Since then he's signed an album deal with Shogun Audio and continued his steady ascent, touring around the UK and Europe and collaborating with names as varied as Untold, Noisia, and Phace and Misanthrop. His recent work for Shogun Audio and Phace and Misanthrop's Neosignal has shown a harder direction, primed for the drum & bass dance floor with brutal beats and high-octane heaviness but still retaining his incredible ear for acoustics and intricate detail. As he continues work on that album we decided to get in touch with Rockwell to talk about his unique history—growing up on a diet of hardcore punk—and his journey through the ranks of drum & bass.
We didn't get any of the big shifts
in urban dance music, so it was
all about drum & bass for me."
What kind of music were you into before drum & bass?
To be honest, through my childhood, the first music scene I really got into was punk and hardcore punk. I'm still really into that now, so it's kind of like the traditional childhood trajectory of being into Nirvana, then that not being hard enough, then getting into Green Day and that not being hard enough, then stuff like NOFX, Pennywise. Back in the early '90s, people in my school used to pass around tapes and I remember I got passed a copy of Wu-Tang Clan's Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and that was my introduction to hip-hop. They were my two main musical genres that I was into growing up and those two genres still pretty much influence the music I'm into today.
How do you go from that to drum & bass?
If you think about the structure of drum & bass, it's quite fast and aggressive yet it's still got breaks and the B-boy culture about it so I think it's the combination of a punk attitude to fast, frantic music, and the hip-hop attitude as well. I obviously heard jungle tunes where I lived when I was growing up but because I didn't live in the city I wasn't exposed to it in the proper way. It wasn't until later when I went to university that I got into drum & bass. You just couldn't experience it where I lived before. The first time that I went out and experienced it live it really clicked with me, the fast breaks, the urgency.
Who were the some of the first DJs or producers that really caught your ear?
I remember the first DJ that I saw was DJ Hype, I remember hearing stuff like Bad Company, just that really cold, quite techno-influenced, really rolling, quite aggressive tunes. They were the ones that really grabbed me. As I was living in Bristol at the time when I was getting exposed to it, and a lot of Bristol producers like Krust and Die, Roni Size... the more ravey stuff. I wasn't exposed to the more heads-y stuff, like Metalheadz and Source Direct, I didn't really become aware of them until much later. Not until I moved to London four years ago. It's that age-old thing where people get into drum & bass through dancing.
Was there any other dance music that you were into at that time or was it all drum & bass for you?
I can remember being in high school and some people being like, "we're going to go to Birmingham to a club, Godskitchen, we're going to see house DJs" and... I remember thinking that was a load of old fucking nonsense. I didn't get dance music at all because there was nowhere you could go and experience world-class dance music. The point when I got into drum & bass, I wasn't into dance music, and that was the only genre that I was into. It's only really recently that I've started branching out and getting into house and bass music because I'm from the country, the middle of nowhere, and we didn't get garage here. We didn't get any of the big shifts in urban dance music, so it was all about drum & bass for me. As soon as I heard it, I knew that was me.
When and why did you start making your own tunes?
The thing with drum & bass is, if you want to be really into it and know the tunes, you kind of have to be a DJ because otherwise it all passes you by. A friend of mine at university had some decks so I got into that and started mixing on his decks then I got my own, then I was buying records and I quite naively thought, "Oh, that's just three notes on a sampler and some drums, it can't be that difficult to make." So I thought I'd just have a go myself, thinking it'd be quite easy to do. [laughs]
Looking from a musical point of view, sometimes people underestimate the technical side of things. I definitely did that massively. I felt compelled to get a few bits of dodgy software off the internet and started messing around. I think I had Logic for about two months before I could even make it make a noise. But I just kept on playing with Logic every spare moment that I got, and nine years later that compulsion is still with me. I'm still loving writing the music and still spend every spare moment in front of a computer.
I wasn't really into dance music, then I got into the Warp Records stuff like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Boards of Canada. I love the way Boards' melodies and chord progressions are haunting but uplifting at the same time. I also got dissatisfied with what I was hearing out in the clubs, so I just wanted to make something that I wanted to hear. There'll be a period when I'll write tunes in blocks, and in one of those sessions I wrote "Reverse Engineering," "Aria" and "Underpass," they were three tunes that all did really well for me, and they were all written probably within a month of each other in 2009. That's still the IDM influence being really prevalent.
How long did it take you to make one of those tunes? It sounds like there's a million different elements at once.
I speak to other producers that are like, "Yeah, I can make three tunes in an afternoon." I don't really like to re-use beat structures or revisit themes, so a lot of the time it can take me a while to get a concept together. The longest I've worked on a tune is three months and that was working solely on that tune. I know a lot of guys in drum & bass have their templates, they'll load up Logic and then they'll have their breaks there that they've tried and tested through loads of tunes. It's not really about that, when you get down to that it's like you're creating something just for the sake of it rather than creating something because of the way you feel.
You mentioned that you got into the more headsier stuff like Metalheadz and mid-'90s stuff in the past few years. What effect did that have on your productions and the way you thought about drum & bass?
I don't really listen to too much drum & bass outside of playing for gigs, I like to think that I draw my influences outside of drum & bass rather a lot more than inside. Nowadays especially, a lot of people are still conforming to the whole Ed Rush & Optical Wormhole-era blueprint to make their music. I love Ed Rush & Optical, I love that album and I like a lot of the stuff that's being made today, but I wish sometimes that people would look outside that and bring some outside influences in.
One of the tunes I've picked up on and supported quite heavily is a tune called "Get Busy" by Fracture which brings a lot of juke elements in at 170 BPM, which I think is amazing. I've got a tune with a juke vibe which I wrote last year which is probably not going to come out but it's that sort of thing—taking an influence from outside and adapting it into a drum & bass framework. When people compare my work to others and say, "It sounds like Source Direct or like Photek" or whatever, I go back and I check the tunes. It may be bad to say, but I'm not really that familiar with their work.
So you're not a history buff in terms of drum & bass then?
I know people that are in my friendship groups that would freak out about reverbs that Nico used on the old No U-Turn records. If that's you, that's you—that's not me. I obsess over micro-genres in music outside of drum & bass and that's where I get my influences from.
What was the response when you started sending out your music at first, especially those older tracks that are a bit more out of the ordinary?
The first track that I sent out that got signed was "Drums." I sent that around to loads of people on AIM, and I don't think anyone got back to me. Then I sent it to my mate Alix Perez and he was playing it a lot and was ending with it. He sent it to Shy FX and he signed it. The thing about drum & bass is that it's pretty hard to get noticed, I was fortunate that I had people within my friendship groups that were quite big in the scene and supported my music from the offset. It's easier to get people to notice it that way rather then being a faceless guy on AIM.
So how did you get in touch with Shogun and DJ Friction? Because that's one of the biggest relationships you've had yet.
Yeah, definitely. It's a label that I was over the moon to be involved with. I wrote a tune, I think it was "Full Circle," I thought I wanted to make something a little bit more for the dance floor and more rolling to see what people would make of it. Alix started playing it a lot and I think it was him who played it to Ed Friction, and he started playing it a lot. He signed it originally to SGN LTD, but by the time we got around to talking about a release, he was just like, "Yeah, we'll put it out on the main label. Do you want to come down and play me some other bits and see how it goes from there?" I went down and played him "DJ Friendly Unit Shifter" and "Fakin' Jacks," he was feeling those as well, which got us doing an album. I think I left that meeting with a contract and a big smile on my face. [laughs]
Jack Stevens (SpectraSoul), Alix Perez, Icicle, Friction, David Kennett (SpectraSoul)
Yeah, definitely. I've got complete freedom. One of the things that I remember him saying was, "Rockwell, he just does what he wants and we're cool with that." He doesn't push me in any kind of direction. A lot of the tunes I put out with Shogun are very different from each other and they're very supportive about whatever I write. People think that Shogun's a really drum & bass-y label but I think the way it's going to go in the next year/two years is going to surprise a lot of people. They've just had the SpectraSoul release which was more "bass music" than drum & bass, and the way it's been received has been brilliant. I think nowadays genre is becoming less important. If you're just putting out good music regardless of genre then people are happy to listen to that and receive that. People are becoming less militant within the drum & bass scene.
How do you feel about the general health of the drum & bass scene right now?
There are a lot of good producers out there. Obviously I think the way that Shogun is producing is really healthy. As a business model, you look at labels like Hospital and Ram where their producers are going on to be pretty much pop stars, you can't argue with that, they're doing their thing. Propping up the underground you've got really good labels like Critical coming through, so I think it is really healthy. There's a lot less labels than there were probably two or three years ago. But the quality of the labels that are putting out the better music have properly stood the test of time and I think it's testament to those guys that they're still around. There's a lot of guys that are more experimental with their music nowadays, I like that people who aren't necessarily drum & bass fans are picking up on a lot of the music as well.
Your more recent stuff, especially the stuff on Neosignal, has been a lot more techstep, I would say more in line with Noisia. Where's that coming from? It feels like a shift in direction, or at least your music is a lot louder all of a sudden.
Noisia are top of the tree as far as I'm concerned, for that tech, rolling dance floor sound, you can't match them. I remember Phace did their album on Subtitles and I was really into that... I think in a way my technical abilities when I first came through weren't really there, I'll be the first to say that I'm not an engineer. But I think the concepts and ideas that I come up with are what sets me apart.
I met Phace at a club while playing with him in Brighton and we talked about doing some tunes because he was feeling what I was doing and we exchanged some ideas back and forth. We worked on some stuff and it wasn't really clicking, so I went over to his studio and we did the tune "NO!" which came out on Neosignal. Of course as it was done in his studio, it's going to sound like him. It was with his gear, his sounds.
I can't see a massive shift [in my sound] because I know what I've been into for X amount of years, whereas the music that I'm making now, maybe if I'd been more technically adept earlier then it would have happened earlier. I've got love for all kinds of drum & bass, I always have and I've always professed that I don't love just one kind of subgenre within drum & bass. In my DJ sets if you come to see me play I play everything from dBridge to Phace, rolling stuff, vocal stuff, pretty much anything. Now there's even a little house in the middle. I think my production output matches my DJ stuff because I like to represent the whole spectrum. And going over and making harder, rolling stuff is an expression of that because I play a lot of it. The same with playing house music, I don't see the point in playing it if you're not making it, if it's not an extension of who you are.
That's an interesting take on it.
It wouldn't make sense if I only made dBridge style stuff, if every time I went into a club I smashed up house music, that wouldn't make sense.
Can you tell me a little bit about the album you're working on, and what it's going to sound like?
The album's not really sounding very drum & bass right now. I've probably got about three downbeat housey things. I've got a lot of stuff which is about 85 BPM, Eskmo sort of vibes but with bassline. For me it's all about building a musical vibe with a piece of music in a clever way, instead of "here's a chord progression that changes every four beats."
I'm going to be working with a lot of vocalists and there's going to be a lot of song structures in there as well. I'm just trying to push myself as a producer. I've always said from the first interview, I never want to keep revisiting themes. In theory, it would have been easy for me to bang out ten tunes that all sound the same and I probably would have been alright doing that, but that's not what I'm about and if I did that I wouldn't be being true to me.
Do you have a rough idea of when that's going to come out?
It's pencilled in for 2013, maybe August/September. There's going to be singles in between that so there's going to be a run up into the album. In some respects I didn't want to write a purely drum & bass album. If I'm going to make the album that I want to make now, it wouldn't sound right in [the current] context, so it's going to take time to get to the position where the album will sound right, with regard to positioning between various scenes. I'm excited... and very scared! [laughs] But it's good to push yourself into new arenas, and not to rest on your laurels and regurgitate just because that's safe.