Jam City interview: “You can do anything you like.”

Tamara chats with the south London visionary making mansions in his mind.

“It doesn’t have to be such a big deal!” Jam City – London producer Jack Latham – is confused, genuinely I think too. He’s talking about the album he’s working on, and the fact that, as a dance producer, this seems to surprise people. He leans back from the table in a basement café in Camberwell where we meet up, hand in hair, tone somewhere between mildly exasperated and defensive. “It has a stigma attached to it,” he goes on. “It’s like saying I’m working on my autobiography. It sounds ridiculous and indulgent, but it’s like what, ten songs? DJs play sets for two hours, a CD is like 60 minutes long and, you know, it’s still constructing a journey, it will have peaks and troughs…”

True, the list of dance producers making strong albums that are more than the sum of the occasional big club track isn’t a long one, but Jam City tracks are ones that have a way of fitting outside the box. It’s angular music – operating along several clear cut planes at once – multi-dimensional, bold and expressive. Arpjam off the ‘Night Slugs Allstars’ compilation signposted a stripped, tense aesthetic that seems the foundation of the Jam City sound. Even when his work goes more widescreen, as on Scene Girl from his ‘Magic Drops’ EP, there’s a tautness in the interplay between those crawling synths and the trickling little accents of sounds that he covers them with, which keeps the work physical. His latest ‘Waterworx’ EP shows off a strong grasp of mood. Tracks vary from the high-powered brashness of Aquabox to the dramatic flourishes of Islands, right through to the light and sprightly Waterfalls.

It’s clear he’s a producer with range. The tensions between the hard and the playful in grime, house’s steadfastness and emotional intensity, UK funky’s strong lines, the bold synth brushstrokes of early techno, all make their way into the Jam City palette. It’s more than amalgamation though – a Jam City track is as much a work of fantasy and imagination as a science fiction novel or a piece of art – unsurprising, perhaps, considering he’s a former graphic design student. He talks about snatching ideas from art, using images in the mind’s eye as a starting point for a track. Equally, his enthusiasm for music, both for what it can do and what he can do with it, is obvious. He’s constantly referring to other tracks, opening up about what he’s learnt from them. “Ok, you know Woo Riddim? That’s just an 808 tom and a kick. But people just go mad for it! They love it! And that’s great. I love that. It’s so understated and so subtle, but yeah, people just go crazy for it. And we need to remember stuff like that. There’s more than one way of making a banger.” He’s a voice that’s very aware of how the whole package, from DJ to producer to track to artwork, all fit together, and how it’s best to take advantage of that.

Jack Latham is clever, and not worried about sounding it. Throughout the time we talk, ideas and new angles constantly tumble out of him. Sometimes it sounds well thought out, sometimes they spark up unexpectedly mid-sentence. He’s that rare thing, both a sound and a voice that’s worth paying attention to. And that album will definitely be something to listen out for.

Jam City Mix for Benji B – BBC Radio 1 by Marcusignoredplayaz

The way you make or think about music, did that change a lot when you were old enough to be able to start going into clubs and hear things out on soundsystems and in those environments?

Yeah, I think it did. Hearing something on a soundsystem brings it into a physical realm. This is the thing I love about club music and production, because I guess if you’re in a band you spend all this time in the studio tweaking and getting a certain sound, and then I’d imagine a lot of that is lost when you play live. Or difficult to capture. But with making club tracks, it’s built with a soundsystem in mind. So a soundsystem can only enhance the things you spent so long trying to tweak and get just right on a software program or a synthesizer. Making stuff at home on my shitty monitors and headphones, you only really get a two-dimensional level of sound. But when you’re forced to experience that in a club it brings it to life in a totally different way, and I think the more you go to clubs and hear music on a really loud soundsystem, the more you’re able to try and write music for that environment. You think about space and shape a bit more. And that can inform your aesthetic. So yeah, definitely. It really helps to step outside the normal listening experience by listening to something you also feel physically as well. In terms of bass, volume, dynamics and stuff.

What you were saying about space and shape…are certain songs a certain shape to you maybe?

Yeah definitely. I think about stuff in terms of shape a lot more than I do, like, structurally? This is again something I learnt from grime and minimalism, that minimalism in design is very like, sculptural, you know? Or at least when I make stuff it’s less architectural and more sculptural, because it’s about starting with a block and chipping away at it to create definition rather than building things.

So the shape thing, is that happening in terms of the shape of the sound spectrums on your computer or is it more conceptual?

Yeah a little bit. You’ll always have a spectral analysis that will show you the shape of things. And it’s funny because I didn’t really use that a lot when I began making things. But now the more I use it the more that things are really influenced by it. If I could chart any kind of progression in terms of how I write things it would be trying to make it more and more minimal. I think that I can’t really map how I work or the type of music, because it’s all about sensation and it’s very difficult to apply science to that. I guess the one running thread that links it all is that it’s all stripped. Kind of stripped down or direct? There’s not an ambiguity or a vagueness to it. It’s very, umm…

Clear cut?

Yes, clear. It helps seeing that. When there’s only two elements in a song, you really need to concentrate on what they do physically. So you know you’ll need to have this huge bass presence or whatever. It helps to be able to see that on like an equalizer or something.

When you’re making music, are you primarily thinking about making something that will contribute to a certain effect you’re trying to achieve in a DJ set? Is that the main thought?

Umm, this is something I’ve been thinking about more and more, and I don’t know if it is the primary aim. I mean, it is in that it’s the end point you should reach, but the starting point when I make something is envisioning a kind of environment or world that it takes place in. I’ve been thinking a lot about interior spaces at the moment. I’m becoming really fascinated by the aesthetics of wealth and the modern world. Like mansions in Beverley Hills or Dubai. I don’t even know how I’d begin to make a club track that sounded like some mansion in the Hollywood Hills, but it’s just an easy starting point, you know? I think it’s just the same as if you go to a club or you listen to the radio and you hear something, and you’re like wow that’s amazing, I’m inspired to make something myself. I’m taking inspiration from stuff I was always interested in. Like a photograph or a piece of art, a certain interior can be a base for an atmosphere. And you work and chip away at it until you have a club-friendly, physical piece of music, which hopefully makes people move.

So you’ve mentioned grime. I mean, a song like Arpjam off the Night Slugs compilation, that seems to connect with grime’s roughness and aggression, but also the playfulness of it? Grime is playful, I think…

That’s the thing! It’s about aggression or whatever. But it’s always fun. There’s a certain… kind of restraint, a combusted element. Like, you want to move but the space is almost too small. And grime is really good at demonstrating that. And lyrically as well, grime is really good at demonstrating that. Really explicit violence in the lyrics, but it’s done with this weird…

Black humour?

Yeah! This element of play! It’s meant to be fun, you know? There’s no reason why something can’t have an aggressive, hard edge to it, and yet also be fun. I think music, particularly club music, gives the opportunity to exist in a space that’s sort of in-between various levels of human experience. So, for example, I don’t know if you know the New Jersey club scene? DJ Mike Q, ballroom, that kind of progressed from the voguing scene, and one of the elements that makes those tracks so incredible is they’re really aggressive and hard, but they’re also super feminine. And that’s kind of ideal music for me, that it’s able to be so hard and powerful and forceful, but doesn’t do it in an alienating, masculine way. It’s like, the arena, the club or whatever, provides ideal ground for that. To be in-between and be feminine and aggressive, or trippy and romantic, or hard-edged and whatever! You can do anything you like.

Yeah, I suppose the fantasy aspect plays into that. Like you were saying about making a track that sounds like a Hollywood mansion.

Sure. And that extends into song titles and artwork and stuff. Again, that’s what I mean when I talk about creating a narrative around things. The autonomy club music allows means you don’t have to immediately present everything within a song. You don’t have to make a statement. You can release music that is a kick drum and a clap or whatever. Very minimal, but then you can extend the themes into song titles and artwork or whatever to codify that, and suddenly you have a very abstract, ambiguous piece of music that then has a title that can lead you somewhere else. I think it’s fun to take advantage of that.

Yes, contrast. On Aquabox, you seem to play with very low end and very high end sounds in tandem, and how those come at a listener together…

Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it’s about the contrasting elements. And that can be explored really well through a physical sub bass presence and then a very high melodic presence or something. And then in-between those tensions and stuff, strange melodies emerge that you can’t really control, they just sort of appear. They do that in juke all the time. Like with DJ Spinn’s music, I’m always like how can you write a melody like that? Because it doesn’t seem like you can play it. But you know, how it emerges is through these changes in dynamic and speed and kind of elements in frequency and drums… It appears. And it’s something that is totally out of your control, but it’s a product of the physical body of music. Like I could never sit down and write a DJ Spinn type melody, but I feel like it kind of emerges just through various relationships between sounds.

It’s strange that a track that has these jolting unexpected elements to it often tends to be better to dance to or work better in a club than a track that’s just a smooth surface…

I agree. I think I tend to kind of shy away from very grand, euphoric moments in music. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And at the same time I tend to shy away from miserably dark elements as well. The most fun stuff is the stuff that is suggestive of both of those worlds in melodic terms. I guess bittersweetness. And I haven’t begun to successfully do that at the moment yet, but it’s something that I know I want to try and strive for. Like it’s too easy to make music that sounds dark. And when you start making stuff you realise, ‘oh wow I can put a big reverb unit on everything and it’s going to sound really atmospheric and stuff’. But it’s too easy. And I think too much music does that. And then at the same time it’s too easy to play like a major chord and be like…

Happy?

Yeah. So it has to exist between the two. Not all the time, there’s nothing wrong with being a complete miserable… It’s fine you know, it has it’s place, but there’s a new kind of musical dialect that is more apt at conveying things that we relate to in life rather than just aggressively happy or aggressively sad moments. They’re out of reach. By acknowledging there’s sadness in something happy you’re perhaps able to present happiness in a way that is sort of more, I don’t know, attainable or something.

The word ‘psychedelic’. I’ve heard that used in relation to what you do. Do you think that any way applies to your music?

Umm, I don’t know about psychedelia as a word. When I think of psychedelia, as most people do, I think of particularly clichéd elements…Not that there’s anything wrong with 70s prog! But it’s a bit too whimsical. I’m all for fantasy, but maybe not psychedelia, in the sense that fantasy can apply to anything. You create a world, and it doesn’t have to be a craaazzzyy world you know? It can be a world that is very similar to our own.

Which is kind of what grime does.

Yeah, grime isn’t psychedelic but it’s definitely fantasy music. Because it sounds alien, bizarre. When I first heard it I wasn’t living in London and I was too young to go to clubs. It didn’t sound like it was from London; it didn’t sound like it was from anywhere. It has absolute freedom but it doesn’t just run away with the idea. It’s very experimental but it’s restrained. Once again there is a tension there between freedom and creative possibility and restraint. In that it takes all these bizarre elements and bizarre sounds and bizarre structures and it forges a very coherent, direct product that works in a dancefloor.

With the album then, it’s a different format to be working in. How have you thought about that?

Albums are huge opportunities. It’s a huge opportunity to construct a narrative, and construct an atmosphere. And I think that’s what’s been really fun about writing new material is that you’re allowed to properly explore those opportunities and not worry so much about having to write something that confines to single format. That’s not to say I’ve got license to go off on one at all! But it’s just more room. I think it would be funny if everyone tried to make an album, see where it took them. You’ve just got a lot of breathing room with it. Yeah, it’s really fun.

A lot of people do seem to be picking up the idea of the album again…

Yeah, particularly this year actually. It would be cool if a lot of people embraced it more and it didn’t have such a bad reputation in dance music spheres. Although I think that’s a very limiting way to think about everything, so I try not to think about what I do as only dance music. Or the UK whatever scene. You’re not going to get anywhere if you do that, you know? It’s really limiting. And I feel like I can’t do that. You shut so many doors to yourself. And if you distill it, what is a club track? It’s like, drums…

A kick…

[Laughs] Yeah a kick. And maybe some bass presence, maybe not. It’s no more unsophisticated than something that a singer-songwriter would make. Like, it’s all music. I sound very sort of utopian thinking about it! You can really do anything… I think the way I think about it is all the music I love effects me on an emotional level and on a physical level. So that’s what I generally adhere by when I make something, and that means every door opens. That’s what any good music should do. I have to be an optimist about this. Anything’s possible, and it’s just a case of like, trying to work as hard as you can and, I don’t know, try and get to that place.

Night Slugs released Jam City’s ‘Waterworx’ EP on 11th July 2011

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