Forest Drive West is one of the best new artists in techno and jungle—except that he's not really "new" at all. Will Lynch meets the man behind the moniker.
He explained this from a perch in The Black Lion, a self-described "rustic-style local pub favouring TV sport" near his home in Plaistow, East London. "I'm actually really lucky," he said. "My ride to work is all off-road, there's a path that goes from my house all the way along a canal, so I get in the zone, listen to new music." The ride is about 40 minutes each way. "That's a bit of time I have every day to discover new music, which I'm kind of obsessed with doing."
It's always hard to know what to expect meeting an artist for the first time, but with Baker it was literally impossible. At the time of our interview, there was no information about him available—just the cryptic name, Forest Drive West, and his music, a rapidly growing catalog of jungle and atmospheric techno, released on labels like Livity Sound, Hidden Hawaii and Rupture London. Deepening the mystery was the fact that, whoever this artist was, he seemed to arrive as a fully-formed talent, as well-versed in house and techno as he was in the realm of advanced beat science, dabbling in Euclidean rhythms and unusual time signatures (the B-side of his Hidden Hawaii record is in 5/4, much to the chagrin of anyone who's played it out unawares).
Who was he? Not, it turns out, some shadowy mad scientist of a producer, or a known artist working under a pseudonym (as some people, including me, had wondered), but a soft-spoken teacher of computer sciences with a quietly fierce work ethic, who over nearly two decades has produced hundreds of tracks, one after another, none of which met his personal standard of quality until recently.
"To be honest, this mysterious Forest Drive West thing is a bit of an accident," he said. "It's not something I set out to do. But I don't want to spend my time doing social media. The time that I do have, I want to be making music. If I've got free time, that's what I'm doing. Making music, mixing records."
Baker's life demands this kind of economy. He works full-time teaching teenagers about computers, and has a baby at home. Music is relegated to the odd snatches of time those responsibilities leave open. Finding new tracks is one thing—he's got his bike rides for that, and can sneak in the occasional Discogs and YouTube wormhole at home. Making music is another. Some artists treat production as a full-time job, dedicating 30 hours or more to the studio each week. Baker is lucky to squeeze in an hour per day, maybe two on the weekend. Luckily, he works fast.
"In a couple hours, I can probably get a track down," he said. "Arrange something as quick as I possibly can. Get a vibe going, get to the six-minute point of a rough skeletal track. I'm not just doing 16 bar loops and leaving them on my computer. Every time I start something, I try and arrange it. I've got really quick at doing that now."
That's true of his techno tracks, anyway. Jungle takes a bit more work. Techno, he says, is "more about creating a vibe, leave it rolling constantly and tweaking stuff. Making jungle is more stop and start, changing little bits, lots of going back from the beginning of the track, going through and hearing where an edit needs to be made. So yeah, it's a different state of mind."
He sipped his beer and thought about it. "I used to spend a lot of time getting a drum break, and then programming that into a pattern that I liked, and backing it up with heavy kicks and snares. But now I've got to the point where I can generally process something to make it sound right just from using one break, or setting up an effects bus with distortion and compression. From years of doing that I've got much quicker at making them sound right."
That learning process began around the turn of the millennium, when Baker started messing around with Music 2000 for Playstation, then Fruity Loops and Acid Pro. As teenagers, he and his friends would go to jungle and drum & bass nights in Brighton, then come home and try to recreate what they'd heard. Making music became a day-to-day habit for Baker, but a solitary one, aimed more at his own personal satisfaction than any goal of making it as an artist.
"Part of it is wanting to play my own stuff and see people dance to it and hear it sound really good on a rig," he said. "But also, I just really enjoy the whole puzzle of trying to put something together. Getting really frustrated, finishing something, feeling incredibly rewarded. I've done it for so long that it just feels like something I've always done and that I always will."