Soundtracking the emergency: Is there space for climate change in dance music?
Winter in Montreal, as in the rest of Canada, tends to alternate year on year. A mild winter is usually followed by a harsh one, and vice versa. Outbreaks of Arctic air can herald extreme periods of bitter cold, and snow cover usually lasts for about twelve weeks – longer than in most other major Canadian cities. The average temperature in January hovers around -9°C, but seeing the thermometer drop to -15°C or even -20°C is not uncommon. For those who don’t care about the ski season, these conditions can be difficult to say the least, and this year was a particularly bad one. ‘Hold On Montreal, Winter 2017 Will Be Longest And Coldest In Years’, went a typical headline.
For those who don’t care about the ski season, these conditions can be difficult to say the least, and this year was a particularly bad one. ‘Hold On Montreal, Winter 2017 Will Be Longest And Coldest In Years’, went a typical headline.
This was the environment where Allen Wootton (aka Deadboy) recorded his debut album 'Earth Body', having moved to Montreal from London in May 2016. While he actually found the climate less severe than expected, it’s found its way into the record to a certain degree. The general mood is summed up by the icy cover art – a placid grey ocean merging seamlessly with a formless sky. If you took away the sharp contemporary font, it could easily be some private press ambient record, rediscovered after decades of obscurity. Strangely enough, this downbeat atmosphere contrasts with a subtle kind of high stakes euphoria, and is leavened by an exciting new musical direction – more on this later – which sees Wootton quite literally finding a new voice.
Finding London’s attraction souring somewhat, and after discovering Canadian work visas were only available to those under 30, Wootton decided to make the move before his window closed. From a creative point of view, it’s a choice that seems to have paid off in spades. “I’d never been to Canada before I moved here,” Wootton tells me during our Skype conversation, “never even looked at pictures of Montreal. I was going in blind. I just thought I’d turn up and see what happens! Socialism has kept rent caps in the city, so people are able to work part time jobs and do whatever they want on the side. Everybody’s a DJ or an artist or a musician and it’s very healthy in that respect. There’s a certain isolation – which was great for writing the album – but it also means there’s a great scene here, and also the laws are more lax in terms of being able to throw parties. So yeah, it’s a lot of fun.”
“I’d never been to Canada before I moved here, never even looked at pictures of Montreal. I was going in blind. I just thought I’d turn up and see what happens!"
Deadboy’s debut 12” 'U Cheated' – a stunning slice of heartbroken UK funky – came out back in 2009. Since then he’s enjoyed a varied career as a DJ and in-demand producer, releasing on a host of labels including Numbers, Crazylegs and Unknown To The Unknown. His magpie-like approach to music is best enjoyed through listening to his monthly NTS show, where instrumental grime, classic house and R&B sidle up alongside dancehall, ambient and ‘80s pop. Given his wide-ranging love of sound, it’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken Wootton this long to release a full-length project. He’s been floating (and scrapping) the idea of an album in interviews for years now, but as recently as 2014 he said he didn’t think he’d ever make one as Deadboy. So what happened?
“[At first] it was just something I was doing on the side,” Wooton explains. “I had six tracks sitting in a private playlist on Soundcloud. My friend Andy heard them and said, ‘What’s this? You’ve gotta do this as a Deadboy thing.’ I was like, ‘Nah, nah!’ But then I made three more tracks in the space of a week, and suddenly it’s an album! It wasn’t what I was planning to do at all. But then the more people that told me I should do it as a Deadboy record… well, sometimes other people know better what you should be doing than yourself, so I just went for it.”
Thank God he did. Out May 19th on Local Action, 'Earth Body' is a striking, fully-realised left-turn that still feels of a piece with previous Deadboy material. Written and recorded entirely over this past winter and influenced by artists as varied as Drake, David Sylvian, Sade and Scott Walker, it’s a bold electronic pop record where Wootton’s own vocals are front and centre on every track, bathed in rippling pools of effects and dovetailing harmonies. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising – after all, the human voice has played an important role in many Deadboy records – but the exuberance with which Wootton has committed to this new aesthetic is undeniably brave. “I’m a big fan of human voices in harmony,” he explains simply, touching on his love for the Beach Boys. “I think that’s one of the best sounds there is.” One person the record made instant sense to was Local Action boss Tom Lea, who recalls “long journeys with Al in the passenger seat playing non-stop Scott Walker and DIY pop obscurities.” It seems as though for those who know Wootton well, this album is the culmination of all his work to date.
The obvious temptation here is to run with the ‘Deadboy goes pop!’ narrative, but I was worried that this might be a bit of a lazy fit. Turns out I needn't have – Wootton is more than happy to entertain the idea when I bring it up. Pop and R&B have always been an important part of his musical DNA – as a DJ, edits of Drake, Ashanti and Cassie were among some of his early calling cards. On Earth Body, even when the music leans towards the abstract, his vocal inflections and rhythmic patterns borrowed from the upper reaches of the charts help songs such as ‘Tide’ and ‘Rain’ to achieve a strange sort of synthesis.
“[Earth Body is] definitely me trying to do a pop record,” Wootton explains, “one that’s got a bit of imagination. I mean, ‘Tide’ is just me doing a Rihanna song. Pop is such a good format to work with, and it’s fun to try and make something that’s experimental but also remains within the constraints of pop music. There’s not many people who do that well. I’m not saying I have, but I’ve tried. If people like it that’s cool, but either way I’m happy with it.”
“[Earth Body is] definitely me trying to do a pop record, one that’s got a bit of imagination. I mean, ‘Tide’ is just me doing a Rihanna song."
The old ‘I make music for myself and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus’ line is often trotted out by musicians who in actual fact mean exactly the opposite, but in this case it’s impossible to doubt Wootton’s sincerity. “A few years ago I would have been very nervous about how people were going to react,” he offers, “but now I think if you’ve made something you believe in then it doesn’t matter… and I was for real about this.” There’s certainly an understated confidence about the record that suggests the hand of a seasoned producer. Or as Lea suggests more succinctly over email, “I think Al's released enough era-defining club records at this point to justify doing what he wants to do and for people to have faith in him.”
In one of those chance alignments that happens from time to time, Earth Body is coming out hot on the heels of Arca’s new self-titled and Mr. Mitch’s 'Devout'. All three are records by experimental electronic artists who’ve shaped and warped the human voice so prominently in their productions, and have now turned belatedly to their own voices as creative fuel. Although Deadboy actually has prior form here – I hadn’t realised this before, but 2013’s 'Blaquewerk EP' on Numbers also features his own voice, only processed past the point of all recognition. 'Earth Body' is a whole new departure though, but as ever with Wootton it was unplanned and organic.
“I actually wrote it as though I was writing a pop record for someone else,” he explains, “then when it got to the point of who was going to sing on it… I thought I might as well do it myself, y’know? I don’t have a beautiful voice or anything, but I just tried to do a basic job and not over-sing it, and then autotune did the rest! A lot of people think they can’t sing because they don’t have a good voice. But I think everybody can and should sing more.”
"A lot of people think they can’t sing because they don’t have a good voice. But I think everybody can and should sing more.”
Similarly to 'White Magick', Deadboy’s 2015 EP for Local Action, a lot of the synth textures owe themselves to his deep knowledge of new age and ambient records. Outside of music, Wootton also has a strong interest in metaphysics and psychology – more specifically awareness and control of the unconscious mind – citing thinkers such as Carl Jung, cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and psychedelic guru Terence McKenna during our conversation. “Most of the problems in the world are caused by people having no concept of how their brain works,” he suggests. “This should be something that kids are taught in school, before maths or anything else. Then maybe we’d be in less of a bad situation now.” The conversation shifts to Brexit and Trump, before Wootton jokes, “Canada seems like the place to be to avoid the collapse of Western civilisation… for the time being…”
Next up for Deadboy is the matter of working out how to re-imagine 'Earth Body' in a live setting (“I think it’s gonna be weird getting up in front of people and singing, but I’m not nervous. I love going karaoke and it’s not a million miles off from that!”) In terms of what sort of new music he might be working on though, I realise it’s a pointless task trying to pin him down. Wootton’s omnivorous tastes (this week he’s been listening to “a lot of bashment and ‘90s New York house”) combined with his unconscious writing process… well, what he’s going to make next is anyone’s guess, including his own. For now we have one of the year’s most exciting and unexpected pop records to savour.
'Earth Body' is out May 19th on Local Action.