If you're a regular peruser of this site you'd already be aware of British producer Mark Hawkins, who additionally channels through music under the alias ###. He's unleashed his stuff via labels like Pro-Jex, Djax-Up-Beats, Neue Heimat, Mosquito, Victim, Kitty Corner and Snork Enterprises, and up till recently ran his own cool label Crime.
I can't be arsed going into a further bio disposition here, since we talk about most of that during the course of the interview that follows below; we interactively carved this out over the past week, to and fro, and throughout Mark has been exceptionally entertaining, interesting, at times revelatory, and right into the whole process - all of which, combined with his music, make him one very inspiring individual.
After just a few days of this banter I feel like we're mates, and his wife even took some lovely up-to-date happy snaps to add into the story.
So, without further self-centred ado from me, read on.
Yawn question. What inspired you to start making music?
"I guess my Dad leaving his guitar lying about when I was about two years old - then he played me John Foxx, and then Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force's 'Planet Rock' and I was hearing Kraftwerk and all the '80s synthpop stuff on the radio, so then I really wanted a synth; I had to settle on a cheapo Casiotone home keyboard, and I really wish I'd known how cheap you could have picked up a TB 303 or TR909 in a junk shop at that time!"
What happened to the Casiotone? Do you still have it?
"You know, I really have no idea what happened to that little home keyboard, I guess it probably ended up in a junk shop somewhere - wish I'd kept it and circuit-bent it, could have been an interesting little piece."
Where exactly were you born, and what's it famous for?
"I was born in Barking, which is a suburb of London - famous for being the place where Captain Cook got married. The River Thames had quite an effect on the place, so there were a lot of shipbuilders & a fishing fleet there. That's why it's there, it basically started off as a fishing village about 10 miles out of the centre of London. Now it's been swallowed up by the city, and to be honest, it's sucked the soul out of the place, it's more like a run down inner-city area now, a lot of crime and deprivation. It's kind of sad to see when I hear from my Dad how there used to be a cool music scene there in the late '60s/early '70s, y'know, kind'a freak scene or whatever. Probably to do with the total death of the old idea of subculture in the 21st century."
What do you believe has replaced that idea?
"Well, these days I think the people coming of age right now have a little bit of everything - maybe if you're 16 or 17 now, in the UK - at least if you haven't been sucked into the Simon Cowell pop idol machine - you're either listening to grime/dubstep or Emo, whatever that is. I guess drum and bass still has a following here, but I'm not sure if it's getting any fresh blood - I suppose it must do to be able to continue to exist."
Why the aliases ###, DJ M.H., and "The Spider" - any special meaning behind these?
"The Spider was just a nickname from years ago, so that's kind'a why it got used for my first release. I then ended up using my real name for the Djax stuff as I had no ideas no concept or anything, I was trying to think of something unpretentious and cool sounding to use, but it just never happened, so it was kind of an accident that I've ended up being stuck using my real name to put out music under, because of course once you start having records out on Djax, everyone else you do stuff for wants you to use the same name as you did for those releases.
"Funnily enough at the time that stuff came out, I did the Pro-Jex records too and I was gonna use my name again, but when I first signed to Djax they kind'a wanted my name as an exclusive thing to them, so I had to quickly come up with another name - I think there was a bit of rivalry between Djax & Pro-Jex at the time, there were a lot of the same artists releasing on both labels, so if it had been for any other label it probably wouldn't have been such an issue. Anyway, it kind of stuck and I think it fitted well for more Chicago-influenced stuff.
"### was a more recent experiment in trying to do something different - set up a kind of slower techno and house influenced thing, I guess also influenced by the more recent minimal sound too, although that's become as much if not more of a dirty and misused word as techno... so much chaff around and not enough wheat. Originally I wanted it to be completely disconnected from me, completely anonymous, but of course market forces got the better of that one, and the name I'd used for the Djax releases was requested for use again. But I guess I'm no wiz at marketing, I've just come to the point where as far as physical releases go, I don't really care what name I'm going under, I'm just happy to get stuff out on plastic now."
### is more recent and ongoing, right - but I'm guessing you've discontinued the use of DJ M.H. and 'The Spider'?
"It's debatable as to whether ### will see the light of day again as the sales of the last record weren't so good, but I might use it in future for free digital releases. DJ M.H. Is pretty much defunct unless I have a sudden desire to make ghetto house, and The Spider has definitely been killed off." (laughs.)
Do you make music under any other aliases?
"I did a record as 'M25' for the B-Rave label in 2003."
You've been producing music and interacting within the music industry for quite a time now, so far as I know since that classic split EP with Michael Forshaw in 1999 - 'Beast With 2 Backs' - on Mike's label Chan 'n' Mikes. Were you doing stuff before then?
"Yeah, I was writing, learning how to use the studio as it was all hardware back then, just honing my skills really, trying to get some leads on getting stuff out, and DJing at a lot of parties."
How did the split 12-inch with Mike come about?
"He heard me playing live in a forest in the back of a van just when he was thinking about going home or going to sleep - I made him come back to the dance floor with my sounds!"
Over a decade later, what keeps you motivated?
"My love for the music keeps me motivated more than anything else. To be honest, I'm happier on a Saturday night to have the whole night in the studio just to craft something for my own pleasure than to be playing at a party - that said though, a great party can be a great motivator as then you can see people enjoying your creations, but that can't be the ultimate aim, especially as tastes change, and not necessarily in the same direction as your own."
When you do play out, is it important to make people groove? Or is it not an issue?
"Oh definitely, otherwise you might as well just be messing around in the studio on your own -although I believe it's important not to use the lowest common denominator to achieve that. 50 percent should be people saying "What the hell is that? I never heard anything like that before" and 50 percent should be people really wigging out - it doesn't always work like that, I feel it's important to experiment, but not for just the experiment's sake; there has to be a certain amount of function, but that is where real talent lies for me, being able to make something that's really fresh, you know, so fresh that it takes 10 listens to really 'get' it, but then when you 'get' it, it's just stuck in your head and making you want to move - you hear it in a club and then it's stuck in your head for the next week. If I'm listening to other peoples music, particuarly if it's 'dance music' I want it to be challenging as well as making you want to move."
What integral changes have you noticed in electronic music over the time period you've been involved?
"I think the biggest change has been just the fact you can go online and check out anything these days - I remember when it was like maybe someone you knew had a certain record, and you really had to search through the racks to find it. Maybe you would have it on a tape if you were lucky, but then you had to have the vinyl; now you can go online, get it on Soulseek and be playing with it in Traktor five seconds later.
"So then you've got no kind of restraint, everything is so available that it takes a lot of excitement out of it - add to that the fact it's so easy to run a net label now, so the amount of substandard stuff you have to wade through to find the good stuff is unbelievable. And I guess also we're a long way now from the big bang of the rave explosion - that was like 20 years ago - so it's like how say prog rock was by the end of the '70s/ beginning of the '80s, and I really don't know if there is any hope of anything, as far as music goes, having the impact like the punk or rave scene ever again. However, I could be saying exactly the same thing as some people were in 1975 and in 2010 the next big thing is gonna hit!"
"As far as the kind of techno/electronic music I want to make is concerned, it's starting to look like the only way that it's possible to get it out there is via free downloads. If you try and sell mp3s of that stuff you end up only selling like 30 mp3s a lot of the time. And this fact really made me question my motives a couple of years ago - I almost gave up making music after writing my album and then not being able to sell it, especially as it wasn't as pure as I wanted it to be as I was trying to get it released, some of it was a compromise to get it out there.
"But then after a while I started writing stuff again just because I wanted to, and now I'm really glad I didn't sell my gear. It would be nice to take the risk and pay for some vinyl to be pressed but I'm personally in no position to do that right now. So really I'm not thinking too much about where it's going to go, I'm just waiting to see if there will be another musical revolution."
If you were to get all God-like and create that revolution yourself, where would you start?
"Seriously, if I knew the answer to that question I would already be doing it! Although really I guess it all comes down to coming up with something new that people are going to take to, and more than take to, have people going really wild about and have the confidence to stick with it - although if you're actively trying to create a new sound, you're gonna find yourself down a creative dead end - I think these things happen by accident, and no-one can predict when or where they are going to happen. I mean, you think the rock dinosaurs thought that the Pistols were going to come along in '76?"
Are you a fan at all of the Sex Pistols and their punk cohorts? Music-wise or for their ideology, I mean?
"Well, I've always liked John Lydon's attitude to a lot of issues - apart from a few things I heard him mention with regard to Margaret Thatcher recently, saying 'Well, at least she shook things up a bit' - which I think really is a bit in poor taste considering the amount of people that suffered due to her policies in the '80s: the communities that were destroyed as the manufacturing and utilities industries were either privatised or smashed to pieces, and continue to suffer due to the ideology she promoted, by which the whole world is suffering what with the financial crisis and climate change, which I believe is being accelerated due to those ideologies.
"Sorry, I'm digressing here, bit of an axe to grind as I hate what that woman stood for and where it has left us in the 21st century - although I guess it's relevant to the question in a way - it really was the last thing I would have ever expected to come from his mouth, but anyway, I think the Pistols were a real turning point for British culture and society. No-one had ever said anything like 'you dirty fucker' before on TV, they kind of blew the door off the hinges and were the first people to be really publicly obnoxious - that was refreshing at the time, I guess. Musically, though, I was listening to a lot of punk stuff, still do from time to time, particularly punk which was a reaction to the Tory government of the '80s like Crass and Subhumans; also some of the US bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, and definitely the [Dead] Kennedys, they were great - I love that spoken word piece that Jello Biafra does that's like the mantra from some totalitarian regime: 'People refusing to give urine samples WILL BE SHOT!'.
"So it definitely had an influence on my music.
"At the end of the '90s techno seemed so smooth and the emphasis was always 'Yeah, it's really well-produced' - but to me, what's the point of having something that's really well-produced but says nothing? I'd rather hear something really raw that has awesome drum programming, or a real hooky synth-line that gets lodged in your brain. So I definitely felt that the whole thing needed a boot up the arse around that time with a good dose of punk attitude - right now I feel like I'm just ticking over, but back then when I was starting out, it was like we were on a mission. I felt that there were only one or two acts around that time that really hit the nail on the head for me - Subhead and [Michael] Forshaw. Right now I can listen to stuff that came out at that time from [Cristian] Vogel and [Neil] Landstrumm and those guys and I really love it, but I needed something with a bit more bang, like their '95/'96 stuff - so it was a bit of a mission then to go against the grain and do something different to the majority of techno that was coming out at the time - I have to say Subhead really were the original techno punks, though!"
What are your thoughts on the initial musical concepts undertaken by that other '70s movement, British industrial stuff from the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle?
"I never really heard or picked up on that really - the closest to industrial stuff I got into was all US stuff like NIN and Ministry I guess..."
What gear/software are you making most use of in the studio at the moment?
"The usual suspects of Akai MPCs and Nord modular, but I just recently updated the recording side of things with a Macbook Pro running Ableton and a SE condenser mic - I'd love to get into field recordings and just generally record random sounds, and maybe also get back into the sampling side of things; I've neglected that since selling my Akai S3000XL. Would love to have some of the old gear back that I used for the Djax stuff like the Roland JD 800, but it's the space and the money, and I have more than enough tools at my disposal right now."
What kind of sampling do you prefer to do - splicing together field recordings or snippets of movies/music?
"I've used a lot of the latter, and I'm only just getting into the former, but I think both have their place."
Would you consider any song, musician or movie sacrilegious to sample - or is anything fair game?
"There're probably taboos in regard to good taste - I mean I wouldn't go sampling from a speech by Hitler or anything like that as I think you'd be really playing with fire on that one, plus the fact that you'd run the risk of some Far Right lunatics getting into your music - but sacrilegious? I don't know - I think pretty much everything is fair game so long as it's not in extremely bad taste. I always thought cover versions of stuff originally performed by, say, Hendrix or Janis Joplin, a real waste of time - you're just going to show off your short-comings - unless it was like when Mike Flowers Pop covered Oasis' 'Wonderwall'... Although I think Oasis are pretty rubbish, to be honest. Music for people who aren't really interested in music." (laughs.)
Which part of your studio is the most vital facet?
"I guess the desk - otherwise I'd have all my machines on the floor! I'd miss my Mackie too, I think!"
What food/drinks keep you fuelled throughout production time?
"Latte machiattos all the way."
How many teaspoons?
"More than I should have, I guess."
Which current crop of artists and labels are grabbing your attention, and why so?
"To be honest, I think the situation in 2010 as far as labels is concerned is fucking dire - almost everything released sounds like a dumbed-down regurgitation of everything that has gone before; it has become so 'safe' that to me it seems almost pointless to buy new records these days. I had a quick flick through the Juno new releases after you asking the question as I really wanted to find something to rave about, but no, nothing - particularly in the techno sections. The irony is, that techno has become a total parody of itself, a self perpetuating entity where there's a whole bunch of producer/DJs so scared to put a foot wrong with the audience that they have become as boring as everything that techno was supposed to be reacting against - it's depressing. That said, I have found some gems in unexpected places when buying records over the past 12 months - Omar S for example: he took the old school acid house sound and twisted it around and came up with some stunning moments, and then you find that in the house section; I mean, what's with that?
"And for all the flack that Minus take, they are probably one of the more daring labels out there these days but I guess they can afford to take the risks. Against the backdrop of that, there are some really talented people out there such as Youngman, JE:5 and others who do mind blowing stuff which just isn't getting out there - and that's when I really think about getting the label back together to get that stuff out there, but then it's time and money and the rest of it.
"Some of the originals are still on form - Vogel always impresses me and I like some of the stuff Landstrumm does, but I have to say his last album wasn't so much bag; some of the things he's done where he's really twisted around the dubstep thing have been great though and brought something really original to the table when most people in that scene just want the same beats and the same wobbly square wave bass over and over. It's just like drum and bass in the '90s all over again, but on 33. So yeah, I guess it's time for a counter-attack, either giving a load of stuff away for free via the website or pressing some vinyl, would be nice to do both, but I think it's more likely to be the former rather than the latter."
Why is it that talented people like Bill Youngman, Jesse Hall and even Jason Leach (despite the Subhead legacy) don't get the attention that they deserve?
"I think in regard to techno music in the wider context, the lines were drawn a long time ago as to which artists were going to be really big - not to say that a lot of those people don't deserve the recognition they have, and that the doors have closed, but it seems to me that the only new people making waves and getting really recognised to the point where they can live from the music seem to have to adhere to some kind of template and not step out of line. It's all very safe - I mean the possibilities to live from performing and producing have become very limited due to a lot of the revenue streams closing down, but I guess the real issue is, producers of real left-field electronic dance music don't make stuff which is easy for people to get with; it's music for the select few as it isn't so lowest common denominator - it's edgy."
If you were pressed into a corner and forced to confess under great duress, how would you define the sounds/styles you're currently making yourself?
"Buzz-saw bass, sample-and-hold acid, mouth house, and I have new skool folk songs planned too."
You like traditional folk tunes, or is this something that completely overturns the tradition?
"I can't get with English folk music - my Dad raves about it, but I can't be doing with all this 'Hey nonny no' business. Irish folk I can get with - proper hard drinking music. And strangely enough, I guess, American folk music sounds pleasing to my ears - I like the kind of crossover with punk that happened in the US with their folk music, particularly with bands like Bad Religion. They definitely had a US folk influence. But the strangest folk music I ever heard was from Lithuania - my wife is Lithuanian and she was playing me the folk music that they have there, and it's almost like Gregorian chants or something; I really want to record some next time I'm over there but then do something with it - something for the field recording project."
You've released stuff through Pro-Jex, Djax-Up-Beats, Neue Heimat, Mosquito, Victim, Kitty Corner and Snork Enterprises. What's your relationship been like with these labels?
"Generally amicable, sometimes strained due to financial and artistic differences - we do our best to get on though!"
Any strange or outrageous requests from a record label?
"I had some German guy calling me once who really wanted trax from me but they 'Must be over 150 bpm' - I ended up telling him that maybe he should write it himself if he wanted to be so specific. I also had a gig offer once, also in Germany, where the guy was saying 'I don't have so much money for you, but I can get you a pretty girl for the night!'. Needless to say, I declined his offer!"
You run your own label Crime; what's afoot with that outlet?
"It's currently in a coma, which I'm not sure it's ever going to come out of - I think if I was to do a label project again I'd like to start afresh, new ideas, new concept. For now I'm just getting my money's worth out of the URL registration."
In the '90s when you broke through, for me the real movers and shakers of innovative electronica were all British: Cristian Vogel, Si Begg, Dave Tarrida, Subhead, Jamie Liddell, Tube Jerk and Tobias Schmidt. Were you into any of these guys' work?
"I was into all of those guys' work! You forgot [Neil] Landstrumm there too - I didn't break through 'til 2001 really, though; I mean, the first record came in '99 but it almost fell totally under the radar until a few years later when I had all the other stuff out. But yeah, I was big into those guys, but also I was big into the Jay Denham stuff, Chance McDermott & D-Knox - that kind of Chicago-meets-Detroit techno that really rocked my world round about 1997."
Why do you think the combined output of both city styles had such an impact?
"For me, I love Chicago drums, funk and rhythm, but Detroit had the melodies and vibes - the music from Kalamazoo, the home town of Knox, Denham, etcetera, from 1995-98 was to me a perfect fusion of both. It's also music I think isn't recognised enough. I actually met D-Knox in Warsaw a few years ago and was telling him how we were all blown away by 'The Body of Christ' and records like that - real raw, and hard but really funky with these really deep melodies running through them, but you know, you could mix them up with really banging hard techno and it just worked, really awesome stuff, and he was like 'Sheesh, yeah man, that's when we were doing the crazy shit, we wanted to sound like no-one else'. I think maybe that's when music comes out the best, when the creators are coming at it from that attitude."
How about the stuff coming out of those cities today?
Well, I hear Jay [Denham] is living in Munich now, and Donnell [D-Knox] is in Warsaw, and I don't know what Chance is doing these days so I'm guessing there's not much going on in Kalamazoo - Spectral/Ghostly is based in Ann Arbor though, near Detroit, and I love a lot of their output. James T Cotton, Audion, Deadbeat, and that kind of stuff; I think Omar S is from Detroit too. Chicago is house central, though - I do love some good deep house, but it would be nice to hear some variety coming from there..."
What do you think of the 'newer' guys shaking things up these days like Luke's Anger, Ben Pest, Grimjaw, Paul Birken (not really new at all!) and Donk Boys?
"Luke I have to give props to for sure as he gave me a Zip Drive PSU which allowed the MPC2000 to come back to life, I owe him some trax for that. I guess the music he does isn't so much what I'm really looking for right now, but all credit to him for doing his thing. Grimjaw and Donk Boys I'm not really familiar with, but I love a couple of Ben Pest trax and have been trying to track down the vinyl, actually."
His 'Glitterati Fashionista' EP on Bonus Round is brilliant - have you got that one yet?
"This is the one I'm trying to track down - Ben, if you're reading this, I would be playing it out mate if I had a copy!"
What new Mark Hawkins releases can we look out for?
We have the Mark Hawkins & Je:5 'Absurdly Connected Machines' 12-inch coming on Snork Enterprises' offshoot Relax 2000 this month, and possibly a release on Input Output at the end of the year, but that might just end up coming out through my website. I could imagine in five years the concept of a record label becoming a thing of the past and every artist just having their own website with a Paypal-donate button on it; it's getting that way now, if only for electronic artists who don't want to record cliched minimal, dubstep or hard techno."
Some book publishers are following that option too, meaning that the authors actually end up with a higher percentage of the 'profit' from the sales of any books - so long as people do make that donation. Are people in general generous enough to do so?
"I couldn't say, to be honest - maybe I should try it out on my website?" [laughs.]
Any upcoming remixes/events we should know about for 2010?
"I have possibly a DJ gig in Berlin at the end of February, one for sure in Leeds at the beginning of March, and a live show in Kassel, Germany, at the end of March. Quite a few other shows in the pipeline potentially, just the dots have to be joined up. And I think me and Jess JE:5 could well be remixing my Russian friend Vadz's 'Nuclear Volgodonsk' project this year - he used to work as a sound engineer at his local radio station in Taganrog, southern Russia, and they got some voice actor in to record the warnings to go out on the radio should the Volgodonsk nuclear power station go boom, as it's only 180 or so kilometres from Taganrog - so he's still got all the original vocal recordings. That could well be quite an interesting project."
Speaking of Leeds, do you know the goings on of the Gonzo/Dead Channel crew up there?
"I didn't but I do now, I'll be checking it out!"
You seem to be doing a few different things with Jesse Hall - how'd you guys hook up and how do you find working together?
"He's an old, old friend - from before Uglyfunk, old Leicester illegal party days - and his talent has always blown us away, but he's always shied away from being at the forefront of things... Which I think has held him back insofar as people hearing what an amazing talent he is. Hopefully the projects we're working on together will make the world a bit more aware of his talent, we don't get so much time to work on stuff and I have to constantly hassle him to get stuff done, but when we get time together in the studio to work on stuff it just seems to work. We can just jam it out and it's just right; where I'm lacking in an idea he comes through with that missing idea and it just works."
CDs are a rapidly vanishing medium, and a fair amount of people in electronic/dance music circles are cutting back on vinyl these days because they say it just doesn't make back the money invested. How do you feel about this?
"Well, the remix project I mentioned before will most probably end up being another free Net release, which is a shame in one way, but the future in another - it makes it available for everyone so it's all inclusive. And on top of that there is the financial side: if you can't sell physical product, and people in the main want only free downloads, it means I have to go and work eight hours a day and so have less time to work on music and my output becomes less and less, which is really what saddens me the most. But maybe some of that is just life choices, and my priorities have just changed as I got older."
What priorities are key to your lifestyle now?
"Well, I'm becoming a bit of an old fart to be honest - I guess my wife and daughter always have to come first, and I'm far more interested in having a family and a stable life than being in clubs until god knows what time every weekend - I mean, I like to keep my hand in, of course, and it's nice to go away and do a show every two months or so - but I certainly wouldn't like to be as dependant on the whole thing as I used to be. The downside of that though is less time to work on music, which is sad. I guess the good thing is now, though, when I'm working on music, it's because I really want to - which means the quality is always going to be higher...not just going through the motions to keep myself recognised enough to keep on getting bookings just to pay the rent. It's a real treadmill, that one!"
How old's your daughter? Mine's 4.
"She's 5 - and getting into playing the drums..."
Is vinyl itself dead - or just becoming more of a select option?
"I think it will always be there, in many ways I'd love to see it become just a collectors' thing and all the money go out of it, so there wasn't so much of this totally shit music coming out on it - save it for the really special stuff..."
Do DJs really need to continue to use vinyl, or can they instead construct entire sets out of stuff they've downloaded off the Internet?
"Why would you need to use vinyl when you have about 10 different ways of playing music these days? I'm not into vinyl snobbery, but it does have a unique warmth."
Is digital download really the future of music?
"Maybe, but I'd like to see more people actually feel the joy of playing an instrument themselves - this is something I really want to get into in the next year although I fear the electronic music output may well suffer as a result."
Which instrument? Back to the guitar your Dad left lying around?
"You know, I thought about buying a guitar again just to have around - maybe do some field recording-style guitar cut-up electronica - but really, I want a piano but the wife is saying we don't have the space for one right now. Yeah man, jazz pianist; I love jazz, you know - not the trad shit, but the like beatnik Charlie Parker/Miles Davis kind of stuff. They were like your original Aphex and Vogel but, you know, really the innovators - some of the first people to say 'Hey, you don't need to play from that music in front of you, just make it up as you go along'."
Lastly - how do you like your mushrooms cooked?
"Raw, straight from the hillside so the gills are still pink, not brown..."