Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Magnetic Man Interview

Starting life as a tremor, a shaking floor board, a repetitive throb emanating through the feet of skulking red-eyed loafers in a dingy east London basement club, Magnetic Man aka Artwork, Skream and Benga played their first gig at seminal dubstep night FWD in Summer 2007. Those 200 odd people in attendance will remember the rather bizarre screen; more toilet window than mysterious see through shield. But most will remember, through a tangy fug of sweat and cigarette smoke, the unforgettable strains of ‘Everything Cool?’ striking out across the heaving dancefloor, whilst afro-topped shadows and lanky forms bled through the barrier screen.

July 2008, Roskilde Festival, Denmark, Magnetic Man are again behind another screen. Yet this one is much bigger and being pummelled by a gigantic oscillating white laser, seemingly beaming straight out of the Magnetic Man trio’s machines in time to the gruelling bass and synth barrage. This is dubstep on a massive scale.

The dubstep super group have been friends since the legendary Big Apple record shop days, and Skream and Benga’s friendship is well known. Yet, the lesser known, but equally important figure, indeed the glue that holds the collective together, is Artwork. The knowledgeable, calmer big brother character in the trio, Artwork is also a seasoned producer, a pioneer of the dubstep sound through the monumental classic record, ‘Red’, on the Big Apple label in 2003. As a trio, they form a kinetic, dynamic sabre of energy, enthusiastically reshaping and mutating their music through a combined vehicle of sound and light. Magnetic Man works on the big stage by letting the music do the talking; egos are replaced by an incendiary light show that skilfully taps into a deeper rave aesthetic. In an attempt to get behind the screen and discover what batteries power the trio, Mark Gurney managed to track down Artwork and Benga to talk about million pound light shows, technical failures and dwarves wrapped in foil.

Markle: Describe Magnetic Man to a layman.
Artwork: It’s supposed to be three people coming together, with different ideas to make something...
Benga: …Superb. It captures what we do individually, live. I don’t think on our own we could have done that.

When was the genesis of Magnetic Man?
A: These guys (Skream & Benga) had been DJing that kinda of sound, and me, Benga and Skream were starting to make tracks together. So we started making tracks that could mix together, then mixing them with other tracks that had already been done.

So ‘Everything Cool?’ and ‘Soulz’ were the first tracks that you thought, specifically, these are tools, rather than just music?

A: They were done very, very quickly, because we didn’t have much time, so we blocked them out and they were just to be played in a set. And to take them apart, and build something and mix stuff up and do it live.
B: Yeah. It was more about automation and what we could do live.

Are they ever coming out? Or are they lost dubs?
A: We said they were never coming out, but you never know, they were just to be played, so you’d come and see the show.
B: ‘Everything Cool?’ is still one of my favourite tunes.

Getting into the group’s dynamic. Artwork, does your greater experience and years mean you play a specific role within the group?

A: Yeah, I try and get them out of bed, to get them places on time. It helps to have seen a lot of it before, playing out lot, and standing back and seeing how things can work, like the live show.
B: I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. I remember thinking when we first started, ‘wow, we are gonna be just like three boys on laptops shaking our heads’. But it does look a lot more than that when you’re out in the crowd.
A: We are lucky; we’ve linked up with this guy called Eliot from Novak, who’s a super brain. He designed it so that the music would link to the visuals. So he has made some special little tools, so when a new sound comes in, a new pattern comes up with the lighting, to change the mood of everything. He’s a bit of a genius.

When you guys are playing do you each have a role to play?

B: We are like his children on each side, he holds us in headlocks.
A: It works as this, the middle computer is the master, so it sends out a midi click to the other two to make everything run in time. All three computers are running the same set, but it’s all interchangeable. It just worked out that we happened to stand that way. And I know if Benga’s got the bassline, I can look to him, and if Skream’s got the top line or doing the drums, everyone knows where everyone is standing.

It must be nice for you to add that variety into your music as opposed to DJing records all the time.

B: That’s the thing; it brings excitement to the other. When I come back from doing Magnetic Man, I’m happy to DJ again. And when I DJ for while, I’m looking forward to Magnetic Man. It’s perfect.
A: I have DJ’d for years and years, but this is a totally different experience. When you are DJing on your own, you are playing records. But if you know there is three of you, and you know he’s pulled the drums out or he’s pulled another drum loop in, and you think, Ah, that’s brilliant. And you think, right, he’s done that, Fair enough. Now, try this!

How do you manage to make time together when each of you have such hectic DJing and studio diaries?
A: How the music is made is pretty much just where and when. Which is good as it falls in funny sort of times. Maybe I’ll come up with something, or Skream will, and say what do you think of this? Just a very basic idea and then pass it over. Someone else can have look at it and pass it back. Native Instruments have just given us loads of plug-ins, so now we are getting the same plug-ins you can use drop box and share files, and then get together. So, it’s not like, get into the studio, sit down, and then maybe something doesn’t come out or maybe it does. You bounce stuff between each other until you find the time to say, ‘that’s good, we can finish that’.
B: I’ll do that a lot at my house, I’ll make something, but I can’t think of what to put with it, so pass it onto the next man, phew, there you go.

Any tracks that have been a really nice collaboration?
A: ‘Cyberman’. That’s brilliant. It just started three different places and got passed around.
B: When you think about ‘The Cyberman’, I think about us being on tour, we done it live and decided to make it into a song.
A: That was just one day, we had the riff, messing around with it live, Beni’s got the vocoder and just doing the keys and came up with ‘The Cyberman’. We were laughing about it, but it stuck so we go in the studio and made it.

So what’s the inspiration behind ‘The Cybermen?’
B: You know what, they asked me this at Radio One, ‘Are you a fan of Doctor Who?’ I said ‘Sorry mate’ (laughs). The thing is, when you’re live you’re playing keys and you do random shit, on the spot. When you’re in the studio you can change it, and at the time you go, ‘you know what, I’m going to edit that and make it sound like this’, so you lose a bit of the creative side of things. But now, instead of saying ‘The Cyberman’, I say, ‘The Gingerman’.
A: We did change it to ‘The Gingerman’ coz the lighting guy Elliot is ginger, very ginger. So at a couple of the gigs we did change it to ‘The Gingerman’. It changed at Glastonbury to, ‘The Ciderman’, when Beni discovered cider...
B: Ah, that was such a mess, I’m telling you, that was one of the messiest two days of my life!

Does Elliot get on the lash with you as well?

B: Yeah, he’s part of the group.
A: Yeah, Elliot is definitely part of Magnetic Man. Without him it would be just three geezers with laptops.
B: I don’t think you could change the guy either. It’s like a band, if he was to go....
A: It’s kinda weird, when people talk to us about Magnetic Man, you’ve got to understand, a lot of it is the visual side as well. And you’re the first person to ask about this guy. No interviewers ask us about who the lighting guy is and he’s such a big part of the group.
B: The unsung hero.

You are developing the light show quite considerably, from quite a basic set up at the start to massive festivals, Roskilde being particularly impressive with three screens.

A: Yep, three screens and each one cost £1,500,000 each! That’s a big fucking tele.

What do you feel this brings to your show?

B: That’s the thing. When you get to that sort of level, and I don’t think we are that far off, when we can bring our own lights, we are clear. That brings such a vibe in a dark tent.
A: It’s brilliant to hear when you’ve got a bassline and some drums and the topline sound comes in (sings) ‘beuu beuu, beuu beuu’ that is brilliant, that’s good enough. But if you’re got black room and low lighting and then a shape come up on a screen for that sound, that’s where we are at.

Is it true your light show costs triple the amount of your fee?

A: Yep, yep. We haven’t earnt any money at all.
B: That’s part of it, it’s almost like when you’re a band starting out playing all these gigs and doing warm ups.
A: To be honest the lighting guy does take home more money than us, but then he deserves it.

Have you had any serious technology failures?
A: Oh yeah. The best one, we were in Newcastle, and as we have the three Apple Mac laptops facing the crowd and the big labels are sticking out. This guy had put these bass bins right underneath us that were so fuckin’ loud the USB lead out to the master clock just fell out, so dead silence. So we’re looking at each other, ‘is it the mixer, is it the ...’ so dead silence for two minutes. Until some geezer from the front in a broad Newcastle accent says ‘Wi ay man, you should have got PC’s’. And the whole fucking place pissed themselves. You could do nothing but laugh.

What can we expect for the summer festival? Big stages? Bigger light show? Dancers in hot pants?
A: Skream wants dwarfs.
B: Dwarfs is the nice way to say it, you can’t say midget anymore.

Benga being politically correct, love it.

A: Ollie wants dwarfs wrapped in silver foil, and he keeps going on about it. I’m worried someone is going to take him seriously in a minute.
B: It would be funny to do it.
A: Maybe they could run the light show. They could run the light show and put Elliot out front wrapped in silver foil.

How are you getting around? Do you have a dodgy tour bus?
A: Nah, we’ve got Graham, the hardest tour manager in the world, and a big silver coach that we call Moonraker. One that these guys manage to fuck up with disgusting crisps and food everywhere, within a day.
B: It’s lovely.

How are the festival soundsystems standing up to the audio requirements of dubstep?
A: Yeah they are. Some have been not quite right, but they have been more geared to bands. But we have been very surprised. The technology that’s there now, these rigs can handle it.
B: Things like Roskilde, I have to keep going back to it. It was perfect
A: That was the sickest soundsystem. You couldn’t focus on the screen, I was trying to hold onto the screen and hold my hand underneath just to focus on it.

Have you had any disagreements with sound engineers who don’t understand what you are doing?

A: Yeah, the funniest one, we played at Bestival (Benga starts to wet himself) and it was pissing it with rain, absolutely hammering it down, they almost had to shut it down as there was so much rain and mud. And so, I decided just near the end, for a laugh – everyone was crammed into the tent, it was the busiest the tent had ever been and so I thought everyone’s up for it now - I stopped the set two records before the end and played ‘Singing in the Rain’. Benga looked at me and sussed what I’ve done and started laughing. And Skream had thought the fella had stopped the set and was playing some other music and started to go and attack the bloke. So he’s screaming at the bloke, ‘turn this fucking shit off, we haven’t finished yet’, so the bloke’s going, ‘I’m not doing nothing mate’. The poor bloke. It was a good moment.

The Cyberman EP is out now.