Does street art come any better than this? Exploding off the global street, Dub Fx has honed a unique style of freestyle inspiration, rolling groove, deeply passionate and penetrating vocals and an overall flavour that synthesises innovation of technique with raw talent and an intangible magic. Harnessing both the direct connections of the pavement and the viral possibilities of the internet, his is the voice of the modern, conscious underground… He spoke to us
Give us a bit of background on your story
Well I started out as a musician, learning to play guitar and singing in bands through high school. And at the time I was playing in all kinds of different groups from heavy metal bands to jazz bands, hip hop bands, reggae bands, just trying to basically be as flexible as possible because I just loved music in general. While I was singing and songwriting, I bought this effects pedal for my guitar about 10 years ago, thinking that that would make me a better guitarist because you know I was pretty shit and, well, I’m still pretty shit. And one day in rehearsal I thought, if I plugged my microphone into it what could the possibilities be, because I always loved the way in dub music there was a lot of delay’s over vocals that also then carried through into dance music. Even in heavy metal there’s the Def Tones and guys like them who use all these effects and while you know you can do it in the studio, the question is, can you do it live.
So I started messing around with that original guitar effects pedal over my vocals while also laying them heavily over my guitar, and in the end the band was like Er, yeah it’s cool what you’re doing but why not stop playing guitar because let’s face it, you’re crap, we’ll get a better guitarist and you can just focus on the way the vocals and effects are heading. So I began to really delve into the world of effects, exploring and experimenting with different settings and possibilities, learning reverb and delay, compression, all that sort of stuff. Fast forward a few years, and I recorded an album of my own on the computer, just with Cubase and with the background of everything I’d learned up until that point, the computer opened up a whole new dimension that taught me even more about the various effects, their depth, their parameters, their range and what the true potential behind them was.. And then I upgraded the pedals and got a new GT8, moving from the GT6 to the GT8 and by that stage, I had a far greater knowledge of all the effects inside and it was sort of like a ping pong effect, I went from the pedal to the computer back to the pedal again.
By that point I was quite savvy with the effects, knowing exactly what to do with them, although I was still just using them on my voice in a live situation until I saw an artist in Australia called Mal Leb and he does everything with a loop station. He doesn’t use an effects pedal on his voice but he just has a mic going into a loop station a really oldschool one called a Headrush pedal and I saw him do a set with it, and I was so blown away that I went out and bought one straight away. I realised that if I combined the idea of these effects over my voice into the loop station I could come up with some pretty crazy stuff because if you’re not limited to what your voice can do and you’ve got the live effects and the freedom to loop and sample live, you can take it pretty much anywhere..
That coincided with me deciding to go traveling around Europe and I thought rather than working in pubs and doing all the normal stuff, I’d try street performing. So I came to Europe and it sort of fell together as I went. I started with backing tracks of all different flavours, drums and bass and keyboards etc that I would play guitar and sing over using the effects on my voice. But every now and then when I’d run out of backing tracks I’d use the loop station to beatbox in a beat and just freestyle. I had this album worth of pre recorded stuff that I was selling on CD and before long, people were like “ I really like the loop station stuff have you got any of that on CD?” I would keep having to tell them ‘no that’s just a freestyle thing that I do when I’ve run out of tunes, but when I got to England it became obvious that people were really into that because of the effects and the freestyle feel. I had all these kids in Manchester coming up to me saying “can you make a grime beat” during the hip hop style freestyle sessions. I had no idea what the hell a grime beat was, so they got their little phones out and they started playing me grime and I basically had to learn on the fly, there and then and once I’d nailed it they came straight back with “Make a Phat Bassline”
Shit I was thinking… Alright…. but because GT8 pedal has this function where if you play the guitar into it and select the synthesiser, the note that you play will be instantly synthesised. So it takes the note and just turns it into something completely new. You can’t play chords, just single notes but if I sing a bassy sound into it, it transforms that grunt into a bass note straight out of an electronic synthesiser. I started playing around, and realised very quickly that in England as long as you have a broken cut beat whether it be grime, breaks, drum n’ bass, dubstep, hip hop – whatever , a fat bassline and then just some rolling conscious lyrics people were magnetically drawn to it. I kept going in that spirit, never really practicing in the bedroom because it was just something that emanated from the street, just from people’s reactions and the travelling and that’s pretty much the story…. There’s no magic tricks other than that.
Absolutely. Basically you’ve got 3 different types of inputs so you could put an i-pod into it, you could put a mic into it, or you could put a stereo into it which is what I do with the effects pedal. Then what you’ve got is 3 loops running simultaneously and there’s different ways of playing around with them individually. But I’ve got 3 loops that all run simultaneously and I can select 1 of the loops and record as much as I want on to that one and then I can select the second one and record as much as I want onto that one and then I can swap between the two. Then I can put something onto the third one then and I can take the second one out and leave the first and the third one playing or so on and so forth if you know what I mean. The way I structure is that I have all my sort of percussive, drums sort of stuff on 1, some harmony in layers and some high end stuff on 2 and then some bass sounds on 3 so I can pretty much control harmony, bass and beats in their own right, take one out, drop one in and build it that way leaving me free to sing over as all the pedals and the loops are controlled with my feet.
Do you see beatboxing as an end in itself or purely as a platform to explore the music you are trying to make?
You see the irony in that is that I don’t really consider myself a beatboxer at all let alone a very good one. I mean , some people tell me you’re my favourite beat boxer and I’m gutted for beatboxers because I can’t make half the sounds some of those other guys like Beardyman or MC Xander or Raza or any of these guys can make. They are the real beatboxing deal. I like to think that I focused my efforts more on the singing and the song writing and that’s where I feel that my strength lies. The beatboxing is literally like 1% of what I do in the show – I use it to make a beat, I loop that beat and then I don’t really go back to it. So I only really need the core elements which would be the kick, the hi-hats and the snare you know what I mean.
With a kick, a hi-hat and a snare you can make virtually any type of beat you know and then the rest is how you play it, how you swing it, how fast it is and then the kind of sounds you mix with it from there on – to make reggae you still got your kick, snare and hi-hat but then you have your specific sounds, your reggae guitar sound and smooth sort of walking bassline and then you’ve got reggae. So I like to think of my beatboxing as more of a raw drum kit but nothing too fancy. I can’t actually do that stuff where they sing a melody, do a bassline and make a beat all at once – that’s what I call beatboxing. What I do is mainly just a bit of drums with my mouth.. It’s funny – as you say it’s a platform but I think in a way the fact that I do what I do on the street and it’s looped and it’s a very new concept at the moment is far more the thing that draws people to what I’m doing.
Free-stylingis what you’re known for but if someone put a massive studio at your disposal would you still use your voice for the beatboxing and the bass noises or would you use studio equipment?
Well I’ve done 2 albums at the moment, the first one is all live recordings that I did on the street that I just recorded straight out of the loop station and the live sets that I did and then chopped up the best songs and then put them on a CD. The second CD which I’ve just finished in Bristol, ‘Everything’s a Ripple’, I did that in a studio. I set up Cubase on my laptop with one microphone and everything on that album is made literally with my mouth, but in manipulating all the sounds with effects just like I would do on the street, instead of spending like a minute on the spot live making that song there and then I would spend a week refining the beat, re-recording stuff, just spending lots more time on them trying to touch areas that it’s impossible to get live…. Because it’s not just a loop on the computer, – I can structure, I can sequence things so I can actually bring in new sections to songs that maybe I can’t do on the street cos it would take too long to record a new section and then go back to the old…
The studio changes completely the way I do things. However the idea, the idea comes from the jamming in the street, in a way it’s more like I get loads of vocal ideas and ideas for lyrics and melodies and basslines on the street and then when I go into the studio I sort of refine it all and then I can add more, tweak more and in my opinion, come up with a better piece of music.
Do you find that playing live on the street puts you into a state of consciousness that you’ll never find in a studio, that you’re really losing yourself in the music rather than sitting behind a computer for a week?
Yeah I mean I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that a lot of people that have bought my new album have said that they prefer the live stuff, but you know I put my heart and soul into that album. I tried my hardest to capture the best that I could but it’s true about the live groove … There’s some bands that work better in the studio and aren’t that good live and there’s some bands that work better live and sound worse in the studio and I think I might be the latter. It started in the street , it was born as a live thing so to try to record it and refine it you kind of lose the energy that you get from the live. I’ve now decided that I’m going to treat them as two different things….I’m going to keep releasing the live stuff and then keep releasing studio stuff but try and keep them separate in terms of what I’m trying to make so the next album for the studio is going to be something that I definitely could never make on the street. Something that’s so far from it that you can’t even compare and then the stuff that I do live will be the essence of the street vibe, and that way people can get two ideas, two parts of my brain if you know what I mean.
What’s your take on street culture in general? Do you feel that the streets are a uniquely raw forum in an anaesthetised society?
You know, what I see when I’m out there is a small portion of society anyway. I’m not exactly closed minded but I do have blinkers on to a lot of stuff like advertising and the corporate media world. We just get bombarded and there’s a really cool quote in the Banksy book that I’ve got and it says ‘Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head’. His way of fighting back is to get some paint and draw up something on the wall and why should that be wrong it’s not an advertisement it’s art you know so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do such a thing and I feel the same way about bringing music to the street.
You go into a shop and you’ve got music playing on the radio. You turn on the TV and the radio it’s inevitably something that someone else has selected and you don’t have a say on how it’s being censored or what gets played on the main stream and I think to be able to bring your own personality into the street and let people hear something that they might not normally get a chance to hear – how can that be anything but right. Unfortunately the police don’t think the same way so they come stop you if you are doing something THEY consider offensive but as long as people keep trying to push the boundaries we’ll be OK. Banksy has obviously decided to take it to the next level and make it more mainstream but you know, fair enough he’s very talented, and it’s almost impossible for someone that good to stay underground for too long.
That’s another interesting question. Whatever the artform, if it’s born on the street people always end up being accused of selling out as soon as they try and A: earn some money out of what they love or B: trying to explore technology and explore different mediums. How do you react to that?
Have people accused you of selling out when you do studio albums and gigs
Well you see, the funny thing is, I was selling out long before I was Dub-Fx!!!!!
When I was in Australia, I was in a rock band, I was in a heavy metal band , I was doing all this reggae stuff and I was collaborating with house producers,making all types of music from the cheesiest of house to the heaviest of metal so I kind of worked to explore everything and you know some of this stuff got released – there was one thing that got on a Ministry of Sound Australasia Compilation and that’s one of the worst pieces of dance music you’ll ever hear. And I had fun with that I mean I was taking the piss really when I was singing on that and the funny thing is that it actually got signed and we made a bit of money out of it.
When I got to England I realised that you can actually make money because in Australia it’s very closed minded, reflecting a small population. There’s a tiny underground and you can’t live off drum n’ bass in Australia or anything like house music or even pop basically. Then when I got to England I realised that you can live off the music…..you can be a drum n’ bass dj and live off that or even be a producer or something so long as you get enough releases out. If I hadn’t come to England I would never have come up with Dub-Fx because the people’s mentality in Australia simply doesn’t get it. Mild, uncertain interest at best. In England people get it straight away. I don’t know, it’s just a different mentality So I guess I sold out in the early days and now I’m starting to do something more underground.
There was a song I did with the band, video and all, and that was almost our attempt at selling out. It was a rock and roll type song , we made this video and wanted to send it to MTV thinking ‘Yeah we’re going to be superstars’ and stuff and nothing ever happened. Four years later I’m doing this and then my mate in the band at the time thought “fuck it” it may as well go on Youtube cos it’s just sitting there doing nothing and apparently in Russia, there’s a Russian Facebook equivalent, someone found it and chucked it on there saying ‘What’s Dub-Fx doing? He’s turning into a rock and roll sell out and now he’s making all this crap music” I’m not selling out now, if anything I’m going to stay on the road I’m on.
Speaking of the underground, let’s talk lyrics. Your lyrics are incredibly conscious, how important is that and where are they coming from
Ok well the funny thing is that a lot of the lyrics that I’ve got date back like ten years nearly. In ‘Love Someone” there’s two verses that I wrote about five years ago, and another one I wrote about two years before that. I never really wrote them for that song they were just sitting there and then I came up with the chorus line, so even though it sounds like it all sits together perfectly, it’s a total hybrid. I don’t really write in too many metaphors and I don’t really write about stuff that doesn’t make sense to me. I generally just write anything that comes to my mind. Certainly don’t want to be sitting there going yeah … I got so many bitches and I got lots of gold and other shit like that, that’s not who I am anyway . It’s a way of expressing myself but it’s not…
I don’t even think of that while I’m doing it. I just write what I’m thinking at the time and I put it together and it comes out that way. I never wrote any of those lyrics expecting anyone to hear them either, it was more like poetry. I never even sang those lyrics in bands because I thought they would laugh at me if I came out with stuff like that. And then my girlfriend, she was reading through some of my stuff and she told me I should be making songs out of this and I was like, ‘yeah I guess’ and then I just started doing it…I couldn’t care less by the time I started street performing I just thought “F**k it” I’m just going to do what I want and not try and conform to anything and since that happened, well that’s when people started liking what I did. Obviously before, with the sell out shit I was thinking that I had to do something for the masses and that people are stupid as commercial acts always generally think which is SO not true because as soon as I started to do what I felt,and started singing the lyrics that actually meant something to me people started to grab onto it so it’s kind of strange that way I think.
The funny thing is, that to be honest is that I don’t actually pay much attention to lyrics when I listen to other peoples songs – you know it’s one of the last things that I ever care about with a song. I’ll listen to a song and I’ll show my girlfriend and stuff and I’ll be like this is mad and she’ll be like what are you talking about and I’ll be listening and she’ll go yeah it’s gun culture stuff and I didn’t even realise – I just listen to the bassline and the beat. But then when it comes to writing my own songs I’m quite careful, I don’t like to just come up with any sort of bullshit. It has to make sense. I guess I mean I personally don’t look at myself as a very good lyricist but other people seem to start saying that to me and I don’t really know how to react to that because it’s not something that I really put a lot of thought into.
I generally write when I’ve got nothing else to do I just get a pen out and start writing, rather than sit down every day and say I’m going to knock out some lyrics, but if I’m on a plane or I’m waiting for a flight – I’ll just sort of say something or put something down and see where that ends up and then I might not touch it for six months and then go back and I’ll see in some rhyme book that I’ve got four bars and that four bars will turn into like thirty two in like twenty minutes it’ll just sort of like just happen and then I wont come back to it and then I won’t sing it for maybe a year and then I’ll find it and think Ah shit that will work with this sort of groove and then I might fill in a few gaps right there in the moment without thinking too much about it and it kind of just happens. I guess in a way it’s more like a subconscious sort of thing for me I don’t really know what I’m doing while I’m doing it and then when I read them back sometimes I’m like “f**k that was pretty good” Within the subconscious there’s conscious.
I’ve got so many new idea’s. I’m trying to remain as independent as possible and I’m not signing any contracts with anybody about anything. I can get out on the street and if I wanted to I could just go out street performing for the next ten years and live off that. It’s very easy to sell music especially the way I’ve created my set up and it’s been a sort of an evolution to street performing. Once you know how to get the best sound on the street with the coolest idea and you know how to write songs quickly and easily for that, you can pretty much take anything on. So that was my mission and now I’ve accomplished that and I’ve got a catalogue of songs and I’ve got these sounds and it’s sort of just growing and now it’s sort of going from the street into the stages so I suppose the next step would be to do some proper live gigs I mean I’ve already done quite a bit of that but to take it a step further and not just getting a call from a promoter in another country and going off and doing one show and flying back – we are probably going to put together a proper world tour cos I mean we can’t really go on the street in every country.
I can’t just rock up to Moscow and start street performing or I’ll get shot in the head or something. You can only do it in certain countries, even in Spain it’s really hard if you are not Spanish to street perform, it’s almost like a mafia thing there – they’ve got their pitches and the Spaniards pretty much run it all and if some outsider comes in and starts taking their money and I will cos I’m very loud and I’m pretty good now at street performing and I know how to get an audience quickly and how to sell a CD. I mean I could sell a hundred CD’s in an hour – me and my girlfriend we’ve got it down pat but as I say it works really works in places where we are allowed to do it. So Germany, Holland, England, France generally the wealthier parts of Europe. So the future is mainly a big fat tour and I’m going to be making some records in between. I’ll probably record as much live stuff as I can and sift through that and put some live shows together.
I’ll probably do a DVD as well so I’ll try to film a few live performances and yeah make some studio albums as well. I’m going to make one for my girl, the flower fairy so we’re going to do like a children’s type album over hip hop and drum n’ bass So we’re going to put something together that’s more colourful for kids because she’s a primary school teacher in Manchester or she was,and she’s great with kids so it make perfect sense. And apparently loads of kids loved my live album as well so I think the sounds are right and I think with her voice over the top I think a proper album would do really well for kids.
She knows how to do it. I mean we’ve got so many ideas and plans. Live web streaming is something I really want to start getting into like going out on the street maybe in Holland and doing like a live show on the street an then streaming it live on the net, maybe even streaming like a kids show early in the morning. And I think the youth of the next generation is going to be more and more internet savvy, so maybe somehow do some website thing where we have like a show for kids an we do songs – half an hour or something but these are all things that I’ve got planned but whether they happen or not is, well…. they’re just ideas. I just sort of take it as it comes…