With new album 'Other Worlds' due in stores next month, we catch up with prime mover Aston Harvey
Due in stores next month is Other Worlds, the long-awaited seventh album from breaks legends Freestylers. Long-awaited in that it's been eight years since the duo of Aston Harvey (he's the one in the baseball cap) and Matt Cantor last put an album out… long-awaited also in that the album was originally scheduled for release back in March.
But the coronavirus pandemic put paid to that: after all, this is an album that the hype sheet says was “created for big-room, festival-worthy summer touring,” so releasing it at a time when such was out of the question wouldn't have made much sense. In the meantime, fans have had to make do with the singles Happiness (an uplifting, rave-tastic affair that both nicked a sax sample and borrowed a riff from Dominion by goth diehards The Sisters Of Mercy), Reality Check (a fiery D&B cut with Tenor Fly on vox) and the fat n' funky Fabulous.
The full album also features appearances from Plump DJs, Mad Doctor X and Aston's old rave crew, and will come just in time to tie-in with a series of festival dates in August. We got Aston on the phone to find out more…
Let's start with the new album… do you have a final release date now?
“Yeah, it's coming out in August now, the 20th I think. It was supposed to be March but because of covid it's been put back several times. I have a few festivals booked from August onwards, so hopefully those will go ahead as well.
"I've done a few DJ streams during lockdown and I've been giving tracks to other people that were doing streams, as well. So for example Krafty Kuts has been playing Happiness as a weekly anthem and people were texting in saying when's it coming out? It's kind of helped in a way – it's a bit like the old days when you'd hear a track in the clubs for months before it came out. That doesn't happen so much nowadays, eveything's so instant now."
You don't sound too stressed about the whole situation…
“Well, it's more frustrating that I haven't been able to play the music out to a crowd, but I just have to accept the situation the way it is. It has been nice to DJ doing the streams, it's not the same as playing in a club but it's the closest thing that's been available.
“But yeah, I've accepted the fact that the album will come out when it comes out. I mean, there's people dying – me not being able to DJ in nightclub really isn't the biggest problem in the world. It just reinforces the fact really that me being able to do what I do is an immense privilege. You know, you start off doing it for fun, it's nothing to do with money, you do it for the love of the music. I mean obviously some people do go on to make lots of money, and some people don't, but I feel like once you're captured by music, that's a virus as well – it's hard to let go. I've been making music for 31 years and I'm very blessed that I've been able to do that, but it's like an addiction, you know?"
How would you say the album compares to your others, stylistically?
“Well, it all started off when a good friend of mine, Lady Waks – she's a Russian DJ and brings a lot of us breaks DJs to Russia – was booked to play over here in about 2018. She was supposed to stay at Deekline's house but then she couldn't for some reason, so she ended up staying here instead. We did some music together while she was here and she said 'No one else does what you do, maybe you should try and do another album'. So I thought, okay. I'll have a go, and it kind of snowballed from that, really.
"I already had a few tracks anyway and I didn't really know what to do with them. I wasn't really under any pressure to make it current-sounding: I don't even know what a current-sounding breakbeat record is meant to sound like! I just wanted to go back to the drawing board of what Freestylers was originally about, just using raw breaks and reggae and hip-hop and electro, just a mish-mash of what we do, and putting it into an album.
“So it got to where I had a load of backing tracks, then we wrote some songs over them and hey presto, an album came about!”
So it's almost an accidental long-player?
“Kind of, yeah. I'm pleased in a way, because we did six albums before and, y'know, the first one's fun, like 'Wo, we're making an album!', not really knowing what you're getting yourselves into. Then the record label want a second album, and a third, and you get those kind of second album blues. And then when the third album did come out, the record label went under, so nothing really happened with it.
“Then we came up with the Raw As F**k album, where we were just on our own mission with no pressure to do anything, so this album's been a bit more like that. I wanted to get back to those basics of what made us Freestylers in the first place.”
You haven't mentioned Matt yet – is his involvement perhaps a bit more nominal, these days?
“No, Matt's still involved… but not as much. He's a qualified psychologist now – he actually helps a lot of people in the music industry who are struggling with mental health issues, because the music business is one big up and down! But yeah, there are quite a few tracks on the album that we've done together, and there are some where I was left to my own devices. That's partly because the studio's at my house now.
"Over the years, studio-wise we started out at Freskanova's Fresh studios when we were making the first album. Then when they went under I had a studio in the Ladbroke Grove area, then we moved to Matt's house for 10 years. Then he had a family, so we got another place in this big media centre, off Kensal Rd. And then about four or five years ago, they decided to redevelop the buidling, so I was looking for a new place. But trying to find somewhere else for the same money was proving very difficult, so I ended up moving everything here. At first I was worried, I was thinking 'How am I going to be motivated at home? And how can I play the music loud?'
"But I love it now – if an idea hits me or someone needs something, all I have to do is get off my couch! It's great. It's not even fully sound-proofed, but I've got some really good monitoring headphones so I've actually mixed this whole album in those… and if anything it's actually better-sounding than albums we've done in a proper studio! It works for me, anyway.”
If Matt's working as a psychologist, what about yourself – do you have another job these days as well?
“No, this is all I do for work still, full-time. I make music.”
And you've made that work for over 25 years now… so what's the secret?
(laughs) "I don't know! I started when I was nearly 19, when I got a job working in a studio – this was before Blapps Posse. I went to a studio in Brockley with a friend of mine, doing rap stuff – I say studio, it was a bedroom studio really in someone's house, but I just wanted to learn how to use all the equipment, we were working with samples and I was going how do you add reverb, how do you do this? And they ended up offering me a job there.
"So I dropped out of doing my A-levels because I thought, 'I'm not going to get this opportunity again'. And I was young, so I thought, 'I can always go back to education if it all boes tits-up', and I've stuck at it ever since. That's where that all started off. We had all the pirate radio stations coming in to do all their jingles and adverts, and I met people like… SL2 used to come in, loads of early rave acts used to come in to make their music. And a lot of it I used to put together for them!” (laughs)
So is the secret of your longevity partly just that you just want to do it, and you don't really want to do anything else?
“Yeah, basically – it's the best job for a lazy person! And I've been doing it all my life now, really, and it's hard to… funnily enough, before I started getting into music I wanted to be a pilot. I thought I'd leave school, join the Royal Air Force and then go fly for British Airways. I'd have been happy doing that, and this last year I have actually taken up flying – I've been having flying lessons during lockdown. It's very expensive and I'm not sure how far I'll get with it, but I'm absolutely loving it.
“But coming back to the longevity thing… as I said, I've been very fortunate. And as well, I'm not married, I don't have kids, so I'm not in a financial situation where I've got a family to look after. That kind of responsibility puts a lot of pressure on but I've never had that, the only person I've had to feed is myself. That's probably helped, because money-wise, I've been up and down… but I've been able to focus entirely on music, and I just genuinely love making music, and creating something from nothing. I mean even if you're using samples, it's how you put them together, isn't it, and what you do with them.”
Speaking of samples, I wanted to ask you about the Sisters Of Mercy bite on Happiness… how did that come about?
“That was one of Matt's ideas. He came over one day and he said I really like this Sisters Of Mercy tune, maybe we can do something with the melody. So we sat down – and when he does come round, we can only do like four hours max, because he's got to fetch his kids from school and stuff like that. So I brought up the beat, and then we played the riff… we sampled the sax line but we replayed the riff. We'd been doing this other track called Pirate Jam and we had this sound on there from a Nexus plug-in, and we used that sound to replay the riff.
“Then Matt had to leave, and I sat there for about three hours messing around with vocals and I found one that I thought worked well with the music. So I finished it off, and we started playing it. I think we finished the track around September 2019, and we played it at a festival in Herefordshire, and it got a good response. Then I was playing golf with Mark from Ratpack, and I said, 'I've got this tune… it's kind of rush-y', and he said 'send it to me'. So he started playing it and people were messaging him to ask what it was. Then I gave it to Krafty in about February of last year, and he started playing it on his weekly stream and it started to take off."
So is Matt a Sisters fan or did he just stumble across that track by accident?
“No, I think he likes the band. Then the track started getting a bit of hype on Radio 6, and we had a few angry Sisters Of Mercy fans tweeting about it… I'm not sure they're a band that have ever been sampled that much before.”
Well if it helps… I'm in a few Sisters groups on Facebook and the reaction on there has been pretty favourable, on the whole. One guy said, “I really like this… and I don't normally like techno”… so congratulations, you're now a techno artist!
(laughs) “Well, we get called all sorts! That's good if people like it, though. And of course a lot of our audience have no idea where the riff's from – for them it's just a nice uplifting melody.”
So moving on… once the album's out, is the plan to get out there gigging to promote it?
“Well hopefully, yeah. We'd like to do as many shows as possible.”
And what's the set-up these days, because you used to have a full seven- or eight-piece live band…
“Yeah, we still have the band, in theory, and personally I love doing the band. It kind of took us to the next level, I think: if we'd carried on just being two guys on stage DJing or playing keyboards I don't think we'd have got as far as we did. It kind of gave us a bit more notoriety, that we were making dance music with a full-on band, because not many people were doing that in the late 90s."
Yeah, you kind of pioneered that, didn't you? Because in the mid-00s that became a thing for a while, where everyone had a live band…
“Yeah. When we started, only really Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were doing it, I think. Oh, Basement Jaxx had a band as well, and then Groove Armada started about the same time as us, I think. And then like you say, everyone started doing it for a while… and then everyone stopped, because they realised how expensive it is! (laughs)
“But yeah, hopefully at some stage we'll be able to perform the album live with a full band again. It's just a bit more difficult financially, so for the time being it'll be mostly DJing, sometimes with an MC or sometimes without.”
With the album being quite unashamedly 'back to the old school', what about the retro/revival circuit , because there's a lot of festivals like that around now – would you take those kind of gigs if they were offered?
“Of course! I mean I like to think we're still fairly current, but I think… the difference between breaks and drum & bass, the reason drum & bass has been so big for so long is that it always seems to attract a new audience every year, new producers, new DJs… which keeps that sound alive. Whereas breaks, it feels like it's a bit more niche and it's been the same five big names for the past 20 years… no one new seems to come through and get big with it."
But it'll come back around, won't it? Most things do…
"Well, I hope so! And the good thing is with younger crowds now, they don't even really know what it is but if you play it, they love it! It's got that energy where, if you play it right, it's got the same energy as drum & bass. I find a lot of the music I'm playing now has that old school rave vibe, and people always love that.”
I'm sure it'll come back around at some point. I mean, look how popular 1940s swing suddenly was 10 years ago, for instance… who would have predicted that?
“Yeah, that's true! Maybe we'll get wheeled out for a revival when we're 90!”
And I get the feeling, from talking to you today, that you'd probably be quite happy with that…
“Well, you know… our last big commercial hit was Push Up, and people have said why didn't you do more stuff like that? But I've never been calculating with music in that way. I've always just thrown up a blank canvas, I've never been calculating about it. I think when you are, that's when it becomes a business, and you're just engineering something to make money.
“Which is why mainstream pop now all sounds so similar – maybe I'm showing my age but it seems to me in the 70s, 80s and early 90s there was a lot more room for people to be creative. Now it's all written to a formula. I mean, some people are very good at that and have massive success with it, but I've never done that, I've never really been about chasing money.
“Making music isn't a job for me, I don't see it like that, I'm just having fun. I don't really look to the future and I try not to look to the past either, I just concentrate on the day-to-day, really. Because anything could happen tomorrow, couldn't it?”
It could indeed! And now finally… anything else iDJ readers need to know, before we sign off?
“Not really, I don't think. I play golf badly, I'm learning to fly and I've got a season ticket for Spurs… apart from the music, that's about it!”
Words: Russell Deeks
Other Worlds is out on 20 August on Mama's Pie