dBridge is the uncompromising producer pushing the boundaries of drum & bass
The first dBridge album in 10 years pushes the boundaries of what drum & bass can be to the limit, but as we find out when we meet him at Sun And Bass festival in Sardinia, it comes from a deep passion for the music, his family and friends…
Pics: KHALI ACKFORD, DOGGER
September 2018: Darren White, the artist we know best as dBridge, is in a good place. Literally, creatively, professionally, he’s in the midst of his most prolific and accelerated chapters of his career. He’s become a dad this year and, right at this moment, he’s on the silky sands of La Cinta beach, Sardinia. The warm turquoise sea ripples less than a metre away, Calibre’s about to play on a stage about 20 metres away, and Darren is surrounded by some of the most important people in his life. His wife sits on a lounger beside him, his baby son is in his arms. His friends are close by with their own young families. He also has some calamari.
The good place in question is, of course, Sun And Bass, an eight-day d&b nirvana where many of the genre’s DJs stop to take a rest after a typically hectic summer on the DJ merry-go-round. Darren seems relaxed, at home. The significance of both the location and this particular moment in time aren’t lost on him. He’s just weeks away from dropping his first solo album in 10 years, and it’s arguably his boldest personal statement to date. The masters have been submitted, his own artwork has been approved; he’s well past the point of final tweaks or last-minute changes. Sun And Bass is an ideal place for him to decompress from album mode, avoid the classic pre-release anxieties and re-engage with the culture and musical movement he’s been dedicated to developing since he first emerged in the mid ’90s. It’s also where he met his wife, and where they’ve chosen to take their son for their first holiday as a family.
“There’s a real positive energy right now,” White says. “Among us personally and in the tunes. There’s a group of us interacting a lot more, talking, having fun. There’s a spirit of competition, it’s moving things forward. Especially here. We've all got time to hang out and check what each other are doing,” Darren reflects. As true to his word as he is to the craft, DJ Mag sees him out most nights, front left, enjoying sets by his peers. “All of this is really important. We don’t need to stick together, but it helps. Drum & bass is quite insular in some ways, but here we definitely push each other.”
CREATURE OF HABIT
Pushing has been a consistent thread in Darren’s career. He seems driven by development in all his capacities; as an artist, a DJ and as a label owner. Challenging the genre’s accepted norms, formulas and insular idiosyncrasies have become his personal signature moves since his breakthrough blueprints as Future Forces and Bad Company over 20 years ago. Continually reaching beyond the genre for inspiration and collaboration, his thirst for questioning the status quo, adding new ideas and taking the genre to different places has been felt more and more in his work over the years.
The Autonomic sound he, Instra:mental and a number of other artists engineered 10 years ago was a particularly prominent waymark in this development, as they flipped drum & bass on its head and showed us all how deep, spacious and inclusive the often tunnel-visioned genre can be. There have been many more examples: the everbroadening and forward-thrusting repertoire on his label Exit Records, and how he encourages the best from his artists; his ‘puppet master’-like role on the Richie Brains project, where he recruited some of the most inventive beatsmiths to collaborate and write under one singular fictional alias; his and Kabuki’s ‘New Forms’ make-a-tunein-a-day collaboration album and events; his cosmic, synthdominated Pleasure District label; the list goes on. But the latest, perhaps most poignant and definitely most personal milestone is his new album ‘A Love I Can’t Explain’. Taking off where his last solo EPs such as ‘Too Late’ and ‘I’m Feeling Cold’ left us, ‘A Love I Can’t Explain’ is a deep, brooding and complex body of work, galvanised by wry references and social commentary. It’s created solely on his ever-growing arsenal of outboard machines, entirely sample free, and captures his more experimental ethics at their fullest.
Texturally and aesthetically, it nods to techno and the bleak mechanic melancholy electronics you might have found on labels such as Warp and Soma in the mid ’90s, but the album’s heartbeat and soul are still drum & bass — just not as you might instantly recognise it. Or how many of the loyal patrons of Sun And Bass would recognise it, for that matter. Even here, at an event that’s as close to d&b heaven as you’ll find on this planet, an event where the revellers encourage and celebrate freshness, where Darren feels completely at home and where he and Doc Scott will provide one of the event’s most talked-about and cherished b2b sets, ‘A Love I Can’t Explain’ seems pretty removed from even the slightest d&b norm, formula or idiosyncrasy. None of its material has found its way into Darren’s sets this summer, including Sun And Bass.
“That’s the difficulty I have as a DJ and a producer,” he says. “I’m trying to work out my ways around it. Especially with my album. In many ways it’s so far removed from… what someone might typically think of as drum & bass.” Darren often pauses and considers his words and the thoughts he shares. Years of clichéd, lazy interview questions that don’t even attempt to scratch the surface of his work have rendered him a little guarded. Even when he does feel his time isn’t being wasted, and he feels you understand where he’s coming from, you get the notion that, if he could, he’d be more comfortable letting the music do all the talking.
Why shouldn’t it? Like any legit artist, he creates for his own personal reasons, and that shouldn’t require explanation. But he also knows that, between what he does as an artist, a DJ and as a label owner, his music talks in so many different languages, a little clarity is beneficial. Especially when there’s a certain amount of fan expectation, due to his roots and respected position within the genre. “I almost want to have my cake and eat it,” he smirks. “I want to be able to be selfish and play what I want. But I also want to play Skeppy rollers. It was the same with Heart Drive and Autonomic. But at least it had a label and a podcast to connect it to, so it wasn’t as hard for people to get their heads around. I played at Ben UFO’s night in XOYO.
I thought, now here’s a chance to try some different things and go in a deeper direction, but I got the impression that wasn’t what I was expected to do. In the end, I gave them the rollers they were expecting, but I didn’t expect to have to do that.”
This situation isn’t new for Darren. He recalls, for instance, how he was criticised for playing halftime for years, but now it’s the norm. To a large degree he accepts this, too; when you’re at the forefront of a culture, dealing strictly in futures and continually nudging the boundaries further and further back, there’s always going to be a certain amount of resistance. He’s challenging expectations and taking people out of their preferred tastes and perceptions of him, after all.
“I’ve got all this music, so at what point is it allowed to be heard?” asks Darren, whose sets are just as likely to dip into unapologetic ghetto tech as they are gully rollers. “Only on a podcast or if I do a radio show? No. For me, it’s still relevant to clubs. It’s all the same bloody tempo. There’s different rhythms and different things going on which don’t conform to what people believe drum & bass is. But it is. And it frustrates me that people are dictated to by their environment. I’m not happy to do that. And if I’m going to annoy people, so be it. There are other DJs who will give you exactly what you want playing before and after me, so I’ll take the cussing. I don’t mind being that guy. But, at the same time it does take its toll. It makes me question things; what am I doing? Am I doing what I should be doing, or should I just roll out ‘True Romance’ again?”
‘True Romance’, a verified d&b anthem he and fellow Bad Company member Vegas released in 2005 that still commands reloads and big cheers to this day, is a fitting track for him to reference. While Darren has never retrodden old ground, he continually returns to certain themes: ‘A Love I Can’t Explain’ is the latest in a long list of emotional and heartfelt titles and track inspirations, such as ‘Love’s Ugly Child’, ‘Cos My Love Is’, ‘Love Hotel’, ‘So Lonely’, ‘Since We’ve Been Apart’, his vocals and lyrics on Martyn’s ‘These Words’. A consistency that’s as strong as his thirst for innovation; beneath his often-guarded exterior lies a sensitive soul.
“I’m an emotional guy. I’m affected by things,” he says. “My relationships affect me. Listen to any of my songs where I sing. They’re kinda broken love songs. Like the lyrics on ‘Inner Disbelief’ or ‘Wonder Where’, which was a song about my brother. I didn’t know where he was, and hadn’t seen him for years. ‘So Lonely’ was me being in a relationship, but not feeling like I was in a relationship. So yeah, I’m very much an emo, a shoegazer. But now life has changed, it’s harder for me to write and sing songs, because I’m happy.” It’s here where we hit the significance of his album and his current crossroad status in electronic music, and begin to understand why ‘A Love I Can’t Explain’ is so personal and, in many ways, marks the most definitive moment in dBridge’s history so far. His unexplainable love covers a wide range of positive influences in his life, from his wife to the creative process to his friends. It also reflects how they’ve affected him and how he takes that forward into a new chapter of his life, that will hopefully not garner broken love songs or introspection.
“This is an album of music with me trying to explain my love for all these different things and how they influence me,” he explains. “Since I’ve had Liam, just looking at him, this feeling that comes over you is pure joy. It’s impossible to quantify. The admiration I have for my wife for bringing him into the world. But also things like moving away to another country, learning how to chill out, let go of things and not take things so seriously. I wanted to encompass all of that.”
Yet the album gives none of this joy and admiration away. Not gratuitously anyway. Darren is most definitely in a good place personally right now, and while his own vocals and lyrics don’t feature on the album, he’s recruited a number of voices from people closest to him. Between them, his heavy, barbed and sometimes pretty intense edge is conjured and captured throughout, and the album takes multiple sittings to digest.
Sonically, ‘A Love I Can’t Explain’ is totally manand- machine crafted, a current zenith in his quest to create sounds himself and hopefully leave a legacy of original source material for sample crafters in future generations to manipulate and mutate. There are hisses, moments of distortion and rougher aspects in the mix that add a sense of tension. Thematically, too, its track titles harbour a grave series of references about our internet-filtered interactions, view of the world and view of ourselves. Perhaps this is an underlying fear of the world he’s bringing his young family into, but most likely it’s a coping strategy at the weirdness of the modern world and how we communicate.
“We just create these lies. You see people taking pictures of themselves, and it’s now the norm to take selfies, and they take five shots to get the perfect one,” says Darren, who is also a keen photographer — he created all the artwork for the album (and a forthcoming accompanying photo book). “I’ve accepted that’s how society is now, but because I’ve come from making music in an earlier time, I do miss the gap there used to be between the producer and the audience, so to speak. Before people can go home and cuss you out after the rave and you’d not hear it.
Now you can’t avoid it. It’s much easier for people to tell me what they think. But in a weird way I’d rather not know. I love the fact people can relate or react to it and feel something from it. But, as any artist or any person, it’s hard to take criticism. I make music for my own reasons and I only make music for me.”
What’s more, he’s been making lots of it. Running parallel to ‘A Love I Can’t Explain’ is a completed ambient/drone album, and he alludes to even more albums after that. That’s before we even consider the fact his solo album was being written during and around the time he took part in the first Bad Company album in 15 years. “I’ve got four or five albums sitting there,” he admits. “But this is the story and the message I need to express first of all. Hopefully it will allow me to explore other avenues, and people will follow that. I also want to explore the idea of how I might translate it live. The album lends itself to that more because of how I put it together, so hopefully more of that will be open to me. But let’s see how things go; drum & bass crowds have been infamously staunch over the years, but that’s changed. People are into more than just one genre, which is really important. So I hope, with that in mind, that my album will make sense to people.
Look at what Exit has released over the years and it shouldn’t be a surprise.” With so much activity and so many ideas and projects bubbling, it also shouldn’t be a surprise that Darren’s about to step into his busiest winter to date. As we wrap up the interview, his son now asleep in his arms, he explains how he regularly juggles feelings of nerves, excitement and the fatigue any parent can instantly relate to. “There’s a lot going on. It does feel like I’m busier than usual, but I’ve just become a lot more focused. I have this drive to push myself and see what happens….” he pauses for the final time in the conversation. Sounds of a classic Calibre roll-out drift downwind, and Darren grins for a second. “It’s funny, being here, I have wondered about getting on the rollers again, too…” dBridge can push himself and his craft as far as he likes, but certain junglist elements will never leave him. And whether it’s a drone album or a stately 170bpm shock-out that follows ‘A Love I Can’t Explain’, you know it’s coming from a very good place right now.
Literally, creatively, professionally.
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.