Five years ago Sara Abdel Hamid, better known simply as Ikonika, made her production debut. The 1-2 punch that was ‘Please/Simulacrum’ brought varying popular sounds of the time into one club ready package. Punishing sub collided with wailing, glitchy synths and UK funky style drums on a release that was both mind bending and danceable all at once. Coming on Hyperdub, a label which up until then released forward thinking yet relatively narrowly focused Dubstep, the release was a taster of the genre blurring approach that was set to dominate the UK’s electronic music scene for years to come.
Her unique approach finding much favour with listeners and DJ’s, she went on to enjoy a prolific few years, culminating in the release of 2010’s ‘Contact, Love, Want, Have’ LP. A crystallization of her sound up until this point, it was a critical success praised for its originality and individuality. Hamid used the period after the album’s release as a time to grow as an artist, incorporating new methods and hardware into her sessions at her West-London home studio. Listening to her brand new sophomore LP Aerotropolis against her debut, some things are immediately striking. Most notable is the lightness and downright poppy nature of much of it. The likes of ‘Beach Mode ( Keep It Simple )’ and ‘Mr.Cake’ shimmer and bounce in equal measure, acting as a perfect compliment for Britain’s current extended burst of sunshine. As usual genre boundaries are traversed with ease by Hamid, but she has largely abandoned the paranoid dread that often characterized her earliest releases.
We caught up with Hamid to find out exactly how her stonesthrow proximity to Heathrow airport was a big inspiration in the album, as well as touching on new hardware, real life gaming and J.G. Ballard.
Hi Sara, thanks for talking to Hyponik. Where are we talking to you from today?
My studio with the doors open. It’s great it’s in my garden so its beautiful.
Sonically you and Hyperdub have both moved on a lot since the release of ‘Contact, Love, Want, Have’ in 2010. What do you feel you’ve learnt as an artist in the three years since your first album?
I’ve learnt to be very patient and I’ve learnt that patience for me at that time was a very good thing. It kind of allowed me to digest what was happening in the UK in terms of the music scene I was involved with, and it gave me time to explore different music and a different way of producing I suppose. I started getting back in to using bits of hardware again and kind of combining that with what I was already doing with software.
You’ve spoken of using machines a lot more on this album-specifically the Juno 106 and the 707? How did you like this new approach and do you think its something you’ll keep on with?
Certainly. Me, Bok Bok and L-Vis have been swapping bits of gear around and I kind of like that. I quite like the community vibe of it as well, where we don’t necessarily have to spend loads of money for our own gear. We can just try out different stuff and if we really want it we can go out seek it out on eBay.
Sometimes just staring at the screen becomes a little bit boring really. It’s nice to move around, stand up in the studio rather than just sit down and stare at the screen for 5 or 6 hours.
More of a tangible approach?
Yeah just more hands on and I just also think it’s kind of vital. Particularly for producers like myself who haven’t been brought up with hardware gear. My first means of making electronic music was just on a rubbish laptop and that was it and some headphones. It just improves my knowledge.
Were there any pieces of gear that you wanted to work with on for the album but didn’t get your hands on? Anything you’re looking to work with in the future?
I think I’m just up for trying as many things as possible. I think the next thing I might buy is a Dave Smith Tempest, just because the functionality of it is catered to someone like myself who’s been in to software and is getting to get back in to hardware. I just want to create more weird drum sounds and see where I can take stock samples and mutate them and come up with different sounds that aren’t so familiar.
What music were you listening to when you made Aerotropolis?
A lot of house and techno. A lot of like early house, a lot of freestyle house. Also a lot of early pop as well. Just because I think I can relate to that stuff a little bit more now. I mean everyone’s always said in the past that my music in the past has had like a Detroit feel and definitely a pop feel. I just wanted to explore that a little bit more and understand why people were saying that. I found myself relating to those sounds because I’d been using them but without the background of it, without the proper influence.
Beach Mode (Keep It Simple) is the most song structured and dare I say it, potentially radio friendly track I’ve ever heard from you, partly due to Jessy Lanza’s vocal. Are vocals something you’ll be looking to incorporate more heavily in future?
Definitely. I think now that I’ve got a taste for it I want to explore it a lot more. I’ve got someone at the moment that I’m trying to work with, we had one studio session the other day and it went really well. I’m definitely into it and I’m hoping there’ll be more releases with some vocals. I’ve kind of learnt to strip back my synths in places to allow for vocals. I actually wanted ‘Backhand Winners’ to be used for a vocalist or a rapper, but we didnt have time to get that song shopped around and stuff. I’m hoping someone somewhere might just take it anyway, because it’s really spread out and there’s a lot of room for vocals on that track. Mr.Cake there was supposed to be vocals for that as well (laughs). I think we’ll be more organised next time!
Well there’s always time for someone to jump on those ones anyway?
Yeah definitely there’s plenty of time. If anyone wants to do that, here’s my advert for it ( laughs)
Aerotropolis as a title hints a kind of escapism through air travel and the music reflects this. Is music as escapism an idea you’re interested in?
Totally. I’m not a very social person and I’ve always kind of hidden away and hidden myself behind music. Obviously I love doing it, it was a hobby and now it’s a job. It definitely allows me to digest certain elements of my life and put things in perspective for me. As cheesy as that sounds its very true. I think if I didn’t have music to translate those emotions I think I’d probably be a really angry person or something.
Your proximity to Heathrow has come up a lot as an inspiration for this album. I find it really interesting that something that is constantly thrown up in the press as an irritant for nearby residents has actually inspired you to make this piece of music?
I mean I’ve always lived very close to Heathrow and its always been around but I never really noticed it growing up, its only kind of in the past 5 or 6 years since I started DJ’ing and going to places and doing shows abroad that I really related to it. Talking to other DJ’s who have to travel far to get to the airport and stick around on the tube for like an hour to get to the airport I kind of laugh (laughs) because I can just get a bus or hitch a ride from family members and I’ll just be there. Then I’ll come back home and I’ll immediately go straight home and it kind of feels like I haven’t really travelled. It’s just funny that it’s always been in my life and then I use aeroplanes to commute to work, it’s kind of weird. There kind of no reason that it shouldn’t influence my work and it has done so more seriously in the last 2 years.
Have you been clocking up a lot of air miles recently?
Actually this year’s been not so heavy as previous years but I’m very organised when it comes to air miles, I love air miles. To me its kind of a game, like you know I.R.L. (laughs), proceeding to the next level of airline membership, frequent flyer membership and stuff like that. It’s kind of invaded me a little bit.
It’s a useful game to play definitely…
Very useful and the more things you ‘unlock’ the easier it becomes ( laughs).
I wouldn’t necessarily describe your previous work as unhappy but on your earliest stuff like ‘Please’, ‘Millie’ and ‘Simulacrum’ you can hear a lot more dread and claustrophobia I think. Whilst your new album isn’t relentlessly happy I would say its definitely lighter and more expansive at least in the first half of the record. Was this a conscious shift that you noticed yourself or was it more natural?
I think it had something to do with where I was making the tunes. Up until maybe end of 2011 I was still a bedroom producer and everything in my room was very cluttered. Before I moved to Feltham, I was living in Heston which is still very close to Heathrow and I was in a box room-I even had one of those IKEA Bunk beds with no bottom bunk, like an attic bed. Underneath that was my drum kit and my decks and my monitors. I didn’t really have a desk, my laptop was on a drum stool. And yeah I’m glad you said it, the music back then was a bit claustrophobic because I was feeling very claustrophobic in such a tight space. Giving up space between the bed and the celing, it really helped to create that type of music back then.
When I moved to Feltham, I was in a bigger bedroom but I still had all my gear in the bedroom. Now thankfully I had enough money to save up and build a studio in my back garden, its purely just a music room with records and my gear. No drumkit unfortunately I had to chuck that in the loft! ( laughs)
One track I really enjoyed was Completion V.3, which is essentially beatless, something we haven’t really heard from you before. What was the inspiration behind making this kind of track? Is it a direction you’d like to pursue more?
Yeah totally. I was really worried that the album would become this whole ambient experimental album, because for some tunes I was just having this weird drum block. I just wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing and the patterns I was using. Tunes like ‘Eternal Mode’ and ‘Mr.Cake’ really didn’t have any drums until the last minute, when suddenly something just clicked. Just the fear of a deadline accelerated me into putting drums on them.
I’m definitely into that style, I listen to a lot of Oneohtrixpointnever and d’Eon and that stuff for me is really good. Especially if I’ve been out to a club raving and I’m driving back to West from East or South London, and it helps with tinnitus and such. It definitely kind of influences me on that journey back home and that J.G. Ballard feel of really disconnecting from central, vibrant London and becoming distant and going further out of London back home. That journey.
Since you mentioned J.G. Ballard and I’m a fan, I have to ask: is that kind of urban dystopia something that’s been influential to you?
Definitely. To be honest I really didn’t know that much about Ballard. I knew that Kode9 was classing himself as ‘Ballardian’, but it wasn’t until Paul Morley came to my house to interview me for The Guardian. He was like the whole journey ( to my house ) was so ‘Ballard’, and then he gave me that idea that I just feel so dislocated from the popular areas of London because I’m way out her out west, so close to Heathrow. I think that was when I really started to think about my surroundings. Having no decent public transport to get back home and driving back and forth, hour this way, hour that way, getting stuck in traffic-that all had something to do with it. I reread ‘Concrete Island’ and that’s sort of based around this area as well. Just kind of feeling that weird loneliness, and I’m happy that I got to explore it in this album in much detail actually.
Can we expect any new music coming out on Hum+Buzz this year?
We’ve just mastered the 6th release and I think we’re going to wait to realease it until September. It’s from a Lithuanian producer called Marriage Proposal, he’s been sending me some demos for a while. I think he’s got a lot of potential and his sound is very robotic and interestingly stiff at times. I’ve been playing him in my sets for the last 7-8 months so I’m looking forward to that one.
I think the next one we will do will be from a producer called Zoltan. He’s been sending me some really good tunes, I’ve been watching him for a few years and I think he’s ready now. He’s based in Amsterdam because he’s studying there at the moment.
Words: Christian Murphy
Photography: George Gastas