2012 has been good to drum & bass producer Stray. Teaming up with Sabre and Halogenix earlier in the year for an EP resulted in an absolutely phenomenal single with Frank Carter III called “Oblique.” Stray’s latest EP, “Follow You Around / Contract,” on Blu Mar Ten’s imprint, features a unique sound that takes you from sublime on the first track to dark, rolling rhythms on the second. With his follow-up due next month, we were happy to catch him for a quick interview to find out more about his background, productions, and upcoming projects.
Can you tell us a little about your background? Where did you grow up, and where are you based now?
I grew up in the suburbs of North London and lived pretty much my entire life there, in the same house. Somewhat uneventful, but definitely comfortable, it allowed me to concentrate on music without having a vast deal of distractions beyond schoolwork, I suppose. Whether such a quiet upbringing can lead to less fuel for the creative fire is something I’ll always struggle to get to the bottom of. I went to university up in Leeds, stayed up there after I graduated, and it’s where I am now. I keep meaning to move back to London each year, but never quite get ’round to it for a number of reasons, both social and financial. It is still pretty great up here for now, though!
What was your first musical obsession?
Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters LP, a Wagon Christ record called Musipal, and all the demo preset songs on that old toy Yamaha keyboard everyone had when they were younger.
How did you get started producing?
My older brother bought me a MIDI keyboard and a copy of Logic 4 for my 13th birthday, to compliment my first PC, which I got from my parents at the same time. I initially resisted, because I kept saying I didn’t want to “end up a musician like George [my brother]”, and that I’d much rather do something less stressful and difficult to make a comfortable living off. I cannot for the life of me remember the short transition of about a year or less between this feeling and subsequently going on to spend virtually 100% of my free time dedicated to writing music, but I suspect I may have been hypnotized in my sleep by him.
Is there any specific track whose production amazes you?
I grew up on a diet of glitchy, bleepy IDM music in my teens, and I think that part of the appeal was a sort of “fuck me—how has anyone been able to sit down and actually craft something that sounds like this?” feeling… Aphex, Autechre, Squarepusher, etc. Nowadays, however, I listen to most of that stuff and whilst I still love most of it, I can definitely hear how it was made—complicated breaks being drilled and smashed together sounds great, but in itself isn’t hugely difficult to achieve with a bit of patience. What is difficult to achieve is those melt-in-your-mouth pop mixdowns, and it’s this sort of thing that really gets me on this front nowadays. Specific tracks? Recently, “Climax” by Usher and a slightly older classic, I’d say, which I recently re-dug up after it came on shuffle the other week during a pretty intense acid trip—”Africa” by D’Angelo.
Was there a point during your producing where you realized that you had settled on your own particular sound and style?
Not really. I would say it’s fairly evident that the one common thread to all my music and releases so far is that there is little by way of a common thread to tie them all together. Having said that, I’d say that there definitely is, in a sort of abstract way, if you really look and listen for one, but it isn’t a thread tied up in pure aesthetics alone.
I like to hold onto the idea of this abstract common thread—it’s not quite as vague as just being a sort of quality control to the music, but isn’t as specific as always using the same palette of sounds or the same drums, for instance. It could be something to do with my addiction to keeping some sort of discernible hook, riff, feature, gimmick, or idea to almost every track I write. As much as I enjoy listening to music which is utterly brilliant for managing to shine without having any of these concrete things, I can never quite bring myself to make it, and I think this is closely entwined with my brutally short attention span.
Where would you say the main influences in your current productions stem from?
When I lend my hand to writing stripped-back, clicky music at 170 BPM, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t largely influenced by the whole autonomic thing that happened around 2009. But I think the way it influenced me wasn’t so much more than just a feeling of being able to work in that palette, as opposed to direct influence of rhythm and melody. In fact, the spirit of this sea-change in drum & bass was to draw influence from wildly different genres, and this fortunately was never difficult for me to come to do naturally.
I’m also becoming more and more influenced in different ways by the people I work with most—Sabre & Halogenix—the more I work with them. This relates to production techniques as well as having an ear for making certain decisions at certain musical crossroads throughout the production process.
Did you have any mentors when you were starting out producing?
Not when I started out, no. I definitely took the “do it all alone” approach when it came to learning my DAWs and scoping out how the fuck to go about putting a piece of music together. I think this is healthy, and I’d recommend it to any new producer, because it will lead to an increased sonic individuality, which in turns leads to an increased likelihood of exposure (read: more people wanting to hear the music you write).
I do have a Chris from Blu Mar Ten-shaped mentor, whom I’ve had for many years since before I started using the name Stray, who is a massive and indispensable help with every other aspect of this “game,” other than the actual production side. Again, I would definitely suggest to anyone starting out that whilst it might not be so great to have someone holding your hand every step of the way when it comes to making the music itself, it most definitely can be when it comes to making business decisions within the world of music! I’m not saying pour all your trust in one person’s judgment, but just find a few people who are infinitely more experienced working in the music world than you are, and listen to what they say.
How do you explain your music to your family members?
The same way everyone explains their music to their family members—loud, repetitive noise for people who don’t like their job, taking drugs in dark clubs at the weekend. Just kidding… erm, well, as with anyone else I’m trying to explain my music to, I’ll just play it to them and hope that does the trick. I get pretty rubbish at words when it comes to explaining music, be it mine or others’.
When you DJ live, what kind of setup do you use? How would you describe your sets?
I DJ live using CDs. I would describe my sets as eclectic, and more often than not, I end up in quite a hyped place sonically by the end of the set. I do a lot of crowd reading and would like to think that I bring enough tracks to cater not only for a crowd that will only respond to the deepest, sparsest, thinking music, but also for a crowd who won’t settle for anything less than the most twisted and hyped shit, track after track. Either is cool with me!
How did you get your first signing?
Strangely enough, my two most important initial signings happened to occur within about a week of each other—it was a good week. One was through Chris BMT, who passed a track of mine called “Talking About Nothing” onto Hospital, and they ended up putting it out on their sister label Med School, rebranded as an official remix of the Helios tune I had gratuitously sampled for it.
The second came when Kasra gave me a shout on AIM about my tune “Timbre.” I can’t remember the details, but I think his interest was born of a combination of a few things—him just outright liking the track, and having some people mention it to him separately as well, including Sabre, with whom he was working closely at the time.
Are you the type of musician who knows what kind of track you want to write before you sit down to make it, or do you create music more from a process of experimentation, trial, and error?
Both. I’d love to think that the former best describes the type of musician that I am (or maybe just that I want to be?), but in reality I think it’s about 50-50. There are definitely some tracks in my back catalog the main grooves and motifs of which existed in my head before they were realized on paper, including “Saturday” and “Poison” with Halogenix, but of course, like many producers like me who aren’t “real” musicians—only in the sense that we aren’t classically trained, can’t read or write music very well, and never stuck it through when it came to playing an instrument (even though we all played loads of instruments growing up)—the production process heavily involves being influenced by the sounds the computer is spitting out—the sound of this or that preset, or this or that loop you stumble across about the place.
When you sit down to make a track, what’s the first thing you typically do? How long does a track typically take you to make?
Both these things are constantly changing drastically. More often than not, a track has to start in the same way a funk band would start jamming—drums, then bass, then hook, etc.
I can finish a track in a couple of days, or I can keep coming back to it over the space of two, three, or even four years before I stamp it as being finished. I think this fact is detectable by hearing the varying levels of complexity across my releases. It always just depends what is right for the vibe of the track—some tracks really don’t need much at all to get what they are wanting to say said.
Where do you record?
I mostly record from the studio set-up I have in my bedroom. I tend to do some minor acoustic treatment here and there so it looks, feels, and sounds like a decent-enough studio, and I’m happy with it. Last year, I was living in a flat with excruciatingly thin walls. This drove me to instead set up my studio in an empty basement I was lucky to find just down the road from me, underneath a house my flatmate’s ex-girlfriend was living in at the time. It was actually quite good to have a workspace away from home, and this might be something I’ll look into again in the future.
Do you currently have a favorite piece of gear or software?
Yes, the Virtual Console Collection and Virtual Tape Machine plugins by Slate Digital. Look them up; they are quite hard to get your head round at first in order to make the most of them, but absolutely smash competitors out of the water as far as getting “that” analog, glued sound to your productions is concerned. I’ve tried a fair few analog emulators and tape-machine emulators and nothing comes close. Some people are very hesitant to believe that it is possible to recreate anything like an analog quality of sound digitally, but I think that only the reverse of this statement is true.
Is there any gear that you don’t currently have but have been obsessed with owning?
I’ve always wanted to own a TB-303. Oh, and a pair of headphones like the Audeze LCD range, just to hear what it sounds like when you get that much closer to perfection. I’ve always had the same curiosity about what a £100,000 pair of monitors would sound like as well. One day…
Are you a morning person or night owl?
I’m a morning person. My productivity and will to write music drops off completely every day at around 7 or 8 PM for some reason.
What’s the latest trend in electronic music that you’ve noticed taking shape?
I suppose it has to be the whole juke/trap thing, though it isn’t really something I’d personally consider all that “recent,” neither is it a particularly interesting trend to me anymore. I quite like some of it, especially the “authentic” (horrible expression, I know) Rashad/Spinn tracks that surfaced a number of years ago. Having said all this, I can’t say I really understand what “trap” means, and what separates it from crunk or footwork, so maybe I’m missing out on something with this.
The other thing that is happening is that the search for more and more ridiculous screechy noises (I like these noises) is starting to implode on itself. Jump-up D&B is beginning to be stripped back again to its sub-bass essentials, and jump-up dubstep is ever so slightly making a return to that “dungeon” sound (not the most commercial stuff, but when has pop ever really stripped itself back, and why should it need to?).
Strictly speaking, through, the only real trend worth taking serious note of, in my opinion, is the move further towards attention grabbing-ness and dancefloor viability and away from subtlety, as music sales decline further and further at the same time the market becomes more and more inundated with artists that all sound exactly the same as one another. Sure, people are still making great, understated music, but it is becoming more and more of a struggle as time goes on. I believe that something will happen soon—I don’t know what or when—that will cause the industry to completely reset itself to naturally prevent this happening further, and I’m excited to see what this will be. Hopeful thinking, perhaps, but everything in our society historically seems to have a way of self-regulating itself, so I don’t see why this situation should be so different.
When you’re not listening to electronic music, what do you listen to?
Ah, anything and everything all of the time. It’s hard to answer this question better than by just listing some of the artists in my “most recently played” bit in iTunes who I wouldn’t say are responsible for predominantly “electronic music”: Radiohead, The Invisible, The Association, Wild Nothing, Grizzly Bear, Craig Taborn, Freddie Hubbard, Messiaen, Michael Jackson, Ravel, Busta Rhymes, Prince, Hammock, Dexter Wansel, Fats Navarro, Soul Mann & The Brothers, Austra, Giacinto Scelsi, Beach Fossils, Desertshore, Rough Fields. Oh, and my brother’s band, Dice Factory, is in there as well.
When you’re not making or playing music, what’s your preferred pastime?
At the moment it’s playing table tennis. We got an indoor table for our flat this year and it is hugely addictive and even serves as a bit of daily exercise—at least when compared to sitting at your desk all day!
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing with your life?
I honestly couldn’t tell you.
Tell us about your upcoming gigs and releases.
I have just released a 12” on Blu Mar Ten’s BMTM label, and will be releasing a follow-up 12” on said label in the coming months, so look out for that. I also have a special release coming up very soon which will mark the beginning of a new and exciting project I’m involved with some other producers (who I may or may not have named earlier in this interview), but you’ll have to await an official announcement for more details about that!