TiD&B Interview: High ContrastPosted by Lady V on Wednesday, April 4th, 2012
Fresh from the release of his fourth album ‘The Agony & The Ecstasy’ on Hospital Records, High Contrast spoke honestly and in-depth with Lady V about the process behind making the highly anticipated longplayer, including influence from BBC Radio 4 and the importance of the visual aspect in his music…
TiD&B: Let’s go back a couple of months when ‘The First Note is Silent’, the first single from your album was previewed last October – it showcased a different sound to that of your previous work, and caused quite a mixed reaction – collaborating with Teisto and Underworld was very much a surprise!
High Contrast: Yeah, I thought it would shock some people. But I liked the paradox of me making a track with one of the biggest DJs in the world! I know the hardcore D&B fraternity were confused, or maybe even appalled by such a move but I liked the challenge of making something different – D&B with a trance artist – whilst also being artistically worthwhile for me on a personal level.
I think it was the vocal which challenged listeners the most, as it was auto-tune. I know Jay-Z did the whole ‘auto-tune is dead’ thing but for me, when something like that happens, my Contrastian mentality only makes me want to explore it further and so I did.
TiD&B: Was that one of the first tracks you wrote for the album, in turn inspiring the rest of the LP?
High Contrast: No, I actually wrote the title track ‘The Agony & The Ecstasy’ first and once I had that title in my head, it helped form the tone of the whole album.
TiD&B: How long ago did you start working on it – it’s been a good 5 years since ‘Tough Guys Don’t Dance’?
High Contrast: I started around 2 years ago. I’m not very fast at making music, or rather, I can write melodies quickly but structuring a tune, mix downs and technical stuff takes a long time. I prefer to make melodies like songwriters in the past such as Cole Porter did, and not have to do all the extra part of the production, but that’s part of the parcel! I mean, I do enjoy it as well, but I guess that’s the ‘agony’ part of the process compared to the ‘ecstasy’.
TiD&B: Ah, so what’s the ecstasy part?
High Contrast: Definitely the initial rush you get when you have an idea going and realise it’ll work musically, then of course also finishing a track.
TiD&B: So now that the album’s out, how are you feeling?
High Contrast: I’m quite relieved it’s done now, as it did take me quite while to make. Like you said, it’s been 5 years since the last album - I feel a bit like a new artist in a way. There’s a whole new generation of ravers out there and I feel that this album has been part of establishing mystelf again which kind of also refreshed me creatively.
TiD&B: Few artists in D&B even make it to producing and releasing a longplayer, let alone four, does the pressure build with each one?
High Contrast: The only pressure really comes from myself. I think the reason why making the album took so long is that I needed to step back and let it happen organically, let the ideas build in my head so it was something that I really wanted to make, and wasn’t just about rolling a bunch of tracks out for the sake of it.
TiD&B: What’s your approach to making music?
High Contrast: It’s a very strange alchemy, something you’ve got to just let happen. There’s no clear direct path to making a track I usually start by messing around with keyboards and samples and a lot of it is trial and error until finding something special and getting the feel for the shape of a track. As I’m sure most producers will agree, well those who approach music in a less pragmatic way, the process of making music is really difficult to articulate to others, it’s such a personal thing. But for me, it’s almost like being in a Zen state, where the whole world stops and I’m just in that room working on music, letting my subconscious take over.
TiD&B: ‘The Agony and The Ecstasy’ was the first project where you created your own samples, did that add a creative twist to your usual process?
High Contrast: Yeah definitely. For example with ‘Wish You Were Here’, a friend of mine, Gareth Undersound who is a very talented producer played live instruments for it; we had a horn section, his girlfriend played the cello and we got a violinist in. Then we also had Selah who recorded the live vocal.
TiD&B: You also wrote the lyrics to all the tracks – that’s rather unusual in D&B as it’s more common for a producer to pass that task onto the vocalist?
High Contrast: Maybe it’s because I’m a control freak with my music but I just couldn’t leave it all up to the vocalists. Already, finding a good vocalist is probably the hardest part of the whole musical process – you’ve got to find someone with a great voice, make sure they work right with the song, give the right performance and of course the right lyrics. I guess that’s why so many vocal samples are used in D&B as it’s the hardest part of the equation!
TiD&B: Did your MCing skills help with writing lyrics?
High Contrast: Haha! I used to MC…amateur stuff – I don’t think I have the voice for it! But lyrically, I have always liked wordplay and using language creatively.
TiD&B: That definitely comes through in your track titles! But why did you wait until your fourth album to be involved in that part too?
High Contrast: I don’t know really, maybe because this seems a somewhat maturer album and I’ve also got more to say now, through life and experience – as you get older, you get wiser – well I hope that’s the case!
‘The Agony & The Ecstasy’ was probably the first drum and bass album inspired more by BBC Radio 4 than Radio 1! The title ‘The First Note is Silent’ actually came from a lecture I heard on Radio 4 about sound. ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ was inspired by a poem of the same name which I also heard on Radio 4 – haha! I guess my top tip for all producers would be listen to Radio 4!
TiD&B: You’re also a big film buff and experimented behind the camera, directing and editing both videos for the single releases from ‘The Agony & The Ecstasy’. Was it important to you to also be involved in this process, beyond making just the music? Again, that’s something less common in D&B …
High Contrast: Yes, very much so. It was important to me to oversee the whole project, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it!
TiD&B: Your visual interpretation of both ‘The First Note is Silent’ and ‘The Agony & The Ecstasy’ definitely add an extra dimension to the music…
High Contrast: Thanks. I think some artists are just focused on sound and making music, struggling with track names even. But I’ve always been a very visual artist, often thinking about the vibe and imagery associated with a project, sometimes even before creating the music. It was important for me that the videos fitted with the tracks and worked together as a whole package.
TiD&B; Talking about factors of which are less common in the drum and bass scene, you’re also tee-total, how does that fit with the partying vibe associated with D&B?
High Contrast: I think intoxicants are more for the audience than the artists, because your job as an artist is essentially based on your taste and for that, I think you need to have a clear mind and know what’s going on. With drink and drugs, there’s a tendancy to find everything amazing and I think that’s dangerous as an artist as then it’s difficult to differentiate between what’s good and bad…I’m interested in truth and enlightenment and I don’t think I can get it from drink or drugs.
TiD&B: So where do you get it from?
High Contrast: I guess great art. You get moments of rush from art and that’s what I thrive on.
TiD&B: Is that the link with the Caravaggio piece used as your album cover?
High Contrast: Yeah, that’s ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew’ by Caravaggio, a great work of art that definitely inspires me. I felt it was very reflective of both agony and ecstasy; it’s a beautiful painting but depicting an asassinatoin. It’s also a religious piece hung in the Vatican but Caravaggio was a rather dubious character, wanted for murder at the time of his death – these extreme juxtapositions is how I see the world. Contrast is how we derive meaning from life; there’s no light without dark and we can only perversely describe things in comparison to their opposite in a way.
TiD&B: True words! So now that the album is finished, what are you up to next?
High Contrast: More musical ideas have already started to form – I’d like to put out an EP next instead of another full album. Maybe an EP of tunes which I didn’t finish for this album or felt didn’t really fit the tone of it but perhaps more along the lines of what people might expect from my previous work; sampled strings, soulful vocals, the old Contrast sound. I’m not sure, but there will be something soon!