Don't try to pigeonhole Powell. The emerging UK producer, DJ, and co-owner of the highly interesting Diagonal label has made it his mission to innovate in a post-genre era, and he's raised some incisive questions about the future of dance music. After decades of fracturing and fragmentation, Diagonal's releases have convincingly argued that the boundaries that separate subgenres are crumbling. Powell isn't interested in limiting his stylistic possibilities, in the booth or on record.
While the early days of Diagonal focused on providing a platform for Powell's own singles, it has transitioned to releasing more album-oriented projects. In recent months, the label has featured work from celebrated UK noise and sound artists Russell Haswell, as well as NYC avant hip-hop legends Death Comet Crew.
Likewise, Powell's own music has changed dramatically; it has shed its initially dour industrial face to toy with a more idiosyncratic sound drawing from historical electronic influences and modern sound sculpting in equal measure. As Powell embarks on his first US DJ tour across both coasts, an openly experimental climate created by the success of labels like Nation, L.I.E.S., PAN, and others welcomes him. We chatted to the Londoner about current musical events just as he arrives here for a handful of anticipated performances.
THUMP: So what have you been up to lately? Diagonal has been quite busy. It seems like an exciting time for you.
Powell: It feels like a good time to be making and putting out music, for sure. I suppose you could split what I'm doing into two camps, although both are clearly related: Powell stuff, and then stuff for the label. With Powell, I've just finished a new EP, which will be out in April, and I've started working on a whole load of new music that may come together as an album. This is a tough one for me, because I never thought of Powell as an album project—in fact, I've kind of resisted the idea. My background is in club music—in raves, in DJing, in 12"s—and I see my music in those terms. I make it for clubs, now more than ever, and that's how I see it: as tracks, as music for messed up floors.
It's also difficult because I put a lot of energy and effort into single tracks rather than the collection. I spend a long, long time on everything I work on, almost to the point that it becomes absurd. For me, a track becomes a little like an album in itself. It's not enough for me to just roll out a beat and let it go for six minutes. I want to try stuff within this format, to think where I can take an idea, how I can fuck it up, how I can properly explore it. And for me that takes time—and work.
There is definitely a sense today that electronic music is somehow superior if it's record live in a single take, laid down on tape or whatever, and then that's it—done. For some, that's clearly the best way to reflect who they are, but I don't think we should forget about the technology we now have at our disposal. Look at what computers can do now: They allow you to edit, to refine, to manipulate like we never could before. And without this phase of the process, I definitely couldn't make the music I make. I'll use my gear and whatever I can get my hands on to generate sound, but then I'll spend days and days inside the computer chiseling away at the color and placement of every single hit. And because there are generally quite a few things happening in most of my music, it drives me pretty mental. You can imagine what the idea of doing that for eight tracks rather than, say, three or four can do to a man. It terrifies me. So yeah, an album? Jesus.
As for the label, we're only seven releases in now, but we have a ton of stuff lined up and it feels like we're starting to get a clearer sense of what we want to be about. Things have progressed pretty naturally so far, which is the best bit about it. You meet people within music, you become friends, you chat about ideas and whatever, and then you decide to work together. It's never been a case of us going to people and asking for music or anything like that.
Could you explain the role of your collaborator Jaime Williams in the label? His appearance seemed to coincide with an upswing in the label output.
Jaime is my best friend and has been for almost 20 years now. We grew up listening to music together: going to clubs, digging for music, dreaming of starting a label one day. I put out the first three records on my own, but Jaime was always involved in some respect, offering his advice, and telling me if what I was making was naff as fuck. Last year we decided it was a no brainer for him to work on it properly, and yeah, it did coincide with a bit of a surge, so you can see that it was definitely a good thing for us to do.
There has recently been much discussion about moving "beyond the dance floor" in club music. What is your take on these ideas and the progress made so far?
I don't want to move beyond the dance floor at all. I don't want to give up on it. In fact, I feel like we all give up on it too easily. Maybe it's an age thing—it seems like we get to 30 years old or whatever, and then we no longer want to go to that place that I know, deep down, we all love more than pretty much any place on earth: the dance floor, the club, the party. It's why I called my new EP Club Music: because I believe in it still, and don't want to abandon it. I'm not saying we should all make bangers and be gone with it, but just that I think this idea of club music has so much more to give.
I'm interested in how [the idea of breaking down genres] will directly influence the music we hear and play in clubs. I mean, we're all exposed to more music than ever, and our influences are far-reaching. This should be exciting, right? But in London, where I live, I don't know where to go for a good night out. There are no regular things that capture the excitement I feel, the sense that anything is still possible.
Maybe this is a by-product of the era we live in: with everyone doing a million different things, you lose that sense of people fighting for something together—the thing that bound people together way back. There was a sense of community with genres, and it's something I miss, where you were surrounded by people you know listening to music you loved, but it's something that had to be sacrificed in a world where genres have become non-existent. That's why focusing on clubs, as an artist and as a label, gives me something to zero in on, to build around. I don't want to fragment too much. I want people to come together and be exposed to everything at the same time—and have a party.
Studying the history of dance music closely, it appears that the spiraling off of micro-genres has a tendency to lead to creative stagnation, largely because there isn't much aesthetic room to move in these small areas. What's your perception of this problem and its possible solutions?
Genres used to hang around because there wasn't the same over-exposure that eventually rips the heart out of anything good. The Internet has killed genres. What we need now is a way to bring it all together, to accept that everyone is doing something different, but to embrace that under one roof.
I think this is where the role of a record label becomes more important. In the absence of any codified thing, it's up to labels, and to a certain extent promoters and journalists, to stand for something.
Some of your background stems from drum & bass, which, like IDM, is a genre that eventually got bogged down in technical complexity that sabotaged its immediacy. How do you perceive the border between functionality, immediacy, and complexity as regards dance music?
Immediacy is more important to me than it was maybe a few years ago. I want people to like my music, but I'm not striving to make music that people will like. I'm not really interested in process and complexity as long as the output is interesting and stands apart from what we've heard before.
I remember reading a recent interview with Actress where he commented about dance music as something that does not necessarily have to bring people together but can also isolate them. Listening to your sound, there's a sense of going against traditional ideas of groove and "deepness" to something more elemental and aggressive. Could you explain the importance of these concepts in your music?
I think in my music, and my DJing too, I'm fighting against this idea of smoothness, deepness, and flow in dance music. You go to a club and you hear a seamless house or techno set, and you remember almost nothing. It blends into one. It becomes instantly forgettable, even if it's technically accomplished. I want to be provoked, surprised—even hurt—by music. I want to feel like I'm experiencing something, that anything could happen.
Honestly, my first few releases are boring to me now because they don't really grab you by the balls and refuse to let go—You can take 'em or leave 'em. When you understand that you can do anything you want when you make music, it gets more exciting. You can mess with rhythm, you can push harsher frequencies, you can turn a breakdown into a confusing rush of madness rather than a bridge between two things that are exactly the same—you can do anything, and because of that, you can force people to listen, to notice, to remember. That's why I think abrasiveness and aggression will always be important to me. You're enforcing your ideas on people rather than giving them an option.
Diagonal is a diverse label, but to me there's a real edge to it that goes back to before the genre divides in dance music really existed, when anything with a beat was fair game. I think of dance music more as a concept than a genre, and the late 70s & early 80s are interesting because of the lack of boundaries. Clearly you take a lot of inspiration from this era, so what are your thoughts on this topic?
Some people would have you believe that they were born into industrial music, had their nappies changed to Cabaret Voltaire, took baths to Mars and DNA and danced with their brothers and sisters at the Danceteria at their fifth birthday. I wasn't like that. I don't know what it was like to be alive in the 70s and 80s, so it's difficult for me to comment on what I think people were trying to do back then. That period will always be an inspiration to me because, yes, it feels like anything was possible then. There were no divides, no constraints on what constituted acceptable music. And I suppose this approach informs what we put out on the label. Essentially it comes down to one simple question: would I play it in a club? If the answer is yes, chances are we'll put it out.
Having heard your forthcoming single, it seems to tackle the issue of club music and its future quite a bit more directly. How would you describe the evolution of your ideas and sound up until this particular moment?
I think it's a question of confidence really. When you start out, you're kind of feeling around the edges, hoping people will care. But the more you do it, the more you start to believe that people are listening and ready to be pushed. I think it's important not to get stuck in something, and that's what drives me with my own stuff. I keep myself awake at night asking if what I'm working on is worth anything. You should always be pushing yourself to develop, to evolve, to try something different. And I think this is informed by the music you listen to as well. I mean, I listen to different things all the time, and I think what you write is constantly affected by that. You can't help but be changed and challenged by what you're listening to. So don't stop listening; everything is inspiration.
Considering the clear ramping up of ambition and ideas on your label, it seems like you have some concrete plans ahead. What's next for you & where do you see taking things in your next few steps?
New Powell stuff and more releases on the label, basically. We've got a Streetwalker 12" from Beau Wanzer with a Silent Servant remix on the flip up next, then my Club Music EP, followed by a brace of EPs from Bronze Teeth, a new project featuring Dom Butler from Factory Floor. After that there's a Shit & Shine LP, which is dutty, a super-rhythmic Skull Defekts LP, 12s from Haswell and Prostitutes and a few other things yet to be properly confirmed. Then the Powell album—maybe!
Albert Freeman is a freelance music journalist with regular contributions to The Quietus. He also co-curates the Industry of Machines party and helps with booking Ad Hoc's dance events.