Photek: Dubstep = Rock and the Birth of Drum and Bass
And how a Korn remix could've changed music history...
This week, the veteran producer Rupert Parkes, a.k.a. Photek, releases his DJ-Kicks mix to American audiences. But listeners boning up on his “two swords technique” can put away the Seven Samurai DVD: Five years after Photek’s last studio album, he’s practicing a very different kind of sonic combat than the knife-edged drum and bass with which he made his name. The mix, a teaser for a new album he expects to release later this year, takes in leftfield dubstep and bass music, deep house, and slow-motion disco; there’s even a classic techno track from U.K. rave heroes Baby Ford and Eon. About the only thing you won’t find on the mix, in fact, is anything that sounds like jungle.
In fact, Photek broke out of the more insular confines of the drum and bass world long ago. While the staccato, devastatingly precise rollers he pioneered between 1994 and 1998 led him to be seen almost as a genre unto himself, he changed course with 2000’s Solaris, trading breakbeats for a TR-909, slowing the tempo to a housey chug, and even recruiting the Chicago vocalist Robert Owens for a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a record by the New Jersey deep-house duo Blaze.
After 2007’s Form & Function Volume 2, a return to his signature techniques, Parkes took a break from club productions while he worked on soundtracks and film scores in his adopted home of Los Angeles (where he’s lived since 2002). Then, last year he reappeared, turning out a handful of EPs on his own Photek Productions label and even releasing a single on the Tectonic imprint of British dubstep producer Pinch. These days, the music he’s making sounds a lot like dubstep, which makes sense, given how many dubstep productions have borrowed from sounds that Photek first developed on records like 1997’s Modus Operandi and 1998’s Form & Function.
Recently, I rang up Parkes in the studio to ask him about the DJ-Kicks mix, and he talked about why dubstep appeals to American audiences, how the current dance-music craze feels different from previous booms, and what happened when he tried to remix Korn.
Between 2007 and last year, you didn’t release much music; were you mostly working on films?
Yeah, some film work. Basically, I’m always making music. I guess it’s just that what I release is what people know about.
I don’t mean to presume, but can you afford to go through periods of not releasing music? A lot of artists are out there putting out a record every month, just to stay afloat.
Yeah, I don’t know how much money they’re making doing that! [Laughs.] You know what, I’m lucky enough that, I think, once in my life I could take four years out, or however many years that was. I’m lucky enough that I started young, so I was able to build a cushion. But, you know, you’ve got to keep in the game, and it’s what I do anyway. I think, regardless of money, I need to be making music, just for my own sanity.
What did you want the DJ-Kicks mix to say about you as a DJ?
I’m not sure what I wanted it to say about me, but I knew what I wanted that mix to be like. I wanted it to stand the test of time as something you’d want to keep coming back to and listening to. So in that way, I felt I didn’t want to fill it with current hits or anything, you know? And I wanted it to have the feel of the old mixtapes I used to love, which were a real journey, and they had different chapters within the mix, like the old LTJ Bukem mixtapes, or the old Fabio Jumpin’ Jack Frost mixtapes, you know?
Did those tapes range as widely, in terms of tempo and style, as your mix does?
The ones from them I’m thinking of are actually in the same tempo range, but if you go back earlier, the tapes I compiled back in the day, recording on cassette off pirate radio, were a real mixture of bits and pieces. And I consider them as much mixtapes as the later, more formal mixtapes. This is before anyone started dividing up the music into lots of different subgenres. You know, the first raves were Belgian techno meets breakbeat hardcore with a reggae MC on it, and maybe some weird pop/indie track from the Manchester/Hacienda movement. So it’s only more recently that things got as divided as they are; they didn’t used to be. So that whole switch in tempo ranges is something from the beginning of this movement. I have to say, some of the really recent DJs, guys like Skrillex and Dillon Francis, I hear them pay all kinds of tempos, so it’s nice to see it coming back around a bit.
I was struck by the way you included the Hot Toddy’s “I Need Love (Morgan Geist Remix)” in there. It’s an amazing track, but it’s basically slow-motion disco, not something I would have expected from a Photek mix.
It’s got echoes of old Art of Noise, it’s got a hint of old tracks like “Sueño Latino” and some of the original tracks that first got me into the whole warehouse rave kind of scene. That tempo and that feel — it’s less high-energy and more a cool piece of music. It’s all part of what got us to where we are now.
You also had Baby Ford and Eon’s “Dead Eye” in there.
That’s one of my all-time favorite deep, tech-y tracks. I think I partly wanted to make it really clear that I wasn’t trying to do something for this month or this week.
Were you very connected to the techno scene back in the day?
I think that record (“Dead Eye”) came out in ’94. That’s when labels like Mo’Wax were in full force, and Metalheadz was in full force, and all of these different, rave-inspired movements. There were relatively few people making music back then. There were sort of these crews doing music, and drum and bass was getting attention from the techno guys, who loved how we derived our music from their music, and then also from the pop world as well, with people like David Bowie and Björk. So it was a good time for being aware of other scenes. It started off quite, “Well, thanks for the appreciation,” and maybe we’d do a remix, and then eventually collaborations. I think that whole movement was the first time things got defined, and then it was clear that we wanted to reach out to other forms of music. It’s gone through that phase two or three times since I’ve been involved.
After having been away from club music for a couple of years, you’ve re-entered via dubstep, a genre that flourished in the interim, and hooked up with people like Pinch. But you’re not really making straight-up dubstep.
I think I’ve always taken bits and pieces from other music to try and create something new. Maybe I will do a full-on, heavy, noisy, straight-up, current dubstep-sounding track at some stage. But I think there are a lot of people doing that really well, and you’ve got to do what you do best. I love the whole movement that’s going on, and I think maybe I’ve got a place somewhere in there at some moments. But it’s a very specific sound that’s dominant right now, and I’m not sure I need to be a player in that.
Having said that, [I played] at the Dubstep Awards in Atlantic City [last month], and I’m thinking, that’s either pretty cool, or they had me mixed up with someone else.
Photex, Skrillek, change a few consonants around?
Yeah, I was thinking [beforehand], [do I need to] go down and deliver everything that’s hot in dubstep right now? And then I thought, maybe I should just play almost a roots set, you know? Let’s play across the board, across the years, somewhere loosely from original rave music through drum and bass, and maybe play a couple of dubstep things at the end. Where do you fit, when things are so specialized? It’s funny, if there was a Drum and Bass Awards, I’d probably be in the same situation. I don’t really play that kind of music, like, 2012 drum and bass, whatever’s hot right now. If that’s Sub Focus, or whatever, that’s not really my sound either. So it’s funny. I was there when we sort of took the vote on calling it drum and bass, but I’m absolutely not involved in that scene in any way, really. I do what I do, and I’ve done what I’ve done.
Wait, was there actually a “drum and bass” vote?
We had a meeting at Goldie’s house about Metalheadz. And Goldie comes into the room and says, “We’re going to change the name. We’re going to call it drum and bass from now on, because we’ve got to differentiate it from the dancehall-reggae jungle thing.” They were becoming two very distinct, different sounds. And I was like, “Well, I always liked the name jungle!” [Laughs.] I think everyone else was like, “No, we need to call it drum and bass.” I’m not sure if the decision literally got made then, but it certainly felt like it. From this point on, no one’s saying the word “jungle” when they’re talking about this music.
Do you know where Goldie got the term “drum and bass”?
I don’t know, to me it sounded like “rhythm and blues.” And I suppose, okay, if you want to define drum and bass, tempo-wise might be a reasonable way to box it in, but it’s certainly got drums in it, and bass. I suppose if you want to get specific, that’s a pretty good name for it. [Laughs.]
There was a conspicuous absence of drum and bass in the mix. Was that intentional?
Yeah. When I think of drum and bass, I’m thinking of a different sound to what gets called drum and bass now. Drum and bass was a certain timeframe for me, from probably ’93 through 2001, or something. That’s my window of what I liked. But I know there’s a lot of people doing amazing stuff right now, it’s just like, okay, I’ve got to keep evolving as an artist and keep moving, so when I’m inspired to do something, I’ll dive in. I actually just did a mix for this band Chairlift, who are on XL. It’s a great band, and that mix actually turned out as a drum and bass mix. That’s the first time I’ve done that in a long time!
Would you say that that your versatility has served you well in Hollywood [composing for films like The Italian Job, American Wedding, and the documentary Glue Boys]?
I thought I was versatile before I started doing that, but I got really versatile once I worked on my first film [Under the Palms] and TV things [Invincible, Platinum]. I was having to pick up acoustic guitars and make all kinds of music that I never thought I was going to make. I think I probably laid the foundation for that by saying, “I’ll do anything I feel like.” I ended up doing anything I could think of, later.
Are you still doing soundtrack work now? Last year you told FACT you were taking a break from it in order to work on your own productions.
That’s true. I’m really enjoying the creative process and the space of electronic music right now. You can pretty much do whatever you want. There’s a lot of diplomacy and politicking involved in working on film, and there’s a lot of meetings and talk. I think that takes the energy out of an artist after a while. I’d love to work on a film every few months, but you need the previous six months to actually make it happen, in terms of meetings and politics. So I’m definitely focused on making records at the moment.
How closely connected do you feel to the dance-music scene out in L.A. right now? It seems to be going through something of a renaissance.
I feel like I’m pretty much a part of it, you know? The studio’s right in the center of Hollywood; it’s literally on the corner with the Dim Mak studios. SMOG Sundays is like my local event. But there’s stuff going on all over town.
There’s so much hype about the current EDM boom in the States right now; what’s your perspective on that, having been in L.A. for a decade, and in dance music for twice that?
I think it’s a pretty big deal, actually, what’s going on right now. I’ve seen certain waves of electronic music looking like it’s taking over the world, but it never achieved quite the same impact as hip-hop did on pop culture. It’s been a much slower burn. Hip-hop struggled for a long time to get recognition, and when it hit, it really hit hard, and now it dominates. This is probably the first time I’ve seen this happen [with dance music] in America.
Certainly, our presence at the Grammys was pretty amazing. But, you know, I remember when Roni Size won the Mercury Music Prize, and I was there to witness that turning point. Before that, I’d seen the Chemical Brothers break through as a recognized pop brand, from being a bunch of ravers. But I think it’s a big deal, in the States, because once America puts its attention on something, it goes 200 percent. You’re seeing a really big shift in brands wanting to be involved in this scene. You’re seeing a much higher level of money changing hands and corporate interest. So there’s a lot of power there. It will be interesting to see what happens creatively, despite the amount of money involved.
It will also be interesting to see how it takes root culturally — how fans develop their scenes, and whether it develops a culture the way that hip-hop has.
I think it’s crossed that tipping point already. But it is early days. I feel like last year was a very important year, and I think dubstep, having such a close blueprint to rock, has been key in America. I remember when I first got here, I had this feeling of being in the world of big studio sessions and huge drum kits and guitar players. And I was this bedroom producer from England, you know, with this whole tradition of DJs and warehouse parties where no one’s looking at the stage. And I think dubstep has taken people’s focus — people can apply that rock-concert mentality to a rave now, in America. That’s a big shift. A DJ, who everyone’s worshipping, facing the stage, lots of money on production, and a big head-nod — it’s got the swagger of rock music and a little touch of hip-hop in there. I don’t think it’s being pulled into the mainstream, rather than pulling the mainstream to it.
So dubstep’s energy and format finally gave American audiences a style of electronic music that they could recognize?
Yeah. Because before, I thought, if all these rock bands like drum and bass, because of its speed and energy and aggression, there are probably bridges there. But then you look at dubstep, and it’s way closer to a rock band.
Just look at Korn working with Skrillex: Jonathan Davis said Korn was playing music that was structurally similar to dubstep ten or 15 years ago.
Yeah, and it’s very true, I remember one of the first things I did, when I got to the States, was a remix for Korn. And I couldn’t figure it out at the time. I’ve got this very reggae, hip-hop, rave, techno base; it’s a completely different tempo, and I don’t know how to blend these two in a cool way. But if I’d thought of making the whole beat half-time, and making it more rock, but with our engineering perspective, I probably would have invented dubstep! [Laughs.] But I was always thinking that when you go half-time, you get reggae, not rock. That’s just my influences and where I’m from, I suppose.
I know you’re working on an album. When do you expect to have it out?
I think by the time it actually comes out, it’ll probably be the end of the summer. It’s looking 70 or 80 percent there at the moment.
Will you continue in the vein of the EPs that came out last year?
Yeah, it’s got a lot in common with those sounds, and I think a lot of really sort of classic, early Photek feel to it. There’s a few tracks that really could have been on Modus Operandi.
Will you put it out on your own label?
I think we’ll start out that way, but who knows where it will lead. I spent most of my life on Virgin Records, so it’s interesting, the landscape we’re in now. I feel like it’s almost back to when I first started, you do it all yourself. It’s a liberating sort of situation.