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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

S.F. Producers DJG, Dials, and Jus Wan on the Local Bass Music Scene and Their New Compilation

Posted By on Wed, Jun 29, 2011 at 8:19 AM

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There really is something in the water here. At least that's what it seems like, judging by the number of San Francisco electronic music producers touring across the Atlantic and releasing tracks on U.K. and European labels. Dubstep and bass-driven club music producers have been especially prolific, including S.F.'s Eskmo, who signed to London label Ninja Tune last year, or Comma, whose dreamy post-hip-hop album Colortronics is being praised by critics overseas.

In another coup, noted BBC radio DJ and Brownswood Recordings founder Gilles Peterson has seen fit to include no fewer than three San Francisco artists on his latest genre-smashing Brownswood Electr*c 2 compilation, out this week in the U.S. The album features 14 acts representing various bass-heavy sounds that go beyond dubstep. Selections from Bay Area producers Dean "DJG" Grenier, Noah "Dials" Bennett, and Justin "Jus Wan" Shields blend sonic artistry with dancefloor heft and embody San Francisco's diverse, post-everything electronic music scene.

Pursuing fresh formats has paid off in other ways, too. Grenier has just returned from his first European DJ tour, while Bennett departed in June to spin in Germany, Spain, and Greece. Meanwhile, Shields has been active on the production front, including new remix projects and additional tracks on Brownswood. We gathered Grenier and Shields at the Summit Café in the Mission and summoned Bennett from Athens via Skype to discuss their work and the future of San Francisco bass music.

Jus Wan/ Justin Shields (left) and DJG/ Dean Grenier
  • Jus Wan/ Justin Shields (left) and DJG/ Dean Grenier

How did you all meet each other?

DJG: I used to see Noah [Bennett -- aka Dials] everywhere. He's hard to miss and he does a lot of good work for San Francisco. He's one of a small group of people who are dedicating themselves to pushing really interesting [music] and helping people out.

Jus Wan: I have definitely heard of Noah but haven't met him because I've been kind of closeting myself at home most of the time. But I've been to some shows that he's been involved in, like his [Change the Beat] party Tuesday nights at SOM Bar.

DJG: The reason San Francisco has so many great producers is because we all know each other and support each other. I go to other cities and find that producers are very cliquey and they don't really cross-pollinate. But because San Francisco is a relatively small place, and the dubstep and bass music scene is so closeknit, we all help each other. Even guys whose music I don't necessarily like, they're my friends and we'll trade studio production tips and gear or help each other with mixes. It would be strange if Justin and I didn't know each other.

Jus Wan: [DJG] and I started writing a lot of [dubstep] music at the same time. I was working on [KUSF show] Future Breaks and going to [SF producer] Juju's club NarcoHz. Dean and I knew all the producers would be there and we'd play each other's tunes. It was really fun. It's always great when you can play a tune by someone you know.

Dials: I feel like such a new-jack compared to Dean and Justin. These guys have tons of amazing releases out and I just have my first single out. I never thought I'd be releasing music. So it's a real pleasure and honor to be around two people whose music I really admire. And after putting out this one track, things are starting to roll for me. Basically what I'm saying is I'll be over at Dean's asking him to help me with mix-downs.

Do you have any particularly memorable experiences from your recent tours?

DJG: I just came back from three weeks in Europe. It was an excellent experience. I had played London last December but this was my first European tour. It was really positive. I did a few dates in England then went to Poland, Belgium, Sweden, Holland, and Kiev, Ukraine. Kiev was very post-Communist and a very bugged-out place! It was my favorite gig of the tour. In London I met with the Brownswood guys and actually got to listen to the comp for the first time.

Dials: I'm at an Internet cafe in Athens, Greece. Outside in the streets there's a riot going on, literally, over the economic situation. Other than that I had an amazing show at the Lucky Me showcase for SONAR in Barcelona with Hudson Mowhake, Lando Kal, Mahcinedrum; it was packed with people and the club had a rotating dancefloor!

Jus Wan: In the past I've DJed in New York, Chicago, and Denver a few times but other than that I haven't toured. I play maybe one or two gigs a year here but I've never really been a serious DJ in that way. But I just got back from two months traveling in Argentina and Peru. It wasn't music-related at all. I needed to travel and be in the mountains. I feel a lot more inspired about everything in my life now than before. I don't know what that will mean for my music, but we'll see.

How did the Brownswood label guys find you?

Jus Wan: I just got an e-mail randomly from this [Gilles label partner] Alexander [Stevenson] who asked me if I wanted to release a track on their first Brownswood Electr*c comp. I sent them a bunch of tunes and they wanted to release "Miles Away" then but I guess for whatever reason it didn't make it on to that edition. They still had it for the second one.

DJG: I did an interview and a guest DJ mix for a guy named Oli Marlow, who runs Sonic Router blog. I think he and Alex from Brownswood were friends or working in the same office. Before that I had communicated with a guy named Tom at [the label and club] Fabric in London. He and Alex also work together. So they probably all trade tunes or are in the same office, so the word gets around.

What inspired the songs that each of you contributed to this compilation?

DJG: "Automatic" came about as a result of one of these lucky days in the studio where you just sit down and the tune just builds itself and you're just witnessing it. You just do what you can to get out of the way and not think too much. At the end of 2010 I was frustrated and really confused and unsure of where to go with dubstep and bass music in general. I wasn't feeling what dubstep had turned into. I was questioning what my sound was. I just missed intricate drums and beats that had a bit of a swing and something interesting going on.

I hadn't written any music in months, and that was the first thing I came up with. "Automatic" was like this portal into a certain sound that I have continued developing. I've slowed the [beats-per-minute] range I work with down quite a bit. "Automatic" is about 136 b.p.m. If I made it again today it would probably be about 130. It was definitely a turning point for me, it was a catalyst. It was like, okay, "I still have something to say ..." I think Justin was feeling a similar thing towards the music at this time too.

Jus Wan: It would be putting it mildly to say that I've also been as frustrated with the direction of dubstep music and bass music in general. That's haunted me forever really. I had a good year when I first started; I was really inspired and cranking tunes out and not really thinking about too much about it. But since then I'll write a tune and get really excited about it and within a month I'll listen back and think "this tune is terrible, I should have never sent it to anyone!"

DJG: It's a shame spiral Justin!

Jus Wan: Right now if I tried to write music I'm not really sure what I would do. I feel pretty out of touch with everything going on. I don't feel too inspired by anything in dubstep or bass. The [music] feels kind of ephemeral right now, like nobody knows what they're going for. It's sounding like, "Just do some weird shit and as long as it doesn't sound like any thing else it's great!" It's hard for me to get inspired by that.

I have been getting back into the [early and mid-'00s] West London broken beat tracks. I have piles of those records in my house that I started to listen to again and I really like it more than the dubstep tracks I've been hearing the last few years. I don't think I'm actually capable of writing [broken beat] music because it's very jazz-based with a lot of instrumentation. But I like it; it's inspiring.

DJG: You wrote "Miles Away" around the time we were both messing with 170 [b.p.m.] stuff, right, Justin? It's a like a new minimal approach to writing drum 'n' bass music that [UK producer] D-bridge and some other artists were pushing. Both Justin and I became interested in that sound and we both did a couple of tunes [in that style]. I did a 12" for a label called Warm Communications with two of my songs and a Consequence remix.

Jus Wan: Yeah, around that time. My track for the Brownswood comp started with a chopped up break in it. I had Dean help me with the bass tuning a bit. The synth patches in the song on the Brownswood comp are probably the most intricate I've ever created, with tons of filters and side-chained effects. But I always felt like my tracks sound not focused enough. Like if you listen to DJG's songs they sound so perfectly chiseled and every sound is distinct. There's not a lot of noise in between the instruments; they're so clean.

Dials: I've been writing music since I was 14, about a year after I got my turntables, but I never had a reason to finish anything. I'd always make loops. I used to make mash-ups. I have tons of unfinished songs. But I made "Pillowforts" for the Brownswood compilation and enough people told me it was done, so I guess it was done.

DJG: Noah, a lot of people I've talked to are surprised by the substance of the track and the kind of personal feelings it conveys. Did you take a different approach to it compared to your edits and loops?

Dials: I think that that after DJing clubs for 13 years I really want to make a band. I remember for a long time trying to make dubstep songs and they wereen't sincere at all. It didn't work for me. Before that, in the early 2000s, I was really into folky electronica. I'm really trying to write something that is sincere, because I'm more interested in art than just club tracks. I play a lot of that music but when it comes to my own stuff I just can't make a bangin' dubstep song, it's just not me. I made a mash-up of the Kurtis Blow [Corrected: Grandmaster Melle Mel] song "White Lines" for this gig I played in Barcelona and it totally blew up. But [making tracks like that] gets old to me after a while. It's more interesting to do what comes natural.

Three out of the 14 artists on this compilation are from San Francisco. Do you feel that's reflective of how influential local producers are right now?

DJG: Man it should have been 100 percent! No, I think it's really cool. The tracks by the S.F. artists are three really great tunes and they belong on there -- we just happen to all live in the same place. There are great producers from New York, too, like Machinedrum, Sepalcure, and Falty DL. But, yeah, on the whole I would agree, it's ripe out here. It's a beautiful place to live, there's a lot of people to be inspired by. If you like going out there's things to do; or you can be like me and Justin and just hide at home!

Jus Wan: Producerwise I feel like we have a lot of diversity and we're all doing our own thing. But as far as the clubs, I agree. That was a big reason I could never get super into the dubstep scene. I didn't feel like I had a lot of outlets for what I was doing. I'd get booked once or twice a year at the more open-minded club nights. Everything else felt very formulaic. The first year or so [that dubstep became popular in San Francisco] was awesome; everyone was really new to it and into the sound. Everyone would be playing different stuff all the time. But it seemed like it cohered into this bro-step, wobblefest ...

DJG: I think what we have here is better than nothing. We have people like [Icee Hot promoter] Shawn Reynaldo and Noah throwing these forward-thinking parties. If I give my tunes to people in the city, they're very supportive. But if I'm playing tunes in the club in San Francisco I don't feel exactly like I can do whatever I want. People just like to party here.

Dials: To me, Dean's music is more dark, and I think my music is like that also. The same thing with Justin too. I guess we all make more DJ-centric stuff that some people in the States don't really get but people in the U.K. kind of feel. We all listen to similar stuff too. We're all junglists! And we all like old house music. So that's how we're similar.

What releases or events are you working on right now?

DJG: I don't want to say the "A" word, but I am working on a "large body of music." I am in talks with a number of people to release it but nothing is scheduled. Ultimately, I need to know what I am working with because I'm trying to expand what I do. I've spent the last few years as this producer making 12" singles for the dancefloor and it was a simple equation: You write a tune, give it to these people, get it signed to these labels, get it played on these radio stations ... I'm trying to get out of that and exist in a freeform music space where it's just ideas and creativity. I have a lot of tracks and we'll see what comes out of it. I'm not interested in releasing many singles for a while. For Americans, underground 12" DJ culture isn't going to drive your career, you need an album. So that's what I'm focused on.

Jus Wan: I have had some remix projects come up this year. One is for an artist called DFRNT. I was not really sure about it at first because I wasn't writing a lot of music, but I decided to go for it and just see if I could get inspired. And it totally worked out that way, and I got the bug again and wrote three more tunes shortly after that. That remix should be coming out sometime soon.

Dials: I'm trying to challenge myself to write in different genres of music. A lot of it is based on what I'm listening to at the time. I don't think I could ever write one particular style of music. I've tried but I get bored.

DJG: Hey, Noah, we need gigs when you get back, man!

Dials: That's the only reason anyone likes me.

What are your interests outside of music?

Jus Wan: Traveling, spending time in the mountains, climbing peaks and rocks. I also surf a lot. I surf at Montara beach and Linda Mar near Pacifica, which is kind of like the local dive bar of surf spots. [The waves are] rarely great, but it's close. I also do system admin stuff for a web company, so that takes up a good amount of time too.

DJG: I do a little graphic design work on the side. I've never done the music thing 100 percent. I have a background in art and photography. Since returning from Europe I've been inspired to bring the camera back out. I also like going for hikes and walks and being out in nature.

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