In the last years of the 1990s, Icarus – aka English cousins Oliver Bown and Sam Britton – released two of the most incredibly detailed drum’n’bass albums in the literature, Kamikaze and Fijaka. The duo combined complex drum programming and sub-bass swoops with a willingness for sonic exploration which blossomed over the next decade-plus of their career. At the same time, Sam would complete a Masters degree in electronic music and composition at the prestigious IRCAM in Paris, while Ollie’s work in music performance software would take him to Melbourne to work at the Centre for Electronic Media Art at Monash University.
While their music these days retains the pulse of drum’n’bass, it more closely resembles a kind of folktronica informed by musique concrete, electro-acoustic music and free jazz. One can hear generative jungle rhythms produced by Ollie’s computer programs and snippets of modern composition from Sam’s other life.
But, as I put it to Ollie & Sam, the first two albums seem to lie more towards the dancefloor end of drum’n’bass with the likes of Photek than with the drill’n’bass of Squarepusher.
Ollie begins: “We were certainly geared up for doing dancefloor music at that time, but we didn’t hang around in those circles. I never felt totally at ease in the basement of Blackmarket Records… much happier at [havens for IDM and electronica]Atlas or Ambient Soho!”
“But we were certainly convinced of the magnificence of vinyl and the great prestige of getting a track played by a well-known DJ. This was also the time that Warp/Rephlex-style avant-garde re-treatment of hardcore and drum’n’bass styles was emerging. Artists such as Plug were very influential, and we considered ourselves broadly spread amongst those interests. Photek was a huge influence, but bear in mind that quite a bit of his music was not really that popular on the dancefloor (although we DJ’d it and freaked out to it all the time).
“The exciting thing about drum’n’bass which doesn’t really apply equally to any dance music that came before it is that the stuff seemed so multi-purpose: with the threes against fours and the wide range of time-scales, lightning-fast drums and drawn out dopey basslines, you could pick and choose your own totally weird dance, juxtaposed with people around you. You could dance to the weird stuff even more weirdly, but there was also a lot of really dancefloor-based work out there which made great listening music, such as Danny Breaks or Paradox, who just got really involved in these incessant beat chopping frenzies that basically provided the content for the whole track, save a couple of drops here and there. I mean, some of my best dancing experiences involved little more than standing in front of a couple of huge speaker stacks, feet firmly stuck to the ground, grinning and prodding a finger into the air. So I think it was really head music for me anyway. No wonder I’ve put on a bit of weight.
“Bottom line: Plug, Paradox and Photek are the 3 P’s of late 90’s breakbeat wizardry.”
Both are still very enthusiastic about the d’n’b from their early days. Sam continues: “I think the other thing about drum’n’bass at the time is that no one seemed to really be able to put a finger on it. There was a period before it became a staple diet of London clubs, where it was just renegade music, it was a totally broad spectrum melting pot and it was really exciting to hear the breadth of ideas – I remember going to the Notting Hill Carnival a couple of years in a row and hearing so many different variations.”
“For me, that was one of the most inspiring things about it; that sense of experimentation and mashing things up that seemed to be at its core and I think a large part of that was also about the tools available to music producers: the fact that samplers were suddenly mass market music production tools – they no longer cost tens of thousands of pounds, you could pick up an Akai box of tricks at a fairly reasonable price and all of a sudden a whole new world of sound opened up.”
“Like a lot of people at the time, we’d also been really influenced by the rhythmic pulse of techno, particularly the Detroit minimalism that would surface through clubs like Tresor in Berlin. But when I started to hear what you could do on a sampler, that was it, I had to get one… Suddenly, it seemed like all of the ’60s and ’70s tape experiments (that you could buy newly re-issued on CD for bargain prices) by the likes of Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Soft Machine, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, had found a new lease of life – to be spliced out of song structures and looped into some crazy rhythmic throb that would drive itself like a runaway train straight through your psyche on a dance floor. The future had arrived.”
The scene they found themselves in was much more idiosyncratic and quirky – centred around Phil Earle’s Law and Auder label. They worked with people like Bedouin Ascent and Apache 61, artists who were pushing the boundaries of drum’n’bass. Oliver continues:
“At around the time that Roni Size won the Mercury Music Prize, drum’n’bass seemed to get sucked into a nasty little socio-economic corner of the music business, in my mind tied in with a kind of boom-time of big-business clubbing. Those that wanted to make music for 12″ vinyl and dancefloors became buried under constraints: ‘Keep that snare drum straight, mate, the crowd might get confused or something’, and ‘we can’t have that, they’ll be buying bottled water and vodka Red Bulls next door instead!’ Or maybe I just got older. It’s always enjoyable to imagine that some die hard beat-heads from the late ’90s are wondering how Icarus could have lost the plot so bad.”
But ten years on, despite a hugely widened palette, Icarus’s releases continue to dance to the drum’n’bass beat. “Yeah”, says Oliver. “It becomes more and more of an identity. In some ways it is an absurd pose to strike, because you could take out that element and be left with something for a completely different genre: some of our tracks, and Sam’s solo work, and both of our experiments with free improvisers, do exactly that. For the past 5 years I think we’ve been treating our music in that way, very introspectively, not as something which aims to be something, an end goal, more something which is how it is for a number of historical, personal and technical reasons. Then we play with that identity.”
Sam adds: “I also think there was a sense in which a lot of what we started off doing was finding crazy bits of records to sample – we would spend hours going through records and ‘digging in the crates’ for samples. I had inherited my father’s record collection which was about 70% jazz and we both regularly used to frequent the bargain basement record exchange shops in Notting Hill, where the rich denizens of West London were generally offloading their record collections in the switch to CD. You could also pick up a lot of dance music there too – so the things that ended up in our sampler would come from the most eclectic of sources.”
“So if anything, I kind of feel that the progression of Icarus over the years has been an investigation into all of the things that used to excite us and we’d sample, a LOT of which would come off of improvised jazz records and weird European avant-garde records made by people with unpronounceable names. If there was one thing that stayed constant it was the eclecticism of our inspiration and the jungle reference tempo of 160-180 BPM.”
Icarus are fascinating partly because of this smudging of genres – outside of drum’n’bass they fit awkwardly into many areas. In 2004 both Icarus and Sam’s alter ego Isambard Khroustaliov remixed their friend Four Tet on the ‘My Angel Rocks Back and Forth’ single, a highly effective collaboration and many people’s introduction to their work. Given this connection, I tentatively bring up the genre of the time, and am surprised at Ollie’s acceptance: “Yes you can say folktronica. I quite like that term. I really like folk music and I really like electronic music, and obviously we do electronic music with acoustic guitars, so it would be a bit of a waste of energy to rail against a term like that. As far as genres go, isn’t it just best to be disinterested but also not to take other people’s categorisations for granted? Create new genres, as many as possible, and distribute them liberally.”
Kieran Hebden himself has suggested that he sees (or saw, at the time) Four Tet as a kind of hip-hop. It may be tempting to throw genre considerations out the window, but with a band as allusive as Icarus, straddling electronic and acoustic, popular and academic, context is important within the music, and becomes an important consideration in listening to and discussing it. Sam takes up the thread:
“I think it’s fair to say that, broadly speaking, electronic music has a far bigger issue with the concept of contextualization than most other types of music, which in a way is totally exemplified by someone like Kieran. As a recent Pitchfork review points out, he is someone who thinks very hard about how his records and what he is doing can be referenced and interpreted within the history of recorded music. In many ways, that’s symptomatic and indicative of the fact that he admires and samples a great deal of those records to make the music he does; it also reflects a situation where, in the ’90s virtually no one performed electronic music live and your lifeline to an audience as an electronic music producer was through DJing. For a DJ, I think it’s a natural progression to take a style of music you like, spice it up a bit (or get someone you know to spice it up) and re-mould it for an audience who might never have even considered listening to the original style of music, but love the derivation. If you look back at dance music, that’s happened endlessly and it’s a testament to a specific language and a creativity within that language.”
“Given this, there are some interesting points where this language and the mould of what has been developed starts to become inadequate to nurture the music that is being created. For example, what happens when the people producing the music step outside the arena of producing 12″s and records tailored for DJs? And secondly, what happens when electronic musicians take to the stage and start performing themselves? It seems to me that at a certain point there was a conflict of interests and for me the fact that the record industry was and is going through this crisis of piracy and record sales is exactly as a result of that conflict of interests: it’s about a bunch of musicians saying, ‘We don’t want to be dictated to by an industry that won’t accommodate a new way of looking at musical creativity’. People say that’s all fixed now, but if anything the current trend seems more like a regression than a fix to me.”
“For our part, I think we realised quite early on that even though records are able to project a kind of ethos beyond the musical performance (through the artwork, the record label, the liner notes etc.), it was nevertheless the act of communing and creating music in real time that was the source of the apparition. It was also the point at which I think you start to think; electronic music is becoming more and more versatile such that I can program a computer to do these types of things, perform live, generate patterns, listen etc, and there’s no reason to think about the creative process in such rarified cultural terms. So the seeds of our interest in things like improvisation and not wanting to be tied down to a particular role as music makers came quite early on and perhaps influenced the fact that we remained pretty skeptical about the role of record labels and the concept of categorisation in the whole scheme of things. It’s nice to think that people can now generally just go straight to the source, completely bypassing that whole mechanism.”
Although they also work with labels still, Icarus have released their own music (as Icarus, solo and in collaboration), and others’ on their boutique “fantasy non-label” Not Applicable. For their current Australian tour, Icarus have self-released a live album called all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, which will be available from Not Applicable after the tour.
Their previous album, sylt, and the earlier self-released Carnivalesque, are edited from live recordings too. Indeed, the live element has always been a big focus for the pair – surprisingly, all the way back to the drum’n’bass days. Ollie recalls, â€œwhen we started out, we played live with a laptop and sampler (the laptop just sent MIDI to the sampler, it wasn’t powerful enough to play audio), and there weren’t many people exactly improvising with breakbeats at the time. It’s still a joke in 2010 that a live laptop performer is probably just checking his emails. In 2001 I remember playing live on a laptop (sending MIDI to Sam who was ‘on the sampler’) in a club where we had to set up in the middle of the audience. There was a drunk guy incessantly shouting into my ear throughout the entire set about how he wasn’t really too into the DJ and hoped someone would play some more housey beats. There was no way I could begin to explain to him what I was doing.
“Also, in those days, a band comprising of live instruments and electronics was, in my mind, always a bit of a dodgy fusion. Since then, the technical conditions, and the kind of musical culture has changed so much. Dance music people, non-classical types, just discovered a lot of new stuff. The academic guys always get first dibs on the technology, but often it’s culture at large that works out the best stuff to do with it. Dub, hip-hop and breakbeat music innovated techniques and sensibilities that maybe just now are becoming appropriately absorbed into classical-academic music culture. We’re straddling both worlds (in our own very independent ways), but it’s far from a cosy combo, it’s quite messy, and that’s not a bad thing.”
As for when their interest in the more academic side arose, “it pre-dated Icarus, but I don’t think either of us were aware of how it was all going to pan out. And certainly for myself I set off on the wrong foot – I should have learnt how to program 10 years earlier. I would have absolutely loved it, but nobody had ever even suggested it to me! MaxMSP, an intuitive tool for musicians to use algorithms, broke open a door which might have remained closed forever. I like the expression, ‘There are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns’. One great area of unknown unknowns is how you’ll view what you’ve just been doing when you go off and learn some new stuff. You find new things you didn’t know that you didn’t know.”
“So I can say that I had a load of interests surrounding Icarus, but there are some ways in which life was more complete before ‘studying’, because you just did things, savagely. By this I mean all this studying and discovery wasn’t necessarily a great thing to happen musically, it was just really what my brain hungered for. This can be really bad: I sometimes no longer get how you can sit down with a timeline and decide how something should be, and I really don’t get how you can go on stage every night and do set songs.”
Ironically, just as Ollie started to study Artificial Life and enter into his PhD, their Four Tet remixes were released, and then their album for the Leaf Label, I Tweet The Birdy Electric, became rather successful. Their most ‘folktronic’ release, it confounds listeners with acoustic instruments, bizarre percussive sound-sources, and beats that just don’t quite let you find the bar-lines.
“Things calmed down again after that, maybe because I was already committed to a slightly different path. I find it hard to make music and do research. So the truth is the interface hasn’t really got there yet. Making software is not the same as making music.”
Sam’s studies at IRCAM sound like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Quite unlike the snooty attitude of the ivory tower Western Art Music academic, Sam declares, “the thing I remember the most was just hanging out in the studios all night making the most wigged out music you could possibly conceive of and then walking down the hall and hanging out with someone else on a completely different trip. Then on top of this, having this enormous resource in terms of the people and literature there in the building with you – so if for some reason the process or software you were working with didn’t quite bug out in the desired way, you could go and hang out with the guy who was developing the software or the guy who had pioneered the technique and explain your ideas. I mean – to be doing that on a daily rotation – it was pretty insane.”
“Ultimately, you can sympathise with a lot of people in France who are pretty pissed that millions of Euros of their taxes go into facilitating something perceived as being so elitist, but I think that kind of argument wilfully ignores the necessary wayward flow of any type of thought process and research in order to end up with something that is way more that the sum of its parts, rather than just delivering ‘value for money’. Ultimately I still think Vortex Temporum by Gerard Grisey is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard and Miller Puckett did invent Max [music processing software used by everyone from Hrvatski to Radiohead, mentioned by Ollie above]there. No doubt the Large Hadron Collider will come up against the same kind of criticism sometime.”
Getting back to ‘contextualisation’ and research, “I think as a European, you’re always in some way overly historicised – I mean there is so much STUFF. It’s good and bad I guess, but the long and short of it is, you’re always dealing with that, whether in the form of researching who did what back when, or trying to find some strategy that is openly reactionary. It’s also part of a humility and acquiescence about culture: chances are your ideas aren’t as radical as you might think and I that is definitely something I feel we’re both very aware of – so part of the Icarus process has always in some way been about research: or broadly speaking, I think we’ve always done things partly to find out about other stuff.”
“Ultimately, I kind of think it’s the way Ollie and I converse – as you go, you integrate so many concepts into your psyche, at a point, it becomes difficult to just talk about them, you have to go and do it – you have to play the music.”
All Is For The Best In The Best Of All Possible Worlds is self-released through Not Applicable.