The electronic music industry has risen and flourished off the back of technology, but has the digital age consumed too much? Dance music today is saturated with tweets, glimpses of pseudo personalities filtered through updates on blue and white profiles, and countless watered-down remixes of your favourite track are available for free download.
Has this glutinous, need-it-in-an-instant attitude stripped a level of authenticity from the music? Is it less real? And is it any wonder that when we find an artist with true musical understanding, that has never allowed a remix of his own material, who distributes his dubs to a very minimal circle of DJs and has never cultivated any form of online presence, we regard him with such a sense of awe, as an unadulterated voice?
We're talking of course about Calibre, the Belfast-based drum & bass enigma whose spotless, unique discography for labels like Creative Source, Soul:R, Critical, Exit, V and Innerground says more about him than any dry status update ever could.
If you’ve never heard Calibre’s music it may be hard to portray the emotive delicacy which has become a constant within his works. It’s a sound of immense beauty, but encapsulates the universe’s natural balance of elegance and destruction; a sense of sadness can be found in even his most uplifting tracks. Intricate and complex without being overwhelming, it's forever been melodic and minimalist, even before this was the preferred sound of the scene. But above all, his sound has always been solidly drum & bass.
“I do feel like I have a special place in drum & bass, it brings endless possibilities to my mind, whether I choose to accept them or not,” Calibre, or Dominick Martin, contemplates. “I suppose I’ve dedicated myself to it because I’ve believed in it from the start and it wasn’t cool whenever I joined it. So it was always just something I loved to do. My ambitions aren’t to take over the world and make loads of money, I’m just happy doing what I love. I’m really appreciative of that. It works for me, after all these years.”
It’s not unusual for an artist to create a label as a vehicle to release their own music. Calibre set up Signature for just that reason, but it has also enabled him complete control of how he is portrayed. “I read about Kraftwerk and how they changed the music industry,” he begins in his orphic Irish accent. “The fact that I dispense with every type of overhead, you cut out massive parts of the process — it gives me complete control. There is a lot of power in it. You can mould yourself, you can even mould your own inexistence, and that’s what I’ve done, I’ve tried to eradicate myself, apart from the music.”
Before Calibre was a young child named Dominick Martin who had always been creatively gifted. Dominic was selected at the age of five, from a school of 400 pupils, to have an academic career playing the violin in the Belfast School Of Music. “I didn’t like it!” remembers Dominick.
“I played Irish music, I played in traditional Irish folk bands, which played polkas and slow ballads, this was my first introduction to music. It was from a formal, technically-trained angle, so I entered it not from the point of view where I thought it was cool, I was already involved in music from [a] very young [age]. I was classically trained for a while by a guy in Belfast who was hurt in the Troubles, he was burnt all over his body, so he ended up teaching kids. His name was William Bell and in his opinion I had the best pitch that he ever heard. “I think from very early on [music] was something I was intrigued with. I was also a painter, and it was something I was very much encouraged to do. My parents just wanted me to do something with this...” he pauses while he searches his mind for the appropriate word “...talent that I had.”
DJ Mag wonders whether having studied Fine Art at university, paired with his academic musical career, has given Calibre a higher understanding of art. Could this bring an extra dimension to his material?
“ I don’t know whether it works like that,” he responds. “The force of expression is different to the creative knowledge. Where I was coming from had a lot to do with where I wanted to go, because I was traumatised from growing up in Belfast. Technical knowledge gives you some understanding of how your craft develops, but being a human being, it’s important to understand that’s a part of it as much as anything. This is where I was coming from, and for me, it was an escape from [my] background.”
Calibre's talking of course about the Troubles — the fighting and violence that continues to divide Republicans and Unionists in Northern Ireland along religious and political sectarian lines — which couldn't help but affect his personality and art, growing up and working in Belfast. “I think it affected me as a person and art is something that comes out of that, it doesn’t have to relate to that thing, it just has to come from it. That’s the impetus, it’s the thing that presses the buttons, it’s the thing that makes me want to go out there and find some sense in the world. I don’t really like to talk about Northern Ireland... who I am and where I come from definitely has something to do with the music, but I don’t think it inspired me to do it.”
After 15 years as one of drum & bass’ most revered DJs, Calibre has never once put out a mix CD. But all this is about to change with the release of his new, masterful blend for Fabric, 'Fabric Live 68' — a mammoth mix composed mostly of his own, fresh productions. “I’ve been playing there for years,” he explains. “I’ve always been fiercely independent, so I’ve never really thought about [doing a mix for them]. But there are a lot of artists that have done these now, and they’ve always been quality guys, and true artists, and for me to become a part of that, it’s my ego talking, but it’s nice to asked.
I’ve been asked to do mixes before by people and I’ve always said no. It was a very hard thing to do, you know, because people are gonna judge it now! I’ve never done that before, and it feels a lot different to doing an album. With an album, you're sort of intrinsically linked to that material, but with this, it’s not like that, you’re kind of immune from it, it’s like a second cousin type thing. There’s a few tunes that people had to master to appear on the mix, so there's a few exclusives, but also stuff that people will have heard me playing over the last few years as well.”
It’s usually just over a year between Calibre albums. But this time we’ve had to wait a little longer. Fortunately for fans, the new album is ready, and even better news, he’s been working more than one project. “I have a new drum & bass album, I’ve being forming this album for I’d say 18 years now — some of the material’s a little older, and some of it’s new, so it’s going to be interesting to see how people perceive it. And I also have this album called ‘Valentia’. This album is like a singer/songwriter album, it’s like its own big story in itself. I went to the West Coast of Ireland and I there was this big storm brewing, and I was scared to death, and I was writing out of fear, it was crazy. I wrote this album down there, I sampled a piano and it’s exactly that material that brings me away from drum & bass.”
Calibre is a true musician. You may have state-of-the-art programs, the highest spec studio and more synths than you can shake a MacBook at, but one thing that cannot be synthesised is pure natural talent.
'FABRICLIVE 68 Calibre' is out now and available on CD or download from fabriclondon.com