The Gaze of the Abyss

Shackleton Sam Shackleton rejects being included in the dubstep scene. His request is not only legitimate, but entirely justified: after all, how is his music, since he began to release 12”s on Skull Disco , until now, like that of the rest of the producers spread out over the underground scenes in London, Bristol, and Berlin? It’s true that they share common features, such as the presence of low sounds, slow rhythms with complex construction, and an earthy, profound, labyrinthine element. But Shackleton plays by his own rules. In a sense, he is a paradigmatic producer of “post-dubstep”: he accepts some aesthetic features, but he quickly transforms them in a process of continually evolving change and exploration. This is why we wanted to talk to him and share impressions: nobody is more unique and singular than he is in this field.

It is also worth approaching Shackleton because his recent “Fabric 55” is the consecration of an aesthetic that is the same distance from New York illbient as it is from tribal, slowed-down drum’n’bass, and dubstep from the dark side, a sound option that reaches a sublime state in the first reference on his new label, Woe To The Septic Heart!, in which he once again takes up the working methods of Skull Disco with his focus updated to a present that, for him, continues as a permanent search. Below, before the questions, you can see a video recorded by the PlayTV cameras at the most recent Unsound festival, held in Krakow in November 2010. In it, we have captured a segment of Shackleton’s hypnotic live show, a small portion of what will be magnified and released in the spectacular, dense set for Fabric. The science of rhythm and the rhythm of fear. As the famous Nietzsche quote says, “If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Shackleton’s music is the gaze of the abyss.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Sam Shackleton, Melissa Taylor , Radek Szczesniak, and to the entire Unsound team. You had a label, Skull Disco, but chose to shut it down when it was at the top of its game. It seemed, when you started releasing music for Perlon, that you didn’t have the same need for a label as a platform, but now you’ve founded Woe To The Septic Heart! What’s the inside story here? Why are you going back to the label format, and why now?

I closed down Skull Disco for a number of reasons. I felt that there had been 10 good 12” releases and that this was a good number to finish with. On top of this I couldn’t bear the idea of asking Zeke the artist to do some more skull themed artwork. The Soundboy had really been put to death and there was no where else to take it. I was also really uninterested in the dubstep-techno thing that a lot of journalists were putting on Skull Disco. That was just not what I wanted it to be about. I don’t need a label but I thought it was time because I wanted to have my own aesthetic again I suppose. Perlon are great and I am really happy with Zip’s handling of everything, but at some point I just wanted to get back on with my own thing.

Zeke is doing the artwork again. Back in the Skull Disco days, all of it was inspired by African rituals from books you were reading. Is there an outside inspiration for the new artwork as well, or is everything from what’s in Zeke’s head?

I wouldn’t say all of it was inspired by African rituals! The name Skull Disco came about because I had read a book about a tribe in Cameroon who would dig up their relatives when they had a certain celebration and put them in view of the party. I thought this sounded like a good way to celebrate and this made me think of skeletons in a disco. Hence Skull Disco. Generally with the Skull Disco sleeves I would give Zeke an idea and he would run with it and take it much further than I would have even imagined.

What are the first steps for the new label? Is it just for your music, or are you thinking of bringing some friends or new signings on board?

No, it’s only going to be for my own music. Maybe I will start up a sister label if I want to put other things out. There’s this phrase carved in the groove of the A side of “Man On A String Parts 1 & 2”: “ The crisis of our country is not caused by external forces.” And another on the B side: “The danger lies within.” Can you elaborate on these statements?

This is really simple. When I went to get it mastered, me and Rashad (the mastering engineer) got talking about the sounds and I said that the AA side was supposed to have a Savage Republic type of feel to the percussion mastering. Quite rough and jarring. Rashad was really pleased that I had heard of Savage Republic as they are one of his favourite bands and so we decided to quote their lyrics on the run-out groove.

That made us think that Woe To The Septic Heart! was a label with some political mission… By the way, are you concerned about the Tories getting back into 10 Downing Street again?

No, it is not on a political mission! It was just a spontaneous thing to have that etched on the run-out groove.

As for the Tories, no, I am not happy about that. I think that perhaps some people got complacent and forgot how bad things can get under the Tories. It is quite complex to go into here though and I don’t want to just make an easy to digest soundbite about it. Britain is a diverse collection of countries and people. In some parts of Britain or within certain sections of the population a lot of people probably didn’t notice the difference even under the more extreme measures of Thatcherism as it didn’t seem affect them directly. On the other hand there are still people who live without any real political input or don’t feel included in the wider society. On top of this, the mainstream media is highly sophisticated at diverting people’s attention from the issues whilst pushing its own agendas and reducing politics to a personality contest. I think that partly because of this power of the media, politicians are pretty scared to present meaningful alternatives regardless of if some politicians have progressive ideas. When you have all these factors together, I can well understand how the Tories got back in. Yes, it made me feel sad.

That said, it is only my opinion and I can’t say for sure that I am right. It is a free vote and people have the right to choose who they want I suppose even if the apparatus seems to be rigged. Even though I disagree with that choice, it is people’s choice. Cameron and his party are by and large a self-interested, short-sighted bunch looking after the interests of a small section of the population in my opinion but better that than forcing people to live like I think is right. Oh well.

You shared a 12” with Laurie Appleblim of Harmonia & Eno remixes. He was your label mate at Skull Disco. Are you still in touch, and will you work with him again?

Laurie is a very dear friend to me. We are not the sort of people to fall out with each other and I could never see a reason to. Even so, with Skull Disco we never actually made music together. People always assume that we did because of the split nature of some of the 12 inches. I am in touch with Laurie and see him whenever I go to Bristol or he comes to Berlin. Your recent remix collection (in the last two years) is impressive, but it isn’t generous: there are remixes for Badawi, Moderat, DJ Maxximus, Mordant Music… Do you put much effort into a remix, or is it that you try to be very selective with who you work with?

I think that I have done enough remixes. It takes a lot of time and I put a really lot of effort into it. I think that this much is obvious if you listen. Don’t forget that I have also remixed To Rococo Rot and Invasion. It isn’t so little. I generally listen to the parts and see if anything jumps out at me that I can use. I try not to listen to the original if I can avoid it. The “Three EPs” release on Perlon - was it originally planned to be a series of 12” (i.e. three EPs, one at a time), or was it conceived and produced as a proper album? I ask this just because the title still confuses me.

Yes, at first we were going to do a release on vinyl only but then Zip convinced me otherwise. I didn’t plan it as an album, that is why I called it “Three EPs”. If I had planned it as an album it would have had a different title. Some people tell me that it works as an album though and that makes me feel happy. Were you attracted towards techno before visiting Berlin, or was the mood you found in the city what started to change the shape of your sound? Scuba, for example, hasn’t done that many dubstep tracks since living in Berlin.

Not particularly, and I am still not particularly. I am just trying to make the music that I have in my head. Perhaps subconsciously the city has had an effect on me. I don’t know. It is always difficult to talk about the subconscious because it is subconscious by definition! I am not sure I ever made dubstep to be honest. Perhaps a track like “Naked” is the closest I ever got to making dubstep per se. You have heard the new 12”, I assume. I know that I am not re-inventing the wheel but I would say that this is a long way from either dubstep or techno by most definitions.

How do you find the Sub:Stance party at Berghain? Did you like the vibe?

I enjoy it. It doesn’t have the vibe of a Saturday night of course. This is something very special. But, in its own way, it is really good.

What’s the usual set up for a Shackleton live appearance? How much live manipulation is there of those complex drum patterns?

Ha ha! Good question. I would say that the complex percussion thing is pretty much the only thing that I can’t manipulate live. I am afraid to say that the percussion is pretty much set and I can only choose which phrase to go with and add effects to it. Everything else can be pretty well manipulated. Recently, we’ve noticed some “Shackleton influence” on tracks by Pinch ( “Croydon House”), Jack Sparrow and other similar producers toying with techno shades and cold, complex rhythms. Have you ever felt bitten, or does this particular sound come from a common and shared experience?

I really like that Pinch track but I didn’t think it was particularly like my stuff. I have never heard Jack Sparrow to my knowledge but I am sure he is just trying to do his own thing. I don’t think that I am doing anything particularly groundbreaking in any case and hardly feel like somebody who people take ideas from. I am sure that I have taken more inspiration from people than I have been inspiring to people. As for complex rhythms, don’t you think it would be boring if everyone used a regimented rhythm with a kick and snare combination and no syncopation? It is not as though I have a monopoly on complex rhythms. Besides which, in relative terms, my beats are like a baby’s compared to the true dons of percussion!

Your Fabric CD isn’t the first live set released by the label, but it’s your first release understood as “Shackleton live”. What does this album mean within your discography? Was it important to you to have a physical representation of your club appearances?

Well it is a big deal for me on one level as, of course, and I am pleased to be a part of the series. By the same token, I try to do my best work for anything that I release. I think it does make sense to document the live set as it is a different thing and perhaps it makes more sense in the context of a live set. I can understand when people don’t really “get” my music when they just hear one track especially as my mixdown is not so standard for a lot of modern dance music and doesn’t really rely so much on immediate effects or straight build and drop structures. I think that if people hear the whole set then perhaps it can make more sense and people will have time for their ears to get used to it and hopefully can then follow it better. Let’s hope so anyway!


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