|Playing favourites: Dusky
The genre-spanning UK duo talk tunes with RA's Todd L. Burns.
So much of what we hear, read and see in the arts is down to associations. If tastemaker "x" says unknown "y" is good, we'll give it a shot. So when Loefah started playing a group signed to Anjunadeep on his Rinse FM show, it felt like Dusky were worth seeking out. Alfie Granger-Howell and Nick Harriman made one of the more lush electronic music albums of last year with the aforementioned Anjunadeep release Stick By This. Since then, their tracks for labels like Dogmatik (see "Tyto Alba" in particular) have been picked up on equally by Jamie Jones as Boddika. In advance of their set at this year's Eastern Electrics Festival, we decided to look more deeply into their musical make-up.
Rave '92 seems like a pretty mass market type of thing. If I have it right, the subtitle on Discogs is "24 Massive Rave Hits Of The Year."
Nick Harriman: Exactly, it's a really commercial compilation but that was how I initially got into dance music. I used to get my pocket money and go up to Our Price once a month and buy tapes. I can't remember the first thing I bought, something terrible, probably even worse than that, Zig & Zag maybe. [laughs]
Looking back over the track listing, was there a particular track that really stood out for you?
Nick Harriman: Yeah, the Prodigy tracks that are on there aren't very good, but Prodigy in general are still one of my favourite dance groups, I think they're incredible. Also The Orb, there are a couple of tracks like "Assassin" and "Blue Room." They have this crazy psychedelic percussion that's so textural. I used to really like the psychedelic stuff a lot more, I used to go to these raves at the Drome called Mindscapes and they used to play a lot of stuff in a similar vein to The Orb.
Valley Of Shadows
Was there a particular genre you were attracted to early on?
Nick Harriman: Apart from having compilations like Rave '92, the first thing I was super into was drum & bass. This Origin Unknown track was the first tune that really got me into drum & bass. My brother lent me a compilation, and from that point I started paying a lot more interest in drum & bass and I really stuck with that right through to about 15 or 16. Even now I still go back to it because of the production value and the mixdowns in drum & bass are always on the cutting edge. I go and listen to drum & bass for creative ideas on mixing.
One of the things that strikes me about your music is how clean and meticulous it feels. I wonder if this is similar. Are you guys gear heads?
Nick Harriman: Not particularly. We do everything in the box. I think it's just listening to a lot of music and analysing stuff and then trying to translate ideas which you hear in other places and enjoy. I guess having an attention to detail is one of those things you need to make yourself stand out and also just to make yourself satisfied with what you're doing. You don't want to just bosh out a tune which has got absolutely no depth. You want to make something you can go back and listen to and say, "Oh yeah, that was sick, I don't even remember how I did that but I spent ages doing it". And when you hear again after forgetting how you did it, it makes it more worthwhile.
The Ahmad Jamal Trio
Nick Harriman: Ahmad Jamal was a pianist and a composer. I really got into jazz and a little soul through hip-hop because I used to listen to a lot of hip-hop as well when I was into drum & bass. One of the tracks off that album, The Awakening, was sampled on a Nas tune, "The World Is Yours," so I really got led into jazz. He was the one that really stood out for me, because at first I found it quite difficult to listen to bebop stuff because it's so fast.
This coming from a guy that listened to drum & bass.
Nick Harriman: Yeah, but in a different way. [laughs] It's quite hard to describe. Jamal was someone whose music is so well-considered to a level which I can't really understand because I'm not classically trained or anything but I can appreciate how meticulously and well-composed [it is]. Everything is played with such consideration, and I guess that's something we try and take into our own music. Being very careful about what you put in there and what you leave out and putting time into that rather than going all-out.
I was wondering if you had any classical training.
Nick Harriman: Alfie was classically trained.
Alfie Granger-Howell: I grew up playing piano and studying jazz, also classical as well, then I did a course at the Royal Academy of Music. I got a degree in composition. It was called Media In Applied Music, which is effectively TV and film stuff. So I had all the similar classes as the classical performers, but also I had other classes.
Were you listening to people like Ahmad Jamal as well?
Alfie Granger-Howell: Yeah, absolutely. My dad is a semi-pro jazz pianist. He encouraged me from early on to take up piano. Through him I got into jazz and the different sides of it all. The classic Miles Davis stuff through to the bepop stuff, Charlie Parker, Coltrane.
I think that you can hear your love for deep house pretty easily in your album for Anjunadeep. When did you first hear this track?
Nick Harriman: Probably only about three or four years ago now. Obviously being from the UK we were always listening to 2-step garage and UK garage rather than any of the deep house or US garage, but I started getting into it a few years ago and Kerri Chandler was definitely one of the people that stood out for me. It was kind of like discovering the reference of all the grooves that all the UK producers were using, when you go back to the American house and it's like, "Ah, all right, this is basically where they got all their ideas from." It was a little bit of an awakening.
It seems like there's quite a few UK bass people rediscovering house music. I imagine if you listened to Loefah's Rinse FM show—one that you guested on a few weeks ago—you wouldn't recognize him as the same DJ from four years ago.
Nick Harriman: I guess it's just people get bored of stuff, like everything. If you do something for a while, you need a bit of a change of scenery. I think people are more open to house whereas before people from the UK probably thought it was a bit cheesy and didn't have much attitude. I don't think that's the case at all, and I think more and more people are coming around to that.
What's your take on it? Can it have attitude?
Nick Harriman: Yeah, for sure. "Rain" is a perfect example of that. There was a tune on Strictly Rhythm—The Underground Network mix of "Bass Tone" by Sole Fusion—that was played by somebody on Rinse a couple of years ago or something, and it sounds like it could have been made in London this year. It's the swing and the groove of it. That's what's so sick about Kerri Chandler. His tunes are so simple but they've always got a sick grooving bassline and a swinging percussion that carry it along so effortlessly.
I'm really fascinated about where you guys reside at the moment. You're probably the only group that's released on Anjunadeep and guested on Loefah's Rinse FM show. It seems like it's quite a vibrant time for cross-pollination. Do you feel that way or does it feel quite natural to you?
Alfie Granger-Howell: I think it's a bit of both. In a way it feels like a bit of a natural progression for us because we've got eclectic tastes and the way we've studied music, I think we've both got a bit of an obsession with wanting to get to know different styles and different genres and to explore. I think it's important for everyone to keep an open mind with music, to listen to stuff and to at least try and see the appeal of music that people don't normally listen to.
On one hand it feels quite natural to us because of those reasons, but then on the other hand it's very strange playing to audiences and DJing, you're really hyper aware that some people get really turned off to certain kinds of music. What's been interesting, I think in London anyway, is that gradually over the past ten years, there's more and more multi-genre sets. Party sets as we tend to call them. That didn't happen so much when we started DJing when we were 15/16 at the end of the '90s but gradually in London clubs there is a huge cross-pollination of people much, much more open to ideas. I guess with people on YouTube and things being recommended on Spotify, it makes people a little bit more open to listening to different genres. Therefore, you can get people who like an album on Anjunadeep but will also check out Swamp 81.
Were you worried that certain types of people would be turned off by the Anjunadeep association? When we ran a review of one of your records a lot of the people in the comments said things like, "I never would have ever thought to even look for this because of the label."
Nick Harriman: In a way, it's a good thing. When we first made the album we couldn't think of any other label that would actually put it out and they were really supportive. It doesn't even necessarily fit into what Anjuna does at all, but they appreciate that's it's good music. Through the trance element, they've got the financial means to take a risk on it. Whereas a lot of the smaller, cooler indie labels would never bothered with putting it out. They'd be like, "You're a no name artist… We don't know if we're going to sell any of these… It's a bit too musical…"
Blade Runner OST
Did you come to the soundtrack first or the film first?
Nick Harriman: I came to the film first.
And did you immediately think to yourself after watching it or even during, "Man, I need to figure out who made the music"?
Nick Harriman: Definitely, and once I actually listened to that album afterward and I realized I could actually listen to it by itself without even watching the visuals. It gives it a whole next level of depth. I think that's a testament to its quality.
Are there any other soundtracks that have caught your ear in that way?
Nick Harriman: The soundtrack to The Life Aquatic is a compilation of different tracks, but there's a couple that were written by the guy who started the band Devo that are amazing combinations of jazz and orchestral stuff with 909 drum machines.
He made quite an interesting move, Mark Mothersbaugh. He was in Devo but then he started making music for television and film soundtracks. Is that something that's on your mind once you guys get older, once maybe you're not DJing as much anymore?
Alfie Granger-Howell: I work on TV and film stuff. Less at the moment because I'm focussing more on the dance stuff, but to pay the bills I'm doing that. From short films to feature films, lots of adverts and things like that, it's definitely something I can see myself doing, or just continuing to do. If it goes well with the dance stuff, obviously the final aim would be for it to be taking up as much time as possible in a way. Flying around and playing and using the time we have to write stuff, but in the meantime, I quite like having other projects to work on. I find it keeps me inspired working on different things and different styles.
Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Alfie Granger-Howell: I've already mentioned my dad being a semi-pro pianist. He had a huge record collection, and there's a lot of classical in there, so I started listening to them and then through piano I learned a bit more. With Stravinsky, that specific piece was something that I studied when I was at college at The Royal Academy Of Music in a bit more depth. We had a whole class on it. It was one of those ones where that piece didn't really mean that much to me when I first heard it. I found it quite cold on first hearing. The more I listened to it, though, and seeing all the structural details in such academic detail, it converted me. It's had a really emotional effect on me as well. And still does. It's a powerful piece of music.
To go down a potentially dubious conceptual road, Stravinsky strikes me as a guy who was pretty focussed on the new, the future and obviously electronic music is similar in its aims. I wonder if the idea of trying to create something you haven't heard before is a driving motivation?
Alfie Granger-Howell: Absolutely. I think we're always trying to do new and interesting things all the time. One of the reasons I chose this one is that this is actually the last of his Russian era. After that, he was focussed on doing neoclassical things—the equivalent of doing something really retro now, I see it as a real parallel with people now.
So you're saying Loefah is in his neoclassical period by playing house?
Alfie Granger-Howell: [laughs] I wouldn't go that far, but dance music is so based around carving a new path and to do so you do have to look to the past and take pre-existing elements—however old they are—and take them in a fresh way. I think that's recognised within classical music, that's a very clever way to create new material.
Alfie Granger-Howell: I grew up playing garage, but then probably around 2001 I stopped collecting it so much. Grime started which was cool, but for me it was quite different to the soulful side of garage which I was more interested in. I didn't hear "Sad Piano" when it first came out, probably in 2005, but it was something that brought me back into house. I remember playing at parties at the time, and people from all different backgrounds would all come together and ask what it was.
Kinetic (Frank De Wulfe Remix)
This one is on R&S, right?
Alfie Granger-Howell: It is, yeah. I remember hearing it on a compilation when I was growing up and I didn't think much of it then but it keeps coming back every now and then, and I always stop and think what an interesting track it is. To me you can hear the beginnings of trance. It's housey, it's got techno elements but it's accessible as well. It's something that's stood the test of time.
Is R&S a label you're checking these days as well? Their new incarnation is quite interesting.
Nick Harriman: Yeah, they're kind of on the border between UK bass music and straight up experimental electronica... I thought the Pariah EP was an incredible release, but some of it's too intense to fit into what we're playing now at the moment.
What are you guys playing at the moment?
Nick Harriman: A lot of our own tunes, a lot of tracks by Boddika, some new bits from A1 Bassline, he's been doing some really deep house/techno things. Huxley's been doing a lot of good stuff.
He seems to be a big fan of garage sounds as well.
Alfie Granger-Howell: Absolutely. He's been doing it in a very clever way that's very firmly rooted in deep house. It's just a hint of it really. It's still very clearly that vibe, but it's not like the full-on bass music that comes from a totally different path from house music.
Nick Harriman: It's definitely more house-orientated than bass-orientated. It's probably the same with us coming much more from a house perspective rather than a bass perspective. A few people like Jamie Jones were playing our tunes, but then we sent some other things like "Flo Jam," "Muriel" and "Calling Me" to Loefah, because he's friends with my brother and some of our friends. We didn't really expect him to be interested in it at all, but then once he started playing our tracks, it opened up this whole other side of the UK bass scene. He bridged the gap. I guess a lot of the people who are into the UK bass scene wouldn't really listen to what people in deep house or house are doing, but he's created that bridge, especially for us in terms of introducing what we're doing to new people.
Published / Monday, 11 June 2012