Lincoln Barrett reveals how working with Underworld inspired him to spread his wings beyond D&B
Like many people in their late 30s, Lincoln Barrett is in a thoughtful mood right now. Given that he's spent the past 16 years travelling the globe as one of drum & bass's leading figures, it's perhaps understandable that he's feeling a little reflective.
"It's funny," he says, "because on one hand, the music industry has changed a great deal since I started, but at the same time I still feel energised and not jaded in any way. In some ways this new album kind of feels like my first album. Time is a funny thing."
The new album in question is the first High Contrast full-length in five years, the recently released Night Gallery. It is, as many reviews have pointed out, not your average High Contrast album. In fact, while it naturally includes a sweep of tracks in his usual 'disco drum & bass' style, it actually boasts far more songs that look to other styles and sounds for inspiration. Many of these were inspired not by contemporary sounds, but rather the music he first fell in love with as a teenager. As they say, nostalgia is a powerful thing.
"Daft Punk, Cassius and the hundreds of other French house records that were around in the mid to late 90s were amongst the first dance tracks I got into," the 38-year-old admits. "I loved that sound so much, and I thought, 'Why isn't there drum & bass that sounds like this?' That's why I got into making that kind of soulful, musical drum & bass. I was trying to make those kinds of French-style house records. That was a big sound when I was a teenager."
On Night Gallery, this influence - arguably a constant thread throughout his career, albeit one he has rarely elaborated on before - shines through loud and clear on This Beat Don't Feel The Same, a chunk of house-fired disco goodness that recalls Daft Punk's work with Nile Rodgers. It's one of a number of tracks that eschew drum & bass altogether in favour of sounds not readily associated with his previous output.
In other words, he's torn up the rulebook and started again - a bold, adventurous and admirable move for someone who has built a career on delivering dancefloor-driven D&B anthems. "I love the drum & bass scene, and it's been very good to me," Barrett stresses, "and I still enjoy being part of it... but it can be quite insular at times, even if it has opened up quite a bit over the last 10 years. Up until 2012 I'd felt completely in that scene and couldn't see a world outside."
Going for gold
All that changed when he received a call from Underworld about getting involved with the soundtrack to 'Isles of Wonder', Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the London Olympics. Barrett ended up producing a string of tracks for the lauded event, as well as contributing bespoke remixes of tracks by Underworld, Fuck Buttons and U2. Notably, these extensive soundtrack contributions had little relation to the D&B tracks he'd previously been making.
"That was the start of some kind of transformation in terms of what I could do with music," Barrett enthuses. "Leaving the record label [Hospital Records] and working on the Olympics opened me up and made me think, 'I can do whatever I want'. The Underworld guys really gave me the confidence to be like that."
Karl Hyde and Rick Smith clearly enjoyed working with Barrett, because when it came to recording their Grammy-nominated 2016 album Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future, they asked him to take on co-production duties. "For me, it was an almost ideal collaborative process," he says. "The way they work is different from me. They record a lot of material and edit it down. They wanted my take on that. It was a great process and I had a lot of fun doing it."
During the sessions, Smith and Hyde encouraged Barrett to think about changing his production process, and using more outboard hardware and instrumentation - an approach he went on to employ while making Night Gallery - as well as challenging him to turn his hand to different types of music.
"It was the Underworld guys encouraging me that really made me think High Contrast can be anything I want it to be," Barrett enthuses. "I started to embrace the idea of 'contrast' as kind of my philosophy and style. I should be making music where you don't know what the next track I put out will be like - though hopefully you'll still get that High Contrast sound, however you define that. I like the idea of being that kind of artist."
Certainly, there are plenty of stylistic shifts on Night Gallery: from fond tributes to early Metalheadz and cinematic, breakbeat-driven pop, to arms-aloft rave anthems and downtempo soundscapes. But despite the eclecticism, it still very much feels like a High Contrast record. In fact, the only time Barrett really flips the script is on a string of cuts that feature heavy guitars and punk vocals.
"As a teenager, I was in a hardcore punk band," he explains. "I was the rapper/singer/front man. That was my first venture into the world of music when I was about 16. After I made Shotgun Mouthwash, which ended up in T2: Trainspotting but is also on the album, I realised that it was really like what I was making as a teenager."
Barrett's move into the live arena last year - a new tour is planned for early 2018 - also played a role in his evolving musical transformation. "That definitely fed into the album," he admits. "When I was making a lot of the tunes, I wasn't even considering them as DJ material. They might work in that context because that is so ingrained in me, but I was thinking more about how the tracks would play live. What would the people in the band be doing? It's completely re-framed my approach."
Words: Matt Anniss Pics: Larry Rostant
Night Gallery is out now on 3 Beat Records