Andrew Ryce checks in with a singular drum & bass artist.
Pandya's beats are incredibly intricate and blindingly fast, hitting in a flurry like Chun-Li's lightning kicks. He's been making music with Nucleus, his production partner, for 20 years, and also creates atmospheric jungle as Alaska, a project whose highlights stand tall in the jungle pantheon. His music in 2016 sounds like his music in 1996, only tougher and more complex. Pandya treats chopping drums like an artisanal craft, honing his style over countless records for his own labels, Paradox Music, Esoteric and Arctic Music.
Pandya is an electrifying live performer whose setup is in keeping with his classicist productions. He plays live on an old Amiga computer, an unwieldy but impressive setup that raises eyebrows wherever he goes. As he chops and loops breakbeats on the fly, Pandya sometimes turns the monitor so the audience can see what he's doing. Other times, he'll take a mic and explain the context and history of the break he's using. History has become increasingly important to Pandya. As he's become older and more reflective, he's revisited the b-boy culture that started his love affair with breaks. His most recent album, Wax Breaks, presented 16 different breakbeats in brief bursts, designed for breakdancing. The record distils Pandya's talent to its purest form.
Self-releasing most of his material from his base in Vilnius, Lithuania, Pandya occupies an enviable niche: he has a devoted audience who snap up his records in a matter of days, which means less of an emphasis on touring. On the eve of his 44th birthday, I called him to discuss his one-of-a-kind career.
I was 44 yesterday, so I'm kinda showing my age a bit I guess.
Well, happy birthday.
Yeah, cheers, but I thought—I'm only six to 50. I've been thinking about that all day today. It's really strange. My mate picked me up today, and he was like, "What's the matter, what's wrong?" I was like, "I dunno, I'm having a bit of a depressed day." And he was like, "Why?" I told him why—and he was like, "Shut the fuck up, man."
Do you think about it a lot?
Well, I started to yesterday. I think just seeing four and four beside each other. The two fours, just on a computer screen, on a card, I wasn't expecting to get a card with four-four on it, and just seeing it in print has just made me think... urgh.
Did you think that when you started out you'd still be making music when you were 44?
Never. Andrew, when I started doing jungle—before the word was even invented—I was 15. Then I signed to Moving Shadow when I was 16 or 17. Never would've thought that I'd be doing it this long. And in fact, when we got our first test press, we thought that we had made it. When we got our first test press on vinyl, we thought, "That's it!" First record ever, we're gonna be rich! I never thought that 172 12-inches later, I'm still doing it.
Do you have copies of them all?
Unfortunately, no. I went through a phase in the mid-to-late '90s where I tried to collect everything. A few years ago, some guy sent me an email and said, "You made this record," and I replied, "Sorry mate, that's not me." He sent me a clip, and I was like, "I didn't make that." And then he sent me a picture of him holding this vinyl with my picture on the front, and I was like, "Yep mate, I made that." I mean, there's quite a lot. There's about three or four of us in jungle that are at the same kind of rough number. And we're all forgetting things. My girlfriend calls me hamster brain because I'm always forgetting things. It's like short-term memory, and the long term between 1993 and 1996.
Is that because of partying?
Yes. That and the pills we used to pop. But it's funny because if you had a warning then—"If you have this pill now, in 20 years' time you won't remember any of these amazing moments"—I don't think anyone would've done them. I'm struggling to remember being in certain clubs and stuff like that, and making certain records. God, I'm really showing my age now.
Do you ever listen to your old records?
Occasionally I get emails, and people post up old things. I see all these clips, and it might be a YouTube clip of something from 1994, and then I'll play it, and you know, just to listen to it there and then. That takes me back, but I don't actually sit at home and listen to old stuff at all. It's always what I've been creating the last three years or so. But some of our earlier '90s records, it's so embarrassing.
Embarrassing where the craft wasn't quite fine-tuned. All I hear are errors. All I hear are drum-pattern errors that shouldn't be. Which is kinda cool, actually, for records back then, but it makes me cringe.
Do you feel like you're still improving?
I think so. I'm just always tuning my craft. What I like doing now is simply b-boy culture. And with b-boy culture, obviously it's centred around breaks, but it's a style that is timeless to me. I'm still trying to please myself, and twist, and do things that breakdancing crews would appreciate. Not necessarily people that are making drum & bass, so to speak, but people that collect breaks and people that might like b-boy culture.
How did you end up back at b-boy culture?
Well, back in the '90s, me and Nucleus used to record on Reinforced Records, 4Hero's label. And they always kind of encouraged us to do different tempos. So we'd put out a 12-inch with one side jungle speed, the other side like 130 BPM. We'd always be messing around with tempos anyway, and Nucleus is a breaks DJ. He's DJ'd hip-hop throughout the years, and plays breakdancing events. So we've always been b-boy.
The way I see it, we were like b-boys plying our trade in the wrong genre. The last couple of years I've gone back a bit and started focusing more on the tracks with proper funk swings and tracks that b-boy lovers would appreciate, sampling my favourite '90s hip-hop records. I'm actually stating it on the vinyl—on the label it says "b-boy culture." Rather than it sounding dated, I want people to see that there's an ethos behind this. I don't want people just thinking that he's just rinsing out old stuff he used to do years ago. There is an end game to this.
What does the phrase "b-boy culture" mean to you?
It's a way of life. It's not something that just comes and goes. You see this culture of breakdancing and tagging and graffiti. It is actually something that you live, sleep, dream, everything. And that's something that I am actually doing now. Last night, I was lying in bed, 2 AM, thinking about this track I'm doing today—"I've gotta change this sample today." And then my alarm went off at 7, and I'm back in the studio at 7:30, trying to work out what I was thinking about at 2 AM.
I'm actually writing Wax Breaks volume two now, which'll come out next year. And the funny thing is that last week, a b-boy site, a hip-hop site, reviewed Wax Breaks. The actual site is called Aging B-Boys Unite. Not a joke! When I got the email I thought it was a wind-up! That's just so apt, the title of the site. It says exactly what we're doing.
Have you considered what it is about breaks that you like so much?
Well, at the end of the day, I'm one of those people that, when I go to a club and I hear my music, I can't dance to it. I listen to it and then try and pick out problems, and I listen to the mix-down I think, "That's wrong." I'm always looking for something that I've done wrong. When I listen to other people's records, I always listen to how they've used breaks, or what kind of break they've used. And I can dance to that. If I'm at home, and funk music comes on, I will dance to that. And that's what I love about breaks the most, the rare '70s funk breaks that have grit and real identity. So I try and use all these breaks in my own compositions, and pay homage to the drummers I've sampled.
Let's just say I sampled a break by Idris Muhammad in a track. The way I've used it, if he ever heard it—and, god forbid, he didn't want to sue me—I'd like to get a nod from him saying that I've used it well. I look for that, almost like a virtual drummer. That's my way of looking at breaks. I love breaks so much because it's the only thing that gets my foot shuffling. If I'm in the studio and breaks come on, that's it, both of my feet are tapping away. It annoys my girlfriend to the max because it doesn't matter where we're sitting. One foot does the kick drum and the right foot does the snare, I always do that, like a toy.
You've basically been making the same kind of music for 25 years—obviously with some variations—but how do you stay interested in breaks?
It goes back to breakbeats and b-boy culture. To me it just never ages because there's always fresh breaks that are undiscovered. And I still go through old records now and hear a certain drum loop and think, "Yeah, that would be nice in a record, but not at this tempo." And that's basically how it always sounds so fresh to me, because the tempo really does dictate how you program it, it can be used in a variety of ways from all styles of breaks.
But it's a junkie thing as well. You can't get it out of your system. My mother still, even after all these years, even after sending her albums and stuff, albums with triple vinyl and all these amazing colours—when my third album was released on Sony in Japan, she still said to me after that, "Why don't you go and get a proper job?" She had a CD in her hand with a picture of her son on it, distributed by Sony Music, and she still said, "When are you gonna get a proper job?"!
Who is Nucleus and how did you end up working with him so closely for so long?
In 1991 I started working with Nucleus—he's called Dave Sims—but I started working with another Dave, actually, called DJ Trax. And it was myself and Dave Trax, we both signed to Moving Shadow in the early '90s. And this is when Moving Shadow were on their ninth release, it was very, very early. Dave Nucleus was one of DJ Trax's friends who was just DJing hip-hop and breaks, basically b-boy stuff. So as the years rolled by, I think it was around 1995, we both got together and started making some music. In 1996, we finally finished some tracks. Nucleus said, "Let's send them to Reinforced Records," and I remember thinking, "Reinforced? They will never want this."
We called them up, and got an address, and sent the music. And then all of a sudden, I'm at home and I get a phone call one day. And I answer the phone, and it's Marc Mac from 4Hero. He just called me up and said in a really quiet voice, "I love the tunes." I kind of froze because he's one of my heroes. And he said, "Can you come down to London? Do you know where London is?" We went down there, and we met 4Hero and everyone at Reinforced. And that's how me and Nucleus started. Even though we put out records before then, it was only when we signed to Reinforced that we really were like, "Wow, let's make more!" That's 20 years ago now. Me and Dave look at each other in the studio and we're like, "Oh my god, 20 years." We're still doing this.
Why does it work so well with you guys?
Because he does things that I wouldn't necessarily do. It's all about give and take in the studio. It's bouncing ideas off two people, because it takes me forever to make music on my own, whereas when he comes over to Lithuania, we can get an abundance of 12-inches done in a short space of time. It would take me an eternity to make one 12-inch nowadays.
How did you end up in Lithuania?
Lithuania isn't the only country I've lived in. I've lived in quite a few countries; I like to move countries to write albums. Eastern Europe has always looked interesting, and it got to a point in the mid-2000s that I wanted to write an album in a different country. I looked around. Russia was obviously a no-go area, the visa had been a problem. I looked at all the places I'd performed—Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, all these places. And I asked all the promoters that I'd performed for their advice, and at the time Lithuania had the best routes for airports. I just thought, "Sod it, let's go." I was getting quite annoyed with the cost of England anyway.
I just made the plunge, found a flat on the internet, and then I moved everything. Took the studio, took my cat, took everything I owned, and started a new life in Eastern Europe. Moving out of England is the best move I've ever made. Whether Lithuania is somewhere that I wanna be for the rest of my life... no. Definitely not. But I'm glad I made the move out of England because when I go back I appreciate it more, and I've got a better daily life out here than I did in England. I've been here nine years now.
Are you part of a music scene there? Or do you have to travel to find this?
No, it's mostly travelling for me. I kind of like to stay in the background a bit. I get offers to perform here but I turn them down, because I like to just stay a little bit incognito. But I'm like that in many ways, really. Not with just making music. I'm like that being on the internet, I don't like pictures on the internet, I don't like saying what I think on Facebook. I don't like doing anything personal. I just put music out and that's it. But there is a nice scene here. About four years ago drum & bass was cool here, actually, and lots of English artists were coming. But then hip-hop and dubstep kinda killed it.
Now drum & bass is starting to come back, and occasionally my phone will ring, and it'll be some Lithuanian promoter that's got hold of my number. And they'll be like, "Dev, Paradox, it's so and so, can you do me a favour? I'm booking an English artist, could you come with us to dinner?" It's just like, "What? Who you booking!?" I'm kind of used as a little go-between, so they feel a little bit safer at the airport, when people land, they say, "Oh, there's Dev from Paradox."
Tell me about your live setup, I know it's pretty cool.
It goes back to what we've been talking about with the old b-boy techniques. The computer is from 1993. The program that I run was made in 1992, so it's 24 years old. It's like the 808 is to someone who makes techno. To a drum programmer, it's the ultimate machine. It never crashes and the clock in it is so precise that if you ran a loop on my computer, and you ran the same loop on an Apple Mac, and you MIDI'd them together so they were both running at the same time, and then you press play on this loop, and then you close the door and came back one week later, the Apple Mac would be all over the place but the Amiga would still be clicking in time.
There's no drivers to add, there's no need to connect it to anything, it just does one thing. There's two megabytes of memory in the whole computer, and it does one thing, and it just controls drum programming. So it's the perfect instrument for me. I use that live, and every time I get on a plane I'm praying that the computer is OK because there is no backup plan. It's old analogue equipment, and there's no way in the world that if I land somewhere and it's broken we could get a replacement there and then. So it's a bit of a heart-stopper. But I have ways to make sure that things like this don't happen.
My show is live beats on the fly. Everything is from the '90s, and I try and educate people on drum breaks from the '60s and the '70s, and try and explain information about the funk bands that I've used and stuff. Sometimes I think that I might talk too much on the microphone, sometimes it turns a bit too much into a history lesson, but it seems to work well. I've been doing it worldwide since 1996.
You're working in a few genres that aren't exactly at the height of their popularity anymore. Do you find you still have a solid audience?
Yeah, definitely. At the end of the day, the way I see it—it's an analogue life. And everything we do is analogue, and the end product is analogue. Of course, you've gotta think about digital sales to keep the record label going and such and such as well, but it all comes down to making music for analogue, for vinyl, for me. It's a bit like Samurai Music, really. They make records that are just for vinyl as well. So the following is still there for buying the records. As long as people still wanna buy the records, I am happy to make them.
I still get nervous when a test press comes in the post, I'm thinking, "Will it sound right? Will it sound good?" Even after hundreds of test presses, I'm always looking at my Google Calendar, checking my DHL delivery app, to see where it is. Just looking forward to getting the test press to OK it, and then getting onto the pressing situation, and then getting the final art copy.
The presales always sell out before the release date. Always. And so that's good to know that people are still buying it, and there is a hardcore fan base just for this type of music. You know what, to be honest, even if only 100 people bought it, I think I'd still do it. Because it's just nice seeing people buy it.
They're not complaining that the music doesn't sound like a CD. Because that's what I'm trying to do—analogue life. I don't wanna make music that sounds like a CD. I like listening to music that sounds like digital and clean, but for my labels I don't wanna make that. For the Paradox stuff, I put on my little analogue life cap, so to speak, and just strive for that.