Photography: Daniel Naylor
Jungle drum & bass might be pushing 30 these days but the pleasure of discovering an ID will forever remain timeless.
No matter on the medium, no matter on the era; that moment when you find out the artist, name and availability of tune or tunes that have been rattling around your head for weeks, months or years will always be a thrill. And this year has been a good one for anyone chasing Mark System IDs.
Often operating on one/two releases per year, this year he’s treated us to no less than four dispatches. And some of these releases can be traced back to sets from years ago. Wanna Dance on Metalheadz, for example, dates back to 2014, and His recent Soul In Motion EP has been around since at least 2019 when Mark curated a night at Sun And Bass.
This is the way Mr System operates and while it can push fans’ patience we wouldn’t have it any other way. To mark such a proliferous year we called him up to get some reflection on these strange and complex times. The conversation starts with a set that’s not quite so long ago… Alchemy at one of the very last parties in The Cause, London, where he Commix, SP and Cleveland Watkiss went IN for four whole hours…
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That set with Commix! Sheesh!
Thanks man. All credit goes to Lee, the promoter. He had the idea and knew we were friends and had similar viewpoints artistically. I can’t believe it had never happened before. We’ve written music together, but never played together. It took a third party to bring it together. That’s true promoting. What Lee is doing with Alchemy is what our scene has needed for a long time. The way techno and D&B is together on a line-up and the fact we had four hours made it special. I could play some very deep and interesting things to start with and capture the mood.
I’ve got goosebumps again! I loved the dynamism of it. It got serious ruff in places, but super deep in others.
Yeah we took it to some places and at one point I pulled it back in again so we could breathe a bit. I still love dancing. It’s really important for me to still be a raver and still be a music fan. You can’t tear it up forever. We’re all human, we all have energy levels. It’s quite surreal, but in moments like that it feels like everyone in the room is choosing the music.
We’re all choosing together where we’re going to go. George and I freestyled it, we had a bit of a plan but we also knew we’d have to leave a lot of it to the vibe of the room on the day. Yeah… I’m still buzzing about it now.
I love hearing a DJ talk like that. Doesn’t matter how long you’re doing this, you still get inspired like that.
Oh totally. I have wow moments in sets like that. Just seeing smiles on people’s faces, knowing you’re with like-minded people. Life isn’t like that all the way, is it? I go to the supermarket or walk down the street, usual day-to-day stuff and it’s all pretty mundane. Then the weekend, I play something like that, I see people and I know I share something much deeper with them. That will always be special. It’s highs and lows, isn’t it?
Highs for me are receiving Mark System releases in my inbox and we’ve had more than usual this year. Two EPs!
And two remixes. It has been a good year. I guess that’s just the way it’s fallen with the labels. The Metalheadz one, for instance, Goldie and I have been talking about since 2007. So that’s how far back it goes. Largely through my complacency to be honest. Ant TC1 can be thanked for that one – he made me pull my finger out. When they said they had a 25 years release and wanted me to be part of it, I couldn’t walk away from that. What a magical way of being part such a seminal label’s legacy.
How did you pick the tunes?
Ant wanted On Top and had been asking me about it for years. Wanna Dance had to be on there because I wrote that for a Headz Vs Exit event where they pitched a load of DJs from each label against each other. The sets were called battles but I’m not much of a battler. Like the Commix set, I prefer complementing each other and honouring the dancefloor. But on this occasion I thought I’d drop a Headz tune on DLR to throw him off.
Then a few months later, Darren pulled it on Goldie who immediately wanted it. Now this caused some difficulties – Darren and Goldie wanted it.
You understand! Originally there was talk of a joint release, which I’d have loved, but that didn’t happen. Then the 25 year anniversary release came about and it made a lot of sense of the tune to be released that way. But all that history needed to happen for the tune have such a place on the label and that release. I’m very happy about that.
I’m happy, too. That new Soul In Motion EP… I’ve been waiting for those tunes since Sun & Bass! This mix has been part of my life every week. I can still hear Cleveland Watkiss on every tune. Fabio called it voodoo. That was over two years ago and these tracks are still coming out now. You never rush anything out do you?
No I don’t. I think that’s important. It’s funny – I know it’s the music ‘business’, but I’m an artist and I like things to happen when I feel like it’s time for things to happen. Yeah, the music could come out sooner but it’s just as poignant now. Things had to have their place, and I’ve put more work into each track since I first played them. I’ve been able to test them and tweak them until I’m happy with them. I could have rushed them out and got on with more music, but that’s not who I am, I’m not prepared to rush stuff. I care too much.
I really care about our scene so much and the quality of music released in drum & bass and I’m not prepared to saturate it. Everything you hear from me is just about past the threshold, it’s just acceptable. I put so much work into it and I always want to be better than I am.
I think that’s important to encourage. The longer you put into it, the longer it lasts. It’s also testament to having your own sound…
I think so, too. And I also think that you reach a point as an artist where you’re confident enough to sound like yourself. It takes a long time. I’ve spent a long time trying to be unique, then a number of years ago I realised I wasted a lot of energy trying to be unique when I am unique anyway because there’s only one me.
At what point did you realise that?
I realised it when I was writing music for media, which is my main music job. I care about D&B so much I don’t want to rely on it for food on the table. I don’t want it to be my job because you run the risk of releasing just to pay bills. I don’t want to be forced. I’ve always thought this right from the start, even as a fan. I don’t ever want to sell out, so to speak.
But an anonymous career in media music is the opposite. I approach it with a different mindset. I’ve written tonnes of library albums. It’s very quick, functional music, it serves a purpose, it gets into people’s heads quickly. It’s everything I don’t want to do with D&B. I love doing it, and it’s helped me become a better D&B artist.
One of my mantras for years was ‘path of least resistance’. In media music things have little lead times, changes need to be done yesterday, so I got into a very quick process of writing where as soon as it’s done, it’s done. That started to creep into how I was doing D&B too, but in a good way. Media music allowed me to let go and made me realise that it can only be me because I’ve written the tune in half a day. So it was writing other music that enabled me to realise there was only one Mark System. That epiphany was about 15 years ago.
Where can we hear your media music stuff. Or is it secret?
Some of it is secret and I love that. I love the anonymity of that. But one thing UK people will be aware of is that I wrote the music for the Waitrose Christmas campaign this year. Have a listen and see if you can pick out any Mark System.
Wow I’m gonna check that. That must take the pressure off making drum & bass and keep things pure for you?
Absolutely. It’s all honest and I can sleep at night.
Haha. So one track I’m still waiting for from that mix… Celebration. I’ve messaged you about this. I can’t hear it without Cleveland singing on it.
Me too. I can hear him in my head now!
Do you think he would feature on it?
He wants to. It’s for a Sun And Bass EP and it’s through my complacency that is hasn’t happened. We’ve been planning it for years. It’s in place, but I need to go back in and tighten up all the tracks before its release. I’m hoping we can release it before the end of next year. I’ve spoken to Cleveland and would love to return to that discussion. I do love that tune though. I wrote it coming up to my birthday and it makes me smile every time I hear it. When I hear it, I don’t feel like I wrote it. It does feel like a celebration tune. And the fact Sun And Bass want it is special. Because they are a celebration of our culture.
That’s interesting regarding flow state. What are your memories when you think back of being in a flow state? For me it’s really hazy. Like you’re present but you’re not.
That’s the magic of it! Some of my tunes that turn out to be popular I don’t really remember making at all and it’s so nice to be detached from the music and not criticise or search for something else in it. But maybe that’s just time as well, because it’s been so long since I wrote these tunes.
You know I was worried you were going to leave D&B and move into house and techno for a while…
I’m a product of D&B and have been since the 90s, as a fan first then as an MC and now as an artist. I love it and care about it so much that I have to be careful I don’t saturate myself with it. I have to keep away from it a bit.
Plus I love exploring other sounds and cultures. There’s a Photek and J Dilla in every scene and finding them is exciting. When you find that person and you’re like, ‘You are an absolute genius!’ The excitement of finding that artist, exploring their catalogue and getting inspired by them is amazing.
I love D&B but I lust for other music. I write a tonne of house and techno and it’s part of the process of being a musician. A lot of concepts and ideas I have from house and techno often find a place in my D&B. That’s where I have a home, but I still need to go in and learn about other music and obsess about it.
You can hear that in Earth and Course Of Action. They are techno records just at 170.
Totally techno. I’ve always loved the techno influence in hardcore, jungle and D&B anyway. It’s jungle techno rather than techno. It’s a curse of being a D&B artist; when I’m making house and techno I’m missing something, but I know what’s causing it – it’s because I have a D&B mindset.
You hear it in other genres of music. Take jazz and classical music – they’re so technical, and so high end, but it’s often very difficult for artists in those worlds to collaborate or move between the two worlds.
Like different languages. You might be learning Spanish as you live in Ibiza but you’ll always think in English
Totally! I’m a perfectionist and had this very conversation with a friend in Ibiza. Even if you learn a language completely and speak it well, people will always tell if you’re a native speaker or not. You can’t aim for absolute fluency – people can always tell Spanish isn’t your native language. That’s a good comparison.
Nice. How do you feel about music at the moment? Do you think lockdowns had an influence?
It’s so complex isn’t it? World events have triggered such an array of emotions and artists have reacted in different ways. Some artists have had massive creative outbursts but others have probably felt a complete lack of inspiration and not been able to write anything.
I think the pandemic levelled the playing field a lot. I grew up in a scene that felt it would be hard to break into. The age of the internet opened things up a lot, but the pandemic has opened it up even more. If you’re prepared to live stream DJ then people were prepared to listen. If you’re prepared to be very open and honest on social media you’ll build an open and honest fanbase who’ll be up for seeing you when you can play live.
I didn’t utilise the streaming. It didn’t suit me. But I’ve enjoyed this wealth of breakthrough artists who’ve come through. It keeps me on my toes. And, as the years roll on, we’ll see how much the pandemic affected things and relaunched D&B in such a way.
Yeah and the new generation will guide that. They’ll pick their new headliners and their new favourite artists.
Massively. That’s the fanbase I was talking about. And going back to Alchemy – that was a great age range in the crowd. I’m sure some of the younger people there didn’t plan on checking our set and had come to see one of the younger artists there but had come in to see out of curiosity. That’s exciting.
Totally. One of you played an old Dom & Roland tune and a guy I was dancing by was buzzing. He knew the tune and was telling everyone that it was made before he was born. He was loving it just as much as the older people in the dance. I love that. I love how new fans now have 30 years to tap into and the ones who really love this music like you do or I do are devouring it and digesting all that…
Yeah! The resurgence of jungle has been really helpful, but it was inevitable this was going to happen. When I grew up, loads of us were into 70s music for the same reason. The beauty of it is you don’t get caught up in the pain or confusion of being part of a culture as it’s happening. I remember being into jungle in the 90s and lamenting the lack of 93 jungle, but at the same time embracing 96 D&B.
There are all these strange emotions that come with being a fan and living through something and the new generation haven’t got that with the older stuff. They can go back and find these mind-bendingly good tunes without any preconceptions. It’s just pure music. No one is like, ‘Oh I’ve heard this too many times before.’ And it’s beautiful because one of my worries about this culture has always been, ‘What if people miss this?’ There’s been so much good music I always worry that it’s gone too quickly but the new generation are finding it and loving it.
Yes! That’s something that no on could have predicted, too. So what would you like to see more of in 2022?
More innovation. And this is the downside of what we’re talking about it – it’s harder and harder to innovate the more established a genre is. So I’ve been working hard in that area and I’m hearing things in some people’s music which is inspiring and exciting me. So yeah, more innovation.
That’s awesome but also sad because I know these won’t be released for like another million years or something.
I’m only at the start of the ideas so maybe even longer! I’ve got a concept in my mind, but it needs to integrate into what D&B is already. Who knows when it will come out. But I promise you I’ll try and get it out sooner than 20 years time…
Mark System – SIM006 is out now on Soul In Motion
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