The two met while Kennett was working as the label manager for Shogun Audio. Though he left shortly thereafter, the label's crossover style, pushed by inventive artists like Alix Perez and Icicle, rubbed off on SpectraSoul, who, after signing an exclusivity deal with Shogun around 2010, switched up the tempos and brought vocalists into the fold, revealing a new song-based approach.
Their 2012 debut album, Delay No More, aligned them with the long-running continuum of drum & bass artists flirting with pop, but their work felt more considered than the average session-vocalist-on-a-club-track approach. The new sound was also a good fit for the duo's polished textures and melodies. And though it had a few clunkers—along with brilliant tracks like "Light In The Dark"—Delay No More was a solid start. The wrinkles on the album were ironed out for this year's The Mistress, SpectraSoul's defining moment so far, and one of Shogun Audio's most accomplished projects. The Mistress took three years to complete, as the duo painstakingly sought the right vocalists—some new, some familiar—to match their increasingly glossy sound.
Their music shines like never before, from the glistening boom-bap of opener "Ghost Lane" through the Calibre-isms of "Always" and the stunning hooks of "More To Give," a tune whose vocal lines wind around its broken-beat stomp in an irresistibly sinuous way. Where Delay No More was comfortably a drum & bass record, The Mistress is something else, taking the 170 BPM tempo to new places, and sometimes abandoning it altogether.
Things become complicated in the live arena, where Kennett and Stevens are still expected to play straightforward drum & bass sets. SpectraSoul are popular. When I spoke with them over Skype, they had just returned from their first-ever dates in North America, including a set in Vancouver where they were so well-received that the audience sat on the floor and refused to move until they got one more tune. But for SpectraSoul playing out presents a tricky balancing act between staying true to themselves and delivering what their fans expect of them. Talking from their home base in London, Kennett and Stevens opened up about their ongoing identity crisis, their wavering interest in drum & bass, and their enduringly optimistic outlook for the future.
Dave, tell me about your relationship with Shogun Audio because I don't understand it fully.
Kennett: I've known Ed [Friction] for years and years. I used to live in a place called Portsmouth, where I ran events while I was at university. Our initial friendship came about when I booked him for one of our nights and he brought his girlfriend at the time, who is now his wife. I remember her getting on well with my girlfriend at the time—they hit it off. About a year later I moved to Brighton, and the girls wanted to hang out, so that was it. After a few months of already being in Brighton, he spoke to me and said he's got this little project that he's working on on the side. He's got a label, and he's had a couple of releases and he wants to try and get it properly moving, and would I be interested in working on the label?
I think it just started one afternoon a week, or a day a week, or something. The first release I worked on was an EP called Shogun Assassins, which had a Commix track on there and a couple of other bits. From one day, it turned into two days, and then three days and so on... Eventually we started the sister label SGN:LTD. At the time me and Jack were writing music but we didn't really know where it was going. We just were writing tunes and seeing what happened. I think, in 2006, it was—Jack do you remember how it came about?
Stevens: It's definitely an example of having an in and using it. I guess Dave and I would have had a tougher time had he not already had that relationship with Ed. The only thing I remember is playing a club show and Dave coming down to the club while I was playing and telling me that Ed wanted to sign three or four tunes that we did.
Kennett: We were the first release on SGN:TD, so it was quite a nice way for him to launch the new label and launch us into it. Eventually a guy called Kier [KT] came on board and got more involved in the business side of things. It got to the point where I had to decide whether or not I wanted to continue running a label and focus on that, or focus on writing music and becoming an artist. And I went the artist route. Then Kier took over running the label full-time.
One thing about Shogun is that it's moved towards poppier tracks and vocal tracks, which you guys have as well. Did you influence that direction at all, Dave, or was that just a natural thing that happened with the label?
Kennett: Not at all, it was just a natural thing.
Stevens: You were long out the door before that, Dave.
Kennett: I think it's not necessarily the label that has changed its sound, I think it's just more the progression of the artists, the individual artists.
Stevens: Also you can't discount the idea that if someone puts out a tune with a vocal on it and it's decent, the next time that the label bosses hear another tune with a vocal on it, and it's decent, that might sway their bias a little bit. I'm not saying that's happened. I don't know that for sure. I think there is also a lean towards more vocal music. I'd say, on the albums, there are quite a few vocals, but that's simply the nature of an album format. Like Alix [Perez]'s last album had a lot of vocals on it. Both of our albums have a lot of vocals on them.
Kennett: I'm just thinking back to my time working at the label. You could argue that there were more vocal-driven tracks, or more poppier tracks, they were just a bit more sporadic. So "Back To Your Roots," for example, that was released on Shogun in 2000 and… I don't know, whatever year. That was probably one of the poppiest vocals on the label, and that was however many years ago. I mean, before we had access to real vocalists we would always just use acapellas and samples. So for us the progression was always that when we had access eventually we started working with vocalists and real people that came to the studio. Then I guess that just develops.
Do you have similar tastes outside of drum & bass?
Kennett: We did. I think we're quite different now.
Stevens: I was definitely from more of a hip-hop background and I've slowly gotten back into that after not being particularly interested for most of my early 20s—I was just into club music. But that's where I think Dave and I differ, and I guess that's what makes it interesting because Dave's like—
Kennett:—well my initial intro to dance music, I guess, was early hardcore music. I was very much into the early rave music when I was younger, as far as influencing the sort of music that I wanted to make—jungle and drum & bass. But outside of that, even back then I never used to listen to rave or jungle in my spare time. I was always listening to other kinds of music back then, the trip-hop revolution. The Massive Attacks, and the Portisheads and the Trickys and the Airs and Rae & Christians and all that type of music. Now it's kind of matured a little bit, from folk music like Bon Iver through to… anything but drum & bass, to be honest [laughs]. Literally anything but drum & bass. I've never understood people who only listen to the music they make, it's like a very—
Stevens: —I don't think there's many people that do that.
Kennett: I don't know, you'd be surprised, honestly. Maybe not professional producers, but people always seem to be a bit amazed when you say the last thing you want to listen to is drum & bass. But maybe that's just the nature of what people think we listen to, or producers listen to. I think you can definitely hear what people are influenced by through listening to their music as well. If the music they make is true enough to themselves. For example, you can tell that Icicle is bang into techno, you know? Techno and harder club music. Perez is into sleazy hip-hop and whatever else, it's the nature of the music he makes. I guess with us it's similar, you know? There's that influence from across the board.
It strikes me that, even from the beginning, and even with your bangers, that your tracks are a lot more melodic than similar drum & bass acts.
Kennett: We've said it before but, you know, we like there to be some music in our music. Something recognizable. It doesn't have to be a dramatic riff, just something. With music you should be able to hum a track back to someone if you've heard something.
Stevens: That very much depends on your taste because some people don't want to be able to do that at all [laughs]. That's just our taste. To follow on from what Dave was saying about our influences, most of the stuff that Dave and I listen to is vocal music. From a self-indulgent standpoint, we're also just working our way around learning ourselves. So if we write something we're probably going to value that melody more than someone else might, because we've slaved at it all day and we just want to include it in the track.
I think, to slightly go against Dave's statement that we don't reference drum & bass music, some of our favourite acts that we've always been into since we first got into it, they still are a reference to us today. Calibre, obviously. Old Roni Size stuff, old Peshay stuff—that stuff all had melodies, regardless of whether it was mainstream or not. Even the old Musique Concrete Calibre album is very melodic and very musical, and that was one of the earliest things I was exposed to in drum & bass music, so I don't think it's a contrived thing, it's just the sort of music we like to make. Maybe it's a good thing and maybe it's not.
Why did you wait so long to make an album for the first time?
Stevens: It's kind of tricky. I'm trying to think how long the gap was between our last release because we had a really long period between 2006 or 2007 through to 2010 of releasing a lot of music. 2009 was probably our biggest year. After that we signed our deal with Shogun and just buckled down. It wasn't that we took our time, per se, it was more like all the music we'd written in the first three years of writing together had come out and we did a couple of singles on Shogun and thought, 'Let's just buckle down and get stuck into it.'
You said that was pretty much your first time working with vocalists in a serious way. How was that for you? Did it take much adjustment?
Stevens: It's been a learning process. We're still learning now. But probably one of the first sessions we did for the album was with Terri Walker. In the UK, she's an R&B legend, basically. I don't know how we managed to get a session with her, and I seem to remember messing up the recording through a Mackie mixer. We recorded it and had lots of white noise because we were gaining the mic signal so loud that noise from the other faders was coming through. We recorded the whole vocal like that, and I remember thinking, 'Fuck, we've just totally fucked up here.'
There's the technical side of learning how to make sure you get a good recording and there's also the other side of making people feel comfortable, and you feeling confident enough to tell someone what you want, and how to get it out of them.
Do you guys write lyrics?
Kennett: Sometimes, if we've got an instrumental with a track, we'll send it out. The vocalist will do an idea, or a demo, send it back and we might hear something that we like and just invite them down and kind of collaborate on it together.
Stevens: But that, again, is part of what I was just saying about getting what you want out of vocalists. Sometimes a vocalist can have a set of lyrics that are just not in keeping with what you're after, and you can just be there and make that change. Sometimes the vocal can come through and you like it straight away. Sometimes you get one and you hate it. On the flipside, Dave and I used to send out these fucking huge briefs to vocalists, like, massive. It must have been really intimidating—loads of reference vocalists, a big spiel about what we want and what we don't want. It's also about trust. If you work with good people, you will trust them, and sometimes that trust is rewarded and sometimes it's not.
I think the new album is the best you guys have done, and it's a lot more confident than the first album. What did you learn through making the first album that you used for the second album?
Kennett: We knew the process, although this one took a lot longer. I guess the only thing we maybe suffered, in terms of second album pain, was that our first one was basically the first bit of real noise that we'd made. And the second one we had to reinvent slightly because we didn't want to rehash the same thing.
We mastered the first album in February 2012, and the album came out in July, and between February and July we did nothing—we did a lot of playing table tennis and being in the park. Then we did this launch, kind of like a live PA, where we pulled all the tracks apart and got all the vocalists down and did a 30-to-40-minute show, which was really good fun. In the process of doing that we both decided that we wanted more of the performance element back in. So we spent loads of time making sounds and working out how to play again, playing keyboards and using machines to set up an environment where we could get more happy accidents and end up with more interesting sounds, as well as developing the palette a bit.
While we were doing that we were writing—well, a lot of the downtempo that's on the record was written in that period, because we were just faffing around making whatever we wanted. I guess it's like therapy. You take a bit of time off from writing pure drum & bass, or even thinking about tempo at all, and then once you've done that you feel ready to readdress your bread and butter, or your home tempo at 170 or whatever.
There are still quite a few drum & bass tracks on the album, but even those ones feel a little bit less club-oriented. Do you still see yourselves as dance music artists at this point?
Kennett: I've never actually thought about what we are, ever.
Stevens: We have thought about this recently because we had a long chat after our last album launch in London in May. We both love playing club shows—when they're really good. Club shows are amazing, obviously, but they're not always the best reflection of the artist, especially in our case. You play maybe 30% of your own music. I don't know whether we would be best placed as club artists. There was talk of doing a short and very cost-effective tour of this album, because the launch we did was quite fun and we had all the vocalists down and stuff. Just doing maybe five or six dates in cool venues around the UK. Maybe that would be a better representation of what we are as artists.
The problem comes when it comes down to supporting yourself, because really, you have to DJ to be able to be comfortable enough to be in the studio on weekdays. I don't know. The goal, if you do a live show, is to become a Disclosure or a Rudimental, in that dance music sphere, and that's definitely not what we're aiming to do. But that's what you'd have to get to if you wanted to be able to support yourself and be comfortable enough to be able to make your music still during the week. So DJing is sort of a means to an end.
Dave and I still love it, and we still spend a lot of time getting music together and thinking about our shows. We just did this tour of three-hour shows, and that took quite a bit of planning in terms of getting all the music together. When you go from playing an hour to 90 minutes to three hours—it might sound like a stupid moan to someone who goes to the clubs and hears DJs play eight or nine hours, which, you know, is not unheard of—but for us it was a bit of a slog just going from an hour. But we still put a lot of effort into that side of things, for sure.
Are you guys still interested in or inspired by drum & bass?
Stevens: Can we just be honest here, Dave? There's very little to inspire within drum & bass.
Kennett: It's like with any genre of music: there's a lot of crap. A lot of crap.
Stevens: There's still some exciting stuff out there, but the artists that I'm excited about receiving music from, I can probably count on my fingers and toes. Or maybe fingers and one foot. I can probably only think of that many people that I'd still be interested to receive a promo from.
Kennett: The quality bar is definitely lower these days. And it gradually gets lower and lower. The reason being? I don't know. It's probably that vicious cycle of the fact that there's so many more people making music.
Stevens: Surely that should produce better results?
Kennett: Yeah, it's also about the fact that everyone runs a label and it's so easy now to just release music, you know?
Stevens: I think what there definitely seems to be is a shortage of people who nurture artists. People get on board with that person, then they nurture them and get the best out of them. Because anyone is able to write some music and whack it on Bandcamp, they're setting that as their standard, and the only way they're going to get any better is by watching YouTube tutorials. Especially in drum & bass, there's a massive thing about production, about getting stuff sounding loud and very, very limited and incredibly flat sounding. Not my taste, but there's a veer towards the technical side of things where people celebrate technical wankery, not good music.
It seems like good music falls by the wayside if it's not produced very well. So often, the demos that Dave and I get, the tracks that we usually play for a while are the ones that are not necessarily produced particularly well but still have melody and things that make you remember them. There are so many tunes out there that are really well produced but they just don't have anything about them, any character, and that seems to be a very current thing in drum & bass. There's very little substance to the music.
Maybe we're just coming across totally bitter and nostalgic for a period or era of drum & bass—which I love—but I don't think there's much about from the current crop. There's not bags of stuff that I get mega excited about. I still get excited when I get a Calibre EP or a Calibre promo in the inbox, I can't help it.
So if you're losing interest in drum & bass, what's next?
Kennett: I don't necessarily think our interest will ever completely vanish.
Stevens: We were writing a drum & bass tune today before we started speaking to you, so we're still interested in it, for sure. There's no doubt in that. Dave and I love writing drum & bass music. It's whether our place will evaporate with the current way that trends are going. I don't know. We're quite adaptable, so we'll see. I think also, your line of questioning is quite interesting because what you said in terms of us—our best place being in the club and where do we see ourselves as artists—it's kind of tricky because I don't think me and Dave have ever really considered ourselves drum & bass artists, but that's really what we get booked to play when we play in clubs. And it's what people expect when we put music out.
So for us, on our albums, to put maybe 30 or 40% non-club music or non-drum & bass is shooting ourselves in the foot, but it's a self-indulgent thing we have to do. I think there'll always be a soft spot in our heart for drum & bass club music, and there are still moments when we get sent music and we just go, 'Fuck, that's a really good piece of drum & bass music, I can't wait to play that in a club.' It just becomes less and less frequent... but also it's a cyclical thing.
One thing to give an honourary mention to is the half-speed stuff. This guy Fixate who had an EP on Exit. Him and Stray and those guys, who are running half-speedy but energetic music. That is really interesting. I think at some point it's very likely that someone will come through, do something interesting and start a whole new little strand of drum & bass. And do something similar, sort of Autonomic—but not in a sound kind of way—more just start their own movement.