Interview: Building the Panopticon

by Mat Taylor for OneHourOneDJ

You're known for breakcore tracks that are characterized by both hardcore punk and jungle influences, the new EP on EXE sounds completely different to anything you've released before, what made you decide to change direction?

This record certainly seems like a direction change, but listen closely and you’ll find it’s the same vibe as ever - an independent spirit, an awareness, and a striving to make sense of things, to engage.

I just followed my nose. The ideas came first, from the same thing we all do - being a person alive and sensitive to what’s going on. It came from traveling, listening and observing, seeing everything - all the bones of late capitalism, neoliberalism & digital dystopia from several different perspectives - sleeping, waking up with connections made, and a feeling that something is deeply amiss. I’ve had this feeling since childhood, but it’s taken on a certain technological edge recently.

From there it was a simple thing to arrive at the music style. Drum & Bass seemed the perfect vector for these ideas. It’s such a post-apocalyptic sound, and a simultaneous fascination and skepticism of technology is embedded in the genre's core. It seemed perfect. Write some lyrics, put them in the drop, deliver. Simple. The medium is the message, too.

Another more practical reason for the style change is that I wanted to improve my production skills. For years I’d focused solely on emotion and composition, and the technical side seemed like pure wizardry, instead of the absolutely quantifiable thing it is. So I hit the tutorials hard, quietly, and started learning to hear the subtle differences between compressors and EQs, the little details which add up to a big thing in the end. Now it feels wonderful, that I know what I’m doing a little bit more, but there’s also so much more to learn. I can make the technicals serve the tune, and it feels empowering and liberating to be able to do most of what you need yourself. I’ve also started stem mixing and mastering for other people as well, which is great fun.

Drum and Bass and underground dance music in general has been a staple part of UK subculture for more than 20 years, how does the American scene compare?

D&B is simply a different animal in the USA, because we don’t feel it in our bones like we do rock & roll & the blues. There are plenty of scholars, DJs, internet experts, subculture folks in the US, but your mom doesn’t know who Goldie is, you know?

As for underground dance music in general, some of it we really do feel in our bones, but it’s very regional. The USA is a huge place, whose subcultures often develop in little pockets.

For me growing up in the Massachusetts suburbs, the real folk music, the people's music, the stuff of our time and place, was hardcore. It happened in a real and organic way that just makes sense, because it comes from real life. I imagine this is the same as D&B in the UK, and all regional underground movements. This is our common starting point.

You're from a hardcore punk background originally. For the uninitiated, can you explain what that scene is about? Also, do you feel there are any similarities between that and underground dance music?

The root of both hardcore and underground dance music is absolutely the same independent spirit, realized two different ways. Both are a struggle to affirm life in the face of death.

It's a reaction to living in a hypercapitalist society that tells you that you don’t matter, that you have to conform - for the essence of modern life is separation. We're divided against each other. Everyone has to have their own toaster oven. Sharing is discouraged over consumption, true love is discouraged over loveless sex, money is the only value, and we're thus balkanized and endlessly consuming, but empty inside. Hardcore and dance music in its original illegal rave form are pushbacks against this profoundly unnatural state of affairs, to help get us back to what feels right.

It's all civil disobedience, creation, and connection, done two different ways, coming from the same roots. We do it because we must, by making a temporary autonomous zone - the thing that makes life awesome. Freedom, the sweetest thing, the life-affirming thing. You go to a show, you feel alive and renewed.

For those who don’t know much about hardcore, I highly recommend the recent Vice NYHC documentary, it explains a lot, very well. It’s focused on New York City, which is a different vibe from where I grew up, but the roots are similar.

Think for yourself. You are then presented with a choice: do something, or not. What's it gonna be? Choosing action is the essence of hardcore. Once you travel down this path, some things start to naturally make sense: straight edge, healthy living, equal rights for all people, respect for animals, love for nature, distrust of authority, defiance against anyone who tells you that hurting people or animals or the environment is ok. Replace a warehouse outlaw party with a community center show at noon, full lights on, ready to rumble, and there you have hardcore music.

The tracks on the EP are all characterised by the vocal samples that talk of the future as a dystopian modernist hell, do you think electronic music can have a message? Or is it just some satisfying noise that people like to dance to?

Everything you do has a message. That you might be unaware of the message you are creating doesn’t matter. You’re doing a thing, presenting it, and there are values being shown. Once you realize this, everything you do takes on a profound sense of importance & responsibility.

The only question left is: what is your message? Well, now there are no more choices for me. It’s obvious, and it’s a path. I notice things and I have to say something, so here it goes. There are no rules. You can do anything you want. Music with a message? Sure! Of course!

The dystopian message of this EP is actually set in the present, not the future, which makes some of it doubly scary. Think about it for a moment. Algorithms regulate a vast percentage of both culture and the financial system. Democracy is being hijacked by disinformation and distraction on a massive scale, manipulated most effectively by whoever has the biggest computer or the most advantageous position on the network. Autonomous robot weapons are a matter of when, not if. The technocrats who develop these systems are enmeshed with government, and we will have a cast of truly terrible people in the White House, who will have access to the most extensive surveillance tools in history. This is today. I desperately wish this was just the plot of a decades-in-the-future cyberpunk movie, but it's all real.

If we actually do wake up in the future to find ourselves in a more advanced stage of techno-fascist world order, I feel we’ll look to this time in history right now as the start of it. It’s not all gloom though - the “Void Which Binds” tune is actually a story of hope - but you need to read the Hyperion series of books for that part to make any sense. It’s linked in the liner notes.

When you aren't working on music or touring, how do you usually spend your day?

If I’m not working on music or touring, I’m doing something else that ties in with music. Managing websites / emailing / designing visual things. I’ve recently been into making video. In the rare moments I’m not engaged making something, I'll hang out with friends & family, go on a walk to nowhere in particular, just to enjoy being out and noticing things. I'm also reading a lot, constantly.

Also been into some geeky stuff like running my own web server - learning how to use Linux. It's really empowering to do this, and it demystifies so much of the web that you formerly thought was off limits. It feels like building your own house, in digital land.

Breakcore seems less widespread than it was say ten years ago and a lot of tracks are now being made at around 175bpm under the "crossbreed" banner. Why do you think the scene changed?

Breakcore is totally unsustainable as a cohesive genre, as its true essence is anarchy. Chaos. Experimentation. Freedom! Smash the tyranny of closed-minded genres! Mash up everything! It’s an excellent idea, but after the dust settles it becomes clear that you can’t unite people under an anti-movement for very long. You must make some kind of loosely defined structure at some point, or someone else will do it for you.

Enter Crossbreed. Crossbreed came along and distilled out many of the dark and aggressive elements of some Breakcore, while vastly improving the production values, and slowed the thing down to a semi-followable tempo. Now you have this thing, which is defined, vastly more palatable, and it sounds much better from a sound engineering perspective. There you go. Reboot and Repeat, and the thing sustains itself.

Personally it’s not my cup of tea, Crossbreed, but neither were those nihilistic elements of Breakcore from which it came. So, I’m happy it’s all in that basket. Over THERE ->

Electronic music, breakcore, drum and bass, dubstep and techno in particular, is a breeding ground for experimentation with literally every other genre of music. Is there anywhere left for electronic music to go? Or has it all been done before?

Culture keeps going, forever. Just when you think it’s all been done, someone will come along and flip the whole thing on its head. New tools are being made at an exponential rate, and new movements follow, always. Keep your ear to the ground.

Can you tell us about your best ever gig?

There have been so many. The best ones, a spark lights off and it’s pure fire. One amazing one that comes to mind was Kobe, Japan way back, it was just this moment of pure explosion like at hardcore shows. It's since been like that many places since, but Kobe was the first, it was the first moment we all sensed something new was happening. There have been some really life-affirming awesome ones in Beirut, Bristol, Tel Aviv, all over Europe... one time we drove out to Kansas City & played a great long-running independent saloon type of place where the manager told me about Nirvana and the Melvins and all the awesome punk rock shows he's seen at that place. People were hanging from the ceiling, just going absolutely berzerk.

And the worst?

There have been a bunch of those too. One time I flew across the world to play in a New Zealand rainforest which had a flash flood moments before we arrived. Two days' travel to play in an absolute mudbath of a festival with thousands of kids transformed into muck monsters, curiously some of whom were quite happy rockin' out in a foot of water. It was an okay and fun and ridiculous show in the end, but quite anticlimactic. This was a few months after having lived through the Glade Festival mud apocalypse, so I was like "oh no, not again!", but I was prepared with some heavy boots. Glade was the whole reason I started wearing boots again, and continue still.

One time some Neo-Nazi promoters hired me, lord knows why, and of course they didn't just tell me this in advance, which made for the most awkward airport pickup ever, to put it extremely mildly. This is actually a whole essay in itself as the show was quite a profound experience. I made a lot of changes after that one.

One time I showed up at a club, in Russia (always Russia) to find the table I was meant to play on covered in blood. Real human blood. The stage too. Ah good ol' Russia. What the hell were they doing there?! Nothin' like a good ol' human sacrifice before the show 😂

There have been more mundane times when underground organizers have forgotten to supply a guitar amp as agreed, and I couldn't play at all. I do a lot of fly-in live sets, and a few pieces of gear need to be supplied locally. Organizers agree to this, but sometimes forget. Electronic music is weird in that promoters aren't used to supplying any gear at all. They give you an empty table. Here you go! But for Drumcorps I use a guitar and all kinds of gear, which is actually a little ridiculous to even attempt in such an environment. There's often an ample supply of alcohol, which means nothing to me, and its presence in the absence of fundamental equipment will further enrage me. Hey!! I'm not here to party, I'm here to play the best set ever! Let's make that possible please!

Brexit and the US elections are consuming the media, free parties are happening again and there's a dour, stern woman in charge of the UK and a hateful old man with an orange face in charge of the U.S. It's starting to feel like the late 80s/early 90s again. Do you think we'll see the birth of any more significant musical movements in the wake of all this political misery?

Absolutely. Culture matters, actions matter, and it’s about to get very, very real. Music movements are a good way to rally people to a cause, and thus they are also some of the first things to be attacked by an authoritarian regime. Expect to see some powerful movements, and heavy-handed state repression. Be ready to support each other with actions, it really deeply matters now. Staying silent is the same thing as accepting it - there is no middle ground anymore.

One thing I want to express to my friends everywhere, is to please please please learn to secure your devices and encrypt your communications. We will have a cadre of white supremacists, neo-fascists and general enemies of humanity in the White House, and they will have access to the biggest surveillance machine ever built. This is not alarmist or hyperbolic in any way - it is the simple truth of the world right now. It’s not the 1980s in that regard, not at all. Protect yourself.

If you are organizing any kind of resistance, even if it is a solely artistic one, you could become a target of the state. Be aware, be careful, but also be bold. There are more of us than them.

Finally, what's next for you in terms of releases and touring?

This EXE release and the recent vinyl Jungle Boots are the current releases. I just finished a remix for The Algorithm, and I’m working hard on a special project with US hardcore band Code Orange for their upcoming tour, as well as finishing up the third Drumcorps album, which is super super great. Touring-wise, I’ll be headed to the UK and continental Europe in March, in support of the new records.