Connections: Friction goes deep about the long journey to his debut album

Ashley Verse

Last Thursday represented a special moment for drum and bass: a milestone many had been anticipating for years, as one of the genre’s most beloved ambassadors achieved a career ambition. It was the long-awaited launch of Friction’s debut album Connections.

Celebrating the launch with an intimate crowd of only a few hundred at The Pickle Factory in London (you can watch the full set here), when Ed Keeley stepped back from the decks after an exhilarating performance, it was clear to see how much this occasion meant to him.

Looking completely overwhelmed by people in the crowd lifting their phones up at midnight to show their downloads of the album, Friction took to the mic to say ’Thank you all, I’m going to try not to get emotional…’

This was quite rightly an emotional moment for Friction, who set out on this album journey four years ago – a journey that at times seemed liked a distant dream. As an artist who began his production career late due to initially breaking through as a DJ opposed to a producer, it has not been the easiest road for Friction to arrive here.

With responsibilities running multiple labels, a hectic DJ schedule, being a father, and representing the voice of drum and bass on Radio One, Friction’s time spent producing his own music over the years has been sparse to say the least, and a good nights sleep has been non-existent…

Something had to give. Nearly one year ago, after six years at the helm, Friction made the decision to part ways with Radio One. It was a difficult choice leaving a role he truly loved, but one that needed to be made in order to allow him the time to focus on finishing Connections.

UKF caught up with Friction following his launch party to discuss his debut album and to delve into the journey he has been on in order to reach this milestone. This is the deepest and most revealing interview Ed has ever given.

Well Thursday night was special… The long-awaited album launch!

The vibes from the crowd were absolutely insane! The crowd were going off to the heavy stuff, but when I slipped in a dirty roller they’d start going nuts also. I was like – Oh my God you guys are absolutely amazing. The way they reacted to the tunes and the drops was actually blowing me away a little bit to be honest… It was all pretty overwhelming.

You were clearly quite emotional about it all. It looked as though you were having to hold back the tears during your speech…

Haha I know! I was a little bit… It was tough. My manager said to me ‘You do need to say something’, so I started talking and I kept going and going, but when people began chanting ‘We love you Friction, we do’ I was like – oh my this is going to get me… I can’t let it!

Has it actually sunk in yet that you’ve released your debut album?

Sort of… I need to just sit down and take it in. I specifically took the following evening off to chill, take my son to football, and get a Nando’s. I’ve been working on this project for four years, so it’s going to take me a little while to get my head around it. I’m a bit lost right now because all I’ve been saying is ‘when I do my album’, so now I’m a bit unsure of what to talk about…

You’ve earned a Nando’s. This album has been a long time coming…

The album has been a long time coming, but I’ve done things back to front. You get a lot of people who produce and then get asked to DJ, whereas I broke through fifteen years ago as a DJ. It was getting to the situation where I was beginning to look around me though. I used to pride myself on being able to play three deck vinyl sets – but it was getting harder to do and the vinyls would constantly skip because they weren’t set up properly. I used to spend hours on flights to destinations like Japan and America only for the needles to skip… I felt like it was a dying art as people didn’t seem to care.

So a change of direction was needed?

It was at this moment I told myself that I needed to start focusing on my production career. This was about six or seven years ago. Before that I’d made tracks and they’d done well, but they’d always been collabs or tracks that someone had helped me with. I wanted to be able to sit down on my own and make a tune from start to finish. That was my goal. It has been good in some ways, but also quite bad towards the end because I took too much on. Obviously I worked at Radio One for nearly six years, which I loved, but I should have left earlier.

How come?

Because I was literally making myself ill with the amount of work I was doing… Towards the end of that Radio One period, with the workload I had, I was not well. It was a mad feeling leaving because part of you is like – are you really going to leave a Radio One show? That was a year ago now, and I would never have finished my album if I had carried on. God knows what state I would have been in too because I was making myself ill with DJing, the radio show, production, Shogun A&R, Elevate, Maraki, being a father. This was not good for me. It was a hard decision, but one that had to be done.

It’s crazy how much you used to juggle…

I was struggling… There was so much to do all the time, it wasn’t good. And you know what, in this day and age, you’ve got to look at mental health and stress. I was under a lot of stress and wasn’t actually being the best me. I was in a really bad way, constantly worrying about this or that – would I get my show done, a tune on the label that an artist wanted like this, but I thought should be like this. Then I’d be slaving away in the studio – oh that tune isn’t right, or ahh I need to get my set ready for this weekend, I need to make sure I’ve got fresh tunes. It was all on top of me and as a result I was not in a good place mentally or physically. I was absolutely ruined.

You had a lot of responsibility resting on your shoulders.

I think that the music industry is quite an unforgiving place for stress and work. It’s on us as music producers and DJs to keep going constantly. It’s so important that we are on top of our game. To do that causes stress, and stress can cause problems. At the end of the day, life in general and our wellbeing is more important than the job. No matter how much we love our jobs, and I love what I do and thank my lucky stars every day that I got my dream job, the body has to come first. We have to look after ourselves. Put health before everything else.

I imagine the demand of the radio show was particularly intense?

Oh there was such a big demand. You know, people would say to me ‘It’s only a day a week, you’ve only got to pop up there and record it… What’s the problem?’ They didn’t understand! I was trying to reflect a complete cross section of drum and bass. To construct everything into a two to three hour show took a long time. Similar to an artist, you’re trying to put this painting together each week. I was running on three to four hours sleep a night, and that is not enough… I put my heart and soul into that role, but it was the right decision to leave because it freed up so much more of my time to work on the album.

Despite the stress it caused at times, during the radio days you must have came across so much musical inspiration to help kickstart your productions.

Camo & Krooked… At that point in my life when we made Stand Up, my production skills were not great. I worked alongside them and would just sit there watching in awe. This was the moment it all came to me, it was a reality check. I was like – Oh my God, if I’m going to be a stand alone producer, these are the levels I need to be hitting. Those guys are wizards in the studio. Working with Camo & Krooked was the production wake up call I needed. Ever since then everything has been about honing my craft.

Clearly they had an impact on you, as I get the impression you really like to dedicate time to perfecting your productions – the best example I can think of is Freak.

That took a lot of versions to get right… The top line of it was designed in a certain way, but it didn’t transpire that well to a drum and bass format. The original person who wrote the vocal was Mali, but we couldn’t use it, so we had to find someone else to sing it. We came across Josh Barry and he absolutely smashed it! It happens quite regularly with my productions – All Nite is another one that went through loads of versions. With every tune I do, I keep going back in to get it completely right.

Was it the same for Commotion? I’m pretty sure you were playing that track in your sets long before the album release.

Yeah Commotion was one of the first album tracks! It came from ten minutes of madness at the end of a studio day. I recorded that up at Brad Ellis’ Studio in London. We had a session with Jem Cooke and actually spent the day writing a different song, but we weren’t getting it right. The day before, myself and Brad had been working on the beat for Commotion, so we asked Jem to check it out, but she was like ‘I’ve got to go in ten minutes guys.’

The last thing you wanted to hear…

Literally. We quickly played the tune to her and she was freestyling on the spot, coming up with a vibe. She then ran out of the studio and left us with this random vocal. Brad and I listened back and were like this is going to be a tune! She didn’t sit there writing for ages, it was literally the first thing that came into her head. It’s so crazy.

Amazing! So how come you held the track back for so long?

With Commotion, I started writing it three years ago and it was one of the first tracks where I said to myself – I can genuinely do this… I can make this album work! But you would not believe the amount of tweaks on that track. I must have bounced off forty versions! I’m quite an OCD person you see… So I have to go back in and make these insane little tweaks that no one will notice. But that’s where my production skills have developed, as now I have to get these elements perfect.

It’s good how pedantic you are with your music!

It is, but at the same time it’s also unfortunate because I’m not a natural studio engineer… I just love things being neat and tidy and put together in a way where they fit together nicely. I’m the kind of guy who walks around the house tidying everything. My missus says to me ‘You never actually clean anything, you just put stuff in piles and make it look neat.’ That’s my OCD summed up…

Nothing wrong with being tidy… Was it a similar story for other tracks on the album?

There are certain tracks I’ve been working on for ages. I’d worked on and off on Dancing for about two years trying to get it right. Whereas tracks like Forever Dub, which is probably one of my favourite songs on the album, I did right at the end of the album process. My manager said to me ‘You’re close, but we need one more really strong tune.’ I was like – oh my God… I can’t, I’m done. But I started writing this beat and Kiko did the top line for it, then it all came together after that. That was the inspiration I needed! That’s how music works sometimes.

Everyone needs those moments of inspiration. So with the album, did you plan the direction you wanted it to go, or did it also just come together?

The album just kind of came together. In my mind, I wanted to do an album that epitomised what I got into the music for – which was Renegade Hardware and Metalheadz at the beginning because I made quite hard music back in the day. Take Killing me for example – I wanted to make a song that had a catchy melody, but the actual drum and bass body of it was hard. This is combined with tracks like Ultrafunk, which is more of a modern day dance floor record, and Fall Away with Indiana – which is a cold liquid tune. I’ve also tried to incorporate classic rave elements into the album.

Like in Blue?

Blue in particular yeah, as it takes elements from the old school rave days. I’ve basically tried to say – this is me and this is the music I like. There’s also the intro track Connections – that’s like old school, deep, future sound of London vibes. I wanted the album to be a journey, so people could be taken through all of these different styles. But I also wanted it to be cohesive and sit on a dance floor well.

Particularly with your DJ sets, you always push a broad spectrum of influences, so it only feels right to mirror that scope in your album.

And that’s the whole Connections thing! When I was two thirds of the way through, my manager said to me ‘You really need to get this album concept sorted…’ At the time, I hadn’t even considered the concept. I thought to myself – what do I do… I sort of connect, don’t I? I’m constantly travelling around getting flights and automobiles, connecting from here to there to get to a gigs.

More than 80 raves during summer wasn’t it?

Haha yeah! So that was one element to the concept, but I also feel like I’ve always tried to connect musically by bringing together different sub-genres. I was really pleased with the theme because it sums up what I do. Also, having the intro track and making that connection was important as it’s like a story. That is my life. Without sounding too deep… That’s me waking up, starting the day, getting organised, and travelling to a gig. The intro was me trying to explain my life through a tune. 

It’s fitting that Linguistics features on the intro, considering he has been on this journey with you for years.

Definitely! I wanted to make an intro that really catches people. I’ve got to give a nod to SP:MC also because back at the start it was myself and him, then it was Max. Both are amazing MCs, so I had to put Stew in Connections also. At the beginning you have him and afterwards you’ve got Max. I was really happy with how it turned out as it tells the story of my journey.

That’s how the whole album plays out too – like a dancefloor mix where you’re taking the listener on a journey.

And that’s exactly how I tried to do it! Nowadays with streaming and everything, people are like – you don’t need to create a journey, but I could not do the album without it being a journey. It has to be a journey – something that tells a story. People will shuffle play the album, but for those who listen to it in its entirety, they will get a journey.

Amen. Speaking of journeys, working alongside JP Cooper on Dancing represents just how far you’ve come musically.

Absolutely! When you are a music producer and you can work with world class vocalists and song writers, you feel so blessed and lucky to do it. It’s funny because the way we met was after I randomly sat next to him on the tube and said ‘Er, mate… I think we should make some music together.’ I’m really proud of Dancing. We went to town on that tune to make it as good as possible. We even recorded live horns in there – it’s a real song. Part of where I wanted to get to as a producer was to make music like that.

Dancing even made it onto Love Island…

I’ve heard it so many times on telly! I’ll just turn it on and the song will randomly come on. It’s so weird hearing your music appear on these things… I am all for it though because I just want my music to get heard. It’s random, surreal and that’s how I feel now that my album is out. I’ve been building up to this moment for so long, I can’t quite believe it’s now out there. It’s time to enjoy it. We need to try and improve on the sleep side of things though… That’s a work in progress.

Friction – Connections is out now