Flotilla is Alex Pilkington and Mark Tucker, the label bosses of Ho Hum records, and the latest artist to be profiled in the run-up to this year’s Alpha-ville Festival.
Not content with their already bulging work schedules, Flotilla – originally intended as a side-project – has suddenly grown. The launch of The Flotilla EP earlier this month saw glowing endorsements across the board, with particular love for lead track ‘Behave’ from BBC Radio 1’s Mary Anne Hobbs. Their tense, suspenseful take on electronica is conceived in the shadow of South East London but offers a alternative soundtrack to its murky beauty than the dubstep normally associated with the locale. Likewise, their podcast (available to listen to below) is equally difficult to nail down – being a heady trip through hip hop, ambient soundscapes, beat-driven electronica and a handful of other curios that float Flotilla’s boat, so to speak.
We caught up with Alex to brief us on what’s been going down in the Flotilla camp and tell us how a chance meeting with Neil Young is pretty much responsible for all of this in the first place.
Listen: Alpha-podcast presents Flotilla
Can you give a bit of background information? Who are Flotilla?
“Mark Tucker and I run Ho Hum records, which is an indie label launched in 2007, but we actually started it proper in 2008. I was signed at Universal Island with a project called Custom Blue [with Simon Shippey], we’d finished an album and started shopping around labels but weren’t really getting a response that we thought was tempting, so we figured we’d do a label ourselves.
“Flotilla was a bit of an after hours project that Mark and I would have, to relax from non stop acoustic writing and recording. When we started Ho Hum records we definitely wanted to do electronica as well as the more acoustic side of music so we had these tunes knocking about for ages, then a friend of mine cut it one on a dubplate, which is the lead track on the 10”, ‘Behave’. He said you’ve got to release it, so we did! Even though it was our label and it was a bit like…it’s all about us [laughs]. But at the same time we wanted to do it and so we put it out there. It’s going really well, it’s been on Radio 1 and people have really got into it.”
How did you and Mark meet ?
“Mark was working as an assistant engineer at a studio in West London and my girlfriend at the time was a receptionist. When I left school I wrote to every studio in London about four or five times and didn’t get anything, but my girlfriend needed job and wrote to a few places and gets a job at a studio, now I don’t really get that…Good job she did because I met Mark – as time goes by I probably think that was the best thing that particular ex-girlfriend ever did for me [laughs].”
“I love Godspeed You! Black Emperor as much as I love Ramadanman, as much as I love Appleblim, as much as I love Shadow…”
Can you talk us through the podcast, did you have a specific goal in mind when you were putting it together?
“With Flotilla we love electronica, we also love ambience, and a bit of comedy really. I think it’s all there. You’ve got a John Hegley poem, you’ve got old friend and one of the very best producers out there Mark Pritchard, you’ve got the Formula which is really nice techno-y stuff, you’ve got Gonjasufi on Warp which is more beaty, you’ve got a J Dilla tune that doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard J Dilla do, God rest his soul, and you’ve got a few ambiences on there. I think that does sum us up really. I love Godspeed You! Black Emperor as much as I love Ramadanman, as much as I love Appleblim, as much as I love Shadow. On the podcast I guess we tried to bring in an ambient side, some quite up moments but also some quite reflective, analogue-y electronica.
“My favourite electronica really is Global Communication, that and Derrick May, Carl Craig Detroit techno – that sort of side of things. Also some of the Wall of Sound stuff I really loved, Wagon Christ on Ninja Tune, that was an amazing project. There’s loads of bits, I won’t bore you for hours….We tried to as much as that as we can on the podcast, tried to get that vibe across.”
Was there a moment in your life when you knew you wanted to make music?
“I can’t speak for Mark, I think that Mark has always wanted to make music but he’s always been on the wrong side of the board really. When I was 20 one of my idols was Neil Young. I was working as a journalist at the time for the South London Press and I was made redundant, so I went over to America to work with some kids with special needs on a summer camp. One of my brothers has special needs and I wanted to know a bit more about it. It was a bit of a life changer to be honest, because we were so late in applying me and my girlfriend were sent to different places, I got California, just outside of San Francisco! Not only that, but I took a guitar, I’d been playing for a couple of years, just jamming after school with mates.
“Anyway, one of Neil Young’s kids Ben also suffers from special needs, and he and Peggy Young run a fabulous organisation called the Bridge School, and it just so happened that this year was the first year the Bridge School upped sticks and sent the kids away for a week – and they came to our camp! Luckily I’ve got a photo of it because no one believes me until they see this funny photo of me standing, looking very nervous with Mr fucking Neil Young! I had a guitar and we talked about it, and he said you just have to do it if you want to do it, and don’t stop. And when I got back I took his advice, I went to live with my mum again, I put a band together which was Custom Blue with Simon Shippey and five years later we were signed to Universal. So yeah, I listened to you Mr Young and still do!”
I wonder if coming into electronica with a traditional songwriting background, how much of a bearing that has on the music you make as Flotilla?
“I think we have to unlearn it. I’ll listen to something like ‘Desire’ by Carl Craig which is a classic, or I’ll listen to something Mark Pritchard does as Harmonic 313, or I’ll listen to Attica Blues, music that works as music for a club, and the arrangement for those is a really specific beast. I’m still wanting to put middle eights in! I can’t have eight bar loops, so that’s to my detriment a bit really [laughs]. With Flotilla I’m not a hundred per cent we do it DJ-friendly enough, but then same with Plaid, there are artists like that and I think you’ve got to stick to what you do.”
You can leave it to the remixers…
“Exactly, that’s why certain remixers charge such a great fee because that’s a great skill, that’s why Skream gets the money he does.”
Listening to your productions, there seems to be an underlying intensity and sense of disquiet that runs through your ambient work right up to something like Only You which is quite moody but almost pop-sounding. Where does this come from?
“I think a lot of the intensity comes from living in South East London, I love South East London, it’s a really great place but you’ve got to have your wits about you all the time. ‘Cathedral’, which is on the 10” is a sort of paranoid, twitchy 808 track and that is purely about walking up Gypsy Hill late at night. I’ve never had trouble down there, but friends of mine have, it’s just watching over your shoulder a bit, and I think that comes out in the music.”
“I think a lot of the intensity comes from living in South East London, I love South East London, it’s a really great place but you’ve got to have your wits about you all the time…”
The same mood which is specific to South London colours a lot of dubstep as well, of course…
“I think so. I think it’s really interesting. When I first met Mark Pritchard I saw the places where he made music, especially the Global Communication stuff he did for Tom [Middleton] – that is just fucking classic, beautiful ambient textures, slow and just incredible – and when I saw where he it I was like, oh right I get it. I think, whether you know it or not, your environment matters greatly to your music. I think that’s why Flotilla sounds quite edgy, even when it’s ambient it sounds edgy, even on ‘On a Street’, which is an ambient, chill out tune there’s still babies crying, things going off in the street and drills, it doesn’t let you go. The EP does not let you relax for one minute of it. I think that’s South East London pouring in the veins a little bit.”
Indeed, The Flotilla EP was out this month, how would you describe it?
“Boomkat called it The Godfather meets DJ Shadow for the first track, which is quite something. I think it’s just a really nice collection of quite tense electronica – they put it into the grime section, I don’t think it’s grime, I think it’s difficult to place and I love that, I love creating problems. I think if you’re into your dubstep you’d like it as much as if you’re into your techno, and I think if you’re not into either of those but really loved the whole Ninja Tune sound of the early 2000s you’d like it. If you were into Wall of Sound in the late 90s I think you’d like it. It does tick all those boxes.”
What kind of things inspire you?
“Music really. I love the challenge of making music. I think the challenge gets put out there all the time, every time I think a scene is dying something else comes along. I thought that with dubstep. I was lucky enough to be a part of the dubstep scene in the very early days, when FWD>> was on a Wednesday at Plastic People and there was about 30 people there. Just when you think that’s dying the whole thing takes off and someone else comes along, listening to Ramadanman and stuff like that – great. And just when I think the whole Warp thing is tiring you’ve got Hudson Mohawke coming along, bits of his stuff are absolutely incredible, and Floating Points who I think is amazing. When I think hip hop, well I never think hip hops getting tired, but just when I wonder what the new angle is along comes Flying Lotus. All these people, and all this music, I just get so inspired by it.”
What’s the greatest challenge facing new artists today?
“I think it’s tricky because the industry as a whole is still sorting itself out, we’re on the cusp of a completely different model for music. Things like Spotify and YouTube even, agreements are going through with PRS now determining how people are going to get paid from all of this, it’s in such early stages. So at the moment you’ve got an industry that’s a little bit chaotic, then you’ve got more chances of being heard than you ever have before by thereby leaving you the issue of every man, woman, child and his dog with ways of getting music on Myspace. So how do you do it? Well, the thing that labels are looking for, and the challenge you have to overcome is you have to ask yourself questions like why? Why are you different? Why would a label like this? Why is this story any better and how? We all need stories, we all need reasons, why am I going to buy that? Why is someone going to come to Ho Hum and listen to Flotilla – why? I think the challenge there is to ask yourself that all the time.”
What’s plans have Flotilla got for the rest of the year?
“This 10” is coming out now, we’re doing some really nice DJ spots but they’re all pencilled in for now, we’re doing some festivals and we’re doing some radio stuff on Resonance FM. We’re then doing another 10” towards the end of the year and hopefully doing some nice online visual bits and bobs with some very clever graphic people and then hoping to get that into some museum places as well, so lots of arty farty stuff. Just look out for us, we’ll be out and be around. Also, some remixes are coming in as well, again nothing’s confirmed. Without meaning to sound too corny Flotilla is really setting sail at the minute, it’s great. The reactions to the EP have completely exceeded our expectations and that’s a lovely place to be.”