WORDS

Jon1st & Shield Get Focused

Undoubtedly the most addictive combination since peanut butter and jam is the forever evolving genre-dodging duo Jon1st and Shield.

While they may not stick to the roof of your mouth, their infectious grooves are often found stuck in your eardrums for days to come. Their music is the perfect blend of meticulously executed production skills and a love for live experimentation and expression, something that can be witnessed in full force on the latest self-released EP Focus.

It’s been a jam-packed (last of the PB&J references, promise) few years for the duo since the release of their debut single Holla in 2018 and the resulting debut EP Flapjacks. Much of this time has been spent both perfecting their craft and finding their sound, often through the lens of live performances to their growing global fan base. It would be unfair to try and describe their live show in words, so better yet would be to check one of their many recorded performances on their web – a key example being their Remote Research video.

The new EP Focus, as we discuss below, builds on this extensive touring schedule of the last few years to incorporate a new live sound into their music. The wonky, halftime basis to their sound that they established with previous releases has been elevated to new levels with both of their uniquely individual takes to electronic music – be it Jon’s DMC winning scratching techniques, or Alex’s [Shield’s] frankly violating live percussion grooves. From bouncy hip-hop influenced beats, skippy 140, to scatty half-time drum and bass with Strategy, this EP has something for everyone.

It’s crazy that it’s been four years since your debut collaborative EP. Has your approach to making music changed much since then?

Jon: Definitely, in a lot of ways! That first EP and ‘Holla’ before it were us trying to find out what our collaborative sound would be and were before we really started thinking about the live show. After the Flapjacks EP we built the first version of our live show and started touring it, and as we played more shows we figured out what worked for us and how performing would inform the next set of tracks we’d make together. Our initial approach to performing was more from an angle of deconstructing our studio tracks to work out how to perform them live and by the time we wrote this new EP we’d turned that on its head somewhat. We wanted to include performance at the core of the track writing process, so there’s a lot more live percussion and scratching in this record than before.

Another key difference is that in the past we wrote most of our music in person together, whereas the majority of this record was written bouncing ideas back and forth online throughout 2020.

Alex: Yep, because of our touring schedule in 2019 and early 2020 we were pretty much seeing each other every week, either performing together or writing or practicing in the studio in Copenhagen or Leicester between tours. We would use this time to practice and create new music for the show and then we’d be back travelling again. Being at home for a long time and in different countries from one another was really different for us, but we continued writing together online and eventually ended up with our Remote Research video set. The whole idea for that was to make a 30-minute video in which we made some new beats and performed them live as part of Shambala’s online festival in 2020. We knew we had to do something with all the demos we’d made in that period, because just having them in that mixtape form on YouTube didn’t make sense to us. Hats off to you Jon for pushing us to do that. I’m really proud of this EP.

It’s interesting hearing how the live performance influences your production process. Is a lot of your music in the studio built up off this live experimentation and off-the-cuff randomness then?

Jon: For some of these new EP tracks, we had the idea of making a core song idea and then seeing how many different ways we could flip it using various hardware and DJ gear. Sometimes I’d scratch melodies we’d produced and then we’d process those, or I’d run things through effects on my DJ mixer and chop up bits of those recordings, and in turn one of those might become a new hook. It was about how many ways we could manipulate an idea. That’s sort of a running theme for this whole EP.

Alex: For sure, we always try and aim for a few variations throughout each track and avoid copy and pasting arrangements for second drops. We want to push our tracks to be a listening experience as well as DJ tools.

Alex, you came from the drum and bass production world, right? What was the turning point for you when you started experimenting with your sound more?

Alex: I started to experiment with halftime tracks when that was blowing up with artists like Ivy Lab and their 20/20 label. I thought drum and bass was always the thing I wanted to make, but when this style came into my radar, I was hooked. I produced some demos and send them to Ivy Lab, and thankfully they picked it up and started to support it. I signed the My Flava EP with them in 2016, and ever since that I completely changed my approach to music. I was so focused on mixdowns and the drum and bass format, whereas now I’m trying every musical genre I can. The best thing about this project with Jon is that we have so many mutual interests and styles that we love, as well as different tastes which keep things interesting.

How did this musical relationship first bloom? 

Jon: We met through our respective involvements with Ivy Lab’s 20/20 label at the time. I was a resident with the label at their events at Phonox and Alex was one of the first signings to the label and we met briefly when he played at one of the events there. I’d been a fan as soon as I heard ‘Horrormovie’ on Soundcloud and Alex told me he used to be a B-boy, so we started talking about battling and hip hop etc. and realised we had quite a lot in common. A few months later, I booked Ivy Lab and Tim Parker for my own night up in Leicester and Alex asked if he could come visit and play. We ended up having a jam at my place when he visited and we shot our first video together with my friend John, which ended up doing really well. It was a lot of fun, so we kept on creating from there and the Toraiz project we worked on with Pioneer came about around that time too. This all helped cement the idea that we wanted to make a more regular project together.

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve interviewed someone where Ivy Lab have been a big influence in them experimenting with sounds.

Jon: Yeah man! The various iterations of beats-music have been a huge love of mine as a DJ, producer, and promoter since I started DJing in the mid 00s. I really gravitated towards it when the drum and bass scene gave that style a real push in the mid-2010s and started going down to the early 20/20 events. I’d always listened to and played lot of DnB, especially labels like Exit and Critical etc, but was not really in that scene as a DJ. I was more involved on the fringe between LA beats, footwork and the various types of music inspired by it at the time, so to be welcomed into that world with open arms by Ivy Lab, and to play among names I looked up to meant a lot to me. I’m really grateful for that.

Alex: Same, they put out a new lane for producers and DJs like us. Huge shout out to Ivy Lab.

Awesome. Let’s get into the EP a bit more. Kombucha first of all, opening track to the EP plus the opening track to Remote Research. How did this come about?

Alex: Kombucha started with an initial hook we made that we rearranged. That tune has SO many layers, you have no idea! I remember sending the project to Jon and he rung me like ‘dude, this is too much’ haha. You couldn’t even open it without the computer having a meltdown. CPU overload.

Jon: Alex has such a detailed approach to production. He has core key elements for each track, but whenever I open one of his projects, there’s at least 100 layers of subtle sounds stacked up that add tiny details which make such a difference to the groove when added up. You’ll hear a snare but it’s a snare with tiny little elements from ten different breaks. That’s one of the biggest takeaways I’ve had from working together. Every time I think I’m finished with an idea I’ll be thinking ‘what would Alex do’ and then get back to layering.

Have you ever made Kombucha though?

Alex: Haha! I actually haven’t, but I drank it so much when we were touring. That was my thing.

Let’s talk about the single Strangers, super cinematic vibes on this one. What was the influence behind this?

Jon: I think that one is a good combination of both our styles. At the time, Alex had started his lo-fi beats project, Magic Mondays. He was writing a lot with those guys, and the first half of this tune is very much Alex’s input inspired by that. We’d been playing with a new plug-in and I wanted to see if we could add some Juke influenced rhythms and introduce a more cinematic/90s jungle/chords vibe.

Alex: Yep, that was the intent. I think I made the initial demo and sent it to Jon. He thought the patterns and soundscapes were dope, but he wanted to have a week to see if he could take it to a different place. He fleshed out the tune super well and then we just built it up even more with all these sounds from Omnisphere. We managed to build this core palette of ambient/lo-fi/almost Nintendo sounds, while driving it into this jukey, footwork vibe.

Alex, this one is for you. I’ve always been as much a fan of your music as I have been your drumming videos on Instagram. The enthusiasm is outstanding. How often are you practicing drums? 

Alex: This might be the most generic answer ever, but it comes in periods. I try to play something as much as possible though, whether that’s on a drum kit or on a table. I’m that annoying guy constantly tapping rhythms and practicing techniques. When I have a good month, I’m pretty much in the studio and practicing every day.

 

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Do you treat turntablism in the same way as Alex’s drumming, Jon?

Jon: I definitely did when I was younger. I’ve been scratching since I was 14, and from then to the age of about 24, that was pretty much my life. Outside of school and university, I wanted to be the next Craze, DJ Woody or DJ Shadow. When I got super serious about it, I started entering battles like DMC. Around 2012/2013 when I was really going for it, I was putting in about seven or eight hours of practice every day.

Wow!

Jon: Eight or nine years is a long time to do something, but I was still one of the newbies compared to a lot of people in the scene. I was of a good standard, but I had to work double time to get to a competitive level and catch up with my peers. These days my focus (no pun intended!) has changed somewhat and I’m more interested in making tracks or a fun DJ set or live show, so I’m putting my eggs in several baskets rather than just focusing on being a technical battle DJ. For me, it’s now about trying to write music I like that resonates either with myself or other people rather than worrying about my scratch ego and trying to be ‘the best’ like I used to. If scratching comes into play in something, that’s cool as that’s always going to be my first instrument, but I’m not too concerned about forcing it.

Back to the EP, one of the huge stand-out tracks for me was the single Distortion with Strategy. I quite literally screamed when I first heard this on the way back from work. How did this come about?

Jon: Oh man, us too! We’re both big fans and it’s a real honour for us that he’s on this record! Initially, he kindly made us a dubplate version of Marka for our sets and then we decided to send him one of our demos when we started making ideas for this new EP. Full credit to you Alex as you made the core idea for the song and I was mainly riffing off with effects and rhythm switches.

Alex: Yeah, Strategy is killing it at the moment! We sent the rough idea over to him and he killed his verse in about a day. He sent a voice memo of his idea, and we were hooked. Once he recorded it in the studio, he gave us some ideas on creative direction, like putting some extra distortion in to match the theme. I’ve always been a huge fan of Strategy, and he was very easy to work with.

Aside from your track with Fixate recently Jon, it’s one of the most drum and bass-influenced tracks I’ve heard from you both recently. Do you have a soft spot for the genre still, Alex?

Alex: I do! I exercise a lot and practice to jungle/drum and bass because the tempo is perfect for it. I’m an old jump up head myself and love artists like DJ Hazard. It’s fun to see how people are taking it to the extremes, like with the Belgian jump up stuff. I also have a lot of love for producers like Calibre, Break and all the legends in the scene. That’s where my whole main inspiration for producing and engineering came from. Listening to Break, I was always like ‘how the fuck do you make your drums sound like an actual drum kit but still smack on a good system?’

The king of mixdowns for sure. What else have you got coming out? 

Alex: I am doing Shield stuff, but it’s just very under the radar. I don’t have too much to plug right now. If you go on my Instagram, you will see whatever the fuck I’m doing, whether that’s doing push-ups or screaming in a mirror. It depends on the mood! There’s stuff incoming though.

Love it! What about you, Jon? 

Jon: DJ wise I just played a set for Keep Hush for an event Ila Brugal curated which was so much fun, and I’m doing a quarterly radio show with Lowertone, an independent radio station here in Leicester. I’ll also be heading back to North America in the autumn, which I’m incredibly stoked about.

Production wise, there’s the Fixate collab you mentioned that dropped recently which was a lot of fun to work on. I also have an EP with Arcane from Bristol which is coming out later this year that I’m really excited about – that’s more of a club record, all 150/160 jungle and juke inspired tracks. I’m also remixing an artist I really like, which will be out this summer, but can’t say too much there. And, finally, I have also contributed to a very different project with a folk band called Stick In The Wheel, Nabihah Iqbal and Olugbenga Adelekan from Metronomy.

Oh wow!

Jon: It’s called Perspectives on Tradition. It’s us exploring folk music and what traditional music means to us with the band. In terms of my involvement, I worked on two songs inspired by folk music and folklore local to Leicester. One track is very much a dance floor inspired track reworking a traditional English folk song. The other is inspired by local folklore/a cautionary tale of a story of a cannibal witch who lives near Leicester, which we flipped on its head a bit and turned it into a bit of a tribute to her…

Pay tribute to Jon1st & Shield – Focus is out now: Support it on Bandcamp