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Photo: Ben Cannon

Instra:mental are undoubtedly one of the most-talked about and revered musical entities of 2011 so far, and that’s no mean feat for a duo that started out in a tiny niche of drum-n-bass.

The London duo of Alexander Green (aka Al Bleek aka Boddika) and Damon Kirkham (aka Kid Drama aka Jon Convex) have, since their re-emergence in 2007, fought their way to prominence and brought the entire genre of dnb back into full public view along with them. Who knew?

After a few codeine-laced releases on Darkestral, Instra:mental teamed up with fellow London producer dBridge to champion what they called the Autonomic sound: an ethereal, twilight take on drum-n-bass focusing on atmospherics, subtlety, and above all the incorporation of unfamiliar and outside influences into a genre obsessed with its own tunnel vision. The genre-hopping Autonomic podcasts produced by the team rightly earned them a large following, and Club Autonomic was tapped for the fiftieth installment of the Fabriclive mix series to predictably warm reception.

By mid-2010 Autonomic was the the buzzword for the most exciting underground dance music, and with Autonomic’s rise came renewed interest in drum-n-bass itself.  But Instra:mental were only on the dnb tip for so long; through recent years they’ve explored dubstep, deep house, and electro, and it’s the Drexciyan waterworks of the latter that has come to define their most recent work, underpinned by Bleek’s sudden spurt of solo material under the name Boddika.

The duo have finally released their debut album Resolution 653 – on their own impeccable NonPlus+ imprint, also home to ASC, Actress, Kassem Mosse, and more of your favourite producers – a stunning and confident full-length statement focused around those electro expeditions, and in its own way the furthest stretch of the Autonomic sound as the duo abandon both the sonic signifiers and generic boundaries that once defined their most commonly identifiable sound.  But that they’ve constantly morphed and mutated and never lost any of their considerable following or acclaim – quite the opposite in fact – is a testament to their sheer expertise, the true extent of their talents.  The duo took some time out of their ridiculously busy schedules to talk to FACT’s Andrew Ryce about Resolution 653, electro, and where Autonomic goes from here.

“Most people didn’t get what we were doing, and the whole thing was labelled as minimal, which used to piss me off.”


How long have you two been wanting to do an album? And how long did the album actually take to write, record, and complete?

Alex Green: “Just like any artist, we always wanted to write an album from day dot. We started to write the album at the end of last summer, and I reckon we had it completed in three months.”

Were you at all planning for it to turn out the way it did, in that rugged electro style?

AG: “We decided we weren’t going to write an album at 170 beats per minute for multiple reasons. I felt that, after the Autonomic Fabric compilation, there were so many people writing ‘Autonomic’-style music that I didn’t want to do it anymore. Most people didn’t get what we were doing anyway, and the whole thing was labelled as minimal, which used to piss me off, to be honest.  I remember sitting down trying to write new music at 170bpm and it was a constant struggle to find interesting beat patterns and grooves. When I’m in the studio, I like to enjoy what I’m doing, not sitting there struggling. There were other factors involved in the decision, but I’m not going to talk about them.

“We had just recently brought a couple of new toys to the studio and they kind of shaped the way the album was written. I’m a huge fan of old-school electro – Drexciya, Underground Resistance, et al – and I’ve wanted to bring some of that to the table for quite a long time now.  The tempo we set to work at was between 115 and 135. I just remember how much fun it was to be writing again, that’s why the album came together pretty quickly…time flies when you’re having fun!”

Damon Kirkham: “I’ve always wanted to write an album that had shades of 90s Warp in it, and I’ve always loved Autechre and the way they fuse cold elements with glimmers of warmth occasionally shining through. I feel like with this album we’ve achieved that.”

Instra:mental – ‘Vicodin’

I remember hearing about a harddrive crash sometime last year. What happened, and did it affect the end product in any way?

AG: “Luckily, we managed to salvage it all.  There was real panic for about a week, because if we hadn’t been able to fix it, the album would have been lost and so would some of the recent Boddika releases. It would’ve been hell on earth.”

The album is quite far-removed from the drum-n-bass you guys have become known for in the past few years; was this a planned transition and how exactly did it all come about?

AG: “We both like dark and machine-like music, I guess. There was no plan behind the album at all. I don’t like to plan anything when I’m writing, I just like to go with the flow, get a beat up and running and start playing on the synths and effects units and see where the vibe takes me. It’s always been the same: if I go in with a plan, generally I come out with something completely different.”

DK: “So many factors shape the sounds that we are creating, and this album is a snapshot of where we were at that point in time.”

“I guess we have quite a dark vision for the future, but I don’t really care ‘cause we won’t be here.”

The influence of Detroit seems to be creeping up more and more in your music; first, it was in the luminescent chords and haunting melodies, and now, with the album there’s a distinct sense of twitchy, Drexciyan electro. What’s the full extent of Detroit influence on your music?

AG: “Okay, Detroit electronic music has played a big part in my life, but when I was co-writing the album, or any other music… I’m not sitting there thinking I want shit to sound Detroit, I’m just writing music. This is what comes out of me naturally, this is what I do; the sounds I produce come very naturally to me, I don’t have to think about them. I hear what I like and use it, simple. The album has definitely come out kind of dark and dystopian, and I love it; me and Drama both love science fiction and futuristic city stories, robots dominating the earth and all that kind of business. I guess we have quite a dark vision for the future, but I don’t really care ‘cause we won’t be here.”

Continuing on that note, I know that Drexciya is a very important group to Al. Do both of you share that obsession? What makes them special to you and such a prominent influence on your own music?

AG: “Drexciya, to me, are the ultimate electronic music producers. What they did as Drexciya and all their side projects was just so damn special, and I think the concepts behind the music were amazing. Although they were using 808s and other analogue synths that other people had, they just made them their own; their music is so simple yet massively effective, I could literally get lost in the music for days. Their melodies and chords just take me away to some amazing places in my mind, places I only go when listening to Drexciya.”

DK: “I love Drexciya material, and all of the aliases related to them, but to me Autechre carries the same importance as Drexciya for Alex.”

What are some of the other biggest influences (if any) on the album?

AG: “For me there were no influences, it was just written on pure vibes and impulses.”

DK: “For me, influences are all around, even if I don’t acknowledge them. Books I’m reading, stress I’m going through…there are so many subliminal factors.”

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Instra:mental – ‘Watching You’

What exactly does the title Resolution 653 mean?

DK: “It’s taken from a book by Richard Morgan and relates to a cloning law. Take what you want from the meaning: the way people clone each other’s music, cloning of humans in a dystopian future. It’s up to you.”

The album has a very distinct sound, and very uniform. How much of it was composed using hardware, and how do you feel about the whole hardware vs. software dichotomy when it comes to production?

AG: “I personally have trouble listening to music composed completely on a computer, the sound is thin and nasty, it just has no personality for me. I generally don’t listen to much new music anymore. I enjoy the tracks I get from other producers to play in clubs, but I feel the best music has already been written – sad, but true.

“We use lots of outboard in the studio as I’m sure people already know by now, we sequence on Logic and use some plugins for EQ notches, and slight compression to control some peaks if needed, but generally, everything gets recorded from the machines. Each machine has its own character.”

DK: “It’s a difficult argument, software versus hardware. I think it’s down to the producer and how he uses the given equipment. I know that some producers that use MAX/MSP and write their own software that sounds amazing, but at the same time there’s so much crap being overlimited and people trying to be the mastering engineer at home. I personally love hardware and the hands-on approach to writing. I pretty much only use Logic to multitrack now.”

“I feel the best music has already been written – sad, but true.”

Moving in a more general direction now, were you surprised at the critical and fan reaction to Autonomic?

AG: “Yeah, of course we were surprised! I mean, we had all this music, and we needed a way to showcase it; the podcast was the best idea to get it out to the masses. From the very first one, people seemed to love it, from the influences sections to the mix, we seemed to have struck a nerve with music lovers all over the world.”

Do you feel that the Autonomic ʻmovementʼ has had any overall effect on drum-n-bass, if so, how, and positive or negative?

AG: “I generally feel that Autonomic had an effect on more than just drum-n-bass; I mean the whole crossing of genres and musical diversity opened a lot of people’s eyes at the time. People are so blinkered, it’s really not that hard to do something new and fresh, all you have to do is not do what everyone else is doing.”

How do you feel about Autonomic in 2011, and do you feel like Resolution 653 continues in the Autonomic vein, or is it a completely new branch off from the older more distinctly drum-n-bass material?

AG: I still find it hard to explain what Autonomic is. I wanted it to represent electronic music as a whole, like all styles under one big Autonomic roof, but it slowly but surely got tagged as 170bpm music, which was never the intention. In response to your question, the album is its own entity, it’s Instra:mental doing their thing on NonPlus+.”

“Drum-n-bass just does absolutely nothing for me anymore.”

What does Autonomic mean to you now, and how far do you think it can be stretched? I noticed you had Alexander Nut recently representing the Autonomic sound and playing your Fabric residency.

DK: “Autonomic is a brand, and has a great fanbase worldwide. There will be more Autonomic-related movement this year. I have a few 170 sketches penned in for my Jon Convex album at the end of the year.”

Do you feel like drum-n-bass is healthier now than it was a few years ago?

AG: “I actually have no idea what’s happening in drum-n-bass anymore, I lost interest in it quite a while ago. It’s nothing personal, the music just does absolutely nothing for me anymore. I grew up through the rave generation: hardcore, jungle, and drum-n-bass is in my blood and always will be, it’s a huge part of my childhood. So I can’t really comment on this.”

DK: “To be honest, I tend not to follow much music, only what people send me and what I end up discovering during my Bleep surfing sprees. I love the drum-n-bass music I grew up listening to, and it still gives me a great feeling when I hear a classic track I haven’t heard in a while. dBridge played lots of ’92-’93 material at our launch night and it was amazing hearing such classic tracks again on a good system.”

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Instra:mental – ‘8’

How have you found running NonPlus+ to be? Are you happy with the results and reaction so far? What has come out of the label that you’re proudest of?

AG: “I absolutely love running a record label! I love every release that’s come out on NonPlus+, it’s a very personal thing to us and we have a very simple way of running it: if we hear music we like, we will release it. NonPlus+ is an electronic music label, it has no boundaries.”

DK: “It’s always been something we have wanted to do – run a label. I couldn’t be more happy with the way the label is growing up.”

Itʼs been quite a while since NonPlus+ has released anything that might be called drum-n-bass. Was this a conscience move and do you see the label returning to drum-n-bass, or is it just house (and whatever else) from here on out?

AG: “We haven’t purposely stopped releasing anything drum-n-bass-related. If someone sends me something amazing at 170bpm, then I’d release it. I like to stay in touch with the underground; our affiliation with Workshop’s Kassem Mosse and Lowtec is pretty much down to my love of their music and vibe. I’m honoured to be affiliated with such amazing underground, experimental artists, me and Kassem have talked about our love for Drexciya a few times, I think that was an important part of what made the NonPlus+ release happen. He’s currently writing a 4-track EP for NonPlus+.”

“I actually heard a library record from the 60s which had the dubstep chainsaw in it, I couldn’t believe my ears!”

Will Instra:mental ever return to drum-n-bass or is it just a go-with-what-you-feel thing?

AG: “As far as I’m concerned, no.”

DK: “As I mentioned earlier I’ve got material that will be 170bpm Autonomic-style coming on the Convex LP. I’m also currently working on another project with dBridge. I like all forms of music and will write whatever I feel at the time, I’m never going to limit myself.”

This ties in with the influence idea and maybe with the very origins of Autonomic itself, but the stock of ʻretroʼ concepts and ideas, of looking backwards, is growing more than ever. Do you think that the propensity to look back in a music otherwise obsessed with moving forward is a negative thing?

AG: “You have to look back to move forward. I mean, it’s all been done already, everything that’s being written these days is just a different take on what’s been done already. I actually heard an old library record the other day which had the dubstep chainsaw in it, I couldn’t believe my ears! In fact I will find out what it is again and post it somewhere, what was so fucked about it is that the record is from the sixties!”

DK: “Just like how everyone thinks this 808-style electro is brand new; it’s been done a thousand times over going back to the eighties. It’s just that the younger crowd are new to it.”

“There comes a point where you get sick of headlining Room 2, and kind of being the producer’s producer.”

I find particularly with you guys, your music toes the line between fare suitable for home-listening and pitch-perfect dancefloor material. Is this an important balance to you? I canʼt help but feel that your material is moving more and more towards the dancefloor.

AG: “When we were writing music at 170bpm, a lot of it was very melodic and musical, which I absolutely love but there comes a point where you get sick of headlining Room 2, and kind of being the producer’s producer. Another reason that I wanted to move away from 170bpm is that I wanted to write some music for clubs and dancefloors, and I wasn’t about to do that at a drum-n-bass tempo. I’ve never been happier writing at the tempo that we do now, it allows you to play such a vast selection of music in your sets as well.”

DK: “As Alex said, playing at the tempo I play at allows me to play my favourite tracks in my set. Aphex, Autechre, Kevin Saunderson…I mix up tracks from the early nineties with tracks that have been sent to me just that very night.”

Even as you move towards dancefloor sounds, are still you trying to retain that aspect of home-listenability?

AG: “I’ll never be a 100% dancefloor producer, it’s just something I’m happy doing at the moment.  There are already other tracks written that are non-dancefloor and that are beautiful, thought-provoking pieces of music. It’s all about the vibe, it’s all about my mental state at the time of sitting down to write.

Now that Boddika is already having quite a successful run and Damon’s Jon Convex project is about to launch, what do you see in the future of Instra:mental? Are you going to continue as a duo?

DK: “I’m writing the Jon Convex LP as we speak and I’m excited about that – I can explore a side of what I enjoy most without compromising. I’m aiming for a September release. I also have some other things in the pipeline that I will expose over the next few months. Instra:mental will be writing another album after the summer, and although we have a our solo projects, Instra:mental will always be number one.”

Andrew Ryce



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