." It's fair to say that Sam Shackleton has actualised his ideal. Since debuting on Mordant Music back in 2004, a land with its own scheme of governance and principles has sprung up around Shackleton's anomalistic music. His Skull Disco imprint, founded alongside Laurie "Appleblim" Osborne, was the predominant vehicle for his percussive explorations until its retirement in 2008, while Zip's Perlon label released a nine-track collection entitled Three EPs late last year.
In 2008 Shackleton moved to Berlin, where he has remained a virtual non-entity on channels of press and promotion. I've personally approached him for interviews on a number of occasions, although I must confess that my motivations were as much to do with the character behind the music as its content. Born in Lancashire in the North of England, Shackleton is an old-fashioned gentleman with a wicked sense of humour who aspires to live by simple means and values. The reason for his surfacing now is the release of fabric 55, a re-enactment of a standout live set he performed at the club earlier this year. We met at his studio in the atmospherically fitting former GDR broadcasting house in South-East Berlin for an in-depth discussion that covered his complex relationship with the dubstep scene, his painstaking production methods and his deep distrust of the hype machine.
You played in punk bands as a teenager: do you think this had a lasting effect on you?
I suppose so, but probably musically not. I think that when you're so young and you do something quite contrary to what people are doing in the mainstream, you don't really care so much about people's reactions. So maybe you get a bit of a thick skin. It's a really loose term isn't it, punk? But for me, it was never really about a form of music, I think it's more about being able to do what you think is good, what turns you on. So probably, in that respect, that's an ethos that I've kept hopefully to this day.
The great thing about the whole punk ethos for me was that anyone could do it, and it didn't really matter about what equipment you had. You are in my studio and you can see that I've got some bits and pieces of equipment but it's not some hi-tech studio and actually when I started doing the music that you are familiar with, it was done on the most basic software that anyone could get a crack of. I think you don't really need to worry about what other people are doing so much—if it sounds good to you, it is good.
And what about Jamaican music, dub specifically?
The thing is I feel a bit guilty about this because I haven't listened to so much Jamaican stuff for probably the last ten years or so. But, that said, you can't get away from the fact that pretty much all music with a heavy bass influence and dance floor music has its roots in that. With the Jamaican thing, when you are in England, I think you are just exposed to that music generally; it's just the way it is.
"When I'm making something,
I'm imagining myself dancing to it."
I understand you lived in Hungary and Turkey [for a time]. What stage were you at with your music and interest in music when you ended up back in London? Were you playing or producing?
While I was in Turkey or Hungary I didn't really do anything apart from play around with a drum machine. I think I tried to teach myself the violin [laughs] but when I got to London I met with a guy and he was squatting, a very good friend of mine now, and I don't really know why but something attracted me to him and I said, "We should start a band together" and I think we had the idea at that time to make some kind of free improvised... something like Can I suppose. But when I turned up to rehearsal I realised I wasn't such a good musician as I thought I was. I wasn't very good, but I had this great drum machine called a Zoom which had these really good bass sounds.
We played on the squat circuit a bit, which was really good. Normally we would play to two men and a dog on a string. I really enjoyed that but then it was always on the cards because he is a very philosophical guy... he went to the other side of the world and then he came back and he had converted to Islam and then he left London and that left me on my own. This was probably about seven years ago.
And his name is...
The story will all come around full circle... He was living in Holland and so I had to get on with this on my own, and I thought, "Well, I don't want to do this on my own, I need to get a computer," because I'd heard about these computers that you could actually make really good music on. I mean, I had no idea! [laughs] So I got one and got this program Reason and I just started making music with it. I really enjoyed it and I found that I could spend hours playing around with it and constructing tracks. I was surprised because I never really realised that things were capable of that and then you see I was making this music pretty much... I mean it's something similar to what I do now... it was basically percussive dub of some kind.
Now at the same time I started hanging around, well, there was a nucleus of us which was me, this guy Engine Room (a very good friend of mine) who was working with Laurie "Appleblim" and then he had a friend called Nectar Selector, and Nectar Selector had been going to this night FWD>> and he had been going there for quite a while as I remember, and I knew he was listening to what we called garage, dark garage, whatever. He was saying, "Yeah, there's this guy you got to hear him," this guy Youngsta.
What sort of year are we in?
I think this is the end of 2003 perhaps. He was playing this really odd mixture; I mean it wasn't the stuff you would hear in a Youngsta set now. There were bits of grime, he used to play stuff from this label Black Ops which was just grime stuff, but odd, really odd stuff. We really loved it. I suppose at that time, what I was making, was definitely in that sort of BPM range.
Which was... 140?
Maybe 135 at that time. I don't know. Again I was just going from my ear. These things kind of have a proxy influence, and I remember I had a couple of CDs I made and I gave one to Ian Hicks of Mordant Music and he really liked one of my tracks called "Stalker" and he wanted to put it out and I was really surprised by that. But then I would take my stuff to Youngsta, because I thought he might like it too, but I could tell he wasn't really that keen, and fair enough because it's weird; different people hear different things. Then time went on and you asked, "What happened to that guy I used to make music with?" He came back to England about three years ago and we started to do some stuff together again and if you've ever heard Skull Disco 009 and 010—"Death Is Not Final" or "The Rope Tightens"—those are his vocals and now he calls himself Vengeance Tenfold that's how it all comes round full circle.
I've always liked his lyrics and I think it's very strong stuff but he doesn't take what I do very seriously I don't think. I think he likes it in a... not lukewarm way, but he wouldn't pretend it's his favourite thing. I mean, he's in a country band and that's his thing and it wouldn't matter if I was playing the O2 Arena or something like that. If I said to him, "do you want to do the vocals for me at O2 Arena one night," and he had a booking with his country act in the Dog and Duck or something, there would be no contest, he would go with his country band. [laughs]
How would you describe the vibe at those early FWD>> parties?
God, I mean it's really hard to explain because these things get really... in hindsight, these things have been afforded so much importance, and they've had so much conjecture, and actually a lot of the time you would go down there and it would be pretty dead.
Bok Bok from Night Slugs said a similar thing to me: although the night was extremely influential, a lot of time it was empty.
Yeah, exactly that. It went through some weird phases. The first thing you need to remember and this is a really important thing, back in those days there was no fucking dubstep. Nobody said dubstep, you know. Grime was the term if anything and it was really important, a really, really important thing that influence...that oddness of the beat. I suppose anywhere there was grime, people used to assume it was edgy. I wouldn't say that was necessarily true. I think most people there were just the "heads," there just for the music. Now, being London I think it was essentially a working class thing, it was a different approach. It's not Berghain; it's not people being all lovey-dovey to each other and all the rest of it. People are careful of other people's space, that's just how it is in London generally.
It was a bit strange because we were very enthusiastic, us four, for what was being made and I think some of the guys like Loefah were like a don to us, same with Mala as well. All that basic nucleus, I think perhaps they thought we were a bit strange because all of us were really into it and we used to proper bring the rave, but we didn't need some bloody four-to-the-floor to make us dance. Maybe imagination was enough because we'd had exposure to other interesting music in the past. I remember, though, probably in 2005, there was just this weird dip. Just like Bok Bok said. Ten might be an exaggeration, but perhaps 30 people [at the night]. Anyway, at that time it did seem like there was a hand of doom hanging over the club—"this night is not going to go on for much longer"—but then somehow it just seemed to pick up again.
How well defined was the idea of dubstep at that stage?
I tell you what, for me it's so, so difficult to explain. Dub and step: dubby two-step. At that time it was as close to dubstep as it's ever been, yet nobody said dubstep. Now dubstep is such a common word with the youngsters and yet for me, even though it's a very defined sound in many respects, in the common parlance, it's a bit of a misnomer because there's no real two-step element and there's no real dub element, do you understand what I mean?
Woe to the Septic Heart
How would you personally describe this world you have created with your music?
It's difficult, because for me I just make it until it sounds right and that's as simple as it is. There are some sounds I like and then there are some sounds I don't like. I think it's probably got... yeah, it's probably quite difficult to stand outside it and look at it really because it's just something I do and I just like it.
Is there a certain headspace you need to reach to put across what you do, though?
Again, I can't really explain it. When I'm locked into making music I'm not thinking about anything else and it's just... the only way I can describe it is is that it's a compulsion, you know? Just some compulsive behaviour I have that when I am in the studio and I'm making music I can't let it go until it sounds right. I just keep experimenting, and playing and changing and swapping until "this is how it is supposed to sound" It just comes together. Sometimes it takes a long, long time.
I would hesitate to put too many descriptors on your work, but I feel like African percussion seems, outwardly, to be something that you draw upon quite often.
OK, look, right. This is a very simple answer to this. I've heard it done well in other people's music or whatever, but for me the kick-snare combination doesn't really do it.
The kick and snares combination as in...?
Like kicks and snares making a beat. It's not really my cup of tea. Now I hear it in other people's music and they can make it work really, really well, but when I'm making music it just doesn't do it for me on some level. It doesn't have a fluidity perhaps, and I need something more fluid if I'm dancing...and understand that I make my music to dance to and you don't need to pretend otherwise even though I know some people say, "You can't fucking dance to that shit." When I'm making something, I'm imagining myself dancing to it and I get off on that.
It makes me excited, you know, certain beats. The thing is with the kick-snare, I don't know why it doesn't do it for me, maybe it's the frequency of the snare, or I find it a little bit too dictatorial perhaps, whereas I find using percussion that has a softer hits and a lower frequency range more fluid and I can dance to it and I can find a groove to it more.
Are you talking specifically about the snare being on the 2 and the 4?
For a start, this is one aspect. But the snare doesn't have to be on the 2 and the 4, of course, and on a load of that great garage stuff it's not, and that's some superb stuff. You might have heard a snare on for example, "Blood On My Hands." It's not used as a rhythmic element. What I've done is taken the snare and pitched it down a lot so it's more like an explosion. So in that respect it's taken out of its context.
Now, if you were to say to me what music do you listen to specially that you can draw from I mean yeah, I think it's fair to say that I do listen to a lot of music that is not of Western European origin so perhaps these percussive elements do have an influence on me. But I would also say that when people say you've got this Western African influence going on, it's a tricky one because I'm just some English guy from the North of England. I don't want to copy somebody else's thing that culturally I don't really know about. Like congas for example, these are sounds that just sound better to me, for me personally...for me personally.
How do you program your percussion these days?
With bloody care and attention. It is very difficult because, one thing that really upsets me is when people say "this guy is using loops." No, I do not use bloody loops!
That's why I brought it up: You'd told me you don't.
I think people think they sound like loops because I spend a lot of time on it. Mostly I take, say, a percussive sound that I like in a record or something and I can isolate that particular sound. I can take it in [audio editing program] Sound Forge for example, and I can mess around with it and give it a lot of different characteristics... It just takes time. If you have heard that track "Death Is Not Final," I mean, just the percussion programming took ages.
Two months actually. [laughs] It took me ages, really ages. The only thing is I had this whole track worked out and I was really proud of it, apart from I had... I couldn't put a kick on it and it's running at 120 BPM. I remember Appleblim coming along to the studio and he just said, "Why don't you just put a straight kick underneath it?" And at that time I had never really used a straight kick before; I thought "Do you think it's alright?"[laughs] "Is that acceptable?" He said, "Yeah!" So I did. I thought "This sounds alright."
I think I had this dogma about never using a straight kick or something like that but you just realise with a straight kick it's also good as long as it's not the dominant feature. I have heard a lot of the Perlon stuff since: people like Portable or obviously Ricardo. Its fine using a straight kick as long as you have got the groove going on in other areas and it's not the dominant feature, but I think probably because me and all my group were maybe not so schooled in that style of music, I had a bit of a dogma about not using that, which I don't have any more.
Has producing become a faster process for you over the years?
No, no, no. The music making process itself doesn't get easier. After this release on Perlon, I mean, I couldn't listen to it afterwards but people tell me it's really, really good. I think "well, I'm pleased people like it," but for me I couldn't listen to it. Now, it's been a year since then and it's slow, it's just really, really bloody slow. I've just come to realise that's how it is. You want to make something which you consider to be good and you want other people to enjoy it and it would make me feel sad if people would say... you know, you hear so many of your favourite artists...
I mean, I'm sure you know this…artists that used to be good, but now they got lazy. Do you know what I mean? And I would hate it if people thought that about me, that would really upset me to be honest. Like if people would say, "Oh that's Shackleton, you can't dance to it it's a load of rubbish." That's an opinion and I can accept it...I don't necessarily agree with it, but that's fine. That's just taste. But if someone is saying, "Well that guy obviously doesn't care," that would really upset me because it just wouldn't be true.
"The more you build something up,
the quicker it falls."
To talk about the fabric mix, was it a difficult decision to undertake the project? You've obviously chosen to remain out of the limelight in recent years.
To be honest, that was the aspect that would be the negative. By the same token, I knew that was part of it. But I think the positives outweigh it when you add up everything, and the other thing is that I hope I have defined my own space pretty much in what I do. I don't feel like I'm riding on anyone's train which I did feel very conscious about and I always have felt very conscious about... So actually the idea of a certain amount of exposure doesn't worry me as much as it may have three years ago.
I don't want to dwell on it too much, but why have you chosen to keep such a low profile?
I think there are two aspects to this. First of all, like I say, this dubstep thing: We were always outsiders and I've got massive respect to the original guys; massive, massive respect for Kode9, Mala, Youngsta, but I would have felt wrong trying to milk that. It just would have been wrong, you know? Then on the other hand, I don't particularly like, and I'm sorry to say this in your company because I know you are an internet-based publication—it's not a slight at all—but with the nature of the modern world with the internet I find that things can get very easily hyped. I just wanted it to be the case of [the music] goes in the shop, people listen to it, if they like it they buy it, if they don't like it, they don't buy it.
I suppose that I'm really, really happy with my life; really happy that I can come to the studio, really happy there is a core of people that like what I do [and] I would rather not jeopardise that and I wouldn't like it to be a case of... if I put out a load of promo sheets and bombarded everybody with it and this type of thing I would say... the more you build something up, the quicker it falls. I don't need lots and lots of money, I don't need a lot of fame or this sort of thing, I just like doing what I'm doing. That's good for me.
You said in the press notes for the fabric mix that prior to first being booked to play there you didn't think that they would be interested in your sound. Could you elaborate on that?
You have to understand at that time I wasn't getting any bookings. I hadn't really considered myself a working performer shall we say. I hadn't had hardly any bookings and for fabric to turn up and book me was a surprise just because it is an established club and I had always worked on the assumption that my music is quite obscure.
Do you still get gigs these days where the crowd don't quite get it?
Where to hear the soundboy
Russ from the Labyrinth festival told us recently that he thought your music was best enjoyed outdoors. Would you agree? And, if not, what is the optimum setting?
I wouldn't agree with that actually. But that said, maybe that [Labyrinth] is the exception because Russ and a lot of people told me at Labyrinth that they really enjoyed my set. Perhaps in that situation, because the majority of the audience are Japanese and not exposed to the same stuff or perhaps because they have had a lot of four-to-the-floor stuff during the day; perhaps [because of] their mental state at that time of the day they really responded to it...and it's in a great setting in the middle of the mountains. And the Funktion One...well, I mean Funktion One in itself is not a panacea, I do get a little bit tired of hearing this mantra, but they really have done a great job there.
So perhaps it did work while we were there, but, to be honest, I would always say that my music is best suited to a very small dark room with a good soundsystem. I'm thinking specifically Plastic People in London. There is a place called Goethe Bunker in Essen that's a really nice venue to play. The defining characteristic is it's a small dark room and the soundsystem is very good. fabric works very well for me. Normally I think it would be a bit too big but I think that's because the sound system is so all encompassing it works very well.
God, yeah! It gets less and less because I am more careful about the bookings I take but, I played a gig recently, a couple of months ago, and they booed me off stage. They were shouting at me, "We want dubstep, we want dubstep!" It was just one of those. I've never pretended to be dubstep so... In the end I think I just got really grumpy and I think I made some sort of obscene gesture and left. [laughs].
Do you dwell on these sort of things?
[long pause] No…what are you going to do?! To be honest, they were mostly young lads and I could understand why they didn't like it. It's fine. The problem is that the promoter had billed it as a dubstep night; people came expecting to hear a certain thing. Well, I think that's maybe more of the responsibility of the promoter. I don't blame the kids. Imagine if you are from some small town, and you haven't got much access to a lot of different music and suddenly you hear dubstep as it is commonly understood today, and you really like that but nobody ever comes to your town and then there's a night, it's a dubstep night, you're going to come really excited. Of course you are going to be disappointed when you hear my thing. There might have been two or three people that thought, "I really enjoyed that, now I'm going to make some music." That's the hope.
So did you sequence the fabric mix or record a live session?
Basically what happened is when I played at fabric in the summer, Judy asked if she could record the set and normally I say no to these things, just because these things get leaked; but I know fabric wouldn't do that. So I said, "Yeah, record it, but let's talk about it after." She said she was really into it and she wanted to put it on the fabric website. When I listened back to it, I thought "No, I don't fancy that" because once it's on the internet it's there; anyone can download it or rip it and it goes out for everyone and that's my set.
That's my livelihood, that's my work and there is a lot of unreleased stuff on there. I wrote back and said, "I'm really sorry, I couldn't even isolate a section but if you like it so much, why don't you think about doing a fabric CD with it?" At least that's not giving it away completely cheaply. I really didn't expect a reply, or I expected a polite declination, but she said, "Well, actually that's a good idea, but could you do it in a studio?"
So the fabric mix CD is pretty much the set I played on the night last summer, because it went so well and I felt this is the closest document to what it would have been. It does have some levels of improvisation in there, but I try to keep the running order pretty much as close to what it was.
Would you say your live set has changed much down the years?
I think... now I feel freer with it; I feel much more at ease with what I'm doing. I think I have got much more room to take more chances with it or there's an element of brinkmanship in there which I wouldn't have had when I was more nervous about it. I feel quite happy about having some hi-hats running and just doing some crazy things with delays and filters which I think are the best parts now, so I think it's not as static as it used to be.
What's your relationship like with touring?
As I get older, home seems really more and more comfortable, but being honest about it, I think you always have to say that there are people [out] there and they are listening to your music and some people like it and that's just the best thing ever. Especially when people come up to you afterwards and tell you how much they enjoyed it. It's a real buzz isn't it...it's got to be!
Would you say you are someone that thinks about the future much?
Probably not as much as I should do. I mean, in terms of music, which is what we are talking about of course, going back to Skull Disco I have had people say to me, "Oh, it was really good planning the way you put those..." and there was no planning whatsoever! It was the most random thing and as completely ungoverned by plans as it could possibly be. Then when I think, well, if I started to plan say a release schedule or something it just wouldn't work for me, so in the context of the music I don't really think about the future at all.
I do worry that people will get sick of it and I will have to take a job, which doesn't appeal to me. But in terms of planning for my future I don't really think like that at all. I just feel quite lucky to be able to do what I do and I just hope it continues...but if it does or if it doesn't it's not really determined by me. All I can do is make sure that I'm making things that I think is the best that I can do. The rest of it is in the lap of the Gods.
Published / Friday, 03 December 2010
Photo credits / Illustrations - Zeke Clough
Header portrait - Lars Borges
Live at Unsound - Seze Devres