Beneath the polite English exterior, however, lies a man with plenty of opinions, a DJ unafraid of the grand gesture and a skilled remixer. He's also the owner of one of the early mix CD highlights of 2010, We Are Proud of Our Choices, a compilation that fits snugly into a long lineage of excellent efforts from the Kompakt stable.
In advance of his Snowbombing 2010 appearance, we caught up earlier this month with Pearson for a chat about the mix, his production style and manifestos.
Let's start things by talking about your mix. Why Kompakt? Obviously you've done a mix CD with Soma, one with Fabric.
I think Kompakt is one of the few still doing it in a very serious way. Also, if you're doing something for them, it's as much about melody and harmony as it is about groove. It gives you another angle. Each time I've done a mix CD, I've had a slightly different angle. The Sci.Fi.Hi.Fi was a bit more electronic. The Fabric mix was a bit more down and dirty, bassline-driven. I wanted it to be representative of what I might play at Room 1 of Fabric.
Yes. With Kompakt...it's not as if there are easy signifiers, but there is a sensibility with them. There is a big diversity in what the people that record for them do. And it wasn't as though I tried to find the things that had a trancey aspect or this or that, but I do love Michael [Mayer's] Immer and [DJ] Koze's All People Is My Friends, and I wanted my own mix to almost work in a kind of series with them.
You seem to let tracks breathe quite a bit in this mix. Lately there have been many high-profile compilations that have taken the opposite tack.
Sure. But there are a lot of moments where there are several things happening at once. I spent ages trying to find things that worked together. When Dixon did his mix [Temporary Secretary], he got stems from people and he made re-edits, whereas I found things that were in key with one another and put them together as two-track mixes. I didn't have parts for things. I didn't want it to be completely into the realm of the impossible. I started playing with CDs almost exclusively a few years ago. I find that technically I can just do more, I can run things together for longer than I could with vinyl. That's definitely changed the way that I play, and I wanted the CD to reflect that—without it being obtrusive.
You've lived in Berlin for a number of years now. Unlike a lot of people that move here, though, you didn't come here specifically because you wanted to make it as a DJ. Are you still enjoying the city?
Definitely. I think the thing that always impresses me when I come back after being away for a while, is the stillness. The peace and quiet. Germans think you're mad when you say this, but compared to the hectic quality of London or New York, it's great. I love the fact that I can have a respite from that. The music and club scene is a bonus. But it was never really my primary motivation.
What was your primary motivation for coming here? Was it simply to have a place away from London where things were so hectic for you?
Most of the reasons weren't negative. But when I came here it wasn't that I desperately wanted Berlin, but more that I wanted to leave London. There was a period of about a year when I was a bit disgruntled and hadn't really realized it. It was right around the time that remixing was starting to go well, and I was traveling a lot for DJing, so things were fine. But I caught myself grumbling, and I checked myself. I didn't want to turn into this whinging DJ who has this nice life and is moaning about it. I was in London for a decade, was 30, I could do my job anywhere. So I decided to have an adventure.
You spent much of last year back in the UK, though.
Yes. [laughs] In the west country, outside of Bath. I basically spent a lot of time living in a room above a pub. I actually had a dentist in Bath. That's how much time I spent there. Tracey Thorn has three kids, Delphic—the band I was working with—was based in the UK, the engineer I was working with has two kids. I was clearly the one that could move a bit more easily.
Ewan Pearson's 2009 was largely spent producing Lost Valentinos, Delphic and Tracey Thorn
One of the things that I find most interesting about your production work for other artists is that there doesn't seem to be an "Ewan Pearson sound." You don't have a distinctive stamp that you put on records. Is that a conscious thing?
It is. I kind of see production in an old-school way. I see my job as to bring out what's inside of the person that I'm producing. I obviously talk to them about what they want to do, and only get involved if I feel like I'm the person to do it. But my job is to make them more themselves. On some projects you just know that you're the right person. With Delphic, I understand lots of the music that they've grown up with and loved. So then it's only a question if you'll get on with them. When you're producing someone, it's kind of intense. Partly because they'll be under all kinds of pressure from various people. And partly because they'll be under pressure from themselves. If you're going to be spending so much time with someone, you also want to be sure that you like them. [laughs] I've been pretty lucky so far.
There are certain things I'd be less suited to producing. But it's simply down to being a good listener and a good editor. Becoming aware of when people are doing their best stuff. And then saying, "More of that." It sounds quite simple. And, in many ways, it is. But there are still lots of things for me to learn, especially in terms of psychology. How to get the best out of people, whether to cajole or bully. There are tracks on all of these records, though, which are largely me. Bits that I've programmed. M83's "Couleurs" was an eight bar loop that turned into a ten-minute thing, for example. But hopefully it all ends up blended with what other people do.
Are there any plans for your label coming up in 2010?
There are. I'm actually waiting on some test pressings at the moment for the third release. It's an Al Usher track, which is him at his most lush and gorgeous-sounding. It has a John Talabot remix on the other side, which was on the Kompakt mix. And then there's number four, which will follow in a few months. That's from October. I really love what he's doing. I think he's among the best techno producers to come out of the UK in the last couple of years. He makes his stuff on an old version of Logic, and plays guitar in a Sonic Youth-esque band. So he uses pedals and analogue stuff in his techno, which makes his stuff sound so much more vibrant and non-linear than most of the brittle laptop techno. His release for us reminds me of early Motorbass. And there may even be something from Ewan Pearson as well, something solo for the first time in ages. But don't hold your breath. [laughs]
But that doesn't have to be the only thing."
How long has it been since you've done something solo?
I think it's been almost seven or eight years now.
Why the interest in doing something solo now? I've read a lot in interviews about how much you enjoy collaboration.
When I started it wasn't at all about collaboration. It was just me. And I think that's the hardest thing, doing original stuff. You get familiar with your stuff, and your own habits. You need to constantly surprise or trick yourself into doing things. You try to create accidents to make you sound fresh to yourself. Having done that, and a solo record, when I started remixing, I got all the joy of doing original stuff without the pain of the blank sheet of paper. Not to say that remixes are easier, because they can be even harder. But you always have a starting point.
Was there a particular remix that has taken longer than others, where you were tearing your hair out a bit? I wonder if something like [alt-country artist] Cortney Tidwell is a bigger job than something more electronic-based.
With Cortney's remix, I already had a sketch of a beat that I went to when I was asked to do the remix. It took quite a while, but it wasn't hard to start. I've really loved her work since I first saw her play live, and got a copy of the record. I was surprised by Boys [her second album]. I thought it would make more of an impact. But I think the ability to do different things and move across genres [like she does] can unsettle people. People like to have you down, to know where you fit. Maybe that record is too diverse for some people.
Do you think people have you down? Is there a perception of what Ewan Pearson is?
I hope not. [laughs] I don't know. Maybe they do. With remixes there was always that element where you could be a bit playful. It's like being able to try on different hats. While it was lovely to have been popular for a bit, to a certain degree to have influenced people with that sort of electrohouse (a term that makes me squirm) sort of thing, there came a time to retire those sort of sounds. Otherwise you get bored, and people think that they know what they'll get. What I'd like people to think is that they're going to get a certain level of care and attention and quality. I'm sure there are things that I do consciously or unconsciously that you can trace across the work that I've done. I've always liked bigger, more expansive things.
Where does this big, expansive sound come from in terms of influences, stuff that you were listening to when you were younger? Were you a big Trevor Horn fan?
A massive Trevor Horn fan. Propaganda's A Secret Wish is one of my favorite albums of all time. It was the nature of the economy at the time, but you had people like Trevor Horn that had one guy with the Fairlight, one guy with the Synclavier. They had millions of pounds of gear, and they were pushing it as far it could go. Nowadays, you can do all of that with a laptop, but it's...
There's something romantic about it.
Right. And that record in particular is Romantic with a capital R. There's something nice about the grandiose. There's room for that as much as there is room for the immediacy of punk, garage rock or acoustic stuff. It's nice to have that big sweep sometimes. I also love something like The Blue Nile's Hats, which is expansive in a different way. Dance floor music has to be functional. And that has to be a priority. But that doesn't have to be the only thing.
Does that sometimes get in the way for you of doing what you want?
Well, I haven't done too badly with it because people have liked it. But if my records were more ruthlessly pared down with just dubs, they'd get played more.
I remember you writing something about your Junior Boys remixes. Saying that there were "dubs for those of who don't care for vocals...weirdos" or something like that.
[laughs] I remember reading something about the Minimoo parties in New York a few years ago and having this "fuck vocals" motto. I remember feeling annoyed by that to the point of being vaguely angry actually. Because it struck me as being the knee-jerk and ignorant. This music comes from disco and soul, vocals have always been a big part of house and techno. They've been disembodied and stretched into these weird and atonal stripped-back settings but... It's been interesting. Dance music as an instrumental music was quite radical in the sense that pop has always been about vocals. And I guess it was weird to see minimal techno get so popular that you got to this stage where people can see it as a manifesto the other way. That you shouldn't have voices. Or you shouldn't have vocals.
I wonder if it wasn't a manifesto along the same lines of your own manifesto from a few years ago. Where it has an element of truth to it, but also has its tongue firmly in cheek. Shouldn't all good manifestos have a bit of ridiculousness about them?
[laughs] I'm sure the "fuck vocals" thing was more like that. I guess what's interesting about manifestos is that you have to make these rules and choices, and they might often be quite arbitrary. But you have to cut down your options, so it's interesting to see what some of the guiding principles are. When it comes to aesthetics, though, when it comes to art, you should never say never.