Blank Mind is one of the more interesting labels patrolling the peripheries of techno music right now. Currently in something of a purple patch with the Comme de Loin compilation and Big Hand's Ossario EP, it seemed like a good time for a dive into the mindsets behind the label. In this extended conversation, label boss Sam Purcell goes deep with new signing Big Hands about his creative process, inspirations and more.
SP - Tell me about Girde/Maye, the opening track of the EP, did you make it here in your home studio?
BH - Well, partially, this track has such a long story! Mostly not even known by you!
Basically, it was supposed to be out on HomeMadeZucchero which is SSIEGE/Giesse and Meze’s label, but they had to take a break from the project. Giesse was the first who played it out and believed it was a solid track. This was a couple of years ago now.
I remember I was trying to get out of a traditional hierarchy of sounds when it comes to the beat compositions, pre imposed stuff like having a Kick on the low, a snare on the middle range and a Hi Hat on the high, all of it does the work they are supposed to do. It isn’t fully achieved here in my opinion, but If you noticed there is a lot of percussion rolling without a clear hierarchy. I was chasing this idea that I had in mind of making music that could be more free and hypnotic.
SP - But it has a really nice swell to it, so it feels like it's structured, like that bit before the vocal comes in.
BH - True, but generally speaking I feel my recent music is more repetitive and leftfield orientated than in the past, and it’s ok with me, I don’t mind If people lose attention while listening or take a breath while dancing on it, and I like to have few layers of percussion going around almost colliding with each other so you can decide on which to focus on without the music dictating it too much on you.
OK. You talked about percussion, what samples are in it? Do you normally sample from records?
BH - A lot of my samples come from records indeed. It has mostly to do with my background. I was heavily into hip hop as a teenager, I’ve done my 70’s soul music digging, looking for drum breaks, I really fall into it in the past.
SP - Which age are we talking about?
BH - I was 16 when I started sketching beats, I would say at the time I was 20 I was fully into sample-based music. That was also the time where my first real money came into the picture and I was finally able to travel and buy records, always looking for samples.
On the parallel side, I slowly started to buy gear and get more into electronics and synthesis.
SP - Did you sample from hip-hop records?
BH - No, not really. Again, I had this purist idea, passed me from older hip hop heads around me in those years that I needed to build a strong knowledge of Soul, Funk and Jazz, which are the original sources for 90’s Hip Hop, in order to be a good beat maker.
SP - It’s interesting how subjective the use of samples is. Technically speaking It's so different when you're using single hits and small fragments or a whole drum break. You're not using loops are you?
BH - Not much, that was considered blasphemy! (Laughing). In fact, I kept every single small sample I’ve been taking since I was a teenager in a random folder and I’ve never organised it with any rational logic.
SP - But you organise it by the type of hit at least?
BH - No, no, neither! I discovered that when I'm making a song or maybe I arranged something with a drum machine and I’m getting to the point that I think “this is missing something” I often find myself thinking “ok, I need an extra perc now” so I start browsing into my folder, I listen random samples and 99% of the time before arriving at the specific sound I previously had in my mind I’ve already heard five other matching sounds that would never rationally comes to my mind. This acceptance of fortuity keeps my mind and my ears open and drives the track in a new unexpected direction.
SP - Yeah, you don’t want to be completely rational in the process I guess; you want to be about listening more than taking decisions. You're kind of just going on frequencies. I guess that's a nice thing about sampling. If you're using your own recordings where all of a sudden it kind of feels a bit more like you have ownership or something doesn't feel too familiar, or you know, from other particular records so you don't go down a certain route of using, for example, an 808 or 606 which are definitely like a kind of function.
BH -the counterpart is that using samples doesn’t help you understand what you're doing. I do it more carefully nowadays. I sample when I need it, like the last release I've done (on Oscilla Sound), I remember wanting a certain snare as a reference, so I used that sample as a quote.
SP - So, going back to the beginning of what you were saying, I don't know too much about some aspects of this track, tell me more about the vocal.
BH - Well, one night I was in Hackney with this friend of mine, who is a super creative force and has a super rare energy. She’s Turkish but spent three years in Milan, so when it comes to talking Italian her Turkish accent is marvelous. Londoners are pretty much used to hear English with foreign accents, but this isn’t the case for Italians, there's not a massive diversity in Italian society, so to hear Italian with a foreign accent Is always a beautiful event. That night I thought I wanted to record her voice and I quickly wrote a few lines, we recorded it with a cheap microphone and that DIY spirit already felt right. I went home and tried it on a couple of tracks I was working on at the time. I didn’t add too many effects, I just outlined it a bit and loved that post-punk/new wave vibe it had, plus the text made me smile so much.
SP - There's a lot of humour inside
BH - Yeah, It's not supposed to be taken too seriously. It plays with “We are the champion sound” attitude. But at the same time it’s saying “I don’t care how successful you are, how much money you made” and to the other side “I don’t care what is your political militancy and how sophisticated you can get” - “ If you don’t have a killer sound I still think your music suck”
Any choice of including or excluding a certain sound in a song will bring a completely different meaning to it, nothing is abstract in my opinion. I try to make political choices, more than talking about it, at least in my world and where I come from this is the way it works.
The political content in this track was already there, as you very well stated in the press release, It could be “No boundaries “because we are an Italian and a Turk that talks in Italian, and Blank Mind is owned by a British at the time of Brexit. And that’s why I chose to have a title in Kurdish in a song “sung” by a Turk.
Plus, if you take my experience growing up in Italy, and me being exposed to a lot of music coming from the US and the UK, which are the two biggest leading music market outside of Italian pop music (which for a long time was based on copying US chart hits anyway). A good 50% of the music I’ve listened through the airwaves and TV during my youth, when I wasn’t speaking any English, I’ve possibly memorised it without understanding a single word of the lyrics. The idea of playing a track in a club in London, with a vocal that the majority of people would not understand, this fascinates me very much.
SP - It’s an inversion of what regularly happens
BH - Exactly. And it was already existing in the process before the track was even composed. It’s not just me screaming “fuck Brexit!” with “You still need to have This sound”, I mean that everything is plausible, but for me the music comes first because the music hits even if you don’t understand the words, it has a transcendent power that makes you dance till the morning and open up your feelings.
SP - You're talking about escapism?
BH - Yes
SP - It’s funny how people get somehow really excited when they hear the language of a vocal they don't understand. I don't know exactly what it taps into, but I think it is something along the lines of escapism. Just imagining faces you don't know of a place you don’t fully understand and let your imagination fill the void.
BH - Which is also connected to Exoticism! There’s a beautiful interview with Don’t DJ where he’s beautifully explaining how this is deeply rooted in European cultures, but this is another long story…
SP - Indeed. Tell me about “Modulo”
BH - “Modulo” is the reason why we’ve done this EP! Do you agree?
SP -Yes, in a way it is. I remember we were in Honest Jon's King’s Cross. I don't remember what the occasion was for me being there, I was there and you put it on. I don't think you were really expecting anything when putting it on, I remember saying to Abe (Abraham Parker from Honest Jon’s) “this is Andrea’s music” and then I think we were surprised, I didn't really know you, and I just remember it feeling like a real atmosphere in that room, as it was playing, because there was a kind of excitement at listening to this thing unfold, because it's got so much drama, and I think Abraham commented, “this is a real experience”, or something along those lines.
BH - The Drama is an Italian component! (Laughing)
I wasn’t at all expecting anything from playing it. This track is a good example of how we can’t have a rational point of view about what will eventually work and what will not. I had downloaded a Eurorack emulator a couple of days before, and I did a simple patch, I found that bell sound, and I wrote a melody, all very quickly. I started jamming and recorded it. Then I did some post-production, mostly selecting the parts I liked the most and it was done. Honestly, the whole process was pretty quick. I was so surprised to see your reaction!
Sometimes I spend years on a track, but this is something I’ve made in a couple of hours playing around with a new toy which I was not completely familiar with, without any pressure at all about the result, I didn’t think this could possibly be released and this is precisely why It turned into a good track!
SP - The funny thing about making music is that your baseline or your ‘undercurrent’ which is not consciously expressed, other than just in your thought. There's certain moods or a mood, which are in you, which, whether you like it or not, come out when you're making music.
And obviously, when you listen to music all the time, you become quite attuned to finding music which you really relate to and it becomes a kind of the norm. For example, I like Terrence Dixon so much, I'm totally present, and just feeling good when I listen to it. There's a certain state that I get listening to the music I love, which I should imagine comes out in what I want to do and I am going to that place when I’m producing. And hearing other people describe the mood or ‘intensity’ of your music to them comes as a surprise, as it’s…
BH - unconscious, partly at least. I think a fragment of our role as musicians, is to ask yourself questions like “Why I feel something if I hear a certain sound? And build our own language out of it, but for me is still surprising how, when I try to consciously achieve something, I end up feeling like I’m forcing the magic to happen getting to a collage of good elements without a soul.
I need to be able to get straight to that “thing” that clicks inside me, but I also need to arrive at that through new way all the time. The element where I feel I don’t have any control is melody. I don’t have that level of sophistication needed and a lot of times the melodies I play bore me pretty quickly, they don’t stand a night… How do you feel about melodic stuff?
SP -mmm…I know what you mean. From a label owner's point of view, the key thing I try and look for when releasing music is: does it maintain the feeling I first felt when I listened to it? You know, many months later, many listens later. Most things that come out on the label have certainly been like that, at least for one song of every release in the label, I’ve probably listened to it 100 times before it comes out. And then there will sometimes be other songs which, you know, along the way you decide to fit into it and I won't demand quite as much of that, but like there's definitely an endurance test that I do, and with something like Modulo, when I hear it now, still is really close to the same feeling of weirdness and surprise, so that kind of weirdness is something which is really important because it's something which somehow always eludes you. Whereas if there's music which is very phrased, and has a certain kind of knowability after a certain amount of listens. There's a time and a place for that, but it probably wouldn't work with a Blank Mind. Whereas a song like this really slots in well with this kind of strangeness.
BH - I feel that way about a lot of contemporary Pop music. Do you listen to pop music?
SP - I do, I’ve been listening to ‘Good fun’ by Inner City this week
BH – That’s a banger
SP – My parents visited my Nan this week, and they brought back some eggs – and my Nan loves this shop called ‘The Good Life’ where I thought they were from, so this week I’ve been listening to ‘Good Life’.
BH – To me there’s a compromise with pop music where there’s this big impact, and then in five minutes it’s dry and I get super bored.
SP - There are some songs, the first time you hear them, they sound like the best thing ever, and then you have four listens in a week and in a week they are nothing.
A really good example of pop music which seems to sound great over time is Kate Bush. That's pop music, and it will have that sort of serotonin kick on the first listen, but it's still powerful after.
BH - I don’t like when a track sound too calculated, self-confident, too resolved, a lot of mainstream music sounds like that to my ears nowadays, and unfortunately that DIY spirit feels a bit lost in some underground music as well in my humble opinion.
SP - I have a funny story about it. My track “The Poison Dwarf”? It's one of the first things I ever did to making music. I went to Oxfam, and I bought a few classical records, of course you can't hear them in the shop. I didn't even know how to use my software, but 10 years later I played it to a few people and everyone's like “this is really good!” and I put it out on this various artists. I was with my friend, and he's like “it reminds me of Jeff Mills” and I said “its just like 16 year old me not knowing how to use Ableton”
BH - Causality and instinct are an important part of me, I want to feel pleasure, even when I use music to exorcise my demons and so quite often, being a bit unconscious of where I’m going helps me to remember that I don’t want to feel like I’m working, I don't want to feel that I have to be productive and I have to reach a goal. No one is forcing me to make another piece of music.
SP - I totally agree, I have this thing in me where I rail against feeling that I need to be some sort of machine doing tracks because when I have fallen into those patterns, one: I really resent making music, two: I start making a really rushed piece of shit.
BH -The cynical part of me would say: if I had to play that game. I will not play it in this series; I would probably try to go play on, you know, producing pop in a studio team, because I know that there It will pay off, out on a human and on an economical level. When I start feeling stressed out about my music, for a reason or another, I try to step back and I repeat to myself: “Andrea you’re making weird music for your own pleasure, it will be heard by 300 nerds if you are lucky, there’s no reason to be stressed, just do what you want!”
About that, when you asked about the first track, I told you like I was chasing this immersive hypnotic experience, and this was really a thing for me during the lockdown. For the first time after a long time, I had the chance to not have an alarm in the morning. I've been making music in the dark for days, really, you know, having a proper deep listening session.
SP - incense sticks
BH - Ahahah, you know Palo Alto rules my man.
SP - It's funny, when I was younger, I used to be in this group. And we used to really do that, we’d turn down the lights, smoke a bit of weed, and we were really trying to create an environment and atmosphere to make music in. Yeah, I haven't done that in many, many, many years.
BH - Anything that puts me in the right state of mind is welcomed. I had this chance to really, you know, play music, being alone in my flat for weeks, my environment, and listening for the first time without a single car out in London’s streets, which was something I really missed a lot since I moved here. Intimacy. Just listen to the sounds, even if it’s not turning into a track, just a synthesizer, like with a sequencer. Just do it, and then if I'm enjoying it enough, then I'll roll with it. And guess what? 99% of the time if I put myself in the condition of doing this, I will finish the track very quickly. All the time I start thinking: “ okay, I should do a track” I’ll never make it, I’ll be like “what makes a good track? “, too many choices. I believe almost all the time that I don't know what to do next, is because I’m not actually listening and my thoughts are in between me and the music.
SP - I find a lot of songs that I end up being happy with are generally me kind of testing something out. I don't know why that works so well but if I've downloaded a new VST or if I've got a new bit of gear or if I've got a new sample that I want to work with, I'm just kind of, I have 20 minutes before I need to pop out. I just like, load up it up and bim bim bim bim bim, then there will sometimes be something about it and I'll come back to it. No pressure is really useful. I find if I have given myself like a whole day to do something or something like that. And I kind of start the day with a lot of pressure of making music, the first thing I do will invariably be rubbish. The second will still be rubbish, and the third might be alright…
SP: Tell me about yourself working at Honest Jon’s and your interest in Polyrhythms, in the track “Oscillation” I can hear the influence of the shop for example. I think sometimes with music software you're so used to these perfect grid and functional 4/4 music, did HJ feed your quest for more “free” music as you called it before?
BH - That track which is based on polyrhythms has definitely a lot to do with the massive quantity of interesting music from all around the world that I've been exposed there. African drumming, Gamelan, Dub, there’s nothing you can’t find at Honest Jon’s. The shop is run by two super knowledgeable Jedi masters, but the quality of the music comes with the feeling I was also in the right place because you see I've never been a purist techno or electronic head so I related to the shop attitude immediately.
In Italy we come from amazing DJs like Daniele Baldelli, his sets from the late 70’s still amaze me, there’s a clear idea that you can play whatever you want and use the music as a tool, connecting the dots between genres. In recent years, people like Donato Dozzy made it his signature. Honest Jon’s is the same, if you take a Moondog record and a Burnt Friedman you’ll see they have a lot in common.
SP - Certainly for a period Honest Jon’s had this combined different worlds in a unique way. I’m thinking of the Tony Allen Chop Ups remix series or Shangaan Electro remixes. There was that far-out Shangaan remix by Actress, very deconstructed and futuristic. He's always trying to reach for new, unexpected places. Experimenting is a choice of an individual, and after many years it can be difficult to keep it up.
BH - Half of the work a producer does is about putting yourself in a favourable condition to facilitate the workflow. Recently I’m playing as much as possible live, not thinking a lot, not taking too many decisions. Having more physicality, which I was missing when working on a laptop. I’m more occupied with the process of making music than with the final result at the moment.
SP - Moving on to “Cariatide”, the title is about those ornamental figures on temple doors that hold up a structure. It fits the track, the track feels really dusty, and there's a strong feeling of antiquity to it. It feels to me this kind of track could work on a warm-up, but you certainly couldn't play it in a peak time if you are not a really good DJ who can control the crowd.
BH - I like techno that drives you to another place with atmosphere and I like when a DJ can play without banging in my face. This is not banging but keep certain tension through it, if you are capable it could be a powerful weapon in a set, but it’s true that is not the most DJ friendly techno track ever, especially the way it was mixed, the kick is pretty vague, it melted with the bass.
SP - I think one thing which is actually really boring about electronic music now is the sound-functionality, I was talking to a friend of mine about it and he said he's really bored with dance music because it all sounds too similar, and I kind of agree. Everyone can just perfect every single element nowadays, and it can kind of becomes this one amorphous whole. Before the digital revolution you had to record everything to a tape or a DAT, you would record a take and it's very hard to reproduce everything you've just done so you just kind of roll with it, so you'll have all this kind of variance, whereas maybe some things weren't quite right but you can't go back, that might not even be just the level of one thing or the transition between elements. This kind of compulsion to perfect everything can actually be quite damaging. for example, I absolutely love working with audio so my way of offsetting the fact that a lot of the arrangement is done in the computer is by using outboard effects and needing to bounce fairly quickly so that I can't, then get too obsessed with overworking sounds.
BH - All I want to say is: I know Satan is inside youtube mixing tutorials (laughing)
I think people tend to cut everything which is not necessary in order to sound clean on big sounds but I quite like when in a track there is unnecessary stuff. Field recordings, or tape noise. I guess this is what I get after messing with years of clean HD computer music.
SP - Well at the end there’s space for everything
BH - Yeah I'm just thinking about what makes sense to me nowadays. If I was born in the 70s I’d probably discovered ecstasy in early 90s and I would make the most euphoric hardcore music in the world but nowadays I think the word is going in the wrong direction and I don’t want to pretend that everything is cool and I’m a super positive dude.
SP - that's a whole different discussion Andrea!
BH - you are right…
SP - I think we should leave for another day
Ossario EP by Big Hands is out now on Blank Mind