The London producer Untold's new album, Black Light Spiral, begins with a siren song, literally: just five minutes of wailing ambulances and honking fire trucks and air-raid klaxons dolefully warning of death from above. It's a latter-day duck-and-cover drill, and with good reason: This is, truly, dance music for end times, neither dubstep nor techno nor industrial, but a weird, lumpy hybrid of the three, like the fused desert sand left after a nuclear explosion.
That Black Light Spiral is Jack Dunning's debut album under the alias might come as a surprise. Since 2008, when he began putting out music as Untold, he's consistently pushed U.K. club music beyond the strictures of a rapidly calcifying dubstep scene. Recording primarily for his own Hemlock Recordings, but also for labels like Hotflush, Hessle Audio, and Soul Jazz, Untold has experimented with a wider-than-usual range of tempos and styles, drawing from techstep, grime, techno, U.K. funky, and even, in one case, tribal guarachero. But there's always been something unmistakably Untold about all of his output. The sounds may change from record to record, but he has an unerring knack for building and maintaining tension, from the elastic rhythms of his early records to the seasick pitch-and-roll of the new album. Those heart-in-mouth vibes only underscore the sense that something big is at stake. (When's the last time dance music made you feel like that?)
Dunning spoke to SPIN about echo chambers, dance-floor revelations, remixing Ke$ha, and the enduring importance of nosebleed techno.
Is Black Light Spiral the album that you knew you wanted to make, going into it? It feels very deliberate.
Yeah, it is. I wouldn't have thought it might sound like it does, but in looking back at my catalogue, it feels in line, I think, with the kind of slightly angular jumps I've made throughout career, if you may call it that. You know what I mean — it's not as if I've written the same track for six years. I've made big jumps and switched up textures, techniques, tempos, pretty much everything I've been using. But this record, it just feels like a statement, you know? And I'm feeling comfortable with that. I think it stands out. It sounds different.
What was it like to put together? Did it take a long time, or was it done quickly, in a few bursts of inspiration?
It was kind of written down over about the course of a year, as little notes and ideas — either ideas for some of the sounds or basically what a track needed to achieve. I scrawled out these notes in this book that I carry with me, and it just came down to a question of realizing it. When it came to about June last year, I was like, "Right, sounds like there's something's here. Let's just do it." It was one of those really mad, hot weeks in London, where it's quite like New York, I guess. It's really sort of clammy and there's a real urban pressure that's built up; that was the week I wrote it. I wrote it in about a week and a half, and it was just a very quick realization. And it definitely does feed into the sound of it. It's a bit of an itchy record, you know?
Yeah, very much so! So you scrawled notes in a notebook that you carried around?
Yeah, that's what I've always done, to be honest. Maybe once a year, I'll do a tune that is interesting or sounds a little bit individual. And those are usually the ones that I've been thinking about or have been writing down, or the idea's just been crystallized, if you like. That could either be hieroglyphic-type drawings for what the arrangement would be like, or little visual reminders, maybe scenes from a film or whatever. But yeah, that's how all the good tunes start. I've chatted to a few people who do this. Some people like to jump straight in and throw sounds about, and just pull something out of the ether that way. But that's always felt natural to me, really: To set yourself a brief and then realize that.
The album feels like an extension of what you were doing with the Change in a Dynamic Environment EPs, but much more focused — taking all those ideas about tension and amplifying them tenfold.
I guess, throughout the scenes I've been involved in, I've always been slightly fascinated with having all the pieces there, but there being something that doesn't feel quite right — something that throws it out, something that's a bit jarring, something that's not perfectly sitting there. If there's a signature that I have, it's that there's usually one element that shouldn't really belong in a tune. Sometimes I think that can totally break it, and it shouldn't have been there in the first place. But sometimes it can just make it, you know? That can be the thing that people can pick up on if you're in a club. So much inspiration I get, I remember going to jungle clubs and there'd be some breakdown and there'd be just one bleep; it'd probably be a klaxon sample off some big '70s dub tune that I didn't know about then. I'd go back [home], and that'd be almost a week, you'd just be thinking about how amazing this bleep was. It sort of takes over your life. There's a similarity, I guess, to some of the stuff that Kode 9 takes about, with the viral aspect of certain sonic signifiers. I love that shit, man. My life's been infested with those, you know? [Laughs.] I feel chewed up by it, but energized at the same time.
Many of your sounds have a weird sense of presence to them — they're less like musical elements than physical objects.
I've always loved playing with depth of field. I really, really like the sensation of a sound being as close as possible to the listener, rather than way back. Most of my stuff isn't drowned in reverb or delay. It's quite acute. It's been extracted from its environment, and I get a kick out of the plasticity and kind of cyberpunk aspect of that. [Laughs.]
There was a time when I was doing a Ramadanman remix or something, and I spent about a week just synthesizing cowbells, which is really quite a silly thing to synthesize. But I really went in. I love the fact that it's the typical, sitting-around-the-fire or whatever, the classic, '60s kind of folky instrument, and it's like, "Yeah, let's make it out of graphite, and model it so it can be stretched so it lasts eight seconds". I do have a bit of a morbid fascination about that sort of thing. That's fun, you know?
There's a very sustained mood across the record, and yet the more you listen, each track is really different.
With those tracks, they were all using pretty much the same technique, which I haven't used before, but I like it. Basically, I set up an echo chamber, for want of a better word. And that echo chamber's got loads of crazy delays and distortion, and I just ping stuff at it. So I'll do like a quick burst of sound, whatever that be — a white noise, or snare drum, or some bass — and kind of put them in this tank and they deal with it themselves, depending how overloaded it is. That creates their own texture and rhythm. All those tunes were pretty much written with that technique. So each render, it was coming out very different. I think that some tracks I had written down, I had planned to be much harder, that could work on a dance floor, you know? And they're the ones that turned out kind of slimy and sludgy — almost like they're the more beatless ones.
I just wanted it to be fun to write. I've been writing music a few years, and so many people were like, "Ahh, the album? How's the album coming?" [Feigns frustration] "Ah, don't talk to me about the album!" I was like, "Fuck that." I just want to really enjoy doing this.
There are some really surprising elements on the album. "Strange Dreams" almost sounds influenced by rockabilly at first, or Suicide.
I think that a track like that, that's just what I want to hear in a club, you know? I just don't see the value these days of going to a club and hearing the same thing for eight hours. I respect that worship of linearity, the exercise of going to a club and hearing one thing. But it's not flipping my pips these days. Either playing or going out as a punter, it's like, well, that's just not what I fought for. Maybe I've been spoiled, but I'm used to going in somewhere and having my synapses rewired. For me, that's the essence of it, and that's what makes clubbing a worthwhile experience, not just passive recreation. It has the ability to massively, massively inspire partygoers and also inspire new music. That's how music moves forward for me. It's intrinsically associated with having intense experiences with music that you don't quite understand. For this album, it was like, "Okay, I know what I expect to hear in a club, so I want to try and write a couple of tracks that if someone else dropped it, I'd lose my shit," you know?
How do these tracks go over when you play them out? Do you feel a difference in the energy of the club?
Yeah, I feel something. I don't know; it's interesting. When we do the launch party, this will be the first time I've played in London for a while. Lots of my bookings have been in places like Italy and mainland Europe really, so it's quite interesting playing that stuff. And I do play it. I play that stuff, I play the Hemlock catalogue, I play Hessle Audio, amongst other stuff. A lot of the time, it goes down great. Sometimes it goes down like shit though, and people look at you like, "What the hell are you doing?" It's strange because it's not like — I really hate playing music just for me. I hate playing music just to fuck people off. I think it's useful to scratch and to throw it out, but it's not as if I'm playing two hours' worth of noise. Believe me, we could go there. Maybe more people should. But I've been dropping it, and you know what? It's great. I think the atmosphere's been all right. People have danced differently. I guess I'm still waiting for that show when I'm dropping 20 tracks like that. There's a little movement in the U.K., I'm sure you know, the resurgence in instrumental grime, all these new producers coming out, and I think, "Well, yeah, that sounds like that's got some traction behind it." That's got some energy and some new ideas in there, even though it is within a framework of a past genre. I think, "Yeah, that's got some momentum."
Do you feel like club culture is particularly conservative right now? Or is it more just that you've gotten to a point in your life where you've had enough of Friday nights?
No, not really. I love Friday nights, but my experience of clubbing has always been as a music-head, really, rather than a kind of, "Let's escape the grind and go and get off me head and go clubbing." It's always been quite a serious thing at that level. Maybe I'm not getting invited to the right parties, but it does seem to be slightly more of a recreational vibe going on. I've been to a lot of parties where it's been fine, it's been fun, but it's not been vital. And I guess every one of those parties that I go to, I'm involved in, part of me dies. Because like I said before, maybe I was just spoiled, but I do remember it being. I think the difference between an amazing party and an average party — like, the margins are so small, and that's where the magic is, you know? And I think usually the things that contribute to that magic are a sense of the unknown in music and the collective experience with the people there. It's when those things collide and you know that these things can only happen in that moment, that's it. That's what I'm about. And going to a club seems to be more just a lifestyle choice. It's like, who gives a fuck if you go to a club? There's nothing that edgy about it. Maybe that's a natural thing. I just like a little bit more danger, you know, from everything — from selection, to venues, whatever. It seems very much just a safe way to spend your Friday nights. Why not just go night rambling or something? Like night-time scuba diving or whatever. [laughs]
You talked about music needing to feel "vital," and it does seem like that has waned as certain genres have become established. There was a massive sense of newness and vitality around dubstep and then whatever happened after dubstep, but I don't see much collective momentum around particular musical ideas or sounds right now.
No. Absolutely not, and I could really use that. I love that. I love that feeling of having a center to the energy, like a reference point to pin something from. The last time I experienced it was dubstep, and then the time before that it was techstep, and the time before that it was jungle, and the time before that it was hardcore. But it's the same energies to me. You can't hate on all this amazing networking that's gone on. Like all these producers that used to produce dubstep, they've gone off to other things. And you also can't hate on the people that still produce dubstep. They do their thing, and dubstep is dubstep, you know? It just seems like there's a lot of wasted energy. Just on the simplest level of the dialogue between one producer writing a track and another producer responding to that, in whatever way, that's not happening that much. The grime guys are doing it.
Don't you think there is some trading of ideas going back and forth between, say, Hemlock, Hessle, and Livity Sound?
Yeah, maybe. Maybe we don't get booked to play in the same room enough. I'm just getting rose-tinted spectacles about being able to pitch up to FWD at any point, and hear about 10 new dubs, and all of those dubs are building up to this — probably, looking back, unsustainable — inertia, towards the thrusting forward of new ideas and developments and substrains and mutants. I'm in contact with the Hessle guys a lot, and I play with their music, yes — but I think there were more direct collaborations and dialogues a few years ago than there are now. But you can't deny the quality from those two camps.
Hemlock was pretty quiet in 2013. Will you be doing much with the label this year?
We're gonna have one other thing from me this year, and we're trying to lock stuff other down with our roster. So yeah, there will be more stuff. We've kept our ear to the ground, if you like, but there's nothing that's really felt right to jump on. So I think with Hemlock, we might slow down a bit. We do want to shift more to doing long-players and EPs rather than just single after single. It's getting quite hard to do that with vinyl these days.
Are you still doing the Pennyroyal label as well?
We've got number five coming out in April. That's from J Tijn, and then we've got another EP from a producer called Myla. Yeah, that's fun. That's great, that label. That's just good fun.
Just nasty, no-nonsense techno.
[Laughs.] Yeah! That shit keeps me young, playing that. And J Tijn — I think it's incredible talent. Laugh it off all you want, but I think there's some really powerful ideas in those records. Sometimes people do need to be played nosebleed techno and have it passed off as a kind of lifestyle choice. Sometimes it does everyone some good to blow the cobwebs away with a set of those records, you know? And where's the night that plays that for eight hours or 24 hours? I've never been much of a promoter, I've never really fancied it, but tell me where it is in London and I'll go. Where's the gabber night at, you know?
It seems like gabber's got to come back at some point.
Send demos to Pennyroyal at — [Laughs.]
You're doing a lot with analog synthesis now, correct?
Yeah, that's what I'm doing at the moment. I guess it was just after I wrote Black Light Spiral, I shifted studios, and I've now got a bit more space. I had been collecting gear over the years but never really had the studio space to plug it all in together, so now it's a proper studio in that sense, in that everything is patched in and ready to go. I'm having loads of fun with all my gear plugged in at the same time [laughs]. Last year, I got quite heavily into modular synths as well. That's quite a buzz happening in that little world at the moment — loads of new synths and devices, modules being made. That's a nice community to be involved in.
What is your favorite module right now, and what does it do?
It's probably got to be a module called the Chaos Brother. It's like a noise generator, but it's got a little chaos chip in there so you can control the predictability of the chaotic signals that it produces. I've been having fun with that.
That name reminds me of Buchla's Source of Uncertainty.
Oh, yeah. I love it. I'd like to vacation there, you know? [Laughs.]
Years ago, towards the beginning of your career, you were commissioned to remix Ke$ha's "Tik Tok." How on earth did that happen?
That was great, you know? I had to go out and buy Pro Tools, just so I could download the vocals, all these thousands of stems. That was through a guy I lived with in college, who was in my music course, called Tom Neville. He's a close friend of mine, and that was his gig, producing for her. He said do I fancy a remix? That was cool to do. Love it or hate that track, it was just fun. I didn't take it seriously at all, and it's still out there, you know? It's still like bobbing about on YouTube, so yeah, no harm done.
Final question: Can you say a little about the siren song that opens the album?
It's a sonic icon, isn't it, that's just travelled. I guess that's one interpretation of it: Just paying thanks to it, really. [Laughs.] The ghost of the klaxon that's been following me around. It's like, some pretty good times, man. Let's have some more. But also it's like a little tongue-in-cheek warning, isn't it? This isn't trip-hop. This isn't the trip-hop remix coming up for the next 40 minutes. So hold on to your hats.