To make it in the music industry, aspirant producers need to be possessed of a huge amount of self-belief. It’s as important as being willing to take risks and strive to grow amongst an innumerable mass of others all doing the same thing. Starting your own record label can be a daunting process and one that causes many to give up after a few of set-backs, though for those who persevere and put in the hard work it can be very fulfilling and rewarding. Benjamin Roth, better known as Semtek decided to start his own label in 2009, and three years later Don’t Be Afraid is edging over ten releases, slowly accruing steam along the way. Originally hailing from Cambridge, it was a move to London in his early teens that would have a profound effect on Roth. Becoming enchanted the strains of breakbeat, hardcore, and later on to house music and its various off-shoots, Roth embraced this passion like so many others have. His early releases on his own imprint may not have garnered much attention at the time of their release, but with more records pressed and the inclusion of other artists on the label, Semtek and his Don’t Be Afraid label has increasingly becoming a going-concern. LWE met up with Semtek at a local cafe in his East London neighborhood to talk about his start in music, making epic-length tracks in France and the importance of keeping his endeavors close-knit and personal. He also put together our 134th exclusive podcast, an energetic blend of house and techno that is a perfect mix of contemporary and classic styles.
Download: LWE Podcast 134: Semtek (59:53)
01. The New Sound Of Soul, “Deep In House” [Magnet Records]
02. Slam, “Positive Education” (Derrick Carter & Chris Nazuka By All Means Revamp) [Soma Quality Recordings]
03. The Reese Project, “Miracle Of Life” (Big Bump Remix) [Network Records]
04. Hutton Drive, “324″ [Frantic Flowers]
05. Maarten Van Der Vleuten, “House Music” [TZ]
06. DJ Joey Anderson, “Oval” [Strength Music]
07. Kenny Larkin, “We Shall Overcome” (Richie’s Loonie Mix)
[Plus 8 Records Ltd.]
08. RTX, “Medication” [Deeply Rooted House]
09. Steve Rachmad presents Tons Of Tones, “Nocturno” [Fierce!]
10. Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid, “People Be Happy/Rhythm Dance” (Audion’s Highlight Mix) [Domino]
11. Maas, “Look At Me Now, Falling” (I-Cube Simple Mix)
[Soma Quality Recordings]
12. Paul Bennett, “Peculiar Movement” [Modernista]
13. Pierre LX, “Olympia” (Brun From Swayzak Springer Mix) [Initial Cuts]
14. Nyra, “Funf” [Never Learnt]
15. Semtek, “Bento” [Awkward Movements]
When did you first get into music?
Benjamin Roth: I mean to be honest, I got into dance music probably around the time that you had tracks like “The Theme” by The House Crew and some of the early sort of breakthrough, cross-over hardcore tracks like “Sweet Harmony.” They all started being broadcast on The Box, which was this channel you had on cable. That was when I was about 13 or something. I moved to London when I was 13, and I was already listening to bits of hip-hop and punk. I used to buy stuff like Bad Religion and Fugazi, Wu Tang Clan, that kind of thing. But yeah, I was interested in alternative music, and, you know, street culture, skating, graf, and punk and hip-hop kind of were related to that, but hearing all those rave tracks, which I wouldn’t really have heard at that age, had it not been on the TV, felt like the kind of UK, English alternative basically, and that was what got me really excited about music for the first time.
Yeah, because you grew up in Cambridge, didn’t you?
Yeah, that’s right.
And so discovering that music channel and moving to London must have sort of gone quite well together.
OK, and from there was it just sort of a natural progression into DJing?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure that, like, within about a month of hearing jungle music for the first time. I think it was my dad’s 50th birthday, or something, and there was a pair of decks set up in this kind of community center where he had his 50th birthday and there was a DJ playing Latin music. And I think at the age of 12, maybe, or 13, I basically kicked the guy off. I was like, “Sorry, I’m doing this now. That’s it.” I remember the guy kind of trying to explain it to me, and I’m like “No, no, no. I see how it works. It’s cool, you can go now.” And I think he was a little bit like, “OK, alright.” Luckily for my Dad I didn’t actually own any records at that point so that night I was confined to playing the dude’s Latin 12″s. And then, I think I started trying to make mix tapes because I had this function on my hi-fi and you could overdub things. Basically, if you played a tape and a record at the same time, you could record both of them on to another tape. So what you could do is you could play a tape, and then you could record a record onto one tape, and then you could play that tape back with another record and basically make a sort of mix tape. I bet if I listened to it now, it’d be so fucking out there.
Yeah. And so were your mates DJing and stuff as well?
Yeah, I had two friends who both kind of got decks with me at the same time. We were fiercely, fiercely competitive about getting records. One of them is the guy who does the Sofrito label now, which is Hugo Mendez and the other one is my friend James Broomfield, who I’ve done parties with, and I still do every now and again do parties with. Both of them are still DJs. We’re all still kind of fiercely competitive; it never changed.
Definitely. Yeah, you’re so protective, when you’re that young, about it. Because back then it was so much more of a subculture, as well, than it is these days.
Yeah, I guess so. I mean I don’t know if it was ever really — you know, I mean –
Perhaps, actually, over here it was slightly more mainstream because you actually had dance music all over the TV and radio and stuff. Where I grew up in New Zealand, it was very different. You’d only get a certain amount of records into each store, and so you might be one of two or three people in the country who got a certain record, and shit like that.
I remember watching this footage of a really early Australian rave in the desert, and just thinking, “That looks so… brutal.” It was like 10 people who look like they’ve been up for a few days and a guy just bashing psy-trance. But it looked intense. Like, I’d quite like to have been there, in a way. It looked fucking intense.
Exactly. You’d sort of come to and realize you’re in the middle of a fucking desert somewhere. Like, “Jesus, how do we get out of here?”
Yeah. But we used to go down to, like, Black Market, Fat Cat, Mr Bongo, Atlas Records, which is where Pete Herbert used to work. And Rough Trade and Ambient Soho, which was a funny little shop where every now and again you’d score something really good because no one else would look for the same promos we looked for there. But I never used to really go to any of the second-hand shops that much at that stage because we were just so into new music; I guess it must have been like that in New Zealand, as well. You wanted just the new tracks.
Well you know, it’s like anything: you get into something so much and you eventually start tracing it all the way back. OK, and when did you start playing around with production?
It would have been about around the same time I started DJing, really. We were limited to whatever we had in school. The minute the personal computer came along… actually, I was born in the same year the first personal computer came out so you can kind of chart — which was 1981 — so you can kind of chart the history of the two things together. The personal computer perhaps being slightly more important in the history of mankind than…
Maybe a bit more prolific than you. [laughs]
Yeah, exactly. I’m willing to concede that.
But time will tell.
Yeah, exactly. But I think because the minute that personal computers were around, people wanted to use them to make music because you’d already had, throughout the sort of late 70s, you’d already had the sort of obsession with sequencers. People really were obsessed with sequencers and the possibilities for sequencers, like, sequencing synthesizers and stuff like that. Anyways, we had all these Ataris running Cubase…
Back in school?
Yeah, when we were about 13 or something like that.
Yeah, totally. And I’m trying to think, maybe when I was 13 — that was the first time I’d ever sort of seen that being done and it didn’t really grab me that much until maybe I was, like, 15 or 16 because we’d sort of started getting into record buying quite a lot. By the time I was 16, I was obsessed with it, basically. All the money I had, it was just records, records, records. And unfortunately it hasn’t really changed. [laughs]
Yeah, so by the time I was 16, I remember going ’round to the studio with this dude we knew called Dave Stone, who ran Emotive Recordings and who’s still involved in electronic music. He was in the studio with this guy called Ed Solo, who was quite a great producer at one point. And they were chopping up a sample. Because obviously all the music we were into at the stage — hardcore, drum and bass — was based on break-beats, and that was kind of what we were all fascinated by, was how they made these weird-sounding beats that had a real character to them, that weren’t really analogue; they were just sampled drums. Anyway, he was just sitting there chopping up this break, and he was just sitting there with the Atari, drawing in, sequencing it. And I remember looking at him and thinking, “My god, that’s what I want to be doing.” But it wasn’t until I was about 21 that I actually bought a sampler. I bought an old Atari from a second-hand shop with a big Cubase interface on it and an Akai sampler. But up until then, I’d never really owned any music-making equipment; I’d sort of messed around on other people’s, but I’d always assumed that I would eventually.
And plus I think once you — when you start buying equipment and you start trying to make stuff, that’s when you realize just how hard it is. It’s hard.
Well yeah, when did you first start?
Probably in my late teens, early 20s. I think I asked my family for my 21st birthday for a Groovebox, and I’d already bought a 606, and yeah, that was when I first started playing around with stuff. But it wasn’t until years later that I actually even thought about what effects to put on things and how to actually give things a proper groove and all that sort of thing.
Yeah for sure. I guess it was exactly the same point when I transitioned from listening to the jungle stuff more into house. It was my friend James Broomfield, he was the guy who kind of got me into listening to house because we went to university together and when we got to university, I was still playing jungle and I was getting booked quite a lot at university parties, but people were already fed up because I always played the same tunes, and arguably also because they were all a little bit less metropolitan and a little bit less at home with the fact the music was quite urban — I think a lot of people in university were just a bit scared of that, really. So James had gotten really into house music and was going to see Tenaglia, Sasha, Digweed. You know, he’d really got into going to, like –
Exactly. And listening to Renaissance mixes, and he was playing all this house. Everyone was loving it, and he was basically nicking all my gigs, and everyone was more interested in him, and I was like, “Shit, I’ve really got to get on with this house music because everyone’s really bored of jungle.” [laughs]
“And I’m just getting all the dudes coming to my parties.”
[laughs] Yeah, exactly. It wasn’t the cool thing any more so I kind of got into all these guys who James had been listening to, like Lee Burridge, and Craig Richards, obviously. Anyway, over that year, I kind of listened to them and all I wanted to listen to was tech-house. So I was a real tech-house head for a bit. That was 10 years ago, almost exactly, I guess, when I got into house music.
Cool, and you started Don’t Be Afraid around 2009. Had that been in the works for a while? Had you been thinking about doing a label?
Well basically, in 2009 I moved to France for a year and took a load of equipment that I’d been amassing with me. I sort of left my job because I’d been trying to make music and hold down a job as well, and the lifestyles weren’t compatible. And so I moved to France, took a load of my stuff with me, and spent the year just doing that and doing bits of freelance work and puttering around the Alps, which was great. And that’s where I wrote pretty much everything that I’ve released to date, or at least started. I think I spent the first two months just doing an idea a day, just getting stuff down. And then after that, I’d develop them. It’s actually a real shame because a lot of them probably would have sounded a lot better if I’d just had the initial thing.
Yeah, exactly. But my thing ultimately is, whatever I’ve done in life, to do it well, I’ve always got to go the long way around. I’ve never managed to do things the easy way — it just doesn’t work with me. Anyway what was interesting is actually the being alone in that sort of environment, which was great, and just being able to write was brilliant in some respects because it meant that I had, like, these massive — like, that one I did, the B-side of the In Plain Sight release, which is called –
“Couer De Lyon” and –
Yeah, the “Beaufort” one. Yeah, that’s like, 14 minutes long, and all of them I just lay them out, but the interesting thing is that those things haven’t translated back that well from that mountain environment into a city environment. It’s totally, totally different. I always really look forward to the day I get to play outside in the Alps because I bet I will play those tunes, and people will suddenly be like, “Oh OK, that’s what it’s about.” Now the tunes are at, like, five minutes long and tearing, basically, whereas then it was, like, everything’s just kind of, “Yeah, a nice bit of this, little bit of that. We don’t need much bass in there. You know, it’s all just going to get there eventually.” It’s so funny, I spend a lot of time with the people who I release on the label, but a lot of the time I spend helping them with their releases is just spent going, “That needs to happen sooner. That needs to happen sooner. That doesn’t do anything. You don’t need — ” you know, just get on with it.
Yeah, you’ve got to be really brutal.
Yeah, I think so. Yeah.
OK, so when you returned from France, was starting a label a way to get that music out?
Yeah, I guess. It was a really weird process, and one that I’ve gone over again and again in my mind as to whether it really was the right thing to do at that time. I think I wanted to get on with it. Ultimately I finished writing all these tracks and I came back in about May, and we kind of put on this big party with Tobias Thomas from Kompakt in London, and it felt like basically it could all happen pretty quickly, and so I was, like, “Right, I want to get on with it.” And actually, it perhaps held me up a lot because I then started putting my own stuff out, but I stepped into the game as a new label with a new artist. So, you know, two unknowns rather than one. And I think all of a sudden I realized after that first release, which is the “Bells” one, I realized a little something like, “Wow, there are a lot of people doing this, and it’s going to be very hard to stand out.” I had never considered how difficult it was going to be. So the first couple of years were a quite the…
Big learning curve?
I’d say more like a, just a kind of dose of reality. I had all this music I decided I was going to put out. So I was going to save the stronger bits until later on. And of course that was absolutely the wrong thing to do because suddenly lost confidence in the tracks. And it took me a long time to kind of begin to get sense what would and wouldn’t work in a record store. But I don’t think I’d ever considered I would do it any other way. Between, like, 2006 and 2009, I was writing stuff and I was sending it to people, and that thing of just never getting an answer…
Not getting any feedback at all.
No feedback at all. Not so much no interest as just not a peep out of anyone.
OK, so what about some of the other artists on Don’t Be Afraid?
OK, so the point at which, basically, having a label started to make sense to me was when we released the first [Mr.] Beatnick 12″. So I’d met Nick through him coming to play at one of our parties and him being generally a man about town, and one of those people who you inevitably meet going to music-related stuff in London. And he was always super interested in what everyone is up to. And so we’d sort of spent a lot of time together, and then he played me some of the stuff he was working on, and they were amazing. So that would have been mid-2010 when he played me those tracks, that first EP. And I was originally like, “Yeah, we’ll, definitely do these.” And when we did it, it felt so much more natural to be releasing someone else’s music. And I think at that stage it also took a lot of pressure off me because suddenly I was very proud of the brand we put together. Yeah, so we put Nick’s EP out, and in doing so it meant that I felt like I actually was a label manager for the first time, and I could actually approach people about press and so on and that rather than trying to sell them my own tracks, which is…
You always feel a bit weird about doing.
Yeah, exactly. It’s never that natural, not least because I’ve definitely had tracks which I’ve not been 100 percent about. So being really 110 percent confident about this release meant that I could really go around and be quite abrupt and pushy with people about getting them to listen to it. So we did that and one of my records around the same time, and then all of a sudden, that started to feel like a label for the first time. And then we got a few more releases, with Photonz on number seven, and all of a sudden it was starting to feel a bit more like a label.
OK, cool. And then how did it come about, your last couple of releases on Andy Blake’s labels?
So Andy is one of the people I’d sort of been in contact with when I was doing all these releases and I guess he’s just another kind of massive hero of London music, basically. And I was living with some guys who he knew, the Legendary Children guys, who do kind of an acid-house party. That was in New Cross in sunny South London, and they were doing something with Andy. So I remember we were in Alibi [East London club], and he played that “Tacos [For Dinner]” record off the CD, and Joe Hart was there playing with him, and Joe was into it so Andy was like, “Oh yeah, I want to do this on World Unknown, this is one of Benji’s records.” And then Scott Fraser, who’s on the B-side, ended up remixing my last release on Awkward Movements.
Yeah, the “Bento” track.
Yeah, that’s right. And Scott and I have DJed together a few times this year, as well, and he has helped a lot on two fronts: first, just pointing out what I was doing right and wrong when I was DJing, and secondly, one of the only people I know who will still turn up with a bag of records and a cappellas and stuff, and start playing an a cappella in the middle of a set, which is the sort of thing that I always wanted to get to, really being creative as a DJ. That’s what got me so excited about music again is guys like Scott and Andy, who still really believe in doing it right, who aren’t about making a big splash and then turning up and just fucking it off — just plugging a laptop in and pressing play, do you know what I mean?
Yeah. Where did the name come from for the label, Don’t Be Afraid?
It’s a sample from an old acid track, a UK acid track from the 80s which is a rip-off of a Joey Beltram track, and it’s got this sample that goes, “Don’t be scared.” But I didn’t want to call it Don’t Be Scared because I thought it sounded a little bit questionable. But that was the sort of genesis of the name, and I’d like to sort of let people kind of make up their own mind about what it means. There’s no political agenda to our music, it’s for everyone who wants to enjoy it.
And what about the Spargel Trax EPs that you did? Were they always going to be geared up for Record Store Day?
Spargel Trax was basically… I couldn’t tell you. It’s just one of those things that I don’t think I can really explain. There was no plan but it was definitely the most fun project I’ve been involved in. It was sort of a result of a long weekend in Berlin a few years ago, which spawned some fairly mad ideas, and it was almost out of deference to the way the idea had come about that I felt like it would be great to actually do it.
You were like, “No, there will be Spargel Trax.”
Yeah, because we’d also sat around this table in Berlin going, “Everything’s going to go crazy.” And I remember being in this — it was in about May, and it was like spargel season, and I remember it, all the German guys would go into the toilets or wherever, and the German guys would be discussing it. And it smelled like asparagus. And everywhere you go there was people discussing it. I guess there was something quite sort of brilliantly bucolic about it. It felt like being in a farm and country atmosphere in the middle of this massive metropolis. Everyone was discussing the asparagus crop and what it was like this year. It’s mad.
Will there be more?
Maybe. [laughs] Yeah, maybe.
Alright. How about the mix that you put together? I mean I know there’s some really good old tracks in there. Is that a typical sort of set that you’d play?
Yeah, so it was done on my Vestax, which is my first pair of decks. I’ve had them for 15-odd years, or something. The first direct-drive decks I ever owned. They still just about work, but if there are any mistakes, then just bear in my mind they haven’t been serviced in years. Anyway, so most of the tunes are things I’ve bought quite recently, but are old tunes. There’s a Steve Rachmad one, there’s a few modern bits. There’s a Pierre LX. Pierre LX is one of my favorite producers. It’s a remix of one of his tunes off his great album on Initial Cuts, which is fantastic. It felt like it was so much more than just a load of tracks. Not like it tells a story musically, but in the background of it there’s all these people who have kind of come in and out of my life, and places where I can point to and be like, “Yeah, that record was played by my mate here, or this guy I know.” And that’s what’s important to me because it’s so much about the people who are involved in it. That’s so much a part of it for me.
So for you is it as much about the friends you work with and all that?
I think on some level it’s true. I’ve always played instruments as well as my involvement with electronic music, and I think one of the things you lose as a producer is that thing of playing in bands, where it’s a shared experience, a place, a time. Music has always been about sharing, openness, expression, community. And it has an inherent value but it’s also a reflection of things in life, as well. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s created by people, for people. It’s enjoyed by people together, and in quite intense places; people have quite intense experiences surrounded by it. Ultimately, I don’t think you can separate from the people involved in it. And so yeah, I guess, for me it’s the whole, everything involved in what comes into making it and everything involved in what comes into enjoying it. For example, I could tell you, from the guy who cuts our records in Berlin, to the people who distribute our records, to the shops the shops that sell them, to the DJs that play them, to the guys that make the music behind them, to the guy that designs the cover, I know all these people personally. So it feels like when you get that finished product, that it has been through the hands of all these people who are kind of connected together by music.
So it’s no longer just your own passion, but there’s a whole bunch of very passionate people behind this one product.
Yeah, and it feels a bit like a band.
OK, so something we always ask everyone is what can we expect from you over the next year?
Well, we’ve got a couple of very big Don’t Be Afraid-related announcements coming in the next few months, which I can’t really divulge until September. And other than that, there are 10 tracks on my computer, some of which are sort of in pieces on the floor, some of which are nearly finished, some of which are finished, and some of which are mastered, which will eventually be an album by me.
So are these tracks that you made while you were in France?
I mean ultimately, of those tracks, one of them dates back to 10 years ago to when I started writing music, has bits off audio from, the point of the first couple of things I ever tried to do. So around this time next year is going to be the fifth anniversary of when I left my job to go and concentrate on writing music so I’ve set that as a deadline to get the album out.