Overmono are on the cover of Mixmag – Joe Muggs meets brothers Tessela and Truss to find out how their collaborative project is allowing them to make the music they truly want to
The creation of Overmono in 2016 was one of the more unusual events in electronic music. Each of the two members, Truss and Tessela, had made a decent impact in their own right in different sectors of the underground, but from the minute they pooled resources and discovered a prolific and spontaneous working method, something bigger than the sum of its parts was created. As a duo they're signed to XL Recordings, they've remixed Thom Yorke and Four Tet, their Joy O collaboration ‘Bromley’ from last year was inescapable, their live shows are revered: their position in the leftfield premier league is pretty much cemented. But what was peculiar about it was that Tom (Truss) and Ed (Tessela) Russell had never really recorded tracks together before, despite being brothers.
Then again, their relationship has always been relatively unorthodox, even if it was steeped in music from the beginning. Mixmag meets them for pints in a bar in rural Hampshire – Ed's been visiting his partner's family nearby and Tom decided to take the opportunity to get out of London for a quick break as second lockdown was looming – and they're certainly very relaxed and fraternal. They settle comfortably into nattering about ordinary life stuff, it's all very chill, very natural.
That is perhaps amplified by the fact both speak in that soft fusion of West Country and South Wales accents common to the Welsh borders where they grew up, and they've got a habit of finishing each other's sentences. They're quite different though: Tom is laid back and laconic, Ed much more obviously intense and analytical, angular in appearance and movements and in fact their upbringing was kind of semi-detached. Tom is close to a decade older and when their parents divorced, they each lived at different ends of the town of Monmouth.
Their dad was a professional musician, playing french horn for the Welsh National Opera, their grandad a pianist, and their sister played the harp. "So," says Tom, "we were encouraged, to put it mildly, to play instruments." "We each played about ten different instruments growing up," jumps in Ed, deadly serious. "Dad used to repair instruments as a sideline," continues Tom, "so the garage would always be full of horns, trombones, whatever." They never felt that unusual in this, though. As Ed hastens to point out, musical culture is that much more engrained in Wales, kids would think nothing of singing their favourite song acapella at the yearly Eisteddfod, and there was no self-consciousness about classical music lessons. Both boys never even questioned that they'd continue the family trade when they grew up.
Tom went through a fairly common musical journey: from his first love, Def Leppard, he went through metal, hip hop, and then mates' rave tapes, the maniacal pounding of the 1993 Carl Cox Fantazia Big Bang mix being the biggest epiphany. He set up a tiny soundsystem with some friends, usually playing for 50-100 mates in the woods, but just occasionally and accidentally by word of mouth blowing up into something bigger. "None of us had been to a proper club or rave but we were obsessed with this music. Trance, hard house, techno, handbag house, whatever, we didn't really know what it was but we sort of did our own version of what we thought a rave should be."
Because of the age difference, meanwhile, Ed was able to dive right in at the deep end. By the age of 11, he saved up for his own decks and started stealing Tom's records, taking a while to understand the principles of mixing but "instantly obsessed with how you could manipulate sound with pitch and EQ controls". They individually tried to tinker with music software, again with little clue: Ed cracks up as he remembers Tom buying him a copy of Reason for his 15th birthday, and not realising that you could alter the tempo, trying paste beats every third square of the grid instead of every fourth, in order to get it fast enough to be drum 'n' bass.
The expectation to move into classical music carried Tom through. Straight from studying music technology at college, he began working as an assistant to a successful composer in London, which gave him access to real studios and understanding of recording processes. His love of techno developed, and in the grubby basement world somewhere between the deep, dark world of artists like Surgeon, and more let's-'ave-it acid tekno raves, he began to quietly carve out a name for himself. Ed, meanwhile developed a huge love of drum'n'bass, going to festivals and raves like Glade from the age of 14, and by 15 was getting the train to go to fabric.
By the time he got to university, though, he'd discovered dubstep and post dubstep. He was just a little younger than the main movers of that scene: he went to university in Leeds, and arrived just as the Hessle Audio crew were leaving, and he'd also go out in Bristol, where he began to cheekily approach the likes of Pinch and Peverelist "after a few beers, then not know what to say!" (His bashful description of this is so evocative that straight away I’m struck by what an archetype he is of a very particular kind of young and enthusiastic raver that you'll often find yourself drawn in to unexpected conversations with in smoking areas or corners of the dancefloor). His first release as Tessela, while still at uni, was actually a remix for one of Tom's Truss tracks on the respected Perc Trax label in 2010 done completely on spec, but to both of their surprise instantly loved by Ali Perc himself.
A few well received Tessela releases followed on labels like All City, 2nd Drop and Peverelist's Punch Drunk. But then came ‘Hackney Parrot’. A deliberate attempt to look back to his drum'n'bass roots, he'd made three or four attempts at the type of track he had in his mind, based on a visual score that he'd drawn and then finally in one last frustrated attempt banged down the tune in just three hours, and realised he'd got it. "That immediacy," says Ed, "you can hear, I think. And that's something we hold onto in our work now: it should never be difficult. I think you can hear it in people's music when it's been..." "...laboured!" says Tom, finishing the sentence once more. "We like the effortlessness of someone like Actress, that's what we always aspire to."
He always wanted his tunes to "make you stop and go 'what's THAT?'", and ‘Hackney Parrot’ did that and then some. It exploded across the UK. It's one of those tunes, like ‘Energy Flash’ or ‘Flat Beat’ or ‘Doom's Night’ that just seemed to touch the most basic rave nerve in every scene it touched, from house to grime. Paul Woolford doing a VIP mix just as his Special Request project was blowing up didn't do any harm either. Ed found himself implausibly getting bookings for jump-up or bassline nights, eventually having to turn down two or three requests a week. He had to learn to play it last in DJ sets "because people turned up just to hear that track, you'd play it, then they'd go home!"
Tom, meanwhile, had a slightly more underground, but still parallel experience. He'd created the MPIA3 alias to indulge his love of distorted free party acid techno (one track, none too subtly, is called ‘Squatter's Dog’), and found his tracks blowing up across Europe, especially in the east. "Tom basically fucked up the techno scene," deadpans Ed, "by bringing back those distorted kicks that everyone started using relentlessly." So for a period the two brothers were both enjoying successful DJ careers on either side of the channel, both based on somewhat atypical tracks. But at the same time as Tom says, their "musical worlds were colliding" particularly as they both fell hard for the music of Blawan, whose work was kicking down the boundaries between dark techno and UK bass.
They would often compare musical notes: they collapse in giggles as they remember both getting their laptops out on a bus ride across Wales and challenging each other to a "biggest kick drum" contest, with their sister forced to judge when they arrived home and they would occasionally do improvised live sets as TR\\ER. But they never seriously recorded together. Then one day in late 2015, they went together to see Surgeon – as Anthony Child – and Ali Wade do an improvised, modular, AV set at Cafe OTO, and it was as Ed puts it, "like a musical lobotomy, just completely clearing your mind, like, 'ahhh, I can hear the thoughts in my head again!'".
The inspiration was instant and total. "Walking home from that gig," says Tom, "we just went, 'let's just hire a cottage in Wales, take a load of kit, and just record, no preconceptions of what we're going to write, what it's going to sound like, where it's going to end up, just do it!" They lost a day breaking down outside Newbury, but spent the rest of a fortnight working and emerged with 12 tracks practically complete. "We managed to capture that spontaneous thing," says Ed, "so we'd just pass tracks back and forth, if there was ever a moment of not knowing what to do we'd give it to the other one."
They made a list of labels they'd like to be on, in order of priority, with XL Recordings at the top and were shocked when XL jumped at the chance to release an EP and then another... And it has been abnormally plain sailing from there, with Overmono (named after Tom's first ever released Truss track) becoming their main project. Their previous separate renown in bass music and techno somehow synergised, and they found themselves on big stages very quickly. And the musical process they unlocked in that first session, going back to their roots in Wales in isolation away from clubs and raves, has proved fruitful ever since.
"I think that musical cleanse we had from Tony [Surgeon] and Ali," says Ed, "just let us naturally express all the stuff we'd absorbed like musical sponges. We'd each been stuck in our lanes on our own projects, with the requirements of particular scenes, but now if there's something in one of our minds, whether it's happy hardcore track we heard as kids, or a tap dripping, or whatever, that can come out into the music."
Live performance in particular has been their focus, and, as Tom puts it, "is where you're going to make sure people remember you. With the best will in the world a DJ set is another DJ set, but the combination of people stopping and taking note, and the fact they can hear you're improvising and making something new live, means that it's what's going to stick in their head the next morning." Once you get them on this topic there’s no stopping them. Less finishing each other’s sentences than bouncing phrases off each other as they analyse what it is that makes a great dancefloor or festival moment.
And it’s clear that the love of big live moments has fed into their new tracks: ‘Everything U Need’ with its detuned trance riffs and floating-above-the-clouds chords is clearly all about getting hands raised and if there were proper gigs happening, there’s no question whatsoever it would be as ubiquitous as ‘Bromley’ was last year. The rest of the EP is as shameless in its ambition, but still gloriously strange and subtle in its sounds, see the gently crooning acid tones of ‘Verbosa’, the hovering-UFO Reese bass of ‘Clipper (Another 5 Years)’ and the velvet-wrapped sounds of the even trancier ‘Aero’. Obviously COVID has paused shows for now, but the pair are still refreshingly optimistic. "We'd both got to the point of feeling pigeonholed," says Ed, "and honestly, the feeling of realising you can break out of that... there's nothing like it!"
Overmono’s ‘Everything U Need’ EP is out now
Joe Muggs is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Mixmag. Follow him on Twitter
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