From dusting off his uncle’s old comic books and jungle records, through to retrofuturist nostalgia and transcendental journeys in sound. Specialist in layered breaks, haunting design and PlayStation’s sonic heritage – mashed, stretched, and automated into mind bending tracks from the depths of imagination. After flooding the bass flavoured music world with his releases from the day one, also on significant imprints such as legendary Keysound, and Soundman Chronicles, Etch always remained open-minded in joining first outings for emerging labels (Purple City Soufflé, Dr Banana, Gully Records), stirring with the audience of established, hyped movements. Together with Bulu, the label chief of vinyl-centred Bun The Grid, with releases sold out to the point, he doesn’t own a copy himself. Aside from his magical production and gigs from beyond a genre concept, Zak comes across as just an exceptionally genuine and fun person to be around. During his stay in Bristol, I had a chance to sit down with him and have a chat (and a quite few hangover laughs) about his friendship with Parris, production techniques, cross-art inspirations, and… conversations with dolphins. Most importantly however, about his brand new label and release (Altered Roads & Soundman Chronicles), shipping your way in just a month’s time.
Thanks for joining me for a chat, Zak. I know it’s been a really busy weekend for you. Have you caught up with the Bristol crew yet?
I’ve only just met up with Parris, then obviously went to see Chris from Idle Hands, as we go back quite a way, and Sean Kelly from Kelly Twins, who came to my gig last night. I’m about to meet many others who are here this weekend, like Karma & Foamplate, I also met a very drunk Sully after his gig last night, while I was with our mutual friend Josie. He actually managed to fix her bike chain even though he was plastered, the man’s a genius!
I’m glad you guys got that sorted! You seem to have quite a strong connection with the city then. You mention a few Bristolians in your interviews a lot. Particularly Parris and Sepia. Tell me, how did you all meet?
I have known Sepia for a while, it’s quite cringey actually (laughs). He was one of the first DJs I looked up to when I was a kid. He used to live in Brighton when I was maybe 14? And he used to be DJing… Oh I’m gonna bait him out! He used to DJ at all these sort of kiddy raves where they would play the horrible dubstep, like Trolley Snatcha and stuff. And he was like the local resident, would be playing at all of them. Everytime he would step up to the decks, people went: “THEO!!!” (laughs). So everyone from my generation in Brighton who was into that thing, sort of looked up to him. And then it was like, miraculous, when I moved to London to go to uni, he moved 10 minutes away from me, and basically taught me how to DJ. That was when I was 17, I think. So yeah, that’s how I know Theo. Then at the end of my first year of uni, in 2012, I was starting to get a little bit of a hype on SoundCloud. This is when SoundCloud was good, and you could actually message people and talk. Parris sent me a massive message, saying that he likes my tunes and “blah, blah, blah, come meet me”. I think he hit up Wen around the same time, and he took us both under his wing. And that’s how we got to Keysound, I think! As for other heads in Bristol, like Ossia, Chris Farrell, and The Kelly Twins etc, I met those guys in New York in 2016, and we’ve remained friends since. Everyone in Bristol in the music scene is very friendly and supportive. It’s what makes it such a special place.
Agreed! Shame we can’t see you play here more often. Coming back to your friendship with Parris, you guys now collaborated on Altered Roads together. Can you tell us more about the whole project?
OK, so I think it was towards the end of 2015. I remember quite well actually, because I was on a lunch break at some dead end office job, that I probably got fired from a week later. Parris rang me and was pretty much like: “Bro, lets do a cassette, do it like a hybrid live/DJ mix in FL Studio and Ableton”. I think that suggestion just got me into a creative overload, I’m sitting on about 150+ tracks, all from the era of producing for that project alone. I came up with the name ‘Altered Tapes Vol. 1’, because I was obsessed with a film by Ken Russell called ‘Altered State’. It’s based on a book by a legendary psychonaut called John C. Lilly, who experimented with psychedelic drugs inside sensory deprivation tanks. He believed that by doing this, he could communicate with dolphins. Yes, I realise that is batshit crazy, but I find it intriguing! Ken Russell is a brilliant director too.
I also did a few mixes called ‘Altered State Vol. 1-3’ which are still on my Mixcloud page where I basically just play tunes that are different to what people expect, and what I really listen to alot in my spare time, outside of just electronic music. That idea came about, because I was sick of Keysound’s macho dubplate attitude: “His tunes are better than yours, I’m not playing yours, it’s not dark enough”, blah, blah, blah. I was into making esoteric, mind expanding, beautiful music at the time. I was more concerned with exploring cosmic themes, I guess to be a cliche, that Sun-Ra kind of vibe, other-worldliness, nature, and so on. Even if some of my tunes are dark and do work on dancefloors.
Anyway. We got to 2017 and Parris wanted to essentially gift me this thing as a label. We called it ‘Altered Roads’ as ‘Altered Tapes’ had been completed. Dwayne’s great like this, he sets a plan, and he sticks to it. So we put together the record, using full versions of the tracks from the tape, which we will continue to do – for the other 12”s, we have 3 planned along with newer material. So yeah, we have 4 releases coming out over 2018, all by me, and I’m really excited about the creative freedom of it. I don’t have to cater to the dance floor, I don’t have to cater to someone running a label ‘yes’ or ‘no-ing’ it. It’s purely my mind and soul into the music. The first release will be out March 2nd, and pre-orders are now up on our bandcamp, and Bleep so far, with more coming soon, I presume. The first release will ship with a 50 ltd edition copy of the original cassette which we won’t digitize so, get lucky. I’ve lost a lot of those tunes and little live jams too.
Wow, thanks for sharing all this! It must be great to have that opportunity to express yourself, without thinking what the label boss is going to say. I’ve heard a lot of people find that as their main cause of creative block. It’s obviously not just Altered Roads though, that you’re involved with. Tell us how you “bunned the grid”.
How I “bunned the grid”? Oh, do you mean the actual technique?
I meant more, how you came up with the name, initially. But was that a technique?
Let me try and explain that. Basically in Fruity Loops there’s a grid where you lay the beats down, and you can change the grid colour. I changed the colours, so there was no grid at all. I just put the beats where I wanted them. I messaged Bulu saying: “Oi, I made this tune, where I bunned the grid completely”, and he was like, “Oh, should we put that tune out? And then call the label ‘Bun The Grid’?” And I was like: “Yeah, go on then!”
That’s a great way to start things off! Your last release was Gohda. It’s an amazing selection of music, I loved it. It’s a quite chunky record for an EP as well.
6 tracks, yeah! Basically, how BTG has worked so far is that the first EP was my idea. I wanted Gantz and Moresounds for those remixes. Second release was more of Bulu’s idea. This release was when Parris discovered Gohda, so Gohda sent me his tunes as well. I was amazed and wondered why is nobody putting any of it out. So I basically forced Bulu to make the Gohda EP happen, which took ages to come together. Mainly because Gohda had so, so, so, so many tunes, and he was also at a transitional period, where he didn’t want to put out some of the tunes we did because he had newer stuff, so there was that. I also personally didn’t want anyone to do remixes like other BTG releases because I think Gohda is brilliant enough to stand on his own two feet, but Bulu insisted. Gohda is awesome, he let me and Sully crash at his place in Philadelphia, when we were in America in 2016. Super nice, genuine guy. I really want him to flourish, because he is so talented.
As for your own productions, can you share anything about your production lab? You cut a lot of breaks, you’re quite loud about using the FL studio.
Yeah I’m loud and proud with FL! It’s ‘cause when I started making music everyone around me, who also started making music, was like: “oh if you don’t use Logic you’re just like, playing with a toy”. And I was like: “Nah, that’s bullshit!” FL can do anything you want it to. And this was back in 2004 I think. I haven’t really heard of dubstep then, but dubstep obviously was sort of growing out of FL studio, as well as grime was. I wasn’t aware of that, but I heard that Spor, a drum and bass producer, that I really looked up to back then, used FL studio! I thought, that if he uses it, anyone can.
It shouldn’t matter what you use. But I heard some people actually defend FL, saying that you use it!
Oh really?! (laughs) No, I like that! It’s how I think as well. Another producer I really look up to, Hudson Mohawke, he still uses FL studio, and he’s making stuff that charts in top 10 in America so, you know. Oh yeah but my studio is a spare room at my nan’s house.
So I guess not too crazy on the hardware bits?
I’ve got hardware synthesizer ROLAND D50, which is an absolute pain in the ass to use, but you can get some really good sounds out of it. And I sample a lot of vinyl, I’ve got a deck set up in my room.
You also sample a lot of games, right?
Yeah, video games are the ones that I sample the most actually. Ones that not many people sample, well actually, Burial does! (laughs). But I sample PlayStation 1 games like Final Fantasy, Spyro, Croc, Rayman…
Rayman?! That’s sick, how?
Yeah, yeah. A lot of the chords and pads in my tunes are the sounds of Rayman picking up a ‘power up’, time stretched, and reversed.
So it’s rather synthesized sounds, not vocals or atmosphere like in Burial’s production that you mention. I was thinking a lot recently about how he uses soundscape from games. It seems like that incredible space you can hear in his music is a widely used sample of sound environment, that someone created for the game. At the same time it’s a great tribute to those games, you know.
From what I know of Burial’s production, the reason it sounds like certain atmosphere, it’s because he sampled an entire atmosphere from a game, like particularly Dark Souls. And that sound surrounding you in his tunes, you can hear when you’re walking your character in the game.
Aside from games, you seem to draw a lot of inspiration from visual arts. Is this something you take into your music?
Yeah, totally. It always has been. My uncle, he’s like my inspiration behind everything. He was one of the best graffiti artists in Brighton, in the 90s, when I was growing up. He also did comic covers and strips for 2000AD, illustrated the ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ comics, did all the artwork in UK TV show ‘Spaced’, he did an Adidas x Star Wars collaboration. He’s fucking amazing basically. Jason Brashill. He lived at my nan’s, which is where I was living back then. He was always listening to UK hardcore and jungle, so everything he did, I was very absorbent to. And obviously it was his art, that I was just really absorbed into as well, and he was really into his 70s science fiction comic book artwork. Artists like Mœbius, Zdzisław Beksiński, H.R. Giger, Mike Hinge, there’s loads. I just love that really colourful, psychedelic, but retro vision of the future. I think it’s weird when you look back at what they thought ‘now’ would look like. And that’s something that I always think about, when I’m making music.
Amazing. So a question about “Predator”
Yes, go on!
Why is there one name and two tunes? What happened there?
So the original “Predator” I made in, wait, I think end of 2013, when I was still living in London. It was when I was making a batch of tunes specifically for Parris to play. It was around that time, when everyone was slowing the BPM down, so I was making tunes at around 126 BPM, and “Predator” was one of those tunes. I sent it to Beneath, Parris and Riz La Teef. Probably also sent it to Blackdown, but he never checked. I don’t remember that Beneath liked it, but Riz La Teef and Parris both cut it to dub. After that I completely forgot about it, cause no one really spoke about it much, everyone was just like “Oh it just sounds like slowed down dubstep”. Harsh! (laughs)
Yeah that’s a bit harsh. I remember hearing it in Riz La Teef’s mix recently, and thinking “What the fuck is this track?!” I thought it sounded really fresh, like something that could have been made, now really!
Yeah that’s the funny thing, innit! But yeah the tune went largely forgotten, and I think Parris played it a few times, and Riz La Teef played it a fair bit back then. It obviously came back around recently and he played it again. I also didn’t know, that he uploaded a little clip of it on YouTube. Around the same time he had done that, there was this tune I did called “Untitled Hardcore no 8 (Predator)”. And when Green Village released it on their label, they just called it “Predator”. So yeah, that’s where the confusion was. But with the original “Predator”, I’d thought I lost the WAV for that. But I’m not sure if it will see a release, Donga from Well Rounded seemed very keen but he’s all but vanished.
That explains a lot. Hopefully we can see the original “Predator” come out at some point though. Now let’s talk about some new stuff. You seem to be always digging for new music and movements in the scene. Any producers, that you think deserve particular attention at the moment. Anyone standing out for you, apart from those you already mentioned in the interview?
Good question! Yeah, it’s difficult to pick. I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff, that’s been coming out of America’s LA beat scene. Originally, the LA beat scene was mainly Flying Lotus and that kind of unquantized hip-hop sound, which then went a bit trappy and EDM-y. Now it’s a mixture of both, and there’s some artists that are doing some mad stuff, that is incredible. And they literally upload new tunes to SoundCloud every day. I can’t even mention their names off the top of my head, ‘cause there’s so many of them, but there’s a group of producers called Team Supreme which is lead by Great Dane. All of the people that produce under that make crazy stuff and they’re mad underrated. Again, it’s a very American thing, I think. It hasn’t been largely adopted in England yet.
In the UK, I guess they’re getting a lot of hype now actually, but all of the artists, that are coming out on the Gamble’s UIQ label, like Lanark Artefax, N1L, ZULI, Sim Hutchins. I love all of that stuff. It’s really weird, headsy. Also another guy actually, who is mad underrated, making tunes of that kind of caliber – I guess you can call it IDM. He’s called Corticyte. He just keeps his head low, and he makes these mental, mental tunes that blow my mind. I’ve heard that Lee Gamble has got a wind of him though, and he might be working with him on the UIQ. So yeah, him. VERY.
I really like the sort of breaky techno/house stuff as well, like what Skee Mask does and S. Moreira. I really, really like Or:La. She’s really brought something that was missing in Hotflush, a label I adored. Back again, and she’s an amazing DJ. Peach is a great DJ too and so is Donna Leake who did the most amazing boiler room set. A really incredible selection of records, weird jazz, latin, psyche stuff, right up my street. I really want to see her live, she’s involved with a venue called Brilliant Corners in London, that’s like… I don’t even get what it is. It’s sort of a Japanese restaurant, but also a music venue for live musicians. People like Floating Points and Four Tet DJ there. I really wanna go. All these people veering towards slower music though, it’s made me drop my BPM’s right down, a lot of the stuff on my new label past 001 is going to be somewhat slower. 110 BPM is my new favourite.
All of these guys are definitely worth checking out. Corticyte’s productions are mental. On a similar note, to wrap things up, we usually ask for some tune choices. First of all, which track would you chose to open your Essential Mix with?
Like a BBC Radio1 Essential Mix? That’s a really hard question… Oh mate! See, the reason I always find it so difficult, is because I always think about these big, opening, epic intro tunes, like, one of the favourite live mixes I’ve ever recorded was when I played at Reconstrvct for the first time in New York and I’d had the idea in my head for so long to open with this tune, cause I realised it was the same BPM as I play. That was Leftfield – Swords. I guess I’ve done that already, but that would probably be it!
How about a tune that got you into jungle.
(Long silence…) Embarrassingly, it was probably DJ Zinc’s ‘Super Sharp Shooter’. But the thing is that was the first one, when I was like: “That’s jungle!” I’ve been hearing weirder stuff my whole life though, that my uncle’s been playing. My mum used to always play Roni Size in the flat we lived in when I was younger but I just thought it was, well, music. So when I was working backwards from that, I was like: “Oh wait, I recognize that from them!”
And looking at some other of your inspirations, a favourite track by Burial?
Etched Headplate. That’s how I got my name!
Oh is it? Tell us more! (Btw it’s my absolute favourite as well)
Well that’s half how it happened. But back in the past, when I was making tunes and I couldn’t mix down, probably at all, someone described my tunes as “sounding etchy”, and I thought: “Yeah, that works”.
Cool! Anyone else you’d like to shout out at the end?
Big shout out to Parris for being there from day 1 up until now, despite him releasing on Idle Hands, Trilogy Tapes and Hemlock (laughs). You know, a lot of people went off in different directions after the little bubble of Keysound era happened, and we all kind of stopped sending each other stuff and collaborating, like I have WIP’s of collaborations I did with Rabit, Epoch, Facta, loads of guys.
What do you mean by that?
Everyone sort of shot off to different things. I think it was such a hotbed of ideas of different producers. Every week someone would come through with something new. And then people started sending stuff to other people, started getting signed to other labels. E.M.M.A, who is my spiritual sister, is doing amazing stuff with Producer Girls and Astral Plane. Moleskin started Goon Club Allstars, Rabit went to Tri-Angle, Visionist went to PAN, Beneath was already doing his own thing, Facta started Wisdom Teeth, Epoch went to Innamind and Tempa, Wen went to Big Dadda. So yeah, I think Keysound didn’t hold us down. It could have been amazing really.