Second, Joe disproves the assumption that avant-garde dance music is inevitably "serious." To varying degrees, his peers went on to explore aesthetics that suggest artistic gravitas and a sense of profundity. Joe's sound, on the other hand, remains upbeat and down-to-earth, all while pushing the creative envelope in ways few dare to try. It's a sensation heightened by his restraint. While he has the technical skills to compete with the best, he deploys his chops sparingly, contrasting stretches of extreme simplicity with flashes of "how'd he manage that?" brilliance.
A third distinction lies in the way his tracks engage with the listener. Much of Joe's music is shot through with a playful sense of humour that creates an oddly intimate dynamic on dance floors. It's taken a step further when he breaks the fourth wall—for instance, in the ripping-out-the-aux-cord moment of "Punters Step Out," or when "Club Scared" verbally challenges the listener to question the structure of dance music itself.
Joe hasn't done many interviews over the past decade, but he's generous and highly articulate in conversation, happy to speak thoughtfully and at length on a wide range of subjects. When I visited his London studio, I found him to be a preternaturally organised producer with a complex yet highly optimised software workflow that links together multiple DAWs. We took a closer look at how he organises and navigates his multilayered projects, spoke in detail about the function of humour in dance music and the under-appreciated importance of human connection to the solitary art of production.
What are your thoughts on our ability to communicate our experience of the production process? People tend to look for specific techniques that they can fit into their work. But is it helpful to break down elements of a process that can only make sense as a whole?
This could be true of all sorts of workflows and other art forms, but so much of what is actually visible or presentable in terms of the process of making music is hard to communicate. Even if you're describing out loud what you're doing, so much of it is going on in your head. If a finished piece of music is like a picture, then looking at the process behind making it is like zooming into that picture until what you see is an incoherent collection of pixels. The point is that the building blocks don't necessarily make much sense on their own. Only the full thing together makes sense.
For example, I might feel like I struggle with harmony, melody and arrangement more often than rhythm. And it would almost certainly be useful for me to work on improving my skills in those areas, however possible, when not trying to actually write something. But at the different stages of writing, it can be surprisingly ineffective to think you can just tackle one element in isolation. It's crucial to understand that everything is tied together at the end of the day.
So, how do you make sense of this process of production? How do you tell people about it? Ultimately it can be boring when you break it down and present the individual components. "Well, I wrote a four-bar loop for this first element, then I repeated it a number of times, looped it, added a variation, didn't like it, changed it for another one" and so on.
Do you tend to compose in the act of making music or are you someone who goes in with a plan?
Right now I'm doing a lot more thinking about a track before starting work on it. In a way, you can get more done away from a computer than you can in front of it. This might be something simple like having an idea to mash together Brazilian jazz fusion, which I guess is already a mashing together of multiple styles of music, and, I don't know, tech house or something. It's the question of, "Can I make a dance version of genre X? Can I make a club-ready Y?" Another example of generating ideas away from the computer could be tapping a beat with my hands or doing crap beatboxing while walking down the street and recording it on my phone to have a jumping off point for a rhythm.
However it arises, quite soon after you get a germ of an idea, be it a rhythm or melody, a couple elements at most, out of that initial nugget a bigger picture presents itself. For me, this tendency has built up over time with my intuition and, dare I say it, just getting better at writing music. This bigger picture might not be necessarily how the track ends up. It might not be totally right but a suggestion of what to do next is helpful, whether it's a suggestion of a kind of drum palette or a mood, or even a structure or style of arrangement.
Even within this wide range of potential options, obviously I still tend toward certain choices, and I guess that's partially what makes my music the way it is, at least for the time being. For various reasons, these trends within my writing change fairly slowly over time because it's based on deeper things that are harder to change quickly, like experience with different musical styles or knowledge of harmony and melody. Then there's personal taste and your outlook on the world.
One of the defining traits of your music for me is your sense of humour. How do you incorporate that into your work?
The humour wasn't really there at the beginning and it kind of came in as things went along. It's not gone for good but some things I've been working on recently feel as if I've gotten a bit sincere again, but hopefully not in a bad way.
There are different ways of thinking about humour in music. On the one hand, it's a spectrum from something feeling catchy and memorable all the way to things being completely ridiculous and sticking out like a sore thumb. That's one way I think about or frame humour in tracks. I know we spoke a bit about transitions between different sections of tracks and you mentioned the pulling-out-the-aux-cord moment from "Punters Step Out," and I said that's what you might call a trick or a very prominent moment of decoration. Tricks can have an element of humour to them. More than one trick per track is pushing things in my opinion, but it depends. Other people excel at this, like Bruce and Objekt, but it takes quite a lot of production prowess to do it well.
When humour is more on the standout end of the scale, I think restraint is important. Because if something in the track is going to make you go, "Oh my god" and smile and throw you off a bit, if it happens too much it's not funny anymore. The whole basis of humour or comedy is essentially playing with expectations, either meeting or confounding an expectation you have in any medium.
At the other end, it's about having moments that stick with you. Things can stick with you for different reasons, it's not like memorability is just framed by humour or exists only on the spectrum of comedy. There are loads of other things to it. But one way of making something catchy is for it to be on the verge of being ludicrous, just teetering at the point of, "Is this too stupid?" This catches a listener's ear, but you hold back from the point where it turns into clownstep or whatever—or perhaps quite a bit before that point. That's a way of grabbing people's attention. Quite a few of my tracks have been about this balance between sounding too silly and bonkers on the one hand and then too restrained on the other.
This makes me think especially of the lead line in "Punters…" but there's also a hint of it in the sax in "Slope."
Yeah, the bending on the lead in "Punters…" is a good example, where the pitch bend flies up and down to create that seasick carnival organ vibe. I use a similar flavour in "Tail Lift" on some of the keys, too. Just generally, hitting the pitch bend control while holding down a chord is always fun. It's a bit like a whammy bar on a guitar. That's a way more subtle and common usage than huge diving and climbing pitches on an entire part.
I'd also place Skream's "Midnight Request Line" along this scale. I'm thinking particularly of the melodic part. When I first heard it, I thought it sounded like haunted house computer game music, but there was still something serious about it. It's heavy but it has this cheekiness as well.
Humour can also cross over into the realm of outrage. I don't mean in terms of anger but the idea of something being outrageous. This can cover sounds, styles and tropes that aren't necessarily comic in any discernible way. A bunch of stuff on Cómeme, like "Jagos" by Christian S., falls into this category. Barnt, too.
Another one is this big roomy minimal tech house thing, DJ Koze's tribute to Michael Smith ["Mi Cyaan Believe It"]. Smith is a dub poet and Koze just put this silly little beat under it. I don't think it's supposed to be funny but this weird, oddball feeling lands somewhere on the spectrum of humour. Oddball but kind of entrancing, gripping, so deceptively simple.
That's one of the things that grabbed me about minimal. Really minimal stuff that's almost doing nothing. It's like, "Fucking hell, it just keeps doing the same thing," and that's kind of funny. I'm not sure that's intended or if the producers are like, "Hey listen to this, it just goes on and on, what a laugh!" Obviously people are getting into it in a hypnotic way. I can empathise with that too. But there's another Koze track called "I Want To Sleep," which is mostly a repetitive minimal beat with this occasional little burst of noise that happens out of time very occasionally. I think I heard Villalobos play it the first time I ever went to fabric. This little noise, it's funny. It's like a little creature popping up from behind the DJ booth to squawk, "Hello!" Overall, it's hard to get the balance right when it comes to humour.
I personally connect this humorous streak with the idea of your breaking the fourth wall as a producer, which is especially obvious in a track like "Club Scared" where you're directly turning dance music into a sort of meta comment, dropping the barrier between yourself and the listener. To take it a step further, you also have a penchant for using room sound in a way that suggests a communal space where the music takes place. "Maximum Busy Muscle" for me would be the most obvious example.
I remember you asking about whether this emphasis on room sound crosses over with your idea of me making myself visible in the music as a producer, and pushing the listener toward being more conscious of my role in everything. It's possible that this was going on subconsciously. Maybe that was one reason why I liked this type of room sound. But I don't recall strong intentions. In retrospect, it's a nice thing to hear and if anyone else asks me now I'll say that absolutely was my plan from the beginning.
It might have been unintentional but this subconscious process probably represents something about me. It's some combination of optimism, sincerity and humour running through the music. The optimism is kind of like the ideal of being in a club: a feeling of togetherness in a shared space, but with the possibility to be simultaneously wrapped up in your own experience and thoughts.
At the risk of extending this take too far, your use of noise in tracks like "Claptrap" also contributes to this sense of intimacy, comfort and shared space.
I've used noise in a technical way to gel a mix together. Traditionally, if you were recording live instruments on to a medium like tape, there would be background noise and bleed between mics that helps glue the whole mix together, not to mention all the noise of the analogue components in the desk and the rest of it. Noise is also part of the medium that you consume music on.
When you're sitting in your studio, if you don't have appropriate amounts of reverb in a track it can sound really dry, artificial and weird. This might translate well to some clubs because you have background noise and the real reverb of the room—most clubs aren't like anechoic chambers. So if you're not using a lot of reverb, noise can help overcome this. On that note, I use less noise now than I used to because I'm using reverb differently. Whether it's reverb or noise, if you're using it subtly, you can add some air to the mix that's pleasing in the studio and for home listening, but in the club it doesn't make a huge difference.
One reference from outside of music is telecoms' use of so-called comfort noise. The gated sound of compressed speech can jump out of digital silence in a jarring way, which would be uncomfortable for the listener. So an artificial background noise is added to your phone calls. This is kind of how I view my use of noise. Of course Burial is probably the most famous proponent of using rain and vinyl crackle, but it has this same comforting effect.
Do you ever question putting so much time and energy into this type of work?
Sometimes I feel on the fence about music in this regard. Is this doing any good? It's probably not too harmful apart from taking my time away from some more worthwhile occupation. But on the other hand, I do see the importance and power of culture and music. We can at least assume that music and culture is a good thing some of the time, especially if you get idealistic about the distant future and ask the question, if all the problems of the world, humans and existence were solved, what would we do? Perhaps we could presume culture would be the thing, that it's the purpose in a way. It's a possibility.
Another point is that I do actually need to be earning a living and I'm trying to make that work with music. It's been suggested to me by peers that, when it comes to putting out records, you might be able to do less than you think to maintain a decent career because all the money is in DJing. To actually get gigs, it could be said that things like doing a radio show, getting some mixes out or having thousands of Instagram followers are as important, if not more important than releasing records. It all plays a part. So I do feel pressure to release music even if it's at a fairly low rate. I think I should be doing at least a couple records a year but I'll always place a lot of importance on quality over quantity.
In a way, it'd be nice if I could put out loads of great records, like six 12-inches a year. Imagine the discography you'd have! But there's also this feeling of mild hopelessness about the idea of contributing too much to the already-huge catalogue of recorded music in the world. There's a lot out there and plenty of people are really great at making music. So no one person has to put out that much.
One significantly underrepresented element of production is the importance of human relationships and the need to stay conscious of your music's ability to connect with people. How important is staying aware of this, given how isolating being a producer can be?
As much as someone like Rohan [Randomer] has been important to my learning about production, there are so many other people in my life, people I've been close to, parents, partners, that have been crucial. Not to shoehorn them into it, but this support could relate to the point of making visible my hand as a producer, the sound of being in a room together, the optimism of the club as a space and tying this into my work as a producer and what I'm thinking about when I'm working on music. But on a more basic level, the fact I even have the opportunity to work on music means I've been supported and inspired by the people who've taken care of me. Given I don't do a lot of press, it feels important to communicate and show that I'm grateful and thankful to these people and relationships.
There's something called "rubber duck debugging," which is a troubleshooting technique from the world of software engineering. If you've got a problem, before bothering another human being about it, whose time is obviously precious, go and ask the duck first. You can't just think the question in your head, you have to go and ask it out loud. People would get their question ready but as soon as they ask the duck, or even before, they'd realise the answer. It happens all the time. You have a question in your head but as you ask it, you work it out. You had the answer all along but you had to go through the process of vocalising the problem or asking the question in a more conscious way in order to answer it.
I wouldn't be able to hypothetically interview myself because where does the motivation and inspiration come from when you're just dealing with yourself in an isolated way? But knowing that you're talking to someone and having a human connection is something that I've realised is so important for me in so many different ways, this being a meta example because it's about this interview. But the studio is an isolated place to work. You're on your own. It's possible to be quite hard on yourself as a producer and feel like you're in competition with everyone. You're your own biggest critic. Being a solitary producer, one of the motivating things is knowing that stuff you're working on could connect with people. Really reminding yourself of that is important.
It's another cliche, but you basically need to mellow out as a producer. Creating is easier when you care less about the outcome in a meritocratic sense and you just try to appreciate it for what it is and how it can connect with people.