Both Peverelist (Tom Ford) and Kowton (Joe Cowton) were respected solo artists before they linked up with Craig Stennet, AKA Asusu, to form Livity Sound, their record label and live performance moniker. Ford was a key player in Bristol's early dubstep scene, releasing and producing music through his Punch Drunk label and working behind the counter at the city's Rooted Records. Cowton also built his name in Bristol, turning out twisted takes on house, grime and techno, and working at Idle Hands, the record shop that opened following Rooted's closure. When Ford and Kowton wrote Beneath Radar, Livity Sound's first release, in 2011, it's very likely they had no grand plan for the label—the pair discuss all of their work in very casual terms. But what grew from that first collaboration was one of the strongest discographies of recent times. (RA voted Livity Sound as our favourite label of 2013.)
When I met with Ford and Cowton in London recently (Cowton is now based in the city), it became clear that their simple means of production is reflected in their attitude to making music: they take a no-nonsense approach to their craft, jamming on a small array of gear until they hit on something they're feeling.
When did you first sit down in the studio together?
Kowton: What year was it?
Pev: Probably three or four years ago, something like that.
Kowton: 2010 I reckon. We talked about doing tunes for quite a while and then, being Bristol, these things take quite a while and then we eventually kind of—
Pev: Did that one tune ["Beneath Radar"]. I think we made some attempts to make some stuff and then got so far with a tune we kind of liked the vibe of and couldn't quite finish it. So we each decided to take home the bits and do our own versions of it.
So when you say things take time in Bristol, what do you mean by that?
Kowton: There's a relaxed attitude to getting things done in Bristol at times.
Leading up to getting in the studio together, was there common ground that you found you had?
Pev: I think whenever we do music together we normally spend more time talking about music than we do actually making music. But we definitely had similar ideas of what we were into and what we wanted to be musically, I think, and we just kind of build on it.
Kowton: It kind of came through the record shop, didn't it? I guess from when Tom worked in Rooted, I'd buy a lot of stuff when he was behind the counter. Then when Chris [Farrell] opened Idle Hands, Tom would come in and I'd be behind the counter, and we'd still be talking about the same things. I think it's one of those things where you end up in little pockets of music scenes, and this little pocket was maybe me and Tom and Chris.
Speaking very broadly, what would you say the overlap is in your tastes?
Kowton: I think it's a no-nonsense kind of thing. What makes UK music stand out for me is that it's always very to the point, it's minimalist without being overly considered. Maybe that's what we share, the desire to do the absolute minimum with maximum effect. You look at all the stuff that we are kind of into that crosses over, all the grime or all the early dubstep or Detroit techno or German techno, the early stuff, you know that's what kind of ties them all together.
So an attitude more than anything?
Pev: Yeah, I guess so. I'm hopeless at analysing these things. I guess it's more of a natural thing that you build up over time just through listening to music.
Kowton: Almost like the filter is a kind of a set of unwritten criteria that you just carry with you, and those criteria change...
So you're almost saying that you wouldn't need to discuss those things—they just happen, and it's something maybe you can reflect on afterwards?.
Kowton: Yeah, I think so. I think when we are working together, there are definitely moments when it's like, "Why is that bit there, what's that doing, why have you done that?" Then I'll go, "Alright yeah, that makes sense," and you don't need to explain it—"Oh that's peripheral, that's nonsense."
Pev: Or you'll have a moment when you're like, "Oh that sounds great," and it's obvious.
Kowton: Yeah, and then there can be three elements running at the same time, just a bassline, a hi-hat or whatever, we'll leave it like that—don't change it.
Do you remember what your studio setups were like when you first started working together?
Pev: I've always been computer-based. It's only been more recently I've been getting into doing hardware stuff. I've been using Ableton for two or three years, but before that I was using FL Studio, just really basic stuff. I've never really been that kind of techy or knowledgeable about these things. I always used basic equipment to get the best results I could, really.
I remember when we visited your place for the Real Scenes film— I guess it was 2011—I'm pretty sure you were just running FL Studio and a MIDI controller. Was that the case for a number of years?
Pev: Definitely, and that was very common in the UK scene. The circle that I was in, a lot of people used FL Studio or Reason for years.
Kowton: It's kind of an unspoken thing isn't it? Probably a lot of the biggest tunes in the past ten years were written on almost rudimentary software, and everyone kind of pretends, "Oh I edited it like this," and "I did it like that," but you just put a bunch of sounds in the right order and it sounds fine.
Do you remember why you started using it, Tom?
Pev: I think that was pretty much the only programme I could get hold of when I started doing it years and years ago. I remember when I first started wanting to make electronic music, it was before people really had computers and everything was hardware back then, and it was really expensive to get into, you know, really prohibitive for young people unless you knew someone with a studio. But as people started getting their own computers and that became more affordable, that's how the UK scene kind of reinvigorated with grime and dubstep in the early 2000s, because young people had computers. There was a lot of new software about that facilitated that music scene to happen and shape the sound.
So Joe, you were also using FruityLoops for quite a few years?
Kowton: Yeah, I think I switched to Cubase maybe five or six years ago, and then to Logic a couple of years after that. They're all fine, they all pretty much do the same job at the end of the day. It's just what you're used to, whatever you can use to get your ideas down quickest. There used to be all that chat about certain ones sound different and certain ones colour the sound and blah blah blah. They're all so kind of practically neutral now, I don't really think it matters that much.
So at the point you started working together were you also running quite a basic software setup?
Kowton:I just had Cubase SX 2 I think, something like that, not really exciting. I had that and an outboard EQ that I always use, and I think that's about it. I've been lucky over the years that I've known people who have bits of equipment, so I got to borrow a Moog Voyager for quite a long time.
Kowton: That's fucking brilliant. Or I had a [Roland] 202 for a bit, a Korg PolySix—all these things that are lovely, but I've never actually owned any of them. It's kind of nice with where Tom is at now to have things that sound like that on tap. If I work with Matt [Julio Bashmore] down at the Red Bull, studio he's got the Jupiter-8, Yamaha CS60 and all this kind of shit, and it just sounds fucking amazing.
What were the first steps you took to incorporating hardware into your setup?
Pev: I guess it was when we decided to have a go at doing a live set as Livity Sound, which is something that none of us had ever done before, so it was a new challenge. We spent about six months knocking around ideas, trying to work out how we could approach how to do it in a way that is interesting to us, and add something to the music. I think doing a live set, you have to do something more interesting—otherwise you might as well just play the records.
And with there being three of you as well.
Pev: Yeah. So we kind of devised a way where we were kind of happy presenting the music live, and it was just a case of picking up bits of kit that we could use to incorporate into that, really.
Do you remember what some of those bits of kit were?
Kowton: Was it the Jomox?
Pev: Yeah, I think we knew we wanted to get a drum machine so we picked up this Jomox, the XBase 999, and I think Craig [Asusu] had a few effects and stuff, and it was just a question of incorporating it all together.
Kowton: We had a tape delay, didn't we? But yeah, we came up with this way of pasting together what we already had as material, split into stems and drum machines, and gluing it all together with the effects. I think that was really when all the outboard effects came into play. I don't think we could have done it without them at all.
Pev: The effects is the glue that kind of brings it all together and gives it a dynamic which makes it feel exciting.
Kowton: I think you can get a kind of immersiveness: if you've got a tape echo that's repeating on itself, and all this flange, and all this reverb going, it kind of adds another element to the music. Perhaps you wouldn't want to hear it on a record, but in the live environment you get lost in the middle of all of that.
When you first started using hardware, did you find it made an immediate impact in the way you were working? Did it change the flow?
Kowton: I think it became apparent that if we were going to start playing these things live, it made sense to write with them. Immediacy is the key word: we could sit down and jam something out, and it could form the backbone to a six-minute track. That track "Junked" that we did, do you remember that one? That was literally an hour playing around with loops and then we took it to the Dubkasm Studio. They've got this big old 20-grand desk, and we just live effected it there, and that's what it is: a kind of very primal drum track with a few effects on it, but it kind of carries itself, hopefully, for the full six minutes.
It's interesting how your relationship between live and studio has blurred. Do you tend to think about eventually performing the tracks while you're writing them?
Pev: I mean for me, I didn't make this kind of big switch to hardware. When I'm producing on my own I'm very software based, and occasionally I might use some samples, some hardware, but I prefer doing stuff in the box. When we are doing stuff together I think the hardware is more useful. When you are doing a collaboration there's nothing worse than two people sitting at a computer screen. It's not conducive to doing anything good. So we've kind of found it very useful to have—it creates a scenario where you can both be doing stuff, jamming stuff out, and work on ideas in a more immediate way, and you can create more of a vibe. (More than you can when arguing over who's controlling the mouse for the next 10 minutes.)
What is a typical starting place for you guys when you're writing?
Kowton: I guess it would be the drums, wouldn't it, Tom?
Pev: I think that's a good way of getting a vibe going quickly.
You have two drum machines, is that right?
Pev: Yeah at the moment. We've got the Jomox one and we've got the Vermona one.
Kowton: The Vermona's kind of good for the bottom-end, best for kicks. The Jomox has got a kick, but it's just so thumpy that we don't tend to use it so much, so we use that for the top-end.
So essentially we'd fire up the Vermona, get something we're happy with, then jam some percussion on top. We'd then stick it through the desk, put a couple of effects on it and see if it's got legs. I think that's the key thing: you get better at knowing what might make a tune and what might not.
Are you usually recording the entire time?
Kowton: I think probably not. I think it's literally—let's just jam it and if it sounds good, that's fine. But I think it was Public Enemy who used to jam for an hour and go, "That's the good bit." But we jam for five minutes, and if it's no good, you know, just stop and start again.
So are drums always the starting place, no matter if you are working together or solo?
Pev: Yeah, generally.
Kowton: I think if you are doing percussive music, the drums are everything. Well not everything. I guess everything else is just kind of decoration to kind of sustain that groove through the track you know? When you are in a club or anything like that, that's the bit that matters, if it's got a groove that doesn't carry then there's no point.
Do you remember what attracted you to the drum machines you were using?
Pev: Well I didn't want to get any Roland stuff. There's no point sounding like every other record for the last 30 years.
Did you notice a difference in how hard your music hit in the club?
Pev: It was more obvious in the live show. I think we were surprised, you know: "Oh that sounds great on the system."
Kowton: I think the second show at fabric Room 1, wasn't it? We did the soundcheck beforehand and yeah, hearing the drums straight through the main system was like, "Fucking hell." We just went and stood on the floor for a bit. It's kind of not often that you put on a record and think, "Oh my god, that sounds that good," whereas that drum machine unaffected sounded amazing.
Do you feel almost that inadvertently these drum machines have shaped the sound of Livity in a way?
Pev: I think yeah in parts. I still work with a lot of samples as well so it's a combination of the two. The way you use samples can sound really different from drum machines. One of the tracks we did last year was much more breakbeat-led, a track called "Aztec Chant," so that's the other side of the coin. It's definitely a combination, we've never wanted to lean too hard on the drum machine angle, but it's definitely part of the sound.
Do you tend to run the drum sounds through processing?
Pev: Well yeah, a combination. Sometimes we'll use the hardware effects, and then sometimes a bit of more post-production stuff and a bit of EQing and compression, but a lot of the time it's quite raw, isn't it? Maybe bit of reverb, a bit of EQ.
How anal are you guys about the mixing and engineering side of things?
Kowton: I think there's something to be said for just leaving things as they are. You know my approach is just to warm everything up a bit, and then as long as there isn't loads of mud in the bottom-end then it's kind of fine. When you can hear people have scooped out frequencies all the way though, every last little hit, you maybe get a louder mix, but it sounds a little over-processed. I'd rather have it warts-and-all.
I think when you play some of our tunes out, even off the records, they come in and they sound like juggernauts, really like brr-brr-brr, and I like that, you know—I'd rather that.
When you say you "warm things up," what would that entail?
Kowton: Either just through Tom's desk, or I've got this valve EQ that's really good for that. It's not the most expensive thing in the world, but if you run things through it three or four times… It's a TL Audio Ivory Series. I know people who are using Culture Vultures and things like that. I think they're like £1,400 each, and then this valve EQ is like £150—it's fine, it's almost as good, not quite as good but almost as good.
On the kit list you sent me, there were a couple of interesting outboard bits, particularly the Ekdahl Moisturizer spring reverb. Could you tell me about that one?
Pev: Yeah, that's our quirky bit of kit. It's basically a spring reverb and it's got a built-in filter and the springs on the outside. It's caused chaos at some of our gigs where some over-enthusiastic members of the audience have decided to get involved.
Kowton: We played in Malmö to about ten people, like our third gig, and there was a drunk Swedish woman in the front row just basically twanging the spring back and forth while I was trying to play. It was pretty funny.
Pev: It's got this—how do you describe the sound?
Pev: It's not subtle. Which is kind of what attracted us to it, I think.
And there was the Ibanez multi-effects one as well. Isn't that typically for guitars?
Pev: Yeah, I think it's like an early '80s guitar rack effects basically. The delay on it is OK, but we use it for the flanger—it's got a really cool flanger.
Kowton: We've found that flanging is the most crowd-pleasing effect in our arsenal. There is a lot of shouting at Craig during a live set: "More flange—we need more fucking flange!"
I think we've found that there are somethings that you can get from hardware that you can't get using software. For example the flanging or the reverb off the moisturiser... just haven't really used any software that's really sounded as good. So perhaps for, particularly kind of, say we've got something particularly minimal, using one of them will really bring the track alive. I think it's almost the difference between using the reverb as like a subtle reverb to you know, having the background of the mix or using the flange as a defining factor in the track. If it was going to be that important to the track as a whole then we'd probably use the hardware.
It seems that things like reverb, space and silence play a big role in your music. Would that be a fair assessment?
Pev: Yeah. Our normal process is to get loads of stuff down and then get rid of the parts that are surplus to requirements. That's kind of the process we go through. Is this sound necessary? Do we need this? Can we take that out? What we are left with is maybe some bare bones, but hopefully it works.
Kowton: I find a lot of music over-cluttered. With a lot of records that I've bought and try and play, there's just too much going on. Tom shares a similar perspective.
Were you guilty of that yourselves on your earlier productions?
Kowton: [Laughs] Yeah most definitely.
One thing that strikes me about your studio is you're not using many outboard synths, but you seem to have quite a lot of effects units. Is there a reason for that?
Pev: I don't think we've ever been that strong on melodies, particularly—it's never really been a part of our sound to be honest. I occasionally use software synths. It's more drums, isn't it? Drums and basslines, that's kind of the main feature of what we do.
So where does your melodic content come from usually?
Pev: Maybe more sample-based stuff. Pitching samples around and that kind of thing—we're not analogue synth heads or anything like that.
Kowton: There's not many synths I like the sound of, to be honest. I had that Moog for ages, [Pev] bought a Dave Smith Tetra—it sounds alright, but it's just like there's nothing quite doing it for me. When you are taking samples from things, especially taking old jungle pads—that's, like, the sound, slightly melancholic, dayglo kind of pad sound. You know it's easy just to sample that, because that sounds like you wanted it in the first place rather than having to buy all the kit.
I think the lineage of a lot of the music we are into is that most of the synth sounds in them were sampled anyway. I was chatting to Benny Ill after he played in Bristol once, and he was saying in the early '90s, what had happened for years was UK people were sampling pads they had heard from US people, who in turn sampled them back, then back and forth with the same sounds. He said you could list 20 or 30 tunes that have got the same sound in it, just because no one had the synths, everyone just had the samplers. I'm kind of quite happy sticking with that idea.
And are you tending to sift through your own record collection for sources, or do you go out of your way to dig through bits?
Pev: I've got ten years of samples on the hard drive that I've never used, and that I can kind of delve into randomly and pick stuff out.
So these days which DAWs are you using?
Pev: I just use Ableton. You use Logic don't you, Joe? I think I've tried all of them, and I find Logic and Cubase just too… they're just not easy to get to grips with. With Ableton it's a lot more obvious, and you can get started easily, whereas Logic is just a blank sheet.
Generally speaking, does your approach tend to differ when you are working solo versus working together?
Pev: Yeah, I think it's different. When you're collaborating, you bounce off other people's energy. Certainly for me when I'm working by myself things are more kind of considered and thought out.
Do you think you have a higher success rate working together?
Pev: It's hard to say.
Kowton: I think we've written some good tunes.
Pev: But in some ways you'll do stuff and it will be complete rubbish—at the end of the day you'll think that's complete rubbish. That's the process: as long as you can accept that some days it goes well and some days it doesn't then you can make it work.
Joe, what's your general approach at the moment when working solo?
Kowton: Still writing a lot of stuff travelling, just a laptop, but again, using the studios at Red Bull to record stuff in. Whatever I've got on my laptop, really, but it all comes from a good source in the first place. So it's basically doing the leg work each time I'm in the studio, so when I'm travelling I can be like, "Rearrange that, rearrange that…"
Joe, it feels to me like you've been experimenting with distortion and noise a lot more in recent years. Where does this stem from?
Kowton: I can't remember why I started doing it. I think after I bought that valve unit, I kind of found it gave things such a nice edge, it rounded off some of that digital sheen, and felt like you could get away with having even less, like just a kick drum and a beat, and that was sufficient. The sonics and the harmonics it added are enough to sustain the most simple of loops.
So it almost comes to down to fine tuning?
Kowton: Literally. Absolutely the bare bones, and anything that facilitates that.
You're living in different cities now. Do you have plans to write more music together?
Pev: Yeah. We've got a few things on the go, but it's always been quite casual how we've worked together. Obviously we both do our own stuff as well, but we don't have a business plan or a pragmatic approach to doing it, it's always been quite casual and when we find the time, and kind of being a fun thing as well—not being forced.
As you do approach it so casually, are you surprised at how popular and successful everything connected to Livity has become? Not surprised, that's a bad way of phrasing it, but you gained a lot of attention in the last year. How do you deal with that moving forward?
Kowton: I think there is a slight worry that we don't become stagnant. I think because it took so long to get it all together, and that we live in different cities and Craig is away too sometimes, it's not easy to be there week in week out developing this stuff. But the only pressure is to keep it moving forward.
Pev: To what?
Kowton: You aren't even listening are you? To keep it moving forward and to pay attention while being interviewed.