Holly Dicker meets the original dubsteppers, who just dropped their first new music in five years.
Horsepower's secret is in the fine print. You have to really dig into their tunes to reap the full benefits. They don't just make tracks, they weave exotic tapestries of sound using layers and layers of samples that transport you around the globe—Amazonian rainforests one minute, the swampy Deep South the next. But it's cinematic dialogue that Horsepower are most renowned for. They sample VHS tapes like they do records. A film will contain a sample that will inspire the next Horsepower hit. These vocal snippets provide a human touch otherwise missing from Horsepower's synthetic worlds; they're also the cultural hook that snares you into an engagement with something you recognise but can't quite recall from where.
Horsepower are "the original dubsteppers," as Clark calls them, and he's not the only one to have done so. Together with the likes of El-B and J Da Flex's Ghost crew, Oris Jay and Zed Bias, they were the ones who picked up the swing of UK garage and sent it in a strange new direction. Before Big Apple Records, Hyperdub, DMZ and "Midnight Request Line"; years ahead of Hotflush, Tectonic and Skull Disco, there was Tempa and the seminal Horsepower 12-inches from 2000, When You Hold Me / Let's Dance and Gorgon Sound / Triple 7. For many, this is the beginning of the dubstep timeline. Later, as the sound blew up, Horsepower remained in the background, emerging occasionally with a titillating long-player (the format best suited to the troupe) and then retreating back into the shadows.
Ben Garner, or Benny Ill as he's known, has always been the face of Horsepower. The group began as a soundsystem, named after an '80s reggae track by Horseman. Matt Levesconte has been there since the beginning. There's also Nassis, part of the No U Turn crew, who used to write music with MC Ryme Tyme, and Jay King, who signed up in 2009. The rest of the lineup is less clear but there are several other producers and DJs in the wings.
Since Quest For The Sonic Bounty, Horsepower's last album, things have been quiet. Garner has been DJing, but as for the releases, we've been kept hungry. There was a reissue EP and Justify / Good Ole Dayz back in 2011. As it turns out, that 12-inch from five years ago was the inspiration for Crooks, Crime & Corruption, their fourth album for Tempa, which has just been released. Why the long gap? And where have these unexpected house and jungle flavours come from? I sat down with Garner and Levesconte in London to find out.
What was the starting point for the album?
Ben Garner: Really, it was the end of the previous album. We kinda finished that one on a point where we wanted to go to the next phase, trying to create a few new flavours.
How long has it taken you to make?
Ben Garner: About three years to finish, five years since we started it.
Is there a reason it took so long?
Matt Levesconte: Just life. We're not rich so we can't just stay in the studio the whole time, we've got to get on with our own lives. And when Benny's free, I might not be free, and so on. But when me and Benny are in the studio, we're there for days.
Ben Garner: You tend to take quite a bit of care over each of the tracks. And when we decide something is for the album, then we take a bit more time over it. So it's not really rushed.
Matt Levesconte: We don't want to rush anything.
Ben Garner: We do things in between as well.
What has kept you both individually busy?
Matt Levesconte: I do a lot of art and graffiti, and I like putting my time and effort into that.
But that doesn't pay the bills either.
Matt Levesconte: Nope [laughs].
Ben Garner: Not usually. Occasionally it does for him. He's done a few commercial art projects over the years.
What about you, Benny?
Ben Garner: I do quite a bit of engineering for a label called Benton Beats, which is a Swamp 81 offshoot.
You released a 12-inch on Swamp 81 recently.
Ben Garner: Well, I've been friends with Loefah for a long time; he's been asking me for about six years or whatever to come up with a track for his label.
Why did this one take so long to come out?
Ben Garner: I don't really know, I played him some stuff he wasn't really into. About the time I started working with Benton—which is just a technical role, I'm not really writing any of that—I managed to come up with something.
It's a jungle track, really, isn't it?
Ben Garner: Yeah, I'm quite feeling the breaks stuff.
Matt Levesconte: When we played a couple of years back for Swamp, I played a jungle set and all these 20-year-olds were coming up to me going, 'What is that? What is that?' And I was like, 'Jungle, man!' Now hardcore has come back in, and old school garage has come back round; everything we knew when we were that age has come back round for us. But for them it's all fresh and new.
Is that why we're hearing a wider range of styles on the new album? The breaks on "Criminally Insane," house on "Bak 2 NY" and "Kuriosity"—I feel like we're getting more of a backstory with this one.
Ben Garner: All the different individual styles that are on the new album have been taken from our own inspirations. It's got a bit of house, a bit of disco-kinda stuff. A little bit of—dare I say it—dubstep on there.
Why are you hesitant to say that?
Matt Levesconte: You got to understand, a lot of younger people I meet say they're into dubstep, they listen to our stuff and are like, 'That aint dubstep.' Yeah, alright, it isn't now. But it was.
Did the dubstep tag ever sit well with you anyway, considering it was somewhat pressed upon you in the beginning?
Ben Garner: We never wanted to be pigeon-holed. We've always been against that, and part of the reason we started making garage was because it was quite an open field at the time.
But is it an uncomfortable word for you now?
Ben Garner: No, because there's always gonna be a good and bad of everything. I wouldn't say I'm against it at all. We've always been weary of calling it this or that, you know? It's the same with garage.
Do you think now is a good time to be more liberal with your sound, to include a wider variety of influences within a single album?
Matt Levesconte: I hope so [laughs]. I'm joking, I do think it's a good time for it.
Ben Garner: People are quite broad in their tastes at the moment, more so than usual, I think. Maybe five or ten years ago people only wanted to hear one sound in a dance. But now some DJs—not everyone—but some are playing across the board within a set.
How do feel about the outcome of Crooks, Crime & Corruption?
Ben Garner: We hope people will get it. It's quite wide-ranging. It has something for everyone.
Matt Levesconte: I'm very pleased with it, I like the way it moves. Each album we've done we've tried to take you on a journey—especially the early stuff. And this one is a progression from that. It's trying to give a little bit of history—
Ben Garner: Whilst looking forward as well.
Have you used a theme again, like you did with the last album?
Ben Garner: It's supposed to be based around a crime theme, but only really loosely. We decided from the start to use a little theme to tie it all together. I guess it's all come from sampling different sources.
I assume we're talking about films here?
Ben Garner: It's all the sounds in general. We use a bit of drum machines and stuff, but apart from that a lot of the sounds are recorded either from films or other records, all generally keeping on that theme. When we started out, we didn't really have all the equipment we might have wanted, so it was a necessity that we started with sampling—if you haven't got this synth or organ, you just sampled it. And that's been the vein. We carried on with it, not out of necessity but because we still like to sample.
I wanted to inquire into a specific sample in "Boardwalk Emperor 2," the one about what I'm guessing is a pregnant lady wanting "lots of acid." Where did this come from?
Ben Garner: The movie's called Atlantic City, starring Susan Sarandon and Robert Joy. It's kind of a crime-drama thing.
Is it a good film?
Ben Garner: It's not always good ones that we sample. We've been criticised by people who've said, 'We looked up the samples and the film was rubbish'—particularly one from the last album. But what we say is, 'It might be a bad film but it's great sample [said in unison].'
Matt Levesconte: We would rather be sampling from films that aren't known anyway. We sampled Steven Seagal in the past, for example, and there are so many familiar ones people have sampled from over the years, so we would watch the same film and take a sample that no one's sampled.
Is it a bit of an obsession?
Ben Garner: It's like a library of sounds.
Matt Levesconte: Ready for the picking.
Have you watched them all?
Matt Levesconte: Yeah, course!
Ben Garner: Sometimes, when we had the old studio, we didn't have a screen.
Matt Levesconte: We just listened to the film. Stop it, pause it, rewind, sample.
Why did you decide to use the guitarist Harry Keyworth on the album version of "Justify"?
Ben Garner: This was a guy I was working with, doing some production, mixing and recording. He's a great guitarist. He can play electric, acoustic, fretless. We already had the track from the 12-inch but we wanted to strip it down and give it more of a bluesy vibe. The original theme of the track was deep south, voodoo magic in the swamps, so we wanted to get more of that southern delta blues guitar sound on it. It shows a different side with the live music recording—which we have done over the years, but are not particularly known for.
Orson is the other collaborator here. Can you tell us about your relationship with him?
Ben Garner: Orson was one of the first guys to bring dubstep over to Germany, around 2004-5. He had a club night going called Version and started bringing people over for that. He's also got a label called Version. Over the years I've been playing for him, he's come over here and played with us, and that was a little collab around Carnival last year. He came over to play Swamp 81 at Heaven under the arches, and while he was here we had a little session. I'm doing a few other projects with him, he's always been a supporter.
How do the group dynamics work with the other members of Horsepower, exactly?
Ben Garner: It's always been a bigger crew than just us two, and everyone has their own mixed roles within that. We started as a soundsystem, doing parties and just having a sound rig. So some people are just DJs and then it's mostly me and Matt as the core of the production side.
Matt Levesconte: Even if I don't write a track with Benny, he'll still ask for my input.
Ben Garner: We share the executive production and the collabs come when they do. It's always been a feature to try and do collabs with other members of the gang.
Do you both play out together as well?
Matt Levesconte: Occasionally, back-to-back.
Ben Garner: We have over the years, sometimes separate, sometimes together.
What sort of music do you bring to the table in these cases? I've heard such a wide range featured on Horsepower Productions mixes in the past.
Ben Garner: We often do jungle. We did it for the DMZ parties originally—like, last set at DMZ, play a bit of something to wake them all up again.
What about techno? I've been getting into some of your old Lost Sector stuff recently, Benny.
Ben Garner: We've been into club music for however many years now, which of course includes techno, house, acid—when we were just ravers, before we even started producing. The different music that has come along after, really, has been a derivative of all that. We still have a love for all these things but you have to do something new and fresh.
So when you're playing out, do all these influences come along with you, or does it all depend upon the party?
Ben Garner: We get requested sometimes to play this or that, either garage of jungle.
Do you enjoying playing one type over the other?
Matt Levesconte: Well, I love playing jungle, but we also love hip-hop, house.
Ben Garner: We kind of go with the times. Garage—when we were doing it—was the sound of London. The same with jungle, really.
What do you identify as being the sound of London in 2016?
Ben Garner: That's the thing: I don't think there is one any more. It's really fractured.
So how do you respond to that?
Ben Garner: Well, if in doubt we default to jungle [everyone laughs].
What about your relationship with house music? For me, the house vibe on the new album was surprising.
Matt Levesconte: I used to be what you'd call a b-boy back in 1983-4, and I was into electro. But then I started hearing house, and I thought house was gonna change the world. Forgive me if I sound like a bit of a hippy, but I thought the house scene was gonna bring everyone together.
Ben Garner: We've done house and things over the years in different projects, but obviously we're not known for that in particular. It remains to be seen how it'll be received, but we hope people are gonna get it.
Is that quite a big concern for you? How people respond to your music?
Matt Levesconte: I don't worry.
Ben Garner: I mean, we want people to enjoy it, that's why we do it. Hell, if we'd wanted to make money then we'd have become plumbers or something. We do it for the entertainment.
Matt Levesconte: It's a love, it's a passion.
Ben Garner: So hopefully people are into it, that's one of the main things. It wasn't written to be for a particular spirit of a time, you know? It's meant to be eclectic, timeless in a way. We hope it's relevant like that.