With their wobble-basslined 'Surrounded By Bass' currently on heavy rotation, we meet a duo with one of dance music's most unlikely histories
Currently doing damage on the nation's bass-oriented dancefloors and airwaves is Surrounded By Bass by Hollaphonic. While the track's distinctive vocal - a parody of an old school, stiff-upper-lip colonial type - has something of a 'novelty' feel, when that up-then-down wobble bassline drops it's hard to argue with.
Surprising, then, to find it's the work of a duo whose earlier output over the past three years has ranged from out-and-out EDM pop (I Don't Want It To End) to the more commercial side of (ahem) "deep house" (Dangerous). More surprising still, to realise that the duo in question consist of one producer who cut his teeth on the UK garage scene (Olly Wood, not to be confused with the 'other' Olly Woods, of Hardcore Beats and Black Butter fame) and one who's best known for making actual deep house for labels like Seamless, In Deep and his own Stained Music (Greg Stainer).
And Hollaphonic's back story only gets more complicated when you learn that they also happen to be the first dance act ever to be signed to a major label in the Middle East. Intrigued, we got Olly on the phone to find out more…
So, tell us how the two of you got together...
"I'm a Southampton boy - I used to do stuff around Bath/Bristol circa the early 2000s but really I came up in Southampton making house and garage. I was mostly into the speed garage vibe, writing a lot of songs and honing my skills. Meantime Greg was in Dartford doing his thing.
"I moved to London in the early 00s and was working at EMI on the label side, I was still producing but I was working on labels like Positiva, Stateside, EMI Chrysalis and Parlophone, which introduced me to a whole world of music! This was about the time Greg was in the studio learning his trade with MJ Cole.
"I ended up in Bristol as I said, then I moved out to Dubai, because the music wasn't going anywhere much and I decided it was time to get serious with my life! I got a job working in virtual reality and augmented reality… it was a new challenge, but it wasn't long before the music bug kicked back in, and I started working with a D&B crew called Global Funk, who used to bring people like Kenny Ken and Jumping Jack Frost out here.
"Meantime, Greg had also moved out here a few years earlier: he was resident at a club called Zinc, which was really the first proper nightclub out here, he had a radio show and he also has his Stained label. So by 2013, Greg and myself were both chatting to a house DJ out here called Smokin' Groove, and both of us were looking for someone to team up with. Greg was looking for a songwriter and I was looking for a producer, and he said, 'You two need to talk'.
"It was one of those bar moments, but I'm a great believer in following up on things like that because so many of them end up as could have beens! So I rang Greg up and the next day we were in the studio."
Despite your underground credentials, your earliest releases were very commercial…
"Our first single I Don't Want It To End was, certainly! So much so that when we started to get gigs, we never played it because it wasn't really 'us'. But what had happened was, Greg had been making pure house music, I'd been making D&B with a bit of hip-hop, and it was like "let's see what we can do". And the first thing that came out was I Don't Want It To End, which was very commercial, so we went off to EMI with it and got signed. And before you knew it we were No 1 on iTunes in eight countries across the Middle East!
"It was a mad time, like for instance our first live gig was supporting Seal in front of 40,000 people at the Dubai World Cup! That was a baptism of fire, but within two years we'd played to over a quarter of a million people. Deep down, though, I think our hearts were still in the UK, and we started to make music with more of a UK or Ibiza influence. That's when Dangerous kicked in.
"We released Dangerous in March 2015, and no radio stations here would play it! But we spent some money plugging it in the UK, and we got Track Of The Week on 1Xtra, then Radio 1 and Capital picked it up, and then the radio stations out here started playing it. Dangerous was much more of a reflection of what we wanted to be, rather than what we felt we had to do for radio or the majors. And it's just kept on going from that - the by-product of us going down that dark and British alley is something like Surrounded By Bass."
You're already stars in the Middle East... is fair to say your stature back here in the UK is starting to catch up?
"A bit, but we're under no illusions: to be successful here, you need to put in the groundwork here. Our whole story, as mythical and magical as it felt to us in our little world, it wasn't really pulling the weight in the UK because we hadn't come through the ranks. Labels would be like, 'Okay, well done, you're signed to a major in Dubai... so we'll listen to your music, but that doesn't mean we're going to take you seriously.' Dangerous was really the first thing that started to turn people's heads."
Is there a chance, then, that you'll be relocating back to the UK?
"That's something that regularly comes up. I think the ultimate goal is to live between the two, but Greg's got a three-year-old daughter out here and obviously that affects things. But we're back and forth, recording and playing gigs, and we're actively trying to do things like Surrounded - which would scare the living shit out of people in Dubai if they heard it, they wouldn't know what was going on!
"That's why it's on Foor's label, Yosh. I've known Gavin from Foor for years, because he's from Southampton too - my Dad used to be his doctor! So we said to Universal - who we're still under contract to - 'Look, you're not going to be able to do anything with this, let us give it to someone else.' And I said to Greg, "Do you want to put this track out? No strings, no major label bullshit, we just want to show another side of what we can do'. So that people see that we can create that nasty bass shit - which is basically where we come from - as well as the other stuff that we do."
There's quite a nice variety of mixes, from Klip & Outlaw's steppy D&B to the speed garage-y feel on Foor's remix...
"Yeah, that was deliberate. Greg said "We want X, Y and Z to do mixes" and we were happy with that because we knew none of those mixes would be attempts to get in the charts. We knew they'd span the breadth of bass music, and when we got 'em back it was like, they've absolutely nailed it. We wanted to get our name in different boxes and we have: it got played on Kiss by Majestic and Tough Love, proper bassheads, and it's been played by DJs across the country who'd never have played any of our earlier releases. In fact it's been on our minds that, if people like Surrounded and look back at what else we've done, they'll be like, 'Oh my God, they're complete schizophrenics!'."
Do you have a particular favourite remix?
"Well, the Foor one is definitely a favourite because it's a slice of home. But all the remixes tick different boxes, and I like the fact that we've got a guy from the UAE on there as well - Scott Forshaw, who does all our mixing and mastering. So hopefully people will hear that, and then when they think of Dubai they'll know there's some good music coming out of here.
"Because there's a really exciting scene building out here. There's lots of young artists from the Middle East and India that are kind of bubbling under the surface now, and it's exciting that people are starting to check it out. It's quite a new scene, so obviously when it's new and you've got such a mix of people, the first thing people are going to lean towards is the commercial, accessible end of things. But now there's more underground house vibes as well, with people like Raxon whose tracks have been getting played by Carl Cox. So it's early days, but there's some exciting stuff happening out here."
Words: Russell Deeks
Surrounded By Bass is out now on Yosh Records