The experimental producer on speaking through sampled vocals and the inherently innovative attitude of grime.
“That’s, like, Destiny’s Child's Emotions,” says London producer Louis Carnell about the vocal sample he’s used as the basis for pretty much the entire composition of Pain. “Then at the end of that track where it’s like, ‘tears on my pillow’,” he warbles, half-arsed and a in way that I’m sure is no illustration of his actual singing voice, “that’s where you can tell that I’ve sampled that track.” And it sure is hard to tell when listening to the merciless dissection of grief that is ‘I’m Fine’, an EP that features yet another cut of said pop song in Lost, as well as words from Usher’s Numb in its title-track. But wherever the deformed acapellas are from, all of them are cut up and moulded around a pitiless dissection of unimaginable sorrow, an abstract reflection of Carnell’s inner darkness and his love affair with vocals. Making the unusual instrument choice of his voice for his GCSE, he sang his way through school and into university before landing back in Brixton (Herne Hill, to be exact) and producing his own chrome sculptures of liquid grime assembled almost entirely from dance, R&B and soul acapellas, as Visionist.
From a short stint in a school choir early on, a fated encounter with the piano, through making Grime music in his teens, Carnell’s love of the voice is something that’s always resonated. At just 23 years old, the Brixton-born performer sat across from me now - in a juice bar a five minute train ride from his sharehouse, some jazz funk instrumentals thumping out a of nearby speaker - is a rather accomplished artist for someone so young. Already he’s been signed to Jamie Imanian-Friedman (aka J-Cush)’s NYC label Lit City Trax, recorded with Fatima Al Qadiri, toured as DJ to Zebra Katz and played several shows across three major Chinese cities, as well as Tokyo and New York, and it’s all pretty much thanks to the internet. “I hit some people up on Facebook, said 'I want to come out' and I played a couple of times,” Carnell says casually about his first self-initiated trip to New York last September. Bored of London and eager for some first hand experience of the mutant bass scene centred around labels like UNO and Fade to Mind, with acts like Nguzunguzu, Arca and of course Al Qadiri, Carnell took it upon himself to make the necessary connections. A couple of introductory Soundcloud links and a flight later, he found himself performing shows, hanging out with Imanian-Friedman and meeting the aforementioned Kuwaiti producer herself. “I knew her as Ayshay. I kind of didn’t know a lot of the Fatima work at the time. I used to check out all the Tri Angle stuff and kind of put two and two together after”.
With a shared penchant for highly processed vocal manipulations, the similarities between the two producers, almost 10 years apart in age, are striking. Both churn their chosen intonations into an atmosphere of ecstatic dread, drawing inspiration from all corners of the urbanised globe, whether it's the sonic juxtaposition of Islamic tradition and rapid industrialisation of Al Qadiri’s Gulf upbringing or the Middle Eastern vocal samples Carnell first came across through South London-based MC and producer Dot Rotten. “I went to New York with a plan of putting vocals at the forefront and met Fatima, heard her Fade to Mind EP [‘Desert Strike’] and I was like, ‘oh, you’re doing a similar thing to what I wanted to do’,” says Carnell somewhat regretfully. As someone hyperconscious of “trying not to sound like anyone”, Carnell’s is a bold step in reinforcing the comparison by actually working with Al Qadiri. But then, his connection to her could only help his profile, and there are some superficially subtle, though structurally significant differences in the way the two use their chosen samples. Al Qadiri’s familiar eerie chorals tend to travel linearly, up, down and across a volley of beats, synthesisers and keyboard melodies, being bound to the rigid grids of the videogames she’s emulating. Carnell’s, on the other hand, expand and contract, living organisms that squeeze, stretch and transform inside a chilly dome of human tones kneaded beyond recognition.
"People think that becoming a better producer and getting more creative is moving away from grime; that’s completely not what it is. Grime was people getting on the computer for the first time, trying to make this genre that was their own. It was like, ‘there’s hip hop and we need to make our own rap thing’." - Visionist
“Obviously, I love the way she uses her vocal samples and I wanted to see if we could write something where the way we both use vocals would fit,” he says about bringing together the two approaches; Al Qadiri’s paranoid recreation of the ominous tech-dystopia surrounding her, Carnell’s expressions of his gnawing inner trauma. “It’s called The Call because of the ‘call-and-response’ of our vocal techniques,” he explains before describing in minute detail how the final composition of that collaboration came together, the two of them working across the Atlantic before finishing it off together in London: “When it goes into a bit more melodic bit, where it’s mainly her, I just harmonise it and, in a sense, those are little fragments of vocal. That’s her conversation.”
The Call embodies what’s going on in grime today. No longer centred on London’s outer boroughs and pirate radio, that track distils the divergent thrust of the style to its essence. That is, beyond the mainstream shift in to electro, with the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, and back to Carnell’s kind, sinking further into the muddy gloom of deep grime. Not only that, but The Call emerges as the literal manifestation of the exchange across countries that saw grime emerge as Britain’s answer to US hip hop, in turn becoming the latter’s saviour, and now coming full circle to reinvigorate a sound many consider all but dead in the UK – the very fact that Arca recently relocated to London is yet another indication of the shifting tide of influence. “There was a time that I was noticing, over in America, they were picking up grime and I kept also seeing people always tweet about, ‘oh, I just went to America and played grime’. I was like, ‘well, I want to go to America and see what a show like that is. What? People are going over there and playing grime but people over here are just playing techno, how does that work?’”
You may need to strain to recognise the similarities between much of ‘I’m Fine’ and grime but beneath all the mercurial melancholia, there’s the 140 bpm and a long past in that mode of production, during his teens in Nottingham, from which Carnell draws. “First of all, that’s what I originally made so, with what I do now, I’m still using the same palette that I used when I was 15, 16 [years-old] and I’ve always loved vocals. So a lot of the grime producers I used to listen to, people like Kid D, Iron Soul, sampled vocals, and there was the R&B sampling of vocals.” Carnell is of the opinion that where grime went wrong is when people started to deviate from its essence as a source of experimentation, albeit at a certain tempo. “What I've found is people think that becoming a better producer and getting more creative is moving away from grime, where that’s completely not what it is. Grime was just people getting on the computer for the first time, trying to make this genre that was their own. It was like, ‘there’s hip hop and we need to make our own rap thing’ – like jungle, a little bit, but grime was the UK version of hip hop at the time. So all the producers experimented and through experimentation is where the best sounds came.”
“I once made a track using Bulgarian vocals and it sounded like she was saying, ‘regret’, the way I sampled it. If you take a sample and pitch it right it can become a word." - Visionist
Perceivably, Carnell’s Visionist, as well as his growing roster of artists on his own Lost Codes label, is a continuation of that progressive spirit as it expands beyond the British Isles and into a transatlantic microscene proliferated by the web. “My first release is SD Laika, he is American and it’s not grime but it’s so rooted in a weird way. It’s him just coming at it in his own way, completely differently. It’s just him experimenting with a grime palette,” he says about the specific tracks selected for the ‘Unknown Vectors’ EP. “I wanted it to be linked back to grime but it’s open to experimentation because that’s what I think grime originally was.” That’s precisely Carnell’s approach as Visionist, simultaneously privileging and dismantling the role of MC in his compositions, within a sound that is and isn’t grime.
That duality is also not only reflected in the localised globalism of his online functioning as creator, collaborator and listener, but the creative polarity between himself and the artists he’s now associated with. Apart from his age, a major difference between Carnell and his mostly US-based contemporaries is his introspective thematic core. Not only does he search inside his vocal samples in a ‘less-is-more’ approach to expanding on them, he also pulls focus and produces music around the inherent and unsettling weirdness of within, rather than as some kind of abstract reaction to and, remediation of the fragmented excess of modern life through the ‘world club’ compounds of, say, Nguzunguzu’s eclectic influences, across junk, kuduro, The X-Files and beyond. “I’m not really so involved with the world like that to be honest,” he says about the socio-political implications one could easily apply to said global set of producers, “I’m kind of closed away anyway so it could be something, like, subliminal that I don’t actually think about”.
In taking and manipulating certain acapella tracks – which Carnell will often choose with a certain concept in mind – ‘I’m Fine’ is less influenced by broadcast media as it is something much more personal. It's six songs for six stages of mourning, which the press release outlines as, “grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance." The source of that grief is a subject that is as off-limits as his sonic intention is intangible. By way of explanation he says: “It came from something from last year. Just the way I was feeling a lot, sat in the house, things like that. It was, kind of, the first time… because, the way I am, I like to be in control and it was the first time I found I wasn’t in control. It was that fight, ‘why am I not in control?’ and then not dealing with that well.” Carnell laughs uncomfortably, as he seems to do when he’s either being evasive or I’ve touched a nerve.
It’s for that reason that Carnell isn’t easy to read, in the same way that it's mostly impossible to tell the words of a sample he’s so disfigured that all that’s left behind is the heaviness that hangs from it. “The I’m Fine track? I can’t remember what it actually says but it sounds like, ‘I can feel’,” Carnell offers. He goes on to explain the criteria for selecting the perfect acapella: “I’ve always noticed, when I was making grime originally as well, that you can have samples that don’t even say what it actually says. You can make them sound like something else. I stumble across things like that a lot.”
“I once made a track using Bulgarian vocals and it sounded like she was saying, ‘regret’, the way I sampled it, but she wasn’t”, Carnell says chuckling. "She wasn’t even saying anything in English. But if you take that sample and pitch it right it can become a word.” He adds that even certain sounds, in combination with each other, can sound like a phrase, a slight shift in the mix making it disappear just as easily. “Obviously lyrics are kind of important but it’s mainly tone of voice, and also it can be a hit and miss with a lot of vocal samples because, when I’m pitching, some of them can be really nice and wonky but as soon you take it to another cue you can’t do anything with it, it sounds rubbish.” And what of that fact I didn’t even realise that Visionist's entire ‘I’m Fine’ EP is constructed almost completely of vocal samples until this interview? “I thought it was obvious”.
Lit City Trax will release 'I'm Fine' on the 3rd September 2013.