Evian Christ: Keeping It Surreal

On the journey from Cheshire to Kanye’s inner circle…

In 2008, now defunct e-zine The Milk Factory interviewed Aaron Funk a.k.a. Venetian Snares. On the subject of how he fuses numerous genres into a chaotic electronic reverie, they asked: “Where does this eclecticism come from?” And Funk replies, “I would prefer to call it surrealism.”

Let's face it: that’s a great response. And it’s one that goes a fair way to explaining the aural labyrinths of a fresh-faced Joshua Leary, known to us all as Evian Christ.

When Leary first arrived on the scene his sound was softer, and he bookended 2011 with a collection of amateur songs uploaded to YouTube. He was still training to be a teacher at the time, and as many teachers do on their Christmas break, he booted up Cubase and made eight tracks that sewed the a cappellas of Tyga into 808 drum patterns with a surprisingly soothing ambient effect.

“It was a quiet period,” explains Josh, “and I wanted to do something that would completely shut me off from work. I hadn’t been making music much, but I had Cubase flying around on my computer and I was vaguely interested in it. I thought, ‘Two weeks off, I'll make some tunes.’ A few of my mates, like Lukid, were producers too. I put the songs on YouTube, sent them to those guys. Lukid put it on his Facebook, then someone posted it on Dummy. All the other blogs saw that and they posted it. Two years later, I’m here. It’s pretty bizarre how it happened.”

When we say “ambient” in relation to Evian Christ, we mean it in the most disposable sense of the word. It’s like encountering a heavyweight boxer with a gentle voice. After all, that debut EP did feature ‘Fuck It None Of Y’all Don’t Rap’ (hear it), a club-ready, percussion-heavy detonation with a teasing breakdown midway.

“That track was good blueprint for what I’m trying to achieve generally. It’s club functional but also has some sprawling, ambient moments. I’m trying to be simultaneously ambient and aggressive all at once, and I’m trying to find new ways to stretch those two things.”

Those YouTube tracks were collected and released as the ‘Kings And Them’ EP by Tri Angle Records: a worthy home for such forward thinking yet darkled electronic music. Instead of pushing for that next release, Tri Angle sent Josh on tour, and it would prove to be a masterstroke in artist development.

“I went out and toured the first record and some unreleased stuff. It was an all hardware set up. For the first live dates I did a pretty good job but I wasn’t comfortable or happy with the way things were going.”

Playing live and hearing the tracks in clubs changed his perception of where Evian Christ could take things, and he started to contemplate on what excited him in the live arena.

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‘Waterfall’

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“I just go to standard clubs – student nights, and that kind of thing. I still do occasionally. That’s more my vibe than a gloomy f*cking live electronic performance where everyone is just standing around. But one of my first ever shows was playing with The Haxan Cloak in Manchester. It was so loud, the strobes were blinding, and it was only 8pm at the time. I’ll always remember that show. It stayed in my mind. If you want to make an impact on people, you need to throw everything out there. That’s what I'm trying with this new release.”

The fallout of this realisation is Evian Christ’s ‘Waterfall’ EP, four tracks of brutal physicality that blend IDM, trap, breakcore and hip-hop, thus tipping a cap at Autechre’s ‘Gantz Graf’ as much as it winks profusely at J Dilla

‘F*ck Idol’ is a ticking time bomb of chopping percussion, that drops onto a thick, distorted and industrial bass synth. ‘Salt Carousel’ is how the aforementioned Venetian Snares would have sounded in 2005 if he had visited Chicago’s South Side instead of Budapest’s Royal Palace. Contrastingly, the title track is a rhythmic and abrasive revolution of dancehall drum patterns that suddenly breaks into a tender piano respite at the two-minute mark.

“I wanted to throw some musicality into that song,” begins Josh. “I wanted to try and push for an element that would work against it halfway through.” It's a segment that sends memories of Aphex Twin’s ‘Drukqs’ album hurtling forward from the recesses of your mind. The beast soon recaptures the beauty as the track finishes with a flurry of kick-drum gunfire.

Yet, to the refreshingly straight-thinking Josh, all he hears is “rap beats”. “Some people might disagree, but in my eyes (that’s what I make),” and it’s a viewpoint he’s imprinted onto the ‘Waterfall’ EP: “I wanted a mixing engineer who had background in working with rap music, knew rap music and was passionate about it.” So Josh took the EP to New York and roped in esteemed producer/engineer Noah Rubin (‘Wu Tang Chamber Music’). The result, in Josh’s words, “is real oddball rap, but I wanted to keep it in that vein”. We compare that style to the production of Death Grips and he’s bashful towards what he feels is “a huge compliment”.

In mid-2012, it became startlingly apparent that Josh wasn’t the only one who felt his tracks were rap beats. Robin Carolan, head of Tri Angle Records, received an email from Kanye West’s team at G.O.O.D. Music. They had been listening to ‘Kings And Them’ in the studio. They wanted Evian Christ to contribute to ‘Yeezus’ (review), and they wanted it in 48 hours. He primes himself to give us the full story.

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Kanye West, ‘I’m In It’

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“I was calm. I had convinced myself that the chances of it going anywhere were slim. All the same, I was going to stay up for two days and make some beats. I didn’t want to leave myself wondering what if, so I just worked crazy hard. I wanted them to know that from the moment they hit me up, I was pushing to be on that album more than anyone else. And I think it paid off in the end.”

We ask if an album with the abstract majesty of ‘Yeezus’ comes with any sort of brief. “They basically said that Kanye wanted to make the weirdest, most industrial/electronic rap record that he could possibly make,” laughs Josh. “Then when I started sending stuff they got more specific. They would ask for things more club orientated, and so on. They gave me the freedom to be as experimental as I wanted. In fact, a few things I sent through they said, ‘No, it’s too straight. Push yourself more.’ They wanted me to make the craziest shit I could imagine and they would figure out who to reel it all in later. It was the best brief you could possibly get.”

Fate would have it, that despite giving Kanye’s team “a shit load of beats”, it would be the very first sketch he sent that eventually become the sexually charged, badman album track ‘I’m In It’. Listening to Josh reflect on the experience, which included a trip to Paris to meet the team, is insightful.

“(Kanye is) a great dude. Once you get over the fact you have just met a super-celebrity, it’s just about music from that moment on. It’s a bunch of guys in a room working towards one collective goal. When I flew over there were only a few tracks that would end up making the record: ‘I Am A God’, ‘On Sight’… ‘On Sight’ was amazing at that point. It had no drums. It was just a synth line with Kanye going totally wild over it for seven minutes. I love the demo of that track so much.”

Soon after Evian Christ was signing a production deal with G.O.O.D. Music, opening up a world of attention to Josh’s sound and giving him the stage to make his statement. Yet, that also led Josh into shedding light on a modern dilemma for electronic producers that can make or break careers: what to keep and what to give away?

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‘Salt Carousel’

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“It's incredibly difficult,” he explains. “I'm so used to making music for myself. You think you have an EP ready, then someone hits you up, and you give away a track. Suddenly, all four tracks get optioned, then you have nothing and you start again. I remember talking to Hudson Mohawke about it, and he said he couldn’t figure out which tracks he was going to have for himself, or which ones other people have already got. It’s just a constant balancing act. For this EP, I knew I wanted ‘Waterfall’, because I didn’t see how that would fit with a singer or rapper. The other three were actually being touted for ‘Yeezus’. Then ‘Salt Carousel’ nearly ended up being a 2 Chainz song, but it fell through. Eventually, I told Robin at Tri Angle: ‘Don’t let me give these to anybody else’.”

You’d expect all this to slightly inflate the head of 25-year-old old Josh, who was invited by Rick Ross to spend his birthday on a yacht. But this kid, still living in his hometown of Ellesmere Port, is anchored to the ground in a most refreshing way.

“City life is not for me,” he laughs. “I’m in London right now, and I f*cking hate it. I can’t figure out where I am.” In fact, the snowballing fame is something he is wary of, and in the early days he made efforts to keep the life of Josh Leary and the career of Evian Christ as separate as possible.

“I always made efforts to make sure that locally people weren’t aware of this side of my life. I was going into my early 20s. Myself and all my friends had very similar lifestyles. We worked nine-to-five, we went to shitty clubs in Chester at the weekend. That was cool, and that was the basis of our friendship. Then as soon as I started to do this, our lives didn't sync up in the same way and it hit my social life at home in a strange way, because what I was doing was different to everyone else. So, I didn’t want to accentuate that anymore than I had to.

“But it’s cool, I went to the pubs at Christmas and a bunch of kids I had not seen since school were like, ‘Josh! We read somewhere you worked with Kanye West?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ but feeling really awkward about it. But they were so stoked and so happy for me, it made me realise that it’s actually probably fine to be more open about it. There is no arts scene in Chester, and I’m always slightly awkward to be the odd one out, you know? But you can only keep things quiet for so long.”

Necessity dictates that, with the lack of rappers passing through his town, an imminent move to New York, the base of Tri Angle Records, is gathering speed. Yet, he seems both optimistic and level headed. “I know that when I stop doing music, I can come back to my home town and teach. And that will make me very happy. Music is not the be all and end all for me. We'll just see how it pans out.”

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Words: Joe Zadeh
Photos: Ash Kingston
Styling: Madeleine Østlie

‘Waterfall’ is released on March 31st via Tri Angle Records. The EP is streaming at Evian Christ’s official website, here

This feature appears in issue 93 of Clash magazine – get more details and buy a copy here

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