The Decoded Mix of the Month competition has thrown up more than a few surprises in its short, but exciting lifetime. Surprises like the first time we heard this mix from Welsh DJ Benwaa.
Schooled in classical instruments as a child, his experimental nature soon found a teenaged Ben exploring other musical avenues in the form of mid 90s electronic acts The Orb and Banco de Gaia. As he grew to love the sounds of the flourishing ambient scene, his attention turned to the more raucous sounds of Sasha and John Digweed, among others. DJing followed naturally, and Ben found himself playing at a range of venues across North Wales and into Europe. Soon he was exploring the record label market and following a few releases, he set up his own imprint – Gibbon Records, which perfectly reflects Ben’s wide ranging sonic palette with artists like Stas Drive, Trockensaft and Luke Garcia rubbing shoulders. The label itself is described by Ben as ‘...music of bearded weirdos, of oddballs & shadow lurkers, of string pullers and behind the scenes manipulators…. it’s the music of sinister puppeteers, magicians and midnight prancers…‘ Our resident oddball bearded weirdo, A&R Simon Huxtable went to find out more…
Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time out to chat to us at Decoded Magazine today. How’s your day been?
Hi there I’m good thanks!
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Outside of music what do you do?
I don’t really do much outside of music these days, I’ve had various jobs over the years and nothing settled with me in any way that I was comfortable. So I now just concentrate on music only. I do some mastering and mixing services as part of that so I can pay the bills, and some remixing and ghost producing too.
Every DJ has a eureka moment that kick starts their career. Do you remember yours?
That’s a tough one. There were several things I think rather than one defining moment. Going to parties, listening to ambient and dance music and feeling how the music that was being played affected how I reacted and felt on a deep level, I suppose was the point I became aware I wanted to share the music in a way that only a DJ can.
So I swapped my car for a set of decks, a mixer and a bunch of vinyl. That was about 18 years ago. The other thing that really always sticks out in my mind was a free party DJ called Technic Al who said to me, “Ben, if you’re ever going to do anything with DJing, then you need to play 7 or 8 hours a day”. I took him literally, and set about doing just that when I finished work for the day. It didn’t work out the way I had in my head back then, but it led me to where I am right now for sure. So thanks Al!
The other major one is the influence of another guy I really should mention, Peer Benary. A Berlin (at the time) based DJ who played at a night I put on, we clicked on that first party like we’d known each other for years. Subsequently he invited me over to Berlin to see the city and party, but more importantly he taught me where the groove in a sound exists, to play at a tempo that’s not pounding out, but to keep it slower and grooving – a moment in Bar23 when the whole place was jumping, people on the tables really dancing and he asks me what BPM is the track at?
I though mid 120’s, he moved his hand from the CDJ to reveal it modest 117bpm. That really got it into me it really isn’t about just banging it out and since then I’ve always played at varying tempos too, keeping the lower side of 125 and down most of the time. He’s also the best warm up DJ I have ever had the pleasure to see and experience too. I owe lot to how I approach mixing to him – so once again – Thanks Peer!
We understand Sasha and John Digweed were among your first influences. What do you think it was about their music that so inspired you?
Haha OK in all honesty, it was the progressive house and trance sound of theirs and how that felt when I was off my face on some pills or LSD; how it really twisted the mind up in such a good way! I get that drugs could have altered my perception of the music they were playing, but I think anyone who’s experienced a set of theirs – especially from back in the mid 90’s – would attest that drugs or no drugs, that music and their style really did envelop your being for the time you’d be on the dancefloor.
Tell us about your hometown, what’s the underground scene like and what are of the nights you regularly attend?
I live in one of the most recession hit areas of North Wales, Holyhead. There’s absolutely nothing in this town, and the scene is all about rock music where anything exists outside of pop laden jukeboxes and karaoke. Wind back 20 years and that was a very different thing altogether. There used to be house parties every weekend, but people grow up and move on, so that kind of died along off with any half decent venue being demolished or turned into a cocktail bar or flats.
However, travel 20 mins to the city of Bangor and there’s always been a great local scene. From back in the day there was nights such as the local legendary “Future Funk” which brought some of the biggest DJs known to the area, to the present day “Strictly Underground” nights, or the boys behind the “Arkiteckt” nights in the Llandudno area. The scene is in a really good place around here right now. There could be more, but it also has to be accepted we’re in remote North Wales haha.
You’ve a very distinct style. Do you find there’s enough music for you to play, and where do you have most luck finding it?
Thanks! Weirdly I think to me myself that my style is very diverse and eclectic. I have no boundaries on what I will play really, it’s all dependent on mood and vibe at the time.
Finding the music is relatively easy I would say, I get exposed to a lot to new music running a record label, managing the community netlabel for idmforums.com too. The latter has some of the most amazing little heard of producers you’ll ever find, yet the talent is beyond what you’ll hear from more well-known artists. It’s a little corner of wonder I must say and I owe a lot to that place for developing my production skills, and how to run a label to a degree too.
Anyway, I suppose that’s a bit of a digression. I tend to search Soundcloud quite heavily; run a free downloads group on there as well. Once I find an artist I like I nearly always try to listen to as much of their stuff as possible. Some guys who produce nasty assed distorted techno also make the most beautiful soundscapes and ambient too, and I think this is the thing, those are the artists that tend to have the most emotion and feeling embedded into their music and able to translate it that way to the listener too.
How has your home set up changed since your first set of decks? Do you still play vinyl?
It’s changed dramatically. I first had a set of crappy belt driven Soundlab decks and Numark mixer. I had an accident in work and ended up with some compensation, so this led to me selling those wobbly things and not so wisely investing in some Numark T-100’s – I really still regret not buying technics, too frugal at the time obviously, but in a way they helped me learn to mix more accurately as they were just crap, you had to be very very precise in everything you did. So when it came to playing on a set of Technics 1210s it was almost like pressing sync in Traktor.
I also invested in a Dr Sample Boss SP202, and this opened up doors in my head and mixes. It had a crappy sound quality, but then so did recording to cassette, and it had some great effect, I was aware at that point even that my sets needed to have something unique in them to stand out from other DJs as it was becoming a rather popular thing to do at the time.
Can you remember back to your first gig. Where was it and how did it go?
Barely, I’d played a bunch of house parties and like any DJ starting out, you want to be able to move on to clubs. I entered a “DJ Competition” in a club in Rhyl (Zinc I think it was called) anyway I got a few mates together and headed up there, only to be told by the doormen that there was no DJ competition and I wasn’t playing. So off I went back to the car, and as I was just about to drive away my ancient brick of a mobile rang, it was the “competition” promoter calling up to tell me to go back to the club, the doormen had got it wrong.
So I went back but played an awful set. Things just kept going wrong, like my stylus breaking on the first mix, and then I found out that there was no competition at all really, it was scam to get free DJs in and some extra people on their dancefloor. What that did teach me though was that in a gig just keep getting on without a panic and fix the issue so the party can carry on.
Tell us about the mix. How long did the process take from start to finish?
The mix took as long as the mix itself. I don’t ever plan sets or what tracks I want to play apart from one particular record, the rest around that one (if it even gets played) is a sort of journey to and from that track really. Mixing shouldn’t just be about reading your crowd or listeners, but reading your own vibe too. I you’re in conflict with your own feelings, that’ll get reflected in how you play.
This particular mix I would say is one of my more laid back and eclectic sets, it’s aimed at a listening experience more than a shake your ass one, although there are certainly tracks in there to get you moving. As it was only ever going to be online then it could only be a listening experience so I ditched the idea of necessarily only making the listener dance, but be able to close their eyes too and disappear into the sounds too.
It’s crafted using 4 decks in Traktor and some loops made on the fly to smooth out and blur the transitions along with modest use of the effects available in that software. There are hints of each track here and there throughout the mix too, the track list isn’t hard and fast as the hats from track 4 may appear over the top of track 7 or the bassline from track 5 plays throughout track 6 but is manipulated so there’s a bit of change. Those track numbers are just examples by the way, I can’t remember what I actually did track by track haha. One thing I should point out is it’s only a miniscule reference to my style, to hear completely what I like to play you’d have had let us play for about 5 hours minimum! Something I prefer to do too, play for long hours and really explore sounds.
Fruity Loops seems to be the choice of many new producers. Talk us through that steep learning curve as you started making tracks.
I only used Fruity Loops when I first dipped my toe into making music really, and whilst it worked ok for me I never really got to grips with it. What changed that was a lite version of Ableton Live 3 given away on either Computer Music or Music Tech mag; the way it worked and its amazing UI was the perfect thing for me really. So like any nerd would, I set about googling how to make a great drum line or bass etc, that led me to the forum I mentioned earlier, idmforums, and from there I learned so much it’s unreal. It has some of the biggest names as members to some complete newbies and has very community orientated vibe, so it was very easy to get the information I needed from there.
As with everything new, the learning curve is rapid to start with and I soon learned how to structure and create a track properly, the hardest thing for me has been the thing I’m most obsessed with – sound quality. It’s one of my (and probably most producers) main aims, to create the most awesome sound possible. My whole approach to making a tack is about expressing the moment and allowing that to flow through, kind of a hippy ideal maybe, but that’s how I approach it, never have an idea. Just sit down and see what happens.
How did you choose which labels you wanted to be signed to?
I never really made music for anything other than to get it out of me. So initially I never thought about any labels. I joined Soundcloud in its beta stage though, and a guy called Tom O’Hara (minial:impossible) heard a track I’d put up called “VST” and he wanted to sign it for a label he was just starting called 1, 5, 9, 13 Music! Obviously was very happy that someone felt compelled to share my output in that way, and since then I haven’t really looked back. I don’t chase after signing to labels too much, weirdly so I suppose, considering I now run a label myself.
I sent some tracks to Tony Thomas because he’s just awesome and I love his style as a DJ and producer, so I felt what I had made that the time would fit one of his imprints, they were released on his Moxi Records label. I discovered Last Days records when I found an EP called “Balba” by Pipodevil. Amazing minimal techno that works every time, so finding that sound on there I also wanted to sign with them too.
I’ve not approached many other labels really, Traum Schallplatten is THE dream label to have a track on for me. No luck yet, but that’s ok, it just means my sound isn’t ready for them, and I need to grow some more before that happens, and thats the kind of thing that drives me on with more passion rather than putting me off. I think part of it is, I make something and then am not sure a label it would fit on right. I have a few unsigned tracks like that on my soundlcoud right now.
You’ve tracks now on some fine labels, and you’re setting up your new label – Gibbon Records. How quickly have you been able to pull all the disparate strings together?
Thanks! Gibbon has become my life. I started it up in September of 2014 and had its first release in October of that year. It’s something I’d been toying with the idea of for a while really, I had a taste for releasing others music with the netlabel and experienced what that can bring to both artist and listener alike, so in September of that year I took the plunge. I made no formal planning at all for it, I just researched some distributors, settled on label-worx, who are fucking amazing to put it mildly, great bunch of guys running and working that company – got together in that week all I needed to successfully have my label application accepted by them and the stores and off it went.
It’s been a lot of fly-by-the collar working on it initially if I’m honest. I’m someone who when they have something in their head they’re passionate about I throw my whole being in to it, so whilst that all sounds easy and quick, I didn’t sleep more than 20 hours in total that week alone, and much the same for the following 6 months afterwards too. It has been a lot of work, but the most satisfying thing I ever found in music outside of making it.
I first looked on Soundcloud for artists to garner some releases, funnily I signed Marten Sundberg for an EP with Gibbon, and just as it was to be released he got his big break remixing Gus Gus on Kompakt, yet he’s still released with us and is even currently working on a remix for another artists forthcoming album on Gibbon. Another German Duo PHCK also I found on Soundcloud, it was their track “deaf” that I heard and loved and approached them to sign it. They have a wonderful very crisp and clean sound to their productions that is lovely. They’ve gone on to bigger things too.
Bootleg Ben is another artist with us I should mention, we’d been aware of each other’s music for years but never connected, until one of us got in touch with the other about gibbon and he’s not only become our most prolific releaser, but a good personal friend too. There’s a bunch of other artists too releasing with us that are just amazing; Wolfgang Thums, UNFUG, Stefan Bondzio, Drew Miller and a good few others too. Apologies to anyone I haven’t mentioned, I don’t want to digress into a long list haha
The release Schedule Gibbon has, has been two releases a month, although I’m beginning to slow that down a bit this year as there’s a lot more work going on with it now and some big things happening too. It’s a one-man operation so all PR, branding, scheduling, A&R is done by me. There’s a full album coming out in April by UNFUG and with that I’ve taken the step of using a promotion company I can trust to really push that release into the places I could never do alone. It’s the next logical step to growing that side of things for Gibbon. We’ve had some great support form smaller blogs, some great DJs too including Decoded’s own Damion Pell who included a Gibbon Track, Drivepitcher – Scheweben on his “Kollektiv Vol X” mix.
The Gibbon press release reads, “This is music of bearded weirdos, of oddballs & shadow lurkers, of string pullers and behind the scenes manipulators…. it’s the music of sinister puppeteers, magicians and midnight prancers…” Its very evocative, but what would you say is the vision for the label?
It’s very simple really, it’s actually something stolen from something Cass and Slide said about their sets (perhaps their amazing essential mix I think) “Electronic music with emotion and feeling”. There’s no other vision other than to expose others to such music and to expose such artists to a wider audience. As cliché as it sounds, it really is all about the music. There is no set style, as long as it fits into the above thing in quotations then that’s what it’s about. There’s also a sub label of Gibbon, named Gibbon Deep. The focus of that is squarely on a listening experience, so it’s more chilled out, ambient and experimental music. It’s about supporting good music and good people.
Can you talk us through the new releases you have?
Personally I’ve just had an EP out on Gibbon called “Generate To Innovate” it’s a more melodic techno/tech house kind of style and has two stunning remixes from Bootleg ben and UNFUG alike. I do a bunch of remix work for a label called sector 4 audio, so I have stuff out with them, 3 tracks on their year one of techno compilation and a few remixes on their EPs too.
Gibbon wise, the latest release is from Stefan Bondzio called “Woodpacker”. It’s a four track EP of amazing tech house grooves, but we’ve had some other stunning releases recently from Daniel Klose, Luke Garcia (with remixes by TrockenSaft, Stas Drive and Wolfgang Thums), UNFUG and quite a few more.
Having been in the scene a while, and had a real cross section of music influence you, could you name 5 tracks which have shaped you musically, and why they impacted you the way they did?
Ooo now that is a real tough one and I’m sure like everyone else, 5 is never enough! In no particular order:
The Electric Chairs – Barbie Girl (Thomas Fehlmann Long Version)
I first heard this in the Cass & Slide Essential Mix I mentioned earlier, and being what it is is really stood out to me. It also showed me that in a set, done the right way anything can be the right track at the right time. This changed my style of DJing completely.
Moritz Piske – Real One
I heard this as a promo when I went to Berlin for the first time. I gto to meet some wonderful people whenever I’ve gone over there and one of them being Marco Possum who runs the Opossum imprint, or if it was another Guy – Just_Form (a superb DJ based in Berlin I may add whose also had some influence on my DJing)
It just has this timeless fat groove that insists you shake your ass and hips, I find it a very sexual yet grooving track that has never failed to move anybody I ever played it to.
Dominik Eulberg – Wenn es Perlen regnet
What can I say? First off Eulberg is just the God of music for me, (ok after discovering for myself Wolfgang Thums, they’re on a par but don’t let Wolfgang know that!) This track just drips with emotion, it never fails to bring some water to my eyes and make me move lost eyes closed just floating along wherever it takes me. This track kind of embodies the feeling I look for in music, it brings everything to the table I want sonically. I can’t big it up enough haha, If it was appropriate to play this in every set , I would.
Amorphous Androgynous – Mountain Goat
Stunning ambient track from the FSOL guys, it sums up a melancholic feeling that I think we can all relate to, one that isn’t draining of energy but of something that refreshes you like a good sleep does. I was into ambient and chill out before tunes with beats, FSOL and the like are a massive influence on everything music for me. And this is one of their tracks that always gets my feels on.
Joe Meek – Entry Of The Globbots
Bit of a rare one this, my father had a rather diverse record collection, and a s kids my sister and I were allowed to play them as and when we liked. He had this Ep and the sound on it are nothing short of amazing. This particular track I always remember for the singing of the Globbots, and its complete weirdness. It has stayed with me all my life that sound, and definitely opened up my senses to the different when it came to music. I’d recommend everyone explore anything Joe Meek to be honest.
Thanks Ben, its been really cool to meet you. Best of luck with the label and everything else. Just to finish, where can we see you play this year?
I’m very selective about DJing these days, it’s not my focus as much as Gibbon or production is. So whilst I’m not in a position to ‘pick and choose’ any gig that’s offered. I only play if I feel it’s the right gig for me. So, so far this year I have only one gig lined up and that’s for another favourite music blog of mine The Techno Kittens 5th birthday. They’re great people who love music the way I do, and the lineup for the night is one I’m really looking forward to playing alongside too. Villette just plays the sound I love, and GNTN too. That’s on the 18th March in a yet to be announced secret location in London.
Besides that I’m looking to play a couple of small festivals again this year, Audiofarm last year was a blast and such wonderful people attending and organising too, so I’ll be checking in with them to see if I can play again this year. Besides that, if anyone thinks I’d fit into their style of night I am open to offers I guess. Thanks for the opportunity to speak with you, really enjoyed it and appreciate it a lot! And a big thanks to everyone who has ever touched my life in any way at all.