Saturday, June 8, 2013

TEA with Steve O'Sullivan

Unless you were there, dub techno for many is seen as a sleepy genre, locked frozen in a ten-year epoch - that began somewhere in the mid-to-early ‘90s - ruled by delay, reverb and dusty, circuitous rhythms. By the turn of the century, dub techno had seemingly reached the boundary of its production; rendered limitless by the perpetual possibilities of learned synthesis and polymathic effects processing. 

Drawing inspiration from the Caribbean riddims of King Tubby and Lee Perry et al. dub techno looks inward for inspiration; Basic Channel, Maurizio and Chain Reaction the most revered of the genres progenitors. While Steve O’Sullivan and his affiliated Mosiac, Bluespirit and Bluetrain releases - arguably as seminal as the aforementioned German techno - remained overlooked, left to quietly resonate, hiss and hum on the turntables of ‘90s dub-centric technophiles.

Toward the beginning of the early 2000s, O'Sullivan took what could be described as a “creative break” from production; going “truly underground”. Since then, O'Sullivan’s music has become worth its weight - plus more - in Discogs-gold. Only last month Adam X was quoted saying to Juno Plus, “I also wasn’t aware how valuable Steve O’Sullivan records have gotten.”

Since his hiatus, O’Sullivan has been coaxed back into production-mode by Yossi Amoyal who runs Sushitech. The Berlin-based imprint recently released a 3X12” retrospective of selected tracks taken from O'Sullivan’s rested Mosaic back catalogue. Entitled, Mosiac Reshaped & Unreleased, it features music from O’Sullivan as The Wise Caucasian and himself, on top of other remastered and extended mixes from friends Mark Ambrose and Jorge Zamacona, aka Paul Mac.

Next up for O’Sullivan and Sushitech is the fervently anticipated Bluetrain retrospective, entitled, Bluetrain: A Retrospective Strictly For Connoisseurs. In the lead up to the release, which I was totally unaware of before going into this interview, I spoke with O’Sullivan over an email correspondence that lasted several weeks, where we spoke of his re-entry into music, influential originators, and inspirations that happened to be his closest friends, cherished releases - plus of a polite rant and his love of bacon sarnies. 

Below is a snippet of some newly recorded Bluetrain material.




Hey Steve, how's it going?

Things are going well. After a good few years away from the scene I'm enjoying making music again, and the welcome back I've had from people over the last few months has just been fantastic. To be honest with you, I genuinely had no idea the music was so loved and respected by the underground after all of these years.

How come you left music?

Well I could say that I went to live on a retreat in Tibet to find myself, but the reality is that I hit a creative wall to be honest with you...I've always been my own biggest critic and I was never satisfied with the music that I was making at that time (2003/04). I felt I was repeating myself, and as much as that may have kept the fans of the label happy - if i had continued - it just wasn't the most satisfying thing for me as a producer. 

I'd seen so many labels over the years drop their quality control, and that’s not what I wanted for Mosaic and for me as a producer. I had put so much time and love into the releases, put out some fantastic records by producers such as Paul Mac, Exos and Dean DeCosta, and it was important for me that the next release had to be as good as the last - otherwise there was just no point to it. And as the label was largely a vehicle for my own work, when that stopped flowing, it just made sense to wind it all up and leave what was hopefully a quality catalogue behind me that people will respect and appreciate. I guess I went truly underground after that.


Steve O'Sullivan, Yossi Amoyal, Delano Smith

What brought you back?


Well it's all about the beats. I remember Peter Ford once saying to me that the four-four was the heartbeat of life, and I guess that's what it comes down to... Once it's ingrained in you it never leaves. Over the years I continued to make music for myself, but the time and the sound I wanted were never right. But last year I found that I was really starting to enjoy the whole process again and I found the renaissance that seemed to be happening in techno really inspiring. So I invested in a new set up to improve my sound – just to make music again just as a hobby really. I soon found that I had that passion again and then Yossi from Sushitech approached me and we talked about putting out a package of classics together for those who missed them first time around. It was perfect timing really. So I came out of the woodwork and here I am.

Did Yossi contact you out of the blue or had the two of you always been in touch?

Well Russ Gabriel put me in touch with him sometime in 2007 I think it was. We talked and ended up putting out a couple of 12”s on Sushitech. He's a very enthusiastic and persuasive man is Yossi, and he has a real love for my music, so it just seemed right to work with him you know.



“Yep.. my old dats!” - Steve O'Sullivan

What’s your relationship with Russ Gabriel? You two have worked on a lot of music together in the past?

I gotta say - and I haven't even said this to him by the way - I owe Russ a lot. He gave me my first break with the Precession EP on Ferox and set up Bluespirit . Without him I wouldn't be here talking to you now. The man is a legend. He pushed the records to the right people, there was no bullshit, I got paid and - this sounds a bit poncey I know, but - he supported what I wanted to do as an artist. I guess you could call him my mentor in those early days.

About the Bluespirit series. All four releases from ’96 are fetching collectors prices on the internet, so it seems you guys were on to something.

Well I guess we must've been doing something right back then. When I listen to them now though, the first thing I hear are the mistakes and the rawness of the production, as they were all arranged and mixed down live. I still love those tracks and I think that’s perhaps why they still appeal. We just let the groove and feel direct the arrangements, rather than planning it and watching a computer screen scroll along. The end result was a collection of pretty decent, raw tracks, that I'm happy to say I'm really proud of. As to how it came about, it's quite simple really; I was making quite a lot of music. Russ suggested that we put out a white label and I went 'yes'. It really was that easy. 

One thing I do have to mention though, is that not a lot people realise that these weren't solo Steve O'Sullivan records. Bluespirit was a collaborative effort, with my solo productions on there as well as joint productions with Lee Grainge, John Beer and Wis. They would've been very different records without them, so respect where it's due to those lads.




So before we move onto Mosaic, I wanted to talk about Bluetrain, which came after the Bluespirit releases. Bluetrain was both a label and alias of yours? Was this a follow up to the Bluespirit releases? And could you explain the artwork, sound and thematics of Bluetrain?

Well, Mosaic actually started before Bluetrain, but you're right, it was a follow up to Bluespirit and if you listen to the first release it would've sat quite easily on that label. I continued to collaborate with the Bluespirit boys on Bluetrain - as well as bringing in a couple of new members - so you could call it Bluespirit MK2 I guess. In terms of the whole ethos of the label, I really just wanted something that looked and sounded different to other records out there. So design-wise, I used images from old records that reflected the influences that each record contained and I cut the records without run in-out grooves and with little messages etched into the vinyl, so when you looked at the vinyl it stood out as unusual. 

Soundwise, I wanted it to be different to Mosaic, but had no real plan at the beginning. I would just make tracks and see where they would sit best. But from the Echo Freaks EP onwards the Bluetrain sound was set in stone and reduced, dark, dub techno became the order of the day and it stayed there for the remaining releases. To be honest, as a producer, this was perfect for me as I could work on music that didn't have to worry about the dancefloor - I could experiment more with sound and atmosphere and could still sell records -  I couldn't have asked for more. 


I also noticed the last Bluetrain EP, Tighten Up, was released on Mosaic. How come?

With Tighten Up I just thought that the A-side was more Mosaic-ish and sat better there, so that's where it went. You can probably tell that I was never one of those label owners with a master plan. I just went with what felt right at the time.

What do you think about dub techno at the moment?

Well there is so much more of it about now than there was back then....and unfortunately with that inevitably comes a drop in quality control and individuality. But from what I can see that's hit all genres over the last few years. I know that makes me sound like a 'it's not like it was back in the good old days' old timer, but I suppose that's what the digital explosion has led to if I'm honest with you. But - there's always a but - quality always shines through and there's some excellent producers out there that inspire me with their take on the genre; Rod Modell is still rocking it, as are Luke Hess, Makam, Oscar Schubaq and the Primary Colours lads from Australia just to name the first few to come into my head. So, in short, things are healthy and looking good.

Let’s talk about Mosaic. It was quite a prolific label in its day. How did it start, what were some of the relationships you made through the label and what were some of the special releases for you?

Well it started through Mark at As It Is distribution. He gave me the opportunity to have my own label in the summer of '96 and I took it. As I said earlier, things just happened very easily back in those days. Then after releasing the first couple of EPs, I knew that I needed to get other artists involved if the label was to develop. To be honest it helped that there was such a good range of producers who were happy to work with me. Things just came together and I ended up working with quite an impressive list of artists over the next 7 years. I really couldn't have wished for more; Aubrey, Mark Ambrose, The Memory Foundation, Mark Broom, Peter Ford, Dean Decosta, Ben Nevile, Ben Sims, Paul Mac, Exos, John Tejada...I could mention them all, but the list is quite a big one. Without them the label wouldn't have had the legacy it has, so I can’t do more than be humble and thank them for that.

As for my favourite releases, it’s a hard one, but of my own, my top 5 would be; The Wise Caucasian, Night Fever EP, as it was the first and betrays my influences perfectly. Two; The Wise Caucasian, Movement, as it has my favourite of my own productions, “Socratic roads”, on it. It was my first proper dub techno track and I've always had a soft spot for it. Three; Low Life, “Sideways” - I've collaborated with quite a few people but it was especially good working in the studio with Ben. I love the trackyness - if that's a word - of this one and “Entry” is a perfect mix of our two styles. Four; Bluetrain vs Dean Decosta, Diminishing Returns - I'm really proud of the version I did of Dean's track, it’s one of my favourite Bluetrain productions. Five; T.A.C, Funny Money - again another EP that betrays my influences and it’s on clear vinyl which makes it even more special. 

Of the releases by other artists there are so many, but if I had to pick my favourites; One; The Memory Foundation, Greenflash...I loved their M-plant 12” and the whole Central/Last Disco Superstars releases. Just getting them to agree to be involved made my day and then I heard the music. As soon as it came on I was like ‘wow'. Dub techno at its finest. Two; Jorge Zamacona's Mosaic Efforts 1, arguably Paul Mac’s best record in my opinion. Three; Dean Decosta's Alternate Materials, an exercise in pure deepness - say no more. Dean’s a fantastic producer who released some fantastic records and then disappeared in true underground style. Mark Broom's Drift and all the Exos productions are also ones that I feel have stood up well over the years and represent the label's sound perfectly.

How does The Wise Caucasian differ from your other music?

I never gave it too much thought to be honest, but the early Wise Caucasian tracks had a 430 West and M-Plant vibe going on I guess, and that was more the sound of my earlier productions. As I developed my sound over the years it just didn't seem right to use that alter ego any more, so rather than thinking of a new pseudonym - I already had too many names on the go - and confusing people any further, I came out of the closet and started recording in my own name. It made things much simpler.




Is there a story behind the Precession alias. Two releases that were almost 10 years apart from each other.

Well there was only one Precession EP released, but I imagine you're thinking of the Mike Huckaby’s remix of “Sandcastle” that was rereleased through Russ on Deep Transportation back in 2004 or 2005. I don't really count that one as one of mine though.

Ah Yes. It’s actually a track I have been trying to hunt down. I find the relationship between dub techno and Detroit a very interesting one. What has your relationship been like with the motor city, its sound and artists? 

Yeah, well without Basic Channel and the M Series, the whole sound may never have developed as it did, and their links with Detroit are pretty clear. I guess for me, dub techno is essentially a continuation of early ‘90s Detroit minimalism and the whole Basic Channel and Chain Reaction sound. It’s a cliche, but less is more as they say, and those guys from Detroit and Berlin did it perfectly. I just wish I had an ounce of their vision and talent. Pure genius.

Personally, I guess my own relationship has been one of influence really, as it played a huge part in shaping my sound and ideas when I started producing on a serious level in ‘95. It influenced all the different styles I played around with from The Wise Caucasian sound to my Green releases - probably a bit obviously at times, but I was young so I suppose I can be forgiven that eh?

Yes of course. I find it hard to read or even speak about dub techno today without a reference to Basic Channel. This is no way a bad thing, but I find because of how influencial those guys were, it’s always a with a retrospective ear that people listen to dub techno, as opposed to looking to the future. This isn’t always the case, as there are of course artists who are pushing dub techno into new territories, but generally speaking, the genre can come across as one frozen in time.

Yeah I think it can, but as you said there will always be people pushing things further and that's what's needed to keep things alive. We really don't need yet another variation of "M4.5". 





What brought a stop to Mosaic and will you start it up again?

Well the first thing that happened was that my distributor went down at the end of 2003 and a really dry period creatively followed that. So as I said earlier, I just decided to leave it as it was and end it hopefully on a high. As for resurrecting Mosaic, I have considered it, but I'm not sure if there's a need to. It’s been so long and my worry would be that the legacy, if you wanna call it that, may be destroyed by material that simply isn't up to scratch. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but who knows what could happen. The thing is I'm enjoying making music again and if the right material comes together either from me, or others, then you never know. 

Have you noticed a difference in the way your music sounds, now that you have returned to production after time away?

Yeah, I think it does sound different, but still in keeping with what you might expect. I've moved from a hardware to a software set up, but the music is - I hope - undoubtedly mine. The way I look at it is that any music I release in the future isn't gonna sound exactly like it was. Things have to develop, but the one constant (thing) is me and the way I construct the sound, hopefully people won't think I'm stuck in a time warp when they listen. One thing I gotta say though is that I think people do focus too much on how the music is made these days rather than the content. It’s all about the track rather than the method, or am I missing something? If you listen to some of the old Lester Fitzpatrick stuff on Relief, there's nothing more than a Boss DR660 being used on a lot of those tracks. But they sound raw as fuck and the grooves are amazing. And take some of the KSP releases; amazing programming, but great tracks. Does it matter that they are all software created? 

OK. Rant over!

As for the music that excites me now... There's loads. I love the stuff that Marcel Dettman's been knocking out over the years and that Eclipse EP from a little while back is fantastic. KSP is just an amazing producer and his remix for Paul Mac's Tactical label is a killer. Markus Suckut, Perseus Traxx, Roger Gerressen, Huerco S and Function are a few others that have great music out there and it's great to see the likes of Paul Mac, Aubrey, Mark Ambrose and Ben Sims still working at such a high level. But the best two releases over the last year for me are Terrence Dixon's Far From The Future Part 2 and Robert Hood’s Motor:Nightime World 3. They really are great records and listening to them kinda inspired my return if I'm honest. I have to say that when I started out, their music was a constant source of inspiration, and here I am, god know’s how many years later making music again and the same two guys have inspired me to get back into the studio.

Have you or will you ever DJ?

Well I started out as a music producer rather than a DJ and when the music started getting some attention I used to get DJ requests all the time. But it just wasn't for me. I had seen so many producers turned DJs who were, to be frank, pretty poor and I didn't want to be one of those. I could've made a lot of money, but it wasn't about that for me. There's no point trying to be something you're not if you know what I mean. So there won't ever be a DJ set from me, but I always enjoyed playing live and I have a few dates scheduled for later this year.

We look forward to that. Before you get away, what’s your favourite tea?

My favourite tea? Well it has to be a mug of English breakfast, with a bacon sarnie on the side.

TEA

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