‘What did you do during the great pandemic of 2020/21?’
Get used to that. Like generations before us who lived through wars, it’s a question we will be asked for the rest of our lives.
Almost any answer is the right answer, too; whether you learnt Mandarin, dusted off your old board, made tunes, played games or smoked trees all day, it doesn’t matter. Whichever way you got through the last year+ of weirdness, intensity, frustration, isolation and systematic division by governments and agenda-driven media outlets, you got through it and that’s the best thing.
For Toronto-based NC-17, his answer comes in musical form: his debut album Most Violent Year. Commencing work on it within days of both the global lockdown and losing his 9-5 which he’d held down for many years, Most Violent Year articulates every bit of anger, upset, disturbance, disruption, worry and sadness he felt during this time.
Out this week via Dispatch Recordings, Most Violent Year became the ultimate therapy for the artist born Peter Aldan and was written via a unique creative process which involved him deeply digesting Black Sabbath, Mobb Deep and cult 70s horror films like Rosemary’s Baby, paying homage to some of the strongest institutions in drum & bass and bringing in his closest friends.
The process worked: the consistent sense of dread and tension never leaves Most Violent Year from start to finish. In fact it worked so well that it’s led to a staggering trilogy of LPs. A feat no other drum & bass artist has achieved, certainly not at their debut level. Parts two and three will be revealed later in the year. This is what we know so far…
How are you man?
I’m good. I’ve just finished a writing week and the way I do that is pretty intense. I’ll write for 15-20 hours a day. I do not leave my room unless it’s for food or whatever and just work. It takes a lot out of me but it works. The closest thing I can describe it is like method actors and how they don’t leave their character at all, they go so deep. I guess it’s kinda similar.
I can identify with that. Total and utter absorption in your work. Full immersion.
That’s it. I just keep writing for a week and then I’ll switch off. I won’t go on the computer, I won’t even watch TV. It’s so much stimulation, it affects you. I feel like I’ve been to war. It feels like a concussion.
So Most Violent Year must have come through that process?
The first day it started, I’d lost my job. I was in a situation where I was like ‘what am I going to do?’ I’m lucky enough to be in an okay situation financially so I threw myself into music. It’s the only other thing I know. My other life was in the diamond industry where I started at the age of 20. So the whole time I’ve been doing music, I’ve been working with them. So I lost my job, music was the only thing to fall back on it. It was a very intense time.
When in the lockdown timeline did that happen? And obviously Most Violent Year is a reference to this…
March 24. Right at the start of it all. The subtext and the metaphor of the album was the horror that I was dealing with every single day outside in the world. The music was how I was dealing with it all.
To the tune of three whole albums worth!
Yeah man. We’re just about finishing the third one, I’ve just had the pre-masters for the third one and if I’m not mistaken there’s not been a trilogy of albums has been done by a solo artist ever.
Nothing springs to mind. Was a trilogy the plan all along?
I was just writing, nonstop. In my mind I was writing a trilogy but no one else knew. I wanted to tell a story and it wasn’t until I did the first one where Ant (TC1) was like ‘you know, we might have two albums here.’ It wasn’t until we were mid way through the second one where I realised it could be a possibility. Ant couldn’t think of anyone who’d released a trilogy, so he was game.
Anyone can make enough filler to make three albums but for them to tell a story and have that real consistency that you’ve shown on this album is another thing. There’s nothing on this album that shouldn’t be and I seldom think that about albums. There’s always a bit of filler somewhere….
That’s really interesting. Thank you. I put it down to this… I had this ritual before I started every session; to keep that ominous feel that runs throughout the album I would listen to Black Sabbath, especially the Dio years. If you look at the album – the first song is called Dio. The third song is Holy Diver. So I would listen to the album Heaven & Hell at the start of every single session to get into that world. Heaven & Hell is about the fact that at any given moment you can chose where you want to be. This, what we’re in now, is heaven or hell depending on what you make it. So yeah, I’m a huge Sabbath fan. I loved Ozzy as well but Dio’s very much involved in the themes I wanted to get across.
That’s fascinating. Because to me it sounds like a love letter to Metalheadz. Especially tracks like Razors Edge and Gator.
Yeah in many ways it is. Also a love letter to Konflict. I just went ham. I went as dark as I could possibly go. And as much as I took influence from Black Sabbath and regularly watching films like Rosemary’s Baby, I did take inspiration from the labels and acts that inspired me to begin with and, for this album, it was indeed Metalheadz and Konflict. For the second album you’ll hear other influences. Like you say, it will still have that consistency but there’ll be other references and developments.
So Most Violent Year is the first act. Setting the scene. The trigger point.
Totally. And part two gets more intense. Whenever you ask a producer what their favourite production is, it’s often the last thing they made. So of course I’m going to say the third part is even better again. It’s just balls-to-the-wall. And I have to thank Ant for his role in this and help me refine the tracklist and arrangement. The way we’d put everything together was very much like a film. Each album had around 60-70 tunes.
Yeah. So I’d make all those tracks and he’d literally cut it down to 14 tracks. Then I’d go into the second part and write it from new again. In my head those old tunes are scenes from the first part, they can’t be used for the second part. The second part is a new scene, it has a different vibe. So we were getting the best possible tunes for each album.
That’s ridiculously prolific. Did you have different albums or films to watch for pre-session inspiration for each part?
During the first part I watched Rosemary’s Baby almost every day. It’s a special film but also the film felt like my baby. When I came to the second part, I knew I had to switch it up. So I switched to hip-hop and listened to Mobb Deep’s Hell On Earth every single day. Then on the third part I listened to all of it. Everything that inspired the first and second albums.
What is it about Rosemary’s Baby for you?
It comes from a time in horror movies that I love so much. It’s got that ominous eerie vibe throughout the whole damn thing and to keep up that tension for a whole film is an incredible feat. Like the lullaby from that film. Even though it’s a lullaby it’s still so dark. So that was a lesson in keeping things tense and dark. Plus it carries the same themes I wanted on the album. A lot of films from that era did. The Exorcist, for example. It’s about the idea of the other side and of heaven and hell. Even the movie cover with those mountains; it should be a beautiful scenic picture but it’s actually hell.
I like the idea of choosing the heaven and hell – like the Dio lyrics you mentioned earlier. You chose whether you opt in or out of a lot of things. Music has been your heaven hasn’t it?
Without sounding corny, my day job made me very unhappy. It was demanding, it was difficult and this pandemic made me realise that I want to do something that makes me happy. Writing this album wasn’t just therapeutic, it made me realise what I wanted from life and where I wanted to be. We all work jobs to feed our families, but that shouldn’t stop you making decisions that make you happy. I won’t knock what I did. It gave me my house and, if it wasn’t for that job, I don’t think I’d still be in drum & bass. If I relied on drum & bass to eat back then I’d probably hate drum & bass now. But things have happened the way they have and my wife told me to follow my dreams so I’m taking this opportunity. I’ve been working full time all my adult life, over 20 years, so if I don’t do it now, I’ll run out of time.
I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone who’s worked in the diamond industry!
It’s good money but it’s a lot of stress. It’s sales and they’re very desirable products so you’re watching your back all the time because they’re very appealing to criminals. You deal with sketchy characters sometimes and co-mingle those people. I wasn’t in the retail side, I was in the wholesale side of it dealing with all kinds of people. People like the characters in Snatch really do exist!
Oh yeah I bet. It’s like how dance music co-mingles with the criminal underworld with drug culture, I guess. Are there any particular tunes you’ve made in the past where they’re a direct reaction to you going ‘screw the diamond industry! I hate it!’
The craziest thing was that when I was doing that life they were such polar opposites. By day I’m working in a top diamond firm, at night I’m writing drum & bass. You couldn’t get more parallel opposites. So music has been very therapeutic for me. It was an escape for me from that world. I can’t pin-point one song because everything I did was an escape from whatever problems I was dealing with.
Totally. There’s the social aspect of the album process, too, isn’t there? We’ve all been locked away and denied socialising and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are a lot of collaborations on this album. I’m loving the Kumarachi one. Not what I expected from you two.
That’s nice to hear. I wasn’t sure about that track within the context of the album and when Ant included it, I was surprised. It’s very different from the other tracks but he’s right, it totally works. He did the same for the other albums, too. That’s where Ant came into his own. He’s listening with totally different ears. I trust him; I write and he knows what will work best.
You can’t see the wood for the trees. Arranging albums is Ant’s craft isn’t it?
He’s the editor. In a film context, I’m getting my master shots and as many shots as possible and the more scenes I give him, the better he can tell the story. It’s a great way to work.
That’s awesome. With the collabs and the social side, was that therapy?
Yeah they’re very close friends. People I speak to every day and really trust. So Masheen was my best man at my wedding. He hasn’t written music in 15 yeas, but it was very important for him to be on the album. Dauntless was another close friend I wanted to be part of it.
Does that thread continue throughout all three albums?
Yeah, all my friends are on this.
This is such a personal release. You’ve included so many references.
I’m trying to pay homage. Like I have with Headz on this album. On the second album I’d say it’s a love letter to Quarantine, Renegade Hardware and those guys. You don’t hear a lot of those sounds in part one, you’ll hear more Virus, No U-Turn, Quarantine, Renegade influences. All of that.
Go on. So this is an open love letter full stop. Just everything that makes you you.
To the genres and the eras and the people and the music I love the most. Totally.
So not to be a doomy guy, but this has been intense. 50 odd tunes per album, this has been huge. You’ve now set a precedent. So where do you go next?
I don’t know. I had a similar conversation with a friend recently and I think the next stage will be helping friends with other projects and collabs and cool stuff like that. Something that’s not just about me, just to be there for friends who helped me out.
Perfect. A really nice conclusion to introduce people to the concept. Do you have dates for the following albums in mind?
The second one is being mastered so we’ll find out about that soon and the third one is just finishing up, so we’ll see. But it’s all coming. And I think the cool thing about being an artist is that when all this is over and we’re a few years down the line, looking back, we can say ‘this is what I made that year’. That’s so important for me; what I was dealing with, what I was doing, what I was thinking about. That’s it there. So in 10 or 20 years time I can play it to my son and say ‘this is what I did when the world was in chaos’.
Yeah like a Most Violent Diary!
That’s so important. I think the best art is created when the world is in disarray. In the 70s, for example, you had Vietnam and some of the best films were being made. That’s no coincidence. I feel as artists, our duty is to work on our art at these times. It’s representative of the time you’re in and Most Violent Year is representative of what we’ve been through and continue to go through.
To be continued…
NC-17 – Most Violent Year is out April 30 on Dispatch Recordings
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