What do you think of when you read: ‘Bristol drum & bass’? Distorted low-end? Punchy two-step breaks? An inexplicable combo of simplicity and depth?
Along with his Sofa Sound label, James Rowbotham AKA DLR has owned and propelled this sound for over a decade now. Taking the foundations of rawness and funk laid by the first generation of Roni Size, DJ Die, Clipz, and others – and catapulting them with even more edge, texture, and razor-sharp production.
His first two solo albums ‘Seeing Sounds’ and ‘Dreamland’ provide a couple of classic examples – each proving to be timeless as the years roll on. But it was 2016 when DLR last released a full-length LP. Between running the label, getting his business in order, releasing singles and EPs, and periods of disillusionment – it’s been brewing for a while.
But now, it’s here. Like with 2016’s ‘Dreamland’ his new and third album ‘Money Till I Got None’ is an explicit reflection on the world today. The concept of money is woven throughout track names, lyrics, samples, and the beats and basslines themselves. Propulsive low-ends elicit the never-ending, merciless capitalist machine. High-end strings induce an uneasiness about where things are going.
DLR ruminates on the post-covid, new economy of drum & bass, and how it’s causing significant financial strain – particularly on underground producers and the older guard. The monopolisation of promoters and heightened risk of losing on smaller nights means decent bookings are reserved only for the most mainstream producers. The ‘game of streams’ falls in favour of corporations instead of artists, and it’s getting worse by the day. Making money off of selling music is now, simply, unrealistic for most. But DLR has had a few epiphanies about all this…
It’s been a long time since UKF has chatted to J, and even longer since his last LP – we wanted to go deep on Money Till I Got None, his views on the industry and the world, and life in Bristol.
Hello mate. Last time UKF spoke to you was early 2021 – Covid times. What’s been up since then?
It was a really good time just before Covid. Everything seemed to be ramping up in my sort of area. My sound was becoming more and more popular, and The Sauce and DLR were reaching new levels.
But then covid hit, and everything stopped. It was a horrendous time. While I liked lockdown in a small number of ways, creatively (like a lot of musicians) I just shut down. I had a lot of disillusionment, and a lack of this cycle of feedback that I was so used to.
It’s always interesting to hear how producers reacted – some loved the extra time, some lost all inspiration…
It seemed to create a situation where, for a lot of the more experienced musicians, we found we wanted a break and struggled with the change. Whereas new musicians, they really took that opportunity to get a foothold in the scene. Because for them, they were never used to that feedback cycle, or how it worked before. Just a load of time to sit there and write music. So there was this whole switch in the scene.
At the same time, Sofa Sound really started to take over. Which I could definitely look at as positive – and really helpful for me. I love having that label and working with those artists. But it really took a strong feature in my life, because that’s just where people and punters were spending their time and money – investing into record labels, merch, music.
It was a bit like a false economy at the time. Where suddenly people couldn’t go to clubs at all, there was no expenditure on anything like that, and they were injecting loads of money into record labels. Back then, with things like Sofa King Sick, we were selling like 120-130 t-shirts in a day. So I injected a lot of time into that and it created a really big (and nice) distraction for me.
Once clubs re-opened, and merch and music sales dipped back to normal, did you see that money come back in events?
Gigs came back, yeah, but the international side is very different to what it was. The risk is quite high. With Brexit, Covid, and the huge amount of new artists there are – it has created a whole different environment for a lot of us in this older generation of drum & bass.
So, at that time I had a lot of decisions to make about what I was going to do. It was a really good opportunity actually to work on making sure that I was sorted in terms of my business.
People run amazing record labels, and it’s very passion driven – but it’s historically known within our industry that business-wise, it can be very loose. If you look back, a big reason that a lot of these labels struggled after the 90’s was down to business. They made some poor decisions, or they weren’t paying their taxes, and it caught up with them. So I was hyper-aware of this, and I really tried to get on top of it during (and after) lockdown. I invested loads of time into securing my business – Sofa Sound, DLR, Lab Samples, and all my other revenue streams.
You nailed it with Sofa Sound in that period – it’s really well established now, and nicely differentiated.
Sofa Sound was just running away. But recently, I’ve had this sudden feeling that, while I love the label so much, continuing to push forward is going to be a real challenge. In reality it’s a passion driven record label, it’s not set up to make loads of money. In this day and age, if you want to make loads of money you’ve got to be really calculated and sort of release a lot of… I’m gonna say it… shit! Stuff that panders to the same thing everyone’s heard. You really see it now. A lot of record labels are not willing to take risks, they just want to play that safe game. Sofa Sound was never that.
Last year I realised I had to pull back on the record label a little bit, and invest more time in myself as an artist. Because without that, I’m not going to have the stability and the basis to push forward. Because record labels like Sofa Sound, really, it’s like a break-even label. It’s a passion-driven thing and it’s not really about sales.
Streaming has changed the game.
Let’s be honest, no one buys music anymore. I don’t. You don’t. I mean I’m exaggerating, but we don’t anywhere near what we used to. It is all about steams. What are you going to do to get streams?!
The streaming world is changing too – DJs are going to start using streaming to DJ. But right now, the world is saying: If you want to get your music played, and you want money, you need streams – and if you want streams, then you need to fit into this ‘stream-conventional-box’. It can’t have an intro, it can’t even be long at all. I’ve seen these people listening to this ‘short-form’ on Spotify where it’s two minute tracks. Apparently, now they’re advising in some cases to make 50 second music, so that people play it multiple times, and all this shit.
So where’s the revenue stream?
With my album, I’ll tell you in this day and age, it’s not going to make me much money. So in conjunction I’m starting up a membership, which is Pateron-esque. People can access the membership on my website, and we’re gonna build a beta-tier, over 6 months, to work out the best way to progress.
So that’s where I see now. After all this rambling I’ve given you, and all these five years of carnage and chaos, what we’ve come to is this thing in the industry where it’s split up – people either play this game, get the streams, get the listeners and the followers, and live in that world. Or – someone like Perez would be a good example of this, or people in hip-hop have been doing this for a while – you start to realise your own power as an artist.
IMANU is someone else who’s a good example – he’s a really good friend of mine and it’s been amazing to see his growth in music. My manager and I have been tracking his Patreon. About six months ago he was at 600 subscribers, then we checked again and it was 800, and then recently it was 1000. That is powerful. He is in direct communication with 1000 of his fans. They’re paying him an average of £10 a month. That’s like £10,000 a month. He’s already in a position where he doesn’t need to rely on taking gigs, or do anything for anybody.
This is the future – after all this chaos and strain on the industry – it gets whittled down to this point where you understand that where we’re going with art and music is about the artist, and the connection they have with their fans.
So now you’re all these middlemen disappearing, and this direct effort to working in conjunction with artists to help them maximise their own shit – whether that’s memberships, or record labels, or selling music directly.
And what about gigs as a revenue stream?
I truly think it’s a complex music world out there now, and I could be aggrieved, because it’s very difficult for me to get the gigs I used to get. But then I ask, well, what’s this about? Because if it’s about me getting gigs, in the UK it’s been whittled down to a small few huge promoters, promoting huge raves. I’m not necessarily going to persuade these guys to book me. Doesn’t matter who I am, or what I’m doing – whether I’m the best or not the best. They’ve often got their fingers in their own pies.
My manager said to me, if we want to persuade people in the UK to book you, we’re going to go blue in the face – he’s right! But we can do other things. I guarantee I can have a membership with 600-700 people on it over the next couple of years, enabling me to then be true to the core of the art that I love, and be relaxed in that process.
So that was a long-winded answer. But that’s where I’ve been over the past five years, trying to unravel this mess and trying to piece the puzzle back together and think about where I stand here, and where I fit in this industry that I’d honestly become incredibly disillusioned by. But at the end of all of that, I have an album!
That’s quite the story. Looking further back to your 2016 album ‘Dreamland’ – that also had a really strong theme of reflecting on the world at the time. What are the differences between how you felt about the world then versus now?
I don’t think much has changed though to be honest with you. It’s madness to me really. We find ourselves – in my opinion – stuck in a limbo. A political limbo, a social limbo. I do think that there has been a change over these years recently in young people, and in people’s trajectory in terms of what they believe is important to them.
Socially, I think people are starting to realise, the communities they’re in, and the people they’re amongst, are really important. And that’s where the power lies for a lot of us.
Politically, it’s a mess – like we all know. I am absolutely so disillusioned by it all, in terms of the outlook of the politicians and people who run our countries. It’s disgraceful. I have to say that. The recent rhetoric, taking it back 30 years with refugees is horrendous. If you want to stop people trafficking, then allow people a good, safe, legitimate way to find their way out of war-torn countries, into safer spaces. You saw that with Ukraine – when we wanted to put an actual good concerted effort into housing people from the Ukraine. I still see people with flags up in their houses. It’s great people want to help, but the whole rhetoric around how Ukrainian refugees are different apparently, versus say Gaza or Syria. It doesn’t make any fucking sense to me at all!
So Dreamland was about living in a bubble?
Exactly. As a white, middle-class man. There’s a lot of white, middle-class men living in a bubble. I struggle (we all struggle) to actually compute what is going on around us and what others are going through. We all have our circumstances – and I don’t want to discredit any other white middle-class man’s struggles or whatever. But until the rug is pulled from under our feet and shit gets super tough, are we ever really going to be able to react and change the scope of what’s going on around us?
I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of change – but we need to seek positivity in what we do see. There’s a lot of positive efforts going on in communities amongst society, to create a really much more social and caring world. And that’s a really good start. That’s all we can do really at this point to unravel this mess.
And I think ‘Money Till I Got None’ is an extension to that concept in a way. It’s just literally about asking, what is money?
And what is your answer to that question?
Obviously if I didn’t have money right now, it would be a disaster. It’s literally the air that you breathe these days. But that shouldn’t be the case in my opinion. I would consider myself a socialist, or left-wing in my views – but I’m not wanting to see a socialist world tomorrow, where all need to live without money, trading goods, living in huts all the same as each other or whatever – it’s not like that at all. I just want to see less emphasis on this drive for money. It drives everybody apart. It destroys communities and society. It’s just a concept that we created and these lies we tell each other really. And if that goes well, let’s take more steps towards positive political and social change that allows us to live happier lives.
I think we could all try and take a step back and re-prioritise money in our lives a little bit, and prioritise community and each other more. But again, not much has changed since Dreamland, so a lot is going to have to change to get there.
It doesn’t have to be negative change where everyone is completely fucked. We could find that, in two years time, we get a new government in, who makes some drastic moves to try and right a lot of these wrongs – fix the NHS, prioritise education, and give deserving people opportunities to have a better life. Whatever it is, we can make a positive change for sure. That’s my viewpoint. It’s easy for us to dwell on negativity, but it’s really destructive.
I feel you on everything here. I think the majority of readers would agree too, it’s truly mad times we’re living in. Do you pour a lot of that into writing music? Is it therapeutic relief for you?
Hmm. I think as an artist, if you’re in the right creative space, and you’re in the right moments, stuff just pours out of your head. You train yourself up, and work really hard like a footballer or anything else, and when those moments come and it’s game time, and you’re like boom.
The track ‘Tryna Get This Money’ is a good example. It’s only when I look back on it that I can see it’s a reflection of this perpetual motion of trying to get money all the time. This is mad because I’ve never thought about any of this before. Tryna Get This Money is relentless, and has a very anxious string on top of it, and the bassline is just constant, it does not quit. It’s quite funny to look back on it, and how it reflects the whole mood of that concept. But that wasn’t conscious. I wasn’t intending to have some sort of political outburst.
Also, once it’s established, to really get the concept stamped it takes a vocalist or sample. The vocalists I’ve worked with are just amazing at encapsulating my thoughts and feelings – like Rider, and Fox, and Gusto. We’ll talk a bit, and they just put this concept into a track. Everything I’m rambling on about with you now, all of this chaos, they’ll understand that and find a really concise way of getting it across. I’ve always found it quite amazing, their telepathic ability to take all of that out of my mind and then present it to people in a way that is fun, enjoyable, nice to listen to, and really poignant.
Yeah – I feel like the vocalists really do stamp it home. Fox’s line ‘scarier than covid’ stuck with me as I was listening through.
And that’s so true. When he said that I was like woah. That’s a really strong point for me. Of course covid was super important and problematic to us all – but it’s like, fucking hell guys, there’s a lot of other mad shit going on at the moment. If you’re a Syrian trying to get to the UK, or trying not to die, then there’s definitely much worse things than covid. Again, that’s about perspective and that Dreamland concept I was talking about before. Maybe we need to wake up a little bit to the true realities of what people are going through.
Switching the conversation to the production-side – your ability to maintain the funk and vibe is pretty remarkable. With so many years of sound design and production, how do you toe that line between perfection and rawness?
This album was impossible for me. It nearly killed me. I tried once in lockdown to write it and it didn’t go anywhere. I really wanted to give myself a strict set of guidelines for this album and the way I produce music in general as DLR. and over the years that’s become more and more concise in terms of what I want.
For this album what I wanted was for it to be very minimal – it shouldn’t really be more than 40-50 tracks in Ableton. And the focus has got to be around the drums and bass – a lot of people are really good at that these days, but a lot are not. So as you say, there needs to be that raw funk and groove between those two elements. It’s really difficult to find that little groove constantly. Because a lot of the time real core drum & bass is not very many notes – any more than 2, 3, 4 notes used in a whole tune really starts to take it to a new realm, being something a bit more than just drum & bass. So a lot of basslines in my department will actually only be 2 notes.
So if that’s a thing, then you’re asking ‘well how the hell can you make it interesting?’. Well that’s why I had to stop. Because it was killing me.
But I think that small creative box that you put yourself in can be really helpful in forcing you to dig extremely deep at times, and find something that’s original and special to you – and ultimately that’s how I was able to finish it off in the end.
What I’ve found is there’s kind of two different mindsets – the sound design part and the writing part. I am always just working on one or the other. I remember an interview I heard with a novel writer, and they were saying they don’t get inspiration. I agreed with that. I’m not particularly inspired these days at 38 years old, I’ve been doing it for 20 years or more. Long gone are the days that tunes are just playing in my head. The guy said in the interview – and this applies to me also – “I work so that inspiration can find me.” So in those periods I’ll always be working, creating sounds, messing around with loops, creating drum breaks. And I’ll find myself quite dried out by this process, but then keep on working and one day come to it, find a break I’d made, add a bassline to it, and start to hear some things that prick up my ear, working myself into this music writing mentality. And finding this separation from the sounds or drums that I’d made, hearing them in a different light, moving away from this sound design mentality.
So that’s the process for me. This album really just came together over a two or three year process of creating ideas, loops, sounds, and piecing it all together bit by bit. A good example is the track Danja. That’s about four years old, and it sounded a lot different. I’d had it for so long but I was never happy with the production. But if you just exercise extreme patience, then suddenly, you’ll find the opportunity. Danja was the thing I needed to complete the album.
Let’s talk about Bristol for a second too. Because you’re essentially the current leader of that sound, along with artists like Break. What’s your relationship with Bristol?
So I’ve been in Bristol on and off. I was born in Swindon. I moved around a bit when I was younger, ending up spending quite a lot of time near Bristol and the South West when I was young. For young people, drum & bass in those areas was really big. That was back in the early 2000’s, and at that time it was sort of that second generation of drum & bass – guys like Clipz, Break, Hazard all coming through.
When I was around 15 I used to go out raving in Bristol. It was great. Although I think, back then, it was actually more expensive to get in the club than it is now – which is just an absolute tragedy. Because with inflation and everything else, it bemuses me how 25 years ago I was spending more to get into the same clubs as I’m playing in now. Which puts under question a lot of why all the money’s going in the industry. But I digress.
It was amazing growing up in Bristol. The music was quite jokes really – a lot of jump-up. But the DJs played quite a broad selection. I enjoyed being there and I learned so much. I specifically remember being at O2, Andy C playing, and there was a camera on the decks being projected on the wall and I noticed he was using the pitch fader to mix, and I was thinking oh god, that’s how you do it!
So being in Bristol was so fundamental. Then when I was 18-19 I went to Leeds University, and I stayed in Leeds for 10 or so years, and that’s where I really ‘became someone’. I met Octane up there, I ran a night called Central Beatz with Ruckspin and LD50, I started a soundsystem with some friends. That time just made me.
Then I came back to Bristol, and I’ve been here for around 10 years.
What can you say about Bristol these days?
I love it here, but it does tire you out. The industry is very difficult these days, it’s an incredibly competitive market, events wise and promotion wise. For a lot of people who are into drum & bass, they would dream of coming to Bristol. And I sound a bit spoiled, but I could probably move away if I’m honest with you.
The underground really does struggle here. When it shouldn’t. But a lot of the stuff you see is very commercial. A lot of giant parties and promoters are eradicating everything. It’s really tiring.
We’ve got an incredible history here though, and it’s a blessing to be here. I live in a triangle with me, Break, and Randall. They live up the road and it’s just jokes. The other day Randall just pops in while I’m working, hassles my dog- and it’s just quite a surreal experience. So, it’s fundamental in my current experience of drum & bass. Don’t know if I’ll be here forever, but I’m embracing it while I am.
Yeah it’s totally fundamental. In my mind, your sound, along with break and a few others, is the Bristol sound.
That’s so weird because we’d both struggle to sell out an album launch of 2,000 people. Really, the commercial or more mainstream side of the industry here rules.
What is Money Records?
Money Records is something to house this idea of money in the industry.
I found it really funny that no one was actually using this name for a record label. And I wanted to just grab it, so I did. It also just kind of throws up this idea of: Is DLR obsessed with money? Or does he not care about it? Is this a joke?
Really it’s about me trying to take 100% royalties from my album. Which is something I will be doing. And that money comes directly to me and my business, and then goes back into the business, which goes back onto the people I support on my record label, whether they make money on the label or not.
I just thought it encapsulates the whole concept and it’s something that’s gonna grow throughout the years – something I’m going to take for myself, rather than give to other people. Originally Sofa Sound had that concept and values, but it quickly became about a lot of other people, including me. Which is really cool, and that’s just where it’s gone now. But I just wanted something for myself now, and to be a bit selfish!
Love that. Ok last Question for the studio heads: What’s your favourite piece of gear (or plugin) right now, and why?
So for me, everything’s gone full circle. I started on computers around 2001. It took me about ten years to get to a point where I was writing anything decent. And even still, I never really fully supported or repped my own music until the past five or six years. So to build that confidence and my own sound. It took forever. So much patience. I started on computers, then in-between all of that, I wanted hardware, compressors, all this stuff. I was thinking “if only I could get this, I’ll get the right sound and direction”.
Only now do I realise just how powerful computers are. Recently the new MacBooks with their own processors have revolutionised computer power and efficiency – to the point where non-Apple users just don’t believe it. So I will happily say to you that my favourite piece of gear is my MacBook. A 14-inch M1 Mac. I don’t wanna be a salesman for Apple, but I’ve always used it – my uncle worked for Apple for over 30 years now. He was there at the start and he’s still there now.
This new Mac has really helped me invest my time back into computer music production – veering away from processing everything through external compressors, or mixing desks, or EQs. Because for me, without a shadow of a doubt, AirWindows and Acustica – which are two different brands of plugins – both those companies just make the most insane tools.
How are they changing the game?
With AirWindows, no longer do you have to go through your shitty broken Mackie desk, and then come in with recording issues, or you realise you’ve over-distorted and you need to go again. It’s all tweakable in the computer.
And then Acustica is also on another level. The modelling of hardware they’re able to achieve these days is linked to the same modelling technology they use to send satellites into space. So they’re able to run through all the processes incredibly accurately about what’s going to happen to this satellite when it goes into space – it’s the same thing for this, in achieving the exact same sound as hardware. A £5000 compressor is now something like £350, and the quality and the control is just insane – and it all runs seamlessly without the fans even moving.
So I say to anyone looking to get somewhere in this industry, make sure you get a really good computer – a MacBook probably! And some really great plugins that you love. That’s what I did for my album.