Split between Bristol and Reading, Spektralsound are hailed as one of the most creative acts in the UK 130 movement. This July, Keysound Recordings brought us an expansive, explorative, vocal and bass heavy EP to remind us what it’s like to get lost in deep sound.
The title track offers up a scuttling melody, with a dark kick, and the repeated line “it’s my safe haven, it’s my happy place”, with glittering clamours pulling us into ‘Paradise (Ascent)’, a melting, atmospheric track boasting a breaksy percussive breakdown, which echoing “hold tight”. ‘Silent Declaration’ opens up a wide space for sound, and beckons calls for memory and revival in the vocal hook “hold tight”. It’s an intricate, yet screeching and scratching dark ocean of stripped back noise. The closing track “Happy Heart” clicks and taps us out, a dubsteppy beat over the resounding and warm crackle of a vintage Japanese vinyl sample, and the recurring motif of “he makes my heart happy”.
The EP compiles raw sample sounds from across the board, and years of underground experience, leaving us with a tightly composed reckoning with the past and future of UK dance music.
I recently spoke to Rob and Matt to learn more about their background as musicians and friends, how they arrived at their sound as a duo, and the abstract compilations of sounds they’ve used for this record.
How did you guys come together? Could you tell me more about your origin story, and what led you to the place you’re in today?
We’ve known each other since school on the South Coast, started out underage raving in the bars, clubs and outdoor parties in and around faded-glory seaside towns, with their weird balance of picturesque landscapes and deep deprivation.
After attending raves, we both soon felt the urge to get more involved, firstly as a DJ and (reluctant) MC combo playing drum’n’bass and garage around the parties, bars, clubs and illegal raves in the local area. Then we began playing b2b and went on to DJ on the same line-up as musical heroes like Marcus Intalex, Calibre, Doc Scott, Bailey. Went through a stage where we sort of fell out of love with the new wave of d’n’b so we started gravitating back towards garage, and some of the “post” genres rising out of the ashes of dubstep that had the rawness, experimentation and unpredictability that first attracted us to jungle and early d’n’b.
Since the days of Music2000 on Playstation we’ve both been experimenting with music production, we think the first track we made together properly was when we were still playing d’n’b and was called “The Fish Eagle” which featured an amazing vinyl sample of a Fish Eagle and was sort of hilarious but also kind of went off in the club. That first time experiencing a tune we made together- getting people banging hands on the ceiling of a sweaty club to get a rewind really changed things. We’ve been making tunes together seriously for about 5 years now.
What inspired the name change from Mulengasound to Spektralsound?
Mulengasound was a name inspired by the skeletal structures of trees struck by lightning, mulenga meaning a piece of wood or tree struck by lightning. After a few releases we became aware of its use as a common surname in parts of southern Africa so we decided to change the name to avoid any confusion or offence. In retrospect Spektralsound is also more fitting to type of music we now making, like “spectral transmissions from a submerged future”.
What are some influences for your sound? You mentioned to me your decisions to steer clear of sample packs to ‘contribute to a sense of life in electronic music that can’t be created in a DAW and help shape the narrative’ in your music. Are there any other production processes that you consider specific to you?
Influences of our "sound" are pretty wide ranging from Jungle to UK-Funky. Anything that is experimental, evocative and honest; we try to make it as unique as possible by using as many of our sounds as possible. There is something about the whole process of recording and sampling that gives the music an added dimension. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Free software like Soundflower on the Mac can open up a whole world of possibilities. We don’t really have many rules when we set out to make music but with Spektralsound we sort of have an unwritten understanding that we create music that has to have a sort of abstract, supernatural quality to it, like abstract-realism which you can get lost in and escape from everything going on in your life that you need a break from. We see it as creating portals.
If you’ve not seen the film Pan's Labyrinth, we definitely recommend watching it. There's a scene where a sinister Goatman gives the girl some chalk to draw a door on the wall of her bedroom that opens up a portal to another dimension (albeit with a terrifying monster with his eyeballs in the palms of his hands) but this reminds us of first raving experiences in early millennium nightclubs, often in buildings that looked like they are collapsing from the outside, sweat dripping off distressed ceilings and an underlying sense of menace, until you found a Goatman with the chalk supply that made music open up portals to other realms that forever changed you. Literally turning these grotty basements into electrified landscapes of love and unity, nights of endless possibilities, providing playlists that embed themselves into the deepest regions of your mind.
What we try and do is create music that is inspired by everything from then until now but it has to feel future-facing rather than just nostalgic, it has to have that surreal abstract escapist quality like a trip, taking you away from your everyday stresses and strife but it’s not all Yellow Submarines and talking snakes, there has to be anchors to reality, voices that can bring you back.
You spoke also about crate digging and travelling to parts of towns and cities to find records. Do you make time to go to the edges of these cities often for record shopping? How do you know when a record is worth buying?
Crate digging is sort of something Rob has always done, spending most Saturdays getting exercise by heading around local record shops and buying strange and interesting vinyl to sample or lost gems to play in sets. If it’s for sampling usually something with spoken word, animal sounds, atmospheres, sound effects or just plain bizarre. We’re definitely not record collectors, most of the joy is finding a diamond in the rough of the bargain bin. Unlike books you can quite often judge a record by its cover, the stranger the better. These days we’re just as likely to sample cassettes, CD’s, DVD’s or straight from the TV output.
The process of producing as a duo split between places must pose its own challenges. What's the work process like, is it a dedicated sit-down to create a track or more of a natural happening, over time? Do you guys make music between Bristol and Reading, or are you usually in the same studio?
Over the years we have found the way that we work together best is to collaborate remotely but try to meet up once every few months and sit down in the Bristol studio. We can start off with a sketch that can contain an idea, that we then send to the other and see if it resonates, then add a contribution and pass it back. Sometimes it works seamlessly and sometimes it doesn’t, but important just to move on and keep up the momentum- if it doesn’t have that emotive or transcendental quality that opens up a portal to our first raving experiences then either you search for it or start something else. One thing we know from experience is that if we try and create a project following a strict concept it rarely works out successfully. We just make music we connect with and then draw the completed ones together that seem to follow a similar thread or mood or mind set. The way we work plays to both our strengths and we definitely complement each other in that way. Matt tends to work on details and fine tuning for example while Rob tends to be able to see the bigger picture earlier and can more easily zoom out and make better decisions on what is right for the track to get the best final outcome. It is more often Rob that starts music (but not always) and the tracks are finished by and mixed by Matt in the main.
Tell me about the Safe Haven EP. What circumstances and methods led to the sound of this record? Has it been a long time in the making?
The tracks from this EP have existed in one form or another quite a long time. Safe Haven is the oldest (maybe 4 years) and has been through quite a few versions, although the others were all from the same fairly recent time period. The track uses a vocal sample from a C4 news interview with one of Britain's best rappers [Little Simz for those wondering] exploring the themes of creativity and the sometimes safe havens of escapism. There is also a vocal sampled from a bizarre 1970’s American Christian evangelist spoken word vinyl dealing with youth gangs and addiction. Paradise (Ascent) was created by accident while trying to make a submerged edit of Three Drives “Greece 2000” inspired by the dark side of Aya Napa style raving islands of the mid 2000’s. It features submarine bleeps, sci-fi film sonic guns, a stretched fox call, and chopped and skewed live MC samples. Silent Declaration is inspired by a 1980’s film about psychoactive drugs, consciousness and trying to bring a loved one back to reality. Rob found some Tudor harpsichord vinyl samples and had them in the track, before Matt processed them into the dark atmospheric pads in the intro and added the echoes to the mentasm/stab type sounds in the drop. Happy Heart has a Japanese Koto sample cut from vintage vinyl. A few years ago the local Oxfam seemed to have been gifted with all the vinyl from university archives so there were lots of treasures in the bargain bin. This sample was edited into the main mournful hook, and the vocal is cut from a documentary on American opiate abuse.
What's the most interesting instrument you've used on this record - any '80s keyboards haunted by owners' or 'terrible sounding synths bought from outskirts of London'? (Words taken from a previous email)
In terms of haunted instruments that made it onto the EP, we think there are some strange bleeps on Paradise Ascent that were the dying cries of a Casio VL-1, which in true 80’s style brought together a calculator and a synth for the first time. Rob got it off eBay and once the batteries were in, it would just play random melodies while still in the box on the shelf; after an intensive recording session he pressed too many buttons at once and it kind of let out a high-pitch scream and died completely. We left it for a few months and it had come back to life. Can't seem to get rid of it.
How do you see the future of UK dance music? Especially with venues being exposed to more restrictions and oppositions in the nearer future considering the pandemic. So much of dance music relies on the live experience as well as online listening, how can you see this affecting you as artists and listeners?
It’s kind of hard to predict or try to even think what the future might bring as there are so many different levels of issues it currently faces. Our Government has proved itself almost as deadly as the actual virus so any sort of meaningful funding for the night time economy seems unlikely, it’s also going to be a weird one to judge when it will feel safe or right to go back to an experience in a venue that resembles some kind of normality.
Hopefully the smaller, independent venues that are the true backbone of UK dance music can be financially supported until it’s safe to return, otherwise it will be a huge blow. Its looking like illegal raves are going to be on the rise, set against a rising backdrop of another nightmare Tory government and a generation of youth with limited prospects.
We think the main hope is that things come back with positive change, where line-ups and finances are distributed to reflect and respect the origins of the music and give lasting meaning to the #blacklivesmatter protests. One of the other great things about UK dance music at the moment is how many women and also LGBT artists are at the forefront of the scene, DJ’s like the 6 Figure Gang, Alya L & DJ/Label boss Yushh. This inclusivity and respect is fundamental to the future of any scene, you only need to look at the American EDM scene to look at what can happen if you ignore the roots of the music. There are other huge issues like streaming revenues which are hugely impactful to the survival of artists and also the effects of brand sponsorship of underground music and culture but we’re not even sure where to start with that right now, apart from just try and support artists you love if you can afford it.
Any final words?
Just want to end by saying big up to Dusk & Blackdown for having faith in our sound and playing our stuff on their legendary Keysound show on Rinse at a time a few years back when we were struggling to see where our music could fit when we were considering if we should carry on, after all these years it remains such a critical platform for emerging artists to hear their music played alongside more seasoned producers, one of the few bastions left of properly experimental electronic music. Also shout out to Eich (Harriet Bliss) for bringing together & pushing the disparate elements of 130 bpm on her More Cowbell platform & label. Lastly shout out to artists like Scratcha DVA that take their time out to give advice and share their knowledge with emerging artists.
You can purchase or stream Safe Haven from Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp, Beatport, and more.
Big thanks to Minna Eyre for her contribution.