|Playing favourites: Stray
The UK drum & bass producer talks Zappa, MF Doom and jump-up.
Generally speaking, drum & bass is pretty serious business. It wasn't always this way, and some of the most fascinating stuff being released at the moment seems to have made note of this. Fracture's zombie-fied "Get Busy" video is one piece of evidence. So is the teasing flurry of drums in Stray's "Timbre," one of 2009's standout drum & bass tracks. It reflects the UK producer's dual love of the IDM shenanigans of Squarepusher and Aphex Twin and jump-up drum & bass. More recent material has exposed a beatmaker with wide-ranging interests that extend further into drum & bass (liquid is on its way back if his recent collaborations like "Oblique" with Sabre and Halogenix are any indication) and outside of the genre as well. Considering his small but varied catalogue of tunes, we decided to quiz Stray about some of the tunes that have shaped his taste.
Head Hunters was the very first record that I owned. My brother is a jazz pianist, and he gave it to me because I liked it so much. I listened to it over and over again, so there's something quite engrained about the bassline on "Chameleon."
It's such a future-facing record. At the time did you realize exactly how strange it sounded compared to other things?
I didn't. I must have been 7 or 8 years old, so I didn't really have that much of an awareness of music beyond what my brother and my dad showed me. It was quite a self-contained, purely aesthetic thing. It was just something about that bass sound. I wasn't aware at the time how future-facing it was.
Village of the Sun
Frank Zappa is an interesting choice. I'm not familiar with this song. It's only on a live album, right?
This again was something that my bro got me, the Roxy & Elsewhere live album. I didn't have much of an awareness of who Frank Zappa was, what he meant for the world of music and how massively prolific he was. I mean, how many albums has Frank Zappa put out? At least 60. I can't say I have all of them. I have some rubbish ones, I have some amazing ones.
Do you relate to this idea with your own work? Do you release the good, the bad and the ugly? Or are you pretty tight with stuff?
This is something I've been struggling with a lot since starting out. I don't like to let go of stuff unless I'm really happy with it, but there are tracks in my back catalogue which I'd no longer release if I'd made them now. I think with Zappa it's quite admirable to get to a point where you have no real insecurities about your creative self and just go, "You know what? I'm just going to make music all the time and release it all."
The advice that I got from a lot of different people was actually to do the opposite. I'm really thankful for that. One of the best analogies was from Chris Blu Mar Ten. He said when you make something, a little work-in-progress, it's like a toddler who's just gone to the toilet in his potty and he's waving it about everywhere going, "Look what I've just made!" That's tempting as a producer, especially when you're starting out. But I tip the other way: I think I'm sometimes destructively strict about what I want out there.
Vingt Regard sur L'Enfant-Jesus no 15: Le Maiser de l'Enfant-Jesus
My brother introduced me to this. My godfather is very into French impressionist 20th century composers as well, but it's not a sound world that I would say I listen to a lot. It's such a subjective thing, it must just be that my ears are tuned to it.
I guess there's other classical music that you weren't interested in?
A lot of it is too by-the-rules for me. I'm not going to mention any specific composers, but it doesn't do it for me. Sometimes sticking to the rules is really cool. In drum & bass, for instance, where you stick to a known formula like jungle and see what you can get out of it. But the reason I picked Messiaen and that tune is the haunting but satisfying and strange chord progressions and melodic harmonic structures that are in his compositions. I think all of this stuff is what really influences my taste for melodies and harmonies that are sweet and that will work, but are quite out there and not something you really hear that much.
Did you have much training?
I did music theory when I was at school, but I wasn't very good at it. My brother is obviously more classically trained, so he's taught me a lot about music theory and modes. We used to sit at the piano a lot, and we'd play a game where he would just play a note or a chord and say, "Now pick the colourful tone." In a way it's such a bizarre game, because there is no "nicer sounding" one. Maybe he was just trying to gear my tastes secretly into being exactly the same as his? Who knows? When I go about writing melodies I have to use a keyboard that's at five or six octaves because I played the piano and I can't stand having to play in melodies on a sample pad.
I don't think for me personally that anyone can get a better sound out of a 303 than Luke Vibert. Maybe Aphex. I'd say above any of the other artists that I picked here apart from maybe Radiohead, Luke Vibert is one of my favourite all-time musicians and also the most important in sculpting my musical taste. I absolutely caned the Musipal album he recorded as Wagon Christ as a kid. He injects so much humour into his music in an amazing way.
I don't hear a lot of humour in drum & bass these days. Do you try to do that with your own music?
I think a lot of the stuff that I've done has been a bit serious-sounding, There is a track I did called "Frost" that came out on Med School which started out with me playing a synthesised guitar riff over the top and just messing around with purposefully cheesy, almost Zappa-esque '70s synth funk sounds. Beyond that, there's a whole bunch of stuff I'm doing at the moment which is not actually drum & bass that's derived from what Vibert is doing, it's quite hip-hop sounding with loads of samples everywhere.
I think it is good to have humour in music, but it's very difficult to do it while retaining musical integrity in the same way Vibert does. You're right, though. There is something very serious about a lot of drum & bass, especially when compared to much other current dance music. I think a lot of people understandably condemn it for that, though its seriousness can definitely work in the genre's favour at the same time. I think the reason I have a real ear and taste for jungle and jump-up drum & bass is because I feel that they can be the least pretentious forms of the genre.
Along with Vibert, Plaid seems to be a pretty big thing for you as well.
I used to listen to a lot of Plaid in my early teens. Spokes is probably my favourite Plaid album. I wasn't a massive fan of Scintilli, but "At Last" just blew me away. There's something so transcendentally beautiful about it—and about a lot of Plaid stuff. They twist different time signatures around, and have these really haunting otherworldly melodies.
You couldn't attribute a Plaid melody, which are so emotionally evocative, to any natural human emotion. I'm really interested in that. I've studied the philosophy of music at university and this idea of music having to be attributed directly to a human emotion. Plaid particularly for me have this really specific thing that they're setting with their music that you couldn't put into words.
It's one of those things where I listened to the album as a whole and I said, "Oh, just another Plaid album then." But then I thought about it for a while and realized that Plaid really doesn't sound like anyone else.
It's funny because you have your artists who you look to for constant innovation and mutation of their sound. And you also have your artists who you rely on. Have you listened to the new Squarepusher album?
Yeah, it's a fascinating throwback for him.
It's really fascinating listening. It sounds like he never made the last three albums. There were some overly brash happy hardcore-sounding chord progressions that I really found quite jarring on the new album. I really like it when an artist has enough history that you really start to think: "What are they saying with this? Is there something above and beyond just how this sounds aesthetically? Is there a message there?"
The Plaid album was similar. When you have this history with an artist, you just attribute a lot to them. You want to give them credit for things you might not even like the sound of, and instead ask "What are they trying to say?" Because once an artist has gripped you—and done a vast amount of tracks that you love so much—you tend to think, "Your ears and your tastes can't be so different to mine," so you just sit there and listen because you want to like everything that they do.
It's an interesting change in the fan/artist relationship I think.
It's nice that an artist can build up this reputation with a fan and therefore be given a chance to express themselves in a way that's not obvious. I love the idea that I might have, even if it's just with one person, the sort of trust where I don't need to just instantly appeal.
"I think I'm sometimes destructively
strict about what I want out there."
I think it's quite tough being a young artist with only a few tracks out there, your fan base might pick up on something that is not "your thing" but it was the thing that appealed to them.
And then people ask for more of it, yeah. It's funny because I don't really feel like I've done anything yet as an artist. I've had some tracks out here and there, and they've mostly been things on compilations or remixes or what have you. I have in no way made my statement of intent or a big move as an artist yet. It's all to come in the future. I don't really mind if the sound massively changes or anything like that. I'm sort of figuring it out at the moment.
The big thing I've had to grapple with regarding the things I've released up to this point, is that it's useful from a commercially viability standpoint to have a signature sound. I have this romantic idea that you can have a signature sound that's defined by familiar choices of melody or rhythms but beyond that, the actual sounds can be really different. I have a quite eclectic taste in music I guess, and that's led me to write tracks like "Pushed" and the Foreign Beggars remix because I love doing both. But then you become an artist where it's like, "Yeah, I kind of like this track of theirs, but I don't like this one." You can indulge yourself and write whatever the fuck you want if you're a really big established artist, and that's obviously a stage that would be good to get to.
I've often considered that it may be more beneficial to hold back from doing anything and everything I want within drum & bass at the moment. But then on the flip-side, many people have said they're appreciative of and fascinated that I'm doing these vastly different sounding things—and that they do hear a common thread even though that common thread isn't just an Amen break or that they're minimal or anything like that. I like that. It's something to strive for.
Rhymes Like Dimes
Are you a big hip-hop fan?
I've always been a massive hip-hop head. It started out with the more straight-down-the-line East Coast old school. Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest. The thing that I've always loved so much about Doom is the combination of his really kind of lazy sounding voice and the beats that he makes. He makes it sound effortless.
The effortless idea is an interesting one. Your music, for me at least, is sometimes very fussy and very complex. You immediately know how much work has gone into it when you listen to it.
It's funny that my music sounds like that. A lot of my tracks are done in a day or two of really quick working. I have to get everything together at the time when I'm still inspired otherwise I'll just start hating it quickly and not want to doing anything with it. If I leave them half-finished, I'll never get them done. I find it interesting that there is a suggestion that there's a laboured sound to my tracks, because I'd attribute that sort of thing to tracks that sound much better sonically. I feel like I'm a musician first and foremost who fell into a world of producers and engineers. DJing and sound engineering and getting my mix-downs right came way after the ability and desire to write music.
I have a few favourite MCs: MF Doom, Busta Rhymes, maybe Q-Tip. His MCing style just kills me stone dead from a rhythmical standpoint. Growing up listening to so much Busta Rhymes influenced my rhythmic palette, and I think the same can be said for Doom. Like Radiohead, I think it's really amazing that his rhyme style is favoured by the masses but it's incredibly complex. Dilla was the producer on this track, and I really like the sample. It's some weird Christian singing group.
Do you like sampling yourself?
When I was first writing music I was sampling anything and everything. I'd take a massive section of a Herbie Hancock tune and a Bjork tune and put them together. I know Vibert does that a lot and because Vibert was one of my main points of reference, I thought that was how you made music. Also: When you start out, it's very difficult to get your stuff sounding good or polished by using synths or just your own drums, so I think it's something that a lot of people do.
Obviously you run into troubles trying to release things. I'd done a track using a Helios sample and Med School wanted to sign it, so I said, "Hey, you know this track has got a really long Helios sample in it?" They went and talked to his label and got the permission, but they then said that they'd be more comfortable if it came out as a remix. So suddenly the first track I release is an official Helios remix.
I started sampling less after that, but now I'm starting to do a more hip-hop kind of thing where I'm sampling a bit more again. I feel like I have the tools to be able to make music without having to use samples. I can play rhythms and basslines and melodies. But I like marrying the two worlds as well. Myself, Sabre and Halogenix have been talking about bringing back a little bit of that hip-hop approach to making liquid drum & bass. The late '00s saw producers like Alix Perez, et al. smash it with this kind of sampled sound, but drum & bass recently seems to have moved back in a big way again to that techy Wormhole-era style.
Smart Stepper (DJ Rap Remix)
I'm not that familiar with this track.
I don't think it was a massive anthem. You don't end up hearing that much about it. But my best mate's brother had it, and it was the first time I'd heard drum & bass. We'd listen to it over and over. I don't know if it's a guilty pleasure. I can think of guiltier pleasures than jump up [drum &bass] I think. It could have been a different track that sounded like that, but it was that one and it means a lot to me as a result.
Acid Rain (Breakage Century 47 mix)
Did you get into drum & bass around the time this track came out?
I actually did get into drum & bass around 2003/ 2004, but I didn't come across that track until a couple of years later. This is a staple Amen mash-up tune for me in terms of how it flows and how much it kills me every time I hear it. I love playing it and clearing floors at certain places.
Where have you cleared floors with this?
The very first time I played properly happened to be at fabric in room two. I was about 20, and I just thought it would be funny to play "Acid Rain." It didn't clear the floor, but there's something really satisfying as a DJ to play what you think is going to be good but then sometimes just indulging yourself as well.
There's just something particular about this track. You have the Amen breaks and strings that you hear in so many tunes, but I think this track pulls it off the best for me. It's really interesting to see Breakage doing that sort of thing and then to think about what he's doing now. I really like Breakage. I had to put a tune in that summed up what I love about jungle, and my journey into drum & bass from IDM. Being into the likes of Squarepusher and Aphex Twin turned my ears onto the Equinox-style amen warface stuff, which in turn led me onto the more straight down the line rolling drum & bass somehow. In hindsight it's a bit of a strange progression but that was how it happened I think.
Rockwell seems like the guy in drum & bass at the moment.
He wanted to hear certain things he wasn't hearing, so he did them himself. What better ethos for making music is there? He came along and did this series of tunes—"Stowaway," "Underpass" and "Drums"—just before I started releasing music. This one grabbed me because it's got a very different groove to it than you normally hear at that tempo. One thing I like about it being constrained at 170 BPM is exploring all of the different grooves you can get at that speed. You've actually got fantastic options available to you, but you've got to discover them.
Do you talk a lot about production stuff with him or anyone else in particular?
Not really. I guess I end up talking about production stuff with Sabre and Halogenix when I do stuff with them. I have learned a lot of things from working with them. That said, if you really want to do something—and you have your own musical ideas—then you're going to go on your own journey with it. You'll just play around in your audio workstation and be able to work stuff out or there are really good YouTube tutorials as well. My take on it is that I think you're going to end up with a better result if you've got there yourself.
Published / Friday, 20 July 2012