When Stephen Mako decided to produce drum & bass in 2005 he didn’t just download a cracked DAW and have a cheeky buzz, he felt so passionately about it, and had such a strong vision of what he wanted to create, he committed every aspect of his life, his soul and his headspace to the artform… Cutting out relationships and even his own personal musical collection in order to focus on his craft.
15 years, releases on some of the most respected labels in the genre (Dispatch, Soulr, Samurai, Symmetry, Subtitles, Metalheadz) and his own established label (Utopia) later, he feels he’s the closest he’s ever been to achieving what he set out to do.
Listen to his recent debut solo album Oeuvre on Metalheadz and he sounds and tangibly feels like he’s achieved it, too. A full beam spotlight across his entire scope, the album ranges from his most restrained and soulful side (Liquid Groover) to his grizzliest and most unapologetic (Oh Really) via every other timeless shade he’s painted with over the years.
Timeless being the operative word: Oeuvre actually took seed as far back as 2015 and was completed around late 2017. In the time that’s passed, he’s already released another album on Goldie’s label (OneMind with DLR), he’s also written a substantial amount of Oeuvre Part 2, an album for Samurai and a collaborative album for Utopia. It could be argued that his feelings about the artform are even more passionate and his vision is even strong than it’s ever been. We interrupted his lockdown to find out more…
When lockdown is lifted what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
I’m going to smash deadlifts at the gym. I miss picking up 200kgs! We’re human beings, we’re genetically predisposed to doing exercise. The effects of it are so positive and my body is aching for super heavy exercise. It changes the mind, it’s like the sun hitting a flower. It totally re-energises you. It’s like a primitive desire and I think it’s easier to spread love when you’ve exercised that primitive desire. It’s only your own strength that can keep you going. But in the meantime I’m just making beats and eating pastries.
How do you exercise your brain?
Meditation helps. Playing computer games tests my reactions. We’ve been playing very intense, short blasts of Call Of Duty. We’ve increased the number of robots and the movement is so fast. That sharpens my reflexes and makes me feel on edge. I’ve just been concentrating on the job in hand and not getting too side-tracked by social media. That can really drain your energy. You’re creating stories from every post you see and that takes up a lot of your headspace. Just concentrate on what’s happening in your life, don’t let all this rubbish take away energy that’s rightfully yours for creativity, your own passions. I’m a hypocrite in some way, though because we’re part of that system, too. We post things up on Facebook to push our own creations.
There’s less of an ulterior motive with posts like that. I’m thinking of news companies or political parties or big corporations with agendas. The Murdochs of the world…
But even those guys, I won’t judge them. I try my best to not invest my energy into judging someone or something. I don’t want to tell myself a story that Rupert Murdoch is evil and dark and project hatred on him because that takes up energy. I’ve watched a lot of WW1 and WW2 documentaries, for example. Take Hitler, he was super dark. The darkest. But understanding where he came from after WW1, and how fucked up things were in Germany after the first war, you understand why he was angry. If you had the same life experiences as he did growing up, you might have done the same things. I don’t want to judge anyone, I don’t want to have anger inside me. It’s really hard and I totally don’t succeed but at least trying it reduces my anger towards those closest to me. If I can practice on Hitler and become more emphatic to where he came from then I can be much more empathetic to people I actually care about. It increases your love and patience. I experienced a very bad break-up and that’s been a part of my healing process since then.
Writing music must be part of the healing process too, right?
It’s the most healing thing I can ever do. It’s a sure-fire way of diverting your concentration. Like learning how to mix on vinyl and riding the pitch. That committed concentration of listening to infinitesimal details to make sure it was in sync was how I learnt to meditate. That ultra-concentration on listening to two sets of beats is strange. When you’re in that zone and you’re recording your mix you’re swearing down that you can hear it slipping out of time. But when you listen back to that recording you can’t hear it. The same pair of ears listening to same mix but depending on context, it sounds completely different. That’s duality and meditation all in a mix. And that’s the same with production; complete focus and ultra-concentration.
When did you start concentrating on the album? Knowing how Metalheadz albums develop it was probably a while ago…
Yeah it was a long time ago. Maybe around 2014 when I did the Truth Seekers EP. Then The Narrator EP so I’d have started on a few tracks around then. I was firing them over to G [Goldie] and striking while I was inspired. It was this feeling like ‘fuck I’m on Metalheadz!’ I had also started a relationship around that time, so I was inspired by that, too. I went to Thailand late 2015, played him a few ideas and he signed an EP, then he signed a few more and I suggested we do an eight-track mini-album. Then one day G messaged saying ‘fuck that mini album idea, take it over the finish line, four more tunes and you’ve got an album.’ One thing led to another, a few disagreements too, I won’t lie, but the album eventually happened.
This sounds like it all happened before the OneMind album…
They happened around the same time. Most of it was done before OneMind. I did two albums in three years for them basically. It was weird because I was learning a lot from J [DLR]. A lot. The man is a wizard. But I didn’t want that to influence my solo album because I wanted that to be a snapshot of where I was at so a lot of the album was finished before the OneMind album.
It doesn’t sound old though. Or dated. But I go back over your older releases, like Tell Me Something or Planet Physical and I get the vibe that the timeless aesthetic is something you aspire to anyway?
Thank you. Yeah I do aspire to that. I can’t be arsed with plastic banger throwaway shit. It’s not my vibe. Even if I set out to make a steppy little thing to play in the club, I want to be able to play it in 10 years. I don’t want to age and I don’t want my music to age either. Obviously we do age but let’s do it gracefully and do it more lovingly. Timelessness comes from my influences which were pretty much all between 1994 – 2004. The music I heard during those years led me to start producing. Then when I started producing in 2004 I said to myself I wouldn’t listen to much modern music because I didn’t want to it affect what I wanted to achieve. For a good six years I didn’t listen to any new music
Even as a DJ?
I’d buy the occasional record but I wasn’t listening to music at home. My vinyl buying reduced by about 90% as soon as I started writing music.
Totally. Then In 2008 I took it even further and made a decision to fuck off all romantic love stories. I was never into sleeping around, so if I was going to commit to a relationship it would be all or nothing and I needed that energy to write music.
You became a monk!
Not quite, but yeah the romance side of my life was put entirely on ice in the pursuit of creating the best music I could. Then at the end of 2013 things changed and I was back in the game. I felt I’d learnt my craft, I had my first solo release, I was being signed by Metalheadz, I felt I’d done my craft… And shortly after ended up with a girl I thought I was going to marry. That hasn’t worked out, but I was happy I’d immersed myself into the craft that much to have gone through the experience.
I can see how that’s fulfilling…
I don’t want for much. I love my life. When I wake up, I want to do my work. I’m inspired. That’s success for me. I want to do what I love doing all day, every day. Obviously there are bits like social media I’m not as happy to do but you know what I mean.
I think you need that in life to help you appreciate the good stuff.
To a degree but I think the pursuit of only doing things you love should be foremost. I didn’t want to ignore what my passion was. Ignoring what your heart is pumping for is slow suicide. So I wanted to mould my career around my lifestyle, not my lifestyle around my career. That’s a big difference to me.
Yeah definitely. That’s kinda the root of authenticity in a way isn’t it. It’s literally the life you live. I see other peers of yours recognise this. Teebee for example. He’s been very public with his support of you…
1999-2003 Teebee was my favourite. Black Science Labs is one of my favourite albums of all time. Not just in D&B. I’ve listened to it 100s of times. I’m hyperbolising now but it has been amazing to release on Subtitles. And to write a tune with him. That blew my mind.
Totally. It’s the most beautiful thing to have respect from peers who’ve inspired you.
You don’t actively seek it, but to receive it is a silver lining, right?
Totally man. Especially with the album. I’ve had feedback from the maddest range of people. Guys from Benny L to Loxy. That’s insane for me to comprehend that my music appeals to people in very different stylistic disciplines.
I’m not surprised to be honest…
I am. And another thing I didn’t expect, and I guess is a benefit of this weird time, is that people are listening to it as an actual album and not just tracks for the dancefloor. Not just DJs but from messages I’ve had with people who’ve supported it. Just lots of random interactions with people who appreciate it. That’s definitely not something I seek or ever expect, but gratifying and inspiring to receive.
Beautiful. I know you’re working on at least one other album right now, what can we reveal?
Quite a bit. I’ve got a lot of things coming. I’ve signed some tunes already for Oeuvre Part 2, I’ve signed most of a Samurai album and I have my Brotherhood album coming up on Utopia, too. That will be the one that comes out first, I think. Seba, DLR, Total Science, Break and so many more of my closest musical friends are on there. It’s a collab album with everyone I love who has helped me develop and build the label. They’re responsible for the whole of the label’s back catalogue. I’m so proud of what they’ve achieved. I don’t release much on Utopia but what I do, I want to play forever. The Brotherhood album is a celebration of that. Then the Oeuvre Part 2 has a Marcus collab on, plus various other tracks I’ve tested a few times now. There’s one on my recent Rinse show, right at the beginning.
Sick. Are We going to have to wait five years?
I hope not. But whenever any of it comes out, it doesn’t matter. What’s important for me is that whatever direction I’m feeling in the studio, I have a home and a project for it. I can express all my creative urges.
I was thinking about this. You linked with Samurai around the same time you linked with Headz. You’ve released on Symmetry, Warm Comms, Dispatch, Soulr, now Subtitles… That’s a bucket list right there.
It really is. Subtitles needed to be on that list. It’s only Exit and Commercial Suicide I want to release on now for my own personal sake. Then I’ve done it all. There’s no other label I’m really keen to release on. Maybe if Moving Shadow was around, Reinforced as well, but there isn’t anyone else now. Just releases on Exit and Commerical suicide and I’ll bow out gracefully and start a farm.
You’ll find other ambitions. You can’t complete life!
You’re right. I guess that’s another inherent human trait we’re predisposed to. To complete, to accomplish, to collect and get the set. You’ll never do it, but if you’re following your heart in the process then you’ll feel fulfilled attempting it…