In the shifting state of UK music, there are remarkably few figures that survive and thrive through the generational shifts in style that regularly upend the club scene. The recent shift away from dubstep’s increasingly codified sound and towards four-to-the-floor both on the techno and house side of the divide has already left its share of casualties as the struggle to adapt leaves producers unable or uninterested in following. By the time Untold, birth name Jack Dunning, entered the fray in 2008 with his debut on Hessle Audio, the genre was already in an advanced state of fragmentation, but rather than sinking in the fray, he rapidly rose to star status on the virtue of his quickly-shifting, technically precise production style. It surely was a dramatic entry on the scene, and not surprisingly it was fueled by a long, convoluted history in music and sound that had already taken Dunning through several sides of the artistic and commercial aspects of the industry.
Although he started like many other British youths DJing hardcore and jungle and even participated in a mobile soundsystem, Dunning’s musical interests took an abrupt turn sideways when he chose to enter the academic side of electronic music in a conservatory. It wasn’t something meant to be for the young man, and after getting turned off by some aspects of the academic approach, he chose to make his first career in the quickly developing area of web design. It was a sidetrack that lasted 8 years, but when he belatedly was introduced to dubstep via the DMZ parties, the new sound made an immediate impact. Returning to music with renewed passion, within a few years Untold had his own label and a string of releases on the scene’s leading sources for innovative music. As sound moved towards techno, the older, wiser producer was able to use his background as a resource and stay steps ahead, all while continuing to churn out tracks whose detail and composition left him standing with few rivals. Now hot off of a series of three challenging, genre bending EPs, Change in a Dynamic Environment, and in the middle of producing a full length, Dunning continues to reach new heights and thrive in his uncertain surroundings. halcyon was happy to catch up with the cultured champion of esoteric sounds as he returns to the US for his second extended solo tour…
halcyon: Let’s start with basics… What have you been up to lately since you finished your EPs?
Untold: Straight after the EPs I went into compiling and writing myself for the “Hemlock Chapter One” compilation. That took a lot of time really. After that, I’ve started writing a new album. I’d say I’m about halfway through, and I’m planning to finish it on this tour. I just want to jam it out and not let the album eat me away. I want it to be more fun, because having come out of those EPs… They were quite hard to realize. I struggled with writing them, and I guess they were leading up to something bigger. They were more complex tracks. There was a lot in them in terms of layers, melody; they weren’t just club DJ tools, so now I want to do a full listening album.
h: I would have to say that just listening to the EPs the very first time I heard them, I got that impression. Is this the first time you’ve done a major tour in the States?
U: Well, I’ve been over a few times. This is the second time that I’m touring by myself, which is always interesting because although there are people that are aware of my work in the bigger cities, it’s still such a big place for someone like me who runs a small label and plays essentially pretty underground music to turn up and play on a weeknight. It’s really nerve-racking and often surprising.
h: Well The Bunker party here in New York went really well so you’re off to a good start!
U: Yes, that was a great gig.
h: Going back a bit, I understand that you started off in music going to conservatory?
U: Yes, it was essentially that. It was an undergraduate university course based at the University of Hertfordshire.
h: What led you there though?
U: Basically, I took what I thought would be the most fun subjects in high school – music, art – and I was playing in bands. I had a basic computer setup, a Mac and a sampler, and was writing drum and bass. I was DJing and part of a soundsystem that used to put on outdoor parties in the south of England, so I saw this course in Electronic Music and thought it looked interesting. I didn’t necessarily have any preconceptions or great knowledge about the subject or what exactly they were going to teach. It only ran for three years. There were some very experienced and well-respected lecturers there, and there was a complete mish-mash of people in the class, anyone from people with grade 8-style musician backgrounds to complete misfits… I think that’s the category I fell into… rocked up and thinking we’d be writing techno or drum and bass or something. It was interesting.
h: But eventually you had a bit of a falling out with that tradition right?
U: Looking back on it, more and more I think that I took some really positive things from that course, but directly afterwards and especially during the last year, I got so angry and frustrated with the intellectual barrier in the academic approach to electronic music. Especially when you were getting to know lecturers that you really respected and weren’t open minded… They would play you a 40 minute piece that consisted of feedback and get the class to discuss it, but you’d bring up names like Aphex Twin and they had never heard of them. So we brought in CDs, and as soon as they heard a kick drum in it, it would be an instant switch off… “This isn’t valid”, or this isn’t part of that world. If you can’t write a thesis about it or it doesn’t have a graphically notated score, then it didn’t belong. I was really frustrated by the similarities between the IDM that was around at that time – I graduated in 2000, so that was when Planet Mu and Schematic were in full swing really pushing early computer music in a more dance angle. It did my head in! It made me not ever want to listen to music again.
h: Yes, to me there’s a real linear path between Terry Riley and Steve Reich and Aphex Twin… It’s not even very much of a stretch. 20 years on and looking back, I think that it’s gained a lot of acceptance.
U: I think that festivals like Transmediale in Berlin, I’m not actively involved in those but I get the feeling that there’s certain cultural institutions that are doing good things to bring it together. A few weeks back I saw Aphex Twin at the Barbican doing his remote orchestra concert… That was quite interesting.
h: Maybe it’s a bit more commonplace, but of course Jeff Mills or the Chain Reaction guys have been playing with orchestras too. I know that Substance and Vainqueur played with an orchestra in Montreal last year… It probably wasn’t the first time either, I don’t think. I know Mills has done it several times, Carl Craig has done it I think, so the rigidity… It might not be going through the schools, but outside of there it’s starting to get circumvented. Eventually, people have to take a step back and reconsider. If you had to name particular aspects of what you took away from that course that were positive, what would you say? Or names and influences?
U: I guess my favorite course during that time was New Music. It was on a Monday morning, so after the weekend you would go straight in and sit in this classroom… It was a really weird campus, all they taught was sports studies, aeronautical engineering, and nursing, and we were these misfits at the top of the rugby pitch in these portable cabins… We’d go in there and get blasted with a load of Stockhausen. That was refreshing; it really did teach me to listen with open ears. It taught me about artists that were concerned with computer manipulation like Paul Lansky, the MIT lecturer. His work with vocal manipulation has been a massive influence. That attention to detail and layering, it really contributed to the composition and vibe of some of my more busy arrangements. The collaboration with LV was essentially musique concrète; it’s just samples of animals, organic sounds, and samples of fire. That was similar to the stuff I’d do for projects in university – make a one minute composition using only one sound sourced from a record.
h: I listened that record, and I would have never guessed that. To me it was a nice dub record… If you don’t know where it’s coming from, you wouldn’t necessarily approach it like that, or maybe you just did a good job changing the things up. So after your course, did you take a complete sabbatical from music or did you continue DJing actively?
U: Well, around that time, 1997-2000, that was when the internet was becoming much more accessible, and one of the great facilities at that university was that they had T3 servers and a massive, newly built library with really great internet access. So I started up a sample site – what they called in those days web rings – I started making beats and doing my own drum breaks and put them up for download. At that time, you could only really get samples from music shops, and they were quite expensive, so there was quite a cool little community that sprang up sampling classic ’70s vinyl breaks and putting stuff up so people could make music. I got very into the internet and using audio in Flash, so for my final project I built a little generative application in Flash 3 I think it was then. It was very, very basic, but that’s what got me into Flash, and that was an era when websites had two minute intros and the navigations would float in a massive circle or square or something… You’d move your mouse towards the navigations and it would float away, it was a complete user interface nightmare, but it was also quite anarchic and fun at the same time. There were no experts. Just on the basis of having that Flash dissertation and a few things that I’d been playing around with in designs for my sample website, I went down to London and managed to get a job as a junior graphic designer freelance. My first job was working on BP.com. I was very lucky to get in before the dot com bubble burst, and I was immediate immersed in the world of corporate web design, which I stayed in for 8 years.
h: Were you still DJing or no?
U: Musically, up until that time my main love and vinyl purchasing genre was jungle and drum and bass… Obviously I mentioned some artists like Aphex Twin that I always looked after, but my record collection is essentially a comprehensive documentation of hardcore from 1993-2000. Around 2000, the sound started getting more regulated for me, and I wasn’t enjoying it as much or going out as much just because I was doing crazy, crazy hours working at advertising agencies. It just sort of fell off a bit. I was aware of grime and I quite liked it, but I wasn’t massively in the scene nor listening to that much pirate radio. It was only until I heard Hatcha’s mix CD “Dubstep Allstars Volume 1″ that music really flipped my pips again and I wanted to really start going out and writing again.
h: So that was what, 2004?
U: A bit later maybe… It was when DMZ did their first parties in the basement at the main venue where they used to do their dubstep raves, Third Bass. I was lucky enough to go to one of their first parties, and that was new, scary music that I liked the sound of.
h: In a strange way, I think it’s returning to the roots of a lot of English dance music, going back to the reggae roots of drum and bass and stripping it back down to basics. From then, it didn’t take you long to get back into things, did it?
U: I was doing multimedia in my work, so I was building rich media applications and still using sound programs to do sound effects for that. I was doing little bits of soundtrack work and kind of keeping my hand in. I just started writing again. I’d say it took about a year doing it part time to get my production level up there again. My first release was on Hessle Audio, the 3 track EP.
h: I remember that one. Then you started the label, Hemlock, pretty much straight after that right?
U: It was around the same time, yes. The three founders of Hessle Audio, they’re a massive influence on me. It was a good kick in the pants… They’re a bit younger than me and had just come out of university themselves. I thought that if they could do that and immediately start a label that had that much quality control and vision, I should be doing that too! They gave me some confidence to start something.
h: Well, they have the brash courage of being young behind them. They’ve continued to release quality music. It’s obvious that they don’t want to be put in a box and they don’t want to compromise what they’re doing. That’s as good a model to start a label as any I can think of. Even compared to them though, although I won’t say it’s better, Hemlock certainly stands out. Andy Spencer is your partner in the label right? Could you tell us a little about him?
U: I met him when we were working in the same agency together. He’s a bit older, but we still had the same touch points in UK hardcore and drum and bass. We both started going out to these dubstep nights, DMZ, then FWD>>. The agency we were working at was a branding agency, and we’re both real fans of labels like Mo’Wax where the packaging and the whole visual aspect of the record label affects your perception of the object as a whole. We immediately thought that since we do branding, we can make something really, really nice looking for people to enjoy. It was a really interesting time in music, and there were a few gaps in the sound that we could fill so it seemed natural to start something up.
h: And the visual design of the label, was it a collaboration as well?
U: Yes, it was a joint thing. We just threw loads of ideas down. Andy is actually doing exhibition design now for his main day job, but he’s always been a print designer. I imagined 100 of those vinyls stacked up next to each other on the shelf… the more that you own, the more iconic it becomes. It has this one very decorative element, but everything else is stripped back to the real minimum. I think it stood up and still works as a concept. It sticks out on record store shelves.
h: Yes, no one has tried to imitate that I know about… The only thing that came close was the sublabel that you two did. On the subject of your music, in the past few years you’ve obviously moved more towards techno, and there’s been a big surge in that area. I think it’s become difficult for people to distinguish themselves. I remember a few years ago, 4-5, when the surge first started, that it was really exciting, but now it’s become a bit crowded. How have you approached trying to stand out in that context?
U: I’m very aware of it. It’s a cliché – dubstep producer now starts writing stuff with 4/4 kicks as if he’s just discovered it. There are a lot of people doing this, and I’m not entirely sure the reasons for it. Just chatting to friends, we decided that dubstep had now become “something”… We were playing our own music, which was on the fringes of dubstep, but it was at that tempo and we’d call it dubstep, but we’d play it to crowds and they’d ask for “dubstep”. It was clear that something weird was happening there, so we thought about where the framework was and where we could continue exploring new ideas without there being such a stigma around the actual final sound. What scene would let us write non-templated music? Ironically, it’s something that is underpinned by that 4/4 kick. It’s the framework that a lot of people went to because it was so ubiquitous that you could orient yourself against it and put your voice on top of it or around it.
h: Yes, I find it a bit strange that there’s a lot of techno that’s quite derivative because to me it’s an open-ended thing. As long as you spend enough time making the combination, I can imagine putting nearly anything on top of it if you have a bit of imagination. Coming from the perspective of the DJ, obviously DJing techno and DJing drop music, so to speak, dubstep and drum and bass, it’s just not the same thing. How have you approached this problem?
U: Well, like you said, it’s a massive shift. I’ve had to completely switch up my DJing style. Before, I was playing shorter sets and playing tunes for 2 minutes, and it was very drop based. There were lots of rewinds…. There might even be an MC. I pretty much had to learn to DJ again. Now I feel completely comfortable playing 4 hour sets. I’m actually enjoying it a lot more – being able to build a narrative into a set, working with a more linear approach over a few hours, being able to bring something slowly up over half an hour. It’s all stuff that I’ve found really interesting. When I’d heard techno sets before, I hadn’t really paid attention to the skill that you need to properly build things up and take them back down while still keeping the pace right. It’s not something I really had to do when I was playing dubstep. It was much more immediate, just slam each track and blast people for an hour and that would be it. Now it’s more fun! I’m getting a lot more out of it.
h: Yes, in the more traditional style of UK dance music, the contours are already built into the music so you don’t have to make them yourself, but it can also be a limitation because it forces the music into that framework. I actually thought that some of the really good dubstep or drum and bass DJs would impose their own structure over that structure… I guess that’s what you call playing deeper. There’s less immediate reward but more emotional weight over a longer period of time. This also reflects back to what you’ve been doing with your production by stretching things out over longer tracks with more sections and more complexity.
U: Absolutely. The sections thing actually came from listening to a lot of my old hardcore and drum and bass tunes where there’d be an intro, then a drop, then maybe a crazy piano breakdown, and then there’d be another section that would be totally different than the intro, and then another breakdown, and then a third part that had a different drop to the second section. I think that it’s really weird that no one does that anymore; no one adds more than element or idea to music. It’s just like keep it simple, get one idea, get one loop sounding good and roll it out over 6 minutes. Whereas actually, I do want something that’s happy at the start of the tune and then kind of angry by the end. That’s definitely a theme that ran through “Change in a Dynamic Environment.”
h: Even the title of the series of EPs… there’s several meanings I can think of for that.
U: I don’t even want to necessarily say what it means to me. I deliberately named it so that people could interpret it how they want.
h: Certainly for someone coming from a background with a bit of academic knowledge and older dance tracks that are more complex, I think that going back towards complexity in dance music is quite a satisfying thing for me as well as for other listeners. When I listened to your recent EPs, I was really pleased every time there was a sudden change or detour. It was like I would put it on and not know where it would end up. Curiously enough, it made it somewhat difficult to get some techno DJs to listen to it because they wanted something more linear, but to me it really works. I think people will catch up to this idea or come around to it though. Techno has become a bit too monolithic for its own good by my tastes. I’m always looking for curveballs.
U: Well the reaction has been really great, and it’s really cool that people like Shed or Ben Klock have picked up on some of the tracks of the EP and were playing them and not playing others, and then some of the drum and bass crowd have either loved or hated the Motion in the Dance one, some of the deeper house heads have been playing that Breathe track. I’ve been really quite humbled and pleased with the feedback, both good and bad, for the EPs. At least it’s different… That’s what people have been saying to me.
h: And also the fact that so many different people from different areas of music are playing it shows the cross-crowd appeal of it and can possibly break down some barriers that have been traditionally imposed over these subgenres of similar styles of music. At the beginning here, you said you were working on an album I remember? I guess that will give you a chance to explore these complex ideas a bit more?
U: Like I said, when I was doing the EPs I was quite aware about the timing of when it was coming out and where it was within the scene in post-dubstep or whatever you’d like to call it. It was a new sound for me in a quite unsure time in electronic music. For this album, I just want to forget about all of that and write music that isn’t necessarily concerned with holding down a particular format. I want to get back to sound design and make something that’s very otherworldly to me, something that isn’t made out of drum machine samples. I’m trying to make some rich, organic music.
h: I would agree with you that the past couple of years have been a bit of a rough time for defining things, but it’s definitely time for people to start making statements as to the direction of things rather than trying to navigate all of these tricky divisions that at the end of the day have stopped having much significance.
U: I’m always aware of talking about the current scene and how it can come across as very negative comments about it being so undefined or there being too many labels for it, et cetera. It’s an amazing time for music. I’m hearing some of the most exciting stuff I’ve heard for ages. The problem is just to access that in the noise. I’m really looking for some consolidation in this new band of freakish producers that are doing things so more people can hear it.
h: Yes, I fully agree with you. Wading through the noise can be difficult, but when you find the reward at the end of it, it’s really exciting.