Features
03.02.2010, Words by Charlie Jones

Ewan Pearson interview: “A rather horrid thing to say to an enthusiastic 16-year-old.”

Me and Mikael, the photographer whose portrait is to the right, met up with EWAN PEARSON and his press person Katie at 4 o’clock last Monday. We went to Canteen in Spitalfields, me and Mikael drank tea; Ewan, still water, Katie a fruit juice.

Here are some reasons why he is both an incredibly interesting and important person –

  • His work as a producer, remixer and DJ is of very high quality and, though grounded in Panorama Bar-style techno and house, respects no genre whatsoever.
  • He moved to Berlin six years ago, and while his work under various aliases, as part of Partial Arts, and his remixes (collected on Soma’s compilation), clearly mark him as a truly naturalised Berlin DJ (sophisticated, precise, etc etc) there is something of the British respect for melody and quick rush to his work.
  • He is a published academic and cultural studies student of some merit, which is relevant because his work is both high highly literate – his mixes spans styles and times easily – and incredibly instinctual, humane even – his production of M83 is dazzling in its warm simplicity.
  • He produces work under his own name, which is indicative of certain, and rare, humility. His sets are not punishing but enlivening, his remixes work instinctively with the artist and his production places you, the listener, at the centre of the experience.
  • Though this doesn’t make him a more important person, he is a really nice interviewee and excellent company.
  • He has a new mix CD on Kompakt, excellently titled ‘We Are Proud Of Our Choices,’ and it comes on the heels of a sterling job producing Delphic’s new album, so he is really thoroughly relevant.

Hi Ewan! So, you got here OK?

Yeah, there was some warning about snow that never arrived. It was minus 16 when I left yesterday. Really cold, proper cold.

Yeah, it’s strange … after about minus 10, the cold has the weirdest feeling.

Yeah, it’s just a gradual numbing of any exposed skin.

Yeah.

Well, to be honest the last few years have been a little bit less harsh. The first year I moved there it was minus 18, minus 20. There’s always snow, but they’ve been pretty mild.

I heard something interesting during a Simon Reynolds lecture about the effect of weather on dance music – like, a particularly warm spell will produce more languid music, and a cold snap will means there’s loads more jump-y 12”s out.

That’s funny. There was always that suggestion that there was something religious about the colder, protestant Northern European countries … but now that I think about it doesn’t pan out – the Scottish were always about more hi-NRG music, and have always gone mad for that frantic Eurodisco – not in a gay club context. And their rave records have always been five or six beats per minute faster than everybody else’s. Maybe they have to dance faster to keep warm.

Geographically, your music’s very interesting. I’ve always thought of your productions and even your DJing as something of a synthesis of the English and the German attitudes towards techno.

When I moved to Berlin, people were like “Did you move there for the music?” and I’ve have to say that I didn’t – a lot of the dance music from Germany that I liked was from the west, like Cologne for Kompakt, and Krautrock was more the Ruhr valley in between Cologne and Dusseldorf, and when it comes to House, I’m much more interested in Frankfurt and that early ravey warehouse techno, so I was never a massive fan of Berlin music. I don’t think you can be interested in Electronic music and not be interested in Germany. It’s Germany and Northern America. But I suppose the UK took it on very early, with all the old Northern Soul fans.

Something Joe Goddard mentioned was the way that most British techno has this bass, this wobble about it, even if it’s outside of the whole Garage/Jungle continuum.

That’s definitely the case I think. If you go back to Sheffield stuff, the earliest British techno, it was just speaker destroying. I suppose it’s our postcolonial nation – we’re a complete mongrel bunch. It’s one of the things I like most about the British culture is our habit of appropriating lots of different styles and habits. I grew up near Birmingham and that had of Network Records, one of the first labels to distribute Detroit Techno. I used to drag my friends to this club when we were in sixth form, and I would drive so my friends would have to come along, and they would play all that Bleep stuff. That always struck me as an interesting parallel – the industrial centres of America making this music that was picked up by Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham, the industrial centres of England. It’s always interesting plotting geographical things – and again, this music is taken up in the industrial heartland of Germany.

It is interesting, isn’t it? That this music that is always construsted as futuristic and alien is actually a native thing, relating specifically to a certain environment with certain sounds.

And now that imagery, that idea of the promotion of the future already has an old-fashioned tone! I’ve no idea where we are now.

Ah, the Post-Future world, eh? But that’s actually one of the things that’s so striking about your mixes, that way they jump seamlessly between time periods. Is that a purposeful?

No … It’s that I’m a really bad purist. I’ve always appreciated purists, but … I wouldn’t know where to begin, I wouldn’t know where to start. I appreciate that monomaniac tendency, those people who plough one furrow and see how far one road will take them, but I’ve always been curious about everything. My head of year at sixth form once told me “Don’t be a jack of all trades and a master of none.” Which was a rather horrid thing to say to an enthusiastic 16 year old. My brain is a bit more magpie. I just get excited about stuff. And with mixes, I like the ones that have a narrative, the ones that shift. And sometimes my brain works in odd ways, and connects stuff in strange ways. Like I pick the next record because the sound or a particular element is similar, rather than it being in the same niche. Now that I play off CDs, you can be a lot more precise.

I really liked that thing that you brushed in the blurb about the mix CD as a dying art. Could you expand on that?

Yeah, I suppose it’s that narrative thing that I mentioned earlier. You do have a 70 minute window to tell that story, with a CD you don’t just have to go for the incessant boom, you get a chance to make something that can be a bit more linear than a club mix would be. My favourite mixes would be things like Michael Mayer’s Fabric CD or DJ Koze’s ‘All People Is My Friends’ mix for Kompakt.

It’s an absolutely wonderful mix, isn’t?

It’s just wonderful, absolutely. The moods that it makes you feel and takes you through … and to be able to do that and to make it make sense … Brilliant. [With mine] there is a certain Kompakt sensibility if such a thing exists, whether you take it down the poppier route or the more trance-y route even. I mean, it’s a challenge because there’s no way you could sum up your musical journey in a 70-minute mix. I could of done three or four mix CDs, which Kompakt told me under no uncertain terms wasn’t going to happen. I did suggest it at one point – I saw Will Saul had done a triple CD mix, but Jon [one of Kompakt’s bosses] just said, “Don’t even think about it.” [Laughs] But it’s good to be disciplined.

I really like the name [‘We Are Proud Of Our Choices’]. It’s a really good name.

Oh, great. I agonised over it. I agonised over everything to do with the CD, actually.

Do you agonise a great deal, in general?

Well, yeah, various people gently take the piss out of me for that. Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, I just did an edit for them and sent an email a few days later saying “I just have some tweaks …” and Ben said, “That’s fine. I thought you might …” He just expects me to be working up to the last minute. In fact, generally, I’m working up to the last minute. You just have to gently take me aside and take the records out of my hands… But with the name, yeah, it’s a very hard thing to do. It’s actually a line from a socialist youth hymn. I was reading a book by this guy called G. A. Cohen who died last year actually– he’s a philosopher, a Canadian philosopher, from a very hardcore Jewish socialist Montreal family, and he always got sent to socialist youth camps. And he quotes in this book, which is essentially a philosophy book but also has these really nice autobiographical details. So at the start of the chapters he has these lines from the hymns, and one of them, We Are Proud Of Our Choices went onto my list of possibles, and in the end, it was the only one that had legs. It could relate to the act of putting together a CD, but you could also abstract it out to encompass … it’s nice to make something positive-sounding. And the idea … that we are the sum of the million choices we make everyday, whether it’s the music we listen to or how we choose to deal with people, right down to the minutia of everyday existence. That’s the way I like to think.

One of the things that I like about your production is that it feels affirmatively against the faceless, disembodied presentation of Techno. Rather, it feels rooted in the everyday, individual, personal stuff you were talking about.

Yeah. When I started it was all about using pseudonyms and anonymity was often invoked. When I first started making tracks I must have put them out under five different names, and I quite liked that people didn’t make the connection that these were different sides of the same person. But after while, I started to want people to join the dots, and I decided to stop using psuedonyms, and work under my own name. So my remix compilation for Soma was the first that pulled everything together and I gave it my name, and it wasn’t that common for people to use their full, first and family, name. It was very much an earnest, singer-songwriter thing to do – “this is me!” – rather than something from our world, where people create an outlandish persona for their projects. It’s quite useful to have everything collected under one name actually! I’ve been saying for years that I’ll be doing something solo this year. Everything that I’ve made in the last few years has been collaborative actually.

Do you like working collaboratively?

I did the solo thing for a few years, but it’s one of the reasons I like doing remixes actually. It may not be a direct collaboration, but there’s an implicit collaboration. You know, I can’t sing, I’m not a multi-instrumentalist, and when you work by yourself you are constantly trying to trick yourself into working differently, constantly trying to surprise yourself with new ways of thinking, whereas I find the easiest way to not get bored is simply to work with other people, because they’ll constantly surprise you, and think of things you would have never thought of. That’s why I like remixing, and with the Partial Arts thing, my project with Al Usher, it’s really interesting because we think in very differently, but in really complimentary ways – he’s always trying to make things more complicated and I’m always trying to simplify it. Like if something starts with me, he’ll put four chord changes in there, or if he starts something, I come in and pull the four competing bass-lines into something that makes sense. And production! Production, of course, is all about compromise and collaboration. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned notion but I’m happy to be a producer whose albums all sound very different rather than stamping my “sound” on it. I mean, the Delphic album which is out now and the Tracey Thorn album – you couldn’t get two records that sounded more different – the Delphic record is so dense, and shiny and epic, and the Tracey album is so stark and stripped and dry. When I produce something, actually, I just try to block out new stuff.

I read something you wrote about wanting to limit the amount of music made.

Yeah, that’s one of Eno’s ideas from the early 90s – that music should basically stop for six months to give us all a chance to keep up. And that was nearly 20 years ago, imagine what it’s like now, the sheer weight of it all. There is this barrage of sheer, deadening mediocrity. So much of it, it’s unbelievable. I mean, you must have it too, being a journalist.

Jesus, yeah. You know, I always wonder how many years worth of music are made in any given year. Like, how long would it take to listen to every single piece of music which we are supposed to listen to?

Every week I get sent between 100 and 150 links to tunes to wade through to find the amazing ones. And there’s a lot of muck you’ve got to wade through to find the brass.

What a weird job.

Yeah… It is a weird job. I used to be a really pretty geeky kid and … [To Katie, his press person] You look so unsurprised! [Laughs] “Really Ewan, you don’t say? Geeky? Wow, what a shock!” [we laugh]. So yes, my mum had to stand over and force me to go to the school disco when I was 10, and I’d just be so uninterested and want to stay in and read books. She always reminds me that now I make my living playing discos.

What’s your favourite fizzy drink?

I don’t drink them! So nothing! I had to quit fizzy drinks. I mean, it’s Coke – my favourite fizzy drink is Coke, but I just can’t drink it anymore. It’s a producing thing – you’re working sometimes 18, 19 hours a day and you just need crap to keep going. So you come out of the studio having destroyed your body. Now I just need to keep an eye on what I eat and drink. When I was recording the Rapture album in New York I was just living of bags of crisps, sweets and cans of coke.

Wow. Ewan Pearson’s all-night cola benders.

Yeah. My wilderness years.

His CD, ‘We Are Proud Of Our Choices’, is out on February the 15th.

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