|Photo: Ali Wade|
With the Etch feature, delivered back in March of this year, there was the sense that something was building afresh in the UK underground: after the expected backlash against the rapid, perhaps saturated, resurgence of dark half-step dubstep, it was interesting to see a producer who was still looking back to dubstep's roots but more so to its opposing garage offshoot of grime. He wasn't the only one either, as a series of tunes arriving in the Hedmuk inbox from another, Threnody, were making obvious. The important strand that can be vaguely strung between the likes of Etch, Threnody, Wen, Epoch, Visionist and Beneath (among others) is not grime, though; its rather what made grime so exciting at the point of its own mucky inception: an apparently inimitable reactive force, ultimately aimed at pushing at even those boundaries - be they of 'genre' or 'style' - laid down by the UK underground itself in pursuit of genuine, sometimes called raw, expression. A visceral music, then, and so a powerful influence for any producer to be weaving into their work, no doubt; add to that, years of production/DJing/industry experience, a highly professional attitude, and one of the sharpest tastes in music around and you've just about got Gordon Sweeney, aka Threnody.
Hedmuk: To introduce yourself, what's your name, where do you come from, and how would you describe your sound?
Threnody: I’m Gordon Sweeney, I’ve produced/DJed under the name Threnody since 2001. I’m originally from Maidenhead (in good company with Vex’d, DJ Fresh, John B and others also from the town) and I now live in Stafford.
Describing my sound is probably the most difficult thing for me to do but I suppose it is raw bass music. I like things to sound dark and atmospheric. It’s difficult as individual words mean different things to different people: not dark as in hammer horror and not raw as in under-produced. I know what influences my sound but it is difficult for me to say how I process this into music. Before I start any major project I do mixtapes of influences as reference points, and some of the references are constant whilst others change.
H: You seem to draw on a wide range of musical influences, particularly the garage offshoots of UK funky and grime: is this something you're conscious of? Or do you view it more as a natural progression from your interest in electronic music?
T: My first love in electronic music was D&B. I learnt to mix with it and it’s the first electronic stuff I wrote but around 2002 I started hearing the post-garage sounds that would evolve to be grime/dubstep and so I put my focus there. The sounds I liked the most were Sublow & Breakstep but by 2005 these were just subsumed by the grime/dubstep tag. Grime rhythms and textures have always been a key influence as I preferred the early grime to early dubstep but by 2005 I was making and playing more dubstep because people like Toasty, SLT Mob and Search & Destroy resonated more with me.
To be honest UK Funky largely passed me by. When it broke I wasn’t really listening to much in the scene outside of what I played on my show & my own music. Although I checked a few tracks it didn’t make a connection with me. It didn’t sound raw enough. I did search and dig but nothing really did it for me at the time. Now I hear DJ Champion, Visionist & Dusk & Blackdown making funky inspired beats and I have more of a connection with the stuff they are doing. I have only really done one track that fits with this, a beat called Tribal, but the Funky crew really picked up on it & it got quite a bit of hype. To be honest I think that beat was probably more influenced by the Mutant Bass crew like Kanji Kinetic, Hadean et al but when influences go through my production filters things get merged.
Really for me underground music was more breakbeat (like Botchit & Scarper/early Freq Nasty) in 1997 followed by D&B and then grime/dubstep by 2002. UKG for me wasn’t an underground thing as it was getting played in every pub and house party in Maidenhead (probably similar to dubstep today) so it just sounded like pop music, I enjoyed it on that level. I had always liked the darker side of underground music so garage only interested me when it got stripped back and raw in 2002. Retrospectively I now know there was an underground subculture in garage (as there currently is with dubstep) but I wasn’t clued in enough to know about it. It’s similar to rave music in 92 or early jungle in 94. I was too young to know about it other than the really popular side.
H: Alongside the likes of Etch, Wen and Visionist there seems to be a strong group of artists coming through who are adapting old school grime sounds in building a new refreshing sound; is this something you'd say you're aware of?
T: Each producer has their own sound but there is a similar vibe across the beats. The biggest parallel I can draw is with dubstep in 2004 when a lot of beats were sonically similar to grime (like Plasticman/Mark One) and also each producer had a very different sound (Vex’d, Search & Destroy, Toasty, DMZ, Skream etc) but there was an indefinable vibe that meant they were linked.
Since 2009 I have been listening to lots & hearing loads of great new hybrid sounds that fit in the UK bass music continuum. At first it was very disparate but now things are beginning to cluster. Every day I’m finding out about artists who fit with what I’m doing whilst approaching it from different angles. Early grime from 2002 to 2004 was the last big crossroads of underground bass music where people were experimenting with post-garage sounds. It makes sense that now at the next big crossroads people are sonically exploring the sounds that went on to form grime/dubstep and exploring paths or ideas that maybe were shut for whatever reason. Some sounds from this era will just become classic ‘dance music’ sounds: the new Amen break; Distorted 808 bass drum; 303 acid bass; 909 snare. I think the Pulse bass is a strong contender for a sound that can be recontextualised and it has appeared in a lot of tunes this year. On the flip I have also heard new tracks using early grime sounds but with nothing new added to them. Lots of tracks also seem to be using Wiley’s snares (another distinctive sound) but they are just straight-sampled. Remember the thing that made the amen break such a cornerstone of D&B was the fact each producer put their mark on the sound, either through processing or rhythmic variations through chopping it up. Dillinja commented on it being used as a barometer for a producer showing how technically gifted they were. There is a fine line between a sound becoming a classic and a sound getting rinsed.
It’s also worth remembering that early grime wasn’t just Wiley & Youngstar. There were people like Oddz, Eastwood, Shimano, Sticky, Donaeo, Jon E Cash etcetera. I think the thing that links the artists you mention and others like Underclass, Bloom, Filter Dread, Epoch, Beneath, Name_Pending, J-One and others is the fact they are taking influence from more than just Wiley & Youngstar. I can hear a Sublow influence in these artists & also stuff like Shimano‘s ‘An Unusual Sound’, but then although it sounds grimey it also has influences from lots of other places all tied together with a similar vibe.
There are lots of producers around at the moment who seem to be influenced by early grime: add Pedro123, Slackk, SameName, Sam Tiba and others to the mix. It is a difficult thing to adequately explain. These artists work alongside Etch & Wen but are different in vibe, maybe to the same subtle extent someone like SLT Mob were classed as dubstep whereas the Virus Syndicate were grime: tiny differences that equate to nothing more than something as potentially small as the use of reverb on a snare drum. You can draw quite a big circle around a lot of artists and say ‘this is grime-influenced new music’ and then you can draw smaller circles within that big circle to say this group have this certain vibe whilst that are more like that. It is the same as what happened with grime/sublow/eski/8bar/dubstep/breakstep. Over time smaller circles merge to form bigger circles.
I suppose the big question is whether it is just grime or actually something new. This can only be answered by the establishment within grime accepting or rejecting the new sounds: if Logan Sama or DJ Cameo played tunes by Etch or Wen then people would just hear it as grime; it is only when the establishment ignores a sound that it can’t be linked with that genre and therefore it has to become something new. It’s like J Da Flex was booked by 1Xtra as a garage DJ when the station launched. He was clued up and started playing early dubstep like Toasty and 1Xtra didn’t like the direction so they cancelled his show. This was quite a stark reminder that the establishment (in this case 1Xtra bosses) didn’t hear dubstep as the future of garage whereas other 1Xtra UKG DJs (like Cameo) were playing grime and didn’t lose their shows, so grime was seen as the continuation of garage.
H: And considering MCs have traditionally played such a large role in grime, do you make beats with a view to them being vocalled or does this not necessarily occur to you?
I’ve always loved MCs on beats. Whether that was Skibba & Shabba tearing up D&B sets or people like Rogue Star & Crazy D in a hosting role on dubstep. Although there are definitely good MCs and bad MCs I have always liked the energy and don’t agree with people who hate on MCs. In clubs I’ve played far more sets without an MC but I always like having someone there providing that extra layer. Rogue Star is my favourite MC for that: his hosting is deep!
When I was working in Preston for a year in 2004-05 I was based at a studio teaching youths how to make beats & DJ and most of my time was spent with the local MCs getting them to spit on my beats. There were some sick MCs there and that year taught me a lot about structuring beats with MCs in mind. When I moved away I simply didn’t have access to MCs so I switched my focus to creating beats that worked as instrumentals with strong melodies & variation & development.
This year is really the first time since 2005 I have thought about vocals, mainly as I have remixed StooShe, Roll Deep’s Discarda (under my Hyperchord alias) and a full vocal track by Tilt & Maria Nayler. It is a different process as the focus is on the vocal and not on the instruments as much. I find it really easy writing to an acapella and am really interested in working with vocals more in the future. I’d love to do a full vocal album with vocalists like Trim, Baby Blue, Gemma Fox, even Angel Haze.
To directly answer your question usually MCs are not really a consideration as MCing has been more of a live thing for me rather than committing bars to record. If I play a track in a club and it doesn’t suit an MC then they can shut up. Having said that, my next EP on UK Trends is 4 tracks that are deliberately minimal and would suit MCs: more grime instrumentals than complex album tracks.
This was a very deliberate thing as my first album, released last year, was written between 2005-10. It has more of a dubstep/breakstep/glitch/orchestral influence but even before the album had been released I was writing new beats that were more rooted in grime. The second album is now pretty much complete but it isn’t straight grime, like Preditah or someone, so I thought that in order for people to understand the music I needed to write some transitional stuff that is more minimal and grassroots so when people here the album material it makes sense as they will have more of an understanding of the process. It’s like when Youngstar wrote ‘Pulse X’ or ‘The Formula’ or Wiley did the original mix of ‘Igloo’ (the version with no beats). It was all about acclimatizing the audience to new forms and then these forms are elaborated on. The same thing happened with dubstep, tracks like ‘Horror Show’ for example. For people to understand half-step they needed tracks like ‘Horror Show’ to strip things back to the core elements. The same thing is happening with the new grime influenced strains (as premiered in this mix). Although naturally technology means production standards are far higher than early grime, there is the same space needed to let new forms breath. So this transitional EP is my attempt to explain the sound of my 2nd album by stripping the sound down to the minimal core elements. Hopefully the album will make more sense as a result.
To bring it back to the original question, these 4 beats are the only ones that have been written with MCs in mind and I have written parts of them around grime acapellas. I would challenge any MC to ride some of my 2nd album tracks and keep their flow though! (laughs) I did put a mix together a few months ago that uses these grime acapellas on the transitional beats so people can make the connection and understand this is an important influence, even if by the time things get on the album the melodies do the talking.
H: Your label UK Trends has been fairly quiet for the last year or so: are there future plans for the label, or is it currently taking more of a back seat to your productions?
T: Since my album came out on UK Trends about a year ago it has been quite quiet, with 2 releases this year and probably 2 more before the end of the year. Ideally I would put out 6-8 records a year. This has partly been down to artists working on EPs for me and not getting them finished yet (Mad EP & Side9000 are both working on releases). I guess before if an artist hadn’t quite finished an EP in time I would just put out some new beats by me but stuff of mine I would have put out was signed by labels like Black Hole & Red Volume and I have another 8 tracks that form my 2nd album so I wanted to hold off on putting them out as 2 EPs.
Things have been developing behind the scenes. I have taken on the supremely-talented Riglow (who runs the Skank The F**k Out blog) to build a new website and run the social media for the label and he has been working really hard on a new site, which looks incredible, and also putting the back catalogue on Youtube and doing other social media black arts (laughs).
When the site is live I am putting out a free compilation album via the site and we have a really strong bunch of tunes to put out. (Although it isn’t really a re-launch as we have released music this year it is kind of a rebirth when the new site goes live.)
H:You've also got a show on Sub.FM: how and when did you first get involved with the station? What can people expect to hear on your show?
T: Well I celebrated my 5 year anniversary on the station this year with a move to the peak time 10pm-12am slot on a Thursday night. I first got involved in 2007 off the back of my first couple of releases. It has been a great opportunity to push my sound and artists I have supported over the years.
I guess the sound has changed over the years, people can judge for themselves as there are archives of mine stretching back to 2007 on the Sub FM site. At the moment I am playing quite a large range of stuff in keeping with the fact underground music is at such an exciting, transitional phase. I am playing a lot of the sort of deeper, darker grime influenced stuff (similar to the mix I‘ve recorded for you) but also more hype stuff like my alias Hyperchord, Lenkemz, Mak & Pasteman, The Mutant Bass crew and some straight grime. I’ve also delved into the 160 realms especially supporting people like Sarantis & Warlock. I’m really feeling some of the grime influenced 160 stuff.
Really the radio show matches what I play in club sets, there is a lot of variety whilst still having grime undercurrents. The show is 2 hours so there is enough time to let the sets go places and create different moods.
H: Take us through how you went about approaching the mix you've put together for us.
T: This mix purposefully is a small band of producers that I think are working within a similar vibe. Although each producer sounds different you can hear similar elements: swung garage hi-hats; reverb drenched sounds; footwork-inspired vocals but spat by grime MCs rather than US rappers; early dubstep’s sense of space and bass; jungle pads; the staccato, vanguard rhythms of grime. These are the elements that contribute to the vibe and sense of continuity across the productions.
There are hard-hitting moments like the beats by Underclass (in particular his 3rd drops!), and deeper moments like Etch & J-One with ‘Sounds’. I have also thrown in a couple of classic vinyls to try and highlight some of the sounds I think work as reference points of influence. The Loefah track is one from before he went completely half-step and I think is an interesting track because it shows Loefah’s influences before his sound got more defined. You can hear the tribal beats and sub bass and there is a definite jungle influence to the track. The Jon E Cash track is probably my favourite from the early grime. It stands up in the mix to beats today (that a lot of early grime doesn’t due to production values and texture) and has great development in the bass and melodies.
It is interesting that both those beats were released in 2004. I think this current new strain takes a lot of influence from 2004 when words like 8-bar, sublow, breakstep and eski were interchangeable with grime and dubstep. Really 2004 was the last exciting time for the underground in terms of immense creativity with regards to new directions and forms so I suppose it’s natural that a lot of the new sounds now are influenced by that last crossroads before things became more formulated into the overall terms of grime and dubstep that subsumed the rest. Obviously now there are other influences but it is really interesting to see paths that were shut (such as sublow) being given new life through the filters of producers today.
H: Finally, are there any forthcomings or anything in the pipeline that you'd like to put the word out on?
T: Well next up is the EP on UK Trends with the more minimal new forms as the transition for my album that is coming out early next year. I have written 90% of the tracks, it will probably also come out on UK Trends unless I get an offer I can’t refuse. Also watch out for the new UK Trends site and free compilation in the next week or so on www.uktrendsmusic.co.uk
Finally, I have been taking a bit of time off DJing following my first album and its tour, mainly as I have a been busy in the studio working on the new album and I also wanted to create a bit of distance between the first album and where I am now sonically. However I’m now itching to get back in the clubs and I’m putting together dates now in the lead up to the album and also a tour to support its release. If you want to book me you can email me directly at email@example.com and hit me up here if you have any music you want me to hear as well.
Download: Threnody - Hedmuk Exclusive Mix
Etch – Right Foot FWD [Dub]
Epoch – The Steppenwolf [Dub]
Name_Pending – Mindf__k [Dub]
Underclass – Ecko [Dub]
Wen – Walk Tha Walk [Dub]
Wen & Epoch – Hydraulics (Epoch Bass Mix feat. Joshua Idehen) [Egyptian Avenue Dub]
Wen & Epoch – Hydraulics [Egyptian Avenue Dub]
Underclass – Klang [Dub]
Threnody – Subminimal [Dub]
Blackdown & Dusk – High Road [Keysound]
Etch & J-One – Sounds [Dub]
Underclass – Banana Boat [Dub]
Loefah - Bombay Squad [Rephlex]
Side9000 – THX Riddim [Dub]
Threnody – Synchronic [Dub]
Wen – Swingin' [Dub]
Jon E Cash – Spanish [Black Ops]
Etch – See Me On The Road [Dub]
Threnody – Depth [Dub]