The UK has a long history of talented bass manipulators, and Joe Cowton has proven himself worthy of being included amongst their ranks. Both solo as Kowton, and with Bristol luminaries Peverelist and Asusu as Livity Sound, he’s had a string of releases showcasing a talent for inventive rhythms. In many ways, the music he creates is techno, albeit a raw, stripped-down variant of the genre: influenced by the low-end-heavy mutations of the UK hardcore continuum.
He’s contributed floor-smashing tunes to imprints like Idle Hands, All Caps, Naked Lunch, Hessle Audio and Keysound, but his collaborations with Peverelist have proved particularly potent, setting the stage for his own move toward a more focused sound palette. Now based in London, he’s prepared to make a full-length statement with his debut solo album, Utility, this April.
In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio, Lauren Martin spoke to Kowton about beginnings, process and techno in 2016.
Tell us about your introduction to electronic music. I know that you grew up in the countryside?
I grew up in the Lake District, which is one of the most scenic parts of the UK: lots of mountains and lakes. It’s lovely, but has very little culture. The first-ever dance music gig that I went to was a Hospital Records night, at a place called the Brewery in Kendall. I was 16-years old. At that point, there was no real sense of the Internet, or a wider connection to club culture. We were going off older brothers, mates or the bloke we’d buy weed off: finding out about Ben Sims, Jeff Mills, but without any real sense of context; “These people do techno, and that happens somewhere outside of where we live.”
As we got older we went to raves in quarries, which sound more interesting than they were. It would be 50 blokes in a car park, dancing round a table to 145-150BPM beats with lots of 909 hi-hats – the fallout from hardcore, really. While Jeff Mills was working from the perspective of trying to convey the future in drum machine form, I don’t think anyone had considered the future in a Lake District quarry rave.
What perspective were you coming from, then? It sounds very narrow – almost forced upon you.
I’m better off being candid here. Rather than inventing some kind of false history of listening to Metalheadz when I was 11-years old, I was a teenager during a very bleak era of tech-step sounds. It was Ed Rush & Optical, Bad Company, DJ Trace – music that doesn’t have a lot of light and isn’t a lot of fun, which we’d listen to while smoking horrible skunk in cars after skating until it was dark. You have to imagine a place where there’s so little to do that the best possible option is to go and sit with your mates in a car and listen to very bleak music. I don’t think we even realized that we were missing out, though.
The late ’90s were awash with things posturing as being “all idea,” really.
After that, though, I moved to Manchester and became embroiled in a scene that did have a context to it. People were putting on nights that were, perhaps not as significant as nights like DMZ in London or the Orbit in Leeds, but were a new reality. My personal take on music became a lot more affected by what I was being told in the record shops and reading in music magazines. I don’t think there had previously been any kind of qualifiers for “What is good music?” beyond “Is this loud, heavy and dark?” The idea that you could get lost in a Basic Channel record – something subtle, beautiful, well formed – was a first for me.
The early raves that I went to in Manchester were quite intimidating drum & bass nights, but as dubstep and grime emerged I realized that perhaps I wasn’t alone in this desire for something new. The first time that I went to Exodus in Leeds, it was literally: “Wow, this is what I’ve been waiting for. This is a night for people my age and who wanted something new, and it’s arrived in the form of DJ Youngsta.”
How did the arrival of dubstep make you feel about music and clubbing?
You can’t downplay the amount of weed we smoked. We were literally, habitually, smoking weed for 24 hours a day. That makes you so anti-social that something like DMZ, where everyone just stood quietly, allowed you to be yourself for that time. I don’t think there are many times when music offers such a potent amount of purpose. I was a true believer.
Youngsta and Loefah were my favorites because of the consideration they put into it: this idea that Loefah only released a handful of records because he spent six weeks on each snare. It’s a million miles away from the disposability of that kind of tech-step, drum and bass, where just everyone was updating record after record. “Here’s a new DJ Hazard record. He’s changed the bassline, but the drums are identical to his last ten records.” With dubstep, you had the template of, “You need the sub bass, but anything else can go on top.”
How did that make you re-think what it meant to produce electronic music?
The late ’90s were awash with things posturing as being “all idea,” really. It’s just not something that’s ever interested me: the idea that this music is better because it’s written on a mathematical equation, or this music is better because the sound design was done by an algorithm rather than a human. I did a Masters in Music Technology, and my tutor’s a great bloke who helped me enormously, but one of his things would forever be, like, “Oh, look at this live coding event. There’s someone writing the program to write the software in front of you, live,” and I just don’t have any time for considering that process is more important than the reality of what’s finished.
So when did you start to make music?
I must have been 18- or 19-years old. I’d read in Music Magazine that the best way to get into it was to buy a copy of Logic, so I bought Logic off eBay for £90. Anyone that’s ever used broadband would be like, “Why on earth would you buy software off eBay?” I guess it’s the most primitive form of bootlegging software.
I got this CD of Logic, and back then you had to build your own environment in Logic before you could get started. On the CD was the Fruity Loops program, and that is really easy to use: put a kick drum in there, a snare in that bit there, and you’ve got a tune in minutes. It’s ridiculous the amount of producers over the years that have used Fruity Loops, but Skream and Pearson Sound stick out for me.
It took me a long time to realize what music I wanted to make. Grime was still very embryonic, and definitely not something that had reached the Lake District, for example. I haven’t got any of those old tracks, but I presume they’re all at 170BPM and have all got these breakbeats in them: samples from The Exorcist, or whatever god-awful kind of horror thing people thought was relevant. I cringe a bit thinking about it: running 30-second spoken word things over breakdowns. I don’t think I’d ever do it to you now, with any kind of big, long vocal.
You moved to Bristol next, which lead to you getting involved with Idle Hands. What did that time do for you?
I finished up college in Manchester, went back to the Lake District, and worked in a hotel for two or three years. I had a steady girlfriend and I had my mum on my case for pretty much the whole time. “You’re blatantly going mad here, you have to get out.” I moved to Bristol in 2008 and sat around smoking weed. The following January, my lung collapsed. I was bed-bound. Once I got out, I smoked again, obviously, and then my lung collapsed again. The doctors were like, “What is wrong with you?”
Then my girlfriend came to visit: “You never call me. I’m breaking up with you.” My roommate was like, “You need to sort your life out. You haven’t got a job, your girlfriend has left you, and you almost died from not treating yourself with any self-respect.” That was when I stopped smoking weed. I embarked on a period of seeing a huge amount of music. 2008 was the year that UK funky took off, with Roska, Cooly G and Marcus Nasty.
To be frank, a lot of the post-dubstep stuff was increasingly dull, and you had a lot of people trying to force garage onto techno. You ended up with this cluttered mess. If you wanted good music at that time, UK funky was it. People gloss over it now, but anyone who had been playing house music for any length of time was so glad: “Here we go, house isn’t a dirty word anymore.” That was a huge thing because house had been ignored for a long time. Omar-S’s best records all came out between 2002 and 2006, but no one gave them time of day.
Tell me about your relationship with Peverelist.
I’ve known Peverelist since around 2008, but we didn’t start doing anything musical until about 2010. Peverelist’s a reserved man. He’s not someone that you would just meet and be like, “Let’s do a tune.” Without wishing to speak for him, I think he definitely reached a point where he was aware that what he was doing wasn’t necessarily true to what he wanted to be doing.
When he broached the subject of starting a label, we took stock of where we were and what was going on in the scene. UK funky had been and gone, and techno was becoming relevant once more. It made no sense for us to be making records that would have been on Punch Drunk. With Livity Sound, we wanted to be doing – and we said it a thousand times – “techno, wherever you can.”
Whether or not we’ve ever made music that a lot of people would consider “techno” is questionable, but I think the mentality is that in that techno’s meant to be fluid music that just goes and goes. As well as that, Peverelist has a very dubby angle to his music and that is equally part of Livity Sound. I don’t think going out there and making a bunch of records that sounded like Marcel Dettmann would have done us any favours, and that wasn’t our intention.
With Livity Sound as a label, we’ve perhaps found ourselves as outsiders. Maybe because our music’s obtuse and awkward, but we’ve not hoped to rise to the top of the techno scene, and become a solid, headline label. If we look around at all the labels in the UK, Hessle Audio has had a huge influence on us. Then there’s The Trilogy Tapes. Will Bankhead has this Boris Johnson-esque ability to appear like he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and then smash out ten of the best records you’ve ever heard.
You once said that there’s a difference between depressing and dark music. Can you elaborate upon that?
There’s always been a big place in my musical world for melancholy and dread. My dad loved The Smiths and The Fall. If you needed a miserablist upbringing, those are the ones, aren’t they? I think it’s such a fine line, though. With the Livity Sound records, there is an aspect of melancholy, but I would hate the idea that people saw us as depressing in any way. If there’s darkness, it’s delicately placed, rather than having big, sad chords on top of everything.
When you hear tracks that push the sonic extremities of what’s endurable as much as what’s possible, that’s when it’s exciting.
A lot of making a track “dark” is how you position the drums in the space that you have. If you use a lot of reverb and delay, you get this very cavernous feel. It’s like how Martin Hannett produced for Joy Division. You play with a couple of very basic tools and get a huge sense of place. Joy Division echo on, and on, and on, and on, and that gives it an industrial feel.
I don’t think we go as far as Hannett’s style, but we try and give the space for people to envelop themselves in it. You get a lot of music that’s quite dry, and I can’t get with that. You end up with something that, technically, is louder and clearer, and maybe works better on Radio 1, but that’s not ever been something that anyone in the Livity Sound frame has thought of making.
What about the equipment that you use today?
I think there’s a huge amount of reverence in 2016 for old machines. That isn’t necessarily misplaced, but if you’re trying to bring something new, and you’re using those machines in the same way that you have always done, then you are going to fall into the same old traps. At the moment, what I’ve got is an Octatrack sampler, a mixing desk, a reverb unit, a delay, a laptop and a couple of tube amps, but everything has a place and it’s enough. I’m not someone for stacking gear up so I can take a photo and put it on Instagram.
If you have a working method, and it works, then why switch it? I can’t play the keyboard, so there’s no point in me owning however many keyboards. We’ve worked along the lines that we just use what we need, gets thing done and save time. If the end product sounds good, that’s the important thing – not the tools that make it.
Your music is pretty unmelodic. What are your thoughts on melody within techno – particularly in working without it?
I think that if you discount melody as the core of a track, you have to spend more time thinking about other things. Essentially, the drums become everything. I haven’t made a tune with a particularly catchy bassline for as long as I can remember, so all I have is the interaction between the drums. I would hope that my music is recognisable for having an angular representation of rhythm made of few components.
If you’re using just drums, it’s important to have a signature and that it comes naturally. I’ve been using the same snare sound for about six or seven years. It’s from my old PC, and every time I get a new laptop I move the snare sample across. It was made in 10 seconds on a Moog Voyager that I borrowed for a week, and completely by chance. That’s my signature snare, if you like.
What about writing an album of awkward drum tracks, then? How did you arrive at the idea of releasing Utility as it sounds today?
I don’t think I meant to do an album, but it’s been brilliant working with Peverelist. He’s a very particular man, and I’ve found that his guidance has led me to a good spot. That’s something I’m very grateful for. The album came about from reaching a point where I had an awful lot of unfinished music, and perhaps a desire to prove to myself that, if I wanted to, I could do this.
I remember walking around the Washington Memorial with Peverelist when we were in the US last May, and I was literally begging him to let me do it as an album. He was like, “No, you’ll never do it. You’re not ready. You can’t.” He was being about as discouraging as it’s possible to be, at which point I was like, “You know what? I’m going to fucking do this.”
What does the future of Livity Sound look like to you, right now?
We really want to take what we’ve got further out. If you listen to people like Batu, A Made Up Sound, or Peverelist at his most experimental, it can get pretty weird, but I think that we can get weirder collectively. When you hear tracks that push the sonic extremities of what’s endurable as much as what’s possible, that’s when it’s exciting. Some of my favourite records are borderline unlistenable, but that’s what we need to be doing next. We’re lucky in that everyone feeds off each other and that for every new record that comes out, we say, “Let’s step it up a little bit.” Having a lot of fresh talent on board is revitalising us. We’re getting more kids involved - that’s where we want to be.
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