In the weeks surrounding the Corsica gig, Adams played a back-to-back with Josey Rebelle at De School, where the pair apparently connected over a love of jungle. He performed at Berghain as one half of Bliss Signal, his metal band with the ex-Altar Of Plagues frontman James Kelly. In Bristol, he did a three-way DJ set alongside Pinch and Logos, with the MC Riko Dan on the mic. And at The Pickle Factory in London, he organised a surprise back-to-back set with DJ Stingray, the revered Detroit electro artist. This blur of activity arrived shortly after an incredibly ambitious year of radio, in which Adams lined up 40 shows on Rinse FM with a different guest each week. The aim was to highlight his tastes and his musical history, and the back-to-back sets included DJ Storm, Nina Kraviz, Tropic Of Cancer and Surgeon.
This is all part of what Adams calls "world-building." To put it simply, he didn't think there was an established scene or model for what he wanted to do as an artist so he made one himself. In Adams' mind, this could even mean building a world within a world: with his frequent collaborator Logos, he came up with the concept of "weightless," an approach to making club music that uses empty space and minimalism, the results of which have been showcased on their label, Different Circles.
These ideas seem to stem from an almost pathological curiosity for music. I've got to know Adams a little bit since we spoke for an RA Exchange back in 2015, and I've been frequently dumfounded by the way he talks about music. He'll openly admit to not really knowing who Ricardo Villalobos is, before mentioning that he's influenced by musique concrète. He'd talk about his favourite hard house and trance producers, and then later draw parallels between grime and punk. Adams' singular achievement is that he's managed to translate this burning curiosity into his artistry.
I wanted to ask an intentionally awkward question to start. What do you play?
It's difficult for anyone to say, but I guess it's just the hardcore continuum. Some people don't like that term, but it makes a lot of sense for what I do. Something which is rooted within the essence of hardcore. Hardcore and rave are genres that have been going since around the late '80s, and they were still going strong ten years later. How many other genres have moved from 120 BPM up to 180 BPM and still been called the same thing?
There are various strains, like sugar-rush happy hardcore, there's darkside hardcore... It's the same as techno, the same as drum & bass: it's a mother tongue with lots of regional dialects. Hardcore and rave is the foundation of what I do, but that's such an umbrella term. It's based in hardcore, but it's just whatever I feel like playing.
Did it take a while to gain the confidence to do what you felt like?
It took me a while to understand how I could present everything in a way which made sense. A lot of the time it wouldn't make sense and it would be a difficult listen. Not only in terms of a dance floor, but also on the radio. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to arrange music, and sometimes it would be abrasive, sometimes it would be smooth. It's all dynamics, you know.
I listen to music 24/7. As soon as I get up I start listening to something. I'll just be listening, listening, listening. So I do my homework—it's not even homework, it's a joy, it's a passion, and I'll always be exploring music. I'll go on YouTube wormholes all the time, Discogs wormholes. And that's what really excites me about it, just finding the history of it. I like presenting the history of it without being too preachy. I think there's a way of schooling people on something without even realising they're being schooled; you want them to enjoy it.
What challenges did you face in bringing all of this history together in one place?
Do you know what it is? It just takes a long time to be a good DJ. The longer I do it the longer I realise how much I've got to go. I only think it's really been the last two years where I've started feeling comfortable. I've been DJing professionally for ten years, DJing as a hobby for 21 years, and I only think it's been the last two years where I've started to come into my own and feel comfortable and know that I can be confident in my skills and put things together. It takes a long time.
I remember when I was 13 and I used to DJ at a youth club. We used to take our decks up the youth club, I used to cart my record collection up this big hill every week. And this idea of the next tune, this instinctiveness—I remember it when I was young this happened and I was like, how? How did I know, what was in me to know that was the tune that should come next? It puzzled me for years. Because I don't plan, you know? It's something that's very important to me: I don't plan mixes. I don't sit at home practicing. I DJ a few times a week, and I've always DJ'd a few times a week, going round my friend's house, for example. But I think it's like Darwinism.
Survival of the fittest?
Yes, so there will be a mix that will work and I'll remember it. It's the same with my rekordbox: every gig I'll make a new rekordbox and I'll pull out the tunes from the last, ones that worked, pull out the ones that didn't work. Every time I have a show my rekordbox gets stronger.
I feel like I can mix anything now, especially with CDJs. If I know it's the right tune, I don't have to practice mixing it, I know I can mix it. And I also like the danger of it. I'm not scared of making mistakes. It's really liberating to realise it's not a problem to clang a mix. As soon as you realise that it's like getting the keys to the city, you don't have to worry, you're invincible. I think if someone makes a mistake it's quite funny, it doesn't matter.
This must embolden you to take more risks.
Well, I'm not gonna go in there and put on a shit-show, you know what I mean? I've done my 10,000 hours. Sometimes I'll get caught up in something, and I'll just try something that I think might work. Sometimes I'll get away with it, which makes it doubly exciting. Sometimes I might not get away with it. I think what's been lost is there used to be a punk aspect, a sort of very stripped-back and raw aspect to a lot of electronic music. You'd see Jeff Mills with his 909, it's not all in sync, it's sounding rough as hell. All the old hardcore DJs, they were mixing on shit decks. Even the music—like with hardcore there's no build-ups and good transitions, shit just slams in, and something else slams in and something else slams in, and it's quite weird-sounding with abrasive transitions. This is why I like grime: it's punk. The mixing style of it is punk. If you look at the way I'm mixing it's all up faders. I don't use the crossfader, it's lots of swapping, and all the old techno guys were doing that.
Why did you decide to do the radio series on Rinse?
Because honestly I had... not a chip on my shoulder, but I was just a bit fed up of people seeing me as a producer who DJs. I'm primarily thought of as a producer, even though professionally I've always made money as a DJ. So I thought if you're annoyed about something you use it as a drive to better yourself.
Also I like doing things in bursts, things are much more exciting in bursts. So we put on these events, the Different Circles events, where we put on two months of the best programming that we could put on. I was really into that, and then I was just like this year I'm gonna aim to show people that I can DJ. So I thought the best way to do that was through radio, so I'm gonna do the best radio series that I can do. Also I like the baptism by fire. I was pitting myself against some pretty serious DJs, and it was hard. But I'm a much better DJ than when I started that series. Going up against Stingray and Pinch and going up against specialists in their field, that's been the hardest bit.
For example, I didn't grow up with techno but I love techno, it's a new thing in my life. I'm not gonna be like, "I grew up with techno, I was listening to all this Detroit stuff." I wasn't. But I do my homework, and I love it.
Which ones made you the most nervous?
Stingray and Nina Kraviz.
What was it about those?
Well, they're just very highly regarded presences. I was also quite nervous about the Regis and Ruskin one, but I think that's because it was after I spent a week at Glastonbury, so that didn't really help my nerves.
Did you strategize or talk much with the DJs beforehand?
No we didn't. I always enjoy working with other people, you see that through my productions. I thrive on the differences, I really like the collision, it's like the collision of music, the collision of ideas that you get from a back-to-back. Some people don't like back-to-backs, they think it can be disjointed. But I think it's all about rapport. If I'm working with someone in the studio it's about building up an empathy and a rapport with the other person and understanding them, and it's the same with DJing. The trick is, and it took me a while to realise this, you just gotta be yourself always. You can lean towards them a little bit, but it's about finding a middle ground, where someone who's listening can maybe go, "I'm not sure who's playing that, but it sounds like it could be either of them."
With the Stingray set people were saying, "I'm not sure who was who." I heard Stingray play the other day and he played a grime record, and that's a beautiful thing because I'm guessing he heard it when we played together. When I did this back-to-back with Stingray, I started off and I was playing a few electro things, and I'd never met him before. With a lot of these sets I'd never met the DJs before. I started playing a few electro tunes and I could see he wasn't really into it, and then I was like, "Why am I trying to beat him at his own game?" So I was just like, relax a little bit. I started playing some grime, and he's like, "What's this?" As soon as he heard that he perked up, and he was just like, "OK, this is sick, I've never heard this." And then it started happening.
It's interesting because I'm not sure many DJs would be willing to expose their lack of knowledge by playing with someone who specialises in a genre.
Yes, so with Regis I just met him at a night and started speaking to him. But if you think about what Regis plays it makes total sense in the timeline of what I play. The reason I've discovered all this stuff is I'm like, "It sounds like the stuff me and Pinch make." There's so much music out there, you can't give your attention to everything. I had my head in one end of things and it's taken me a while to go, "Oh shit, there's this whole world over here."
You play a broad range of music, with different rhythms and tempos, and lots of back-to-backs. Do you ever find yourself in a club thinking, "How the hell am I going to mix out of this track?"
Constantly. The whole time, literally every single DJ set I'm like, "What the fuck am I gonna do here?" But that sort of masochism seems to be where I thrive. Throughout my career I've always thrown myself in at the deep end of things, and I think it's just the way I enjoy it.
There have definitely been times where I've been like, "Fuck, I've definitely bitten off more than I can chew here." Like, playing with Sunil Sharpe, or when I played a back-to-back with DJ Storm. She is a master. The beautiful thing about that is DJ Storm and Kemistry were the first DJs I ever saw. There was a festival in Brighton, and me and my mates went there. We weren't allowed to stay for long, I was like 12 or 13. Kemistry and Storm were playing, and that was my first experience. I can see it now, vividly. That was the first time I was hit in the face, because with drum & bass there's a physicality you get that you can't get from listening to it on a Walkman, you know. And once it hit me in the face, seeing Kemistry and Storm, that was what set me on my path to where I am now.
It's nice because she had a Red Bull interview the other day and she said that her Different Circles Boiler Room show we booked her for has been pivotal. A younger generation have discovered her. And she's really busy now, and she said that was like a pivotal moment. It was really nice to hopefully affect her career as much as she affected my life. It's a really nice sort of circle.
Have you developed any tricks or mixing strategies to get out of tight situations?
No, because every single one of those situations is different. Sometimes I can be a bit rough with the transitions, I'm trying to be a bit more careful with it. This is another thing which has been beautiful about these back-to-backs: I've learnt from the best. I've seen all these masters up close, how they're doing things. Like watching Shifted, the way he mixes is completely different to the way I mix, or the way I've seen people mix. It's so delicate and precise. Everything's a learning experience.
Listening to you at Corsica, I was surprised at how great your grime tracks sounded alongside techno. Is that something you've been working on?
Definitely. You can't play all types of grime with techno because it won't work, you can't play a lot of the vocal grime. But a lot of it works really well, because a lot of it's the same sort of patterns as electro, or things like Miami bass. A lot of the faster older stuff like Dave Angel, Surgeon, Regis mixes really well with grime. I was speaking to Regis and he told me that listening to Rinse, like pirate radio stations, was a lot of what inspired British Murder Boys. Hearing grime, it was sort of their version of it. So there are these underlying crossroads, which probably haven't been highlighted.
Part of the reason I play grime and techno is that it's really fun to mix together. The way grime works, it's called 8-bar, it's actually 16 bars, a lot of it, but the nickname for it is 8-bar, and it's made so an MC can rap over it and know where he is on the track. The track would be two parts, essentially, 16 bars of A, 16 bars of B, and it would just go A, B, A, B. A lot of these techno tunes are just four-bar loops, going over and over. So you put them together. It's about swapping the bass underneath and cutting in between. A lot of my mixing style is a grime mixing style. If you check out Spooky, Grandmixxer, Spyro, it's all about cutting. You get tracks perfectly in time and you can swap them intermittently and it will just sound like one track. And what you can do with the bass, it will be all broken, and then you bring in the 4/4 and it will suddenly all make sense. It's bringing that grime pattern into a techno realm.
Do you mix differently when you play hardcore, like you did at Corsica?
Certain musical styles will lend themselves to certain mixing styles. With hardcore it has a lot of melodic elements, there's pianos, chords. So if you're clashing them it can sound terrible. Hardcore's one of those ones where you really need to know your tracks, because you need to know there's a piano coming in here. It's either quick mixing or you gotta remember where the drum bits are so you're just playing breakbeats over melodic parts.
Do you think crowds and promoters have a better understanding of what you do as a DJ these days? I'm sure there must have been times in the past where you confused people.
I think I'm lucky now that people know what they're coming for so they give me a bit more leeway, whereas before people might have got more frustrated with it, and I can see why they got frustrated with because I was doing something that maybe just didn't make sense to them. A lot of people didn't like it to start off with. But now, I guess, people know what they're coming for, and they've listened to my radio shows and they're expecting me to do this. I've got to the stage now where people are like, "It was a bit straight tonight, I wanted you to go a bit weirder."
Is that a good place to be in?
Yeah I think it's a good place to be in. Something that really struck me when I started going to America and generally playing in big rooms is that I'd be thinking, "I have to change my set." And I'm like, "Why are you changing your set?" It's an easy thing to do. I'm constantly in a position where I'm like, "Fuck, I haven't got the right music. Why have they booked me here? I don't have the music to fit in with what's happening." And it takes a while to realise that they booked you for you. They don't want you to pretend to be someone, pretending to be Nina Kraviz, they want you to be you.
Thinking about when you were starting out, were there particular DJs who inspired you from a technical standpoint?
There's loads of DJs I'm inspired by: Randall, DJ Storm, Pinch. I've been lucky to play with lots of people who I'm inspired by. I've recently been inspired by Stingray, I was very inspired by Nina Kraviz, seeing her play at Unsound. She's doing something now where she's in this beautiful sweet spot. She's playing at Unsound but also these big rooms in Amsterdam or wherever. That's where I want to be. I think there's a way of playing really off-kilter and bizarre music to a big room. I think it's possible. I think there are lots of people pushing these boundaries.
What would you specifically pick up from a DJ you admire?
Me and Josey Rebelle were speaking about Stingray the other day, and it's the same with Sunil Sharpe: they're machines. They play on vinyl and they're quick mixing, quick mixing, and I like the quick mixing element. Also when you see DJs like Pinch and Parris they are both very good at riding the mix. They're playing off records, it might go out a little bit but they'll ride the fader, and they'll trust that it will come back in. They're good enough to do that. I'll get scared doing that. I'd be touching it, and they'll ride it out—when it comes back in time it creates this energy which is very, very palpable and very hard to get from any other sort of DJing move.
I'm also attracted to more abrasive DJs, like on pirate radio. They'll just switch it over and two tracks will come in together, and it's just this energy which comes from volume. Hearing something being put in the mix loud is exciting to me. I wouldn't say I'm a subtle DJ. The subtleties of techno are something which are quite intriguing to me, and are something which I'm trying to implement and learn about, but it takes time, you know. Some of my sets, radio sets especially, I start at 120 BPM and I finish at 180, but sometimes I think that I don't want do that over an hour anymore, I think it's too rushed. But I come from a culture where it's one-hour sets—bang, bang, bang.
Do you have a preferred mixer?
Always Pioneer. I really enjoy playing with the Pioneer because I like the effects. Drones are another aspect of my DJ sets, because you can use drones as a breakdown. Sometimes I use my modular synth for the same thing, but you can do this with the effects. If you turn the reverb up on the Pioneer mixer to the fullest it will turn into this big wash. I always call it "sending it into the mist." You send the tune into the mist, and it's this mist of reverb and that will go on forever.
Do you simply do this to give people a breather?
Yes, sometimes people like to have a breather. I've been playing in a band recently, Bliss Signal, and it's very intense, and sometimes you need the silence for people. Sometimes I don't even mix, I just stop a tune or fade to reverb, and sometimes I do that because people need a breather and they wanna clap. Not clap at me but they wanna shout.
Yeah enjoy it and express themselves. It's all dynamics. You need the quiet parts for the noisy parts to be noisy, otherwise it's just noise and it doesn't make any sense. You need opposites for meaning.
Were you incorporating the modular in your sets with this idea in mind?
The modular and the 909. There was a time when I first got my 909 I was like, "I fucking love this." I was just carrying it round with me everywhere, playing sets with it. With the modular I was carrying that with me everywhere, but I've realised that if I'm in the mood, I'll use it. The modular has taken over more and more aspects of my life, which is not so fun, and I'm obviously doing stuff for fun. If I'm not enjoying it, I don't think it translates. I've been doing other projects, like Bliss Signal and The Sprawl, which are using the modular, so I'm not carrying it around for DJing so much. Maybe if it's a UK show I might bring it out with me. But they never like modular synths at airport security, they hate them.
Overall you have to be very careful that you're not being self-indulgent with it. Ultimately people have come to clubs to dance and enjoy themselves. There's a whole festival circuit where people are open to experiences, like having their mind expanded. You can create tones on a modular that you can't get anywhere, but sometimes people don't wanna be watching you doing that for more than a few minutes at a time. But I like the fact that these sounds will never happen again. All the modules I choose are quite random, quite esoteric modules where there's an element of chance in a lot of them. I know what I'm doing with it but it will turn out differently every time, and I really like that aspect.
Where do you stand on spinbacks and rewinds?
I like a rewind. I'm using them less than I used to but I've got the nickname Captain Rewind if I get a bit drunk. That's what my friend said to me: "You'll never be a techno DJ cos you just get drunk and start playing hardcore and doing rewinds." I was just like, "Ah it's so true!"
Have you ever found that rewinds get lost in translation when you're touring?
Weirdly people want me to do rewinds. A lot of the people who book me around the world are anglophiles, so they're very switched on to English culture. In India especially. Everyone was like, "Please can you do some rewinds?" Because no one does rewinds there.
A rewind is an outlet of energy, and it gives people time to breathe. It's an expression. A rewind is a beautiful thing, you know. It's when the energy is peak, you're highlighting that and going, "That was a fucking excellent moment. Let's do it again."
If the ultimate aim is to unify a dance floor in a single experience of motion, a rewind at the right time is an incredible tool to unite everybody.
Yeah it's a nice way to unite people, and I think that's ultimately what we're trying to do. I want people to be on the dance floor hugging, having these moments with their friends, because it changed my life. I wanna pass that experience on.
How do you use rekordbox?
I'm a massive fan of rekordbox. I have it in tempo ranges. So I have 120 BPM and above, 130, 140, 150, 160, 170, sometimes 180 BPM. Every time I do a gig I'll put a new selection of tunes in each tempo. A lot of people do it by mood, which I think is quite interesting. But I think you get a lot more interesting collisions when you're working around the tempo, lots of different moods around the same tempo, which you can fit together. You need to know your music, but I've found I like to do things in a very instinctual manner.
I think about DJs on a scale where at one end you have people who play exactly what they want to, almost like a presentation, and on the other end you have DJs who obsessively watch the crowd and respond accordingly. Where would you place yourself on this scale?
I think with me it varies gig to gig. Sometimes if I know it's a crowd that knows me I'll do a presentation. If I play at Boxed, which is like my home turf, I know that I can do whatever I want there. I might get booked for CTM or something, or Unsound, when you can afford to challenge people with something. But then if you're playing, say, Printworks or somewhere like that, people don't necessarily want to be challenged, they wanna dance. So I guess there's no black and white answer, it's grey every time, you've just gotta look at the lineup, look who else you're with, look at the venue size.
What sort of role does booze play for you as a DJ? Does it help you?
Booze is quite a big aspect not just in my DJing but in a lot of people's DJing, positive and negative. I always call it "the pool effect." Two pints and you're really good at pool, but then you're on this tightrope. It could be a pint more, two pints more, and then you're shit at pool. And that is the tightrope that I walk along. Another thing is that the biggest cause of deafness for a DJ is alcohol. The amount of times I've had a few drinks, got really excited, and then I'll just rinse the monitor. And I wake up the next day with the feeling that I've just slammed my headphones and the monitors. It's a regular occurrence, not just for me but for lots of DJs. I'm noticeably deaf in one ear. I've been wearing earplugs, and I'm still deaf in one ear from headphones, I'm guessing.
Are you worried?
Yeah, I am worried. I'm always asking people how their hearing is. I also judge this by how loud a DJ's earphones are when you're doing a back-to-back with them. I'm always very conscious of headphone volume. It's all relative. If your monitors are up loud then you're gonna have your headphones up louder. Some DJs are really careful and turn their monitors down in between the mixes, and I've just never done that. I like to be hit in the face with the sound, but it's a bad habit.
Deafness is a very real thing, and if there's one thing I would say to anyone who's reading this it's look after your ears. It's such a shame because there doesn't seem to be, as far as I know, any sort of mainstream developments in hearing. When it's gone it's gone. I'm lopsided with my hearing, and it's a horrible thing. If I was equally deaf it would be alright, but I'm deaf in one ear and it unbalances my perception of space. It's just a very frustrating thing.
A final thought: do you feel as though what you do as a DJ will always be in a state of flux?
I was thinking about this the other day. The problem with DJing is there's not a direct correlation. What I mean is that with other jobs there's a direct correlation between the amount of effort you put in and the results that you get. With music especially there's this extra sort of cool factor that scatters everything and fucks it all up. It's happened to me before—you can be on top of the pile and then you're just scattered off. This is why I've been very, very conscious to do my best to build my own lane, build my own universe. Because if you're not in fashion, you can't go out of fashion.
When I first started I guess my crowd were a bit more casual listeners, and they grow up, they finish university and they get a job, and maybe they're not into music so much anymore. So for me it's important to appeal to true music people because they're the people who are gonna stick with you, and they're the people who also understand what you're doing. I think being in flux is a good thing in terms of creativity, you know? As you get a bit older you get a bit grumpier with things changing. But I have to constantly remind myself that it's all about change. You've got to embrace change, and you've got to embrace developments in music.