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Oscar Powell has been contorting the textures of techno, noise, no wave, and extreme electronic music since 2011, releasing records through his own Diagonal Records imprint as well as with his friend's labels (The Death of Rave, Liberation Technologies).
Following his electrifying 'Club Music' EP last year, Powell made a surprise move to the influential XL Recordings for his latest single, Sylvester Stallone. It's a jump that offers Powell the chance to cultivate an entirely different audience, and is one of a few exciting releases that the label have put out recently as part of a bigger shift back towards experimental yet accessible electronic music – a shift that includes the debut single from QT as well as a new EP from Novelist and Mumdance. Sylvester Stallone, is a natural continuation from Powell's work last year, its pummeling, sinister synth loops offset by thudding kick drums as a low-pitched vocal sample drones intermittently.
We caught up with the London-based producer over the phone to talk the ins and outs of his XL deal, his plans for a full-length record, and his issues with the UK's current clubbing environment.
I wanted to talk about your signing to XL, and why you feel that it’s the right label for you at this time.
Powell: "The agreement is just a single at the moment; we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. XL is XL – I used to buy loads of records from them when I was younger, when they had more of a hardcore-leaning, electronic music stance. Jonny L records, SL2, that kind of thing. And when they said that they wanted to recapture some of that spirit, it felt like, 'Cool, I love XL.' They’re brilliant. It was very much a case of 'You can do whatever you want, but we’ll help you get the music out to a wider audience.' Ultimately I want people to hear my music, so it was a no-brainer, really.
"There’s a different level of expectation when you know so many people are potentially going to hear it. I think the real challenge, creatively, is to not allow that to affect you, which is what I’m trying to learn how to do – to just carry on as before and trust in what you’re doing in the first place. It’s difficult, it’s a new experience, but it’s nice to feel outside of your comfort zone and be doing something that worries you, because that’s usually a sign that good things are happening."
Was Sylvester Stallone made with XL in mind after they approached you, or was that already fitting in with the direction you were going in?
Powell: "They came to see me and they said 'How about we do a single?', and I said 'I’ve got these few tracks that I was originally going to put on Diagonal…' I sent them to them and they said yes, without any 'What if we did this with it?' That was exactly what was in my head at the moment.
"I still want to keep my influences close to me, but I like the idea of making people see these influences that we all share and the world that it originally comes from. The friends and labels and people that I spend all my life with’s music isn’t just extreme and niche and difficult – there’s beauty and brilliance in this stuff as well. If people can start to see that, that’s a good thing for everyone.
"Also, I think doing stuff on XL helps with the rest of the people on Diagonal, because hopefully you get out to a new audience and then they come and investigate to see what’s going on in other places."
"The friends and labels and people that I spend all my life with’s music isn’t just extreme and niche and difficult – there’s beauty and brilliance in this stuff as well." – Powell
Do you feel that the '11-14' compilation last year marked a specific period of making music, and that now you’re in a different place?
Powell: "I think it’s still connected, but I definitely think I’m going into a different space. But it’s inevitable, I’m not deliberately doing it. I’m just pushing on. It was a nice way to say goodbye to that chapter and just see what happens next."
Are you thinking about making an album, or is that something that’s not interesting you at the moment?
Powell: "I am. I’m making loads of music, it’s just a case of knowing what feels like the right thing to do with it. I’m surprised at how mentally exhausting it is making tracks for something like that, as opposed to just making tracks in general. I’m trying to stay in that zone of making tracks and not worrying about the ultimate destination, because I had an album in mind and it just became something different. I think there’ll be a longer thing at some point, at the end of this year or next year."
You were saying that sometimes people think the music's difficult or challenging. There can be quite a polarising reaction to your music – it maybe evokes feelings of confusion for people, because you’re not looking at what you’re doing with a straightforward approach. Do you think that confusion is a positive or a negative reaction?
Powell: "It’s positive. I like it when I don’t fully understand things. There’s something captivating and curious about that. If you’re not confused or bewildered, then you’re going through life doing what you’re familiar with. Confusing comes as a consequence of experiencing new things. I think it’s more exciting to be outside of your comfort zone, and if you can use music to do that, I think that’s great."
"If you’re not confused or bewildered, then you’re going through life doing what you’re familiar with." – Powell
Do you feel like there’s anything missing from the club environment at the moment?
Powell: "Yeah, I think pretty much everyone agrees that the London clubbing situation is pretty shit. There’s just too much of everything, so no one really goes to anything. When you play out in somewhere like Turin, it’s their one night in two months and everyone goes. It’s a sense of community. Everything is so fragmented now, there just isn’t the same feeling anymore – it’s pretty sad. You have to go abroad.
"Then the bigger clubs are carrying on just as before. I don’t feel like there’s a hell of a lot of support for new and adventurous music in London from the bigger establishments. They almost need someone to sign to XL before they give a shit. There’s not the same sense of adventure in UK clubbing."
Do you feel that after releasing with XL, more people actually will take notice?
Powell: "I don’t know! I’m interested to see if it does mean that people are willing to give me and other people on the label a chance. There is a community around music that is trying to challenge and provoke and move things forward. Every time you play at a festival, it’s the same kind of people playing – people like Bill [Kouligas] from PAN and Lorenzo [Senni] from Presto?! in Italy. Everyone’s doing their own thing, and there is a community there, but we’re not really given the platform to show what we can do. I think it might change. I hope it will!"
"I think pretty much everyone agrees that the London clubbing situation is pretty shit. There’s just too much of everything, so no one really goes to anything." – Powell
Your last EP was called 'Club Music'. What does club music mean to you?
Powell: "For me, I think club music is an idea about what music can be played in clubs. Rather than club music being defined by genres, I think it’s an invitation to test the limits of what’s possible to get away with and still make people move about. I didn’t think my music fitted in a particular box, it just felt like an appropriate title at the time.
"Also, I like the idea of the club. I was speaking to a friend, Ben Brody, and we were talking about this DJ called Beppe Loda. He was from Italy in the '80s, and used to play everything out, like Italo through to funk and jazz – they called it Afromusic. That thing where you can just play anything in clubs is so much more freeing to me than going to the same old shit and knowing exactly what you’ll hear next."
XL Recordings released Sylvester Stallone / Smut on March 2nd 2015 (buy).