Doubleheart interview: "Outsider music aimed at the dancefloor." JD Twitch and Neil Landstrumm talk to Dummy about their hypnotic new EP and how it was inspired by Arthur Russell, Michael Smith and other underdogs.
This week sees the release of ‘Roots’, the third instalment of the JD Twitch and Neil Landstrumm’s collaborative project Doubleheart, on the brand new Glaswegian label High Sheen. Having limited their physical output to only a handful of tracks since they started working together in 2010 – on the ‘Salsa Apocalypto’ 12” on Nonplus in 2011 and the ‘Roca EP’ on Shipwrec a year later – ‘Roots’ is not only much anticipated but also their most fully realised and commanding work to date. Having carved out pretty remarkable solo careers through Glaswegian duo Optimo, and as one of the UK’s most forward-thinking producers, Twitch and Landstrumm sought to pull together a plethora of influences and experiences to create the hypnotic, synth-led march through Jamaican dub and acid house that is ‘Roots’.
To mark the release I caught up with them for an exclusive interview, and a few things struck me whilst speaking to the pair. First off, Twitch and Landstrumm are super friendly. Conversation ran thick and fast, swerving off into anecdotes and back again with the pace that only friends who finish each others’ sentences can share. They also love to talk about music in a way that I find refreshing coming from two seasoned veterans and having delved into the process that led to ‘Roots’, their enthusiasm for working towards new sounds of their own is matched only by (and relies heavily upon) their enthusiasm for the old. It’s clear that they find themselves as at home in a second hand record shop, sifting through crates in a bid to find that perfect sample, as much as when they’re building that next track in the studio.
It’s this enthusiasm that makes their collaboration feel much more personal than others I’ve encountered too. Doubleheart only came to light after nearly two decades of mutual acquaintance and a genuine admiration for each others work, and even then, there was no imperative to create something for public consumption. The studio time in the beginning was ad hoc, born of curiosity rather than a game plan, and the affable way that they discuss the process is testament to the playful quality that makes ‘Roots’ what it is; a reflection of their mutual tastes and an evident passion to remain innovative.
What inspired you to work together as Doubleheart?
JD Twitch: We’ve known each other for nearly twenty years now so when Neil suggested I come through to his studio in Edinburgh and try working together, it seemed like a good opportunity to try out something different. We didn’t go into it with any thoughts of where it might go – I thought we’d probably try to do one track together and leave it there – but we both enjoyed the initial experience, carried on working and before we knew it we had quite a large body of work completed.
Neil Landstrumm: I’ve always respected Keith’s choice of music and skills as a selector so he was a character I just knew would make for an interesting collaboration. Both Keith and Andy Brainstorm gave me an excellent musical education through the Pure nights and the guests they booked were very inspiring from a live hardware performance viewpoint. I’ve got a pretty well equipped studio and we used many pieces of original analogue gear to carve out the Doubleheart sound, which I feel is an amalgamation of our individual tastes. It’s very broad but we meet on mutual ground somewhere around early Mute records, Jamaican dub, acid house and the early 90s rave period. That’s a rich ground to draw inspiration from.
JD Twitch: Yeah, we spent as much of our time together shooting the breeze, putting the world to rights and listening to early Mute Records 7“s as we did tweaking synthesisers, which generally made for a really good working day!
“I wanted there to be a slightly euphoric orchestral rave feel to some of the melodies but then other tracks were very abstract and hypnotic; thundering, deep basslines with the occasional wailing siren” – Neil Landstrumm
How would you describe the Doubleheart sound?
Neil Landstrumm: I wanted to use the analogue synths, drum machines and new studio outboard equipment to their best advantage and achieve a multi-textured sound; where the Jupiter 8 and 6 were stacked on top of each other playing transposed sequences. I seem to default to ‘dark’ most of the time so there is a heavy, moody element, but it’s done in a very hypnotic and ethereal way I think. Keith provided many of the found sounds – samples, Afro and Cumbia beats and and all the vocoded elements – which we hit on fairly early on as being a signature for Doubleheart.
I wanted there to be a slightly euphoric orchestral rave feel to some of the melodies but then other tracks were very abstract and hypnotic; thundering, deep basslines with the occasional wailing siren, which help lock the music to those syncopated 808 Latin rhythms. We also brought in Heather Craig for vocals on a couple of the tracks and Scott from Sons and Daughters for guitar, which I think gives the project a wider sound too.
This is your third collaborative release in almost as many years. As collaborations of this nature seem to be fairly one-off affairs more often than not, what spurred on such a flurry of creativity and what still attracts you to working with one another?
JD Twitch: All three releases were born out of a relatively intense period of collaboration. I would travel through to the studio a couple of times a month over the course of a year to work on the material. We haven’t actually recorded together for several months now due to being busy on other projects, but we’re aiming to reconvene shortly to see if we can work out how to do a live set. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed collaborating, particularly as I spend an inordinate amount of time in the studio alone. Working with someone else can be incredibly refreshing and it’s great for breaking out of one’s usual working methodology.
Neil works at a lightening pace as well so we’d always have a track more or less finished after each day working together. That was quite a revelation for me, though sadly it hasn’t made much difference to the glacial pace I work when I’m doing music on my own [laughs]. For me the continuing attraction is that Neil is very easy to work with. He’s open to trying out anything and is a total hardware guru. Working with someone else when you are only using software is not that interesting to me, but working with machines definitely is.
The EP itself is a fantastic release. I feel it’s the darkest of your Doubleheart work so far. Neil’s work in particular is focused on drawing out these moodier elements of past styles, which I’m sure is something that’s been oft-noted of him. How do you feel Doubleheart is evolving in this respect – to the heavier, more visceral elements?
“Darker music always seems to date less. I’ve always liked tracks with a bit of muscle and power. I’m not one for that trendy, weak, throwaway fluff.” – Neil Landstrumm
Neil Landstrumm: I think the slower tempos we chose to start the tracks with help give the Doubleheart tracks the heaviness you describe. That and the massive low end of the Jupiter 8 and OSCar processed though quality valve outboard EQ’s and broadcast limiters. Darker music always seems to date less. I’ve always liked tracks with a bit of muscle and power. I’m not one for that trendy, weak, throwaway fluff.
For me, collaborations are always about the vibe you get in the studio between the people, the decisions you make in the process of building a track and how ruthless you are. I tended to build loads of hooks, beats and basslines and Keith was great at culling out the chaff and picking ‘The One’ that worked within a songs structure. Once we had that rolling it seemed easy to get the track done and throw in what we needed round that skeleton. ‘Visceral’ is definitely an adjective I’ll have in the back of my mind though!
“I’m always drawn to outsiders who have their own unique vision and aren’t really trying to fit in…yet I play music primarily aimed at the dancefloor. [Arthur Russell] could move from one to the other very easily. It was all just music to him.” – JD Twitch
A major thematic element of the new EP is the Michael Smith poem Roots, which the title track takes its name from. You have both spoken of your love for Jamaican music but what in particular drew you to Smith, and how do you feel it has a kinship to your work?
JD Twitch: I first heard Michael Smith perform on some long forgotten music programme on BBC 2 around the time I was really falling in love with Jamaican music. It was one of those lightning bolt musical moments where I was completely transfixed by the power of his words and the sound of his voice. He was troubled by the state of the world and those who control it, and wanted to express that through his poetry.
I’ve always felt a kinship with artists who are prepared to stand up for what they believe in, although sadly in his case he paid the ultimate price for that [Smith was assassinated by political opponents associated with the right-wing Jamaican Labour Party in Kingston, Jamaica, aged just 29]. As far as the influence of Jamaican music in general goes, even if I’m working on music with no relation to it, it’s always there lurking. The migration of Jamaicans to the UK has been – in my opinion anyway – the single most important factor in why this country has produced so much unique music over the last few decades.
Michael Smith – Roots
Neil Landstrumm: Yeah, it was mostly Keith on this one. He brought the recording of the poem into the studio and it just fitted with the 8-bar loops I had set up for his visit. Keith had abstracted and processed the recording with his vocoder, and once it was fitted into the rhythm it just sat superbly. Nine times out of 10 that type of thing doesn’t work, but this one just did. I’ve always taken production cues from dub music over the years… those steely snares and warm production are perennially inspirational.
I’ve always been into heavy sub-bass textures since the early 90s Sheffield sound, and I’ve referenced it in my releases many times. I like the no-fuss DIY approach to dub production in making something huge from very little equipment. Much of modern dance music owes a huge debt to those production pioneers. The ‘Roots’ energy rises and falls in response to the poem’s flow peaking just after the break down. It just.. fits.
“Generally I don’t listen to lyrics as 99% of songs aren’t really saying anything of worth” – JD Twitch
Optimo Music released Peter Zummo – ‘Zummo With An X’ last summer, which continued the Optimo love affair with Arthur Russell. There seems an evident thread pulled through the Optimo and Doubleheart projects of a wider cultural awareness of the radical figure and your own particular style of production work and work ethos. Would you agree with this, and what draws you to such figures?
JD Twitch: I’m always drawn to outsiders who have their own unique vision and aren’t really trying fit in to the general scheme of things. I’ve always been as interested in what might be referred to as ‘outsider music’, yet I play music aimed at primarily at the dance floor. I think that was one of the reasons I was so drawn to Arthur Russell, as he could move from one to the other very easily. It was all just music to him.
Generally I don’t listen to lyrics as 99% of songs aren’t really saying anything of worth so when someone does have something to say, I’m all ears. This was definitely the case with Michael Smith. His words are as powerful as his delivery. The media, and thus most people in general, want to able to put artists into neat, little, easily identifiable boxes and if they can’t, these artists are often misrepresented or misunderstood… but that’s always better that than being generic I guess.
Neil Landstrumm: I actually aim to be an outsider; the underdog type on the fringes of many scenes rather than directly in the centre of one. I think you survive longer that way as an artist. Avant garde is a term that has been applied to quite a few of my LPs and 12” but it’s just the way my ear is set. Who wants to sound like every one else anyway? [laughs] Being independent and ahead of the game is more desirable.
You both strike me as producers who are keenly aware of the curatorial aspects of labels, and how tied together your work and the aesthetic of a label are. What attracted you as Doubleheart to High Sheen, and what of High Sheen speaks to the project and its vision?
JD Twitch: I was initially determined to release ‘Roots’ myself but the High Sheen guys persuaded me with their sheer force of enthusiasm to let them put it out. I felt they’d put more energy into promoting it than I would have and as I already knew them, I knew I could go round their houses and harangue them if they screwed it up [laughs]. More importantly for me was the fact that High Sheen are local label. Glasgow has one of the best club scenes in the world but there has always been a limited number of outlets for local music, so I was excited that there was this new label with tons of energy, ideas and a strong design aesthetic.
Neil Landstrumm: Being on the right label is extremely important and I’m really very happy with the way it’s all come together… especially with the artwork, which has turned out beautifully. I think it’s important to support local labels and artists and I’m all for releasing my projects via Scottish labels. I’m proud of coming from Edinburgh and have plenty of reasons to support Glasgow, so Doubleheart is in a good place with High Sheen. I look forward to seeing what the label releases next.