Plowing his way into the 170/85bpm scene like a sonic boulder of ping and shattering into a zillion-and-nine pieces of rocular peng, this guy has been leaving his pong all over the place. Moving from the dark and industrial to the soft and graceful, the furiously breakbeat through to shiftingly deep. Surfing the glossy funky spunkers and jousting with the dancefloor shuffle rufflers. He’s been techy, he’s been itchy and he’s been gritty and he’s been silky. He’s had releases on some of the best labels in the game, collabed with legends, made tracks that will be considered special moments (anthems to a certain extent) in drum & bass history for what I can only assume will be forever. He’s been praised, loved and interviewed by some of the mightiest names out there.
And now we’ve wangled our way in there like the cheeky little wanglers that we are for a prime slice of the steamrolling action.
Ladies, Gentlemen and Wanglers alike. Brace yourselves for the Stray.
Yes J the Stray big ups for allowing us the pleasure of your interviewing company. How’s things?
Yo! Things are good thanks. I’m about to move into a new flat so at the moment I’m trying to juggle making beats with buying toasters and placemats and shit. It’s a hard life.
Relocation, Relocation. Appreciate you setting some time aside to speak to us! So your brother is a ridiculously sick jazz pianist in the Dice Factory and as far as I’m aware he was pretty much the starting point for your adventure into music. If your brother didn’t exist and you were without his brotherly guidance and piano hang out sessions do you think you would ever have become Stray?
Lol at ‘becoming Stray’. Makes me think of this.
Yeah I definitely wouldn’t be where I am with music if it wasn’t for my brother. It’s all about having exposure to challenging shit that opens your ears and makes you infinitely more discerning even as a kid. That kind of thing is indispensable and is a real privilege. He’s currently living in Burma / Myanmar working on projects to preserve and document traditional music and culture in the face of a rapidly spreading telecommunications network. He also appears to have enjoyed a strong degree of beard growth out there which I’m jealous of. I can’t grow a beard myself it just ends up in patches. Tragic.
Nothing says traditional music enthusiast like a dense beard. On the topic of early influences, looking back to my days in school, music lessons were timetabled for an hour each week and most people saw them as an opportunity to play around on the keyboards a bit. Not much else happened. Do you think enough importance is placed on education about music and should there be more room for teaching about electronic music, how it is produced and underground cultures such as drum and bass?
With these things I think there’s a satisfaction and necessity to independent discovery – I’m not sure drum and bass really has any place in schools. I think it’s best to pick up a musical education organically from friends and family which itself brings about a desirable diversity. School should just equip a kid’s mind with the tools they need to best utilise all the information accessible to them. It’s far more valuable to learn how to access knowledge from a variety of sources and then be discerning about it than it is to get into specifics. I’d rather my kid was made aware of the potential for him to go on a journey with making beats than for his school to literally teach him how to compress a drum track in Ableton.
There seems to have been a recent evolution within the underground Drum & Bass scene. 85bpm gone off the past few years! I remember hearing Hazard’s Wicked So being dropped on Bailey’s 1Xtra gig in 2009 and all the heads in the studio excitedly questioning what to call it. Few comparisons can be made between what Hazard was doing back then and present autonomic sounds such as your track Follow You Around which sure as shit has a unique, special feel. Some people dismiss half-paced d&b as soft. I disagree completely, there’s incredible stuff at around the 85bpm mark from the likes of yourself, dBridge, P-Rez, Amoss and Synkro to name but a few. Is this a tempo that you have aspirations to progress further?
For me it just feels good to go back to my roots in a way. I was into hip-hop before I got into d&b. A lot of the shit I made when I was like 13, 14 and 15 basically sounded more like my recent output, albeit with much worse mixdowns, than much of the stuff I made in-between including some of the tracks that were released when I first popped up on the scene at the tail-end of last decade. For me the differentiation is more in the groove & swing than it is the halving of the tempo. This is not the first instance half-time d&b has been in vogue and I’m not even necessarily talking about the autonomic movement here. D&b has come in an optional half-time flavour pretty much since its birth. The thing about this new shit though is that it’s made wonky, the tracks are really short and it’s not designed to be mixed in the classic d&b sort of way. Think of it as hip-hop but with an intro, build, drop structure and dancefloor-oriented mixdowns. I’d definitely like to take this thing further. Truth be told I’ve felt more at home pushing this kind of sound than any other in my career up to this point.
Encircling 85bpm there’s been an increase in other newfangled genres and hip-hop inspired electronic production, as well as electronic inspired hip-hop production. It works both ways and you seem to be a man all over it. There’s always some new era hip-hop stuff in your sets from artists like Mr. Carmack, we heard you drop Hopscotch at Village Underground earlier in the month. These lesser known guys from across the pond must have noticed. Could this lead to a new found American interest in d&b? Take Lee Bannon, for instance, a Pro Era legend who’s pioneering an insane new hybrid of US hip-hop and Jungle.
I might be misunderstanding but I think you’ve got things twisted there. Cats like Carmack are far better known than myself or arguably anyone else operating in drum & bass. The market for that shit out in the states is gargantuan right now. There isn’t really so much of an emphasis on keeping a strict BPM either, I’ve heard those guys mix 70 into 90 and back again, they don’t really mix in the same way us lot do all the time. Part of the reason some of the Soulection peeps like Carmack and Esta stick out from the rest is in part down to their engineering skills. There isn’t the same culture we have in d&b to be showy with sound design and although I’m all game for just running a vibe it’s always the polished shit that works best on the dancefloor.
And you’re responsible for producing a substantial amount of that but what really sets you aside from other artists is that if you popped Saturday next to Chatterbox people would have no idea you were behind both of them yet those tracks, for entirely different reasons, blow my mind. Listening to your production from 2010 onwards I can sort of see how you’ve been influenced. Some of your material began on a fairly techy, itchy and dark tangent rolling through to more breakbeat madness via Erase and Timbre. Aside that there’s the Blu Mar Ten stuff when you were experimenting with 85bpm bits, then came Ivy Lab. These united influences have driven this whole age of Stray with tracks like LA Zoom and Eazy Boy. You juggle so many styles at once always breaking new territory. Do you think you’ll eventually reach a constant approach to production or will you continue to adapt?
I’ve got a short attention span. Sometimes it works in my favour and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll clock and become enamoured by some new vibe every so often and then try to paint it with my own brush. If I think I did okay then I’ll rarely go back and try to do the same thing again. It’s not necessarily a good trait but those who know me personally would confirm it matches up with my personality outside of music. To answer your question this depends on whether I mature out of having this tendency. The other contributing factor is that I’ve never had a clue what I’m doing when it comes to making beats. I never really learnt any good or consistent techniques when figuring how to go about crafting or mixing a track so my approach to actually putting it all together is constantly changing as well. I’ll find a good process or a good master FX chain or whatever and stick with it for a year and then move on because I’m still learning and still feel like I can make my beats sound better.
It seems to be working for you anyway and considering the diverse and well deserved success that you’ve been having it’s completely unsurprising that you, firstly, were taken under the wing by BMT’s Chris Marigold who’s a fucking legend, secondly, are part of the majorly credible Ivy Lab alongside two sublimely talented gentlemen and lastly, have been blessed by dBridge with releases on Exit including slots on both Mosaics. Do you ever get stage fright in the presence of these fellas? How do you feel about having been involved with such bossmen of the game?
I wouldn’t say stage fright but there’s a real feeling of wanting to impress. That’s a definitely a good thing for me. I haven’t been around in the scene for as long as some others so I’ve got to keep making heat and earning my stripes. Praise from people you have pre-existing respect for has a high value.
Sticking with Ivy Lab, at the moment the three of you are a force of nature. You’ve recently released some incredible music. I’ve been looking forward to Make It Clear, on Metalheadz Platinum Breakz 4, for coming up two years now and Live On Your Smile from this year’s Missing Persons EP is another favourite. How did Ivy Lab all come about?
Sabre reached out and asked if I wanted to make some beats with him after I sent over some bits back in ’08. Meanwhile my flatmate at the time had a friend who knew Halogenix so I got passed a CD of his shit via that chain. I loved what I heard so reached out as well. While all this was going on Halogenix and Sabre had started hooking up to write beats as well – their brothers went to university with each other I think. At that point it became a no-brainer for us to get together as a trio. The first few sessions spawned Oblique which did really well for us and meant trusting our potential as a trio and formalising arrangements by giving the collective a name. The rest is history.
Sometimes the stars just align. What if you could collaborate with anyone, dead or alive, for an album, single, live performance or anything else of your choice who would it be and why? Oh and you’re not allowed to say your brother. We all know that’s going to happen someday and it will be supreme like hot chicken in a basket.
MCs man. Doom, Busta, Q-Tip, I’d snap off a limb to get the opportunity to write beats for those guys. In terms of who I’d most like to get on a beat with? Luke Vibert and Thom Yorke / Godrich while I’m dreaming.
Haha we’d heard you were a massive Radiohead fanboy! And what would be your dream location for a DJ Set?
A floating space capsule overlooking Earth.
Sick. Talking about sets; yours are always ridiculous. You have a natural flare for seamlessly tying all matter of bangers together in one continuous, always exciting, interesting, ever-evolving marathon of pengaleng madness. You always catch me off guard. I’m guessing you get a shit-ton of music sent your way. Do you ever struggle to find new material to play during gigs?
Nah, never. There’s tons of great shit about and I see it as part of the job to be constantly digging around. The great thing about the last couple of years has been being able to look further afield than just the drum & bass scene to find beats to play.
Could you do us the courtesy of digging deep into the record bag to pull out a little known track which you’ve always felt deserves a bit more recognition?
Never Looked Better features the somewhat underrated producer AshTreJinkins on the buttons and was released earlier this year on Nocando’s Jimmy The Burnout LP on Hellfyre Club. Laurence (Halogenix) was responsible for pointing us towards this one. To call it little known would probably be an exaggeration of its obscurity but it didn’t appear to blow up as much as it potentially could have done given how much of a banger it is. I was stoked when L showed us this tune because we’re always on the lookout for killer bits like this that fall into the 90BPM range. They can fit seamlessly into our sets and murder the dancefloor.
Will the VIP of Can of Cancun be getting a release anytime soon? The YouTube clips have been tormenting me.
Don’t think so, sorry.
That’s a shame! Those drums are infectious, I’ve been rinsing them. I must admit though, my mum doesn’t appreciate them at all. Sometimes she gets mad when I have my speakers on, not even loud, just at a nice level. She’s got this big old record collection though and seems to have lost her thirst for music. Do you see this process as a natural part of getting older? What can adults do to rediscover their love for music and can your material help them to do so?
I’m not the person to say whether my own material is any better or worse than any other to help rekindle anyone’s passion for music but I certainly love the idea that it could do. The risk of having youthful thirst for anything diminish as you age is a well documented phenomenon and not something I can really comment further on though I’m sure it varies a hell of a lot. You ask what people could do to rediscover their love of music, I think it’s best if these things aren’t forced. We all fall in and out of love with people and passions all the time and the best approach is to let these things happen organically because love and pressure don’t go too well together.
If your music career never materialised what other avenue would you have taken? Maybe you would have harnessed your powers in mathematics & philosophy to untangle the mysteries of the universe or are there other callings in the life of the Stray’s alter-ego, J?
I find it very difficult to answer this question because I’m at a very one-dimensional ‘music is everything’ time in my life right now. I struggle to maintain interest in other areas. I wouldn’t consider myself very well-rounded or open minded. I loved studying philosophy but see this more as having helped my day to day ability to stay positive amongst other things. I wouldn’t trust my own ability as an academic to further a field like philosophy in any effective way let alone to untangle the mysteries of the universe. I don’t read enough for that.
Talking about alter-egos, here’s something right off the top of my head. Do you draw any distinction between yourself as a person going about your business, maybe taking a leisurely stroll down to the shops to pick up a packet of Quavers and the guy who makes music that gets released on ten-out-of-ten labels and performs for huge crowds as Stray? I would imagine this is the case for some musicians and other performers such as comedians etc.
Yes you have to draw a distinction. It’s important to remember that when people praise or criticise you for your work that they are doing just that – commenting on your work – and not on who you are as a person. You need to work at that separately. I’m of course happy for thousands of people to know about and enjoy my music but I’d really rather only my close friends and family know about me as a person so, while I might give bits and pieces away in interviews like this one, generally speaking my fans don’t really know much about me, my views, or my private life. I’d rather keep it that way to be honest.
Oh the Secrets of a Stray. A fair ethos though man. So what do you have in store for the remainder of 2014?
– A new Ivy EP should drop by the end of the year and we just threw our first20/20 party at the Silver Bullet which was went down amazingly well so there will definitely be more of those this year. As for Stray material I’m working on an album but I don’t expect that to be released until 2015.
Stray, big man. Thank you very much for taking the time out of your mad schedule building houses and making bangers and shit to talk to us lot here at BtB. Stay breezy my man, stay breezay.