Dolenz returns to Exit with an EP that follows on from his debut album, ‘Lingua Franca‘. The ‘Golden Spike’ EP is bulging full of hard hitting, sinister tracks that are as equally fit for dingey dance floors as they are for terrifying home listening.
We caught up with Dolenz and had a chat about imperfections, his different aliases and the band they’re forming together.
I discovered your music through Exit, a label well known by many people for its Drum and Bass output, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear that your music was experimental and varied. How did you end up releasing on Exit?
I think there’s a bit of a misconception about Exit. Darren [dBridge] has never followed the obvious path in Drum and Bass, he’s always been on the more experimental side of it. When I first met him and we were speaking about my first release on Exit, I felt like I needed to tailor my production to suit more of a Drum and Bass audience. Darren [dBridge] pushed me to do whatever I wanted to do. I’ve been making music for quite some time, in previous aliases I’ve been part of hip hop groups and was into scratching and turntablism when I was living in Dubai. I had been DJing around London and when I moved to Dubai I was the only guy that played underground Hip Hop and records. I did the hop hop thing for a few years with this group and it got a bit frustrating towards the end because you have to write songs that the MC’s are going to like, otherwise they won’t rap over it. They were heading more in a J Dilla, Tribe direction and I love that stuff, but it’s not what I naturally make. What I naturally make has been a bit more dark and gloomy, more angry.
When I moved back to London I didn’t really know anyone in the scene and I was quite worried that my music wasn’t good enough, so I took a couple of years to figure out what I wanted to sound like. Looking back on that time it was filled with anxiety because I almost felt lost coming from a city where you get lauded for the smallest s**t. They lap it up. When I came back to London, I was completely out of my depth so I came up with an anonymous alias. I wanted people to think that my name was Jeffery Dolenz and Dolenz was my alias, but my name is actually Neil. I spent a bit of time going to clubs, listening to what people were moving to. When I was growing up I was really influenced by trading cassette tapes and tape saturation, recordings of recordings. Then I was listening to Hype Williams and all of these other people that were using a lot of saturated sounds and I was really into that. So I funneled all of this into my first EP called ‘Hysterisis’, which I treated as an art project. I often treat my releases as a conceptual art project that I use to discover myself and it’s quite revealing.
I love hip hop and there’s a special era for me between ‘78 and ‘83 where they were experimenting with drum machines. The same as when Detroit Techno was coming around and also the stuff on the West Coast of America with electro. That era and with the Rammellzee stuff, where Basquiat and all of those guys were colliding in New York. I try and take elements of that and funnel it into my own sonic pallet. I’ve built a studio with specific pieces of hardware and I don’t really stray from that. I don’t like to use plugins and VST’s because you find this endless bank of sounds and everyone starts to sound the same after a while. I take that and I try to lay different tempos down.
Different tempos within the same project?
Yeah, so this latest EP starts off with the intro and then the first track is like 72 BPM and the last track is something like 120 BPM. It goes from super slow to fast. On the album I jumped around a bit more because I find it interesting that with electro music, if you half the speed it’s basically a Grime tempo. So I’m interested in flicking between those two worlds and joining the dots.
I think that shines through in your tunes, your influences from electro and hip hop but also acid and Middle Eastern. It’s quite varied and to keep that within the realms of electronic music is really intriguing. It’s clear in all of your productions, even in ‘Hysterisis’ from 2015.
Yeah, there you have my friends from Palestine and Sudan rapping on the EP. My partner is Indian, so I have the odd Indian sample in there too. It was really interesting doing that first project. Do you know what hysteresis actually means?
In an electric circuit, if you send all of these signals through a transistor then that process is called hysteresis and the signal that comes out of the other end is what I think of as my sound. It really helps. There’s a famous saying by Miles Davis where he says that it takes most people an entire lifetime to sound like themselves.
Yeah I’ve heard that before.
I really had that in my head when I was working on it. I’ve taken a bit of time off again now to re-look at how I make music, I constantly want to do things differently. I’m not that bothered about getting loads of gigs. This period has taught me what I really like because before I was thinking “Oh this person is playing and I should really go because I’m going to meet so and so.” All of those distractions have now gone and it’s just me in a room with a bunch of synthesisers and a stupid whistle.
So has your production changed recently?
I’ve actually formed a band with my different aliases [laughs]. Each character plays a different instrument in the band. It’s silly but I wanted to spend a week as this guy and I’m going to practice something like drum sequencing for a week and then the next day I’m going to slip into this character and play the keyboard.
So the aliases can play any instrument, they just have a different vibe?
Yeah, there are 4 different aliases that could be pulled into it, but this is in my head. I’m not going to put it out into the public.
Is this going to be a Dolenz project?
I might go by the name Jeffery Dolenz [laughs].
Just to really f**k with people.
Yeah [laughs]! I have another alias that appears on the album called Spacebody, but the thing is that anyone can be Spacebody. I was listening to ‘Starman’ by David Bowie around the time that I watched this Ted Talk where they were saying that creative people put way too much pressure on themselves because they expect to be creative all of the time. But you’re actually only creative for a split second, with a flash of inspiration. It could come once or twice a day and they refer to it as this angel that flies down and lands on your shoulder, whispers in your ear and f**ks off. My idea was that Spacebody could be one of those angels and that moment of inspiration could be anybody.
How did you follow-up your album on Exit?
There were 6-8 months when the music was finished but we were working on the artwork. That was a process in itself, none of it is photoshopped. It’s actually a photograph done with a flatbed scanner that was converted into a camera. It scans your head from the top down and takes about 8 minutes per photo. So that was all quite a long process and I wrote a lot of these tracks during that period. This EP is almost a follow-up to the album, in a way they’re tracks that didn’t fit. I like them but they’re all bangers and at the time I’d had enough of this conceptual bulls**t, I just want to write some bangers and see what happens. They’re all quite hard in their own way. Apart from the intro, they all have quite hard drums.
Yeah the vibe is quite heavy across them all.
Exactly. I did that and wasn’t thinking about doing anything conceptual, but do you know what a golden spike is in geological terms?
If they dig down into the Earth’s crust, you can find these layers, for example from when the dinosaur era ended and there’s this fine layer of iridium that runs around the core. They think that represents when the meteorite hit Earth and wiped out dinosaurs, and that’s called a golden spike in history. I was reading about this and was watching a documentary from the 1950’s about the universe, the first time that we had interesting footage of the planets. I was also watching this Chinese film where the sun just stops working so the whole planet is f**ked and I thought that I could use this documentary to pull it together. Then Jehst wrote his lyrics for the song and it made sense. The concept behind Lingua Franca was about climate change and how this planet is actually f**ked.
That was based on an imaginary movie, wasn’t it?
Yeah I wrote a movie and the main protagonist realises at the end that the planet’s core is kept in motion by animals singing to it, which is the main point of the movie. When we hear whales singing, the collective vibration is keeping the core ticking over in the movie. I read yesterday that human beings are only 0.01% of the living creatures on the planet, whereas plants are like 82% or something mental like that. It’s just a metaphor that human beings are the only species that don’t live in harmony with the planet. I guess that the golden spike is the shift that we’re feeling in society, there’s a lot of change happening now.
Especially right now.
Yeah and Jehst was rapping about that. We actually weren’t going to release this EP until later in the year but my label boss sent me a message asking if I had listened to Jehst’s lyrics recently. He sent me a transcript and it’s about not being able to fly, being trapped at home and watching everything on a laptop screen. It’s mad because he wrote this like a year and a half ago. That was pretty nuts. We’ve done a video for it as well where my friend Dean Puckett used archived footage from tapes that have been digitised, it’s cool. So the EP was intended as a set of bangers that I wrapped up in a sci-fi way.
It seems like you and Jehst were almost meant to work together.
That was purely by luck. I had his email so I just sent him a beat off the cuff. I had never spoken to him before but he was interested in getting involved. I’ve never actually met him.
So out of nowhere the EP came to life.
Yeah, I’m hoping that it goes down well. I’ve actually got two other EP’s that are ready to go, which is why I’m taking a break.
What’s the plan with those?
One of them is in a more hip-hop direction, like slack, slap beats stuff. That has been signed to a label and we’re trying to get a couple of MC’s on it. The other one was four tracks but I just gave one away on Bandcamp. They’re all good to go, that one’s actually called ‘The Jeffrey EP’.
Is that the introduction of the band with your aliases that you mentioned earlier?
I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out yet to be honest. I wanted to simplify my life, I tend to take on way too much s**t. I’ve got 2 radio shows every month, that’s way too much.
Yeah that must take up a lot of time. You’ve worked with a few vocalists before, is there anyone in particular that you’d like to work with?
I’ve always wanted to work with Fatima and Tirzah, she does interesting vocals. In terms of MC’s, I’ve tried to reach out to Edan a couple of times, he’s quite hard to get hold of. There is also Sadhu Gold and JPEGMAFIA, they’d be quite cool to work with.
Your tunes are quite mysterious and they’re tied together quite nicely with a vocalist.
One of my favourite artists is Stevie Wonder and when you listen to his music, there’s a certain timbre in his voice. He’s almost very slightly off-key and when I write harmonies on my synthesisers I detune it so the notes are slightly off. This creates a tension and sort of sadness in the high frequencies and I think Stevie Wonder gets that across in his songs too. To me it always comes through, which is why I find it very emotive. I’ve spoken to artists that do the same and they say “You’re the first person that’s clocked onto that”. I’ve studied their music and tried to see what they’re doing. With Hip Hop, I think that a part of it died when it went from its original form from DJ’s and MC’s because it had to be live. The minute they tried to capture that on a record, it died a little bit in my mind. I try to make music that is imperfect, you try to capture those broken bits. For me, it’s trying to capture a moment with a broken recording. Those imperfections make things different.
They give some character.
Yeah, I’m quite happy for my music to be ugly.
It sounds like it’s not ugly out of ignorance, it’s intentional.
Exactly, it comes out the way it comes out I guess. Sometimes it can sound a bit much.
For me, that’s when I know that an artist is really being creative. You listen to ten of their tunes and four blow you away, you like three and the other three aren’t really your vibe. If they don’t make those three that you don’t really like, they might not have made the ones that blow you away because that’s what pushes the boundaries.
Exactly, the best moment for me was when I met this guy who was autistic that said there was something in my music that touches him like no one else’s music does and he couldn’t understand why. I was like “f**king hell”, so I got into this conversation with him to try and understand what he meant. It was pretty amazing, probably the best compliment I’ve ever had.
Did you ever get to the bottom of it?
Not really, he said it was something about the harmonies, melodies and song structure. I wonder if it’s because of the tension in the synthesised harmonies. I tell people that I wish I didn’t have to make sad, angry music all of the time but it never comes out happy. There are two ends of the spectrum, it’s either really ridiculous and stupidly jolly to a cartoon vibe or it’s grave, funeral music. Someone called it Gothic Funk and I quite liked it.
Yeah that’s spot on. When you sent me the EP it was late and I felt unsettled after I listened to it. It was like I had watched an episode of Black Mirror. That’s why I was interested in what that guy who complimented you was saying, I don’t think he was a one-off if you’re intentionally making it with the imperfections. Sack off the jolly music and carry on doing whatever you feel like!
Nice [laughs]! I’m hoping to go back and make some weird happy s**t. It was during lockdown whilst everything is happening in the world that I asked myself why I make angry music all of the time. I have really got into meditative music.
No crusty synthesisers?
Yeah exactly, I feel like that serves a purpose. Whereas I’m not sure how much more of the angry stuff I’ve got left in me.
That must take up a lot of energy. Are you planning anything for after lockdown?
I’m going to look for a local residency where I can play tunes every other week. I’ve done a few larger gigs but I want to do smaller parties again.
I’d probably look for somewhere around Hackney. I’d really like to collaborate with a friend for an immersive audio-visual experience and we spoke about doing a one-off as a tester. I’d just like to be part of the party, rather than on a big stage.
I’ve got some new bits coming for the studio as well and I’m just going to experiment with some new sounds and take some time to play around with them. There’s also that EP pending later in the year, but there’s no date yet.
Thanks for your time and take care!