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Bristol's Ekoplekz makes a fuzzy elixir to pour in your ears, drawing comparisons with King Tubby's singed dub, the sci-fi emissions of the Radiophonic Workshop and Suicide's protopunk electronics
By Ali Wade
If you followed the rise of dubstep before the scene exploded into ubiquity, chances are you stumbled on a blog run by Bristolian Nick Edwards from 2003-2009. The appeal of Gutterbreakz reached far beyond the chest-rattling bass brigade, however; he funnelled his encyclopedic knowledge of modern music out into the blogosphere, pondering pop, rock, dub, early electronics, library music, IDM, and much more, with many a misty-eyed musing on boomboxes, rhythm boxes and the kind of 'stuff that music lovers just don't seem to need anymore...'
No newcomer to making music, in recent years he's applied his wide-ranging influences to producing and performing strange analogue secretions under the name Ekoplekz. While reviews of his material readily reference the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop and the great dub pioneers, Edwards' output clings much to its own path, built from scratch with his ever-changing 'big spaghetti' studio set-up.
Following up a series of short-run CD-R albums, last year saw Tom 'Peverelist' Ford release a limited Ekoplekz 12" on his Bristol-based label Punch Drunk. Described in The Wire as 'resolutely unfunctional' (much to the delight of its creator), the record met with critical acclaim and was followed by a slew of talked-about live performances in Bristol and beyond. February 2011 saw the release of Memowrekz, a 33-track collection put out by the eclectic Mordant Music as a double C60 cassette pack (and download), with another Mordant release, the Fountain Square EP, arriving hot on its heels in March.
Spannered tracked down Nick Edwards to the back of a Bristol beer garden, ahead of an Ekoplekz performance at the Cube Cinema's Radiophonic Weekend.
How are you doing?
Very well, thank you.Are you looking forward to this evening?
Yeah, well, I've already met Dick Mills, which was the main thing I was excited about. This is the guy who basically terrified me when I was six or seven with his sound effects. You won't know this yet but I've got an ep coming out on another label soon which has a track called Dick Mills Blues, an ode to Dick Mills, which I'd already done before I knew I was going to meet him tonight. But that's a measure of the respect I have for the man and his craft. Right the way through the '70s, he was the special effects man at the BBC. All the programmes I used to watch — Doctor Who, Blake's 7 — Dick Mills was in there somewhere, making strange noises to put shivers down your spine. And all that comes through in what I do.Your output has been widely aligned with Radiophonic Workshop material. How does that make you feel given that you're so passionate about the Workshop?
As long as people don't just say that it's a Radiophonic copyist, because it's not. It's all part of what makes me what I am. I try not to filter anything out, so you've got a bit of that but it's all mingled with post-punk, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, a bit of Krautrock, Cluster, early Kraftwerk. Young Marble Giants, you know them? They made one album, fantastic record. But also, if you listen carefully there are bits of modern music seeping in. I don't say 'I am a retro artist' — I hate that. I hate artists who just want to be retro, 'we just want to replicate the sound of the '70s'. I don't want to replicate anything. I just want to demonstrate who I am, where I'm from, what I listen to, what makes me tick, and if that means there's going to be a bit of wobble in there then it'll come through.The Workshop's name gets bandied about a lot by music journalists for anything that's analogue and a bit freeform.
I don't deny it's in there but I would never go in the studio and say, 'today I'm going to do a Radiophonic track'. I never plan ahead, I don't even title my tracks until I've finished them. I go in the studio without any specific idea that I want to do this or that. I go in, turn everything on, connect everything up, away I go and see what happens. When I come back to everything a day or two later, to do the mixes and what-not, then that's when I start thinking, 'what was I trying to express here?', and I'll pick stuff out and know where I've stolen it from. But it's all subliminal. Don't say the word stolen [laughs]. Talking of stealing of course, some people still say to me, 'where do you get the samples from?' There are no samples, I don't sample anything. It's all made by hand, from scratch.All done in one take?
Not always, no, because I use a four-track. There are overdubs, but I do try to record in one take. Say if I'm overdubbing a guitar or a synth, I try to get it as near as possible to the point of creation. I'll have a rough idea of the motif or the melody but I don't rehearse it too much, just put it down. If there are a few bum notes, keep them in, if it's a real bum note then okay, maybe take it out, but generally speaking I like to get as near to that point of the initial burst of creation as possible. That's why it all sounds a bit fragile, because some of it I probably couldn't play again. It all happens like that [clicks fingers], in the spirit of the moment. That's what I'm always trying to do, capture a moment, whereas so much electronic music now, it's all about sculpting and perfecting and coming up with this perfect piece of chiselled digital art.Tell us a bit about your musical background. Someone told me you used to be in some kind of techno band.
Should I tell you about all that? Who told you I'd been in techno bands?Bass Clef.
Well yeah, he'd probably know a bit about that. I'd been in indie jungle bands in the early nineties. I've been in a seriously straight-up guitar band too. In the late nineties, when I'd become completely bored with electronic music, I thought, 'I'm going to learn how to play a guitar', which was something as a teenager I would have been horrified by because in the '80s I was always hardcore anti-indie music; I was totally converted to hip hop, sampling, you know — I thought everything else was rubbish. But in the late '90s I was bored with everything and was listening to stuff like the Velvets, exploring a lot of classic early guitar music, and I thought, 'let's form a band and see what happens', so I found a couple of like-minded friends, did a few gigs. We weren't very good [laughs].And that was in Bristol?
Yes.You're originally from Bristol?
Yeah, Bristol born and bred — not many of 'em about. We never got very good but it was just an experience, and it still carries through, because once you've learned to play a guitar to a basic standard it's like riding a bike. You don't forget how to play a C, it just comes to you. There are plenty are bass and guitar parts in Ekoplekz stuff.You stopped making music for quite some years. What happened?
Yes, that was when we started having kids. We moved house to a bigger house to accommodate all these kids and I was at this crossroads in my life. I had quite a lot of studio gear at that point and I thought, 'I need to move on, sell this, grow up, reinvest the money in cots or whatever'.So it wasn't connected to starting your blog?
No. After I'd retired [from making music] I was just aimlessly listening as a fan — that was around the time that blogs first started. I saw Simon Reynold's blog first, Blissblog. That was the first blog I ever saw and read, and that was around early 2003 I think. From him I found Woebot's blog, and then K-Punk's blog. There was this little tribe, just a few people, and I was like, 'that's something I could do, just to keep my hand in'. So I did, and that just sort of took off.Gutterbreakz had long lifespan in blog terms. What was it, six years?
Yeah. Well, my selling point as a blogger was that I was one of the first to start the mp3 downloads, shame on me [laughs]. Not full albums, but the idea that you review something and then you add a clip or a track example from the album, for download, which was a radical idea at that time.And you were pulled up on that at one point, weren't you?
I was, yes. Some people on the Dubstep Forum didn't like the fact that I'd shared some out-of-print early dubstep tracks. I should have asked, you know.Was that a bit of a wake-up call?
Yeah, probably. I think it was about 50/50 in terms of people supporting me on doing it and people hating me for doing it. But I needed to have that 'whoa', to make me think, 'well, was that a naughty thing to do?', because it was as the height of my power as it were, when I thought I could do whatever I liked.The blog focused heavily on dubstep for a couple of years, didn't it?
To be honest it covered dubstep longer than it needed to. The problem was that when everyone else was going mad about grime, which I loved as well, no other bloggers were really as passionate about dubstep as I was, the really early stuff, you know, Plasticman, the first couple of Digital Mystikz, and then I was starting to sense that something was happening in Bristol with it as well. It was just being the right man at the right time. I felt there was a gap in the market and no one was covering it properly, so off I went, and the readership started going up into the thousands. But the thing is, once you're on that roll, you can't get off it. Suddenly you're the place that people go to read about dubstep.Was the filesharing incident [in 2006] a bit of a fracture point for you with the dubstep scene?
Definitely a fracture point. It made me question my reasons for doing it. I was knocked back a bit by that and never really recovered.Would you run a blog again? I know you post about your own material now.
I wouldn't even call that a blog. As I say, it's a bulletin board; it doesn't express an opinion about anything else, it just gives you facts about what I'm doing. Maybe one day — never say never — but having done both, it's hard work writing about music, especially that type of music. You can't write about the lyrics; you've got to describe textures and beats, and why they are important. For me, making music is just pure joy. Writing about music, cor blimey, I used to bang my head against the wall. I'd get sent some deep dark wobbly dubstep tune and it's like, what fresh descriptive words can I think up to describe this?!Do you think the snowballing use of Twitter has had a huge effect on blogging?
I can only talk from my own experience but Facebook and Twitter, yeah, it has kind of ruined it. We used to spend hours poring over long, in-depth blog posts, whereas for so many people now 140 characters does the job. That's the way of the world, everyone's attention span has gone down the pan.Coming back to the music you've been releasing as Ekoplekz, I've culled a few descriptions from the web. Which of these do you think best describes your music?: weirdo synthscapes; flanged data riddimsquirts; like being born through a black hole; or '70s arcade game rewired by King Tubby on shrooms.
[Laughs at last one] Obviously King Tubby, he's in there — I haven't even mentioned that. The life and soul of Ekoplekz, buried in there. Him and Augustus Pablo, Lee Perry, all the 70s, low-fi dirt, that's all part of it. I like that last one, yeah.Many people first encountered your Ekoplekz material through your Stalag Zero , something of a curveball for Punch Drunk. Were you surprised by how well it was received by followers of the label?
Totally. I was actually saying to Tom [Peverelist] before it came out, 'Tom, this could really damage your label's reputation', and he said, 'nah, it's fine, it's going to work'. He was going to do it as a limited edition with special artwork. He just has an instinct for these things I guess, and it paid off. I saw the DJ reaction sheet that came back and it was overwhelmingly positive, and I was reading it in amazement. You can't even mix it, you know. As Philip Sherborne wrote in his Wire review, 'resolutely unfunctional'. I love that expression. But as Tom said, as long as people understand that it's not a dance record, that it's a statement and piece of art, a collectable thing.Tell us a bit about the Mordant Music releases.
I did two CD-Rs on my own, then before I did the Punch Drunk twelve I was wondering what the next release would be and I thought, 'CD-Rs are crap, I want to do a tape'. And then I got this idea of doing a double tape. Factory Records used to do these really posh double tapes of Joy Division and New Order. It'd come in this fancy packet and you'd open it up and they'd be recessed. I wanted to do something like that, and I wanted to do a double — that'd be a real statement. But when I started looking into sourcing all the parts, and then the whole process of dubbing two tapes... I couldn't find anywhere that would do the boxes in the way I wanted them and I gave up.
It wasn't until after Mordant Music got involved. They said, you've got so much material we want to do a twelve-inch and we also want to do a tape, because we're into doing tapes. I just threw the idea at them, 'well actually I've got this idea for a double tape, in a fancy packet', thinking that they'd tell me to bugger off as it'd be too difficult, and they were like, 'we like that, that's a nice idea'. So I was in this extraordinary position where Mordant Music, the extremely hip and groovy record label, were going to do it for me, which was pretty mind-boggling. All those tapes were personally done and overseen by the Baron [Baron Mordant] himself. He's got a Sony copier and he does them all laboriously, doesn't get any outside dubbers involved. He personally assembles all the tapes. It's not a limited edition — the reason why there weren't enough of them is because that was as many packets as we could find, seriously. He said 'I've found someone who's got the packets, but they've only got this many. We're going to grab them while they're there and hope they manufacture some more at some point'. So we grabbed those and once they were gone they were gone, but theoretically there could be more.
Do you still have your tape collection?
Most of it — and I know that you don't because I remember you telling me that you threw yours away years ago. Nah, I love my tapes mate. You wouldn't have seen it because there was only a minuscule amount, but there was a really bad audience recording of my Vortex gig, and I made a loving photocopied xerox tape cover for it which is just like Camden-market style bootleg cassettes, which I used to love buying. When I used to go to record fairs I wanted to buy records, but at the same time I was always fascinated by these rows of multicoloured photocopied spines. You'd look for your favourite bands and there'd be like a live recording at some polytechnic in Wolverhampton in 1985 and you'd think, 'ooh, I've got to have that'. You'd get it home and it'd sound like it was recorded up someone's asshole.We talked briefly earlier about using computers to make music. I dug up a quote from Steve Albini I thought you might like: 'I don't use computers to make music, I use tape machines like nature intended. I use computers for correspondence, arguments, poker and porn'. Have you ever used or would you consider using a computer to make music?
[Laughing] I have done. When I was blogging, really into the dubstep stuff, I was talking to the producers and became aware of how they made it. Someone gave me a cracked copy of FruityLoops and I did perhaps 20, 30 tracks with that, but I always found it a bit of a drag. It's the assembling it all. There's this brief period when you're making beats on the grid, and that's exciting, and then you come up with a sample and you've got a nice groovy loop going, but then you've got to try and make it into a track, and that involves stitching eight bars here, eight bars there, and it all ends up very programmed, very set, structured.You're much more cause and effect in your approach to music.
It's natural to me to work the way I do. I don't say that an analogue synth makes a better sound than a digital synth — I think it does, but I can accept that other people might disagree. I like to get it down, quick and fast. There is a certain amount of sculpting later on when you're mixing it.You talk about the fun of opening up sonic possibilities by changing links in the chain.
Absolutely. I've got lots of effect pedals and all kinds of little boxes, but I try not to get too stuck into a standard signal path, always trying to find new ways of routing. Everything is connected with quarter-inch jacks — big spaghetti. I'll put that box before this box and wonder what it'll do to the sound, and sometimes it's radically different. It constantly fascinates me. But then I'm sure that a digital laptop artist is constantly fascinated by what his software can do. This way just suits me, and everyone should find their own way of working that suits them best.When you're performing, your set-up dictates a much greater element of risk than most laptop performers.
But I love that. To me, the idea of having a prearranged set on a laptop, pressing play and just tweaking it a bit, that's not playing live, it's mixing, at best. I like the risk, and my set is getting more and more to being totally improvised. For the first two or three live sets I would have a certain amount of structure from pre-existing recordings, but as I went on I got more confident and thought 'I don't need to replicate anything I've done, every performance could be a completely unique experience. I'll just make this shit up as I go along'. But you have to get to a certain level of confidence to be able to do that.Someone told me that you look like you're loosing control at times, and that it adds greatly to the appeal.
Absolutely. I'll tell you a band you might not necessarily associate with me but who inspired me on that front: Sunburned Hand of the Man. I saw them and they were just crazy. It was afterwards that I discovered that they as a group always play as an improvisory unit; they make it up as they go along. There was one bit where it went crap and then it went good again, and my friend Kek said to me, 'this is what I love about them, they bury themselves in a hole and then they've got to dig themselves out again'. It's so exciting to watch. My set is like one man trying to do that. I go on, it looses its way for a bit [laughs] and then I'm like, 'erk, quick, pull it out of the fire', and then I get myself going again. At the Vortex, everyone after was saying how brilliant it was, but there were points in the set where I was thinking to myself, 'I'm in London, I'm at the Vortex, it's Mordant Music, I'm in a room full of people and journalists, and I'm fucking up!'What are the key bits of kit you tend to use in your live show.
Hmm, I'd say the two things I'd feel utterly naked without are the Danelectro Reel Echo, which is basically a stomp box designed to emulate a real tape echo. It's a very good, reliable thing for taking out live. I wouldn't want to take a tape echo out live. I've heard people saying, 'that's a nice tape echo you got there, what is it?' Well, it's not a tape echo but it operates just like one. You can set it to infinite loop and create these kind of beats. Some of my tracks you might think were done with drums, but they weren't. It was me, manually tapping stuff into the loops, which is why you get this swirly, woozy effect. There are two settings: it can either be as a solid state tape loop or as a valve tape loop. The valve emulates a '50s sound, which is much darker and muddier. But it's so reliable and small, it's perfect for live use.
The other thing — I've had it for years — is my old Electrix EQ Killer, which is a serious three-band EQ. It's the nearest EQ I've heard to King Tubby's old dub. You get that kind of ooooooouwieeck sound — not quite sure how you're going to transcribe the word ooooooouwieeck. Listen to some old King Tubby tune and his desk had very intense equalisation on it. It's not up to that standard but it's the nearest I've every heard. It's more of a DJ thing, it's meant to be in there with two decks and a mixer, but put instruments through it and it sounds fantastic. So those two things I would say are the mainstays. Without those I'd feel like I couldn't do a good performance.
So you're going to be okay tonight without your [recently broken] Monotron?
The Monotron is lovely because it's not much bigger than this [picks up a phone from the table]. It's very versatile. But it's interesting, because it's the newest thing I've got and its the first thing that's broken. What does that say about modern standards of manufacturing, I don't know. I mean, I've taken good care of it.It's cool though that this £50 box has been so widely embraced by different musicians.
I played on Exotic Pylon in London last year, the Jonny Mugwump show. There were three electronic artists playing that night: myself, Time Attendant and Hacker Farm, and the one thing we all had in common was that we had a Monotron. It's so portable; it's the size of a fag packet. It's mainly for it's filtering capabilities — you can put anything through it. I've got a little Casio keyboard — I put the beats through the Monotron and suddenly it's totally alien. I've given my old one to the kids, as I said. They're all fascinated with it. 'Oh good, I'm thinking, 'finally something from my world that interests the kids!'Do they share your enthusiasm for music?
They love music, just not my stuff yet, but that's understandable. When I was their age I was into Top 40 pop music. The weirdest record I remember from my early childhood was Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. My mum bought that record because it was number one in the charts and it was the 'in' record to buy. She hated it really; she pretended she liked it but she didn't. I thought it was fantastic. That was probably the first non-pop record I ever heard. I often think that Tubular Bells was the record that led me off down the path to more experimental music, even though it's not an obvious choice probably.So to wrap up, what's on the horizon for you?
A few more live gigs — Switzerland, Cambridge... Release-wise, there's an album with Punch Drunk. There was talk of doing it as a CD, but now we're looking at an old school, single platter album. There are several other projects on the go as well. The thing is, Memowrekz and the CD-Rs was kind of this surge of ideas, just anything goes, getting it all out. I think the next stage, and this is going to be the first of that, is to do more properly conceived projects that have a theme to them, a certain style. The thing I'm doing with Tom [Peverelist] is more towards the Radiophonics. Again, it's not the obvious label to do it with, but doing it on Punch Drunk means it wouldn't necessarily be associated as being hauntological music, because Punch Drunk is a very 'current' label.
Hopefully people will realise that what I'm doing isn't just retro music. I'm trying to recontextualise that in a modern framework. It sounds old because of the way I work. I like all the spring reverbs and the tape hiss and all that, but at the same time you'll hear stuff that's going on in there which couldn't possibly have been made 30 years ago. Not because the technology wasn't there, just because no one had thought of it. I don't deny that I'm living in the year 2011, and I don't deny that I spent ten years listening to garage and dubstep, and I allow those influences to freely intermingle with the Radiophonics and stuff in a way that someone who made Radiophonic music in the '70s couldn't have possible done — it just wouldn't have occurred to them. But I don't see the point in slavishly emulating past glories. It's got to come from you, channelling everything that you've experienced. That's the way it's got to be.
Memowrekz is out now on Mordant Music
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