We meet Kowton in a quaint little coffee shop on Peckham’s genteel Bellenden Road, an area whose French Huguenot influence remains intact though is increasingly less visible behind the more recent rafts of tastefully commissioned street art by the likes of local resident Antony Gormley. It’s a strange setting in which to be discussing a techno album.
But then, to many, a techno album is a strange concept in itself.
“We kind of made a list of records that had achieved what we were aiming for,” Kowton explains over tea, “like [Shed’s] Shedding The Past or [Robert Hood’s] Minimal Nation where it is just very minimalist dance music, there’s no fluffy bits involved but you can listen to it over and over and the beauty is in the purity of it.” Functionality, he says, “needn’t necessarily be a turn-off for home listeners,” and his insistence that this be considered an album in the traditional sense, as opposed to an ill-fitted tangram of dancefloor tunes, shows.
However, in an age in which listeners increasingly favour their music handpicked and playlisted, the cause of the traditional long player is increasingly under threat. Streaming, in the US at least, has now surpassed both digital downloads and physical releases as the most popular form of music consumption, and artists can today build careers on YouTube hits and live shows. Kowton remains unperturbed by this.
The decision, he says, to go about putting together a first solo LP – a debut both for himself and Livity Sound, the label he runs along with Peverelist and Asusu – “seemed the most logical thing.” Indeed, starting in 2011 with a run of solo and collaborative singles from the label’s founders, followed by a clutch of compilations, the one thing that seemed to be missing from the imprint’s catalogue was an artist album.
“The reason it’s me solo, rather than all of us together is that we’d probably have killed each other in the process, to be quite honest,” Kowton jokes when asked why it fell to him to take on the mantle, “it was painful enough doing the singles!” But when it comes to Livity Sound, the collaborative spirit is still kept very much intact, and when Kowton talks about the process of writing and finally finishing the album he repeatedly uses “we” rather than the first-person singular.
“I’m not ashamed to admit that Tom [Peverelist] was very heavily involved in the process, and essentially took the role of an editor,” he explains. “If you’re writing very linear techno then you have these signifiers as to what makes it work,” he continues, digging into why he was so grateful for Pev’s input, “but if you’re making something that’s all over the shop then it’s a lot less obvious as to what really works.”
Called Utility, the album is both far from linear techno and being all over the shop. Instead, its title is strongly indicative of what the listener can expect when putting the needle down for a first listen. “It’s quite brutal, isn’t it. It’s to the point,” says Kowton of the name his album’s been given. “I kind of felt like the whole style of the album is just, like, bold lines,” he says, “it’s things that have a purpose and, yeah, ‘Utility’ fitted that well.” It’s almost a shame that All Killer, No Filler had already been taken.
There’s a determined build to each track, and in that sense the album has a defined thread running through it – the imperfect cadences that bring the likes of ‘Balance’ or ‘A Bluish Shadow’ to a close, serve to enhance that feeling. The music’s not doing enough naval-gazing to call itself minimal, but it’s certainly stripped back and allows each new element to bring its own character and influence to the floor. It’s progressive in more than one sense of the word.
This constant sense of inert, ‘what next?’ potential is one that will lend itself well to Kowton’s future plans to develop the album into a live show. “I haven’t tried it, but I’d like to think that if you had a mixed version of the album it would flow like a live set,” he says, “you would be able to play that to a crowd and that would work.” That’s not to say that the album is all-out dancefloor ammunition, but rather that he feels he’s been able, in making it, to realise “how little you need on a dancefloor and how long you can make people dance with very little.”
Past live shows alongside Peverelist and Asusu served as a feedback loop for the production process, Kowton says: “We would write tunes using the same setup we were using for the live show, and then we would play them live and be like ‘that bit worked, that bit didn’t.’”
In something of a reversal of this, he sees his own solo live show – his next focus now that the album is complete – as an opportunity to explore new outcomes for what is otherwise a finished body of work. In this context, conversation turns to Kanye West who has, since first exclusively releasing his latest album, The Life Of Pablo, via streaming service Tidal, been editing and updating it for listeners to hear different versions of existing tracks.
Now, in one sense this can and will be viewed as a genius business ploy – incentivising listeners to subscribe to Tidal, a company of which West is part owner, by giving them a reason to keep returning to the service. But in another arguably more interesting way, it shows Kanye’s struggle with the Barthesian concept of ‘The Death Of The Author’ and specifically the idea that a text, in his case his new album, does not belong to its author and instead “goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it.” Ultimately, that an artist’s work, once made public, belongs to its viewers – and their interpretations of it.
This in turn emphasises the idea that no work of art is ever truly complete, and it’s in this vein that Kowton sees the live show as working. “When you’re playing something loop-based live, you are absolutely in control of at what point you move on from that or you break down or you let it go…” he says, reflecting on the access to suppleness that a live show provides over the comparatively cut-and-paste (though not necessarily less entertaining) makeup of a DJ set. He’s both excited and challenged by the prospect of wanting to deliver something different on every occasion, whilst making use of the same base elements.
While he says he’d feel uncomfortable calling himself an artist, it’s certainly something that he’s striving towards – albeit inadvertently. To borrow his musing on the subject: “[What’s] really key is that umpteen people could take the same sounds and arrange them in the same order and the output of some people would be sublime and very evocative and involving, and other people would use those same sounds and do something that’s complete tripe and the only real difference, the nuances of technology aside, is that person’s approach to that process.”
And, with the dregs of his tea on their way down, he half-settles on a conclusion: “If being better at that process makes you more of an artist then I would hope that there’s a degree of that in the sound – y’know what I mean?” We do, but we doubt that Kowton is going to stew over the question or proving his relevance to it for as long as Kanye West might.
Utility is out April 15 on Livity Sound. Pre-order it here.
Interview: Will Pritchard (@Hedmuk)