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King of Swing: Sully

Last month saw Keysound Recordings release the debut album from Jack Stevens, better known as 2-step and bass producer Sully. A figure who, until recently, preferred not to mix his personal identity with his musical output, this hasn’t stopped Sully’s early releases on grassroots labels Frisjo and Mata Syn enter the realm of near-mythical status, due to the Norwich-based producer’s uncanny hold on the much-feted ‘swing’ of UK garage.

Not seen since the heyday of dark garage in the late nineties and early noughties has the UK underground seen a producer recall the heart of 2-step and garage in such vivacity. Between 2007 and 2009, Sully’s grasp of UK garage production techniques brought him a legion of fans through his mixture of dubstep, deep atmospherics and skipping, woodblock-ridden rhythms, captured in its finest form on tracks like the breakthrough ‘Phonebox’, ‘Duke St Dub’ and more recently, the Keysound-released ‘In Some Pattern’.

Sully – ‘Let You Know’

Despite effectively creating ‘future garage’ way before the term was coined, Sully remained in the shadows between 2009 and 2011, working on the 10 tracks of 2-step, grime, bass and footwork that would become his debut long player ‘Carrier’. “I’ve stayed out of the limelight in that sense, not for any deliberate image or anything like that, but it’s just not necessarily in my nature” he tells me. “I’ve always been much more concerned with getting on and writing tunes, because that’s what I love, and everything else is a result of that.”

Geographically Stevens may have been removed, and no one within the scene really knew Stevens as the man behind the Sully persona, yet this has never been reflected in the popularity of his output, nor the fondness he has for the wealth of electronic music emanating from the capital in the years following dubstep’s explosion in 2006. “I definitely feel a part of the plan, and labels like Keysound really help because I think there’s a lot of shared influences – when I hear tunes from LV, or LHF or a lot of the other artists on the label – there’s weird parallels”.

One such artist would be Hyperdub’s original star Burial aka South London’s Will Bevan. His now legendary mix for K7!’s DJ Kicks compilation, which was slated for release in 2009, yet has since never seen a release, did originally feature a Sully track, album highlight ‘2Hearts’; “I spoke to Will a couple of times on the phone after Martin [Clark – Keysound boss] had played him my first Frisjo release. He loved those and I kept in touch with him, sent him a few tracks, and he was putting this thing together and I spoke to him quite a few times during it. He was always going to be using one of the tracks, and for a long time it was ‘2Hearts’, and then the next time I spoke to him the tracklist had completely changed again, so it never quite came together”.

For a man who’s take on UK pirate culture is, like Burial’s, viewed through a somewhat melancholy lens, Sully’s sound echoes the disparate, lonely realm of modern urban living, remaining comparatively distanced from the busy bass-led raves at it’s heart, both physically, and in his choice not to promote his music through a persona or image: “I’ve had arguments with friends about that sort of approach to things, and people have said that it’s a pretentious thing but I don’t think it is, music can mean so much more than the person – when music’s really good it’s bigger than the person, and it kind of ties it down a bit when its coming from one person, one place. ”

Sully – ‘I Know’

It’s this urge to not lose the mystery of music, the ‘magic behind the medicine’ that, like many a producer of his generation, Sully has been keen to push. In a world of internet hype and fast-moving musical product, a new breed of dance music has surfaced in the fraught high-energy workouts of Chicago’s juke/footwork scene, one which UK producers like Sully feel sufficiently removed from to echo in their own work. It’s certainly this ‘alien-like’ quality that has attracted Stevens; “juke’s weird as it’s hard to follow, as it’s only really come around in the past few years – there’s not really a distribution network for it, but I spend a lot of time on Youtube!”. The parking lots and warehouses of downtown Chicago outline the distance, both geographically and socially, from the Norwich producers own UK base which is “cool really as it has that bit of mystery, it’s a bit of an enigma, a bit alien and a bit fresh, and I like that about it, it took a bit of work to try and hear tunes and there’s tunes I love but I’ll probably never know the name of.”

‘Carrier’ echoes this in it’s geography, mixing London with Chicago, grime with footwork, and house with bass. The writing process for the album was a fairly long affair, yet allowed Stevens to stretch the format he was known for to incorporate a wealth of his musical influences, including early ‘Ice Rink’ era grime, UK funky and the more recent sounds of Chicago’s footwork scene. “Most of the tracks were written with an album in mind, stretching over 18 months. The album I saw as having to have a coherence to it, which I always thought I’d struggle with, and I did have problems staying completely in one place, but I came to terms with the fact that [tracks] didn’t all have to sound like one continuous song and I could try different things.”

One thing that, unsurprisingly, is present throughout the majority of the album is that fabled ‘swing’ captured so expertly in tracks like ‘It’s Your Love’, ‘2Hearts’ and ‘In Some Pattern’. Ask Sully who his own ‘King of Swing’ would be, and he emphatically answers “El-B – relentless but really delicate at the same time” and approach the man on just how he goes about producing so much space and rhythm within his own drum tracks, he mentions his time playing in bands, “feeling the space and getting a funk going. If you’re playing the drums I imagine the emotion you’d get and try and put that into a sequence in a  computer – bouncing about in my chair a little bit, and just feeling the groove”, though ultimately, “it’s just a feeling”.

It’s this feeling, whether it be the depth of emotion reached on tracks like the ambient-lean of ‘Trust’, or the stepping footwork rhythms of ‘Let You Know’, the fractured grime of ‘Scram’ or even the crushing 8-bit dance of this years strictly limited ‘Toffee Apple’ release, that Sully has in spades. Having re-written the book on 2-step, and kept swing and space alive in the years immediately following dubstep, the man now and offers the bass scene a bright, untravelled pathway of development.

‘Carrier’ is out now on Keysound Recordings. You can catch Sully headlining loose synths on October 21 – more information here.

Interview: Louis Cook
Photography: William Biggs