A Playing Favourites, then, was always going to be eclectic, and yet I still got more than I bargained for. Speaking to the restless UK artist over a cup of chai in Berlin, I chipped away at the music of his childhood and his Warp initiation via a series of cool and decidedly uncool records.
This is probably the first time in the series that Nirvana has been brought to the table.
Is it a guilty pleasure? No, it's not. I think Nirvana are amazing. It's quite an obvious first band that you like; a band that wasn't metal but was still loud and aggressive. And I just remember the beat from that track, trying to play it every week. It starts with this bar of amazing drums. It's pretty techno-y, really.
So you had a drum kit?
No, there was this orchestra that I was in, and I used to practice every week. I didn't actually have my own kit, I had practice pads because we lived in a terrace house so I couldn't make any noise.
Wait, you played Nirvana in this orchestra?
No, it was after—I played the violin in the orchestra, which is a bit less cool. I wasn't very good. I just never practiced violin but I found it quite easy to practice drums. It was the first instrument I gave any time to. I just couldn't get into violin at all.
Why this particular track?
It's all about the drums in this track. It's actually quite cheesy but really satisfying as well. I think it's because it's Steve Albini's production. He just makes it really thick and rich.
How old are you at this point?
And were they one of your first favourite bands?
No, not at all. I'm not a fan of everything they do. But they were the first band that weren't—I always find the imagery surrounding metal a bit shit and a bit testosterone-fuelled, and I guess grunge was the cooler version of that. Like all the singers were slightly effeminate and the lyrics were trippy and weird. It still sounded really aggressive but wasn't so clichéd and didn't smell like Lynx deodorant the way that metal does.
That's Steve Albini's pet band. He produced Nirvana and hundreds of bands. The way he mics up drum kits is amazing, it just sounds so huge. Shellac's his band and they use—I can't really describe it—just amazing angular riffs. I find them really catchy. "Watch Song" is just Steve Albini shouting, "Hey man, hey man, hey, I wanna have a fight with you man. I want to have a fight with you man."
Does it have any personal resonance with you? Were you an aggy teen?
Yeah, I was a right bruiser. No, not at all. Probably that's why I quite liked it, I could just live out the fantasy. It's just very aggressive music, confrontational, and I love that—but in a very cathartic kind of way. And it's so satisfying, even though it's quite ugly—it's really distorted and quite ugly—there's something about it, a sort of warmth in the production that draws you in.
Could this be one of your favourite bands then?
Yeah definitely, although I got their new one and I wasn't into it that much.
Did you ever see them live?
No, never, but I don't really go to gigs. I should, probably. I find I never have the time. I buy loads of music. And listen to it. But gigs—this is going to sound lame—I like hearing the vision of the producer more than I like hearing the music that I know is being compromised (or what I see as being compromised) by bad acoustics. I've never seen a gig that quite lived up to the record—apart from Tool, when I was really young.
This has to be a sentimental choice.
I remember it was the first cassette single I bought, I would have been nine. It's kind of a gross song on many levels. The production is so sickly sweet, it just sounds like a shampoo advert but in a good way, a good shampoo advert. It sounds so fresh and lively, and the lyrics are really good—for a pop song. Now it's really old. I'm sure I still have it. Because I've played it so much it sounds really worn out, and I love that.
Would you still listen to Duran Duran now?
I'd listen to that song, but I'm not really a fan of any of their other stuff. So that's just got a very strong childhood memory, hearing it when it was in the charts on the Chart Show.
Was pop your first love?
Yeah totally. Prince, Public Enemy—they weren't really pop, but—I still love them both now, although the new Prince album I couldn't really get into at all. Don't know why—too many guitars? Sounds like there's about 30 guitars in every bar of music [laughs].
What turned you on to electronic music?
It would have been early rave music. The Black Dog album on Warp, Bytes, was the first thing I bought. So basically Warp and jungle, happy hardcore and gabber. I remember DJ Loftgroover's Dreamscape cassettes. His tapes were hilarious; just raves with MCs who sounded like they were on crack shouting over it.
This is an absolute weapon. Tell me about this and the No U-Turn crew.
They were associated with Ed Rush. That was around the time I started producing, and I read an interview with Nico about not really liking his mixdowns stemmed out—where you can have all the parts on different channels. He was into this really grimy thing of putting everything through one shit box so that it sounds really grotty. And that's totally that track; it's so raw. But the production is huge on it, really chunky.
That track just rolls, you can listen to it again and again. I had it on this morning for about an hour just looped on YouTube. It's quite druggy as well. If you played that to kids now I don't think they'd get it. It's a different kind of atmosphere, antagonistic and quite subversive.
I just didn't know how it was made at all. I remember finding out—I thought it was a drum machine, I didn't know what samples were—and having my mind blown. It seemed so technically advanced, whereas now everyone is just completely blasé about it, it's just part of everyone's language, but it wasn't back then. I was the only one making music out of my friends, really. Everyone just thought it was a weird thing to be into.
Was that a typical attitude where you grew up?
St Albans is a really dull, conservative place. It's just a home counties, typically banal suburb of England. It makes you really impatient just to do something else.
How did you find out about this music?
There was one record shop called Boxer Records, and there was a local DJ called DJ Ricochet. I remember my friend shouting "DJ Ricoshit" at him whilst he was playing [laughs]. Poor guy. He was a nice guy.
I was listening to some other No U-Turn records before. There's this one Nico & Trace track called "Cells" that stood out as having this kind of dilapidated quality to it, just sounding a bit wrong.
That's my favourite thing with music: when it tries to say something beyond what the medium can take. Music is always a sort of approximation of the original idea that you have in your head. It's never going to live up to that, so it's interesting to hear music that sort of struggles with itself a bit, that is a bit wrong. To me, it's a lot more exciting.
That's another one I've had on loop. It sounds like an angry dog—a cute one [laughs]. I like nearly all of his stuff, and I bought all of it, but that one particularly stands out. It sounds like it's got a sample from an old '90s gangster film. For me, that's the music I want to hear when I go out. Similarly to that Nico & Trace track, it's a bit ugly. It's not vanilla in any way at all.
For me it sounds so British, it's got this discernable bolshy bass sentiment to it.
It's got swagger. And it's so aggressive. In some ways it's quite a male track but my girlfriend loves it. She's more into that than clean techno that's meant to be a bit "sexy sexy." I think it's because there's loads of funk in it, and it's very danceable. I can't dance at all but it makes me wanna dance.
This is off his new album, The Church, which came out on Brainfeeder last month. Listening to it, it does seem to have a more US flavour to it than his previous stuff.
But he always brings his own production to it. All of his tracks seem to pulse and breathe. He's just got a real grasp of rhythm and funk, Mr Oizo, and his arrangements are always really weird. He uses quite cheap source material, I think he just does it all on a laptop, and I like that that's pretty punky. He doesn't put equipment on a pedestal. And he doesn't put his ideas on a pedestal. He'll use anything and make it art, whereas a lot of people hide behind equipment and high concepts. Mr Oizo uses almost cartoonish forms and makes them fucking brilliant, I think.
This particular track reminded me of early Jackson & His Computer Band, through a wobbly US filter. I have to admit I wasn't massively into it.
Maybe that wasn't his best track to choose.
Why did you choose it?
It reminds me of another one he did called—his track titles are amazing as well—"PEEHURTS," which has amazing programming in it. Again, it sounds like it's falling apart.
Have you ever met him?
Yeah I met him. He said he liked my music and then slapped me on the back. So I said I liked his music too and slapped him back on the back, and that was it. It was just before he DJ'd, and apparently when he plays he turns up two minutes before and just leaves straight away, which I think is pretty don. He doesn't get caught up in partying. I couldn't do that; I've got too much adrenaline after I've played.
When I interviewed Cristian recently it became obvious that he was a pretty stringent studio artist, very precise about his productions. What drew you to "Spectral Transgression" in particular?
Good shuffle. It's got a swing to it and I didn't expect it. It kinda drops, but not in a Skrillex way. I love it when music exceeds your expectation. It starts with a staccato-like, choppy thing, which I really love and I thought, "This is enough for me now," but then it drops and carries on layering and progressing. And it's effortless. It delivered more than enough.
He's also quite a concept-driven artist. Are you at all?
No, not really. I can be but I quite like that thing of music always defying your expectations. Like, if you start up with a concept it seems that if you deviate from that path you might perceive that as a failure, whereas I see all those deviations as successes, in a way. If you start something with a concept and end up making something completely different that you like even more, that to me is real success.
This new record of mine, I knew it was going to be released in winter, so it's definitely a "wrap up warm" type of album—if that makes sense. But that is as far as I'm willing to reveal things because it's not about my intentions, it's about what other people feel when they listen to it. So any concept I might have, someone else might have something completely different, which is more valid in a way.
He's an obvious choice; he's ubiquitous. Again, like Oizo, he uses cheap forms, almost cartoon-level samples of horns blowing, honkytonk piano riffs, but he just brings something to it that's so fresh. And he can make stuff swing like no one else. He just had perfect ears; his mixes are so colourful and balanced. There's a streamlined resourcefulness to his music, very good use of minimal materials. I prefer all the instrumentals, weirdly enough.
Apparently he used to spend five hours just listening to 808 kicks on their own—to me, that sounds like a good afternoon's work. I do the same with claps. I haven't written music in a while because I have been promoting the album, and it's driving me a bit nuts not being able to tinker. I hate it actually. It makes me feel really unsettled. So I wanna get back to listening to claps, for five hours. That'll be my concept album: Journey To The Centre Of The Handclap [laughs].
I'm surprised that you didn't select a Warp record for your picks. If you had to choose a favourite artist who would it be?
It has to be Broadcast because it's separate from what I do, it's not electronic. Whenever I hear electronic music, because I understand it and have my own take on it, I always feel like, "I wouldn't have done that, I wouldn't have made that decision." So I find it hard to say this is my favourite electronic album. That's what being a musician is, you're just making a series of decisions—that's a very cold way to put it, it's not just that, but it is essentially a decision-making process—and I very rarely hear anything that makes me go, "Oh yeah, I would have done that exactly the same way." So I always feel a bit in competition with it, or a bit antagonistic towards it.
From the outside Warp appears to be quite a family affair. Is that how it feels for you?
I'm really good friends with Bibio but we don't make similar work. It's not really like that, it's not a family.
How did you become part of the non-family family then?
I sent them tapes, back in the days of tapes. They were pretty bad but they got better. They were deliberately bad. When I started making music I basically wanted to make soft porn awfulness, as a joke. I found it really amusing to write tracks with cheesy solos in them. I didn't want to do anything that was at all fashionable; I just wanted to make myself laugh, fundamentally. Then I got really into more melodic stuff, serious music, and just started to send them demos.
The first album got made really quickly, probably in about three weeks, compared to this latest one, which was four months. Because I just had an Atari, you couldn't save tracks. If you made something you had to record it then and there, then that was the track and it was done. It was a really nice way of working, actually. I still work like that now occasionally. But it's nice to have the option to go both ways.
A friend of mine recently got married, and I just remember having a really stonking hangover the next day listening to that track about six times in a row in my hotel room and feeling immediately better. It's like medicine. It sounds like a slowed-down kraut rock beat; it's so angry and really detuned. You know what I was saying about Dilla having perfect balance? This is almost the opposite—it sounds like a load of broken toys.
I'm noticing patterns here of you listening to "broken" things, and music on repeat. You don't just listen to anything once.
No, I gorge on it. With my album, all of the tracks I chose I just gorged on, everyday. When writing music, I've always got about 20 different versions of a track and they'll just go into iTunes. The ones I listen to the most generally get released. Then when it's done, I never listen to it at all. I can't do that. I know people that do and I find it weird. Once something's done I don't want to hear it again, I want to move forward.