When I got to McBean's house he led me into his living room, where he'd been finishing his porridge and listening to Juan Atkins and Moritz von Oswald's Borderland album. Our chat on his couch was perfectly friendly, but I got the distinct sense I was being vetted. And when McBean finally invited me into his top-floor synth cave, he confirmed it: if he hadn't gotten a good impression of me, "you'd be standing out there," he said, pointing to the landing at the top of the stairs. As I learned over the course of my visit, everything McBean does in his studio is full of meaning and feeling. Maintaining a vibe has been as central to his sound as speaker placement and acoustics.
You said you don't let just anyone come in here, that you've always got to feel people out first. Can you describe the vibe of this room—that thing you're loath to let outsiders mess with?
My twisted journey in house—a bass-heavy, twisted journey. I mean, my speakers cry every day. They're on the edge, almost popping with bass. That's kind of how it is.
[Points to picture frame on the windowsill] That's my old friend from the last album, the guy who died [and inspired the record]. That was [taken in] my old place that he used to rent, and he was the guy that I gave up my career for, to look after him when he had a brain tumor. Eight months, I was his carer 24/7. I came from Japan, I went to meet him at the flat, and I saw that the flat was a write-off. I then realized that he was listing, he couldn't stand up straight—he was falling and smashing things all over the place.
So I took him to the hospital, and they said he's got a golf ball-sized brain tumor. We did seven weeks, every day radiotherapy and chemo. I have to say, going to and back from the hospital every day was the hardest thing, but it changed my life. So he's up here with me. He was a musician, too, so he was a large part of me finding myself. Certainly the live show is him.
Is the studio a place where you work things out—emotions, problems, major life events like this one?
If I'm angry, if I've fallen out with my missus and we're not speaking, I come up here. And for sure, the track will have a "fuck you" or a "I hate you" or some weird element, because that's how I feel. It changes every time.
Do you ever come in with a question and leave with an answer?
Oh yeah. Sometimes you come in thinking you're feeling OK, and you make this really sour, melancholy track. You play it back and you think, "Is that really what's inside of you today?" It's quite shocking. You question yourself, but it's gotta be true.
Let's talk about the tangible elements of your studio. Where should we start?
How does this play into your sound?
It's wrong to say it's the sound, but it's definitely part of the sound because I don't ever change the setting. I found one, trial and error, and as a rule that setting will tell me automatically now whether the mix is right or wrong. Just because I know it so well, it'll tell me if one channel is too loud. It's got its own interesting qualities that are strange, so if you overload it, one channel lifts out. Or if it's got too much bass, the two bars [in the meter] go two bars too high. It's such an easy machine to read. When I got it, I hated it because [the onboard compressor has] a soft knee. So it takes you a while to get the best sound, but then it will be super warm.
That's the tubes, right?
Yeah. If I'm doing a mix tomorrow, I leave it on all night and the sound is unbelievable because the tubes warm up. The longer I leave it to come and do the mix, the warmer and deeper it gets. But sometimes it goes too far—a mess of sound.
How long have you been using it?
It was a purchase after [signing to] Defected because I got paid, you know? I always read about it. Roni Size has got a different one. There's lots of different people who have them, and they were all people that I rated. So I thought it can't be a bad thing if they've all got this machine.
Your tracks really slam, and I'm guessing the compression this thing provides is part of that.
There's actually very little compression [in my music]. Everything is raw. [Points behind his mixing desk] That's why the compressors are all back there. I'm getting a little bit of warmth from the Avalon on the out. My mentors are people like Todd Terry, who recorded in mono. I record in mono, just two mono tracks. When you go to a club, how many have the panning to left and the right? You listen to records and can tell [producers have] spent ages on this stereo sweep, and I think, "You are never gonna hear that." That's why I don't waste any time with those effects.
Let's double back. How did the studio come together in terms of gear? What came first?
Well, the MPC came first. It wasn't that one—it was the 2000 that I took from Cisco [Ferreira] when The Advent split.
What drew you to the MPC?
I've never have been someone who can sit in front of a computer. I'm not of a computer age. I got into online stuff dragging and kicking. To sit all day with a mouse moving blocks, it'd do my head in.
The MPC is still a pretty complicated piece of equipment, though. There are a lot of menus, lots of buttons.
But that's the beauty of it. I might be using it totally wrong. I had no knowledge of how to use it; I taught myself. I saw an Akai guy at Sónar, and he said he'd never seen anybody use it the way I use it in my live show. He was like, "How have you got so much sound?" Because I put the warmth on it, or I take the reverb off something—because I know in a big room, that'll clatter around and have its own reverb, rather than add reverb.
Each place I play I've learned that sound has to be a certain way: not too much of this, some more of that. I love my MPC. I can be in [the studio] with a set of drums, and I'm not worried about a level or whatever, I can sort that out after or sort out whatever's missing. So I put in rhythmic stuff, and I decide that I can move it around later. I get the ideas down first. I might do three or four drum tracks, listen to different ones together, decide which ones go best together and which ones don't.
What came after the MPC?
I can't remember his name now, but a guy in the Isle Of Wight was selling his 909, 808 and something else in a flight case. He wanted a grand, and I'll never forget it. I was like, "Really?!" So I bought those. Never have used the 808, because I'm not really electro-minded yet. Then came the Waldorf Pulse. Then the Juno 106. Then the Korg MS2000, which I have to say, is on 80% of what I do. I know it's a poor man's MS-20, but again, it's the one I learned inside out. I lost all my sounds when it got repaired, but I just started again.
Then came the Roland in the corner, there's another Korg under here. I've got cassette machines all over the place, because I still record to cassette on a lot of things because I like the compression. And then the Waldorf Blofeld, which, to be honest, is disappointing.
Why is that?
It's just got too many buttons. It's not an easy-flowing machine. It takes forever and day to make one sound. That drives me mad. I mean, it looks great, and feel it! It's the heavy version. It should be rocking my world, but every time I use it I realize that it's prettier than it actually is.
Has there been a plan as far as your gear collection goes?
Each piece addressed a need. There's nothing here that I just fancied. I had to wait a year—sometimes two years—to get what I wanted, so that you are buying something that you know you are gonna learn to love.
What need were you trying to fill with the MS2000?
I wanted to find something where I could move oscillators more easily and have more varied sounds. Everyone used to have the MS-20 back in the day, so I thought I'd try this MS2000. It took me a while to understand, but then that's the beauty of knobs and buttons: you play around and find where you need to be. Once you've found that, it's your trusted instrument. I'd like to move this back and put the 106 there, but I'm always going back to the MS.
Would you say it's the center of this studio?
With me, everything is about EQ on the board. So I'll take a sound, I'll add a little FX to it—or not—and sample it into the MPC. Crush it, move it about, squash it, do what I like. It goes into the track never time-stretched or anything. I guess that's the secret of what I do: letting the end [of a sample] do its own thing. I'm the master of that.
When I'm in here making two sounds, I always hear a third sound, which is where the two sounds clash because one is not clean. The two ends will make a third sound, and normally it will make a pattern. I'll make a bassline for that pattern, or a hat or something, put it on the board, EQ it, decide where the sweet spot is for me, and then that's it. Once its EQ'd on the desk, you move on to the next sound and build a picture.
I can still kick your butt."
What you said about two sounds making a third at the end—is that literally a timing thing?
Through timing, you can make something that is off, not off. You can throw it so far off that it becomes a rhythmic element, and if you have a whole load of samples that all have this little bit on the end, then there's this whole other thing that happens, which is quite interesting. When you sit back and listen to it loud, you can hear what sounds like random notes. Once you break it down, you realize it's just two or three endpoints making this random sound. If it works for you, then why not?
If you're recording in mono and all of your compressors are stuffed in a closet, then you must be getting space in your tracks through your work on the mixing board. Tell me about how you approach EQing.
Right, so you've got the conflict between the kick and the bass, and for me, they're the backbone of my work, for sure. You've got a nice warm kick, but it has to compete with the bassline. The kick has to be dominant, but the bass has to be just under. My studio is high-mid light, so I add lots of extra mid. My thing is about filling gaps, so sometimes I'll EQ, take it out, then add another sound and bring it back in.
I kind of hear music like a picture—you're painting to fill the gaps. I've got a baseline, and it'll just drive with the drums, or it could be a more intricate bassline, which means everything else has to be a bit more simple. [Plays a loop from a remix he's working on for the artist A1 Bassline] So with this one, the bassline is so gnarly—what I call "badman reggae bass." Everything else is going to have to jam with the badness of the bassline. And if it doesn't, there'll be trouble.
So with mixing, you're looking at the big picture more than at the constituent sounds.
I'm only looking to fill the gaps.
The ride that's on this track shows up so often in your music—it's really one of your signatures. Where does it come from?
The 909. I sampled it, and it's stayed with me. I've sampled and resampled it.
Why keep sampling it?
Each time you resample it, it adds a roundness and metallic-ness, because I sample at a low bit-rate and slow.
What you're playing right now is a remix that's in progress. How are you approaching it?
They just sent the parts last night. Originally I said that I wasn't going to do it until August, but I was playing the tracks last night and was like, "These are really good!" Sometimes what you're given to work with isn't as great as you'd want it to be. But with A1 Bassline, I actually replied, "I don't think it needs a remix." They thought that was a great concept, but his agent said that the artist loved my music and wanted me to do it.
So I was bored after I finished tidying this room and didn't really want to start anything on my own—because if I start something for me, then you wouldn't be here today: I'd just need to get on with it! I thought, "I like [the original track], but I need to take it to a different place. My place." This guy is a bassline man, but really, I am the bassline man! So I spend the whole afternoon making sure that this was going to be the biggest, trippiest, most physical bassline.
Sounds like you're basically producing your own track, with a few samples from the original. Is that generally how you tackle a remix?
I used to go down the route of trying to remix them respectfully with their parts. I kind of believe if you are remixing something, it should have the key elements of the original. I like the strings, there's a nice reggae vocal sample, but as a rule, I have to do my own thing. Because when I try to do their thing, there's always a point where I get stuck with the tuning of the bassline in relationship to the pads, or the drums not being heavy enough because I took his kick and not my kick. I turn the sound up, and I'm like, "Colin, you would never allow that kick on your board, get rid of it." So I always end up starting again and trying to do Colin, not their version of Colin. The more I do that, the more bullets that come out of here.
Did it take you a while to get to that point?
Yeah, a long time. I tried to be respectful and nice, and every time I'd play something to my girl downstairs, she'd be like, "What have you added to this?" She can always tell. You know, sometimes you think the bassline is what you're gonna take, and you take it as is but change the backing. But it still doesn't work, because his timing might be not quite right, or the bassline might be a semitone off, so no matter what pad line you put with it, it'll never sound right.
All those things, the best way to solve them is to take the key elements and do your jam, do your thing. I have had the big mixes where I've been paid silly dollars, and I've basically been crying, because I've ended up on the wrong road. I've wanted to keep all the vocals or all the backing and make it some artsy-fartsy thing, and two weeks later, there's nothing to show. Each day I'm getting more frustrated, and one day I'll come home and think, "I can't torture myself like this for two weeks" and decide to make a dub. I'll do it, take it downstairs, put the headphones on, and it's like, "Oh my god, that's where the track needed to go." So now I just do my own thing.
Let's talk about your live set. You perform with just an MPC, a mixer and a notepad.
The only way I was going to go on the road was with my trusty MPC. I have to do what I am comfortable with—it's the only way I can be real. The same way I do live cuts in here is the way I do live cuts on the road. So there is an ease and confidence to what I do, so as long as I am comfortable and happy—which is usually by around track two or three, because it takes me a couple to get relaxed, [and] a drink of rum.
Then I just imagine I'm in my studio, practicing a dance move or something. For example, I'm trying to get a new live show to preview in Japan in September. So what I do when all the new tracks are released, I save all the original parts to CD with their original settings, original EQ and then re-record them back into the MPC for the set. I don't save them in [the MPC], because I don't trust it. So you have to make sure you always keeping the parts, because before that, someone would come to me and want to remix it and I don't have a clue where the parts are. I've learned, at least, to label things, you know? So 89 CDs, 89 different tracks, load them into the MPC, recreate them and also learn where I can cut a corner, because it's only eight sounds. You might have to lose the intricate string that's in it.
So you've got eight sounds because the MPC only has eight outs to feed the mixer. How do you decide what's in and what's out?
People say with the live show, "Is it all new tracks?" Well no, most of them are just the live version. So there is the point where you put the eight sounds in, but because that intricate sound is missing, it doesn't work as it should. So the string line might only have been a straight string line on the original, but because it doesn't work like that on the live version, I'll re-write the string line to make another melody, so it adds a bigger dynamic to the part. That's really important. It changes things as well. You take a track on the road and you realize that it works so much better when it's a bit emptier. Ultimately all the tracks from my live show will get a re-release, because they're totally different. The track everyone wants is "House Is A Nation"—that was a different track completely, but I wanted a call to arms [for the current live set]. "If house is a nation, I wanna be president."
You do more or less the same show every night, but I bet it develops quite a bit over the course of a tour.
Yeah, I've got 12 or 13 tracks, and I can go from track one to 13 at any point, although on the later tracks the BPMs are higher. I can do my normal flow, like one through 13, or halfway through number three, I might strip it right back and EQ it differently. There is no programming, only loops.
I mean, I never thought I'd go back on the road again after The Advent—seven years, three gigs a weekend, every weekend, almost gone mad. I jumped off the train because I didn't want to travel anymore, and I ended up in this lovely little studio, doing my thing and just by quality of work I'm back in the same place. But this time it's not the same. This time the most important place is here. I did a stint last month—Barcelona, Berlin—and I was so knackered, no studio time for like two weeks. I had to cancel next weekend's gig and get in the studio. It is a big part of what I do. I think I am old enough and wise enough to bring something to the party.
Sounds like you get a little competitive here in the studio.
Totally. The buzz is, I'm 52, I'm still here and I can still kick your butt. That's how I feel. You go to a club, you're rocking the kids, they ask you how old you are and you say 52. They're like, "My dad isn't even 52!" At the moment I am defiantly at my most prolific. Everyone is just saying "Yeah, you are banging them out."
Is there something that's made this period particularly prolific?
Boiler Room, all day long. The label I'm with, Rekids, were gonna have one with Nina [Kraviz], Matt [Edwards, AKA Radio Slave] and myself. Nina wasn't in town so it got cancelled, and then my friend Semtek was in town. He said to me, "I've got a spot at the Boiler Room, I think I could get in there if you play live for me." I remember sitting on my couch and thinking, "Do I have the confidence to do this?" And then a group of my friends said that I should show people what I was doing. So I went down there, the soundcheck wasn't great, and I said to the lady doing the video, "Have you ever seen me?" She's like, "No." I thought, "You are probably gonna have some problems with the video," but no one listens.
So I'm there, I'm getting down, and they're like, "Oh shit, how are we gonna capture him?" Then I overloaded the sound because I didn't want anybody to have the original sound, cause I know everybody is gonna download it. But my friends were there, and I had some Patrón. I was like, "This is a cool idea"—but I couldn't get with playing to a blank wall, which is the oddest thing. I did my thing and really enjoyed it, but I had no idea how popular it would become and that it would be the best calling card ever. The next day, I read back though the comments and it's, "Oh, best Boiler Room ever," and I'm thinking "Really?!" I mean, I was pissed: I drank so much Patrón, I was struggling at the end. But it was the best thing that has ever happened to me.
I remember watching that set and was impressed with how rough you were willing to let things get. Young guys tend to favor smooth transitions. But with your set, it seemed like the rougher the blend, the harder you were dancing.
Yeah! It's a madness, it's something that is wrong—and for me, that's always going to be good. Wrong is perfect. When you hear a track and the bass and keys don't match, sometimes it just works. You just feel it. It's not about where it should be; it's about where I hear it and where I feel it. The rest doesn't matter.