Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Both as a solo artist and as one half of bleached disco duo Beautiful Swimmers, Maxmillion Dunbar has been the brains behind a stack of wholly unique and inventive dancefloor records over the years, with his music seeing release through labels like L.I.E.S., Live At Robert Johnson and his own Future Times imprint. Earlier this week he released his second album, ‘House Of Woo’, through the New York-based RVNG Intl., and it’s his best and most personal release yet. Born from a single recording session in his home studio last year, the album was jammed out, recorded, produced and edited entirely between April and May. The end result is a glimpse into Dunbar’s head, a snapshot of his world, and a night spent on the dancefloor of his mind.
“I decided that I would just keep the whole LP linked to that one session, that time period,” Max tells me. “Fantasies of jazz session liner notes, you know? I always liked the idea of the LP as a snapshot of the person’s vibe, not necessarily always a statement that lasts forever and ever.”
“Vibe”. It’s the word that he uses the most in our short chat, and it seems to be central to his working methods. ‘House Of Woo‘’s sense of cohesion stems from Max’s ability to maintain a particular mood or atmosphere across each of its 11 tracks. Much of this comes from the sound palette used, which falls somewhere between new age music – complete with plastic, synthesized takes on ethnic instruments – and the rugged throb of Roland drum machine-assisted house and techno.
Maxmillion Dunbar – Slave to the Vibe
But to reduce the vibe purely to sonics does the album a disservice, and the buoyant emotion that Max injects into his music (often wrung out of unlikely sources) is just as important to the album’s success. It’s a free, exploratory and fundamentally uplifting collection, brimming with – naturally – positive energy. Speaking to Max, it becomes abundantly clear that the record is as true a reflection of its creator as can be – put simply, the music is Max, and as he makes evident from the opening track, he’s a “Slave To The Vibe”. What did he consider to be his vibe when making the album? “It wouldn’t be wrong to say that I was pretty much just chilling in the extreme. Putting the studio to work, hanging with my girl – I guess a loved up vibe. There’s a lot of beauty in the super simple shit in your life.”
“Woo” was just a word, or emotion, or exclamation, or whatever, that came up a lot for me the last couple years…plus it’s a love thing, it all just sort of fit.” – Maxmillion Dunbar
Maxmillion Dunbar was born Andrew Field-Pickering – his middle name is Dunbar, and his parents were originally going to call him Max. His career started in the mid-00s, when he MC’d (under the name Vulture Voltaire) in Food For Animals, an experimental hip hop outfit hailing from his native Washington DC. Food For Animals are basically defunct today, and spitting lines fell by the wayside after the Maxmillion Dunbar solo releases started to pick up steam. Hip hop might have informed Dunbar’s production style – early solo tracks like Wouldn’t Matter are firmly rooted in collage and sampling – but it was when making dance music that he shone brightest, and his debut solo album, ‘Cool Water’, came out in 2010. The loose template of dance music, with its emphasis on space, groove and vibe, seemed a natural fit to his attitude.
Maxmillion Dunbar – Wouldn’t Matter
Following his debut album came more 12”s. Through some mutual friends – and Field-Pickering has a lot of mutual friends – he ended up hooking up with Matt from experimental New York label RVNG Intl. with the original intention to release an EP. “At the very beginning it was going to be an EP, but quickly we just went for it.”
The pairing of Max and RVNG for House Of Woo seems so natural it’s a wonder it took this long to happen at all. RVNG tread the line between dance music and punk – or rather, they imagine that there is no line between dance music and punk. Max’s own musical maturity evolved in a similar way: he started out a punk kid in DC (home of hardcore cornerstones Fugazi), discovered hip hop, then post-punk, then the dancier end of the post-punk spectrum (Liquid Liquid, ESG et al) which led to an appreciation of disco, which led to an appreciation of house, which led to an appreciation for other genres with a fundamental foundation in groove. In fact, Max just loves all sorts of music, and in the past he has expressed a desire to smash down preconceptions of genre.
But whilst this might explain the genesis of the album, there’s one question that seemed to defy a clear explanation: why ‘woo’? “It’s not really direct to anything.” Max says. “Woo” was just a word, or emotion, or exclamation, or whatever, that came up a lot for me the last couple years. Always loved that Bernie Worrell LP – ‘All The Woo In The World’. I have a friend, Jan Woo…plus it’s a love thing, it all just sort of fit.”
Love played a key role in the inception of the album. The two months Max spent recording were not lived through in isolation, but with his girlfriend. It was this relationship, the simple delights of domestic bliss, which formed the emotional backbone of the album. It’s a refreshing attitude for a musician to take, and a surprisingly rare one: when it comes to relationships, musicians tend to focus on the extremes of loneliness, lust and heartbreak. “It came out sort of outside the lust/heartbreak spectrum.” Max says, “I really like that place in a lot of music.”
“It came out sort of outside the lust/heartbreak spectrum. I really like that place in a lot of music.” – Maxmillion Dunbar
It’s not just an interesting place in music, but in life. After all, life isn’t just comprised of moments or milestones, but the bits in between – the “super simple shit” that Max referred to earlier. The album’s creative process reflected this philosophy, with most of the tracks starting life as rough jams and edited back down rather than having any particular intent behind them, or even a destination in mind. “When you make dance music, that’s sort of the beginning – the ‘dance’ of it. The drums, grooves, the dubbed out percussion and extras – and then from there I just go deep on songs to take them somewhere else.”
Of course, it’s not easy to find a creative impulse from this place. It’s not for no reason that the figure of the tortured artist still pervades today – people often have to rely on emotional extremes to create. “A lot of times I just come into the studio to have fun. I guess other people do it for release, and I can definitely vibe with that, but I mostly just like to create, see where those tunes fit in the world.” Although, he is quick to add, this isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to the dancefloor. “For a lot of 12” things, I just wanna make something that beats the club down.”
Maxmillion Dunbar – Loving The Drift
The club plays an important role in Max’s life as well as in his music. “I think the environment that dictates the most to me is the club. I guess it doesn’t seem like it at first, but like, the weird hours.” ‘House Of Woo’ is a club record for the weird hours, with both its biggest tracks (Ice Room Graffiti and the eponymous Woo) and its deeper cuts (Loving The Drift, Coins For The Canopy) drifting into strange waters. It’s something that’s reflected in his DJing, too – his DC clubnight The Whale was known for changes in energy, often dropping into ambience mid-set, whale noises filling the room. “I like to be able to take the evening all the way until the last cut.” Max says, “In Swimmers sets we do that a lot, my solo sets too – just pulling out your deep killers for the end.”
Currently, Max is readying himself for a tour in support of the album. He’s also preparing a 12” of drum tracks for release on L.I.E.S., and is working on releasing a Beautiful Swimmers album – something that’s been held up for a long time due to manufacturing problems at the pressing plant. “Whenever we break through the mess, there will be a few things at once.” One thing is for certain – the album, which is called ‘Son’ and which Max says would be “good for summer”, is bound to arrive at a time where the good vibes are at their peak.