"Creating and sustaining": DJ Pitch is a catalyst for the progress of experimental music - Impact - Mixmag

"Creating and sustaining": DJ Pitch is a catalyst for the progress of experimental music

The TT and All Centre founder is dedicated to unearthing cutting-edge sounds and the artists who make them

  • Words: Patrick Hinton | Photography: Omar Allsop
  • 28 April 2020

When Robert Venning left his hometown of Watford in 2011 to study a classical music degree in Sheffield, he thought of dance music as “really cheesy”. He’d been immersed in the sounds of opera and classical by his enthusiast grandfather at a young age, sung in choirs through childhood, and when friends started going out to the likes of fabric aged 18, he never considered hopping on the 20 minute train to London and joining them. Then one night during his first year in the Steel City he accompanied some friends from his halls of residence to what he presumed would be a student night, but what turned out to be a techno night at a club called Dirty Little Secret. The atmosphere felt freer than the uptight commercial clubs he was used to, and not brash in the way 20,000 kids moshing in a tent to Pendulum at Reading Festival had. Suddenly dance music clicked. He never made it to the second year of his classical music studies, dropping out that summer.

The stage notation he was used to had begun to feel stiff, and composing in Ableton felt natural. He’d first experimented with DAWs while in bands aged 16, using a cracked copy of Reason acquired from a schoolmate. Aged 19 and now counting the likes of Hessle Audio, Swamp 81 and Night Slugs among his foremost inspirations, he started to DJ and write electronic music for the first time. Initially as Pitcheno (“I don't know why I thought it was a good name. It was meant to be like a play on Al Pacino; I've not even seen many of his films”), before shortening it down to DJ Pitch (“I thought if you ever searched it then pitch control would always come up, but I sometimes come up now which is pretty nice”). Sometimes he shortens it further still to DJ P.

Venning’s influences growing up went beyond classical. His father was the music buyer for Ealing libraries and constantly bringing home new sounds. The bulk of his borrowing comprised of folk and jazz, but pop CDs also featured. Venning started to form his own tastes from the age of 10, naming Gorillaz's debut album as one of the first records he was actively interested in “rather than it just being part of my environment”. Hertfordshire also had a strong post-hardcore and metal scene and he dabbled in that ‘til around 14, before moving onto more indie stuff. Test Icicles followed Gorillaz as another influence with a basis in electronic music that was blended with a whole stack of other reference points. And when Venning got into electronic music properly in 2012 after moving up North, the hybridity of those UK club and techno labels like Night Slugs was key to drawing him in.

After dropping out and moving home he started the Tobago Tracks party in Watford and kept it going for just shy of two-and-a-half years, forming connections with Zini, Yayoyanoh and Organ Tapes in the process. In 2014 Venning founded the Tobago Tracks label which is now known as TT. It opened with four compilation EPs themed around different countries, before becoming more assured in its identity with the release of Organ Tapes’ album ‘Word Life’ in 2015 and hitting a stride that hasn’t faltered since. The scope of the label is broad, stretching across styles like grime, dancehall, ambient, noise and techno but never landing squarely in any of them.

Newness is a core drive of the label: in both the music and the artists. Venning worked an office job in Corporate Development for a youth homelessness charity for six years where he’d offset the tedium of making spreadsheets by trawling SoundCloud for exciting new sounds to release and play on the radio. Not one to piggy back off established names for clout, he’s dedicated to uplifting lesser known artists and introducing their potential to the world. In 2017 he was joined by Gribs, and this year by Kast, to co-run the imprint and its output is getting ever stronger and more varied. 2019 saw TT celebrate its fifth birthday and crown that milestone a few weeks later with a victory at Eastern Margins’ Soundclash party. Around the same time Symrun’s mixtape ‘Care Work’ came out and its accompanying booklet, t-shirt, videos and podcast saw the label open up to new ways of presenting music, which it plans to continue building upon in future.

In 2018, Venning also launched the All Centre label as an outlet for experimental takes around bass and techno. It opened with a debut EP from Simkin, who now co-runs the label as it approaches its second anniversary. Many more debuts have followed, including Venning’s own first full releases, which he’d initially pegged for TT upon its creation in 2014 before he became too busy with the day-to-day running and releasing of other people’s music.

If DJ Pitch were in the NBA, he might be called a ‘glue guy': an essential player who works tirelessly for the team without chasing individual glories. And that terminology can also apply to the binding role his labels play in building communities and holding them together. But as his recent releases, club sets, radio shows, and Impact mix assert, he's well capable of unleashing his own half court buzzer beaters. Or to stop this tortured metaphor: making and playing bangers.

Press play on his Impact mix and check out the tracklist and Q+A below.

TT started as a party in Watford, when was that? What was the idea and how did it develop through its early stages?

After I dropped out of my classical music degree I was back at home not doing much and I didn't have any money, so I ended up mainly going out in Watford. It had a Vodka Revs, a PRYSM, which used to be Oceana, those types of clubs. They're all along in a big strip so it's almost a Greek island experience. Punters would flock from all around, people would be like 'You know people come down from Birmingham to go out in Watford!'. I could never understand why.

By this time I had this newfound love of electronic music. I'd spent enough time going out and not really enjoying the music or the atmosphere of the clubs. There was one night where someone almost got in a fight, and I said to my friends we need to do our own thing. So I ended up doing a party with some friends in this club called Area. It’s where the first ever Eskimo Dance was. It was this quite big commercial club and they were kind enough to give us one of the side rooms and let us do a party there for a while. Then it shut down so we had to move and we ended up in a situation for about a year and a half where every venue we took it to would shut down, because a lot of the clubs didn't seem to have much of a lifespan there.

We first did it in Watford in December 2013 and it went until April 2016, at that point we were doing them in an art gallery. The gallery would take all the art out and we'd bring all our own stuff in: speakers, decks, everything. It got a lot more fun, but we couldn't afford to hire security which was really stupid because the party got robbed. The people came back three times and kept on trying to steal our stuff. We kept on having to call the police to get rid of them, it was this cat and mouse situation all night. After that we were just like, we can't afford to do this, so the TT parties in Watford stopped. By that point I'd switched to doing stuff in London anyway so it was fine. It was nice to try and we did some fun stuff, but I think sadly it's just the kind of place where it's really difficult to do any form of nightlife that's outside of what’s already established as working.

What were your goals and aims for the TT label when you started it and how has that evolved over the years?

The core aim was to release music from the people I know, and the music of people that I find that I love. It's so difficult getting into the rhythm of releasing music frequently, having infrastructure set up properly, and understanding how running a label works.

I was doing it myself and didn't really have anyone to show me how to do it. That is a real issue I think [for people starting labels]. It is something that is changing because of the way the internet has gone and because there's more people who, alongside releasing music, are speaking on how the industry works. But it’s something I had to figure out myself really slowly. As a result, that core aim was the same for so long.

It wasn't until about 2017 once I'd started working with Gribs on the label that I started being able to think beyond that. That also coincided with us starting to get Arts Council funding which helped me realise that there are other pots of money out there to help support the type of activity we do, and it doesn't have to be just releasing music. So I think now it's about trying to help people build their careers, as well as releasing music we love, releasing a lot of new music, and helping to introduce artists to the world who might otherwise not be heard. As the label's profile has increased that's become really important and one of the best uses of the exposure the label has.

Gribs joined in May 2017. How did that come about and how has her involvement changed the label and how you run it?

If you look at the label's back catalogue, we're pretty consistent with releases about every two months. But there's a massive gap between summer 2016 and spring 2017. I had a few things happen in my personal life and was busy with other projects, and I lost my passion for the label a bit. It was starting to pick up again but I wasn't really that psyched about it and was wondering about finishing. Then I met Gribs through a friend and we started talking about music, and it was the first time in a long time that I had met someone who had really, really similar tastes, references and the same route into music that I'd had. She mentioned she was moving down to London so it seemed like the appropriate time to get someone else on board. A lot of projects exist in phases, and once Gribs joined, that was the real second phase of TT. There's a bunch of artists there's no chance I ever would have signed without her ears.

You then started All Centre in August 2018. What were your aims from the outset of that label and how is it developing?

It comes back to my first route into listening to dance music being through that four-to-the-floor-ish, broken UK bass/techno sound. With TT I'd essentially got involved in what is called club music, but I stayed completely into that other interest. Labels like Hessle Audio, Swamp 81, and then others that were in that orbit from North America like Mood Hut, L.I.E.S, Pacific Rhythm. I think if you go back to some mixes, if they're still around, from about 2015 I'd started experimenting with trying to bring these two things together, and those experiments quietly continued for a couple of years.

Then 2018 came around and we'd signed the first object blue record [‘Do you plan to end a siege?’]. I'd been thinking it was a shame that I don't hear more of this stuff that's really geared to the dancefloor and has these nods to all these kinds of music I'm interested in, that isn't club, it's kind of something different. The object blue record was like this final awakening. It's got this Cardi B sample in it, it's a big, no holds barred, unapologetic track. It clicked something in my head, so I have her to thank for that. It was immediately around that time that I started getting sent a lot of other music in the same vein. It was dancefloor focused but a lot of fun. It was all sorts of experimental, maybe it had some nods to pop music, hip hop or r'nb. I got sent enough of it where it got to the point where I thought, I'm just going to start another label because otherwise it isn't going to find a home or an axis to orbit around to help people have something to point to when they're talking about it.

It's really nerve-wracking doing a label for the second time because you're so inclined to think the first one was a fluke, but the response has been amazing. I'm working on that with Jamie Simkin now because it picked up so much quicker than I expected it to. We're prepping our second anniversary compilation at the moment which is exciting.

Read this next: Intense and cathartic: How object blue's creative fixation ignites her groundbreaking music

Can you tell me about the anniversary comp?

It's an eight-track compilation that's featuring some new tracks from artists that have released previously on the label, and some new artists whose sound we feel is really in tune with what we're doing. The in-house label artist Bette Blanchard is going to make an artwork responding to each track. Then as a result of that, we're going to put together an eight page poster zine and everyone who buys a copy of the compilation will get the poster zine sent out to them as well - corona permitting.

Some of the TT releases have theoretical rooting, and come accompanied by literary or political release notes. How do these types of release develop and what’s the process for forming the concept around them?

If it's a theory driven approach that will come from the artist. We never dictate to someone that we want them to do a political release. When it happens it’s something that's really enjoyable to do, particularly because it's often a shared interest that myself, Josh [Kast] and Gribs have. The Joanna Pope release is a really great example. Her work researches degrowth, climate change, economics, things like that, which we're all really interested in.

The Joanna Pope record came about because you found her through a political meme Twitter account right?

Yeah, @degrowthmemes. I found that and then came across her music. I'm a real sucker for those kind of sandbox, stock sound synths. The way she incorporates them into her music is amazing. It was a no brainer to put it out when the opportunity came around.

That's very contemporary A&R.

Haha, yeah. It's weird, it's about a 50/50 split between finding music through a streaming platform and finding people on Instagram or Twitter first, and then realising they do music. You might be interested in someone for another aspect of their practice or work, and then that context helps you to make the decision about releasing their music when you discover it.

Across each label there are so many debut releases, and you’ve also hosted the debut UK shows of collectives like Club Chai. How do you find all the artists you work with? What do you look for in music that excites you?

It's all online. I've been talking to Esra [Club Chai co-founder 8ULENTINA] for about five years now. We just met through SoundCloud, I'm pretty sure I reached out to them through the DMs to get some tracks for my radio show at the time. We formed a relationship and carried on sending each other music. And then 8ULENTINA and [Club Chai co-founder] FOOZOOL/Lara Sarkissian were the first people I approached when we decided to go for some Arts Council funding to see if we could bring them over. That's something we've always been interested in: trying to push something new, trying to make sure we're giving people a genuine opportunity rather than just using what's established to build a name.

In terms of the music, I'm not sure I have an answer to that question. The A&R process is slightly different for TT and All Centre. For TT, you're looking for an artist who might be working within an identifiable sound or genre, but the take, the version of the music you're hearing, is their own, rather than something that feels like an identikit club track. We want it to be something that feels quite personal, and almost like it stands slightly at a tilt, with the music being a result of that approach.

How closely do you work with artists on the sound of releases? Are you giving a lot of feedback?

It's super varied. I think it depends on the artist and where they're at in their journey with music. For some people, if we're putting out their first release and they've only been working on DAWs for like six months, they might want our help or technical feedback like change this synth or bring that kick drum down. With other artists, there's nothing at all. They'll give us the music and we'll put it out.

With other artists we might do studio sessions to talk through the tracks. It's a great opportunity to help people see their music through to the end when they're struggling, and show them it’s all there, you just need someone to help guide you in the direction to get it finished. It’s really rewarding, because the first release is always the hardest.

Your debut single ‘Battered Huawei’ came out in September 2019 on All Centre. You initially started TT in 2014 as an outlet for your own music, but never ended up putting out a full release on it. What was the process of putting that release together like and how does it feel to be getting your own music out there at last?

It's really satisfying. I had a few tracks floating about on the first few compilations, but after that I got so busy with running the labels that I couldn't find the time to finish my own music anymore. Through that I kind of lost my confidence as well. I was working with so many artists who I was completely bowled over by. Everything they were sending me just seemed so natural, and when I was sitting down to write music it wasn't coming. I spent four years, from 2015 to 2019, where all I would do is write eight or 16 bar loops. I was trying to rush music. I was like, right I've got to get something out, this is the one - but it never happened.

I built up these folders and folders of music and none of it went anywhere. I think eventually, it was through starting my architecture degree that I began to understand that actually finishing music takes time. You need to do things in iterations, you need to try other ideas, you shouldn't be disheartened if the first thing you try doesn't work out. I'd been so busy in corporate office environments where you just do something and then it goes that I'd really lost that. I was super disheartened and convinced that I could never get my music to a standard I would be happy with it at, which was another issue. I've had to learn to let that go and just start releasing music.

It was around April 2019 when I decided to go back over this big glut of tracks I had from 2015 to 2019 and actually understand what the different sounds and themes that tie all this music together were. Because that’s how I'm going to best understand what my own sound is, rather than being worried about how other people sound. Through that process of going back to all that music and reworking it, I've managed to finish stuff and feel confident in putting it out.

'Battered Huawei' was built from a track I made in 2017. It used the same punk singer vocal, but a different part, as I realised there was this nicer sample a little bit further along in the track. I try to use the same sample but a different point when I'm reworking these tracks, trying to keep it personal and keep this connection with the person that wrote it three or four years ago.

You recently followed that release up with ‘Pbat’.

'Pbat' is another track that started around 2017. It sounded nothing like it does now, but that core - the kicks and rolling percussion - is from a really old track. The name is in reference to a song which no one's pulled up, which I was interested in. Again it was just a case of picking out one of these tracks out from a couple of years ago to keep working on it until I got it finished. I started around September last year and finished it by February. It's six months of revising, spending two days working on it then leaving it and coming back two weeks later.

Read this next: "A track to pick the room up": How Instinct made 'Pistolwhip'

You donated the revenue from the release to The Trussell Trust, and TT did the same on the first Bandcamp fee-waiving day. You used to work at a charity. Has this informed your community focused mindset?

I worked in the commercial arm of the charity so what I did was super corporate to be honest. There isn't really much of a relationship there. The Trussell Trust seemed like the charity that would help the most. And I have a student loan that I can live off, so when the world's in such a volatile situation the least I can do is put the money I make from music towards something I think will help.

In terms of a community minded approach, I think actually that came from spending so long in Watford basically being the only person who was really interested in the niche music I liked. Then eventually meeting a few people who were also into it and the joy that came out of that, and then finding an online community and starting to go out in London and meeting loads of other people as well. Just the amount of good will that came out of having a shared interest in a niche style of music. I quite quickly realised it's as much about the music as it is the strength of the community you build around it. That's what really drives me, making sure that the labels I build make people feel like they're a part of something that can help guide them and push their music in the right direction.

TT and All Centre both feel like linchpins joining the intersection of a lot of different microscenes. You’ve talked before about how streaming is increasingly isolating artists and scenes. How do you view the role of a label in today’s scene?

I think streaming and the way we interact with content and the media that we like - be that watching YouTube videos, who you follow on Instagram, etc - is increasingly isolated and individualised. So I think a label feels like one of the last ways for people to come together around music with a shared context. Through that, so many different things begin to happen. Two different artists who are from these separate microscenes or different crews might go off and work together and it forms a whole new thing. There's almost this psychogeography to it all, where you can connect all these different islands with your one.

Talking club trends is a bit tainted now by the circumstances we're in, but before the lockdown it felt like there was a lot more crossover between scenes, in a way that corresponds to how your labels exist between boundaries. From seeing big house and techno DJs playing UK drill in clubs to experimental producers working with popstars and so on. Does this excite you?

Yeah, I think it's interesting. One of my favourite things in London’s music history is that Skream says Skepta is the person who broke 'Midnight Request Line' because he kept on requesting it on pirate radio. That idea has always been in the back of my head as the most amazing thing, that these two people and sounds who are seemingly in isolation can really bleed together and change so much.

It's important that it's not done with a sense of novelty, that it's actually about creating and sustaining something new; and not just a trend, because that's a massive issue. Dance music can be pretty guilty of drawing something out for a moment and using it, recycling it, and then moving onto the next revival.

As someone who's been enjoying mixing in UK rap records with the techno and club records I love for years, I find it super exciting. Syymetry and I are launching a new sublabel called Off Centre soon. We got into dance music at a similar time so we have a lot of these shared interests going back to Swamp, Hessle, Night Slugs. And we've been talking for years about rappers like Kojo Funds and SL, and wondering why the sounds aren’t bleeding over more. We took a step to trying do that with the remix of Simkin's 'System' with a vocal from Tiz East, which Syymetry set up. Now we're starting this new label Off Centre, the first single is ready, we just need to find a way of getting it out.

You mentioned you're back at uni studying architecture now. How’s that going? Is there any overlap with your work in music?

It's difficult; I don't know yet. I intentionally picked a long degree so I could just have some time to chill out, because I worked an office job from the age of 19 to 25 and needed a break from that. I’ve always been interested in architecture, but it’s grown from music and artists I’m into talking about architecture in their references, and being out in cities at night and going to clubs in different areas. Realising that dance music happens in lots of different buildings and the kind of impact that has started to pique my interest.

Currently they're separate, though knowing myself I think they will overlap. But I'm so early into it and it was kind of a haphazard decision. I didn't have any of the qualifications or experience you need for the course to not be extremely difficult. I've been learning everything from scratch. It's been time consuming but a lot of fun, and really nice to have this other interest. It frees up my music and takes the pressure off. It’s definitely pulled me into a better mindset which has benefited me immensely in terms of teaching me to take time with the music I'm working on.

How do you find the time for everything?

I'm mundanely organised, that’s the honest answer. That's one thing I can thank working an office job for so long at a relatively young age for. It taught me really good organisational skills, how to stay on top of things and work to deadlines. It's really followed through into both my architecture and music. It's pretty ruthless time management. That's really boring sadly, it's like the most Centrist Dad answer. But I'm appreciative of it because it lets me do a lot of things at once.

How did you approach Impact mix?

One of the things that has become really clear from working on my own music is that you're taking so much inspiration from the people that you work with. So I wanted the mix to be me pulling together fairly new or unreleased music from some new artists I'm really excited by, some forthcoming material from both the labels, and music from people I've worked with in the past and hope to work with again. It's a celebration of all those artists.

'Pbat' is out now on All Centre, get it via Bandcamp

Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Features Editor, follow him on Twitter

DJ Pitch's Impact mix tracklist:
borderlandstate_the best kisser in l.a. feat. anna b - iuo
deka - Tepid (prod. frankie bash, RAFA MAYA)
Will Lister - Shadow
Engine - old no.7
MISH - bonk bonk
8ULENTINA - girlblunt
DJ P - Pbat
BFTT - ScreenTime
Junior XL - Forget Forgetting
Lara Sarkissian - The Girl, Leopard and Trees
Ur III & Iceboy Violet - Bloch
hmurd - beighton champ
Error Lake - Outline
Duswunder - 21 Lockdown
DJ P - If You Want (You're New Alarm)
Endless Mow - Insect
M T Hall - Another Kind of Delirium
Coe - Rolling Rolling Rolling
MXyi - Commercial
Jennifer Walton - LA instagram
Katogo - Dat Ting Der

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