As North American artists, Bensley and Justin Hawkes share a unique experience when it comes to the drum & bass scene. With the UK, closely followed by New Zealand, riding front and centre as the home of drum & bass, it’s been known that both North American ravers and artists have – on occasion – felt a little left out of the mix.
Don’t get it twisted though, being slightly out of the mix does not mean in any way, shape or form that there isn’t a scene with an abundance of talent circulating. In fact, North America is home to many top-tier drum & bass artists including Winslow, Flowananstsia (who T-Pain – yes, actual T Pain – was championing on his live streams throughout the pandemic), Audioscribe, Polaris, Random Movement, Atlantic Connection, Dave Owen and many, many more.
Today, we take a step stateside to celebrate the collaboration of two brilliant North American artists, known and loved globally. After taking their new track ‘Don’t Be Scared’ on the road, doing back-to-back sets across the US, we thought we’d celebrate the wholesomeness by chucking them on a Zoom and getting them to interview each other. Sounds fun, right?
Incoming: Bensley & Justin Hawkes’ interview extravaganza.
Hi guys! How are we both?
Justin: I’m chillin’! I’m on a lake vacation before heading to Europe for my debut European tour, which is really exciting.
Bensley: Justin and I actually just had a show in San Diego this weekend. I just got back a few hours ago. I thought I was going to get some sleep before this but I didn’t. I’m still pretty buzzing from it.
Amazing! How was the gig?
Justin: It was nice! San Diego is great. It was probably our sixth show together this year. SD Union were the promoters, they always put on a good show.
Bensley: This is the first time we got to do a set each and then follow it up with a back-to-back. It was a lot of fun!
Wicked! Is this something you’re moving forward with as a pair?
Bensley: That was the last one we’re doing for a while.
Justin: I like doing it a lot, we have a great synergy on stage. It’s something unique to North American artists right now. There’s not many of us on the world’s stage that have this kind of crossover so it’s nice to flex on that.
You guys are going to interview each other today, which is exciting, but first, tell me about how your single ‘Don’t Be Scared’ came about. Was collaborating always on the cards for you two?
Justin: I feel like it’s a result of us having this idea to go on tour together. We thought we’d use this opportunity to make a tune together.
Bensley: Yeah, when all the shows started popping up we knew that we should have a big tune for the end of our set so we quickly got into work mode and made ‘Don’t Be Scared’. I was blown away at how fast we got this one together when we weren’t even in the same room, we were online. We only sent it back and forth like 3 times.
Justin: That’s what happens when you trust someone’s work. We both know what each other’s sound is and how we can reflect that in a 50/50 split sort of way.
That’s nice, and obviously works well for you as a pair. Alright. Over to you guys to interview each other… who’s kicking off?
Bensley: I will! Justine – what’s the funniest or strangest moment you’ve experienced while touring?
Justin: Oh man. I think it was a recent one you know. I played a couple of shows in the Netherlands. I played Rotterdam and Amsterdam for Liquicity in 2018 and basically, it was the first time that I’d ever blacked out from drinking. We were just enjoying our night and then went to an afterparty. I’d never really done that before. Being from America, when I was younger, I never really got the opportunity until I travelled to other countries. I think someone passed me a drink and I was just gone! I did – however – manage to find my Airbnb in the dark, in a random country. I was proud of myself for that.
Bensley: Was it scary?
Justin: Yeah it was. I was a bit younger then and I was doing an international tour. It was a bit much. What about you? What’s one of your favourite memories, Pete?
Bensley: I’d say the Forbidden Kingdom Festival was an experience. We got booked to do a back-to-back set at the festival about two weekends ago. We turned up at the festival, went straight to do our set and then we realised that the rest of the stages were fully open air. We thought, we’re in Orlando, the chances of rain were high and if it does rain, everyone’s going to come to our stage, which would be nice! We went on, we had a good crowd, having fun and then all of a sudden we noticed the entire place was completely packed out… and of course, there was the rain!
Justin: It was pouring ass! It was soaking. They shut the festival down but they kept our stage open a little bit longer than everywhere else. It was great.
Bensley: So, my next question is: how has your uncle – Andrew Hellier – reacted to the viral success of ‘Better Than Gold’? How much does he know about the world of drum & bass?
Justin Hawkes: Andrew has been such an inspiration to me as an artist and a musician. I’ve known his voice for years, my entire childhood in fact. His first band Modern Yesterday was signed to Salt-N-Pepper’s label back in the 90s, they also came out with a great debut album. As an artist, he’s someone I just really look up to. Having him in my family has been such a resource whilst getting into the music industry… so, yeah! Collabing with him was incredible! He knew this song would come with some serious opportunities. It’s nice, he’s really proud of me and I’m very grateful for him. It’s great we got to connect on making the music video too. I don’t think he’s surprised about the track’s success though as he really believed in it, and so did I, mainly because of his phenomenal vocal. The track has actually opened some doors I didn’t expect to be opened too, which is really cool. I can’t talk about them yet though unfortunately…
Bensley: Exciting. Shame you can’t spill the beans though. Were you brought up in a pretty musical household then?
Justin Hawkes: Yeah I was. My dad actually features in ‘Better Than Gold’ too. Although, apart from me, we’ve all kind of kept the music industry at arms length up until recently. What about you, Pete, do you come from a musical household?
Bensley: No one in my family is, or was, a professional musician but my mum and my grandpa, on the same side, were really into playing the piano and my grandpa was really into the jazz scene, which is where a lot of my influences come from.
Justin Hawkes: Pete – how many cups do you have on your studio desk right now?
Bensley: Ha! I mean, it’s not really clean, but in terms of cups, it’s pretty clean!
Justin Hawkes: I gotta say that’s pretty rare. I feel like there’s either studios with eight/nine cups on the desk or it’s a singular minimalist look where the owner never, ever fails to dust their desk.
Bensley: I must be in that unique middle ground because it’s pretty dusty in here, but I have one cup.
Justin Hawkes: You’re unique, that’s for sure.
Bensley: Justin – as a passionate collector of flat-brim cowboy hats, what do you look for in a new purchase? When can fans expect to see these hats integrated into your stage look?
Justin Hawkes: I think you’ve really got to go with a hat that fits right. The kind you just know that when you’re head banging on stage and you’re sweating like crazy, isn’t going to fly off into the sunset. You have to be careful with those little headbangs, otherwise you’ll lose your hat. So, looking for those real trim, black hats are important.
Seriously though, one thing I didn’t expect from making country drum & bass was that everyone would start to expect me to wear a cowboy hat. I’m not sure I should really adopt it entirely as it’s a lot of pressure to put on a guy’s wardrobe.
Bensley: I thoroughly enjoyed swapping outfits with you on our last show. All black was a good look for me, and the buttoned up shirt for you… you pulled it off. On a serious note though, it’s hard to always have new things to wear when you’re DJing. I had someone comment on Instagram the other day asking me why I’m wearing the same shirt as the show before.
Justin Hawkes: Wow! It’s true though. That’s definitely a real thing. That’s actually the reason why I started wearing minimalist black shirts, people don’t notice so much. It’s an unfair pressure. It’s not like you’re going to buy a new shirt for every single show that you play. I wish we were rolling in it like that…
Bensley: I like it that people think that we are! Justin – I have a bit of a deeper question for you up next. In your eyes, what’s the most testing aspect of being an artist?
Justin Hawkes: Honestly? The thing I’m experiencing the most right now is the overwhelming access that people have to you and the access that people require. Also, the timetable and busyness. We don’t have weekends, we don’t have breaks. I have to schedule breaks. I think a lot of people accidentally assume that self-employed artists are free all the time and making music all the time, living a light-hearted life, going from show to show. The reality is that it’s busier than I could’ve ever expected. You have so much pressure on you to live up to other people’s expectations and to deliver on all of those things that people want, as well as upholding your own values. This is something that many artists don’t discuss publicly. The pressures that come with being an artist are not often witnessed or understood by fans, because we have a very instagram friendly persona online, but in real life, it can be much more troublesome than that.
Bensley: Do you think that has an effect on the love you have for your job?
Justin Hawkes: It’s never a situation where the grass is greener elsewhere, because I truly love what I do. It’s more of a matter of finding the right balances in order to take care of yourself, especially whilst you’re on the road. In America, you can do one gig and spend 48 hours travelling to the next gig. That’s a huge amount of time and effort. At the same time, I’m not doing my old job, I’m free to be myself, to make my own choices, to be my own boss, which is amazing. There are pros and cons, for sure. The difference with being an artist is that you never ‘go home from work’ you’re always representing yourself and there are always demands that people have from you but it doesn’t take away my love for it. If anything, it makes me work harder so I can handle the pressure better, because it shows I’m growing and what I’m doing is working.
What about you, Pete? What’s the most testing thing for you?
Bensley: I’d say, in my head, there’s a constant battle between the music I want to be making and the music that I know people want to hear from me. I learned pretty early on that it’s pretty rare for people to excel in the music industry doing 100% what they want to do. Of course, there are always ways for you to be able to add your essence and still appeal to a wider audience or an audience that expects a certain sound from you. I just always struggle with the balance of ‘how much of this core idea am I willing to dilute in order to keep my career reaching new levels and reach more people’. So there’s a lot of pressure there. For example, if you want to tour, you might have to drastically tailor your sound to appeal to different regions.
Justin Hawkes: Did you think this was the case when you first started out and if yes, is the reality better or worse than what you originally thought in terms of not having full creative control throughout your entire career?
Bensley: I started to notice what worked best in different situations from my first release. The tunes that I had the most fun making were not the ones I had the most fun playing out to a crowd. It was tough. In recent years, I’ve been really trying to strike a balance between making songs I really love playing at shows but still taking drum & bass into new directions. So, that’s an interesting challenge. I find it fun, it’s a different kind of creativity.
Justin Hawkes: I have a production question for you, Pete. What are your three favourite VST plugins?
Bensley: Guitar Rig, by Native Instruments which is an effects module that you can feed any sound into, it has an unlimited amount of ways to process sound and make it interesting using these guitar pedal software effects. There are thousands of pre-sets that I will scroll through and get inspired by.
The Sausage Fattener up next, I still use that on everything. It just makes every sound more aggressive, adding distortion, fattening it up.
Last but not least, Massive by Native instruments. Apparently no one is using it anymore, but that’s all I use.
Justin Hawkes: Dude! I was going to say that. Everyone moved onto other stuff but we should go back to stuff like Massive and utilise that.
Bensley: That’s how I know how much the music sphere has changed and how long I’ve been doing this that something that was the standard when I was learning is now not used at all. What are your favourite plugins, Justin?
Justin Hawkes: I’d say – most recently – Phase Plant by Kilohearts, which is a semi-modular softsynth. It’s kind of the opposite to Massive where Massive is really excellent in making really in- the-box sounds, Phase Plant is sort of the opposite, there are almost too many ways to create sound design. Paired with Kilohearts Snap Heap or Multipass, which I also love.
Second would be Black Box Analog Design HG-2 and last but not least, Soothe2 by oeksound, which is an amazing dynamic EQ. It’s a surgeon’s scalpel, in my opinion.
Bensley: Let’s wrap things up with one final question, Justin… What is your favourite thing about doing b2b sets with me?
Justin Hawkes: Haha! I’ll give you a semi-serious answer. I actually love doing a back-to-back with you because I think it’s an amazing opportunity for two people who have been really under the radar and out of the world’s view for a long time, because we’re from North America. It’s basically an opportunity to team up with someone who has had a parallel experience of the music industry to me. We have been in this niche corner of artistry, pretty much together, for the last 10 years and there’s not a lot of other people in the drum & bass world that have had our shared experience. So, being able to combine that, and being able to show an often overlooked place when it comes to drum & bass – North America – off to the world, especially with our new tune, is pretty damn special.