Kode9 interview | DJMag.com Skip to main content

Kode9 interview

An in-depth talk with the Hyperdub main man about his new album with Spaceape, 'Black Sun'...

With their new album ‘Black Sun’, Hyperdub’s Kode9 & the Spaceape have left tired genre pigeonholes behind, switched up their sound and conjured a bright, neon-lit sci-fi parable of futuristic house, fractured breakbeats, cryptic poetry and bleeps, where nothing is as it seems.
Influenced by JG Ballard, Solaris, UK funky, THX1138 and Prince Far-I, it’s a dystopian funk epic that should see them reach a whole new audience. 

Below, Kode9 talks candidly about the making of the album and much more (check next week for part two, an interview with Spaceape). 

Why the title ‘Black Sun’ for the new album? Is a ‘Black Sun’ an inverted form of light or a portent of ill times ahead? Were you playing with the meaning of the word “black” (also in the opening track ‘Black Smoke’)?

“The term 'Black Sun' originally came to me through engaging in ritual burnings of the Sun newspaper whilst Burial was a Mercury nominee. They had started a witch hunt to reveal his real identity, and that really pissed me off. After that, the term took on a life of its own and became the name of my 2009 single, which was a bit of a crossroads for me musically. The album's working title and first track is ‘Black Smoke’, which has more connotations of dread etc. and the kind of vibes of our first album, that we wanted to deviate from on this album. The album starts by exorcising the demons of ‘Memories Of the Future’ in ‘Black Smoke’, and then veers off in different directions, areas that are not really so much about dread or foreboding, but rather a surreal world where things are unexpected, colours and objects are in the wrong place. After we finished the album, I came across a great reference to ‘Black Sun’ in the J.G. Ballard story, ‘The Day Of Forever’, which coincidentally works really well with the desert vibe of the album's cover artwork. In other words, 'Black Sun' means lots of things for us.”

There’s a dystopian air that hangs over a large portion of ‘Black Sun’. Clearly it’s intended as one body of work to be listened to in sequence. But what inspired the musical direction? What kind of feeling did you want to conjure with it?

“The album is our real experiences from the last few years camouflaged as dystopia. Dystopian is what happens when we work together. We seem to find ourselves drawn to those kinds of sonic worlds. We are both interested in science fiction so that is part of it, but like I said, it's a different kind of dystopia from the last, and it is based in our real experiences. It's not a dark place at all, but rather one of strange light and colours, and I think we feel it becomes a more strangely-coloured place as the album progresses.”

Musically it’s very different to ‘Memories Of the Future’, reflecting the changes in electronic music since the last record. But did you deliberately want to make a more (musically) up-tempo record? Why?

“We wanted more energy. Our live sets and DJ sets over the last few years have a lot more energy than our first album, and we wanted to capture some of that dynamic.”

Your DJ Kicks album showed a far more dancefloor side to Kode9 for people who haven’t seen you play. Did you enjoy making it — having the freedom to challenge people’s preconceptions in terms of the tracklist, sequence and style(s)?

“For me it wasn’t about challenging peoples pre-conceptions primarily, but rather just presenting what I do as a DJ on a plate for people. The listener can choose whether to come with or get off at the next stop. I really enjoyed doing it, as I love DJing, and yeah, it was good to show people that side of what I do.”

Science fiction seems to fascinate you — particularly dystopias/future societies in general. Do you feel an ambivalence towards the concept of the future, a sense of excitement and dread of it at once?

“Of course, the concept of the 'future' is a very complicated one that we've thought about a lot for the first album, and I wrote about a lot in my book [Sonic Warfare]. And yes, it embodies contradictory moods, but I think the tension between excitement and foreboding is what most electronic music deals with, not just ours.”

There’s plenty of uncertainty and political upheaval going on across the world at the moment, from the current government situation, the student riot responses, the Middle East revolutions, the shift in superpowers, etc. Is ‘Black Sun’ a response to that in a way?

“Well ‘Black Sun’ is a fictional world, although undoubtedly there are resonances with reality, but perhaps that is a lyrical thing you should ask Spaceape about.”

How did you go about creating the tracks on the album – did you create the music first and give them to Spaceape to inspire his lyrics, or did you work together and bounce ideas off one another in the studio?

“A combination really, although on this album, I responded to Spaceape's lyrics more, rather than just giving him tracks to vocal, like we did on the first album.”

Who is Cha Cha and how did you come to work with her on the record? Do you have plans to do more stuff together?

“Cha Cha is a vocalist and friend from Shanghai, who I met through her partner Gaz, who runs a great underground music venue in the city called The Shelter. I've played there quite a few times now — a really great place in an amazing city. Cha Cha MCed for me a few times and I recorded her on our track 'Time Patrol' that was on the ‘Hyperdub 5' comp. I was back in China last September when our album was almost done, but I felt it needed some more vocals to balance Spaceape, so we recorded her on a lot of tracks - she ended up on four tracks on the album, and is basically lead vocalist on our next single 'Love Is the Drug', even though the lyrics were written by Spaceape.”

Many people (me included) wondered if ‘Love Is the Drug’, upon looking at the tracklist, was a cover. Why that title? It’s closer to a house vibe than many people will have heard from you before…

“Well it comes from the world of the ‘Black Sun’, where love has become illicit, like in THX1138 I suppose. We were aware that there were Roxy Music and Grace Jones tracks of the same name, but really, we used it because it fitted it lyrically and in terms of the house vibe of the track as well.”

The ‘Partial Eclipse’ mix of ‘Black Sun’ is pure unadulterated house. What inspired you to head in this direction? What were you listening to/playing?

“My music taste goes in cycles of five or six years and swings between 4/4 and more broken rhythms. At the moment it's in a 4/4-ish zone. The main impetus for pushing me back towards the 4/4 pole of my musical taste was UK funky in 2008.”

Many producers associated with dubstep/garage/funky have moved into making techy house music. Why do you think this is? Why after such innovation and different rhythms do you think people have returned to the 4/4 styles?

“If you immerse yourself in complicated or fractured rhythms you can become immune to their power, so it's nice sometimes to just gravitate to a very basic functional pulse, to cleanse the palate, so to speak. It’s also undeniably danceable, and for a lot of people who didn’t want to follow dubstep's particular version of raving, it was an obviously alternative route, and I think slowly, people are starting to make the sound their own instead of merely rehashing tech-house. But I think Marcus, our label manager at Hyperdub, is right when he says sometimes that there is a lot of "tech house re-branded as post-dubstep" going on just now, and that can be pretty lame.”

‘Green Sun’ is musically a counterpoint to ‘Black Sun’. Why that name? Was it conceived as a companion piece?

“In our 'Black Sun' world, the atmosphere is suffused with strange effervescent and fluorescent chemicals and gases, which are what make the 'Sun' appear in different colours. 'Green Sun' was one of these manifestations. Musically, alongside 'Love Is the Drug' it's the sister of 'Black Sun' - I call it 'flatline house' - they all have these droning synths that just hover in place, but most importantly for me, at least, they ooze colours. (the instrumental of ‘Love Is the Drug’ that appeared on Martyn's Fabric mix last year was called 'Oozy').”

The synth-scape of ‘Kyron’ made me think of Italian horror soundtracks, Moroder’s Scarface soundtrack, or Wendy Carlos’ Clockwork Orange intro. Did you want to evoke that kind of atmosphere, a filmic vibe?

“I didn't consciously try to evoke a filmic vibe. It definitely felt after I made it that in the middle, the track takes a detour into an opium den in which Spaceape talks backwards, and then comes out quite euphorically at the end. We wanted to end with that kind of euphoria. We had been ending our live sets with ‘Kyron’ for the last couple of years, although not in the shape that it ended up.”

Obviously you’ve worked with Fly Lo before. How did ‘Kyron’ itself come about, though?

“Well we made the main synth riff (which is how the track ends) about three or four years ago now, and I tried lots of different versions with beats, but the main synth element was so powerful, that I didn't feel it did it justice to just shove a beat under it — it deserved a more unique composition, and for better or worse, that’s what it got. We like it though.”

Hyperdub continues to be a source of all that’s great and new in music. Does it frustrate you that people still refer to it as a dubstep label when you haven’t released anything conventionally dubstep for ages?

“That’s kind of you to say that.

"The dubstep thing doesn't frustrate me that much except, when it leads people to wrong expectations and then disappointment, i.e. not taking our music on its own terms, but measuring it against something it clearly isn't, at least in a straightforward way. For example, we made an effort to try and drill into people's heads that the Darkstar album had very little to do with dubstep, and that it should be judged on its own terms, and not just in relation to what people might have expected from Hyperdub. But I think the term 'dubstep' is becoming so meaningless that it’s not so much of an issue anymore.”

What’s exciting you in music at the moment? And what have you got coming up on the label?

“I'm really enjoying the music of Hype Williams at the moment. Coming up, we have 12”s from a new producer Ossie, a King Midas remix album (featuring remixes from myself and Spaceape, Mala, Jamie Vex'd, Gang Gang Dance, Night Jewels, Hype Williams, Ras G, dBridge, Echospace and more), a Morgan Zarate album and that should all happen before mid-summer. We are also doing more Hyperdub nights. We recently took over the Berghain in Berlin for 11 hours, with three live sets (Darkstar, King Midas and Kode9 & the Spaceape) and five DJs — that was amazing and I'm keen to do more of these kind of things, where we just take over the whole night and showcase the full spectrum of the music on the label. I'm hoping to do a big one in London at the end of 2011.”

How hard is it to run a label in the current musical climate? Is it getting more difficult or does the internet offer particular advantages?

“It’s certainly becoming harder to sell vinyl, but it’s still worth it. We are about to launch our own webshop to sell digital directly and take a bit of the control back and start to build a closer relationship with our audience instead of always having so many intermediaries.”

A brief bit of background — how did you first get exposed to dance music, and decide you wanted to DJ and produce?

“I started DJing in 1991. I bought my first decks the day after taking my first E. I started producing in 1995, although not very seriously until about 2003. I still consider myself an absolute beginner as a producer, and have so much to learn.”

Is your academic work ongoing? How was your book received and do you intend to write more?

“As expected, it fried a few brains and created a bit of hostility, but it has sold really well, and I think it’s slowly seeping into people’s consciousness by osmosis, even if they didn’t quite understand the way I said things. I'm working on the sequel, which takes a few of the concepts further in more accessible fashion.”

What’s next for Kode9?

“My tour schedule for the next few months is pretty mental, I'm really keen to try and make an instrumental album next - I've never done that before obviously, and I'm up for the challenge. I'm also keen to work on more spoken word, radio fiction-type material. I also have an ongoing art show kind of related to my book, that is opening at Art in General gallery in New York in May. We (myself and my co-conspirator Toby Heys working under the name AUDINT) have done versions of it in Berlin and Sheffield over the last year or two. It’s almost like exploring aspects of our research into Sonic Warfare by building it into a room, sonically, visually and as something you can feel.”