Steve Spacek: In Conversation

British soul futurist Steve Spacek, real name Steve White, is a figure who needs little introduction. Active since the start of the Millennium, Steve’s artistry transcends genre and style. From his output with the cult band Spacek to his countless solo projects and collaborations with the likes of J Dilla and Mark Pritchard, Steve’s sonic explorations veer from one obsession to the next and arrive joined by a united search of the soul within sound.

Now living in Australia, Steve continues to compose at a rapid rate, finding liberation with new technologies and iOS apps uncommon to high profile producers and making it clear that categories, how, or who, is not what matters, what matters is to be free to create.

Catching up with Steve, we speak in depth on his musical journey, his ongoing relationship with the dancefloor and more.

Let’s start from the top. You grew up in South London, what were some of your early encounters with music?

It was church, I was going when I was really young. They had a gospel band and I remember the guitarist (brother Gordon) and a dude who used to hit the cymbals, like a marching band type thing. But it was brother Gordon, he had an electro-acoustic guitar, and a little Vox amp… somehow that just made sense to me as a kid and got me thinking I should be doing that.

I went home and obviously I didn’t have a guitar, but I remember I had this piece of wood that was shaped like a fish, I’d stretch an elastic band across it and would always be plucking away. My mum noticed and started buying me guitars at Christmas, and it went from there. I started to get my head round tuning and notes, the theory of it never stuck in my head but I always had a good ear and knew what was what. My Nan had a piano when I was bit older, late ‘70s , early ‘80s. I used to love going to her house and jamming on it, so it all kind of developed from those main things.

Also on the radio there was so much going on, there was the soul thing and the electro thing kicking in in the late ‘70s. You’d be hearing jazz-funk, people call it boogie now but we called it jazz funk back in the day. Hearing electro and being intrigued by that sound, and then hearing soul music being made using electronic instruments sounded amazing to me back then. I look back and those times really helped mould me, I’ve always been intrigued by things that are new, things that move forward.

Were you a part of rave culture during your teenage years?

It’s funny because rave culture kind of changed. When I was a kid “rave culture” meant my Dad and all the older boys going to a blues dance or whatever. So I was going to soundsystem parties as a kid, even the school discos would be “raves”, ‘cos it’d be the same music we’d listen to at home.

It would have been like late ‘80s when the house music and warehouse scene kicked in. Clubs like Shoom, Clink Street… all those places round the back of London Bridge. We started going to clubs like that and it was mad because all of a sudden you could go out and not have to dress up, it was quite a novelty to be able to wear a tracksuit and a pair of converse in a club – amongst other things!

Around the ‘90s though was when it really kicked off. They had this club called Spectrum, which was in Heaven under Charing X station. That was mental, the biggest thing in the London clubland for years. For one it was on a Monday night. They were playing house, techno, and all this new music coming into the UK at that time.

So when did your own career in music begin to take shape?

There was a lot going on back then, it was mad. I started getting my head round pieces of equipment and going to studios. It’s all a bit blurry but say around 1990, I met this guy Stex in Brockley. He had a vibe going on and had recently been a guest on a TV show called ‘The Tube’, which was this early leftfield music programme on Channel 4. We started working together and I ended up producing for him. We got a publishing deal with Warner chapel and signed up with Some Bizarre, which was a mad management company in Mayfair run by a guy named Stevo Pearce. They looked after artists like Mark Almond from Soft Cell, Zeke Manyika and Matt Johnson of The The.

We were kind of thrown into the thick of the scene, that whole period went along for a while and then coming to the end of our Warner Chapel deal, I tried to get an advance off them as I knew I probably wouldn’t be going back to a studio for a while. So I got like a £5000 advance which was huge at the time and I went up to this store called Turnkey on Charing X road where they sold bits of studio gear. It was a time when a lot of the major studio gear was getting miniaturised, because the personal computer was kicking in. So it made everything relatively portable and cheaper. I bought an Akai s950 sampler, an Atari 1040 STE computer with Cubase (early DAW) program on it. A Tascam 8-track tape recorder, a Yamaha DX11 synth, which was on everything back in the day, and some JBL monitors which was a direct competitor to the Yamaha NS10 but with more bass.

That’s a sweet setup…

All of a sudden I could do all this stuff at home. At first I didn’t really know how to use any of it until my brother Darren (DBridge) came to stay with me in Lewisham. Back then he wasn’t really doing music but one thing he was always really good at was computers and getting his head round technology. I remember opening up the sampler and it looked like a piece of hospital equipment. But he worked out how to use it and the other bits of equipment, so he would show me stuff and then I showed him chord structure and general production, swapping knowledge.

It was me and my bro and another guy called Gary Coxx, We started doing what we called ‘dubhouse’. Basically pre jungle. We had a group called ‘The Sewage Monsters’. It was fun man, it built from there. Darren went off and done his thing, I was doing mine… but yeah that was kind of my early days producing.

Were you singing much at this point?

A lot of my mates were singers, and they’d always sing. I’d be in the background playing music on a little Casio keyboard or whatever. But one day I just started singing for some reason and everyone looked at me like “Raaah, you need to do that more often?”

I never liked the idea of being a frontman, I wanted to be in the background. But them lot encouraged me. and I started doing it more and getting into writing songs.

When was the Spacek project born?

Round ’95, I’d always hang out at Greenwich Market. It had an alternative vibe there, I was always looking for something different, something to stimulate me. But I remember one summer there I bumped into this guy, his name was Jason Knight, who’d later on become my manager for a while. He was telling me about some artists he was working with at the time , a guy called Maxi Jazz, who’s gone on to be quite huge now as Faithless.

I was telling him about music I was working on and then met him again and played him some of my stuff. He was connected with the scene, he knew Morgan Zarate and Francis Hilton, whilst Edmond Cavill was an old friend of mine from the manor. Jason played them some of my demos and introduced us all together.

Morgan got an MPC drum machine. He’d always been good with rhythm but hadn’t had much experience with arranging and putting tracks together at the time, I remember showing the guys song arrangement and stuff, things I was still learning myself. But Morgan one day came back with an idea which was the basis for the track ‘Eve’. There was a Brazilian sample we used that said “believe cos I need you”…. and we chopped the “believe to eve” and wrote a song round it. Half a decade later I meet my wife and her name is Eve.

Didn’t Mos Def pick you guys up pretty quickly?

This was ’96. People often ask why it took so long for an album to come, it’s because we were never planning on making an album, we just did that tune and then everyone’s ears pricked up. It was straight up hip hop but with vocals on it. Not many people – that we knew of – were on that tip, save for like ATCQ or De La Soul. Even them guys were rappers so it was slightly different. But we were on a mad hip-hop, soul kind of fusion.

We were doing stuff with Charlie Dark, Tony Nuachuka (Atika Blue). Them guys knew people in America and were hooked up with the likes of Santi White (Santigold). They gave her some music of ours and she played it to Mos Def and Q-Tip. Back then Def had this label called Goodtree on Universal. It was a bit blurry at the time but Universal was melding with Island and there was loads of movement within the major label world. We ended up signing this deal with Goodtree and Somehow ended up on Island Records.

Ross Allen was doing this label with Island called Island Blue. All this new stuff, Mark Pritchard, Pay As You Go, Custom Blue… all these different electronic, folk, indie type bands. It was mad! If Ross had got the proper backing by Island and they embraced it fully, then that would have been one of the maddest labels. Instead it got squashed. There was this guy called Lucian Grange (we called him Lucifer back then) who had come from Polydor, he was known for big pop acts like the Lighthouse Family. When he saw the Island Blue thing with Ross, he didn’t get it, it was too far left for him. He pretty much shut it down. It’s a tragedy really ‘cos you’ve always got people involved in the industry who don’t have a clue about music. It’s always the people that as far as I’m concerned are really high up. It’s not about music, it’s about business and formulas. This guy was looking for the next Lighthouse Famz and Island Blue was definitely not about that.

So often is the case when the majors and pay cheques come into play…

I’ve been in the studio sometimes with some big names, pop artists or whatever, and when you see the way they write it’s so basic and simple. Just cutting and pasting formulas and ideas from wherever, more or less nursery rhyme type melodies. They put it out and it’s massive. I’m not taking anything away from the fact there are always some heavyweights in the charts as well. In the UK there’s always been some amazing music in the mainstream. People like Bjork, I remember her being no.1, no.2 and no.9 in the UK pop charts in the same week. To have someone like that in the mainstream always gave me hope. Even when the grime scene kicked off, So Solid came with their no.1, that’s a big deal. But there’s always the gatekeepers stopping the good shit from happening, making sure all this mindless nonsense is coming through instead, which all the kids end up being exposed to.

I like what’s coming out of the grime and UK bass scene in general, I always love what the youth is doing. When people get to a certain age, they can lose respect for the youth and look down on what they’re doing. I’m not really about that, I’m into good music, wherever it comes from. The UK sound is heavy right now.

Speaking on your sound, you often delve into various genres and your style is hard to categorise. Are you always aware of where you are going musically?

I’m always aware of where I’m going, but I suppose it’s a weird contradiction, because where I’m going is where I don’t know. I don’t like to be too on top of things, I don’t like to be too calculated, and there’s an innocence that I like to keep in my music when I’m doing it.

When people jump into things sometimes they go wholeheartedly, research the sound, get the sample packs and everything, they try to make it in what they believe to be an authentic way… but for me, authenticity, is being myself, however that presents itself. I don’t want to make “house” music in “the” authentic way, I want to make house music in a ‘Steve Spacek’ way. When I make music, I’m always thinking of how to maintain the groove, making sure it feels right and rolls along right, that’s where the emotion comes in for me and the most important part. I want to make sure those things are taken care of more than a genre or a style, which can make itself apparent near the end of the production, then it all makes sense.

Isn’t there a “Steve Spacek house album” on the horizon?

Yeah I’ve got this upcoming ‘houses’ album coming soon.. I’ve been thinking about it for years. I always tell people that whenever I get a new piece of equipment, sequencer or sampler. I use house music as a way of testing it out. I find house is really easy to make, to put a four on the floor groove or garage groove together.

But with the house thing, as like all genres, there is amazing house but a lot of it’s quite cheesy, some people call it “handbag house”. I’ve always been into the really soulful stuff. The Detroit sound in particular, Fingers Inc, Larry Heard, Bam Bam, that sound to me was deeper, but it was blatant house and techno. As opposed to a lot of the house music peeps are into now, the foundation isn’t there. You’ve got the four on the floor but that’s it, that’s the only connection, there’s no soulful bass line, chord progression.

So in the back of my mind I’ve always been wanting to make this album and demonstrate how I see house music. Some people might hear that Fingers Inc vibe in there, in the fact that it’s quite soulful and there’s a lot of melody. Plus you know I love my bass lines, so those are taken care of too.

The idea is to make music and not be too contrived. Have a loose idea and just go with it… Sometimes I’ll have the whole groove in my head. I can hear the drums, chords, the bass, the melody all rolling round in my head, so it’s just a case of jumping on my set up and banging it out real quick. trying to print that idea, which, with technology today allows that, I can come up with things quickly and then elaborate on them later.

I guess a lot of your discography could be looked at in that way, it’s a demonstration of how you see dance music. To me your sound has always belonged somewhere within a club context, or just on its borders…

I’ve always been into the dance floor. Even when we did the Spacek project. Though it’s quite mellow and down tempo, when we were mixing it we were always trying to get that dancefloor, rave type sonic.

When we went to clubs growing up, we were listing to uptempo and low tempo music. Every now and then the DJ would drop it down and you’d grab your girl and scrub off the wallpaper as they used to say, that was always part of the whole club scene. So in my mind when I think of club music, I’m thinking in terms of the dynamic and the mix, not so much in terms of genre and tempo. Most kids now think club has to be 130bpm and above, with us we’d listen to a low tempo soul tune, then a reggae tune, then an up tempo disco tune, you know what I mean?

Because of the sonic of the soundsystem, even if it was slow you couldn’t help but move. Where as if you dropped that now, unless the people are really up for it like the kind of crew that would go to Plastic People back in the day, most places if you did that you’d kill the dance floor. Especially if they’re bussin’ a couple pills or whatever, they want it to be hypo!

Going back to the music, the mix and the sonic is always geared towards club. You play any of my tunes in the club and it’s gonna bang. Where I’m at now, I’m definitely thinking a lot more about the club and the dancefloor, you have to because that’s one of the main ways to get your stuff out there these days. There’s no guarantee of radio, social media and all that, it’s all geared towards the dancefloor, like the Africa Hitech project with Mark Pritchard. People don’t always know that other side of me and my productions.

Going back to your voice, do you see yourself as more of a singer than a producer, or vice versa, or does it all come into one?

I’m more of a producer, but I think it all rolls into one as well. The singing came about by accident, and I’ve always still been a reluctant singer. Singing isn’t something I do all the time. I don’t really sing round the house or whatever. If there’s a jam going down and people are singing, I’m the one who’s likely to grab the guitar or jump on the keys as opposed to the mic.

But once i’ve got to be on stage, I kick into that mode… or once I’ve got to lay down a vocal in the studio, I’m in that mode. But other than that, it’s not that it doesn’t come natural to me, but I’m so caught up making the music, production and beat making that for me I see it as another element or instrument to add to the mix.

When I listen to my favourite songs and singers that i’ve always loved. If you ask me about their lyrics, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s not so much the words and the lyrics, I’m not really about lyrics being the main focus to be honest. Like when people say the most important thing about music is the song, I’ve never agreed with that, for me personally the way I hear is that I hear the music first. The musicality and the way someone sings. One of my favourite singers is Randy Crawford. I love the vibrato of her voice, the way she sings and the timings of where she sits her lines within the groove. I’d never be able to recite the words to her songs though. Music and the musicality is what I hear first, that’s the soulfulness that jumps out for me. Some people hear the lyrics first which is cool, it’s valid, but it’s not what I hear first.

I’ve noticed you put out acapellas quite a bit alongside your singles, that’s quite an old school method these days. Is it a way to offer your music to other producers?

If people want to do it then yeah, it might mean that my music gets across to another whole scene because someone has been inspired by my vocal. It’s another calling card if you like, another way of bringing people in and trying to include people.

Remix culture and sampling culture is here, it’s a massive whole other kind of argument and people get really opinionated and upset, but ultimately the technology is there, the sample was created and designed for you to take soundbites of music that already exists and ideally turn it into something else.

What you do with it afterwards in terms of publishing and organising the rights, that’s another subject. I believe that obviously that should be taken care of, if people have broken their backs to do something and you make something else out of it they should get a share.

I try not to use samples too much, there’s one particular project I do with Australian producer Katalyst called Space Invadas. He’s a proper hip hop man, into his vinyl, comes from that angle like a lot of those producers. Dilla, Madlib, Premo, they’d be your prime examples. I think with the release of the acapellas it’s my way of allowing other people to be able to mess with my music. I believe if someone takes something of mine and makes something amazing then I’ll be really happy. I’ll always include instrumentals and acappellas when I can. If they come back with something incredible then they’ll inspire me.

You release projects quickly, how fast are you making beats these days? I know you are quite unique in the technology you’re using, does that have a hand in it?

I’m making music all the time man. Every night. Because I’ve got my little ones in the daytime it’s all about school and the kids, but as soon as everyone’s gone to bed then that’s me, graveyard shift. It just means I’ve got hours and hours to go in. I end up sleeping in the morning. The benefit (what with time zone differences)I’m able to link up with UK crew or anyone from the States whilst they’re all up and about.

More so it just means I’ve got hours and hours to explore ideas without being disturbed, the phone isn’t ringing. I’ll come up with ideas in the day and jot it down for later. Quickly jump into garageband and lay down a beat and then I’ll elaborate on it later on.

But yeah, even before the IOS, so much music man. This year with Eglo Records it’s been about trying to get out as much music as possible. I’ve got this album coming out with Eglo, it’s a follow on from ‘Spaceship’. Some of the tracks were done just after I left LA and moved to Australia. Them tracks are like 10 or 12 years old. But it’s that vibe, that Spacek Kind of vibe. Downtempo, really sparse and a wicked bassline, heavy drums, sci-fi music.

For people that love that sound I’m bringing it back with this album, just to show people I still do that, I still make that music and I haven’t forgotten. People have to accept that the way I create I’m all over the place with it. One minute I want to do a house tune, then I want to do a soul thing, then I might even jump into a ragga thing or new wave.

What’s the difference in that sense between Beat Spacek and Steve Spacek?

With Beat Spacek that was me doing stuff that people weren’t expecting of me. For a little while I was doing stuff where I knew if I released it people wouldn’t really get it. The Beat Spacek album was a means to do that. When I first brought it to Ninja Tune they were really excited. All that new wave kind of style, that’s what they wanted to put out from me.

That album (Modern Streets) was a representation of quite a pivotal time in music for me. Near the early ‘80s, there was this wicked club called Flim-Flams in New Cross, it’s where The Venue club is now. I remember first going there when I was really young and I walked in and I couldn’t believe it, there was rasta in there, punk, skinhead, it was a new-wave scene all in one club, they were playing everything from ska to modern romance, that was always a big thing with me. And stuff you wouldn’t normally hear in a dance on a big system.

Like in Plastic People one time, Ade who used to own the club, he played Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles. Now that track is a cool track, but when you hear that track on a great system like in Plastic P’s, all of a sudden there’s this whole bottom end that turns it into a whole other thing. So when I was in Flim-Flams that was it, hearing all this other music that I’d never heard in that way, the bottom end gave everything a kind of dub feel. And when I did that Beat Spacek album it was kind of referring to that time. I almost called it Flim-Flams. On that album if you listen to it, it kind of represent three elements, the reggae, the soul and the new wave/modern romance element.

You live in Australia, are you active in the local scene?

Its interesting. In Sydney, I feel like the scene is struggling. There is a cool warehouse scene going in the inner west though. I’m based in the eastern suburbs. It’s the richest part of Australia, it’s all by the beach, so it’s paradise here. In this area now there’s loads of talent but there’s not much of an outlet if you compare it to somewhere like Melbourne. They’ve got a mad scene down there, that’s the closest thing to Europe or London. I play down there as often as I can, a lot of it is to do with the licensing laws, where as in Sydney it’s a lot more corporate/red tape.

Personally with me, I’ve got so much internal music I’m not really watching anyone else. I’m just doing my thing, as long as I can go back to the UK and be in that scene as much as possible when i can, as long as that is still there, I’m happy.

Are you following the UK scene much? Are you much aware of the artists you’re positioned on bills with?

Totally unaware man. When me and Mark (Pritchard) did that Africa Hitech album, everyone was asking how we did it all the way in Australia, what we were listening to. That was just because we’ve got that music in us naturally, it doesn’t matter where we are in the world, that UK sound is always going to be within. There’s so much of that music inside me that regardless of what scene, I’m always gonna be making my own thing.

Looking forward, you’ve released so much music over a long time, do you feel like you’ve reached your creative height, or is the plan to make music till the end…

Man I feel like I’m at the beginning sometimes. I’ve got so many ideas that I can’t see how there’ll be an end to it, for now anyway. Sometimes I do think to myself am I going to still be doing this as an old man? There are so many projects that I still want to create. If I was to stop making music now, I’ve still got a ton that I can put out. There’s folders and hard drives everywhere.

I don’t feel like I’m on top of what I do, it still feels new and I still feel like I’m learning. The technology helps as well. With me the technology that pricks my ears is the stuff that you can travel with, because i’ve always got ideas.

If it’s portable but really good, then I’m into it. If I can bring a little rig around the world with me, I’ll set up in a hotel room or if I am in the airport I’ll plug my headphones into my iPhone and lay down some ideas. As long as I can tap out something on my phone then I’m happy.

So when you are on iPhones and stuff, are you literally making it all inside the box?

So a lot of the tunes, the idea and the grooves I’ve already locked down in the iPhone. Sometimes what it is is that maybe dynamically it might not be sitting right, so I’ll bounce the stems and mix them. But then I find you’ve got to be careful, because once you put stems into something like Logic and they are moving together as separate stems, the envelope changes and it makes the groove change, which is still valid, but I’m trying to maintain the original groove and vibe. I can feel it emotionally and can tell if it’s not right, so I may end up going back to the stereo two-track originally from inside the phone.

A lot of the stuff I’ve put out over the last couple of years is literally just stereo two-tracks from the phone that I’ve bounced into Logic and mastered or added a few effects to make it move around a bit more,

Ring Da Alarm’, that’s off an app called Caustic. I had that app for quite a while and one day I just started messing around with it and came up with the RDA groove. I’ll hear something that already exists and try to rework it. Back in the day I was never really into covers, I always found them to be quite cheesy. But with ‘Ring Da Alarm’, I was making that groove up, and I was hearing the original song in my head for some reason. I wrote down the lyrics and sang it over the Caustic groove and that was it, done. Just trying to be raw and instantaneous, not getting too caught up or too precious.

Garageband is mad man. You can do some crazy things in that app. On the face of it, it’s really basic and simple, but can also be as complex as you like. When I use it I just use the stock sounds and effects inside it. The only samples I’m using is my vocal, and then I might rub my leg and record that to make a shaker groove or tap on the car keys for a bit of percussion. Its all about ideas, for me I don’t really care what I’m using, it’s more about putting ideas down quickly and being able to make it sound and feel authentic to me to the point where whatever I’m using melts away.

Words: Callum Wright

Catch Steve performing at Dimensions Festival on August 29 – September 2, more info here.

Also catch Steve at Modern Dialect on 7th September, and check NTS Radio for his impromptu shows.

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