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How Polish Jazz Influenced Surly To Push Footwork In A New Direction

After joining Los Angeles footwork crew Juke Bounce Werk, New Zealand's Surly quietly released one of the more remarkable EPs of the last six months.

by Martyn Pepperell
30 June 2017, 4:25am

"I wanted to get away from using too many traditional footwork sounds, try to convey the same rhythmic ideas using other sounds, and pay respect to the music I was sampling," explains Surly. Sitting inside a sunny freehouse behind Auckland's Karangahape Road strip, the New Zealand-born electronic music producer, and DJ is unpacking the concepts behind his new EP Trip To Warsaw .

Drawing on the influence of post-war Polish jazz, Trip To Warsaw sees Surly recast the creepy, folkloric aesthetics and harmonics of that cult European jazz tradition into cinematic footwork music also informed by UK bass culture (from jungle to dubstep and beyond), and US hip-hop. Fittingly released by Loz, Poland-based record label Polish Juke, it's one of the understated masterworks of the year. For proof of impact, just check the ballroom ambiance of 'Thirteen,' and '4Q 510-511,' simple piano, double bass, brass and woodwind figures bubbling up into vigorous dancefloor workouts for the open-eared and fleet of foot.

"He strips back the drums and leaves room for impeccable jazz riffs to breathe in the mix while bumping the underlying rhythmic elements of footwork," enthuses Scott Bulloch, the New Zealand representative of Los Angeles' Hit + Run collective, and the co-founder of IZWID Records. Bulloch has been embedded in electronic music culture for decades. He's heard it all, but Surly's songs still floor him, and he isn't alone. "His footwork stuff is the bomb," adds Jessica Hansell, the musician, rapper, writer, and artist better known as Coco Solid. "I think re-imagining a genre while staying anchored in its tradition is what he's always been a master of."

Hansell would know, she's called on Surly for music production and remixes since the mid-2000s. "No matter what he's into or experimenting with, he's on that next shit. He'd chat with me about a sound, aesthetic or idea he was getting into, and years later it would be getting jacked. You're always thinking, 'Shit, Scott casually warned me about that!' I think he's got prophetic ears…This racket is full of 'Well actually' types if you're a woman, but he's not into that. He loves music and sharing."

Surly's older than he looks, but given his listening range, younger than he should probably be. In conversation, he bounces from cartoon character levels of enthusiasm to quiet, clear-headed introspection. Musically speaking, his story began during childhood and teenage years spent between Auckland, Nelson, and Wellington. "My father is a jazz musician who has kept up to date with music technology as it comes out," he reflects. "I grew up listening to jazz, electronica, and trip-hop. From there, I played bass guitar in a straight-edge punk band and then became interested in hip-hop, jungle, and drum & bass. I had access to musical equipment from an early age, and I was always interested in non-4/4 time signatures from the jazz era. I grew up playing jazz piano in 5/4 and 7/8."

At 16, Surly's father gifted him a Roland MC-303 Groovebox. A piece of rudimentary electronic equipment that combined drum machine, synthesiser and sequencer functions; the Groovebox allowed users to create full instrumental arrangements. Inspired by the futurism of late 90s drum & bass, he began programming beats and started DJing. After high school, Surly attended audio engineering school and shifted onto music software. Under the Detail alias, he traversed the country like a nomad, DJing drum and bass and early dubstep at outdoor parties in the South Island, and gritty inner-city basement nightclubs up north along the way.

Surly's interest in drum & bass and dubstep led him towards a collection of British and European producers like Ramadanman, Addison Groove, Ticklish and OM Unit who were starting to take inspiration from the hypnotically repetitive, sample-heavy sounds of Chicago footwork and Jersey club. The combination made his ears prick up. "I started enjoying the rhythms, because a lot of them take me back to UK jungle, and further than that, they take me back to jazz," he reflects.

When Surly heard deceased Chicago footwork icon DJ Rashad's Double Cup album, his ears pricked up again. "Before then, I couldn't understand how to write footwork. When I listen back to it now, it is absolutely the sound of Chicago, but made accessible to someone who was new to it, or not so well versed in the music." Concurrently, he discovered ghetto house and a new sense of musical freedom. "I was inspired by how rough and ready it was," he recalls. "Nothing was precious. You could get really creative, and it didn't need to be super polished. I was having the most fun I'd had making music in a long time."

Not long afterward, Surly settled in Auckland and befriended a jazz-loving couple who DJed footwork as Average White DJ and Ma Bec. "Their friendship sparked my motivation to write more," Surly says. "They were my real catalyst." "Everything he played us sounded exactly as it was supposed to, and it was world class," remembers Average White DJ. "I think for awhile he thought we were just being nice. I fondly remember him getting annoyed at the constant praise."

"It took around a year before I felt ready to launch the project," Surly remembers. "Someone asked me to play a DJ set of footwork originals, so I made a SoundCloud page and uploaded a James Brown edit." The next day, he received a message from a small label called Broken Soles asking if they could release the song. A couple of weeks later, without any inkling of what was to come, he casually uploaded a buoyant jazz-referencing cut titled 'The Tradition.'

"I found Surly's music online around the fall of 2015," recalls DJ Noir, alongside Jae Drago and Sonic D, one of the co-founders of influential Los Angeles-based footwork DJ, producer, and visual artist collective Juke Bounce Werk (JBW). "I routinely do random searches of SoundCloud in the footwork genre." Noir and her collaborators were blown away by 'The Tradition,' and started pushing it online. Drago contacted Surly and requested more music.

From there, Surly began to collaborate with JBW's extended producer family. "The boys seemed to mesh well in their back and forth communication online for some months, and we got the bug about the idea of asking him to join JBW," Noir continues. When Chicago footwork pioneer RP Boo visited New Zealand in March 2016, Noir asked him to vet Surly for JBW membership. Ma Bec promoted RP Boo's Auckland show and had Surly open up. "On the night everyone there went absolutely apeshit," she enthuses. "There was pretty much a mosh pit; I swear I could see waves of energy coming off the crowd… I knew a blistering half hour from Surly would be the perfect amount of radical energy needed to get New Zealanders ready for the RP Boo experience."

After conferring with RP Boo, Noir and Drago skyped Surly and asked him to join the crew. "I didn't dare to think maybe they would ask me to join the crew," Surly admits. "It all seemed too far-fetched." They arranged to release Surly's self-titled debut footwork EP through JB, and a week before its launch, Hyperdub boss Kode9 premiered one of the songs during his BBC Radio 1 residency. "The release went a lot better than I expected," Surly says. "A lot of artists who'd inspired me got in touch. People like Ticklish, BSN Posse, COMOC and RP Boo were sharing my music and tweeting about it. It was huge." In November 2016, Noir and Jae Drago visited New Zealand to take part in a five-date tour around the country alongside Surly, sealing their relationship.

Earlier this year, Surly started talking releases with Polish Juke founder Mateo Kaminski. "Mateo wanted me to release an EP with Polish Juke, which made sense," Surly says. "I thought his label would be the perfect fit for the Polish jazz influenced music I'd been making. I represent Juke Bounce Work, so for some people, it might seem strange for me to drop an EP with another crew, but this is just a Trip To Warsaw. I'm just visiting and paying respect." It's difficult to put [how I feel about Surly's music] into words, you know?" Kaminski explains. "Just listen to any of his tracks… Whether it's a jazzing track like 'Thirteen' or a more hardcore one like 'Scare Em To Death,' there's always that something, that unique style taking 160 BPM to the next level."

Trip To Warsaw arrived to yet more love from Surly's musical heroes, as well as support from crucial internet radio stations like NTS and Radar Radio, reiterating his importance as an emerging experimental voice within electronica. "Surly's approach to music is what I would call painful perfectionism," explains Noir. "He is extremely attentive to his details, and the result speaks for itself." "In New Zealand, he's been one of my favourite producers for the last decade," adds Hansell. "When I see him getting love internationally, it's just so inevitable and overdue."

Trip To Warsaw is out now through Polish. Listen to it in full below.

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Photos by Kate Reddington.