Speaking to Martyn, the first thing that strikes you is his sincerity. He talks freely whilst also taking his time with his words, making sure he really means what he says. It's a trait that, on reflection, must have served him well over the years; writing music, playing records and guiding tastes with the same sincerity that's made him one of the most respected working in electronic music today. Having first made his name as a DJ in Europe, Martyn has gone onto release on his own label 3024 (2009's Great Lengths), L.A.'s lauded Brainfeeder (2011's Ghost People) and now, this month sees the release of The Air Between Words, which we are thrilled to bring you the premiere of in full.
Released on June 16th on Ninja Tune, The Air Between Words finds Martyn doing justice to the insistence that he "floats" between styles to create a mood that speaks to him; a lifelong love of techno and house, with inflections of dubstep, ghettotech, electronica - frankly, it's less of a list and more of a deep, stirring pot. You can listen to The Air Between Words in full, and read our interview with the man himself, below.
THUMP: I find The Air Between Words a very interesting album, as it’s the first of yours (perhaps due to chronology alone) I’ve felt really pull together your history in the Dutch and European house and techno scenes, and your life in the US. Having played for so many years in Europe, and seeing dance music explode in the US, what changes have you seen in recent years?
Martyn: As far as playing in the US goes, there's been quite a lot of changes. I've been living here for five or six years. In the beginning, I'd play at all of these dubstep related events because people were classifying me as dubstep. It became increasingly hard to play good gigs because here, there was that transition between the old dubstep and what now is dubstep or EDM, or whatever.
More often than not, I was stuck in line-ups where the people before and after me would play this really ridiculous brostep music. It just became really depressing. If you play all of this amazing, deep stuff, if the first record of the guy after you is this climactic explosion, it takes away everything that you've done two hours before that. After a while I just became disillusioned with playing in the US. I actually didn't really pursue a lot of gigs for about two years.
What did you do in that time? You’re playing out a lot more now, what changed?
Martyn: Well, that EDM sound disappeared from the clubs and went into the festivals and open air raves. All the Skrillex's of this world? None of them play clubs anymore. I think that was really good for the club scene. Most of the clubs - especially in the major cities - went back to booking good people again. They were going for a different sound. Now that I'm playing more gigs in the US again, you really notice that the quality of the nights has been raised a lot. It's actually a lot of fun to play in the US now.
Gigs aside, why do you stay in the US as opposed to the usual hotspots like Berlin?
Martyn: I wanted to build a personal life here. That's why I didn't want to go to Berlin. I was still playing here and there - like Decibel Festival, or something for Red Bull - but it's only in the last six to eight months that I've been doing more US stuff again. Now it's actually quite healthy, I also started playing more and more vinyl. That gets a really nice reaction over here, because it just gives you a bit more of a positive attitude and you show as a DJ. That you put in the hours to drag all of that stuff into the club, play it and make it worth someone's money.
Well, they do say to that become a master of anything, you need 10,000 hours of practise.
Martyn: Well that, and you should be setting an example. I can totally understand why a lot of kids want to be DJs now. If you show up with a USB stick and wave your hands in the air, that sounds like a really easy thing to do, that you need zero practise for. I think if you come in dragging 70 records and you're carefully changing needles, putting on the records, making sure everything is mixed tightly, you show some sort of dedication and people will think “Wow, this is a craft. This is something people have been trying to perfect for years before they show up here for us”.
If I would see something like that I'd gladly pay 15 or 20 bucks for the night, but if I see someone showing up being all nonchalant about it? I don't want to spend money seeing that. I can do that myself. I think that's different not just in experience, but in perception. What do you show as a DJ and as a music-lover? I'm there to engage people.
If you want to do that, then at least show that you put in the hours yourself. Especially if you play smaller gigs, or in places outside of the major cities for instance. People really appreciate it. You walk in with your bag and they're like, “Wow, you're going to play vinyl tonight?!” They're all really happy and I haven't even played a single track yet. They love that, and understandably so.
I had a really interesting conversation with Jeff Mills recently, and he said that he feels techno is gradually becoming less of a club experience, and more of a “listening” experience. I feel this has (perhaps a slightly tenuous) connection to where a lot of producers and DJs see the “usefulness” of techno; “this is a track I can play in a club, and enjoy at home”. I’ve been wondering: why does it need to be both? Where’s the benefit in this necessarily?
Martyn: When Jeff Mills started, the records that were made, they were just music. Some of them were played out and some were listened to at home, but there was really not that much of a distinction - especially if you listen to the earlier Underground Resistance stuff. Some of it is brutal, but there’s enough depth to it and the sound is interesting enough to also listen to at home.
I never make that distinction, however. I never make dance floor music or for home listening. It’s the same with DJing. I think you can make any track into a dance track if you play it well. I play David Bowie, Pet Shop Boys, stuff with no beats - you can do all that if you just manage to place it at the right time, and so that people are ready for it.
Back to your sound, specifically. Now that The Air Between Words is your third album, how do you feel about the relationship between your production and DJ mindset? I know this may feel slightly vague, but I feel you’re one of the few I can readily think of that are as known and well liked for their productions as their DJing.
Martyn: I think people regard me more as a producer than as a DJ. But it's kind of the other way around, because I DJ'd long and long before I even starting thinking about making music. I was DJing for about nine years before I even made my first track. It was only when I felt that there was a major gap in the music that I wanted to play that I decided to try.
What did you feel you were missing then?
Martyn: Basically, when I started out in the early 2000s, the drum ‘n’ bass at that time was split two ways. One was really dark, harder, techno-y sound, with people like Optical and Bad Company, and there was another split to a very melodic, jazzy sound, like Hospital Records. For me, there was not really anything in between that combined the two; that was a little tough as well as soulful, which is a lot of the really great techno is about.
I really wanted to have something like that, and there wasn’t enough for to transition between in my sets. I just thought that I'd just have to make that stuff myself, so that's what I did and I tried to come up with things that were both tough and sexy sounding, as well as having strong melodies so you can actually hum. So, that's how I started making music. Trying to find a bridge between those two.
Later, I started to bring that same idea to other genres without knowing it - even what people call my dubstep music. It was bridging between techno and purer, reggae-influenced dubstep. Even the music I'm making now is floating between different genres. It's not really techno, it's not really house, it's not really electronica - if you want to call it that. It's just something that floats in between.
“Floats” is definitely the right word for your sound. I’ve thought this about your collaborative work especially over the years: Dbridge, Modeselektor, Mike Slott, Spaceape - you’ve accumulated a small but hefty and varied arsenal without sounding outside yourself.
Martyn: Ha, yeah, and it’s actually fun too! It's the same with recordings for labels. I always think it's an achievement because to be able to make records for different labels that are very far apart from each other. It’s actually something I aim to do - instead of just being tied to one sound, or one scene. I mean, obviously, you need those people too, because otherwise there would be no scene, but that would never be me. That's for the Hatcha's and Mala’s of dubstep say, or the Underground Resistance’s or Jeff Mills' of techno. I don't ever consider me one of those people. I like the sort of floating.
On the collaborative note, you’ve worked with Four Tet and Inga Copeland on The Air Between Words. Both are great, very different - and I really did not expect the Copeland track. How did both come about?
Martyn: With Four Tet, it was interesting because he has such a different background from me, but over the years we've come closer together. He started as a “folktronica” artist, or some weird sample guy, then went housier and more UK-influenced. I came from a completely different world, mainly drum n bass and a bit of dubstep, and from there, onto where I am now. It's fun to see how we've reached somewhere in the middle. I sent him a sketch that I'd done that had a good melody, but didn't have anything else to it. He gave me some input and that's how the track developed. Truth be told, I was never really that fond of collaborating in the first place.
Martyn: I was a bit insecure about my music. I always thought that if I collaborate I'm just showing off my tricks to someone else, and I don't really want that. I was also afraid that most collaborations are never really that great. They’re rarely the sum of their parts.
I’ve been thinking this a lot myself lately. I feel that there are just constant collaborations happening, and I’ve felt inspired and surprised by so few. Also, I’ve come to really dislike the idea of super-quick/random collaborations like Songs From Scratch. Is there any merit in speed, really? Not every disparate tangent has to inevitably meet….
Martyn: It doesn't have anything to do with music. First of all, I'm really slow, so I could never do the ten minutes thing, but second of all, it's totally uninteresting. When you actually buy a record you want to have a really great record, you don't care whether it’s been made in ten minutes, half an hour or seven days, it doesn't matter.
But, to come back to the collaborations, what I tried to do was let my guard down and have other people influence me. Some people just have better ideas than me, ha, it sucks. It's just hard to hard to admit that because when you're making music, you're supposed to be quite confident about your own abilities. Now though, I see it as maybe you're actually more confident about your own music if you can let people in.
What head space were you in for the Copeland collaboration? Did you work in the studio together? All most of us know of Copeland is that we know almost nothing about her. I’m fascinated by her.
Martyn: Well, she has vastly different skills to what I have, and that's why this works so well. She's a good songwriter and has an amazing, very interesting voice that no one else has. She has lots of demos that she records and sends to me, and I've sent her back audio. It's also fun to play live with her because of that, basically. For some of the tracks that we've done, I sent her musical ideas and she comes up with lyrics and melody lines. Other stuff is basically based on her demos. It depends per track.
Finally, how would you describe The Air Between Words?
Martyn: I think, for me, it feels like a really stripped down version of everything I've done before. All the music, in my mind, is quite simple. It has really strong melodies and basslines, but there's really not much fat to it. It's a very lean album. I guess that just makes it a natural album too. I'm happy with what I've done because it's taken a long way to get here. The only thing I'm worried about is the next album now.
Martyn - The Air Between Words is released on Ninja Tune on June 16th
You can follow Lauren Martin on Twitter here: @codeinedrums
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