Audiojack's long-awaited second album is out next month on Crosstown Rebels, and finds them moving beyond house and techno
Formed in Leeds and emerging on Ralph Lawson's 2020Vision in the mid-00s, Audiojack are an outfit who most house and techno lovers should be familiar with by now. But when their long-awaited second album Surface Tension drops on Crosstown Rebels in May, they just might find themselves having to make a whole new round of introductions.
Surface Tension very much doesn't, you see, pick up where their 2009 debut long-player Radio left off. Radio was essentially, by Jamie Rial and Richard Burkinshaw's own admission, a collection of club tracks. The new album, in contrast, finds them exploring a wider range of musical territory than ever before.
Take recent single Under Your Skin, which found them teaming up once more with Kevin Knapp, who also appeared on 2016's Vibrate and 2017's Implications. The Original Mix of Implications is an indie dance-leaning house/techno jam, but the EP also packs a brace of remixes from bass experimentalist Pearson Sound that blend Afro, dubstep, minimal and club influences, and that don't sound quite like anything we've heard from them before.
So with plenty more sonic surprises promised on the album – and as we haven't spoken to the guys since they appeared in our Six By Six slot back in 2017 – we figured now would be a good time for a little catch-up…
Let's start with the upcoming album. What can we expect, musically, and does it might differ from Radio?
Jamie: “We made Radio two years into our career back in 2008, so we were quite inexperienced and now, more than 10 years on, it sounds very basic from a production perspective. It’s still pleasurable to listen to as it does have the nostalgia of where our heads were at musically back then. We were signed to 2020Vision alongside artists like Paul Woolford, Spirit Catcher and Silver City, so that kind of electronic house sound ws the foundation of the album.
“But making an album for us has always been about a whole listening experience, where there’s a theme and a flow. so that the album can be enjoyed best by listening through from start to finish. When Radio came out, CDs were becoming obsolete and rather than buying the album to listen to as a whole, people preferred to download their favourite tracks instead. After that, making dance music albums felt kind of pointless.
“Now though, with the emergence of streaming, albums are being consumed again and it feels like a good time for us to make another. The whole album listening experience was still essential to us but now we had far more tools and skills to take it to the next level. We have been known for our house and techno up to now so we decided it was the right time for us to explore and integrate some of our other musical interests.
"So Surface Tension has a wide range of styles including breaks, trip-hop, electronica and a few 4x4 tracks too. We collaborated with various vocalists and a filmmaker who made field recordings around the world, we hired voice actors and included lots of movie effects to weave all of the music into one continuous experience that has a scripted storyline. We’ll delve more deeply into the details nearer the release date. Jamie “
Speaking of which, it's been over a decade since that album, and I'm told you've been working on this one since 2017. How come it took so long, and why did you decide to sign it to Crosstown Rebels, rather than putting it out on your own Gruuv label?
Rich: “Around four years ago we’d made what we thought was the backbone of an album, and sent it to Damian for his thoughts. He was into the album idea but wanted something more off-the-wall – more story-led and fitting to an album format, less dancefloor-focused. So we repurposed what we’d made thus far and started again, but this time with a plan…
“We wrote a script, made tracks, field recordings, commissioned voice actors and built the story into one continuous experience. We brought in vocalists and poets and it began to grow into something more outlandish than we’d first anticipated. Weeks disappeared as we immersed ourselves in this imagined world, experiencing life as it unfolded for the protagonist in our story.
“After working on it for almost a year we had a piece finished, but we were filled with self-doubt, which spiralled into a bit of an existential crisis. Had we become so consumed in the telling of this story that we’d lost sight of making something ‘Audiojack’? What is 'Audiojack' anyway, what people expect to hear or what we want to make? Should we start a new pseudonym for this project?
“We decided to shelve the album until the answers became more clear, which turned into almost a year until we gave in to Damian’s persistence and sent him what we’d made so far. He reassured us that we were on the right path, and encouraged us to continue and finish this as an Audiojack album, so we got to work again putting together the final pieces. Then the pandemic began which delayed the release further, and now, just one month short of four years since we started the album it’s finally ready.
"So it was never a case of making music then choosing the label – Damian and Crosstown have been involved from day one and have played an important role in getting the album to where it is today.”
We've already had one single from the album, Under The Skin feat. Kevin Knapp. What other contributors/collaborators feature on the album?
Rich: “Yes, there’s a few. The next single is Feels Good, which has Jem Cooke on vocals. We’re really happy to have collaborations with two friends from our childhood; the final track First Dawn (which might be the third single) features Jamie’s schoolboy friend Mathew Burgess on vocals, and Binaural Dreaming was made mostly using field recordings made by my eccentric childhood friend Alan Dransfield, who's spent many years travelling to far flung places such as Togo, Swaziland and Ghana, recording what he sees and experiences for his blog which you can see at Lifekollektiv.com.
“Scottish poet Billy Letford also delivers a monologue on Psychoactive Part 2, and Kevin Knapp makes various appearances throughout the album, both as a vocalist and as a person involved in the story.”
I really liked the Pearson Sound remixes… I also like the fact that you've reached out to a remixer from outside your obvious musical contemporaries. Is that something we've lost as a culture, do you think – are too many remixes now just variations on the original's theme?
Jamie: “Back in the 90s and early 00s musical diversity across EPs and DJ sets was the norm, everything came on vinyl and there wasn’t enough music for anyone to just play one style and stay interesting. Then, with the age of the internet, anyone with a laptop could produce music and start a digital label.
“After that there was so much music about it was possible to pick one little micro genre and play a different set every time. It was cool for a while because you could pick what mood you were up for that evening and go to a party that just played that sound. People got really into their little cul de sacs of music and this made it risky for labels to sign tracks or commission remixes that were different to what their fans wanted or expected.
“After a while I guess people got bored of it and lately you’ve had the re-emergence of diversity with “club” style DJs who aren’t bound by styles of music as long as you can dance to it. It’s a really refreshing place to be again, especially if you’re into lots of different music. Maybe with this recent acceptance of musical diversity, it’s been a blessing in disguise that our album was delayed until now.
“Releasing Under Your Skin as the first single was an opportunity for us to make a statement that this album isn’t going to be just 4x4 club music as most of our earlier output has been. To commission a 4x4 club remix would have just diluted that, making the original more of a novelty on an otherwise house or techno EP, so it was important to continue as we had started and find someone who could bring another leftfield take. Pearson Sound was a great coup for us and delivered just what we wanted.”
Moving on to matters more general – how's lockdown been treating you? Many producers have tole me they've been incredibly productive in the studio; then again, I know others who are on the verge of giving up, because the loss of earnings just isn't sustainable. Where do you fit into that continuum?
Rich: “Like with most things it depends on your perspective! Some days I wake up and wonder what’s the point, others I’m more hopeful. It helps to focus on the good stuff and try not to worry too much about a bleak imagined future, although that’s easier said than done. We both have young kids so we’re grateful to have had so much time with them over the last year. We like to cook and exercise and it’s been good to get into a routine with these things, but yeah, we’ve really missed the freedoms we once had, and without any revenue from touring these are hard times.
“From a financial perspective our pandemic started almost a year before Covid. We had the misfortune of signing with an agent who misappropriated the majority of our DJ income from 2019, which we’re still trying to get back through the courts. We parted ways with them in January 2020, but unfortunately there’s not been a lot for their successor to do since. Without the income from our record label and music royalties we’d be broke now, but we put a lot of value on living a simple life with the freedom and autonomy to do activities that make us happy, so as long as we can still do those things we’ll always feel life rich, even if we’re skint.”
I know you also put out the Isolation series of EPs during lockdown, so tell us about that…
Jamie: “Last March, during the first lockdown, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We had a North American tour planned for later that month which got cancelled, alongside all our European dates. We’d just spent several thousand pounds acquiring a new US work visa, which was due to begin in February and would subsequently go the full year unused. We’d been working our arses off day and night getting our album finished for 2020, then 2020 got cancelled.
“Inwardly we were exhausted, downbeat and scared, whilst outwardly trying to put on a brave face. With literally nowhere to go and nothing to do, we poured ourselves into making new music, without any intention – no labels in mind, no plan to release, more like self-directed music therapy. After five or six tracks we began wondering what to do with them. The way in which they were made, at this poignant moment seemed important and we thought they should remain together, so the Isolation Tapes series was born: nine tracks, each starting with a different letter from the word ‘isolation’, released one per week over two months.
“Releasing the EPs on our own Gruuv label was a no-brainer as we wanted to retain control over how the release sounded, looked and was presented, and the financial benefits that self-releasing gives are hard to ignore right now – 100% every month, versus 0-50% in 12-18 months on other labels! It was good fun to put together and kept our minds occupied at a time when we might otherwise have felt that everything had slipped out of our control.”
Have you found not being able to road-test productions as you go has affected how you work in the studio, at all, or how long it takes to get a track to a point where you're happy with it?
Jamie: “It hasn’t affected the way we work in the studio, but not being able to road test has removed that extra layer of feedback that tells you whether the track sounds balanced on big systems and gets people going on the dancefloor. If something sounds great in the studio and then we test it and there are issues, we can go back and make changes until we’re happy.
“We have no way of knowing how the music made in lockdown will sound in a club but we have to trust our knowledge and instincts and keep working. Fortunately because the album was finished in late 2019 we were able to play everything out and make sure it all sounded right before the pandemic.”
Any thoughts on those who are putting on illegal events – so-called 'plague raves'?
Rich: “It’s a complex issue, isn’t it? On the one hand, of course you don’t want anyone to die… but on the other, life is for living and people need to regain that right, especially young people. Where do we draw the line?
“It’s been a year now, soon most of those deemed vulnerable will have been vaccinated, an dlife must continue at some point. For some it will always be too soon, for others too late. Individually we have a responsibility to assess our health and act accordingly. If someone is concerned they should keep shielding and work on becoming invulnerable, where possible. For the rest of us, the majority? Once people are vaccinated, life must go on. Staying inside is not helping anyone build resilience to anything. We need sunshine, movement and connections with other people to be healthy happy humans.
“As for plague raves, we haven’t played any, despite being asked. It’s sad to see wealthy people continue to live more normally than the rest of us, whether they’re famous DJs or anyone else, but unfortunately that’s the world we live in: it’s been designed that way by the wealthy, for the wealthy, who’ve lived like this so long it’s now their expectation. If the rules were meant for everyone then the punishments would be means-tested.
“As people return to life with different levels of caution/optimism, there’s bound to be polarising opinions over what is acceptable risk, but that’s life, isn’t it – a risky business. Once we accept our own mortality we can start to live better every day. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that getting together with other humans, dancing, being free in mind and body is important to our wellbeing, and we’re all a bit sicker without it.”
The other big change going on of late, of course, has been Brexit. It's still early days but what are your thoughts, and how's it affecting you – both as touring artists, and as the owners of a business that operates internationally?
Jamie: “It’s difficult to say for much of it until everything starts moving again and we get a real sense of what’s been affected. One thing that’s been immediately apparent is it’s now way more expensive for anyone outside of the UK to buy Gruuv vinyl with the increased shipping costs. We’re used to having to do visa applications for travel, so while it will be a bit more work in Europe it certainly shouldn’t cause any us any major issues as a duo who don’t travel with much equipment and are often only touring on weekends. But for bands with crew, equipment and lengthy stays, the situation appears more bleak. But we just don’t know, basically, until we start touring again.”
Finally, what else is going on in AudiojackWorld™ that iDJ readers need to know about?
Rich: “While 4x4 music is an integral part of our repertoire, this album will see the departure from just that moving forward. We’re already working on new material for later this year after the album has dropped, we’re working with vocalists for some more downtempo, home-friendly music and on the other end of the scale making some high-energy dancefloor stuff for when we’re finally allowed back into a DJ booth.”
Words: Russell Deeks
Implications is out now on Crosstown Rebels – buy it here. The album Surface Tension will follow in May.