Powell runs a label called Diagonal with his best friend, Jaime Williams, and in the spirit of Powell's records, they mostly release leftfield electronic music you can dance to. The revered techno artist Regis was an early supporter, advising Powell to start Diagonal and remixing a track on its first release. Russell Haswell, the famously bloody-minded multidisciplinary artist, has released two records on the label and has become something of a mentor to Powell. These friendships have contributed to Powell's uncompromising views on his music and the scene around him. He sometimes feels disillusioned at the formulaic nature of contemporary club music but, as he told me, he doesn't think of himself as the antidote so much as an alternative. Nevertheless, his music and views raise questions about what we expect from our dance floor experiences.
Much has been made about the lines Powell has drawn between post-punk and no wave and modern club music, but he's no connoisseur of these sounds. "It's not like I love all post-punk," he said. "I think it was more about what post-punk and no wave stood for as ideas that was interesting to me. This kind of determination to rub up against what was happening, and to change things, and to provoke." I'd met Powell at the house he was staying at with Williams in Selsey, a small coastal town on the south coast of England. He was there to write music and take a break from London. Powell is in his early 30s, is strikingly tall and looks like a model who's had his features softened by late nights. He speaks with a mixture of spiky honesty and unchecked enthusiasm.
Powell lists acts like Ike Yard, DNA and James Chance among his influences, but his main fascination is the seminal New York band Suicide. "I remember the first time I heard Suicide it was like the thing I'd been searching for in contemporary electronic music but never quite found," he once told FACT. Powell's music doesn't outright sound like Suicide, but he has an obvious respect for the group's tumbling rhythms and singer Alan Vega's blend of absurdity and confrontation. In practice, Powell will often sample a short loop of, say, an old rockabilly record and build a track from there. Before we started the interview, he gave me a demonstration. He showed me an arrangement in Logic that was littered with bits of audio and improvised synthesiser sections. "I usually have 50 to 70 different things going on," he said. "But I actually find it's the details that are the most rewarding part of the process. Getting the idea down is boring to me. It's when you get into the detail that the track turns from 'it could be anyone' to sounding like me."
Powell's first musical love was drum & bass, which he got into as a 16-year-old school kid. "It was a revelation," he said. "It's like, when you find that thing that makes you feel sort of special. Like it's your thing." Him and his friends immediately started buying records, taking drugs and going to clubs. His favourite DJ was Andy C, who he still describes as the best drum & bass DJ of all time. As the scene faded in the early '00s, Powell got into dubstep and, eventually, experimental electronic music like Russell Haswell and the Raster-Noton label. He doesn't exactly remember how he wound up listening to post-punk but he remembers the impact it had on him: "Suddenly you realise that whole world you've not even given five minutes to before could actually give you the same kind of feelings and experiences that you get from stuff you already love."
When Powell met Karl O' Connor, AKA Regis, at a gig in 2010, he'd been making music on and off for seven years, which included attempts at the extreme electronic music he'd been listening to. But after discovering no wave and post-punk he decided that his music was uninspired. He hit on the idea to blend elements of the old bands he was getting into with modern electronics. A CD he handed O' Connor that day contained tracks he'd produced with this in mind.
"I think I'm correct in saying that I was one of the first people he gave a CD of his unreleased music to," said O' Connor. "The CD came with an accompanying two-page letter that he had written to me. I still have them both. What was obvious to me was that Oscar had thought this through, he'd come to it fully formed with all his influences in place, he knew what he did and didn't want. I also suggested that he should put his music out himself as it would give the rest of the world a chance to catch up. They just caught up."
The first release on Diagonal was Powell's The Ongoing Significance Of Steel & Flesh, which featured a remix by O' Connor. The EP feels restrained next to Powell's more recent releases, but some of its core elements—woody, reverb-free drums, agressive synth lines—are still hallmarks of his music today. Its follow-up, Body Music, was more rowdy. Tracks like "Grand Street," "Body Music" and "Nude" were raw and propulsive. Little idiosyncrasies—vocals shards, synth blasts, off-kilter drums—began to creep in. Powell was finding a voice.
Like many labels of its size, Diagonal didn't have a strategy at first. "I don't think he had much of a plan beyond creating a platform for his own records and one he could be proud of," says Williams, who became involved once the releases started to pick up, a process that took a couple of years. Powell got to know Simon Pomery (Blood Music) and Craig Clouse (Shit And Shine) and offered to put out their music. The US artist James Donadio, better known as Prostitutes, also came on board. Like Powell himself, Diagonal was forming an identity. The industrial-infused rock of Blood Music and the warped techno of Prostitutes formed the opposite ends of the label's spectrum. You could imagine all of Diagonal's artists lashing into their gear as they recorded.
In Powell's mind, things really clicked for him and the label in the lead up to 2014. "We suddenly reached the point where we were meeting so many people and were talking about doing so much good music, we were just like, 'Fuck it. Let's do it all.' So last year we put out 10 or 11 records, and this year we're going to do maybe 10 or 12." Bronze Teeth's O Unilateralis and A Waif's Rent and Shit & Shine's Powder Horn hit particularly hard. But it was Powell's Club Music that broke the most ground. By this stage he was gathering serious momentum, with EPs on Mute sublabel Liberation Technologies and Boomkat sublabel The Death Of Rave (this one included the incredible "Oh No New York"), but it was Club Music that nailed Powell's direction. "I suddenly realised I could reconnect with those early experiences that I had with music," he said. "It was just like, fuck, let's do this."
"So We Went Electric" is an easy way to understand Powell's vision. It begins with restrained chaos, feints the "drop" a couple times then lets rip. Guitars shriek. Noise randomly soils the mix. The drums and synths form a militaristic stomp. The mid-section peak could best be described as nuts. "The things that I get excited about now are a sense of exhilaration, surprise, intensity and propulsion," Powell said. "These reactions you have to music that takes you off guard—that's great. When you don't know which way stuff's going. It's about playfulness and trying to remember what club music is about, or for me, anyway. It wasn't meant to be this dystopian thing. It was meant to be liberating, uplifting, exhilarating, exciting and sexual."
Powell's recent DJ set at Corsica Studios in London displayed all of these qualities. Swaying intensely behind a pair of turntables, he teased out wayward rhythms and gut-wrenching electronics, hyping the crowd, flashing his torch at the dance floor and wiping sweat from his face. His selections shared the intensity of tough techno but the tracks' unpredictability added a thrilling extra dimension. A whole night of this stuff would have been too much, but Powell made most popular club music feel safe and unadventurous.
This isn't a point that's escaped Powell. A large part of his artistic drive is a response to the broader state of electronic music. "There's always been a punk attitude in electronic music," he said. "It was for freaks and weirdos, and it's fucked up shit. Pushing to the extremities of what music could be. And now it's become this cool equivalent to pop music. Everyone's into electronic music. Everyone goes to festivals and takes drugs and stuff. And as a consequence, you've got this world of electronic music that dominates now that is just utter shit.
"I wish the light would be shining on the people who deserve it, rather than the wankers who are just milking it for whatever, you know? Who am I to say that stuff is wrong when millions of people are enjoying it? But it frustrates me that it feels like electronic music has stopped moving forward."
It's likely that Russell Haswell, an artist who for most of his career vehemently opposed writing music with beats, crystallised Powell's thinking. Powell talked in deeply respectful tones about the way Haswell lives his art—"he wakes up every day and his entire being is an expression of what he is as an artist"—and says this has had an immeasurable effect on him. "Everything is just all about this vivacious thirst for challenging people and saying something and disrupting stuff," Powell says. "I'm not that kind of person, but you can take things from that."
"Oscar is an amazing guy because he's the only person who I've ever met in my life who's stopped me on the street and asked me to make a record," Haswell said. He told the story when I interviewed him in front of an audience at last year's Unsound festival, joking about how, after brushing off Powell earlier in the day, they bumped into each other again that night at Café Oto in London. "He was going, 'Eeee, hi I'm Oscar Powell, you're Russell Haswell.' And I'm going, 'Yeah, yeah, I know that.' 'Can you make a record?' And I'm going, 'Well sure, but why?' And he's saying, 'Well, we'll do something with a beat.' And I'm going, 'Right, have you got a drum machine?'" The result was 37 Minute Work Out, one of Diagonal's best and, unsurprisingly, most extreme records so far.
A few hours after my interview with Haswell at Unsound, Powell played his debut live show. It wasn't something he'd ever intended to do, but Mat Schulz, who runs Unsound, asked about the possibility and Powell agreed to it. I saw Powell briefly before his set and he was ghost-white with nerves. He needn't have been. The set was a smash success, and was considered by many, myself included, to be a highlight of the festival. In Selsey Powell told me that due to the nature of his production style, lots of preplanning went into the performance. "You've seen how I make the tracks. Recreating that in a live way is impossible," he said. "I'm trying to create the best live experience I can using the music I make. I leave enough room for improvisation and being able to take it in various directions."
Around this time, Powell had been in talks with the indie giant XL Recordings about working together, which resulted in the recently released single Sylvester Stallone. Its two tracks were a fantastic continuation of the Club Music aesthetic, and pointed the way for an eventual album from Powell. An A&R from XL told Powell that his music was "the most intense, physical thing" that he'd heard in a long time, which convinced Powell that the label understood where he was coming from, rather than just making a "land grab" at his rising profile. "A lot of people have been like, 'You got a gig at XL because they need you more than you need them,' which is a classic kind of underground approach. It's bullshit. I need them as well because what they give you is a platform for your music to be heard. I want my music heard by as many people as possible."
On the video for "Sylvester Stallone," which evokes the Ludovico-technique scene from A Clockwork Orange, Powell is strapped into a chair and made to watch a strobe-like series of images by an unseen aggressor. Through the use of prosthetics, Powell's head swells to a grotesque size, until it eventually bursts. The insinuation is that it's the visuals that kill him, but to me it felt more likely it was because of the music.
Powell plays at Sónar 2015 in Barcelona, which runs June 18th to 20th.