“More does not equal better”: Talking Tech with Kowton

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It’s taken Joe Cowton seven years of making music as Kowton to reach the debut album watermark. It’s a journey that’s involved many twists and turns across the techno landscape, from remixing RnB stars to body-shaking collaborations with Julio Bashmore, dubbier work on Livity Sound and Hessle Audio audio to more melodic house for Tasker’s Whities. Physically too, it’s taken him from the close-knit creative hub of Bristol to the big smoke in South London. All in all, he’s not rushed himself, but, as you’ll find out in the below interview, this considered approach permeates through everything Kowton does.

Joe invited us into his London studio, where we took some photos (shot by Lewis Khan) and had a chat about his studio set-up, creative processes, Ekronoplanning with Bashmore and how the album came together, with the help of a few notable names.

Utility LP is out 15th April on Livity Sound. Grab it from Bandcamp. Catch Kowton at Gottwood and Dekmantel festivals this summer.

First a little ice-breaker. What is your first musical memory?

Probably something along the lines of my dad playing The Fall in the car and my mum saying it was awful and them arguing about it. That or the Italia 90’ England song by New Order – I’d have been about 7 at the time.

You grew up in the Lake District and went to outdoor parties in quarries or hillsides, which sound equally fun and dangerous! How did they influence your own musical path, both as a DJ and producer?

I think maybe it’s easy to overstate the influence of those parties. I always mention them as they were as close to an organic dance music scene as we had in the Lakes, but the reality was often just fifty people dancing round a generator in a remote public car park. It really wasn’t much beyond a way for people to get battered and play records. We sometimes got to play a little warm up set or something but those raves weren’t really much to do with my close circle of mates. We were much more into just sitting about in cars smoking weed and listening to Wu Tang tapes or jungle mixes. I’m sure that had much more of an effect on my relationship with music in later years.

Shanti Celeste also said she went to similar ones growing up. Did you ever bump into each other?

Yeah I’ve known Shanti for years, we went to the same school and had a lot of mutual friends. She’s a few years younger than me so we didn’t really hang out much back in the Lakes but when we both lived in Bristol we worked at Idle Hands together and did plenty of drinking. She’d always try and bully me into dancing at raves – I hate dancing. Seriously though she’s great and it’s brilliant to see someone so genuinely into the music getting a lot of traction at the moment. We don’t play together that often but every time we do it’s obvious that she’s a fantastic DJ.

What was the first bit of kit you bought and started making music on?

I didn’t own any specific music gear for years to be honest. My introduction to making tracks came when I read in Muzik magazine that Logic was the best software to use, so I bought a bootleg CD of it off Ebay for £80 in about 2001. I couldn’t work it out for weeks, back then you had to set the environment window yourself and that was too much for a novice like me to get my head around. By chance the CD also had a copy of Fruity Loops on it. I installed that and it was pretty obvious how to use. So yeah:,first bit of kit was the family PC with Fruity Loops on it.

 

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Thanks for letting us into your studio to have a look around. Would you mind talking us through what’s there?

Fuck all at the moment! A mixing desk, a sampler, a few drum modules in a rack and a couple or hardware saturators. Hardware definitely does a few things much better than software – saturation, delay and kick drums for example – but I’m so bored of this idea that having lots of hardware equals great music. One time in the US, I went to the house of an aging rocker with more music gear than I’ve ever seen anywhere. He must have had at least ten of those little silver 303/606 Roland boxes. A few weeks later he put out one of the dullest acid house LPs ever made. More does not equal better.

In the eleven or twelve years since I started at music college I’ve bought and sold and borrowed so much equipment, it would look great if it was all in one place but I’ve had to sell bits to pay the rent or buy weed or different equipment and don’t really miss much of it. I quite liked the Tempest for a bit but the kick drums sounded weak. I had a Moog Voyager for a bit and made some nice sounds with that. I had a filter and saturation unit called the Niio Analog Core that was amazing – I regret selling that. All in all though I’m pretty happy with this super minimal setup I have now.

If you were pushed to choose a favourite among that, and (keeping with the album theme) one that’s more utilitarian, what would you go for?

The kick sounds on the Jomox Modbase 9 module are beautiful. As far as i can tell it’s the same as the kick on the Jomox 999 drum machine that we used for the Livity live shows. It has a beautiful rich sound and all the parameters are just there on the front panel so it’s super easy to tweak, there’s very little time spent pressing shift keys or sub menus.

Do you have a routine to get you in the right mindset to make music?

Just get out of bed in the morning and, so long as I don’t have a bunch of emails to answer, I just get on with the tunes. It’s pretty simple!

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Once you’re in the zone, do you always follow a similar creative process in building a track? When we spoke to Shanti recently, she told us the drums always comes first, then melody (until Gramrcy suggested the other way to combat writers block!). Do you use a similar distinction?

Most often I just get a loop running and go from there, my music is always percussive so it’ll just be drums and maybe the odd little stab or whatever to add some colour. Whatever melody there might be is usually part of the same rhythmic chassis; maybe a pitched tom or a bit of a bassline. That all normally comes in within the first hour or two of starting something new. From there it’s just a process of deleting and fine-tuning. That bit takes weeks or months normally and is a lot less fun but I think that’s the difference between an idea and a tune. The way you sculpt and shape the little nuances that make something sound coherent and effortless rather than rushed or forced.

You enjoy a diversity to your sets and productions across the house and techno spectrum. Does your creative process vary according to the style? Do you focus on certain bits of kit over others, or build tracks differently?

No, the creative process tends to be very similar. There’s always a starting point, might be a drum machine or a synth patch I like, making some sort of noise or pattern from it and then building on it and seeing where it goes. The process is how that then develops. Nine times out of ten what you started out with won’t even end up in the finished track but is a means to an end, the start of the conversation.

Is it important to differentiate your environment and atmosphere when penning different styles? Eg. late at night with a spliff for darker, moodier techno, and middle of the day with a beer for the housier stuff? A rather black and white distinction, but you get the picture!

My environment is what it is – I have a box room in my flat where I make all my music. It overlooks the a busy shopping street so there’s always distractions and noise that I have to contend with when writing that I have no control over. I usually write during the day when I’m a bit more focussed, I don’t write music to a script or try and set moods. I just sit down, make some noise and see what happens. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The tunes that make the record are the jams that had a vibe going that I was into and went on to develop further.

For Ekranoplan, how did you adapt your own creative process to compliment Julio Bashmore’s? Did you take away anything for solo work after collaborating?

Matt has a very hands-on studio full of gear – it’s kind of the exact opposite of mine. When we did the Ekranoplan record for All Caps we just jammed out the tracks on his gear, one layer at a time. I can’t remember how many sessions it took but the whole process made writing the tracks a lot of fun and we ended with a sound that wasn’t really native to either of our solo aliases. Once we had the basic arrangements in place I took the stems away and spent a couple of weeks fine tuning things but not really doing anything major. All the synth parts came from his Jupiter 8, all the drums were from the 808 or 909 distorted a bit through the Culture Vulture. With sources that sound that great naturally it really didn’t need much additional production.

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You walked us through a new live remixing technique you’re trying out. Could you elaborate on that a little for those who aren’t aware of the method, and also explain why you’ve recently changed things up?

I kind of hate remixes. In the best situation you end up with something that reflects the original but with a couple of your own signature stamps on it. In the worst case you spend weeks trying to force someone else’s sounds into patterns which don’t suit them and the end product is a disaster. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve tried to back out of doing a remix because it wasn’t working and been persuaded to press on only to be haunted by the outcome. When you’ve got rent to pay and a label is waving cash in your face it’s hard to say no. Thankfully these days I’ve a little bit more freedom to turn things down.

Anyway this new approach is very much in its infancy. I’d just like to find a way of making a remix sound like me without the struggle of trying to write a whole new track. I’m looking at using more traditional remixing techniques: spreading the sounds across the desk, dubbing a few bits in and out and beefing up the kick etc. Nothing too major. I’ve yet to finish anything like this so time will tell if the approach is effective.

Now for some album chat! As a self-confessed perfectionist, how was it completing a long player for the first time?

Long and tiring but ultimately rewarding. I finished it last November, I remember sending the mixed files to Tom then the next morning boarding a 28hr flight to Perth so I didn’t really get the chance to stop and take note that it was all done. Before that we’d had a busy month of shows and a US tour before that, preceeded by a week at Unsound before that so I was just exhausted. I’d wake up at 5am every morning with the most exact ideas of what i needed to do: turn a sound up, delete an echo, swap two sections. It’s amazing how hard your mind can focus when the drive is there to do so.

I think looking back I learnt a lot from the process. My awareness became increasingly zoomed in on minutiae but maybe that’s the way it has to be, as the album progressed it was all about shepherding along all these quite different tracks in the way that maintained a cohesive whole. There was about forty different tunes that could have been on the record. Listening to them this week I think on the whole we chose the right ones!   

Was there anyone else who was involved in the making of the LP? 

Tom was incredibly helpful and patient. I’ve a lot of respect for him as a producer and he was invaluable as someone to bounce ideas off and provide feedback. With the whole reductionist approach we took, this was particularly useful. Pev is great for honest answers when it comes to getting rid of unnecessary filler. On a more theoretical level Bake was very helpful. He’s got a pretty deep take on music, which gave me a whole other perspective on things. There’s often a bit of a wait for emails from Barkat but when he gets round to them it’s well worth it.

Beyond those two I was lucky to be able to get feedback off a pretty stellar cast: the Hessle guys, Pariah, Tessela, Taber from Meandyou, Bashmore, The Kelly Twins and anyone else I could force to listen; all gave plenty of useful pointers. I think writing an album is such a battle of confidence. All it takes it someone you respect to be into something – or the opposite – and it can completely change your take on things. Having an outside take on things really helped steer the project toward its conclusion. I’m very grateful to everyone who put a bit of time into helping.  

 

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You’ve said Utility represents a desire to write “concise music with purpose and direction”. What’s been the catalyst or motivator for such an attitude?

I wanted to make a record people would play, something that transcended the idea that dance music albums don’t work at home if they’re just a bunch of dancefloor tracks. I don’t think it’s too much to expect that a record can work in both situations. Increasingly there’s a large amount of labels operating in electronic music, releasing dance music that has very little to do with the dancefloor. This isn’t to say it’s not great music, but it’s not dance music in a sense that you can play it at 4am when people want to dance rather than listen. Conversely there’s a world of cold functional techno that does nothing  for me. What we tried to do with this record was to aim for that gap and come up with something warm and personal that could still compel bodies to move; music that’s free of peripherality but interesting enough as it is to command repeat listens.

Do you have any plans to tour the album with some live sets?

Yes. It’s still very  much a work in progress but I’m getting there. Soon as I’m done doing interviews and podcasts, the live show is my main focus.

Beyond the album release, do you have any other releases on the horizon? Any more Ekrano(plans)?

This is it for now. We’ve been so insanely busy trying to get this album released I haven’t had a turned on Logic for the past four months. It’s been nice having a break, I think when it comes to the next record I know already what it’s going to sound like I just need some time to get it written.  We’ve got a couple of Ekranoplan bits in progress too; again it’s just about finding the time to get them finished. It’s absurd that you spend all these years trying to make a living off making music, and at the point at which that happens you don’t have any time to write tunes. This will change soon I hope!

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