Grum’s latest single 'Tears' has drawn its fair share of attention from the key players. Both Pete Tong and Annie Mac showcased it on their respective Radio 1 radio shows, though with its dizzyingly unique appeal, it’s not difficult to understand why.
It’s a record that captures the early progressive and acid house vibes that at some point took hold in the Scottish producer’s music. The melody goes down with a heavy dose of trance sugar, though it’s the Orbital 'Halcyon'-style house percussion that’s even more distinct. Not to mention all the psychedelic craziness that’s wildly layered on top of things, and its hypnotic vocal sample, which recalls a time in dance music’s past, when we looked towards a future that never eventuated. And there’s its descent into Orbital-style mayhem in the closing moments. As Grum says himself, “It's a bit of a trip”.
Otherwise known to his friends and family as Graeme Shepherd, when he speaks to DJ Mag he’s preparing for the release of his sophomore album 'Human Touch', as well as returning from a show in Colombia; a gig he says was reflective of his own recent shifts as an artist.
“It’s going through a bit of a change at the moment. I’ve been playing slightly different parties,” he accedes. A change indeed. Shepherd’s early success came around five years ago via a charming and quirky sound that drew on '80s pop and electro, with a nostalgic air and a steady supply of pop hooks and catchy vocals. It was best captured in the bleepy, irresistible charms of his hit single 'Heartbeat',as well as the latter album of the same name. Shepherd recalls his early success with fondness; though you get the impression he felt the approach wasn’t creatively sustainable.
“It’s just one of these things that if you’re working on music all the time, you just evolve,” he says, a standard response from an artist who’s made a marked evolution in their sound. “Between my old album and the new material, there’s been around three years where there wasn’t a lot coming from me apart from remixes. In that time I guess I’ve changed quite a lot. People just don’t see that until you start to push new stuff on them.”
However, the desire to embrace an aesthetic that was more in-tune with modern club music was also part of what led to the eventual release of single 'The Theme'last year. “The older stuff relied on nostalgia quite a lot,” he says. “I’d begun to feel a little like I wanted to produce music that was a bit more of its own time, instead of throwing back to what was cool before. It’s braver to stick your neck out and try something that’s a bit new and different.”
Shepherd says this was a feeling that had begun to gestate around 2011 when he was beginning to sketch out the new album. “I’d started listening to some different music, and feeling a little different about music too. And I think as well, to be honest, the first album had more of that pop and '80s influence, and I had a lot of gigs from that, but it never really felt quite right.
I’d always felt like I wanted to give something else through the music. When it’s based around pop and disco influences, you’re restricted in a sense. When you’re in a club, if you have more of a techno influence with your music, you can take it to those different places creatively.”
Shepherd’s new direction revealed a natural affinity with trance and progressive; though it was one that also meshed effortlessly with the electro house sound that defined his earlier work. If the brashness of the sonic change took a few fans by surprise, what’s equally surprising is how much consistency there is between the new tranced-up ‘Grum 2.0’, and his previous incarnation.
There are those same thick synth melodies, the same cheeky irreverence and quirky attitude. And to a degree, he’s still drawing on nostalgia for his inspirations. “I’d really started to listen to lots of Orbital, and quite a lot of Underworld and a lot of the old progressive stuff that I hadn’t listened to for years. I was like, ‘Wow this is actually really good, and it sounds great now’ too. That was something that I loved. I’ve got this recording of Orbital from 1997, and it just sounds phenomenal.
They were making this underground music, with amazing melodies and amazing production, incredible sounds that people just aren’t using anymore. I thought, this is something that I’d love to have a piece of.”
In spite of some predictably terse fan responses to the changes (and strange accusations on social media that Grum had “become a deep house DJ now”), the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, the start of a purple patch of singles and remixes. As well as returning to the playlists of Radio 1, he’s just as likely to be heard on Above & Beyond’s trance-focused Group Therapyshow; a reflection of the natural affinity that it turns out he has with these sounds.
“The thing is, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for that stuff. It was just deeply out of fashion for around 10 years, but it seems to be coming back now. I’m not sure exactly why, to be honest. It’s strange how it works, because when I’m writing music, I’ve always just written what I felt like. There’s never been any kind of cynical intent to latch onto something, or anything like that. But for a long time it didn’t seem right to be producing that kind of music.”
The entire gamut of the new Grum approach is showcased on his 'Human Touch'album; a polished fusion of electro house, trance and classic progressive. The vocal in the opening title track shows Shepherd’s singer-songwriter skills are still intact, while 'Raindrop' is pure ‘reach for the lasers’ pumping electro trance. 'In Love' lifts that famous vocal from the early '90s rave classic N Joi 'Anthem'; there are regular dashes of acid house extravagance, though it plays out alongside the irreverent Grum attitude of never letting things get too serious.
Shepherd also affirms he was conscious of avoiding the hyper-commercial excesses of EDM while writing the album. “I’ve been listening to dance music for maybe 15 years, and that style was always sort of laughed at to be honest, it wasn’t very cool. And all of a sudden it exploded in popularity, which to me seemed kind of weird. I never understood quite what happened there, so I guess I consciously don’t go in that direction.
“I was aiming for the vibe of what dance albums used to be like, basically. I wanted to make it this cool piece of work that would hold together well.”
Shepherd says there are another four or so singles that will be from the album; otherwise, there’s a healthy demand at the moment for his skills as a remixer, hired to rework Martin Garrix’s Beatport anthem 'Animals' last year as well as a range of artists that’s included Chromeo, Phoenix, Mason and Sigma. He says meeting expectations is an artform in itself.
“The singles have all drawn on different influences, and you can be a bit more experimental. But with the remixes, the challenge is they want what you did before, only with their own song. You have to do what you did before, change it a little bit but not too much. So it’s a very fine line I think. Try and keep it interesting for people so it’s not entirely predictable, but at this sort of level people expect a certain something from you. So it’s a challenge, but I’ve been enjoying it.”
The latest example is his turbo-charged remix of 'Touch' by Shift K3Y, where he doesn’t hesitate to shoot straight for the explosive trance energies. Shepherd has struck on a sound that’s clearly resonating with people. “It’s one of these situations where perhaps it’ll be coined as a new genre at some point, where you’re combining all these different elements, though there’s not really a proper name for it yet. It just sort of exists as a concept. It’s also a case of the clubs still catching up with this as an emerging sound. Production-wise there’s a lot of people making it, and a lot of people into it, but not that many club nights for it yet. So we’ll see.”
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