|Label of the month: Samurai Music
An interview with Presha, the man behind one of the most ambitious drum & bass labels going.
For a genre built around the idea of innovation, drum & bass has suffered from a stunning lack of ambition in recent years. That's why the arrival of the Autonomic sound in 2009 felt like such a breath of fresh air. Now, though, both members of Instra:mental have left the 170 BPM scene and D-Bridge's Exit Records has reshaped itself as a do-anything imprint as capable of releasing a banging 12-inch as it is a beatless, ambient album. There are only a few labels that have risen up to the challenge set out by the freewheeling Autonomic approach. Samurai Music, however, is most assuredly one of them.
Helmed by Presha, a veteran DJ, record store owner and distributor, Samurai is taking the sort of risks that once seemed de rigueur in the scene. His sublabel, Horo, features beatless, off-kilter music on limited vinyl. One of his latest signings, FIS, makes tunes that have been described as "not even music." And, most of all, he's pushing a reduced, minimal sound in a scene that has gotten progressively busier and extreme. That sound can be heard all over Samurai Music's recent compilation, Way of the Samurai 2: Code of Honour. It's a robust two CD collection that serves as a primer for what just might be the next big thing in drum & bass.
One of the producers you seem to be most excited about these days is Clarity, and I thought that might be a nice starting point. What does he do that you like so much?
I just think he's reduced drum & bass down to the simplest thing it can possibly be, but has retained all the power that makes the genre so exciting. I don't think he sounds like anyone else out there, and that's very rare now. Most people in drum & bass have a really strong reference point and I think Clarity did when he started, but not anymore. Right now, when you hear a Clarity tune, there is absolutely no one else it can sound like. To me, with my deep interest in techno and a more leftfield abstract electronica stuff, it really fits with my mindset. Clarity can add just one tone to a track and it's just really powerful because of the minimal ethic that he has.
The only really similar thing I've heard was the last Loxy album.
Yes. This is the thing: drum & bass started as "drum" and "bass." That's what it is. Over the years a lot of the production has become really crowded and over-the-top. (This is what has been happening in the past five years.) People reducing it back to the bare minimum... When there's more room like that things can sound bigger. Those tracks are made to be heard in a club. [That said] when you play that stuff in a club now, people have to adjust their way of thinking how they dance to it because they are used to these really fast-paced and busy tunes. You see people having to rethink what they are doing on dance floor, and sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes I'll play two tunes like that and I'll switch up because it feels like I'll lose them. Some people are ready and some people aren't and you just have to accept that as a DJ.
But when people go to see someone like Loxy, for instance, who is known for that sound, he can get into a run of those kind of tunes. It's like techno in that you get into a trance state and you just fall into the groove as opposed to the highs and lows that a lot of drum and bass has now. Like [a lot of] dubstep, most of the tunes are made for 30 seconds of the music whereas with all this reduced drum & bass stuff it's about the experience, the whole thing.
The one time I saw you play I was really struck by how it worked.
You have to test crowds out to see, because you're still and DJ and you're still there to work with the crowd. You can't just force it on them and end up with half the people gone, but it's something that I really enjoy trying and when you have a crowd that's open to that, there's no feeling like it.
Are there more DJs playing like this now?
Loxy plays like that pretty much every time, as I mentioned. He knows when to switch it up though. Skeptical's really great at doing it, he has a great way of picking tracks that still have that energy. Doc Scott is a great one for it. All these people are interested in how it's moving forward and getting into these grooves, but they still know that they are DJs. That's the thing about DJing: You give a little bit to them and you keep a little bit for yourself. That's how it should be.
You said in another interview that the second compilation that you just released was much easier to put together than the first. Why?
The label was fairly new then. It was in its second year but I had been planning the compilation for about a year. And between 2009 and 2012, if you look at the records I've released, I've got more of a name and the market has changed as well. There's only so many labels doing vinyl and only so many people releasing records by X person. For example, when I released a Calibre record it made the label more valid all of a sudden. And even things like interviews where I talk about what my feelings about music and why I do the label. Producers read that and they either agree and they feel an affinity towards you and they'll approach you or they don't. That's fine too. We're all different. I'm just trying to build my own unique thing.
You mentioned the market has changed as well. How so?
There are more people making drum & bass now than can actually be released. Compared to five years ago, there is way more music that gets made that doesn't come out than there was then because there are a smaller amount of labels. The playing field has kind of leveled so to speak. There's a huge batch of labels that are in the same kind of sales group numbers-wise, and then there's like a huge gap between us and the people that are selling a lot more.
It's a "We are the 99%" scenario.
Yeah, it really is. There's good and bad things about that, but you keep on doing what you like.
You got started as a techno and house DJ in New Zealand, right?
Yeah. I used to be a resident DJ in a club in 1995 or 1996 and I would play from ten and night until six in the morning and I would start with like deep house and go right through to really hard techno then switch to drum & bass and early jungle for like an hour or two and it just kind of progressed from there. I used to work in record shops then and buy loads of house and techno records.
I was a bit dubious about drum & bass at first, then I heard "Terminator," the Goldie record, and I was just like "ohh, this is too good." [laughs] I still had a few house gigs that I did occasionally, but it just became everything. It took maybe 12 years before I started really listening to other music and buying it again. I was just so head over heels with it.
You became a promoter and started to bring people to New Zealand.
Yeah, I was DJing at parties where happy hardcore and trance were in the main room and we'd be in the second room. And I decided I wanted to do just drum & bass events which were kind of unheard of then in New Zealand in the city I was living in at the time, Christchurch. It took a while to take off, but then it really, really took off in New Zealand. Basically anyone could come over from the UK and it would be totally sold out way before the event. Those days were just insane.
Was it the same for Australia or was this unique to New Zealand?
No, I think it was pretty similar in Australia as well. They had way more of an influx than us because they had a bigger population obviously, so they were a bit more advanced than us. But I think New Zealand's scene went in a different direction musically. They followed more the jungle kind of thing. People like Kenny Ken were really big out there. Whereas New Zealand kind of went in the direction of... We got a lot of flack for steering it, but really we just brought out the people we liked. It wasn't like "we're going to change what you like," we just did what we liked. So that was people like Ed Rush and Doc Scott, Kemistry & Storm and Grooverider. It was really fully like the Metalheadz sound right from the beginning. And we never had MCs. Never. Like for the first two or three years. That totally shaped the way that New Zealand looked at drum & bass. It was really exciting hearing those guys play in New Zealand for the first time. And seeing the look on people's faces, people saying, "I don't know what this is, but it's amazing."
"I look at putting together
a label as an art form."
Tell me about the beginnings of the label. You had already run an imprint before Samurai, right?
Yeah, I did Subtronix Recordings in the '90s with another guy. We approached it as trying to release records from New Zealand people on vinyl as they come through. The thing that happened straight away was that as soon as we created a label to help promote people, they created their own labels as well. So we were just kind of left going "Oh, OK..." So I did some more international releases, but then it just kind of came to a logical end. I'd been leaving the label thing for a little while because I had distribution and stuff going on. But then eventually I had a lot of tunes that I thought needed to come out, so I started thinking about a label again. It just all came together really naturally. I remember ringing up [record distributor] ST Holdings because I was already buying records off them for New Zealand, and I was like, "I've got this plan." And I did a speech for about half an hour and Chris Parkinson from ST was like, "Yeah, OK, fine." [laughs]
I look at putting together a record and putting together a label and everything I do as an art form. It's a real creative process for me and it's the thing that comes naturally. I get really inspired when someone sends me some music and it's potentially a release, I'll think up projects to go around it every time, you know. I get so bored now with just putting out 12-inch singles. It seems redundant now, I want to create something different with every one.
You said recently that you finally feel like you know a Samurai record when you hear it. When did that happen? How long did it take to get to that point?
I think it took about four years. It did. It's only in the last year that I've really heard it, really strongly. Sometimes people send me records that are already signed to other people and I just sit there going, "Oh no, I lost one." Just recently at the Samurai night in London, Skeptical played this tune, and I was just like "Oh my God, what is that?" The next day I found the guy that made it—I'd never spoken to him before—and signed it on the spot. I just had to have it.
Tokyo Prose is someone that's been really identified with the label. Tell me about how you first met him.
Well, when I first met Sam, there was two of them, both called Sam, which was very confusing at first. [laughs] They were just young guys who had made some tunes and sent me a bunch of things on MySpace. There was potential in there already.
What were you hearing in the tunes?
Just a really strong sense of being able to write a tune. The production wasn't perfect, but the tunes were incredible. When I wanted to finally release some of their stuff, I just said to them, "Do you want to work together long-term?" They were both pretty easy going guys, especially the one that's kept on doing it by himself now. He's got a career outside of music, so to him music is fun. He doesn't sit around worrying about where the next gig is coming. He makes music when he has spare time. There's no real pressure on either of us to do anything, it just happens when it happens.
You announced that he's going to have an album next year recently.
Yeah. [laughs] We'd spoken about it on and off, but the actual first time he heard it was going to happen was when I announced it. I just wanted to do that to give him some kind of impetus, because he just needs someone to tell him that they have the confidence in him to do it.
Have you heard stuff from him that would go on an album?
Definitely. There's like two or three things that we've put aside already. Unfortunately someone made a YouTube of one when he played it someplace.
The whole YouTube phenomenon seems like a serious issue, especially in drum & bass.
It's all stemmed from dubplate culture and how people used to like hold onto tunes for ages and not put them out. People don't understand that you can't put out a record the week after it's made. They actually think you can, they still do. And it's not reality. You have to plan ahead for things. As soon as they hear it, they want to know when it's coming out and then—if it doesn't come out when you tell them it's going to come out—they're pissed at you. So the better thing is to just not tell them what it is. I'm not trying to be condescending. It's just really hard. A lot of times people will give you one tune and you'll sign it and you're waiting for a B-side. Or they're not happy with it and they want to fix it. Or there's like five other releases with other labels. And then when it doesn't come out quickly, people say, "It's old now." And it's like, "What do you want me to do? I can't just crash the party." It's a delicate balancing line.
You also have another album coming next year, right?
Yes. Clarity will be releasing one. He's still at University, and he's got a lot of studying and stuff to do. But I think it will come fast when he gets down to business. He's made some slower things that are just really... trance-y kind of. I use the word trance, but I just mean how the rhythms feel. He sent me one thing and I actually said, "OK, this is like five minutes long. Can you make me a 15 minute version?" It's that kind of music. I was excited about the thought of an album that is really based around this whole new reduced sound, I mean, Loxy & Resound have already done it with their album for Exit. I think Clarity and Skeptical are really the guys I want to see albums from because I think it's going to be an exercise in the future of drum & bass. As soon as I started hearing these new Clarity tunes I knew I had to do something. I approached him straightaway and early on.
The last time things really got pushed forward in drum & bass was the Autonomic sound.
I think Autonomic broke open doors in a lot of ways. At the time when they did it everything was quite dance floor-focused. It was just after the whole Pendulum explosion and everything had gotten really busy and intense and they just kind of smashed down the door and said "Hey! Just chill out." All the people that are making this reduced kind of stuff are very influenced by that period in drum & bass. I think even the producers that make that sort of dance floor stuff were as well. Everyone was aware of it. People that usually listen to drum & bass listen to all of it.
"I try to challenge people a little
bit more with the stuff on the Horo label."
The last guy I wanted to ask you about is FIS. How did you get in touch with him?
When I had the record store, he just shyly used to come in and buy all the Autonomic records basically. I think the first time I had conversation with him was when he bought the first Consequence album off me. He gave me a CD, and I didn't listen to it for a while. I pulled it out one night and I was like, "Oh my god, this is amazing!" Then I spoke to him a couple of times at the club and I said, "I think you're on the verge of doing something really special." Those early tracks were a little bit more, I wouldn't say derivative, but you could see the influences clearly. He was just figuring out what he wanted to do. The ones that we ended up releasing were the best of his formative period.
Ever since, he seems to be getting weirder and weirder.
Oh totally, and I just love the fact that he's been embraced has actually given him license to do whatever he wants. Every time I hear people talking to him about doing stuff that's more formulaic I tell them to leave him alone. [laughs] He's not the guy you can give instant feedback to. A lot of his tunes I've just been like, "Yeah, I'm not sure about that" and then two days go by and I go, "Actually this blowing my head apart." If you look at all the stuff on Samurai in the past, it doesn't have a direct relationship to it but that's what I like about it. I try to challenge people a little bit more with the stuff on the Horo label.
When I grew up, the way that I discovered and grew to love different types of music was from people showing me their influences and tastes. That's what I want with Horo. I want people to see that there's more to what comes from the drum & bass umbrella then just what they're getting. That's why Instra:mental and D-Bridge's podcast was so interesting. They just told you that, "Hey, here's this new music and here's all the stuff that influenced us to make it." For a lot of people that just blew their brains apart because they were like, "I've never heard of Drexicya or any of these people. I'm going to check them out."
Samurai Music Mix
The Berlin-based Presha comes up with December's label of the month mix. He takes listeners through the abstract electronica of his Horo sublabel before barreling through a tightly constructed set of reduced drum & bass.
Download: RA Label of the Month 1212 Mix: Samurai Music
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Filesize: 101.7 MB
Published / Sunday, 02 December 2012