As one of the late great Med School’s biggest success stories, travel-loving songwriter and all-round music extraordinaire Etherwood is finally touching down on Hospital Records for his first full-length LP on the label – Neon Dust.
In many ways his new work picks up from his last album In Stillness, an album that was written in isolation on a small island in Finland. However, the latest 20 track LP takes much more of a stark look inwards.
“Neon Dust describes the essence of a world just beyond reach, one we often glimpse but can’t sustain. An ocean in which we rarely dip our feet.”
Tunes like Begin By Letting Go and Spoken from his 2013 debut Med School LP introduced the world to his unique twist on the genre, allowing songwriting skills to come to the forefront and the drum and bass template to seemingly dissolve into the background. Neon Dust, however, strips back these boundaries further than ever, revealing Etherwood in perhaps his most unhindered, lucid form.
The hour and a half LP jauntily traverses through a multitude of states, from the unashamedly liquid, the jungle-inspired rinse-outs and the live-instrument oriented tracks that truly demonstrate his passion and gift for songwriting. As is expected, we are treated to collaborations from the likes of Fred V, DRS and Zara Kershaw – the latter of whom you can check out the first single Lighthouse below. New names to the drum and bass scene are also present, in the form of stunning vocal talents Lily Budiasa and Sigrún Stella.
As is clear from our chat, his music reflects his personality; calm, collected and wholly unique, and it is therefore no surprise that his output often holds a reflective aura that resonates deeply with fans of his art. Check out our full conversation below.
Hey! How was playing your first festival back at Standon Calling?
It was epic mate, I’d forgotten how much I’d missed it and you could tell everyone was glad to be back at it. It felt like we’ve been in a time warp for a year and a half, before emerging and finding everything exactly the same as before. It was so bizarre. On the other hand, it almost felt like playing for the first time again.
Was that the first time playing out some of your album tunes properly then?
I played a seated Bristol Mix Sessions show a few weeks back which was the first time I’d heard them on a system. This was the first time I’d played them out in a festival setting however; it’s great to hear them on a system after all this time.
Music and travelling are clearly heavily intertwined for you, especially with your last couple of main projects. How about with the new album?
Well, because of the COVID situation and the fact that no one was really travelling we bought a new van in November (and sold our old one to Steve BCee funnily enough). We’re in the middle of converting it. I really missed travelling and I get a lot of inspiration being on the road, so for this album I stayed in a little beach shack in Cornwall which was owned by someone I met on a meditation retreat. It was completely out of season in October, but I felt the need to get away just for a couple of weeks and be in a different environment on my own. Almost as soon as I arrived, all these ideas started coming to me and it reminded me how important it is for me to switch up my surroundings. If I was in the same spot or studio every day, then I think I’d really struggle to write. I really feed off the travel.
Do you think it’s reflected in your music?
Definitely. For this album, it was about getting into a different frame of mind. With the last album In Stillness I went off to Finland in a little cabin, so in a way this was similar. It was interesting to go to Cornwall at the time I did in October. The weather was pretty crazy, blazing sun one minute, thunder and rain storms. It was inspirational really. The room I was staying in was full of windows and the moon was beaming most evenings, the sky full of stars. I wrote a lot at night, it was really special.
Does the name Neon Dust tie into this?
Neon Dust is a term from one of my favourite books The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test which is essentially about the hippies, following Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. I’ve always loved the idea of Neon Dust and have wanted to use it either as a track title or an album name for a while. It kind of explains the essence of an ‘other world’ I suppose, one like ours but shimmering with this neon dust.
In terms of the music on the album, halfway through or so it takes this fairly unexpected turn with some more live-instrument oriented tracks which I loved.
Yeah, so basically for this album we ended up with about 50 tunes of varying styles. Starting with so many tunes is quite unusual for me, so Hospital and I talked about how we were going to condense it for the album and how strict we were going to be. We ended up with 20 tunes, so it’s quite a big album. I never particularly set out to make a drum and bass album, that just seems to be where my natural passion in writing lies. I suppose I was experimenting a little bit more but none of it was forced. I’d just pick up the guitar and I’d start writing something that was maybe a bit slow or a bit of a waltz, and I’d just roll with it instead of thinking that it’s not going to go anywhere because it’s not drum and bass. I was just allowing these songs to write themselves and then see what we were left with in the end. It’s nice that a lot of them are on this album.
The album almost resolves itself in a way. You go through this journey and then the album closes off with The Map (Of My Inside World) and Into Oblivion, two classic jungle-influenced tracks that feel distinctly Etherwood. Are you a big start-to-finish album listener yourself?
That’s cool to hear because I really am. I think an album is a journey, and in today’s climate with streaming it can be easy to skip tunes. It’s not like back in the day when you put your vinyl on, listen, flip the vinyl over and listen to the other side. It’s the same with CDs even, obviously you can skip through, but you’ve bought this physical thing and you want to listen to it properly. You had to save up your £10/£15 and you feel proud and want to cherish it. With my old albums there was more of that emphasis, but I knew for this one it would be predominantly streamed. Hopefully the listener will get a bit lost in it.
It’s been eight years since the first album which feels crazy to me! How does it feel for you?
Wow it’s gone so quickly. I feel like I’ve been quite busy in that time with this now being my fourth album, and so much has changed. The whole thing has been a whirlwind since that first album came out on Med School and really it still feels like yesterday. That was pretty much my first release in the drum and bass world, so it was like being catapulted into this new life. I’ve been riding that wave ever since and it feels incredible.
Has your approach to writing music changed much in that time?
When I first started producing, I was making a lot of downtempo, ambient, dubstep and a bit of drum and bass. I was flicking between genres a lot and wondering where my style was. Drum and Bass always seems the most natural to me. Across all the albums there’s been some non-d&b tunes, but as time went on, I started feeling even less constricted by having to write at 174bpm. That’s where the process has changed a bit for me and I feel like have the creative license to explore more.
I imagine the setting makes a big difference as well.
Yeah, so I had a little flat in London where I used to write a lot. I think as soon as I went away to Finland and started travelling, it was this breath of fresh air. It created this new way of writing. You’d be driving through the Alps and then this piano line comes into your head as you come round the corner and see all these mountains and the sun’s beaming down. There’s been a few times where I’ve pulled up in a lay-by and jumped into the back of the van to get my laptop out and start writing. It’s like taking photos in music form, collecting all these ideas and then taking it all back to the studio. That’s the vibe for me, and I really struggle without that now.
On the album you’ve got a few great collaborations from people like Zara Kershaw, DRS and Fred V, but also some lesser-known names like Lily Budiasa and Sigrún Stella. How did you come into contact with them?
That was through Megan at Hospital Records. She’s amazing and reached out to a load of vocalists on my behalf. On the last album we only had one vocalist FEELS who – like Lily and Sigrún – was new to the world of drum and bass. When chatting to Megan about the style of vocalists that we were looking for on this album, we wanted to go down a more folky route as opposed to the pop side and standard topline writers. Megan recommended Lily and Sigrún who are both incredible vocalists. As soon as you get a vocal back on a tune you know whether it’s right or not, and there was definitely some magic in these.
How about some of the more recognisable names?
It was nice to have DRS on the album, he’s a good friend of mine and one of my heroes in drum and bass. To work with Zara again is lovely as well, especially as our track Souvenirs went down really well before! I sing on a lot of my own tunes which always allows a continuous theme. Neon Dust is a self-exploration so I was a little bit concerned that if we were sourcing the tunes out to other vocalists we’d get a lot of tunes about breakups, love and themes that weren’t particularly relevant. They all came back really well, however. There’s a bit of a watery theme through the album and both Lily and Zara came back with fitting stuff.
Your music does seem to resonate with people on quite a deep level. Does this drive you creatively?
It definitely does, yeah. It means so much to read messages from people explaining my music has helped them in one way or another. To be able to help people out and affect people in that way is really special and one of the most beautiful things about music itself. I’m so grateful to everyone that listens to my music. It’s easy as a musician to go through periods where you have a lack of confidence, however sometimes all you need is just one message from somebody saying ‘don’t stop what you’re doing’.
Making music can also be very therapeutic, so I guess it goes both ways.
It really does. It comes from such a deep place in me, so for it to also affect someone else in that way is special because it’s essentially the same energy that comes from within me that they are feeling. There’s a bond there. For me, there’s no better form of therapy than writing. It’s incredible, and you get so lost in it.
There’s this ‘flow state’ when it comes to music where you can lose track of the real world.
Yeah, time just disappears. You lose yourself. It’s beautiful.
You did the Hospital podcast recently where you shone a light on some newcomers. Is there anyone you’ve got your eye on currently?
There’s a good friend of mine based in Amsterdam called Coastal who’s been doing some stuff with Liquicity. He’s awesome and I’ve got a feeling that big things are coming. When I did that podcast though, the quality of the demos I got sent really hit me. Some amazing tunes in there. Production levels are getting stronger and stronger.
100%. What’s next for you?
There’s a big visual project we’re working on to coincide with the album. I don’t want to give too much away but I wanted to do a continuous piece of film, soundtracked by some of the songs from the album. I was down at the Dolby Studios in London recently mixing a few bits in atmos. It’s all exciting stuff so keep an eye out! More on that soon…