Recognise: 96 Back
96 Back sprints across a spectrum of styles in his electrifying Recognise mix, and chats to Kamila Rymajdo about his early diet of Actress and post-punk, finding confidence in unexplored sonic territory, and his new album for Local Action
96 Back insists that he’s not a good afterparty DJ. “When someone passes me their phone and says, ‘Put something on’, I’m awful, because I will put on the wrong thing. I’ll put on what I want to listen to,” he says, over coffee in his home base of Manchester. “I’m quite bad at fun; I can do heavy and serious and sad.”
Melancholia ripples through 96 Back’s music. There’s last year’s pseudo break-up record, ‘ADRISM’, and the first two installments of a trilogy of releases on Local Action: ‘Flex Time’, a five-track EP featuring rappers Cadence Weapon and Iceboy Violet, and ‘9696 Dream’, a 10-track cassette. But “heavy and serious and sad” is just one element of his technically ambitious sound. Whether he’s drawing on bleepy electro, IDM, techno or grime, the 22-year-old spins his references into new, exhilarating and often joyful formations.=
At such a young age, alongside his releases, 96 Back has already collaborated with Special Request, played a Boiler Room set, and run a successful club-night at Wire in Leeds. It’s difficult to believe that the Sheffield-born producer and DJ didn’t plan on becoming a music artist, nor did he listen to much dance music growing up. Favouring genres like post-punk and math rock was somewhat of a rebellion against his club promoter father, Jive Turkey’s Matthew Swift.
But after contracting pneumonia at 15, 96 Back was housebound for a short period, and started going through his dad’s record collection. He found ‘R.I.P.’ by British electronic artist Actress; he was attracted to the cover art, but it was the music that blew him away. He thinks ‘R.I.P.’ is “one of the most influential UK records to come out in the last 10 years”.
Still, even if experimental electronic music was beginning to seep into his world, 96 Back’s creative interests lay elsewhere. “I hated the idea of making music, it just didn’t appeal to me at all,” he says. What he did like was skateboarding and drawing. The latter took him to Leeds and Bristol, where he studied art and graphic design. “I was really into super, hyper-realistic drawings, because I like sitting and doing something for 30 hours,” he says.
When he did start making music, driven by a desire to master every program on his computer — learning to code, edit videos and do 3-D design, which he says with a self-deprecating laugh, he can “put on my CV” — he began to enjoy it because of the process, starting from nothing and gradually getting better. “I like seeing improvement in stuff,” he sums up.
His first production was a vaporwave track, which he made using the same Sony Vegas video editing software that he created skateboarding videos with. “It took ages and it was really shit, but I was happy with it,” he says. Soon, 96 Back moved onto electro, releasing his first EP, 2018’s ‘Provisional Electronics’, on cult Sheffield label Central Processing Unit. “I like that record a lot,” he says, “but I don’t think I’d be able to make it again because I’d over produce it,” he explains. Indeed, ‘Provisional Electronics’ is probably 96 Back’s most straightforward release.
Since then, he’s been obsessed with his tracks being “everything all at once”. He elaborates: “I wanted everything I wrote to be the hardest tune ever made, the saddest tune ever made, the most fun, weird and abstract tune possible,” he beams. This focus on extremes has seeped into his working process; as lockdown began, he was unable to physically go into BIMM Institute, the school he’s attending in Manchester for a degree in music production.
“It got to a point where I was just sleeping three or four hours a night and I wouldn’t leave the house for a week,” he remembers. Interestingly, he makes even more music when he’s experiencing a creative block. “I have to do it until something good happens,” he explains: this June, he wrote between 50 and 60 tracks. “I’d finish a tune and be like, ‘I don’t like this, next one’, and end up writing three tunes in one day,” he says.
The period followed a long spell working on his forthcoming debut album proper. ‘Love Letters Nine Through Six’, due out on November 5th, is the final part of the trilogy of records on Local Action. Created around the theme of love letters, 96 Back says the album is like “a journal about a lot of things that I love about dance music, about music in general”. He teases ideas: there will be some Jersey Club-style beats, some ambient music, and tracks with his own vocals too. It’s an album that he hopes will “capture the feeling I felt when I listened to something like Jam City’s ‘Classical Curves’ for the first time, but trying to distil it through the sound I’ve established [for myself]”.
That sound is focused around melody. In 2019, he was making “functional” dance tracks while on the train to gigs, ready to play that night. But he can’t work like that anymore. “If I don’t write something with a really intense focus on melodic ideas, I struggle,” he says.
“Pretty much every tune I write now, I’ll write all the MIDI for it before I do any sound design,” he continues. A big inspiration for this was Oneohtrix Point Never’s ‘Garden Of Delete’ album. “Before he released it, he put out all the MIDI on some website under the name of a fake band; you could download it and put your own sounds on it. No matter what sounds you put on, the core idea of the songs was still there, and they were still powerful.”
A turn towards songs (as opposed to club-ready tracks) is also something he credits to the encouragement of Local Action boss Tom Lea. They’ve been working closely since he signed to the label: they’ve released two EPs, 2020’s ‘Sugilite’ and 2021’s ‘Flex Time’, and the aforementioned ‘9696 Dream’. When he’s working on music, they talk multiple times a week.
“Initially the album was really dancey, really clubby,” 96 Back says, “but I think Tom must have seen something in it that I wanted to do but was a bit frightened to do. We pulled out a lot of the club tracks and I started writing songs.”
Still, he’s not turning his back on the club per se. In fact, 96 Back is excited about the post-pandemic landscape within club culture. “We’re in a unique position with clubbing at the minute that will never happen again, which is that, for the first time in particular areas of dance music, pretty much everyone coming out has never been clubbing before,” he says. His first gig back after the pandemic lockdowns lifted made him realise this. “I thought, ‘What a unique situation: these are people who aren’t used to the baked-in traditions of what nights out are, and of how people play’.”
He’s interested to see if “it will inspire any new modus operandi or how music is perceived in live settings”. Last month, in the lead up to the release of ‘Love Letters Nine Through Six’, 96 Back found out himself, when he performed a live audio-visual set at Sheffield's No Bounds Festival. All going well, it's a show he'll take elsewhere in future.
In the meantime, you can listen to 96 Back's Recognise mix below.
Marta De Pascalis ‘Sonus Ruinae’
aya ‘an safe heavenn’
Pierre Bourne ‘Had a Feeling’
Sileni ‘Bouncing Octagonal Fragments’
Poly++ ‘Product Name’
DBridge ‘Blush Response (ft. Instramental)’
Ivy Lab ‘Press Play’
Mentah ‘If You Need A Name’
Instramental ‘Watching You’
Jam City ‘B.A.D’
Happa ‘Digital Recall’
Flaty ‘Graf Ruin’
Icarus ‘Dolphin Lylic’
Brainwaltzera ‘Ten Ton Fenix (JASSS Remix)’
Macintosh Plush ‘Sick & Panic’
Model Home x His Name Is Alive ‘Candy Coloured Dub’