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Everybody's Watching Rockwell

Drum & bass sound designer readies debut album

Rather than pretending that he used to sneak into Metalheadz nights at the Blue Note in London aged 11, drum & bass sound designer Rockwell is honest about what first got him into the music. “The first time I attended a drum and bass club was when I went to university in Bristol,” he admits, “there wasn't really the culture of swapping tape-packs at my school, so you could say I got hooked by drum and bass later than most.”

Originally into hip-hop and punk rock, Rockwell was soon seduced by junglist riddims and became a regular at the Full Cycle parties thrown by Roni Size, Die, Krust, Suv and the kru. “I think drum and bass is definitely something that you need to see in a club environment before you can really understand its appeal,” he reckons. “I think it was the combination of the speed of punk and the breakbeats of hip-hop which really struck a chord with me.”

Rockwell starts telling DJ Mag about the impact of tunes like Adam F’s titanic ‘Brand New Funk’ and Total Science’s ‘Dubplate’, and how he used to tape Fabio & Grooverider’s Radio 1 show every Friday night, “setting my alarm every 45 minutes to turn the tape over on my rubbish stereo”.

Raving to d&b got him into DJing, although drum & bass was the only dance music genre he was into at first — apart from the leftfield electronica of Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and the like. He’d heard producers like High Contrast talking about using Logic, so got himself a copy of the software and started teaching himself to make tracks. “As I was young I wrongly assumed it couldn't be that hard, even though I knew nothing regarding the processes of synthesis, or even sampling,” he smirks.

He reckons it took him the best part of seven years to get something that sounded playable in a club. “Being self-taught has its benefits though,” he thinks, “as all the little imperfections in my techniques are kind-of what makes my sound my own. I like that my music isn't perfectly polished and produced, and there are parts that go out of time and change the timing of the track.”

In 2009 he produced the This Mortal Coil-sampling ‘Aria’, a popcorning ‘Underpass’ and ‘Reverse Engineering’ — three extraordinary pieces of work, the latter especially, with its intricately layered backwards sounds, recalling the clicktronica of Aphex or Autechre. These three IDM-influenced pieces on various labels got him noticed, but it wasn’t until more dancefloor tracks such as a tech-steppy ‘Full Circle’ and the skippy ‘DJ-Friendly Unit Shifter’ – signed to Friction’s Shogun Audio imprint – that his breakthrough in the d&b ranks really came.

Now signed to Shogun Audio for an album dropping early next year, his latest single ‘Childhood Memories’ is kinda robo trap music made by Daft Punk, refracted through a '70s vocoder prism with warped r&b vox and occasional gritty wobble. With the fractal-happy psychedelic video featuring long lost toys (pandas, muppets, ET, robots etc) as well as what looks suspiciously like Illuminati symbolism, it’s the next chapter in his quest to stretch the margins of d&b.

Happy to be given free rein in the Shogun camp alongside Spectrasoul, Alix Perex, Icicle and The Prototypes as well as Friction himself, he’s not giving too much away about his highly anticipated debut album. “I'm writing a lot of music that is both multi-genre but also works together in the context of my production approach,” the Aphex of d&b tells DJ Mag. “Anyone who has caught one of my DJ sets in the last year can vouch for the fact that I’ll play music from across any genre as long as I'm feeling it, and I think my LP will be born of the same ethos. I'm really looking forward to working with a wide range of vocalists and trying out lots of different and exciting things.”