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“No man is an island”: Bubbling With Breakage

Photography: Chelone Wolf

There are a few annual events you can bet your decks on: Your birthday, your loved ones’ birthdays, Christmas, tax bills… And Breakage putting out one hefty dispatch of soundsystem bubblers.

He’d like to release more than one, but life and his brutal inner self-critic have other ideas. In fact during the process of the last two releases on his label Index – last year’s Liff Up EP and last month’s gargantuan India November Delta Echo X-Ray EP – he was hospitalised with diabetes and, like all of us, has endured the lockdown curse of 2020 and all its many derailed plans.

Despite these substantial set-backs, he’s re-discovered his creative buzz, he’s re-thought his production approach and he’s surrounded by close friends who provide him with the all important second opinions and fresh ears all solo artists require in order to avoid going genuinely insane. He’s also released one of the biggest EPs on his label so far.

India November Delta Echo X-Ray packs three elephantine Breakage bubblers (including the powerful Valhalla which he debuted last year at Sun And Bass) and the first ever artist remix on label, from none other than Break. A top ranking wishlist fantasy collabo for any discerning drum & bass head, Break’s take on Breakage is a bold move for the label which, when we interviewed Breakage about launching it way back in 2017, is strictly defined by his own tastes and what he’d like to hear in a club. We haven’t heard a track on Index we wouldn’t want to go nuts to in a club, either.

Here’s where James Breakage is at right now…

How was your lockdown experience?

It was okay. It could have been a lot worse. It’s been the same during the working week, making music, but now there’s no club to play them in. It’s like ‘What do I do with these tunes? Who do I play them to?’ So it was very difficult putting out this EP. Like ‘Okay, these are the final versions but I have no idea how they’re going to sound in a club!’ But I suppose that’s irrelevant right now with no clubs being open anyway. It’s such a weird mindset to get into.

I spoke to Ed Rush and Audio about this the other day. It changes production to a more conceptual thing because the whole part of the creative process where you’re road-testing and sending to your peers to road-test isn’t happening right now…

Yeah, it’s weird. It’s a lot to adapt to. I think I think there’s pros and cons, you know. It opens things out to experimentation. Why make dancefloor bangers when there’s no dancefloor? But you still pay attention to the sound of it and the mixdown because that’s part of it as well. But modern music in general has these fixed ideas of what a song needs to do and how it’s meant to sound but this gives us an opportunity to think differently and to think about different audiences and how people are listening right now. As someone who listens to dance music outside of the club a lot, it’s something I l think about a lot. Maybe we’ll start to see people doing two versions? One shorter one for Spotify and streaming and one for DJs to play and to buy. I can see arguments on both sides of this but it’s definitely an interesting time for producers.

I think eventually we’ll be look back at it as a pivotal moment for some massive changes. Back to you, the EP and Index. I can’t believe it’s been over three years since we chatted about you launching the label! The fact that it was inspired by a club night idea is kinda poignant now!

Yeah! I think the label definitely has a firm focus on the remit that is simply ‘these are the tunes I want to hear in a club.’ But the idea of club nights has changed simply because I didn’t know how difficult promoting would be.

Yeah man. A thankless but essential task!

I think I had a bit of an idealist view on it which didn’t correlate with how things work in real life. So I don’t I feel like I feel like the label has progressed very much. Maybe I’m too close to it to see any progression, but it’s the same thing as before: I make the tunes and if I’m happy with them, they come out. If I’m not, they don’t. The problem is I literally change my mind on things three times a day in terms of how I’m feeling. I’m very reactive.

I think there’s progression in the output. Consistency, too. This is your annual Index release isn’t it?

Haha. Yeah it is about one thing a year. I’d love to release more but I’m only going to put stuff out with that I’m absolutely happy with. This release especially took me a while. Obviously lockdown hasn’t helped. Focusing on childcare, other projects I have that aren’t related to Breakage, finding inspiration.

Were these all written on lockdown?!

No no. I wrote Valhalla, just leading up to Sun And Bass last year. Just a working draft of it. But before that I think I might have plotted out maybe an eight bar loop of one of them. It was a really difficult time. I’d just been in hospital having been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, it was a really scary experience and just sitting down for an hour or two to try and even write a tune wasn’t possible.

Yeah, not top of priorities, I’d imagine…

I was just getting used to everything that happened. I actually finished Index 004 when I came out of hospital. I only had a few tiny bits left to do. But actually sitting down to write a tune? Nothing. Just really bad writer’s block.

Sounds like Valhalla broke you out of that. That makes it a very special, personal tune.

I had to do it. I was playing at Sun And Bass with dBridge, Skeptical, Jubei, SP.  I just needed that one special tune. Something I knew none of them would have. Obviously it was nowhere near finished but it was at a stage where I could test it.

I listened to the demo recently. I like to do that sometimes just to listen to what I had as the first sketch and what the finished product is. Of course it sounded awful but I had a new tune and it was a good feeling. It’s like ‘you’ve got a gig with all your mates who are all really sick, you need at least one big thing them lot haven’t got’. Something to make them be like ‘ooh what’s this?’ And after that it was like ‘okay, it’s not the end of everything creative. You can still focus on things and still get lost in the idea of creating an idea.’ So that was me kinda back on track and back into the usual mess of ‘it’s not good enough, start again! You’re rubbish, start again!’ This goes on for a very long time with me. Especially with no one telling me to tell me to stop.

There’s a lot of self-discipline there, though. That’s definitely something that’s developed and progressed with your output. There were years and years between some releases! I guess it’s learning when to draw a line…

Yeah. Also, when it’s coming close to a year between releases, I’m like, ‘Right, you need to let something out now, you can’t be ultra-precious. And I go with the best version I’ve got or otherwise I’d be on the same tune for 10 years. But yeah, going back to Valhalla, did feel like it was opening a creative valve and the other two tracks came together really quickly. Then obviously we had the Break remix, too.

Let’s talk about this remix. Break remixing Breakage is a huge thing! I imagine you guys have a lot in common? You’re both pretty disciplined in your approach, you’ve both that special signature in the drums. You must see the similarities?

Oh loads. We have a lot in common and when we talk we talk for hours and it’s always about breaks, delays and reverbs – the things that make our tunes work. We’ve been joking about it for years. We came through at the same time. The same year, I think.

Wow. Didn’t realise it was the same year!

I remember it being very close. It was 2002. When we first spoke we laughed about it and said people will confuse us for each other. 18 years later and people still do!

The early 2000s there was this real push for the breaks to return as things had been very steppy. I know Digital, Spirit, Total Science were all on that tip at that time.  That’s the mission both you and Break were on…

Definitely. All those guys you mentioned. Plus the Reinforced guys and guys like Special Branch who were signed to Dread. One of them is a close friend of mine Forrester AKA Threshold. All of them were on the breakbeats and making my favourite tunes of the time. Loxy and Dylan, too. Calibre, he was always using breaks. There was this whole re-emergence of breakbeats and it really caught me. It was like ‘ooh these are good tunes. These are what I used to hear when I was younger!’ There was so much going on and at that time I was like ‘wow this is so exciting’. To me it humanises things.

It’s the swing!

It’s the swing, it’s got dirt and grit and these little faults that you can either try and remove or play with but they’ll never go away and I love that. You can chop it up. You can leave it rough and heavy. It doesn’t matter what you do to a breakbeat, it will still sound good and have soul.

Amen! Reckon you’d ever do a collaboration with Break? Or is this a one-off?

I have actually done a remix for him. So he’s not a one off I’ve done a remix of a track called Conversations which features Fats and Cleveland Watkiss. That was a fun way to work with each other. His take on me, my take on him. We’ve played together a few times before in Bristol and I love what he does, so I would never rule out a collaboration. But what would we do? What would a collaboration between us sound like?

Yeah some of the best collaborations happen when the acts come from different approaches but if you’re both very similar then it might not actually sound much different.

That’s it. You’d want something we you can hear both of our sounds interconnecting and complementing each other and we might be too similar to do that. I feel like we flirted with the idea before. We have definitely flirted with the idea before. Who knows what might happen in the future…

How about the future of Index? Do you think we’ll see a new cheeky bubbler before the end of the year?

Ooh, I’d love to say there would be. But there’s nothing I’m working on that I’d be able to get out that quickly. I do want to have a release out earlier next year and maybe up the ante to two releases a year.

Woah, steady!

Haha. I know, right. This period has proved a few things to me; I’ve turned around stuff quicker than usual, which is good. I did a remix for Shy FX and turned that around really quickly. I was really happy with the result. But that was at the start of lockdown when we all had energy and didn’t think it was going to last that long.

I’d imagine it’s easier to remix Shy because you know each other’s music inside out?

Yeah I guess. Me, Shy and Dean (Barratt – mix engineer) We’ve all worked together for years on a lot of different things. I work a few days a week with them and it’s great to get their perspective and influence. I go down these immense rabbit holes in an overly meticulous manner sometimes and then once I’m done they’re like ‘no, you’ve gone to far.’ I like that. When I’m working on my own I often think ‘how would Dean mix this?’

Do you ever hear Shy in your head?

All the time! I’m thinking ‘what would Shy do here?’ It’s good though. I’ve got to give them credit and a few other people. There are about five people who have to hear everything I make and if they don’t like it, it doesn’t come out. If Shy says ‘a sound needs adding’ or ‘a sound needs taking away’ then that sound will almost certainly get added or taken away!

Who else do you send it to?

On this EP is was Shy, Dean, Threshold, Dub Phizix.

Having interviewed Dub Phizix a few times, I can see the similar approaches you share. I’m pretty sure he told me in an interview that he was playing almost all the At The Controls EP tunes in every set.

That’s amazing. Yeah we’re constantly sending ideas over to each other. How to create certain sounds or ideas on techniques or seeing what each other think of things. Especially when there’s like 0.003% different between the two and you really need some fresh ears. Most people will be like ‘that’s the same tune!’ but he’ll know what to look for and understand what I’ve done to try and do it. SP is another mate who I send everything to.

He helped with the original label artwork, didn’t he? 

Yeah and he’s helped with everything since. I do a lot more of it myself now, and did this one by myself, but I still sent him about 30 screenshots until I was completely happy. And this is the thing; everyone sees a solo artist running a label but behind that there’s a lot more happening.

No person is an island!

Exactly, exactly. I think sometimes people see me as a bit of a loner or someone who doesn’t work with many people but I’m really not. Without my incessant calls and the WIPs I send to Threshold or Dub Phizix or Shy, I think we’d probably still be stuck on Index 001!

Get stuck on India November Delta Echo X-ray: Out now

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