The last few times we spoke to High Contrast our conversations have been tied up in tight-lipped teases. There were rumours of him co-producing a UK heritage act, murmurs of new material, hints at a new label deal and insinuations about collaborations.
But the ink wasn’t quite dry enough on contracts, releases weren’t quite ready to announce, collaborations weren’t quite cooked enough.
All change: the ink is dried on his contract with 3Beat Records, Underworld’s ninth studio album Barbara Barbara We Face A Shining Future was released last month and was co-produced by him, his collaboration with DJ Fresh and Dizzee Rascal (How Love Begins) is still tickling up the airwaves with air-piano slapping 90s mischief.
Oh, and he’s just dropped his first solo single in 18 months: High Contrast – Remind Me. A happy slap back to the big soulful rollers he really made his name with, it fires the starter’s pistol on the build-up to his fifth studio album which we can expect to hear before the end of the year.
Loads to talk about, then. And this time he can actually tell us stuff. Get up to speed…
High Contrast – Remind Me
Let’s start with Underworld. Really interesting album. It stops really suddenly after seven tracks and made me want more!
That was the plan. They’re an unconventional act; they’re always looking at how to do things differently. A lot of people overload their albums these days; for example hip-hop albums sometimes have 18-20 tracks and, if you’re honest, you can chop out at least four or five. 45 minutes is about the right time to expect people to invest in listening to an album. It doesn’t have to be that epic hour and twenty minute slog. One thing they didn’t anticipate was that a lot of reactions from people were that they listened to it again straight away. There was a huge amount of attention paid to the arrangement and flow of the album and tracks were lost due to that too. There was a real emphasis on not making anything overblown.
What did your role as co-producer comprise? I had them down as producers anyway…
We’ve worked together before and get along really well. Obviously there’s the Welsh connection and a lot of shared interests but they’re such great pros with real history with tips about music and life in general. I was more than happy to get on board when they asked me to come along and lend a fresh pair of ears. They wrote the songs together then asked me to come in and help get perspective on things and add an extra 10 percent here and there. The tracks would start out 15 minutes long. I’d go in and get a structure down to five minutes then Rick would pull it back to eight minutes or so. They’re real artists, there was no consideration about making anything radio friendly or marketable or more commercial in any way. The mission was simple: let’s make the most beautiful record we possibly can.
Nice. The M.O for all records in a perfect world!
Absolutely! That’s how I operate; I make what is interesting and beautiful to me at that time. I make what I want to make.
And now you’re making it with 3Beat… How did that come about?
We started talking about a year ago. They’re independently run but they’re under the umbrella of Universal. This means we can tap into their resources for promotions but I’ve been dealing directly with the guy who runs the label which isn’t what you get with majors. It’s the best of both worlds in this way. Most importantly, I got along with the whole team there. Jon who runs the label understands what I want to do and said to me ‘make the album you’ve always wanted to make, make it pure High Contrast’ and they’ll support it in every way they can. Any musical ideas I come up with, they’ll help me realise.
Haven’t you always made the albums you’ve wanted to make before?
Yeah sure, but there’s the issue of sampling. I love sampling, but it’s expensive. Not being able to sample really limits what I can do. For example The Agony & The Ecstasy doesn’t have any samples at all on it. I do love that album but it doesn’t have much of the classic High Contrast sound. I wanted to go back to that and with 3Beat I’m back in a position where I can. Additionally, I’ve been able to work with more musicians and record real instruments while before I would have had to create those sounds on the computer.
So how deep are you into this?
Pretty deep. There’s a basic tracklisting and it’s shaping up. I’d say we’re in the final surge and we’re hoping to get the album out late summer or autumn.
And Remind Me is the first taste of that…
Yes, a return to the more soulful side, if you like. Some people might recognise the old soul sample in it, others might not and I hope it gets people digging those old sounds. There are a few of those elements throughout the album but there are also some very different kinds of sounds; I’m always trying to explore new territory. I’m a product of my influences so as well as the 60s soul flavour there are echoes of other things I listen to like Tame Impala and a lot of 70s garage rock and prog rock which I’ve been really enjoying. I’m using more guitars on this album than I have before. Not in an over the top type of way but a return to the big hooks and melodies. There have always been elements of that in the past, like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida for example, but there’s more focus on that. There’s also the love of hip-hop. We’re still working it out but there’ll be at least one hip-hop track on the album.
This all sounds really exciting. But I have to ask… 3Beat have delivered a lot of huge, very successful crossover singles over the years. Is there are pressure for you to ‘do a Sigma’ here?
Definitely not. People have thought I might go down that route with 3Beat but the label has been really supportive of me being an artist and not pushing me to do anything I’m uncomfortable with for commercial reasons. They provide artistic support and want me to be me, which is all I can ask for.
Totally. Let’s wrap up with a few of your other recent exploits. Last time we spoke you couldn’t go into too much detail about your collaboration with DJ Fresh!
No that’s true. I wasn’t sure when it was coming out or what Dan wanted to do with it so it wasn’t for me to say. But yeah we’ve spoken about making a tune for years and finally found time to make it happen. I enjoyed writing the track with Clare and getting Dizzy to jump on it. It was a great experience working in this way with everyone. Every now and again I poke my head out of my own little world and see how other people work. It’s always really inspiring. The funny thing is Dan and I actually sat down to make a drum & bass track but it didn’t come together. You can’t chase an idea. If you sit down with a specific plan you’re trying too hard. So when the first idea didn’t work, we tried the chords at a different tempo and thought ‘okay, this is working!’
Cool. Didn’t know Clare Maguire worked on this single too…
Yeah she did. Originally the vocal was an old blues sample but it was quite lo-fi and just a rough idea to get things moving. Clare’s got such a gravelly bluesy voice so we called her in, she got along with everyone and it all came together.
You produced her new single too, right?
Not exactly, I didn’t produce Elizabeth Taylor, but co-wrote it. It started off as a sketch I made. It was a kind of housey track to begin with and Clare wrote some lyrics. Then we went in together and wrote more lyrics and gradually it changed into a more acoustic ballad. It worked better that way. It’s been interesting trying out these new musical paths and seeing how songs evolve when you’re working with other people. I’ve enjoyed working with people a lot more than I thought I would actually. I spend so much time locking myself away in my little Welsh cave that it was refreshing and inspiring to work with people like Clare and Fresh and Underworld. Although saying that, right now I am back in my cave and I’m not likely to leave it until I’ve finished my album!