Muskoka: The sound of Bensley on a whole new level

Some artists lend themselves to the album format.

The perfect balance of narrative qualities to their individual tracks. Their ability to weave them together in such a way the album experience is greater than the sum of its parts. A depth or sense of timelessness that enhances listening trips way beyond the dancefloor this music was originally intended… Some artists make albums that grab you by the thick of your ears, pull you into vivid new worlds and refuse to take you home until they’ve told their tale.

Bensley is one of those artists.

He has been since he broke through in 2015. Earlier. When he first started sending demos to RAM Records in 2014 they identified this skill long before he did and went on to launch him with a full debut album Next Generation. Its dreamy sheen, smooth emotive hooks and sharp, clipped beats established Bensley’s sound and signature with clarity.

Four years later that debut album still stands up today. But in comparison to his new LP, it was a mere starter course. Building on the foundations the young Canadian dug four years ago (and everything he’s built since as a DJ and with singles in between the albums) Muskoka expands his ideas and sound into brave new places. Different tempos, genres, arrangements and experiments with his own saxophone playing, and even his own vocals, Muskoka does what every fan wants a sophomore album to do and not just take off where it leaves you, but takes you to those vivid worlds the best type of albums can take you. Worlds where shades of emotional trance, sultry jazz, peppy funk, cathedral-scaled arpeggios, sweeping strings, rolling mid tempo breaks, arresting song-writing and plenty more all play complementary cameos, galvanising his dreamy signature to new levels of lucidity. In summary: Bensley’s smashed this notoriously difficult second album with a body of work that will stand just as tall as his debut does now.

Hot on the heels of Culture Shock’s Sequences, Delta Heavy’s Only In Dreams and the commencement of Calyx & Teebee’s Plates project, Muskoka is another remarkable and anticipated album from RAM Records this year, this is its story…

Let’s go back to that debut album first. That was such an interesting way to break through. Was there a lot of pressure there? Perhaps self-imposed?

I didn’t know I was making an album at the time. RAM has always been very single-oriented and that’s what I always had in mind when I was sending them tunes. They realised I had an album on my hands before I did. I didn’t feel any pressure in that sense – I was making music, sending it to them and getting a nice response and it wasn’t until a year later that it began to take shape into an album. It was probably the easiest album I’ll ever write.

Ha yeah, an accidental album. So Muskoka was approached in a totally different way?

Yes, it was a much more deliberate. I wanted to improve on the first and create more cohesion between the songs on the album. Not to say the first didn’t have that but I wanted it to feel like more of a whole piece of work to me. I also wanted to push the boundaries out and explore other tempos and genres, but within my own sound. Since I knew it was going to be an album, it gave me a lot more freedom to experiment with different types of music and go on a journey with it.

When did you start thinking ‘this is an album track’? Which track sowed the seeds for the album?

Radio Statica for sure. It has a long atmospheric intro, goes through a few tempo changes and is one of my proudest works musically and sonically. I knew it would be good for an album intro so I put it aside. That was a few years ago actually, I wrote that not long after the first album.

Oh cool. Nicely stashed. That sets the parameters for the narrative a little then?

Yeah. I think it sets the tone for the whole album: a body of work that was inspired by Muskoka but doesn’t necessarily represent it.

I’m wondering if all the non-D&B tracks were the first ones you put aside for the album?

Yeah the first things I made after the album were all of that nature. I’d been inspired by the first album process and, having that type of freedom, I wanted to do it again. But I also wanted to explore those ideas within drum & bass and just try and do things as differently as I can.

Like In Darkness, the track so big it comes in two parts!

That was actually the last track I made for the album. I wanted a big long journey to tie the whole thing off.

It’s over 8 minutes. Is it harder writing a tune of that length as you constantly have to zoom out for the whole picture?

The first part kinda wrote itself. You can hear my influences in there. I’d watched Blade Runner and was having a jam session with the first half of it. The challenge was getting those ideas to translate to D&B in the second half. I’m glad I did it. If I was ever going to make something like this, and I really wanted to, then it had to be for the album.

I reckon that’s you singing on the last tune Trillium…

Yes it is. I experimented with my own vocals quite a lot – most of it didn’t come out well. For Trillium I thought it would be nice to have a verse at the end of it for people who’ve listened through it that far. I don’t know if anyone would recognise me or not but it felt right to add just a little element of my own vocals. I think I have a certain vocal quality that requires a very specific context – I couldn’t jump on any tune and be satisfied with it. But for something short like that I think it worked well and I also processed it a lot so it sounds like a male/female duo. I think it masks my dubious qualities. Maybe (laughs)

There’s no masking the qualities of your sax playing! Doesn’t sound like much processing was needed.

Thanks. All I had to do there was distort it to give it a bit more bite!

Yeah man! You were in bands, right?

Yeah in high school up until I was 18. Since then I hadn’t been playing it as much as I’d like to. Though I miss it a lot, being in a band is a big commitment that I unfortunately don’t have time for these days. But my time in the jazz band was super useful and I learnt loads about music.

How rusty were you when you first picked it back up?

I hadn’t played it for a couple of years which I was ashamed about. But once I identified segments of the tune I wanted the sax on I started practicing again. You need to develop the strength in your mouth and lips to play the sax for long periods of time but I had the benefit of infinite takes so it wasn’t quite like training for a performance. However I’d love to bring it into what I do live.

Oh nice. Have you got plans for a live band?

A distant dream but playing DJ sets and bringing the sax out on particular tunes is something I’d love to do. I just need to write more tunes that have sax parts. It’s been done by guys like Griz, they’ve shown the world you can bring an instrument like that into a DJ setting and totally rock a party.

Yes! So this is all super personal, right? You’re playing, you’re singing, its title…

Yeah and I think that translates through music – even if you don’t know what the story is behind the music or what the inspirations are, you can feel that it’s been written close to the heart.

Totally. So take me to Muskoka please. What are we going to do?

Get in a boat! The lakes are just enormous, and spending time on the water is an amazing experience. We can also visit some of the lakeside towns like Port Carling and Bala, and maybe get some fresh fish for dinner!

Nice. But what about the bears, though? Have you ever come face to face with a bear?

There are plenty but thankfully I don’t find myself near them very often! They’ve been known to walk through your property at night but thankfully I’ve never seen this happen at my place.

Besides bear home invasions, it does sound amazing. Well worthy of having an album dedicated to it. Just totally un-spoilt, like the land before time in places…

Pretty much. If you get outside of the main cottage areas you can find yourself deep the wilderness pretty quickly. There are native Canadian reserves nearby so there’s rich history and untouched nature right on your doorstep. Yeah, I couldn’t think of a more beautiful or special place to inspire my album, I hope that shows when you listen to it.

Muskoka is out now on RAM Records

Follow Bensley: Facebook / Soundcloud