Sheffield has always been at the centre stage of the underground electronic music scene, spawning many of the cult electronic acts of the '80s such as the Human League, Heaven 17 and Cabaret Voltaire to name just thr4ee. Toddla T, Moloko and Autechre have carried on the mantel in modern times, and that’s without touching on the labels — such as new-on-the-scene Itchy Pig Records, as well as the legendary Warp — that have permanently stamped themselves into dance music history. It’s not surprising that Sheffield has garnered a reputation somewhat akin to Bristol’s electronic music scene when it comes to creative and innovative producers.
One such band that is deeply rooted in Sheffield's love affair with all things electronic is HiEM. They are two Sheffield locals, Nick 'Nico' Eastwood and David 'Bozz' Boswell, who formed eclectic electro-pop outfit HiEM about 10 years ago from the ashes of Sheffield collectives The All Seeing I and Venini, with The All Seeing I — who also involved DJ Parrot — bothering the charts with 'The Beat Goes On' and 'Walk Like a Panther' in the late '90s.
In 2012, following many early releases for Crosstown Rebels and Eskimo Recordings, the pair released a collaboration with The Human League’s Phil Oakey, called ‘2AM’ on Nang Records. Their single ‘DJ Culture’, a unique collaboration with Roots Manuva, followed this, once again propelling Sheffield and its diverse musical melting pot into the collective dance music limelight, with HiEM and their production ensemble being at the forefront of a new northern musical revolution. DJ Mag caught up with them in their Sheffield studio...
You’ve done quite a bit of production with one of Sheffield’s 'favourite sons’ — The Human League's Phil Oakey. What was that process like?
Nico: “Well, we all knew each other from years ago. I used to promote a night called Le Citrus in Sheffield, and Phil used to come down to that, plus Bozz had worked with him before when he was doing The All Seeing I thing. We’d had this track ‘2AM’ floating about for ages, we used to do it live with Bozz singing it.
“Anyhow, we all met up and then he popped into the studio and got the vocals down. Phil would sometimes pop his head around the door when we were working on stuff and bring us coffees, we all love him and really look up to him — Sheffield does!! The whole world does! It’s different here, it’s not like London, you can walk into a pub here and see Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley having a pint, and then one of the Arctic Monkeys will walk in, then Richard Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire will turn up — it’s like a who’s who of pop, electro pop and techno in this city. Same with Roots Manuva, he lived in Sheffield for a while, and asked Bozz to write him a hit single, because his record company wanted him to have a hit. We never got him a hit, but it was a cool song though, ha ha.”
Tell us about your current studio set-up?
Bozz: “Well, at the moment we're running everything through a Mac Mini which has been pimped with extra memory etc. It’s really fast and suits us perfectly, and on that we run Cubase, not Logic. I’ve been using Cubase since it came out all those years ago on the Atari 1040 ST, so I can’t get used to anything else. As for synths, lately we’ve been using a lot of early '80s digital synths, so at the moment we’ve got a Roland JV-35, Korg M1, Korg Micro Korg and a Korg 707.
We also use plug-ins of course, plus a million guitars, basses etc.”
Has the way you approach production changed much since The All Seeing I days?
Bozz: “Well, production has changed so much, especially from the '90s. I reckon the mp3 thing, iTunes and all that has turned everything on its head. You’ve got to move with it, though, or you just get left behind. The only thing for us, though, is that it seems that there’s that many people releasing stuff, anyone and everyone can make electronic music now, so what’s happened is it’s getting harder and harder to find the good stuff. It’s almost like now, it’s all about production, everybody's completely forgotten about the main thing which is the tune or the song. It’s as if there's one guy that makes all the records, all with the same bass drum sound, or the same snare sound, with same bassline going plunk, plonk, plonk for six minutes...
“There seems to be loads of DJs out there that have just finished a sound recording course or something and are just banging out a whole load of nothing. It’s easy to learn how to make something sonically sound great these days, but it’s another thing to write a decent song or tune... But don’t get me wrong, there are some great tracks out there; you just have to look fifty times as hard to wade through the meaningless bullshit! And that’s another thing, it's almost like today's dance music is that disposable that it's almost like people have forgotten all about a record two months after it's been released, and it doesn’t get played anymore by anyone — what good is that?”
Considering your songwriting backgrounds, how did you get into electronic music?
Nico: “Well, I’ve always loved Daft Punk and maybe the more commercial side of electronic music, so I’ve always really dug early Prince and a lot of the soul boy stuff from the '80s — a lot of my basslines are very influenced by that, I guess. I started to get more into it when Bozz and I started working together. We were always working on new songs or new ideas, but it's great because when we do get to play live I can do my high kicks, and get a little rock & roll for the kids in the audience.”
Bozz: “I got into it years ago in the late '80s. I had this crazy management deal at the time and ended up moving to Liverpool. Anyhow, I got thrown a Korg M1 and started doing bits and bobs with that. I used to release white label tunes then as part of the rave scene in Liverpool, I guess I was cutting my teeth with that, but at the same time I was playing lap steel guitar and singing in country and blues bands for extra money — busking sometimes even. That’s the thing about HiEM, we could write and record a country & western record tomorrow or a blues or pop/funk death metal album, we can be whatever you like or whatever we want to be, we're a lot more cleverer than you probably think!”
You've been working on your new album in the studio recently. What can we expect from it?
Bozz: “Well, with the last album I guess we were looking back at the past, but with the new album, we're definitely looking towards the future. We're trying to develop some new ideas and concepts, there’s a few new stories and monologues and some pretty weird-sounding stuff, and a lot more acoustic instruments and suchlike. There’s even a fretless bass, and I reckon we'll be finished by the New Year. There’ll be a few HiEM remixes out before then too.”