A mainstay of the British downtempo/chill out scene for over 15 years, Tripswitch (aka Nick Brennan) achieved a worldwide reputation as a talented producer with support from the likes of Nick Warren, Jose Padilla and Claude Challe among many others. Nick launched his own label – Section Records – in 2010 with the release of his second album ‘Geometry’, followed by a string of critically acclaimed singles and EPs which attracted much high profile support and glowing reviews in the music press. For the next four years Nick developed the label, while becoming an in-demand remixer, supplying his treatments to tracks by many well respected producers. Nick has also contributed pro tips to Computer Music Magazine, worked with Pioneer Pro DJ and Native Instruments, and his guest mixes have regularly featured on eclectic radio shows such as Ninja Tunes Solid Steel and The Orb’s Fnoob show.
Nick’s touring schedule has become increasingly packed, racking up numerous appearances across the globe, and his sets are renowned for providing a bridge between the chill out and the dance floor, creating the perfect blend of exquisite melody and atmosphere with hypnotic, hi-definition grooves. In early 2015, Nick locked himself away in the studio to focused on the next instalment of the Tripswitch story, resulting in a new album of deep / melodic / progressive house to be released in May 2016 on the legendary Iboga Records.
UK Editor Simon Huxtable sat down with Nick recently to talk about his career, the new album and life as a full time artist.
Hi Nick, thanks for finding the time to chat to us at Decoded Magazine. It’s been a while for you away from the limelight, how have you been?
I’ve been good! You’re right, apart from a couple of EPs and a few remixes it’s been a fairly quiet on the release front for the past couple of years, but I’ve still been touring pretty extensively and when I’ve not been on the road I’ve been busy in the studio working out this next chapter of the story.
For the new album you’ve decided to move towards a more upbeat, but decidedly melodic sound. Talk us through the last few years of your musical journey..
The touring was actually one of the main impetus for taking a new direction with ‘Vagabond’. After years of playing chill out sets across the world, it was starting to become a bit stale for me, and I was feeling like I needed to give a bit more, and also to get more out of the experience myself. I’d started writing a few more uptempo tracks to dovetail into my chill sets, basically to increase the energy, both from myself and also to get the crowd moving a bit.
There’s a kind of energy feedback loop in a live set situation, the more you give the more you get and the more you get back from the crowd, the more you put into your performance. Despite the fact that these were chill out stages, I found the audiences were responding really well …. sometimes it’s not about giving people somewhere to zone out, but more about giving an alternative to the relentless doof of the main stage.
My electronic music roots had been in underground parties and clubs, and despite building this career as a chill out artist those dance sensibilities had never left me. Having seen how positive the response to those more uptempo tracks had been at my gigs, I decided it was time to consolidate that sound and have a go at writing an album that broke the Tripswitch mould and returned to what got me into electronic music in the first place.
So I locked myself away for a few months and worked it through … the result is, I think, an album which still has something of my trademark atmosphere and melody, but also stands up as a progressive house album and shows people that I’m not just a one trick pony.
As I mentioned in our review of the album, many of us became aware of your talents after Nick Warren had two of your tracks licensed to a Global Underground compilation (Paris). No doubt the support of your peers is immeasurable, but did you feel a pressure to replicate the results? How did you cope with the increasing demands for your studio craft?
There’s always some pressure for each track to be better than the last one, but it’s mostly self-imposed, just a desire to be the best that you can be. When someone like Nick approaches you saying they’re a fan of your music, it’s a massive boost and to be honest, without the opportunity to be involved in GU30, my music career might have taken a different path. It’s a great feeling to be recognised for your craft. Nick and I have become good friends over the years, he’s always supported me and given great advice.
Let’s quickly revisit the past. For 15 years you’ve been at the top of the downtempo genre, but how did a younger Nick Brennan get into dance music first of all?
My first exposure to it was through the DiY parties in and around Nottingham at the end of the 80’s / beginning of the 90’s. It was all so fresh and completely new to me and I embraced it wholeheartedly. Those were exciting times for dance music, so much creativity and artists bringing something new to the table on an almost weekly basis. It seemed like there were no boundaries and no limits at the time.
Tell us about the first rave you went to. How old were you, where was it, and what did you think of the experience looking back now…
It was a DiY party in Nottingham, and I would have been 18 I think. My mind was blown. The music was deep, melodic, hypnotic, nothing I’d come into contact with before. And as a starry-eyed indie kid, I was surrounded by all these people who were way cooler than I was! I remember thinking: “Where do these people come from? What the hell do they do in the week?” It seemed like those parties existed out of time, in some parallel universe to the mundanity of life in a Midlands town in the 90’s.
Which came first for you: DJing or Production?
I was a really keen guitarist in my teens and I had various bands on the go. A friend of mine bought a Fostex 4-track and our first production experiments were these Eno-inspired ambient sound collages which we created by recording sounds and textures from whatever we could think of, a lot of ‘found sound’ from around the house combined with the weirdest sounds I could get out of my guitar and some looping that we set up on some pretty basic 80’s synth, I can’t even remember what it was… We’d just keep comping down the tracks and adding more, it was pretty old-school but really creative and fun.
I picked up DJing after partying for a couple of years. It was an intriguing skill, I was fascinated by how some of these DJs could create these seamless melodic journeys through the right selection of tracks and beat mixing. For me a set has always been about a journey, and that’s something I carried straight into my live sets when I started touring as Tripswitch.
I dabbled with friends in producing dance music around the same time, but I’m not sure we ever committed anything to tape. A friend had got loaded up with some Roland gear and we’d really just muck about with step sequencing and sound design. Again it was fun but not exactly fruitful. It wasn’t until I moved to London in 1996 that I got myself a PC and a few synths and started to write properly. The first few dance tracks were pretty ropey, but a couple of chillout tracks I’d written for fun ended up in the hands of the Dragonfly Records management, and they picked them up for release.
Can you remember your first proper gig? What happened?
I’d been doing loads of gigs as a guitarist in various bands since my teens, but the first gig I did as Tripswitch would have been in 1999 or 2000. It was at the Telegraph in Brixton, and was a masterclass in over-engineering! I was co-running a recording studio and rehearsal rooms down the road in Kennington at the time, and I basically un-wired the entire studio and set it up on stage for the gig.
The whole live set was run as a monster project in Logic, no bounced audio at all, just individual tracks running midi synths … incredibly precarious on a big beige 1990’s PC!!! It gives me shivers just thinking about it now!!! Amazingly, everything worked up to the last 10 minutes, at which point the system shat itself – luckily I was clever enough to record the whole set to a CD on a prior run through, which I had running in the background and was able to switch over quickly.
The mix you’ve made us is superb. Can you talk us through the process of selecting the tracks?
Thanks, really glad you like it. I tend to approach a DJ mix like you would if you were writing a story… it’s all about the journey, creating a flow that has a beginning, middle and end and really transports the listener for an hour or two. I love it when you reach the end of a mix and realise at least some part of your brain has been detached from reality for however long the set was. That for me is the mark of a good set.
Lets move on to your production work. Have you always been intrigued by melody? When you did start making music, how long did it take before you were happy with your sound designs?
Melody is absolutely what makes me tick, both when I’m writing and consuming music. I’m still awed by how certain chord progressions and melodies can create an emotional response that’s so strong it sometimes becomes physical. It may sound weird, but I’ve never really listened to lyrics in music – I can never remember them – I think my brain just absorbs a voice like it’s another instrument.
It’s the melodies which bring a tear to my eye and give me the rushes. Tracks like Sasha’s ‘Xpander’ or Guy J’s ‘Once In a Blue Moon’ are perfect examples, they’re instrumental, there’s no overt story in the track, but those melodies just make me want to weep. In a good way of course!
I think that’s one characteristic of my music over the years, judging by a lot of the messages and feedback I’ve had, that I’ve given listeners the same kind of emotional response through my melodies. I’ll always be looking for the next, bigger and better melody though, my Xpander moment if you like.
Can you tell us a little about the writing you’ve done in the past?
When Dragonfly first picked me up in 2000, I got on a bit of a roll with them and had tracks on 3 different compilations on their Liquid Sound Design imprint between 2001 and 2004. The comps were to become really seminal in terms of psychedelic chillout and set a blueprint for what was to follow. Then came my debut album ‘Circuit Breaker’ in 2005, which was followed by quite a lot of tracks on compilations and then a remixed version of the album in 2007, which was one of the last releases on the label before they shut up shop.
After a couple of years wondering where to go from there, I set up my own label Section Records in 2010 and released my second album ‘Geometry’ to launch it. I wanted Section to be a broad-based label for good quality electronica in whatever style, and since then we’ve released everything between chillout and progressive house, dub and ambient, with a bit of drum & bass and dubstep thrown in. It reflects my own musical tastes at any given time, so it’s quite a personal thing.
Between ‘Geometry’ and ‘Vagabond’, I’ve released several Tripswitch singles and EPs on Section and Iboga, done a whole bunch of remixes for a wide range of artists, and had tracks on quite a few compilations too. So I have been reasonably prolific, but it’s been quite scattered and spread out.
Your first album – Circuit Breaker – was released back in 2005 to critical acclaim. Can you talk us through some of your favourite tracks on the album and the processes needed to make them?
‘Circuit Breaker’ was way more successful than I’d ever imagined it could be. I’d only had 3 or 4 tracks on official releases at that point, but with that album I seemed to hit something of the zeitgeist at that point in time. It sold pretty well and got great coverage and reviews in the press – even Anoushka Shankar wrote about it in the New York Times. I think, to some extent, it epitomised what was cool at the time in chillout music – lots of ethnic influences, some nice acidic leads – and I seemed to nail this lush, expansive, multi-layered sound that kind of became my trademark.
It was a very organic process writing those tracks – there was guitar all over the album, and a lot of live recording of other instruments. ‘Roll Your Own’ has to stand out as the lead track, it was picked up for a lot of compilations (including GU30 by Nick Warren) and synced to film and TV a few times too. Ironically, it was the quickest to write, it was pretty much done in an afternoon or two. There does seem to be a pattern in that the tracks that are quickest to write, the ones which just flow out, are the ones which have been most successful for me. You can overthink things.
‘Deer Park’ is the other track on the album that has a special place in my heart. Again, it was a quick one to write, inspired by this beautiful spot at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town, where I’d spent a bit of time at the turn of the millennium. In fact, the first incarnation of that track was the very first chillout track I wrote and one of the ones which went on that original CD to Dragonfly.
How different was the process this time with the new album, Vagabond?
To some extent, not that much changed. I’m still using more or less the same Logic template I was using back in the day. Processing power means I can get a lot more creative with effects and other processing, and certain tools we have in our DAWs now make it a lot less arduous achieving certain things like re-pitching or re-timing audio, for example.
Back when I wrote ‘Circuit Breaker’, I still had a lot of external hardware gear, but my studio is quite small and around 2008 I started feeling really claustrophobic, so I sold a lot, went quite zen and instead of sound sources I invested my money in getting the room sounding as good as possible – acoustic treatment, proper monitoring, quality audio interfaces / converters, one or two premium external processors.
It was the refresh I needed at the time and did allow me to delve deeper into what could be achieved inside the computer, but I do regret selling some of the stuff, I had some classic gear. I’m gently starting to re-invest in synths now, I just bought my first Moog which is something I’d always dreamed of.
In conversation about the tracks on this album, we seem to share similar tastes. I found Divine Falsehoods, Glass Heart and Payola really hit the spot for me, but it’s story behind The Left Bank that intrigued me most. It started off as a downtempo track…
Yeah, that’s right. I wrote the original track ‘Rive Gauche’ for a compilation that was meant to come out on Blue Tunes – the brief had been to create something melancholic with a tangible “soundtrack” atmosphere, and I envisioned a dark, wet evening by the Seine in Paris (where I lived for a while in the 90’s) and created this downtempo piece with an almost classical chord progression.
The compilation never happened for some reason or another, so when I was writing ‘Vagabond’ I decided to see if I could turn that composition into something that would fit with the album. Once I’d set up the arpeggiators and started playing, it took on a life of its own and became this neo-classical melodic techno beast of a track. I’m really proud of how it turned out.
Given the way dance music retail has gone, how hard has it been to remain full time in music? We understand you have a record label for instance…
It’s undeniably a lot harder these days. I first set up Section as a way to take back ownership of my music after Dragonfly petered out, but it wasn’t a silver bullet to making a load of money. I was keen to do everything properly and professionally, and also to champion some artists that I was really enjoying, and all that takes a lot of time and quite a bit of financial investment too. So I’ve never made any money from Section, but I still enjoy having it as a hobby and outlet for myself and the artists I’ve signed.
It’s really all about the gigs these days for most of us. Whereas 15 or 20 years ago you’d do a live tour to promote your latest album, these days you write an album to generate the interest in booking you and it’s the touring that’s paying the bills for most artists I know. Certainly a part of my strategy in moving more into the house end of things is to build up my DJ career and enable me to gig more. And I’m also really enjoying DJing again, it feels great after so many years doing only live gigs.
Well, its been great to chat again Nick, best of luck with the album. Just in closing, where can we see Tripswitch live over the summer months?
It’s been my pleasure! I’m back on the festival circuit over the summer, the next one will be a really nice chillout festival called Samsara in Siofók, Hungary in the first week of July, followed by a great slot on the last day of the incredible Boom Festival in Portugal in August, and Psy-Fi Festival in Holland a couple of weeks after that.
In September my long-term mentor – Youth – is putting on a festival at his incredible studio in the Sierra Nevada in Spain, I think we’re road-testing Tony Andrews’ new Funktion 1 rig, so that’s gonna be awesome! I’ll be in Ibiza in mid-June too, I’ve got an appearance lined up on a show on Ibiza Global Radio and who knows what else will pop up while I’m over there.
01// Audioglider – Ocular Overkill (We Are All Astronauts remix)
02// Klätu – Gyrokite
03// Sasha – Rooms
04// George FitzGerald – Full Circle feat. Boxed In (Bonobo Remix)
05// Rodriguez Jr – Mistral (Stephan Bodzin Remix)
06// Hot TuneiK – Through Other Dimensions
07// James Monro – Viridian
08// D-Nox & Beckers – Last Call
09// BP – A Minor Shadow (Dmitry Molosh Remix)
10// Tim Fishbeck – Witness To Wisdom
11// Khen – Never Lose Your Innocence
12// Jesse Oliver – All Is (Stas Drive Pres. Quattar Version)
13// AFFECT! & Maximillion – Polyhymnia (Stevie R & Alex Zed Edition)
14// Freddy Be – Holding Back (Betoko Remix)
15// Tripswitch – Vagaries
16// Andre Sobota – Futurammer (Tim Penner Remix)
17// Tripswitch – The Left Bank
18// Stephan Bodzin – Wir