Fruity Loops, tiny bit rates and other artifacts: An interview with Eugene Ward

On a sunny day in Sydney earlier this year, James Manning spoke to Eugene Ward about his his work as Tuff Sherm and Dro Carey, his interest in comic books, footwork, sampling and more. 

“The other creative thing I pursue is writing, I had a comic book published in the US,” Eugene Ward slips into our conversation at a café near where he lives in Sydney’s inner-west. “It’s a fantasy series that I didn’t create, it already existed – I tried out for the job of writing it and I submitted a proposal just for one issue and they accepted it.” The comic book written by Ward is part of a series called Artifacts by American publishers Top Cow. “In the ‘90s when a lot of the big artists split from Marvel (Comics) they created Image Comics; they created characters like Spawn,” I’m told. “There was just this wave of a darker stuff, and within Image Comics there was this other company, Top Cow, and they did things like The Darkness and Witchblade.”

Ward’s story follows Witchblade character Ian Nottingham, a long jet-black-haired assassin who violently seeks to destroy three of the major Tokyo Yakuza clans in a single night. “There was a brief that you had four characters to choose from and it had to be about one of them,” Ward says of the prerequisite to author an issue. So why Ian Nottingham I asked, ‘is he your favourite character?’ “Yeah,” he responds, “it felt like he hadn’t been used that much in terms of the storylines.” Helping me piece together a corner of the extensive world of comics, Ward explains that like Marvel and DC, many characters from Top Cow dwell in a shared universe, and each month Top Cow publish three related books – The Darkness, Witchblade and Artifacts – and Ward’s script won the green light for Artifacts issue #34.

It became apparent during my interview with Eugene Ward, known primarily as Tuff Sherm and Dro Carey in the music world, that not only was he still wet behind the ears from the shower he had that morning, but he’s a talented young creative who knows his way around a computer. He’s a reminder of what many productive hours looking at screen can produce, and when he was still at school he provided The Trilogy Tapes with their second vinyl release. Since that first Venus Knock EP, Ward has become a key component in the success of Will Bankhead’s label by delivering the follow up Leary Blips record and two more as Tuff Sherm.

Other UK labels he’s worked with include Ramp Recordings, Opal Tapes, Hum + Buzz and Merok – the same label that brought us the Klaxons and Crystal Castles – who released his third and most accomplished LP, Shrapnel Maestro. He’s also a D.I.Y. video artist, mainly channelling this talent into the promo clips he makes for his own music, and that of others, some of which once piqued the interest of Planet Mu boss Mike Paradinas. Other pursuits in the pipeline at the moment include a soundtrack to a TV pilot due to air on the SBS, one of the five main free-to-air television networks in Australia – and an album that’s long been in the works inspired by his homeland.

“I guess it’s to do with going to see my grandparents in the country and that environment,” Ward explains of his childhood in Australia’s sunshine state Queensland. “There are particular characteristics about the country up there – you’ve got mango trees and bananas and fruits, but also the mornings are very cold until the sun comes out,” he says. Ward didn’t divulge which alias will deliver this particular project though, posing the question: What is the difference between Tuff Sherm and Dro Carey? “Basically one of them is allowed to go poppier and one of them is allowed to go noisier, and in the middle ground they may sometimes overlap,” Ward answers. “Dro Carey can encompass a lot of things but it can include a slightly more pop structure or melodic element than Tuff Sherm; Tuff Sherm can basically have harsher sounds.”

Tracks like “Bulldog”, “Neurobeast” and “Shrapnel Cabinet” from Shrapnel Maestro best represent what Ward says about Tuff Sherm, especially compared to colourful Dro Carey productions “Much Coke” for Sydney label Templar Sound, or “Motorvibe” for Ramp. “Recently I have been doing some Tuff Sherm tracks that have been experimenting with some slow BPMs for house, like the 100-to-110 area,” he says. “You can do a lot of interesting rhythms at that BPM because you can get some natural swing because you’re getting into a jazz tempo… That’s what people kind of liked about Burglar Loops as well, some of the tracks had a hip hop vibe.”

Sampling is a fundamental element and inspiration of Ward’s production and a lot of his music is about getting the “crappy, dirty samples” he says. The title for his latest effort on Berceuse Heroique, Smugglers Bureau, stems from a similar thread that inspired Shrapnel Maestro and Burglar Loops – “because they are stolen sounds too.” Another theme pressed into that 12” comes from DC Comics character Sgt. Rock, whom Ward dedicated the track “Easy Company” to, later remixed by Delroy Edwards. “He (Sgt. Rock) was their main military character in the ‘60s and ‘70s and that was the nickname of his unit,” Ward explains.

Footwork and juke influences have crept into Ward’s productions as Dro Carey too, genres of music he discovered and subsequently followed because of Portland producer and blogger Dave Quam, aka Massacooramaan and It’s After The End Of The World. “He would focus on ethnically diverse dance music genres, like (genres from) South America or Africa, or the less typical European genres, like bubbling – it’s a Dutch thing,” Ward says of Quam’s website. “He was like an encyclopaedia of styles,” he adds. “A lot of the posts were about footwork, but then he also gave it this context of ghetto house and Dance Mania into the late ’90s, into juke, into more contemporary footwork tracks that were done on software… Fruity Loops and tiny bit rates and everything that characterises that – and then linked it to the main house traditions.”

Surfing the internet, however, isn’t the only way Ward discovers music. The week Ward turned 18 he went to see Scuba play in Sydney around the time Triangulation was released he tells me, while recalling, “the next one after that may have been Mosca.” Both of those sets, like first sets so often do, had a lasting impression on Ward and he remembers thinking: “oh, I’m really seeing all of this context revealed.” Now, Ward admits, it seems kind of weird to think he thought that way, even more-so now after globetrotting the world off the back of his own music.

In October last year Ward toured Europe and on a Thursday night in London at Plastic People he played a Tuff Sherm live set with PAN boss Bill Kouligas and Lee Gamble. “It drove home that it wasn’t a thing that began and ended in my room,” he says. “That can be a hard thing to get your head around,” he adds. “I felt a certain sense of recognition.” That tour gave Ward a wider, more accurate context of how his music is now received, which beforehand was something he could only really gauge via the internet. “You have all these online indicators,” he says. “Is there a review, is it good, how much is the rating, how much does the vinyl sell for… that’s a totally different feeling than meeting people in person who have followed your work,” he says. “That can be really affirming.”

“A lot of the time you feel so in your own head (in Australia), you make a track and think, ‘I’ll send it to a label’,” Ward says. “It’s happening in this closed off context and you’re not even getting the chance to think about how it’s received,” he adds. Which brings us to his relationship with Will Bankhead; “As far as being a significant person, he’s what started my career,” Ward humbly states. “To see where The Trilogy Tapes is at now and to see its profile – and to see the people who are interested in working with him – you can see he’s using it as a platform to explore what he’s enjoying,” Ward believes. “And because he’s adhered to such an honest philosophy it’s no surprise how well the label’s doing.”

“He would always give quite a few options and he pretty much would go with what I chose,” Ward explains regarding Bankhead’s willingness to engage in a record’s overall artistic direction. “He would check about certain ideas like, ‘should the tracklist be on the spine’,” Ward remembers. “He would completely check with you on every element,” Ward explains, using the Leary Blips EP as an example. “There was just some image that I liked from an Atari manual which was this weird rendered graphic of a smoke stack,” he says. “I was like, ‘this would look cool on the picture side on the label,’ and he was like: ‘yeah’.”

In 2011 Ryan Keeling spoke with Ward for a Resident Advisor Breaking Through feature where the young Australian explained his music as “dark and uneasy, yet not overtly aiming for any particular emotional impact.” I asked if he still thinks about his music this way, which he responded to by giving a confident ‘no’. “I’ve probably matured to target specific emotions,” he says. “I mean it’s still pretty dark and uneasy, the later part of that (‘uneasy’) is pretty much a teenage viewpoint which was true, then.” Now, he says: “There are tracks which I try and make euphoric and there are tracks which I try and make sad. It is conscious and that’s certainly a result of the impact of film school where studying soundtracks and scoring scenes is where you are absolutely being dictated in terms of emotions and you need to reinforce it.”

Under his one-off Fad TMB alias in 2012, Ward released on Greek label Sonic Playground. Both tracks, “Head Down” and “Axel Rot”, are explicitly footwork, and another example of Ward’s multifarious talent. But as he explains, “I haven’t done a Fad TMB track in a while, I’m trying to integrate that into Dro.” The ambient interlude/intro/outro vibe of drum and bass is an element of the genre Ward also spoke about enjoying during our interview, and on “Get Rid Of This Guy”, the opening track of Venus Knock, you can hear this perfect fusion of drum and bass and footwork. “Hungry Horse” from his Hum + Buzz release meanwhile is another example the Australian’s adaptation to Chicago’s street sounds.

It’s all part of experimenting with different BPMs and ranges of music he says: “Plenty of tracks I’ve done have standard rhythms and I’ve done other things to them to make it weird. I do try to explore things, so if there are different styles that exist at a certain BPM, I try and create something that moves between.” Dro then talks me through rhythms, or riddims, of the bass-inclined genres he works with. “People talk about triplets,” he says, “which is a less typical feature of dance music. It’s something footwork makes heavy use of; it’s just how they syncopate music.”

“I guess what is interesting about when you come across a genre that doesn’t conform structurally or rhythmically, it makes you think about how people dance to this,” he says. “To me it’s about de-homogenising,” Ward adds. “I don’t think there should be any shame with a producer from another city or another country channelling a part of a style, I think it can absolutely be done respectfully and it’s all about doing something new.”

Something Ward didn’t tell me in our interview, however, was how he won Top Cow’s annual Talent Hunt award in 2012. And as he found out the morning we met, people are starting to join the dots between his music production and creative writing. “I was on a comic book website, kind of like a Wikipedia of comics, and I must have been searching something and I came up,” he says. “For my profile someone had uploaded a picture of me DJing, so someone realised that, you know, I was the same guy.” So it seems now all the characters of Eugene Ward – Tuff Sherm, Dro Carey, Fad TMB, Ian Nottingham – also live in a shared universe.

Interview by James Manning
Photos courtesy of Minerva Inwald

Leave a reply