Summer is in full swing, Ibiza still rocks and festival season has blossomed into hundreds of live-music infused explosions, happening in far-flung spots all over the globe. At many of these events, EDM still rules, but somewhere in the middle of the Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat regime there’s a growing soundtrack to a more chilled side of life emerging.
“I think there is a chill-out renaissance happening right now,” says Melodica Records boss Chris Coco, who just released his new Coco Steel & Lovebomb record 'The Chillout Album', on his own label. “And I think this chill-out renaissance is all to do with dubstep.”
According to Chris, who’s been making and playing ambient electronic music for over two decades, dubstep started out “pretty spacey” before moving into “wobble”.
“That’s when Radio 1 suddenly decided it was cool,” says Chris, who formerly co-presented the station’s Blue Room radio show with Rob Da Bank. “Then Radio 1 started playing all this ‘wah, wah’ dubstep stuff that sounded the same. And that’s when all the introspective producers from this genre sat in their bedrooms for even longer and started making really spacey introspective music. The best example of that is James Blake.”
And, Chris says, if you listen to the kind of music James Blake is making “then you’re very close to original ambient stuff”.
LIFE IS A LOOP
When we’re talking about ‘original ambient stuff’, it’s tough to know how far to go back. Ambient electronic music first emerged in the 1970s, when Robert Fripp and Brian Eno popularized the sound while experimenting with tape loop methods. German bands Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream were making synthesiser-orientated music at around the same time. You can hear elements of those origins in the ambient music being made today.
And now there are artists such as Nils Frahm too who are making ambient electronic music using classic instruments — in Frahm’s case, the piano.
“A lot of the artists making this new kind of chill-out are making long pieces of music with lots of reverb and big synthy sections,” says Chris. “It’s a small step from what a lot of young bedroom producers are doing that traces back to The Orb and the likes of Brian Eno.”
Chris’s new chill-out album has ended up being a kind of update of the debut Coco, Steel & Lovebomb LP ‘It’, that came out on Warp Records in 1994. “When I started recording this album I remember I went to see Gravity at the IMAX cinema,” says Chris.
“In that film they do that classic thing where one of the characters is in space and then they’re listening to country music. Country music is very much based on the earth and the ground and territory. Again it’s this juxtaposition between space and country music that was so brilliant, that made me come back and destroy half of the stuff I’d done.”
What he ended up with was “a kind of homage to 1990s chill-out rooms and lost weekends at festivals” segued into one 44 minute and 44 second-long piece of music that weaves melodies and grooves with found sound and analogue noise. It’s the perfect soundtrack to a sunny Sunday afternoon, lying in the grass, looking at the sky and just listening to the sweet sounds, abstract voices and cool beats.
“Deekie, James McArthur and Haraket who release on my label all popped in while I was recording it to contribute too,” says Chris. “And it was only after I finished making it that I thought about the fact it was 20 years since the release of the first Coco, Steel & Lovebomb album. And that’s when I also thought, ‘Maybe there’s a kind of loop thing going on here?’”
APPETITE FOR CALM
Also making the case for the chill-out renaissance are Scottish ambient electronica duo Boards of Canada, who released their chart-topping album 'Tomorrow’s Harvest' last year, despite never playing at any festivals or doing any press.
Dubby electronica outfit Thievery Corporation have just released a new bossa nova-themed album called 'Saudade', on their Eighteenth Street Lounge label. Future Loop Foundation’s Mark Barrott recently put out a solo album called 'Sketches From An Island', recorded in Ibiza using “weird percussion”, synths and slide guitar. Ashley Casselle, previously a purveyor of techy house music, is playing and making more chilled music “in a move away from the relentless harder-edged music we've been hearing for a while”. And stalwart ambient DJ Mixmaster Morris — who also makes music as Irresistible Force — is busier than ever.
“In 1989 I was at Land of Oz with Alex Patterson, Youth and Jimmy Cauty (who co-founded The Orb), and they were doing something very interesting in the upstairs room,” says Morris, who curated the Heaven stage in the Shangri-La area at Glastonbury earlier this year. “When they moved out of the room, I started DJing in it, developed it in different ways. After that party I ended up doing chill-out rooms at every big party in the early 1990s.
But I was also inspired in the first place by being at techno parties where there was nothing but endless, dull kick-drums ad infinitum and I just wanted to take all the stuff that was being left out and put it on in the other room.”
Morris was one of the people involved in the Big Chill festival when it started in 1994 and was held every summer for 15 years before it stopped in 2013. Morris still hosts his Nubient party — every Sunday afternoon at the Big Chill bar in London’s Shoreditch. It’s packed out every week and, says Morris, he’s noticing that there’s more clubs devoted to playing ambient music springing up all over the place. And many of them are happening in America, the home of EDM.
“People doing loft ambient parties in Brooklyn that I’ve been hearing about,” says Morris. “There are some ambient parties in Seattle and I’m getting more calls from America from people trying to set up gigs than I have done for about 10 years. Parties like the ambient techno do Cloudwatch in Baltimore — that was a really good party from 20 years ago — have started again.”
The thing is, says Morris, that since it first surfed the zeitgeist in the early 1990s, chill-out or ambient music has never stopped being popular, but there have been less places to play it in the past decade.
“When the smoking ban came in at clubs it really killed the chill-out room,” says Morris. “But I also think that there were maybe some big name DJs that didn’t like the fact lots of people liked to stay in the chill-out room in a club, rather than maybe hear their set.”
The ‘chillout room’ first emerged as a feature in a club off the back of the success of ambient electronica bands such as The Orb and the Ozric Tentacles, who both reached their zenith in the early 1990s. People would go to see these bands play live and sit down at their gigs.
By the mid-1990s the chill-out room in a club, or chill-out zone at a rave, was a feature of nearly every big party. Around that time, in 1997, Rob da Bank’s Sunday session Sunday Best based its whole ethos around the concept of the chill-out room.
At those Sunday afternoon parties — held at the Tearooms Des Artistes in Clapham — a then-unknown Robbie would play everything from Rotary Connection’s ‘I Am the Black Gold of the Sun’ to The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’, woven into slices of hip-hop, trip-hop, and anything else that happened to fit into the ‘no house music’ format.
That party spawned the Sunday Best record label. And one of the first big releases on Sunday Best was Groove Armada’s ‘At the River’ — a meandering, summery song, complete with a lazy trombone solo, that summed up the spirit of the chill-out movement in the late-1990s.
“Andy Cato’s album is one of the best chill-out albums I’ve ever heard actually, and it just came out last year,” says Mixmaster Morris, discussing the solo album from the trombone-playing half of Groove Armada. “He’s made an album of what sounds like pure Ibiza chill-out music to me and it’s the kind of thing that will still be as good 10 years from now.”
Cato’s album ‘Time and Places’, that came out on Apollo Records last year, took nearly 20 years to complete, he says. It’s music to relax to, and there’s not a single Groove Armada-style tune on it.
“It’s an audio diary of the last 20 years and a lot of the tunes on the album are inspired by after-parties, hotels and bus journeys,” he says.
“A lot of them were tunes I’d started that had then been lost, left or just stashed away. I finally found them and tried to finish them. While I was working on them I played the music to someone and they said ‘This sounds great, you should release it’. So I did.”
And talking about bus journeys, it was the good old London night bus service that became the inspiration for the ‘Night Bus’ compilation — a collection of atmospheric, ethereal, ambient, modern music — put together by Chris Coco and his film-maker son Wesley Stokes-Mellor, released last year on Chris’s Melodica label.
“I was in the process of recording my new album and I was listening to a lot of music and being sent lots too,” says Chris. “That's when I had the idea about making the kind of music you’d listen to on your way back from the club or the party, maybe on the bus on the way home. When you’re on a night bus you want to escape but not completely escape. The idea was that you’d accept there’s sound around you but you have your own music. That was the basic idea, which is what ambient music is really.”
Chris found that he was getting sent a lot of tracks from young producers from the UK. “I noticed there were a lot of people around South East London who were making this kind of music, independently of each other,” he says. “I think that is a city thing too. You’re in this big city so when you make this music, you do the opposite of the stress of the city. You want to make something that sounds more chilled out.”
Included on Chris’s 'Night Bus' compilation are tracks from Melodica artists Amane, Haraket, Jamie Issac and Deekie. “All those tracks on Chris’s 'Night Bus' compilation are chill-step tracks,” says Mixmaster Morris. “It’s basically dubstep with chilled undertones.”
This calmer version of dubstep — a perfect example is Mt. Eden’s gorgeously slo-fi ‘Sierra Leone' — is a London sound that sums up the best bits of spending summer in the city.
A lot of the chill-step music being made now — by artists such as Synkro, Ryan Hemsworth, Deebs and Shlohmo — is created by producers who were too young to remember the first 1990s wave of chill-out.
“It’s just like how younger people are discovering Aphex Twin now that weren’t born when he made those records,” says Mixmaster Morris.
“Skrillex says Aphex Twin is his favourite artist so all these young kids go and check him out. And when they get into him, they dig deeper, get inspired and start making a new music. It just comes full circle.”
The circle keeps spinning. So, if you haven’t already, slow down for a minute and have a listen.
THE NEW CHILL
Chris Coco selects four artists/outfits whose music sums up what’s great about the new wave of chill-out music…
“Joe Synkro makes amazingly spacey electronic music, it's not really chill-out but it fits into that musical world perfectly, his stuff is like the glue for a DJ set that holds everything else together.”
“In the world where modern classical-meets-ambient-meets-chill-out, he is a master, perfect for those Cafe Del Mar sunset moments. He's on the amazing Erased Tapes label.”
“I don't know much about these guys [MCDE and Marcus Worgull], but their self-titled album on Kompakt is a great example of modern chill-out electronica.”
“His new album 'Sketches From An Island' is an update on the notion of Balearic, playing with the past to make something really fresh.”
“He’s making wonderful new emotional electronica and I worked with him on my first 'Night Bus compilation'. On the second I am working with top new producer Ojan from SE London-based band Haraket."