EDITOR: OSKAR JEFF
EDITOR: OSKAR JEFF
We still down with Bruce to talk about his new EP on Timedance and why it was time for a new creative direction.
“I was singing karaoke at FFKT Festival in Japan. A pre-festival thing with all the artists. I just got up and sung What You Won’t Do For Love by Bobby Caldwell…”
Bruce is pinpointing the exact moment his career began to take a drastic shift. He’d made a name for himself as a producer in the post-dubstep wilderness of the 2010s, with releases across the likes of Hessle Audio, Livity Sound and Hemlock Recordings cementing his penchant as a purveyor of idiosyncratic UK techno. A 2018 debut album on the former saw his role as a touring DJ increase exponentially, a reality that didn’t quite align with how he’d envisioned it years before.
But then, we can all find inspiration in surprising places sometimes, and here, new opportunities arose in the gaussian glow of the karaoke screen. Surrounded by both inspirations and contemporaries, a new direction was forged. “Mount Kimbie, Visible Cloaks, and Alva Noto were all there,” he recalls, “a real interesting mix of artists.”
“I pretty much stole the floor [during the karaoke]” he adds knowingly, “all three of those artists came up to me and said, ‘Why aren't you singing on tracks?’”
From there, his voice became the focal point of his writing, and on a set of new EPs this year, it’s showcased in white light for all to see. We sit down together to trace the throughlines of his career so far.
At The End of the Metropolitan Line
I want to know about where his love of electronic music came from. The reverence shines though in both his productions, where tracks are built with intricacy and consideration, and his DJ sets, that bound ecstatically through genres and styles with childlike glee. What sparked it all off?
“I was very lucky to have a music teacher who was a fucking legend. He was a conductor, Mr Tansley, but he was also very interested in progressive, electro-acoustic music like Christian Zanési. Off the back of that, I discovered a lot of stuff. The first few releases on [influential Berlin label] PAN, all of that stuff was just wild, really headsy stuff,” he pauses, before adding, “And that’s at exactly the same time as discovering [iconic dubstep mix] FabricLive.37 – Caspa and Rusko.”
I ask where this introduction to club music came from. “It was just kids at school, cooler kids that lived slightly closer to London. A lot of people closer to London had access to DMZ [a seminal dubstep night run by Mala, Coki and Loefah].” It’s clear the proximity of his hometown Chesham to the capital holds importance. Near enough to inspire, yet far enough away to remain an escapist incentive. “The end of the Metropolitan Line, very much home counties limbo,” he explains.
It’s clear that school offered multiple perspectives on the possibilities of electronic music, with seemingly opposing angles coalescing in his attentive mind. The world-building possibilities of experimental composition took hold. “Some of the first tunes I made were electro-acoustic music, straight up.” While clearly informing his work to this day, it was the physicality of dubstep that affected him most. “This kind of wild, physical experience of music was so new. All the music I listened to before, it wasn't about feeling something physical, it was about hearing something.”
Soon enough, excursions into London became a necessity. “I discovered these underage raves called Under The Radar and Let's Go Crazy. These parties in these huge venues, like Fire and Matter. They'd book all these very current artists and it would be alcohol-free,” he reflects, adding, “A lot of my friends weren’t aware of drugs and I fucking certainly wasn't. But people were mashed! I was getting held up by bouncers, because they’d searched me and find some Lucozade tablets,” he laughs, “He was looking at me like, ‘Seriously, this is what you're bringing in?’, I’m like, ‘Hurry up, Benga’s playing!’”
Through these raves, the physicality of sound was wholly rendered, but another aspect of club music also became clear. “[It was] this sense of new communities and this sense of escape,” he explains.“ I could get out of this tiny, annoying little town, which I felt was holding me back. [It was] a key to feel deeper, experience music, and chase this feeling that it was giving me.”
These seemingly disparate power lines of influence jumpstarted a headfirst dive into electronic music that shifted from gradual to all-encompassing, “I was so drip-fed, and each little drip was so fucking precious that when it would hit my tongue, it would just be an explosion of flavour, and I just have to go and write this thing… It was just me and my headphones, you know? And a couple of mates that were willing to tag along.”
The Trouble With Wilderness
Things developed further still with a move to Bath Spa University, meeting like-minded producers like Ploy and Batu, then eventually moving to Bristol. “It was exploding into a scene,” he explains, “The year I left uni, I had records out on Livity and Hessle… We were just doing the dream. There was nothing else and there was no need for anything else. It was so simple, just get up, write tunes, go out, party, and go home. It was fucking amazing, and it just felt so fulfilled. That sense of fulfilment carried on for a long time.”
I ask when the feelings began to shift. “It started to change around 2018/2019, when I was touring a lot,” he explains. This was following the release of his debut album, Sonder Somatic, on Hessle Audio. “I found myself slowly becoming less and less emotionally engaged. I was building myself as a personality in the DJ world.” The monotony of the circuit was wearing thin. “I was starting to think there must be more to this. This doesn't feel like it's fulfilling my artistic ambition.”
Then the roadblock of Covid stopped everything, revealing a shifted industry once it woke from hibernation. Even forgoing the evident road-weariness, it was clear change was due. “There used to be a middle ground between the super-underground and the mainstream. There used to be quite a large middle ground, which artists like myself did really well in. That isn't there anymore, and there's people I know that are on the brink of stopping,” adding “That is a sustaining frustration, but at the same time a drive for doing what I want to be doing.”
So back to that karaoke bar… “This is the plus side of touring, as you get to rub shoulders with these artists that you really fucking love.” Those earlier words of encouragement spurred on his new vocal-forward approach. “So, from 2019 to 2022, I was putting all my effort into writing pop music. It was basically just relearning how to write music. It was so different to dance music.” I ask how it changed his approach to production. “It was basically looking at much more organic sonics to achieve relatable structures and progressions. If you compare it to production on early Arca stuff, Kelala, FKA Twigs, some Beyonce stuff. Experts at creating a rhythmic-harmonic space that doesn't rely on just standard drums.”
His vocals first appeared on his collaborative project, XRA, alongside Lurka, and a track on a Timedance compilation. But the true outcome of his work has been a pair of EPs for Timedance, the first being Not, released earlier in the year and the second, Ready, having just landed in October. The fundamental expansive sonics of his past work remain: the rhythms are still club-indebted, though unshackled from their dancefloor functionality in favour of more traditionally song-driven dynamics. For example, the flitter of breaks on ‘Dappled Light’, or the skewed, UK garage plasticity of ‘Broken’. Nonetheless, there is a theatrical grandness to the music that is new, the unhinged crescendo at the end of ‘Complaint’ being particularly captivating.
But now Bruce is front and centre, and with a voice, you need something to say. I ask what influenced the thematic framework of the record. “My partner is very closely connected to a lot of these songs. A lot of these songs are directly about us and specifically about times we shared, both good and bad. We were in the midst of navigating a complicated open relationship, with another person involved. Needless to say, some mistakes were made, which took a real toll on both of us.” The frustration and turmoil is evident in the tracks, they push and pull as Bruce pushes his voice to its limits. “This is before-and-mid therapy,” he acknowledges, “I was discovering a lot about myself. I'm so grateful for the privilege of that process, as it has really helped me navigate and look back on previous relationships and realise why I was acting up in such a way, when I couldn't understand my motive or reactions to things at the time.”
I wonder aloud if this level of vulnerability has been challenging, especially when it could take his audience time to acclimatise to the new Bruce. “No, because once they come to see me [live], they get it. I'm pretty convinced it's an authentic, engaging performance. I trust the sound person. I trust the light person. I trust the music more importantly. I really trust the music. So, my involvement in it isn't really a thing. It doesn't need to be relevant because I can rely on everything else doing its job really, really well.”
But putting that amount of emotional energy into your work doesn't necessarily dictate how much people take out of it, even the few times where it doesn’t land must hurt more than when you can hide just behind the instrumentals or CDJs.
“This is the way I think about stuff: I don't even think of me in that discussion.I don't think about my own emotion. I extract the emotion from that feeling and that sensation into a track. Once that track is recorded and done, that emotion has been captured in a conical flask, and is now held for people to witness and see.”
This idea of individualist detachment brings us back to a conversation we had earlier regarding the Under The Radar club nights of his youth. Following his near-biblical exposure to bass weight and dancefloor community, he took up promoting for the events, looking to spread the gospel far and wide. “I was like, ‘Everyone has to experience this,’” he reminisces, “‘You have to go to this. It's so fucking amazing.’” He explains that his sense of universal elation had to be shared, whether or not everybody else could understand. “That doesn't cross my mind,” he admits, “That's the problem with the utilitarian [mindset]. I think I have this overwhelming desire to get everyone into it, to share the love on a grand scale. Unfortunately, that often means I overlook people's individual experience.”
“I did do one performance where it was a bit flat in response,” he recalls, “and it was a bit draining. But there’s just gonna be some crowds and some spaces that don’t work. Let's just try and narrow it and just make it work. It’s super young still.” For the most part the performances have been a clear affirmation that the new project is the right direction: “A lot of people have not only told me it was great, but have had to apologise for how much I've opened them up. I've also had people not being able to talk to me much, friends of mine being like, ‘Yeah, that was great,’ and I can tell that it's because they're not okay with what's been unlocked in them.” That’s undoubtedly the nature of dealing with raw emotive material. He adds that, “All of my most successful tracks, pre-vocals, had a big emotional connection. I very much live with my heart on my sleeve when writing this stuff. I've always enjoyed stories, basically. Now people can't escape the story like previously,” noting that, “it's just the next level of progression of storytelling for me. It's really important to have that feeling of moving forward.”
Another Tool in the Box
There is a refreshing honesty to Bruce’s belief in his artistic process, an approach that is understanding of the realities of change but unwaivered in its forward momentum. It makes a change from the usual faux insecurities of artists, often laden with an air of insincerity. I ask if this vocalist form is the Bruce we’ll be seeing for a while? “I don't know,” he mulls, “I'm writing an album currently that's dance music again. It's got some of my vocals in it. At the end of the day, I still see that it’s just a tool in the box, you know?” More collaborations are on the way too, following his working with XRA and a release with Bambounou in 2021, “That record I'm so grateful for, that whole experience. That's the first collaboration I've ever done. He’s such a powerhouse.” Going forward, he wants to take the place of vocalist in his collaborations, “It's quite exciting, the idea that I am kind of acting as a tool in their box,” he notes, “the deepest stories have been told, and I think all of that has been fulfilled. From now on, if anything, it's going to be an interesting experiment. Having different emotions to give abandon to, because heartbreak is easy, you know?”
In many ways, Bruce’s true ethos seems to be betterment through creation. “The more energy you put into it, the better you will be, as a person, and the better your music will be,” he acknowledges, “A lot of the singing project taught me that. Once I had recognised, accepted and forgiven myself for the long-term depression and anxiety I had been suffering from, the music was much easier to translate, as I realised how much energy I was putting into the wrong things.”
“Also, just more self-acceptance, accepting that there's certain things about my personality that I don't like. I don't like change. In production I'm still using [music-making software] Reason, the same shit I used at school with Mr Tansley!” he laughs.
Bruce - Ready is out now on Timedance.