When Dis Fig reached out to prolific soundsystem destroyer Kevin Martin about using a track by King Midas Sound, one of his many projects, in a DJ mix she was putting together, she didn't realise that two years later the pair would be putting an album out.
In early 2019 the New Jersey-born, Berlin-based artist was busy hyping her searing debut album 'PURGE' (out via the crucial PTP label) and had put together an Impact mix for Mixmag. The tracklist, which boasts a fine array of speaker-crushing electronic music, included a track by Godflesh, the band that features Justin Broadrick, a frequent collaborator of Martin's, most notably in early project Techno Animal and Zonal (which put out one of the best albums of last year, 'Wrecked'.)
The inclusion of King Midas Sound and Godflesh had Martin's interest piqued and when he checked out 'PURGE' he realised Dis Fig was the vocalist he needed to complete a slew of dank "introvert dancehall" instrumentals he'd made to include for a mix under his The Bug alias for Solid Steel in 2018. After fruitful late night conversations over DMs, the pair mapped out a plan for 'In Blue', the deep, thundering, collaborative album they have just released via Hyperdub.
The project is a fascinating dialogue between two artists at opposite ends of their careers who are meeting over a shared love of heavy music and an innate understanding of how to create beauty in the murk. They've described the atmosphere of 'In Blue' as the Tunnel Sound, designed to lower the listener into a rich, intimate, immersive experience.
Follow as The Bug and Dis Fig lead us into the fog to discuss their collaborative process, the concept of the Tunnel Sound and getting off on melancholy...
Releasing a collaborative album in 2020 goes against the isolation we've been been forced into this year? How did you make this record?
The Bug: In isolation! [Laughs]
Dis Fig: The record was pretty much written before we started in isolation. To be honest, I tend to not really collaborate in person anyway. I feel like every time I do collaborate, it's always via the internet. So it wasn't anything too foreign or too out of the normal realm, actually.
The Bug: We were both living in Berlin at the same time as the album was being made…
Dis Fig: ...But we had never met.
The Bug: We met each other in Moscow after the album was well underway, just totally coincidentally because I got there a day earlier [than a show I was playing] and Dis Fig was [also] playing a show there. And that's when I saw her show for the first time because I'd never seen her play, either. But the album was already well underway by that time and in a way, like I said, we made the album in isolation – it was going back and forth via messages. And we didn't really know each other at the beginning. We got to know each other through this album, actually.
Dig Fig: And through the 4am ranting online!
In terms of atmosphere and sheer heaviness, the music you make individually can be quite similar. What things sonically or otherwise did you have in common while making ‘In Blue’?
TB: When Dis Fig approached me to incorporate a King Midas Sound track on a mix she was doing, ignorantly I didn't really know her. I knew the name, but I didn't know her music. And then obviously when someone approaches me and tells me some of the stuff that they're going to incorporate in a mix, I quickly do a bit of research. And at the time she sent me her album…
DF: ...The mix was actually for Mixmag. And I think it was just before my album was about to drop, so I think I sent a preview of the album.
TB: It was fortuitous for me that I discovered Dis Fig’s music via her approach to use a track in a mix. And when I heard her music I was pleasantly surprised by the scope of it, because I'd read and I'd heard about her and how her shows were intense. But what really interested me and the reason that I approached her for this particular album was that [her work has] a real depth of emotion and it was more eclectic, it wasn't just an onslaught from start to finish. For me, for this record and for these riddims, I was really in search mode to find a balance to the riddims because I knew I didn't want hardcore, heavy, in-your-face vocals, I wanted the opposite. I wanted real intimacy and when I heard Dig Fig’s vocal ballad on her album, I was like, “woah, this is goosebump material.”
DF: I had been a fan of Kevin's music for a long time. And I'm sure that’s probably found some influence in my work as well. But after speaking I knew that we had some common interest in terms of music and stuff in common just from hearing your mixes or reading interviews. We had all these conversations, you know, at 4am on Facebook Messenger and we were just bouncing stuff back and forth and saying like, “I love this, I love that” – I think we really found that we had a lot of common ground in terms of sonic aesthetics and personal tastes.
TB: When I saw the tracklisting for your mix I thought it was fascinating because it was like the past, present and future of music I'd been involved in so I knew I wanted to check the album because I was like, “wow, who's this person who's got this crazy taste?” You know? I thought you were more [club orientated] if I'm honest. When I get an approach from someone who I believe to be a club person and they've got a Godflesh track on their mix it made me really interested to check the album.
Going back to the original question about collaboration during such an unusual period, I think I probably gave Dis Fig a bit of a hard time at the beginning, because I've collaborated with a lot of people and sometimes those collaborations can be difficult and I think I was a little bit outspoken at the beginning about what I'd hoped and how I hoped it could work. And we’ve never talked about it.
DF: To be honest, I really appreciated that because from the start we both agreed to be completely honest with each other, whether we liked something or whether we didn’t, you know, to not waste time. And for me that's how I like to be in all aspects of life anyway. So I think it really helped to just set the tone. It wasn't difficult. It was perfect to enable us to actually have this collaboration, to take it to where we took it.
TB: Personally it’s been a dream with how the record’s turned out and it's been great to get to know someone who you vibe with from the beginning and just see that flourish with a piece of art.
What did you learn from one another?
DF: Is this where we talk about our bad habits? [Laughs]
TB: I've certainly learnt from Dis Fig that she's as fussy and particular as I am. I think she's as excessive about detail as I am. I used to drive Justin [Broadrick, frequent The Bug collaborator] mad by asking that we do like 20 mixes of a [early project] Techno Animal track and he would just do it.
DF: And I think I was driving you mad by making you do like 10 different mixes of my vocals.
TB: I would do the same in your situation. And I have done the same in other scenarios similar. There's so much music out there and there's so much music that's actually pretty well done out there because the tools are much more readily available and ultimately there’s just so much average music out there. So for me, trying to do something special that has any longevity or any real resonance is a battle; anyone can make a track but why are you making that track? What are you trying to say with it emotionally or aesthetically? And that's the challenge, particularly for us as electronic producers, you know? You're trying to make your image via electronic machinery that's already pre-programmed and pre-made, so it's about how can you reflect your character through electronic sound? And for us in this collaboration, how can we make a record that has an identity? Because I can tell from Dis Fig’s tastes that she values originality as much as I do and for me, if people are going to pay attention, there's got to be something there that's memorable in some way because that's personally how I gravitate towards music I like so it's a battle to make that work.
What is the ‘Tunnel Sound’?
TB: It’s the word we both used insanely often In the making of this record. It just seemed to be “tunnel” and “zonal” meaning singular, immersive. And it just seemed to sum up so much of a moment that we were both after with the record.
DF: Sonically it really sums up the mood. And I think it really informed lyrically what I was writing about. In the beginning I had things in my mind that I wanted to touch on but didn't really know how. The Tunnel Sound came before everything because Kevin had demos of the beats. But then we talked about and tried to figure out what all this was. For me, I was always envisioning myself in the tunnel, and kind of levitating and floating but not knowing where you're going. It's really foggy and you're kind of spinning around and you're out of control, but still retaining self as well. That really informed my lyrics and influenced the melodies as well, just being simplistic and going steady straight, not monotonous, but forward through everything spinning around you. And then with the storyline, it’s like being spun around by someone or something out of your control, whether it's in the past or present or in the future. And then trying to maintain your own sense of self while you're in that. All of this relates to past relationships or to the state of the world, or to the evil, greedy, devilish system that we're all trapped in, you know? All of that is in there.
TB: Those early exchanges that I alluded to earlier where I mentioned to Dis Fig that really what I hoped for in the collaboration would be that she would a very singular, almost monotonous style, that is tunnel vision, that's not eclectic. I wanted a real consistency to the record, you know, because there's something that’s a very fine borderline between something that can just be too much of a certain flavour or something that is just magnetising and you just get that mood that you just relentlessly follow to the end. And I’d hoped that Dis Fig, which she did incredibly well in the end, would follow that direction that would be intimate, confessional. Someone literally so close to your ear whispering in your head about fears and claustrophobia. And that's the sort of thing that we talked about right at the beginning. Despite the fact that it took nearly two years to make, there was a lot of verbals at the beginning where we were being pretty candid and upfront about a plan and strategy for the record. It's been a very thorough process despite it being quite haphazard in how we put it together practically.
DF: With my past record, the vocal range is kind of everywhere, and it was definitely not monotonous. At first I sent back some ideas that were along those lines as well. But we quickly realised that that wasn't what was going to work with the music and with the idea. I think it took me a bit to train myself to sing in this kind of one directional way. But once I got there it kinda cleared the way for the honest intimacy.
TB: The delivery sounds super personal and to be honest, I think I'm a bit of a fun crusher anyway. In King Midas Sound my job is to rein in [vocalists] Roger and Kiki, because Roger in particular always wanted to sing out and for me, I just generally prefer inference rather than blatancy and I think that it's the spaces between the notes, in between the words, that are really important, you know, and they're the ones you fall into. And I think that anything I can do in that sort of sphere for this type of record, to accentuate the space, the deep spaces, is sort of crucial, and we'd also discussed that there should be a real nocturnal mood.
When I lived in London, I used to cycle everywhere all the time and my favourite time in London was literally cycling back from Plastic People at like 3am. I felt like the city was mine. I think of these foggy nights cycling through London where you’ve got these incredible shifts in architecture, no one around, just this massive metropolis. So that zone was something to tap into. When I wrote the riddims for the Solid Steel mix originally it was a swerve from what I had done with The Bug. I knew I didn't want to do something that was so openly aggressive and I was looking for a depth of sound to those riddims. And for me, Dis Fig was amplifying that; that that feeling of oceanic depth. And emotional depth, and that is crucial.
DF: Our decision to make the vocals very minimal also helped with me to be able to zone in on really feeling the grooves that you made and it allowed me to make the vocals play with the groove and push it further. I think if I hadn't been so minimal with it, I wouldn't have been able to compliment it in the way that I did.
TB: I just don't like fruity soloing. Like with jazz, having gone through periods of really being into free jazz and blasting jazz and all types of jazz, I've ended up liking The Necks most who are just heavily repetitive and just vibe on very slow mutations of one theme. I worked with Dylan Carlson of Earth on an album where it's literally very slowly evolving, a gratuitous amplification of one core theme or sound and it’s like being maddening about a craft, if you imagine a carpenter just going in on this one piece of wood over and over again. As I've progressed through music, from starting very maximal with all my early projects, somehow I'm ending up on the opposite end of the spectrum where it's interesting to just be super reductive and super minimal and just have that core impact. It took me a long time to realise that.
You've got this concept of the Tunnel Sound which is like a kind of protective structure and listening to the record, it feels like a cocoon. Obviously you could hide away in this atmosphere, away from the the chaos of 2020. Are there any ways in which this album might be a reaction to the kind of turbulence that we're living through at the moment?
DF: It could be a sonic cocoon, but I don't think it's a tunnel of protection. I don't think you're protected at all. For me, it's like you're being spun around and you're floating in this chaos of debris. And I feel like that's exactly the state we’re in right now. There's also a lyric in one of the tracks that says “no destination, no return” that I think explains it best. And actually that one was written during the early days of lockdown.
TB: It’s funny you mentioned that lyric because that’s exactly what came into my head. It's more like being set adrift; the tracks aren't about reaching point B from point A. It's about literally just being adrift, the journey, not the destination. Like being lost at sea.
DF: Like being lost at sea but still holding on to yourself and not losing your mind. 2020 is completely that.
What’s the meaning of the album’s title?
TB: It came from a fragment of a lyric and it just seems to suit. You know there’s a very melancholy vein throughout the album and at the same time ‘In Blue’ just sounds ice cold and very cool. And as we worked on the artwork, talking about things like Yves Klein's blues…
DF: ...And like this totally rich, immersive blue that you can fall into, get lost in.
TB: To sum up that feeling where you can be so deep in your own world and in your own melancholic sphere that you don't know where you are and you're totally disorientated and you don't know how to get out of it. I'm sure all three of us have been in those zones where it feels endless and there’s a sense of just eternal melancholy.
DF: And sometimes the blue feels good as well.
TB: Sometimes you can just get off on it, you can get off on the melancholy.
DF: There’s a Portugese word “saudade” that has no English translation but it basically means the feeling of longing. It could be something that you used to have, like some kind of reminiscing or it could be something that you've never experienced before, but it’s just this blue longing that can sometimes feel good.
Dis Fig, your vocals are central to this record, can you tell us about the process of writing and recording?
DF: This is me stepping away from what I normally do. I've always struggled with lyrics. On my last album, I think there were probably lyrics for one or two tracks, but very minimal. Most of my lyrics are just like a stream of consciousness. I would say that I'm pretty bad with words in general, so I always hated the idea or the process of writing lyrics. I was a bit anxious about this project when Kevin asked me because at first we didn't know that it was going to be an album, we were just like, “okay, let's work on some tracks”. But then it developed into a full record. And then that's, like 10 tracks with 10 lyrics. But actually I'm really glad for it, because it actually taught me how to write lyrics.
For me, it always starts with this stream of consciousness. So when we were bouncing melodies back and forth in the beginning, I would kind of close my eyes, press record, and then just see what comes out. And it would always be some indistinguishable sounds and even though I didn't know what the song was about yet, the feeling was there. And these initial recordings definitely dictated the storyline and the twists and turns. After we agreed on the structure of [a track] I would go in and work on the lyrics. And the process of that was dictated by those sounds, how the sounds made me feel. Even though all of it is in the tunnel, each track lives in a different part of the tunnel or the tunnel is illuminated in a different way. I feel like each pathway has its own space and feeling but you’re still moving forward through it all.
The instrumentals that went on to become ‘In Blue’ were first aired in a dancehall mix. Where do you see this album fitting into the great lineage of soundsystem music?
TB: The funny thing about this record is the fact that these riddims were made as introvert dancehall, an implosion dancehall, not really the explosion that I’m normally known for, you know, and that was the point.
DF: What’s to say this even belongs on a soundsystem because I feel like it’s a very headphone album as well.
TB: Kode9 for instance says he can’t wait to hear these riddims blast. He’s been blasted many times by my sound. I played one show very, very early on, which I'll never forget, which is I called the Kode9 blackout, where he literally got carried out of The End. I played there with, I think, four or five MCs and the system was insane in that venue. Kode9 literally passed out next to the stage and he got carried out and dumped in the sidewalk by the bounces. So he's literally felt the impact of The Bug sets. And I think he's always been very, very supportive and like a brother to me in terms of advice, like ‘London Zoo’, for instance, he was a key advisor. I would call him, put the phone to the speakers when I was working on tracks, and he'd be doing the same to me for ‘Memories Of The Future’. So when he's saying he wants to hear these rhythms live, I know what he's getting at. And that's not why we constructed this album and this album wasn't thought of as a soundsystem decimator. But I think the beauty of the record is a real duality. Once it's loud and punishing, this will move people. There's no doubt about it, but it's still going to have that contrast of Dis Fig just cruising on top and I think it's a hard thing to pull off live. We struggled with this for many years with King Midas Sound, because of my penchant for high volume and the vocalists having very soft voices. Like Dis Fig just said, I think it's primarily a headphone album, even though it began with kick-ass dancehall riddims.
Seb Wheeler is Mixmag's Head Of Digital. Follow him on Twitter