It wasn’t exactly Dylan goes electronic, but when Photek played Low End Theory last week, he definitely brought it all back home when it came to stringing bass culture’s various strands together with fresh aplomb. Low End Theory, of course, is the internationally famed Los Angeles club that has played incubator to the city’s “beat scene,” its disciples like Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer, and Nosaj Thing redefining the DNA of groove-oriented sounds in their own fragmented images. Photek, meanwhile, is one of the forefather visionaries of contemporary bass music, and one of its most idiosyncratic figures.
Photek is the alias of one Rupert Parkes, a Brit who gained fame in the U.K.‘s initial early ‘90s wave of drum and bass. However, as Photek (and in other aliases over the years), Parkes stood out from his genre counterparts, slicing his breakbeats with an eerie, individual starkness. And just as soon as he was considered a don of d&b, Parkes switched up yet again with his 2000 album Solaris: there, he embraced the sound of classic house on tracks like the hit “Mine To Give,” amidst other stylistic excursions.
That shapeshifting nature eventually became a Photek signature, especially on his most recent material. A 2007 album Form & Function Volume 2 got lost in the shuffle a bit (in no small part to the tribulations of his label, Sanctuary), but a recently released EP, “Avalanche,” finds Photek circa 2011 at the absolute top of his game. The title track and “Slowburn” demonstrate how Photek fits in with the Low End crowd: both are atmospheric space-funk grinders, their tempos far slower than any d&b, with absolutely perfect bass tones undulating from their core. Other tracks like “101” and “This City” riff on Photek’s housier elements: they have enough presence and thump to carry a big room, yet their individual sonic particles prove strange and startling when examined up close – a thrilling combination.
Photek remains busy: he’d moved to L.A. from his native England to work on film soundtracks years ago, and continues to remix disparate artists spanning the like of Ray LaMontagne to Daft Punk (his contribution to the Tron remix album was definitely one of the highlights of that project). There’s also another stylistically varied Photek EP on the way come June – part of a flurry of creative activity and releases from a man who’s better known for the gaps between efforts than being prolific. Photek as well is reaching out with a series of live shows: in addition to his Low End appearance, he’ll be performing May 20th at L.A.‘s Avalon club with new-school bass kings 12th Planet, Kastle and Camo UFOs, in addition to ongoing worldwide tour dates. When The Daily Swarm caught up with Photek, he proved equal parts affable and hilarious, candid and mysterious – in other words, fulfilling every part of the beguiling contradiction his persona has evolved into.
The Daily Swarm: With your most current releases, you’ve pretty much confirmed that there’s no predicting what new Photek music is going to sound like.
Photek: Can you just make the same old movie again and again? These new tracks would not exist if I had that attitude. I was asked to define drum and bass years ago. At the time, most d&b was at 165 bpms, and I was already doing vastly different tempos – to me, it’s more about production style, and textures, and sonics, more than a tempo. It’s an aesthetic and production style, and a demanding one, and I apply that to my current music. It’s the common thread to what you’re hearing now from me. From “Mine To Give” to “Avalanche” to “Resolution, the first Photek track, they all have the same sensibility.
TDS: I’ve always felt that, as soon as you’re ready to be pigeonheoled, that’s when you make a big change.
P: There’s something in that. Very early on, if I made too many of the same thing in a row, I’d switch it up. I’m always changing. The title track of my first album, Modus Operandi, wasn’t d&b at all – it doesn’t make much sense! I have the same weird mentality today. I make creative decisions rather than career decisions
TDS: What I’m loving about bass music and culture today is it is holding up d&b’s initial promise to deconstruct music, in a way – its legacy is similar to punk’s, in a way.
TDS: Then d&b got predictable. Dubstep and other bass music forms seem to have learned a lesson from that: the tempos are more varied, and seemingly the more innovative music in those areas are the ones that succeed.
P: It’s bizarre. Drum and bass became something I didn’t recognize; I didn’t want to compete in that arena. For me, the creative period for d&b was between 1993 and 1997 – then whole era of “horror” d&b began. There was nothing in that for me at all; it had more to do with thrash and industrial, and where I come from more is black music, as far as my influences go. If it’s got a soul, reggae, or Miles Davis twist to it, it feels right to me. At the same time, putting a Fender Rhodes on your d&b track became a stereotype as well. I hated the term “intelligent d&b,” and I hated being termed that. It caused some problems at gigs: everyone else was like, “If you’re intelligent, what does that make us?” When intelligent d&b became a cliché, as soon as I could I went the other way. The first wave of dubstep reminds me of the spirit I loved with early d&b; it’s nice that dubstep is more fractured, that there’s more space. The different movements within it all seem to have their own stuff.
TDS: Where do you fit in to the current bass culture?
P: Where do I fit in? Into everything.
TDS: In terms of tempo and bottom end, your newer tracks definitely share some qualities of dubstep.
P: It’s definitely not “Photek turning dubstep,” because that would be really boring. I’d love dubstep DJs to play my stuff in their sets – that would be great – but I have to make sure they are Photek tracks first. What’s interesting is, the reaction to my new stuff at [BBC’s] Radio 1 is the best I’ve ever had, and the range of DJs playing it is incredible. There are so many more musical directions I want to explore; I’m always pulled in ten different directions. Take “Slowburn”: I thought I’d make a whole slew of tracks like this, and that’s what I’d sound like from then on. It’s slow house music, heavy and grinding: I wanted to make a new genre out of it! “Disco Science” by Mirwais is closest thing to what I was imagining. [Mr. Fingers’ Chicago house classic] “Can You Feel It” was 112 bpm – it’s such a great tempo. You can do more stuff in that tempo: it’s sexy, and not in a cheesy way.
TDS: What I loved about “Mine To Give” was that, while it definitely was influenced by classic Chicago house, it transcended mere pastiche.
P: Tracks like “Glamourama” and “Mine To Give” were more nostalgia laden. Looking back it’s not pure Chicago, really, but that’s what the feeling was when I made it. I wish I’d made some of those Mr. Fingers tracks, but ultimately, I don’t want to make something myself that someone has already done. I’ve had moments where I’ve done a literal homage, and then it goes back in the hard drive.
TDS: To me, beyond genre, what’s most distinctive about your music is that a kind of uncomfortable tidiness always creeps in.
P: It always does! The music I love most is the exact opposite: I like stuff that sounds loose and rough, and not all tidied up. I started trying to do that more: not every reverb has to trail to zero on hi hat and blend seamlessly. Solaris is very sonic Nazi! Everything goes in its position. It may have something to do with recording technology: you just start lining stuff up like Tetris.
TDS: What brought you to a minimalist aesthetic?
P: I don’t choose minimalism per se, but I’ve made my mark in that way sonically. I did a track for Kirk Degiorgio’s label; certainly in my archive there’s minimal techno that I’ve made, but it’s had that same eccentricity that all my music does. Part of it comes from my gear choices – using Lexicon reverbs and E-mu samplers, as opposed to computer plug-ins, makes the space sound really lush. There’s a spatiality in the way that equipment works: hearing space with a beautiful reverb is nice, so I didn’t need to fill the gaps, because the gaps sounded good. I think of how Basic Channel takes one or two sounds and treats them a subtle way, so you need space to hear them.
TDS: Your newer tracks like “Avalanche” and “Slowburn” are very minimal in terms of their overall scope.
P: They are minimal in terms of the amount of tracks happening in the song, definitely. Still, they are closest to a Chemical Brothers-style wall of sound than anything I’ve ever done before; they’re minimal pieces of music, but not with much space – they’re not fussy. Everything I do is full of contradictions
TDS: Indeed, I feel like that your tidiness and minimalism exudes an obsessive quality, and alienation, that feels very modern.
P: It’s like an OCD minimalist designed house! Even the artwork reflects that.
TDS: Your tracks are very composed, but retain an eccentricity.
P: They are, definitely. It doesn’t sound like any coherent A&R meetings took place! “This City” just popped out: for the drums, I wanted something that sounds like it’s from a new wave band – really dead and flat, not high tech, with let’s all the spark taken out of it. I applaud anyone that can fit it into a set. I don’t know where the fuck that came from! Mixing those kind of things together got me going to my first raves. There, you’d hear tracks like “Sueno Latino,” R&S, early breakbeat, My Bloody Valentine remixed by Andrew Weatherall; I remember hearing “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins – it was weird and magical, but it all worked together, and I was drawn to that. I was drawn to music I hadn’t heard before. Making these new EPs, I just let it go if it felt right. That’s essence of it – let the track pan out and not try to guide it into a format.
TDS: At the same time, reviewing your older d&b material, it sounds more timeless than dated. Certainly it sounds less dated than so many of your peers’ tracks from that era.
P: I was playing a gig in Athens recently. Towards the end of my set, the promoter came up and asked me, “Can you play some old classics for the Athens crew?” At first I told him no, but he said, “I’ve got ‘em in my box on vinyl,” so I said okay. I ended up playing an hour of new stuff, and then an hour of my old stuff from ‘94 – ‘95, under the Photek name and various aliases; I discovered I’d forgotten some songs I’d made, and only vaguely remembered making others. Some records, I’d never even seen the artwork! Other than some snare rolls, they all sounded really great: I realized all my music choices and decisions were made in those early songs.
TDS: You moved from the U.K. to Los Angeles some time ago. Why?
P: The weather was the reason I stayed. I was on tour, and Paramount Pictures were looking for artists signed to Virgin Records [Photek’s former label] to contribute to the score of a pilot. I got the job, rented a house, and did the score, and the offers kept coming. After a while, the time commuting in airports just got to be too much.
TDS: Where did you grow up in England?
P: I grew up just outside the ring road that defines London, in the Northwest. It’s funny: the suburbs – which we call the “Home Counties” in England – are often the birthplace of music that’s often associated with London. The Prodigy were straight out of Essex, for example. It’s often fifty percent suburbs, fifty percent London, really – there’s even a label called Suburban Base!
TDS: You moved to California to work on soundtracks, and your music was decidedly cinematic even before that. How did the move affect your artistic output?
P: I always heard, “Your music is so cinematic, you should be doing movies!” Michael Mann movies, preferably! It’s contributed to a massive evolution for me, especially in terms of being versatile and reaching for different sounds. I’ll be working on a score, and someone will say, “Scrap that whole electronic arpeggio thing and get a singer instead – it needs to sound more like Mazzy Star.” I’m like, “Oh, sure” – and of course I’ve never done that before. But you realize you can step up to the challenge. One’s ego is being kicked to shit is a good thing: working on soundtracks, you’re subservient to the picture, playing a minor role in a major orchestra on an unrealistic deadline. After that, when I switch over to making my own music, I can work at a high standard more rapidly than ever before. One valuable lesson I’ve got out of being involved in films is set your own brief, do your own thing, don’t be beholden to anyone, and just create.
TDS: I never imagined Photek beholden to anyone. I always imagined you up on a mountaintop alone, wearing a kimono and samurai sword as you forged beats in total isolation.
P: I can confirm that fantasy. Most of what I do happens in a bubble – that’s the way I make music. There’s only one chair in my studio. I go off on a mission and I don’t know what anyone else is doing, and no one knows what I’m doing; then I appear at the end with some weird noise. My creativity, though, is on such a good roll at the moment – I hope to put something out every other month this year. There’s no music industry to say you have to release something on any kind of schedule. Music just needs a need to exist. That’s all there is.