In the first of two interviews conducted at the beginning and end of 2017 we track Powell’s creative progress pre and post his Beta releases alongside discussing his early years clubbing, musical influences and the concept behind Sport.
Before you were into clubbing were you musically trained or listening to music that influenced you in any way?
Not really, when I was growing up music was just something you had to do at school. My parents weren’t particularly into music so I wasn’t really surrounded by it growing up. Whenever I tried to do music I was just told I was shit at it or I just didn’t like it so I always grew up thinking I wasn’t very musical. I guess you start listening to music when you’re like 11 but it wasn’t ever serious. I was just buying Oasis cd’s (laughs). (I played) saxophone. I was terrible at it.
Was it something you were made to do?
Mum didn’t make me do it but kind of pushed me to it.
So music at that time never had any effect on what you got into later?
Was it when you got to an age you started to go out clubbing that you got really into it.
I think so yeah. The first time I really fell in love with music was forms of dance music really and it’s because I was going out to clubs. That’s when I started thinking about music as something I was really passionate about.
What kind of music, Drum & Bass?
Late Jungle, early Drum & Bass. It was actually getting a bit bad, ’99 maybe? It just felt like something that me and my friends had that no one else was really in to. It was exciting.
You stumbled across it?
Yeah, kind of. Some of our friends were into it I guess and they took me and then took drugs and that was the rest of it (laughs).
Was it around then you started making music? Or were you into the scene for a long time before?
I started buying records straight away.
You were DJing?
We were DJing at home with friends, all day, everyday. We just used to mix and mix and mix, all weekend. Buying records and then a couple of us started making tunes. I didn’t start then, I was probably 20/21 when I started doing that so 5 years later.
So when you started making music was it drum & bass?
Yeah, I think I started making drum & bass because it was what I was buying most of at the time. It sounded horrific. The funny thing is when you start making stuff it doesn’t sound so bad to you because you can fill in the gaps so though it sounds like shit to everyone else, it’s still exciting to someone making music for the first time. You think it sounds amazing because you made it and that’s the process that keeps driving and never, never goes away.
I just made a track yesterday and stuck it on before I went out. It’s always that feeling after you make something, you think it’s amazing. The next day you play it and go “please please be ok”. Sounded alright.
Listening to your music certain references seem to jump out. I thought it would be interesting to discuss and see if any of them are people who influenced you?
I’ve kind of forgotten who my influences are (laughs) but yeah, go for it.
Minimal synth stuff?
Yeah, I mean, minimal synth stuff I got into quite heavily. There’s so much of it though. If you’ve got a nice synthesizer, you can make a nice track. I kind of rely on friends I met through music to introduce me to more of that kind of stuff. People like Veronica who runs minimal wave, Alessandro that runs Mannequin. I always sample that kind of stuff though because you get this kind of very simple synthesizer track that’s quite good for sampling.
My approach to music, less so now but when I was doing less synthesis on my own, my whole approach to making music was a bit like Musique Concrete. It was like found sound in the sense. I would take a sound from a record and from my iphone and so really it was a world of collage. I was just using everything I could to get my hands on sounds you know, whether it was ripping youtube videos or whatever. I would do field recordings on my phone. Lots of the vocal samples were snippets of friends talking in pubs.
Yeah, I was into everything growing up. When I discovered the world didn’t begin and end with drum and bass I’ve been on a musical discovery that never ended. I go through different periods where I’m influence by different things so I was definitely more influenced by industrial when I did my first record. I think there is a bit of overkill on the industrial revival.
Yeah, I just found No Wave as an idea so liberating, you know. I found it inspiring that people were doing this thing and they couldn’t even play instruments. That’s kind of how I felt as an electronic musician, sort of like, “wow, this may be a possibility”. Even if you’re not technically brilliant, you can still say something.
I guess it was interesting to because it took that whole punk notion but put it in an art context.
Yeah, I love that. I love the whole context of people discussing big ideas and hanging out in dingy basements. Fashion and New York in the 70’s, looking back it seems like a brilliant thing. At the time it was probably like 20 people though (laughs) but it feels like it was something really important.
Any others you want to ask about?
I guess post punk, The Fall etc?
Music I’ve been making this year I’ve had a reaction against that stuff in my music which is quite exciting for me.
Against the post punk thing?
Yeah, kind of because I felt I was repeating myself too much, going back to electronic, less sampling, I’m much more excited. I mean, I was excited when I was making everything I have ever made but it’s nice to know there is a new direction, you don’t have to be stuck with the sound you create.
You can definitely hear the progression from the 11-14 to the album. Obviously you can hear the connection but there is a movement in another direction.
Alongside the industrial references you can hear the early Warp, Aphex, Autchre
I love all that early Warp, I still love a lot of what Warp do. I’ve got friends on Warp.
Lorenzo’s a friend of mine, Sean and Rob from Autechre are friends. Being around them and hearing the stories, it’s like, fuck, that was 25 years ago. I find it inspiring that people can still play at a high level when they have been doing it so long. It doesn’t really happen in music very much you know. People that stay good for 25 years is fucking rare.
I guess also because that sound was so new. Sometimes scenes like that can suffer from sounding dated.
It’s fun hearing all those stories from back in the day, the early raves. I got those early records, LFO stuff , Sweet Excorcist . I love it all.
There is one act I felt I could hear an influence of and then saw you had done some remixing for them, Ike Yard.
Yeah, I love Ike Yard.
How did that come about?
Stuart from Ike Yard was re-engaging the music around the time I was just starting out so he was around doing shows. One of my first Powell gigs was on the top floor of a shitty pub in Manchester with about ten people but it was with him so we ended up talking then and then I stayed with him once in New York. He did a whole remix series, Regis did a remix, Vessel, me.
I guess a lot of these scenes, partly because of the nature of the times, didn’t communicate with other scenes so much, they were more insular which created very tight scene based music. Do you feel now you are aligned with or part of any scene?
In some ways I quite like that me, as an artist isn’t necessarily connected to something I need to sustain. It’s not like I made music that belongs in this time or city. I think it’s really empowering as an artist today if you can be your own thing and not be beholden to a fad that come and goes.
I don’t think I’ve ever really felt aligned (to a scene), I mean the closest I was I guess was when I was emerging at a time with people like Pan and Blackest Ever Black. It felt like there was some sort of scene there, we were playing the same festivals but you realize we were just part of the natural cycle of progressive music. You always need people to come forward then there’s new people two years later. So my attachment to that avant garde festival scene, though it was really powerful and important for me, it’s not really there anymore, it sort of evaporated into thin air. I don’t really have a connection really with any scene beyond just my friends and my record label and in some ways that’s brilliant because you can do your own thing when you’re not beholden to other people, you are you. But it’s also quite frustrating because no one really knows where to put you, whether you’re appropriate to play at these things or not, so no one’s really embraced me I suppose like that. I still feel like I’m on my own. There’s not much support around as an artist you know when you’re doing your own thing. It can be quite scary but it’s ultimately liberating as well.
With regards to Diagonal, at what stage were you with your own music when you decided you were going to have your own label?
I’ve said it before but it was literally meeting Regis, he wanted to put it out but said you should do your own label yourself and that was it. We’d always grown up worshipping record labels, the idea we could do our own was like…..incredible. It doesn’t feel quite so incredible anymore now that every man and his dog has a label (laughs).
It was interesting seeing you cutting and gluing the sleeves. I guess that feels part of a long line from Folkways all the way to punk.
That was good actually, I completely forgot I did that. We did that up in Manchester. I was just so excited about getting one record done. As far as I could tell that was the only thing I would ever do in music and I was 100% satisfied. I’m not satisfied now for some reason, I don’t think I’ll ever be as satisfied as I was for having done that one record and being so proud of it. Now it’s like everyone knows everything about me, there’s less mystery, and it’s just a bitchy world we live in. That was just pure. That single moment.
I guess there’s a freedom. Everything is brand new.
No one knew me then. I did one record and I felt like I’d achieved something.
In terms of people knowing you and the fact it must get boring doing interviews and going over the same things, was that the reason you put yourself out there in…not so much a mischievous way but that there is a play in the way you interact? Is that to keep things interesting for you?
I just take the view in life you should always try to make things as interesting as possible, so if you’ve got a chance to speak to people why not do it in a fun way? That’s all it ever was, it was never like “how do we make Powell famous?” or anything, it was just let’s have some fun, like an extension of what I make musically. I think people like to presume too much about people and slag them off and those people just don’t understand what I was getting at with some of those things. Like the billboard stuff.
That was interesting in that he (Steve Albini) seemed to say he wasn’t interested in (your scene) but then went on to reference a lot of what it seemingly encompasses.
That’s why it worked on a lot of levels because people that knew my music could understand the irony, people that were into EDM were outraged about this guy and people who were punk rockers were like “who the fuck is Powell having a go at Albini?”, it worked on so many levels.
The other thing about Albini’s response was that it was almost like the idea of a scene, and understanding someone would want to be part of something, was more important than his specific interest in it.
It’s place in the wider story
Yeah, like he was saying I don’t care about that but do what you want with it.
And he wasn’t going to prevent it. He was very open and modern and transparent about the way people are making music.
Off the back of that I wanted to ask you about sample based music. Do you feel there is a responsibility to the person that created the original sound in sampling that and making something new.
Yeah, if you take a hook or melody then yeah of course because it’s so unique to that song but then, what’s the difference between sampling a drum pattern from a record or using a drum machine. It’s still not your sound. It’s the drum machine or the record, where do you draw the line?
Yeah, I’m torn on it. I think it’s sad that ownership is the way it is , there is something quite nice about people being able to sample anything, however the original person feels about it .
I think when people start looking for money, I mean, I sample loads, I did on that record and everyone happy to clear the samples. Some people see dollar signs and see I’m on XL and think I must be rich.
What was the relevance of the album title “Sport”?
There was a few reasons really I quite like the idea that the music was meant to be playful, so I like that feeling of play, the spirit of play. I also quite like the fact that sport is something that if you’re in to weird music you’re not meant to do. It’s like the opposite of what you are meant to do. I think Sport is actually quite a rich word, it can mean playfulness, competition, mental and physical. I like the way sport has a special relationship with people in different ways. I love sport, we watch like six games of football a week, she supports city, I support united (laughs).
What was the Skype call on the album.
With Trax, that was the most expensive sample to clear. He’s a mate of mine but he’s crazy. Anyone who’s met him before knows that. So I knew it was going to be difficult.
Was that in there because it highlighted your feelings about laziness that some dj’s or electronic superstars bring?
I guess there was that layer of I believe in what Melvin is saying here, that feeling. All the samples I use were pretty much reflective of how I felt about things. The reason I used that was because when I was having a skype call, I was just like this is unbelievable, I can’t even write this shit, it’s just an amazing rant. There is so much bullshit and crap out there of course but I’m not going to begrudge anyone making a career out of that if that’s what they do.
Do you think that that’s just an inherent problem of creating electronic music , the spectacle of the band is different.
Yeah, I think he’s talking about dj stuff, I come from a dj background where you buy records and invest your life to become this thing, not like you get traktor and you can spin a few tracks but then you say these things in interviews and everyone says “you boring old fart” (laughs) but that’s just the way djing was. You had to really put your back into it to mix two tracks together let alone start getting gigs. I don’t know, everyone is a dj and everyone’s got a record label.
Is that a problem with technology, it liberates everyone but there is no quality control anymore? Anyone can rock up to a party with a usb, whereas before you had to be digging.
I think so, that’s why DJ’s are entertainers rather than storytellers like they used to be. The role of the DJ has shifted I think. I like the idea of the dj’s as storytellers and finding ways to play things that you never imagined. Pioneer gave me some cdj’s , which was nice of them (laughs) and I started using the software record box to see how it works. You can synch everything. When a technology starts to iron out and reduces everything down to a grid, irons out the differences between things, you’re going to be left with everything being so linear and perfectly put together you just don’t feel the music anymore, you just hear the grid. That’s kind of how it is to go to a club these days a lot of the time. Then you try and play weird stuff and no one does anything so you have to go back to banging it out again.
How did you start out making music in terms of kit. Was it all in the computer, did you use hardware and analogue stuff?
I started on a computer and the computer is still the centre of my studio but all my sound sources are always analogue. I’ve got four or five synths at home, drum machines. then if I go to a studio that has decent recording I’ll record the fuck out of every machine, so I’ve got banks of audio. Samples from records and then all into the computer and fucked with.
Is that something that is evolving?
Yeah, it’s always evolving. I always add single pieces to my thing so I learn it and it transforms my sound. I like how a piece of equipment can take it into a different direction. Like I got a 606 last week and I made a whole track that’s just the 606, which I never would have done without that machine, just the sound of drum machines. Trying to break it in a way. I’ve got this new synth called an OB-6. Oberheim Dave Smith, that’s a keyboard thing so suddenly I feel like I can play keys (laughs) that just introduces a whole world of musicality that wasn’t accessible to me before. I would be like I need to find a sample, chance upon something but now I can write a synth line. That’s why the music always evolves. I was quite resistant to having new stuff in the studio and you just forget how great it is getting new bits of equipment.