It started with "Croydon House," a landmark 2010 release on Swamp 81 that led me to speak with him about dubstep's then-ongoing transformation. "Croydon House" signalled an interest in house and techno, but not in a familiar sense—this was hard-swung, broken-beat stuff inspired by peak-era Metalheadz. From there, Ellis took Tectonic (and Cold Recordings, which started last year to highlight new producers) down an increasingly idiosyncratic path, veering away from the house obsessions of his peers and avoiding classicist tendencies.
In addition to releasing an EP with one of his heroes, Adrian Sherwood, most recently Ellis has found a powerful partner in Jack Adams, AKA Mumdance. The two have produced a bumper crop of tunes together, starting with this year's barreling "Turbo Mitzi." Their music sounds like little else out there, with Pinch's dark and paranoid tones wrapping around Adams' fractured rhythms to create something that feels as claustrophobic as it is funky. Their style was best showcased on this summer's excellent Pinch B2B Mumdance mix CD, which blends dance floor destruction and unbridled experimentation with the same fervor that defined dubstep at its peak.
When we met recently in Bristol, Ellis spoke philosophically about his career over a few pints, frankly discussing his place in dance music, the detribalization of UK scenes and his ongoing search for the balance between extremes.
When did you first decide to move away from straight 140 BPM dubstep stuff?
Historically, I did have a little dabble—there was a 130 [BPM] tune on my album, and I did a couple of bits on Planet Mu that were 176. The first real one was "Croydon House." If I'm gonna backtrack it, just before that, I had this period as a [fabric] Room Three DJ, playing a little bit of all sorts. I'd mix up Basic Channel dub techno records with grime records and garage records. I'd leave one Basic Channel tune running for 15 minutes and mix it in and out.
There was already a little bit of movement of dubstep guys going over to housier things—"Croydon House" was just an attempt to make a Metalheadz sound in a house format. That was my thing. And not long after that, I pretty much stopped making dubstep beats. One of the last ones was called "Blow Out The Candle"—the clue is in the title [laughs]. There was this sort of fresh momentum around then, not necessarily an entirely new sound, but with the likes of Night Slugs and Swamp, it definitely felt like a mutation, which I always assumed was going to come to darker, logical conclusions. And it seemed to go the other way, it got more jolly, more happy and less… different.
I still play a bit of dubstep in my sets. It'll vary from place to place, sometimes it's very little, sometimes it's a bit more. But the tunes I'm getting excited about cutting are all in this 126 to 128 bracket. There's a few 140 bits that slip through the net that are still pretty tasty, but I guess it's a simple case of too much of a good thing. I need a little space from it. I'll probably be sick of house-tempo stuff in three or four years, maybe even making dubstep again, or hopefully something else altogether.
As someone who is often credited with helping to invent dubstep, did you feel ownership over it when it was changing and taking off in the US?
Definitely. I had a very grumpy spell about the whole thing. I think if it just had a different name it wouldn't have bothered me, cause it's kinda polluted the name dubstep. But at the same time, nothing lasts forever. Loefah was quite an inspiration to me on that side of things. I started conversations with him, and he wasn't very happy with dubstep for a little while, probably for longer than I was. There was definitely a bit of a sense of, "I know the Americans have run off with the ball, they're changing the rules without telling us, it's now a different game that we are playing," that sort of thing.
I always felt a degree of separation. It's not the fact it was popular that bothered me—it was just that it was a small aspect of a bigger picture and no one else was interested in looking at the rest of the picture. I think that's been changing in the last year or two. In America there's a new generation of kids making a deeper sound and taking a committed stance to that aesthetic. Which is admirable, but annoying for me because it feels like five or six years too late for my own personal interests [laughs].
I think it's more important to stay inspired and moving, and that's what I'm trying to do. Just keeping myself interested in it all. When you spend several years, every weekend, getting knackered, travelling up and down the country, around the world—it's great, I'm not trying to make it sound like a miserable job, I love it—but you've got to find a way to keep yourself enthused about it, because it's very easy to just fall into: "Alright, these tunes work, I'll keep playing these ones," and you become detached from what you do. So it doesn't really matter to me too much what the form is—it's just different grooves, different tempos. You can find different ways of expressing it.
For me it's about that dark rush on the dance floor, the kind of energizing sensation which you very much got in the early dubstep days. Almost like an ecstasy rush that's a bit too heavy, you know, when it's a bit too much rather than a gentle, flowing thing. I can even remember back in those early days talking with Martin Clark about the early DMZ. I remember very specifically saying to him, "What is it, Martin? This music is so dark but makes me so happy!" I don't think dark music necessarily has to be evil or gloomy, it can still be energizing. And I think that's the chase for me in what I'm trying to release or DJ. I mean, you obviously have to add some dynamics, you can't just have one idea replicated over and over again.
How do you keep yourself interested in dance music when it's your whole career?
A big part of it is not listening to too much music. After a few years of listening to so many demos, you oversaturate yourself and you realize a lot of producers out there are over-reiterating the same ideas. For example, the half-step beat: I got to a point where I was sick of hearing more and more of the same half-step beats. And that took away the excitement from what was basically a fucking really good beat! It was like that in dubstep for a while.
It's interesting with someone like Mumdance, for example, working with him, because he just listens to music constantly, he's a total sponge for it. He's got a lot of knowledge about a lot of things, but he's also got a lot of gaps that are more in my territories. He's just sort of getting his head around Tresor at the moment and all that stuff. "Why the fuck haven't I checked out Tresor before!" And he's always sending me stuff, too. I find there is a balance between listening to new and interesting things, but also being in the right frame of mind. Things can skew your perspective. If I'm listening to hundreds of demos where people try to sound like Boddika or something, that gets boring but at the same time it doesn't necessarily mean that you should abandon some of those ideas yourself.
I always used to do this thing where I'd be reacting like, "Right, where is my space?" And sometimes that's not the best way to approach things. The exciting thing is when younger kids come through in the scene and they just don't think about these things. They start pulling in influences and sounds that you may have considered cheesy, because they're sitting in a certain context in your own mind. But if you don't have those walls, then what comes out can be a lot more natural. It's a hard balance to achieve.
So you tried to stop worrying about where you belong, so to speak?
I think I've never really sat in a very comfortable place. A lot of my dubstep records were not particularly danceable. But they're also designed to be heard amplified. So it has always been a bit of a contradiction on that side of things. I made a couple of bangers like "Swish" and "The Boxer," but I'm never too worried whether it's sitting in with other stuff. At the moment I'm trying to crystallize some sense of solidarity around sonic ambition.
A lot of the language used in setting the context for this mix with Mumdance recently has been associated with proto-jungle—we've expressed an ambition for it rather than necessarily saying, "Look here's a new genre, call it what you like." It's a movement towards a fresher space that has a slightly different collection of influences. And I think that's an exciting point, where there are no obvious boundaries. There's always a delicate balance between having a sense of definition of a sound—which allows a community to form more easily around it—and the negative consequences of boxing in a sound. So for me it's freewheeling in an interesting direction. And as long as it keeps heading in that direction I'm not too worried about it.
Do you feel like there is a community building around the new stuff you're making?
I do, simply because I can tell from certain tunes that get sent to me. Even with Tectonic, I don't even really get dubstep so much anymore. And I think that's good, cause people understood that things have changed a little bit. Any strong idea in dance music attracts a gravity around it. I feel like there is a sense of attraction and gravity that's starting to build on this. People I've never heard of are coming in, sending me tunes and I'm like, "This fits in." This is just happening organically. And that's the only way it can ever happen, in my opinion.
Obviously the music is changing and you also have a new label, but why does Tectonic keep going? What is Tectonic now?
It's my little baby, and it always will be. We have a massive catalogue of releases, 17 or 18 albums, so it's not something I could say goodbye to. Tectonic is always going to be the mothership for me, the closest to my heart, because it's been on a long journey with me so far already. And for a credible, underground, dark dance music label to move forward you've got to not just bend with the times, but hopefully bend the times. That's the aim of it.
There is definitely a lot of overlap between Cold and Tectonic at the moment. But Tectonic will be increasingly detached from tempo boundaries, if I get my way with it. It's difficult because people still strongly associate that kind of deep, dark dubstep sound with the label, which I don't really intrinsically have a problem with, as long as you're willing to keep your ears open to who else is coming out. I can understand how the label built a loyal fan base, and you can't expect your fan base to just change their taste in music overnight. You've got to kind of try to bend them in the direction.
Do you feel like you've lost some relevance over the course of the larger transition going on in dance music?
Maybe. You've also got to be realistic. The label has been running nearly ten years so a lot of people just get in and out of dance music in general in that period of time. I don't know how relevant it is to some of the younger listeners, for example. I mean, there are some people—Facta, he's only like 21, I was quite impressed when hanging out with him in New York. His knowledge is pretty solid, he knows some really obscure tunes.
Why start a new label and keep on with Tectonic at the same time?
Let me put it like this: every release on Cold (apart from myself) has all been [that artist's] first or second release. And they're all younger; Batu is 19 or 20, Acre is young, Ipman has been doing stuff on a dubstep tip and this is an outlet for his more techno variations. And I felt it would help set a new context for things to grow around that, so things that grow from Cold will also feed back into Tectonic, ultimately. Tectonic is still associated with the deep, dark dubstep thing. It's gonna take a little while to shake that and I don't even necessarily want to, but with Cold there are no boundaries, cause it's a new thing and it can just grow. It might fold into a little box down the line.
Do you find it hard starting a new label without the name recognition of Tectonic?
Yes and no. The absence of that is what makes it exciting, even if you don't really know what you're getting into. It's too easy to slip into certain habits, whether it's the way you make tunes or the way you DJ. For example, this year I did my first live set and I was very nervous about it, but I kind of enjoyed feeling nervous about something again. You know, stepping out to the decks—I've done it so much, I don't ever get nervous. I missed that nervous energy.
Cold is very different from Tectonic—we don't have a distributor, we're trying to mainly sell direct and the simple reason for that is the shrinking vinyl market. But I also think it helps in building a community around the label. I want people to feel attached and part of it. And I don't think that's so easy to do with Tectonic. I'm also trying to encourage direct sales and little things on the side, extra freebies here and there. With Cold we only sell to a few shops direct and these are the shops have we have respect for—your Hard Wax, your Boomkat, your Idle Hands. There's only a few actual record shops where you can get it. And I like that. I wanted it to be more of an effort for people to obtain, to come and interact with the label a bit more directly.
It's almost like a co-op kind of thing.
Not as far as that. I just don't have enough time and resources to do all the things that I'd like to do. But I'd like to build more of a direct community around the label, where producers are linking up as a result. Whether it be through interest in the sound or just a place, a space—I guess that's kind of like a tribalized connection. I think that's something that's missing from dance music at the moment. It's never been so detribalized, ever, and you can hear that in the sonics of generic electronic dance music, EDM—I call it GEDM.
There's a big difference between those people that cherry-pick sounds here and there saying, "OK, that was a massive tune and the bassline sounds like that, I can use that and glue it together and—bang." While I was growing up, kids who were into jungle didn't really hang out with kids who were into techno. Which had its negative aspects as well, but that sense of tribalization, that sense of belonging can also provide a very important backbone to the scene. One of the massively overlooked factors in a dance music scene is its audience. The reason why early dubstep worked is because it had a particular audience that was not just open to new sounds, but really thirsty for something.
Do you feel like there's less community in UK dance music than there was in the early dubstep days?
Oh yeah, definitely. And I think that kind of house-flavored revolution in the UK… I mean it's so funny—it's been in Europe for years, who gives a shit, it's just more house and techno! It was almost like the dubstep generation missed house music entirely. It became a fresh and interesting thing, but it wasn't like that for everyone everywhere. And what I see when I have to go to bigger raves is that it's a very detribalized scene. And I'm not saying it's a bad thing, it's just a different thing, whereas something like dubstep, or jungle, had a very core aesthetic which organically extended beyond the music. I don't feel like there's much of a cultural aesthetic that extends from this kind of newer house. But then I'm also getting older, I'm not out at the clubs all the time, so I don't know if that's a true reflection.
But, in some sense, isn't the stuff you're making—especially with Mumdance—taking ideas from different things as well?
I think there's a difference between cherry-picking ideas and bringing in influences. For instance, the "Turbo Mitzi" tune that we did, I think that's a good example of expanding on the jungle aesthetics. There's no breakbeats in there, there's no amen—it captures the mood without actually using the ingredients directly.
How did you meet Mumdance?
First time I met him was a few years ago when we were on different musical paths. There was a rave in a car park in Bristol, part of some festival. He just came up and said hello and my girlfriend bought him a vodka and he downed it and vomited pretty much instantly. That was my first impression of Jack. And I didn't really speak or hang out with him.
Then it was a couple of years later at this Warehouse Project thing in Manchester. He said, "I've got some tunes you might be interested in," and he sent me over that first batch. Then the next batch had "Legion," that was one of my favourite tunes of last year, just a standout, killer thing. And I got chatting with him—he's a very proactive man, he's very sort of "get up and go and do things," and so he just came up to Bristol and we got on from there. The first tune we made together was "Turbo Mitzi," and we've made four or five others since. I find him very refreshing to work with because we've got different ideas about how to put things together. And it's when you meet in the middle in a way that's not a compromise, that's not like, "OK, well you can have that hi-hat if I can have that clap." It's more like, "Is that clap gonna work for both of us?" And, until it is, then it's not working.
What is it about his stuff that you find so inspiring?
Well, I mean, it's not just Mumdance, there's a lot of other stuff as well. Someone who gets left out of the picture way too often is Logos. He was a big influence on Jack. One of the most inspiring things about Jack's perspective is that there is a real genuine enthusiasm driving it and I find that infectious, a really valuable thing, it's not even necessarily about some particular exact sonic thing he's doing, or how he's making his basslines. It's about the whole picture, his whole approach, his thirst for all these different things that he's getting into and feeding off of. I think where we cross over most is the shared love for that dark sort of Metalheadz jungle period in 1992 to 1996—but it's more about his attitude.
Do you find that it rubs off on you?
I do! And I think the sound that him and Logos had on "Legion"—and a lot of other things we'd been doing around at that time—fits so much more closely with my aspiration for what that tempo should be doing. What should be coming out of the post-dubstep production world at that tempo, rather than the more salubrious house sound. You know, the complicated, moodier, disjointed grooves, with space in them as well. He has quite an interesting way of balancing very frantic rhythms with a great sense of space. It's very minimal, but at the same time it can be very frantic and energetic. And I think that's a very difficult aesthetic to get right.
Why did you do a mix to show off your work together rather than an album?
The most honest reason is that I find the album in dance music a bit of a self-contradictory thing. Because it's ultimately a layover from rock and blues and the traditional aspect of the music industry. Dance music is about continuous music presented by DJs, so I think that the more honest document is in the mix format. It's about how you work those tunes together. The idea of just listening to a straight minimal techno album, where you might have eight nine-minute tunes with two-minute intros and two-minute outros from start to finish—it's not meant to be listened to like that.
I could have done the mix myself, but I thought it was important to do it as me and Mumdance together, because when we were making tunes it felt like we were getting closer to the goal of a new, different space. We've had a few shows together, we've been DJing back-to-back and I do feel like it's exciting. I don't know what tunes he's gonna play—he keeps me on my toes! He's had a big part in influencing and creating a context around wherever this new sound might be or become.
This new sound—is it really new or is it just a logical extension of what you've been doing in the past five years?
You have to keep trying different things. You'd be a fool to think that everything you do is gonna work, but if you keep doing different things eventually you find something that does have a bit more functionality. I do think that the sound is different. It's another step in the journey, but the dangerous thing is trying to pinpoint what is the end of that journey. And it's almost a depressing and negative thing to focus on.
Going back to the early days of dubstep, for the first two years of me doing interviews, almost every single interview, you could guarantee at least one of the questions would be "What is dubstep?" or "How do you define it?" And as soon as that stopped being asked, it was a clear indication to me that it already found, maybe not an endpoint, but you know, you're looking at the horizon and you know where it is. That's creatively where it started to get a little more boring and, ironically, more famous and successful. I like the fact there is no name for this sound, there's a sense of uncertainty around it and it's still forming. Hopefully it will continue to form and mutate.
No, I don't necessarily think so—but it's more disparate. That also ties into what I was talking about earlier, about having an audience, because that's what helps focus these things. There's a lot of stuff happening around the fringes of things, and these are the same ingredients that led to dubstep forming. There was a sense of boredom coming out of relative scenes at the time. Like, OK—that's house, that's techno, that's drum & bass. They're all fairly safe and you can predict what works and functions within that context.
And it was the lack of unpredictability, the lack of mystery that comes as a result of that, having fine-tuned various genres into their natural conclusions and then just recycling those ideas. I do feel like there's a reinvigorated thirst for something different, but there's no particular thing to act as a gravity point around it. Which I could say is a double-edged sword—it's good for bringing people around a focal point, but then it isolates what else is going around outside that focal point. You get tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is good for focusing and fine-tuning ideas, but it's also bad for kind of losing yourself within that.
You've made the point about not listening to a lot of music anymore, especially promos and demos, and I think that's exactly what happened with people like Youngsta, or even drum & bass as a whole. It's like people only listen to one thing and they only make that one thing. It doesn't go anywhere.
Again, there's also a positive and a purpose in that. Without someone like Youngsta in those early days having that kind of tunnel vision to focus around a particular sound—it's very easy for us to take it for granted now, now that it's over-consumed and everyone's got a piece of it. But it was the likes of Hatcha, who had a vision around what sound worked for him, and he was able to bring together Benga, Skream, Mala, Loefah and Coki. Several years on they've all gone into different directions, but there was common ground. He was able to see that within those productions and bring them together. It's just about knowing when it's the right time and being able to be flexible, and that's not an easy thing to do. It's not easy to be aware of yourself when you're going into that kind of headspace.
There's never an easy answer to these things. The older I get and the more I like to think I've developed my perspective on life, the more I realize that whatever is true in one situation might not be true in another. Dissolving the idea of truth and absolute truth. And I think music is always a reflection of culture and a lot of unspoken understanding as well. We're not really straightforward creatures, we're very complicated creatures living in an increasingly complicated world. So there's a very impermanent sense of what is absolute and what is true.
And I think that can be very much reflected in current trends in dance music. With the internet we have so much instantly accessible content that ten or 15 years ago we didn't have. It was easier to tribalize because part of that was about making the effort to find out more about certain things. That takes a lot of time; that time has been removed from the process, and now in a generation where kids can instantly tap into the heart of various scenes with a click of a mouse button, that's quite incredible. But it has an effect on people's attention, it has an effect on the way that people consume things. And people consume things in a more flippant way. So as much as variation, experimentation and stepping outside of the typical boundaries are a good thing, equally, fine-tuning ideas and providing the context of a safe base around which people can gather, whether it's just in terms of ideas or social media even, that's also a good thing. Both things are good. It's just the balance.