By Laurent Fintoni
“I’m not very good at sticking to one genre or tempo for a whole set. I like too much music. Some people hate it though, they’ll say ‘what the fuck is he doing?!’” As one of Manchester’s most interesting and lauded young producers of recent years, Ryan Hunn can come across as surprisingly humble and down to earth to those who don’t know him. However, ask anyone whose known him for a while - or been hosted at the Hoya:Hoya parties he runs with Jonny Dub - and they’ll tell you that Illum Sphere (as he is known in musical circles) is one of the most genuine artists you’ll ever meet. Having spent two hours on the phone discussing his past, present and future it’s quite clear this is a quality that runs through everything he does and in turn has played a big part in his recent success. He might put himself down, as when talking about his marmite DJ style, but as we talk it’s clear that he is proud of where he is and how he came to be there. He just won’t bullshit about it.
Having started relatively late in comparison to some of his contemporaries – he only learnt to DJ at the age of 18 and his first official release came out in 2009 – he has come a long way in a short time. Illum Sphere has become recognised in electronic music circles for a unique production style and approach while Hoya:Hoya has become one of England’s most popular club nights; frequently referred to as one of the country’s best nights out - with forward thinking and challenging line ups (and musical policies) you’d struggle to find in the capital. While those two things have become further linked over the last few years, they each have a distinct history.
“I did stuff under my own name for a while and always planned to get an alias when I released something. My first EP was ready to go and there was still no artist name. I came up with it at the last minute and it became official around early 2009 a few months before The Incoming EP dropped on Fat City” he explains as we chat over Skype. “Before all this I had spent time in Manchester working in Vox Pop, which was a second hand record shop. It was my favourite place to be and my time there was amazing: the biggest musical education you could hope for. I was 20 at the time and learning about all this stuff I didn’t know. Digging was new to me and I didn’t know where to start, so working there with knowledgeable, older guys who really helped me to learn and to link between producers, labels, genres and eras.”
Having moved from London to Manchester at an early age with his mother, Hunn refers to his background as “not particularly creative. My dad was a footballer and my mum a stewardess. I was more into playing football as a child and initially, when I was 12/13, I thought that was where I would go, following in my dad's footsteps. Then I hit that point when I realised it wasn’t going to happen.” Despite the lack of creativity in his family background, a young Illum Sphere discovered the guitar after moving to Manchester and picked up basic musical skills. “We moved in with my step dad, and my step brother also learnt to play the guitar. So we’d come home from school and after homework I’d sit around and listen to stuff and try to figure out how to play it. I think that’s how I triggered the music thing. I’d listen to stuff like Electric Ladyland for days. I wouldn’t write anything down, just try and figure out how to play stuff. I remember the sense of achievement when I finally worked out Voodoo Child or something. That meant more to me than school,” he remembers with a laugh. A few years experimenting with music in a friend's attic, overdubbing between Mini Disc and tape followed until he moved to Manchester city centre to study.
“I remember it being really exciting [moving into town]. It felt like I was at the beginning of something even if I didn’t really know what ‘it’ was. I never really thought ‘yeah I’ll be a musician’, there was no plan. After moving into Manchester I was learning lots. Not only was I working at Vox Pop but I also interned for Mr Scruff and local label Players, being part of the crew that would go to gigs with Scruff and learning the ways of an independent label. Scruff was a big influence early on, especially DJ wise because he was one of the few people at the time who would play stuff across the board. We became friends and he’s been a big help to me. I wouldn’t necessarily say a father figure, more like an uncle” he says with a laugh. “He's shared so much knowledge and advice down to the mixer we use at Hoya:Hoya, which was given to me by him.”
Another early and important influence was Dabrye, one of the aliases of legendary Ann Harbor producer Tadd Mullinix. Talking about his first steps in the world of electronic music production, Hunn recounts how “it was mainly after hearing Two/Three [Ed note: Dabrye’s second album on Ghostly] that I thought ‘I really fucking want to do this’. There was something about Two/Three which I hadn’t heard in anything before. I think that if it’d had wider coverage or more hype on release you’d have a lot more people quoting that as the album which did that whole, you know, ‘aesthetic’” – referring to the distinct electronic hip hop sound that has come to dominate a big part of the modern music underground in recent years. “It was the first time for me that everything single track on an album was as important as the other. I remember it creating a weird picture in my head. It was a very visual listening experience” he explains. “After hearing that album I started to experiment a lot more, picking up synths etc. The only goal was to make people feel the same way I did when I heard that album, if that makes sense. So I continued to mess with stuff, and that eventually led to the Incoming EP which Fat City took a chance on and put out.”
Around the same time as all this happened, Hunn had learnt to DJ after one of the regulars at a bar he was working at took him under his wing. “This guy called Jez pretty much taught me how to DJ. That’s also when I started to get into more hip hop stuff. He was, and still is, a very talented turntablist. I'd go to his flat and he'd just sit there and let me mix. He'd show me little techniques and then something clicked and that was it, I’d got it. Thinking about it now, I think Jez planted that seed of switching between records you wouldn't necessarily think to, something I still do. Whether he knows it or not, he had a huge influence on me.” What followed, and which Hunn refers to as “the next phase”, would ultimately intertwine with his musical aspirations and help to propel him forward. “So a couple of years went by, I was continuously learning about music, working at Vox Pop, with Scruff and DJing around at places like Friends and Family or the Electric Chair. It was music everywhere: at work, at Uni… That’s when I met Jonny Dub. He was running a night called Sketch City, which was an art and music monthly Sunday session for all ages. He asked me to come on board after I’d played there a few times and so I started playing there regularly and running the night with him which was great.” Combining Jonny’s existing outlet with Ryan’s contacts, the two set out to bring the kind of artists to Manchester which would form the basis for the success of their forthcoming musical ventures. “We brought people like Domu, Scruff and then Samiyam, Ras G and Gaslamp Killer as well. That would have been in 2008, after the first Brainfeeder party in London. They came up the day after to play Sketch City, to a bunch of people sat around painting and drawing. There were ten years old doodling and Gaslamp in the back being his usual exuberant self which was pretty surreal.”
Hoya:Hoya – for which Hunn and Jonny are probably best known – was born out of the same passion and willingness to experiment that drove Hunn to become Illum Sphere and make the kind music he refers to as deeply personal. “I think we wanted to do so much stuff that it felt like a natural progression. A third guy came on board called Barney, who was an artist. Together we took over this space in Manchester and set up a gallery” Hunn explains adding almost matter of factly “just because we wanted to, you know? So Barney headed the gallery while Jonny was curating art projects with the artists who'd come to Sketch City.” After the seminal Manchester party, Electric Chair, came to an end - the last Saturday spot became available at the (now closed) venue, The Music Box. “That’s when we decided to set up Hoya. With Jonny looking after the projects and Sketch City - and Barnie after the gallery - Hoya ended up being tailored more as my thing if you will.” As Hunn continues to explain Hoya:Hoya’s inception, his humility shows up again balanced with another revealing trait – a healthy degree of realism. “Looking back on it now, it feels weird. I don’t think we’ve cracked it yet, but compared to how we started off I’m surprised we’re still going to be honest. Five minutes before all the information had to be in at The Music Box, we still didn’t have a name! I think I put fresh into a Japanese translator and Hoya Hoya came out. We thought it sounded cool and I liked the way it flowed and how it didn’t have attachments to any specific genres. And from a design point of view it looked great. It was just an initial burst of idea that built into something good.”
Perseverance seems to be another recurring value in Hunn’s artistic endeavours. He persevered with DJing despite the fact that his approach was not conventional or suited to most crowds. As he recounts later on in our chat, when I ask him about his DJ philosophy, a key moment came when he made the move from vinyl to Serato and decided that it was pointless using one in the same way he’d been using the other – a logic that you might think would be more obvious to most people in a similar situation. This in turn led him to try and make the most of the dead time he now found himself with behind the turntables, no longer having to change, look for or cue up records the way you have to when DJing vinyl. He began experimenting with a broader palette of genres than most DJs would feel comfortable approaching. I ask if there’s maybe a degree of ADD in that approach, and he concurs. “There’s a total ADD element. If I’m bored then so is everyone else. Though, I think that playing things in context is what’s most important to me. If I play three or four African records in a row, each one might be amazing but by the third they’ve lost impact. Drop one in between, say, a techno and a disco joint and people get to hear that on its own, essentially.” This combined with the fact that Hoya is not a genre based night has led to Illum Sphere becoming known for not being a genre based DJ. As anyone who’s witnessed one will tell you, an Illum Sphere set is never the same twice and hard to predict. “A few people have now said that it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve really honed in and got it right. Looking back on it, it was messy for a while because I was trying to push too hard in either direction, trying to get from one thing to the next. But now I think I program it better, hopefully. There’s so much stuff that goes together and which people don’t realise.”
This perseverance was also a driving factor in Hoya’s success, especially considering that when it started things failed, as he bluntly puts it. “We did the first Hoya with just Jonny and myself playing all night in both rooms of the Music Box, which is an 800 capacity venue, on the same night Theo Parrish was playing, literally, round the corner. We got a few hundred people in and so thought we'd carry on. For the next one we booked Tadd Mullinix under his James T. Cotton alias, Todd Osborne and Toddla T. The night was good but we lost money. A lot of money” he adds. “Then we booked Marc Mac for a 4Hero night and again lost crazy money. By that point we’d more or less lost nearly 3 grand in two months. That’s when we realised we had to change our approach. We managed to move to a smaller venue, The Roadhouse [Ed note: where Hoya continues to host their parties every month] and we tried again. We did one last party at the Music Box in May ‘08 with Mark Pritchard and Daedelus and then moved to the Roadhouse in September of that year with Jonny and myself once more going back to back the whole night. After this my first release materialised and things started to get better I guess. We were booking people like Rustie, Kissie Asplund, Ras G, Danny Breaks, Floating Points, Benji B, Paul White, GLK, Bullion... This was 2009 and I guess we were lucky that these artists were becoming more ‘popular’ in a sense and it carried on from there.” The diversity and quality of the curation at Hoya:Hoya is undoubtedly one of the things that makes the night so special and popular. The duo’s perseverance and belief in what they did have led them to build a truly genre-less club night - booking artists who have come to prominence through a hybrid approach to music making that ignores established boundaries and instead pushes at the seams, to make music that is less easy to pigeonhole but still as powerful. As both a club night and a collective, Hoya:Hoya stands first and foremost for quality music regardless of genre, something that is evidently needed if their popularity is any indicator.
The recurrence of Tadd Mullinix in Hunn’s artistic career - as both an inspiration and later on as a fellow artist, whose few UK appearances in recent years have nearly all been alongside Hunn - had me curious. Especially given that the Ann Arbor producer has just finished a rare appearance as Dabrye for the Illum Sphere remix EP that is about to drop on Fat City. As it turns out, Mullinix was one of the first international guests that Dub and Hunn booked for an early Sketch City stage at a Manchester festival. That experience would not only lead the pair to understand better what made their offering so special to other artists – a sense of family and togetherness when people visit that can be rare in club promotion circles, but which always works to an advantage by placing human relationships ahead of earnings or popularity – it would also lead to a relationship that has continued to this day. “He’s a very cool guy” Hunn says of Mullinix, “intelligent, talented and honest. I think he could tell we didn’t have our shit together the first time we booked him but he was appreciative and stayed in contact. From there we booked him again and just developed a strong friendship. It’s weird for me because he’s had such an influence on my approach to music. Not just on how I make it but rather – and without overstating it – on my whole life because music has become what I do. To me though it’s easy to separate the artist from the friend because he’s nowhere near as aggressive as his music” Hunn says with a knowing laugh. “He’s just a cool guy and to have him do this remix for me is a huge honour.” As we discuss Dabrye’s often forgotten importance in shaping the new world of hip hop that we now inhabit, where electronic influences are the norm when they were once the exception, Hunn recounts a story that encapsulates not only his own approach to making music, but also one of the things that is great about a lot of modern, underground electronic music and hip hop today: its seeming ability to resist pigeonholing. “I remember sending him some of the tracks I was working on a year or so ago, like Dreamstealin' and Titan, and him being genuinely positive in his feedback. He actually asked me ‘what do you call it? What kind of stuff is this?’ and that just blew my mind. From someone who I respect so much musically, it’s an amazing feeling to hear him say that. It’s obviously not why I do it” he insists in case there was any doubt, “but it’s an affirmation and it gave me confidence to continue. It's nice to get props from the people you look up to.”
The remix EP on which Dabrye appears will act as a conclusion of sorts for the trilogy of EPs Hunn has released on Fat City. The list of artists on the EP reads a little like a who’s who of today’s most progressive UK producers as well as a perfect summary of Hunn’s genre-less musical outlook. “Ikonika is on there, she did hers a while back and we held it for this release. Then there is Om Unit, Kid Kanevil, and hopefully one from xxxy and Crime Killz” he says before adding “if they get their shit together!” The mention of that last act, a little known band from Tucson, Arizona, is particularly interesting. Regulars of both Hoya:Hoya and any Kutmah DJ set will already know their exciting blend of punk and 8-bit. Hunn’s focus on putting music in context in his sets has also led him to become somewhat of a great agent in bringing new acts to the public. It’s something he’s done recently with another band, Death Grips, whose music he was the first to play in the UK, leading in turn to wider interest from both other DJs and now promoters. Back to the subject of the EP, he’s keen to stress that it’s been a labour of love rather than a rushed attempt to cash in. “I would have rather waited to get it perfect. I’m lucky because everyone on there happens to be a friend, and that makes me feel pretty special when I consider that some of my close friends are very talented and some of the best artists around.” Again he’s quick to avoid any confusion by exclaiming that “it’s not why I’m friends with them! To me when it comes out I think it’ll be broad but there will be links there for people to follow: from xxxy to Ikonika, Om Unit to Kid Kanevil, Dabrye to Crime Kills. There’s a link there, especially for people who know about the kind of music I play. It’s just a shame we couldn’t get a Cluster or a Patrick Adams remix on there” he says half-jokingly.
Securing a remix from Dabrye definitely counts as a tour de force for such a young producer, though any attempts at pinning it on luck or the such should be dismissed instantly - when you consider the other established talents in the electronic world that have given Hunn a stamp of approval in recent years. There’s been Dutch producer Martyn, who released a 12” single from Hunn in 2010, and Bristol’s Pinch who also got a single out of him for his Tectonic imprint - which has diversified from more obvious dubstep offerings in recent years. Last but definitely not least, Hunn is also among the lucky few chosen to remix Radiohead for their new remix album.
While the Radiohead remix is a more obvious mark of approval on the surface, it also seemed to me to be all the more important for Hunn - after he’d recounted how much of a fan he’d been as a youngster, especially when he was experimenting with music and learning to play the guitar and other instruments. “We’ve both seen how music and the industry have changed in the last four years, let alone ten” he explains talking about Radiohead’s importance to him, “and I don’t think there will ever be another band like them: a band that was allowed to be so experimental whilst remaining commercially successful. They manage to be huge commercially but the shit they do is weird and interesting and constantly evolving. I don’t think the last album has had the credit it deserves, to be honest, and I think a lot of fans felt let down because of how far left they’ve pushed it. I think it's pretty incredible though.”
As for how the remix happened, Hunn explains that he was actually “in a really bad place when the email came through. I’d had a bad few months where I wasn’t making much music, getting disillusioned and was just down about a lot of stuff. So when this came along it made me sort myself out and gave me the perfect excuse to turn the situation around.” He continues, “It was an amazing feeling to be asked. No one else remixed the track I got either, ‘Codex’, which is cool. I found it difficult to do, mainly because of the way they recorded the piano and vocal together. I had a real hard time initially because the vocal melody is structured in a way that makes it difficult to build another melody around it. I finally cracked it by tuning the last word of every phrase to one note and going from there.” Not only was the remix amazing for Hunn personally, it ultimately allowed him to break through to the other side. “Finishing this remix felt like putting the old stuff behind and really moving on musically. Not in the sense that it’s a new direction or sound, but more like a progression. I wanted to make a song that had a similar, yet different, beauty to the original not a club tune or a banger. I wanted to make another version of that song, the song I’d have written if I’d had that vocal from Thom.”
When Hunn mentions that he’s half way through a debut album – or in his own words “time to grow up” – the first thing that comes to mind is whether or not the music on it is before or after the revelation. “Well I had half an album done and I scrapped that. Entirely, all the bounces, the files, everything. I kept a few bits of it and did another draft and I’ve now got about 14, 15 ideas of which maybe 6 or 7 are coherent songs. I’m speaking to a few people about potential vocals and the likes so we’ll see. In terms of a label or anything like that there’s no confirmation yet.” While most young producers in his situation might find that the prospect of a debut album, a successful club night and various production work might be enough, Hunn has recently added to his plate by launching the Hoya:Hoya music label. Already they’ve released music from the club’s residents – Krystal Klear, Lone and Hunn himself – as well as close friends Ras G, Eliphino and Lorn. The third release is incoming anytime now, following some delays due to mastering issues. “Hoya 003 features Ikonika, Monky and Om Unit, whose track is a bit of a masterpiece. It’s funny because I keep playing it to different people, from hip hop kids to techno heads and it’s fried everyone’s mind. They all ask about the time signature and I’m just like ‘it goes with hip-hop in 4/4, just try it!’” he says with a laugh [ Ed note: the track in question, “Fibonacci10”, is technically in 10/8 which can actually be mixed in 4/4 time, it just takes a while to get used to it]. “Following this release we’re toying with the idea of another split 12” or a few solo releases. We’ve got an EP from Blue Daisy ready to go but we have to wait for his album to come out first. It’s a six track concept EP he made in like six hours, and it’s amazing. There’s also a potential release with Kutmah and some other things which I can’t say too much about yet.”
As we talk about the label, I wonder if the defining characteristics Hunn exhibits in his work – humility, perseverance and realism – make it easier for him in a sense. “Having the experience of working at a small label has been a great help. I’m also treating the label in a similar way to how I’ve treated the night and the Illum Sphere stuff in the past. I know I’m not going to get everything right the first time. It’s funny because I wanted to have a label before I wanted to do a night. I didn’t really want to do a night, it just happened. I’m glad of course. We just keep that little thing we have going you know” he explains, almost justifying his approach and the dedication to his craft. I tell him that to me it’s a simple case of them caring – about what they do, who they do it with and how it comes out – and that ultimately that’s a quality that will always shine through. “Hoya isn’t a money making thing” he replies, “a lot of people say that about nights but ultimately people are promoters to make money and that’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t validate us to think the way we do, it’s just how we do it. I think to do it this way keeps it truer to its original intentions. We essentially run a night the way we'd like any night we play at to be run. I am lucky to be in control of the place I love playing at the most and we’re lucky that people and artists support us in the way they do.” Ever willing to downplay their importance, he concludes by recounting the story of how FaltyDL’s first appearance at the night was marred by the kind of behaviour which would leave most artists unwilling to deal with promoters again - going on to say that “ultimately I think it’s because we’re shit promoters that things have been so good. It would be doing promoters a real disservice to count ourselves their equals, which is why we’re quite keen to always stress that we’re not. We're just some people throwing a party” he concludes. It just so happens their parties are some of the best around.
Regardless of how he might feel about it, all facts point to Illum Sphere being one of the more interesting and successful producers and non-promoters to come out of England in recent years. And with his attitude and track record, it’s hard to not see it only getting better from this point on.
Hoya Hoya Podcast 1- Swing Ting by hoyahoya Hoya:Hoya is hailed as the main club night in Britain right now. We talk to Illum Sphere to know more about the origins of this party, his personal work as a producer, his upcoming album and his recent remix for Radiohead. He tells it all!
Review: “ The Plan Is Dead”
Review “ Titan”
Var.- Hoya 001
Radiohead - TKOL Remixes 4
Hoya 03 Ikonika
Hoya:Hoya host room 3 at Fabric London this Friday, September the 9th. You can listen to a mix he put together for the occasion and which showcases his unique style on the Fabric blog here. The third Hoya:Hoya label release should be out in all good record shops in the coming week, while Illum Sphere’s remix EP is forthcoming on Fat City in the next few months.
And Hoya:Hoya happens in Manchester every last Saturday of the month, full details on their blog: http://hoyahoya.tumblr.com/