Tipping its hat to Detroit and Chicago classics, Medlar’s brand of tastefully jazz-infused house music has pricked the ears of critics and discerning listeners alike. Last month he released his debut album Sleep, an absorbing late-night journey permeated by vintage crackles and soulful, murky soundscapes.
We caught up with the Londoner to discuss the current overabundance of 90s house, his inevitable comparisons to Moodymann, and of course that excellent LP …
First let’s get the obligatory ‘how’d you get into music?’ out of the way…
Medlar: A couple of school friends and I started learning guitars and would jam on a crappy old drum kit, the usual ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ stuff! And then I became interested in making music on computers when I heard some old jungle records – the first electronic/dance music I was really into.
Was jungle your introduction to DJing as well?
Yeah, I was into the broader scene of jungle and drum and bass, and it took me a while to figure out what I liked and didn’t. I actually missed the whole garage thing at the time, maybe living in the countryside had an effect! But I started attempting to make jungle-inspired stuff on a PC and then buying records shortly followed.
It was about 2001 that I first starting playing around on a computer I think.
Garage seems to be going through some ongoing hybrid with house at the moment, some good some bad. But what do you make of the drum n bass scene these days?
Yeah it all escalated quite quickly! Drum and bass has been quietly doing its thing in the background and there’s some really interesting music. It’s funny how when a scene ‘dies’ it’s generally at its most creative – as no-one’s in it to cash in. It seems some of the sound palette of jungle and some pre-2000 drum and bass is working its way into a lot of house tracks at the moment – ‘Think’ breaks all over the place!
It’s interesting how the house scene can only be defined by incorporating elements of different dance music scenes from the past, in varying combinations, rather than any one sound it seems!
Speaking of which, what do you think of producers’ current fascination with 90s house – yourself included?
I don’t think a lot of us expected it to become so trendy. It can be frustrating trying to write music that falls within a UK-dance scene, as it’s such a progressive thing that there’s really high expectations of production and dancefloor appeal. So I initially found house as a sort of break from all of that. I decided to leave the overtly 90s NJ-inspired stuff behind with ‘Can’t Stop’, which is my only original that really falls under that sound.
As with a lot of other people now though; I’m exploring house and disco culture from various eras and so I have lots of inspiration from quite disparate sounds: at the moment I’m really loving early 80s disco funk (or ‘boogie’), electro and Chicago house; as well as a lot of weird early electronica stuff. So a lot of my track ideas are currently based around those sounds.
But I still find garage house tunes that blow me away quite regularly.
Me too, but mostly the old ones. There’s so much 90s stuff I keep unearthing that is great. But producers mimicking the sound I think might have done it to death now…
As you say, it seems to be about incorporating other sounds in house music, not just one.
Yes, definitely. I think for a time it could be excused because the younger generations – mine included – weren’t exposed to the original 90s tracks, and it made a lot of sense to them. But to exclusively use sounds from one era and not really subvert them in any way can get old a bit quick.
You’ve fashioned a fairly distinctive production style. But it’s clearly indebted to the smoky, experimental house music of artists like Moodymann. Do you get fed up of the comparisons?
It’s funny because I’d never listened to any Moodymann before I’d made quite a few tunes. But definitely the rougher approach that a lot of the great US producers seem to possess. I’m trying to move away from samples now, at least for some of the time, but want to keep things a bit odd in terms of sonics and the way sounds come in/out. To be compared to Moodymann I don’t think could ever be annoying!
Haha fair enough. The album has a raw soulful sort of feel. Is it all done on computer or do you use any analogue equipment to create that sound?
I’ve only just started playing with hardware except for a JUNO-60 synth and a RE-201 tape delay which I’ve had for a year or so. They feature on the album a bit, but generally everything I’ve done so far has been made within a computer.
I’m starting to write some stuff which is composed ‘live’, with a weird old Roland MIDI sequencer I recently got, which is proving to be a lot of fun, so we’ll see where that goes.
Tell us a bit about how you approached the album. Were you aiming for a happy or a melancholy disposition? I sense a bit of both.
Nice! Yeah I think you summed it up: melancholy without out being too bleak… so there’s something positive there. I like a lot of music that has a sense of nostalgia about it in some way. It’s nice that that comes across to you.
And it’s notoriously tricky to produce an engaging house album but, tellingly, yours sounds great when listened to in one sitting, from start to finish.
I think I’m at risk of becoming a bit snobby and saying to everyone “you need to listen to the whole thing!” I made the final edit with all of the tracks and skits (and some other samples) in one project so I was moving them all around, overlapping ends and so on, until I found something I felt worked. I knew where some tracks would go as I was writing them, and others I made with the intention of putting them in a certain part of the album (e.g. the middle or the end).
I thought a lot about the structures of DJ sets and the structure of pop songs on a smaller level. It’s very roughly based on a macrocosm of a song structure, but that sounds cleverer than it really is!
It certainly worked – it has a great flow and progression.
Thanks. I would’ve felt guilty expecting people to listen to 10+ tracks, each with intros and outros.
You live in South London. Any favourite haunts?
I haven’t been going out much recently aside from gigs, but there’s a brilliant record shop called Rat Records in Camberwell that I try and visit every week. It’s all second hand, and while generally there’s not much to find in the specific genre sections, they put out a few hundred 12″s and LPs in a big rack every week and I always come back with some cool stuff.
Ok on to a bit of a clichéd question, but where do you stand on the digital versus vinyl debate? People seem to get all hot and bothered about it.
Haha yes, I’m a firm believer of ‘whatever works for you.’ So if you’re really comfortable DJing or producing with a certain software then there’s no issue with it really. I play mainly records but use CDJs for certain things because they’re better at it. It’s the discovery process of vinyl that appeals to me most – not the tactile feeling or whatever – and I frequently end up somewhere where I wish I had more of my record collection digitally available. I’ve tried ripping records but am yet to get it to a quality I’m happy with, but I’d like to digitise a lot of stuff which I can’t buy as WAVs online – you can do some really cool stuff with CDJs. I’ve seen fantastic digital DJs and terrible vinyl DJs, but I think the thing people get fed up with is a combination of dance music culture seeming like a cool thing to do, and DJ technology that’s really easy to learn, so people will become a DJ overnight.
How did you get involved with Wolf Recordings? It seems like a pretty tightknit family.
I did a year-long internship at a label called Mr Bongo, which is based in Brighton. Greymatter helps in the running of the label there and Matt from Wolf was working in the same office a lot of the time. I learned a lot of amazing music during my time there which no doubt turned me onto house music. It was shortly after I left Brighton that I sent them Terrell and it’s all progressed from there. I really look forward to when we can get together (usually at a booking we share). Each time we meet the whole thing’s grown to another level, it’s amazing to think how far the label’s come.
The quality of their releases has always been pretty strong. Do you have a production you are particularly proud of?
Probably still ‘Terrell’, because it was after several years of trying to get records out without any success, then that track was me thinking “fuck this I’m gonna make something just for me, for fun”. Then when it did reasonably well it convinced me of the way to approach music!
A few quick-fire questions now:
Which five records haven’t left your bag lately?
DRESVN – Acido 14
Patrice Rushen – Number One
Hugh Massekela – Don’t Go Lose It Baby
DJ Chunk-A-Bud – Zig Zag
Laszlo Dancehall – Whip What
Any artists we should be watching out for?
What can we expect from Medlar in 2014 and beyond?
There’s a full length video accompaniment to ‘Sleep’ which Letty Fox has spent most of this year working on, it will make its way online sometime soon. We’re hoping to do a small screening in London too. Aside from that I’ve just overhauled my whole way of working and expanded into using some hardware, so I’m having fun with more synthetic sounds at the moment. I’m planning to write some semi-themed EPs to put out over the coming months. There are still some ‘Sleep’ launch parties to go, all of them have been great fun so far.
You can catch Medlar headlining Noshun at Soup Kitchen this Friday in Manchester. His remix of James Fox’ ‘Holding On’ is out next month here.