The shape of things to come: Ivy Lab talk change, d&b and breaking America
Influenced by hip-hop and halftime drum & bass, Ivy Lab and their label 20/20 LDN have a new vision for future beats. With their debut album and Transatlantic connections, they’re making it a reality...
"I didn't really want to do it. Why on earth would I want to hook up with two kids?" laughs Gove Kidao. One half of the UK beat phenomenon Ivy Lab previously answering to the name Sabre, he sits in front of a mixing desk alongside Ivy Lab partner J Fogel, or Stray as he's sometimes known. Taking a moment to consider what may never have been, they both lean back in their studio chairs and pause. DJ Mag soaks up the scenario; it's late Friday afternoon, we're in Ivy Lab's lab the mood is mellow, comtemplative, unhurried.
The low-level studio glow certainly doesn’t stymie the afternoon’s vibe, but the measured ambience should largely be attributed to these factors; they’re about to drop their most significant body of work to date in the form of their debut album ‘Death Don’t Always Taste Good’, and host a 20/20 LDN US club tour. This is also the first face-to-face interview Gove and J have done since ex-member Laurence Reading (Halogenix) left the outfit.
A lot to discuss, then, even before we get to the matter of their remarkable rise, their current stature across numerous musical fields from hip-hop to drum & bass, and the ever-divisive matter of how their music should be categorised. But the main influence on the temper of the room is that these are the type of deep fellows Gove and J are. Thoughtful, articulate, pragmatic and focused, this was never going to be a hypey 20-minute visit as part of a cynical album promo pack-em-in-churn-em-out press day: these men are peeping over the brink of what could potentially be a revolutionary chapter for Ivy Lab and 20/20 operations. They take their story, their stance and the significance of their current situation seriously.
To appreciate this current situation, we should understand the random chain of events as to how they came to be here in the first place. And to do that, we need to go back to 2010 when Gove, J and Laurence first started collaborating after being connected, or at least in loose contact, since the mid-2000s. The fact they even crossed paths in the first place is a sheer case of coincidence. Gove’s younger brother and Laurence’s older brother met at university, knew their siblings shared a love for drum & bass, and so made connections. At this stage J and Laurence were teenagers and Gove, who was already enjoying a peer-respected position in the genre, was in his mid-20s.
In hindsight it’s fitting that the two remaining members of Ivy Lab were the first to collaborate. The session was so fortuitous they created an entire tune; the undulating, unreleased roller ‘Nature Nocturn’. As good as it was however, neither J (who was studying Maths and Philosophy at Leeds university), or Gove (who, as well as being a producer and DJ, was also working as a TV news journalist reporting from war-torn locations) had much of an inclination
to form anything solid. Perhaps a little ironically, it was the now-departed Laurence who solidified the collective. Having sent demos to J (who by now had released a small amount of singles on Critical Records), and already in contact with Gove through their brothers, it was when the three of them first started working together that slight traces of what would eventually become Ivy Lab began to appear. Yet it wouldn’t be until 2012, when their first release reached bona fide anthem status — the smouldering, melancholy stepper ‘Oblique’ — that they truly formed an alliance.
And several years after that, that the Ivy Lab beast as we know it now, would really begin to rear its head. “The success of ‘Oblique’ gave us the confidence that the work we’d done was good enough to go forward,” reflects J. “It was only when that track came out and had the accolade it did that we decided to form as a trio at all.”
“It’s funny,” Gove considers. “I wasn’t sure about working with these guys or doing anything in drum & bass at all. I’d had a bit of a hissy-fit about my career; by then my album had been out for two years and I already felt it was a mistake. I felt jaded about the whole thing, so my wife and I were moving away to Thailand for an adventure. When ‘Oblique’ came out, I didn’t see the groundswell of support it had, because we were in this very unnatural situation where J was in Leeds, Laurence was in London and I was in Thailand. We’d send over bits on Dropbox along with these super- long emails about one single snare. It’s peculiar to think that we kept this process going for over two years. ‘Oblique’, ‘Make It Clear’, ‘Afterthought’... all those early tracks were done in that way.”
Their position and working scenario as fractured as their beats, Gove’s return to the UK in 2014 was the final piece of the puzzle. If Laurence’s arrival solidified them as a trio, Gove’s state of mind, work situation and move back to London galvanised them as a tightly-knit crew. A crew with a mindset, ethos and workflow that set the foundations for everything they’ve achieved since. “While I was in Thailand, a lot of my TV work in London disappeared. I’d come back and started to panic, not knowing what to do,” admits Gove. “I owe a lot to J and Laurence because of this, and the music we were making gave me a second wind. I shouldn’t have had a second bite of the cherry at 33! Who else has stopped, gone away for a few years and come back in and done this? I felt cheeky doing it. But that’s just it... Ivy Lab was built on strength in numbers. I still had a good phone book, these guys had great ideas and hunger. It really worked for that reason. We needed each other. There was self-interest and correlation in our creative vision.”
This is where the Ivy Lab story really kicks in: the trio had formed a pact with a firm vision and understanding of each other’s strengths. The success of their debut single may have taken them by surprise, but by now they knew their capabilities and started to explore them much more confidently. Unsurprisingly, it’s here, around 2014/15, that they started hosting their own 20/20 LDN parties, and their first halftime tracks dribbled out: first ‘Sunday Crunk’, a track that’s developed its own narrative by way of a monolithic Mefjus remix, then a series of beatsy refixes of hip-hop and jungle classics such as Cam’Ron’s ‘Oh Boy’ and New Blood’s ‘Worries In The Dance’.
The following year saw more halftime bumpers on their ‘20 Questions’ EP. Ranging from the slimy, weirdo funk of ‘Slinky’ to the primordial wooziness of ‘Taste The Mango’, if the message wasn’t clear already, these sealed the deal: a new Ivy Lab sound was cooking and the trio had unapologetically switched from shivering, sinewy barbed soul two-step to swaggering toxic space beats. By 2016 they’d launched 20/20 LDN as a label, with an album-sized mixtape collection of their own halftime recipes (‘20/20 LDN Vol 1’). They also released their last known drum & bass EP (‘Arkestra’ with Alix Perez).
“We’ve not made a big decision about never writing it again,” clarifies J. “It’s just we don’t write it at the moment and have no plans to.”
“We have contempt for people who overstay their welcome in genres of music they’re not able to achieve high standards in,” Gove adds. “I fear if we went back and did 2012-15-era Ivy Lab now, it would feel a little pastiche and underwhelming. We’d be disappointed at us polluting the drum & bass landscape with music not up to the previous standard we’d been known for. Occasionally I try and make some d&b, but I’ll be the first to admit I’ve lost my way.”
They might have lost their way making drum & bass, but they certainly haven’t lost their stature within that scene. As one of the key protagonists in the latest chapter of the halftime movement, Ivy Lab remain relevant (and regularly booked) in the drum & bass scene, even though they haven’t released anything remotely traditional in almost two years. For a while there was a sense that Ivy Lab wanted to move away from such close associations style of music they no longer made — the thoroughbred halftime ‘Peninsula’ EP on Critical, a label they’d largely released d&b on, was a particularly strong statement — but recent developments have changed their perspective.
“There was a point in time when we were trying to make a big song and dance about not being drum & bass anymore, yeah,” admits J. “But one of the things that’s happened in the last 12 months that makes me mind the drum & bass tag less is that the US has really opened up to us, and our fans over there aren’t as aware of our d&b history. When we’re out there, there’s the odd person who might ask for it, but most people over there have got into us after we’d transitioned into the music that they see as future beats/hip-hop. They group us in with that sound naturally.”
Interestingly, this US migration was accurately forecast by Ivy Lab themselves last time they were interviewed in DJ Mag exactly two years ago, in May 2016. Weighing in on a discussion with Om Unit, dBridge, Kid Drama and Amit about the future of the then- burgeoning halftime sound, Gove stated: “In America there’s a parallel scene that’s totally unconnected to us but coming up in the same lineage musically. Bleep Bloop, Tsuruda and G Jones; those guys are essentially playing to a similar audience to us in the UK and Europe. These two worlds haven’t merged yet. But it’s only a matter of time before they do.”
"We like unsettling people, but doing it in a way that’s kinetic"
Soldiers Of Fortuna
The connections fully clicked a year ago. Since early 2017, Ivy Lab have found themselves flying Stateside on a near-monthly basis, supported by the bastions of the US beat scene and booked in with Barclay Crenshaw (aka Claude VonStroke) for a studio collab this summer. They’ve also been anointed in the cloisters of the ultimate beats scene church, Low End Theory, where acts famously only play half-hour sets. Ivy Lab played an hour.
“That’s testament to how much belief they have in what we can contribute,” Gove states. “We’re not outsiders trying to impinge on their sacred grounds; we’re seen as peers. Don’t get us wrong, we’re not calling up Flying Lotus for a collaboration, but we are making American music and selling it back to the States, and that could have been treated with resistance! The last time the UK did that with hip-hop, America hated it. Most of those UK guys had such a hard run with that. Imagine going there and being turned down in favour of a domestic vision of the genre, and being told you don’t fit in? That could have been us two years ago. We could have presented our take on what are ostensibly LA ideas and been told to get the fuck back to London. They could have been like that... but they weren’t.”
Ivy Lab’s acceptance into Stateside beat circles is indicative of their success. But it’s how they’re using this opportunity that’s symptomatic of their attitude and approach. Rather than using this time under the spotlight to solely expose themselves, they’re harnessing it to develop their 20/20 brand and the artists they’re nurturing with it, with a 12-date tour across North America taking along a selection of rising artists from the label including Paint and Deft.
“Some people have asked us why we didn’t do the hard-ticket model with our own headline shows,” admits Gove. “Of course we’d love to do that, but not right now. We want to pay for other artists to come out and get exposure. We could have made a good payday, but spending the money on the label is a much bigger proposition for the future. We want to be that go-to label in this sound and get to the stage where, if you’re a producer making cool future-facing hip-hop-based beat music of any bpm, your first preference would be to try and get it on 20/20 LDN. That can’t happen if we’re not established and active in the US. So we’re leveraging the good will for Ivy Lab to help the wider cause.”
This balance of pragmatism and selfless belief in the music backs up why they famously never give away which member is behind any given Ivy Lab production. Gove explains how “the track, its lifespan and its prospects are the most important thing”, while J explains that “it’s about where the music ends up and how it’s framed much more than personal success.” They’re also acutely aware, almost cheerily acceptant, that their time at the forefront of the US/UK beat game won’t last forever.
“It would be greedy and senseless to think otherwise,” states J. “For me, that point comes when I hear other artists doing that style, fulfilling that world better than I can. At that point you need to move to other things. There’s that desire to be at the cutting edge and at the top of what we do, but we also know that some young cat is going to come along and do what we’re doing so much better. And when they do, we’d like them to be on 20/20 LDN.” “Come and knock us off our perch!” grins Gove. “We want people to come and do this. We want the music to move forward.”
Death Becomes Them
Their perch is safe for now. ‘Death Don’t Always Taste Good’ is evidence. A bewitching 12-track odyssey that sucks you in with its eerie haunted house atmospheres, chews you up with its body-slugging, kinetic beats and washes you down with sudden blasts of almost overwhelming emotion, weirdness and outer-planetary experiences, even within the most innovative echelons of the beatsphere, this lives in its own lane. The absurd crumbly fudge bass and killer vocal sample on ‘Cake’, the pranged-out graveyard stepper ‘Astral Pirate Theme’ and the roboticised trip to Monty Python’s argument room on the angular (and later heavenly jazzed) ‘Calculate’ are by far some of the most accomplished, singular and subtly bizarre pieces of work they’ve created. This development is partly down to the line-up change, but it’s also down to them being in an album mindset, venturing further from the dancefloor, embracing the scope of an LP and tailoring their now-signature sense of creepy consistency in more detail than they’ve been able to before.
“The idea of a creepy haunted house does permeate through the album,” agrees J. “Slightly b-movie, isn’t it? That was a concerted effort. Or it became a concerted effort when it started to take shape and informed the samples we took later on in the album.” “It’s the creepiness, it’s the melancholy, it’s the sadness,” Gove lists. “We like unsettling people, but doing it in a way that’s kinetic — in a way that you can move to as well as listen to statically. Just like a lot of the music we listen to outside of DJing. It’s pretty dark and unsettling music. But that’s our niche at the moment, and we should capitalise on it while we’re still good at it. It comes back to overstaying your welcome. We’re not doing that now. But that time will come and things will date. We know 20/20 will fold at some point in time. It might be five years, it might 20 or 30. But it will. Or it will evolve...”
Taking a moment to consider what hasn’t even been yet, they both lean back in their studio chairs and pause again. DJ Mag soaks up the scenario once more; it’s late Friday afternoon, we’re in Ivy Lab’s lab, the mood is mellow, contemplative, unhurried...
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