The first time I heard Rockwell‘s “Please Please Please (Play This On The Radio)” as a MistaJam premiere on 1Xtra, my jaw dropped. I don’t think I’d ever heard drum & bass with four-on-the-floor like this, and I’d definitely never heard this fusion of soulful and vogue-y house at break-neck speeds. The title of the track is a call for change; a request for selectors to take risks, and for audiences to open their ears to new sounds within the genre. The rest of the singles that followed — a blissed out and breezy bassline anthem, “Itsok2behapp-e”, featuring Sam Binga and Hyroglifics, a classic halftime roller, “Technoir” with Breakage, and a giddy thrasher, “Rave Cult”, with Phace — helped shaped the unorthodox and resultantly refreshing sounds of Rockwell’s new album, Obsolete Medium, out now through Friction’s Shogun Audio imprint.
Check our chat with Rockwell below:
Having finished the album, are you already writing new tunes?
Yea, I took some time off and wrote some new music for what I wanted to hear. I did some hip-hop instrumentals, stuff like that. Then I’m doing a collaboration with some friends and getting sounds together. I love writing music. Even if I didn’t have a record deal or a DJ career, I’d still be writing music.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing electronic music for about 11 to 12 years. That’s quite a long time, really, when you think about it. A lot of people will get their cracked Ableton, and in like three, four, five, years they’ve got a release. I took a bit longer. I’m not the most technical of producers, like I don’t really understand the whole science behind the mix down as well as someone like Noisia would. I think, as a producer, you should always strive to be better. I never wanna sit there and say, “Yea, that’s perfect.” Where do you go from there? You’ve always got to be trying to get somewhere else I think.
It seems that you had that mentality with this album, you even start with a quote about an artist not really being satisfied with their current environment. Did you want to set some sort of tone?
When I got into drum and bass, it wasn’t really a fashionable thing. It was sort of like the outcast dance music and I think that’s been why I kind of gravitated towards it. At the time, I was into punk rock and hip-hop, and I didn’t really ever get on with house – that whole sheeny lifestyle of dancing around with your bottle of champagne, it didn’t really resonate with me. I didn’t really understand it. Then, when I went to see drum and bass shows, the fact that there was a DJ and an MC, and the MC was rapping, and the music was fast and urgent like punk rock, it resonated a lot more with me. I think with that quote, I was just trying to get back to that whole sort of rebellious nature that I was really attracted to with drum and bass. A lot of the time, especially nowadays, it’s become very safe, very formulaic, especially some of the dance floor styles, and I’ve never really been into that.
Safe is boring.
Yea, exactly! I think the same thing happened with dubstep, people like going out and hearing the clichés of that genre. They wanna hear the wubs in the dubstep, and the classic sounds in drum and bass, but I kind of approached this album with the mentality of: if you want to hear those clichés, you can go and hear them, but you’re not going to hear them here. This is about what I do, and the music that I write. I think that it’s different from what a lot of people are doing. A lot of people stick to those clichés because they know that they work, and they know that they sell. I wanted to approach it without thinking of all that. I let the tunes be what they wanted to be. It came together a lot more organically than if I’d thought of having big tunes that would sell me to festivals. It’s an honest reflection of the textures that I like in drum and bass and ultimately in all dance music.
A lot of these tracks have influences from many genres of UK dance music – are you conscious of the pieces you take from genres and sounds, or are you spit-balling as you go?
I definitely was trying to introduce a bit more music, rather that having 16 bars of just pads and hi-hats so that you can mix it in, and then drop it into bass. I didn’t want to make DJ tunes, I wanted to make stuff with feeling. It’s not really a deliberate thing, you just hear sounds and it’ll just spark your creativity. You just know when you’ve found something that’s going to work.
Can you tell us a bit about the featured artists you chose to work with?
Well, I’ve worked with Florean (Phace) a couple of times now, we’re really good friends, I think this is probably our fourth of fifth tune we’ve written together. I went over and stayed with him in Hamburg and we wrote two tunes in those couple of days. He had one for his project and I had one for mine. On that note, I just kept it on a similar vibe where I just worked with people that I knew, and that I liked. I didn’t want to be like “I want to work with that guy because he’s hot right now, and he’s got hype”. It wasn’t contrived in any way.
I also get on really well with James Breakage. When I see him we’ll have a drink and have a great laugh. He came to the studio and we talked for about two days and maybe spent half an hour on the tune. In that half an hour – because we talked so much about what we liked – we did some real work. It all clicked. With Sam Binga and Hyroglifics, I’m really into what Sam does, I really like spending time with him. He had a really early sketch of a tune, he sent it over and I was really into it. He sent me the stems and I basically remade all of the samples except for maybe one. I built around that track and it was all just kind of organic. I put some extra new phrases into it and tinkered with the mix down and it came out really well. It was kind of like an old 8 bar grime record, where you’ve got like a bassline switch, back to a bassline switch. I know Sam is really into that whole sound and I am too.
I really liked how on “Please, Please, Please” you went four on the floor, which isn’t something I’d regularly hear on a Drum and Bass track.
The reason behind “Please, Please, Please” was that it was kind of a dissatisfaction with people following formula. You’ve got artists like Rudimental who are really big drum & bass artists and I think their success just bred a lot of copying. People just wanted that big radio hit. I’m kind of taking a piss at that a little bit with this by making an unplayable seven minute tune, with an un-DJ-able three minute intro. When we talked about it being the first single, we decided that we were going to keep it as is, and call it “Please, Please, Please (Play This On The Radio)”, and we just went for it. When it went to radio, the stations seemed to be all on the same page as me. They felt that the songs of late were so safe and identical and this is different and they were into it and they wanted to play it. It’s had more radio support than I could’ve wished for, and probably more than if I’d done a hit style record. I was happy with the way the track came out and I didn’t make any of the changes that people wanted me to make. I love the four-on-the-floor vibe and it was something that I’d touched on in a track called “I Need You”. I just wanted to make something happy. Most drum & bass is kind of moody.
How has it been working with Shogun?
When I first signed to Shogun, people who liked my earlier music were a bit worried that Friction [the label head] was going to change me, or change my music. It was never like that. My relationship with Shogun is great. They don’t really A&R me at all. They let me be who I want to be, and I like that a lot. If I put out a tune and they like it, it doesn’t have to be the biggest dance floor tune, or even something that Friction will go out and play. If they’re into it, then they’ll put it out. That’s the kind of support you want. I’d never want to be a producer that’s writing for the DJ books of the producer who owns the label, it’s quite creatively limiting. I’m happy. They support me, leave me alone, and let me work.
Have you heard from Friction about the album?
Yea, he loves it! I saw him this weekend, we did a gig together in Switzerland, and he’s just really happy with how it all turned out. He’s a drum & bass don, he’s been in the game for a very long time, he’s seen all the changes, and if you can get someone exited about drum and bass who’s heard every incarnation of it that’s existed under the sun, then you’re probably doing it alright.
What are some of your personal favorites from the record?
I really like the track I did with Breakage, the really prog-y, half-step sort of old school sounding electronic record. I quite like the transitions in it and I find it quite emotive. I’ve played it out a couple times and it sounds massive in the clubs, but when you play it at home it sounds so intimate, and you’d think it would never work in a club. Generally, for my music, I tend to like the music that the public isn’t really into. I like “Macbook Jungle Crew” because I haven’t written a chopper tune like that for a very long time. I really enjoyed writing the “Skits” as well, I got to go to YouTube and watch a bunch of oldschool punk videos.
Yea, what bands were you taking interviews from for the skits?
First one is an interview from a band called Poison Idea. They’re really nihilistic and hardcore but quite artistic. It’s as artistic as it is brutal. That was a really old interview from the ’90s. The quality of the video was garbage but I really resonated with what he was saying. Then the second one is from a Public Access TV show from Detroit from like 1985, with a band called Negative Approach. I quite like to poke fun at people and myself with my track titles, and what he was saying about writing songs about people he hates kind of resonated with me. It was just one of those things where you saw people talking about music in the same way as you feel and think about it. It was very creatively reassuring and inspiring.
Does the album name refer, in a tongue-in-cheek way, to what DnB used to be?
The name “Obsolete Medium” is kind of a poke at a lot of things. You’ve got purists in drum & bass who still love vinyl, which is an obsolete medium. You’ve got someone like me writing an album in 2015, where, to be perfectly honest, if I’d have busted out four EPs on bandcamp, it would’ve been a lot better press-wise and coverage-wise, so the whole idea of writing an album in 2015 feels like an obsolete thing. Then, being a producer in 2015, if you’re some big DJ, you can pay some guy to write your tune and you can then tour the world off the back of that and make hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many producers think that can be pretty disheartening. I don’t get it. I wouldn’t want anyone writing my music, I want to write all of my own music, and I enjoy it. I’m not in this for the lifestyle or the money, I’m in this because I like to express myself creatively at drum and bass speeds.
Words: Fan Fiction