The man placed firmly in the centre of all this is Tom Ford. As the manager of the aforementioned record shop, Rooted Records, he's been pushing the dubstep sound in the city since its early days, as well as incorporating it into his DJ sets at his friend (and now housemate) Pinch's catalytic Context and Subloaded events. In 2006, his position at the shop gave him an insight into the growing pool of producers the city had to offer, and he set up his Punch Drunk label with the sole intention of releasing music by Bristol-based dubstep artists. Ten singles on, Punch Drunk has steadily forged a reputation for putting out some of the most forward-thinking bass-oriented music around today.
Ford's own productions under his Peverelist moniker have had much to do with that. His first release quickly established him as a producer to watch, with the detached piano loop and powerful ascending bassline of "Erstwhile Rhythm" providing the perfect foil for the dubwise propulsions of "The Grind." The latter was picked up by Stefan Betke (AKA Pole) for his label's Round Black Ghosts compilation, who jumped at the chance to get Ford to remix one of the tracks from his Steingarten album. A collaboration with Appleblim on Skull Disco soon followed, where the duo explored dubby minimalism without resorting to the crutch of a 4/4 kick drum.
It was 2008, though, when the Peverelist truly came to prominence. The hypnotically charged "Infinity Is Now" slayed dancefloors with its insistent bassline and flailing arpeggios, whilst recent release "Clunk Click Every Trip" married mind-bending modulations with lush sustained chords. Both tracks are prime examples of his unique production style, which has seen him win fans in both techno and dubstep circles. We were cordially invited over to Ford's Bristol home to conduct the producer's most comprehensive interview to date, touching on subjects such as his musical roots, the Punch Drunk label, and what he thinks about being lumped into the "techno-dubstep crossover."
I grew up with rock orientated music, mostly—like most teenage kids in suburban Essex—but I was always interested in all kinds of music. I just got deeper into electronic music as time went on. I think the connection was that of underground independent music, and that was the important thing. Certainly jungle is the foundation sound for what I do now. The precursor to jungle and then the event of jungle was what my generation of dubstep producers grew up around. I think of my music in the terms of jungle, drum & bass and UK soundsystem music.
Did you have a "jungle epiphany," where you were suddenly turned on to the sound?
No, not really, because it was always there when you were a kid. Jungle crept in, it didn't suddenly appear. I was at school in the early '90s and hardcore was always there. Suburban Base and Moving Shadow were names that people knew even if they didn't know the music. Keith Flint went to my school, so it was in the water, that electronic music culture.
Were there any club nights that you went to in Essex that were pushing that sort of sound?
No, I wasn't going to jungle raves in Essex. I didn't really go to clubs that played electronic music—proper dance music—until I moved to Bristol when I was 18. All the best nights were in London or South Essex—Romford, Ilford… The only electronic nights I went to back then were those affiliated with the Spymania scene—the more experimental electronic sounds.
I guess that it was the musical culture and heritage of Bristol that attracted you, right?
I wanted to leave home, and I knew I wanted to go to London or Bristol—I knew that, just because of my knowledge of the music there. London was a bit too close to home for me, so I headed west. I'm not sure I would have liked London—the two cities are very different.
Were you producing material before you started on your dubstep stuff?
Yeah, we've always played around with beats on Fruity Loops—me and Rob (Ellis AKA Pinch) and a few other friends—just making beats… Jungle, hip-hop, whatever really. It was just a bit of fun, we didn't really take it too seriously.
What were your original motives for starting Punch Drunk?
The dubstep scene in Bristol was growing, and there was a circle of producers making beats. All of the records coming out back then were from London, and I thought that there was a good enough calibre of tunes in Bristol to be worthy of getting out to the wider world, really. I wanted to create a platform for Bristol producers to showcase their beats—that's the idea.
There isn't really a Punch Drunk sound; it's about more about the idea of a post-jungle sound, what happens next in UK soundsystem music or more specifically the Bristol soundsystem scene. It's just the artists being themselves so it's a diverse sound—you can't tie it down. The only connecting thing is that it's Bristol.
Peverelist's guide to Bristolian jungle
Die - Reincarnations (Full Cycle, 1996)
One of the best from the "King of the Rollers," Die. Killer syncopated evolving jungle grooves. Certainly one of the unsung Bristol classics; moody vibes without aggression.
Krust - Genetic Manipulation (Full Cycle, 1997)
Epic, sprawling visions of the future from Krust. Releases like this, "Future Unknown" and "True Stories" don't seem to fit in anywhere within drum & bass, and seem extraordinary in retrospect. Krust is definitely the most avant-garde of the Bristol producers.
Roni Size & Die - Music Box (Full Circle, 1993)
This one's a rare groove sampling Bristol jungle classic. The first release on Full Circle—later to become Full Cycle—and probably one of the first Bristol tunes to really make an impact in the London jungle scene.
More Rockers - Night Fall (More Rockers, 1995)
Unsurpassed Bristol jungle anthem from Rob Smith and Peter D in their More Rockers guise, which samples the Johnny Osbourne lovers rock track of the same name. The Smith & Mighty studio and influence played a large part in the early development of the Full Cycle artists.
Roni Size / Reprazent - Trust Me (Talkin' Loud, 1996)
All time Bristol dancefloor classic, later included as part of the New Forms album. Irresistible skittering beats: the definitive Bristol roller. This track still gets smashed in Bristol, and will always remind me of the Thekla or the Full Cycle residency at Lakota in the '90s.
I've known Rob's music for years—he's been pivotal in Bristol music for a long time. I met him from working at Rooted. That's how I met pretty much everyone in the Bristol scene. It's one of the great things about record shops that people seem to forget. Rob was coming and picking up records from me, and when I started the label, I asked him if he had any beats he might be able to pass my way. He gave me a CD full of tunes, so I picked the ones I liked and we decided to go ahead with a release under the name RSD.
Was he into dubstep for quite a while before that?
We'd often talk about dubstep, like I did with a lot of likeminded customers in the shop. He'd definitely picked up on a few tunes, because he's into all kinds of different music anyway. It wasn't a transition for him—it was a natural thing to be into that sound. It's not like Rob Smith's now doing dubstep—it's Rob Smith doing what he's always done.
You were saying earlier that when you began making tunes, you had fun doing it. Now that you've built up a name for yourself, with people awaiting your next release, do you feel under pressure at all? Do you still enjoy the production process?
I am my own harshest critic. I'm making tunes for myself though, so I don't feel under pressure from anyone else. Enjoy is not the right word though. I get satisfaction when it goes right—I wouldn't do it if I wasn't feeling it. It's natural to go through phases like that. In reality, I'm just making tunes in my bedroom when I get home from work, and you can take it as seriously as you want to.
Last year you did an interview with FACT Magazine where you said that you "don't really make dance floor tunes." Personally, I would disagree with you there. Do you care to elaborate on that statement at all?
I'm into dance music culture, rhythm and the dynamic between bass and drums. I think of my music as drum & bass—that's still the basis. Reggae, jungle and dubstep—it's drum & bass music. That's what the emphasis is on. So it is dance music. I'm not interested in loudness wars or who can make the nastiest bassline or the hypest moment in the dance. My music is a bit more subtle. I'm interested on building vibrations on a longer time scale rather than the "big drop" culture that is so dominant. It's not "deep" though, or "chilled"—I'm still trying to take your chest out with bass. You just have to listen to it on the equipment it's designed for rather than PC speakers.
Do you have any plans to work with Appleblim again?
Yeah, definitely, but he's a busy man. At some point, but I don't know when. It's not going to be "Circling Part 2" though; I suspect it'll be something completely different.
When I interviewed him for RA last year, he commented that he thought you two worked well together.
Yeah, he's a good mate of mine, so it's just fun. That's what it comes down to again. It's just about having a laugh with your mates, making tunes, seeing what comes out. Might be good, might be rubbish. I haven't really worked with other people until this past year. I've always made tunes by myself. It's a different thing.
Are there any other collaborations coming up?
I made a tune with Pinch, and I'm hoping to do another one. There are more collaborations in the pipeline too.
What label is the Pinch collaboration coming out on?
I don't think like that—it's just making tunes. Cut them to dub, play them out.
Is that another thing that you're taking from soundsystem culture? The VIP tradition, where people have to come and see you DJ to hear certain records?
No, there's no emphasis on exclusivity—it's making tunes that convey your ideas to play out in the dance. If other people aren't making the beats you want to play, you have to make those beats yourself.
I think that you've got quite a unique sound with your productions. Are there any specific artists or records that you think have a big influence on your music?
All of those! [points to record rack] It's funny that you say that my sound is quite unique though, as I do get compared to a lot of people. People like to put stuff in boxes, and I'm in the dubstep-techno crossover category, I guess with 2562 and Martyn to an extent—people like that.
but I'm almost too scared to say that."
Do you feel comfortable being lumped into that particular box?
I think it's a simplistic and convenient take on the "Peverelist sound." I always go back to saying that jungle is the foundation of my sound because that's my life, what I've grown up with and that's the biggest influence on me. Structurally, I think that people can identify my music with techno. I feel limited when people say that, and I often wonder if people are surprised when they might hear me DJ and I'll be playing Joker tunes.
I really like techno; I fucking love techno, but I'm almost too scared to say that. Really, it depends on your interpretation of what techno represents. It's been around since the 1980s and has represented a lot of different sounds and ideas around the world. Some might think that techno music might be just a banging 4/4 kickdrum, a synth line and a couple of pills, and I don't feel like I'm a part of that, but if your interpretation of techno is futurist electronic music, then that's certainly something that I identify with.
There's been a lot of talk of the Bristol-Berlin sonic axis. Obviously "The Grind" has got a Berlin feel to it, but I don't think that any of my other tunes overtly have, or Pinch's tunes. He's also in the "Berlin-Bristol axis". I don't really see that myself. I know Torsten (Profrock—T++) a little; I've met up with him in Berlin, and we chat about music and dubstep. But if you talk to Torsten—Torsten is a junglist. If you look at his record collection, he's a diehard junglist, and I think that's why he's interested in dubstep. Sonically, I don't think it's necessarily a techno angle. From him, I don't think it's a techno angle. Saying that, I am a big fan of some of the music that has come from that city and it's an inspirational place.
I cut some dubs at D&M (legendary Berlin based techno mastering house) when I was in Berlin earlier this year, with an engineer called Christophe. He's a reggae head, this guy Christophe, and he DJs reggae, used to DJ jungle; Mark (Ernestus) who owns Hardwax is a reggae head at heart. Again, it comes down to that soundsystem thing as much as a techno thing.
If you listen to a Krust or Die or Bill Riley record from the mid-90's—and they're some of my biggest influences—they're just long drum & bass grooves, or "rollers" as they came to be known. They just go on forever and mutate, and that's more where the Peverelist sound comes from rather than it being dubstep plus techno equals Peverelist.
It's such a different thing when you're making music and thinking about it, to take those ideas and put them into words. As a journalist, that's what you do—you think about it and put your interpretation down on paper, but I'm trying to convey these ideas sonically, so it's difficult for me to put it into words, if you know what I mean.
With regards to those human elements, one of the areas that interest me is the boundaries between technology and human existence. As we get more dependent on technology, are we losing our humanness to machines, or are machines becoming more human? Some elements of my work relate to that grey area. It has unnatural qualities but it isn't exclusively machine music.
Another idea I try to reference in some of my tracks is the human experience and interpretation of time, but that's a whole other topic.
Your records are slightly slower than the usual 140bpm that's commonplace in the genre…
Yeah, I usually make tunes a little bit slower than a lot of other dubstep producers. More recently I've been slowing them down a little bit more—producing at 135—just because I think you get a different groove. It's amazing how just a few BPM slower can add a whole different groove to a track.
Do you use any analogue equipment at all?
No, just a computer. A lot of people are surprised when I say that I make music on a computer. They say it sounds like analogue equipment... that's just how it comes out.
Do you have any interest in using any analogue hardware in the future?
I think you have to make the most of what you've got. I've just got some really simple software, and I'm sure I'll get to a point where I can't really do the things I want with this, but at the moment I'm quite happy working on a computer. Contemporary software is so powerful now compared to a few years ago.
Do you have a set idea for a track before you start, or is it more of an ongoing process of sound sculpture?
Trying to achieve or create a vibe is the main thing, and I think you kind of start with an idea and it naturally develops as you go on. When I started the Peverelist project I definitely had an idea in my head of what I wanted to do, but I think it's more subconscious now. I'm just trying to build on those initial ideas.
You've been doing quite a few remixes recently. Does your production approach differ much from what you'd do for one of your original tracks?
It's like when you're painting a picture—if I'm painting a Peverelist picture, I've got to make the paint first, but when I'm doing a remix, the paint is already there and I've just got to re-paint the picture. So it's different, and I think there's a bit more freedom to explore different ideas too. I've done a few remixes in the last year but I want to concentrate on working on my own beats for a bit.
I've caught you DJing before both with and without an MC present on the mic. Do you enjoy having an MC on top of your sets, or would you rather just let the music speak for itself?
I rarely get the opportunity. There are some awesome dubstep MCs out there, and I'm actually a big fan of MC culture—it's an essential part of the soundsystem culture. If I could choose an MC, I'd definitely have one on my set. I'm a soundsystem DJ—that's how I see myself as a DJ. A good MC will always tailor their delivery to the music.
Over the last year, you've started to make the Punch Drunk catalogue available to purchase digitally, albeit with a slight delay from the vinyl release. Was this done purely for financial reasons?
I don't get involved in mp3 culture personally. I'm old school, a record collector—I don't have an iPod, and I don't listen to mp3s. If I want to listen to a tune, I'll stick a record on or grab my ancient CD Walkman. Vinyl makes you listen to music differently. Obviously I am in a minority and I still want the music to be accessible to people who aren't into vinyl. As a label owner, it's my responsibility to the artist to make the tracks available in formats that people want. Vinyl is still my absolute priority.
Do you think that it's getting increasingly difficult for vinyl-only labels to survive without offering their music for sale through digital channels?
Not at all. If the music is good, people will want to buy it. You can press 500 records, and if you sell 300, you've broken even—that's not many. It depends if you're trying to make money or not. Labels have all kinds of reasons for doing vinyl-only releases or digital-only releases, but vinyl is still deeply embedded in dance music culture.
Some labels like Apple Pips and Hessle Audio have started to take their releases to Dubplates & Mastering to get their lacquers pressed. Would you ever consider using them for Punch Drunk?
I don't know if they'll continue to, because of the pound against the Euro. It's just ridiculously expensive. I've cut dubs there and they were very interested in the music and more importantly understood it, which helps a lot. There are a lot of good mastering houses though—there are lot of good British mastering houses.
These guys have been around for a few years in Bristol doing mixtapes and going to the dances. I've known Joker for a long time, and Gemmy too. Guido I've known for a couple of years and they all know each other and have always bounced ideas off each other, grown in the same kind of scene. People like Pinch, Appleblim and myself grew up with jungle, and because they're ten years younger than us, they've got a different set of influences. It all still relates to that drum & bass approach to futurism and that's the connection.
Guido's stuff has been floating around for a while now on mixtapes and dubplates. I'm quite surprised that no one approached him before you to release anything.
He's been making beats for a few years but he keeps himself to himself. He doesn't send tunes out much. I've known him for a couple of years but the right time is here for him to make a record. We're going to do this single, and hopefully there'll be more to come. He's sitting on some great music, so there'll certainly be more to hear from him in 2009.
So Guido's doing the next 12-inch for you, but do you have any plans for releases past that?
I sort of make things up as I go along with Punch Drunk. Tunes have a tendency to present themselves at the right moment. The direction comes from the artist and how they want their music to develop. There will certainly be plenty of fresh material coming from Bristol in the next year.
A lot of people define "dubstep" quite simply, by proclaiming that the tempo is what ties it all together. Do you think Punch Drunk will ever release any records outside of that particular tempo bracket?
People that are involved in dubstep want to make and play out tunes that are compatible with that scene, so that's why people are working at that tempo. On the Guido 12", one of the tracks—"Way U Make Me Feel"—is a 94 BPM track, but it's definitively Guido. If you heard it, you'd know straight away that it was Guido. Punch Drunk is about artists being themselves and doing what they want to do. In the future, dubstep will change and the music will change and I'm sure the tempo and sounds will too. Change is normal—we like change!
You're currently the manager of Rooted Records…
Yeah, I run the ship.
Do you ever envisage a time where you're not working there?
That's my job. That's how I spend my day, so no. Making music is what I do with my spare time. It's increasingly taking up more of my time, but I love working at the shop, so I'll always have a hand in that. I'm institutionalized. Rooted is a big part of the music scene in Bristol though. I know pretty much everyone involved in Bristol music just from working there. It's a good place to meet likeminded people, exchange ideas and find out about new music, talk about music. We're on a friendly vibe. We're music fans first and foremost.
Live photo credit: Rosa Maria Koolhoven
Tom Ford and Rooted Records photo credits: