FACT mix 232 has been getting us all hot under the collar here at FACT HQ. It’s the work of one Thomas Rockwell.
It’s a name that won’t be familiar to all of you, but those who like to keep abreast of the more exploratory end of drum ‘n bass and next-level beat-craft in general will doubtless already count Rockwell among the most interesting producers on your radar. When he first emerged as a recording artiste in 2010, his fanatically detailed but assuredly ruff, rugged take on dnb – not to mention a willingness to explore different tempos – instantly impressed us, prompting comparisons with Instra:mental, dBridge, ASC, Data and their ilk. We elected to keep our collective eye on him. Then, towards the end of year, came probably the most striking conceptual statement of jungle’s recent years (there’s not a great deal of competition, granted): Reverse Engineering.
Two Rockwell productions constructed entirely out of reversed samples, pressed on a 12″ that plays in reverse (from the run-out groove outwards), housed in a reversed sleeve and released in a limited edition by Darkestral, Reverse Engineering announced Rockwell’s arrival in style, and showed him to have ambition and verve way beyond the norm. Crucially, conceptualism aside, the tracks packed a hefty dancefloor punch. We’re not talking about experimentalism for its own sake.
If there was any lingering doubt that Rockwell wasn’t one to watch, then the release earlier this year of the four-track Aria EP extinguished it. As with the majority of his works, the musical basis is in lean, minimalist drum ‘n bass, heavily informed (to our ears) not just by 90s synapse-friers like Source Direct, Alex Reece and Photek, but also the razorblade swing of Horsepower and El-B’s dark garage, the avant-rollage of Monolake and T++’s techno, the back-breaking velocity of Chicago juke, the ‘shroom-addled prolixity of Rephlex/Warp braindance. Aside from the Autonomic crew, who anyway seem increasingly drawn to bolshy electro styles, the only dnb-rooted producer who’s in the same class as Rockwell for us right now is probably Germany’s Felix K (Hidden Hawaii, QNS).
With so many producers content to repeat themselves, Rockwell seems always to be pulling from far and wide to make his music special: ‘Aria’ finds him strapping a yearning vocal lift from This Mortal Coil to a fiendishly scuttling drum pattern, mellow synth ambience and grimey subs, alll arranged in a dynamic alignment that stretches your brain’s ability to process sonic information while resoundingly smacking its pleasure-centres.’Rehoku Sunrise’, a remix-cum-collaboration with erstwhile junglist Untold, is perhaps best described as footworking tribal techno which manages, remarkably, to be as hypnotic as it is hectic.
Rockwell’s FACT mix proves him to be a DJ of considerable class too. As well as including the aforementioned ‘Aria’ and ‘Rehoku Sunrise’, and a cut from Reverse Engineering, he peppers his selection with a number of exclusive edits and specials, and flits effortlessly between tempos and styles, with well-judged drops into low-slung house and dubstep, without ever losing sight of what he knows, and does, best: sleek d’n’b rollers with well-oiled subs and drum programming to die for.
“Basically I wanted the mix to be a snapshot of both where I’m at now,” says the man himself, “And also include some of the tunes I’ve done over the past few years that I’m most proud of. There’s a lot of new stuff on there that isn’t even named yet, and I also went in on a few mixes and did a few VIPs especially for the mix to make it flow through genres.
“I’m not one for tracklists, but there are tunes included from myself, Icicle, Spectrasoul, Untold, dBridge and Instra:mental, and Alix Perez. There is a lot of stuff at drum and bass speed on there, but there’s very little that I think sounds like the preconceived notion of drum and bass.”
The whole thing is beautifully sequenced and sculpted, the kind of immersive and endlessly rewarding mix you’d have happily paid £15 to own on CD if, you know, people still did that kind of thing.
Download and stream it below, and see over the page for a short Q&A with Rockwell about life, rhythm and everything. You can catch him DJing b2b with Alix Perez on Saturday 9 April, as part of Shogun Audio’s party at Cable, London. More info here.
(Available for three weeks)
How’s it going? What have you been up to?
“All is going great so far this year. In January I released the Aria EP on Critical and I was really happy with the way it was received. Looking forward, I’m just locking myself away in front of the computer and focusing on my work this year with the guys at Shogun Audio, for both 170 and at a slower tempo.”
Tell us about your life in music, as a listener. What have you been your obsessions over the years?
“I go through massive phases with music but I suppose the three main genres I have constantly maintained a love affair with have been hip-hop, drum and bass, and punk rock. I only really discovered drum and bass at a late stage in my life and I missed out on what many would refer to as its finest years. I was never dance music-orientated at all in my early teens and I discovered drum and bass completely by accident, but it really connected with me. If I’m honest its only in the last two or three years that I’ve been listening to house and other genres, but it’s really refreshing to go delving into a new genre with no preconceptions and constantly surprise and inspire yourself with your new discoveries.”
‘It’s refreshing to go delving into a new genre with no preconceptions and constantly surprise and inspire yourself with your new discoveries.”
How exactly did you first connect with dnb, and what prompted you to begin making your own tracks?
“I think it’s the same with most people who get into it, you hear it here and there in dribs and drabs but its not until you hear it live, through a proper system, that it grabs you and you understand its suitability to a club environment. I didn’t really know anyone who was producing at all back then, it was just something I felt that i would like to try my hand at, and it’s been a desire that hasn’t left me since the day i first loaded Logic. I’ve always played and written music in some form or another and to be honest if i wasn’t writing 170 or 130 then I’d probably be writing something else.”
Are there any drum ‘n bass producers that you feel have been a significant influence on your own work?
“As I said earlier I was a late arriver to the scene and I kind of missed the best years of the more highly lauded producers in drum and bass – Photek, Source Direct, early Metalheadz, Konflict, etc. I’m really not familiar with the majority of their work either, truth be told. I think the most important producer for me in drum and bass would have to be dBridge. He was there when I first started going out, working with Bad Company, and now nearly 10 years later he’s maybe one of the only producers who is still extremely relevant and sets trends. You have to respect that regardless of genre.”
You were at FACT’s Slimzee-headlined party the other night…is that early grime sound something you’re into?
“Yeah, I love my grime! I love the approach grime producers take to making the music, it’s like the antithesis of drum and bass – it doesn’t have to conform to any blueprint and as long as the vibe is right anything goes. There’s one tune on a Slimzee/Wiley/Dizzee Rinse FM set from 2002 where there are no percussive elements whatsoever in the tune, but its still got loads of energy! Imagine if someone did that at 170…..maybe I’ll have a go….”
“I love the approach grime producers take to making the music, it’s like the antithesis of drum and bass – it doesn’t have to conform to any blueprint and as long as the vibe is right anything goes.”
You have a pretty open, experimental sound – is it difficult reconciling that to the demands and expectations of the dnb scene and dancefloor?
“Drum and Bass is a very dancefloor-orientated scene, probably more so than any other genre and you cant really ignore this aspect of it. I do think that what has set me apart from other more experimental producers who have come about over the last few years, is that the style that I write in translates well into dancefloor tunes, minimal and experimental tunes, and also in the slower tempos that I’ve been writing.
“It’s more of an approach to writing rather than trying to fit into any one specific sub-genre. I like to think that I have tunes for all types of clubs that I play at, whether that be the main room of Renegade Hardware or something a little less drum and bass-orientated such as playing on Rinse, or doing this mix. I do think also as well as this there has been a shift in trends in electronic music over the last few years, and artists that aren’t so easy to pigeonhole by genre are getting a lot of attention.”
Tell us about your FACT mix…I gather there are some specials and reworks etc in there.
“Basically I wanted it to be a snapshot of both where I’m at now, and also include some of the tunes I’ve done over the past few years that I’m most proud of. There’s a lot of new stuff on there that isn’t even named yet, and I also went in on a few mixes and did a few VIPs especially for the mix to make it flow through genres. I’m not one for tracklists, but there are tunes in there from myself, Icicle, Spectrasoul, Untold, dBridge and Instra:mental, and Alix Perez. There is a lot of stuff at drum and bass speed on there, but there is very little that I think sounds like the preconceived notion of drum and bass.
“I look at my music as kind of a mirror of my personality. In life I overthink about every minute detail, but at the same time I’m quite easygoing.”
You’ve collaborated with Untold. How did that come about?
“I was working with Kasra who owns Critical Recordings and he was asking if I wanted to make tunes with a few people from outside drum and bass, and one of the names who came up was Untold. I jumped at the chance as I think we both have pretty different ways of looking at writing beats and also pretty distinctive styles. I’ve also just remixed one of his tunes and I think we’ll probably do more original collaborations in the future.”
Any contemporary producers who you’re really digging at the moment?
“There’s a guy from Japan called ENA who makes some really interesting and beautiful music at both 170 and 140bpm, not really for the dancefloor but coming from a really different perspective. Other that that Alix Perez’s funk alias ARP101 has had some amazing releases on Eglo and has more stuff to come, and watch out for Icicle’s LP Under the Ice. Also i’ve been listening a lot to the OFWGKTA mixtapes and free albums and although quite rough in places I love their almost immature creative approach, which is really refreshing to hear when things get a bit too serious in the studio.”
Tell us a bit more about your approach to production…
“I build my tracks in Logic 9, and i have never really tried any other sequencer. I look at my music as kind of a mirror of my personality. In life I overthink about every minute detail, but at the same time I’m quite easygoing. I would say my approach to making music and the resulting content is probably the same.
“Rico from Darkestral approached me with the concept of cutting the record backwards on a scully lathe…”
Where did the idea for Reverse Engineering spring from, and it was it difficult to execute?
“To be honest that 12″ was one of the highlights of 2010 for me and I think it was the perfect marriage of musical content and conceptual packaging. The tune itself was born from me hearing an R&B tune with a few reverse kicks at the start which I absolutely loved the groove of. I basically built the track around that concept. With the packaging, Rico from Darkestral approached me with the concept of cutting it backwards on a scully lathe and I thought it was a wicked idea. To be honest, I didn’t even know it was possible to cut backwards, and I think that and the packaging concept really helped make the release as special as it was.”
What have you got coming up release-wise?
“My next release will probably be a track called ‘BTKRSH” on the various artists Evolution EP 2 on Shogun Audio. I’ve got a few other things on dub at the moment which I’m keeping to myself but there’s no concrete plan for the rest of the year except for – write, write, write. I also have remixes completed for DJ Shadow, Untold, Funeral Party and Cash Money.”