> Simon Bishop speaks to one of the biggest names in Drum N Bass
Marcus Intalex should need no introduction to fans of drum n bass in its more purist form. His label Soul:R label has been one of the most respected imprints for the deeper end of the genre for the past decade, both as an outlet for his own productions (be it solo or in conjunction with St Files as M.I.S.T) and with classic releases from the likes of Calibre and Lynx. He also heads up the highly successful Soul:ution club nights which take place in his hometown of Manchester, and here in Bristol.
He’s just released his debut album, 21, which covers not only his signature sound of lush, silvery drum n’ bass (as evidenced in instant classic ‘Celestial Navigation’, a collaboration with S.P.Y), but also a whole range of tempos and styles, such as the brooding melancholic breaks of ‘Dusk’, and perhaps most surprisingly, a weighty remake of a Radiohead sing.
I caught up with him to chat about the album, and his time in the drum n’ bass scene.
The name of the album, 21, is a reference to the number of years you’ve been involved in the drum n’ bass scene. Given that most drum n’ bass acts today tend to produce an album within the first five years of their career, how come it’s taken you so long?
It’s not representative of me making music for 21 years; I started buying records and DJing 21 years ago, and I’ve probably been producing about 15 years. Now the album’s come out my thoughts on it are: I should have done this a long time ago! It took me a long time to get to a level where I thought I could make decent music; I’ve never had the confidence to say, “I know what I want my album to be and know I’m good enough to do it”. The reason it’s happened now is because I’d amassed a certain amount of tunes in the studio and it all seemed to be coming together quite easily so I guess it was a sign that I was perhaps ready. I’ve never always enjoyed the studio, but now looking back it’s just ridiculous that I’ve managed to have a career for so long without an album. It says a number of things: firstly, that maybe the stuff I’ve been putting out over time has been of a good enough quality to keep me within the scene. It also says that if I’d done this 10 years ago who know what could have happened! Maybe I’ve wasted a lot of time just getting by and enjoying just getting by, but I could have done something bigger and better if I’d only put the effort and mind into it. Now that I’ve done it, it’s like: “hang on a minute, I literally should have at least attempted this a long time ago”, regardless of what I thought.
If you’re more comfortable with the album format now, will it be long for a follow up? Will we have to wait another 21 years?
No! But will it be another drum n bass album? I don’t know. I’ve probably written another 10 tracks more since this album’s been finished, and I’ve been in the studio every day; I’m enjoying it. As far as the volume of music is concerned, it’s not going to be an issue to get another album together. In the past 18 months I’ve written more music than I’d written in the 21 years leading up to it. It won’t be a long time before there’s another album coming out again, but it’ll have to work out exactly how I want it to be. I do feel a) that I’m capable now and b) that I want to.
One of the more surprising tracks on the album is ‘Climbing up the Walls’, firstly for being a cover of a Radiohead track, but most of all for featuring the vocals of Fierce, who’s better known as a Dj/producer in the drum n’ bass scene. Can you tell us about how that came together?
I think he’s only been singing and playing guitar – two things I never knew he did – for about 2 years. Lynx (co-producer of the track) came up to play Soul:ution in Manchester a couple of years ago and while he was up here we decided to go in the studio; one of the tracks we made had a bassline that sounded quite similar to the Radiohead song, and it got ditched for that specific reason. Around that time Fierce started to send me stuff; we’ve always got on because we are huge fans of Radiohead. He was like, “Marcus can you have a listen to this, I’m teaching myself to play guitar and teaching myself to sing and I’m doing both to Radiohead”, and I’m just like, “f***ing hell, you’re crazy!”, because that’s some of the most difficult music to learn anyway. He sent me four tracks and they were badly recorded, but although they sounded terrible, I was just amazed at what he’d done. It just hit a nerve, and I thought, hang on a minute, I’ve got this track with that Radiohead bassline; we’ll bounce it down and have a go at this. Let’s just experiment and see what happens. It was never with the intention of releasing it. If somebody had told me a year before that I’d be releasing a drum n bass cover version of a Radiohead song, I’d have said they were crazy. When we’d got it done we were happy with it,; I made an enquiry with the record label to get permission and they said yeah, go ahead.
Do you know if Thom Yorke et al have heard it?
If they have, they have come calling to say it’s great or it’s awful, so I have no idea to be fair!
Can we expect any remixes from the album, similar maybe to what Commix did with Recall To Mind?
I’ve not worked that out, for the simple reason Soul:R has always been a non-remix label. We’ve never done remixes, as we’ve always believed in pushing things forward. If there was – and I’m not ruling it out – I think it might be non-drum n’ bass, something a bit different, with people I really admire outside of the scene.
The album isn’t just a drum an bass album, as there are plenty of downtempo tracks on there as well. Do you feel drum n’ bass, although defined by its tempo, is also too limited by it?
It is and it isn’t; its never bothered me up until recently. I just think getting to my age and doing this for so long, you need a try different things like that Radiohead track; you need to take yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s quite easy to say: right, I’m going to make a drum n’ bass tune; you go in the studio and I just switch it all on. I’ve always been a big house fan; I’ve always tried to write house music but never really given it enough effort. Whenever I’d do something that was half decent, I’d get bored of it and speed it up to 175bpm, because I know full well how to finish it, and that I could sell it. It’s just that safety net of knowing what you can do, so I’m now putting myself into a whole different world. Just starting to write a load of downtempo, non drum an bass stuff, because you know it’s a nice refreshing change and a challenge. As much as I love drum n’ bass, I just love all different kinds of music too. And what it does, is that when I come back to drum n bass I just feel a bit fresher, just feel a bit more up for it.
You wear quite a few hats within the scene; as producer, DJ, label owner, promoter, and radio presenter. Do you like being a kind of an all-round impresario?
I just think you have to do it. You’ve just got to be involved with it in any way you can, and I’ve always been like that. I did get asked a question about what makes me so proud about what I do, and I said, I’ve done it all . I’ve done radio, I’ve lost money and earned money on promotions, I’ve worked in a record shop and also been a record buyer, I’ve paid to get into raves and had some amazing nights, and I’ve also been the DJ providing the music. I’m not thinking: right, I need to do this, I need to do that. It jusy happens because it’s what you should be doing. I’m not doing it to push myself out there; it’s all part and parcel of the job. And more that anything, I enjoy doing it!
What better reason?!
Well exactly. I always put off doing the radio show, and then the two hours I do it, I love it. I don’t do enough radio but when I’m sat there doing it, I’m thinking: why don’t I do this more often. But that’s me all over.
One person who is conspicuous by their absence on the album is long time collaborator ST Files. Was that a planned thing?
Not necessarily. He’s moved house, his studios been upside down, he’s had a baby; he been very busy doing a ‘life’ things. We will make music together in the future, but at the time I was doing the album, he was out of the game renovating his house and fathering.
Going back to the 90s and the first half of your career, the drum n’ bass scene seemed to be concentrated around London/greater London, and Bristol had its own thing going on as well. What was it like in Manchester and the north in general, was there much of a scene?
Its been very up and down in Manchester, partly because of what club owners thought jungle and hardcore and drum n’ bass was about, and the kind of people it brought in. The most popular sound in Manchester and the north going back to the early rave days was stuff like Sasha, and vocals and pianos. That brought in all the glamorous people, and then you had drum n’ bass which was a bit grimier. It brought a different crowd and the clubs didn’t like that because they didn’t bring enough money to the bar or they had a different attitude. It’s always been difficult to get a decent venue up north; and then there was all the trouble with guns and gun crime in Manchester. But there was always a great underground following; I knew that because I worked in record shops when there was no clubs, and we would sell more hardcore than the big house and piano tracks. People loved it, they just didn’t have anywhere to go out an listen to it. It was a big struggle for many years, but I took a lot of influence from the DJs in Birmingham and London, and tried to push it in Manchester.
So it was down to club owners; they were afraid of what they thought the jungle crowd were like. There was always stores about guns and stuff. If someone would tell me to go and DJ in places I DJ’d in back then, I’d say they’re crazy. At the time there was a unique atmosphere about it; it was quite dark and intimidating but at the same time there was a real release with the music. It was really special, those times; it was certainly only for the headstrong. I’ve been involved in promotions down the years and it was really difficult. 10-15 years ago. I was one of the first people to bring the likes of Grooverider, Fabio , Doc Scott and LTJ Bukem to Manchester. And whenever you’d booked them, they’d call you up and go: is it safe? Haha, of course it’s safe! Have you ever seen the news where a DJ’s gotten shot?! You used to get that paranoia.
I seemed to take for ever, but then came the jungle explosion and it got so popular that it felt like the whole world was looking at the UK. I guess club owners felt they had to give it a shot and before you know it there was little clubs opening up here and there. With underground jungle and drum n’ bass it got better and better, and for the past ten years Manchester has had a good clubbing scene. But it took a while to get there.
You were producing under the name Da Intalex back then, as part of a duo?
Yeah there was a guy called XTC who used to work in a record shop with me; this was 95/96. We were like best mates but it just didn’t really work as a business together. We never just really saw it in the same way. We’re still good friends but it wasn’t meant to be.
What’s next for Marcus Intalex and the label?
For the label, we’ve pretty much got the SPY album 90% there. And Dub Phyzix is going to do something; Phil Tangent is another guy who’s coming though, I really like his stuff so I’ll be putting more of his music out. There’s a 75% done DRS album done, 7 or 8 of the tunes are immaculate. Hopefully we’ll get a couple more tracks off Calibre for the label. It all just needs organising, but I’ve been concentrating on this album. I’m writing a lot of music; house and techno stuff, some UK Bass…not dubstep exactly but the kind of stuff that’s on the album. I’ve no real idea what I’m gong to do with it, so I’m just enjoying writing at the minute.
Can you se yourself doing this in 21 years time?
I don’t think my ears would allow it! I don’t know; I’m 40 this year, so as long as I’m still enjoying it to an extent. It’s all I do, I’ve forged a career out of it. I guess demand dictates how long you go for; if nobody’s interested it’s because you’re over the hill. If you feel you’re past it then you stop. But right now I’m still there.
Marcus Intalex ’21’ is available now on Soul:R Records.