In many ways Byron’s phone conduct is reminiscent of jazz. He freewheels between ideas without ever losing sight of the various balls in the air, and is capable of switching from contemplative reflection to humorous interjection with the tonal dexterity of a Coen Brothers flick. This irrepressible manner of communicating struck me as an apt reflection of his approach to making music, given the eclecticism of his past.
Byron’s first notable release dates back to 2007 when the Aquarius was just 18, though his youth belies the competency of the work he was doing with renowned hip-hop producer Onra. Some would choose to settle and consolidate, but Byron works differently to most. Moving forward, his proficiency as both a jazz musician and a studio jockey led to excursions into jazz and rap, and now, finally (though you rather suspect there’s no finality to his digressions) house music. His music speaks volumes about this journey; an unerring swoop through differing catalogues that never fails to subvert notions of categorisation.
I call a few minutes earlier than expected so Byron’s not quite back at his pad in Alabama when I drop in, but after a moment of patter about our both living in Birmingham (albeit on opposite sides of the Atlantic) he’s already firing on several cylinders at once, telling me about how he loves listening to the music he’s been creating whilst driving to get a different feel for it. What follows is a rolling rhythmic journey through what makes the virtuosic producer tick.
Your recent house music releases on Wild Oats and Eglo Records speak to your background as both a classically trained jazz pianist and a well-established hip-hop producer — the incorporation of these more esoteric elements into club-friendly records has arguably become your calling card. How do you feed these influences into your music without becoming backwards-facing?
For me, even though I started as a piano player, I actually went to school for arranging and producing, so I know the way of arranging and making music to the point where people can dance to it, whilst still keeping it musical at the same time. Another thing too is that the influence of jazz comes through house music — a lot of detroit house music was using those jazz chord progressions to make it pop.
Really when you think about it it all comes from each other, even from the hip-hop perspective. The way I look at it, the way hip-hop links with house music is back when people were filtering claps and bass kicks to make the kick work right. It makes it easy for me cos I know how to make sure these influences don’t clash. They all come from each other. They all stem from each other.
As you said there’s a great degree of overlap between deep house and jazz in terms of both heritage and instrumentation. What was your own motivation for your transition from jazz into house music?
To be honest it was a journey… it really changed through collaboration, and meeting different people. After I had jazz classes in school I was travelling around the States; I stayed in Detroit for a little bit, and I stayed in Atlanta, I even stayed in Arizona for a minute. When I moved to Atlanta I ran into this producer called Kai Alce who introduced me to a bunch of stuff, but it wasn’t even just from him but more just being in Atlanta.
You know, I like to party myself, I like to dance myself, and one thing I can say about the States, it’s not just house music. If you go to a party, you might hear dance music, you might hear some disco, you might hear some straight hip-hop. At the parties I was going to they played all different types of genres, so in a way that’s how I transitioned. It was kind of natural.
As a producer house music to me is pretty easy: just that 4×4 kick. In a lot of ways its oversaturated, and that’s why I think I was able to take over and kind of kill it in my own style by being informed by jazz and bringing that hip-hop influence. With any type or style of music it’s about having your original sound — that’s what hip-hop taught me, to be an original.
Each new project you work on is often in conversation with a different lineage of musicians; what particular era or style do you find yourself drawing inspiration from currently?
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz and prog-rock records — not just any jazz, but I’ve been getting more deeply into the fusion stuff. I’ve been more listening to songs in terms of chord progressions to give me some type of inspiration. A lot of ’80s music at the same time too.
Any albums or artists in particular?
I’ve been listening a lot of George Duke…Chick Corea…Glenn Underground too — just digging more into Chicago house. Roy Ayers, Tom Browne, you know what I’m saying, and… oh damn! I’ve actually been listening to Peggy Gou, cos she sent me her new release she’s doing with Ninja Tune and that shit been crazy. It’s got kind of a Larry Heard type-feel to it. I can’t really say there’s a style I’ve been listening to, I’m just listening to everything to give me some type of influence; even if it’s just a bassline I’m just listening for the music.
You’ve spoken before about your upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama as an essential part of your musical development. Do you still find yourself reflecting on this period of your life, and the records you were surrounded with?
Yeah I do find myself reflecting a lot on that period in terms of memories of what my Grandad — who was a huge influence on me in terms of getting into jazz — played me when I was younger. I used to not like it when I was little but I appreciate it now. He had Sly and the Family Stone, a lot of Funkadelic, a lot of Prince records. I still reflect on those times, but I also like to reflect on the future. Those guys were all ahead of their time and that’s what I’m trying to create too. You don’t want to get yourself stuck in a memory.
Your edition of Fact’s Against the Clock emphasised the tactility of your productions, and how essential your use of various keyboards is — the sound of the Fender Rhodes particularly stood out. Is there any one electric keyboard you find yourself coming back to above all others?
First off I gotta clear something up, cos I heard a lot of people questioning what was with up with the drums. The thing with Against the Clock is they put the cameras on everything, and as a producer you wanna keep your secret skills, you know what I’m saying! So you ain’t tryna share everything.
In terms of a keyboard I keep coming back to, it’s the Microkorg. For basslines I like the Moog Phatty but otherwise it’s the Korg. The Microkorg was a thing that my Grandaddy got me, and I’m still using it — it’s a small motherfucker, it’s small as hell, but it gets the job done. I kinda like to have limitations. You know, some guys have all these synthesisers and I think you can get lost in creation sometimes.
A quote I’ve seen used repeatedly in reference to you is “I think nowadays that’s what music is missing. Live frequencies.” As a producer, how do you find a balance between digital and analog?
In the beginning of time when I was first making music I was using Adobe Audition, but I was still using analog instruments too. In a way I’m kinda like Herbie Hancock, cos he was always playing with digital and analog at the same time. I like to stay ahead — people may hate digital, but it’s all going that way. I like playing the Moog, and I like messing around with VSTs… it’s just another way to get inspiration.
Given that live frequencies are so important to your creative process, how do you transfer that sentiment into your capacity as a performer? Do you prefer playing live shows, DJ, or some Frankenstein combination of both?
Well going back to what I was saying about the game being oversaturated, I like to DJ and play keyboard at the same time. Even if it’s on my tracks, even if it’s on tracks people know I’ll just be jamming on top of. That’s my style. When I’m performing I want it to be a memory and I want to stand out when people are looking back.
Given that we’re still only in the first brushes of 2018, what are some of your favourite releases from last year?
I was listening to that Thundercat album Drunk a lot, oh my god that was my shit. Another joint I was listening to was Terrence Martin, a record called Velvet Portraits. This other guy as well, Ivan Ave… I don’t know where he’s from but the stuff he’s making is beautiful.
Last year you put out the 1988 EP on Future Reactions which explicitly references the past and more specifically, your birth in its title. What was the central thrust of the recording process for that collection?
For that album I was looking back at the memories of my growing up. My parents found a bunch of videotapes from when they had me, so I was watching old VHS tapes, and stuff from that time when I was making music on cassette — just like Casio shit. I was listening to that stuff and trying to process it, but it took a minute, like a year, so it wasn’t no quick process. So that title 1988 was stemming from my old pictures and my old life and trying to create something new.
In light of the reflective tone of that record, which of your releases do you look back on with the most pride?
Gone Today, Here Tomorrow — that’s my shit. First of all, the cover was crazy, like some Funkadelic-type shit. When I was first talking to Kyle Hall I was saying I wanted some shit that was crazy, like I was on some drugs and they made the cover like that. Other projects are fun but this one I felt like I had more freedom to really do what I want.
What I like about Kyle Hall is he’s influenced off different types of shit, he’s not just stuck in one style. With him I was able to do some hip-hop, some house, some dance…I could be myself. Same with the High Life EP. I’m not just saying that cos it was Theo [Parrish], but again I could be myself. Really what’s crazy is you can call it a dance album, but it’s not really. You couldn’t really put it into a genre.
A lot of these labels be here — and I don’t blame them, I get how the market and pop culture is — but they’re just thinking about what’s going to sell. Right now we’re in a period where people ain’t buying vinyl…well they’re buying it but not really, and at the same time there’s so many labels. So I can understand why labels be like “I want you to put out something like this” but in a way I think it’s kinda messed up because it takes away the beginning of what music was — you should be able to make what you feel.
Last of all, which of your projects are you most excited about dropping over the course of 2018?
I got a piece coming up with Apron Records; me and Funkineven been cooking up some shit. I always come to London, cos most of the time it’s where I’m based when I tour, so you know me and him always kick it, even if it’s just going out to eat or chilling or playing music. So for sure it’s gonna be Apron records.
I’m not gonna try and put too much out this year though. I got so many labels coming at me it’s hard to know which way to go, so for now I just wanna be touring like crazy. I love touring cos I get to meet new people, and that’s what gives me the inspiration to come back and make good music.
Byron The Aquarius plays alongside Moodymann and Joey Negro at E1 on March 3.
More info and tickets here.
Words: Blaise Radley