“It’s what’s between the headphones that counts”: Talking Tech with DMX Krew

Ed Upton is a man of many guises. Computor Rockers, Bass Potato, Chester Louis III and House of Brakes, to name (literally) just a few, but the one that’s made the biggest splash over the last 30 odd years that Ed’s been producing is of course DMX Krew.

Under this alias alone, his discography has nearly hit the 100 mark, and he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. As well as releasing via his own labels — the old school dedicated, 7″ delivered Fresh Up Records and the electro-centred Breakin’ — Ed’s taken his machine-made jams to a myriad of labels, from regular haunts like Rephlex, Abstract Forms and Hypercolour to sporadic outings on Balkan Vinyl, CPU and Spectral Sound

Not one to rest on his laurels, you never know what you’re going to get from a DMX Krew release, a sentiment true of his latest EP for London-based label Utter – three original re-imaginations of Level 42 tracks; a sincere tribute to a band he loved during his youth.

Off the back of the release we spoke to him about his extensive home set up, his creative process and the power of the mind.

What’s your musical education?

I taught myself basic chords out of a book when I was about six. Did some jazz piano at college in my mid 30s. In between I pretty much made it up. I don’t have any qualifications or anything. The hardest thing has been getting myself out of habits that lead to clichéd music.

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

It was a Bontempi organ in the corner of the dining room with four sounds that were all the same and six drum beats. One of the drum beats was broken and did this pure bleep in the middle of the pattern. This was the late 70s. We had a book of songs with diagrams of how to play chords in the back and I taught myself all of them. I think I’m still more interested in notes and chords than sounds. Later we got a Technics one with eight sounds, and the first instrument of my own was a Casio VL-1, I think Christmas 1980.

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

Define serious! I had a top of the range Yamaha home keyboard that was pretty great when I was about 15. The first things I bought with my own money were an SH-101 (repaired it today actually) and a Boss DR-550. I think I got that the day it came out, my first time in Brixton.

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

Soundcraft mixing desk and some patchbays, Neumann monitors, lots of bass traps. Fender Rhodes piano, two racks of ancient synths, a couple of MPCs, TR-808, some 19″ synth and sampling modules, a load of effects including an Eventide, some Lexicons, a huge, rare old Roland phaser, but also a cheap spring reverb and cheapo Boss and Alesis boxes from the late 80s. Modular synth as well.

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

In part of my house in Gloucestershire. It gets great sunsets. I try to keep other people out, although my eldest daughter came in and did some vocals the other day.

Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?

I’ve tried to make it possible to reach everything and play everything without having to hook up more cables. I’ve got the monitors sounding really flat. The only seat is a piano stool to encourage me to move about and not get too restful. I try to keep it tidy and bare because the rest of my house (and life) is quite messy and chaotic.

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?

I found a house with a good space in it, knocked down a wall, soundproofed under the floor, and did all the acoustic treatment before I put any gear in it. All the gear was bought bit by bit over the last 30 years, usually because it came up for sale cheaply in my local area. No plan. Knowledge was hard to come by when I started but I think most stuff is useful or fun in its own way. I haven’t sold much gear over the years. It’s maybe a bit too much now, it can feel a bit daunting, but I just ignore half of it.

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

It’s not the gear, it’s your mind. This applies to all aspects of creativity. I try and change the music often although we all have comforting habits that are easy to fall back on. So I just try to change my mind instead of the gear.

If money were no object what would you add?

24 hour synth repairman, and someone to operate the computer and de-ess my vocals by hand. Gear-wise, not much. I mean, it would be lush to have a Minimoog or a Prophet 5 but…. I have the money to buy them, I just don’t feel I need anything else.

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

I guess a decent polysynth or the Rhodes. In the end I like listening to the interplay of notes and chords and the rest is secondary.

How do you condense your studio set-up for your live sets?

I sample all the sounds I need into an MPC and just use that with a 303.

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

I have so little free time, I just try to get in there for an hour or two whenever I can and try to make it count. There’s no time for rituals. I have three kids.

What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?

The best tracks are the ones you have in your head for a week or two before you record them. If an idea stays in your mind for that long despite all the distractions of everyday life then it’s probably pretty good or at least catchy, and you can usually record it really quickly. But lots of the time I just have an idea for a sound or a few chords or even start with nothing and just noodle about on a synth or the piano.

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?

I do stuff fast and try to leave in mistakes but if something really needs attention in order to be good then I will work on it. That’s usually if there are vocals, or on more song-based stuff where I want to play a good solo.

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

Never had it. I just make tracks. Loads of them are rubbish but one or two come out good. I suppose my version of blocked is when I just go back to making straight-forward electro or house or techno without trying to stretch myself. But even then I still make something, even if nobody will hear it. Just keep on going.

What inspires you outside the world of music?

Nature, science, family, art.

Congrats on the release of ‘Turn It On’. How did you decide which Level 42 tracks you wanted to cover? Could you pick a track and dissect the creative process?

Perhaps I was lacking ideas of my own that week… I kind of wanted to do all of the first two albums but I ran out of energy after three songs. They were quite time-consuming. I just put the WAV in my computer and listened through bar by bar and recreated every detail. I wanted it to be a plastic version of the original, so I didn’t really want the bass to sound like a bass guitar or the drums to sound real, but I wanted all the notes and nuances to be there. I did it a bar at a time for all the instruments all the way through. It took several days per song.

What would you say was the most important piece of kit in the making of your new EP, and why?

It’s not the kit. I mean I used loads of kit and the tracks would have sounded different with different kit, but they would still have been my versions of those songs. It’s what’s between the headphones that counts. That might be against the spirit of this feature but it’s what I believe. People are fetishising gear way too much. I can make a record on analogue synths or an MPC or Reason or Ableton.

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

New album any minute now called Ghost Bubbles on a label called Terrestrial Funk, and another one on Hypercolour hopefully, plus an EP on Cultivated Electronics called Overseer.

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