“This feels like my first album all over again. I feel refreshed and excited like it’s all a new start…”
How often do you hear that from an artist who’s five albums, 30+ singles and 16 years deep into their life as a recording artist? No sense of jadedness or cynicism and a strong feeling that there’s still so much to explore, so many instruments to learn, techniques to develop and influences to understand…
It’s Summer 2017 and this is exactly where High Contrast is at.
This is where he’s been for a while now. And it’s largely down to the creative paths he’s explored making his new album: the long, long (LONG) awaited Night Gallery. Set to drop October 6 on 3Beat, over five years since his last album The Agony & The Ecstasy, Night Gallery is the sound of creatively re-energised and re-focused artist. An artist who’s relinquished a lot of the common concerns producers face – genre restrictions, purists reactions and even DJ compatibility – to write the album he truly wants to write.
The result is an album that explores a much wider musical continent than he’s ever breached before. Taking off where Shotgun Mouthwash and his Questions EP left us, Night Gallery takes in shades of disco, northern soul, blues, electronica and even wonky lofi house. Drum & bass remains the main strand running throughout – especially with the ice cold Moody Blue and the Gold Digger-esque Tobacco Road – but it’s clear a much wider creative net has been cast making this album, during which he’s learnt to play the guitar, taken to the mic and recorded at the Monnow Valley Studio where the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Oasis have all recorded historic albums.
Refreshed, excited and even talking about ideas for the next album after Night Gallery, we caught up with man born Lincoln Barrett to find out more…
In previous articles we’ve referred to Night Gallery as a return to Tough Guys but that’s a little misguided… This isn’t about going back to a previous chapter in your career, it’s about going forward isn’t it?
It is. But in a weird way it’s gone further back. There’s a lot of tunes in there that are the sound of my teenage years. Moody Blue has a feel – at least to me – has a feel of Goldie and Metalheadz which was my first contact to that type of sound. Shotgun Mouthwash goes back to me being a rapper in a hardcore band. The Beat Don’t Feel The Same goes back to the first house music I heard – the 90s filtered house and disco sounds which inspired me to sample disco records in drum & bass tracks. So yeah, this is me progressing and going forward as an artist but there’s a strong context of me looking back and seeing where all this comes from, too.
I’m hearing a lot of Chemical Brothers in the album too. I’m not sure if they’ve been an influence to you? They and Underworld, who you’ve worked with many times, have been kings at proving electronic acts don’t need to by ruled by genre or tempo.
Chemical Brothers definitely had an influence on me with tracks like Star Guitar and Block Rockin’ Beats. They were unavoidable in my teenage years. Growing up hearing bands like the Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim, The Prodigy, all these bands were their own genre. You could put them in a certain field but they have their own sound. That inspires me and is something I’m striving for.
There’s definitely been a High Contrast sound within your drum & bass since day one. How much of a challenge has that been to make sure the sound is also tangible in the other genres you’ve been exploring?
Quite a big challenge which made me think a lot about what my sound actually is anyway. There’s the uplifting, slightly melancholic sound which most people associate with me. But I can’t just have that because I’m also obsessed with contrast. I have to embrace the opposite of that – that’s the full contrast sound. When you have something with its opposite at the same time and it still makes sense; that’s how tracks like Shotgun Mouthwash and I’ll Get High fit into the scheme of things. I can’t present one sound, there has to be that level of contrast.
You mention I’ll Get High. That’s my favourite song on the album because I have no idea what’s going on it! You could imagine Andrew Weatherall playing it. Can I hear an Underworld influence in there?
Working with them definitely changed my perspective on everything really. With I’ll Get High I just followed my nose and let it take its own life. It draws on many influences – it actually started with a Kanye style hip-hop beat but then I started playing with the guitar and running vocals through FX pedals and playing synths. I recorded three six minute takes of me jamming and when I layered them together they fitted together to make a story. It was a very different style of working and came about in a way I couldn’t have perceived or envisioned.
You learnt to play the guitar for this album too, right?
Yeah after years of listening to garage rock and psychedelic rock I thought I’d have a go at it myself. I picked up a cheap guitar on eBay and the first track to come out of that experimentation was Shotgun Mouthwash. I’m not proficient in any way at all but limitations can lead to interesting results. I’m not looking to do a Slash here, I just want to find interesting sounds and ideas.
You made a lot of the album in the famous Monnow Valley Studios, right?
Some of it. I was mainly recording live drums in different ways that I’d never been able to do before. Basically I was very lucky to use the end of someone else’s session there and was able to create an in-house band and record them playing then use them as I would use samples.
I kinda get the feeling that Tobacco Road was recorded live there in that type of session vibe?
We recorded some of it there, some drums and pianos but it wasn’t recorded in that type of structure or set-up you’re imagining.
Is that you on the guitar and vocals though?
No no. That’s Gareth Evans, who’s also known as Undersound and one half of Casey Jones, playing the main guitar. The vocals? I wish it was! I’m not that good. I do sing on other songs though.
Lemme guess which songs you are singing on… Don’t You Go Out Of Mind?
Yep, that’s me.
No sorry. That’s a classical vocalist but it involved extreme manipulation and processing. I wanted it to sound otherworldly and cut it up in a way that you might not have heard before. It’s very fashionable to do big vocal melodies so I wanted to play with that idea but do it in a completely different way.
With Don’t You Go Out Of My Mind you hit some high notes. Did you have training for that?
The idea was to do a Beach Boys style and explore ways of bringing that influence into electronic music in a drum & bass format. I can just about do a falsetto naturally but I wish I had a better voice. The trick is to layer up your vocals enough times until it sounds good!
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone in drum & bass talk about doing a Beach Boys style track!
I don’t think I have either. That excited me. I’m trying to push the sonic scope of the album as far as I could while retaining that through-line that holds it together. I’m fully embraced in the concept of contrast. More than ever. I hope I can be that artist who people are never sure what’s coming next but come with me on that journey.
Let’s talk about the purists who might not appreciate the breadth of your explorations. Have you considered the inevitable backlash?
I think about it, of course. But my name is High Contrast – the idea that I might go from one extreme to the other has been in place all along. It’s on the tin and has been forever. But yes, I’ve definitely come through in one genre and will continue to make drum & bass but it won’t be the sole thing I do. I make the music for me, bottom line. It’s my way of coping with the world, it’s my outlet. I’m happy when I’m making things I really want to make. I have no control over what people think once the music is out there, so I’m just thinking about what I want to make next.
Five albums deep, I guess you’re way past that point anyway?
Definitely, but only just past that point! I feel a lot more in control and confident on this album. Maybe on my previous album I was chasing a sound too much? I feel I’m more relaxed and just having fun again rather than worrying about what people think.
It also sounds like you’re having fun with the drum & bass! Love On A 45 is a proper soulful workout, Tobacco Road is a nod to the Gold Digger era. These are references to that sound that many fans would originally associate and follow you for.
Yeah and I had a lot of fun with them. What’s great with those two examples is how they reflect my wider tastes of music such as northern soul on Love On A 45 and blues on Tobacco Road. That’s the theme of the album in many senses – me channelling all the sounds and styles and theories of music I love and get inspired by and presenting it with my own perspective.
There’s a nice bit of symmetry with the singers – Callum Beatie, Boy Matthews and yourself all feature twice. There’s no dominant lead singer throughout.
Yeah it worked out nicely in that way. I was just freestyling with ideas and working with different people and that symmetry was a happy accident if you like. I think the same vocalist on Remind Me and The Warning too, which was totally unintentional. We never went in with a concept or a contrived idea but I’m too contrary for that anyway and often self-sabotage my own plans or ideas anyway.
I like the idea of self-sabotaging and challenging your own ideas. Is this the first time you’ve gone in with a completely open agenda?
Since my first album True Colours, yes definitely. Coupled with the teenage inspirations this feels like my first album all over again. I feel refreshed and excited like it’s all a new start.
Amazing. What a year it’s been with the live show developing and the EP earlier this year. I’m assuming there’s a lot more bubbling away in the background. Maybe videos etc…
Maybe! I have a new philosophy of no gaps. I regret leaving such a long time between albums in the past and I already have a collection of ideas for what will follow Night Gallery. There will also be a live tour to support the album.
Has the live angle influenced how you write?
Without a doubt. This is the first album where I haven’t been thinking about how they’ll be DJ’d because they’ll be played live rather than mixed. After pulling back from DJing a bit I let go of the idea of having a certain set of bars or an intro and was writing with the idea of how we’ll play it live. Love On A 45 has an extra bar on each section which will throw out a DJ mix but I’m thinking more of the live and listening experience. Whether it’s DJ-friendly or not hasn’t been a worry of mine.
That must be very liberating?
It is yeah. As fun as DJing can be it affects you as an artist and does make you approach music in a very specific way. I wanted to break free of those considerations while I wrote this. DJing will always play a part in what I do, it’s in my DNA, but hopefully it won’t influence the music and creative process.
At the same time, we’ve seen you smash the hell out of Liquicity and Let It Roll recently. You’ve got that balance and schedule locked down!
Yeah we’ve got some live shows at other festivals too, so there’s a lot of variety and the contrast I enjoy.
Which festivals are you playing live at?
Reading and Leeds, which is especially significant as I first saw Roni Size and Reprazents at Reading as a teenager and that’s what really switched me on to drum & bass. It’s another one of those full circle moments that seem to happening a lot right now. I’m really looking forward to it.