Hellboy Unbound

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon


From Jack the Ripper’s back-alley boozers to dungeons that have witnessed centuries of torture, burnings and beheadings, London has more horror per square hectare than most major cities. Strange, then, that our encounter with the elusive spook of UK dance music known only as Zomby takes place at Liberty, a mock-Tudor department store festooned with flowers, frequented by royals and famous for its elaborately printed pashminas.

Not that Zomby himself looks perturbed, or even out of place. At first glance I mistake him for an off-duty model as he stands outside the front door flipping through messages on his phone: cheekbones present and correct, hair sculpted and waxed back, three-quarter-length trousers tied in at the ankles. He’s carrying the sort of glossy branded shopping bags that fashion houses hand out when you buy something expensive, and on the floor beside him is a Louis Vuitton holdall presumably filled with overnight stuff from his recent stay at a London Bridge hotel.

We wander upstairs – parting crowds of shiftless it-girls poring over dresses, trophy mums browsing porcelain, lunch-breaking bankers test scribbling their own names with Mont Blanc fountain pens – and sit either side of a small metal table amid the clatter of the café. And suddenly the Liberty thing doesn’t seem so strange: it’s like one of those scenes in a Scorsese flick where wanted mobsters get together in zoos, churches or cheese shops, seeking safety from prying eyes in the last places you’d expect to find them.

This is Zomby, after all, whose trail of mystery and misadventure has in recent years fascinated and frustrated fans in equal measure: Zomby who has failed to materialise at a string of live performances (including a no-show at this year’s ATP in Minehead that led to an online outpouring of anger), and played others disguised by a mask; Zomby who has engaged in a Twitter spat with bass heavyweight Roska (who invited Zomby to suck his ‘left black ball sack’ after another non-appearance, resulting in Zomby threatening to shoot him); Zomby of whom you’ll find no face shots or reliable background information on the net (not even the PR guy from 4AD – the label releasing his new album, Dedication – claims to know his real name or hometown).

Such exploits and omissions have obviously amped up the level of interest in Zomby as a person, but they’ve never completely eclipsed the public eagerness for his output as an artist: from the string of brutal and unusual dubstep twelves on Ramp and Hyperdub to 2008’s Where Were U In ’92?, which took a hard left turn into a heartfelt realm of old skool rave reanimation – including the thunderous breaks and basslines of horn-blower Tears In Rain (which Aphex Twin dropped at Bloc the following summer) and U Are My Fantasy, which fused Baby D’s hardcore standard with music and effects from Street Fighter 2 (one thing it’s safe to assume about Zomby is that he’s over 30).

I ask if he enjoyed the video for Chase and Status’ Blind Faith, a grainy homage to the free parties of the early ’90s complete with bomber jackets, curtain haircuts and jerky, amphetamine-induced dancing fits. He looks up from his iPhone as though he’s been slapped in the face.

“No, I didn’t like that. I thought it was bullshit. Those guys are total fakes. Real ravers can tell the people who get it and the people who don’t, and trust me: Chase and Status weren’t there. When we were 13 me and my mates were watching Fantazia videos in 3D glasses; we were covering our bedroom walls with flyers and memorising sets from tape packs that we copied and passed around school. Making music as a dedication to that era should be based on real adoration for those records, on a total immersion in that scene. It’s a chance to feel connected, like you’re carrying the last glow stick – and a proper glow stick from Dreamscape, not some tie-in high street bollocks.”

Zomby’s own initiation into dance came when he stumbled upon his older brother’s record collection. Their father was a musician, their house cluttered with keyboards, guitars and reel-to-reel recorders, but it was with rave music ringing in his ears that Zomby found his first moment of musical communion. Soon he was seated at his dad’s analogue synthesisers and picking out lead harmonies from the tracks he had started hearing played at raves with his friends, and knowing that if only he had the means to sequence loops and programme beats he’d be capable of making his own tunes. When that opportunity finally arose, in 2005, it brought Zomby paranoia as well as pleasure.

“When I started writing tunes there was a sense of release – it felt like a whole world opening up before me. But with that came a lot of mistrust in myself. I spent six months wondering if what I was doing was real: I’d write songs and I wanted them to sound exactly like a certain type of Wiley beat, or a specific grime track that I had in my head, and because they weren’t on the same level I didn’t like any of them. It was only around the time I came up with Spliff Dub that I realised I was making stuff that sounded properly like my own music, and I could listen back to months of recording and sense a real progression. Since then I feel like I’ve learned to understand the sonic aesthetic: I understand the context, the role of the artist curating the narrative like a diary or a scrapbook of his own life.”

Zomby TwoThe more Zomby talks – the more he uses words like ‘narrative’, ‘curating’ and ‘sonic aesthetic’ (and he uses them plenty) – the more obvious it becomes that this is a man at the mercy of a hard-wrought musical philosophy. At times his voice rattles along at such a pace that even with the recorder playing back at half-speed it’s hard to transcribe his words; at times his images and ideas are so odd as to sound like the ramblings of someone coming up on two pills at the same time (classic records are like smart shoes that need wearing in; today’s records are like trainers that are comfortable at first, but fall apart weeks later). At other times he drops pure gold, and never more so than when he’s lamenting the lack of substance in so much electronic music.

“You need a soul to sell to get yourself a record deal. If you don’t have a soul in the first place, you can’t even get an audience with the devil. And there’s too much of an emphasis on equipment, as if you can make up for a lack of creativity by surrounding yourself with outboard compressors. I’m not sold on VSTs and mixdowns and systems: for me it’s about a certain sound, a certain four bars that will destroy a club. You won’t catch me sitting in a posh studio with patch bays and £50,000 synths – I don’t care for all that, it just takes too long.”

And turning over ideas at a rapid rate is something Zomby does creatively as well as conversationally: he attributes his prolific output to a short attention span, and claims that all of his tunes – even the new album’s moving lead single, Natalia’s Song – were written within 15 or 20 minutes, after which time (in keeping with early research into the long term effects of ecstasy use) he becomes bored and moves on to something else.

“I’ll write 70 or 100 tunes in a week – all the Where Were U In ’92? tracks were written in one weekend. Once I’ve finished one track, all that matters is the next one, and I can never remember the names of them – I only ever find them by the dates on the computer files. I’m hoping to get another album out before the end of the year. I’m sitting on another two or three as it is.”

It sounds like bragging, but there’s no denying the bewildering frequency of Zomby’s output, or the minimal nature of much of his work: of the sixteen tracks on Dedication, only Natalia’s Song breaks the four-minute mark, and only two other tracks weigh in at over three minutes; of the remaining thirteen, seven are less than three minutes, five less than two minutes and the slithering Salamander weighs in at just 56 seconds. All of which lends the record a halting, schizophrenic air, as though the listener was peeling through an AM band of pirate radio stations, catching snatches of new forms of music that are lost in the ether just as they’re taking beginning to take shape. Unconsciously, perhaps that’s part of the plan.

“From ’91 to ’97 you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing awesome tunes, but with the death of pirate radio, something else died. Pirate radio empowered whole areas of kids who were underprivileged and in no way musically trained – probably been to four schools, kicked out of all of them, constantly told they’re not making anything of their lives. Next thing they’re making tunes, they get on pirate radio and suddenly they’re big in their area, and they feel like they’ve finally done something. And that’s gone, and instead we have the internet, which has no quality control: anyone can make tunes and get them heard. Back then you had kids tuning in to pirate radio to find out about raves, travelling up and down the country to hear new tunes. Now you’ve got kids lazily checking their Facebook. It’s all about instant gratification.”

Dedication certainly isn’t an album of instant gratification: like Zomby’s proverbial pair of smart shoes, it’s a record that takes some wearing in. On the surface its acid soundscapes suggest a reverence for what electronic music sounded like when it still had the capacity to shock; at its core, there’s an emotional seriousness that recalls what Zomby himself calls (in reference to Burial) “a uniquely British lament for the death of the soulful dance music we grew up with”. Beyond that, it’s a hard record to pigeonhole, and – like the record before it, and the one no doubt soon to follow – a merry dance around his audience’s expectations. Not that expectations are something Zomby spends too much time worrying about.

“Public approval is a pretty ridiculous concept, especially when you’re doing work that you believe to be necessary. Some people will always be on the outside looking in – trying to figure out why people like it, why people are dancing to it – and they’re the ones that put labels on it. Is it dubstep? Is it post-dubstep? All that says to me is that they don’t understand it, and that’s their problem, not mine. I’m only interested in joining the dots in my own narrative, and making music that suits whatever mood I’m in at the time. Seriously, I have mood swings like mad.”