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Back in 2007, Rob McAndrews had encountered dubstep – he’d heard essential tracks like Midnight Request Line at house parties – but he’d never experienced it. While studying in Leeds, McAndrews ventured to Subdub/Exodus at the West Indian Centre, where Digital Mysticz, Skream, Youngsta and Benga held a monthly residency, and was met with a ribcage-shaking blast of low-end that had a profound effect on the way he perceived music. McAndrews was hooked: he began producing, and in 2010 he released his debut single, Pembroke, adopting the alias Airhead. Pembroke was recorded with James Blake, who was incidentally discovering dubstep at around the same time, while studying at Goldsmiths, after hearing the Digital Mysticz tune Haunted at a party in Brixton. It was the first of many collaborations between the pair, and the track formed an essential cornerstone in the nascent movement that the music press named “post-dubstep” alongside artists like Darkstar and Mt. Kimbie.
Whereas those artists are all well into their second records, Airhead has been considerably slower to make his mark. Between the release of Pembroke and now, he has only put his name to a handful of 12”s and remixes, but all that is set to change this week. ‘For Years’ is Airhead’s debut album for R&S Records, a 10-track record that swings between experimental, bass-gurgling club tracks and quiet, introverted rock songs. Its name is a double entendre – it took four years for the album to come together.
“I guess four years is a long time to be working on an album,” McAndrews concedes, “It doesn’t feel like it’s taken a long time to come out for me.”
Airhead and James Blake – Pembroke
When I speak to him, McAndrews has just returned from a short tour of Japan. By day, he’s the guitarist in James Blake’s touring band (he also played on Lindisfarne, Once We All Agree and Digital Lion; Blake returned the favour by collaborating on ‘For Years’ track Knives). “It’s funny over there. Their gigs normally start at seven o’clock, so you’re finished by half eight. People will go out and watch a concert, then go and have dinner afterwards and talk about what they’ve seen, rather than [go out and] spill pints of Carling over each other.” The past few years have seen him playing dates around the globe with his childhood friend almost constantly – no wonder time feels like its gone by so fast.
But McAndrews is content with putting out his music at his own pace, unfussed when it comes to staying too up-to-date – some of the tracks on ‘For Years’ date back as far as 2009, whilst others were finished as recently as January. “I remember being perhaps a bit frustrated at first, thinking everyone around me was releasing a lot of music. But that was only for a brief amount of time. I realised I didn’t want to rush anything – I wanted to release music I was completely happy with.”
“When I was making my own music, I just wanted to create this 3D image of sound.” – Airhead
Whilst this endless waiting might seem like perfectionism – McAndrews explains how he’s worked on remixes only to shelve them at the eleventh hour due to his uncertainty about how they’ve turned out – a lot of it is more down to the simple fact that he’s been busy with his touring duties. Getting the chance to sit down and write music on his own terms and in his chosen environment has been rare.
“I grew up spending a lot of time by myself in front of a computer, so I feel natural just being alone and being able to spend as much time as I want on minute detail.” Throughout our talk, this is something that he frequently refers back to. The teenage McAndrews would listen to the likes of cLOUDDEAD and A Silver Mt. Zion in isolation, headphones on and eyes shut, visualising the sounds that he was hearing. “You close your eyes and see the sounds in front of you, as if you’re in a room with sound. When I was making my own music, I just wanted to create this 3D image of sound.”
McAndrews’ earliest forays into music making came around this time. Although he’d grown up playing guitar and piano, “and listening to a lot of early blues music and old finger-picking guitarists”, it wasn’t until he was 15 that he started to venture into the world of production. He bought a Roland SP-303 sampler and began messing around, “putting drones into it and old slowed down hip hop beats and basically trying to rip off Odd Nosdam from cLOUDDEAD”.
He eventually sold the sampler (to the person that introduced him to cLOUDDEAD in the first place) and switched primarily to his computer. A couple of years later he made tentative steps into the world of dance music – “I suppose maybe when I was 16 or 17, and started trying to use fake IDs to go to clubs. I actually found my fake ID the other day. It’s so embarrassing. It says ‘proof of age’ all over it, and I look about 13 in the picture…”
“There’s a link between when I started writing music that ended up getting released and when I started looking back to the music I grew up listening to.” – Airhead
The biggest turnaround came after moving to Leeds in 2007. His experiences at Subdub/Exodus led him to make music with the dancefloor in mind, creating dubstep tracks on Logic in the vein of his newfound heroes Loefah, Mala and Coki. “Invariably, it was terrible. I didn’t know how to make synth sounds and I couldn’t program drums. All I was doing was lifting their music and trying to imitate it.” Whilst he feels that a period of imitation is essential to anybody’s development as a musician, the turnaround didn’t come until he rediscovered his initial love for music. “I think there’s a link between when I started writing music that ended up getting released and when I started looking back to the music I grew up listening to.” Hearing Mount Kimbie’s breakthrough ‘Maybes’ EP on Hotflush struck a chord with him, as both McAndrews and Mount Kimbie’s Dom Maker and Kai Campos were influenced by the same things growing up. “I suddenly just thought ‘why am I trying to make classic dubstep track, why am I not trying to bring my own musical ideas to this thing.’”
“The emotion part is very important…I can record my garden and put reverb on it and if it doesn’t evoke any emotion, I don’t see the point of doing it.” – Airhead
It was at Subdub/Exodus that he had another important revelation. “It was quite late in the evening and I was perhaps a bit worse for wear and I had a sudden moment of clarity near the speakers. I just realised that music is the manipulation of sound to evoke emotion. That stayed with me.” Afterwards, he was reading essays by composers as part of a music production module and found Edgar Varèse’s famous assertion that music is the organisation of sound. Thrilled to have his own ideas validated, McAndrews approached the world with new ears, hearing anything as potential sources for music. “Whether going out and recording found sounds or just programming synths, it really opened me up to music production and the things that you could do.”
He decided to get another Roland sampler and combined that with the basic skills he’d picked up on with Logic and programming synths from his aborted excursions into dubstep, but he felt that another element was missing from his music.
Airhead – Wait
“Whereas he [Varèse] says it’s just the organisation of sound, that’s all music is, maybe successful music needs to be the organisation of sound to evoke emotion.” For McAndrews, the Airhead project really began as a way to reconcile these moments in his musical development, as it was only after this realisation that labels started to pick up on and release his music.
It can be heard most tellingly on Wait, McAndrews’s first single for R&S Records and the opening track on ‘For Years’. Placed at the front of the album, Wait can be read as something of a mission statement: the first thirty seconds introduce field recordings and found sound alongside snippets of Karen O’s vocal, taken from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2004 hit Maps, before hitting a shuffling halfstep-inflected beat and breaking out into a sweeping, guitar-led post-rock song. “I think the emotion part is very important,” says McAndrews. “I can record my garden and put reverb on it and pan it around my speakers and if it doesn’t evoke any emotion, I don’t see the point of doing it. Every time I make music, I want it to affect a feeling and mean something.”