Edward Upton, the man behind the prolific act, DMX Krew, is one of those artists who has never really breached the wall between music maker and music icon. With countless releases under a number of aliases, Ed’s artistry pervades over twenty-five years of electronic music innovation as not only one of the most prominent artists on Aphex Twin’s legendary ‘Rephlex’ imprint but also the founder of both ‘Breakin’ Records’ and ‘Fresh UP’. And yet, as I discover in this quite personal recent interview, he is uncomfortable with the general notion of success in ‘career’ terms within the music industry. Ed is one of those, truly down to earth, no bullshit artists who after all these years still makes music for the sheer love of it. The fact that his music has been so well received and is lauded by many as ‘pioneering’ or ‘groundbreaking’ seems to be a convenient added bonus that he takes with a rather large pinch of salt.
“There never really was there a light bulb moment,” he tells me as I try and pry out some little known facts regarding his early career. “Like many of my generation music making came from a feeling of teen angst. I had this real overwhelming frustration, anger even, about going to school to become a slave in an office. It got me really depressed.”
He eventually gives me a reluctant answer to an admittedly cliché question and tells me of a piece of advice a good friend of his gave him, “Yes you’re right life is absolutely pointless so do something you love.”
We discuss the idea of ‘making a career’ out of music and Ed tells me that he honestly never expected to make any money out of music and he certainly never expected to have a “career”. It’s with some bitterness that we then go on to talk about the extent that the electronic music industry has been monetised today. “We have a whole generation now of people who look at DJing as a valid career option. That is crazy.”
It is true that, for better or for worse, the perceived economic validity of working as a musician or DJ in today’s society has radically changed the landscape for both artists and audiences alike. For Ed, his stance on this matter is quite clear. “We can google now ‘how to be a good DJ’. You may as well google ‘how to sound like everybody else’. It’s like there’s a normal way of being a DJ now and I just don’t think that works.”
It’s a difficult one for sure. Many would champion any shift of perception that enabled more people to pursue creative occupations. What Ed points out to me however is that the point of music was never in his eyes to make a monetary success of yourself, and the moment that that becomes a realistic possibility something is lost, or at least is much harder to find.
Ed is perhaps best known for his work for Aphex Twin’s label, Rephlex. I prompt Ed to tell me a little about how his life changed after being picked up by the label. He tells me that the biggest change caused by Rephlex was that he started getting booked as a DJ. The irony was that he wasn’t and never had been a DJ. As comical as this sounds now, Ed at the time never really saw this as a difficulty or a problem it just became something that he had to do and a skill that he had to master in his own right.
“I tried really hard to not play what everyone else was playing. I played electro and hip hop rather than techno. Don’t get me wrong, I love techno. Jeff Mills and Robert Hood are my heroes. But as much as I love it I know I’m never going to make music as good them. So I looked for something that no one else was doing.”
For an artist with such a hedonistic approach to music making I comment that this seems like a remarkably commercially savvy method to stand out within the industry. With a laugh he retorts, “Or maybe more likely I’m just contrary and bloody minded.”
I learn that Ed never really hung out with Richard D. James in the beginning but spent a lot of his time with Grant Wilson-Claridge. Back in the day he lived in a flat just around the corner from Grant and tells me that he has a lot to thank him for.
One of the biggest perks of being picked up by Rephlex was the simple fact that people wanted to write about and go to the shows that Ed was playing just because of the association with Aphex. “I wouldn’t have had a livelihood without that reality, and I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same opportunity to tour, gig and socialise as I did.”
“So why did it end?” I ask him. The answer is rather simple. Kids. Ed tells me that almost all the old Rephlex crew have now moved back to Cornwall with their families. I process this revelation with real difficulty and he obviously registers my disbelief.
“You haven’t got kids have you?” He asks me, amused. I haven’t. “People who don’t have kids never think about anyone else having kids, it’s funny. Luke Vibert was the first, he used to bring his kids to the rave. But kids absolutely transform how you go about things. I just can’t spend 48 hours in the studio anymore, even if I want to, it’s just not going to happen. But it’s wonderful, magical, it just changes everything in ways that you can never see from the outside.”
One never really stops to think about the possibility of our rave royalty, particularly those of Aphex Twin’s ilk, ‘settling down’ and doing socially normal things like having kids. But it’s a pleasant revelation; it adds a human touch to a musical moment in history that seems even now quite alien.
Veering the conversation back onto music I start to talk about the importance of originality in music and how ‘new is always better’, but I can quickly tell he doesn’t really agree with me and even as I’m saying it I know I don’t really agree with myself. “I think to some extent you’re always copying someone else. I think actually originality is a bit of myth.”
It is a very unpretentious and humble idea that creativity is just one big copying act in some form or other and also one that I find quite charming. “When I was younger,” he tells me “I could copy bad enough that no one would recognise it. So that worked. Now a-days I try to copy say three things at once then just maybe you come up with something new. But innovation is always standing on the shoulders of those who have come before and finding some way of twisting it.”
Twisting old ideas into new ones is one thing, but I’m intrigued to know how an artist who has been making music for as long as Ed has, adapts to twists in the spaces that their music is played in, referring particularly to the radical change in British clubbing culture in the last thirty years. The clubbing landscape that facilitated the emergence of electronic dance music was by its very nature anti-mainstream and now it increasingly seems to be anything but.
“Clubbing culture has changed for sure but so have I. I’m married with two kids now. I don’t want to go out and get mashed up. My feelings in that space and of that space have changed. I still love playing my music out, I love to see people enjoy it. But I don’t want to party any more. I do my thing and I go to bed.”
But his process of music making has changed of course, almost entirely detached from movements in the spaces in which his music is played. He sets the scene of him twenty years ago sat in a shared bedroom with nothing but a tape recorder and whatever old bits of kit he could get his hands on. “It was great,” he tells me “but it was static. I did the same thing because that’s all I could do with what I had. But it worked.”
“Now I change it up all the time. I work now in a loft of a house I’m renting surrounded by my wife’s sowing machines. Now I’ve got loads of kit but I’ve got a new set of limitations.”
“Limitations make you push yourself. Music making really happens when you have to work around things breaking or when your wife decides she wants to sow, or when your kids wake up. It’s about dealing with minimums. It’s why I like dealing with hardware.”
This all said, Ed still produces music at an alarming rate; he might produce two tracks a week now rather than two a day. When I point out that this is still a pretty outrageous pace for any artist he explains to me that it’s just a state of mind. “I like to do them fast and make loads of tracks and then just chuck out the shit ones.”
After a quick check on his computer he tells me he has approximately 1000 unreleased tracks, but he dismisses my amazement and preemptively answers my inevitable question; “It’s not precious, you know, it’s only music just fucking do it.”
I try and round up the interview with a generic ‘highlights of the year so far’ question and a query into what’s ‘up and coming’, but unsurprisingly Ed refuses to bite.
“I’m out of touch now. Kind of deliberately. I don’t listen to new music. I listen to a lot of jazz and a lot of reggae, but I don’t really listen to electronic music anymore apart from maybe a bit of Kraftwerk, that kind of thing. I’m not the sort of person who goes online and listens to music. I bought a load of records the other day but I can’t remember what any of them are.”
He highlights Gottwood festival as his best gig of the year so far and mentions a new release of his that he’s forgotten the name of. But his most exciting current project undoubtably is to finish moving house and he tells me enthusiastically of his plans to build a garden studio and finally get his records and turntables out of storage.
You could easily be fooled into thinking Ed might be a little disillusioned with the direction the music world is headed so I ask for a piece of positive round up advice for fresh passionate aspiring music makers struggling to find their niche within an ever more saturated industry.
“Do you know what, it goes back to what I was saying before; what’s right and wrong in music? For example, I’ve never used a compressor in a track. Never. But then I really like music that sounds like there’s someone in the room making it. If you listen to an Aphex Twin track there’s always something a little too loud, a clap or a tambourine. I love that imperfection. I think it’s really cool if there’s something a bit wrong. Also something may seem shit now but in 6 months it might sound great. There’s music I hear now, particularly more experimental stuff, where I’ve thought ‘if I made that a year ago I’d have thought that was shit.’ So basically, like I said, it’s only music… just fucking do it!”
Catch DMX Krew at Horst Festival in Belgium on September 7-9.
More info and tickets available here.
Words: Oscar Lister