Bristol Spotlight: at home with Ishmael (live A / V set)

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When us journos like to harp on about the ‘Bristol sound’, it’s focussing  more on collectives and labels like Livity Sound, Idle Hands, brstl, Young Echo, Peng Sound, Hotline Recordings etc. etc. But what of the musicians and producers who go their own way? Well they’re also worth shouting about too, as you may have seen us do aplenty, in relation to today’s Bristol Spotlight subject. With strong ties to WOLF Music and Church, Ishmael has quietly been going about his business in the West Country, making all kinds of marvellous music in the realm of melodic, deep house. His debut album, just released on Church marks a brave new step forward in his artistic development, showcasing a competent musicality and a strong visual identity, as you’ll get a feel for in the below video.

Instead of recording a DJ mix to accompany this interview, Ishmael invited us into his home to record a live A/V set. Watch and listen below, then scroll to the bottom for a tracklist.

Ishmael – Sometime in Space LP is out now on Church. Buy from Juno.

First, our usual ice-breaker. What’s your first musical memory?

I’m not sure I can pin-point one particular moment, but there was a time, growing up, when we didn’t have a television in the living room so we’d sit around listening to records as a family. Mostly Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Nick Drake, stuff like that. I was probably four or five.

You’re fairly nifty with multiple musical instruments and contraptions. What’s your musical background that informs what you do now?

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house full of instruments, my dad’s collected weird and wonderful stringed things and bits of percussion over the years so there was always something to play or hit as a kid. I guess formally I started playing guitar and violin in primary school and then went on to learn saxophone. I’ve always played a bit of piano as my brother had a keyboard, but that’s something I’ve never been taught. I also had a friend’s drum kit for a while that I played everyday for a solid year and probably drove my neighbours insane, that’s something I’d like to pick up again.

You’ve just released your debut album with Church. How was it approaching a long player format for the first time? Anything you found easier or harder than first anticipated?

It all happened very naturally. I’d been sending James tunes as a follow up to ‘Time & Time Again’ for a few months until it got to the point where there were four tracks and two interludes signed. It just seemed silly to cram them on to an EP, so he suggested doing a double 12”. ‘Salt Spring Falls’ and ‘That Piano Track’ were the first to get signed and that pretty much set the mood. I’d been writing some ambient bits around the same time that sat comfortably between the peak tracks and before we knew it there was about 15 tunes. I guess the hardest thing was having to let some of these tracks go, but overall I think it hits all the moods I intended it to. It’s definitely the most cohesive body of work I’ve made.

How involved were the Church guys in the creative direction of the album?

James was really good at giving me the time and space I needed to let this thing happen organically. There were no deadlines, no rules. I guess he had the confidence in me that this would work – something that isn’t always the case with record labels. I feel very lucky to be in a position where my work is respected for what it is. Sure there were a few edits here and there that James suggested, but these were always part of a positive process. Constructive criticism I guess.

There’s a strong visual aspect to the album, from the accompanying Youtube videos to the live show. Could you tell us who’s behind that and what sort of aesthetic you’ve gone for?

Almost immediately after the album got the go ahead I approached Amie Nowlan to see if she wanted to get involved. She’s a close friend and super talented animator/visual artist so it just made sense. We sat down for a couple of afternoons and listened to the album on loop, sketching ideas, hunting for archive footage & trying to visualise how we could incorporate it all into a live show. Aesthetically, we both wanted the accompanying videos to have their own narrative but also have the ability to form part of a bigger piece. I love how the video sometimes takes the lead in the show. There’s a couple of moments when the visuals for a certain track come in before I play anything recognisable, which people picked up on. I think we were both like, “wow someone actually knows what’s coming!” That felt pretty special.

How did the album launches in London and Bristol go?

Really well. There was a great turn out at both and all the feedback’s been really positive since. DJ Nature a.k.a. Milo from the Wild Bunch came down to the Bristol show which was pretty special for me, as well as lots of other heads, so nothing to complain about there! In terms of performance, it’s a totally new experience. I’ve played in bands and DJd for years so I’m pretty used to being on stage, but there were definitely a few butterflies knocking about! The show is me and a load of machines that could all go wrong at any point so there’s a lot of tension and adrenaline. This seems to rub off positively on the audience as they were really focused at both gigs. I think the visual element really changes the way the performance is received. It’s pretty entrancing.

You’ve also collaborated with Medlar on his new EP – not the first time either. What’s it like working alongside Ned compared to solo stuff?

Ned and I have known each other since school, so we’re very good friends. He’s the only guy I’ve really felt totally comfortable with in the studio so far. I think we know each other well enough for there not to be any awkwardness or pretence. It’s just a very fun and natural environment. I played sax on his new EP Juno – something we started about four years ago I think – so it’s nice to see that getting out there! We’ve also got a couple of other things coming out together later in the year. In terms of it differing from just writing solo stuff, I think everything ends up sounding a bit more raw and fun. There’s a lot of laughter involved.

Now for some Bristol focused question, with this being your hometown. What’s your favourite and worst thing about the city?

Bristol’s an incredibly social city. Everyone in the scene goes to the same pubs, the same restaurants, the same record shops. It’s very hard to walk down the street without bumping into someone you know. This for me incapsulates the notion of ‘home’. So in that sense i’m very comfortable here. I think Bristol could benefit with a solid small capacity club, that’s open past 3am, but even as I write this I think of the parties put on at Wilder Studios, Take 5, the stuff Dirtytalk and Alfresco do and I’m reminded that Bristol is a pretty special place for nightlife, perhaps a conventional club isn’t needed at all!

Where’s your favourite place to buy records?

My go to for club music is always Idle Hands, Chris and the rest of the gang are friends of mine, there’s always interesting stuff on the shelves and I’m put on to something new every time I go there. I very rarely go there knowing what I want, you just get a coffee and get stuck in. For stuff beyond the club I either go to Wanted in St. Nick’s Market or The Centre For Better Grooves, they’ve both got great sections of library music and weird shit.

What are some of your favourite parties to go to?

Cosies is generally a blast, it always feels like an extension of going to the pub. There’s the same faces, the same vibe, you can go down there alone and you’re guaranteed to know someone. I usually try and make it down to the Soulworks x Hot Buttered Soul sessions at The Plough. I’ve jumped on with them a few times which is always an honour as they’re some of my favourite selectors in Bristol. For something off the beaten track Dirtytalk and Alfresco Disco are the ones, although both parties pretty much instantly sell out!

Much of your label buddies are based in London. So you’re a little removed from the action. Do you have a creative network to call upon out West too?

Yes of course, there’s always a second pair of ears in Bristol when you need some feedback. In terms of collaboration I’m putting together some stuff with a (real) drummer that’s pretty exciting, just recording for the time being but I’d love to work out some way of performing it. I’ve also started a series of cassettes with the help of James at Elevator Sound by the name of Boiling Wells. It’s basically an opportunity to get some weirder ambient stuff out there with the intention of starting a label sometime in the future.

Are there any young and talented producers and DJs we should keep an eye out for this year?

Always, but I’m not sure i’m the guy to ask! I don’t really get sent music unless it’s from friends so I don’t really have my finger on the pulse when it comes to what’s new. I just picked up the new Matt Karmil album on Idle Hands and that’s pretty special. Although he’s by no means new to the game, I think he’s yet to really receive the audience he deserves. Also a guy called Mr. Fries who put a record out on Wolf last month is great. I’m sure he’s on to a winner.

The mix you’ve done for us is a little different to normal: all your own material, and filmed live with some visuals. Why did you opt for this route, and what can people expect on the music front?

It’s basically a live ‘dub version’ of the LP with a couple of extra bits chucked in . I originally got into the production side of things after hearing dub music, people like King Tubby, Mad Professor & Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. I was totally obsessed, spending hours trying to work out how they made those sounds. I loved how they could breath new life into a song. They’re effectively making instrumental music with only a few elements that doesn’t get boring.

That’s pretty much the same way I approach dance music, so when it came to putting together a live show, that’s exactly how I wanted to do it. The core elements of the tracks are at my control on a mixing desk with sends to a reverb unit and a tape delay. I can then add live instrumentation as and when I see fit. I have a couple of synths, a piano and my saxophone all there plugged in ready to go. I’ve also got a cassette player hooked up playing various field recordings I can bring in and out.

This is basically how I work in the studio as well. I’ll get the basics of a track down, whether it be drums or a melody and then I have all these things I can try out around me set up ready to record. It’s very productive that way. If the sax isn’t working I can turn around and put some synthy bits down, if that doesn’t work I have a piano set up.

Beyond the album, what’s coming up on the horizon we should look out for?

I’m going to let the album breathe for a few months. It’s a strange process letting something like that go, you have to accept that it’s time for people to have their own relationship with it. Going in to summer, I have a couple of clubbier records coming out, one is a straight up unedited, live MPC 4 tracker with Ned, the second a full EP on Wolf Music Recordings. I’ve also got a couple more cassettes coming out sporadically through the year on Boiling Wells. Come September, I’d love to take the live show on the road, maybe expand it, use a live drummer. There’s lots of ideas bubbling away.

Tracklist

00:00 – 01:50 – Untitled Improvisation
01:50 – 05:44 – Intro (To The Stars)
05:44 – 13:14 – Salt Spring Falls
13:14 – 18:14 – In Sun (At One)
18:14 – 21:31 – Careful Now (You’re On Your Own)
21:31 – 29:15 – That Piano Track
29:15 – 32:55 – From The Corner (Out)
32:55 – 35:42 – The Leviathan
35:42 – 40:06 – The Window
40:06 – 45:28 – Bloom (Beat Version)
45:28 – 52:16 – Titan, My Friend

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