|Space Dimension Controller: Mr. 8040 is back
RA's Ryan Keeling talks Phil Collins, World Of Warcraft and active imaginations with the young Belfast producer.
Jack Hamill was 19 when he gained recognition for his music, but his age never really became a thing. In his case, there was so much more to talk about. The first Space Dimension Controller 12-inch, The Love Quandrant, was released in 2009 and showed an astonishing command of melody and synthesis for a newcomer. It also helped that this, and subsequent releases for R&S, who signed him as part of the label's "next generation," felt completely out of step with what was fashionable at the time; Hamill's brand of dance music came with a knowing wink and a tongue in its cheek, its influences drawn more from '80s funk than the roots of house.
Since he can remember, Hamill has been interested in film, which has lent his music another unique characteristic. In order to stir creativity, Hamill writes stories and characters and then composes the music that suits the narrative. He's hinted at this throughout his discography, but on The Pathway To Tiraquon6, an 11-track IDM-indebted double 12-inch, he fully introduced Max Tiraquon, a chief protagonist in a sci-fi saga that would culminate in the release of his debut album. Welcome To Mikrosector-50 came out earlier this month and put Hamill's imagination in the spotlight like never before. Its almost fully narrated ride with the time travelling Mr 8040 is wonderfully goofy, but at its core shows an artist with enough balls (or naivety, as Hamill puts it) to show exactly who they are and what they're thinking.
I'm interested to know how you came up with the concept for the album. Was it something that was knocking around in your head for a while or was it a case of sitting down and writing it in a concentrated way?
The way I do it is I have it in my head and then I come up with the track names and then obviously the track names have their own story behind them, like chapters in a film. And then I kind of connect the dots between those and make the tracks in order, usually. It's quite a fun way to make it. It's kind of nice to know what sort of album I'm going to make all by just having a sheet of paper saying track names… It's just an easy way to know what I'm going to make.
How fully formed is the idea of Mikrosector-50 in your mind?
Yeah, I drew a whole map and shit a few years ago. I don't even know where I put it. I kind of remember what it looks like. I'm going to develop it a lot more in the next album. The next one will be a lot more, I don't know, it will be a lot more varied again. I don't want to keep up the full-on '80s funk for ages. I think that was more suited to this album. I want to go back to more techno-y, electro stuff. Not like electro as in electro-funk but, you know, Detroit electro.
Did you have in mind a type of sound that you wanted and wrote the story accordingly? Or do you think the story influenced the sound?
It was the story influencing the sound. The story of this one is quite sleazy… I think some people have got really kind of… people think I'm being completely serious with it all. I'm like, "What are you…?"
How difficult was it to decide how to represent the album live, bearing in mind its narrative?
Well, I kind of just went for it. It was kind of just the music, but now I do a lot more talking in between the tracks and stuff.
What was the reaction like when you were narrating?
Yeah, it's been really fun. Everybody comes up after and says they had a really good time and they were glad it wasn't just serious, just playing music. I kind of want to make a more party atmosphere, interacting with the crowd.
Did you get the sense that people were able to follow the story?
I don't go madly in depth with the story when I'm playing. I do a little bit saying, "So here I am on this strange planet," and all that sort of shit—just a little bit of narration but no in-depth stuff.
You released Pathway to Tiraquon before the album, which was pretty stylistically different. How did that play into the overall story?
That was the prequel. That's from the time before Mikrosector-50 was even discovered. It was because it was written about a time when Mr. 8040 wasn't involved in the story and he's kind of the funky one. It was kind of hard at times when I was making that because there were times when I just wanted to break into a fucking synth solo and I was like, "Nope, can't do it."
So you like the idea of compartmentalizing your work, even if it all comes out under the same name?
Space Dimension Controller is going to be just for albums now. I think I'm going to start releasing in between albums just as SDC… maybe more experimental stuff, stuff that doesn't necessarily have a fully-fledged story. Just let myself chill out and just make music for a while.
Have you always used images or a backstory to drive what you're producing?
Yeah. The Clone one [Journey To The Core Of The Unknown Sphere] wasn't really a full concept. That was just individual little micro-stories in the tracks.
What do you think this whole thing stems from?
I don't know. There wouldn't be anything that I could say influenced me to do that sort of thing. Well, it's just because I've always, ever since I was a kid, wanted to make films and this is kind of the way I can do it on my own, you know? I would still love to be able to. I would love to get an animation for one of the next albums maybe. A full-on one with even a different soundtrack for the actual film but the music kind of goes with it.
Could you see yourself properly going into film?
Yeah, I'd really love to. Hopefully I'll meet someone or someone will get in touch. Well I doubt that. Hopefully something will happen someday anyway. Maybe when I'm older.
I did try when I was younger but then I got into music and started this whole thing but you can't make a good film on your own, really. I made some; I think it's still on my old eMac, which is in my mom's garage. It's a load of little films that I made where I'm playing all the characters. There is one film that I made that was, I think, about 50 minutes long and I think I play about 15 or 16 characters in it.
Have you always had an active imagination?
Yeah, I guess. Me and my cousins and brothers did that sort of thing… I would have been about seven and then I started doing it on my own when I was about ten or 11. Then stopped when I was about 16.
When it got embarrassing.
Yeah, some of them were fucking ridiculous.
Just to get back to the album briefly, did you feel like you were demanding something different from the listener with this?
I know a lot of people, whenever they get dance albums they want to be able to pick different tracks off it, and that's completely what I didn't want to do, because some people don't devote their whole time to listen to an album all in one go, and with this you kind of need to. I bet you some people have done it—like, gone on iTunes and bought individual tracks. That would fucking kill me.
Was it a concern that people would perceive the album as a serious statement rather than it kind of being fun?
Obviously I'm not intentionally making a statement. I'm just making something that I kind of believe in and really want to make. I want to have the fun bits in it, which kind of is what I'm like. I take making the music seriously but I just wanted to cover all bases.
Did you see the album as a more pure exploration of some of your influences? Perhaps less tied to the dance floor.
An idea that I'd kind of been toying with is this album is my '80s sort of influences and then I think maybe the second one… with every album I'll move forward a decade or something. I don't know. I'm thinking of that.
Do you think about the dance floor when you're writing music?
No, not really. [Dance floor tracks] will be the stuff I'm going to release in between the albums. I'll probably have my head a bit more aimed at that but I kind of miss being naïve. I've had a few years of DJing all over the place and picking out tunes for my DJ sets that I know are good for making people dance, and as much as I hate it, it's kind of rubbed off on me a little bit when I'm making my own tracks.
Do you have the type of relationship with R&S where you can present all the different sides of what you do?
Yeah, they totally get me. I've been talking about it since the start. Since before Temporary Thrillz I had this whole plan. This is what I want to do and they just thought it was cool. I think they like the fact that I'm a bit, I don't know, I guess I'm kind of ignorant to what other people think sometimes and I think they quite like that.
"I made my first track on New Year's Eve 2006, when I was 16. I had just lost my virginity."
How did that whole thing come about with them?
Paul Hamill, who is one half of Psycatron, they had a single out on R&S in 2010 or late 2009. I think Paul had given Dan from R&S my email and then he got in touch with me and I sent them tracks but they were older ones and he never replied. Then I think The Love Quadrant came out and he got into that and then I got a phone call. He woke me up actually. I got a phone call and he was like, "I want you, Pariah and James Blake to be the new generation of R&S." And I was half asleep on the phone and I was like, "OK, that sounds cool."
How long had you been writing music before The Love Quadrant?
I made my first track on New Year's Eve 2006, when I was 16. I had just lost my virginity and then I made a track and then went to a New Year's Eve party and got fucked, drunk.
Why did you start making music?
Basically I was a school refuser. So I kind of left school when I shouldn't have when I was about 15. So I had sat no GCSEs and had just been in my house for about a year-and-a-half playing World Of Warcraft.
Were you a bad kid?
I just always knew that I didn't… I always really wanted to make film and I always knew that if the opportunity presented itself I wouldn't need all of this school stuff. I was kind of reluctant because there was nothing like that that we were doing in school so I just hated going in. So then after, I ended up moving to Ohio, where my dad lives, to like start fresh and go to high school there.
But that didn't really work out and there was a bit of drama over there and I'd been listening to loads of Aphex and Brian Eno and Boards Of Canada. The kind of drama that was happening, coupled with me listening to lots of that, really inspired me to want to make my own stuff.
So, in a way, your success has been down to you rejecting formal education, because I guess you had the time to dedicate to music?
I was playing World Of Warcraft a ridiculous amount and then when I got into making music I kind of had the same sort of obsessive, sit at the computer for 17 hours, thing. Just fucking about in Reason and Ableton and stuff so I learned a lot really quickly.
And you actually released an ambient album under a different name, didn't you?
Yeah, RL/VL, it was reviewed. It got a good review on Resident Advisor actually.
I didn't know that.
Yeah, it came out in 2009. It's called Chagrin. It says I'm from Australia on it as well because that album came out on an Australian label. Yeah, it got four out of five, which is all right. Because my dad lived near a town called Chagrin Falls and that album is called Chagrin. I started making that, maybe a little bit after I came back from America and it was a bit, kind of childhood memory nostalgia, sort of Boards Of Canada, like really analogue ambient stuff.
Ambient feels like a pretty non-typical style to go into as a teenager.
Maybe if I hadn't played World Of Warcraft and was going out to clubs with all my friends when I was that age I'd actually be making stuff that makes people dance a bit more.
Did you skip that stage?
I just wasn't into it. I was into ambient stuff and Aphex and I fucking hated it whenever I went to clubs and it was just 4/4 sort of stuff.
What brought you into it, then?
I guess I just found the right kind of stuff, like Drexciya… then there's obviously Juan Atkins and Derrick May. I suppose there's a few of the [Aphex Twin albums] Analords, which are a bit more dance-y. I guess I found the good stuff. Well, the stuff that was good to me.
So how do you get from that to becoming a DJ?
I guess it just maybe grew on me. Obviously I was a producer first and then I was kind of forced into becoming a DJ… I suppose it's not forcing if people are offering to pay you. I kind of had to learn to DJ. Some people would say I haven't learned, and I think sometimes I always play my worst gigs in Belfast as well. It's fucking bizarre. I think it's because I feel everyone is hating me or something.
How do you approach DJing these days?
Most of the time it's whatever I want to play. That sometimes annoys people. I don't do that on purpose but if I get bored on stage because I'm playing the same sort of thing for ages I'll just switch it up. If there's a certain gig where I know I won't be able to get away with that I will play a whole set of house and techno, but if I can feel there is a little bit of a playful vibe I might drop in a '80s track or whatever.
I heard that you started a Panorama Bar set with Phil Collins ["In The Air Tonight."]
That went down really well, though. People had lighters out and were singing along and shit. It was great. I've done that a few times. After the first time I'd done it, it had kind of spread about on the internet and everybody knew so I stopped because I didn't want it to become a cliché in my set.
"The Phil Collins guy."
Yeah, yeah. I had a period of playing that as my first track and then I had a period of having "Sussudio" dropped in the middle of a set, which was fun.
Would you say you've always had a form of self-confidence in this respect?
I don't know if I'd call it self-confidence. I guess it's just: "I want to hear this track." It's funny because whenever I play a full set of house and techno and everybody is enjoying it, maybe I'm not enjoying it as much because I want to mix it up a bit more. After those sets I always feel the best because I feel like people had a good time without any sort of stupid interruption, because a lot of people are against that. But whenever I play a set when I play a few '80s tracks I really enjoy that set at the time but then after about 20 minutes I'll be like, "Oh fuck, what did I just do?" Like at Dimensions last year, I played the best set I ever have because I kind of stuck to it. I had an idea in my head instead of making it all up on the spot, and I felt really good after that.
Have you ever thrown any curveballs that have gone down…
Horribly? Yeah. One time, it would have been Bristol last year. I had Jack[master] playing in Belfast and we were both playing at the same festival in Bristol on the Sunday, so we flew over together. He was playing at a Numbers thing and I was playing at another thing with Marcellus Pittman. I'd played a whole set of house to kind of match with Marcellus, and then for my last tune I fucking played "Tarzan Boy" by Baltimora because me and Jack had made a pact that we were both going to end our sets with it. There was just some girl in the crowd, she was just like, "This is shit! This is shit. Your whole set was so good and then you played this! Why?" And I was just like, "Uhh, sorry." And then I just stopped the record and ran away.
Jack played it at the end of his set. I went around to the venue… and it went down pretty badly as well. I think we were both pretty upset.
Published / Tuesday, 26 March 2013
Photo credits / Portraits - Paul Clement
Crowd - Sam Williams
DJ - IGR Photo