Spatial Awareness: an interview with Spatial

From 2008, Hackney-based Spatial began releasing distinctive minimalist missives at the margins of dubstep, each identified by a five-digit title, via on his own Infrasonics label. He’s since gone on to release music by other artists and worked with a variety of other labels. The following is an updated version of an interview originally conducted by John Eden for Woofah magazine in 2010.

"Varese wrote of music as being ‘spatial’, ‘sound set free, yet organised’."
– Kevin Martin, Macro Dub Infection (1995)

I’m holding a square white object in my hands. Inside the square white object is circular black object. The circular black object can be manipulated to make the air vibrate in a particularly pleasing way.  I have previously described these vibrations as “glassy”, “brittle”, “cavernous”, “deceptively simple”, “dubbed out minimal sounds”, “an orchestra stripped of most of its instruments trying to get in” and “a stoned cosmonaut trying to reconnect to the mothership”. These objects, and the vibrations associated with them, have been created by someone called Spatial, who is now sitting on my sofa.

What music did you grow up with?
I guess the most significant part was the whole rave lineage really. The first record I ever bought was Adamski’s ‘Killer’!

Was that because you’d seen him on Top of the Pops?
There was a bit of that, but also I think there was a connection with where I was living at the time – out in the ‘burbs near Gravesend. There were a lot of raves happening there. It was a Sunrise or a Biology – a huge, huge big one that took over the whole area. I remember getting up on a Sunday morning and there were cars all over the roads, up and down the pavements, everywhere else. There were a lot of kids, maybe a few years older than me that were really into this stuff. I think there was a tenuous connection, maybe someone’s sister had hung out with Adamski or something.

Were you part of that whole rave movement then?
Not really, I was a little bit too young – it was mates’ older brothers. I started a bit later, but I’d be all wide-eyed as they went off to these things. I’d smoke a joint in a local car park instead and listen to pirate radio. For me it was more coming to raves up here [Hackney, innit!]. Labrynth, the Tasco Warehouse in Plumstead.

That was breakbeat, early nineties?
Yeah that was Hardcore… but we went to stuff locally before then, when it was all a lot less defined. It was still just house music really. I remember saying I was into soulful stuff – it was all just mashed in.

What about producing, when did that start?
About 13, 14 years ago.

And did any of it get released before Spatial?
No… nothing! I did send bits and bobs out, but it was done so naively…

You were a proper bedroom boffin, learning the skills?
I don’t think it’s fair to say that I wasn’t interested in releasing stuff. It was more the amount of time it took to get a decent set-up. It wasn’t like you could just download a full studio which was good enough to produce tracks. I was still paying off my Technics 1210s three or four years after I bought them. I managed to get an Akai S2000 sampler and that was the same, a loan from the old man. And then I got a compressor one day – it sounds so quaint now, “
Oh, that’s how you get some fatness in your beats!” So the process took a lot longer.

Did those constraints help you? Just having one thing to focus on and play with rather than having everything laid on?
It’s hard to say, I’d love it if when I’d started I was given a stack like everyone’s getting now. But I do limit myself as well. It’s quite a ridiculous limitation, but I only use one piece of software for everything I do now. And until just recently I didn’t use any external plug-ins – it was Ableton all the way through. It sounds like a ridiculous thing to say because Ableton is so open-ended, but there’s still a notion of trying to get one thing and learn it well and learn its intricacies and quirks, rather than looking for the next sound or the next bit of magic gold dust that you can sprinkle over it. That comes from that gradual build up which happened over the years.

When did you know it was time to push Spatial productions out into the world?
It was going back to being happy that there was enough in dance music that was interesting. I used to go to Smallfish [electronica/dance/experimental record shop formerly in Old Street]. They used to laugh a bit because I’d go in there and say
Pick me out anything that’s caught your ear – I don’t care what it’s from, a noise record or a piece of reggae or an electronic record. You guys sit here and listen to this stuff all day long…”

So they know what’s going on…
…and I think one day someone passed me the first Hyperdub 10″, ‘Sign of the Dub”. Looking at what I know now, that was a fair way down the line, so I wasn’t tuned into it right at the start. But then it snowballed and I went down to FWD>>.

And was that a big deal for you?
Yeah, it was like a rediscovery. It’s easy to dismiss stuff, but if you get back in front of a sound system then it all makes sense.

Your productions are quite hard to describe, I think. Was it a conscious decision to make something a bit off-kilter?
It’s my cantankerous nature really. If I hear a beat and think it sounds a bit like an Untold one, I just throw it away. Nothing exists in isolation, but if it sounds too much like something else then it tends to get ditched. But then obviously there’s a whole history of stuff I’ve been listening to and that comes through.

I don’t want to be too process based, but I’m not happy just cutting up breaks. So, that has a sound in itself – the tightness of the drums when you’re making your own breaks. There’s a balance there, of it becoming like work. I have to vibe off what I’m doing, but I want to put a certain amount into it, and everyone’s level of that is different. Sometimes you’ve got to have a lot of patience!

There’s a weird tension where making dance music is a pretty anti-social process, but it’s obviously aimed at somewhere very social. Do you have the dancefloor in mind when you’re producing or does it just come out?
It’s definitely got steered more towards the environment than it was at the start. I thought I was doing that before, but when I listened back to the early stuff it was fairly angular. When I started DJ-ing again I wasn’t reaching for my own tunes… because they disrupted the flow! I’m quite happy to do that, but you don’t want whole sets which are too angular, it trips people up a bit. It’s quite hard to play experimental stuff to a crowd.

Photo by Richard Stow & Dizqo, generative processing by Spatial.

You’ve played some pretty impressive places though, like Dub War in NYC?
That was probably one of the best gigs, it was intense. I played after Headhunter which was a bit of a worry, but he got them nicely oiled and then I just… slammed it really!

Where does the minimalist feel of your Infrasonics label come from?
I like minimalism generally, especially digital art, sonic art. Someone asked me recently
Is it Raster-Noton, Snd stuff, or like Basic Channel?” And it is more the techno than the sonic art, but it’s probably somewhere between the two. The aesthetic had to be quite strong. I play digitally when I play out, so I’m quite aware that it’s a bit odd to put out records in some ways. But I’m also aware that I like the idea of the object and there has to be a reason to have the object as well. The music is one part of the physical nature of it.

It’s very strong. Do you have a background in visual arts?
No, it’s just something I picked up along the way.

What about formats?
I’ve thought about doing some things with the 10”s that have been out so far [they were compiled on the 2011 CD 
Infra001-4], each of those have been hybrid releases, [a fact] which has largely been ignored. The first release was four tracks, with two tracks on the 10″ and two tracks that were released digitally under Creative Commons. Every release of mine has been the same, there’s been at least one Creative Commons track that’s gone with it. But because they aren’t on the vinyl they don’t get reviewed by the shops and then people who buy it don’t tend to pay attention to those tracks. And [Infra004] has this [Holds up insert from the release]. Hopefully the curious reader will see the url here. When they hit the url they’ll follow the instructions about what to do. If you hold this up in front of a webcam it’s effectively a key and a lock system – it recognises that shape and unlocks it. It unlocks some animation and plays you back a track and you can get to the secret link to download the track as well. That’s part of the release in my book. You have to try and make it a bit more enticing for people to engage with it.

Why is that important to you?
It’s the cantankerous side again I guess! There’s room to challenge what a release actually is: Whether it’s an object, or something slightly more nebulous, a digital thing. Or whether it’s somewhere between the two. I hope that one would feed off the other, but it’s quite difficult to make that the case.

You’re making the process of getting digital tracks a bit more interesting, giving them that quest – of having to go somewhere and do something?
It’s a blessing and a curse. To turn people’s heads you have to make a bit of an effort to do something different. But maybe there’s another part of me that just wishes I could make club bangers and just put it out there. Massive Attack once said that they tried to make a club track and it sounded like a death march.

The Spatial 10″ releases are your own distinct thing, but you’ve released other artists as well. Paul Meme [aka Grievous Angel] was most insistent that I ask you about Jamie Grind, how did you hook up with him?
I exist quite a lot in the virtual world these days, so I find quite a lot of things that way. Or things find me. I think he just hit me up, same as Xxxy, same with Hot City.

Jamie just sent stuff through. Clearly he’s got a touch – it’s more on the pop side than anything else. He writes songs in a way, or melodic song structures: hooks. It was quite clear straight away that the production is very clear, very nice – it just hit me straight away. He very rarely sends me anything which isn’t good. We’ve got an EP coming out now which is four tracks of his.

Tell me about Gon.
He’s Italian, but has been living in Dublin for a few years and worked at Freebird which is the big independent record store. He’s got chops, he’s been in amongst it for a long time. He started sending me some wicked funky/house/hybrid/bashy type stuff. It’s solid as fuck, he’s just moved to London actually.

Is it strange releasing other people’s music?
The label did take a bit of a left turn. It started initially as my own thing, but I realized that was… a bit boring! I like to make things a bit community based, I like people around me. So it was nice to grow something up, not just putting these stark things out and sitting in your bedroom.

So the design and everything had to be different and I thought “well if I’m going to do this I have to challenge it a little bit” because it annoys me that things are so pigeon-holed. Put things out… but maybe contrast them a little bit, try and challenge it. And it doesn’t always work! If I’d put out four tracks by Jamie Grind on the first EP – no disrepect to Gon who was also on it, but I think maybe we would have shifted more copies. People can get it straight away and it goes in the right slot of the record box.

Harking back to the old rave stuff, everything was a lot more heterogeneous and I don’t know why things have to be so stranded off. I remember myself in the early days going to a record shop and thinking “fuck me, that weird Basic Channel record is amazing!” But then you go to your record box and think…

What the fuck am I going to do with this? On that note – any thoughts on the way Dubstep is developing these days as a genre?
All the people I’ve worked with take stuff from everywhere, they’re all a bit post-whatever. The global buy-in to dubstep probably is that half-step wobbler thing. That stuff works for me for about two tracks. But some people listen to it all night. There are people who are twisting all that around and putting other stuff in and making these mutant tracks. That to me is a lot more interesting.

Have you had any really bizarre reactions to your stuff?
The last rave we did, which let’s say wasn’t as successful as the first one [laughs]. My mate was on the door and a bunch of kids went out and he asked them what was up. And they said
“Well, we thought this was a dubstep rave.” But then ask Kode9, he suffers from this most, I think.

Paul also wanted me to ask if you if you’re “Garage ’til you die”?
[Laughs a lot.] No! The last 10”, I struggle to see the garage in it, but people still call it “future garage” or whatever. In the early stuff there definitely is. When I started to listen to what was on offer I found the “dum dum dum tish” a bit pedestrian, so I thought putting the skip in it was a lot more interesting. My mate ran a garage night back in the day and I used to go and hang out. I was more interested in techno parties at the time, but I liked vibing off the grimey stuff he was playing. But there was loads of that handbag bollocks as well, blokes wearing white Yves Saint Lauren shirts and sipping champagne. I don’t think I’ve got any garage records.

Do you see yourself as a Hackney DJ/producer? Local or Global?
Global, but rooted. I’m not from Hackney but I consider myself from London even though it’s not strictly geographically true. The only place I’ve ever really lived has been in and around this town. I’ve spent long enough in the Four Aces to know all about the Ragga Twins and all that stuff. But it’s funny – out of my circle of friends, hardly any of them are English.

That’s also quite a London thing?
It is, but… it’s quite violently so! [laughs]. I probably get more props from outside of town, I did the Unsound Festival in Poland. I did a podcast for DJ Magazine with some Octopus stuff, Portuguese MC-ing over garage beats, some global bass, London bass, tech, funky stuff.

Spatial at Cafe OTO, 2017, by John Eden.

[...] It’s been a while since we spoke… Is it fair to say that your recent productions are less minimal? More dancefloor friendly?

Yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty fair statement. I guess I’ve been playing out a lot more so that has an effect on the type of tracks I wanted to produce. The earlier 10”s were still very much aimed at sound system culture but with a more singular approach. I also wanted to have different sounds for different projects so there’s no telling if things might take a turn.

 The Infrasonics Infra001-4 CD comp wasn’t planned to draw a line under the 10”s but it’s naturally gone that way and I’m comfortable with it for now.

 In terms of the “Deconstructivist Dubs” 12” on Well Rounded, I didn’t write those tracks for specifically for them (in fact they were written around 2 years before) but they seemed to make most sense for them as a label. I guess some of it is just me exposing different aspects of my production.

You’re releasing material on a bunch of different labels these days. Is Infrasonics over now? Can you tell me about what’s in the pipeline?

It’s not over, I’m just I’m concentrating my energy on releasing on other labels right now. There’s a 12″ double pack [Spatial Sessions] coming on Stillcold imminently which I’m really excited about, it has a bunch of abstract soundscapes in between the dancefloor wares that were originally written for an interactive graphic novel, produced by Raz Mesinai (aka Badawi). Then there’s another 12″ on a new label Niche n Bump (run by Robn from Wifey LDN) coming a few weeks after. A lot of decent heads have picked up on that one which is pretty cool. I’ve also completed a 12″ for WNCL.

Interview originally commissioned for Woofah but eventually appeared 2013 online in The Liminal.