Mark Pritchard has shape-shifted his way through a dozen monikers and a near-innumerable amount of collaborations over the years. But even outside of his string of aliases, he's still undoubtedly one of the most singular and interesting characters on the current electronic scene.
Floating between avant-garde, old-school jungle, hip-hop, ambient, grime, and folk. Throughout his huge discography, he's worked to widen his perspective, stretch your limits, and show us that creativity is boundless, and that we have much more to explore.
Red Bull Music Academy x Boiler Room presented "Chronicles 003" at last weekend's Dark Mofo festival in Hobart, which saw Pritchard celebrate the release of his widely-lauded album Under The Sun. The performance was paired with an audio-visual experience, showcasing the immersive sounds and stories that have shaped his almost quarter-of-a-century career. Live from mid-winter Tasmania, Pritchard delivered two distinct sets that traversed his many influences, aliases, and collaborations—from the hard-hitting club constructions of his early career, through to the sonically timeless and poetic textures that permeate his most recent work.
We caught up with Pritchard just after his RBMA x Boiler Room set, to talk about his new sound, Jonathan Zawada's otherworldly visuals, and how he managed to transport punters from the crisp Van Diemen climate to his ambient dreamscapes for Under The Sun.
THUMP: When it comes to your music, Do you get a sense that there's an expectation from your older style of sound as to what you were playing at Dark Mofo?
Mark Pritchard: Yeah. I suppose there is. Though generally I just go out and do what I want, and then hope it all works out. It's a weird one because people have known me for so many different things, so I know there's always going to be someone that just wants club stuff and some people that expect me to play something else. People were very open. People listened. At least they had something mad to look at. I like those kinds of situations. I like it when it's scary, and you're taking risks. It might be a bit stressful, but then that makes it more interesting in the end for me. I could easily just go and do a straight club set and have it work, but it was something a little different for sure.
What was the real starting point for you in wanting to become a musician and make this your life?
My parents were really into music. They encouraged me to learn an instrument. I think the first thing I had was a junior drum kit when I was real young. Then I got into guitar. They wanted me to do something and get some kind of hobby, so that's how I actually started.
The first music that I would say that was my own music that I got into would be Two Tone stuff. When I was at school, I was really into The Specials, that kind of music. Then as I got into secondary school, I moved into more indie music. Indie music was really good through that period.
There were excellent bands like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, and I was really into The Smiths. Yes, I got into that. Then I was starting to hear some electronic music coming through. It wasn't until I left school when I started hearing club music, obviously because you get to 16, 17, 18 and you start going out. I was lucky that I managed to go to some clubs where some awesome DJs were circulating at the time. I got to hear Detroit Techno, Chicago House. Once I'd heard that I was hooked. I went out and started DJing, started buying records. I was into hip-hop as well at school, like De La Soul, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest, all that kind of stuff. I went from trying to be in bands at school to then buying electronic equipment mainly to replace band members. It was hard to get a drummer, so I purchased a drum machine. Then I just bought more electronic stuff, shifting across into electronic music.
You've released music projects under several different names before starting to release music under your own name. What prompted that shift?
Going back to the early 90s, people were into different genres, I just liked them all. Basically, I just had a different name for each style and didn't really even think about it that much. It just seemed like the way that you did it, and then just carried on. It was a way of letting the music speak for itself because people were funny [about it]. People still are funny about it. If you release a techno version, and then you do a house thing that is straight-up house, the techno people get annoyed. They'd be like, "Oh, he's doing that now. He's lost it." That carried on all the way through the 90s and into the 2000s. It was a way of avoiding people judging you. People would just listen to the music then, and then maybe down the line, they would find out, "Oh, it's done by that guy." It's probably not the greatest game plan, from a marketing career point of view, to build 20 plus names. We almost rose up to a certain point where it looked like we might break through, and then we'd kind of disappear and come back again under another thing. I think it helped keep me at a particular place for an extended period. Now it's a lot harder to do so. Some people have gone through all the different things I've done and stuck with it. It was partly, "Let's just make it less confusing for people. Do it all under my name," but the main reason for doing it was to get more things ideally out. The plan is next year I'll probably do a compilation of all the different stuff I've done over the years with some new things alongside it. I'd like to be able to release lots of different projects just under my name one after the other, like have some non-club music, then release a techno EP, then do a jungle thing, then make some more non-club music again. That's the end goal.
How did you end up teaming with Jonathan Zawada?
I asked Dom, who works at Warp and also runs LuckyMe, to send me some designers. He sent me a list of around ten or so and the one that stood out was Jonathan. Mainly because what he did was very varied; he seemed very versatile. I liked the range of what he was doing. I had a chat with him and after talking about work processes and creativity for a bit, we got to work. I got on well with him and just seemed like a perfect fit. The stuff he eventually sent through was incredible. It really helped the process for me of what the album was going to be and how it was evolving: from the music to the packaging to the overall look. Originally we were going to make short gif loops because Jonathan showed me a test of the cloud moving around and changing color.
This kind of imagery evolved into doing the AV Show in New York, which is something we wanted to try and put in different places. I wanted to utilize these visuals while DJing, so he made a 20-minute loop for Dark Mofo and we shot that up on the big screen. He created some new scenes around Dark Mofo; there's one in particular that is unbelievable. I actually want to write to some of these new ones that he's done, which will be a fun challenge for me as well. What I love about what he's made s the very subtle suggestions that are going in there. There's not a hard narrative, but there's little things that just tweak your imagination. I love that combination, and it feels like the perfect kind of balance for me. People have actually reacted very positively to all of it, which is great. We just want to carry on doing this stuff, which is really exciting.
Your track "Under The Sun" revolves around a looping sample of Julie Andrews singing the Mother Goose nursery rhyme, and evokes a sense of nostalgia and deep thought. What led you to incorporate such a lyric and what feeling were you driving home with that song?
For every evil under the sun, There is a remedy, or there is none, If there be one, try and find it, If there be none, never mind it
I've always loved kids' nursery rhymes, quirky kids' records or music that was made in schools. I collect that kind of stuff. When I heard that line, it was one of those moments where I was like, There's something in there. I need to sample it. I tried it a few times over the past with a couple of hip-hop things, but it didn't work. I then decided to chop the sound in a different way, adding a bit more atmosphere and more reverb to it. I put the bass in. Then I was trying to put drums in, and all of a sudden I was like, "It doesn't need drums." I just liked it with no real percussion, just the bass, and that looping line and then changing it around. The sentiment to what is being said there is so potent. It was a key point in the album because originally the album was going to be more avant-garde and electronic with a darkened mood. That track was the perfect bridge into in the "Beautiful People," complimenting it naturally. After that the album started to morph and evolve, shifting and becoming more varied in emotion.
The track "Beautiful People," it generates a strong feeling of loss, hopelessness, and chaos. What was the influence behind such a powerful track?
I wrote that track the morning I heard… My friend emailed me saying two of my friends had been killed in a car crash. I got the email. Of course, I was devastated. I was thinking about them and just in shock really. I was just sitting there for a while, trying to pull myself out of the pain. I had no idea the effect this was going to take on me, so I just started writing. In four hours I had something solid. This was back in 2010. I knew it was a strong idea for a song. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with it though, but I knew at some point I wanted to finish it off. Obviously, there's sadness in there, but also I was trying to think about them as people. To capture what was great about them was critical. I sent Thom (Yorke) four tracks, and he sent me some ideas back. I wanted him to do this one. I was hoping he would. With just his vocal melodies and synth arrangement, he seriously turned this track into something else.
Your career has spanned over two decades. What's been one of the most prolific moments?
It's difficult to judge because this album, I think, has been quite a high point for me. I spent an extensive amount of time working on this. There are tracks I love that have been around for ages, but I kind of went all out on this album. I think the Reload album that I did back in '93 is one that, looking back now, had something very different about it and has stood the test of time. I like all the different styles of music I've done. I don't think any are better than others.
I thought it might've been that Moscow tour that you did, the disastrous: Britronica.
Hahaha. That was insane! Aside from what I went through, the whole thing was pretty crazy. Richard James (Aphex Twin) went into the hospital before me. He got food poisoning off the plane. When he checked out, I went in. I got food poisoning real bad. I'm not entirely sure what I ate. I think what I got is a thing called Giardia, which is a bacterial parasite that is usually found in the water supply. Giardia is a bad… I don't think there was ever a case of it in the UK. When they found it, my doctor's wife took it to the lab. They were excited because they'd never seen it.
It's a nasty one. It's full on. It's more or less as bad as salmonella. My stomach has never been the same. It caused me to have panic attacks and literally wiped me out for ages. The whole tour itself was bizarre. There was a pretty insane amount of electronic acts all going to this place. Alex Paterson (The Orb), Richard James (Aphex Twin), one of the guys from The Wire, Orbital, I think Autechre might've been there. Yeah, it was a pretty cool thing to try and do. It was just in '94, Moscow was basically full of rich people. To get into the gig, it would have cost like a month's wage for an average Russian person. Back then all the clubs were run by gangsters. The mafia controlled all of them, so it was pretty crazy. I remember walking around Red Square and feeling exhausted. I went back to my room, slept, woke up, and it was like an ass sphincter, something really bad was happening. I called my manager and said, I need to go to the hospital. I didn't know what the fuck was going on. I was passing out and stuff. I ended up in hospital, and they wouldn't even let my manager in. There were security guards in the hospital because people would go in and try to steal stuff. It was fucking bizarre. It was really fucking weird.
Lastly, do you have any advice for future ambient musicians following in your footsteps?
The main thing I've learned over the years is take chances and be honest with what you want to achieve. It's going to be hard. But if you do stick to your guns and put the time and hard work in, you're sure to get something back. That's not always the way it plays out but it's a pretty nice sentiment at least. Just do your thing, keep working, take risks and don't ever be afraid of failing.
And Christopher Thompson is on Twitter.