The change of heart comes with his now-secure place in the techno scene. With two albums as Shifted in the bag, a successful label (Avian) and a host of side projects—Covered In Sand, Relay, Alexander Lewis, A Model Authority—Brewer has more than proven himself. He's been an important figure in techno's recent exploration of its own dark side, pushing his music in harsher, noisier and sometimes more ambient directions. He's also the most visible member of a wave of UK producers who turned their attention towards techno at the beginning of the decade, and who are now responsible for some of the genre's most exciting music.
Contrary to what you might think from his general aesthetic—goth-tinged press pictures, titles like "Sickness By Means Of Clairvoyance," downcast musical touches and bleak artwork—Brewer is an upbeat and friendly guy. He was in high spirits when I spoke with him, even after coming directly from the airport following a grueling four-day weekend criss-crossing Europe and the Middle East. As we sat down in his Kreuzberg apartment—big and uncluttered, with modular equipment overflowing from a small studio in a corner room—he opened up about his frustration with drum & bass and his anxieties about trying something new.
When did you decide that you were done with drum & bass?
I think it was a gradual thing. I can't remember there being any particular moment when I suddenly realized I was done with it, but there's still tons of stuff within drum & bass that I find interesting. I guess the last movement that I felt any real affinity with was the Autonomic thing, which is still the only drum & bass I check now. I started buying drum & bass records when I was 14 years old—this was 1993, 1994—and it was the first electronic music that I fell into deeply, but I watched it become a parody of itself. I started finding myself playing records that I didn't even particularly like. I didn't feel like an artist anymore.
Basically, the dynamic between me and George… I always felt like he had way more fucking raw talent than I did. I had this thing in the back of my mind, this doubt: "Can I actually do this without him? Am I along on some sort of free ride?" When I speak to George now I don't think that was really the case, but that started to develop in my mind, and I became neurotic about it. I think if it was down to him, he was still up for carrying on and pushing things forward, but in a way I almost sabotaged it because I didn't want to do it anymore. I think I needed to know that I could do it myself, actually, which is why the Shifted project started out as an anonymous thing. I didn't want any connection with what I'd done previously. I wanted a completely fresh slate and to see if people would accept the music for what it is.
Why were you so concerned about keeping it a secret?
I just didn't want people going, "Oh, this is Guy from fucking Commix's new project." "Oh it's another guy who has gotten fed up and jumped on the bandwagon"—which, it could be argued that I did, to be honest. I guess I was one of the earliest people to jump ship. There was a whole host of others around the same time: Boddika stopped working with Instra:mental, and he started his thing. I was talking to him online quite a bit at the time, and we were sending each other music and stuff, like the early Workshop releases and stuff, and getting really excited about this music that we were both becoming more passionate about.
Were you at all embarrassed by the music that you made with Commix towards the end of it?
I think sometimes, yeah, maybe certain elements of it. When I look back at it now, now that it's been a couple of years since I actually stopped it, there's stuff that I'm very proud of as well. Like Call To Mind, I think, was a little bit of a landmark at the time. I think a lot of people were quite excited about the album and it did really well. Even though I felt like it wasn't me, when I look back and listen to it now I think there was quite a lot of my influence in there.
That's funny, because when I listen to it I can't hear your other stuff in it at all. It's so much more melodic and colourful.
Well, that's it. George was a trained jazz pianist, and so when we started writing music together I was this total drum & bass head. I started out on all the stuff that people would mention, like Source Direct, Hidden Agenda and Photek, and George didn't have that record buying background. When I started to work with him, it was me reigning him in, basically. He'd be doing these jazz piano solos and I'd go, "No, just play like this one fucking two-bar section, we'll loop that." That's how we worked to start off with.
The Re:Call To Mind album was another landmark, especially in terms of the remixers. You took one of the best drum & bass albums ever and made it—not drum & bass anymore. Was that intentional?
I think that was the last thing that I was heavily involved with. I was falling in love with all this other music. We had Dettmann and Instra:mental, and it took ages to pull that together. I just thought it would be far more interesting to pull in people from other scenes, and George was also getting really interested in techno and house and stuff, so it wasn't a hard sell to him. He was listening to a lot of the same stuff.
While he was making the GHL material?
Yep. He'd been working as Endian as well. Listening to it again a couple of weeks ago, I was sort of pleasantly surprised, yeah. I had a long time where I didn't listen to any of the old Commix stuff, and recently I was sat at James [Sigha]'s place with Dom Fernow [AKA Prurient and Vatican Shadow], just when we were planning the Bed Of Nails album. He knew I'd done this stuff, and so James started pulling up all this old Commix on YouTube, and I was sitting there feeling quite embarrassed and self-conscious. We listened to "Be True" and "How You Gonna Feel," and I actually felt this wave of nostalgia, because I've had such a long time away from it, and it was an important time of my life. I spent my entire 20s doing it, but, you know… people change. I just let go of it completely.
I think that's one of the better drum & bass albums ever, and the thing about it is that it sounds pretty timeless. It doesn't sound like drum & bass made for drum & bass people. It's very vibrant and open. It feels like now people are always looking back to the stuff that made drum & bass so exciting, and I always think that a scene is weird if it has to have these old-school nights where you're playing old Metalheadz classics. I don't like that about it—I don't see why you can't play those tracks within a contemporary set and make it work. My favourite DJs were people like Doc Scott and Marcus Intalex, and they'd be playing the old stuff and new stuff and it would work. I don't like this heritage thing around it.
Well it's like saying the stuff in the past is the best.
Exactly, exactly. It's reinforcing that fact, and it is a fact. Sometimes I'll just sit there and listen to old Source Direct records and get misty-eyed and think about the good old days. I think there is a lot of that within drum & bass, and a lot of people that aren't prepared to take risks in terms of pushing it forward. This whole neurofunk thing, copying what Ed Rush and Optical did and just repeating the same formula again and again and again—maybe it's the same thing within techno. I guess it is. But that's fresher to my ears.
How did you get into techno at first?
I used to listen to some Chain Reaction stuff and a few early Downwards records. The first thing that I became utterly obsessed with was Drexciya. I was fascinated by the aesthetic that they created around it and the fact that it was so much more than music. It just had this big world that they created around it, and I was really into that. I mean, obviously my stuff sounds nothing like Drexciya at all, but I still like making it more the sum of its parts, so that everything has a connection between it—between albums, between releases. There's a line that goes all the way through it.
So what's the line in your music, then?
I don't really know. I don't even know what Shifted really is when I think about it. For me, it's always been more concerned around texture than rhythm. I mean, rhythmically, my tracks are very fucking simple. I remember speaking to George about this. I always thought about techno as this pulse that you could be artistic around and create an atmosphere with, and the 4/4 beat as something that just drives it. Texture and exploration of textures is what gets me off the most. So that's what Shifted is. I've got all these other fucking side projects which have delved further into different areas of [texture]. I'm about the least musical person you could imagine.
When I heard stuff like Pan Sonic, it was pure art—sonic art. That blew me away, because it had always been about whether it was in key and trying to fit old funk and soul samples in the drum & bass timeframe. Then I realized that art could just be someone standing in front of a fucking speaker stack with a fucking microphone recording feedback, and that completely blew me away. As someone who has always been creative but felt hampered by being around people that were incredibly musical and also quite snooty about their musicality, it was like someone had shaken up the bottle and taken the lid off. I had all this creativity all inside of me, but I had been so paranoid about how my friends and peers would view it.
So when I started writing the Shifted stuff, I made so much music within such a short space of time. My personal life was changing then, everything changed for me around the time that I left Commix. I came out of a very long relationship, I moved country and city and moved away from everything familiar, and it was a completely new start for me. I look at who I was then and I think, "I was a completely different person." Maybe not a very happy person. I had all these things inside me that had built up and built up. I think that was the catalyst for what I do now. So I'm pleased. I think I'm a happier person now that I can actually be creative, and not have these hangups about it.
What made you sit down and start making techno?
Space. Space from Commix, or space from George more specifically. I would never say a bad word about George, he's like my brother—we are such good friends and we always will be. But I needed to have space away from him to discover who I was creatively, and so around the time that George moved to London, I had all this time to myself in the studio. I thought about making some drum & bass records on my own, under a pseudonym, but what I ended up making was techno.
Was that still in Cambridge?
That was still in Cambridge, yeah. Maybe two years before I left for Berlin. So I was making all these terrible techno tracks, and I think that's how the remix album came about. I had some contact with Dettmann to start off with, and I played him some stuff that he was enthusiastic about. Around the same time I met James [Sigha] as well. I think we met in—well, I don't know how we actually met. I heard that "Rawww" thing he did on Hotflush, and I sent him stuff, and I started to develop a little network of people that I could send music to, James being the most important of those. I really think that if it weren't for him being so encouraging about it, I probably wouldn't have bothered.
That's when i got in touch with Heidi [from Mote-Evolver], and at the time I had no idea she was working with Luke [Slater]. We were asking each other about what we were doing, and she said she was working for Mote, and Mote was a label that I had been following around that time. I sent them about 40 tracks, and that's how the first Shifted album happened.
Where did the name Shifted come from?
People always ask this, and I have absolutely no idea. People have been like, "Because you shifted from drum & bass?" It's got nothing to do with that. I think I just liked the way it looked in type, which has always been important to me. A name can't just sound good, but it has to look good aesthetically. I don't like it so much now. I guess no one really likes their own name, and the more you hear it the more cheesy it sounds. But there wasn't any particular reason around it—I needed a fucking name. After spending ages trawling around Wikipedia and stuff, looking for inspiration, I just wanted something that was an actual word.
Obviously picking a new name like Shifted makes sense because it was a whole new project, but since then you've had all these other aliases. Why do you need these compartmentalized names?
I was speaking to Juan Mendez [Silent Servant] about this last summer. I stayed with him in LA and he was saying, "Why don't you do it all just as Shifted?" To start off with, it was because I'd made so much music that I was aware I was overdoing it slightly. I had so many fucking 12-inches from Shifted that came out. The first Relay record I did for Naked Index, that was originally going to be a Shifted record. The last Relay record I did for James, that was going to be a Shifted record. The Pacific Blue thing was because it sounded completely different to anything I'd done before, but I still wanted to put it out. The Covered In Sand thing is about slower tempos, the Alexander Lewis stuff straight-up noise records. And then I've put out random things that maybe other people don't know about as well.
I think that's it—just to not oversaturate things. It's more practical than an artistic choice, certainly with the techno aliases anyway. I feel like I've tainted each project. There is always one record that I have put out that I fucking hate, and I always feel like I have these grandiose ideas that I'm going to start this project and do this and that. And generally I do it and I'm like, "Oh fuck, I actually don't know what to do next with this at all," so things get started and then just drop off.
When you first sent your tracks out and and started meeting people, did you feel like an outsider in techno?
No, not really. Honestly, I felt like more of an outsider in drum & bass just because there were only a few people within that scene that I felt any kind of real connection with. There was a little group of us that were friendly, and we'd all send each other stuff, but I was never really a big scene person. I'm still not now. A lot of my friends are involved in techno and music but I'm not. I don't go to Berghain every weekend and stand in the same corner as everyone else. I think being outside of that gives you a slightly different edge, because it's impossible not to copy what's going on around you if you're that close to it.
What was it about Sigha and his music that grabbed you?
I think it was more of a personal connection. I just really get on with him, and he had similar ideas about how [music] should be more than just sticking out a fucking 12-inch. Just thinking about the track titles, thinking about the way it is presented, thinking about the aesthetic that surrounds it. I should probably mention Sandwell District as well, because there's no fucking way I'd be doing what I'm doing without those records. Those guys were the perfect storm as far as I'm concerned, one of the last truly great movements within techno. Not just sticking out a 12-inch in the same old fucking house sleeve with the same old '90s-looking artwork. That DIY aesthetic that Downwards got so right. British Murder Boys, just the way they name their tracks, the way it was a statement—each record felt like more than just a fucking track for some DJ to play.
The aesthetics you prefer lately are kind of like Downwards—very dark and morose—but you don't seem like that kind of person. Where does that come from?
I'm not. I think I'm a fairly positive person these days. But if you listen to my music, it's quite bleak. It's field recordings and processing mostly, and that doesn't suit a more positive aesthetic. I think a lot of these things that myself and James do are borrowed from the noise scene. Imagery that puts you in a certain headspace when you listen to that music. It's bleak, reduced stuff, and I like rough edges, and the texture of some of those images that we use as well. I think it lends itself well and has a connection to the music that we make. But I don't see it as being overtly dark.
How did you get into noise music?
Honestly I'm not sure I could say that I'm really interested particularly in noise per se; it tends to be the stuff on the fringes of that scene that I find more interesting. My interest is more in experimental music in general, and this is something that has always been there throughout these various mutations in my career. There's a huge amount going on in that wider area that I find interesting at the moment, be it these huge widescreen ambient records by someone like Ben Frost or Tim Hecker, the whole Hospital Productions axis, or these old proto-techno records by In Aeternam Vale or whatever. It's a very rich scene on the fringes of techno.
If there is something about the real noise scene that I find the most interesting, it's the DIY nature and mentality of it—some kid from the ass-end of nowhere in the states dubbing tapes in his bedroom and selling or trading them for other shit. In this day and age of instant downloads and saturation of social media, I think the fact that this still goes on, and kids have the motivation to create for creation's sake—that's an achievement in itself.
I'm someone, who, when I listen to something, I have to know everything that person has done and everything else that has been on that label. I will pick up a record in some random shop somewhere, and then I'll just do my research. But this influx of noise techno… I mean I don't even know if I've made a noise techno record, but I think a lot is fucking terrible—like really, really bad. For me it's just another way of exploring texture. I started to become interested in the creation of feedback and other stuff like that.
How did you meet Vatican Shadow?
Dominick—I think the first thing he heard from me was the Pacific Blue stuff. Juan had told me he was into the Pacific Blue record, and we eventually met in Berlin. There had been some contact before, because he had done a remix for Covered In Sand which I put out on Mira. He's another one—you listen to Dom's records and you check out the track titles and you'd expect this incredibly fucking serious, stern guy with very bleak dystopian views about the world, when, in fact, he's anything but. He's got an incredibly good sense of humour, he's a lovely guy. He was in Berlin for about a month and we hung out a lot, and the idea of doing the Bed Of Nails album came up around then. Originally I was going to do that on Avian, and then he offered, so it ended up coming out on his label.
It seems like with the Avian stuff and Under A Single Banner, your music has moved away from straight club stuff. Is that a reaction to anything?
I still really enjoy club music. Maybe it's just that there is just so much of it about at the moment, and I don't think I'm a particularly good engineer. I don't think that's where my strengths lie, but I've written some stuff that works in the club and no doubt I will again. I've found it more interesting to do stuff that strays away from that a little bit. I try not to have those engineering clichés. I don't play my own music—people often think I'm going to turn up and play these deep sets but I don't play that kind of thing. I play straight-up dance floor techno, because as a DJ that's what I enjoy doing. I've done some ambient drone and noise sets with James, and that's been great, but when it comes to playing techno I like to see people move. But otherwise, I thought I should just forge my own path a little bit, and it's the same with Avian. I've just worked really hard to try and have some kind of identity around it, as a label, not picking the same artists that everyone else is releasing.
What is that identity?
That's another really difficult one. It's a techno label for sure, but I'm not going to sit here and say it's some sort of dystopian bleak thing. I don't know what it is, I just know when I hear it. The only person I've ever sought out a track from is SHXCXCHCXSH. I heard a demo from them and I immediately was like, "That's Avian." And I think those guys sum up what Avian is more than even myself. It's just a sound that I have a connection with in my head.
Where does the name Avian come from?
Again, I have no idea. I have no idea how that started out. I think it started with the logo actually, which I have pretty much stopped putting on any of the records now [laughs], but that's where it started. The logo was done before the name, and it was something that came about from a late-night conversation between myself and JP, whom I started Avian with.
Do you like running a label?
It's one of the most satisfying things. I absolutely love it, from sourcing the music to doing the artwork. Everything about it. I'm surprised it took me so long to do it because it's such a creative outlet. I'm prouder of some of the records I've put out by other people than of anything I've ever done myself.
Going back to the noise techno thing, do you a see parallel in that with what happened to drum & bass in the early 2000s?
I never really thought of that in terms of noise techno. I'd say that more has a connection with the hard and faster mentality that seemed to happen within straight-up techno stuff recently. Everyone banging out these really offensive acid techno tracks at 140 BPM or whatever. I think that what I find interesting about techno is the subtlety and these tiny little variations within the grooves that you lose when it gets to be too much. There are exceptions to the rule—you listen to a British Murder Boys record and it's like this intense fucking wall of sound. But that had something else around it—this aesthetic around it that made it a different thing, not just banging tracks. I think the UK particularly has this mentality of fucking things up by going too hard and too fast. I don't know what it is, but it certainly happened within drum & bass, and it's starting to happen within techno.
I put out those MPIA3 records, and I think they are fucking fantastic records, because they came along at a time where everyone was doing just like seven minutes of drone and then a fucking 909 with loads of reverb all over it. That record came out and sounded like a direct reaction to that. I actually really dislike acid techno. I'm just not into it at all. I find it very fucking boring and really played out, but that sounded like a fantastic record. After it there were all of these bad clones for a year, and I was like, "Ah here we go, I've seen this before," which is the same thing that happened with drum & bass.
I mean, Dillinja's records… he went from "The Angels Fall" or "Silver Blade" and stuff like that to just becoming fucking joke music. I'd seen it happen with drum & bass, and that's one of the things that really started to turn me off the entire scene. I just dislike cheese in any way. I can't get my head around it; it's not something that I have any affinity with. So I'm not really a party tracks sort of producer.
But you are as a DJ?
Yeah, but not cheesy. I like music that makes people move, but not with any cheesy element to it.
And you said before you never really felt like you were a part of drum & bass. Do you feel like you belong more to something now, or do you feel like you are still alone?
I think I definitely feel more a part of something now, mainly because I don't have any of these hangups that I was talking about before. I think that my relationship with James… even though we make separate music, we are still a kind of team, basically. We kinda look out for each other. He'll tell me if something is fucking shit and I'll do the same. I do feel like I'm part of a little unit, but I don't feel part of the scene as a whole for sure. Maybe I am and I just don't know it.
Then there's Avian and all the other stuff that you make. It doesn't all sound similar—it just sounds like you. When I listen to Commix I can't hear that, but when I listen to your solo work it all sounds like you.
I think there were elements. I was listening to "Underwater Scene" and it actually sounds a lot like a Shifted record. Maybe that's because of how I make music, for a start. I have certain techniques, and I learned stuff while doing drum & bass that carried over—use of samples is one. I've gone on and on about grain and texture and stuff like that, but I also like pitching stuff down far more than it should be pitched, when you get all these little artifacts that create these weird textures. I'll make a pad sound, and then I'll end up making it four octaves down, filtered to death. It's not even really there in the end—it's just adds to this mesh of texture, and that's something we used to do with drum & bass.
In terms of stuff like "How You Gonna Feel," it couldn't be more different, but that was 100% down to George's musicality. I enjoyed doing those records, but they're something I could never have ever done on my own in a million years. He had a really good ear for bending samples and turning them into something new, so I think I took that on board and found ways of turning it into something that I could do. Something entirely unmusical.
Do you think your music is unmusical?
Yeah. I've written a couple of things that I think have some kind of emotive quality to them but definitely unmusical—a distinct lack of melody. Mainly because I'm just not capable of doing that. I think the most musical thing I've done would be this little seven-inch that came with the first Covered In Sand record, which was very heartfelt. It's one of these things I did at four in the morning, with the lights down and the candles on and just me on a synth. I just put it through pedals, and it was a one-take thing, and one of the few things that I still listen to now. I feel very proud of it and I have no idea how I was actually capable of doing that. I've tried to recreate it, and I've never come close, ever.
Is that unmusical quality something you look for in music that you listen to as well?
I think that being too musical can be a hindrance when it comes to being artistic. I think when you're musically trained you have all these ideas about right and wrong and, certainly with techno, sometimes the right thing is completely musically wrong. If you look at some of the L.I.E.S. stuff, these live hardware jams which have become very popular over the last couple of years, it's full of mistakes and things that are totally wrong musically. But that's what makes it interesting.
Your music has gotten more abstract over time. How did that happen?
It's changed completely. When I first started it was like 100% software, like with… what the fuck is my first album called?
Crossed Paths, yeah. [laughs] That was entirely on my MacBook Pro basically.
And it sounded like it, too—not in a bad way. It just sounds like software.
Yeah, it's got this digital sheen over the whole thing. It's quite hi-fi. After that I started using hardware. I've got into modular synthesis recently—like everyone else has [laughs]—which I use as just another way to process things. I think since I started using hardware, my productivity has halved, but I'm having more fun writing music, and that enables me to actually carry on doing it and feel like it's worthwhile.
Going back to what we were talking about at the beginning, obviously you've made a name for yourself as Shifted and proven that it's genuine. Do you still worry about the association with Commix and your past work at all, or are you over that now?
I think I'm over it. I didn't want to have this anonymous techno producer bollocks. It's the most played-out thing, wearing the fucking mask. It's just dumb. But for me it was very practical. I just wanted to know if I could be accepted and if I was capable of doing something that was artistically valid, and I hope I've proved that now.
It just doesn't matter to me now if people know what I did beforehand, but it really did to start off with. I was really adamant to begin with. I was like,"I'm never going to say it, I'm never going to say it." But now enough time has passed. You know, I've put out my second album. Most people know already anyway, and if people want to go back and listen to what I've done before and see if they can make any kind of connection between that and what I do now, that's an interesting thing. But generally when I'm travelling, most people are like, "Ah, so you used to do drum & bass stuff as well." Everyone seems to know. It's ridiculous to try and keep it a secret anymore.