WORDS

Exploring the dual life and prolific output of Black Barrel / Leo Cap

The process of writing music is no easy feat, especially when it’s as technically demanding as drum and bass is. With the development of technology over the last two decades, the standard of production required to release electronic music has set the bar very high. Someone’s music that has consistently managed to effectively translate onto sound systems without sacrificing progression, groove or funk is Black Barrel.

Hailing from St Petersburg, Evgenii Khmel’s music has made its way onto labels such as Metalheadz and Sofa Sound, but it’s his output on Dispatch Recordings which is the most notable. In 2018 he dropped his debut album, the murky Last Frontier, and he’s since kept the momentum going with countless singles and EPs. However, the time has already come for his second LP, Just Keep My Life, which signals a movement away from the dancefloor orientated techy dnb he’s become known for and it illustrates his ability to honestly express himself within the genre. The variety of moods within the album, including nostalgic jungle and spacious liquid, is a sign of what’s to come from Black Barrel in the future and cements his place as a producer who won’t fail to keep you engaged. 

We had a chat with Evgenii to understand more about this new direction to his drum and bass output, as well as his new dubstep alias and how a platinum Madonna LP inspired him to elevate his music. 

How are things for you?

Everything is pretty good. I was on my Australia and New Zealand tour when people started talking about COVID. I got back home and then the world went into lockdown. My time on tour was amazing and it played a really important role in this second LP because it was so inspiring. I met so many new people in a completely different part of the world. Lockdown after touring became an important time for resting, but I was still working and it led to this album. 

What was it about the tour that was so inspiring? 

It wasn’t really the music, drum and bass doesn’t give me a huge amount of inspiration. It was more about nature and the people. When I stayed in Dunedin, I was chilling for a couple days and listening to Base FM. I don’t normally listen to the radio but I found so many new artists from New Zealand. It was an amazing experience and they definitely have some great local talent there. 

Well we saw that New Zealand was one of the few places in the world that had events for most of 2020 and people realised how strong the music scene is there. Obviously they have incredible landscapes and scenery too. 

Yeah man, it’s not just because they were open but they are really friendly there too. Every country has some d*ckheads but it seems like they don’t have as many in New Zealand [laughs]. 

I guess that’s all you can ask for! When you’re on tour, do you notice many differences in the parties compared to the events in Russia?

Compared to the UK, I’m not very well known in Russia but the local scene is still trying to push me here. I really appreciate it because the heavier side of drum and bass is definitely more popular in Russia. There aren’t as many big promoters who are as interested in the deeper side of dnb because there isn’t as much money in it, but I’m happy with the smaller parties. Back in the day, clubs used to give promoters money to book artists but that doesn’t happen much anymore and now promoters are worried about losing money which is understandable. Respect to the people here who are throwing parties and trying to grow the new generation of artists. Drum and bass has given me so many miracles, there’s some sort of magic in the music.

What sort of miracles are you thinking of?

I’ve met so many people who’ve connected me to so many different things in life that I never would have expected. It’s difficult to say exactly what music has given me, but it’s all about the connections that I’ve made. 

It’s such a strong community and it’s amazing to see it connect people from all over the world. Am I right in thinking that the last year and a half has been pretty productive for you? 

During the pandemic I had time to rest after touring, to spend time with my family and chill. It also gave me time to work on this second LP. I have the freedom to do anything I like with Dispatch and all of the last 100 tracks that I’ve made have been signed so I’m quite confident in myself now. I’ve been collecting ideas, samples and using inspiration from my time in New Zealand. It’s why this LP isn’t necessarily for the dancefloor, it’s for your soul. I got back from tour and was so happy to be with my daughter and my wife, but then I also had the freedom to work on music. I channeled this energy into the album. 

You’ve also got this new 140 alias, Leo Cap. 

It’s been hard work having two projects on at the same time but I’ve managed to progress a lot within the dubstep scene and gain support from amazing artists and labels. It seems like it’s working well and I think it’s progressing quicker than when I started making drum and bass. I might not be the most well-known at the moment, but you can be sure that a lot of artists have my music on their USB’s. Having these two aliases allows me to experiment and it keeps me from going crazy because I have variety. I’ve been writing drum and bass for 10 years and it’s easy to get bored, so this is why the second LP is more melodic. My career started off focusing on dancefloor music to get the attention of fans and labels, but also to get more gigs. Liquid artists are good at getting the streaming numbers but they don’t get as many gigs unfortunately. If you’re involved in more dancefloor drum and bass, getting gigs is generally easier. It can seem like the world is angry sometimes [laughs]. 

I can imagine it gets a bit stressful and repetitive working on heavy drum and bass all of the time but it sounds like you’ve had a pretty creative time focusing on the album and this new alias. It must be nice to get a break from dnb and also make new connections.

Yeah man, I’m pretty happy with it. With the drum and bass stuff I’ve done what I wanted to do. I found a label which is perfectly suited to my music and what I want to do in the future. I got my first vinyl release, then made my first LP and now I’m on the second. Ant TC1 is the best man in drum and bass for me. 

At the same time though, I want to fire at full power. I don’t think you can do this if you’re just working with one genre, so Leo Cap really helped me. I want to achieve what I have in drum and bass, but in the dubstep world. Make amazing connections with artists and labels, but also do something new and more exciting. My success in dubstep is down to the skills I learnt when making drum and bass, so my experience has helped me grow quickly.

It’s been wicked to see you experiment. I think the first tunes I heard were from your Deep Dark and Dangerous EP, they were so hard. 

There’s so much more coming, just wait.

You set up your Patreon over lockdown as well.

Yeah, that was because of the pandemic. I got back from the tour and heard the news about lockdown. People were talking about how long it would last, some said one year and others said longer. It was really disappointing to hear because gigs play a big part in earning a living for me and without them I would definitely struggle, but luckily I’ve got fans who have been supporting me. Setting up the Patreon allowed me to give music to people who wanted it and it also allowed me to earn some money when I really needed it. Seeing all the support the fans gave me helped me believe in myself because it showed me that I can be more independent. I’m so thankful to everyone who has subscribed and they’ve actually made my music better because I’m not worried about money issues. 

Patreon has helped me set new goals and make new connections. I make music which gets signed and through that I make new contacts. Then I release the new tunes and maybe some new fans might discover my music. Those fans might want to show me their own music and that’s when the Patreon comes in. I love it because I’m doing it all by myself and I have a close connection with the people who are supporting me, it’s real energy. When people ask me questions about production, I try to be friendly and helpful to everyone. Not because I want the money, but because I’ve been there. I used to show my music to people who said that it was sh*t. It was so tiring, I knew it was rubbish but I needed to hear something constructive. Now I’m trying to give people what I couldn’t get when I started making music – positivity and confidence. Everybody has the ability to do something special, they just need some support to make it happen. It’s people who keep music going. 

You’ve got to be positive if you want to keep the scene going.

Exactly, that’s what I want to push with this album, more love. There’s more to life than fighting and politics. 

Definitely man. Speaking about the album, there’s so much variety. Some breakbeat focused jungle tunes, the more musical liquid tracks and then obviously the classic, funky Black Barrel rollers. Did you intentionally have this variety?

I wanted to mix some different sounds into the LP and show people what I can do. Before this album people might not have known that I can make liquid or atmospheric jungle. I want to focus on that ‘94/ ‘95 sound from the golden era of jungle and I’ve already got some releases planned for it. Every track in the LP is there because I want to push that type of sound in the future, but I also want to maintain balance. My goal is for everyone to like at least one tune on it, that would make it a success for me. 

If you’re into D&B then I think it will be pretty difficult not to like at least a few tunes on this album. It’s titled ‘Just Keep My Life’, where did the name come from?

I was playing with some acapellas and changed the lyrics around to make the phrase. But there’s also a deeper meaning behind the name. The album is about love and family. My wife has helped me with everything in my life, I’m me because of her. She keeps my life. When I met her, I knew that I wanted to be with her. There was no doubt. So then I started drawing something to represent this, but I never finished it. My wife reminded me that I should finish it off for the album and my friend who is a graphic designer helped me do it.

The same goes for my daughter. I look at the world through her eyes and I’ve learnt that I’m growing with her. We’re both so fragile and are looking after each other. This is something that I learnt from my mother and I’m thankful to her for it. It’s written on the back of the vinyl cover of the LP, my mother gifted me love as a talent and I wanted to say thank you to her for that. Feelings of love and trust are the main ideas behind the album.

It’s nice that you’ve made it so personal, especially with the artwork and the message on the vinyl. What do you think the difference is between this second album and your first, Last Frontier. 

Last Frontier was me trying to hone my skills and write a concept. It was more dancefloor focused and I still think the tunes in the album are good, but it’s an old picture of me. I don’t want to compare the two because they were written at different stages in my life and are different concepts. 

For sure, it sounds like you’re more confident now and wrote this album from a different perspective. 

Yeah, I’ve got the skills to do what I want in the studio now. I was also inspired by this guy called William Orbit, he worked with Madonna on the Ray of Light album which went platinum. He has a really special style and sound which made me realise that I wanted to achieve something similar with my music. It’s almost like having your own unique handwriting, but in music. This idea was inspired by Orbit, he’s a don.

I’ve never thought about it in that way before, you want people to recognise your music in the same way that you can recognise someone’s handwriting. Both albums you’ve made were released on Dispatch, what’s your relationship with the label?

They’re like family. I trust everyone there, especially Ant. I see him as a brother, father and teacher. He knows everything about music and cares about the artists on the label. Back in the day he helped me with PRS and royalties by making sure that they had all of the right details. I know he cares about me as a person and I really appreciate it. Everyone at the label has helped me push my music, it’s the best label.

Now you’ve released the album, what’s next?

We’ve already got two EP’s and two singles signed and ready to go for Dispatch. In the next year I’ll work on some drum and bass EP’s and singles before starting on my third LP, but I’ll need some time to get some inspiration for that. I don’t want to rush it. Somewhere in a barrel, a wine is maturing to build that good taste and that’s what I’m doing. I think it will be more of a jungle album, but we’ll see. Things can always change.

I’m also working on a Leo Cap LP for a Russian label called DUB.RAW. They asked me to do my first ever 140 tune and that was the start of Leo Cap. Then my next release came on Navy Cut and was pressed to vinyl which was crazy. That’s why I decided to do my first LP for those guys, because they helped me get started in the 140 world. There’s a strong dubstep scene in Russia so it’s my way of helping connect local artists with each other. I want to show the world what Russia can do with 140 BPM. There’s so much more coming with Leo Cap before that though. We have another Navy Cut EP, another Deep, Dark and Dangerous EP plus more.

Wow, that’s seriously exciting stuff. Now the world is starting to open up, are you going to start playing these new tunes on any tours?

I’m planning to visit America. Luckily I’ve got two aliases so I can be booked as Black Barrel and Leo Cap on the same tour so I can make the most of my time there. 

That would be wicked, especially after over a year of not travelling. Last question now, imagine that you come home one day and realise that there’s been a fire in your house. If your family was safe but your studio was already burnt, what one thing would you save?

My leopard cap, the leo cap! I’d definitely get that, f**k everything else. 

Black Barrel – Just Keep My Life is out now on Dispatch

Follow Black Barrel/Leo Cap: Facebook / Soundcloud / Instagram / Patreon