Photography: Chelone Wolf
Since making waves with his highly anticipated The Mirrored River remix which shattered dancefloors as a dub, Grey Code has become a staple on Metalheadz. After a series of singles and EP’s, he’s due to release his debut LP, Renewal, on Headz in January 2022.
Rather than signifying a milestone in his musical career like many debut albums, Renewal showcases Spencer Warren‘s growth as a producer. He shows off his ability to give synthetic sounds a human groove as the album draws on influences from outside of drum and bass and adds a fresh touch to the Metalheadz discography. Fans of his previous output on the label will be pleased to hear that the album carries the torch with a cinematic and dramatic feel, but also hints at a more stripped-back and tighter sound that we can expect from Warren going forward.
In anticipation of the first sampler out December 3, we spoke to Grey Code about all things Renewal.
Where did the idea for an album come from?
I produced Illiad, which is the last track on the album, back in 2018 and sent it to Goldie. It’s seven minutes long with a long ambient intro which then goes into dnb. He said, “You’ve got to keep that for the album.” At that point I hadn’t even had my first Headz release and thought that there was no way I was going to do an album, but he planted the seed. That was the first song I wrote for it, which became the closing track. It’s worked out really nicely.
That’s very fitting. Did you think Goldie was joking when he mentioned the album?
I had no idea [laughs]. I was quite taken aback, it was the first time I had spoken to him on the phone. That was the first tune which got the infamous Goldie phone call.
Not a bad story… Are there any other tracks that stand out for you?
I wrote Prima in the summer of 2019 after being told that I was playing at Outlook that year. I’d just graduated from uni and felt quite free. I was thinking about what I’d like to hear on the main stage and just heard the bassline in my head, so I wrote it and it was made for that occasion. It was perfect. Making a song specifically for that purpose and then getting to play it at Outlook was amazing. I opened my set with Prima and closed it with Illiad before I’d written a lot of the tunes on the album, so I set the parameters in Croatia and filled everything in after without realising it.
Is Outlook the reason that they’re the opening and closing tunes on the LP?
Yeah, I wanted to pay my dues to those songs. It’s important to put that weight of confidence behind those tracks, even though Illiad was quite old by then.
Releasing on Metalheadz is quite a big deal when you think about the artists who’ve featured on the label in the past, especially when it’s an album. Did you feel any pressure whilst writing it?
I don’t think so. One of the best things about the album is that I started writing the main body of it once I already had a couple of releases on the label. I felt at home because I didn’t need to prove anything, it was like I already made my own little space on Metalheadz. I didn’t feel like I’d be compared to anyone else, which allowed me to do what I want and I think that resulted in better music because I didn’t overthink it. When you compare it to other albums released on Headz in the past, it’s very different. There are tunes that I wouldn’t consider to be a Headz track, but because they’re part of the album they make sense.
So you’re contributing towards evolving the Headz sound.
Yeah, exactly. I’ve been lucky enough to have Goldie and Ant’s blessings, so I had free reign over everything.
Did you approach the music any differently to what you’ve done before?
Not really. There are songs on the album that I wouldn’t have considered sending to Headz in the past. Before, I assumed my album would be more Headz-y in how it sounded but now it’s just me.
It got to the point where I had five unreleased tracks and that was when I started thinking about doing an album. The way that I work is that I write a song and send it to a label straight away. It motivates me because I feel like I’ve completed a task.
Like a sense of achievement.
Yeah, a bit of dopamine [laughs]. It took a long time to make all of the songs because the direction of the album kept changing depending on how I felt at the time and I kept on making new music for it. It’s got some earlier tracks from around 2018 and then I finished it in lockdown in 2020. It’s been done for a while but I wanted to release it when clubs were open [in the UK]. It seems like the perfect time now.
Was that just so the music could be played in clubs?
Yeah, there’s been some big club traction from one of the tracks, Actress.
I was going to mention Actress. What’s it like seeing something that was written in isolation being played in the complete opposite environment?
I love it, it’s so good. The best part about drum and bass is the reaction it gets in clubs. The music isn’t the same without the togetherness and emotions it brings out of people. That’s absolutely my favourite bit. When I was listening to dnb before I started going out, I didn’t understand it as much as I do now. When you hear something at a party that you wouldn’t have liked before but you end up loving, it’s so special and such a nice thing to bring to people.
You’re allowing people to listen to it in the environment it was intended for.
I was making it and thinking that it’s going to be good when the clubs open. I have friends that I send the initial ideas for tracks to and they were like “Oo yeah, this is so sick.” That would give me the motivation to finish it off.
It must be amazing to see it all come together so naturally. When you started writing music, was this how you imagined the album coming together?
Not really. It’s not a concept album and wasn’t made with a certain vision in mind. I always wanted to make an album once I felt like I was “there”, once I’d found my sound. But I was happy for it to showcase how my sound has changed over the years. I’m glad it came together over a longer period rather than a few months. It’s allowed different sides of me to come out and I’m really happy with it.
You hear stories of people losing their soul over an album. Either not having the tunes fit together or just feeling the pressure of writing a larger body of work.
Well, it’s been so long since I finished the album that I’ve probably forgotten about the times where I found it difficult [laughs]. I can look back at it with rose tinted glasses and think about doing another one.
I guess that’s not on the cards for a while, you can just enjoy this feeling.
Now that it’s coming out, I feel like I have a bit of a buffer before I release anything else. Sometimes you feel like you need to keep on putting stuff out and having plans for the future, but now I feel like I’m satisfied for a while.
You mentioned there isn’t really a concept behind the album. How would you describe it then?
It’s called Renewal and it’s about starting afresh, making a change. I feel like I write my best music when I’ve just closed a chapter in my life. Either something has happened or I feel different. It allows me to make more exciting music. When I listen back to my music, I can remember how I felt at that point in time and it’s always linked to strong emotions. Renewal is about starting again, whether it’s a change of work, moving house or just your mental state. That change is what the album’s about.
Lockdown was a good time for my music even if it wasn’t a good time for me. All that energy I spent constantly doing things in life built up over lockdown and I had to release it. I always felt like I needed to be doing things and music was a good way to satisfy that part of my life.
I guess you managed to scratch that itch with an album which is pretty successful. Do you think lockdown changed the style of music in the album at all?
I found it to be quite an emotionally intense time but it allowed me to make more music and even different music at times. Production was a good distraction and helped me process everything I was distracting myself from.
It’s interesting that the dancefloor is so important for you but clubs weren’t open when you finished it. The album has quite a lot of energy but it’s also drawn on downtempo influences from electronica and techno. Was this variety a result of lockdown or was it always going to happen?
I think it was inevitable, I’ve always enjoyed experimenting. I usually make an ambient song that I turn into drum and bass. I’ll write the musicality and if I feel like it, I’ll think how I can turn it into a drum and bass tune.
It’s almost like you’re remixing your own ambient music.
Yeah, I don’t have the pressure to make a big club banger because I can take it in any direction. I don’t think about mixdowns, I can just take the idea further without the constraints of having to make it into a drum and bass track. Once I’ve solidified the idea, it’s easy to turn it into dnb because you’ve got the flow and have spent enough time with it to know what you want to do. I always think of the bigger picture when I’m producing rather than just the atoms of it, which means my songs probably aren’t really technical because that’s not the part that I enjoy. I focus on things like the arrangement because I find it more interesting. I’ve thought about what I’m good at and pushed that.
Collaborations seem to have played quite a big part in your discography, and obviously there’s Music Squad too. But looking at the album, there’s only one collab. Was that intentional?
Yeah, I wanted it to be all about me [laughs].
I did want it to be about me though, for it to be personal. The one collaboration is with my old housemate who’s not a producer but is musically talented. He’s introduced me to so much amazing music which has formed the base of my listening catalogue for the past year or so. It was a tribute, a thank you for being great and such a good musical influence.
What music have they recommended?
He’s got enthusiasm for a lot of different types of music. He introduced me to a progressive metal band called Animals As Leaders, some classical bits and we even went through a gospel phase in our house [laughs].
Wow, so it sounds like he’s set you up to discover a load of new music going forward.
That sort of bond in terms of how you enjoy music and the person you’re sharing it with can be as important as the music itself. If drum and bass sounded completely different but it had the exact same effect on people in a club, then I think everyone would still like it. It’s not just about how it sounds, it’s about how it makes people feel.
So this person is so important to you that they’re the only collaboration on the album!
As they’re not a producer I got to guide the track, but we had fun working on it together. The only other cameo is a vocal clip at the end of the interlude. When we used to make music together, me and my brother used to record ourselves. We were debating if something sounded good or not [laughs] and one of us said, “That’s not a rhythm.” Then the other said, “It’s interesting!” I wanted to have my brother in the album because he was a big part of my musical journey, someone I looked to for advice and inspiration. He got me into electronic music so I wanted to have him in there.
Is there anyone else who’s had an impact on you musically, for the album or just in general?
Goldie has been a big influence and so supportive. He’s suggested lots of different types of music for me to listen to, but his general enthusiasm is such a great energy. He had belief in me and that helped me keep going.
It must be so important to have that outside motivation for something as private as producing music, especially when it’s someone like Goldie. Did you get a chance to work with any live musicians for the album?
It was all just me. There were lots of plans to work with musicians for some of the songs but they never came into fruition. I don’t mind because I can save that for a later date. You’ve got to progress somehow and that would be an easy way for me to do another album. Like I said, my first album is all about me [laughs].
Have you already got the second album in mind?
It will definitely happen. I can see it in my head, things I’d like to change from the first and how I’d like it to be tonally different. I can imagine it being more refined because there are quite a lot of musical ideas in this first one. Not that either are better, but it’s just how I imagine it going. It will be more mature I guess. These ideas are what I aim for, but I won’t necessarily hit them because they’re there to guide me. How you translate the ideas in your head is what matters.
It’ll be interesting to see how the two compare. Now that the album’s coming out soon, what are you looking to do next?
I’ve got songs similar to what I was making towards the end of the album process, things like Actress. I’m moving away from the large soundscapes and trying to do a similar thing in a smaller space. The big music works really well in larger rooms and clubs, but it doesn’t hit the same as the tight sound that I think works really well in a smaller club. When I’m DJing in a smaller room, I’ll play a lot more minimal songs. This isn’t something I’d thought about before, but now I’ve made that association, I want to do some smaller tracks. It’s also just something different. I used to do a lot of minimal stuff a while ago, but I don’t think I had the execution to pull it off because each element really has to sting.
Have you got any releases planned?
I’ve got an EP coming after the album and an excellent remix for Goldie. He asked me to do it two or three years ago, which I did and ended up with 16 versions. Then I remember him calling me up whilst I was eating pizza somewhere in Bristol saying, “It’s not quite right, it’s a challenge.” I agreed but after lockdown and a period of me not making any music for a few months, I just heard one of the melodies from the remix and suddenly had an idea for it. I went away, re-did it and it was amazing. I think it’s one of my favourite songs that I’ve made so far and Goldie loves it too.
So are you completely focused on working with Headz going forwards?
Definitely. In terms of what Headz have given me, it only feels right to stay with them. There’s nowhere else I’d rather go. I’m happy to do the occasional remix or single somewhere else and so are Headz.
I’m sure everyone has seen the videos of Goldie playing a tune in his studio and losing his sh*t to it. How does it feel to be one of those people that he’s put in the spotlight?
It’s amazing [laughs], I don’t know how to describe it. It’s such an honour to feel that love for my music. I’m so grateful for it.
Last question now. Imagine that as you’re getting home from work, you notice a fire inside and realise that your studio has been completely destroyed. If you only had the time to save one thing, what would it be?
I’d probably take my toy cat which I’ve had since I was a baby. Everything else could be replaced but he has sentimental value. I remember losing him when I was seven in France and then someone sent him back to me three months later in a random parcel, after I’d gotten over losing him. It was a nice moment and I’d want to hold onto something sentimental.
My friends, family, girlfriend and everyone else who’s supported me with Grey Code.
Grey Code – Renewal is out January 28 2022 on Metalheadz