“I make DJ tools, not anthems”: In conversation with T>I

You know where you stand with a producer like T>I.

There’s no hidden agenda. No overly conceptual complexities. He’s just going to flatten you with crisp stripped-back thumpers and that’s that.

Made for mixing, tailored for the rave; years of DJing have led Norwich-based Mat South to this approach. Long before his debut T>I tunes came out on Marky’s Innerground in 2012 he’d been studying the craft from behind the controls, understanding what works on the dancefloor and what works with other people’s tunes. As a result he makes tracks that can complement and enhance any style set from Andy C to Kasra to DJ Hype and, since last week, makes albums that will singe every hair on your body.

No hidden agenda. No conceptual complexities. Just a fat 10-track stack of bangers baked in T>I’s inimitable way. We called him up to discuss DJ tools, giving zero fucks with your selection and taking your mum and dad to a rave…

The album’s out…. How do you feel?

It’s nice to know they’re out there. I kept changing tunes and changing my mind so much but Kasra said ‘just believe in your tunes’. I kept adding more and more to the pile and adding more stress to myself when Kasra was happy with what I’d sent him already.

It’s the constant quest though isn’t it? You always feel you can do better…

God yeah and you end up hating it anyway. But no, I’m really happy with the album now.

There was a standout quote from you in the promo stuff. You make DJ tools not anthems…

Yeah totally. My tunes are simple but effective. They work for the dancefloor. A DJ can bash a jump-up tune over the top, a liquid tune, a techy tune. Mine fills the gaps in their tune, their tune fills in the gaps in mine.

They’re made for the mix. More like layers. I guess that maybe makes you think more about structure when you’re approaching tunes like that?

Definitely. I almost always start with the drums when I make a tune. I really like odd elements, things that aren’t quite quantized. If I find something that has a bit of an off-beat swagger to it or has an odd delay on it so it swings back a little later than you’d expect it to and it tells the next part of the story. I’ll use that and make the tune fit around it.

Always with the drums first?

Yeah they’re the backbone. Everything else fits around it. There are exceptions, but it’s almost always drum-based first.

You were a DJ for many years before you were known as a producer. Do you think this comes from a DJ perspective?

Definitely. That’s why I still love DJing now. I love my day job too but I really enjoy DJing. Most the time I don’t usually care what people want to hear. I know what I want to play and I’ll make them like what I’m playing. If you look like you’re into it then the dancefloor are too.

That’s kinda the D&B spirit in a way. Just having confidence in the tunes and faith in the crowd…

I think so too. I’m lucky because I only get booked to play the more underground festivals and the crowd are under no illusion as to what I’m going to play. I don’t try and bend my sets to please the massive. I can go in, play my dubs, play my releases and that’s that. I see some DJs who are stressed; they want to play something different to what they’re actually playing. They’re making tunes just to play at the weekend, I can’t do stuff that quick and I won’t bend over backwards just for a set. I’ll make tunes I want to make and then I’ll make them work in my set. Maybe that’s my age. I’m too stubborn to play any other game, I make what I love.

You’ve been around for a while now but you also feel very much part of the new generation of artists coming through. Kinda proof the new generation of artists isn’t as much about age but more about attitude or sound?

I think so yeah. It’s funny a lot of people I collaborate with are half my age but the sound and approach is very similar. But I’ve never made stuff to be fashionable, I’ve just done what I’ve done and kept myself busy, if people like it then great, but if not then cool, it means I’ve got a weekend off which I do enjoy if I get one. I win both ways.

You do seem mad busy. You mentioned your day job, by now most artists at your stage would probably have quit that. The two worlds merge for you though don’t they?

They do. It’s also a family business and I love my family. They provided for me when I was a kid so now I can provide for them. That’s a great feeling. About 60 percent of the things we print is D&B related and the rest is museum work so it’s all high end stuff. I love doing the printing and I do like fighting the sea of shit merch I see all the time. But yeah, I’m here Monday morning until Friday night then I’m off to my gigs. If I sit down, I fall asleep. Fuck that, I prefer being busy.

I love the family vibe there…

Yeah it’s got to be done. We had the launch party the other day and I got The Electric Soundsystem involved who are fucking dons. My mum, my brother and my dad came along to it and it was great for them to see what pays the factory bills. They last heard me mix when I was playing hardcore as a kid and they hated it, but they can understand it a bit more now. They get it. My mum was watching me mix for the whole set bless her, my dad stood in front of the stack for a second and said ‘yeah fuck this!’

Awesome. Was that the first time they’d seen you play?

Yeah pretty much. They seemed shocked like ‘people actually like you!’ My mum sings in a choir and goes over to Holland to perform a lot. She knows about going on road and all that, but it’s very different to D&B. They stayed until the end at 2am which was cool. I thought they’d have got tired and fucked off around midnight. That was nice to see. If it all stopped tomorrow I’d be happy. I’ve done an album and my folks have seen me play.

Was an album always on the cards?

Yeah it has. A French journalist recently pointed out that I’d done some before in various forms like a double EP for Serial Killaz, there were 10 tracks on that. But that was different. I had the tunes ready. But when I spoke to Kasra I mentioned doing a proper album I started suggesting this type of tune and that type of tune and he said ‘no, just be T>I ’. That was a nice feeling and a compliment.

Did you shut out the musical world while writing it?

I don’t really listen to much music! I don’t have the radio on in work, when I drive to gigs I listen to chat radio or Classic FM. I’ll lose my licence if I listen to D&B when I drive.

Love the idea of you rocking up to a gig playing Vivaldi

Yeah man. Or a bit of vegan house!

Classic composers were the junglists of their time. Rule breakers!

I agree. There’s no rules to music. The only rules I know and follow are ones of mastering. Make music how you want; if it sounds good, it sounds good. If it sounds crap then start again. I’m asked for advice quite often and I always try and help but the best advice is trial and error, muck around and see what you come up with. Synthesis is what you make it. There are rules and ways, but you can make the same thing in various ways. There’s no one way. As long as it’s not out of tune you’re alright.

But actually when I think about other music I listen to. I do listen to other people… Limited, Upgrade, Saxxon and Benny L. It’s nice, there’s a little vibe between us but we’ve all got our different sounds. So I do listen to them, a lot, but that’s from a DJ perspective more than a production one. It’s a nice place to be.

Seems like Norwich is a nice to be, quite a few of you doing bits there…

Totally. It’s weird. I feel like the dad of it because I’ve seen it come from hardcore and illegal raves and I’ve seen the generations come through and the directions it’s taken. What’s been great is that it’s come back round to raw D&B. That’s where it started – as a raw sound, not like a polished EDM sound. Nothing against that but it’s not what I play and it’s not what people come to see me play thankfully.

There’s a place for everything. Including foghorns in my opinion…

Yeah definitely. I think people have just got a bit pissy because they’re all using the same synth. That doesn’t bother me, I don’t buy the usual synths everyone has got. I know Mark Serum does that with his modular gear.

Have you gone down the modular rabbit hole yet?

I’m into my hardware but I haven’t gone into the modular thing yet. Once you start you can’t stop, can you? I got enough gear for now. I got an E-MU Proteus 2500, the same synth Bad Company’s Digital Nation album was made on in 2000. I’m still learning that now. The manual is like a bible it’s so thick. I’ve also got a Culture Vulture recently which is making me think of adding more layers to my music. Usually I make a lot of clean subby rollers but with this you can add more layers and it still sound very clean. I’ve been having a lot of fun it but it’s making my ears work.

What are our ears going to work around next?

Well I’m doing some bits for Souped Up right now and there’s a lot of things on Critical which didn’t make the album but might be released. I don’t really belong on any label but I’m really happy that I can do bits for them and bits for Critical and it doesn’t piss either label off. Noisier things for Serum, darker things for Kasra. Best of both worlds.

T>I – Blank Canvas is out now on Critical Music

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