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Risc vs. Reward: Photek

If you have an interest in electronic music, and the inner workings of just how the UK reached its position as the frontrunner for a now global bass scene, then Rupert Parkes, in one guise or another, has been a name you will have crossed paths with.

From meticulously programmed early jungle workouts as Studio Pressure and The Sentinel, signing with Virgin Records in the mid-ninetie’s for now legendary albums ‘Modus Operandi’ and ‘Form & Function’, his Chicago house-leaning album ‘Solaris’ in 2000 and a return to the drum & bass scene in the mid- noughties with an intense, dark sound that split fans opinion, yet still bore all the hallmarks of that icey Photek sound, the past 2 decades have put Parkes in that rarest of positions; figurehead of a generation.

Like his peer and one time studio partner Goldie (as one off remix outfit Baby Boys), Photek has traversed the world of underground club music with the eye of a singular impresario. Having released a string of stone cold classics in his time, tracks like ‘Ni-Ten-Ichi-Ryu’, ‘The Water Margin’, ‘Consciousness’, ‘U.F.O.’ and ‘Mine To Give’ reveal his time spent perfecting the intricate beat patterns and hard futurism of the Photek sound, as a result creating some of the most emotionally animated dancefloor music of his generation.

Now, having released the technoid-dubstep-meets-electro ‘Avalanche EP’ in February, and with a running series of EP’s set to follow, Photek is back. We called him up at his LA base to discuss his time away from the scene, the musical revolution of ’88, and his feelings on a return to doing what he does best.

So, how have you found your return to the limelight, as it were?
[Laughs] It’s been great. I’m really enjoying making the music, the way its been recieved has been incredible, and I’ve got to say, it’s better than ever.

Were you surprised by the reception at all?
Well I don’t take anything for granted. Whenever you put a track out I never take it for granted, all I know is I like it, and I hope everyone has the same taste as me y’know? But it’s been great to get that confirmation from people that I haven’t completely lost the plot!

And how did you find your gig in March at Deviation in London?
It was great – it was the first one playing that new set of music, and it was the perfect place to start off again. It was the first time I’d played in London for years. It was really good, a tight little venue with some real music heads, and I was trying out some new equipment at the same time, so it all went smoothly, and it was great!

Have you missed it?
I have you know. I always like being in the studio and making new sounds, but there’s nothing like seeing how they sound out and about.

Turning back the clock a little bit – what are your defining memories of an earlier stage in your career – say the ‘94-’95 jungle period – what really sticks in your mind about those days?
Well it felt less global, as of course everyone was less connected – I’m sure there were people doing the same thing in different cities in different countries across the world, but it was very much a network of people you would call, or you would bump into, and it was very day-to-day, like “who are my people that I see day-to-day all the time”. Where as now I think you’re connected in so many different ways, and travelling so much more. That’s the main difference, it was very much in your face where as now it’s email, Skype, Dropbox and [laughs]… you’re all connected doing your thing, but you’re not in each others face so much – that’s one of my big memories. Literally taking boxes of white labels to a distributor, and having to drive back there to get the money and that sort of thing.

Do you miss that aspect of it?
There’s something about it I miss though yeah. I miss making an article. Like making a 12”. Literally like “what do the labels look like, did the printer get them right” – that kind of thing. And what you made actually ends up filling the back of a car. And now it’s like, drop the file to a few people, and then it goes out and its onto the next one.

I think there’s a lot to be said for both, but having a physical product is part of the creativity – its the end product that’s there, it’s tactile…
And you feel like it’s more intimate, because you know that one of those copies on the stack are going to end up on the counter at Blackmarket, and into some kids hands, and he’s going to carry it home then listen to it properly. [But] I suppose if I didn’t have that experience it wouldn’t make a difference, as you don’t miss what you don’t know y’know?

‘Slowburn’ by Photek

So are you still in contact with some of the old faces from around that time?
I’m reconnecting. I’ve been abroad for a long time now – I’ve been in the US for 10 years now, so although you do your best to keep up, it’s not the same as “I’m on Oxford Street, let’s meet up real quick”, or you see a bunch of people out on the same night – which it used to be at Metalheadz, we’d all see each other each week or two. So no, I don’t keep up as much as I did, but I think that’s just life generally isn’t it? I managed to catch up with Goldie last time I was in London, we went for lunch, and that’s not necessarily something we would have done before [laughs], but we’re all busy, we got more responsibilities, we’re a bit more mature, so we arrange a time and we have lunch, so that’s how we catch up. Where as it used to be we bumped into each other and we’d just roll for an evening – we don’t have time to do that anymore!

So do you get a real feeling of pride in what you created back then, as what you’ve got behind you is such a huge thing…
Oh yeah yeah… I still look back really fondly on all those times and what we did as groups, as little collectives. From ‘Headz, to Good Looking Records to the start of Photek and the rest of it. I think it didn’t seem like much at the time, but you look back and in history it still has a little footnote. I think all of those things influence people going forward, and it’s nice to have been involved in something relevant.

So moving forward slightly… The last thing I bought of yours on a drum & bass tip was the ‘Baltimore’ track, back in 2003, and since then I’ve not heard much from yourself, so do you make any jungle these days, or would you say that’s something you’re done with creatively?
I’m finished with it. But after ‘Baltimore’ I also had ‘Form & Function Volume 2’, which got lost between the cracks because I signed it to Sanctuary Records, and the month it was manufactured for release they were bought by Universal, so it was a shame as it was all drum & bass and it didn’t really make it out there. But I’m really enjoying what I’m doing now, applying all the ideas and all the creativity and the same production style to different tempos so… I don’t rule out anything.

Your current music seems to take on some of your earlier influences, there’s some a nice rugged electro thing going on there, a slow house thing – where have the new sonics come from?
It comes from a really broad look at all my influences y’know? To make everything fit into a drum & bass format I’d take smaller, less obvious influences and adapt them a bit more. But when you broaden the tempo to whatever you feel like, all of a sudden it starts becoming more obvious what your influences were. So if you’re working at a tempo similar to most music, you start recognising things a lot easier when they’re passing you more slowly.

There seems to be quite a thirst, looking at people like Ben UFO of Hessle Audio, Jackmaster’s recent fabric CD, Boddika’s deeply referential releases, for classic dance music at the minute – part of which obviously is the internet making this music more accessible. Do you think the younger generation looking back is similar to your time spent studying jazz, and some of your older, more obscure reference points?
Yeah it probably is, but I think maybe drum & bass opened the door for alot of people to look back to jazz, or a lot more obscure music, and I think one of the best things to come out of dubstep is people not being afraid to reference alot of music that hasn’t been touched on for a while. So all of a sudden piano house and happy hardcore [laughs] is a historic reference point that people are going back to, where during drum & bass it was something we were trying to move away from. It seems like everyone’s willing to put different tempo’s in their set, and as far as I remember it hasn’t been like that since I first went to a rave in 1988.

The atmosphere must be pretty different from ‘88 these days…
Yeah I wonder about that! I think it was a very unique time, when I was very young and it was a very new underground exciting scene that was changing the face of England – like a real social change. And I wonder whether in the minds of some of these kids out there listening to dubstep, whether the same revolution is happening on the same profound level for them. I like to think that my version of it was more important [laughs] – but it probably wasn’t!

I think in the late 80’s early 90’s there was alot more to be pissed off about, and alot more that maybe socially needed changing, but now maybe kids have the same energy, and the music is as exciting, but I don’t know if what comes out of it socially, will historically change that much.
Well I do think that when I happened to arrive in the scene it was laying a foundation at that time – that’s probably the biggest difference. It was all coming together, and I think that was the first time that had happened. I suppose that was the foundation for everything that’s happens from Ibiza, to Miami, to some cheesy house wine bar. It’s all derived from those moments. So yeah I like to think that those times were more significant, but for every kid arriving with fresh ears it’s all very exciting.

So with the ‘Avalanche EP’ – when were those tracks completed?
‘Avalanche’ was done the middle of last year, which started out as a collaboration with me and Switch. We got together and decided we were going to make a bunch of instrumentals and start looking for a bunch of vocalists to feature – he’s obviously done well with that with MIA, Santigold and all the rest of it. So we got about 4 tracks running and the one that got the furthest along was ‘Avalanche’, then he had to run off to Jamaica and his tour schedule was crazy after that, so we figured we’d lost our window. So I finished up ‘Avalance’ on my own, sent it over to him and said I was going to put it out as an instrumental, which I guess became the first in the series of EP’s.

So what are you working on at the moment – how is an album shaping up?
We’re going to keep this continuous stream of EP’s coming, which is just going to be ongoing, and then an album would comprise of half of my favrouites from the EP’s, then half that didn’t make the EPs. But we’re not too concerned about an album really I think the constant drip feed of EP’s is actually really healthy for my creative process. If I was going to work on an album now you probably wouldn’t see me until 2013, but if I keep doing these EPs, then coming and playing the music to people, then you might see an album by the end of the year.

Do you think an album is still a worthwhile format at this point?
I think it’s definitely a worthwhile format in terms of an album is a different art to making individual songs, so I think a great album is quite something – not everyone can make a great album. So you wanna try and rise to that occasion and try and be an album artist. But then again it’s 2011, the world is a different place and you can’t indulge yourself in doing that necessarily. At least I’m finding myself in that situation – but I need to get out and play the music I’ve made to people, and that means I can’t hide away in the studio for a year and a half.

The ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Aviator’ EP’s are out now on Photek Productions, and you can catch Photek playing at a number of dates across the summer – all details at Photek.fm.

Interview: Louis Cook