Pinch talks DJing, the Bristol scene and the future of UK clubbing

Producer, DJ and label boss Rob Ellis, aka Pinch, is arguably one of the most important figures in UK bass music. He was one of the first people to bring Dubstep outside London when he headed up the infamous Bristol party, Subloaded. He has continued to push the UK bass sound in ever more interesting directions as it transitioned into more Techno tempos, with his track Croydon House being seen as a key milestone.

He has released on notable labels such as Deep Medi, Swamp81, Punch Drunk and Planet Mu, while also running his own hugely successful Tectonic label, through which he has put out music from some of the most prominent figures in Dubstep and Bass Music.

His collaborations include the likes of Shackleton, Mumdance and Dub legend Adrian Sherwood to name but a few and he is showing no signs of slowing down. He finds the time to run a second label, Cold Recordings and has just released the mix album “In Deep”, with fellow Bristol figure, Peverelist. I spoke to him over the phone ahead of his upcoming b2b set with Headhunter at Fabric to talk DJing, the Bristol scene and the future of UK clubbing.

October 19th sees you return to Fabric as part of their 19th birthday line-up. You’ve previously held a residency there with your label Tectonic and have contributed to their Fabriclive series. What does the club mean to you?

I’m really looking forward to this Friday, I haven’t actually played in there for a number of years now, in fact not since it’s re-opened. Fabric has definitely been a very important part of my musical career. Having hosted room one, room two and cosy room three, I’ve had a real sense of the place and I kind of miss it, so I’m really looking forward to getting back there.

I think Fabric is a very important institution, not just for London but for a global perspective. It’s a mark of quality. It’s something that promoters look to in terms of line-ups across the world. I think considering its size and the inevitable nature of having to keep a commercial aspect to it, they do an amazing job of promoting really good underground music.

You’ll be playing b2b with Headhunter (aka Addison Groove) on the night. You’ve also just come of a US tour with Peverelist. What is it about b2b sets that you enjoy compared to a solo set?

I think they’re very different things. I think a good b2b set relies on you having some kind of relationship with the other person. Whether it’s a purely musical one or some element of friendship so that you have a more in tune understanding of what each other’s playing and how to best play of that. Too many b2b DJ sets can turn into one-upmanship contests, who can get the biggest reaction. You kind of plough through destroying any sense of journey or dynamics in the set, so I think it’s quite important to do it with people that you get on with and that you have an understanding of.

It was great to go and tour the states with Peverelist. He’s a long standing, very old, close friend of mine. So from a very simple perspective it’s really nice having company on these sort of things, especially going away to the states for three weeks! It’s great having a friendly, familiar face along with you for the journey.

The nice thing about b2b sets is because you’re playing off someone, you’ve never got a fixed idea where it’s going to go. It keeps an element of surprise, keeps you on your toes.

Do you have to prepare differently?

Yeah, definitely. I mean I’ve never prepared and played a fixed set, I always try and think about the kind of moods that the crowd might be more receptive to. But at the end of day, you want to bring an element of reactionary surprise and with a b2b you’re very much forced into that, so I’m quite comfortable approaching them from that perspective.

I’m looking forward to digging out some bits of 140. Playing with Headhunter, the theme has an attachment to the older days of Bristol Dubstep. I think that will definitely be making some kind of a feature in the set for sure.

Would you say that you’re approach to DJing in general has changed much over the years? I know you still play strictly vinyl…

I kind of had a little experimental side step on that front. On the US tour I just took USB’s with me. It’s the first time I’d really travelled and done that and I found it actually quite liberating! I’ve been a bit slow to the pass as they say. It’s a very different thing, and in the context of travelling around… my god it’s an absolute life changer! From dragging a big heavy box around for three weeks…

It’s impossible not to have some changes over the years. Back in the good, ye olden days of Dubstep it was a pretty straightforward affair in so far as it was about delivering the most up front rhythms on plate and setting a kind of, I suppose quite a restrained mood. In 2018, there’s lots of different interesting things going on and I think the real challenge for a contemporary DJ now is to break out of the tempo boundaries and barriers and find ways of seeming together music from all sorts of different tempos. I think this is happening more and more. The thing that excites me moving forward is the idea of capturing a mood in a room which can cross tempos rather than just sticking to one tempo throughout the whole thing.

In the past, you’ve done a couple of Pinch live sets. Is that something you have considered revisiting at all?

It’s definitely something I’m actively considering. Basically I’ve been a bit quiet on the releases side in the last short period of time, because I’m trying to focus on getting a comprehensive and representative album together of where I’m at. One of the ideas in mind is very much building some of the aspects of the album, with a view to being able to perform it live. I’ve spent a number of years doing live sets with Adrian Sherwood – and as you mentioned a couple of Pinch live sets – and I’ve learnt a lot from those experiences in terms of how to incorporate different parts of a track into a live setting.

It would be ridiculous to pretend that I’m going to sit there and create an entire electronic track entirely from scratch, live, playing it all. There’s going to be a lot of loops and preparation. I’m trying to think as I’m making this album how it’s going to translate effectively in a live scenario. Fingers crossed, if I can get it all together that is very much the plan for next year.

As always it seems, some of the most interesting music coming from the UK right now is coming out of Bristol. How do you feel about the current scene there?

Bristol really has been punching above its weight for as long as I’ve known music to come from there. From the Drum and Bass days, or before that through the Trip Hop days, through the Punk days, Sound System culture… it’s become a magnet. People come from other places now because of the reputation of Bristol, and it cultivates a really positive atmosphere for creativity.

The scene in here at the moment… I guess it’s not as focussed from a genre perspective as it has been in the past. There was a definite period of time when you could have said that Drum and Bass was king in the city. They were the main underground events that were happening around the place. Then Dubstep has also had its period of time. I think that Motion coming along has had an influence on clubbing in the city. There is a lot of House related nights that are more popular than I remember in the late nineties and two-thousands.

I think that there’s a really interesting kind of Drum and Bass, hybrid scene that’s coming out with the likes of people like Binga and what not. There’s a bunch of things going on here as always, but there’s no real dominant scene in my eyes at the moment, in the ways there have been in the past. Which is good, it leaves space and mystery and optimism for what’s round the corner.

Is that greater scene focus something that you’d like to see return?

Well, I think it works in two ways. I mean, I do think it is missing a little bit. I think what you find is that when there is a real focus within a scene on something particular, that those boundaries actually get pushed out further as a result. I think that the level of variety that you get at bigger nights is quite common -the mini festival line up almost – which gives you as a punter a great range and variety and keeps things moving. But because you don’t ever stay on one thing for that long you’ll never get into the microscopic details of its experimental corners.

Is there anyone in particular that you think we should be keeping our eyes out for?

There’s a lot of interesting stuff. Not just because they’re friends of mine, I’ve been very much enjoying the recent output from the different circles label, with their artists like Szare and Chevel.

I loved the recent Szare 12”!

It’s bonkers and it works in all sorts of different environments. Hats off to them, I think they’re doing really good stuff at the moment. From my side of things, I always try and present the artists that I have access to on Cold Recordings. I’m really enjoying the work from Cocktail Party Effect, that’s been really interesting. There will be some more things from him next year, I think he’s just getting better and better to be honest.

The stuff I’ve heard from him is barmy!

It’s different, it’s got an energy to it… I’m very excited! We’re looking at some interesting material from him which should emerge next year.

I’ve been a huge supporter of Walton for the last few years. I still think he’s hugely underrated, he’s an amazing producer. The album we put out on Tectonic in the summer was phenomenal. Even got a Guardian contemporary album of the month, which was pretty something! That’s the first time I’ve had some Guardian based accolades for the label. That was nice.

Coming up on the label we’ve got a four track EP from Boofy, who I think is making some of the more interesting deep Dubstep.

Those are guys who’s tunes I’m drawing for the most in sets, when people look up and go, ”what’s that one?” It might be a Cocktail Party Effect or a Walton one about fifty percent of the time.

It’s important for you then to nurture these new emerging producers?

Well, as a boring old man who’s been around for a while (laughs)… yes it is very rewarding if you feel that you’re supporting someone’s creativity, giving them some opportunity and you see them flourish. That’s a really good feeling.

Like the rest of the UK, Bristol’s been hit by its fair share of venue closures. Where do you think club culture in the UK is moving? Do you have any thoughts on the future?

Yeah, it’s a difficult one. I mean, clubbing is becoming more and more expensive. Whatever Theresa May likes to say, the effects of austerity are very much still there and people are a bit skint. There’s been a general trend in the last few years that more and more energy is being put into festivals in the summer and people going away for a hedonistic weekend rather than a night out. So I think that the competition is on to make clubbing exciting, make events interesting for people to come out to and to make them want to spend their money.

I think there’s a real strong sense of positive competitiveness in music in so far as there’s a lot of people doing a lot of really interesting things. I think all of this will help nurture a clubbing scene more long-term. But it’s going to get more and more difficult if councils aren’t more sympathetic to venues and I think there needs to be an acknowledgement that these are often important institutions.

In the case of Bristol, the music scene definitely brings a huge portion of students which brings a lot of money into the city; it’s very much a cake and eat it kind of attitude. That when an area goes up in value as a result of the creative contributions from the people living there, and they then get priced out and clubs get closed and it gets turned into housing. You’ve got to remember where the energy for these areas comes from. The energy that comes from night clubs, creativity, and institutions connected with that. It is part of what helps fuel the city in the first place, so it feels very much self-sabotaging to be taking them out.

It certainly seems like promoters are moving more towards DIY approaches, be that through illegal means or going outside of the traditional club space to disused/found spaces. Is this a viable solution?

Well by viable solution it depends if you mean is it going to work for a night or is it going to work as a way of approaching things. I used to go to a lot of free parties when I was younger and there’s a very unique energy about them that makes them feel very special. I definitely imagine that’s something that still appeals to a lot of people going to these things now.

There is a problem with clubs being a little over regulated in the sense that, in the UK there is a very strict attitude that has to be upheld, as I’m sure you’re aware with Fabric and all the issues they had a couple of years back. It’s a complicated one because obviously safety is important, but also these need to be spaces that are respected, to trust people to enjoy themselves and moderate themselves to some degree. You compare it with clubbing in Berlin where there’s a strict door policy, but then the attitude inside is a much more relaxed one and it nurtures a sense of self responsibility. I think that it definitely gets a little bit too over regimented in UK clubbing.

Maybe we’ve got something to learn from a more European approach?

Yeah, I mean from what I’ve experienced when I’m DJing at various different clubs around the world Berlin is a great example. It’s a big city with a lot of people and clubbing is a huge industry. It’s not without its problems, but then compare it to a Saturday night in a town centre in any city in the UK. Come 1AM there’s going to be a lot more violence and problems as a result of just normal Saturday night drinking than there is in an entire cities worth of clubbers.

You are still putting out high quality records and remixes, with recent releases on Swamp81 and Aquatic Lab, and a great remix for Perc and Truss. Where do you find your inspiration nowadays?

I’m trying to just take it back to basics. When I was younger and producing if I ever got writer’s block or anything I would just remind myself of this really simple thing: all I really have to do is make a rhythm that I’m enjoying listening too and then put some sounds on it. I’ve kind of gone back to that. There’s less attachment to be so tempo bound these days, so I’ve been enjoying exploring grooves across a range of tempos. I’m trying not to think in terms of whatever current fashions are and just kind of go and trust my own instincts and my own drives. That’s the main basis of how I’m approaching it.

I think there’s a point where you’re producing music and playing it at a certain tempo that it almost feels like you’re wasting your time if you’re not writing music at that tempo, you know? You’ll make it but you’re never going to use it, so therefore what’s the point? I think breaking away from that allows you to find a natural groove at a natural tempo, so you build a rhythm from what’s in your head rather than what’s on the screen.

Finally, apart from the album what have you got planned for the future?

I’ve got lots and lots of bits and pieces. I do like to put myself through it, to be honest with you! On the music front, a very interesting little side thing that’s come about from a tour in Australia earlier this year. I was out in Melbourne and I met and worked with an Australian producer called Monkey Marc while I was out there. He’d been out to Jamaica the year before and recorded all his favourite artists and one of the recordings in particular caught my attention. He managed to get one of the last ever Ninjaman tunes before he got put in prison for murder. It’s not only one of the last tunes he recorded, it’s the only one he’s ever recorded that’s effectively, in a nutshell, dissing the badman lifestyle and saying that it’s not the way forward. That was a really exciting thing to be working with.

What happened was, he showed me the tune and I mentioned I had a rhythm at the same tempo and we just stuck the vocal on the rhythm that I’d brought along and it really worked. So they decided that they wanted to make a version clashing up that rhythm and use it as one of the main tracks. They’re currently filming a video in Jamaica with some of the top dance crews out there, so that will be interesting. I’ve never been a part of something so Dancehall with such a legendary vocalist.
I’ve got a remix that I’ve done for Emika that will come out on her label at some point, I’m not sure what the release plan is for that. There’s a few other bits and pieces, but one of the other things that I’m focussing on at the moment is working with Distance on our Deleted Scenes project. We’ve got a bunch of stuff that we’ve been tinkering away on in the background over the last few years and it’s all starting to come together. I’m quite excited about how it’s shaping up.

Words: Justin O’Brien

Catch Pinch and Headhunter B2B at Fabric’s 19th Birthday weekend on October 19. 

Tickets available here

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