Sound of the Future: Airhead

To say Rob McAndrews’ (aka Airhead’s) debut album was long-awaited would be a pretty big understatement, given that a version was originally due to appear via Brainmath over two years ago. Such was the hysteria surrounding McAndrews’ speculative release for the Ramp sub-label, I remember an ex-flatmate verging on buying the test-pressings for a much inflated price. Such heightened expectations don’t come without good reason however – his ethereal, idiosyncratic, productions have stood ahead of their time since they surfaced around 2009, melding a plethora of influences, from Dubstep to oddball Hip-Hop, and guitar-based Indie music.

“It’s a relief to have it finally coming out because it’s been so long in the making” McAndrews says of the upcoming release of For Years. “It feels strange to have a finished copy as I got the test pressings through the other day. Listening through it as a finished body of work is nice. I finished it in January so it’s been six months now, and I do feel a little bit detached from it – to a certain extent.”

Patience is definitely a virtue McAndrews isn’t lacking. Despite the wealth of material featured in his 2011 Electronic Explorations mix, few official Airhead releases had surfaced until a couple of recent 12”s for R&S – ‘Wait’ and ‘Pyramid Lake’. This album in particular is something McAndrews has definitely refrained from rushing. “I’m a lot happier with how it’s turned out now, I think it’s a stronger album.” he says of the differences between his speculative Brainmath release and the finished article, For Years.

The album has certainly benefited in diversity, as McAndrews is given the opportunity to show off his abilities at more overtly dancefloor productions, such as the wonderful, driving Tech-House stomp of ‘Fault Line’. “I could have gone too far either way” he considers when asked about the mix of styles on the album. “I could have had two minute ambient passages in the middle of every track on the album, and it might have made it quite a difficult listen but, I think hopefully there is a bit of a balance between those kind of tracks – something like ‘Azure Race’ which is two minutes of beatless chords and noises, and then things like ‘Fault Line’ which is much more to the point I suppose.”

Coming to light around the same time as close friend and long time collaborator James Blake, McAndrews’ productions are often referenced in the context of circa 2010 Dubstep. Whereas many of his contemporaries were exposed to the genre via nights such as FWD at Plastic People, McAndrews own exposure came from studying up in Leeds. “When James and people were going down to Plastic People I’d already started up in Leeds, so for me it was going to the West Indian Centre, up in a part of Leeds called Chapeltown. So that’s where I heard a lot of the early Dubstep stuff, where I saw DMZ playing, and people like Skream and Youngsta would come up.”

Airhead 1

Whilst the influence of Dubstep was undoubtedly important to McAndrews development however, it wasn’t until he began incorporating influences from his upbringing that things began to make sense. “When I was trying to write Dubstep bangers it just wasn’t happening. I think it was as much influence from Dubstep and Bass music as it was Indie music and weird Hip-Hop stuff like cLOUDDEAD on the Anticon label…” he contemplates when asked about the influence Dubstep had on him. “I think the most important thing is honesty in music, and you hear when someone isn’t particularly into the music they’re making because it doesn’t feel very natural.”

Pinning down exactly what the album is most indebted to is in fact pretty difficult, although the aforementioned oddball Hip-Hop is definitely a dominant force, especially given the jaunty, off-kilter rhythms of tracks like ‘Callow’ or ‘Azure Race’. These, combined with McAndrews’ distant guitar tinkering’s and subdued vocal samplings combine to create some pretty special moments, such as the beautifully melancholic, Karen O sampling ‘Autumn’.

‘Milkola Bottle’ is another notable standout. At times feverishly expectant, at others patient and reflective, the track is more in line with McAndrews’ floor-friendly, ‘Pyramid Lake/Black Ink’ 12” than anything else. “Now that I’ve been travelling a lot, playing more gigs and DJing more, I’ve started writing more uptempo, fairly club orientated tracks mainly as things that I can put in my DJ sets,” he lends as an explanation. “At first I was a bit tired of not being able to play my own music in clubs but I’ve since started writing more dancefloor tracks. The album as a result does have a more varied sound but hopefully it’s all linked together by something.”

As well an increase in DJ sets, his experiences touring with Blake have also had an undoubted effect on how McAndrews approaches his own productions. “Seeing crowd reactions to James’ music and some of the stuff James & I have written together – I think it really matures your music if you can look up and see people crying at certain points, or people going crazy dancing. I’m more aware of other people hearing my music, whereas when I was first releasing in 2009 I was writing just for myself and thinking no-one else would ever hear it, or if they did I wasn’t too bothered by their reaction. I still do write for myself, I have to be happy with something before I release it but now in the back of my head I’m thinking about how it will affect other people as well.”

To my mind McAndrews has found a remarkably effective mediation between differing styles in For Years, and I’m sure whatever we see next from him, will be as evocative and boundary pushing as his sparse releases always have been.

Theo Darton-Moore

For Years is now available via R&S Records.