Excited by the futurist and genuinely groundbreaking work of artists such as Photek, Hidden Agenda and Optical, the pair ventured into the studio with ex-Metalheadz and scene stalwarts Source Direct for their first crack at creating their own tracks.
Though Kirkham and Green impressed DJs with their choppy and frenetic take on the sound, the pair disbanded after just three releases under the Instra:mental tag. Green went on to strike up a short-lived partnership with fledgling producer Kutta, but also retreated from the production game altogether. "We just went our own ways for a few years," they explain, "and after a five year break...we decided that our lives felt empty and that music was the thing that was missing, so we got the studio back together and went at it full steam ahead with a fresh outlook on everything."
Returning with a renewed vigour and modus operandi in 2007, the productions that followed their extended hiatus quickly found favour with some of the most forward-thinking characters in the genre. The tracks had a spacious, evocative and cerebral charm that was a conscious move away from the aggressive traits prevalent in drum & bass at the time. "From what was once a very promising and futuristic genre came a very one-sided, noisy, dance floor-driven music," Green opines, "which we both thought was a real shame in comparison to how cutting edge and innovative the music used to be." Peers such as Commix and Marcus Intalex agreed, using their respective mixes for the FabricLive series to showcase—among other things—Instra:mental's exciting new take on the genre.
After teaming up with dBridge for a collaborative track on his debut solo album, The Gemini Principle (the Bad Company man credited them for making him "step up" as far as his own productions were concerned), the trio decided to launch their own monthly podcast at the start of '09. The series of Autonomic shows—or "layers," as they've become known—quickly became one of the most talked about podcasts both inside and outside of the drum & bass community, amalgamating their particular brand of drum & bass with a diverse range of influences that spanned the cold electro of Drexciya all the way through to reggae, electronica and '80s boogie.
With the duo's profile hitting a new high, they decided to strike while the iron was hot. "Running our own record label has always been a dream of ours, and we just thought that the time was right to get it on the road. Working with other labels is cool, but when you have to give half of the money to someone else, that's quite depressing. So with that in mind, we started NonPlus+, as we wanted to have full control over the image and the music that we release." While Instra:mental are known mainly for their drum & bass productions—with additional forays into dubstep and robotic synth-pop for labels like [NakedLunch] and Apple Pips—Green and Kirkham decided to give NonPlus+ a much wider remit, echoing the wide selection of music that was blended together on the Autonomic podcasts. "NonPlus+ is an electronic music label; it is not restricted to any one genre. It's all about good music and our personal tastes," Green informs us. "This is all we wanted it to be. Not many smaller labels these days release multiple genres. To us it's just a tempo and it's just music, so if we like it, we will release it."
NonPlus+ followed their delightfully unconventional drum & bass debut with two new Instra:mental tracks, giving the first hint of their stylistic divergence on "Tramma," an aqueous take on dubstep that merged psychedelic dub techno sounds with subdued electro-inspired percussion. A-side cut "Watching You," however, was the track that made serious waves outside of the drum & bass community (counting house and techno DJs such as Gavin Herlihy and Red D as fans), even though its tempo placed it firmly within that canon. Its popularity amongst a wider spectrum of electronic music fans most likely had a lot to do with its song-based structure: "Watching You"'s twitchy future R&B could be enjoyed as a discrete object outside of the context of a DJ set.
The first two 12-inches were as strong a start as any label could ask for, but were Green and Kirkham surprised at the critical and commercial success that followed? "Yes and no. 'Wonder Where' was really set to be quite a big track, and 'No Future' was getting a lot of love from various people in and outside of the drum & bass scene, so we half expected it to do well. After that we felt we needed to do something completely different for 002 to show people to expect the unexpected, and also show another side to our productions."
Another factor that marked NonPlus+ out from the other records in the racks was its slick cut-out artwork, echoing the previous design work seen on labels such as Spectral Sound, and more recently Apple Pips. "I've always messed about with the artwork side of things," Damon informs us. "I wanted a minimal but classy design that was uniform and collectable. Me and Stuart [Prockter, AKA SP:MC] sat down and brainstormed the Nonplus sleeve which came out real nice... Expensive, but real nice!"
so if we like it, we will release it."
The unenviable task of following up the modern classics contained on the first two 12-inches fell to fellow UK-based producer James Clements, who had already forged a reputation as a prolific and generally reliable artist on the drum & bass scene under his ASC moniker. Both "Porcelain" and "Focus Inwards" showcased the deeper and more meditative side of Clements' studio work, but ardent listeners to the Autonomic layers will have already managed to get a taste of much more of his recently refocused sound. It therefore comes as little surprise to find out that 2010 will see the release of an ASC album, with further 12-inch singles planned from the likes of Actress, Jimmy Edgar, Loefah, Kyle Hall, Vaccine and Zomby.
The popularity of the Autonomic podcast has meant that the Instra:mental have been inundated with unreleased music that has been directly inspired by their refreshingly different take on drum & bass, with dubstep pin-up Skream amongst the producers that have let the NonPlus+ sound infiltrate into their own work. Skream stripped back his sound to a stop-start percussive frenzy on the label's recently released fourth 12-inch for "Minimalistix," but his association with the duo doesn't stop there. "I first met Skream in Belgium a couple years ago and got on like a house on fire," Al enthuses, "so it was just a natural progression to do some writing together at some point. He also became a fan of the Autonomic podcasts and wanted to be involved with them musically, so we got together with him and dBridge one day at our studio and wrote a track called 'Reflections' which is forthcoming on his new album, and also wrote a track called 'Arcacia Avenue' which is going to be one side of the first release on our new Autonomic record label."
Having established a strong musical brand and grass roots fan base with NonPlus+, I ask the pair why they've decided to form Autonomic, a new imprint run in collaboration dBridge. "The podcasts are obviously connected to NonPlus+ musically but they are their own entity. There is so much music from the podcasts that need to be released, but not all of it fits the NonPlus+ bill, so the Autonomic label is the perfect solution to get this beautiful music out as quick as possible."