Techno sleuths of a certain age will know Chris Hobson from MNML SSGS, the influential blog he ran with friends from 2007 to 2012. During that time, he and fellow SSG Peter Chambers became advocates for a particular strain of electronic music: the rich middle-ground between ambient, experimental and the kind of subtle and hypnotic techno we associate with Labyrinth festival in Japan, an event the site helped raise to global prominence. MNML SSGS made its final post in 2012, but Hobson has remained an important voice in electronic music since then, cohosting a series of chill out parties in Tokyo called Sound Garden and charting his own path as an ambient DJ. The past 12 months were something of a breakthrough for Hobson as a DJ, with gigs at heady festivals like Germany's Nachtdigital, Taiwan's Organik and Sustain-Release in upstate New York.
At these events and others around the world, Hobson helped prove something fans of ambient have long known to be true: that at the right parties and festivals, this music can be absolutely vital, offering an experience totally different from beat-driven dance floor sounds, but with as much tension and drama as a peak-time set. He achieves the same effect with RA.605, a rich and transportive mix made mostly of recent ambient music, tailored to ease you into 2018.
What have you been up to recently?
Dealing with 2017, which was a particularly brutal year for me. One very significant positive, however, was things going well on the music front. I had my first tours of Europe and the US, got to play some excellent festivals, and continued to make progress with my DJing.
How and where was the mix recorded?
In 2017 I switched to playing CDJs, but for this mix I reverted to my old setup: Traktor with a Babyface Pro interface and an Allen & Heath Xone:K1 controller. It was recorded in one take on a Sunday afternoon at home in Tokyo.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the mix?
There were a number of things I was trying to do with the mix. First, as it is being published just as we exit from 2017, I wanted to focus on music from the past year. Most of the tracks are from the last 12 months, with a few from previous years, nothing before 2014. And this relates to a second aim, I wanted to include artists and labels I think are doing interesting stuff now, and I hope the tracklist might be a starting point for people to dig deeper. Except for one unreleased track from a friend, everything else is easily available and well worth exploring. Finally, I wanted to do a mix that accurately represented my approach to DJing ambient music. A fundamental aspect of this is doing something that matches the context, so in this case it meant a mix that would fit with post-NYE recovery zones.
As an ambient DJ you're part of a rare breed. Can you tell us some of the basics of the craft? What's the technical side of ambient DJing like? Where do you dig? How do you "read the room"? And what is it about this style of performance that drew you in more than, say, the kind of techno you covered on MNML SSGS?
Ambient was a central aspect of MNML SSGS from the beginning. For us, ambient and techno were not separate, but part of the same whole. One of our first posts was reflecting on the demise of chill-out rooms, our first mix was from Bvdub. Towards the end of the blog, after I had moved to Tokyo, together with my friends David and Jerome we setup our Sound Garden events. This was our attempt to bring back the chill out space, and it was crucial in helping me to understand what does and does not work when presenting ambient. Over time I began to develop a more distinctive approach to what I am doing.
It might sound weird, but basically what I am trying to do is DJ ambient in a techno way. What I mean by this is that I am interested in building and releasing energy. I don't want to just provide some nice background music, I hope to create powerful emotions and provoke strong responses. I may not be using normal basslines and kicks, but I look for tracks that can fulfill similar functions, so it is still possible to generate tension and produce moments of release. This also means thinking a lot about the overall arc and flow of the set, generating push and pull, providing contrast. The challenge is I have to do this outside of the standard dance floor structure, which means there is not much need for beatmatching. It also means I am regularly using tracks with a lot more dynamic range and that were not made with DJing in mind, but this also creates some advantages: having changes in volume or moments of silence can work very well.
What are some events you've been to (or played at) that really nail the art of the ambient stage? How do they do that?
From DJing and being involved in organizing events, one thing that is very clear is that there are many situations where ambient music will not work. Saying that, I think there is a lot more potential for it than promoters realise. Ambient can provide a valuable contrast or create space that will allow different sounding artists to have maximum impact. When you go to a high-end restaurant for a ten-course meal, they won't normally serve you ten plates of well-cooked steak. But for some reason, DJs and organizers seem to think a nonstop diet of similar sounding techno makes sense. So where can ambient work?
There are three main types of situation I have played in that have been successful. The first is opening an event. Rural and Sustain Release were two festivals where I was the first act on the main stage for that day's program. This allowed me to ease people into things, create some space and generate anticipation for the dance floor-focused artists that followed. The second is a more challenging but potentially more rewarding slot, which is at the end of the night or at a transitional moment of an event. This is what I did at Organik, where I followed Steve Bicknell at sunrise. With a much more broken-in audience I could do something deeper and more powerful, and also move the party into a rest period before it returned to beats later in the day. The final one is a dedicated chill out space. For this to work, it must be protected from noise bleed, otherwise it is pointless. Nachtdigital had a really comfortable area and I enjoyed playing there. And whatever the context, it makes a huge difference if people can sit down or rest in some way. Standing for an extended period of time with no beats is tiring and can interfere with people's ability to focus.
What are you up to next?
I'm very happy to start 2018 on a positive note, bringing in the new year by playing at the Future Terror party and having this podcast released. While it may be a new year, unfortunately life is not so neatly demarcated, so I still have some big things I need to work through. In terms of music, I will just stick with what I have been doing: refining my approach to DJing, taking opportunities to introduce people to new sounds, sometimes offering a critical perspective on electronic music, and doing what I can to support the Japanese scene and other artists I believe in. Thanks to RA for having me, and all the best to everyone for 2018.