Practically part of the furniture on the landscape of British electronic music, Ed ‘DMX’ Upton established himself on the legendary Rephlex imprint, co-run by Richard D James AKA Aphex Twin and Grant Wilson-Claridge. Under his DMX Krew alias, not to mention several other names, an affinity for vintage synthesisers and analogue hardware has fuelled an outlandish and expansive sound. Alongside the long hair, sheer volume of his output and Detroit influences, that passion for analogue hardware draws comparisons with Dutch producer Legowelt, but Upton has successfully carved out an aesthetic that is very much his own. While inspirations are wide-ranging, from Kraftwerk and Miami bass to video games and the cosmos, it’s a playful jocularity that distinguishes the Londoner from his peers.
Prolific to say the least, some of Upton’s productions do have a bit of a marmite quality capable of dividing opinions. But as that saying goes, “cream rises to the top,” and browsing an extensive back catalogue, there’s plenty of that to gorge yourself on. His latest release just dropped on fledgling Irish imprint Modern Magic, so we took it as an opportunity to catch up with the veteran producer.
Your attitude towards fame, and bar the obvious financial reasons, what drives you on to keep producing music is pretty humbling. If you had to do it all again, would you go about your career any differently?
With hindsight I would’ve bought more gear when it was cheap.
“Career” makes me laugh I am just bumbling along 😉
Maybe I would’ve tried to be more selective and release a bit less, just the very very best ones instead of splurging out tracks into public all the time.
The DMX Krew back catalogue spans a tonne of different styles. As an artist who can’t really be pinned down to any specific genre, has being so versatile ever thrown up difficulties when it comes to maintaining a sustainable career?
Yes, most people aren’t concentrating on what artists are doing as much as the artist themselves, so it’s much easier to stick in people’s minds if you are “the guy that does acid” or “the guy that does electro” etc. But in the long run I think it’s served me well because artists that just do one thing over and over seem to disappear after a while or even if they don’t, I get bored of them.
It can be awkward when you turn up to a gig and the guy just knows two records you did in 1997 that you have forgotten about, that are completely different to what your doing now.
Was there ever a moment you felt inclined to stick to one genre and really make it your own?
Not until it was too late!
Sticking to a genre leads to generic music.
Your first contact with Rephlex came after requesting that the debut release on Dance Arena Productions featured your phone number on the sleeve. How do you think that would go down today? Maybe a Twitter handle is more appropriate in 2017…
Yeh obviously nobody even has a home phone any more.
Releasing music on Rephlex, did you ever feel like you were in Aphex Twin’s shadow?
No I was in his limelight. I never would’ve got the chance to release my weird music, I wouldn’t have been encouraged to be original and go my own way, I wouldn’t have got to tour around the world and do loads of amazing things, if it wasn’t for Rephlex and Aphex Twin. So quite the opposite.
On another label I would’ve probably let myself be pushed into trying to make commercial dance music and probably would’ve failed at that.
With electro beginning to emerge from the shadows once more, would you be tempted to resurrect the Breakin’ Records label?
I’m often tempted but then I remember how much I hate dealing with the music business so I prefer to just release on other labels.
More than anything I hate PR etc.
We once read a Discogs commenter describing the inaugural Breakin’ Records from yourself release as “retro-pastiche.” Any thoughts on that?
It was a tribute to Miami Bass stuff like DXJ. I don’t really like the word “pastiche” because it implies that the music is just tossed off with no genuine feeling… but I can’t really argue. It was me trying to make that kind of music absolutely sincerely, too young to think about whether I was in the wrong time & place for that to really work.
You have mentioned that the keys on Francine McGee’s ‘Feelin’ Good’ inspired you to improve as a musician. Can you recall any similarly influential tracks from your formative years?
As far as keyboard playing goes, Lonnie Liston Smith ‘Expansions’, Level 42’s first two or three albums, Bernie Worrell in Parliament, Freeez. Charles Earland ‘Murilley’ for total hammond shredding (bought a hammond after that)… my first time hearing someone playing outside the changes…
The most played record in my life is probably Kraftwerk ‘Tour De France’, also loved things like ‘The Man Machine’, and then New Order, first Pet Shop Boys album, Earth Wind & Fire, could go on and on. Basically the electronic side of commercial 80s pop, plus some soul/jazz-funk stuff.
As expected, the synth work shines through on your new release. Which pieces of kit can be heard on the EP?
You’ve obviously done your research so you already know, I didn’t buy anything much new.
Roland, Korg, SCI, Ensoniq, Kurzweil, Analogue Systems etc.
I did get an old Eventide DSP4000 which helps make some weird effects sounds.
Is spontaneity key for you when you hit the studio?
Yes, usually, as in “first take is usually best take.” Having said that, the best tunes are the ones I have in my head for a while before I get round to recording them.
Your back catalogue is staggeringly eclectic. Do you think the abundance of options available to Londoners musically over the years has made any noticeable impact on your own stylistic choices?
I dunno, I think I was just lucky to grow up in the ’80s and then be part of the very open rave scene in the early ’90s, before meeting some very knowledgeable people at Rephlex who opened my ears to a LOT of stuff. Im glad I moved to London in ’91, it was very exciting.
You have said that you used to buy studio gear based on the seller’s locality and whether it was affordable. Do you think you benefited from the restrictions that brought?
You just have to understand the world was different then, as well as objects, information was local. So it would’ve been nice to know everything and have everything available to buy then, but that wasn’t possible. On the other hand, the lack of communication kept prices low because sellers couldn’t find buyers as easily.
‘Metro 1990’ was produced with a budget Casio setup before you were even 18. Do you have anything to say to aspiring producers who feel inclined to get their hands on every VST or coveted synth possible?
It was a Yamaha actually…
No nothing to say really. I don’t need to tell anyone else how to do it. Do what works for you.
Just remember, it’s what’s between the earphones that really matters 🙂
Very much in the same vein of the best records to emerge from the American Midwest, you favour what you have described as a “slapdash” approach to producing. Would you agree that the rawness in dance music has been somewhat lost with the advancements in music technology?
Yes I agree, although sometimes I am very painstaking about things when necessary!
As an avid record collector, what’s been your preferred method to buy music in recent years?
I’m not really. I used to collect old electro and I have a lot records that I bought just because I love the music and records were the only format at the time. I don’t buy much any more, just the odd reggae re-issue usually. Sorry to be an old fart but the internet has taken all the fun out of it.
Considering you discovered new sounds via radio, illegal blues parties and everything in between, how spoiled are we now with the internet?
When everything is available and nothing is a mystery, the fun and life disappears out of the search as far as I am concerned. I hope others can find inspiration in the modern way.
We know Detroit has been a major influence over the years. Could you name three tracks from the D that have made a lasting impression?
Derrick May ‘It Is What It Is’ and all the other stuff he made 86-89, so much emotion.
Aux 88, ‘My AUX mind’ – great deep electro building on Juan’s legacy.
Drexciya’s Unknown Aqua Zone – a huge huge influence mind shattering record to hear for the first time.
Loads and loads from Juan Atkins, let’s say ‘Alleys Of Your Mind’ but aux. honours for ‘I See The Light’, ‘The Chase’, ‘Techno Music’ and many more.
And finally, is there anything else in the pipeline that we can look forward to?
Yeh a new double LP on Hypercolour, Strange Directions, a 12″ on Super Rhythm Trax, The Wiggly Worm, a 12″ on Shipwrec, and some very old tracks on a new label.
The Artificial Gravity EP is out now on Modern Magic – buy it here.