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Producer Interview Series – Context

In this new series I interview some regular Fat As Funk mastering clients who have some interesting stories behind their music.

Here we chat with Context – a producer and MC who has released records on Sony, and is also a university lecturer and author. We’ve had the pleasure of mastering several banging tracks of his over the years, and he’s an all-round interesting fella.


What was the first moment in your life that really stands out as the driving force behind your musical path?


My Dad used to be in a band playing in pubs and things when I was younger so we would play guitar together. My little brother had a drum kit so we used to do learn songs so I’ve always loved music. But in terms of writing my own stuff, I started off doing battles for some fun, but it really started when I first moved out of home. I was working in a call centre in Norwich, living with my girl and my mate in a fairly skanky house and I just wanted to make tunes about my life. The UK hip hop I was into at the time felt really abstract and I wanted something that spoke to lads like us.


How long have you been writing & producing music?


I started properly releasing music seriously with a tune called ‘Off with Their Heads’ which came out in 2011
Off With Their Heads:

What tracks are are you most proud of, & why?


There are two that stand out. One called ‘Drowning’, which to be honest was mainly for the video. We shot the whole thing underwater and it was just an incredible experience. For an unsigned rapper, I still think that video is crazy all these years later. The other one was getting to work with Mike Skinner for his remix of ‘Small Town Lad Sentiments’. He was always a bit of a musical hero of mine so getting to work together was a bit of a dream come true to be honest

Drowning:

Small Town Lad Sentiments with Mike Skinner

When in your musical life have you felt the most nervous?


Filming that underwater video was insane. I had a panic attack 20 feet underwater. That was pretty scary!


What was the most inspiring gig/festival/club night you went to in your youth? & what stood out as being special?


There are a few that jump out. It wasn’t even really my youth (!) but the first time I went to Amnesia in Ibiza was unforgettable. It was Eric Prydz and Above and Beyond. Mindblowing night. One I really remember was when it was insanely late and we were still out and we stumbled totally by accident on a night which used to run at Cable called Jaded. It started at 5am and ran until 2pm the next day. Completely insane nights.


Have you been to any music industry conferences (MIDEM, SXSW etc)? If so, what aspect/s did you find most valuable?


Recently I’ve actually found myself being invited to speak at a lot of these panels mainly about my work on mental health and the music industry. I did a research project called ‘Can Music Make You Sick’ which was about the struggles of a creative career, and that’s taken me all over the world to speak about it. I tend to find the artist panels a bit misleading to be honest and overly positive. They tell artists that everything about music is great and its never been better or easier to be an artist. I feel that whole techno-positivism a myth and totally unhelpful for young artists generally.


I read your report which was very insightful and helpful. The first 8 bullet points raised really sum up what it’s like living in this precarious, addictive, rewarding and draining pursuit that we call the music business. As well as mastering, I make music too of course, & it’s been the biggest source of both joy & pain in my life. The juxtaposition of pride & self-revulsion, joy and pain is intense. When you get a “win” it fuels hope and brings excitement and money, but that can quickly be replaced once more with feelings of hopelessness and anxiety for the future. It was actually very comforting to read so many quotes from musicians feeling a similar way and that these feelings often go hand in hand with being a musician. The study, in true music form, also made me feel a little bad at the same time in the sense that if this is who we are, there is not necessarily long-term escape from these feelings… But at least now I can stop TRYING to escape the feelings, & instead embrace them (in a way) and figure out coping strategies, and focusing on the positives instead of feeling crushed. I found this a hugely positive change in mindset, and in a weird way made me feel better about the low points of being a musician in general, and more determined to relish the great bits, of which there are many – enough to overshadow the crap bits anyway. I can’t wait to read the full book when it comes out on the 28th September!


Has being a musician affected your personal relationships, either in positive or negative ways?


This actually speaks to a lot of what I’ve been doing in my research over the past few years. Music is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’ve met some incredible people and its led to many of the things I do now in my professional work as an academic. On the other, you have to acknowledge that being a career musician can be extremely destructive on your personal relationships and actually can be really unhealthy.


Have you had to diversify much across your music career, in order to pay the bills at times? What else have you done while building up your music career?


Alongside making music I am an academic. I lecture at both Goldsmiths (University of London) and Westminster University. There was a period of time where music was my sole income, when I first signed to Sony and got a fairly decent advance – but that doesn’t go very far in London!


What aspect of the music industry have you found hardest to gain traction in? And how did you overcome the resistance?


To me the biggest challenge, being from outside London was contact acquisition. Getting to know the people at radio and the journalists etc. It wasn’t hard I would say – it just takes a long time to figure out who’s who and how to play the game. It takes years


Tell us about a couple of musical breaks you had that really made you feel you’d progressed forward in your career.


Moving to London was the best thing I ever did. To be honest I wish I had done it sooner. That led to me signing with my manager which was a big deal for me. The biggest thing really was signing with Sony and the cash hitting my bank after years of being completely broke. That was a huge achievement for me. I also loved performing at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Norwich, because it was in my home town. That was special

Are there any good Music books that you have learned a lot from & recommend?


My book called ‘Can Music Make You Sick’ will be out this year! Hopefully that interests people. Otherwise, my favourite one is probably ‘The Triumph of Music’ by Tim Blanning. Really interesting history of musicians role in society.


What’s your favourite movie soundtrack? Why?


The soundtrack to Jackie Brown is vibes. SuperFly by Curtis Mayfield too.


Your top tip for aspiring musicians?


Make sure you have someone close to you who’s opinion you really value and respect, and then when they give you their opinion, listen to them. Every artist thinks that they do is amazing (generally) – its important to have someone around to balance you out!


What are your upcoming musical plans?


Well, I returned the answers to this interview with a new track for Fat as Funk to master! So when that comes back, I’ll be dropping that!

Thank you for your answers!

All musicians should read this initial study: Can Music Make You Sick? https://www.musicmindsmatter.org.uk/the-study/.

Context’s book “Can Music Make You Sick” – the complete and expanded study on musician’s mental health is released on September 28th.

If you are a musician who needs a little help, including free therapy (much faster than through other channels) visit this site: https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/

Check out some Tweets by Context:

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Producer Interview Series – Arrival Sound System

In this new producer interview series, I interview regular Fat As Funk Mastering clients whom I’ve got to know over the years, & have some interesting things going on musically.

First up is reggae producer Hal, from the Arrival Sound System, who has recently released the sublime album “Voices”. A collection of blissful positive dubwise vibes, featuring a variety of different vocalists. A perfect refresher from the stressful world of today.

What was the first moment in your life that really stands out as the driving force behind your musical path?


Buying my first DnB 12”. I think it was by Peshay. I can’t remember the name but I can remember what it looks like… That was the first step into DJing which led to production, learning keys etc.

How long have you been writing & producing music now?


Since age 15 so that’s coming to 20 years in august, I had no idea that much time had passed!

What album/track/collaboration are you most proud of, & why?


The album I’ve just finished which you mastered! An all female voices reggae album called… Voices Its definitely the best thing I have ever made!

Was there a particular piece of equipment/unusual instrument/recording technique that stood out as especially important during the making of that session?


It would be my new Ableton Push! Having gone through loads of different controllers and keyboards over the years I have finally found something that bridges the gap between human and computer! Music music making so much more of a collaboration, before I always felt separate from the computer and with the push it feels like the computer has become an instrument. You can fly around your DAW at a lighting speed and scroll though scales without changing your hand shape and then add tracks/plugins and mix and play and more and more.

Ableton Push


Are there any moments in your musical life where you still feel really nervous?


I still feel nervous before a live show or in fact a live stream. Standing behind the controls ready to play your original music is like opening yourself up to the world and as an introverted person that always makes me nervous and I actually hope it always will, it is what makes playing this game worth it!


What aspect of the music industry have you found hardest to gain traction in? And how did you overcome the resistance?


Getting booked for shows or festivals, it has been very hard to cope with so much rejection! Sending countless emails off into the void of no reply or worst getting a reply that leads to nowhere. The only way to overcome the resistance was to teach myself to care less or cultivate no attachment. Its still exactly the same game but it doesn’t reduce me to a depressed wreck anymore.

Tell us about a couple of musical breaks you had that really made you feel you’d progressed forward in your career.


So there was this one gig at Shambala festival, I think 2018, on Sunday night at 10pm. When we arrived at the stage the venue was empty and as it was Sunday I thought it was going to be a real let down but just after we started this stream of people came in, there had been the closing fireworks not far from the venue, we ended up playing to well over a thousand people who rammed the tent and jumped and danced for the whole hour. Life changing!
The second would be Goa Sunplash in India, I made contact with the organizers through a friend in Nepal and went and played the January festival three times over consecutive years. It’s a great festival with a mixed audience from around the globe and a lot of great reggae musicians come to play, unlike the UK where its unusual create links with other artists, as often they leave straight after a festival gig, here as we’re all on the beach in the sun far from home. There was a great opportunity to meet and mix and build relationships with other dub heads.


Do you want to share any funny/shocking/surprising/scandalous stories you have from on tour/in the studio/around the music industry? Please change the names to protect the innocent/guilty!


The only one I can think of would be a show at One Love festival where I thought our stage time was 2pm and Delroy the mc was super late, more than usual so I had to detour to get him, we arrived after foot to the floor mad driving at five minutes to two to be told that it was actually a 2:30 stage time and that because they were having problems with security that the festival wasn’t open yet anyway! We played our gig to a completely empty tent. But it was funny and we did a really good show!


What excites you most about making music nowadays, compared to what excited you when just starting out?


Its exactly the same, that buzz when you’ve just got a really good loop going or a singer send you a test vocal on one of your tunes and you feel all energized.


What was the most inspiring gig/festival/club night you went to in your youth? & what stood out as being so special about it?


Mad Professor Glastonbury 2002 or 2003 Sunday night in lost vagueness with this huge pile of speakers, it sounded so good and was wobbling all my organs. Every now and again the professor would leave the stage for some reason and this younger guy would sidle over and crank up the bass with a naughty look on his face, then professor would come back and notch it down again, this continued for what seemed like hours! Banging!

What was the first studio technique you learned where you thought “wow this is next level!” & really felt like you had advanced your technique a notch. & what was the equipment/DAW you learned it on?


It would probably be either the power of side chaining or mastering Melodyne. Both on Logic, although I am now a complete Ableton convert.

Do you have a favourite microphone/s? What do you like about it?


I don’t own many microphones but I do really like the new one I bought recently, Aston Origin fixed large diaphragm condenser. It sound super smooth at the high end and gives me everything I want from a vocalist or instrument and it is very fairly priced!

If you’re in a recording session & inspiration drags, what gets you back in the creative zone?


Well it used to be a little smoke but these days it’s a bike ride, if I’m working with another human than it would be a cup of something and a snack.

What are your favourite headphones to produce/DJ with? Why do you like them?


I don’t have any favorites, I bought some £300 focal ones that I thought sounded pretty good until I bought some £30 Sennheiser at an airport and discovered I liked them far more. But in general I now hate headphones, as I’m pretty sure that they are responsible for my tinnitus.


Has traditional music theory been useful to you?


I would say yes, a good knowledge of scales and chord positions speeds things up, since buying the Push I have started to approach music in a completely different way sort of based on traditional theory and sort of not. My teachers always said its good to know the rules (theory) to understand how to break them.


What was the first bit of kit you acquired that you were insanely excited by, & when?


Probably my first Pa speakers when I was 14, three way with a 15” for the low end. Loved them, I still have the 15” drivers the boxes are long gone.


Who were the first few musical artists that really turned your head & influenced your work?


Bob Marley (of course), Dreadzone, Zion Train, Mad Professor plus all of the Drum and Bass and Jungle.


What, if any, cultural aspects influence your music most heavily? E.g. films, politics, art, regional influences, religion etc.


Sound system culture or rave culture, as a youth I went to a lot of free parties in the woods.

Yep, I enjoyed those parties. Good times raving with you back in the day. I dug out an old photo from 2009:

Has being a musician affected your personal relationships, either in positive or negative ways?


It has been the central theme of my life so I would say it has affected all of my relationships hopefully positively I can’t think of any negative impacts from my perspective but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.


Got any predictions for what the next big sound will be?


I wish but even if I did know what would be popular next I would probably still make the same kind of sound that I make now. I sometimes try to push outside my box but I always end up making stuff that I like that sounds the stuff I like. If that makes any sense maybe.


Do you have a particular workflow you usually start with? Or do you find a sound or groove that grabs you & just go from there?


I put a lot of work into a really great template in Ableton and so it all starts just with a jam, could be drums first or chords or bass.


Have you had to diversify much across your music career, in order to pay the bills at times? What else have you done while building up your music career?


I work as a sound engineer, lighting designer and general show tech which has very fortunately paid my bills and allowed music to just be a passion in my life.


What’s your current favourite instruments?


Again it’s the Ableton push! But that’s boring so my next one is a little coconut Kalimba I bought in Kathmandu (with a contact mic built in!) followed by my mouth harp twanger thing and my melodica!


Are there any good Music books that you have learned a lot from & recommend?


The music lesson by Victor Wooten is a nice story with lots of tips about how to be musical and avoid being confined by notes and scales.

What piece of advice would you give someone about to self-release a record?


Make double sure you’re super happy with the mix and master and read all of the criteria for distribution, metadata, image formats etc very VERY carefully!

If you could go back in time & give your younger self some important advice, what would it be?


Get on with it! Practice! Don’t get too attached!

What are your favourite festivals? Either to play at or go to as a punter?


Shambala just has the best people and amazing music! Boomtown is the most awe-inspiring and also has great music and Goa Sunsplash is on the beach in Goa and has reggae – ’nuff said!


What’s your favourite movie soundtrack? Why?


Tough one! Probably Jurassic Park, I love john Williams and that theme is just killer.

What’s the most essential bit of music kit that has helped define your sound?


Native Instruments Komplete Ultimate basically is my sound in all the various presets. I do tweak them a bit once I’ve got my part recorded but mainly I find my sound in their sounds. Obviously the mix has a massive impact so I would have to throw in the Waves Platinum bundle now as well.

What’s the most precious thing to you in the studio (not the most expensive!) & why?


My hearing! The tinnitus has got a lot worse in the last year and I wish I had been more careful. I now have very expensive earplugs and mix at low levels but the damage has been done!

Your top tip for aspiring musicians?


Look after your ears! Practice non-attachment!

Do you want to shout out any musical mentors that have helped you along the way? How did they help you?


I live with a bass player called Simon Lovelock, over the last 8 years he has been a constant source of support and also has incredible musical knowledge and is always very willing to help over or have a listen to whatever it is I’m making.


Apart from music what else do you enjoy doing?


Carpentry, I like building speakers and furniture. Also lying around in hammocks on beaches or walking in mountains.

What are your upcoming musical plans?


I’m currently promoting my new album “Voices” (mastered by Fat As Funk), then I have a remix album for my sound system in Nepal out sometime. After that, just keep making music!

Any last words?


Where words fail music speaks

Nice. Thank you very much!

“Voices” By Arrival Sound System is out everywhere NOW!

www.arrivalsoundsystem.com

If you make bassy, dubby, slinky, funky music too, try a free mastering taster from Fat As Funk.

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