Simon Shackleton has an illustrious history in the music industry dating back 25 years when he left Exeter University with a Masters Degree in classical composition. He has played and recorded in bands such as The Headless Chickens with the likes of Thom Yorke, and got his start as a DJ alongside Felix Buxton from Basement Jaxx during the early ‘90s acid house revolution. Since then he’s enjoyed a successful career under a number of guises including Elite Force, Lunatic Calm and Zodiac Cartel winning several prestigious awards along the way, most notably for his Revamped Series. His music has been featured in over 40 movies (including the original Matrix), dozens of TV shows and adverts, and a plethora of game soundtracks including Motorstorm Apocalypse, which he co-wrote with Pirates of the Caribbean composer Klaus Badelt.
Over the past two decades he has run multiple award-winning record labels, including Scene & Herd, Stereophoenix, U&A and Fused & Bruised, whilst finding time to headline festivals from the US to Australia and cause dance floor bedlam anywhere from Canada to mainland China. His One Series events (One DJ, One Room, All Night) epitomise his passionate and community-orientated spirit, cultivating a devoted following of participants and creative collaborators around the world. Piece of Me, Simon’s first artist album in 10 years, is a musical journey that is rich and varied. It is an eclectic album ranging from driving techno to indie-infused rocktronica with comparisons that range from Pink Floyd to Underworld.
UK Editor Simon Huxtable sat down recently with Simon to talk about the album, his life in music and his new love of photography.
Hi Simon, so glad you could join us for a chat at Decoded Magazine. How’s the new album going?
Thank you for having me! The album release has been going really well. To an extent it felt like I was swimming against the tide somewhat with focusing my energies on an artist album in the current climate, but I’ve always had a deeply held belief in the long-form format. Even though we live in a fast-food era where people have become used to cherry-picking individual tracks, there’s a very real need for electronic artists to paint with broader brushstrokes, and to step away from the formula of the dancefloor single.
Its fair to say you have a pretty varied music career. From being in a band with Thom Yorke to DJing along side Basement Jaxx, the highs have been immense but have you a favourite memory?
There have been some incredible highs along the way and it’s nigh on impossible to highlight any one specific moment …but I’m going to try! Back in 2009 I made the first of my seven pilgrimages to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada. It was a trip full of jaw-dropping moments and personal epiphanies, but on Saturday night (the night of the Burn), I was booked to play back-to-back with my good friend Meat Katie on the Opulent Temple stage.
At the time this was the arena to play – a raging, tribal fire pit full of 5000 beaming passionate souls. The air was thick with smoke, lit by giant plumes of fire whilst dust devils spun into the outer reaches of the plains, the mobile ‘art cars’ formed a neon perimeter. A week before the Burn we’d received an upfront promo of ‘Downpipe’ from our good friend D Ramirez.
In the run up to the event we’d both fallen in love with that track, and I knew we’d be the only people there with a copy. The specific moment when I dropped it in our set was supernaturally spellbinding. We both watched in awe as the breakdown danced it’s way into the desert night … and now, every time I play that track in one of my sets, I’m transported to that moment of pure magic.
Talk us through those early years of discovering Acid House and learning to DJ. Had you planned a life in Music?
The late 80’s and early 90’s were a fascinating time for me, as they truly were my formative years musically. Prior to that era, I’d grown up on a diet of thrash metal, punk rock and epic meandering rock, but towards the late 80s I found myself increasingly drawn to music that combined differing styles.
I was drawn to Belgian New Beat and the likes of Front 242 and Lords of Acid as well as the industrial experiments of Einsturzende, NIN and Ministry. I loved the crossover sounds of Public Enemy, Faith No More, Consolidated, New Order, World Domination Enterprises and also developed a love for the shoegaze / drone rock of Spacemen 3, Can, Loop, Ride etc…
I was drawn to the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and the way they added dance rhythms into their anthemic stadium-sized shuffles, but was also a fan of super-charged thrash like Extreme Noise Terror, Napalm Death, Electro Hippies. Then there were the proto-breakbeat sounds of Renegade Soundwave, Tackhead, Gary Clail, Depthcharge, Silver Bullet and the early 90s jungle pioneers.
Acid House for me was the glue though – it was the portal through which I discovered a true love for hypnotic, repetitive beats, and the very first club nights I ran as a DJ and promoter were, in keeping with the acid house ethos, highly eclectic, but always revolved around the minimal, organic flow of the 303s. I would play for 5 hours straight with a whole fleet of milk crates full of vinyl and those sets gave me an amazing opportunity to hone my craft and explore a broad range of styles. In fact, the first show I ever did was a 5-hour set and I don’t think I’d ever practised on Technics before that night. A baptism of fire, you could say!
I’d always wanted a career in music , but it took a while for that very generalised goal to evolve into something a bit more structured and cogent. The biggest issue that I had back then as a wannabe electronic music producer was getting the resources together financially to create finished products that would stand up to what the likes of Leftfield, Orbital, Underworld and Dust Brothers were capable of at the time.
At that time you needed a whole host of hardware units that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to create properly finished tracks. After countless hours spent playing tapes to publishing companies and record company execs Howie Saunders, my partner in Lunatic Calm, and I landed a development deal with MCA Publishing that gave us £10,000, which we spent on building a basic home studio. The next step was developing a proper understanding of sequencing, programming and mastering … not to mention finding time to write some killer tunes. So as you can see, it took much longer than it might do these days to progress from the genesis on an idea to the delivery of a finished, releasable product.
In one form or another you’ve been in the game for 20 years! How important was it to work with aliases over that time?
I sometimes look back on my career and wonder how I’d have been perceived if everything I’ve written had been released under a single name, because I doubt whether many people out there are aware of all the different names I’ve released under since 1992! There’s no doubt that it takes a huge amount of effort to build an alias, but there have been times when I’ve felt that I’ve had no real choice in order to be heard.
For example in 2006 when I launched U&A Recordings, I’d become really interested in the glitchy house music that was coming out from the likes of Switch, Jesse Rose, Lee Mortimer, Crookers and started dabbling in making some of it myself. I did a remix for something on Miles Dyson’s label as Elite Force that was very much on that tip, but it felt like it was a step too far outside of my following’s comfort zone, so I invented Zodiac Cartel and began releasing that kind of output under that name and enjoyed a few really successful years doing that.
From a creative point of view, that was really freeing for me – it allowed me to take risks and go far deeper into that sound than I might otherwise have been able to do. For years I couched it in such anonymity that literally no one knew I was behind those productions. I found that an alias can reinvigorate my love of music making, and that’s pretty valuable.
Your productions have always set you apart from the other breaks artists (in my mind). Where do you draw your inspiration from?
It’s always an interesting conversation when background and influence come under the microscope. In my entire Elite Force career I’ve only played a handful of ‘breaks-only’ sets, and only then because of the militant demands of certain crowds, so I’ve always struggled somewhat with being labelled a “breaks DJ” because I don’t ascribe to having such narrow tramlines to work within.
My Elite Force sets were always highly eclectic, mixing techno, house, breaks and electro, but I’d say my influences owe much more to techno and house music than they do to the kind of artists many more conventional breaks producers will namecheck. As a result, when I produce music I think in terms of layers, of musicality and of organic flow. A lot of straight up breaks DJs use the crossfader a lot and their sets have a cut & paste ethos to them, which then dials into the way they create their own productions.
I prefer to use EQ to blend different elements together when I DJ and create long, in-key mixes, and that in turn dials into my own production style, whether I’m making breaks, house, downtempo music or whatever.
How does a new project start? Do you have a set process: drums first for example?
Well it varies these days. In the past it used to be very much a case of drums first, starting with the kick and gradually building layers of groove until I have a rhythmic bed that works as a standalone loop. On the album, though, I worked hard at moving away from that formula, because I wanted to challenge myself, and push myself into new musical area. For example the track ‘Wind-Up Bird’ (which is a bonus track for Pledge supporters) I wrote almost entirely on the piano, whilst ‘Waterfall’ was written with just guitar and voice. I think we all tend to gravitate towards formulae that work, but that creates a comfort zone that isn’t necessarily the most creative place to inhabit.
Talking of drums. What’s been the best piece of advice you’ve been told for getting phat bottom end?
My advice would be to spend a great deal of time looking and listening to the sound of each drum part and how they work with each other, especially when it comes to EQ. I spend more time pulling out unwanted frequencies from sounds than anything else in the production process. Make sure that sounds occupy their own part of the sonic spectrum – you’ll have so much more clarity, weight and phatness in your mixdowns if you declutter the soundstage.
Piece of Me is a little different to your last album. Its got a very UNKLE-esque vibe to it, in so much as it covers a vast range of styles. Which of the tracks was particularly interesting to make?
This album really is the sound of me being me. I didn’t want to focus on markets or expectations or anything like that. I just wanted to focus on making music that I loved and that I was passionate about. I’ve used my voice in my productions going way back to Headless Chickens days (the band I was in with Thom Yorke), and also fronted Flicker Noise (we were signed to Concrete, a subsidiary of Deconstruction) and then Lunatic Calm.
I also sang on a number of Elite Force album tracks, but since I started producing as Simon Shackleton I’ve allowed the voice to come into it’s own a lot more. I developed a vocal harmony style on this album where I multi-tracked my own voice, in some cases as many as 24 times, to create a thick choral effect on tracks like ‘Far & Wide’, ‘Carnival of Souls’, ‘Soothe’ and ‘Waterfall’. I did a similar job with guitars, layering and multi-tracking as many as 20 parts in some tracks. This creates a rich and complex wall of sound, but also asks lots of production questions, and getting those elements to sit together as one singular unit is a major challenge … so tracks like ‘Waterfall’ took several days of EQ balancing and forensic frequency removal in order to get the balance right.
Probably the toughest track to get right on the album was ‘Carnival of Souls’ which went through at least 10 different versions and always felt like a complex balancing act somehow, which is ironic given it’s relative simplicity when you listen to it as a finished track. It still had over 70 individual parts to it, including a 16-part vocal harmony that appears in the central breakdown. Some tracks just flowed fairly effortlessly (like ‘Afterglow’ which was completed from start to finish in under 3 days), whilst others took weeks to arrive at the definitive album version.
Any plans to tour the album?
Absolutely. I’ve held back on the usual whirlwind of DJ Bookings this year to focus on developing a full blown live A/V show, which I’ll be working towards over the course of the year. My initial plans are to play a series of “live hybrid” shows towards the end of 2016 where live performance will start to become integrated into my DJ sets, and from there I’ll be building a fully immersive live show with film-maker and visual artist, Chele Gutek. I am playing Glastonbury (on the Glade Function One Experimental Soundstage) just before Dubfire, Contact and PEX Festivals in the US, and my annual Boat Party in London, but other than that I will have my head down building towards my future live sets.
You’ve released this one on your own imprint. How does the world of record labels compare to your previous labels? I guess having the experience behind you has been invaluable…
I’m very independent-minded when it comes to releasing music, and I’m also pretty unconventional, so at the moment it suits me far better to have complete control over the release process for this album. I set up a new imprint, Scene & Herd, specifically for that purpose. Currently I’m not signing other artists as it’s being built to house the future live show and other releases, and I simply have no time to take other artists on at the moment, but who knows what the future holds.
Aside from the DJing and producing dance music, we understand you also make movie and video game sound tracks. How did that come about? Does someone contact you or do you apply for jobs?
I have a pretty decent CV when it comes to that side of things, so I do get approached directly now and again to create bespoke music to picture as well as creating music for adverts and specific briefs. It’s something I’d like to spend a little more time each year working on, and I do pitch for work when I have windows of opportunity to dedicate time to it.
You’re also delving into the world of photography. Can you tell us about your camera and what sort of images you love to capture?
I’ve absolutely loved getting lost in photography in the past few years. I bought a Nikon D800 last summer and it inspired me to learn more about technique and post-production. Last summer I was going through some very demanding times personally and photography gave me an instant source of escapism.
I started by photographing what was on my immediate doorstep (which at the time was a 5 acre farm that I’d cultivated over the past 12 years) and developed a real passion for macro photography and the drama contained within these beautiful miniature universes that are right in front of us, like hidden worlds. I also learned a lot about the “golden hour” and “blue hour”, and how capturing those special times of day is about a lot more than what you photograph… there’s a sense of peace, calm and oneness that exists at these crux points of the day.
It gave me a heightened appreciation of sunrise and sunset, and made me realise how our senses are amplified at those times of transition. It also reminded me of how the effects of music are amplified when you play it to people at those times of day. Beautiful epiphanies all round.
The One Series parties continue to impress. How difficult has it been to make a dent in so many global markets?
To the uninitiated, The One Series is a series of events I have promoted myself with the tag-line ‘One DJ, One Room, All Night’. They’ve been vehicles for longer, more engaging DJ sets (9 hours 15 minutes is the longest I’ve done to date), that allow me a much broader range of expression than a more conventional 2 hour set.
Playing an event from start to finish is obviously very demanding musically, physically and technically, but I’ve never felt more deeply rewarded for my work than at a One Series show, and the feedback from the audiences has mirrored that. In many ways The One Series has given me a real emotional connection with people. It’s invigorated me and inspired me to delve much deeper into music, to have the confidence to paint pictures on much bigger canvases.
Although it’s taken a minute to grow, as it’s been a very organic growth, we’ve taken it across the globe, to Sydney, London, and several places across the US. It has been a fantastic outlet and has taught me how important an intimate interaction with the crowd through music is to me. I want every market to be able to experience that exchange regardless of how big it is so I am offering it up as a private party purchase option on my Pledge page which you can find here.
Well, its been wonderful to chat Simon. Is there anything in conclusion you’d like to add?
01// Robag Wruhme – Anton II
02// Droog & Edu Imbernon – Spectral (Ruede Hagelstein’s Remix)
03// Rampa – Defiled w/Acapella – Frankey & Sandrino – Lost (Adriatique Remix)
04// Marc Romboy – The Overture
05// Re:You – Watching You
06// Simon Shackleton – Rocketships & Skyscrapers
07// Third Son – Delorean
08// DJ Nukem & Chab – Shaiva (Guy J Remix)
09// Alberto Ruiz – Black Forest
10// Noir – Obscurité
11// Oniris – Losing Ground
12// Phonic Scoupe – Portico Garden (Mohn (NL) & Reboot Remix)
13// Boris Brejcha – Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven (D-Nox & Beckers Remix)
14// Hugo & Luigi Rocca – Beach Of Bones
15// Joeski & Harry Romero – When You Touch Me
16// Shall Ocin – Austral
17// ANNA – Where Are You Now
18// Ruede Hagelstein & Vonda7 – Barryland (Ruede Hagelstein Remix)
19// John Digweed & Nick Muir – Gigawave