“You’ve got to make the best of a shit situation, haven’t you?” grins Wilkinson over Zoom one cold January morning.
Sitting in his London house with a cup of coffee, he’s the dictionary definition of chipper, even though barely two days had passed since he’d returned from a New Zealand tour.
By all rights he should be jetlagged and jilted but there’s an energy about him that belies any amount of touring he could possibly do right now… After the two years we’ve all experienced, he’s eager to make up for lost time and get back to what he loves doing. If the UK weather wasn’t so grim and soggy he’d be rolling his sleeves up.
It’s an infectious energy. And you don’t need to have a video call with him to catch his vibe, either. Just listen to Cognition – his third solo album that’s out today.
One of two albums he’s released during these Covidy times (the other being Portals with Sub Focus, which we discussed with them both at the time) Cognition is the sound of Wilkinson flipping all lockdown negatives into a massive, rushy, ravey, emotional positive. It’s the sound of him remembering everything he’s ever loved about this culture, the music and the creative process.
Collaborating with vocalists close to him who he’s either worked with before or is incredibly inspired by – ranging from the currently unstoppable Becky Hill who co-wrote and sang the massive Afterglow with him to his partner Iiola – he’s achieved one of drum & bass music’s holy grails: a fully dancefloor-aimed album that never dips in tempo or diverts away from D&B, yet never crosses over into the classic ‘collection of bangers’ sensation so many D&B albums end up as.
At points it’s gentle, emotional and sincere, but it’s also riddled with a vibe that ensures all tunes will work on the dancefloor and vitality that won him the scene’s attention in the first place with seminal RAM cuts like Moonwalker, Automatic and Take You Higher. And it’s all down to him turning the biggest negative we’ve all shared into a huge positive. So much so he also launched a label during the time, too!
Here’s how he did it…
How was New Zealand?
It was amazing man, one of my favourite places to go to in the world and D&B is so huge over there now. It’s been great, looking back over the last 10 years of touring over there. Starting in the small clubs and now the gigs are massive arenas out there. It’s amazing to see how much D&B has grown over there and it’s such a beautiful country, too.
Totally! And the excitement of travelling is back post-lockdowns…
Exactly. When I went out there in May last year it was Covid-zero, so it was very surreal, not wearing a mask or anything like that. But this time, New Zealand was just coming out of lockdown so my shows were some of the first they’d had in three months and you could really feel that sense of relief. It was a real privilege to play those shows.
Ah beautiful. Some super sick photos of you BMX riding out there too…
Yeah I had a lot of fun. All the things I’m into, New Zealand seems to be the best place for that.
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Would you ever be tempted to do an Alix Perez? Life events have taught us that we can be anywhere in the world and be connected…
As much as I love New Zealand, I’d rather think about spending two or three months out there and skip the winter here. And to be honest, I’m in a privileged position to even think about doing that. I love London though, I love the culture, it’s very inspiring for me as a musician and it’s home for me so I’d never leave here permanently.
Nice. Speaking of which. Let’s chat about Cognition. There’s a real vitality and energy to the album. The type of Wilkinson we first heard when you came through. Hungry for, and inspired by, the dance. When did write the album? Was it between lockdowns? Or when we were away from the dancefloor and you were missing it?
Thank you man, that’s nice to hear. So tracks like Frontline, I remember writing that pre-Covid. The end of 2019, but a lot of it was written after I wrote Portals with Nick. I was still in the zone from that and was enjoying the creative process so a lot of it came at the end of 2020, going into 2021. I was in the studio a lot at that time.
That was a bleak lockdown wasn’t it? Like the worst. I had the worst depression I’d ever had. Was this album the sound you thrashing the frustrations out?
Yeah same actually. It was a weird one. A lot of my friends and peers were all heading out to New Zealand but I was doing a tour there later in the year in May so that was tough. And I think we all went through a lot of mental issues. I was super going in on things I didn’t need to. I was getting anxieties over really weird things that don’t usually come into your head when you’re cracking on with life. I went through some therapy, though, and it was an opportunity to evaluate where I’m at and where I’ve been. Life has been very intense over the last 10 years, with most of it being on the road, too.
So that left me feeling quite inspired and I felt no pressure at all. Having written Portals with Nick, and going in on the harder parts of the production process, I was in that zone so I thought I’d crack on and see what came of it. Plus, we were allowed to have sessions from around that time, so that was really inspiring – the songwriters and vocalists I was working with all had this amazing emotional creativity to them and something to say. More than what you’d have if you’re going through sessions every day. It was a unique opportunity to embrace that moment and a lot of the sessions were about evoking that feeling we’d lost for so long. It was a unique time.
Ah that’s great to hear. You can feel that, too. Please big up the songwriters and vocalists.
There are too many to list, I know I’ll miss someone out and that wouldn’t be fair. I big them all up in the album notes and they all know how special they are to me and the album. A lot of them I’ve had past projects with before and a great connection with.
I think the third solo album is one when you can relax a bit. I wanted to outdo my first album. The second album is always the tricky one, but with this one I went back to the sounds I really love and I tried to cover everything; all the subgenres I love and all the influences of the music I love outside of drum & bass, too. It’s been great to see the reactions when I play the music in the club, I’m really proud of it.
That’s great. It’s really interesting as it’s a club album, but it’s not just a collection of bangers either. Like it is a collection of proper bangers, but it’s arranged and delivered in a way that really tells a story.
I think a lot of that is down to the vocals on the album. Sharlene Hector is on there and she absolute belts it with her great soulful voice, but there are a lot of soft and very personal moments on there. That’s the feeling I get from the album – it’s personal, it’s something you can listen to in isolation and it warms you up.
And with Becky on there, too. I mean, Afterglow was so big I was worried there would be too many expectations. Like what can we possibly do from there? But I had this tune with Toby Scott who’s a great musician and I knew Becky would be the perfect voice for it. I whistled this idea to her and asked her to sing it softly. She’s great at belting it out, as we all know, but I asked her to come up with this really gentle and soft approach. Her hook and those lyrics were just amazing. As soon as I heard that it was like wow.
Another wow moment was doing a song with my partner Shannon (Iiola). That was an amazing experience. She came up with some really vivid, visual lyrics. And the way it’s sung was perfect. I could go on about all the other vocalists on there. These were beyond your usual collaborations because of the experience we’d all been in.
Amazing to work with your partner, too! Even more personal…
It was beautiful and we had Tom Havelock on that session and he’s such a talented man. When you have a session with a vocalist you usually have a topline writer in there too and everyone is vibing with each other. At that point during the lockdowns it just felt like there was so much emotion in the room. The idea of closing your eyes and being in the rave and hearing those sketchy synth sounds…
Oh goosebumps!!! Then on the flip you have tracks like Release Valve bang in the middle as a real booster moment..
That track was definitely inspired by Andy and my roots coming into the scene. I remember playing that in Warehouse Project and it was like, ‘Wow!’ I wasn’t expecting such a reaction. It’s got that Prodigy influence and the early Ram sound. I’m really proud I’ve covered all angles that I’m known for and sounds I love.
It’s interesting as roadtesting is a huge part of D&B production mixdown-wise, and this is a very dancefloor album, but you couldn’t roadtest for much of the time. How did you keep that level and mixdown standard?
There are so many great new talents coming through with amazing mixdowns so I spent a lot of time A/Bing and referencing people’s mixdowns and going back to mixdowns of my own which I knew worked well.
I also had the opportunity to go to New Zealand in May and do a run of shows and there was no better place to test things out. So I knew it was on-point from there and it gave me time to refine things and really go in on everything. We aimed to deliver the album by September last year but I took a few extra months to look at every little detail and make sure I’m happy with it. Then I took a break from it, toured, and when I got the masters back I sat back and listened to the whole thing and it was such a great experience.
I imagine that’s a unique experience? Too late to go back in on it and also very different to hearing it on the dancefloor…
Yeah it’s mad actually. Late last year I was going over the tiniest of things. Tweaking things like 0.1dB on things, stuff you wouldn’t notice. It’s super irritating and not actually good for my mind! But I know I’ve done things as well as I can. Giving it space then listening in the studio – all those imperfections, or what I may have thought were imperfections, gives the album it’s character. Like little ringing frequencies and certain sounds, it gives it character.
That’s the soul of something!
Absolutely yeah. I like the rough around the edges style. I’m really happy with it and how the reactions been to the singles so far and the artwork. I’m so happy with it, it feels really good.
Sick. So this is amazing – you’ve come out of lockdown with two albums. This and Portals, which was also heavily influenced by the situation we were all in. Two very personal albums where you’ve pushed yourself.
You’ve got to make the best of a shit situation, haven’t you? It was an opportunity; I’d been touring so much I was missing the studio and I was thinking of taking a year off the road to be in the studio anyway. I love touring but I felt I was sacrificing a lot of creative time for it. So this was an opportunity, although it was under bad vibes; going in the studio has been my escape and I’m really happy I’ve made the most of it. It seemed like the situation was never ending but we are coming out of it and I’ve got loads of new music to enjoy that with.
AND a new label! That’s probably a result of having the time to proper execute your ideas too, right?
Yeah it was. I’m quite opinionated when it comes to music. I know what I like and what I like playing in my sets and I just wanted to give something back and have another creative outlet. I’m super involved in the label, the A&R and the creative side. All the music I’m backing fully and playing. It feels really good to be able to say, ‘I love this and I’m fully invested in it.’ And so far it’s been amazing. The reaction has been great.
Krakota seems like a whole new animal!
Haha he does! I want to shine a light on him and all the other guys on the label. Seb’s been a mate for years and he’s made a lot of great music over the years. But for me he’s always been a very sick dancefloor DJ so I wanted to see him make more dancefloor music. Take Me There is such a special tune and when I first heard it I was like ‘yes! This is what we need’. And we’ve had so many great records off everyone on the label. I’m super excited about the label and everyone I’ve signed. It’s really inspiring.
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I’m inspired by that post you made about people raving solo and connecting through your post. It was a really nice touch, because of people having to isolate or people who haven’t even got to go raving yet because it was lockdown when they turned 18. It’s great to see a DJ recognising that and trying to help. I actually saw your video when I was heading out on my own as my raving partner got Covid.
Oh wow, how did you feel? How was it?
Anxious as hell at first but within minutes I found new friends, saw some old ones. It was very liberating. But I’m older and know people out and about. People just getting into raving don’t have that privilege. Did you see people linking through that post?
I did and I still get messages now about people who’ve found friends and linked through that. I’m so happy to know that’s happened. I remember what it was like when I first got into this music and not very many of my friends were into drum & bass and I remember going to things on my own and meeting people who’ve become friends for years – just through the music.
The thing I noticed in September that people were buying tickets but not turning up and we were wondering why that was and I think it’s because we’ve all been denied these events for so long that it gets very daunting. Some people, as you say, have never got to go raving, so they might duck out last minute because of anxieties.
There’s a lot of fear around, too. Threatening connotations of being in venues, even though everyone is doing their utmost to be safe and do things responsibly. So I wanted to balance that out a bit because it’s daunting.
I have it now. You know when you’re going to meet your mates and you’re the first one there? It’s like ‘ah shit, what do I do?’ It happened to me recently and I just went in and got a pint and stood at the bar and chilled. It was great. It’s really important to remember that and celebrate and encourage it.
Besides the music, the interactions and friendships you make through this culture are the best thing. And you never know who you’ll meet or what that person will bring to your life. Or what you can bring to theirs. That’s what’s exciting about this.
Absolutely. Across the board, too, but especially with D&B. We’re often the lone sheep in groups so when you meet fellow heads, it’s an instant link. We’ve managed to preserve that no matter how big the scene gets.
Totally and it is really big. It’s crossing over and it’s amazing to be part of and I think it’s important for DJs to be aware of that. To be aware of people on their own and to encourage being nice full stop, right? It’s been a shit couple of years and I think we need to come out of this better than we did before we came into it.
YES!! So finally – two albums and one label in the last two years. You seem super inspired. What’s next?
I’m going to concentrate on the label, I’ll be making some music, but the main thing is travelling. There are a lot of places in the world I’ve still never been to and want to explore and play music in. Not being able to travel these last few years had made me really appreciate that and think about where I haven’t been to much. So Asia, South Africa, India, South America, North America. We’ve been locked away for long enough, it’s time to get back out there and have some fun…
Wilkinson – Cognition is out now on Sleepless Music
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