One to watch :: Skins
Hello Alex, how's it going and what have you been up to recently?
Hi Matt! All good thanks. The last couple of weeks have seen me trying to find the balance between working and making time for music/going out. At the moment I'm favouring the former but I am still getting some bits done when I have some time in the evening.
First up - when you think of Skins - do you consider yourself more of a DJ or producer primarily? Is it Skins - DJ (and producer) or vice versa?
Well I think I was DJing for about 2 years before I started getting serious with the production. I'm still yet to have anything released on vinyl, which is my pre-defined endpoint of when I consider myself “a producer”. I've got a few tracks sitting on my hard drive and have been talking to labels but I don't want to give anything away for the moment. I hope to have a record out by the end of this year and I know it's dangerous to say that publicly, as it may not happen, but that's my aim.
I think of your music as being quite dubbed out and contemplative, for both the house and techno you produce, whilst still retaining dancefloor functionality. Do you think you're beginning to reach a signature Skins sound? Is there a particular mood or feeling you strive for in each track, or your body of music as a whole?
I don't think I have a well-planned or considered image or sound. When I'm making music I tend to go with whatever sound or idea grabs me at the time, which means I do sometimes end up with some unusual results. I've got a few tracks I would never play out, in styles which of music which I don't listen to that much, but making them has all been part of the learning experience. I approach mixes in the same way; I try to avoid planning too much, other than having a rough idea of the sound palette I want to display and picking records which fit that aesthetic. The closer I can get to recording in one take, even if it means you can hear a bit of looseness in the mix, the better.
I do have some sounds, the dubby end of the spectrum which you mentioned, which I just find more appealing. A good dub techno stab is the quickest way to get to my heart. The big thing that gets me is always the sense of space in a piece of music. That's what drew me into liquid jungle, which was my gateway into electronic music, to dubstep and also dub techno. I tend not to like things which are too “busy”, I'd much rather have the focus on a few expertly-crafted elements.
The other thing that I'm finding myself ever more drawn towards is good use of melody, but specifically things which might be a little uncomfortable or weird. I haven't got the knack of doing it myself and it's not something which I know a lot about, but I think the perfect demonstration of this is the Kettenkarussell live set done for mnml ssgs a while back. I listened to that again before the Giegling night the other weekend and just fell in love with it all over again.
Would you say you write music more for yourself or for others?
I definitely make music for myself. I do sometimes think “what would I want to hear next if I was in the club?” or “what can I do to keep this interesting?” but I never approach things from a truly functional perspective; I'm thinking about what works for me, not for dancefloors in general. Some people are great at making dancefloor smashers and that's great for them, but I know I get bored of listening to those types of tracks for too long, so making them myself doesn't have much appeal.
My own forays into writing music generally lack much direction so I'm always interested to hear how other people approach it. What's your writing process? Do you start a track with a clear vision about what you want to achieve, or purpose? Or is it more of a "let's try and make a cool sound and go from there" type thing? And how actively do you think about things like the composition, or the balance of sonic elements vs melodic elements, when you're quite a way through writing a song?
About 80% of the time I open Ableton I have absolutely no idea what's going to come out at the end of it. I'll start off with an idea, like a synth patch I want to build or maybe I'll noodle around and find some nice chords and then go from there. Once I have a couple of elements I'll start considering where I want to take it a bit more thoroughly. I don't really think consciously about the balance of different elements, I just fill empty spaces as and when I find them. I used to completely build tracks through from the start but I've now taken to building a basic loop first and then starting arrangement from the beginning and building through. I also mix down roughly as I go through which makes the process of making the track a bit slower, but if I'm on good form I can get through a track in one session of about 6-8 hours. It's not always that quick though.
I loved your Youtube video where you showed Kowton how to turn a kick drum sample into a pad... got any current nifty studio tips to share?
Thanks, that was a lot of fun, and I'm glad it was well received. It could so easily have elicited a response along the lines of “who are you? Please fuck off”, which would have been justified.
The thing which really opened doors for me and allowed me to take my sound design to the next level was running parallel chains. This has allowed me to do fun things like having different effects running on different frequency ranges and putting those ranges in distinct parts of the stereo image. For example, with a pad I can easily mono the low end, put a panning delay and some chorus on the midrange for width and then put a bitcrusher after a reverb (out to Benny Froobs for telling me about that) and then high-passing it to make a nice fizzy top end which I can spread even wider and auto pan. The possibilities are endless.
You've DJed mainly in Oxford so far - what are your thoughts on the scene there at the moment? What's good, what's not so good?
I could write about this for days. In fact I was recently considering writing an article but instead I'll share my main thoughts here. There are some people here who are really switched on and who are booking really exciting underground artists. The names which spring to mind are Patchwork and Pitch Black. Disco Ma Non Troppo put on one of my favourite nights of music ever recently and I'm looking forward to the next one! I'm sure there are other crews about and Simple have obviously been doing it for ages, but I'm more interested in the smaller groups and names who are new to the scene with space to grow and develop.
There are a few obstacles to the scene as I see it and it's mostly related to the student population. The fact that most students are only here for only 3 years, and that less than half of each of those is actually spent in Oxford, means it's really difficult to get proper momentum up and create a community. I was sad when Subverse ended but I think it might have been coming towards the end of the Oxford hype cycle; those who had been our most regular faces were moving away and taking their enthusiasm for the night with them. Having said that, there are always people who are interested and engaged with the underground scene so I can't complain too much.
The other problem is Oxford's relentless obsession with labelling things “edgy”. This seems to create a barrier to people getting into the scene, for fear of being labelled “edgy”, and it creates an aversion to anything remotely outside of the usual run-for-profit £2 jaegerbomb pop music-fuelled student nights. People are afraid of this nebulous “edgy” phenomenon and I just don't understand why. If you like something, just go with it. It's okay to be different.
What can we expect in terms of new SoundCloud activity / seeing you play out in the next few months?
I've got a couple of mixes which I need to record and I may put some tracks up on Soundcloud but I don't have any solid plans at the moment. My schedule is pretty free (hint hint) before I head to Australia at the end of March.
Finally... two recent mixes you'd recommend?
I'm not very good at keeping up to date with recent mixes but Mosca's STL Special on NTS is probably going to be one which I come back to in the future – highly recommended. There's a recording of Lurka's set from RECONSTRVCT XXII which is an absolute turbo-heater. I wasn't that into UK Funky when it was at its peak but the second half of that mix make me wish I had been paying more attention.