This Sheffield label is keeping its hometown's musical legacy alive, even if its artists have never set foot in the city. Andrew Ryce tells its story.
CPU doesn't put out music from artists based in Sheffield, but the five-year-old label, which releases a '90s-indebted blend of electro, IDM and ambient techno, is still carrying the torch for the city's historic electronic music scene. The best music out of Sheffield sought to reconcile the city's fading industrial past with what seemed like a bleak future. Some of the best UK electronic music of the '90s came out of Sheffield, much of it from Warp Records, arguably the city's greatest musical export.
CPU founder Chris Smith, an affable, unassuming guy in his early 40s, worships Warp Records. I met him at the train station, and one of the first things he wanted to show me was the old Warp storefront on Division Street, now home to a Costa Coffee and across the street from the store's predecessor, FON. (An Instagram post about the Costa led to an argument between The Black Dog and Smith about the exact location of Warp. Smith, not to be outdone in his Warp fandom, later posted a picture of shopping bags from the old Warp store with an address, which proved he was right.)
The death of the region's steel industry in the '80s led to years of economic depression, but now Sheffield is undergoing a revitalization and has a bright scene for the arts and, notably, microbrewing. Sheffield's centre is peppered with beautifully restored old buildings. But, a few good clubs, like Hope Works, aside, there's no Warp anymore, no FON, no hub of activity or musical leadership. It's an absence that Smith, who has stayed in Sheffield for almost all his life, felt acutely.
Smith told me that he started CPU with the idea of continuing Warp's '90s legacy—he wanted to be the label's "spiritual successor"—before the electronic juggernaut moved to London and diversified its catalogue.
"I was putting out feelers for potential artists on this message board called XL Tribe," he told me. "I was a regular poster, and that's where I met [Texas producer] Cygnus and a few other artists. They were all frustrated. Obviously there's only so many people Warp can sign. And there wasn't much about at that time for this style of music. So I knew there was a queue of really good artists that no one else was picking up."
Smith, who's been DJing in and around Sheffield since his teens and once ran a radio show called Sheffield Bleep, had the idea for a label kicking around in his head for a long time, but he never went through with it because he didn't trust himself to draw a good enough logo. Smith's job at the University Of Sheffield connected him with Nick Bax, who runs Human and once worked for The Designers Republic, the group behind Warp's graphics in the '90s and the visuals and packaging for the Wipeout video game. Bax came onboard to help with CPU's design and concept.
"I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia looking at technological, sci-fi, scientific papers and articles," Smith told me. "I sent these guys a big long list of potential names. One of them was Protocol—"
"We picked three out," Bax interrupted. "But we chose CPU because we could abbreviate it."
Bax, who became close friends with Smith (the two frequently interrupted each other or looked to the other for approval during our conversations), gave CPU another Warp connection, as well as its distinct visual identity. Each release would have the same black-and-white logo sleeve, adorned with binary code to spell out tracklists, catalogue numbers and sometimes hidden messages. With very few exceptions, no CPU release has its own special artwork. They all look the same, a deliberate homage to early Warp's famous plain purple sleeves.
"I have to make sure the artists dig what the label's doing, because it's not for everybody," Smith laughed. "A lot of artists want a picture on the record cover. But I say, 'You can't, you've just got a number.' They've gotta dig that sort of style."
"CPU is like early Warp, what it was originally," he added. "When you just went to a record store and you saw the purple house sleeves and you knew you were probably gonna like it, even if you hadn't heard of it. You knew what you were gonna get. I think with CPU, with our fans, they know what they're gonna get."
Partly inspired by Smith's lifelong obsession with computers (he works in IT), the binary code also lends the label a retrofuturist sheen. CPU's style evokes a time when the potential of computers seemed infinite.
"It builds the mythology," says Smith. "You're becoming part of the machine—the machine of techno and electro. It's almost like a production line. Quite sort of... robotic."
CPU's music, too, is at once old school and futuristic. From the earliest releases (electro records by Cygnus and DMX Krew), to the more recent, open-ended IDM releases (Microlith and Mikron) there's a shared sense of melody and atmosphere that binds CPU together.
"I'm a sucker for melody," Smith said. "I've gotta hear some sort of musicality in it, even if it's abstract, I need to hear some humanity in there. That's why a lot of the electro stuff—Cygnus especially—has got a lot of soul in it. It's melody and that human touch. I gotta get the goose bumps at least once."
The label assembled its roster by connecting to artists through social media—Cygnus, Fah and CN from XL Tribe, Plant43 from Facebook. It was a sign of things to come. ("The whole world's in my back garden," said Smith.) Those first producers came from all over Europe and America, and the label's later signings—the Ukraine's Noumen, Malta's Microlith, Dublin's Mikron and 214, who's from the town just outside Seattle where Twin Peaks is filmed—were equally far-flung. Even so, CPU has a consistency that rivals labels based on a close-knit scene. It's a collection of artists who, under Smith's guidance, keep Sheffield's legacy going, even if they've never set foot in the city.
Keeping such a consistent aesthetic can be limiting, however, and when Smith started receiving music he liked but didn't fit the label he went to Bax. They turned their Computer Club night, a sporadic party featuring everything from experimental acts to techno DJs, into a sub-label with a playful and open-ended style. Computer Club has released 7-inch picture discs and USB sticks, all with a bright and colourful visual concept.
Computer Club's grab-bag approach seems to be influencing CPU. Last year, it released an intentionally silly electrofunk 7-inch from Daddy Long Legs, a producer closely associated with a label called Off Me Nut Records. The label has dabbled in cassettes, and there's also the floppy disk by Goto80, which generates surprisingly heavy music (and video) from a Commodore 64 emulator.
The most unusual release is also the first to depart from CPU's strict visual concept. Smith dug out two old tracks from Detromental, an obscure Sheffield bleep group who released a few white labels and, allegedly, had a few tracks signed to Warp before the deal fell apart. Smith had asked Detromental member Dean Marriott to grab the DAT tapes from his parents' house the next time he visited Sheffield, but they were never recovered.
A long-time bedroom producer, Smith realized he had almost all the gear used for the original at home, so he spent months painstakingly recreating the tracks, a process that was fraught with difficulty (it took a particularly long time to source a sample that Marriott had misattributed). The release is set to come out this summer, with full permission from Detromental, presented in a purple sleeve (which prompted oohs and ahhs from people working at the Human design studio) that matches Warp's earliest releases.
"I spoke to Warp about it and they were cool. They loved it," said Smith. "I feel as though I'm a section of the Warp legacy now. Perhaps I always will be just a section—my favourite section. I want CPU to grow, but I don't think it will be a huge thing that needs to expand out into multiple realms. There are a lot of people from my generation who miss that time of Warp. That's what I'm wanting to do, to fill that void, missing those good, sort of pure electronic times."
"I took Sheffield for granted," he added. "It's only now, when I think back, I know how lucky I am and how great it was. I was just so in the middle of it that it didn't register. To have Warp Records, and go every Saturday to get the latest stuff from around the world, delivered on a plate after a 20-minute bus journey. It was fantastic."
DJ VLR, one of the label's key affiliates, delivers the sound of CPU.
Alek Stark - RMB 56
Mikron - Out of Body
Federico Leocata - Metacaust
Fah - Cautionism
B12 - Step Inside
Mrs Jynx - Diving Loop
Carbo Flex - Tim
Annie Hall - Herschel
Scape One - Five Hundred Eyes
Morphology - Cobol
MNLTH - Flektro
Microlith - Ju-World
DMX Krew - Space Cucumbers
Tryphème - Away From Prying Eyes
Blixaboy - Masque
Noumen - White Silence
Megatraveller - Escape
Pip Williams - Cutty Told Me
CN - New Ways To Walk
214 - Keep Right
Jensen Interceptor - Microbial
Mikron - Dry Sense II
Goto80 - Fist of Trade
Nadia Struiwigh - Trip In Fiction
Paul Blackford - Proteus
Missqulater - Jenseits Der Traumer
Koova - Retro Transformer
Daddy Long Legs - The Club
Automatic Tasty - Praise Brigade
Detromental - Rewind (Rebuilt)
Cygnus - Arcade Killers
Sync 24 - Program 5
Plant43 - Weightless in The Void
Fah - Uninterpreted