It’s no secret that Artikal Music has been a beacon for forward-thinking bass music since its founding in 2012. In a year when dubstep had reached peak commercial success, Artikal rejected the hype and drove the sound back underground where it belong. In the process, it helped expose new blood with refreshing ideas (Perverse, EshOne, Piezo, Causa to name a few) while championing a range of sounds and bpm’s, reluctant to be labelled as a dubstep-only label. As a result, each consecutive release remains as exciting and original as the next. Recent journo pieces commenting on dubstep’s revival never hesitate to include Artikal as one of the go-to flagships at the core of the sound, a beautiful testament to the hard work put in by the head honcho himself. As one of Tempa’s most successful signees, J:Kenzo’s influence extends beyond the dubstep realm as reflected in his monthly Rinse FM show and occasional appearances on 31, Exit and Cosmic Bridge. The individual we’re introducing for TRUSIK Mix 54 discovered Kenzo through a mutual interest in drum & bass and the aforementioned labels, which in turn led to his discovery of Artikal and dubstep as a whole. Picked up by Kenzo for a EP of dubby halftime steppas, Mister Shifter is poised to take on the dubstep sound just like many of his d&b contemporaries did very well before him.
Easy Jack, thank you for taking the time to speak with us, how’s life treating you at the moment?
Things are great at the moment. Cold Ohio Winters give me plenty of time to hunker down and work on music, which has been a lot of fun. The weather is now finally starting to warm up a little, and some of that Spring excitement is starting to fill the air.
The UK just got hit by a snow storm dubbed by the media as “the beast from the east” so we’ve been in lockdown the last couple of days. What kind of music have you been working on recently?
Well, I initially chose the name Shapeshifter, which later was changed to Mister Shifter, basically as a metaphor for my desire to take on different forms musically. That’s definitely still the case, as I feel like I’m trying to do so many things at once. I enjoy the challenge, and also just because I love all styles of bass-minded music. I just wrapped up two different EP’s. The first is my solo debut on Artikal Music called the “Dub Attack” EP. The other is a pretty much straight up drum & bass affair on Flexout Audio called the “Dreada” EP. Now that those releases are in the books, I’m mostly focusing on dubstep output for the rest of the year, with a few collaborations currently in the works that I’m really excited to announce soon.
In terms of your musical career which spans a better part of a decade, your Mister Shifter alias is relatively new. Could you tell us a little bit about your background; how you first got into drum & bass, your work in Random Movement and the transition to working as a solo artist?
Absolutely. In the early 2000’s me and my best friend Mike Richards started a drum & bass production outfit called Random Movement. A few of our early releases were on an Ireland-based label called Bassbin, and one of those 12” singles called “Stars In the Dark” gained a lot of buzz, thanks to support from heavyweights like DJ Marky and Calibre. That track alone really helped propel us, back in an age before social media more or less existed. It was pretty wild when two unknown guys from the Midwestern United States started making waves out of nowhere, in a primarily UK-centric genre. We wrote a few more releases together, but Mike eventually moved far away, and we went out separate ways musically. We still remain very close friends. Once we split, I took nearly a decade-long hiatus from production and mostly just DJ’ed. Sometime in 2016 I grew tired of only DJ’ing and wanted to express myself in a more personal way. I finally fired up Ableton one night and things snowballed from there. Now a lot of the tracks I’ve written up to this point are finally starting to get released.
How did you find the process of building a tune for the first time in almost a decade; did it take a while to get back into the flow of translating your ideas into actual music that you were happy with?
For years, I struggled with a lot of doubt. I thought that I couldn’t write music on my own, so I never really attempted it. My old partner Mike was a classically trained musician, and genius at programming synths. I was more of an “idea man” in the studio, and also helped with arrangement, using my years of DJing experience. Once I finally got over those limiting thoughts and actually started trying to write music on my own, the ideas just started pouring out. I had actually worked in Ableton for years using it to make studio DJ mixes, so I had a pretty solid understanding of the basics already. There were some hurdles and trial & error that I had to work out, but after only one week I had my first track finished, which was immediately picked up by a label out of Finland called Lightless Recordings, headed by Fanu. Those first few months in the studio were filled with excitement that I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. I was saying to myself “I can actually DO this!” Gradually finding ways to put my influences and ideas into something real brought me a lot of happiness. I have an extremely busy life. I have a family and run a business in the medical research field, so having a creative outlet is huge for me to keep my head from exploding.
Could you share any tips or advice for the budding producers out there looking to overcome the various hurdles you once faced as a beginner?
I’d have to say don’t be afraid to mess up, and don’t be too caught up in minor details. Just try to write and finish as many songs as you can. Your first projects likely aren’t going to be masterpieces, so don’t be afraid to experiment with using different effects, automation, or the different ways of working with drums (loops, step sequenced, drawn on a piano roll with midi, etc) and just find what works for you. Figure out your workflow. Also, YouTube is a goldmine where you can literally get free step-by-step instruction on just about any plugin, DAW, or recording technique. I would often play tutorials on my way to and from work via my phone pumped through my car stereo. It’s amazing what you can learn by not even watching, and just listening and absorbing. I’ve been at this for a long, long time and making tracks is still a mixture of euphoria and maddening frustration. Patience and perseverance is key.
Do you work with any hardware or additional software and plugins alongside Ableton?
I’m a bit of a hardware geek, so my studio is pretty crazy at the moment. I’ve actually literally run out of space, so I’ve finally reached a point where I’m not buying any new gear for the foreseeable future. I love my Moog Sub 37 for bass and lead duties, and I also have a lot of Elektron gear that I enjoy using (Analog RYTM, Analog Four, Analog Heat, & Digitakt). I’m really influenced by dub, so effects are naturally a large part of my arsenal. I like using my Vermona Retroverb Lancet and Roland Space Echo for spring reverbs and tape delay FX. I find that using hardware helps keep me from getting too zoned out staring at a computer screen. Although I’m a huge fan of Ableton Live, and loving using the latest version 10. I come from a drum & bass background, so drums and chopping breaks are always going to be key, no matter what genre I’m working in. Bringing those d&b influences into my dubstep material has been a lot of fun so far.
That’s a neat collection of gear to be working with. Now that you’ve got into the swing of building beats on your own, how long does it typically take you to finish a tune?
It’s all over the place. Sometimes two days, and sometimes four months. It’s a blessing when you catch lightning in a bottle and bust out a track really fast. The longer it takes, the more the repetition of hearing it over and over again starts to work against you. I’m learning to not get hung up on technical issues and just focus on getting most of the track finished quickly, and then editing later. I still feel like I’m figuring out my workflow. I learn more things every song that I finish, and I feel that my workflow is constantly improving.
What would you say has been your most valuable lesson learnt so far from improving your workflow?
There’s a few things that I feel have really helped me with workflow. First and foremost is simply being in the right mindset to create. I’m not one of the few fortunate enough to make a living with music, so I’m often working in the studio at night, sometimes after a long day. It’s really hard for me to work on music if I’m exhausted, grumpy, or worn down. Getting enough rest, exercising and coming into the studio excited, happy, and ready to jam is crucial for me. I also am pretty OCD when it comes to cable management and gear placement. If I have an idea, or want to use a particular piece of gear, and then have to stop and hook something up, or configure it within the DAW, it can often take you out of the moment. I like having everything “mise en place” as they say. Some people work well with organized chaos in the studio, but that’s just not me. Lastly, one of the key things that helps me, is that if ideas aren’t flowing in a particular session, not to force the issue and find something else productive to do musically. This might be watching a tutorial video on YouTube, sampling some records for sounds that may come in handy later, or organizing the audio files on my computer. File organization is so key for me. When I want to find, say, drum sounds that are suited for dub reggae, I know exactly where to go. When I’m not fumbling around, I can stay in a groove and focus on the important things at hand.
You’ve been exploring dubstep more recently given your recent signing to Artikal Music. What kind of influence has the sound had on you as a DJ, if any?
I’m still a bit mystified why I didn’t catch on to DJ’ing and producing dubstep sooner. I guess I was just so locked in to drum & bass over the years that I had the blinders on a bit. I also feel that sometimes dubstep has to be experienced in a certain environment before you really understand it. In the Midwest United States, dubstep never had a big presence. Gig opportunities simply weren’t there. When I did actually get to hear it in a club environment, things started to change for me. Ungodly sub bass has a funny way of doing that, I suppose. Over the past few years I really started to become influenced by J:Kenzo. Once Jay started experimenting on a few of the drum & bass labels I was into (31 Records, Exit, Cosmic Bridge), I really took notice of his work, and veered my listening habits towards dubstep more and more. I began listening to his shows where he would combine bass music across 140-170 bpm, and I was hooked on basically trying to put my own spin on that. I was realizing that so much dubstep had all of the sensibilities of the drum & bass I was into, just at a different tempo. So much of the vibes and production techniques were exactly the same. Other artists like Breakage and Amit really hammered this idea home for me.
Who else in the dubstep scene has been making music that really resonates with you and inspires you creatively when jamming in the studio?
Specifically when jamming, Egoless instantly comes to mind. I’ve been piecing together a lot of specific hardware in my studio so that I can do more live dubbing, and Egoless has been quite helpful over the past couple of years with some technical guidance. He’s just a madman, and I love his approach and aesthetic to making modern dub music. Moresounds also gets a big mention in this same regard. My Artikal label-mate Pugilist has also been a constant source of inspiration lately. He’s so incredibly talented, and loves experimenting across the entire spectrum of bass music. I’m really hoping to work with him in some capacity in the future. Additionally, Samba, Sepia, Headland, and Blind Prophet are a few of the many artists that I find myself gravitating towards lately. There’s so much great dubstep coming out lately, it’s hard to pick only a few!
In the same vein as your Artikal contemporaries (Kenzo, TMSV, Pugilist), your forthcoming EP is a reflection of your love for dub and halftime beat structures. What does this EP mean to you in terms of it being your most complete body of work as a solo artist, and your growth as a musician in the past couple of years?
The title track of the EP, Dub Attack, was one of the first solo tracks that I wrote where I knew I was finally coming into my own. I finally felt like I was taking all of my influences from hip-hop, drum & bass, dancehall and dub, and coalescing them into something that represented me, and the sound that I wanted to project. I wasn’t trying to follow any trends, or appeal to any particular niche of bass music, and didn’t really have any labels in mind. I just let things organically happen in the studio. The three tracks on the Artikal EP each have a different rhythmic style, yet I feel they’re all riding a congruent vibe. I’m really proud of this collection of songs, and feel like it does a great job of purveying what I’m all about.
Now that dubstep is your primary focus for the year, what can we expect from you output wise in the coming months; are there any radio appearances, interesting projects, or up and coming music gigs you can inform the readers on?
I just wrapped up a drum & bass EP on Flexout Audio called the Dreada EP, that’s been getting a lot of support from the heavy-hitters. On the dubstep tip, I’m currently finishing a dubwise project with Blind Prophet that I’m really loving. After that I basically have a clean slate in the studio. I’m eager fo finish up some tracks that I’ve started throughout the Winter, and basically just stay busy with whatever comes. I’m sure some remixes might be in order soon too. I’ve also recently started a regular podcast called Source Material, where I like to showcase music that I’m feeling at the moment. You can find that on my SoundCloud, so give a follow over there if you want updated. I’ve basically hibernated all Winter in the studio, and now I’m anxious to get out there and start playing some shows again. I’m currently lining up some gigs around the US for Spring & Summer, so expect some dates to drop very soon. Hold tight overseas crew, I’ll get over there eventually.
It’s been a pleasure Jack, good luck with the forthcoming projects. Are there any final comments and shout outs you would like to share to wrap this up?
It’s been fun, thanks. I’m really excited to see what the rest of 2018 has in store. So much good music right now! Big shouts to my crew who have helped support and inspire along the way: J:Kenzo, Sam Binga, Moresounds, TMSV, Rua Sound, Blind Prophet, E3 and all at ZamZam Sounds, Steelyard Soundsystem, Dub Stuy, Flexout Audio, Fanu, Mike Richards. Too many to name, really. I’m so thankful for all of my music family.