It seems like an aeon ago that we were were first introduced to the work of David Kennedy -then known as Ramadanman, and indeed next year will mark a decade since his first release. As with the rest of his friends and colleagues from those halcyon Dubstep days of the mid 2000’s, Kennedy’s path has diverged radically since – with both his sound and his production alias transforming immeasurably during the intervening years. Once the young upstart, he’s now a figure that commands respect – having accrued marks of populist success in the shape of Essential Mixes and FABRICLIVE CD’s whilst continually avoiding compromise.
Now deep into his career, he’s finally seen fit to drop his debut album – a self titled salvo released this week on his, Ben UFO and Pangaea’s zeitgeist defining Hessle Audio label. A wildly experimental collection of tracks defined by unique recording methods and oblique arrangements, it sounds quite unlike anything we’ve heard before – and looks set to remove Kennedy from any kind of pigeonhole you might have had him in previously. Catching up with him recently in London, we spoke about the record, his creative process and Plastic People…
First of all, congratulations on the album – which was slightly unexpected I have to say.
Well we like to surprise people a little bit. We always put out our stuff when its actually done, instead of saying two years ago – ‘there might be an album soon’.
I guess the recent trend in some areas of music has been for records to drop kind of unannounced, as with Levon’s album a few weeks ago…
There is the trend if you’re Beyoncé to just drop your new album, but obviously I’m not Beyoncé (laughs). My record isn’t that kind of record and I also thought people would need a little bit of time with it. It’s not the kind of record that if I just dropped it out of the blue, people would instantly like or understand it necessarily. I still wanted to have that two or three month cycle where people would start hearing it gradually.
As well as being your debut album, this is also the first artist album Hessle Audio have released. Does that present any new challenges in itself as a label head?
We did a compilation (‘116 And Rising’), which was our first taste of ‘something bigger’ – having bigger artwork and a larger press thing around it, but that was four years ago now (laughs). Even Kev’s (Pangaea) ‘Release’ EP, that was like three years ago now – so we haven’t done anything like that for a while. I wouldn’t say challenging, its more exciting than anything – you can do more with it, there are more opportunities on the art side of things as well.
When you three decide on material from other artists that you’re releasing on the label it seems like its very much done by committee. Is that the case with a record like yours and you play them the tracks as they’re being made – or is it more showing them the end product?
Some of the older tracks we’ve all been playing for a while. When I realised I wanted to make an LP, they were really up for it and let me get on with it. There was a bit of back and forth though, I’d finish one track and maybe be a little unsure, but they’d be like, ‘this is sick you need to put it on’. I wasn’t too bloody minded on it. There were a couple of things I was set on including, but it was more them saying, ‘you should have a listen again to that demo you sent me’, rather than them being like, ‘I hate this, this can’t go on’.
I can’t imagine it ever gets that heated between you guys…
No not at all. We’ve always let each other get on with it. With Kev’s releases he generally just finishes them and then says this is it – with his stuff there’s less back and forth actually.
From listening to your work prior to this, the most striking feature generally was the percussive element. That hasn’t taken a back seat on this one, but at the same time its not really at the forefront. Was there any anxiety on your part about how people might perceive this shift of sorts?
Its still recognisably my stuff. I guess the record isn’t really for people who haven’t heard my stuff before so much. I’m sure a lot of people who’ve never heard of me might like it though. Maybe someone who hadn’t listened to me for five or six years might be a bit surprised by how different it sounds. I’ve always seen a bit of a lineage running through my stuff though, so those who’ve followed me for a while always know my music develops and changes and I don’t like to sit and do one thing for too long.
For my own personal satisfaction, I’m always wanting to change things up. I don’t think it would be that exciting if I came with a record that sounded like stuff I was doing six years ago.
Given the stylistic ground you’ve explored in your career – how do you feel listening back to your older material? Does anything sound dated or out of step to you?
Not really. I still like a lot of my stuff. Some of it does sound a bit dated, where I’m like, ‘wow what was I thinking when I made that?’, or, ‘how did I do this?’. It’s quite interesting sometimes listening to something that you did a long time ago and you can’t remember what was going through your head at the time. I don’t hate my old music or anything like that. I’ve been playing some of my older bits in sets recently, some of my Funky stuff like, ‘Wad’ – ‘Tempest’ has been played a few times.
We’re far removed enough from some of those tracks now that there’s starting to be a genuine level of nostalgia around them…
The way music works in cycles, it’d be quite odd if the moment were to come where a bunch of kids discovered what I was doing ten years ago. That’s gonna make me feel really old, but its nice in a way. There’s records of mine that friends have started playing which I’d forgotten about and its like, ‘okay yeah, this kind of makes sense now’. Some of the stuff I was writing five years ago perhaps didn’t make sense then but now sits quite comfortably with where musical trends are.
What was it about this collection of tracks that made you feel they were meant to be grouped together as part of an album?
I sort of switched up the way I was working after I bought some new equipment and moved the studio around a bit. I started making tracks like ‘Headless’, ‘Glass Eye’ and things like that and I could see that there was a particular sound and vibe going on there. I felt I could make something bigger around that, and once I had that idea I knew what I wanted the record to sound like.
Its not a concept record about something in particular. Its a bit like my ‘Ramadanman’ EP back in 2009 – that was a collection of certain sounds and production techniques. I guess this album is like that in a way, its a snapshot of where I’m at and what I’ve been up to for the last couple of years. It presents what I think is a cohesive body of music, with differing tempos but sonic themes running through them. That’s what made me wanna do it.
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of two track singles, one or two a year for the last few, so I decided, ‘no, I want to make something bigger’.
It seems like that’s the way you work, that you find an idea and you run with it, then that’s what you’ll be working on for that period of time.
With this more specifically; having a signal chain in the studio, the way the machines were running through the mixing desk and the way I was mixing down the tracks and creating them all lent themselves to a similar kind of process. After the record was done I actually dismantled the studio completely. The new stuff will probably sound different again.
So you always have to change your method after each spurt of work?
Its just healthy. If you wonder why you’re not feeling inspired or whatever, its probably because you’re trying to do the same thing you’ve already done.
It doesn’t sound as if you made this record with the mindset of wanting to make some new material to play in the clubs. Will the abstract approach of the record be crossing over into your DJ sets or are those two very distinct things?
I don’t feel an obligation when I’m DJ’ing to play my stuff, its not really why I’m there, I’m not playing a concert. If someone leaves and is disappointed that I didn’t play ‘Work Them’, I don’t really care (laughs). I don’t wanna be playing stuff I made five or six years ago all the time.
I read an interview with Joy Orbison recently, and he said that he didn’t feel the need to showcase his personality as a producer when he plays – he’s just there to get to people to dance.
I wanna play the music that excites me the most, and it might not necessarily be a track I made a few years ago. Sometimes I’ll build tracks especially for my DJ sets, but most of the tracks on the album I’ll have played in clubs so it can work, its just down to the particular moment.
Lets talk about the artwork then – how did that come about and what was the idea behind it?
It was a collaboration with an art director/set designer called Andrew Stellitano, who does a lot of corporate advertising work. He knew my music and he was up for working on something with a bit of back and forth, so he came up with the idea of some kind of distorted portrait. All the artwork is actually just a photograph, it hasn’t been warped or manipulated digitally – it was just shot into mirrored material which we arranged and warped using a heat gun.
It was quite a collaborative experience and we had a really good team of people working on it – people who normally work on quite big advertising stuff. He called in a few favours and everyone was really up for it, they found it exciting. I think if you’re always doing these big corporate jobs where you don’t have a huge amount of freedom and someone says, ‘do you wanna work on something cool?’, its like, ‘yeah, I’ve been waiting to do this for a while’. I was really happy with how it came together.
Next year it will have been 10 years since you’re first release came out. How do you think you’ll go about making sure you’re doing this for another decade?
As I get older I’ve started playing a bit less often and working a bit more in cycles, because that suits my lifestyle and I don’t wanna be going away twice a weekend every weekend. I’ve done that, I’d rather have a really busy two months and then two months in the studio. I guess I’ll probably just take it a bit easier touring and in terms of making music – I’ve still got new ideas. If there was a point where I had a year where I was staring at a screen and not making anything that’d be scary, but I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.
There’s other stuff I want to explore in music; film stuff, collaborations, audio installations. There are lots of opportunities.
So you’re looking to work outside the context of dance music and that cycle?
What we do in music is such a tiny niche of what’s possible, so I wouldn’t be happy if I was only making stuff for clubs and only DJ’ing in clubs. I wanna be exploring other things to keep myself happy.
Do you think that kind of evolution is key not only to your own happiness but also your longevity as someone who gets to make music professionally?
I think so. If you’re known for doing other things, that can lead to really interesting collaborations with other artists. Even working on the record cover and using a different part of my brain was good. Photography and design is something I’m really interested in, but I don’t often get to explore – so its just good for you mentally to do more than one thing.
I was writing an end of year summary a couple of months back and I said that if you were to look back on 2014 or even the last few years, I think you’d struggle to pick one particular sound or movement as having dominated – its just a lot of cool individual things people are up to. Would you agree with that?
I think the way music’s gone as well, some of my friends are headlining festivals! Some of them are on Radio 1. Its crazy to think that ten years ago we started in this little niche and now a decade later guys like Julio Bashmore, Ben UFO or someone like Skream are all such massive names. That someone like Ben is topping massive festivals now.
The audience for the music that we make – the way trends and tastes have shifted mainstream necessarily but away from the underground to a degree. A lot more people have heard of our music and our label – obviously part of that is down to the way we’ve built up the label put out our music, but musical trends change all the time and who’s to say in a few years something else won’t be the next cool thing.
Seeing as we’re only about five minutes walk away from it right now, I wanted to see what you thought about Plastic People’s closure and how London can go about filling that void?
With Plastic I think a lot of people completely wrote it off back in 2010/2011. I still went – me and a bunch of my mates were going for the last few years. I think when the club was having problems with the council and they tried changing things with the system, a lot of people ended up thinking it was finished. I stuck with it right til the end. Its a loss obviously to lose a space that you were completely free to experiment in and where the system enabled you to do that, but there’s still other places to do parties. A lot of people didn’t even go to Plastic People, they’d discarded it and thought it was something in the past.
It was interesting when it shut and people started eulogizing it, how a lot of accounts were sort of fetishising one period in time and expecting the club to be like that forever – which obviously isn’t the way any club works…
I sort of respected their decision to completely change the sound. I mean yeah it was an amazing sound system before, but they wanted a change and you have to respect that really. Maybe for the year after switching it up it didnt sound that great, but they got there in the end. For the final weekend it was probably some of the best sound I’d ever heard in a club. It is a bit odd as you say, ‘eulogizing’, this particular period in time when it hasn’t really been like that for quite a while.
It definitely wasn’t as loud as before, but it was a very clear system. It was a different kind of sound, before it was very bassy and overwhelming. In the last couple of years they were going for something a bit more hi-fi and a bit more detailed – a bit more suited to ‘acoustic’ music with live instruments and vocals. For that it sounded incredible. It would be wrong to say Mala tunes don’t sound absolutely killer on that system anymore – that wasn’t what they were going for. Its good that they decided to call it a day when they did instead of driving it into the ground and being kicked out.
‘Pearson Sound’ is out now on Hessle Audio. Buy it here.