It's clearly resonating in many different quarters. Roberts' early release with Hessle has endeared him to the UK bass contingent, a world where he's had perhaps his two biggest hits—the R&B diva sampling white label "Getting Me Down" and the unlikely sing-along "Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage." A move to hardware in the studio has led to frequent collaborations with The Analogue Cops and Pariah, the latter of which he performs with as Karenn. Erol Alkan, Simian Mobile Disco and Tiga have also recently fit tunes of his on mix CDs.
Needless to say, it's been a whirlwind for the Barnsley-bred producer, something he readily admitted when we caught up with him in advance of his DJ set at RA's night at The Warehouse Project next month.
I wanted to start by asking you about your collaboration with Pariah. What does a live set from Karenn look like?
There are no computers, just the machines we use to make music. We come from the sense that we're bringing the studio outside. It's following quite a long tradition of techno played live. We're not the first people to do it, and we took the way to do it from people we know. The Analogue Cops taught us a lot, not so much how to play but how to look at a live set. Just to keep things really simple which we struggle to. Gearing things towards the dance.
You said you struggled to keep it simple.
We completely filled it out at first. We did the schoolboy error of everything going at once, both drum machines, all the synthesisers, just a mess. So yeah, we're just in the middle of figuring it out now, figuring out all the lessons we learned from the first live show.
Is it easy in that setting to communicate?
You know The Cops have these weird hand signals that mean different things. So they don't need to talk, they just know what is going on. We haven't got to that stage yet, we're still keeping it pretty loose. We want to keep it quite improvised as well. I mean, it's very structured, but we have the freedom to do whatever we want in those bounds.
You made the move from using a laptop at first on this project, then on to a completely analogue set-up, right? Why? What is the appeal?
We were so frustrated by the writing process on a computer, I think I was coming to the limits of what I could do with a computer because I felt like, not in a big-headed way, but that I knew the software that I was using, Ableton, well enough that I could do anything. I didn't really like that.
Do you feel like you're figuring out your machines finally?
Yeah, I feel like I'm learning a lot about dance music [in general]. I'm confining myself to stuff that is best used in those environments. The stuff we use for Karenn is geared toward playing and improvising live, so that's had a massive impact on how we structure the tracks and the live set. Having the machines dictate to me what I can do is a good thing I think.
With Ableton it's sometimes like, "I can do too much. I don't know what to do."
You can do loads, it's amazing. I'm not a purist in any sense because what I'm doing now is sort of mixing the two.
Well, I remember when I was making the decision to start working more on machines. I wanted to make sure my stuff didn't get dragged down because of that. The best music that I could possibly write on a machine had to be better than what I could do on a computer.
How is it better?
A lot of people probably won't think it's better, especially stuff that's probably going to come out later, which is really different. It's still my music, and it doesn't take away from the fact that I was the guy that did it and it's what I'm feeling at the moment, even if it's a little less sort of adventurous at parts.
Why is that? Do you feel that it's a reaction to the fact that you're DJing and playing in clubs more often?
Yeah, that's a good point. I always find that when you write stuff on analogue gear it sounds better in clubs. Just a fuller sound. And that translates to when I'm playing out. I tend to more go for the lo-fi things. I play a lot of unreleased Analogue Cops stuff out. It doesn't necessarily sound pristine. But when you play it in a club...
That's what I really enjoy about their stuff. If you listen to MP3s of it, it doesn't work. But I saw them play live, and it immediately made sense.
It's just a full sound. For me, it's not so much focusing on "oh, I've never heard this sound before." I've not really got any really old machines, I've got stuff that's quite new, only like four or five years tops. I'm not looking to get that "Roland sound." It's about having it set up so it's a completely different way of writing music for me.
It's such a common thing to hear from artists: "I had to start using a machine that gave me limitations so that I could feel free."
That's totally it. It doesn't sound right, but it really is. One of the main problems—and a lot of people will testify—is that with a computer you can do too much. You have to be restrained to be really good at writing stuff on a computer, especially if you've got tight schedules and you can write stuff really quick. I think you tend to have to be a more restrained, quite well-managed person, and I'm not like that at all. I'm quite sporadic, I write stuff in blocks and go months… I haven't written any new tunes in like four months and I have no feeling like I want to.
It seems like with the Hessle Audio release early on people probably thought you were somehow related to dubstep. But you've moved further and further away from that with each release.
I've always been massively influenced by stuff like that. I'm not necessarily trying to distance myself from what I did with Hessle, I'm really happy with what I did, I thought the record for me was a good record for the time. The tunes were quite old, I think one of them was two years old when they came out. I was in a different place already in terms of what I wanted to do with my music. I've always been, since I was a teenager, really strongly influenced by techno and that's what influences my sound now. It's been a gradual process, getting the releases out there that I'm happy with. Each release for me is a step to where I want to be.
I wanted to talk about "Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage." Why did that come out on Hinge Finger?
I dunno actually. Joy is a good friend, and we had talked for a couple of years—even before the Hessle release—about working together. I did "Bodies," sent it to Joy and he said, "We'll put it out on Hinge Finger." So I wrote the EP and it all gelled together. It was nice to work with those guys. I wasn't trying to do like a big vocal EP. It is a vocal track, but I wasn't intending for it to be...
For better or worse the vocal tracks are what you're known for.
I know. I'm happy about that. I think it's good to not necessarily be too serious. The Hinge Finger release was trying to have it be a little bit daft but have it so abrasive so that it turns it on its head. Having this vocal and then music that's quite muddy and dark in places... It creates a weird vibe and puts it on edge.
I saw a video online of Boddika playing it at Dimensions and people were singing along.
It's mad. I play it out and people sing along. It's brilliant, but it is a little strange. Not exactly the nicest of lyrics either.
Yeah, I would say so. I remember the first time I was playing in clubs with proper sound systems. I realized just how terrible my mixdowns sounded. That was the biggest thing. So I quickly tuned my ear so that I could try to write unmastered tracks and be confident in playing them out. Learning different DJ techniques as well was a big thing. I was always quite an aggressive mixer, really fast and quick. Where I was from I wasn't really exposed to a lot of friends who DJ'd as well, I learned quite late on.
Who inspired you?
I didn't have any DJs back then who inspired me really. I was from a place called Barnsley, and I wasn't really part of a group of friends who were doing anything DJ-wise or listening to that sort of stuff. I wasn't listening to that much dance music. I liked it, but I was playing drums in a band so it wasn't my focus.
To go back a bit, I'm interested in how you've gone about changing perceptions as to what you do. How do you go about that?
Weirder music. I find it's like a habit, techno. You write one track then you can't stop. The next track doesn't feel right if it isn't 4/4 and matching the other track. I write stuff in blocks so it's quite hard to get out of that cycle of writing dance floor 4/4 stuff. I have some ideas for bigger projects next year. It would also be nice to—at some point in the future, nowhere near yet—go back and do something with Hessle again. That would give me another avenue to say, "Right, I can just do whatever the fuck I want." I can be really experimental about it.
You said earlier that you don't know where you're going exactly with things.
I kind of do... I've got a really good idea actually. It's really hard to say what's happening in the future, because you don't want to promise too much. I've got some really interesting collaborations coming up, working with people who have been doing it a lot longer than me, people that have that perspective. People that have made me look at myself and where I want to head as DJ as well.
I can imagine you were stressed out and looking for that type of perspective last year when things were blowing up.
Yeah, it very much felt like I got thrust into the whole business of things quite quickly. I never did anything like this before. There was a period last year where I was at my busiest with writing and then releasing stuff. A lot of tension and a lot of stress. Meeting these people has changed a lot for me perspective-wise. Now I want to release music and keep things a little bit more focused. Just standard things I guess.
You mentioned in another interview in 2010 that you're really tight with releases. And then in 2011 it seemed like you were putting out a release every month.
Yeah, a lot of that stuff was written in 2010 actually, so I remember going into 2011 and by February I had already marked out the entire year of what I was going to do. It was nice timing because in 2010 I didn't really have that much happening gig-wise. I wrote a lot of music and it all came out at a time I was playing a lot of shows so I didn't really have that situation where I had to write a lot of stuff and play at the same time. It's a little different now. I've got no time to write music, but I really need to write music. It's just finding that balance. Tony [Surgeon] had ten years between albums though. I don't mind if I have a year where I don't release anything as long as I'm happy with what is coming out.