by Charlotte Hingley
The early 90s saw the birth of drum ‘n’ bass music. Identifiable by speed and intensity, the genre is linked to the rebellious UK rave and youth culture. Rooted in Jamaican sound systems and Black music cultures, UK bass music is characterised by the fast, percussive breakbeat foundation and developed from the quickening tempos of acid house and jungle. In the 90s and 2000s the energies of communities that surrounded jungle / drum ‘n’ bass were amplified by pirate radio stations, stations that broadcast without a licence to help spread the sound of communities that are not supported by the status quo.
For the past eight years, Oxford native and London-based Felix Manuel, AKA Djrum (pronounced drum), has been described to be at the cutting edge of UK bass. Beginning as a jazz pianist, Manuel started his journey into electronic music during the late 2000s where he began to DJ as part of the Yardcore crew, a collective who threw events and had a monthly show playing garage, dubstep, breakcore, gabber and drum ‘n’ bass on the community led station Sub.FM. Throughout his career, Manuel’s dynamicity has continued to flourish. From his first atmospheric-dub two track release in 2010, to his latest 2018 full-length album “Portrait with Firewood” that hosts embellishments of breakbeat with an overarching focus on piano, his music is widely described as capricious, emotional and elegant.
Manuel operates in complete genre fluidity, producing electronic music influenced by UK club sounds such as downtempo, garage, jungle and techno. Taking more of a storytelling approach, his tracks are often a lengthy and multi-layered journey of tempo and rhythm. His pioneering spirit of smashing through the conventional genre confinements on EP and track releases contributes to the inspiring and complex nature of his compositions.
Both meticulous and multi-layered, there are parallels between Manuel’s sound and personality. He is quickly immersed into the depth of a conversation and easily taken to new areas of unexplored mental territory. He is both warm and approachable and as he carefully ponders from topic to topic, it can be said Manuel is a natural philosopher.
Your sound is very eclectic. Talk me through your introduction to music and how this stylistic choice developed?
I grew up with parents that had quite an eclectic taste in music. They didn't listen to any pop music, it was all jazz, world and classical. I'm kind of restless and always looking for the next thing. I go through phases of listening to all different sorts of sounds, which has served to add to my musical taste. So, rather than my musical tastes changing, it's just been added to.
I think that eclecticism can be about an accumulation of things. I listen to things in quite an elemental way, so I am able to break something up into its component parts whilst listening to it. I'm very happy to listen to a track where I don't like the vocals or the drums because there will be other elements I like.
I feel when you say you're restless, I can definitely sense that atmosphere in your music. It's constantly changing tides. Would you agree?
Totally yes. The restlessness, you can hear it. I can't stick to one idea for a whole track as I often want to move on to another concept, so when I'm producing, I want to get the most out of each one of those ideas.
I have to do every permutation there is. In that process of trying out almost all the extra material I end up with different versions, almost like remixes of the same track. Often I think in a more musically mechanical way. What can this do for me? What can this harmony do for this melody? How can it add another layer?
With so many layers, do you feel the music you produce can reveal something about your emotions?
It's one thing to convey a single emotion, but I want to create a little more emotional complexity. So to do that with layers, to do that with harmony, perhaps present a melody upfront and then present it again with a different harmony underneath it, that's going to give it another dimension. You can do that with layers in one moment but you can also do that with progression. You progress from one mood to another and that gives you emotional complexity.
Contrast can be an emotional complexity because you can go from something very rough to very smooth, very this to very that. Emotional complexity can happen in a single moment, but it can also happen in more of a flow through time. I think that gives you a narrative that starts to tell a story.
You mention growing up around interior design. Do you feel music inspires your vision in the arts and creative visual sector?
What's very different about music for me is it has always been an escapism, whereas visual arts have always been a way to interpret the world and process life. I think music is a little bit different. It's more about our inner world. It’s a meditative process. By sitting at the piano, playing and improvising, I get lost in the experience. I really get sucked into that world.
One's more the outer world, and one's more the inner world.
When I think of my last album and the build up to that, I was moving more towards music as a way of expressing emotions. I think maybe I had a strong emotional inner world. I had a lot of emotions inside I wasn't releasing. Music actually became a way I could do that.
So what would be your dream environment to produce and create be?
This is kind of weird but perhaps the ideal situation would be locked in a room with one instrument that I've never played or I'd never seen before. A really obscure instrument that I know nothing about. I would have to figure out how to make a good sound from it - that would be a really interesting process. In an environment that was almost like the white room in the movie Men in Black, with a weird chair. I'm imagining a room with a laptop or something to record the instrument.
I would spend about five minutes making noises with the instrument, and then the rest of the time once I had a few noises I'd just be away...
Let's talk about your studio. Did it meet your expectations? You said it's been part of your evolving process, what were your goals?
I’ve talked a little bit about this transition from being totally sample based to adding more synths and instruments, to a place where I still use some samples, but it's not the focus anymore.
That’s been a huge change in the way my studios evolved. I now have an acoustic piano as well as a MIDI piano and a hardware synth. I've got lots of percussion instruments. That's all been added recently because before that I was very much like: I don't need anything I just need a computer and records.
I want to make it comfortable and to me comfort isn't just a soft chair. Comfort is feeling comfortable in your space. That's the color of the walls, that's how beautiful that place is - that's where you get something emotional from a room - through how it looks.
I think about what makes me feel at home and I think about fruit bowls. If there's a fruit bowl and there's fruit around, I'm good. That's a comfort thing, when you are able to snack.
Do you think the environment where music is played affects the atmosphere in a crowd?
Hugely. I'm a big fan of headphones. I've actually had some of my most profound experiences listening to music on public transport, on a bus at night. You know, with dim lighting and you're just sitting there, living with nothing to do except listen.
In terms of having a really intimate experience with the music sphere, I think of a dark club. The volume, the loudness, where you can't even think except for the music. When you get to that state where the music is a soup that you’re swimming in. You’re surrounded by sound. That’s when you have a really deep connection - that's an experience with music.
I love that electronic music can be really disembodied. When you hear a synth that doesn't sound like it was created by humans, that's exciting to me. The idea that you can be in this environment where the music is just there.
I like it when the DJ is not a centrepiece. I love DJ booths that are in the dance floor, surrounded by people and not too elevated. That way you feel you're in the crowd, and I think the crowd may feel they're closer to the DJ as well. It’s as though we are all in the experience together, and that's something that's really important to get from electronic music.
What else are you excited about musically at the moment?
There's a lot of artists in electronic music working with natural drum sounds. I’ve always preferred natural drum sounds to heavily synthesised ones. There was a period a few years ago where people got back into the 808 which was cool. But for me, I've always loved drums, breaks, old funk breaks, hand percussion, djembe, congos, bongos, these sorts of things.
You can hear more eclecticism in production as well. A lot more people will release an EP or even a two tracker with a couple of different tempos on it. That's amazing. If you spin back a few years ago that wasn't really happening, so that excites me as I’ve always done this myself. It’s great that eclectic production is becoming more accepted.
There's a growing enthusiasm for fast music as well. Around 2006/2007 when my main focus was breakcore and gabber, those intense hard 200 BPM tracks, there was a really small niche underground scene in London with a few squat raves and a few promoters. I never thought I'd be able to get away with playing this type of BPM at a mainstream club like Fabric. You know, big, big commercial venues.
I'm really excited that people are kind of open to intense, fast tracks at the moment. Additionally, the great music coming out of Africa, all the Singeli sounds and Nyege Nyege records.
Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
Yeah. I am working on an album currently. I've been working on that for a while, basically since my last. It's all in the pipeline. I can't say any release dates or anything like that. Just hold tight, I want people to be aware that I'm working really hard and making tracks. It's coming. It's coming....
Photography: Sofia Lambrou