DJ October – The Space In-Between
Industrial music, production methods, darkness and much more are under discussion as the Bristol artist speaks about his upcoming debut album Black Body Radiation.
Julian Raymond Smith looks up, furrows his brow, and pauses for what seems like an eternity. “For me, music is all about delivery,” he eventually says. “It’s psychological warfare, almost.” Smith then pauses again, considering his next sentence carefully. It’s understandable: we’re talking about the thorny issue of preconceptions, and how it can be hard for established artists to switch their style, expand their musical horizons and do things differently. This is an industry, after all, that thrives on putting DJs, artists and producers into neat boxes.
“If you’re an artist, I think it’s really important to re-invent yourself regularly,” Smith eventually asserts. “Every painter has phases. I guess with my art, it’s difficult to pin down what it is, beyond the DIY ethos – though some of my ideas and influences are not DIY at all.” Again a pause, before Smith states, “I just think it’s important for any artist working inside a creative industry to veer away from areas that they would normally want to work in.”
Few see Smith, with 12 years of releases as October behind him, as a master of reinvention. His frustration seems to stem from an accepted pre-conception that he makes a very particular brand of off-kilter techno and deep house. Yet he’s arguably been among Bristol’s most versatile producers of the last decade. Study his discography and musical journey carefully, and you’ll see reinvention writ large.
Before he released his first single in 2003, Smith had already tried his hand at numerous styles. Aside from the grunge and punk records that were a huge part of his teenage years, he was known around Bristol for his soundtrack-sampling and jazz-flecked jungle and drum and bass. He soon got bored of this, however. “Those in the scene had too much of a singular vision,” he complains, and Smith switched attentions to the house, techno, dubstep, garage and broken beat records that were providing inspiration.
While his early releases explored the bass-heavy side of his influences, it wasn’t long before Smith had established himself as a maker of fine, minimal-influenced house/techno fusions, often releasing these on his own lauded, yet now sadly defunct Caravan Recordings. Even these, though, refused to stick to the rules, featuring a sonic palette that doffed a cap to everything from dusty textures, raw rhythms, acid madness and dubbed-out techno, to melodious deepness and the glistening, sci-fi futurism of Detroit.
But that was then. Come 2015, Smith’s sound is even harder to pigeonhole. Like the great jazz pioneers he cites as early influences or the punk bands, grunge combos, industrial noiseniks and experimental artists that have always been amongst his greatest inspirations, October’s music exists in the murky spaces between sound and style. While he’s still capable of creating pitch-perfect techno like the shimmering and hypnotic exotica of this year’s “Jaffa” on Skudge Presents, (check his recent hook-ups with regular collaborator Borai on Brstl and Run Out Run) his heart appears to be elsewhere. Certainly, all this talk of artistic reinvention is more than mere idle chatter.
We’ve met to talk about his forthcoming debut album, Black Body Radiation, a self-proclaimed “statement of intent” that re-defines Smith as a maker of wild, dub-fixated machine music heavily influenced by 1980s industrial, EBM and the darker end of the Italo-disco spectrum. It turns out, though, that it’s not his first stab at making an album; he recorded a “pure techno” full-length some years back, but changed his mind about releasing it at the last minute.
“I spent a very long time getting those tracks together, but the tracks were created in little pockets,” he admits. “I was gigging a lot, so they were made in the time in between. I’d have three days to focus on one track for the album. I’d get it done, and then I’d come back from the next set of gigs and have to do a remix, or work on another track.” Every time he had the chance, Smith would work on something. “I got to a point where I started to have a collection of tracks that were a little bit weirder, and might work on an album, rather than in clubs, but I didn’t really want it to be like that at all.”
He pauses, before attempting to explain the exact moment when he realised that it should be scrapped. “I think I was watching a David Bowie documentary, probably about how he made a specific, groundbreaking album,” he says, revealing he became increasingly freaked out. “I felt like I was, and wanted to be, more than just a techno artist. There’s nothing wrong with making and releasing techno – many of my favourite musicians are techno producers – but I didn’t want to release an album that’s as linear as club techno, at a similar BPM.” Smith adds he didn’t want to release an album that was tokenistic, with the usual random ambient tracks or interludes. “I realised that I wanted to make a proper album, to document a time in my life.”
That was the summer of 2013, and the previous 12 months had been something of a strain. Understandably, Smith doesn’t wish to open up on the personal circumstances that inspired the recording of what became Black Body Radiation, but it’s clear, emotionally, that he wasn’t in the best of places. “I’m not happy all the time, but people think I am,” he says. “That’s because I keep what’s happening behind closed doors. I’ve been through some very difficult, dark times over the last few years, personally, and I feel like all of these have helped influence this album, and also where I want to be musically.” Now in his mid-30s, Smith feels a lot more comfortable with his music, “I’ve made a lot of records, and people think they know what I’m about. This album, genuinely, is really what I’m about.”
It’s true that great art is often the result of periods of emotional turmoil, and Smith clearly found comfort in the familiar surroundings of his Bristol studio. Over the course of “five or six weeks” he immersed himself in the recording process, having “a lot of fun” along the way. By the end of that period, he’d put together the skeletal outline of the album he was always itching to make.
“It’s definitely an album that emerged from the development of my studio and my recording techniques over a number of years,” he says. “When I started, I did try to change up the process a bit. I wanted it to be written like a band would write an album – pretty much the same drum machines, synthesizers and hardware, set up in the same way throughout.” This change in approach, he admits, may be why Black Body Radiation doesn’t sound like a strict techno album.
While there are nods to Smith’s techno and house productions throughout, Black Body Radiation is far from a contemporary dancefloor album. It’s closer in feel, in fact, to the work of Ministry, DAF, Nitzer Ebb, and Throbbing Gristle, though it’s Smith’s unique musical vision that shines through. At its heart is a series of throbbing, EBM style basslines which work in glorious unison with his clattering, armour-plated drum machine hits.
“I guess the underlying theme to the album is body music,” Smith muses. “If you had to pigeonhole all of the music I make, I would use that term. Always. That’s the one line that you can draw between all the music I’ve made: it jacks your body. It’s a pulse and throb. That’s the underlining thing.”
Another key element behind the success of Black Body Radiation is Smith’s copious use of delays, feedback loops and space echoes. Dub soundsystem culture has long been an inspiration to Smith, of course, but rarely has the colossal spaciousness of dub been more evident on his productions. This was, naturally, intentional, and comes from the way he chose to mix the album.
“From the start, I had this idea that I wanted to get the tracks arranged in some skeletal form, and then dub the whole thing in a professional studio,” Smith says. “The whole album is mixed and dubbed in the way a Dub Syndicate album, for example, would be done.” Smith took full advantage of the “huge” 64 channel mixer sat in the studio of his friend Matt Sampson. “Everything was mapped out, so I could dub the whole thing using feedback loops, bell delays, space echoes, four Complex compressors, 20 other compressors, and many other effects. That set-up meant that I could approach it like I was Mad Professor or Adrian Sherwood. I had a great time.”
“I guess the underlying theme to the album is body music. If you had to pigeonhole all of the music I make, I would use that term.”
This technique certainly enhances the inherent spookiness and emotional darkness at the heart of Black Body Radiation. It can be heard throughout, from the intense, in-your-face machine-gun percussion of “Black Narcissist” and droning, delay-laden white noise of “Transient Bodies”, to the macabre, nightmarish chug of “Slow Release”, whose pitched-down acid lines and delay trails seem to stretch out far beyond the horizon.
“There’s an underlying thing to hook onto – this sprawl of noise and chaos, where it feels like there’s no control and everything’s falling apart – but then it comes back together, but never right on the first beat of something,” Smith enthuses. “It always sort of falls and collapses into place. Beauty and order out of chaos.”
The way Smith handles melody on Black Body Radiation is interesting. While plenty of his previous productions could be described as picturesque, he’s never been one for obviously signposting his melodic intent. By and large, he deals in melancholic beauty, stirring emotions with chords or tuneful motifs that are more unsettling or quietly threatening than cheery or happy-go-lucky. There is much cold beauty on his debut album, but it’s as bittersweet as you’d expect given its apparent dark inspiration.
“You can see beauty in all sorts of things,” he says, reminiscing over a school trip to some forgotten Dutch island. “Everyone else was excited and inspired by the beauty of the plants and flowers, but I found myself fascinated by finding all these dead birds, or carcasses of fish that had washed up on the beach.”
This is, it turns out, key to Smith’s worldview, and by association his musical outlook. “Look at the still life paintings of the Dutch masters,” he muses. “They’re always of ships in stormy oceans, or flowers and fruit that are almost dead, or starting to rot. It’s still beautiful, but it’s there to remind you that death and darkness is also part of life. Autumnal leaves are so beautiful, but you’re watching death in its most raw form. It’s something dying in front of you, but the colours are intensely beautiful. You can’t have happiness without sadness: it’s one of the fundamental facts of life.”
This ‘beautiful but bleak’ approach gives Black Body Radiation an emotionally raw feel, in keeping with Smith’s mental state when he wrote the album. It’s perhaps most obvious in standout track “Blood Feud”, and cinematic closer, “Syrup”. On this, his little-discussed soundtrack influences come to the fore.
“That one just came out a bit random,” he laughs. “I was really into the film Thief, featuring James Caan, and love Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack to that film. It’s very droning in parts. But there are plenty of other soundtrack composers whose work I love,” he states reeling off Vangelis, Lalo Schifrin for his ‘70s and ‘80s thriller scores, “which featured a lot of sustained and minor, off-key chords,” and both Angelo Badalamenti and Bernard Herman, “who did lots of weird stuff for Alfred Hitchcock.”
It’s the subtle repackaging of these influences, alongside the obvious nods to alternative electronic music of the 1980s, which makes Black Body Radiation such an enthralling listen. Taken as a whole, it’s an album that should change perceptions about Smith as a producer and musician. Even so, he still worries about how it will be received by listeners.
“I really want people to understand that it’s a statement of intent,” he stresses. “It’s clearly different to my other work. I’d hope that people would recognize that it comes from a similar place to my other work.” Acknowledging the current renewed interest in all things minimal wave, industrial and EBM, Smith is also wary people might think he’s jumped on a bandwagon, stating the album is “genuinely a reflection of the music that has inspired me for a long time.”
He pauses again, once again considering how to adequately explain an album that clearly means so much to him. “Fundamentally, this is what I’m about,” he asserts. “When I’m making house and techno records, I’m just dressing up the same influences in a club-friendly format. On Black Body Radiation, I’m not dressing it up. Besides, if you look back at what was inspiring the early techno pioneers, they were hugely influenced by Revolting Cocks, Liaisons Dangereuses, Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire.” He begins to chuckle to himself. “So, in many ways, it’s just a techno album.”
Interview by Matt Anniss
All photographs provided by Sam Wild (link)
Black Body Radiation by October is out this month on Skudge Presents
October on Juno