The Triumphant Return of Partial Arts

The mere mention of the name Ewan Pearson sets the hearts of music nerds like myself racing. An active producer since 1995, Ewan has released under many guises including World of Apples, Partial Arts (with Al Usher) and Bhutan Tiger Rescue. His remix work is exceptional with tracks by Depeche Mode, Chemical Brothers, Seelenluft, Cortney Tidwell and the Junior Boys featuring heavily in the sets of a wide range of DJs. His production credits include Delphic’s ‘Acolyte’, Tracey Thorn’s solo albums ‘Out Of The Woods’ and ‘Love And Its Opposite’, The Rapture’s ‘Pieces of the People We Love’ and M83’s ‘Saturdays=Youth’.

Globally renowned as a well educated man (he has a 1st class degree from Cambridge University) Ewan is a published academic and lecturer and also written for Groove Magazine in Germany among other dance interest blogs. As a DJ he has released 3 acclaimed mix CDs – SciFiHiFi Vol.1 for Soma, Fabric 35 and We Are Proud Of Our Choices for Kompakt. Resident at the impressive Robert Johnson and Panoramabar, his sets, much like the man himself are utterly beguiling and defy categorisation.

June 16th 2014 marked the return of Ewan and Al’s Partial Arts project with a brand new track called Taifa, which has been six years in the making! Its well worth the wait let me tell you because as some wise soul said on Ewan’s Facebook page recently “These things take time!” I caught up with Ewan recently after an amazing gig in New York to discuss his career, his thoughts on the current scene and the new single.

Hi Ewan, I’m so pleased you’ve been able to join me, I understand you recently became a dad, congratulations! Bet you’re getting less sleep now than ever?

Ha! thanks! It’s not too bad at the moment. She wakes up a couple of times in the night to feed so it’s harder for her mum than it is for me. I’m going to bed earlier and getting up earlier certainly. But DJing is good training for being a dad – the ability to nap when you need to catch up on sleep and being used to people dribbling on you quite a lot.

Having done my due diligence with researching old interviews, I understand you didn’t really like those first house tunes and it was in fact the hi-NRG tracks which piqued your interest. Would you have considered a career in music had those records not come along? What d’you think you’d have done instead?

Well it was the hi-NRG stuff which managed to chart in the early 80’s which was the first dance music that I loved – and this I guess was before I really knew anything about nightclubs or their context in any way – I just really liked them as pop records. It is true that I wasn’t really fussed by house the first couple of years; it took until Voodoo Ray I guess and then the Detroit stuff before I got really excited by it.

As for careers, I don’t think I really thought I would have a career in music when I was younger. I was interested in how records were made and I thought being a record producer would be a fascinating job although I didn’t really know much about what it would actually mean. But I really only had the ambition to make a record myself; one, really, so that I could say I had one in a shop on sale to people. That was the sum total of my ambition and I expected to be doing something like teaching or writing or something as an actual job. It wasn’t until the end of the 1990’s and I’d had an album out on Soma and started doing remixes that I thought I’d try to give being a full time self employed musician.

Your music has always been very melodic and musical. Did you grow up in a musical household?

Yes there was always a great deal of music on in the house, both of my parents are hugely into music of all sorts and my dad has played guitar most of his life, and been in various bands although not professionally.

Tell us about those early days as acid house started to take hold of the UK underground. You grew up in the Midlands which became a bit of an epicentre for parties. Do you remember your first rave?

Actually it was quite hard to go out for me at that time as to get to raves you needed a car and I was too young to drive. When I got my license I used to go to Birmingham to a night where they just played Detroit techno. I would take various friends from school who had no interest in the music at all but just wanted to be able to go out I think. I would drive, not drink and dance the whole time, while they got hammered and looked for girls. But I started being able to go to clubs in earnest once I’d left home for college – we used to go to London to clubs like Flying and across to Venus in Nottingham and places like that.

Which DJs really inspired you back then?

Andrew Weatherall was the first, and then lots of the ‘balearic’ folks playing around the same time, like Justin Robertson, the Slam guys in Glasgow, who I ended up making records for.

When we learned to DJ it was all about the turntables. Did you ever learn any scratching?

Er, no! I had one Technics turntable and a friend of mine at college had a second and we used to shuttle them between each of our rooms, and then we used to practice trying to mix all sorts of records that didn’t really go together, in order to learn to beat mix. I wasn’t very good, but it was quite a long time before that began to matter thank goodness.

Today the majority of new DJs are starting out with industry standard software like Traktor/Serato etc. Do you feel the art of DJing has been lost? Do the new generations appreciate the nuances as much?

I think the art is really in choosing great music and in sequencing it well. Sequencing it is really the hardest thing, when I have a great night it’s when I think I’m playing interesting and diverse music but organising it in a way that the audience is digging. If one of those elements is off; my choice, my flow, the crowd whatever, then it falls apart. I’m not very good at playing very linear in style so sequencing becomes even more important.

As for technology; I honestly don’t really care whether someone’s music comes form records, CDs, a computer or a stick. I care what they play and in what order. The whole thing of people advertising ‘vinyl only’ sets is quite ludicrous and elitist. But then I played and carried vinyl for years so I feel like I’ve paid my dues! As for the beat mixing thing, I much prefer to hear people mixing and a little bit of friction, slop, excitement. I do want to hear that it’s a person doing it not a machine so I don’t really approve of people using the auto-mixing functions.

I think it’s fair to say your productions never sound ‘techno’. There is a deep rooted sense of the everyday to them; an organic nature. How do you go about creating tracks which feel ‘alive’?

Thanks! Erm, I’m not really sure to be honest. I try to use some analogue sources where I can, and I like my mixes to sound very wide and deep in terms of the mix sound-stage, but they are sometimes mixed in the box, or made entirely from plug-ins. I’m not dogmatic about it, I use anything that’s to hand. I’ve set up a small rig at home again now the baby’s here, with a laptop, headphones and a couple of monophonic synths.

Your studio has had some pretty famous producers through its doors. Was there ever anyone you wanted to work with but haven’t been able to?

I don’t really have a wish list. There are lots of amazing artists and people that I love, but I don’t really seek them out. I usually wait to be asked! It’s nice to be wanted, I’m a terrible hustler. I guess I would be a bit more famous if I were better at that side of things.

I think my personal favourite track of yours is a remix you did for American singer/song writer Cortney Tidwell – Don’t Let the Stars Keep Us Tangled Up, which features Kurt and William from Lambchop. Its an unabashedly beautiful downtempo piece, but your remixes lift the track in to orbit! When you receive remix projects like this what process do you go through to determine how you will write?

Well that was an occasion where I knew the artist, Cortney, because a friend of mine in Berlin signed her. So I’d seen her play live and met her and her band and become friends. And I heard a lot of the music for her second album as it was being made. And then they came up with the idea of me remixing “…Stars” which was just the perfect candidate for a remix really – good tempo, amazing parts and it just really fitted with this kind of treatment. Cortney had actually arrived in Berlin to play a show the day after I finished it – I took it down and played it to her on headphones afterwards and she started to cry. In a good way! It’s definitely one of the remixes I’m most proud of. And then a couple of years later R&S licensed it and put it out again so I made the beatless edit.

As I mentioned in the intro, you have 3 highly acclaimed CDs which I understand you literally agonise over until completion. One of the office favourites is the Fabric mix you did. How do you finally decide on the tracks you’ll use? Do you have to get clearance on them first?

Thanks! Well the way it works it that you assemble a wish list of tracks you want but make sure it’s plenty more than you need, and then the record company gets on with asking for a provisional clearance from labels whilst not guaranteeing that it will be used, while you start to put things together. There have been a few things I wasn’t able to get over the years (I wanted to start my Soma mix CD with an edit my friend Ivan Smagghe did of a brilliant French boogie record called ‘Un Fait Divers’ by Le Club from 1982 – which I think was a huge pop hit in France, but they didn’t even reply to the request). As for how you select tracks – it’s just lots and lots of listening really, making lists and lists, and trying things out – I really like musical mixes and nice transitions in key and things like that, so it’s a lot of work.

You mention in the sleeve notes of We are Proud that CDs have become a dying art. We’ve had a similar debate on that topic and how, because of computers, the humble mixtape/CD has been superseded to the point where DJs don’t really know how to construct a studio mix anymore. What advice would you give a new DJ wanting to make a really powerful demo mix to showcase their sound?

I guess it’s just the same as advice is always… try and be yourself and be distinctive in some way . It’s so hard these days because there are so many people making and playing records – how to do you delineate yourself? You need to work and work until you develop a style of your own. I love making mixes and doing CDs because it’s a chance to construct something more considered – to really sculpt something that can bear close attention and repeat listens.

You’ve also travelled extensively, which places stuck out as favourites? Were there places you wished you had more time to explore?

I’ve been lucky to go to quite a lot of places – I always enjoy going to the States, Mexico is always wonderful and the kids are super-knowledgable about their music. I’ve had some amazing gigs in Sydney and Australia over the years and in Japan too – I really loved Japan and really want to go back there when I can. When you get to travel to places like that and meet lovely people who are really into the same music it’s pretty much the dream job.

We’ve barely touched on Berlin! You moved there a while back and clearly you’re loving the life. Whats been some of the highlights and the low points of the move? In retrospect would you do it all the same given a second chance?

Highlights are living in a great city that’s a little less hectic and a little more reasonable for a self-employed musician, lots of opportunities for fun over the years, some lovely friends and last but very much not least meeting and getting married to my amazing wife! Berlin’s been pretty great to me. The only real downside I think, is that in moving away from London I’ve made things harder for my production career as I just wasn’t in the middle of things when it comes to bands and gigs and A&R etc. In some ways it might have been more prudent to stay in London just to be closer to that, but I didn’t, so….

We’re so glad you have decided to resurrect the Partial Arts project again. It’s been 6 years since Telescope came out. What have you and Al been up to in that time? Can we expect an album in the future?

It has been quite a while, we really didn’t mean it to be so long! They do usually take us a little while to do, I think ‘Trauermusik’ probably took something like 18 months from start to completion, but it’s more that life and jobs got in the way. Al has a real job and became a dad 5 years ago, so has had hardly any free time to work on music. And I’ve been privileged to be doing production for other people and travelling in my job over making original stuff. But we managed to grab 5 days together in Berlin last autumn and ‘Taifa’ was written and finished in that session. It’s become quite hard and we have thrown plenty away as we’re quite picky and I think something has to be considered really good by both of us before it has a chance. I’m really proud of the run of singles we’ve done, particularly the last few on Kompakt – in some ways it’s our ‘indulgent’ project, a bit more musical – I always joke that they’re dance records that you can’t really dance to, although maybe that’s not true. As for an album, we’ve wanted to make one for 10 years. Whether we’ll manage it, and whether it will take 10 more years, I can’t say! I hope we do, and that it doesn’t take quite that long.

Finally, theres a quote (of yours I believe) I wanted to ask you about. “Have fun, party hard, but don’t forget to go home!” I always wanted to know what inspired that.

That was just an off-the-cuff remark from an interview I did for a documentary (Feiern) about Berlin and dance music, that was made when I first moved there – in 2004 or 5 I think? I was commenting on adjusting to the open-ended nature of Berlin clubbing, and the way the clubs stayed open and people just kept dancing until everyone fell over pretty much. It was a joke really, but ended up being used a lot in the promo for the documentary, and became the unofficial English name for it. It’s quite odd to have a catchphrase or quotation follow you around like that and to see it repeated on social media the whole time, even 10 years later on. I saw a poster for a club night in Berlin the other day also called ‘Don’t Forget To Go Home’ – they didn’t book me for it though, the bastards…

Its been an honour Ewan. Thanks for finding the time to chat, the single ‘Taifa’ is out June 16th on Kompakt and we wish you the best for luck with it.

01// Quirke – Acid Beth

02// June Tabor – Lisbon

03// Plaid – Hawkmoth

04// Kaoru Inoue – Etenraku

05// Identity Theft – Sleep

06// Dawn of Midi – Dysnomia

07// Charlotte OC – Hangover (Moodymann Mix)

08// Powell – No U Turn

09// Dream Weapons – Pathways

10// Abstraxion – Rising

11// Crystal Maze – Orchidea Nera

12// Renart – Qualia

13// Mzungu – The Third

14// Partial Arts – Taifa (Emperor Machine Extended)

15// Mungolian Jetset – Frisco Speedball (Extended Discotek Mix)

16// Echoa – Wishing Well