“Analogue has got a personality..."

Dubstep don diablo Bass Clef, a festival favourite armed with his trusty trombone, a head full of imagination and a bundle of technological questions where if there’s no answer, he’ll sort one out that suits, is as likely to tickle your funny bone as give you a severe Chinese burn.

From serious to sunny side up and au fait with traditional dub as he is with dubstep ear squeezers from London to Bristol, he carries on the theory that there’s a straight-up house/techno album to be found in most bass producers with ‘Reeling Skullways’. A dancefloor focus on 4x4 keeping the brass temporarily at bay, Ralph Cumbers, the prolific pro-analogue and TDK patron saint with a rapidly stacking back catalogue of various flora and fauna (see his Magic and Dreams getaway), lets Clash in on some of his secrets, including how impulsiveness rules, how far dubstep can really go and the dividing line keeping happy and sad music apart.

‘Reeling Skullways’ is being touted as an exit from your standard sound; is that correct, or is Bass Clef still at the core of everything?
“For me it just seems like a logical conclusion really. I think if you’ve not heard anything since the second album then it might be a bit of a jump, but the stuff in between – the third album I did myself on cassette and the stuff I’ve done as Some Truths just using the synth, all kind of feeds into Bass Clef I think, so for me it just seems like another step forward.

“I think there’s a running thread through all of the albums, but whether anyone is interested in that thread is open to question. Having Magic and Dreams has been good in that I had all this other music that wasn’t Bass Clef that I’d done and was just sat around the house on the hard drive. I felt quite oppressed by it, so once it’s released I could just kind of close the door on it and move on, so it becomes part of the past rather than still hanging around in the present. I think it’s important to not having all this stuff kicking about, unreleased.”

If listeners are surprised, isn’t it your job to shake ‘em up? You branch out into so many different aspects anyway...
“I mean there’s nothing more boring than trying to make the same record over and over again is there? I mean I just make it. Jesus, don’t worry about how people are gonna react to it. You can’t do that and make music at the same time, it’s impossible.”

As ‘Reeling Skullkways’ is quite moody by nature but then develops into something headier...
“I wouldn’t say so (that it’s a moody album), but it’s each to their own; the joy of instrumental music is you can pick whatever emotion out of it you want. For me its quiet joyous in places, I guess introspective in other places. But that’s me, that’s what I’m like so it comes out that way.”

Is it easier to make ‘serious’ music, rather than something more uplifting, or vice versa? Or does your thought process never get to that point?
“I never think about it like that. There’s a kind of thing I’m always trying to reach that I get when I’m listening to...there’s a Bulgarian kind of choir singing, an old kind of folk music, where you just can’t tell if the songs are happy or sad, they’re kind of both: because you don’t understand the lyrics, you can’t tell from that either. Loads of my favourite instrumental music has that thing – Aphex Twin is really good at that. You can’t tell whether it’s happy or sad, it’s one thing...music’s good for expressing those states that you can’t put into words.”

Is it fair comment that the album is simply one of classic house and techno sounds? Did you spent a lot of time listening to classic house/techno as some form of album research?
“I guess so; it’s come out that way, still with a weird twistedness to it that all my stuff comes out with. Can’t help that...I had just come up with a couple of new ways of connecting the equipment together and that’s the music that came out of it. It wasn’t planned at all. I’m of a certain age where I remember it from the first time round, so those kind of sounds are in your brain whether you like it or not.”

Was this sort of album in the back of your mind for a long time, or did you just plump for it suddenly?
“There’s no planning that ever goes on, you just turn on the machines and something comes out. I did a batch of tracks, sent them around to a few people, just thinking people would pick off some tracks for some 12”s. Tom (Ford, aka Peverelist) was like “I think there’s an album in there”, and I listened back to it and thought he was probably right, so I did another batch of tracks just to round it out, and then we chose the best for the album. So it just kind of happened.”

So the album was a case of just booting up and away you go?
“Very much, I’ve given up trying to plan anything...you think about plugging something into something in a different way and that just takes you out of routine. So the opposite of routine. I know some producers who just do office hours every day and grind out tracks, but for me, I’ll come up with nothing that’s any good for three months and then suddenly I’ll have a two week burst of ten tracks or something.”

Does that mean that’s the blueprint for every Bass Clef release?
”Yeah, I don’t really have an approach (laughs), just at some point you get the feeling of what the album is, then you try and find it out of what you’ve got.”

Any bad habits of old that you couldn’t shake, or managed to put right?
“Just always having too many tracks and the tracks being much too long (laughs). Having to cut 25 tracks that are all 20 minutes long. So that’s a habit I still haven’t broken.”

Given the somewhat floral nature of the titles both here and in the past, are you someone who enjoys the English language in general? Or is the dictionary-crunching more tongue in cheek?
“I think you can have some humorous titles that don’t deny they can still be emotionally resonant, the two are mutually exclusive. I remember one review I got in The Wire saying the titles were goofy and the music was stupid ...but just having a generic one word title seems to be standard in dance music, and I really hate it. It’s so boring calling a track, like, ‘Turbine’ or ‘Motorbike’ or ‘Moodiness’, know what I mean? I love messing around with words.”

The thrill of the bass doesn’t appear to be subsiding any time soon, what potential directions do you see it moving in?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if dubstep totally took over pop music. That Skrillex style is in the way that club music took over from American hip-hop and became a default backing track. I can see dubstep doing that, and in five years, I wouldn’t be surprised if every song in the top 40 was based on that. In the underground I think there’s still loads of stuff to be mined out of it. Nothing’s really coming along to replace it yet, so it’ll be around for a long time.”

Given your love of everything analogue, is that to say you’re anti-new technology? Or do new developments not impress you as much as what you can do with traditional kit?
“Analogue has got a personality - all the machines have a character. When I started making music it was before computers really got going, and when they did interaction was all via a mouse which is really tedious, so I just stuck with buttons and faders and knobs and stuff. I’ll go to computers when you can’t record onto cassette anymore (laughs).”

And does the tape still have a role to play in modern music recording?
“Probably not. They’ll probably stop manufacturing them at some point – that’s the problem. I actually record onto 4-track cassette so I use that instead of a computer hard drive. At some point I’ll either have to stockpile or start paying massively obscene prices, or give up and go digital, so...”

Can’t let a question about the trombone pass by – is it an instrument you’re still constantly learning?
“Totally. I should practice more (laughs). It’s hard, living in a block of flats and totally pissing off everybody. I have a real love-hate relationship with it to be honest. I really love playing it, and really love putting it through effects, but people tend to fixate it with me. Which I suppose has its advantages I guess. But it’s not gimmicky. I have an album in my mind where I concentrate on getting loads of sounds out of it, but not yet. One day.”

Do you accept what you can do and can’t do with it at the same time?
“Limitations are the most inspiring thing! There’s nothing more paralysing creatively than being able to do anything.”

Do you have a range to pick from in a safety in numbers way, or just one faithful accomplice?
“One, completely battered with dents in it, hanging together with gaffer tape...”

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'Reeling Skullways' is out now.

Words by Matt Oliver

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