Breakwave: In Conversation

The night of Friday 12th April and I’m at the Tate in Liverpool for the launch of Breakwave’s new adventure, a label arm for her party Meine Nacht.

I’m running behind and rock up around half eight. Set up in the middle of the fourth floor Dockside gallery is a dark, enclosed space containing four screens, one on each wall. In the centre, Daniel Ruane is well underway with a live set of unsettled and stuttering techno. He has absolutely no respect for the rules of tempo and I love it, brashly but skilfully shifting the pace at his will.

By the time that Ruane and Breakwave begin their set together the room has filled up nicely and the bar has run out of pints. The sound is percussive and accurate, but rarely settles into a rhythm, favouring instead a kind of controlled chaos. The set manages to flow while keeping me guessing were it might go next. They are accompanied by Thomas Murray, who is in control of the four screens, projecting his Surrealist architecture inspired digital landscape across the room.

It’s fairly odd when I step out of the space and am greeted with a room where excited children are running about playing while people politely chat and sip g&t’s.

All bets are off for the last hour. Breakwave gets stuck in with a peak time set and you can feel the room change. Where before the crowd were on their best behaviour, minding their P’s and Q’s and following gallery etiquette, once there was a DJ playing everyone exhaled, relaxed and started to get loose. This was encouraged greatly by the audacity of Breakwave’s set (I mean she dropped Ploy’s ‘Ramos’ at half ten, come on now).

Eleven o’clock hits and the gallery closes. Myself and everyone else in the crowd are pretty hyped and in good spirits. The night managed to move from electronic experimentation to fist pumpers in the space of a few hours, while holding the audience’s attention and maintaining the flow and focus. It proved to be an exciting first impression of where Meine Nacht and Breakwave are moving next.

The next afternoon, myself and Jess are both feeling pretty worse for wear. We met up at a local Chinese supermarket for some very hot noodle soup and a chat about basement parties, challenging clubbing conventions, and feeding Ethernet cables through ceilings…

First of all, could you give us an idea of your musical background?

As a child I was encouraged to play instruments; I played violin, saxophone and piano. I went to Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts from about 9 for dance and drama on Saturdays. I’m used to performance and being on a stage, but I’m actually quite shy. So in those days, my mum and Nan would be like, “Why are you standing at the back?”. I loved it but I didn’t want to be the centre of attention. The switch to actually being at the forefront is certainly different for me.

So at what stage did you start to become interested in club culture and electronic music?

I’ve always been into a huge variety of music, including electronic music, but dance music and the club scene specifically, was around the age of sixteen, you know, like trying to get into clubs in town and going to house parties with friends etc.

Did you have much success getting into clubs?

Erm… No [laughs]. I looked really young so it was quite a task. But then came University and the student house parties in murky basements around Liverpool. Friends of friends used to lug sound systems and equipment to them, set up and DJ till morning. Often the police turned up and they’d get shut down. I remember this guy appeared at the front door of a house one time dressed head to toe in black and stood in the doorway trying to charge people to get in to their own home – only in Liverpool!

What sort of stuff were you playing at the parties?

I would usually just attend, the boys were always fighting to get on the decks so we left them to it [laughs].

Were there any notable nights or clubs you went to around this time which made you think, “This is what I want to do with my life”?

I think it was more the idea of a house party vibe I liked, these weren’t accessible to everyone and had to be kept on the down low. I’d go to club nights and it was kind of like, I love the club night experience, but I wanted it to be something that wasn’t – in a positive way – so accessible, you know? So that’s where the idea for the ‘Unseen Places’ series of secret parties came from. I never anticipated that this idea would grow and lead to what I do today, I never said to myself “This is what I want to do with my life”; it’s been an organic thing that has evolved.

Were you disappointed or let down by clubbing?

No! There’s a lot going on in Liverpool, so it was more like looking for something that would fit in nicely with what already existed. There are stalwarts of the electronic music scene in Liverpool that have been putting on nights for a long time, some cater for big crowds and offer massive line-ups. The underground scene is as it has always been, a sounding board, a place to experiment and grow, to take risks, less restricted more creative. That’s how I see it anyway. I kind of wanted to have my own piece of it and to put my own stamp on things. At the time I started my party there wasn’t, to my knowledge, anything that existed quite like it.

Talking about starting your parties, you threw the first ones in gallery spaces. What was it about those spaces that intrigued you over a club or a student basement?

I think with those spaces, it was an opportunity to open the door to the ‘Unseen Places’ series. The live streaming aspect enabled both visual and auditory documentation of these intimate, obscure events. The attendees weren’t expecting that kind of environment, but they really loved it which was great. But from a practical perspective, when I decided this was what I wanted to do and how I wanted to get the party out there to others, I needed a building with Internet and Wi-Fi. No empty abandoned warehouse would do.

What was the experience like in these early days, running the live streamed events in non-traditional spaces?

The first ‘Unseen Places’ event took place in an artists shared space, where the collective of artists either held residencies or had studios – I used the main functional space within the building that backed onto a Chinese restaurant. I had no clue how to live stream, and no one to show me so I taught myself in a week. I bought some really budget stuff, a massive reel of cable because I knew I’d always have to connect directly to a modem. There’s been some pretty weird ways of connecting… once up into the attic of a pub through a food lift shaft and running it right along the ceiling. On another occasion, fed from an upstairs flat all the way down to the bottom of the building taped all up the wall…

Did you leave the wallpaper alright!?

Yeah yeah! [Laughs]

I know that at first you were running and promoting the events, but you weren’t playing. At what stage did you decide to step behind the decks yourself?

It’s unbelievably hard work running Meine Nacht, because it’s a party that you are starting from scratch on practically every occasion as the venue is different each time. On a practical level, you have to adapt almost everything to fit in with the new ‘venue’ and that can be very stressful. I do all of this background stuff without any help. I used to warm up at the parties before jumping in the car or a taxi to go and pick up the headliner! At a point, I asked myself why I was doing this and the answer was that I wanted to develop my own DJ career, as I had successfully done for others. By this time, the event had given me a bit more confidence to actually step into the booth with a lot more people in the room.

And now, I mean it’s fair to say that Meine Nacht has had a very high success rate! So why now after running it as a party for this long have you decided expand into a label?

I think it was the perfect time. I’ve been running the party for over three years now, and I get sent a lot of music by different people with my NTS show. So to me, it felt like a natural progression into providing a multi-disciplinary platform for artists. The idea is to work with and create a network of artists from all backgrounds, whether it be emerging artists or those that are already established.

How will the label and the night connect?

The ethos. I really like the idea of providing exclusive pieces, limited to a few numbers. It will be the focal point of all releases on Meine Nacht. Dubplates are an essential part of music culture and the history of sound system music. I decided to release on Dubplates because I wanted to contribute to the already existing community. It’s a craft; prices are higher because there’s a lot of time and effort put into cutting them. I think it’s an important part of our scene, it’s important for us to have our record stores, provide platforms for artists that are under the radar and to keep this community alive.

It seems to go along with the themes we’ve already talked about of inaccessibility and exclusiveness, you know? The secret locations and tickets, the limited cuts for the release… What is it about these themes that keeps you returning to them?

As a DJ it’s something that is important to me and there’s nothing better than having something that isn’t so accessible to others. In a way, it’s like having a piece of artwork to add to your collection. You can say you are one of a small number of people that have an original piece, or in this case, one of a number of people that have a physical copy to play. In a way, it fits in with the aesthetic of my party too and that’s what my audience want. Like, if I just decided to throw parties in a club it wouldn’t work. The idea and the concept has stuck with the crowd.

Format aside, let’s talk about what’s on the dubs! What is it about Daniel Ruane’s music and those tracks in particular that made want to launch your label with them?

Well I was exploring a lot of sound design in my own productions and I was really interested in his work when I came across it, so it was a no brainer to me. I love innovative developments and something that instantly catches my ear is difficult rhythms, the bass heavy side of things, broken aspects of tracks… you know it’s not your general four to the floor stuff, though I’m into that compositional aspect of music too.

They’re certainly not, “functional”…

Yeah, it’s not functional and I like that, that’s what makes it interesting. I find these methods of composing exciting.

Within my own DJ sets, I tend to include tracks like that when switching between tempos. I have a bank of tracks that I will tend to use when I want to push the boundaries, it makes things more interesting for me and hopefully the audience. I use these kinds of tracks as a tool.

You and Daniel have also been working together as a live duo…

Yeah, that’s something new that we’ve started working on and we plan to develop further. It was quite nerve wracking, like, I’ve always wanted to do a live set so when it came to doing it with someone else it was daunting but it’s actually something that’s really enjoyable!

What do you hope to achieve with the collaboration?

It’s helping us delve into each other’s creativeness. We have the same interests in sound composition. The methods that we’re adopting in creating these sounds on the fly is something that’s intuitive and exciting. It almost feels like we’re competing with each other to make the weirdest, dysfunctional sounds possible [laughs].

How much of the set is planned out and how much is improvised?

I mean, we go in with a set plan; there is a structure to it. But in the middle section [referring to the previous night’s performance] there is improvisation and resampling on the fly. As you’ll know if you’re a producer, there are happy accidents that you come across. What we plan to do is to run with those accidents and if there is something we really like, we’ll probably record it and use it. But there’s definitely a loose plan.

When you are playing it sounded like, while you were in control, the sound could go anywhere. During the set are you reacting more to what Daniel is doing or the audience?

Performing with someone else takes a bit of getting used to. Luckily Daniel and I are in tune with what each other is doing. We had to establish that first, so we’ve obviously got together and worked that out. So from a performance perspective, I know if I’m making the tempo faster, he’ll be in tune with that. With regard to the audience last night, how the set was received confirms they were definitely music heads.

Yeah, they hadn’t just rocked up by chance!

For a party that has made its reputation through the Unseen Places series, what made you want to hold your label launch in the Tate?

Tate has the reputation of being at the forefront of modern art forms around the world. Who wouldn’t want to launch their label at Tate Liverpool! [laughs]. It’s something that I put a lot of thought and research into. There are thousands of artists who send proposals to Tate so I feel very lucky to have been selected to curate a mixed media and music installation at their first ‘Late at Tate’ attempt in Liverpool. It feels like it’s a nod to what I’m doing in Liverpool, which I am really grateful for, and an acknowledgement that the idea of creativeness in all forms is interesting to the wider audience. I’m not planning for Meine Nacht to move too far away from what it was at the start. It’s about that up-close experience with DJ’s that the audience appreciate, in your less ‘conventional’ setting.

Last night’s setup was definitely unconventional. I – somewhat regrettably – noted in my phone that it was like “Clubbing in the round”, with you positioning the live/DJ setup in the centre of the space with four projectors facing out onto the walls. What made you want to set up the space in this 360 degree way?

It was about creating a more engaging atmosphere in which the audience could be fully immersed and connected with the work. The 360-degree aspect was a collaboration with Thomas Murray, the aim was to explore ideas through 3D surrealist art and cinema 4D renders. The ‘world’ was not limited to a 2-dimensional space. The 360 degrees aspect ensured that there was no frame, which in essence, immersed the viewer into the scene. I wanted the audience to feel instantly connected when entering. Having the musicians perform in the middle of the room definitely contributed to this.

We have recently been seeing quite a few club/electronic music based events being transferred into more “high culture” spaces, notably the Uniqlo Tate Lates with NTS, and the Boiler Room x Southbank Centre events. For you personally, what has it been like bringing these two worlds together in your own work? How do you feel about the current trend? Is it to be encouraged?

It’s fair to say all artistic creativity has some form of connection and more recently we have seen electronic experimentalism once again merging with other art forms. I think it fits well because it encourages the audience to use all of their senses and to experience sound from a different perspective.

Electronic music is not just about ‘rowdy raves’ and Tate understand that, the aim was to open up the medium to a wider audience. There’s a lot of interest in alternative club experiences and mixed media performance these days, new and exciting developments within the underground music scene and it’s something that is constantly evolving with less limitations as time goes on so I think we will be seeing a lot more of these types of collaborations which is encouraging. I don’t feel like it is a trend, it’s a development of relationships in these sectors. There’s still a lot of work to be done but it’s a very exciting prospect!

You’re doing an awful lot of work! How do you keep all these plates spinning and stay sane?

I think you’ve just got to have a healthy balance. A lot of my time is spent planning. You know you’ve got to have a little break from things, whether it be meditation, going out for a walk… some form of activity. I think that’s very important for your mental health. I will confess that ninety six percent of my time is spent on work, the other small window is spent on personal life.

That’s a very small percent!

That’s how I like it! I like to be busy, I’m used to that and being that way. But I do think it is important to have your own little bit of time and space, something to take you away. It’s quiet easy to fall into the trap of being on the computer from eight until half ten at night, which is how a lot of my days are spent. It’s important to get out!

And lastly, what have you got coming up for the summer?

I’ve got my first long-haul flight for an upcoming gig, excited for that one. Newcastle, Bristol, Manchester and Berlin this month and I’m hosting a Meine Nacht stage at Baltic Weekender Festival in Liverpool. My NTS show on 4th May, which will include an excerpt from mine and Daniel Ruane’s live set at Tate. A residency for the night on a well-known radio station and I’ll be spending the summer working on my own music – I’ve been so busy but I’m going to make that my priority. Daniel and I are also developing the live set ready for winter; it’s something we’re really keen to do more of so we plan to expand on the project.

Keep up to date with Breakwave on Facebook, Twitter and SoundCloud.

Words: Justin O’Brien

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