Signal Path is a series that delves into the creative process of our favorite producers and musicians. In this interview, Scott Wilson visits the studio of chameleonic UK producer Logos, whose trailblazing experiments with instrumental grime and “weightless” music have evolved into a more cinematic sound.
As Logos, James Parker has explored a lot of musical territory across his decade-long career: drum and bass, dubstep, grime (both in his productions and as a founding member of London club night Boxed), “weightless” club music and, on this year’s Imperial Flood, a head-spinning combination of ambient, dub techno and often unclassifiable textures. As I speak to him at his London studio to discuss the twists and turns of his musical journey, he pinpoints the thing that ties it all together.
“I love dark music, I love dark drum and bass,” he says. “Not comically dark, but dread.”
While his debut album, 2013’s Cold Mission, became a cult favorite for its exploration of instrumental grime sounds, his latest is a more abstract record that draws influence from the speculative fiction of J.G. Ballard and Annihilation author Jeff Vandermeer. At moments, it sounds like an imaginary score for a movie about an alien invasion or ecological catastrophe.
“There’s this sensation of dread hanging over those texts, about what’s potentially coming for us in human civilization, and that permeated my approach to writing the music,” he says. On Imperial Flood, like on Cold Mission, the sense of dread comes as much from what’s lurking in the gaps as it does from the nightmarish sound design. If there’s one thing that Parker understands better than most, it’s when to deploy silence in a track.
Parker’s London studio, which he shares with his longtime friend and collaborator Jack Adams (aka Mumdance), is home to a simple production setup with a few unconventional components: a broken Roland JP-8000 that he uses primarily as a MIDI controller (a fix for the synth voice is easy, he tells me, but he hasn’t got around to it). There’s also the Culture Vulture, an outboard rack valve distortion unit belonging to Adams that he uses to add body to some of his sounds (it’s the one thing he’d buy himself if he and Adams move into their own studios), and a used Mackie desk (also belonging to Adams) that was a favorite of drum and bass producers in the ‘90s.
The most intriguing object is a small red box released by Nord in 1997, the Micro Modular – a shrunk-down version of the Nord Modular G2, one of Autechre’s favorite synths. Although patches are written and uploaded using archaic software that requires an old MacBook Pro with OSX Snow Leopard to run, it’s an affordable (£300 used) synth that gives Parker a flexible, unique way to create crisp, atmospheric sounds. Among other things, it’s responsible for the squelchy acid line in ‘Flash Forward (Ambi Mix)’, a heady track that sounds as if it’s sending tendrils into the inky depths of space.
Parker also uses a newer laptop that does the more demanding processing tasks – sequencing on Logic Pro, running soft synths and programming with Max, which Parker tells me he recently did a did an introductory course in.
What I discover is that Parker is a producer that likes to learn by getting under the hood and figuring out what makes things tick. “I aspire to be much better at synthesis than I actually am,” he tells me, explaining that he’s more likely to tinker with existing Nord and Max patches to fit his needs than to writing them from scratch, or manipulate samples in clever ways to create his advanced sound design.
I noticed that you use Logic to sequence your tracks. Is that the software that you started writing music with?
The thing that really got me into working with sound was Sound Forge, which I had a copy of on my laptop just before I went to university. I couldn’t really work out how Cubase worked properly, so I drew drum and bass patterns but it was always the General MIDI sounds [that came out]. Sound Forge was really cool because you could do overdubbing, so I learned how to chop up breakbeats by hand and make loops so I could overdub samples on top. I think that’s how Burial made quite a lot of his tunes?
Yeah, he’s said he used Sound Forge in the past and the assumption is that’s why everything he makes is so loose – because it’s not sequenced on a grid.
It was a really good education, because even though when I was into drum and bass people would chop breakbeats with [Reason’s] ReCycle, I used to do it by hand and then put each hit into the sampler in Cubase and replay the loop instead, because it was faster. I was so fast with Sound Forge hotkeys at one point. Even when I was getting more into grime and dubstep I still wanted to make D&B a lot, but I never really felt I could realize the final product.
Around that time I started to use forums and engaged with various communities of people into D&B in London and made some friends who showed me how to do things. I made friends with somebody I’ve known a long time, a producer called DB1 who works on Hidden Hawaii and other labels. We first made D&B at his house. He actually had a sampler and he had Logic, sounds in the sampler, bit of an old desk, little bit of synth gear. The stuff we both made probably wasn’t that amazing but it was a good learning process. I think with YouTube tutorials and stuff now it’s quite easy to learn, I always found the best way to learn was to work with somebody so they can show you easy ways of doing something.
One of your earliest singles, back in 2009, was basically straight dubstep. How was your sound evolving around that time?
I was going out to clubs, FWD and DMZ, around 2005 and 2006. The person I look up to the most in dubstep is Mala – I completely idolized his approach to DJing and his production is amazing. I really liked Basic Channel and music like that too, so I was into that kind of zoning, low-key, bass-heavy, weird dubstep vibe. So ‘Medicate’ was my attempt to make that. I think it’s quite a good track actually. It didn’t get picked up by anybody. Things don’t get played unless you know how to get tracks to people.
How did you get into the grime sound you explored around the time of Kowloon and Cold Mission?
By the time 2009/10 came around, dubstep as a force for producing became slightly less interesting because things had been done to an extent. I was still quite a big dubstep fan, and I really like System and Vivek and people like that who still do stuff at 140, it’s amazing, but that era for me was [back] then. And I’d followed grime for a long time but I’d started to think of playing around with some grime ideas. That’s how the first record on Keysound came about – the Kowloon EP.
I don’t think what I did was necessarily that radical. If you listen to some stuff from 2003, like Danny Weed and Wiley’s devil mixes, they’re as radical – if not more – as grime that’s self-consciously abstract. I was just interested in playing around with sounds. And I dropped the tempo a little bit to 130 deliberately because people were playing slower. Oneman and Ben UFO were all playing stuff around 130BPM and you kinda make stuff because you want people to play it. And it’s interesting to drop tempos so you’re not making grime per se.
It’s interesting that you say part of the reason you made ‘Kowloon’ at 130 was that there was a greater chance of getting played. Some people might call that cynical, but do you feel like that opened a door for you to try stuff that actually proved more fruitful?
Yeah. It’s important to be honest about these things – it partly was genuinely so it could get played and you have to understand that at that point, in 2011, those DJs who came up in dubstep were not playing 140 music anymore. So if you gave them a 140 track they might say “I really like that” but they probably wouldn’t play it in a set, on Rinse or it on a mix on RA, FACT or any of the platforms that were popping around the time.
If you listen to the Kowloon EP some of the tracks on there are not grime – they’re more like 808-style, Swamp 81-ish workouts, because that was the kind of vibe at the time – Addison Groove-y type things. And that doesn’t work at 140. But I felt I was part of a community of like-minded people. That’s how scenes work – an exchange of ideas between the producer and the people that are gonna publicize and play the track. So maybe it was partly cynical, but it was mainly because I wanted to do something that wasn’t just straight grime and part of that was dropping the tempo.
Cold Mission still stands out for me because it felt like it defined a moment, and even now it still feels unique from that era – it felt like a self-contained universe. When you wrote it, did you compile tracks or were you aiming for a specific mood across the album?
I think at the time I wanted to capture some of the cinematic aspects of grime without doing grime as such. Grime influences are there, but there’s no straight grime track. Actually, ‘Seawolf’ is quite a straight grime track but again, that’s at a slower tempo. I suppose it was an attempt to capture some aspects of grime without necessarily going over the same old tropes. And there’s all the influences I had from drum and bass – the sci-fi cinematic aspects, the hazy vibe you get in D&B.
It’s hard to talk about it now because it feels like such a long time ago. It was, to an extent, a collection of tracks – it’s just what came out and it’s the same with the new record. I don’t write 30 tracks and edit down, I can’t do that. I just don’t have time so I tend to just end up with what I end up with.
You said that a year and a half to write that album was quick for you. Would you consider yourself a slow worker?
Yes, I’m a really slow worker in the studio. It’s partly through lack of time, because I’ve always worked full time. And actually it’d be nice to do music full time, but it’s really hard in London to do that. If I had to do music full time I wouldn’t get a 400% increase in productivity, it just wouldn’t work like that. I’d probably spend as long coming up with the final product, because I just work quite slowly.
I spend a lot of time listening to loops. I can sit around listening to a loop for two hours and tweaking it. Sometimes I can put something together really quickly, but I’ve found that I spend a long time working on elements and I have to let them percolate and come back to them later. Often when a track’s 70% complete it won’t really sound finished and everything comes together in the edit at the end. So I don’t work in a real time way – I [use] a drum and bass way of producing, which is working in the timeline, positioning things in that four or five-minute timeline, then going back and forth and doing the structure that way.
Even if I’ve used outboard I’ll have a lot of things recorded, then I’ll edit down and do a lot of post-processing. When I’m at 80% complete, I spend a lot of time on the final 20%. So that’s why it takes my such a long time, even though my tracks are really minimal. Some producers have the ability to focus have a lot of things running in parallel in their head, so they’ll have 30 tracks open with a bass that’s resampled in seven or eight different layers – I just can’t work like that, I don’t feel like my brain can deal with it. So I often have maybe six, seven tracks maximum in parallel for the final edit in Logic. I just prefer to work that way.
Do you have a typical process when you sit down and decide to start writing a new track?
The first thing you do is you feel amazing because you’ve got a blank Logic project and you think “this is gonna be amazing – I feel so good because I’ve got a blank screen in front of me!” It depends. If I’m writing a straight grime tune, which I do sometimes – what I would call ‘fun stuff’ under an alias or tunes I’ve done with Boylan, I will start with the drums and bass. If I’m not really doing genre stuff and I’m trying to experiment it’s very open ended. I’ll quite often start with some strings. Or it might just be a couple of samples to get the idea going.
It’s hard to explain, usually what gets me going is an idea. So, for example, I might just have an idea from a book or a film that sparks off a thought about a track. Or, sometimes it’s messing around with the Nord with a patch that I found on an online library. Do I understand it? Maybe, if not I’ll try and figure out how it works, and then run it through some outboard, like the Culture Vulture. I often just try and copy – not copy whole tracks, but for example there’s a track on the album called ‘Flash Forward’, which is an acid-y loop thing, [inspired by] listening to a Porter Ricks track from their album on Chain Reaction. There’s a few things about it that sound really sub-aquatic, and I just liked the idea of trying to make slow tempo acid-y loops like that. It never ends up sounding like that – it’s really hard to reproduce people whose level of production is so high, but on the other hand it leads you down interesting alleys. And then you superimpose your predilections of how you things to sound or work on top.
I assumed a lot of the sound design on Imperial Flood was clever synthesis but some of it’s actually sample-based. How are you manipulating them?
I aspire to be much better at synthesis than I actually am. One of the reasons I’ve been learning Max/MSP is because I want to get away from timeline writing for a bit of a change. But also I want to push myself in terms of my ability to synthesize from scratch, and you can do all sorts of synthesis within Max. Sometimes I can do stuff with synthesis but actually I quite like finding interesting samples and working with them. Sometimes I’ll find an interesting sample library online, sometimes I’ll pay for it because it’s a bit like buying a synth – you’re buying in quality that you can’t reproduce. Most of the time it’s stuff that I’ve recorded, field recordings or samples from records that have been flipped in some way.
There’s some cool little free tools around I use – there’s a nice processing app for OSX called Cecilia I like using because you can do interesting granular-type processing on samples and end up with something that’s sometimes quite close to the original sound or can sometimes be completely different. So it’s just placing those around in Logic and designing the sound environment by hand. There’s something magical about it – it’s like having an ear for the right sample basically. I also have some nice-sounding plugins, like the plate reverb plugin I use a lot.
Imperial Flood sounds very consistent despite the different textures and ideas. Did you plan out the feel of the album beforehand or was the process more intuitive?
There were a couple of tracks on Cold Mission that I think, in retrospect, didn’t need to be on there. It felt a little bit too sporadic in places. What I wanted to do with this album was really focus in on something that was a lot more consistent and recreated the same vibe for the listener but with different structures and different sounds. I really like Raime’s second album Tooth, which superficially can sound like quite a lot of the same type of thing but actually it requires you to listen quite carefully to it. It’s a brilliant album.
I found that I had a go-to synth patch, which started off being lazy and then I realized that actually I found a process of making it sound really cool, and it didn’t at all sound like it was from a 10-year-old soft synth, so I decided to mine it. I tried to build a sonic environment around a handful of different things – the strings, some of the same samples, which I reused in slightly different ways. Then I had a core, which could tolerate certain stretching while maintaining the same vibe. It’s a little bit like listening to Youngsta DJ in 2006 – he was so careful and specific about what tracks he cut and what he played, and he just created this amazing sound world. But for me it’s very intuitive. I think about music a lot, but I don’t think about it when I’m hands on with tools – I’m a much more intuitive writer.
I’m really quite superstitious and I get really infuriated when people make things in the modular and I say, “that’s really really good, you need to record it” and they’re like “oh no no I’m gonna tweak it” and then it completely disappears. So one of the things that I’ve found myself doing a lot is that I’m very conservative about tweaking patches. Often I’ll find something I like and then just work with that, try and push it in different directions with processing things. But I don’t like fiddling around with patches. If I was working with someone in collaboration they’d probably find that quite infuriating because you’re not necessarily testing all the possibilities and it creates something much better than you’ve got already. But I just personally get infuriated when people make stuff and then lose it. Especially with modulars where you can’t save presets. So save, save, save presets and then go back to them and tweak them. I found myself doing that a lot with this album. That’s possibly why it sounds so homogeneous maybe? I got the sound I wanted and I didn’t really want to start mucking with it, basically.
You mentioned that sometimes the inspiration for a track would be something that you’ve read, and of all the literary influences behind the album, the one that stood out for me is Jeff Vandermeer. Is ‘Lighthouse Dub’ a reference to the lighthouse in Annihilation?
Yeah, basically. I probably named it that about two years ago when the track was being written and I never bothered to change it, and thought “I wonder if people will get the reference?” I didn’t have an exact scene [in mind] because that lighthouse appears in different scenes in the books, but it was a nice anchor reference point for me. And also because a lighthouse [evokes] a flickery dub techno kind of environment, with a rotating light and mist. It’s often a feedback loop with track titles – naming a track has a kind of magic to it sometimes and it can give you interesting feedback as you need to develop a track to its final conclusion.
At certain points, Imperial Flood is more like a cinematic music than club music. Was it your intention to make it sound like an imaginary film score?
I did want to make it sound like a – a score’s not quite the right word – but a score to a place. I wasn’t particularly thinking about the moving image, but a sort of soundtrack to an environment. I didn’t set out with the intention of writing stuff that wasn’t gonna be played by DJs – there’s a couple of tracks on there you can mix – but I didn’t feel any obligation to write stuff that wasn’t going to fit into sets. It didn’t really bother me.
I think I mentally carved a space out for myself where the album is gonna be. Certain tracks I made over the years while I was making the album weren’t right [for it]. I’ve got another release coming out later this year on another label, which is a pretty weird tune but it’s supposed to be for dancefloors. For that project I wrote tracks that would test out systems and and you would dance to in a club. I didn’t feel any obligation on the album to do that. I suppose over time, the more you have that mindset the more you’re prepared to go further with the material than you would be. You don’t feel any barrier.
Is film score work the kind of thing you’d want to move into if you had the opportunity?
Yeah, I’d be interested. My perception is that it’s like any other music freelancer thing – certain aspects of it can be more like producing a product for a client, and that’s not the same thing I’m used to with making music for myself. So whether I’d be comfortable, and also whether I’d have the technical chops to deliver exactly what this client wanted, [I don’t know]. But if I was doing a genuine collaboration with somebody who was doing a film where I wasn’t just producing something for a client to order but I was actually collaborating then yeah, I’d definitely be interested.
Scott Wilson is FACT’s tech editor. Follow him on Twitter
Filming and photography by Pawel Ptak