In conversation with dubstep don Pinch (Kruger music interview)

Below is a fairly early interview with dubstep DJ, producer and label owner Pinch, which I originally wrote for Kruger magazine in 2006.

I was chatting about the still emerging dubstep genre with Mike Williams the magazine’s editor in some Cardiff bar. We decided to do an interview with Rob Ellis alias Pinch.

I’d originally met Rob in December 2004 at Moloko club, Mill Lane in Cardiff. He’d travelled from Bristol to my Machine Meadow night (which I ran with Lee Underpass) in order to catch Kode9 playing dubplates of grime and dubstep.

Rob mentioned he was a dubstep enthusiast who made his own tunes – so far so typical for a random guy in a club.

By July 2006 and this interview, Pinch had just recently released his first 12″ for Planet Mu and a handful of things on his own labels. He’d toured a bit but at the time it still wasn’t at all inevitable he’d be the dubstep scene stalwart he is today. The accompanying photo in the magazine, taken by Michaeljohn Day, showed Pinch grappling with a stack of ringing telephones which turned out to be very fitting.

“There was a factory somewhere in the States where workers were complaining about seeing ghosts – not just feeling them but actually seeing them.” says Pinch.

“They sent some people to investigate and eventually found that the cooling system was emitting a low frequency of 19 hertz. They turned it off and it was fine… You see, around 19 hertz is the resonant frequency of your eyeballs. It makes your eyeballs vibrate. It affects the way they deal with the information in front of you. Everything’s got a resonant frequency.”

Pinch could fill several magazines with weird and chilling tales about sound. As a devotee and champion of what’s become known as DUBSTEP – arguably the first bona fide new musical movement to emerge from the UK in a while – his fascination with bass and its spooky Fortean properties long ago become an obsession.

As any likeminded follower of bass-driven music may know, dubstep as a genre has been bubbling away contentedly for some time now. Sounding like some lazier, hazier cousin of the grime scene, with roots in the 2-step garage sound, the common factors in any dubstep tune are a large and seductive cushion of bass with sparse yet swinging drum rhythms. Unlike grime, it is mainly instrumental and there are few MCs to speak of. Melodies and vocal snatches appear, often quite subtly, then vanish. But always the bass.

Pinch is our guide to this new and thrilling world. He recalls the initial confusion: “a lot of people listen to it and think it’s two kicks, a snare and a hi-hat – ‘what else is going on?’ (they say)… But there’s all this 40 hertz sub-bass which is moving and gives it a groove but it just won’t pick up on your hi-fi so you won’t even know it’s there really. Undeniably you have to have at least heard it once on a big soundsystem to really get it. Then you can come back and listen to it in a different way. Once you’ve had your belly shaken a bit you can kind of get why it’s like that!”.

At first a distinct trickle of vinyl releases from pioneering London-based artists on the very fringes of garage such as Zed Bias, El-B and Horsepower Productions, now a healthy surge of tunes from artists such as Digital Mystikz, Kode9, Benga, Skream, Loefah, Burial and Pinch himself have signalled its growth to the wider world.

Pinch again: “it sounds a bit condescending but a lot of people wouldn’t listen to garage or allow themselves to listen to it because it has this cultural association with the bling, smart shoes, shirts and bottles of Moet. Which is a side of it which I don’t like but I still LIKE the music. There’s a lot of garage tunes which people could listen to if you call it dubstep that allow a certain group of people to like it because it doesn’t have this cultural reference attached to it.”

It is most definitely a do-it-yourself movement; a punk movement, in the less guitar-specific sense of the word. As such it gathered its initial hardcore following with zero interest or support from established or major labels. The best ways to discover the sound have been underground pirate radio such as Rinse FM and online mixes on blogs and online forums. And the clubnights…

Now based in Bristol, Pinch is a key catalyst in the city’s adoption of the sound, having been the founder of some notable clubnights (Subloaded, Context) and record labels (Earwax for “drop-heavy” tunes, Tectonic for deeper stuff). He’s also working on his debut album for the Planet Mu label, to be among only a handful of artist albums in dubstep and preceded by the follow-up 12″ single to his debut Qawwali. He’s one of the most laidback-sounding artists on the label, traditionally a home for earbleeding electronica, joining the more abrasive dubstep-mangling of Vex’d on the roster.

How did that come about? “Jamie from Vex’d told Mike (Paradinas, label boss) about it and said Rob (Pinch) has got a tune… I sent him an MP3, didn’t really think anything of it. He rang me up about a month later asking if he could put it out. To be honest I didn’t really think it was good enough to put out! But I thought if he thinks it is then wicked.”

“(Afterwards) I wrote the VIP remix because I thought he might be interested and he was cool with putting it on the flip. Since then I thought well, wicked, someone wants to put my tune out. Maybe I should put a little bit more effort in! Maybe try and get my head around production. I took a bit of an anti-production stance. I thought ‘it’s not really about production and super fine tuning your beats, it’s just having the material and having good ideas’… But I’ve actually come round and realised it’s somewhere between the two, a balance between art and science…”

These are surprising words from Pinch if you’ve heard his insidious and addictive Qawwali tune. High standards are good and particularly welcome in dance music right now.

“I like sounds that don’t sound like they belong in this world. That’s the thing I’m really drawn to and those kind of melodies as well. It’s other-worldly, that’s where it works. It takes you outside of your everyday existence and allows you to step outside of yourself. I think that’s why dance music is suffering now because eventually it did penetrate into mainstream culture. It was being hammered on radio and adverts, you could hear it all around you… but before that it was an ESCAPE from everyday life.”

“That’s the power of dubstep. I had a sensation of total disillusionment with what was going on. I used to love jungle and drum’n’bass and just got sick of it because it was boring and it wasn’t innovative. It was about compressing a wall of sound and an urrrrrr delivery (he mimics hardcore bassline). People have kind of sussed it out and spelled it out and understand what’s accepted, the boundaries. And as soon as you have boundaries it’s no longer something that exists out of the world.”

“One of the greatest things about dubstep is the wild variety of stuff coming from the scene that’s completely experimental and people trying to do things in a really different way. It hasn’t got a definition that you can lock on to very easily.”

“I don’t think it’s possible for it to go and be accepted by a commercial environment. It’s very much about bass frequencies which don’t get picked up by apparatus for commercial use like your telly or little radio. People won’t be able to use it in that way. Take a Skream tune, often it’s got a catchy melody and you can use that bit of it. But you’ll never be able to use – and abuse – the chunk of the bass weight that’s underneath it that gives it the ride. Fingers crossed, it’s going to be immune to that dilution process.”

Pinch was raised in Newport, musically significant but perhaps not the world’s epicentre for any form of dance music. Were you part of the revolution when elements of rave music mutated into jungle around a decade ago? “I was never really taken by it until I’d heard Goldie’s Timeless (album) and I fell in love with that. I remember going to see Goldie in Cardiff… in ’95 with Doc Scott and supporting DJs. That was wicked, mind blowing, really. I hadn’t really heard that kind of darker, techier, deeper side of jungle… With the breaks and the focus on rhythm and different sounds and even hoover sound effects and all these things.”

“That and Leftfield, before I left Newport – same year, ’95 – were amazing live. Completely different variations on their tunes. I’d been along to indie concerts with my mates. And (then at Leftfield) I was like, hold on, people are not squashing up to be at the front. You could walk around and have a little dance. People were evenly spread out and it wasn’t this kind of pointless waste of energy. It just suddenly occured to me… The crowd was different… People were more interested in dancing than squashing up to get as close to the front as they could and jumping up and down. I loved that. That’s the path I went down.”

Now Pinch’s passport bears testimony to his global adventures in bass – Berlin, Budapest, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Minneapolis have all been submerged. It’s an exciting time.

More Kruger stuff on this blog.

Bass Clef – A Smile Is A Curve That Straightens Most Things (Kruger music review)

Short music review of Bass Clef’s first album, originally written in November 2006 and published in Kruger magazine.

Artist: Bass Clef
Title: A Smile Is A Curve That Straightens Most Things
Label: Blank Tapes

Calling all dubheads, young and old. Rest assured, this album complies with the Trade Descriptions Act. Yes, there’s plenty of low-end on these tunes, of the wobbly and tuneful variety. But, granted that he borrows much from dubstep in all its current forms (track 1’s time-stretched ragga chatting, quoted from Ecclesiastes, even evokes the 2-step era of ’97), Bass Clef reunites the beats with latterly neglected dub ingredients like live trombone and theremin. There’s even time for some folky-sounding strings and moments of soundtracky rephlexion. In all, a superb treat. Check his live show if you can.

More Kruger stuff on this blog.