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In Conversation With Shiken Hanzo

Shiken Hanzo is somewhat of an enigma in drum and bass. That’s probably because he isn’t really drum and bass at all. In just five short years he has consistently churned out a distinctive fusion of d&b/techno hybrids that have drawn attention from all those who like their beats deep, dark and intense.

This powerful approach to industrial drum work is enhanced by his building of mysterious atmospheres that build and build, enveloping his tracks with a razor-sharp tension that can be cut with a knife (or should we say samurai sword?) Not afraid to challenge himself and explore unchartered territory, he has been pushing himself to work at different tempos, resulting in some of the most unique tracks in dance music today.

Having previously chalked up releases on boundary-pushing label Samurai Music, old-meets-new jungle pioneers Repertoire and Loxy’s brutal Cylon Recordings, as well as a smattering of EPs on his own experimental imprint Hojo Clan, Hanzo is set for his most challenging yet best work to date; his Fate Worlds album on Inperspective Records.

Laying down a sonic marker for his future endeavours, the album is a thirteen-track exploration straight from the underground. The result is a textually-rich, cinematic journey that twists and turns, showcasing a raw and unforgiving ingenuity and a confidence to improvise and infuse.

Ahead of the album’s release, we called him up to get inside his mind to better understand the album’s making…

So, the album is just around the corner. Has this been a pandemic project? Or has it been something you’ve been working on for quite a while now?

I would say that I’ve made probably 50% of the tracks in the last year. When you approach making an album you don’t want it to be just club music, so writing in the pandemic has allowed me to work at different tempos.

What does the release say about where you are with your sound right now?

For me, I don’t think I can be called a drum and bass artist or someone who works at 170; I’m an electronic music producer making a whole lot of stuff at different bpms. It’s really hard to explain because I don’t really know either! It’s just weird music!

I was going to say it’s hard to even describe it, it doesn’t fit into one genre at all!

That’s the thing. People ask me and I still say drum and bass, but it’s not drum and bass. I’m obviously very influenced by it, but I’m also influenced by techno. I guess I’m just a producer that goes out of my way to be a bit different. When you’re younger and you want your music to get onto labels, you try and make something similar to the sound that they put out. I’m now at a stage where I just make what I’m interested in.

When you approach making this kind of album, do you have a concept in mind, or does it just evolve over time?

I’m always making music, so I had quite a few tracks already there. When it came to putting together the album, I looked at the gaps that needed filling on the track list and basically identified that I had to make something that wasn’t already there. A lot of what I had there was 170. I was already making things at different tempos, so I said to myself that I had to focus now on putting some of that into the album. I approached it the same way I do when I’m doing a mix; I try and tell a story in highs and lows and have every track at a different intensity level. I think when you listen to the tracks they work well as an album as each one has a different vibe.

It’s all about the peaks and troughs, the playing with the emotions of the listener!

Yeah, exactly. You can’t really explain what you’re listening to, but it makes you feel something inside. It’s not necessarily emotional music but there is emotion in it. It’s not like normal drum and bass music where there’s the build-up and drop, the whole track has a range of intensity levels so it’s kind of teasing you the whole time, keeping you on the edge. It’s not fully intense though, it’s more the building of tension as it progresses.

As an experimental producer, how do you approach making music?

It’s quite strange, but I always write my track names before I write the music! If I’m watching something and I hear a word that I like, I write it down and that then inspires me to make a sound that I think fits. When it comes to the actually technical side of writing, whenever I finish a track, I always return to it a couple of months later and break it down. I then use one or two bits of it when I’m making something new, so there are elements that run through all my music so it’s kind of like a continuation.

How did you find writing at different tempos?

It was a bit of a challenge! When writing at a lower tempo there’s obviously more space in the track, but I still wanted to make sure it had the same intensity and energy. As a producer, you tend to stick with what you feel comfortable working at, but I’m constantly inspired by different genres so wanted to try and bring those other tempos into drum and bass territory.

It’s quite rare for a label to give an artist complete creative control over an album. You must have been pleased with the freedom Chris and the team at Inperspective gave you…

At first, I actually turned Chris down because in the past other labels have approached me and said they like my music but if I can change bits of my track to fit more with the label. So, in the last year I haven’t released anything on a label because I didn’t know where my music fitted. I obviously don’t want to be known as just a 170 guy; I want to be known as an electronic music producer. If you look at The Prodigy or Aphex Twin for example, they just made music, they didn’t try and label it. I spoke with Chris and said I want to try and work at different tempos and he gave me compete reassurance that I could. For him to show that faith, I’m really pleased and grateful!

Your building of tension creates these mysterious atmospheres in your music, it’s almost cinematic. This must be a major influence and interest of yours?

As a musician, your highest ambition is always to have your music in a movie. I’m really inspired by that style of music, so producers like Hans Zimmer and Ludwig Göransson from The Mandalorian are definitely people I look up to. When I’m making music, I’m always imagining what it would sound like in a movie, so I almost visualise it to see how it would fit.

You mention how it’s every musician’s dream to hear their music in a film. What kind of film can you imagine your music being in?

It would be anything Marvel for me! When I’m listening to the tracks on the album, I can almost tell you what Marvel film they’d fit into like they’ve been specifically made for it! For example, Tribal Gathering, that’s Black Panther! Not just with my music, but when you listen on your headphones, you can sit there and picture it. You can be transported by the music and your imagination to create something. I don’t want my music to just be a kick, a snare, it has to make you feel something!

When making an album, it’s important that every track links together to tell a story. I suppose this comes back to how you embed a little bit of an older tune into a new one, so it gives it a coherent listening experience…

Yes, that’s absolutely it. Even planning the tracklist was a really hard thing to do, as I wanted to ensure when you put on the album, you listened from start to finish. I didn’t want there to be any tracks that make you want to skip on to the next. At the end, I wanted you to have a satisfied feeling as you’ve gone through the whole thing. This meant there was quite a lot of time spent talking with Chris about getting the order right.

This kind of music that’s made for extended listening, taking you through peaks and troughs without as much emphasis on the drop shows that it’s not just made for the club, it’s listening music first and foremost…

I’m not really inspired by clubbing, so all my music is made for someone who is listening to music in their headphones, on the way to work or wherever. Music can take you away and put you in a completely different frame of mind. Saying that, the reaction I got when I played 5th Dimension in a club was really good. I guess that’s the only track on the album that I’d say is a proper club tune. I don’t want to just come out all gun’s blazing though, so I’m not afraid to play the experimental stuff as well and the reactions to that have always been really accepting.

Your sound is so diverse, you must have some wide musical influences?

My dad is Jamaican, so I grew up around a lot of reggae at home playing through the speakers, while my mum is from Nigeria, so I’d go to a lot of parties with lots of African-style percussion. That was my foundation in terms of music and from there I started to discover my own stuff. Drum and bass-wise, it was Bad Company ‘The Nine.’ It was music like I’d never heard before, I was just like damn, this is crazy! After that I went through a period where I wasn’t interested in music though, but I eventually came back it about ten years later.

What brought you back?

At the time, I thought a lot of drum and bass sounded the same, so I went looking for different things. I remember hearing Kryptic Minds on Youngsta’s Rinse FM show and they pulled me right back into music. It wasn’t even that I was into dubstep, but the way they maintained this dark intensity at a lower bpm really stuck with me. From there, I found Loxy and he was the one who brought me back to drum and bass. As a producer, you always have artists who you want to play your music and for me that was Loxy. He supported my early music, and I went from there!

A lot of your track titles and artwork are inspired by East Asian culture. Where does this appreciation come from?

It’s a culture that I find really inspiring and fascinating. I’ve always been interested by the samurai; they’re not in your face but they’re one of the strongest powers and there’s this kind of deep mystery that surrounds them. It’s like what I was saying earlier about how certain words inspire me, I’ve always been drawn to the words of the samurai and the shogun. You know the samurai is there, but they will still get you when you least expect it!

That’s an interesting analogy; you could say that represents your music! The building of tension until the tune takes you out when you least expect it!

I’ve never thought of it like that but now I can definitely see that! I want my tracks to be strong and powerful without being so in your face. You can hear the power but in a different way!

What are your plans with your label Hojo Clan? You’ve just used it as a platform for your own output up to now. Do you plan to bring some more experimental producers on board with the project?

What I really want to do with the label is start releasing vinyl. In terms of producers, it’s hard to find people that I think will work. There is one producer who is probably my favourite and he’s called Dyl. We’ve been exchanging some tunes and I like everything he’s sent to me. He comes from the 170 area like me but he’s just doing his own thing and creating his own style. I’ve said to him that I’d love to put out a release of his so that’s definitely something for the future. Hojo definitely hasn’t been abandoned, but the last few months I’ve just been focusing so much on the album!

What’s the future looking like for yourself? Is there going to be a lot more experimentation?

I’ve always said to myself, I want to try as many different tempos as possible. If I make something at 170 one day, the next I’m going to be making something at 120. That’s my primary aim for the future. I also want to try and do a live show, as I think that would be a good next step for me. If I do that, it will fuse together the audio and visual elements which is of course what I’m always imagining, so to create it would be special. I played at an event and there were movie clips playing behind me so that would be how I could imagine it working. I would need to find someone to work with, but that would definitely be something for the future!

It’s certainly going to be a future free of any boundaries!

Yes, that’s the plan, I’m going to keep my options open! When people see a Shiken Hanzo release, I want them guessing what it’s going to be! I always want to be doing something new, so people don’t know what’s coming, I want that surprise element!

Shiken Hanzo – Fate Worlds is out March 26 on Inperspective Records

Follow Shiken Hanzo: Facebook / Soundcloud / Instagram