Micay has staged quite a comeback since then. Falling in love with trance and progressive house, he's moved from post-dubstep to something resembling prog, and has inked a multi-record deal with Will Saul's Aus Music, one of the UK's most prominent dance labels. With more 12-inches on the way, a trove of ambient tracks he's itching to release and an upcoming live show based on the classic anime film Akira, the new phase of Bwana's career looks set to eclipse the first.
I stop by Micay's childhood home on a bitterly cold Toronto day. While he makes me a cup of tea in his family's cozy Casa Loma house, he tells me about his plans to relocate to Berlin. He's been living at his parents' home for the past year or so, after making a deal with them that would allow him rent-free time to get his musical career back on its feet. His hours have been well spent, but a city like Toronto—with a dwindling number of venues and few reliable parties—isn't the best place for a rising house and techno producer, especially one with a developing identity like Bwana's.
Micay takes me to his spacious bedroom studio. It looks like a time capsule from his teens: the room is painted robin egg blue and adorned with posters from dubstep's peak era and classic rock staples like The Doors and Pink Floyd (there's also a receipt for Micay's first-ever alcohol purchase taped to the wall). By looking over the posters from left to right, you can trace Micay's musical history. It did, after all, start in this room around 2007.
"In grade 12, my friend Andrew gave me a mixtape that just said 'Big Beats' on it—I probably still have it over there," Micay says. "I didn't know it at the time but it was all Dillinja, and the two tracks that really stood out were 'Gangster' and 'Listen To My Flow.' At that time, I was really getting into weightlifting, so I'd listen to it on repeat, like constantly. I moved to Israel for a bit after I finished high school, and while I was there I happened upon a club that was playing Digital Mystikz. I didn't know what it was, but eventually I came home and Andrew had gotten into all that stuff while I was gone. He was playing 'Ancient Memories' when I came into his room and I was like, 'Oh my god!'"
These were some of Micay's first brushes with electronic music. He was reared on a diet of rock, country and bluegrass. He points me to a banjo in the corner of his room, sat among a number of other instruments.
"I can play it for you if you want," he says with a laugh. "Bluegrass and country... it wasn't so much the singing, just the syncopation, and the way they were able to make rhythms without drums. Like the mandolin—sometimes it's a melodic instrument, but a lot of times it's the thing keeping the rhythm, along with someone else stamping their foot. You can make such a full sound with four instruments. When I first started doing my stuff, I had like eight sounds but the same sort of idea—you collage them together and it's this whole synergy.
"I got into it because I used to go backpacking out west quite a bit. There were a lot of guys out there, nature type people, who liked country. Then I just started going to the country equivalent of RA at the time, which existed at least for bluegrass. I think bluegrass is as close a tight-knit community as you're going to get for music. People were sharing mixtapes, and there were reviews of live shows and stuff."
Following his return from Israel, Micay moved to Kingston, Ontario, where he attended Queens University for a bachelor's degree in history. He had a hard time finding people interested in the same music there, but he used the quieter period to do as much research as he could, digging through the Rinse FM archives before getting Ableton in second year. After a few months of teaching himself, Micay uploaded some tracks to YouTube. By August, he had an agent.
"I put a few tracks on the internet, including "Baby Let Me Finish" in August, eight months after I had gotten Ableton," Micay explains. "I went to Peru on a family vacation, came back and I had an email from Mad Decent. I had emails from Rob Da Bank, Gilles Peterson's assistant... all these emails. This was all crazy to me!"
The early Bwana material had a lot in common with acts like Sepalcure, taking the rhythmic structures of dubstep and garage and dressing them with bright, ornate sounds. Micay's work had a romantic sense of melody—I compared his Over & Done EP for Infinite Machine to a soap opera—and he has a talent for crafting melodies out of percussive sounds (and vice versa), meaning there was always a good hook at the heart of his music.
Just before the hubbub began, Micay had applied to go on a university exchange to the UK, where most of the music he loved at the time was coming from. He was set up for gigs upon arriving in Leeds, and things were looking up. And following his 2012 release on Mad Decent, he even secured a tour with Skrillex.
"My agent was like, 'You just got an offer to tour Italy with Skrillex.' I kept it a secret because at that time I was still very much like, 'I hate Skrillex, he ruined dubstep,' whatever. I had opened for Zeds Dead a few times in Toronto and it had gone over pretty well playing Mala and Pinch and whatnot, so I thought, 'OK, I can do that in Italy.' It did not go well. The first night we were in Milan, 5,000 people, I just started getting booed, people threw stuff at me. I would play Objekt's 'Cactus' and get a full bottle of water at my head, and people started cheering, doing the 'Ole Ole' song. It was terrible."
Flying debris aside, it was all going well until one afternoon when he decided to cut through a park on the way home from school.
"The way Leeds is designed, there's students in this area called Headingley, then there's this big park, and then the school," Micay says. "You can either go through the park or go around the park, which takes like 20 minutes. I was coming from the library on Halloween, about 4:30 or 5 PM—not dark yet. I was just walking along and I got a pipe in the back of the head. I didn't know what was going on, then I got knocked out cold. They took my iPod and my wallet and my phone. I know it was a pipe because later that night more people were coming in with the same thing, and over the next two weeks there were about 40 attacks on boys and on girls. Some people got much worse than me, there were screwdrivers, it was a whole thing.
"This was my ninth concussion," he goes on, "so I was really out of commission. After that I couldn't make music for a very long time. I was getting migraines, and they only started to subside in fourth year. My manager started to lose patience, which is fair enough because I wasn't making anything."
Micay decided to take a year off music and finish his degree. But as dance music scenes on both side of the Atlantic moved from dubstep towards house and techno, Micay made "Flute Dreams," which hinted at his newfound interest in progressive house—a quality that would come to set him apart from his peers.
"With prog house it seemed like the same thing as with bass music. They take weird elements, make melodies out of toms and stuff, these over-the-top rhythms and vocals and chords and ridiculous basslines. It's all the same sort of thing, and a lot of it is at 135 BPM, so it's a tempo I could relate to, whereas a lot of the deep house stuff I just find so slow and boring."
Once he was back home in Toronto, Micay called up his friend Brian Wong, AKA Gingy, to teach him how to do proper mixdowns. Wong was so excited by "Flute Dreams" that he helped finish it, sending it on to his friend Martyn who wanted to sign it immediately.
"I had written a list with the goals I wanted by 2014," Micay tells me. "I wanted to release on either Vase, 3024 or Aus. I'm just like that. I have to make lists. I've got a whole book of lists right over there. So I was freaking out—like, 3024!"
Micay had difficulty delivering other tracks that satisfied Martyn's vision for an EP. He wrote upwards of 45 potential songs before finally coming up with one that fit. He also sent the material to Midland, who offered to put out a white label if Micay couldn't find anywhere else to put it. But then ST Holdings, the distributor that both Martyn and Midland used, collapsed and ruined everything.
"I was completely distraught," Micay admits. "I didn't talk to anyone for about two weeks. I was like, 'I'm never going anywhere. I'm wasting my life.' I had so much music left it was ridiculous."
One morning in 2013, Micay's manager told him that Sasha had played "Flute Dreams" in his Essential Mix. It turns out Micay had absentmindedly sent the track to James Zabiela, who hadn't responded but seemingly passed it to his friends. Digweed was the next big DJ to play it, and then Sasha asked to sign a Bwana EP to his Last Nite On Earth label. The attention from one of his heroes excited Micay, but he thought the label might not be the best fit. Trying to think of other suitable DJs to send his music to, he thought of Will Saul and Scuba. Saul liked "Flute Dreams" and wanted to hear more.
"I remember everyone started saying there was a trance revival, and then I got fucking worried," Micay laughs. "I thought, 'Ah shit, I'm gonna be like a bandwagoner,' even though I'd been making this shit for a year-and-a-half at that point. I still thought my stuff was very different though, because all that revival stuff is very clean, where I try to replicate the dirtiness of it. I have about 120 songs written over the last 14 months, but they're all over the place. I've got Berghain techno, I've got stuff like 'Baby Let Me Finish,' and then the Akira thing."
From what he shows me, he's not lying. He's got pounding techno, gentle deep house and decadent trance. He's also got ambient material that blooms and swells with the same majesty as his most melodic dance tracks. As he flips through his iTunes and plays clips, it's clear that Micay is the type of producer who can pull off pretty much anything he tries. And no matter what he's trying, there's always that ear for hooks that's been driving his work since the beginning.
That "Akira thing" is the latest chapter in Micay's story. The idea first popped into his head when the Akira soundtrack was reissued on vinyl. He initially just made a few edits with it, but soon his for-fun project became more and more ambitious. Eventually he was feeding the audio of the entire film through Ableton, taking samples and snippets of speech, and making an album almost entirely sourced from the movie but in Bwana's typical style. He's calling it Return To Neo-Tokyo. The album is getting a live show, too, complete with visuals from his brother and cosplay costumes from a friend in Toronto.
With so much music on the way and a completely checked to-do list, Bwana's next goal is to figure out how to make a manageable living, so he can finally make that move out of his parents' house.
"I'm in a weird place at the moment because I have so much music from so many genres," he says. "I have three ambient EPs I'm ready to release. I've got two techno EPs I'm ready to release. I have an EP of 'Baby, Let Me Finish' style stuff I could give out for free. I even have a deep house EP that I'm not going to release. I've got one album ready to go, and then I've got these Aus EPs ready. At this point I just want to cultivate a way of making this a career. I toured like crazy in 2012, and I look at it as Bwana 1.0. This is like Bwana 2.0. I'm ready to go, I just want to get out there and play, make this thing. I've been sitting in my room too long writing music. I've got enough music to last me years. I'm just ready to go."