English Heritage: Borai

Bristol’s close relationship with dance music and its notable exponents is well documented. From the early soundsystem exploits of the Wild Bunch, via the Nineties and Noughties heydays of DnB and Dubstep, and into the more recent bass-driven House and Techno resurgence, it is a city that has remained at the sharpest edge of electronic music’s blade, nurturing and, more often than not, defining the sounds it harbours. Whilst many of the city’s electronic protagonists have gone on to become household names, there are just as many unsung heroes, characters whose talent and integrity has kept Bristol’s sonic continuum fertile and forward-thinking. One such character is Boris English.

Best known to some as Borai, English is Bristol born and bred. Active as a DJ for 12 years, producer for 11 of those, and current watchman of the trusted Studio Manager post at the legendary Dub Studio, he has become a well respected fixture in his hometown’s transient musical landscape. Despite this lengthy service to the scene, it was only in 2011 that his music found an outlet, with a string of collaborations alongside old friend and fellow Bristolian producer October seeing releases on BRSTL, Apple Pips and Never Learnt. His deep, soulful synthesis of House and Techno most recently caught the ear of enigmatic Chicago imprint Tasteful Nudes, who have just released his debut solo EP ‘Moonlight On The Malago’. We caught up with Borai to get some insight on his new material, growing up in Bristol, 90’s hardware appreciation and an unwavering commitment to vinyl.

Tell us about the hook-up with Tasteful Nudes on your new release ‘Moonlight on the Malago’. How did that come about?

First off I have to say that I have been instructed (on pain of death) that I’m not allowed to reveal who exactly is behind the label. You will all find out in due course, but for the moment I am staying silent…

So, without revealing too much, the hook-up came about through a mutual friend. I sent a track or two over for them to check out and a reply came back saying that they would like to put out my music and did I have any more! I was flabbergasted and hastily put together everything I had to date and sent it over. We discussed what tracks would work together and the wheels were put in motion.

It was all very simple really, but I did have a bit of a head start, as the label boss was already aware of my collaborations with October and keen to listen to some new solo material from me.

The EP borrows its name from Adge Cutler’s ode to Bristol’s female population. Are you a Wurzels fan or did you just like the name?

Kind of, let me explain. I grew up in Bedminster (a district of Bristol) and the Malago (a stream that feeds into the River Avon) runs beside the street I lived on. When I was a kid my dad told me about a song called “Moonlight on the Malago” the whole joke being that the Malago today is just a dirty trickle full of shopping trolleys and other rubbish and the fact that there was a song about it amused me for years. I never did find a copy, and totally forgot about it.

When I finished the track I needed to name it. I was trying to think of something that would sum up the mood of the piece and Moonlight popped back into my head. I like the idea that not many people really know what the Malago looks like or what it even is. It could be some far-flung sea on the other side of the world as far as they know, but in fact it is just a small stream that’s full of rubbish in a forgotten corner of Bedminster.

With the powers of the interweb I have since found Adge Cutler’s song and it is indeed a hilarious ode to the girls of Bristol, but it’s not really the reason I called my track that – it’s more just the title and what it means to me.

The two tracks complement each other very well – did you make them with an EP in mind? What’s the history behind them?

They where both written whilst I was setting up my new studio. For the year previous Jules (October) and I had combined studios and written a lot of material together, but I moved house and wanted to have my own set up back again. We never intended to become a duo, it was more that we just enjoyed writing music together and it was those tracks that people picked up on and were subsequently released. That said, I’m not ruling out any future October & Borai collaborations.

I suppose you could say “Moonlight On The Malago” and “Does It Bother You?” were written with a release in mind. I do tend to write tracks in pairs, as I like to be able to offer something completed to anyone I’m sending tracks to. I did send about 4 or 5 tracks in the end and it was the two that I had written as a pair that were picked for release, so I guess that kind of confirms what I was thinking.

In regards to the kit used, it was mostly composed on a Kawai K1r synth that I had just picked up and wanted to test out, recorded through an Alesis 3630 Compressor (also a new toy) a grotty 80’s digital delay and arranged in Logic with some samples and a couple of Plugins thrown in the mix. I also did a lot of re-recording stuff through the Alesis and the delay, gritting it up a bit. I have since managed to pick up some more equipment and also set up everything I had in October’s studio, so I am using a bit more kit now. But those two where written right at the start of cobbling the studio together, so it’s just a couple of bits used heavily to give them some vibe.

They feel right at home on a Chicago label. Is the Chicago sound one that has always influenced you?

I have been a fan of Chicago music for a long time, so it’s a total dream for me to have a release on a Chicago label. I’d never imagined it in a million years! (Well maybe imagined it, but never thought it would happen.) Chicago has definitely been an influence on me and it’s amazing to be connected in some small way.

What other musical influences have contributed to the development of your own sound?

I’ve always been into finding music, digging in charity shops etc. and I have worked in several record shops over the years, so my influences are very varied and I’ve always tried to listen for what’s good rather than just stick to one genre and disregard the rest. So among other things: Jungle, Garage (US and 2Step) Jazz, Funk, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Reggae, Dancehall, Hip Hop, Disco, early Dubstep, Rock, Country, and many more.

Photograph by Alex Digard

‘Moonlight on the Malago’ is your first solo release, following these collaborations with October. Do you feel more comfortable in a collaborative process? How does your approach differ when working solo?

I’ve always made music by myself for the most part, as I’ve been writing and producing since I first begged my parents for a Midi keyboard when I was 15. It’s only recently that I’ve been concentrating on seriously pushing myself as an artist. It can be hard working with someone else, but with Jules we seemed to find a way of working that fitted us both, me on synth duties and Jules on Drums, FX and Production for the most part. We did swap roles a few times, but that was just for what was needed rather than a thought out process.

Jules and I have known each other since about 2001, so we go way back and have always shared a love for music, production and equipment. I have taught him stuff and he has likewise shown me tips and tricks that he knows, so a collaboration was kind of inevitable and it was when we combined studios that it all kicked off. We spent hours re-wiring the studio and getting it all set up and just sinking as much time as we could into writing music and pushing the production skills.

For the last year I have had my own set up again and I have been knuckling down trying to bring some of what I learnt working with October to my new material. It’s mostly the ideas about outboard gear and how to use it effectively in the studio.

You’re a relative newcomer in terms of releasing your tracks, but have been DJ’ing and immersed in the Bristol scene for a long time. When did you make the switch to production? Did you find it an easy transition?

I’ve been interested in production since I was about 15 and went onto to study Music Technology at college and it was there that I gained access to some newly installed studios that were open till 9pm 5 nights a week. I began to try and learn everything I could. I then went to both Leeds Met and also Bath Spa to study Music Technology for a year at each, but never got on with the Uni experience of producing. There were far too many people concerned with how a track was made and the ideas behind it rather than what it sounded like musically. I just wanted to write music, not write about it. Interestingly though, I did meet both Addison Groove and Antoni Maiovvi at Bath Spa and we have all kept in touch. It’s great seeing people you know going on to do great things in music, and I am a total fan of both of their work. So I guess it’s not that Uni is bad for Music, but just that I didn’t get on with it.

One of the things that has made me more determined than ever is the realization that the sound that I have been interested in the most was created on gear that is now available on e-Bay for peanuts. I have been chasing my tail for years, trying to get something modern to sound like something I can have in a rack for less that £50, whilst lusting after equipment that is way out of my price range. For example, nearly all the Jungle and DnB I love was made on early Akai samplers. You can get one for relatively low cost and the moment you turn it on you are transported back to the world of 1994-1996 and anything you sample is instantly transformed into something that would take you ages to re-create on the laptop. It’s the same with synths, like my Kawai K1r. The moment I switched it on it was like instant Legowelt vibes!

I’m not saying having the same gear as someone instantly makes you as good as producer as them, far from it. In fact October has this line I like, “It’s what’s between the ears that counts” and I agree. For me, my kit choice has helped in adapting my way of working to one that’s much more fun and enjoyable, than getting bogged down in tweaking plugins and not being happy or thinking that I needed to get X piece of kit and then it will all be better. So with that in mind, I am now at a place where I am happy with my output. I’ve also had had some great feedback about tracks I have written and worked on, so this gives me the confidence to go out and write what I want, send it to who I want and play it out, rather than get nervous thinking that it’s not good enough.

You also work as Studio Manager at Dub Studio in Bristol. How does your understanding of mastering and cutting vinyl have an impact on your approach to making music?

I think that it has a huge impact on how I make music. Vinyl was an influence on me for many years before I even got into cutting. Going out to buy the week’s hot new releases from Rooted Records or wherever, finding some old obscure jazz funk record that has “that” sample on it, playing records in a club or bar or just wishing that one day I would have a 12in with my name on it. All gave fuel to the fire that is my love of vinyl and when I got the chance to work with Henry (Chief Engineer and Head Honcho at the Dubstudio) I nearly bit his arm off!

In a more direct way my work at the Dubstudio also helps my writing, as I am learning how the sound changes when its cut and what to avoid when mixing tracks for vinyl. So being able to mix something down, have it cut that evening and be listening to it at home before I go to bed is amazing, and invaluable to someone like me who aspires to have more vinyl releases in the future. It’s a way of getting ahead in the production process and having a good idea of what it’s going to sound like when it’s finally mastered, and I can play out the tracks and demo them before I commit to a final mixdown.

As time goes on and I learn more and more about all of the processes and thinking involved in vinyl mastering I plan on starting my own label and cutting the masters myself. At the moment it’s just a plan, but I’m working my way toward it and in the meantime just being able to learn to cut dubs to play out is rather fun.

Shot by Elena Goodrum - Borai_1

Being in your position it must be exciting see vinyl culture in a healthy state, compared to five years ago. What do you feel has contributed to many DJs, producers and labels returning to vinyl?

Yes it is, seeing as I’ve kind of set myself up on the long road of vinyl cutting and mastering, so that’s good! But seriously it’s wonderful that the format that I love has not died yet. I suspected for years that it would never really fade away, what other format has been around as long? And there is so much old vinyl out there, and people will always want to play it, so the technology will be around for many more years to come. Personally I’ve never even thought about switching to something else for DJing. I remember the introduction of CDJ’s and even then loads of people were getting rid of their collections and just using CD. And with the invention of Serato and Traktor, etc. it’s now become the done thing to DJ with digital files and vinyl has become kind of boutique among those who are into it. I can see the attraction of digital systems, less to carry, more choice, more “creativity.” But I guess that like me, some people just don’t care and want to do what they always did, because they love it.

There is a new generation of people getting into mastering and cutting vinyl, be it guys working in established mastering houses or people setting up new businesses. I think that this new blood have grown up idolizing the vinyl sound and want it to continue, rather than just moving into digital. You can release a small run record and it might only just make it’s money back. So with such little profit to be had, I suspect that those left releasing records these days are the enthusiasts who just what it to be on vinyl rather than try and make loads of money.

Bristol is enjoying something of a house and techno renaissance, both in the clubs and in terms of the production talent coming out of it. What do you feel it is about the city that stimulates this?

Bristol has a very big student population, and in many ways it has helped to bring young and enthusiastic people who are interested in music to the city. Lots of people stay on after Uni and become part of the Bristol scene themselves. If you are 19 and looking to see Theo Parrish, Julio Bashmore or any number of top 10 DJ’s in a massive club with all your mates then you can. Or if you’re 30 and want to catch an intimate gig by some unheard of cat from New York or Berlin in a basement or upstairs of a disused building, then you can. I think that Bristol is also such a small size for a city that you can’t help but get to know others who are interested in the same stuff as you. You see each other at gigs and you bump into each other in the corner shop or pub and you get chatting. Bristol is a very friendly place and most people are supportive of each other, even if they aren’t into exactly what you’re doing.

And how does Bristol influence you personally?

Bristol has been a large influence on me. I grew up here and have been immersed and interested in music since as long as I can remember. The area I went to school in was the centre of all the independent shops at the time, so we had skate shops, several record shops as well as clothing shops. I used to just wonder around when I was about 13-14, collecting flyers for nights (the Ruffneck Ting ones were great!) and buying mixtapes, totally in awe of these DJs who I used to hear about and watch as they come in the shop and knew everybody – it was like another world. I used to really admire the music that came out of Bristol, in particular Massive Attack, Portishead, Roni Size, Decoder, Tech Itch, and a lot of other stuff I’ve now forgotten, but the main thing was that I felt connected to it all. I wanted to be part of that and have tried to go about doing so. In the years since I’ve gotten less focused on Bristol music as such, but it still all holds a certain something for me.

Which artists are doing it for Borai at the moment? Any tips for 2013?

I’m a big Legowelt fan (and anything else by the amazing Danny Wolfers) as well as anything that October touches. I’m a huge fan of Kowton and what he’s doing with Pev and Asusu, so I hope for big things from them in 2013. Kahn is one to watch, that guy can do no wrong in my book. There are plenty of people I’ve probably left out but I guess we’ll find out who the people like as the year pads out.

And what else can we look forward to from you this year?

More dubs, more gigs, more releases and hopefully some fun!

Interview: Ed Oliver
Borai – ‘Moonlight On The Malago’ is out now on Tasteful Nudes

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