Earlier this month we flew to Edinburgh for one stop on the Ballantine's x Boiler Room Stay True journey.
Having already hit Russia, South Africa and Germany, the aim of the partnership is to root out authentic, inspiring scenes by piecing together both emerging and established artists - and throwing a proper party while they're at it. Pulling together a global selection of house and techno heroes across four best-loved venues in the capital, it turned out to be the single most viewed broadcast in Boiler Room's history. With around half a million viewers, from 110 countries, it momentarily broke the internet.
Techno titan Blawan was one name (of 16) on that bill. Responsible for the incessantly brutal 'Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?', the former drummer has become known for saluting UK techno's heritage while putting his own stamp on it, as well as teaming up with Pariah for some hardware raging as Karenn. In between his soundcheck and on-air show at one of the old town underground vaults, we took the time to sit down for a chat with Yorkshire's Jamie Roberts.
- - -
You're here for a solo set - but Boiler Room posted a picture of you, Pariah and Neil Landstrumm working on something up here too?
Yeah, we did a live set with Neil - he's a local boy, and my childhood hero! It was very exciting. It was Karenn and Neil doing a little thing, 'cos it's to do with the whole Scottish connection. I wasn't gonna say no!
Your latest EPs - 'Warm Tonal Touch' and 'Hanging Out The Birds' - are your first solo material in a while. What does it feel like to get back on your own again?
It's really refreshing, actually. It was a solid two and a half years before I put something out - there were a lot of different reasons for it. I was moving around a bit, I got quite ill - it took a big toll on my health, and I went through a lot of different shit. Then I was gigging at the same time, finding no time to write any music, so it wasn't until the start of this year that I actually got some stuff done. I managed to write two EPs in one week - it was really quick.
I went the whole two and a half years, like, madness and then found a little bit of breathing space and it just felt like the right time to do it. I've never been the type of person to rush something, or put something out for the sake of it, but it was just the right time really.
- - -
- - -
What are the main things you've taken away from being a duo and performing as Karenn?
Oh, loads. It's been a huge learning curve, the past three years we've been doing it since we did our first live show. Not just learning how to play live properly but doing different shows, playing with different people. It's so different from DJing. I would almost go as far as to say that I enjoy it more than DJing, cos it's a lot more fun and I get to travel with Arthur which is nice, you're not on your own every weekend!
Just working with Neil yesterday, it's brought a lot of opportunities our way and we've carved a nice little camp for ourselves where we've got quite well known for doing the live thing. But mainly it's been a laugh doing it.
Are you planning to incorporate more hardware in your own live sets after assembling such a machine-heavy setup with Pariah?
I always work with hardware, but - funny you should say that - tonight is the first ever solo live show I do, which is a modular set. I'm a little bit nervous, as it's the first time I've ever pre-prepared a set. Me and Arthur, the whole point of our thing is that we just go and jam, improvise, and this is very much the opposite of that. I've found it far more nerve-wracking, actually, 'cos it's sounding great at home and that, but I've just done the soundcheck and it sounds so different to what I've been listening to...
Good different, or..?!
I don't know, we'll see, but considering there's gonna be hundreds of thousands of people watching tonight, from all over the world and this is going to be the first one. It'll be the first time I'm going from start to finish, so I'll be doing it for the first time in front of everybody. I always end up doing stuff like that, chucking myself in at the deep end. When I'm with Arthur it's a totally comfortable thing but DJing and this, especially - I haven't felt as nervous as this in years. Proper dreading it! When it's done it'll be alright, though...
I saw you tweet a pic of your hotel room, featuring a portrait of a kilt-wearing Ewan McGregor looking down over your modular synth...
Yeah, that was me rebuilding it. That's been a massive stress as well, I've had three different live shows this week - the one with Neil yesterday which was a different setup, then today which I've had to unscrew everything and re-do it for. Then we're heading to Weather Festival and I've got to do a Karenn set and another solo live set. So it's a super intense week - it's the busiest week I've ever had, ever! I've got my mum up, actually, for moral support. She's keeping me de-stressed. If she wasn't here I'd probably be a bit of a mess right now.
Does she love techno too then?
She loves it, yeah. She's obviously not a huge fan but she's relatively young, she's still in her early forties so she's not averse to going out for a few drinks and that! She'll be down there at the front tonight.
Have you been pleased with the reaction to 'Warm Tonal Touch' so far?
Yeah, massively. I tend not to try and pay too much attention but the reactions I've got from mates and other DJs have blown me away a little bit. Even though they're probably not the most ground-breaking records, ever. But they mean a lot to me because of the period I wrote them, in a week, and it was the first time in years I'd felt free and inspired. The way I'd recorded them was a completely new way of doing it, as well. They're just pure modular tracks. They are pretty different from my old stuff, in a weird way.
Going on to your new TERNESC label, which has been avenue for your solo stuff until now, are there plans to release other artists or are you keeping it homegrown?
Not so much other artists' own productions at the minute, currently the plans are I've got another EP in the line and I'm waiting for remixes to come back for a remix EP. There's remixes from a couple of people who I respect quite a lot.
I moved to Berlin a few months ago and there're a couple of people who inspired me who're living in Berlin, close mates as well. It's a four-track remix EP from the first and second records. So that's number three. But if people don't send me the tracks in time then it might be four! It'll be the first time ever that anyone's ever remixed my stuff, so that's a big thing for me. Arthur's doing one. I've got a nice package of people.
Tonight's line up has such a great range of newcomers and people who've been doing it for a while.. What does techno mean for you in 2015?
It's really bloody good at the minute. I'm probably not qualified to talk about how it's been over the years, but I've been into this music for a really really long time. It's hard to comment on something that you're working so closely in, 'cos you need that outside perspective. There's loads of really cool young guys doing really interesting stuff - the Clouds guys from Perth, they're really pushing stuff forward, doing a nice live set now, fully hardware. Five years ago it was kind of unheard of, it was only the big guys who were doing hardware stuff, but everyone's testing themselves, pushing themselves.
Talking to people like Neil and Surgeon, people who've been doing it for 20, 25, years, they've even said it's the strongest it's been in a long long time, since the late '90s. It's thanks to Boiler Room as well, they've given it a good push, and been really supportive of me and Arthur. They definitely have a part in it.
It does seem like there's a bit of a resurgence.
Massively, yeah there is. Even some of the guys who've been playing a long time, there was definitely a lull where they weren't gigging as much, and playing two or three shows a weekend.
- - -
- - -
You're not from Scotland yourself, but why do you think this country has always had such a love affair with the genre?
It's a mix of things. There was a core group of people who were doing it back in the first phase, early '90s, late '80s, Rubadub in Glasgow. And those guys are still around, they laid the foundations. They have a shop which young guys can go into and get educated. So there's these guys who've built all the foundations, brought all the American techno artists - Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance, back in the early '90s, and they're still doing it now.
In terms of partying, it's party music really. It's got a bit to do with licensing laws, they have to finish really early so people go out and the energy tends to be higher as they've got a four hour window to have a good time. It's definitely homage to the other guys - Rubadub, Optimo, Slam, a lot of people in Glasgow, Neil. They're still doing what they did 20 years ago, so that's a massive reason why, I'd imagine.
What were some of your own formative rave experiences?
A very inspirational part of my life was - there was a West Indian centre in Leeds which was where dubstep got brought up to the North. I was going to a lot of the reggae and ska parties which were just crazy crazy parties - massive huge soundsystems, Jamaican guys running these big soundsystems, a really different vibe to what you get now. When you went there you could tell it was really special - everyone was on a level, really friendly, a super mixed crowd - you had white guys, black guys. Everyone mixed and it was really nice. That was a special thing. It got closed down eventually - the police decided that was enough. I liked going out in Leeds - Sheffield didn't really appeal to me, and then I went down to London and did the whole London thing.
Now what's next for you - you've got quite a few tour dates over the summer?
Yeah, busy busy schedule. I think I've got two weekends off the whole year. I would usually avoid doing stuff like that because I like my time off, but I'm having a two-month holiday in January, February. It's a mix of Karenn shows, DJ shows, I do a thing with Surgeon called Trade, and another thing with The Analogue Cops. I've got four different projects on the go.
Are there any plans to revive the TERNESC party at Corsica Studios?
Ah no! I was gonna, but then I moved to Berlin and it all got chucked out the window. Because I had a really really good time, it was a mental party - it lasted 16 hours. Bit of overkill, maybe...! I'll probably do something a little bit smaller and different in Berlin. I'm not from London so there's not really much point me keeping the connection there, cos I didn't have enough of a connection to stay there ... But I'll do it in Berlin, definitely, it'll be on a much smaller scale and probably a different concept, I don't really know yet. In time, though.
Words: Felicity Martin
- - -
To check out more from the Edinburgh show and all the Ballantine's x Boiler Room Stay True Journeys, click here.