Tokyo Prose returns to The North Quarter with Twelve Tones

100% pure liquid is what we’ve come to expect from Tokyo Prose

The Auckland native produces music that aligns well with the clean-green utopian image New Zealand often brings to mind and with his Twelve Tones EP, he returns to The North Quarter to deliver more of that superb sound.

Four jazz-influenced tracks (plus one remix) that would glue any liquid set together, the EP showcases a refined approach that he’s been developing for years. Each track is cleverly weaved together with deep-cut samples and finely tuned production skills to achieve an organic-sounding, cohesive set of soulful rollers. We’re also treated to an appearance from his label-mate FD on the track Ultra Travolta – adding a playful touch, but maintaining the focus on instrumental, liquid drum & bass. 

Harking back to the Wild Grace LP (his last project with The North Quarter in 2018) the classic tune Lift You Up gets a nice, subtle remix from Satl. Adding some fresh 2022 elements, and reminding us how good that vocal is.

We checked in with Sam to see how things are going in New Zealand, and find out a little more about his first EP since 2020’s Gossamer on Footnotes

Hey Sam, how are things down under?

Not too bad, we had a good summer! I managed to get out for a gig or two, but things have slowed down again with Omicron sweeping through for us. Hopefully that’s all done and dusted in a few months time. 

Which gigs did you play?

I managed to get down to Christchurch to play Hidden Lakes Festival with guys like Alix Perez, Monty, Visages, Hybrid Minds, Wilkinson, Friction – it was an awesome festival, although it rained all day!

How’s it been to have those big names popping down to NZ?

Yeah it’s always good to catch up with people, and to meet new people from the scene. I made a bunch of connections when I was living in the UK, but it’s been about 7 or 8 years since I was there.

How was it living in the UK – any particularly good memories?

I was there for about two years – other than that I’ve always lived in New Zealand. Music-wise, I probably didn’t time the UK stint that well. I released my first album Presence when I was over there, and then about six months later I moved home. 

But I was happy with that. Managed to play Sun & Bass a few years, and got to play all around the place which I remember pretty fondly. I kept getting requests to come back and play as soon as I was back in New Zealand. 

We’d love to have you back! So jumping forward to the new Twelve Tones EP, how did this one come together?

They all are quite newish tracks written specifically for the EP. I’d had about three really strong ideas when Lenzman began talking about doing a follow up project. It’s been about four years since my last project for The North Quarter, the Wild Grace album – so it was time to do another. So from there, I just fleshed out a bunch of tracks. I also did a little remix swap with Satl – he nailed that one.

Was your one the All My Life remix you did on NQ State of Mind?

Yeah, another one with Steo! Satl’s remix of my tune Lift You Up is on this EP, as the first single. 

So is that generally the process? You get commissioned for an EP and then write the tracks from there? 

Yeah typically. I guess I write pretty sporadically. I get bursts of creativity where I’ve got lots of samples I want to use, to kind of flesh things together. But then there’ll be periods where I don’t open Ableton for a month or so. In those times, I listen to a lot of music, building Spotify playlists of tunes that I think might work for samples, things I might be able to chop up and use later.

I also never really work on things for extended periods. I probably wouldn’t sit on my computer for any longer than an hour working on a tune, almost ever. So there’s a lot of prep work, listening to random music on the train and stuff. Then when I really feel the urge to jump on the computer and have a go at something, it hopefully falls together pretty quickly. And sometimes it doesn’t, but occasionally it does.

That’s inspiring to hear. I think people often feel the need to spend six-eight hours in the studio, otherwise they’re not going anywhere. But it’s nice to hear that there’s a world where you can jump in sporadically, and it still works well.

Yeah, when I was a student, not working full time, and didn’t have a couple of young kids and all these other commitments – I was able to sit down for two or three hours. You do need to do that, to get those core skills and get to that technical level. But once you’re at that level, I don’t think you need that much time. 

But I suppose if you’re really trying to push the envelope, and create new sounds, you probably do need to just sit down and really indulge yourself. Which is maybe why I’ve always just stayed true to my original sound. 

Do you think covid and isolations have given you more time to work on music, or has it been more of a creativity-killer?

It’s kind of mixed. There were periods where it was me and my wife at home with two young kids, all trying to work, and at those times there’s no room for creating music on the side. But recently I’ve been getting more into buying records, and rediscovering music and a listener – which has helped towards writing more as well. 

What’s inspiring you lately? 

For this EP I was listening to a lot of Jazz, and I was trying to infuse as much musicality as I could into the tracks. When I’m putting together a track, I try to get two or three really cool musical elements that all play off each-other and elevate each-other.

The most inspiring thing for me is finding a really cool sample that gets me excited and I go “yup, I really want to see if I can transform this into something”. Often when I get that feeling I can’t really convert it into anything [laughs] – but then sometimes I’ll get a really basic sample that I don’t think is going anywhere, and that’ll be the thing that works. You never know what’s going to happen and it’s often quite serendipitous. 

Is there anything in particular you’re looking for in a sample, or anything that catches your ears?

Usually anything clean in the mix, like an isolated instrument. A cool progression or loop, where I’ll get a good feeling when I hear it. 

But there’s different ways of seeing it, and different ways to use samples. I’ll have the main sample, and then I’ll have complimentary samples which don’t need to be a progression – they can be a single note or an instrument, something more simple that wouldn’t necessarily carry a tune itself, but they all play off each other and come together to make something that sounds good. 

How did you arrive at the title Twelve Tones for your EP?

Well on a basic level, there’s twelve notes on a piano. The title is a reference to the musical intent of the EP – as I mentioned I was listening to a lot of jazz when producing it, and I was trying to incorporate that. I was also trying to steer away from vocals – I feel like a lot of people are scared to put out a song without a vocal in it these days. I was keen to go into that ‘musical zone’. 

Even when you’re mixing and DJing out, every track seems to have a vocal and it’s difficult to mix. So I was keen to put out some songs that fit in a set, and bridge between other tunes – but also hopefully prick people’s ears up and have them saying “hang on a second, what’s this one?”. If you’ve got a tune like that, and people are asking about it trying to track it down, that music has to be super strong.

That’s a good point. I’m always after those liquid tunes that’re a DJ tool, you can sandwich between two vocal tracks – but also stand out on their own.

Yeah exactly. It’s cool when you mix those ones with a vocal, and you can kind of make your own tune in the mix. 

How did you find working with Freddie FD on Ultra Travolta? What does he bring?

He’s an amazing producer. He can cover-off all styles – that recent LIN000 project he did with Satl is great. He can also do full on liquid, dirtier styles, he can do it all, and do it all super well. I’ve been chatting to him for years, and so it was about time to get on a tune together. I had an idea and sent it to him, and he really just took it to another level – tweaked the drums and really nailed it. 

What are your thoughts on drum & bass in New Zealand right now?

As a whole it’s super strong. A lot of it is really focused around those big festival-type artists – guys like Wilkinson and Hybrid Minds, they’re just drawing thousands and thousands of people to an event. So with that going super strong, hopefully then listeners will dive a bit deeper. Having people like Alix living here at the moment is definitely making a difference. 

I guess I find myself as a niche within a niche genre. So the gigs I do are really enjoyable, but I tend to keep it really tight. I’ll do a handful a year and that’s about the right number I think, to keep people interested. 

You’re probably the only person from NZ who’s really doing proper liquid drum & bass. Do you think there’s potential for that to grow? 

I mean Alix is in that category too, now that he’s here. There’s a few people that are dabbling too – and it definitely gets played out in clubs. But yeah, there’s never really been anyone else. When we first started 10 years ago or so, this kiwi guy named Luca who I was introduced to through Geoff Presha, he was making that stuff as well. But in general, New Zealand drum & bass has always been that State of Mind, Upbeats, Concord Dawn type sound. 

I haven’t noticed too many large names emerging to the international scene since those names you mention above, aside from maybe Azifm.

Yeah Azifm is the biggest to come out of the woodwork and emerge recently. There’s other ones like Lee Mvtthews – who are sort of more in that big, festival style. They’re making big waves and getting supported by some big artists. 

To be fair, I’m not that in touch with it. I’m still following the people I’ve always followed. Occasionally I hear what’s going on in these other scenes, but I’m not really part of them in any way. 

I’ve been listening to that History of NZ Drum & Bass podcast by Jay Bulletproof – it was interesting to hear what happened in the ten-or-so years before I got involved. To see how the whole scene developed and where people fit in. 

I’ve been listening as well and loving it. Is he going to have you on at some stage?

Nothing locked in, I’ve only been involved for the last 10 or 12 years I suppose – they might get to that stage soon, but right now they’re still sort of focused on that birth and ‘golden era’ when you had guys like Doc Scott or Marcus Intalex doing 8 hour sets. It sounded incredible!

It sounded like legendary stuff for sure. The North Quarter at Phonox nights here in London are pretty great too! Do you have any plans to make it back over these ways?

It would be awesome. With a full time job and two kids, it’s very difficult. So no immediate plans unfortunately. Pre-covid I was getting to the stage where I was thinking I might come over for a weekend for a couple of gigs, but yeah, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Once it all clears up, things like Sun & Bass are always tempting, if the stars align. 

What’s up next for you? 

So aside from the EP, another thing I’ve got coming up is a collaboration with Redeyes on his label Five Alley. I’ve also written a couple of tracks this year that I’m pretty excited about too – but I’m yet to see where they’ll go. Typically I’m pretty happy to release just one project a year. 

Quality over quantity, right?

Something like that!

Tokyo Prose – Twelve Tones is out March 18 on The North Quarter

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