“Ultimately, do you, and do you well”: Talking Tech with Laksa

It’s no secret that Bristol has spawned some of the UK’s most exciting electronic producers over the last few decades. Besides the city’s roots in sound system culture and being the breeding ground for the most influential dubstep pioneers, more recently its become synonymous with its bass-driven techno output, which has given rise to artists like Pev, Kowton and Batu and labels like Livity Sound and Timedance.

The latest outing on the latter imprint comes from another committed member of the Bristol music community, Laksa. Having made his debut on the label back in 2016, he returned once again in 2018 with The Amala Trick / In The Middle, filling in the gaps with EPs for Mistry, AD93 FKA Whities and Ilian Tape, and a David Graeber-inspired mix for Blowing Up The Workshop.

Off the back of his latest Timedance release, Sen On One, he takes us around his home studio and lets us in on his creative processes and his approach to production.

First off, what’s your musical education?

In a technical sense not much. Pretty much self taught with production. Dabbled with it around 16-18, attending the odd session at a youth club. Then I did a year at uni but it was mainly coding (not production like I expected) so I switched courses to sociology. From 20 I’ve just been self-taught. Such a classic Bristol response but I’ll say it anyway… just living and growing up there was the biggest musical education. Subconsciously I’d been soaking up sound system culture for so long as thats the life and blood of the city. It’s what makes it so special to me. Going to see Joker and Gemmy DJ regularly taught me a lot when I think about it too. Not anything specific, but their ‘Purple Sound’ meant they were in their own lane.

What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music?

Heavy as hell desktop PC with reason. I was pretty much using that until I was 19 and went to uni.

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

That would have to be my mini brute. It’s been such a key piece of gear for me, supplying naassttyyy bleeps, blops and basses to my music for the past 5-6 years. Only now have I stopped using it as much as I feel I’ve explored its sound enough and don’t want to overdo it.

Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Could you give us a little walk through the main components?

The MFB, Yamaha and Micro Freak are the bedrock of sounds/synths at the moment, with the Beatstep Pro sequencing them as and when. The Mini Brute and DRM are used occasionally, mainly because I’ve had them for longer. Then my Mac is the ‘mixer’ for these bits along with being a sampler for drums and other sounds. The Memory Man Delay and Reverb Pedals (mainly the Delay) are great for messing with too. You can really get some amazing textures and jams with the Delay Pedal.

Where is it located and do you share with anyone else?

At home with my partner. We’ve got a great space and it’s nice you’ve got the windows facing you compared to your usual.

What’s been your method for creating this studio? Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? Any key inspirations in pulling it together?

Just gradually been building it over the years. No method beyond trial and error, and trying to buy cheap bits of gear thats fairly unknown or not your go to. If you buy some Roland or Korg product, most likely you’re going to make something that is part of their sound. I’ve got nothing against it – they’re well known for a reason – but if you want your music to stand out, then it’s probably best to avoid those bits. It’s like only playing records from the best known labels etc. They’re sick, they will obviously go down well in a club, but then do you end up having a similar set to everyone else? Sure you can do your thing with it but it’s going to be harder to make it your own. The 303 really comes to mind here, it just has that iconic sound and if you were to buy one it’s going to be tough to not get lured down a certain route, which then closes off the potential for new ideas or things to happen. Once you use gear like this then it’s like the track’s already written to me, the future’s already happened, you’re just going through pre-written script.

What I buy has got to have its own sound. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge how it really sounds and feels by researching online so I have bought and sold quite a lot. I’m looking for something that isn’t a jack of all trades, ultimately it does something limited but it does this well.

Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio, by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change?

Yeah I’ve been conscious about switching up gear to keep things fresh. The Casio and Minibrute were the core bits before, with the former for pads and the latter for synths/bass. I know it sounds lame but I honestly feel like those two were meant to be lol, like this weirdo misfit couple.

For the two EPs coming out this year (including the Timedance one) I bought three new bits over a period of time and then got some new plugins/effects. The MFB and Yamaha have been essential, almost replacing the Casio and Minbrute combo that worked so well for so long. Then the Microfreak has been a great addition for weird and unique sounds. It’s really helped me learn synthesis too as to be honest I didn’t even really know basic stuff like how LFOs worked up until the past year.

You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?

The Casio. Honestly I can’t really put into words the emotional connection I have to the Casio. Writing music for me is very tied up with what’s happened/happening in my life and these synths, especially the Casio, have become a vehicle for expressing whats going on. I don’t think I realised at the time but writing tunes with the Casio was always a real release for me. It’s used for the pads for so many tunes, my whole Contrasts EP, ‘Draw for The’, ‘Hallyah’, ‘Amala Trick’… the list goes on. It’s just got this warm/healing yet ominous/dark energy, which is a crucial contrast to lots of the music I really love. The strange comfort you can feel by something that sounds so dark. Without a doubt my music would not be the same if I hadn’t come across this synth.

Plus a fun fact to throw in is it actually caught on fire once whilst I was making a tune haha. I could smell burning whilst writing a track and thought their was a fire in the kitchen, walk out my room and look back…smokes flying out of it. It’s still standing though. It’s ancient and I got it for a tenner so I’m not surprised tbh.

Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?

Can of black rat, big spliffy and a bump of K, Bristol Turbo Island style.

Are you someone to labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?

Was more the latter at the start, even though I did put time into mix downs for my early releases the arrangements were often too cluttered so I was fighting a losing battle. Some of my previous tracks really sound like shite. After asking for feedback I remember Bruce saying my track sounded like it was made in a cardboard box a while back lol.

Now it’s a balance between these two at the moment. That’s why I love having the gear because you get that raw jammy vibe with the sounds and then with Ableton it’s so great to manipulate and refine what you’ve done. So it has that raw energy but it’s under control.

Where do you go or what do you do when you have writer’s block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?

Not particularly. Just keep plugging away and not let the fear of making something crap put me off. Also being okay with not making music. Only in the past couple weeks/month have I tried to write new music in lockdown. Writing music is just not of interest to me at the moment, and that’s cool. Some people will find this time inspiring, others won’t.

What inspires you outside the world of music?

The personal and political. For politics something like the BUTW mix I did was super inspired by David Graeber and his ideas on ‘bullshit jobs’ aka how to get some meaning and worth to what we do every day. Had to mention him again as he unfortunately passed away recently which is such a shame. Just as long as I’m soaking an idea or mood up when I’m reading, so then it’s seeping into my headspace for when I do music.

Then there’s the personal inspiration. In Joe Muggs’ book the foreword says ‘when the music hits, we are instantly connected to untold life stories…something once important that we find it hard to believe got buried’ and I was like YES when reading it. It really resonated with me. Some of the stuff we’re listening to is people just squeezing out some of the stuff they’ve been soaking up – emotional sponges for dance floors. Where verbalising this stuff can be too difficult or just didn’t/doesn’t make sense at the time. My mum went into rehab last year amongst some other things so undoubtedly that was a big influence on how the tracks turned out in their mood and feels. It’s why this record and the next one are quite personal to me as it feels like I’m closing a chapter in my life and these EPs are part of that. It made the positive response to the Timedance record extra special, especially with no clubs to play the tracks in.

Congrats on the release! Could you pick a track and dissect its formation, in terms of the creative process and what you used.

I think ‘FWD Ghosts’ is a good track to dissect because of the stages of its development. Before even making the track, the research and time spent acquiring the gear I bought beforehand (plus making sure my studio is set up to get into a ‘flow’) and the samples I had collected was just as key as the ‘moments’ of making the track that day. Finding obscure & weird drum samples, picking out speech/vocals from youtube videos that have influenced me in some way, having a synth that has its own sound – ultimately creating a space where I can do something personal and different. I really don’t buy into the idea that I’m somehow more creative than the next producer. I just think I’ve got a strong set of values about making music and the importance of doing something different or interesting, which I really try to stick to.

To me switching the focus onto music being value-led rather than creatively or technically led offers a more interesting discussion and future for music. We’re living in an age where there’s an abundance of free information and learning about how to make music, how to get more ‘creative’, how to get this or that sound, whats the best synth or plug in to use, yet I have doubts much music currently coming out will be remembered like previous scenes or movements are.

On the flip people back in the day had such little information and basic set ups compared to now, yet it’s some of the most exciting and influential music. You can’t ignore the social, cultural and political influences on these previous movements as it’s in the DNA of the music. Still, the artists behind these genres (jungle, grime, dubstep) just had it on point with their approach and values, demonstrating the importance of doing your own thing and standing out to carve your own space. Ultimately, do you, and do you well!

What else is on the horizon this year that’s getting you excited?

2020 ending lol. No but seriously it’s been an awful year for many reasons but I still have hope for the better. Women have been denied making their contribution towards UK dance music (especially production) for too long, along with the slow but wholly felt erasure of Black and/or working class voices. If nothing changes then we’re all missing out so I hope the recent conversations will lead to some long standing change.

I’d really recommend ROSH’s write up on this issue. There’s some amazing artists who have been doing their thing for a while, like Suzi Analogue and Parris, plus newer talent like Anz, Jurango and Shannen SP, so it’s exciting to me that they will be influencing the next generation of artists. It’s also important we see institutional change aka who’s owning and directing the labels, club nights, clubs, media etc in music, not just visibility and change at a producer and SJ level.

As for me, I’ve got quite an exciting release which is soon to be announced. I will say no more.”

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