Photography: Benjamin Gordon
Jack Stevens only announced his Workforce alias in May this year. In the seven months that have since passed he’s released an impressive 14 tracks across three EPs… And he already has another EP mastered, locked and loaded for next year.
It all kicked off with the first part of his Late Night Soundtrack series on his own Must Make label. Robust, industrial strength tracks like Don’t Tell and whirling emotional hurricanes like Fragments set the scene for his first moves as a solo artist.
Late Night Soundtrack 2 landed just months later. It contained more of his unique brew of contrasts and distinctive drum work before being followed by an almighty end-of-year bang; ‘Your Moves’, an EP that harbours some of his boldest tracks to date and landed earlier this month on dBridge’s Exit, a label he was last seen on 10 years ago with the Melodies EP as half of SpectraSoul.
It’s been Jack’s most prolific year to date, but a lot more than seven months have gone into this project. When we interviewed him to announce Workforce at the time he explained he’s been writing solo tracks since 2017, although it could be argued that he’s been building up to this since he took an earnest interest in production.
Years of reading and learning about creative processes and understanding his own methods are paying off in the Workforce creations we’ve enjoyed this year. Not just in the breadth and originality of the music, but it’s evident in his whole approach, attitude and his ability to let go of his work at the right time and not overthink things.
It can also be heard in his new venture; a new podcast series, Must Make Podcast. Each episode is an exploration of the creative endeavour as he and a fellow guest artist dive deep into discussion, analysing their means and methods, sharing ideas, learning from each other and inspiring like-minded creative listeners in the process. You can listen to it here. But first, read on for our own deep discussion about how he’s found life as a solo artist in 2019, what he’s made of drum & bass in 2019 and what’s coming up in 2020…
Really interesting podcast with dBridge…
Darren was the perfect person to start with because his career has been through different iterations and he’s had so much experience. My thinking with the podcast was for it to be more like an exploration for everyone. Me, the guests, whoever’s listening.
It’s all about the creative process, right?
Yeah. How you deal with letting go of your work, what your daily process is, how to optimise your environment for writing. We cover loads of different topics. As it develops I’ll hopefully talk to many of my peers and eventually open it up to people who aren’t necessarily in drum & bass, or even in music but share that creative journey. I want it to be a creative resource for myself and people like me who have those moments when you’re looking for more inspiration. I find a lot of interviews don’t capture the essence of what it’s all about. I like things that get into the nuts and guts of it.
What inspired this?
Taking the plunge and doing the solo thing has opened the floodgates for me. It’s given me the chance to do things that I haven’t let myself do before. When you’re in a duo it’s difficult to have your own voice. But now I’ve found one, I’m being a bit braver in terms of what I want to do. I’m finding more things that interest me and I understand myself more. It’s a result of that.
Your music reflects this too. All the releases do but perhaps the new Exit EP the most…
It’s been liberating. I can be self-indulgent and take time on things and carve out a space for me. There are twinges of SpectraSoul in the music, that’s unavoidable because half of that was me, but I specifically want to make something that doesn’t sound like anything else. A lot of people have remarked that about the new EP, which I take as a massive compliment.
Definitely. Or it taps into different reference points. Didger, for example, nods to an era that not everyone is referencing right now.
A lot of what I’m doing taps into that Quarantine era. Early-to-mid 2000s. That was one of my favourite eras. I’ve started using breaks a lot again. The whole EP is very drum focused. It’s a reflection of all the music I’ve been inspired by over the years. I know what I like about D&B and that’s channelled into the Workforce project. I could never have done tracks like Didger without being bolder and braver about what I do. It’s just a drum break, pads and a synth. It worked, so I finished it without over-thinking. The mixdown holds me back a little because of the world we live in, but I’m being as spontaneous and getting better at drawing the line. The track Your Moves is the same as the demo version I sent to Darren. I was happy with the vibe, Darren said ‘this is the one, don’t touch it.’
Proof you don’t have to lose sleep / hair / years over mixdowns?
Yeah. But you still need those long stressful sloggy days. That’s the preparation for the quick days to happen when they do. You have to hate it sometimes to love it other times. It’s the nature of the beast.
How about the nature of music in general for you this year?
I hate this type of question because I’m honestly shit at listening to music!
Because you over-analyse things from a producer perspective?
Maybe a little. Obviously I love music but if I look at my playlists then there’s nothing new compared to previous years. On days when I’m just doing admin I’ll have Radio 6 on which is great because I discover new music, but when it’s your job to make music and you’re playing it during the weekend, you don’t get a huge amount of time to listen to it the way you used to.
How about in the realms of drum & bass?
Well DLR is killing it, he’s got funk emanating from him. Klinical has got a lot of good music. Random Movement had some great tracks on his album. Satl, Dogger & Mindstate, Alix Perez, Jubei and Breakage are all making great tracks. Obviously Alix Perez continues to set new benchmarks. There’s been a lot of great music this year and I think part of that comes down to the whole collaborative and supportive community vibe that’s come back among a lot of us. We used to have that when I started and I’ve always found that inspiring.
That’s been in place since many of you set up your own labels, right?
Maybe a little, but we’re all just helping each other out a lot more full stop. Me, Breakage, Skeptical, Darren, DLR. We’re all in these Whatsapp groups and sharing creative ideas and ideological ideas in terms of our scene. There’s an energy and move towards making some changes and offering some different experiences to clubbers. Something we talk about a lot is the phone culture and people filming clips or going to clubs to say they’ve been there instead of being there to have the experience.
Did you even go clubbing if you didn’t post a selfie from there?
Ha. I don’t know how you avoid it; maybe darker rooms, possibly try and encourage people to keep their phones away. This all goes back to the smoking ban. It changed the dynamic of the dancefloor so much. But I think bottom line we want people to value the music and musical experiences more than sometimes it feels we do.
How would you do it?
I don’t know. That’s what we’re trying to work out. But one thing that’s important that it’s the smaller clubs that can offer this type of alternative and they’re being shut down left right centre. That’s really dangerous. It means new artists won’t have places to cut their teeth. This is something I want to focus on as Workforce. I know the circuit well through playing as part of SpectraSoul. I know the promoters and the clubs I want to support. The ones who are doing it in the right way or for the right reasons.
Big these places up!
Bristol has a lot of them. I’ve always loved the Thekla, Trinity Centre and the new club Loko. In Brighton you have The Volks. It’s got a bad reputation but, for me, it’s the purest D&B club.
Yeah for being crusty and dirty. It’s got a big rig, and that’s about it.
That’s the best type of club!
Exactly. Everything’s become so sterilised and clean. Other places in the UK I love are Amusement 13 in Birmingham, Hidden in Manchester where they have Hit N Run. I could go on…
Smaller venues are the lifeblood really aren’t they?
They’re the ones that need looking after. Promoters need a shout, too. They’re so important to breaking an act. It’s not just you going in to play and them making money off you attracting a crowd so they can make money, you’re getting promotion from them as well. I think we need to go back to that. It’s super important to be working with promoters off the bat, give them the opportunity to promote you. Especially the smaller ones who are fighting the current trend where people are more willing to pay £75 to see 20 acts than they are £20 for seeing five acts. It’s a funny one. I want to be behind the development of the underground because I think there’s so much potential. The underground side of the music is stronger than it’s ever been so it’s time to try and develop the underground side of clubbing and provide an alternative experience.
What do you think of Kemal’s ideas on conscious clubbing?
Yeah I like that. He’s right; it’s not about telling people what they can’t do, it’s about making people feel like there’s a different way to do things. Clubbing isn’t about taking pictures and chatting about it while you’re there. It’s about going out, having an incredible experience and then telling people about it. The culture at large feels disposable, transient and not like real experiences. I think we need to be offering something real where people have an emotional reaction to music that’s not based around videos they take or likes they get. I’ve never had a good experience reading a book or watching a movie when half my head is on the phone, for example…
Amen. So who else or what else has inspired you this year?
I’ve been working really hard these last two years, so I might not be the best person to ask. I haven’t paid as much attention because I need to keep things moving myself. For me personally it’s been an interesting year. A learning year. Taking a chance is a good thing; it brings back that excitement and risk factor. That’s important in the creative process. If things are safe and predictable then things are a bit ‘meh’ and ‘bleurgh’. Taking risks and really pushing to do something different is very exciting.
Ivy Lab and High Contrast have said similar things in these interviews. Kemal said the same thing in his interview last month. Risks are great!
Yeah I think so. It’s about understanding how you approach risks and how you approach imperfection. These last few years I’ve been working on self-development and I feel a lot more comfortable and confident in my own abilities. I’m a lot more confident in putting releases together. I’ve mastered the last Late Night Soundtrack EP which will make up that series and I want to work on new projects. I’ve put out three EPs comprising 14 tracks in 2019. That’s given a massive kickstart to the project. It feels like a whole new lease of life…