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NickBee: Life as a D&B artist in war-torn Ukraine

nickbee

The Sounds Of War: An EP title and a half for any bass artist from any corner of the world… But one that’s all the more pertinent when it’s actually made in a country that’s been torn by conflict for over two years and includes real field recordings from the war.

This is real life for Nickbee, an established D&B artist with releases dating back to 2009 (when he was just 18) on labels such as Dispatch, Bad Taste, Horizons and Noisia’s Invisible. While he’s the first to explain that he’s not faced by conflict on his doorstep (the most sensitive areas in Ukraine are 250km away from his town) the situation the country is in affects everything he and his fellow countrymen do.

While most artists of Nick’s level will complain about lack of earnings, Nick is one of the most grateful and appreciative artists you can talk to. He also has plenty to say about the limp state of modern electronica, why the turbo-mixing muscles most big D&B DJs flex are detrimental to the scene and how being true to yourself is the only way to operate as an artist.

It doesn’t get much truer than his Sounds Of War EP on Invisible. Six tracks of crisp, tense, sci-fi funk that teeter on the balance of almost bewilderingly dense and chaotic then scarily spacious and stark. It’s Nick at a whole new level and it sounds like this…

Get to know. This one goes deep….

There is a scary trend of formulaic tracks and over-simplicity in all forms of electronic music. Including drum & bass. I worry about this and I make sure I have all the details in something that offers you more than the basics.

You lost your Facebook page a while back. What’s up with that?

Yes, a middle eastern news agency now owns it. I was talking to a social media expert who was going to help me organise the page. He wanted access to it but I declined and within an hour I was no longer admin. Have you ever tried talking to someone directly at Facebook?

No chance

Exactly. There are no real people there. Nobody wanted to help.

Has that affected shows or releases or your career?

No not really. Being in the Ukraine is a much bigger influence on my career. All kinds of complicated Visa issues which I can’t even begin to explain.

Try me…

I have to show my professional occupation, which is a doctor. But then we have the problem with payment. I get paid in Euro or Sterling but you can’t take that currency back out here. It has to be in hryvnia, our national currency. When the crisis is over, I’m sure things will be smoother.

The crisis has been happening since the revolution in 2014, right?

Yes, but what you know about the revolution is far from what’s happened. When the activity started the media showed drip fed us images that more people – like sheep – join in. They didn’t know what they were revolting for or against.

There was quite a long gap in your releases during this time wasn’t there?

Yes, but not because of the revolution. That’s just a time thing. A soul thing. My music can’t be fabric. I hate that many producers make music like this. They make releases that are functional but – I’m sorry to say – fucking shit. All the promos I get from the main promo companies who service D&B DJs are not playable. I got into 2004/5 neurofunk drum & bass. Telemetrik, Bad Company, Phace, Noisia… True drum & bass. But the quality of today’s tunes are nowhere near these in my opinion. So I try to take it back to that original spirit with modern qualities and sounds and ideas. And there’s one thing I’m very keen to say… Even the hardest D&B should have melody and soul and musicality. So that’s why there was quite a long gap in my discography – I can’t let any war take credit for that!

Goldie once said to me that the best music comes from times of oppression – either internally, externally or culturally – when you feel the odds against you. Would you agree?

Yes I would totally agree. I hope you can hear this in my music because it’s hard to live here for lots of reasons. Of course there is the war but I’m 250km from the warzone so it’s not directly affecting my life. I turn off the TV as it’s all disinformation and propaganda. But there is the economic situation that really oppresses us here. People survive, they don’t live. Many people survive on 100 Euro a month. They eat porridge, no meat, minimum stuff.

So you’re comfortable in comparison?

I am definitely better off than others, yes. And I am very lucky from this. Prices fluctuate so drastically here so to have dollars and euros gives me some stability and allows me to live somewhere safer. But no one is safe when the war is on this scale.

Have you been asked to sign up to the army yourself?

No. I was not asked to sign up because I was studying to be a doctor and conscription isn’t forced. I finished my internship and made the decision to make music because doctors here are paid the 100 Euro per month I mentioned before. It’s not like Europe, doctors aren’t appreciated like that here. So the plan is to eventually move to Europe and help people there.

So when you move to Europe would you quit music to become a doctor?

No no, music is in my soul. But I would find time to make music as well. I found a fact about myself when I was studying… I still made music. When you have very little time to devote to something you love you make sure that time is quality. It’s a paradox but it works!

Let’s talk about Sounds Of War. This is a statement. The first time you’ve referred to your environment in your art. Was this a big decision to make?

Thijs (from Noisia) actually suggested it. He asked what I thought about making music about war and it blew my mind. First I look locally. Then I look at the east. Then I look at the west. We are riddled in conflict, physically and ideologically. Acts of terror. Act of religion. It’s not a very positive topic but like Goldie told you, bad times mean strong creativity. So this is how we started. There are real recordings on the EP of Ukrainian east and west. I wanted to use the real sounds and not samples. You can hear the Klashnekoffs, you can hear the tanks. I hope for people to hear honesty and my soul in the musicality… The minor keys and pads, to me, stir a strong imagination of world war. That’s what I think of when I hear that pad.

Has this changed how you look for inspiration?

Not necessarily. You find inspiration in everything; people, landscapes, movies… I also make deep house with my brother Andrew, we are called The Hive. So when I find inspiration and it doesn’t work for D&B then I make something different instead.

Didn’t know about The Hive!

We’ve not released anything yet so you wouldn’t have. But I will tell you this… It’s not the simple formulaic house music that mainstream clubs and charts seem to like. There is a scary trend of formulaic tracks and over-simplicity in all forms of electronic music. Including drum & bass. I worry about this and I make sure I have all the details in something that offers you more than the basics.

Wallpaper 2

Khomatech’s artwork for Sounds Of War is a fine example of that.

Yes. I think what he’s done throughout the whole image is very clever. Every track is referenced; we have moonshine, we have out of the dark, we have sounds of war, we have the time which is the photo of the girl from Chernobyl. That was very recent history; the explosion is still very recent for people. He’s shown all the names in the EP. Maybe he wasn’t trying but he has captured everything about the EP in the artwork.

Everything about this is a new level for you; the concept, the music, the artwork. Does it feel like a new level?

Yes it does. The quality of the tracks for me is a new level. Every track I make I try to improve. All producers do that, right? Sometimes you feel develop. Other times you don’t. The main aim for all of us as producers is to make tracks that add to the history and heritage of drum & bass. Making something that sets a new benchmark and influences people. But to do that you have to make music for yourself first. People will hear if it’s made for yourself and it’s true or not. There’s a dead famous Russian rockstar Viktor Tsoi, he made such deep music, he was not trying to get found, he was expressing himself. That’s my inspiration – not paying for promotion and publicity and PR and fake status. If you believe in yourself and your music, then eventually you will develop fans and listeners. You have to make what you like… Not everyone does this. How many times have you hear Mefjus’s basslines in other guy’s tracks? Phace, Noisia, Misanthrop… They are all copied by so many people. I did it myself when I started but you have to find your own style.

Too many DJs don’t want to make love with music. Drop after drop after drop after drop after drop… Non fucking stop. Not when I play though. I want you to hear the soul.

Where are you taking your style next?

There’s some things coming on Eatbrain, more stuff with Invisible… I’m always working on things. Of course if anyone wants to see me DJ then please keep a look out on my Facebook. I play almost all my own music in my mixes. I want to show the beauty of the music.

Amen

The beauty, for me, is the breakdown – something that shows the atmosphere and soul and pads. It gives people on the dancefloor time to relax before they smash it again. I must say that I do not like the style of drum & bass mixing. It’s too fast. It’s too crazy. When I hear a DJ play like one minute from my track I get upset. I spend days, weeks, months on a track and they play just one minute? What the hell man! Play it quality, play it proper, play the music as it was made. We forget that a lot of people who come to drum & bass raves don’t know and love the music like we do. They are not nerds like us they just want to party. So we should play them the most musical parts of the tracks and not just the drops because they might start to love it and find out more. Too many DJs don’t want to make love with music. Drop after drop after drop after drop after drop… Non fucking stop. Not when I play though. I want you to hear the soul.

Sounds of War is out on Noisia’s Invisible Recordings this Friday. Digital and vinyl available here

Hear Nickbee’s soul: Facebook / Soundcloud / Twitter