U.K. producer unites oddball pop and house on his debut album, 'Trouble'
If there's a sillier name in dance music right now than "Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs," that'd be news to me. And that, says Orlando Higginbottom, the man behind the Mesozoic moniker — a name that sounds better suited to Saturday morning cartoons than deeply emotive vocal house and club-tinged pop — was part of the plan all along. "Something that couldn't be cool, couldn't be put into some kind of scene that gets hip for six months and then falls out of fashion" — those were the parameters, he says, when in 2007 he uploaded his first demos to MySpace and realized he needed a name to accompany them. (That's kind of ironic, given the way MySpace itself slips ever deeper into the fossil record of the internet.)
As it happens, audiences are taking the project seriously. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs' debut album, Trouble, came out this week; on Monday, the day of its release in the U.K., it climbed into iTunes' top five in his native country. And he's just returned from a set of shows in the U.S. where he met with the kind of enthusiastic reception you might not expect for a rising artist with one foot in pop and one foot in dance music.
Now signed to Polydor after releasing his early EPs on Greco-Roman — home to the likes of Hackman and Hot Chip's Joe Goddard, — Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs is representative of an exciting new wave of producers combining old-school tropes from Chicago house and U.K. garage with idiosyncratic song-craft and a gregarious, occasionally goofy stage presence. In Higginbottom's case, that means feather headdresses and backup dancers, as well as a swooningly melodic sound marked by his winsome alto and improbable splashes of color.
I caught up with Higginbottom by phone while he was passing through New York a few weeks ago. He's a curious character, not at all what you might expect from the more flamboyant aspects of his musical persona. Speaking in measured tones and what I take to be an educated accent — he's the son of an Oxford University music professor — he structures his thoughts carefully; he often seems to speak in semi-colons, in fact, never letting his tone quite close off a sentence, as though he were carefully examining all the possibilities of a particular idea. It's a world away from the giggly, bumptious energy of his music. He's friendly, but also slightly guarded and, more than anything, extremely matter-of-fact. Even — especially? — when it comes to the whimsy at the core of his project.
Has there been any real difference in the crowd response in the U.S. versus the U.K. or Europe?
No, actually; in terms of them knowing the songs and responding at similar times in the set, it's the same kind of shit, but every city is different, and every night is different. What I really appreciate and I'm really pleased about is that, every show, there's a real diverse group of people in the crowd. For example, there are definitely a lot of people who come to my shows who don't come from a dance-music background, and I'm really happy about that. At the same time, there are people who have obviously been raving for a long time. There's a good mix of ages and backgrounds, which I'm really happy about.
That seems like something you're going for in your own music — the cross between pop and dance music.
[Hesitating] Yeah. Kind of accidentally, but that seems to be how it's ended up.
Let me ask you about your background — you're from Oxford, correct?
Could you explain what that might mean in a way that we Yanks might understand?
Oxford is like — obviously the university is very famous, and the center of the city is all based around the university, so it's very beautiful, and the buildings are amazing and it's really smart and nice. There's a lot of parks and green spaces and gardens and stuff, so it's kind of idyllic, really. And then, because of the university, there's a lot of families who are connected to it, so you get a lot of interesting people. Then there's a big industrial side to the town as well, so there's a great mix, and very, very multi-cultural when you get out of the center; it's kind of famously multi-cultural.
In terms of a music scene, there's always shit going on, like, all the time. For a kind of smallish, medium-sized city, it's pretty amazing. If you want to go out and dance, there'll be some world class DJ, a couple of them, coming each week. And there's loads of bands playing. Certainly, when I was growing up, there was a huge indie scene, with loads and loads of bands playing. Now, a bit like the rest of the U.K.: Kids are kind of coming up as producers rather than guitar players, so you find more dance nights than band nights. That's kind of the way it is now. But it's a great place, and there's a lot of musicians coming out of there from my generation who are doing really well at the moment. So it's a good base.
What were you doing musically before Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs? I read that you were DJing hip-hop and drum and bass?
Yeah. The first kind off electronic music that really got me passionate was jungle music. When I was 11 or 12, I heard that on my big brother's tapes, and I was hooked. I bought turntables when I was about 13 and started collecting; I couldn't go to the raves or anything, so it was kind of based on mixtapes and my experience in the record shops, and gigging and talking to people. I was really hooked on jungle, that was my main love — I was also listening to loads of R&B and hip-hop and reggae, and UNKLE and Ninja Tune and stuff like that, a bit like everyone then. But I was never listening to house or techno. Ever. When I was a kid, I thought that shit was lame. I thought the beats were too boring, you know? And then, when I got a bit older, like 18, 19, I got really frustrated with drum and bass and what it had turned into; I felt like it had lost what I loved about it. It had lost the atmosphere and the darkness. Myself, I didn't really know what I wanted to make or what I wanted to DJ or anything. So, you know, I started collecting disco, funk and soul, and then I was like, "Fuck it, I'm going to try and write some house music." You know, something I know nothing about. I wrote two tracks, and I wanted to put them up on MySpace, so I was like, "I'm going to do something called 'Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs.'" Something that couldn't be cool, couldn't be put into some kind of scene that gets hip for six months and then falls out of fashion. And it kind of took off from that point.
You seem to draw quite a bit from U.K. garage, like those rubbery bass lines and tough, swinging drums. Was 2-step an important step in your conversion to house music?
Definitely. There's a very direct link between jungle and garage and 2-step. That was some of the first 4/4 music that I really liked. But I think influences like that, a lot of the time it's very subconscious. I don't hear something and go, "That's the sound." I like it, and I like what it does on the dance floor, or whatever, and that might, in an abstract way, feed into my music.
How do you typically compose your music? Unlike a lot of dance music, it's very song oriented.
In the beginning, if I went back a year or two years' time, it was very much, start with a beat and kind of build, you know. I realized, though, that you're always going to end up with something pretty run-of-the-mill sounding if you do it that way. You know, if you just construct house music. So, more and more, I either start with the piano or start with a vocal hook or start with a sample; I quite enjoy just switching on all the synths and running around the studio and recording nonsense, and then going back and sampling myself. I find that quite an inspiring way to work. Kind of like, there's two stages to the creativity: One burst of madness, and then you just filter out what sounds interesting.
You have such a knack for a good chord change — you have a sense of musicality that a lot of other dance music doesn't have.
I came from a — this sounds like a silly thing to say, but I came from a classical background. I'm still there, really. That's my main love. I played the piano when I was a kid and sang when I was a kid; I think with dance music, I get frustrated because it lacks some of the emotion that other music I love has. You can't mix, like, an SOS Band ballad with a house beat; you can't really do that. But I would like to be able to do that. I want to put some kind of feeling that you found more in '80s and '90s music; I want to put that kind of vibe in my music.
So many producers today just sample one chord, and then march it up and down the scale.
Oh God, yeah. The thing about that effect is, sampling one chord and walking it around, as you say, that was done and mastered in 1992, you know? That was done. So to return to that and claim some kind of freshness, I think, is really lazy.
How did you hook up with the Greco-Roman crew?
They got sent some demos, some really early stuff, and then we had a little chat, and I played a couple of their parties before we talked about doing the record or anything. There was a good connection. I was into the music they were playing, and they liked what I was doing. I was really very, very new to that side of dance music, so it was cool to be hanging out with some people who had a very broad idea of dance music and the way it can be presented. I think it was the perfect beginning for me, really. It was funny — I was thinking about this the other day. When I set up my MySpace, I was surfing around and came across Greco-Roman, and I was like, "That's a cool label. I'd love to put my music out on that." And then I went on Jesse Rose's MySpace, and I was like, "Hey, who's this guy? He's quite good. I'd love it if he remixed my track." And then, like, a year later, it was done. It was cool.
How was the process of making an album? You've done a ton of EPs and singles before this; was it hard to wrap your head around the long-player format?
Yeah, it was, actually. At the beginning, I was very aware of how difficult it is to make a good dance album. I was thinking about how few of them last the test of time. I really wanted to do something that conquered some of those problems. I wanted to do something with lots of levels, lots of different sounds, lots of emotions, without seeming too random. And something that would work in a club and on the stereo — that's an obvious thing to say, but it's something I was thinking about a lot. And I guess in the end, maybe there were 50 tracks or something, and I ended up with the 14 that felt right.
It was pretty stressful, because I was touring all the time. It was very rare that I had a full week at home just to work on it. So I don't find touring and studio work conducive; they're pretty different mind-sets for me. But eventually I got to a finishing point, and in a year's time, I'll be able to judge for myself whether I managed to do the things that I wanted to do.
Speaking of touring, what goes into your live show?
What goes into it…
I mean, I know there are costumes, right? And feathers?
I dress up, and that's kind of important. In Europe and the U.K., where I can drive, I have a lighting rig now that I take with me. That's kind of all MIDI-synched, so I program the lights for each track. There's keyboards and singing and samplers and drum machines and stuff, and obviously it's based around a laptop. And then, most of the time, I have some dancers on stage. It's just meant to be more than a DJ, you know? More of a presentation of a particular sound and energy. I don't know where it's going to go, really. It works, at the moment.
Was it difficult to rearrange the material to be played live, or at this point are you writing things in a way that lends itself to performance?
Yeah. I know that I've got to perform it, so I do live edits and restructure the tracks and stuff, split them up, take parts out. Some of the tracks on the album I won't do live, and I'll do some other stuff that isn't on the album live. At the moment it works for me.
What is it you like about the theatricality — particularly the feathers?
[Chuckles.] It's just fun. I enjoy it. And thankfully other people seem to enjoy it. I think there's a kind of — people feel like there's no need to put any personality behind music sometimes, and they're afraid to do it, or whatever, or they think it's cooler to just hide behind something. But I enjoy being a bit more entertaining and putting on a bit more of a show. Also, I like dressing up, so…
Fair enough! I wanted to ask me about remixes — you were remixing quite early in your career, before you'd released much of your own material.
How did those come about?
I don't really know — some through friends, some through management or whatever. I think remixing is a pretty fun thing to do; there's even more that have been turned down or never released, but for me it's been a good opportunity to learn something, when I do a remix. To try out a new technique, try out a new style — trying to do a cool track with a Lady Gaga vocal, there's a challenge there. But at the same time, because it's a remix, I don't feel the pressure of putting it out like an original. So I feel like I can be even more free with it. I don't mind if I don't do the best piece of work. It's kind of liberating doing the odd remix.
I assume you've selected the people who have remixed you? Because you've had some amazing artists: MJ Cole, John Talabot…
I love those two remixes. I've been pretty much at the head of that, deciding who's been doing stuff. I'm super happy with who we've had over the past year, people like Jamie Jones; newer people like Casino Times, who I think are really great; Chad Valley. It's been a chance for me to nod to some people that I really respect, who are really established, and also to give some newer people a chance to come up in a way that I did. I definitely found that remixes helped me build a profile.
Are you ever surprised with what you hear from others' interpretations of your music?
To be honest with you, most of the artists, I can kind of predict what they're going to do. There have been some that I've had to turn down because they've just been… shit.
I read an interview where you complained about the coordination between labels, radio, magazines and blogs these days. At the same time, your career has certainly benefited from the types of promotion that have developed on the internet — SoundCloud, YouTube, MySpace, etc. What do you feel is not working in the current system?
I think that music fans now expect to get something as soon as they hear it. And I completely understand that. I think that if you're playing something to somebody on the radio or putting it on YouTube and saying, "This is out in two months," or even a month, I think that's kind of taking the piss. I think you can do two weeks of putting it on SoundCloud and then saying it's released, but if I showed you my SoundCloud and YouTube stats, when I put up a preview of a track, all the heat happens in the first two weeks, and then it dies down. And if you can't capture that energy — and people are saying, "Oh, I love this, I love this" — and point them towards actually owning the track, it's kind of dumb, really. The whole point is that people can have this music. You know how it is. Radio, they like to have a track two months upfront, and that just doesn't work. This is in the U.K.; in America they do it differently. But it just doesn't work with the way fans work at the moment. And that frustrates me.
Were you an obsessive record buyer as a kid?
Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I kind of still am, but I've narrowed down what I buy now, so I'm more careful. When I was a kid it was all about vinyl and mixtapes. It's funny, because, carrying on what I was just talking about, if you heard a track on a mixtape from a rave or that a big DJ was playing — that was how drum and bass was spread around, on these tape packs from raves — you knew that you couldn't actually own that record for six months or whatever. But that was fine, because the only place you could listen to it was on a cassette. And unless you could be bothered to forward-wind all the way through the tape just to find the right moment, the only time you would listen to it is if you listened to the whole set. So everyone was used to that kind of expectation, waiting for a dubplate to become a release. Now, you know, if I was a teenager and I heard a track in a set, I would probably go and I would rip it. So I could own it. Which is what happens all the time, which is why it doesn't work.
You said that you've narrowed down your record buying; what are you concentrating on these days?
I'm concentrating on buying fucking weird Italo and house and kind of strange dance music that I find inspiring from a particular era; I don't really buy any new vinyl. Anything between '86 and '92 that's got a breakbeat or a house beat, I'm interested in. And then jungle music I still buy. I've got like 20 records left on my list of classic jungle to buy.
Are you on Discogs a lot?
I am now, yeah. I only started doing that about six months ago, and in the first week I spent — I'm not going to tell you how much I spent, but I spent shitloads of money on records that I definitely could have bought 10 years ago for five pounds. Records that now cost, like, 60 dollars or whatever.
You said earlier that you had picked your name as a kind of lark — a project nobody could take seriously. Do you ever have second thoughts about the name?
Um… [Long pause.] I would say, sometimes it runs through my head, and then I'm like, "Thank fuck." I'm so glad I'm not called something that's trying to be really cool, trying to put this front on. I like that it's kind of tongue in cheek. I like that it's not trendy, it's not standoffish, it's kind of friendly and strange and it doesn't make sense. Every time I think about it for more than a minute, I'm really happy with it.