Pop music has always run from the sublime to the irredeemable. The charts have rotated from gold to grot since the dawn of the Hit Parade, and the model doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon. So whilst there are always dark periods when commercial radio is little more than a cemetery of tired ideas, dug up and forced to fandango one more time, every now and then a new generation of musicians kick down the door, reset the rules, and party ‘til the lights come on.
Right now we’re in such a time. The paradigms are shifting. What is seen as ‘commercial’ in dance music has been snatched from the perma-tanned Guettas and LMFAOs, and the UK’s preferred form of home-grown rave has re-emerged; bass-heavy, nocturnal, and cool-as-fuck. It’s in these glorious moments, whilst the mainstream wobbles and tries to catch up, that the weird shit can — and will — break through.
A&Rs from major labels are scratching their heads. Christ! they murmur, Duke Dumont’s at No.1. House sells! Better sign some quick. And the programmers at radio, they think, wow well we better keep up with the kids. Disclosure are killing it right now… before you know it, Greg James is freaking out Radio 1 drive-time listeners by following Little Mix’s drivel with Breach B-sides, and you're left wondering what exactly just happened…
It’s no surprise that Ben ‘Breach’ Westbeech is feeling good. Said B-side, 'Jack', has blown up beyond his wildest expectations in the space of a few short months. Meeting us in a canal-side café, nestled on the outskirts of his new home of Amsterdam, the enthusiastic producer is marvelling at the track's unlikely, meteoric success.
“I’ve just found out now that I’ve been Radio 1 ‘A’ listed; Capital playlisted; Kiss FM playlisted. Everyone’s playing me. It's just nuts, it’s insane.” He pauses to let the enormity of it sink in, if only to himself. “If you’d have told me that was gonna happen I would have probably told you to fuck off.”
To map his switch from cult-ish producer to Top 40 bound daytime radio prospect, you need to rewind to early 2013. Westbeech had finished a Breach remix of an Infinity Ink track, earmarked for Crosstown Rebels. When label boss Damian Lazarus chose to turn down the mix, Westbeech stripped out the Infinity Ink vocal, added in his own whispered contribution and got on the phone to Dirtybird boss Claude VonStroke. He takes up the story.
“I was having dinner with Claude in London, telling him I’ve got this record that’s really Dirtybird —that was the original A-side, 'Let’s Get Hot', and we were talking about a B-side when he suggested trying something sleazier. The next day, I dreamt about something, I don’t know what, but I woke up with the ‘Jack’ lyric in my head, so I put it straight in my phone, went down to the studio, put the vocal down over a kick drum, left it for four days then went back, fucked with the vocal a bit then made the tune in four or five hours or something.”
NO SELL OUT
The result, 'Jack', was five minutes of dirty, uncluttered genius. Built from a sordid old skool bassline, a synth that sounds like a lusty cow, some pummelling house kicks, and a breathy female vocal exhorting listeners to “jack”, the track is both intriguingly off-kilter and remarkably catchy. That the cow sounds and the girl’s voice are all supplied by Westbeech’s own vocals (unrecognisably twisted via a bunch of plug-ins) makes proceedings stranger still. When VonStroke aired it at the Miami Winter Conference, it instantly went off.
Within weeks of its Dirtybird release, 'Jack' was getting hammered by DJs from round the globe, breaking onto Defected comps and getting UK garage rewinds. Suddenly the man from Atlantic Records rocked up with a cheque book. Westbeech elaborates.
“The Atlantic deal came out of nowhere. I mean, 'Jack' went off in Miami, it was a big tune there and the ball started rolling. The thing is it’d been out for two months already, so to have it re-signed and taken back off the net was pretty hard to fucking do! We’d never seen a deal like this happen; me, Claude, my manager James — I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’ve never seen a tune come out and get pulled back to get licensed by a major. It was really surprising to be honest.”
So now 'Jack' is getting a re-release with a proper, Vimeo ready video, a decent marketing budget, and a whole lot of mainstream radio play. Thing is, Westbeech has been around for a while now, putting out tracks under his own name and the Breach alias. His fans are serious music heads. They aren’t the kind of people to tolerate Olly Murs collabos or awkward appearances on The One Show sofa, so what happens next? How can he win over a new demographic, keep the label happy, and avoid the inevitable cries of ‘sell out’?
“Well, we’ve got a follow-up single for Atlantic, called 'Everything You Never Had', featuring Andreya Triana,” he considers. “But, to be honest, I’d already made that tune before 'Jack' got signed. Annie Mac’s played it on Radio 1 once, and that’s it, they signed it. I haven’t felt any pressure, I’ve been doing this for 10 years and the music comes pretty easily, I just love it so much! I’m not about to sign a massive deal for an album or anything, I’m just taking it as it comes, making underground music and doing my thing and that’s what I’ll keep on doing. I’m not looking to go majorly commercial, as I said this has come completely out of the blue for me, so my mindset isn’t like: ‘Right let's go and make loads of really commercial records’, I’m just making records for the dancefloor.
That’s what I’ve always been about and that’s what 'Jack' was about. It wasn’t ever meant to be commercial — you just get lucky with tracks sometimes. I mean promotion-wise, Atlantic have come up with some great ideas, and I haven’t had to be too involved. I absolutely did not want to be in the video, and I’m not. Luckily they haven’t had me putting on a bear suit and running around shouting 'Jack' for 10 minutes.”
All this seems completely reasonable, but the perception he’s ‘turning commercial’ bothers Westbeech, and though he professes not to care what anyone thinks, he’s clearly wary about losing credibility as a serious, deep producer. “You get these people that don’t like it if something gets more commercial, ‘cos now everybody’s hearing their little scene. It’s a bit of a funny view to have, because with 'Jack' the reason it crossed over was that everyone on the underground was playing the crap out of it. Now it’s gone mainstream and you get people being like, ‘Oh, it’s gone too commercial…’ Well that’s what happens if a record gets popular! And then people don’t like it, and they say it’s bad for the scene, and you think, well, y’know house has been around for, God, like 25 years now. What’s good and bad for the scene..!? Disclosure have had a lot of commercial success and that hasn’t done it any harm!
“I’ve seen it with jungle and dubstep,” he continues. “When stuff gets commercial, the scene breaks down because everyone is trying to make the record that’s broken through. And that’s what kills the scene — it’s not the people who’ve made the record that’s broken, it’s that everyone else tries to make the same tune. It could very well happen to this style of house music. It probably will.
“I mean look at dubstep, after a few years of constantly moving on, it got stuck in that really harsh wobbly stuff. Then every pop artist was getting a dubstep producer in to make that sound on their record because that’s what was selling. And then it’s just like WHACK! The scene’s gone, everyone’s moved out of it. Major labels try and push their artists who aren’t doing so well onto a scene, and you end producing for Cheryl Cole, or, y’know, being asked to make a house record that ‘sounds a bit Disclosure-y ’ and Cheryl’s on it all of a sudden. So, I’ve been asked to do big pop records, but I haven’t done any that aren’t right. I think you have to make a conscious decision to just say no, to be like, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that, ‘cos no amount of money is going to get me making a record I don’t want to make. I’ve always made records that I like making, so I’m not going to go down that route.”
True to his word, Westbeech has turned down a number of projects, and not just from the vapid end of the music spectrum. Remixes for AlunaGeorge, Disclosure and Rudimental have all been politely declined, if only because he’s just too busy. His punishing touring schedule — currently three or four international dates a week — was one of the reasons behind his relocation to Amsterdam, a city with an international airport that’s not a heinous slog away. On top of all the gigging, he’s just finished a Radio 1 Essential Mix (which broadcast to great acclaim the night of our interview), he’s got a clutch of projects underway at the Dutch branch of Red Bull Studios, including a tasty-looking team-up with rising deep house don Full Crate, and, in a couple of weeks' time he’s been asked to deliver the next instalment in the seminal 'DJ Kicks' series.
It’s this compilation that has got him most excited. Before anything, Westbeech is a DJ. Starting on the Technics as a precocious 12-year-old, Ben grew up surrounded by the hardcore and drum & bass legends his Dad happened to be mates with. He tells me of hanging out with breakbeat pioneers 2 Bad Mice, and, as a teenage raver, buying all-time jungle classic 'Renegade Snares' direct off Rob ‘Omni Trio’ Haigh. These formative years have stuck with him, and he’s understandably dismissive of the current vogue for booking producers to DJ, regardless of whether they can rock a crowd.
“You need a big enough tune to get any gigs,” he states, flatly. “I’ve been DJing since I was 12, and I love it, and I’ve never lost that love for it. But in this climate you’ve got producers who make a tune in Logic or Cubase, but they can’t DJ for shit. They’ve got absolutely no idea how to work a crowd, how to read a crowd, and you can see they don’t have the love for it.
I guess you could say that the arrival of the Sync feature in Traktor has taken away that skill you need to become a DJ. I like hearing someone who just goes up there and mixes, and even if there’s a slight fuck-up, I like hearing that. It’s like a hip-hop mentality, it’s that rawness, that energy. The sync button is just linear, there’s no ups and downs. I come from the era of listening to Sasha, to Bukem, and you’d be taken on a journey of highs and lows and that’s what I want to do, bang it out then take it back down, then bang it out again.”
With producers who can work the floor an increasing rarity, it’s little surprise that DJ Kicks approached Westbeech for a Breach mix, and he’s eager to showcase the extent of his crate-digging skills.
“It’s come at the perfect time,” he enthuses, “because, whilst I didn’t make 'Jack' to do what it has done, the fact that it’s gone commercial means it’s really important that I show I’ve got a deeper knowledge of music. I’ve had such a short deadline to put the DJ Kicks together, so I spent all of last week just buying up shit loads of old records and finding these total gems.
My friend has a warehouse out here where it's two euros a record — he goes and buys up collections from old DJs that have given up, or old producers who’ve sold their collection, and I bought 50 records for, like 100 euros. This was all untouched stuff you’re not gonna find anywhere else, all older house and techno. From my perspective it was bringing music for a compilation that people have not necessarily heard before, and that I haven’t heard before. Everyone knows the big labels that you can pick up and dip into, but when you're there just sifting through old records…. I mean half the stuff I haven’t got a fucking clue what it is! That’s what inspires me, going and finding tunes you’ve never heard about.”
At this point manager James leans in to point out that the DJ Kicks mix will also include an exclusive Breach track, although it transpires, to Westbeech’s laughter, that he hasn’t as yet written a note of it. “It’s gotta be in in two weeks,” he cackles, “So Christ knows what that’ll be. But I’m going into the Red Bull Studios once a week and they’ve got a load of kit that I haven’t. I’m going for something deeper, like synth-y and chord-y I guess.”
A lot of producers would probably be a bit nervy about the impending deadline, but Westbeech is used to working quick and sharp — he seems to thrive on the pressure, delighting in telling us the story of some recent remix work. “I played on Wednesday at the Zoo Project in Ibiza,” he starts. “James, my manager, was like, ‘Don’t go out, you’ve got to finish these two remixes, they’ve got to be in tomorrow,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going out’. Then come eight in the morning I was still raving in DC-10 with Jamie Jones! I had to come back with no sleep and do these fucking remixes! But you know, if you’re gonna go in like that, you’ve got to just keep on doing the work. If you go down that route of getting fucked every night, it’s cool — if you can handle it and you can still make the music. But if it starts affecting your ability to come up with the goods then you’ve got to stop it.”
Obviously for Westbeech the alternative — of not writing music — is no option. The success (and attendant cash) he’s getting is an unexpected bonus, a way, he tells us, to buy his Dad a house. Outside of that all he wants to do is write and play, then write some more. Some blog troll’s notion of ‘selling out’ is meaningless; how could he sell the wicked itch that sings melodies through his dreams? Westbeech knows he’s got no choice but to be creating for a long time yet.
“Music’s on my mind all the time,” he confesses. “I wake up thinking about music… It kinda fucks you a little bit and doesn’t let you have any time off. You hear music everywhere you go. You never get any rest from it, ‘cos it’s in your head. But I love it, it’s what keeps me going.”
words: IAN MCQUAID pics: MIKE MASSARO