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At Home With: Hybrid Minds

Josh White and Matt Lowe, aka Hybrid Minds, have become one of the biggest acts in drum & bass by sticking to their liquid style and doing things independently. Ahead of their biggest show to date, we head to White’s Hertfordshire home studio to find out how their DIY ethos is paying off

There are points in an artist’s career where they feel on top of the world. Moments when the years of hard graft at the unforgiving coalface of club music begin paying off in ways they never imagined. Anything seems possible. Moments like the day DJ Mag meets up with Hybrid Minds. Quite literally.

“You can never underestimate the power of quietness,” says Josh White, taking a deep breath. His partner-in-vibes Matt Lowe nods sagely. They’re actually talking about quietness in music and the dynamic they’re constantly fine-tuning in their signature blend of liquid drum & bass. But as we catch our breath from the trek up to the peak of Ivinghoe Beacon and suck up the stunning view, his comment takes on another meaning. The quietness is real. It feels like there’s no other human for miles, and all we can hear is the wind, a few birds chirping and the gentle mooch of grazing sheep.

This Hertfordshire beauty-spot provides a crisp vista over a corral of counties. Hertfordshire is east, Bedfordshire is north, Buckinghamshire is west and the Chiltern Hills roll out like a Randall set to the south. Beyond that is London, a grey speck on the blue horizon. Just minutes prior to this moment, that’s exactly where DJ Mag was, dashing for a train in a hectic Euston station filled with commuters, Christmas shoppers and every other type of stressed humanoid the capital has to offer. The train journey, the drive from Tring station and the walk up the hill took an hour. And the view truly is crystal-clear in all directions.

“It’s alright isn’t it?” White understates with a smile and just a smidgeon of home pride. He’s always lived in this area. It’s popular for its commuter belt proximities, and it isn’t as un-drum & bass as it may seem. Goldie had a place nearby for years, and iconic rave den The Sanctuary would be only 20 miles away if it still existed. We can be playing the maddest of shows or touring to these epic cities, but it’s nice to come home. It’s chilled here. They turn the streetlights off at midnight, it’s peaceful, it’s quiet.”

“It’s also fucking freezing!” laughs Lowe with a Midlands burr. He too lives in an equally green and mellow environment, but a few hundred miles north in Yorkshire. Time-wise, his house is a similar trip to Leeds as Josh’s house is to London. “If anything, I want to move somewhere even quieter and more peaceful than I do. We’ve done the city thing. I grew up in Birmingham. I loved it for a period of my life. Now I want peace... although I’d probably end up hating it if everything else wasn’t so hectic."

GREAT MINDS

In a parallel universe, this feature could be taking place in Lowe’s northern neighbourhood. He starts listing hills that have a comparably spectacular view, if we were to visit his leafy ends. “It came down to a size thing, though,” he smirks as we start to amble down the well-worn path, which has seen human activity since the Bronze Age. “And mine’s the smallest.”

He’s talking studios, but once again there’s another level; both Lowe and White are prone to good humour. The day is peppered with their boyish piss-takes and observations. To the passing eye, it might seem like standard banter, but that cheapens the tightness these two men in their early thirties share. It’s another dynamic they’ve been fine-tuning since they joined forces 10 years ago.

Like all creative duos, there’s an element of yin and yang. Lowe’s the more convivial one, the one who’s more likely to be corrupted and taken back to a sesh after a gig. Josh is just a little more serious, the one who takes care of the more practical aspects of being in a professional partnership. When things get too silly he’s the one more likely to pull the conversation back into focus. But only when he needs to. “Don’t get too excited,” he says, deadpan. “Mine’s tiny too.”

As we arrive at his house, in an innocuous cul-de-sac 15 minutes drive from the beacon, we realise he’s not joking. Tucked away in the back of his family home, where he lives with his wife and young daughter (both White and Lowe have become fathers in the last four years), White’s studio is a smart and tidy space that’s comfortable for two men to commandeer, but on the squeezy side if many more bodies joined the party. Most of the time, however, the studio is only occupied by one. Over the years, White and Lowe have developed a system where it’s much more productive and efficient to work apart.

MINDS THE GAP

“We don’t need to be in the studio together. We know where tracks are heading, and we know what the music needs to be saying,” says White as we sit down for coffee in his kitchen. The house is modern but homely. It shows no signs of big dick-swinging DJ trappings; you would never tell it belonged to someone in one of the most popular and in-demand acts in drum & bass right now.

“We’ve got OCD quality control,” agrees Lowe. “It’s hard for us both to like something, to be honest!” Their clear musical vision and stringent filter levels have helped to develop a particular formula to working together online; they both work the same hours (usually 9-5), and use Skype to constantly send each other clips for second opinions. They work on different tracks and share them each day to keep things fresh. “Every day we just flip it, flip it, flip it. It means you get a much better perspective on what each other have done.”

White and Lowe’s workflow accommodates their lifestyles; that precision balance between classic tightly-run young family routines, DJ schedules, their preferred locations on the opposite ends of England, and their rising levels of success and prominence in the genre. It also suits how they became friends in the first place and how they’ve become such a household name in drum & bass. Hertfordshire isn’t the most natural Hybrid Minds habitat. Neither is Yorkshire. The internet is.

“The internet’s gonna be massive!” Lowe jokes as we finish our coffees and consider our next location. The taller member of the duo, he’s been producing for a few years longer than White. Operating under the name Sensa during the late 2000s, he first came through with a string of pretty pungent jump-up tracks. White also has heavier roots than the Hybrid Minds sound might suggest, and was DJing jump-up under the name Haste at the same time. Neither of them had profiles to write home about, but they were known enough to get bookings at Innovation-sized events and run shows on the Ruthless Soundz internet radio station where they eventually met.

“I was about to give up making music,” admits Lowe. “I got into it when I was a kid and everything had changed. I couldn’t see a future for myself in that sound and I was listening to a lot more melodic stuff. Josh had always been into that sound, and he introduced me to a lot of different music. We’d linked on the radio station, discussed making a tune together just to see what would happen. We had no expectations at all... but then UKF uploaded it and things just went nuts.”

MINDS OVER MATTER

That first track was called ‘The Place’. Made under the name Sensa & Haste, it racked up hundreds of thousands of plays on UKF Drum & Bass within weeks. Just into its second year, the bass music platform was still in its first fiery disruptive chapters, during which it made careers of a whole new generation of acts in both drum & bass and dubstep. A sonic stormtrooper at the forefront of the streaming tsunami, UKF was tearing up the rulebook on music consumption and promotion, and breaking down drum & bass’s decades-long hierarchical traditions. It gave fans around the globe access to the music on a level we take for granted now, but was revolutionary back in 2011.

“We wouldn’t be where we are now without UKF,” says White. “Not just in terms of uploading the music, but Luke [Hood, UKF founder] was really helpful. We’d ask him so many questions and he always went the extra mile and helped us with so many things, and tips and advice.” Luke wasn’t alone; another learned, influential individual in Hybrid Minds’ embryonic stages was Marcus Intalex. A key contact of theirs on AIM (another popular internet location White and Lowe called home), the sorely-missed pioneer also gave them perspective and guidance on their formative creations.

“What we’re doing is a bit more commercial and he understood that,” says White, who at one point was speaking to Marcus daily. “He didn’t turn his nose up at it, he knew what we were aiming for and gave us feedback with that in mind.”

“I miss that,” he continues. “We’ve always been very brutal with each other, and it’s very difficult to get that level of honesty off other people. We didn’t agree with Marcus sometimes, but we always valued his opinion. We valued every bit of advice we could get back then, because we didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing.”

The only place in Hybrid Minds’ history where this self-perceived cluelessness is even remotely evident is in that first tune which blew up unexpectedly; ‘The Place’ boasted an uncleared sample and was taken offline and off-sale. But by this point they were deep into their collaborative process and had more (now sample-free) originals to proffer. Their next single ‘Lost’ landed a year later in March 2012. Landing on Shimon’s AudioPorn, it was their first single under the name Hybrid Minds, and it landed at the perfect time. 

Drum & bass in 2012 was characterised by a wealth of similarly deep, poignant tunes; ‘Oblique’ turned Sabre, Stray & Halogenix into Ivy Lab overnight, Calyx & TeeBee levelled up with ‘Elevate This Sound’, and SpectraSoul were a veritable vibe machine. ‘Lost’ became part of that deeper d&b wave, and led to a string of releases on a variety of labels, culminating in a debut album, ‘Mountains’, just 18 months later on Spearhead Recordings. Featuring a wide range of vocalists and MCs and flexing a deeper, song-based style, once again the timing was impeccable; a great deal of vocal drum & bass was aimed more towards radio airplay and the mainstream charts in 2013, but ‘Mountains’ was a smoother, less obvious and not so top-line driven take on the sound that still stands the test of time today. It’s a sound they continued to hone post-album; while the prominent drum & bass cycle moved on to neuro, then jump-up, then jungle, their productions have remained unapologetically liquid.

MINDS A PINT, MATE

“We always felt we were the outcasts,” explains Lowe. “We never really felt like we had a place. We were on labels, but we weren’t part of a crew. So that’s how we ended up going down the independent route. We don’t fit in anywhere, so why not do it ourselves?” 

We’ve now moved on to both the most exciting aspect of Hybrid Minds’ journey-so-far and to our third and final location of the day; a snug boozer over the road. Log fire, low ceiling, decent menu; it’s the type of pub you could easily lose a whole day in. Being so close to White’s house, you’d assume the bar staff know his name. But with family life, a packed schedule and their own label to run, he barely has time to indulge. Hybrid Music launched in May 2016. Yet again, the timing was tight; it was the very start of an en-masse indie migration. Lenzman’s The North Quarter, DLR’s Sofa Sound, The Prototypes’ Get Hype, Alix Perez’s 1985 were just some of the labels launched the same year.

“It was interesting, a lot of people felt the same way at the same time,” agrees White. “From our perspective, we were sending tracks out to labels, waiting for responses and thinking, ‘Why are we tying ourselves in with labels? We can do this ourselves’. I’m good friends with someone who’s up for label managing, I can do the artwork, we’re already talking to the guys who run the YouTube channels. Rather than being part of a collective of artists where you’re waiting for space on the release schedule and have to go through the A&R process, we could do whatever the fuck we wanted to.”

Hybrid Music is exclusively based on Hybrid Minds material. It allows the duo to fine-tune their sound at their own pace, on their own terms, and it launched with their biggest track to date. ‘Touch’ with Tiffani Juno is a tune of such anthemic proportions it has its own meme, and has caused volume-down crowd sing-alongs at every show they’ve done since. It was followed by their second album, ‘Elements’. Once again working with more vocalists, it came with its own headline tour and a new performance concept where vocalists — usually Charlotte Haining and MC Tempza — join them on stage and host the set.

“It’s about letting people do what they do best,” White explains. “When we send a track to a vocalist, we send it to them because they’re good at singing and creating top-lines and choruses, which is an incredible craft, quite frankly. I don’t think singers get the credit they deserve. Doing it this way was much more natural than a cheesy PA-style show.”

Since 2018, it’s been known as the Outline show. They launched the concept at d&b motherfest Let It Roll, an event renowned for its love of the heavier side of the genre. “It was dead minutes before we went on,” grimaces Lowe. “We thought, ‘That’s it, we’re done’. Then we looked up and it was fucking packed!” The same thing happened on an even larger scale at the festival in 2019. Taking place in the massive Portal main stage, it was another roadblock. 

“It takes you back a bit,” says White. “We’re up against these massive guys, going on after S.P.Y or Randall. You think, ‘We’re playing liquid, the energy level is going to drop, it’s going to clear out’. But that’s never happened. The place packs out and it’s a confidence boost.”

MINDS YOUR OWN BUSINESS

Nothing has boosted their confidence quite as much as their most recent Outline tour announcement. Another UK-wide excursion happening this spring, the dates include a show on 20th March at London’s premiership 6,000-cap industrial strength rave den Printworks. It sold out in 24 hours of announcing, without any other names on the line-up besides theirs. To put things in perspective, the biggest DJ in the genre — Andy C — took a few weeks to sell his show out, and he was flanked by a titan-topped line-up. “We’ve tried to work out the science behind it, but we can’t,” laughs Lowe. “We have no idea how this happened.”

In hindsight it may well seem like perfect timing once again, but for now it’s certainly proof of one thing; Hybrid Minds are one of the most popular and in-demand acts in the genre. No other d&b act has achieved such a quick sell-out on such a large venue. And they’ve achieved it by doing things on their own conditions, staying true to their own sound and developing an impressive following that’s not related to any genre trend or any big label backing.

Their tracks don’t even see that much major league DJ support; in a scene where the biggest DJs are chasing much louder, heavier shock-andawe anthems, the softer sound of Hybrid Minds releases are often overlooked. Yet on Spotify and YouTube, they enjoy some of the biggest streaming numbers among their peers. Now, that fanbase — which is characterised by a predominantly female-led crowd, another feat unheard of in drum & bass — is keen to see them perform.

“It’s like all our wins have been directly related to us, rather than anyone else. And we’ve organically grown this following along the way,” says White as we finish our final pints and realise it’s gone dark outside. A loyal, and fast-rising, following isn’t the only thing they’ve grown; Hybrid Minds now have a team. For the first time in 10 years they have management. A considerable pro step-up that matches their major venue upgrade, it’s a manoeuvre that takes White off the daily business operations an act the size of Hybrid Minds has to commit to (often upwards of three admin-soaked days a week), and gets him back in the studio for the 9-5 slack-flipping process they’ve been fine-tuning across 200 miles for years... ready for the next, and potentially most exciting, chapter in their career so far.

From their roots as a young duo seeking advice from industry sages, finding their sound, finding their way and stoically sticking to it, they’ve bucked every trend drum & bass has thrown at them and now, as liquid looks highly likely to take the driving seat in drum & bass’s perpetual cycles in 2020/2021, they’re in a prime position as one of the most authentic and long-standing acts in the sound from the last decade.

“I suppose liquid is growing again,” White considers. “The fact we seem to be doing better and better would suggest that, I guess. But for me it’s like this; you’ve got these new guys like Benny L, Bou and Kanine killing it. There’s this whole new injection of younger producers coming through. Whereas 10 years ago those young producers would have gone into dubstep, they’re all coming into drum & bass, and it all seems a bit punk rock. It’s like, ‘Fuck how sonically intricate the tune is, let’s just make music we love’. That’s switched the game.

“Producers aren’t trying to impress producers anymore, they’re making tunes for people to like, a lot of them are self-releasing and they’re developing big followings on their own. It’s woken everyone up. The new generation of ravers aren’t following the labels and believing their hierarchy of artists, they’re going to shows and seeing who they want. It’s a lot more raver-focused now, not brand-focused, and that’s an amazing thing to be part of, whatever way the cycles go.” 

Not just part of, but at the forefront; the unswerving, fiercely independent way Hybrid Minds have always operated since they first emerged, is now the benchmark many of the new generation aim for. 10 years into their craft and their graft at the unforgiving coalface of club music is paying off in ways they never imagined, and it does seem like anything is possible for them. Even several pints deep into a rare afternoon at home away from the studio or airports, they are on top of the world. And their view is crystal-clear in all directions.

Dave Jenkins is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Pics: Louisa Tratalos

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