Felix Manuel’s unique productions as Djrum are crafting a fresh hybrid of UK-informed experimental dance music writes Gwyn Thomas de Chroustchoff.
One of the new tracks announcing Felix Manuel’s return as Djrum earlier this year, “Induction”, is opened by a plaintive, blown riff, which rises, swirling skyward in a swell of strings, brass and keys, faintly reminiscent of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ classical masterpiece “The Lark Ascending”. An itchy drum and bass rhythm darts in, the manipulated breakbeats spiking through the melody in jarring contrast.
With no rhythmic introduction for DJs to grapple, this isn’t usual dance music behaviour. Ever since Manuel’s first few EPs for On The Edge, where “St Martin” sampled a church choir, it’s been increasingly clear that Djrum is torn between the appeal of dancefloor tracks and studied, formal music. As our conversation confirms, amid detours into sonata form, John Cage’s lesser-known modal work and Miles Davis and Teo Macero’s innovative studio techniques, Manuel is never going to be satisfied making club music by numbers.
I grab a quick half an hour of Manuel’s time over the phone, because he’s busy with the family paint business. He’s still energised by a recent set at London’s Fabric, a club whose Friday night drum and bass sessions with DJ Hype were a regular stomping ground for him while at university. “I love that club,” he professes, “it’s strongly associated with the kind of drum and bass that I’m not really into now. Quite basic stuff but it was a good foundation for me.”
Manuel grew up in Oxford and then spent close to 10 years in London before returning to his hometown to work and buy a home. When Manuel explains the musical experiences that led him to where he is, you understand how he came to approach music in this varifocal way. Arriving “with a really open mind,” at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies to study ethnomusicology, Manuel owned one of the only pair of turntables in his housing block, and other club-friendly students would bring their records, introducing him to non-charted UK garage for the first time.
“Then I got into darker stuff,” he says, referring to gabber and breakcore, and he linked up with local soundsystems and became a regular DJ at squat parties. With three friends, including bassline jungle producer Rrritalin, Manuel set up Yardcore, a clubnight with an open attitude and taste for the novel. It whirled together hard-edged genres between 2006 and 2009, bringing rising producers like Benga, Boxcutter, Vex’d and Andy Stott together with breakcore and drum and bass legends from Bong Ra to Remarc.
A fresh approach to genre and eye on the new gave Yardcore a regular slot on popular underground station Sub FM, and later they laid down a contribution to the Electronic Explorations mix series. This was where Manuel’s first productions were aired, tracks that later formed the first two Djrum records for Smokin’ Sessions and On The Edge. But it was with the 2nd Drop label that he really found his feet, and Manuel has retained a strong relationship with the label ever since. 2nd Drop have released most of his music, including his sole album, 2013’s Seven Lies. There was a rewarding kind of ergonomic perfection in its smooth joining of rhythm and texture, perhaps absorbed during Manuel’s drum and bass apprenticeship. The album seemed to represent his ultimate style: orchestrated introspective melodies and vocal chops over broken-up 2-step beats and the hum and grind bass of dubstep and techstep drum and bass.
Manuel conveys a clear sense of gratitude to the label’s founders, Mark Gurney and James Bliss. “They don’t have to feed a machine,” Manuel says, “there’s no commercial pressure. I have the same situation: I can take some time to consider stuff. I like that approach. I need space in the studio to experiment and try things out. It’s a weird balance of wanting things to be spontaneous, or to be a mad perfectionist. I want to capture spontaneity and then craft that into something specific,” he says. “One aspect to what I do is jazz and another aspect to what I do is techno.”
These tensions, between spontaneity and perfection, between jazz and techno, lead us down a long, winding side-track. Manuel grew up playing jazz piano from a young age. But not only has it spilled over into his electronic music practice through sampling jazz records, his fascination goes much deeper, into the processes and techniques he’s learnt through listening to classic jazz albums. Techno, he argues, won’t be spontaneous. “You’re programming it to do something then you’re hitting play. I think sound design is the opposite to jazz, where you’re just jamming stuff.”
Manuel tells me he’s been bitten by the jazz bug more than ever right now and enjoys listening to older records for the frozen moments of spontaneity they possess. “They’re improvised and then a producer has selected moments and put them together,” he tells me in reference to Miles Davis and Ted Macero, and their work together recording the same track over and over again, taking out different bits of the recording and splicing them together again. It’s like creating a sample bank, live, we agree. Our conversation veers off to chatter about classic albums Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way before Manuel admits, “I’ve gone off on a jazz tangent.”
The last two years, though quiet, have shown that Manuel’s music is just as prone to tangents. First we saw the rave-tinged “Tailing” from 2014, reminiscent of Shed’s Head High output. Then came an extraordinary record at a higher tempo on Samurai Red Seal, Plantain, which saw his genre-smashing skills reach new levels, discarding some of the smoothness of his earlier sound in favour of a wilder, polyrhythmic blend of textures that was more effective than before. And earlier this year, Djrum’s broken techno identity came back with “Untitled 9”, fizzing with even more abrasive aesthetics and abstracted breakbeats. It found a release on the Zenker Brothers’ Ilian Tape, home also to Stenny, Andrea and Skee Mask, lovers of breakbeat themselves but somewhat differentiated from Djrum’s melodic dubstep lineage.
After Seven Lies his profile grew, and bigger labels toyed with him he says. “I was a bit strung along by that, and led astray, maybe, a bit – I just don’t wanna name names.” He realised, nevertheless, that he had an album’s worth of material backed up. “It wasn’t conceived as an album, but there are pockets here – phases of productivity – where I was experimenting with certain things, so they go together,” he says. Each track on the first of the three, last June’s Forgetting EP, features some of Manuel’s piano compositions, spanning styles from the aforementioned “Induction” all the way to rhythmic, grid-fitted classical music with subby bottom end. LA consists of “ravey bangers,” in Manuel’s words, from the heavily swung to the distinctly angular, while the third and yet to be released record, Space Race, follows his theme of splitting up a long track or concept into a number of parts. “I’ve really gone into a few sounds and a few kind of ideas and formed them into a load of different ideas.”
The growing strength of Manuel’s instinct for doing everything at once is understandable, in both its source and its power. “Yardcore was definitely formative, big time,” Manuel says, and the voracious consumption of rhythm, tempo and atmosphere within his releases confirms that. It was taking control of those formative experiences, mixing genres as a DJ and promoter, that gave him the idea he needed to crystallise his own musical vision, as he explains. “I realised I’ve got to bring absolutely everything into the pot, and mix it all together – and that’s me.” Manuel adds, “no one else has my unique set of experiences and that was the revelation.” It was this realisation that inspired him to make the tracks that became his debut Djrum material.
It’s not that this expressive release has made everything easy for Manuel, as he cites the difficulty of both absorbing his past and maintaining his identity: “I can’t just be a total chameleon, you’ve gotta also identify as Djrum, you know?” But whether or not his aforementioned label problems had anything to do with his musical mind-set, there have been other pressure points.
A booking agent told him to “forget about the ambient stuff,” if he wanted more gigs, and getting radio play on his more freeform compositions can be difficult too, as he’s aware. “Part of me thinks that would help my career, as it were, but fuck it man. It’s 15 minutes long, deal with it.” He’s faced these challenges before; his initial reputation as a tear-out squat-party DJ was destroyed when he began putting out melodic pseudo-garage fit for home listening. “It took me a while to build up a new name for myself,” he admits
Manuel, incidentally, doesn’t see his music as soft. “You get some ambient floaty stuff over the top of these really brutal beats and it kind of mellows it down.” His certainty of approach is excitingly strong now, more than ever before, and the Djrum sound has only become richer, engaging and well-constructed as he’s challenged himself to include bigger injections of diverse ideas. “That’s the way you sound original; that’s the way you sound like your personality is coming out in a record,” he says, everything you listen to, everything you love, goes into what you make.”
Gwyn Thomas de Chroustchoff
Images courtesy of Oliver Clasper
Djrum on Juno