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Pinch interview

On the history of dubstep and 'Fabriclive 61'...

Pinch, aka Rob Ellis, boss of the trail-blazing Tectonic Records, is one of a few heads in a unique position to dissect the arc of dubstep from its underground roots, cobbled together from overlapping variants of bass-heavy dance music, to its current arrival on the US stage as the soundtrack to sweaty, moshing youth.

Born in Bristol, a city whose clubs have long shaken to a soundsystem culture that began with reggae, and switched onto dubstep’s embryonic stages after hearing Kode9 at London’s iconic FWD>>, he’s since been there every inch of the way, spreading the gospel whether it be through his expansive DJ sets, weighty productions or nurturing of game-changing artists.

He’s also mixed the superb ‘Fabriclive 61’ (out now). We caught up to find out his candid opinions on dubstep, past, present and future.

Can you try and encapsulate the feeling you left with after hearing Kode 9 at FWD>> and how much that inspired you? Ben UFO told us that before dubstep he had a feeling that he’d missed the party for all the best dance music, like jungle, but suddenly here was something he could make his own.

“I can share Ben's sentiments there in so far as having been involved with the scene from quite early on, and watching it grow from a small egg into the beast it's become today, I really felt like I was part of the journey rather than just a passive bystander. In the earlier years it often felt like you were sharing in the growing success of your peers too - when the likes of DMZ or Skream and Benga were doing well it was elevating for the whole community. At least that's how it felt for me…”

“I'll try and explain my first experience at FWD>> hearing Kode 9 drop early dubstep dubplates, interspersed with grime tunes but - as with anything truly personal - it's hard to capture the experience accurately.. I remember thinking on my way into the club this (Plastic People) is a lot smaller than I thought it would be. I remember lurking near the bar for a few minutes getting a drink and then 'crossing the threshold' into the main part of the room (you'd need to have been to Plastic People to know what I mean here!). I remember being struck by the fact that the dancefloor was busy with people, but they were all standing around in the dark swaying a little at best but definitely NOT dancing! I clearly remember thinking this was strange but found a space in the dark crowded floor and soon found myself getting immersed in the bass heavy sounds.

“I was taken by the darkness which I realised allowed you to be on the dancefloor and feel totally unselfconscious  and I let my thoughts wander. Before the set was even over I just knew this was what I'd been looking for since I lost the 'buzz' I used to get from jungle/d&b and I knew I had to make a home for it in Bristol as the music was made for this city.”

Can you tell us about some of the records that defined Subloaded when you started it? It seems like it was a case of cobbling whatever you could together to create the sound you now had in your head. You’ve obviously become known as mainly a dubstep producer and DJ but as the mix shows, with the like of EQD/Shed and the four four of Illum Sphere or Boddika and Joy Orbison, you move between styles.

“My early dubstep sets were generally heavily padded with bits of 2-step, lots of grime instrumentals and the occasional minimal techno record (a la Basic Channel style) and part of the idea behind the name Pinch was I'd be taking a 'pinch of this and a pinch of that', so I am used to mixing between styles. It was very much my mentality before I properly 'discovered' dubstep (end of 2003) and by 2004 I was focussing just on the new so it became more and more about dubstep, and still a fair bit of grime instrumentals too, focussing in on dubstep exclusively by the latter part of 2005. I was lucky enough to be getting dubs to cut from the likes of Cyrus, Loefah, Skream and Mala from quite early on so I relied less on mixing stuff outside of the genre. I guess I was very taken by everything that shaped those early dubstep years - the music (obviously), the sense of community and belonging that provided, the excitement of seeing this 'thing' turn into a movement and eventually gain international recognition... I dedicated myself very much to what I considered the essence of the real dubstep vibe and as a result became focussed on producing music in that vein only

“Some of the early dubstep big hitters at early Subloadeds would be things like Vex'd 'Pop Pop', Loefah's 'Horror Show', 'I remix' and 'System', Mala's 'Da Wrath VIP' and 'Lost City', Skream's 'Traitor', Benga & Skream’s 'The Judgement', Benga's 'Walkin' Bass' and Kode 9's 'Kingston' (originally titled 'The Blues')… There were loads to be honest. In fact, of all those  I can specifically remember Mala dropping Kode 9's 'The Blues' at the second Subloaded and having a moment where, as my nose, throat and stomach buzzed with bass vibrations, I thought ‘this is the most bass I've ever experienced’ and it was punishingly good!”

The promo mix you did for Fabric was originally jokingly entitled ‘Oh No Not Another Dubstep DJ Playing House Music’. Is there a question of your integrity being called into question if you start opening up your sets? Was it a consideration when putting together the Fabric mix?

“It's more of an in-joke really. When Kode 9 started playing a lot of UK funky in his sets a few years back soon after many others followed suit. I didn't entirely approve of this at the time. I liked some it, especially the more tribal end of it, Roska, Apple, Hardhouse Banton, Lil Silva etc. but I didn't see how it 'fitted' with dubstep at the time and I probably said something along the lines of - likely on more than one occasion too - 'Oh I hope I don't become another one of these dubstep DJs who just plays house music now!' My sentiments were ‘oh don't go jumping ship from dubstep just ‘cos it's getting noisy and wobbly, we've got to stay and make it proper.’”

“I see things a bit differently two to three years on and realise that you can't spend your life trying to relive a moment; dubstep had its special time when it was new, exciting and entirely genuine. I'm sorry but if you weren't there and a part of it then you missed out, it's just not the same now. I realise that was, as Simon Reynolds would refer to it, the 'energy flash' period around 2003-2005 and you can't expect to hold onto that as it's near impossible to recreate the conditions that made that moment in time possible.

“I have come to terms with this and I think that what's more achievable and therefore important to keep in mind (for me at least) is to let go a bit and start opening up your ears and mind to different things and explore those to see where it takes you. I still enjoy some dubstep and I think it will have a place in dance music for years to come.. But like house, techno, drum and bass, hip-hop etc. it's unlikely to pull out any more huge surprises, rather continue life as format to be refined and ideas recycled/updated. It's going to make people dance for a while yet though! In the meantime, the last couple of years have seen some interesting things developing around the 130bpm mark. Personally I don't think much entirely new stuff has surfaced yet but I do get a real feeling that something is slowly bubbling up around this newer 'movement'. Hopefully we'll see an exciting mutation this year and then momentum build around it.

“When I put together the Fabric mix I just wanted to represent a snapshot of what I was playing at the time so it's a more a reflection of my DJ sets than anything else. I did, as you might expect, go to lengths to finish up music especially for it. I felt it was important to include an element of where I was at with my own productions so a third of the tracks on there are either remixes I've done or collaborations. The whole mix was done on two turntables with a few vinyls and a load of freshly cut acetates. It would have been dishonest of me to praise the merits of vinyl over the years then turn around and hand in a perfectly arranged Ableton mix! I did go back over the whole mix and tighten up the levels between tracks and layer lots of atmospheric sounds and so on to give it a bit more listening depth. The whole mix starts and finishes in the same spot too meaning you can loop the whole thing until you get bored!”

Does it feel then that there’s now a dearth of decent dubstep being made and people are preferring to be classed in the unwieldy, but less easy to pigeonhole, term of ‘bass music’? Does the labelling of the music you make or play even matter?

“Personally I hate the term 'bass music', at least in the context its being currently used. It lacks any character or soul and leaves it wide open for commercial labels to throw together whatever's popular between d&b, dubstep, funky etc. in cynical money-spinning compilations. I do think the labelling of music is important but perhaps the way we currently do it isn't the best approach. For instance, as far as I'm concerned there's more in common with an old Photek or Source Direct d&b track and say a Basic Channel techno record than a DJ Fresh d&b dancefloor bange, even though they might all be categorised in the same d&b genre.”

There are a variety of opinions from the people who helped pioneer dubstep as to its current state of health. What do you think about the relentless mid-range energy of Skrillex or UK producers suddenly coming out with huge trance rifts? We get the impression that the mainstream is something you constantly react against. What do you think the future holds?

“I like music that takes me out of my daily world, music that provides some degree of escapism, however it may play out. The likes of Skrillex and the many others who make aggressive, groove-less dance music do not take me on a particularly welcome journey. But that's just me, I can also understand why it is very popular, especially with younger ravers who I believe see this kind of thing as very much 'theirs', of their generation and therefore belonging to them. I find that an evening of just that kind of sound is more about kids celebrating their own like-mindedness than any kind of musical journey or deep experience. There is a strong energy with noisy dubstep and the like but this is, in turn, hugely amplified if you are young, clubbing is new to you and you are surrounded by hundreds or thousands of others who are also really into it too. I'm not really into big rock concerts and that kind of vibe but these kind of gigs, especially in the States, have far more in common with that culture than dance music and UK rave culture past.

“You ask if I react against the mainstream and I would say not especially, nor intentionally, I just find that mainstream music generally doesn't take me anywhere interesting. You can't escape from your daily grind by listening to music that you are bombarded with on TV, radio, bars etc. as it has itself, already become part of that world.”

Back on the house and techno tip, there seem to be a number of producers in Bristol mixing elements of dubstep with house – most obviously there were the subs of Julio Bashmore but people like Kowton seem to be following suite. Does it feel like the vibe of the city is changing or is another element of it just becoming more obvious to outsiders? How important is the shop Idle Hands, which opened at the start of last year, in all this cross-pollination?

“Yes there is a change in the air and dubstep in Bristol is, in my eyes, receding in popularity compared with say two to four years ago. There are some great nights such as Crazy Legs championing housier tempos, house/garage with a fresher edge and lots of UK bass influences. I think it’s a similar situation in London too, many music heads want to hear something different and interesting and why wouldn't they? Besides, all the dubstep raves are full of red-faced pogoing teenagers these days!

“Idle Hands is a great resource for Bristol music-heads and like Rooted Records before it, which was like a community centre for d&b and dubstep heads to hang out and check the latest tunes, find out about dances and chat to others there, Idle Hands is doing a similar job with a housier twist. The problem with the rise of online record shopping and the consequential fall of the independent record shop is that these places are so much more than just an outlet for buying music. You get advice and pointed towards music that you might not know to search for online and I think it's a really important aspect that traditionally helped new and exciting underground music come through. Chris and Joe do a great job there and while it's a shame that it's the only independent shop left selling new vinyl in central Bristol I'm certainly very glad it's still there.”

How was it collaborating with Photek? It’s definitely our favourite track we’ve heard he’s been involved in since his return.

“Glad you like it! Rupert came to Bristol last summer for around a week and spent about half of it in my studio with me building beats. We did 'Acid Reign' and another one too (on a techno tip, title TBC) and it was great working with him. Completely surreal too though! You have to walk through my bedroom to get to my studio so I kept thinking, ‘Christ, this must be a bit of a departure from working in glamorous LA studios.’ We got on well though and I'm really pleased with how the tracks came out.”

What’s next for both you and Tectonic in 2012?

“I have just completed a remix for Mark Stewart & Primal Scream which should be out late February. Similarly a remix I did a while ago 'Love Like' by Henry & Louis ft. Prince Green should be (hopefully, finally) out on 2 Kings by then too. I plan on getting back into the studio with Distance for some more Deleted Scenes action (DLS003 should have dropped by the time you read this) so there's a chance something might materialise from that too later this year...

“Otherwise, for Tectonic there's some great 12s lined up as well as the heavyweight ‘Tectonic Plates Volume 3’ compilation featuring many great tracks from the likes of Kryptic Minds, Roska, 2562, Addison Groove, myself and many others. Following that is a rather excellent album from USA producer Distal who has combined dubstep, juke, techno and all sorts to make what I would consider to be a truly unique album. I may start a new label later this year too but I'll keep that under wraps for now...”