Mark Smith hears how the dance floor shapes the tracks of this prolific house artist.
The answer is simple. East End Dubs exclusively makes music that works on a dance floor. If it doesn't work, he doesn't release it. This is unpretentious music. Tellingly, his target customers are DJs, not journalists. A critic might write off his sizeable catalogue as mere tools. But anyone who DJs regularly knows the importance of dependable, consistent, groove-focused music. It's those people who are buying his records.
Without fail, East End Dubs productions contain infectious swing, an impeccably balanced low-end, taut and clear percussion and a loopy, open-ended structure. It's not music with hooks or pyrotechnics, but the reserved character is key to its strength and wide appeal among DJs. He's also astonishingly productive, despite a packed touring schedule, a rare feat on a circuit where the busiest DJs often don't have the mental energy to make new music. This constant urge to create was one of the reasons I travelled outside of London to learn more about how he does it. It was also an excuse to check out his newly constructed studio, whose coloured mood lights and floating floor make for one of the more striking home studios I've seen.
I'm surprised that the first thing that caught my eye in here was a stack of scratched-up records.
I'm using them to make tracks, actually. I cut little pieces with a knife to create holes and lines in the run-out groove. It creates glitchy, weird textures and rhythms, but you can also get some nice low-end out of it, too. When you put it behind a normal track the results can be quite interesting.
Is this inspired by Thomas Brinkmann?
Yes, he's done this quite a few times many years ago. I saw one of his videos and thought, "Woah, this is interesting," and I've been experimenting ever since. It's part of a new project I'm working on for next year. I'll be trying to play a live performance with this kind of stuff.
How much trial and error is there with cutting the records to generate the rhythms?
A lot. But when it comes down to editing it in the computer it's pretty easy. Performing live would be a different story because you have to be very precise with the speed on the turntables. Still, it doesn't need to be synced perfectly because it's more of an ambient, textural approach.
I'll also be using field recordings for this project, but I've been using them for some years already. I always travel with an Olympus recorder to catch sounds on the plane, train stations, wherever. Most East End Dubs tracks have a field recording in the background to give things a different depth. I remember one with a recording from King's Cross Station where you can hear people in the background. I don't know if you notice it in the club when I play it, but I know it's there so it's a little special for me. I also feel like these recordings affect the mix because the noise produces a kind of warmth. It helps me stay in control in the mixdown because you have this noise level as a reference.
We're quite far outside of London here. I take it that a reasonably sized studio space in the city is just too expensive.
Yeah, to be honest with you, I couldn't afford it. So we looked outside the city and managed to find this space. But when we got here it wasn't an actual room—it was more like a garage. I went to the council, told them my plan and they gave me permission. Then I contacted studio build specialists and we decided the best approach was to construct a room within a room. This is important for acoustics and soundproofing. I work a lot at night so that last point was crucial. We ended up digging two metres down to put a gap between the foundation and the floor.
This is known as a floating floor, right?
That's right. I've seen it at fabric and a few other clubs, and the studio specialists said I should do it if I had the chance. We worked with Artnovion Acoustics for the treatment in the room itself. They made a lot of drawings so the absorbers, bass traps and everything were sized specifically for this room. The space is divided into two halves: there's DJing on one side and production on the other. Naturally, the sweet spot is in front of the desk.
The treatment is eye-catching, but I think most people would want to know about the lighting. You've made a system that can fade between different colours.
I had to get an electrician during the build because all these machines draw a lot of power. We ended up installing an additional fuse box that's separate to the mains. As we were doing all of this, the electrician told me he'd been in China where he'd seen these cool gadgets at a lighting exhibition. He showed me these multicoloured LED lights, and I thought we should definitely work with them. So I got in touch with the builders and they built this hidden gap between the walls to house the lights. It provides a different feeling every time I enter the room. You can control the colour with a remote. I know for some people it looks pretty funny. But I like having a red or a blue tint when I'm working here at night.
Red and blue are your favourite choices?
Red feels clubby somehow. I chose blue if I want to do something more adventurous or work on melodies, for instance. All the music I make is for clubs. Every track is built to improve my DJ sets. So it's important for me to have that club kind of feeling in here.
You mentioned to me earlier that you bounce out the same track with different kick drums so you have the option of picking the optimal kick style for a given soundsystem.
That's right. Normally I'll bounce out two or three versions with different kicks. Obviously not all clubs sound the same, they have different rigs and particular acoustics. Last night I played in Romania and the system was very boomy and strong in the low-end. So I had to make sure to pick tracks that fit the sound.
I'm specific when it comes to sound. I want things to sit a certain way and I want people to feel it the way I feel it. I'm lucky enough to try out all my tracks in clubs before I release them so I can be sure that they sound how I like. So I'll choose the version with the kick that I think is appropriate for the soundsystem, then I'll come back in here and adjust the low-end balance until it's ready to be released.
I guess it makes sense to focus on the kicks given they take up so much space in the mix.
The kick is the most important factor. Sure, that might sound a bit weird to some people, but for me it's the key element. I've got about 15 to 20 kicks that I've been sampling or creating with drum machines, layering them, trying different compressors. It saves time having a small, go-to folder.
When I come in here, I'll put a kick on and go straight to a bass synth to build a groove with just two elements. Then I'll try different percussion arrangements to generate a little more feeling and swing. The first 30 to 60 minutes are the most important because these fundamental parts shape everything else that has to happen down the line. Having said that, I'm still searching for the perfect kick drum.
It's a life's work, right? So when you go to the bass sound, what machines or sources do you tend to reach for?
The basslines on a lot of the early East End Dubs records were made from percussion. I've used a lot of toms or kick drums for this. Recently I've been using acid sounds with the Roland TB-03. I use patches I've made in Native Instruments Massive every now and then, too.