Inspired by Sun Ra, Star Wars and vintage drum machines, Nathan 'Tugg' Curran has just cooked up one of the year's most hard-to-pigeonhole long-players…
Salutations, Earthlings! I have been summoned by interstellar link to hold conference with rhythm superior Lord Battagon and discuss his latest transmission Trans-Neptunia, soon to be released on genre-bending London imprint On The Corner Records.
In the halcyon days before lockdown, Lord Battagon (aka Nathan 'Tugg' Curran) could be found drumming live for some of the biggest names in the business, including the likes of Basement Jaxx and Gorgon City. That work has obviously dried up in 2020 but he's taken a philosophical approach the enforced hiatus, kept himself creative, and now sounds energised and enthused at the prospect of his inaugural album release
Recorded over just a couple of days, Trans-Neptunia finds Curran playing live drums, synth bass, synth drums and FX alongside associates Martin Slattery (clarinet, sax and FX), Oli Savill (percussion) Mickey Ball (trumpet) and Jack Baker (drums). It's those synth drums that are the important bit, though: Tugg's gone a lot deeper than most into the weird and wonderful world of exotic percussion automatons, and his hoard includes many rare and boutique pieces such as the Synare 3, Stix ST-305, Klone 2, Simmons SDS 4, Sonic Potions LXR and Pearl SC-20.
With the album getting attention from the likes of Gilles Peterson and being described as the sort of thing that Miles Davis and Sun Ra would be doing if their mortal reach had extended to the present day, it would be a dereliction of duty to let this pangalactic summons go unanswered. Below is a transcript of our subspace relay…
The album is a labyrinth of different sounds and textures: some of the tracks you could imagine being played in an avant-garde jazz club and others, like Wezlee’s Disco Inferno, wouldn’t feel out of place in a DJ Koze or Villalobos set…
“Yeah, I come from a very dancefloor-oriented vibe, so it's just mixing all that stuff up. I'm not believing that everything has to be the same, it's just kind of like moving through different vibes. A lot of it was done off the cuff and improvised and I didn't want to edit stuff too much.
“So yeah, I kept it pretty raw. I love my underground house music and I love jazz as well, but I just wanted to make something that was a bit like, well, what's this? Some people get it and some people don’t, which is fine. With music, you've got to follow your gut, follow your heart, and that's what I was feeling.”
In some ways Planet Battagon sounds more like “acid jazz” than anything on the label of that name ever did… there’s a real juxtaposition of the acoustic and the electronic.
“I just wanted to be experimental. I collect drum machines and drum synths, always have done. I've got this 1979 drum synth called the Pearl Syncussion and I thought, 'What if I took this drum synth and instead of hitting it with a stick, why don't I trigger it with another drum machine?'. And I started getting all these kind of mad basslines that sounded quite jazzy – like an upright double bass, it had that vibe to it. So then I thought, 'Well, why don't I make techno and stick a load of jazz musicians on top but make it have its own vibe?'.
“Without the Pearl Syncussion, though, it wouldn’t be Planet Battagon. That’s what gives it its own sound with those basslines and blippy bits.”
You make it sound like it’s a member of the band…
“Oh, it totally is a member of the band! I mean, without that machine you can't really do much, because it would just be a straight-up jazz or disco thing.”
You've used plenty other unusual hardware on the album. Was it a conscious decision to avoid well-used stalwarts such as the Roland TR-808 or TR-909?
“That doesn't interest me whatsoever. Don't get me wrong, I love 808s and 909s, but I like the quirky stuff better. 808s are just everywhere at the moment, it's been done, it's kind of like the old record’s just going around again. It's the really rare analogue drum synths that interest me.”
I detect a concern that many in the electronic music scene are deliberately conforming to the requirements of their genre. Do you think with certain genres, there’s a preconception that you need to have a sonic identity?
“I think there is, and I think that comes across in the music as well. I can't stand trying to make music that just fits in a box. I mean, obviously, you want to make music for people to listen to and go, that's cool. That's why On The Corner has been a great label, because they just understand the vibe. I just want to make something that's kind of different and a bit unique to my ears and like I said, only some people like it, some people don't. Whereas some people, if they're trying to make it fit in the box, they always want everyone to like it. I’m just anti the box, basically!”
We're told many of the tracks were improvised in the studio. What sort of conversations did you have with the musicians before putting down a take? Did you have a framework or road map, so to speak?
“There was no road map. I was just like, 'I love Sun Ra, I love John Coltrane, play that on top of this!' The thing is, I really chose carefully who I was getting in the studio. I totally chose the people who knew the vibe and just went with it and generally by the third take it was there.
“Basically the B-lines were programmed beforehand and then everything else was painted on top. There wasn't much editing going on, because I thought if I start editing it, it's going to completely lose that vibe.”
I’m hearing a lot of different influences on the album, spanning a myriad of genres. Your listening must be incredibly diverse?
“My influences are all over the place, but basically Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, Aphex Twin, old school house producers like Cajmere and Masters at Work, Stevie Wonder obviously, and tons of disco stuff. And I love jazz, as I’ve said: I love Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, all the great jazz drummers. Steve Gadd is one of my favourite drummers.
“But definitely, for this project, Herbie Hancock. There's a track he did called Rain Dance on Sextant that was definitely a massive influence. It's weird I should say 'influence' because I actually never heard that track until after I made the Planet Battagon record. But it's really weird, when I heard that track, I was like, 'Fuck, this guy was doing this stuff in the 70s!'.”
Where did the concept for the overal Planet Battagon concept come from?
“I hadn't seen it for years, but I watched the first Star Wars film. You know the bit when they walk into the Mos Eisley Cantina and there’s all those weird musicians playing? So I had a vision of that. I gave them all names, and decided there's a planet out there and it's Planet Battagon, and there's these droids who search for space junk to make weird noises and sounds out of, and then they make this space junk music and deliver it all to me, Lord Battagon!
“It’s a bit weird, but like with my music as well, I don't want to be too serious. It’s got to have a bit of a comical vibe to it.”
As our transmission is subjected to cosmic interference from a collapsing dwarf star, our conversation comes to an end. We say our farewells and settle back into our respective Covid Sunday inertia. But Curran, a maverick force, is surely an inspiration for contrarian producers everywhere.
Strange times deserve strange music, and Planet Battagon is calling…
Words: Chris Lyth Pics: Kuba Wieczorek
Trans-Neptunia is out now on On The Corner Records