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Cracking the code

2019 Dec 02     
2 Bit Thugs

The dubstep veteran's new album 'Taygeta Code' is his most diverse work to date. Time for a chat, then…

With an ever-growing roster of side projects in jungle and techno, as well as a whole range of styles under his main alias, Jay Fairbrass has been on something of a musical trip over the last few years. But then, as a key protagonist in the early dubstep movement with strong links to the genre’s original blueprint label, Tempa, you could argue he’s always been on a musical trip… 

First bitten by the bass bug in the mid-90s and growing up to the sound of jungle in London as a kid, he’s been on an exploratory tip since day one. He even enjoyed a spell as a garage MC in the early 2000s, before he settled into the role of J:Kenzo and honed his stripped-back signature around the 140 realm.

The tempo was never carved in stone, though. Tracks like steppy half-time D&B cut Ironclad on his self-titled 2012 debut album, for example, showed signs of the wider canvas he was painting. But it wasn’t until 2015/16 when he started to show the full picture with a flurry of excitable experiments in drum & bass and jungle.

Doc Scott signed Jay’s drum & bass tracks like Rum Punch for his label 31, while Jay collaborated with Exit bossman dBridge and also launched his Specialist X alias with a series of vinyl-only releases on labels such as Stretch’s AKO Beatz. Meanwhile his own label Artikal was pushing the perceived dubstep boundaries with perennially gully jungle cuts from the likes of TMSV, and as a DJ he wasn’t averse to spinning pure drum & bass sets at nights like London jungle Mecca Rupture.

Last year these explorations developed again, with the launch of a techno alias, showing yet another side to the London-born, Belfast-based artist. But nothing he’s done so far shows quite as many of his musical sides than his second album Taygeta Code.

Released earlier this month on his own label, Taygeta Code explores an extensive musical terrain, probing the pastures between dubstep, grime, drum & bass and techno. One moment it entangles you in sinewy 303s, the next it’s plunging you into deep contemporary dub splash pools, the next it’s hypnotising you with thundering tribal drum & bass, the likes of which you could imagine Loxy playing. 

Not just his most diverse body of work to date, Taygeta Code is also inspired by Jay’s love of sci-fi and space. This loose concept gave him the framework to include the range of styles, and the album sees him adopting more cinematic approaches to certain tracks with his use of synths, atmospheres and moods. It’s a concept that helps him tread that infinitesimally fine line between diversity and narrative consistency. 

In a move he didn’t expect, it’s also inspired him to pursue even more experimental ideas in the future, and explore even further beyond the realms of the genre in which he first broke through. Jay’s trip continues…

Taygeta… that’s a star cluster, right? Are you an astronomer on the side?

"I’ve just always had a fascination with space, extra terrestrials and universes beyond ours. I was looking into stories of the Pleidian alien race and the title stood out to me: it’s one of the stars in the same kind of cluster where they’re from. I quite liked the idea of basing the album around a theme that’s out of this world, and focused it on more of a cinematic audio experience. It’s not all X-Files, Star Wars and UFOs – I still wanted the tracks to work on the dancefloor, but I wanted something bigger or deeper to tie it all together."

"My first album on Tempa was really just a collection of tracks all written over a period of time, but this was more of a concept and I really enjoyed making it. It took two years to make and it fell together nicely. I’m happy with the mixture of sounds, like a mixture of grime, garage, dubstep and cinematic soundscapes."

Every shade of Kenzo! Does that make it more of a challenge to make the album flow? 

"Maybe a little. The last track – Starseed 47 – is 130 BPM. That was easy to place in the arrangement because I wanted the album to close on a slower tip. I think the halftime and D&B ones had the darker vibe of the whole album, so listening-wise they blended in nicely, too.

"I’ve really enjoyed playing with different tempos full stop. I’ve been making techno under an alias recently and it’s been interesting to take elements of that and bring them into the sound I’m known for on this album. I think there are quite a few things people might not expect."

I was going to ask you about Hoodwinked. It’s a proper acid track, so I wondered if it was a nod to Josh Wink?

"It’s a nod to the acid house days and techno definitely but no, I didn’t even think about that. But there you go, it is now!"

What is your techno alias or are you keeping it secret?

"No, I’ve never kept it secret, I just don’t tend to shout about it. The alias is Hezziane. I’ve self-released a few bits. Mr C has supported some of them and Posthuman has played some tracks. It’s been a nice exploration into a different sounds and genres. I never want things to get stuck in a rut or feel like I have to stay true to just one sound or set of rules."

The less boundaries you have, the freer you are? 

"Totally. And that was the original vibe with dubstep. You had the techno-influenced stuff, the dubby stuff, the heavy tear-out stuff, the deep stuff. The techy side hasn’t been explored as much as it used to be. Guys like Headhunter really smashed that sound. I think Hoodwinked was a different techno vibe. Just a 303 running over aa halftime 140 beat. I wondered if people would feel it or not, but it’s gone down well in the club, so it went on the album."

Techno-wise I think Token Image taps into the genre in the same way Loxy does. Dub techno, in a drum & bass context…

"That was the first track I made for the album. I’m really happy with how I mixed it down and the arrangement. It’s quite long but it’s got that spaciousness and tribal vibe. It’s very dubby."

A while ago I was wondering if you were going full jungle, with those releases on 31 and AKO Beatz. Was there a point when this album might have gone in more of a jungle direction?

"Definitely. I had the idea of adding a lot more uptempo tracks, and there’s still a collection of tracks that haven’t made the album, all around the drum & bass and jungle tempos. I would love to do more of a drum & bass-focused album but I’d love to do it with the right label for it. Like 31… Doc Scott is a legend! He’s very supportive and a great mentor."

A kindred spirit perhaps? I’ve seen him play dubstep sets, techno sets…

"Yeah, he’s very inspiring. He’s got that legacy, he’s been there since the beginning but he’s still out there pushing the music he loves. He’s stayed true to what he believes in and he knows his music. He can tell the much wider picture. I’ve been inspired by that as a DJ. I’m finding I’m getting more and more bookings for 140-170 sets, too."

That’s a great sign of things to come… 

"Definitely. I think the new generation getting into dubstep and 140 music are much more open-minded."

Not so fiercely tribal…

"Yeah. And that’s great because I’ve been repping the two sides I love on my DJ sets, my radio shows and my label etc, so it’s nice people recognise me for more than just one genre."

It’s also nice to hear vocalist Lelijveld on Broken Dreams. You mainly hear her on Truth records… 

"Yeah, I met her through Truth, doing a remix of them. I kept in touch with her, we shared some ideas and Broken Dreams was the result. It originally had a full vocal structure with choruses, but I stripped it back to create more space, and also had a big synth solo that worked nicely with that track."

Flowdan, too…

"Well that was an instrumental for a really long time but I had this idea of having an MC on it and Flowdan came to mind straight away. Luckily he was really feeling it. His vocal hits levels, man! It’s very bassy but has the perfect treble that cuts across the system when it’s played out live. I don’t know that many grime DJs apart from Slimzee but it wasn’t a break into the grime world, just me seeing what’s possible and doing my thing with it."

As it should be. So you mentioned having leftover tracks: will they be found in future projects in some way or another?

"Maybe. Some will. I’m really into soundtracks and scores at the moment though. And the music I’ve been writing even more recently than the potential album material is inspiring me in a different way.

"If you take the drums out then the way the synths and the pads work together and build up, the feel of it, makes me think of the big screen. That’s what I want to explore more on the next album. I didn’t want to go too far out on this album and confuse people. But in future, who knows? I’ll carry on exploring these cinematic influences."

Which brings us nicely full circle to the "cinematic audio experience" you mentioned at the start… 

"Yeah definitely. I’m happy with how it’s all come about. The whole process. Releasing it on my own label has given me the freedom to explore a more conceptual idea and be more experimental musically. The last album was with Tempa, and Rinse was a much bigger outfit with a lot going on commercially. I respected that and the album reflected it, too. But for this I had creative control with how far I could explore and the artwork and all creative aspects."

Do you find it hard A&R-ing yourself? 

"It’s hard to take enough of a step back and hear the music objectively. I’m lucky to be able to play things to friends like Distance and my wife, who give me feedback. I guess it’s about not being too harsh on yourself, having a great network and being confident with your decisions.

"It’s so easy to go deep and overthink things, but you need to finish something or you’ll never let it go. I think some artists find that difficult. There’s always something else to add or tweak or perfect but at that point you have to go ‘okay, boom, done’ or you’ll never let go for it and no one will ever hear it."

And you don't want to over-work things, either…

"Definitely. It’s about that rawness and the vibe: no matter how cinematic things get, that’s the soul."

Words: Dave Jenkins

Taygeta Code is out now on Artikal – buy it here

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Tags: J:Kenzo, Jay Fairbrass, Artikal, dubstep, D&B, bass music, Doc Scott, drum & bass, jungle, 140bpm, Distance, Lelijveld, Flowdan, Specialist X, AKO Beatz, Hezziane, Rupture