Photography: Nathan Jenkins
It doesn’t matter which era of his career Charlie Fieber first came flying upside your senses, you can always guarantee one thing: he was blatantly on a subversion excursion. Persistently turning things inside out, pushing boundaries, fusing elements that had yet to be fused.
It’s been this way since his early break shattering drumfunk era alongside Neptune at seminal nights like Technicality and legendary labels like Inperspective, Droppin’ Science, Breakin’ and Bassbin in the early 2000s. It’s still the same way today as he captains the good ship Astrophonica. A haven for kindred flippers – acts such as Moresounds, Om Unit, Sully, Lewis James – the label continues to muddy the waters and test the boundaries between all manner of soundsystem-rooted genres.
There have been many chapters in between, such as his deep woozy 140 early dubstep bits as Compound One (with Qualifide) in the mid/later 2000s, the sudden peppering of icy grizzlers in the early 2010s (often with Neptune) and his fondness for smelting juke and jungle a few years later.
Now he tinkering with a new alchemy. A fusion he’s wryly filed as turbo Berghain, new Fracture tracks are liable to include a hefty 4/4 kick into his already noxious 160 melting pot giving off a mean whiff of techno. He’s found he’s not alone in this movement, too.
With a round of turbo Berghain bullets locked and loaded in Exit’s cannons in the new year, the best example so far comes in the form of Dropping You. It’s on his label’s recent V/A behemoth Gradients Vol 2. Picking up where the heavyweight inaugural edition left us, the album is a precision balance of flavours, talents and ideas from across the system spectrum, cooked with secret subversive Astrophonica spices. Tasty.
We called up the chef to find out more….
Biggup on that happy hardcore set in the DJ Mag bunker a while back. Didn’t expect that at all. Lots of fun.
Thanks man. We wanted to do something different and thought let’s do that. We hadn’t done much together recently and didn’t want to do a ‘return to Fracture & Neptune’ retrospective mix. It’s more fun to keep people on their toes a bit more.
Too easy to go down the classics route?
Yeah we flipped it. We always always always flip it. It’s been an ethos I’ve lived on; always keep people guessing and constantly flip things, trying things people don’t expect.
That has been a theme for you from the early stuff right back to tracks like Deadlands and Colemanism.
For sure. Colemanism was definitely a big flip. It was like ‘okay, all of us are doing these chopped up breakbeat things, if we’re gonna do these amen tracks we need to flip it.’ So we went the extra mile and sampled the rest of the record. Not just the drums but the horn stabs and other bits.
Brilliant. Anyone who discovered you since Astrophonica might be surprised you go so far back. There’s been a few chapters to your career….
Several. That early stuff was pretty niche and underground, it probably wasn’t until The Limit, which was 2010, or maybe even Get Busy, which I did on Exit that I felt I, or we, had a breakout record that a lot of people across the board played. The earlier records were very much kept within a scene. They were very underground. Great records, really innovative, all of the guys like Breakage, Equinox, it was a great creative time. But we took it pretty far and I think that’s why none of the records were breakout. It was quite muso stuff, you had to be into the breaks and the story behind the track. It was quite nerdy.
But that’s left the records timeless.
Yeah man, I look back on that time very fondly.
Do you surprise yourself when you listen to old records you’d forgotten?
Not really. I’ve got a kinda phonographic memory. I remember all of my tracks. I can even remember studio sessions and the samples I used, who was there and where we were. I’ve always been quite obsessive like that.
Mad memory. So where does your 140/dubsteppy Compound One chapter fit into this? There was a substantial run of singles in the mid 2000s
They were pretty drunk sessions between me and an old school mate Matt. He was known as Qualifide and did garage in the early 2000s. After Technicality night ran its course, which was about 2004, I lost touch with things for a bit. I was a bit like ‘what’s going on?’ I wasn’t super into the music at that time and then I started listening to dubstep and early grime. I’ve always been a massive fan of pirate radio and through Matthew I got into early grime. He told me to go to FWD>> and it was exactly what I was missing. It was raw, it was moody and totally what I was looking for and got into that heavily. Matt and I thought ‘okay let’s fucking do a dubstep tune and send it to your mates on Rinse’. It went well we did a whole bunch of records.
A bit of a stepping stone for Astrophonica?
Definitely. It got my foot in the door with distributors and record shops. I know it was only 10 years ago but seems pretty old school; going round to record shops and selling them direct. I made a lot of connections like that. Fucked a lot of stuff up, too, which I then didn’t do with Astrophonica.
Was there an overlap between the labels?
There was actually. Astrophonica was purely an outlet for Fracture & Neptune music to begin with. We had a release due on Flight’s label, which we were ecstatic about, but it didn’t happen. So we were like ‘fuck we need to make this work’ because people were playing the tunes, dBridge was playing them and we needed to get them out. So we started the label and just released our own music. Then around 2011 we started to open up a little bit and I invited other people to release on the label.
What was interesting about that time was the juke influence. A shot in the arm for drum & bass…
Yeah it blew the doors off. I started talking to people who weren’t from a D&B background.
A bit like what autonomic had done. Brought in new ideas and new heads. Joining new dots.
That’s right. It is always about joining the dots for me. I was chatting to guys like Moresounds and Om Unit and people from outside D&B were picking up on the music we were releasing. It became something else. It became something that wasn’t necessarily of the late 2000s, stuck-in-its ways D&B mould. It became something new and exciting. That ramped everything up. Then Moresounds, Sully, the VIP series with remixes from Om Unit and Machinedrum and myself. That was a big era for the label, not only were there new names coming through, but we were also taking the back catalogue and essentially doing footwork edits of old releases. Which leads us to where we are today. More and more open. Constantly pushing and looking for new artists and really seeing where we can go with it.
The first Gradients album was a big moment. Did it make the recent follow up quite daunting?
Definitely. I take the A&R really seriously. I get sent a lot of music but I’m always looking for that record from someone that sounds like an Astrophonica track. Even artists who I love most of their music, there’s got to be a certain something to it. Like ‘this one’s goosebumps, this one’s different, it’s talking to me.’ It’s not that I don’t like the music, but it needs to have that extra ingredient. I couldn’t even say what the ingredient was!
It’s so subjective isn’t it? There is a common thread though. But, to use a cliché, it’s more like a feeling.
I’m glad you can see a theme. I can see it too but can’t explain why or how I choose a record from someone. You just get an idea about it, like gut feeling. But yeah the first Gradients album took a while to come together, but when it did it started snowballing, dBridge sent me a track, then Stray and it came together. So yeah the second one was daunting. Because it set a very high barometer. It reached some pretty far out places and had that balance of guys like dBridge but also newer guys who hadn’t appeared on the label and younger people. When it came round to doing volume two, I had to at least match that. I take the A&R very seriously. I never just throw records out, they need to be thought about. It took a while but I got that balance of artists I wanted with new guys and older guys, like Luke Vibert, which was fucking great.
People forget how much of an influence Vibert has been. Serial dot joiner.
Yeah he is. I was really happy to have him on board, I’ve been a fan of his for years. I’m grateful and lucky to be able to do another album like this and put out music from all these amazing people.
So what happens next?
From myself and the label you can expect more curveballs and more flip mode stuff. I’m working on some things at the moment I’m loosely calling Turbo Berghain.
Ah! Like Dropping You on Gradients?
That’s the one. I’ve got more things like that and it feels like there’s a few people doing stuff like that. It’s got that same ‘stars aligning’ type of vibe that footwork did. Lots of people from across different scenes. I’ve been writing a lot of this 160 BPM techno stuff and I thought I was the only person doing it. But there are other people around the world who’ve reached a similar idea in their own way. That’s super exciting to me, it is like the stars are aligning.
I love it when that happens. So maybe a bit like Itoa on Exit? Who else?
Yeah he’s in a similar area. I’m hearing little bits in people’s tracks all over. Something I completely slept on was Response and Pilskin’s The Mancunian Way on Dead Man’s Chest’s Western Lore. He’s been doing it at the same time I have, releasing 4/4 techno shit at 160. It was the same thing with the footwork jungle stuff. Like ‘hang on a second, we’re all making really similar stuff here!’ I heard an amazing 160 distorted techno track with an Amen break in it by Killawhat recently too. Without getting too spiritual about it, it feels like synchronicity… One of those moments I need to follow, a path opening up that I need to explore.
Maybe there’s more to the Astrophonica name than I thought. Do you believe in the power of the universe?
To an extent. I’m not super spiritual but I am a believer in synchronicity. But purely from a point of view that if you open yourself up to possibilities then they will present themselves to you. If you keep your doors closed, nothing will come to you. Keep them open then things happen. It does sometimes feel like the universe does leave little markers and symbols to guide you.
I hear you completely. I think an Exit EP is up next for you, right?
Yeah, it’s called Soundboy Get Nervous and is actually my first EP on Exit for a few years. It’s such a pleasure to be back. It’s a bit of a different one to my past couple of up-beat ravey ones for these guys. It’s much more in line with the fast techno / turbo Berghain stuff. The whole EP is really tense and paranoid, it all sort of floats but hits hard at the same time. dBridge is another one that pushes artists on his label to make ‘that’ record for him. He turned down a few things for this this EP and I’m glad he did as I’m really happy with it and along with Gradients I feel like it’s lighting the path forward.