Nightmares on Wax was popping, locking, and striking his smoothest b-boy stance before most of you THUMP readers were even an idea in your mamas' heads. And while the majority of his contemporaries from that early period of hip-hop-centric experimentation haven't exactly aged well, Nightmares (né George Evelyn) has managed to stay on top.
The British DJ and producer has worn a lot of hats since his 1991 debut album on Warp Records, A Word of Science: The First and Final Chapter, when all the hip-hop kids across the pond first got into rave music. With an approach that is more intuitive than strategic, Nightmares on Wax has always been able to duck flash-in-the-pan musical trends by keeping this blend of rave psychedelia and hip-hop swagger at the core of his productions. He does so yet again on his latest LP, Feelin' Good, out September 17 on Warp.
The ten-track record finds Nightmares on Wax revisiting past sounds in an effort to come full circle. Acid house, which Evelyn and other DJs have been dropping at his Wax Da Jam residency at Las Dalias on Ibiza, has also found its way back into his sound. Which is awesome, because we love acccciiiidddd.
I rang up Evelyn to talk about working with Berlin jazzanova composer Sebastien Studnitzky, how his recording process has changed over the years, and the absurdity of EDM branding.
THUMP: How was it recording with a composer and string section on Feelin' Good? Was this a first for you as far as recording live strings?
Nightmares on Wax: In 1999 we recorded a 52-piece orchestra for the track "Les Nuits" (Carboot Soul) at Angels Studios in London. That experience alone convinced me that that was what I wanted to do. This time around, Wolfgang Haffner suggested I work with the composer Sebastien Studnitzky, who is super-connected with Berlin players. The tracks were more or less written—Sebastien just came over and added a bit of his magic as far as the orchestration and structure were concerned. We arranged the studio session, and it was amazing to have the players come in and record. Berlin is really hot for players at the moment.
What's it like being in a room with a composer and players given your club background?
These players are so good that all they have to do is sit down and play the notes. They don't even need to hear the song. The only thing that Sebastien and I fine-tuned was how they were going to sit back into the groove, really.
Has your approach to recording changed much over the years?
More than anything I feel like I've gone full circle. As you progress, you start acquiring more knowledge and trying new methods. You get new bits of gear and try to get the fattest sounds. Although my knowledge is much greater, I don't write in a massively different way from when I first started.
What is the most important thing you've learned?
I think simplicity. It's the key to everything. It doesn't matter how many tricks you learn, or how many skills you get, it all boils down to simplicity. And that can be in the writing, the production, or the mixing phases. Those are all the different art forms. I've always been interested in getting my hands dirty on all of those levels, but I've really simplified my approach to writing and recording.
Feelin' Good has a bit of an acid house vibe. You were in Ibiza in those heady days, and certainly saw the development of the Balearic Beat. So, when you mention coming full circle, does that imply something of a return to that aesthetic?
If you go back to some of those tracks from '88 and '89, the ones that are the strongest are the ones that still stand up now. Any really good song stands the test of time. To me, house music is sounding fun again. I'm not talking about EDM and all of that nonsense, I'm talking about house music. The groove is back, and it sounds like fun. That's house music to me. It might be a little bit twisted, but the beats are fat. It sounds solid, you know what I mean? It's not stuff that isn't designed to be danced to.
I'm hearing some stuff that people are calling minimal and it just sounds lazy. It doesn't do anything for me. I'm more into the stuff that has a tribal element, where the bass is kick-ass and it sounds like fun—like it's something you want to get down to.
So, you think that element has been lost over the years in dance music?
Yes, and this is how house music was when I was growing up and it was evolving. We didn't even call it house music anyway, it was just called dance music. The first house records I was hearing were back in 1984. We were digging and playing these tunes alongside our funk tracks. Then we began dropping our own tracks in 1988, and people started calling it acid and such. These house tracks are now being called techno, but we never called them that. Now that I'm hearing it back in the clubs again, I'm thinking, "This is the shit we started with." It's not the euro-trash, cheesy vocal house music that is being sold all over America.
Absolutely. You brought up EDM, which really is a branding effort here in America. Do you have any other thoughts on that industry, for lack of a better term?
It's another vehicle, isn't it? It's like, "Alright, this vehicle is running out of juice, where is the next vehicle? Ah, that one! Well, that's what we need to do. But, we need to rename it. Let's abbreviate it. Right, we'll call it 'EDM'."
Some people love it and are into it, and I don't want to diss them. But, if you want to zombify a nation, that's what you do. It's simple: you abbreviate it, lock it into people's heads, and let them think that it's something new when it's not. Then all the corporations jump on top of it, capitalize it, and then suck it dry until there's nothing left and the next vehicle comes along.
Right, the music industry parasite at play, for better or worse.
That's what happens. It happened to glam rock. Obviously, when individuals have been into that stuff for over 25 years, it upsets people, especially those guys who were the foundation of it all. Look at all of the Chicago DJs, and the original New York house DJs—none of these guys are even in the picture now. But, what can you do about it? To me, it's not about fighting it, it's about staying true to what you do. I've always believed that whenever there's a load of shit going down there's always an amazing underground.
I want to circle back to the Chicago house DJs for a moment, because I really think those guys illustrate a vital point about the state of dance music. I recently saw Frankie Knuckles, one of the original Chicago house DJs, at a Boiler Room set. He blew the roof off the house. My jaw was on the floor, and I'm standing there thinking, "Do these people even know how good this is right now?" It was sublime.
I actually did a Defected party with Frankie Knuckles and Osunlade recently on the rooftop of the Tower in Ibiza. David Guetta was playing next door and, obviously, it was totally packed. There is a difference between those clubbers and the clubbers that were at our party. The great thing about our party was that everywhere you looked people were smiling, dancing, and happy. It was just perfect. It didn't matter whether people were on drugs or not, and there was no VIP. The music was fantastic all night, and I'm not saying that because I played there. I've got the same respect that you have for Frankie Knuckles. This is the foundation I'm talking about. We can't even put this in comparison for people because of the rebranding effort currently going on in electronic music.
I could imagine how that could be frustrating. On the other hand, it's also humorous.
The hilarious thing about all of this is that it takes me back to 1993 when all of this euro-trash was coming out of Holland and Germany. This is when they were trying to make pop music out of house music. Technotronic or 2 Unlimited, all those pop records from the early '90s. This is exactly what they're doing now, but they're doing it on a mass scale because it's America, and anything that is big in America sends ripples out across the world. It's nothing new, but now we have the internet and corporations behind it, which means there is money injected into it like never before.
For the people experiencing it now it's unbelievable because they've never experienced it. I'm pretty sure 90% of these DJs cannot believe what's going on. But, respect to them because they're on the ride—they've caught the bus. There is no way that David Guetta or Tiësto could have predicted what happened to them. From their point of view, it's incredible. But, I'm talking about music at the end of the day. And as far as the music is concerned, there is a definitive gap between what forces are trying to portray as being house music and what actually is house music.
With that in mind, I was really struck by the new album's vitality. Lately, electronic music can often sound procedural—a way of adopting a production fashion instead of making it feel alive.
When I talk about coming full circle, this is what I mean. I'm keeping the basic elements of how I make music, but finding the marriage of what it is that I think I've been trying to say my whole career. And this is a 50/50 marriage of analogue and digital that evolved and manifested in the making of this album. Even when DJing I play with drummers and use vocalists. I'm jamming on the spot. This record is not only a soundscape and representation of feeling good (hence the album title), it's a way of allowing people to connect with the last time they felt good. The moment you think of that, you feel good again. I try to prick that bubble a bit and express it sonically.
Which is what you offer on "Now is the Time," a track with a Jamaican vocal line with someone singing "rocksteady" on top of some acid house-type instrumentation.
It was funny because when I started that tune, in my head I was like, "This is kind of like a slowed-down, house-garage track." And then when I brought the percussionist Shovell in to do the vocals on the track, he said, "Yeah, but I hear a carnival, man, and I hear the roots in it." And I thought, Oh, yeah, you're right. It's quite a reggae bassline, isn't it?" But, that wasn't what I was hearing originally.
So, we kind of glued the piece together once we got the lyrics right. It's all about getting ready for this feeling, because it's all about you. We've got this salsa feel, this reggae feel, and it's really carnivalesque. It's another organically positive expression, and not a preconceived idea.
One of the great things about your music is that you fuse a lot of styles of music but it's never cluttered. Space is always essential, as it is on the track "Tapestry." In the final analysis, is this space important in what you do?
I think space is the most valuable thing you can have in any record. Can you craft that space? It's the same as writing a lyric. In the first two lines can you craft enough space with just the right amount of words? What you're painting is so visual and to the point. The art of songwriting is space, it's not all the other things that we think it is. We need to create enough space to get the message across, and it's not the easiest part of writing a song. But, I think that comes with time.
It's interesting that you picked up on "Tapestry," because it's another imprint of the vibe of my Wax Da Jam night. The track started out when I was looping stuff while DJing. I had this disco loop which I took out to DJ with me, and then I mixed something else into it, and that gave me another idea. So, I went back to the studio and it became one of these tracks that I pictured myself DJing. It contains the influences of Wax Da Jam's tribal sort of vibe, but it's also funky and groovy. It keeps the positive vibe going while giving you these little breathers where it builds something and collapses several times.
It seems like your songs come from a sort of inexplicable place.
For me, the songs that are easy are the best. And the reason that they're the best is that they're complimentary to themselves as far as sonics, structure, and space. But, I don't think these songs come from a space of logic; I think they come from a space of feeling. And feeling more than ever is vitally important to me in my life.