Cofounder of the now-defunct maverick dubstep label Skull Disco, British producer Sam Shackleton is one of the world's foremost purveyors of hauntological, deep-trauma, ethnodelic bass musick. Below he discusses his aesthetics and music, his place in the musical landscape, his association with Perlon Records and Ricardo Villalobos, his remix for kosmische-rock legends Harmonia, and more. Plus, he chews me out for questioning Perlon's motives for releasing his music and casting his productions in too dark of a light.
I hear in your music a strong resemblance to Muslimgauze's: the often frenzied, intricate hand percussion; the mournful Middle Eastern wind instruments; ominous atmospheres; the jagged rhythms that are difficult to dance to; a mostly stark, minimal sound field; etc. Was his output influential to you?
There are some similarities in terms of instrumentation, but it is very different stylistically. The funny thing is that I had not really heard much of his stuff until after people started pointing out that my stuff reminded them of his stuff. Since that, I have got lots of his back catalog and really rate it.
Shackleton productions have a not-so-subliminal gothic vibe to them that seems to dovetail with the whole hauntological aesthetic about which many pundits are chattering lately (you have tracks on Mordant Music's Picking O'er the Bones comp). Do you have a stash of Sisters of Mercy and Banshees 12s in your closet and an unhealthy obsession with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop?
Well, I don't really know much about the hauntological aesthetic and don't really think it has a gothic vibe. Those tracks on Mordant Music's Picking O'er the Bones compilation are back-catalog tracks from me and certainly not meant to be part of a broader concept. Maybe Mordant are more into the aesthetic you mentioned than me. I don't have any Sisters of Mercy or Banshees records, either.
Do people dance to your music? The beats move in pretty baffling patterns, though I can imagine punters making sinuous movements with their arms and stealthy dips with their hips.
It depends on the crowd. Sometimes people really dance, sometimes they just stand there, and sometimes they take the opportunity to go for a smoke or go to the bar. That said, I don't think that the beats are at all baffling. It's generally pretty simple to count it out. You are probably right, though, about how people dance to it. Without wishing to sound corny, I hope that I make my beats loose enough for people to find their own groove. I make the music that I would like to dance to. I think that some people will feel the same way, some people won't.
Do you have any theories about why bass frequencies—and the new bass-centric music—have such a powerful appeal to some people?
What new bass-centric music? Bass-centric music has been around since the days when it was possible to build a system to represent it. And even when this hasn't been possible in the form of a modern club rig, people have still made large, loose drum skins to hit and thick strings over large hollow bodies to pluck that represent the lower frequencies. I don't know why it appeals to some people other than the fact that the lower-end frequencies tend to lend themselves to dance and movement.
Re: "the new bass-centric music," I meant dubstep, grime, UK Funky, etc. This sort of music is becoming very popular in the United States, even making inroads at Burning Man and big clubs attended by people who don't know what Resident Advisor is and wear a lot of cologne. That's what I meant. If you have any thoughts about this, please feel free to elaborate.
I see what you mean. I don't really have an opinion on this, though. There are a whole lot of artists within those genres you mentioned. Some are accessible, and some are not so accessible. I don't know what's becoming popular in the U.S., but it's probably the same stuff that gets popular anywhere, so I am loath to start championing a certain genre. If someone who hasn't heard a lot of different stuff and normally has quite conventional tastes is getting his mind blown at one of these festivals by great music, then this has to be a good thing. If this music is dubstep, UK funky, or grime, or if they read about it on Resident Advisor or not, is neither here nor there.
How did you end up releasing for Perlon? Was it the Villalobos connection via his remix for "Blood on My Hands"? At first, this seems like an odd fit for Perlon, which has a rep for club-centric techno, albeit strange club-centric techno. Did Perlon request a particular style from you or did they allow you complete creative freedom? Also, how did the Villalobos remix come to be? You said in an interview with Martin Clark that you weren't familiar with Ricardo's music.
Well, the first part of the question I can answer. Zip, who runs Perlon, has always been very supportive of my music. I got to know him and I trust him. I asked him if he wanted to put out a 12-inch and gave him some tracks to have a listen to. He really liked them and suggested doing an album. I wasn't so sure, but when I listened back, I thought that maybe it could work. I spent a few weeks redoing the ones I thought were going to make it, and then that was it, really.
The second part of the question I find a little rude to both me and to Zip. Of course they are not going to tell me what to make. I don't need Perlon, and Perlon doesn't need me. We do this because we are happy with each other and because we have respect for each other. Have you actually heard the record? If Perlon had tried to force me to make club-centric techno, then they obviously haven't done a very good job. I hope this doesn't seem too abrasive as an answer, but please consider the implications of what you have asked.
As for the remix, it was like this: Ricardo was playing my stuff a lot and charting it in his DJ lists long before anyone from the mainstream had started paying attention. I'd never heard of him at that time, and so I asked to borrow a couple of CDs from Laurie Appleblim. I liked what he was doing. It was interesting music. Laurie Appleblim suggested that he should have a go at a remix. Ricardo was into that, and so we gave him the parts. He turned it around in a couple of weeks. I was into it, and so we decided to put it out.
Re: Perlon—no disrespect meant to you or the label. I asked that question because I've heard that even fiercely underground/independent labels sometimes dictate or gently persuade artists to tailor their music to a particular style. I've listened to Three EPs four times so far, and it sounds better with each listen.
Well, that may be the case with some artists and labels, but, no, it never happened to me. Let's not put what I do on too high a pedestal. I know that it's not that sophisticated and that it'll probably be forgotten in a few years, but I still want to make it with as much integrity as I can.
Your use of voices in your tracks differs from most producers' in that you're not trying to hype a crowd or fill people full of typical uplift, but rather to get listeners to focus on an often-grim message. What factors sway you to thread these vocal snippets in your tracks?
David, you make it sound as though there's nothing but misery and bafflement in my music. I disagree. I use vocal snippets that are appropriate for the track and that I feel make sense within the context. I mean, some vocal snippets are really positive. Take for example "He's got the whole world in his hands" or the whole of the samples from "(No More) Negative Thoughts." I hope to give a comforting message with these samples.
Misery and bafflement are fine qualities in music, but I did not mean to imply that your music contains only those traits.
Okay then, Dave. I was probably a bit sensitive to that after the previous question. I think that good art needs to have many dimensions and contrasts. As humans, we have a multitude of emotions and experience infinite situations, etc. Sometimes we can feel a mixture of emotions or hold a number of seemingly contradictory positions at the same time. Music's the same. Often the elements can suggest very different things at the same time, and it's this opposition that makes the piece. Hope this makes sense. I did read some of the articles you have done, and so I know that you have a broad taste. I just hope that the people reading this don't think that the music has only those qualities.
What's your live setup going to be for this tour?
I am using Ableton, but don't expect a DJ set. It will be quite involved, and I'll be running a lot of things with a lot of improvisation.
Do you have any trepidations about playing in America?
Yes, I do, if I am being honest. I have trepidations about most things, though. I just hope that the crowds have a bit of patience and are not expecting a load of heavy drops. I would feel a bit sad if people come expecting to hear modern dubstep and then feel disappointed when they hear my thing. Despite that, I am not too worried now, as I have already played New York and Montreal, and both shows went well.
How did you get involved with the Harmonia remix? Are you a serious krautrock head? If so, who are some of your favorite artists in that style?
I asked to get involved. Appleblim mentioned that he was doing it, and so I asked him to let the guys know that I wanted in, as well. I like a lot of the German music from around that time. Can were the dons. Tago Mago can't be topped. There was a lot of really superb music from that time, though. I like acts as diverse as Kraftwerk, Faust, and Amon Düül II—all totally different but all putting creativity and ideas at the forefront.
What's the weirdest clubbing/DJing/live-performance experience you've had?
I once played in Poland, and a group of young men demanded that I get back onstage once I had finished playing to play some more. They really gave me no choice, despite the fact that the majority of the punters hated it.
Will you ever revive Skull Disco?
No, I don't think so. That said, it seems that all these washed-up so-called artists get back on the gravy train these days, so perhaps I'll get on the gravy train again when I've run out of ideas and need a quick buck! Who's to say? I never thought I'd see Iggy Pop selling car insurance. That's for sure.
What's on your agenda for the rest of 2010—or are you not planning very far ahead due to the imminent apocalypse [Shackleton's e-mail address includes the phrase "imminent apocalypse"]?
Ha ha! Yes, it's probably not wise to plan too far ahead.