Bristol's Livity Sound isn't just a record label; it's an energy. Formed in 2011, Peverelist, Asusu and Kowton's collective have helped shape the sound of contemporary clubbing in the UK and beyond, becoming synonymous with a distinct strain of cloudy, dark-room UK dance music that sits somewhere between techno and the bassier end of the "post-dubstep" spectrum. Last month, one of the label's co-founders and flagship artists Kowton (Joe Cowton) released his debut album, Utility, marking the outfits first foray in LPs and watershed moment in their graduation from being a 'project' to a fully fledged label.
In the wake of the release, THUMP spent some time talking to the label-heads Joe and Peverelist (Tom Ford), as well as their live collaborator Asusu (Craig Stennett) and Hodge (Jacob Martin) who regularly releases on the label. This is the label in their words.
The start of Livity Sound has as much to do with endings as it does beginnings. Tom had been in Bristol, managing the independent store Rooted Records, for the best part of a decade, while working with his previous label, the dubstep-oriented Punch Drunk. "I wanted to do something new," Tom remembers. "Joe was in Bristol and was similarly keen to pursue a different direction. We'd both been making tunes and banding ideas around." Joe interjects, "we just wanted to see what would happen if we put them out. Nothing planned."
For Joe "nothing planned" had been the plan for a while. In the years between his time at music college and the start of Livity, he'd been living at his mum and dad's, working split shifts in a hotel and making music where and when he had the chance. However, with his parents keen to get him out from under their roof, when a room became available with a friend he moved to Bristol to study. It was in Rooted Records, and then Idle Hands (the store opened by Rooted's Chris Farrell after the former closed) where the two began to develop their plans to release material. "I think when Tom first mentioned working on tunes I was quite excited about doing stuff for Punch Drunk, which is obviously quite a seminal label, but I think once we started working on stuff it became clear it wasn't going to work there."
Between them, Joe and Tom formed the blueprints for Livity Sound and established the hybridised tone from which the label would become synonymous. Yet the Livity Sound project in its live form wasn't realised until Craig Stennet (Asusu) became involved. Despite having met Tom before through "playing gigs, local nights and talking over the internet" and Joe,"once or twice buying stuff in Rooted," it wasn't until he moved to Bristol in 2010 that Craig sent them some tunes, "some of which ended up on the second Livity record." As a trio, the three of them set to work fashioning their collected releases and sensibilities into a live context. With lauded sets on Boiler Room, RA sessions, and a notable appearance at Dekmantel, the singular Livity sound was established.
Interestingly, in each conversation with Joe, Tom and Craig, they all refer to the start of Livity as sharing a quality. Despite all having found their common ground in the church of Subloaded, and under the dubstep umbrella, all three of them refer to a desire to break away from what appeared to be a dying mode. "It was a slow death," Joe muses. "If dubstep's golden era was 2003/4 to 2006/7, by the time it was 2009/10 there was a drying up and people were trying to reimagine ways of keeping it relevant." Tom agrees, limiting his verdict to a short "it had crashed and burned," in much the same that Craig tells me he was "done with dubstep" around the time he sent his first tracks to Tom and Joe.
Dubstep, it turns out, isn't a word Joe or Tom seem particularly enamoured with. Which might largely be because of the tendency for music writers to refer to Livity's sound as "techno meets dubstep" or, even worse, "post-dubstep."
"I think it's easy for writers to say 'here's dubstep if it sounded like techno'" Joe tells me. "For our generation and the generation after, there is such a huge amount of reverence for dubstep because it was the last hugely influential scene, but I think that makes it easy for people to constantly try and tie it back to that. Truthfully there's been eight or nine years of work since then." Tom—who played a pivotal personal role in dubstep both running Punch Drunk and releasing on Tectonic records—also finds the recurrent desire to use the term dubstep limiting. "That's the frustration for me," he adds assuredly. "I did dubstep at the time, and since then I've moved on. I'd never want to label what we do as something specific and I feel quite free to do whatever. I don't really care about genres to be honest."
But if not dubstep, then what? Perhaps techno seems to be a closer, more considered point of comparison. Craig certainly responded to this idea, believing the music he has put out on Livity to be techno in response to dubstep. "I think it was a form of escape for me; messing around with making more straightforward beats."
For Joe, it is important to think of it in terms of a UK specific strain of techno, "In purely social terms, a lot of our friends are in a similar positions. Someone like Pangea does techno but in a very heavy, UK way. Same with Blawan. He was never dubstep but the way he makes techno is very UK." What Joe understands as the result, is a powerful, burnt reading of techno. "It cuts through and very hard, in a very different way to Teutonic techno and the Detroit stuff."
Tom, on the other hand, is less convinced by the techno idea. "People always try and shoehorn 90s genres onto present movements which isn't very helpful." This isn't an affronted artist veering into rudeness, but rather a genuine conviction that the sounds his label produce result from the kind of creative freedom that the rigidity of genre can only corrupt.
However you want to try and define it, the key to understanding Livity's sound is to think of it as a kind of energy. At the core of this distinct energy is Peverelist. Joe, Craig, and Jacob were all followers before any collaboration was conceived. Craig recalls his early university years, where all he listened to was "2562, Pev, Pinch," much in the same way Jacob remembers meeting Tom at Subloaded and in Rooted Records, where he "pestered him for his email and started sending tunes to him."
Craig is pretty confident of the importance of Tom's role in the Livity community and beyond. "He's quite humble, but I think a lot of people in Bristol, right back to when he started Punch Drunk and was working in Rooted ten years back, see him as a figurehead." Craig laughs, adding "He's a modest guy though."
Predictably, Tom isn't keen to go as far as to refer to himself as a figurehead, but does concede that fostering upcoming talent is of paramount importance to him. "I guess that's the role of a label for me. I got into this as a music fan, that's my entry, I don't think that's changed." Joe is slightly more forthcoming on the subject of his label-partner's ear for cultivating talent. "I think Tom gets more satisfaction out of bringing people through. He can hear a demo and think, 'he'll be good in a year's time' and then in a year they will be. That helps when you run a label almost like a youth project."
It's this encouragement that has led to Utility, Kowton's debut album and the first LP released on Livity Sound. It's a brilliant, bruising affair; a record comprised of nine direct and dusty tracks, that if recovered in a century would go a long way to encapsulating exactly what the depths of a dark British nightclub in 2016 sound like. His techno chooses murky rattles over the precise sterility of its Berlin, superclub counterparts for example. "I think the space is really important," Joe adds. "If you're going to imply nuances it's much nicer if they have the room to get louder and quieter."
Breaking with the pattern of our interview until this point, when we begin to discuss the album, it's Tom who takes the lead over Joe. "I wanted to say something about Joe's album. People talk about what a dance music album should be. My personal opinion is that it should be a statement of what you're about at a particular point in time. I think Joe's achieved that. As dance music, it's his personality encapsulated."
In this comment, I wonder if Tom has summed up the way the Livity approach should be reckoned with. Rather than working to a set of genre specifications, their unified sound is the result of their collective identity. A template that has far more to do with community and personality than it does a deliberate scene. If we truly are now existing in era where genres are more and more defunct, maybe this small Bristol label are representative of the cohesiveness whole that can emerge from so many tributaries. Or perhaps the clue's been in the title all along. Livity's definition in Rastafarian culture: a force, an energy.