What's not to love about Stray? A producer who puts quality ahead of quantity, it seems every time a new tune of his surfaces heads turn. The latest one to get played on repeat at Organic HQ is the very beautiful "When It Rains."
A silky smooth key-led melodic number which despite being 170 BPM probably owes more to jazz than jungle. Backed up with "Thumbprint," a glitchy IDM-esque collaborative effort alongside Swiss wonderkid Frederic Robinson, it's a seriously strong opening 12" of 2013 for Blu Mar Ten's Label, Blu Mar Ten Music. We caught up with the London born, Leeds based producer to chat about the single, as well as influences and musical eclecticism.
In a recent mix for Blu Mar Ten Music to promote the new 12", you showed off some of your wide-ranging influences. There was music in there ranging from Radiohead, Flying Lotus collaborator and fellow Brainfeeder Thundercat to Busta Rhymes, Floating Points, Keith Jarrett and lots of Warp Records. Clearly then, you're the owner of a varied and deep record collection. Can you trace your roots to the first records you bought and first falling in love with music? Have your tastes matured and changed since? What's caught your ear from 2013's new music so far?
It's quite difficult to think back to a time before feeling a close connection to music, so it's difficult to trace exactly when it started. I do remember some hugely influential records I owned when I was a lot younger though. Mostly funk/ jazz LPs that my brother and dad used to play me a fair bit. My tastes since then have only really matured in the sense that I have become more aware of the musical landscape around me, and have grown keener to involve myself with current sounds. Whereas when I was younger I may have turned my nose up at a lot of popular stuff, I'm now presented with a desire to surf the waves of history so to speak (to put it melodramatically). 2013 for me is all about continuing this beautiful fusing that is happening. I love trying to capture the essences and unique grooves and spirits of a million different pre-established styles into one track but totally misfiring, causing multiple faux-pas and ending up with something totally my own as a result.
The best shit from this year so far does exactly that. Copy-cats are never enjoyable, but hearing references and nods in music to wildly different styles in a multitude of varying contexts is great. The thing about 2013's new music - none of these styles that are gaining attention are in any way new really. Trap, footwork, whatever, they've been around for years and years - but people are really being open with playing around with them and fusing everything with everything else, and it's cool to watch and listen to.
How much of your music through the time you've been making it and where your sound is today owes something to your earlier influences, and how much is a result of being inspired by more current artists and trends?
Current artists/ trends probably inspire and dictate certain instrumentation and structural choices, earlier influences that sunk in when my brain and ears were at their most malleable probably still form the core spirit of the music I'd have thought. In a similar vein to what I was saying above - people making beats today will undoubtedly have been inspired by a whole host of varying influences from their past, but might find themselves crafting tracks in a relevant style which resonates with and can be shared easily amongst people involved in whichever scene it is they are operating in.
So how did "When It Rains" and "Thumbprint" come about then, what were the inspirations and writing processes behind each? How did the link up with Frederic Robinson come about for the latter and what did he bring to the table in terms of directing the tune? Is there anything you feel you've picked up from him as a result?
i think a lot of producers, myself included, often just sit and have a sort of spiritual meditation session with music without any clear goal in mind. it's just a way of relaxing / playing for me really."When It Rains" is just the result of one of these sessions that I decided to pick out for release, presumably because I thought it made sense as a full track, as opposed to just an idea for my own enjoyment. The actual writing of the track didn't take more than a couple of days, though the mixdown surprisingly was a real bitch to get right.
The hookup with Fred was easy enough - he knows I'm a huge fan of his music and so just flew over from Switzerland to write a tune with me whilst I was in London last year. "Thumbprint" was the result of a 3 day stint, with every waking hour spent dedicated to the track. We went a bit insane, and i think you can definitely hear that in the track. The tune itself is very indicative of our shared exhaustion of the obvious and/ or expected in the context of a track like this, which itself is basically just a technical exercise - an intellectual psychoacoustic workout for people with very small attention spans. For example, at four minutes into the track, there is an edit which involved us recording the tune playing from another room in the house. The thing I love most about this track is the gated vocals and the microtonal melodies they make. This sort of effect was actually something I'd been meaning to do for a while, but I needed the kick up the arse from Fred to actually have the patience to see the idea through. Fred brought an increased level of detail and patience to the writing of the track, not to mention his classical training and many of the crazy psychoacoustic samples used in the track (be it a recording of a violin or scratching rocks together). We have since had another studio session, and have another track ready as a result. You'll have to watch this space for release details on that one.
Aside from the overtly "musical" numbers such as "When It Rains" and others of yours that people should know such as "Pushed," there have been the fair share of darker, grittier Stray beats like "Saturday" and "The Pursuit," not to mention the furious amens of "Timbre" and of course the skittish rhythms of "Thumbprint." There's also a juke-inspired track under your name that's been doing the rounds lately, called "L.A. Zoom." In other words, variety is the name of the game. In spite of the wide number of stylistic bases that your music touches on, do you feel that there are underlying themes and motifs that tie it all together? How do you keep things fresh and interesting in your approach to making music to make sure that the final products remain diverse?
I basically just love a boatload of different sounding things, so I'd feel so suffocated trying to discipline myself into tying myself down to having a sound that only showcases a small area of what makes me tick musically. I find that it can be tricky to market myself when I can't be sure that some of my fans will respond well to the stuff that I do that is totally different sounding to the stuff that got them into me as an artist in the first place. For me, there are definite tangible themes and motifs that tie my tracks together, but I'd find it quite difficult to put what the tie consists of in words. I'd love the idea that a listener subconsciously pieces what this tie is together themselves.
As varied as your sound is though, it's been kept largely around the speed of 85/ 170 BPM. What is it about the tempo that grabs and works for you? Are there any slower (or faster!) tempo excursions in the works or that we can expect to be able to get our hands on soon?
There is an energy and frantic propulsion power that I like about the tempo. Or, if it's half time, it still sits close to my heart because that's around the same tempo a lot of hip hop is. People berate the 170 thing for being very rhythmically trapping, and I would agree to a certain extent (I have made loads of tunes at 120 - 140 and there is certainly an element of increased freedom with where you can take the groove) but having said that, it always tends to be rewarding finding new ways to innovate within something that has a tendency to be restrictive by nature.
I would say that the likelihood of me releasing stuff at different tempos in the future is around 100%. I can't say exactly when, but I can tell you that since I started producing music, roughly 40% of it is at a different tempo anyway, so it's just a case of when I decide there is a good case for me to release some of this type of material- I wouldn't just want to put something out randomly, I'd want it to be as part of a cohesive project and on the right label.
Probably your best-known tune to date would be last year's "Oblique," which of course was a colab with Halogenix and Sabre. As the three of you have recently announced you'll be working together officially under the pseudonym "Ivy Lab" from now on, does this mark a new direction for each of your solo careers, with you each presumably devoting more time to the project?
If one of us starts writing a tune on our own that we feel could work as an Ivy Lab track, then it goes towards that project. So, the only thing the project dictates is that our solo tracks must sound different enough to warrant not donating to the project. In fact it turns out this doesn't have such a huge impact because the three of us individually tend to create solo tracks that don't sound all too much like Ivy Lab tracks anyway. The Ivy Lab sound truly is something we've been fortunate enough to be able to carve for ourselves just working together a lot in the studio, which is great.
You've previously cited Chris from Blu Mar Ten as being something of a "mentor" figure back in your early days as a producer. Would you care to shed a bit more light on your relationship with him? Has he had any hand in helping to shape your sound, in the past or now as head of a label releasing your music?
He's never really had a hand in shaping my sound, nor would he say he'd ever have wanted to… It's more that he's assisted me in getting a feel for the lay of the land when it comes to operating successfully within the scene. Just things about being aware of how you are marketing yourself, how are you releasing music, how you are doing your business. All things I've learnt to do properly far quicker as a result of my close contact with Chris than I think I would have done otherwise. I pass on much of the advice he's given to me in the past onto new producers that I currently spend time speaking to
Releases wise, how's the rest of 2013 shaping up for you and Ivy Lab so far? Any other exciting projects for us to look forward to?
The Ivy Lab is currently wrapping up the tracks for our first EP on Critical Music. Expect this to surface some time towards the end of the year. We also have a tune forthcoming on Metalheadz in the meantime. As for my solo stuff, I have a track coming on Mosaic Vol. 2 on Exit Records, and a solo thing coming on a forthcoming Critical compilation. I've also got new collaborative material either finished or close to being finished with Frederic Robinson, Mark System and South London Ordnance. The latter is techno, and so it will be especially interesting to see how this goes down and is interpreted upon release.
Stray/ Stray & Frederic Robinson - "When It Rains" b/w "Thumbprint" is out now on Blu Mar Ten Music.