It’s no secret that Bristol has long been a hotbed of musical talent for electronic music. Since the days of Smith & Mighty and the Wild Bunch crew there has been a strong current of creativity flowing from the area, and it is perhaps at its strongest now, with a seemingly indefatigable supply of artists and labels all pushing a forward thinking sound for the clubs. Joe Cowton is one such producer, whose releases for Idle Hands and Livity Sound are exemplary of not just the DIY nature of the artists from the area but also of the sounds hailing from there as well. Having been introduced to electronic music via 90s techno acts like Andrew Weatherall and Slam, Cowton started experimenting with making music himself, eventuating in his first release in 2008 under the name Narcossist. Under the name Kowton his productions have largely moved away from the dubstep sound of his first offerings, but as anyone who has listened to his rapidly amassing discography will be able to tell you, there is still a strong nod to the various elements of bass music in his work. LWE wanted to find out more about Kowton and got in touch for a chat about sampling, the breaking down of genres and why it is so important for producers to take that big step and send out some demos. He also mixed together our 131st exclusive podcast; a sometimes sunny, often brooding amalgam of house and techno that shows another side to the young producer.
LWE Podcast 131: Kowton (48:04)
01. Green Pickles ft. Billy Lo & M. Pittman, “Feedback” [Sound Signature]
02. DBX, “Losing Control” [Peacefrog Records]
03. Patrice Scott, “Do You Feel Me” [Sistrum Recordings]
04. DJ Qu, “Passing States” [Strength Music]
05. T.O.M. Project, ” Renaissance” [Sound Signature]
06. A Made Up Sound, “Hang Up” [Clone Basement Series]
07. Mike Huckaby,” Melodies From The Jazz Republic” [Still Music]
08. Bjørn Torske & Siob Latsyrc, “Percussion Mix” (Mix 1) [Sex Tags Mania]
09. Boddika, Joy O & Pearson Sound, “Faint” [Sunklo]
10. Levon Vincent, “Double Jointed Sex Freak (Part 2)” [Novel Sound]
11. Pod, “Anapest” [Art Of Dance]
12. Typesun, “Heart Maths” (Peverelist Remix) [Root Elevation]
13. Juniper, “Selenic” [Smallville Records]
You started out releasing as Narcossist. Why the change to Kowton?
Joe Cowton: About the time that I made the switch the musical landscape was a lot more disparate — it was a big thing for producers associated with dubstep to be making house or techno or vice versa. Things like Villalobos remixing Shackleton and the Substance night being held at Berghain were hinting at more cross pollination between scenes but there was nothing like the levels of integration that exist now. The idea of Kowton tracks being predominantly techno and Narcossist tracks being more garage or dubstep seemed to make sense. As it happened though, once I’d started making slower and more techno influenced things I didn’t really go back to making garage or dubstep bits and that side of things just fizzled a bit.
I understand that as Narcossist you were smoking a lot of weed. Is the steady rate of releases under Kowton testament to how much more productive you have been without smoking?
I wouldn’t say its necessarily been a case of being more productive, there was probably a four or five year period where pretty much all I’d do was smoke and make tunes. I made a fucking lot of music back then but the quality was generally pretty erratic. I’d have hundreds of ideas on the go at once and while it was great to feel that inspired it certainly didn’t help in terms of getting things finished. Not sleeping either, that classic thing of being up all night ruining the best ideas of the previous day. Now my process of making tracks is a lot more deliberate and considered. I’ll have one idea and I’ll do what I can to finish it with as much energy as I can; if it’s not working then so be it, but I’m not going to start ten other tracks in the meantime. I guess that might be an artifact of having a clearer mind since stopping smoking or it might just be that having gone through the processes of writing tracks for so many years that I’m a little better at it!
When you were learning to produce did you have anyone to show you around a studio/DAW or were you largely self-taught?
Nah, I was completely self–taught for the first few years. I bought a cracked copy of Logic off eBay (this was pre-broadband) and it had a copy of Fruity Loops on the same CD. Logic was far too complex so I got into Fruity Loops and made some terrible jungle tracks. A few years later I dropped out of uni and went to the SSR in Manchester to do a production course. I learned quite a bit there but mostly about not being scared to try things or do things wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever really been that interested in learning how to make things sound text-book so fumbling around equipment or programs has been as good a way as any to learn. I’ve got a masters in music technology now but I’m definitely nowhere near as technically minded as a lot of people I know.
Was there a pivotal moment for you when you decided that producing music was something you had to do?
I’m still not sure that moment has arrived! I often think about the amount of time I’ve invested in music. I’m a lot more casual about it now, but like I said earlier there were literally years where I didn’t do anything else other than make music and work menial jobs which I’d intermittently quit. I guess it’s simply almost by being blind to any other possibility for so long I’ve ended up in this position where making tracks and playing them is what I do for the majority of my income.
I understand you were sending Martin Clark demos from as early as 2005. A lot of fledgling producers are notoriously shy about sending out their work. How integral was this process and feedback to you in how you continued with your productions?
Yeah, Martin was great for that; again his feedback would be less about the specifics of production and more about trying to find a direction that wasn’t just the same as what everyone else was doing. I think at the time I just wanted to be Loefah (same as everyone else) and Blackdown kept reiterating how that wasn’t necessarily the thing to do! He’d also put me in touch with plenty of other people. I think that whole thing of having your music validated by people you respect is crucial in those early stages. I remember getting an email from Marcus at Warp asking for tracks at one point and being on a high for about a month. It’s easy when you’re a bit more established to forget this and just ignore any demos or producers who aren’t fully there just yet. All it takes is a few pointers though in a lot of cases and you’re half way to the finished article.
Do you feel that as more producers are making music across a variety of genres it’s breaking down the notion of genre-specific scenes?
Yeah massively, most of that stuff about genre specifics is fucking tedious anyway though, isn’t it? I’m not really one for saying that genres are irrelevant but at the same time but the idea that ‘It’s all just music, man” is a bit foolish. Obviously what people like the Hessle boys have done has been fantastic but I think in the UK at least there’s always been a degree of interaction between scenes and it definitely makes for a more interesting musical landscape.
I think its important to keep things in context, though. Even if German techno producers are playing UK records and ex-dubstep heads are playing U.S. house, we’re still dealing with a very, very underground segment of the music world. I played the third room an Afrojack gig in Rimini at the weekend. I hadn’t heard of anyone else on the bill and yet they were big enough to play to a room of 6,000 people. Chatting to the promoter he mentioned that when Jamie Jones or Seth Troxler play there they have to use a “small,” 1,000 capacity club as they’re not big enough draws for the larger space. If all you read was Resident Advisor you’d believe those two where the biggest DJs on the planet.
Since you first started releasing how would you say your sound has evolved?
Its probably not been much of an evolution, more a bunch of gradual switches in influences. My first records were inspired by dubstep and garage sounds, my latest records have been inspired by grime. For a long time in between, though, techno or house ideas and ideals have been at the core of what I’ve been doing. It’s probably commercially restrictive but I genuinely struggle with making the same type of track any more than two or three times, and the effect of this is that I’m always having to find some next take on things to keep going. It’s a frustrating process but I think some of the products of it have been relatively original.
Were you already DJing when you started producing?
No. Buying software was a compromise because I couldn’t afford turntables. I got my first pair of Geminis about a year after I started making music, probably in about 2002. I got some 1210s soon after but sold one of them to buy weed so I only had one deck for a few years and didn’t really mix, then maybe in 2006 I started DJing properly. I was always way more into producing than DJing but I fucking love it now. I think once you’re over the nerves of performing it’s such a brilliant opportunity to have — curating the mood of an evening and getting paid for it. Obviously one in four gigs is still terrible for one reason or another but that’s just part of the deal I find.
And do you play live?
Yeah, I’ve been doing the Livity Sound Live project with Peverelist and Asusu for the past six months now. It’s had its ups and downs but playing on the stage in room one of Fabric was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had musically. We’ve tried to make it as interesting as possible within the realms of practicality. There’s still a laptop involved but a large amount of the drums come direct from the drum machine and we’ve got a desk with plenty of outboard effects for dubbing. Given there’s quite a lot of gear involved there’s plenty to go wrong but that just adds to the vibe in most cases.
I have read that you quite like sampling. Do you mostly sample from other sound sources or are you more of a field recording kind of guy?
Nah, I don’t really bother with field recordings at all, so if I’m taking samples its either from other records or direct from bits of kit I’ve borrowed. I really enjoy listening to ambient pieces and I think even layering field recordings on dance tracks can add something, but it’s not where I’m at just now. Loud, upfront sounds with dub effects — that’s enough for me right now.
You’ve released a large amount of music in the last couple of years. How often are you in the studio and is music a full time job for you?
I don’t spend that much time in the studio. I work a couple of days a week in the Idle Hands record shop and if I’m away gigging that only leaves a few days a week to make tracks; emails probably take up at least one of those days too. I have a pattern of spending weeks on end with writers block then banging out three or four tunes in a couple of weeks before getting stuck again! It’s not the most efficient way of working but I’ve learned not to get stressed about it. I work quite quick so when I’m on it I get a lot done.
Can you tell us a bit about your Pale Fire label? Is this strictly going to be an outlet for your own tracks or will you be releasing other artists on there too?
Initially it’s going to be just for my bits then probably I’ll expand it outward from there in the same way Skudge have done with their label. I’m keen not to set too much of a path for it this early on. From working in a record shop I’ve seen a lot of labels either lose their way or flop before they’ve done their initial potential justice. I’m just going take things one release at a time and not rush stuff. If that means there’s a delay between records then fuck it.
What can you tell us about the mix you’ve done for us?
It’s for a hot day. There’s a lot of U.S. house in there which contradicts what I said in an earlier interview but when I recorded it, it was just too hot for anything heavier. It’s all tracks I love that sit together nicely in an order I think works. That’s all I try to ever do with a mix.
What can we expect from Kowton over the next year?
There’s a new Livity Sound 12″ due soon from me and Peverelist, then the next Pale Fire is due in October. I’ve got a couple of offers to do records for producers I really respect so hopefully there’ll be a couple of relatively high profile 12″s from me before too long, we just need to sort the tracks out. We’re doing an Idle Hands room at Fabric in September and we’ve got a few other nice little parties planned for Bristol. Other than that I’ll be in the pub pretending to understand Proust.