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Utility man: Kowton

Focused, undemonstrative and a little bit shy, Kowton puts all his efforts into his innovative, incredible music

  • Words: Kristan Caryl
  • 15 April 2016

“I don’t think the DJ is the most fun dude at the party,” says Joe Cowton over a pre-club cup of tea in a Leeds hotel room. The TV is on and David Cameron is delivering news from his Brexit talks. Ninety minutes later, wide-eyed boys and girls lean over the DJ booth in the city’s Wire club, pulling bass-faces and shifting serious shapes. Joe remains rooted to the spot and focused on his mix. “It’s starting to get going now,” says the 32-year-old matter of factly, as a back to back-to-back set with the smilier half of Bristol bass heads Tessela & Pariah turns the dark, intimate basement increasingly sweaty.

In six years, this slightly stubbled character with cropped reddish-brown hair has come a long way. Back in 2010, to the chagrin of his parents, he was working split shifts in a hotel in his scenic Lake District home town of Grasmere having dropped out of a
“kind of pointless” sociology degree in Manchester (chosen, mainly, for the city’s party scene), only to then “buy time” by completing a music technology course at SSR in the same city. Being a classic stoner, though, Joe “didn’t really learn anything,” didn’t chase a music career, and went back home. “I’m very good at quitting things,” he jokes, before saying he used to win prizes for achievements at school then realised, “if you fucked about, you were more popular.”

“In the Lake District,” he continues in his low, grounded voice, “the idea of putting a record out is so far-fetched.” Yet now, in 2016, he’s released on influential labels like Hessle Audio, Keysound Recordings and Idle Hands, has played all across America and at the hallowed Berghain five times. It means that with his Livity Sound co-founders Peverelist and Asusu, he is right at the vanguard of the UK underground scene. Previously associated with the dubstep explosion, he says his music is “techno, but broken.” Everyone else struggles for a name for it.

Truth is, Kowton’s debut album ‘Utility’ is as powerful and groove-driven as techno, but comes with the wide-open sense of space that made dubstep so powerful. Tracks are underpinned with an echoing urban menace and detailed with distant sirens and flashes of street light for a late-night metropolitan feel that’s visceral and atmospheric. On a mission to make music as reduced yet impactful as possible, Cowton – a Yorkshire surname to which he added a K because “it was 2008, everyone was doing it” – happily admits to be being a boring music obsessive. When quizzed about his hobbies, the only ones he – or the friends he plays with later – come up with are going to the pub and reading. He used to skateboard quite a lot too.

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