A rare audience with Calibre & DRS

The link runs deep between Dominick Martin and Delroy Pottinger. Musically, creatively, emotionally.

Connected by Marcus, united by a shared work ethic: Since 2003 Calibre and DRS have written 15 tracks together and become each other’s most frequent collaborator and touring partner. Kindred musical spirits; DRS can find the right pockets to voice in any style from hip-hop to neuro, and Calibre can turn his hand to any style music from folk to techno. Together this shared versatility and interest in what lies beyond the borderlands is both effortless and amplified. Take any co-lab right back from 2005’s Timeout on Calibre’s Second Son album to last year’s This Ain’t Love or the forthcoming City Life on Calibre’s Shelflife 5 album and the connection is so strong it’s almost tangible.

That’s before we even get to their work together on stage. Few MCs can navigate a Calibre set as naturally as DRS. Soulfully highlighting the blend with less-is-more style and occasional propensity to drive deep into immaculate flows, DRS’s laidback solemnity and clarity is the perfect complement to Calibre’s selections. And, since last month, these sets are about to get a whole lot longer.

Cue Alchemy: A brand new project from the two artists launched last month at Pickle Factory, London. Full focus on these two men alone, it’s a chance for them to express themselves beyond the drum & bass parameters most people will know them for. From ambient to dub to beats to techno to drum & bass. It’s a trip they’ve only hinted at before on mixes such as their evergreen Beats 1 session. Almost all Calibre’s own music (90% of which is unreleased) complemented and enhanced by lyrical narratives and vocal hooks DRS has yet to put to tape, their Alchemy sessions are full excursions that will join musical dots, re-frame the context of drum & bass and take you to places you didn’t know existed…

We can expect plenty more Alchemy excursions in the future. There’s talk of an Alchemy album and even curating festival arenas. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To truly understand why Alchemy is such a vital new chapter for both artists we need to understand how deep their link goes. Musically, creatively, emotionally, historically…

Alchemy. This feels like the start of something new…

Calibre: From my point of view just as a producer, I need a place to play all the types of music I’ve been making for years. And there’s a lot of it. It’s a departure from the purest, segregated styles of dance music we’re used to and much more about exploring other tempos and joining dots. Hopefully drawing other people’s music into it as well but primarily it’s my material. It feels a bit narcissistic playing my own music for three hours but with Del involved it becomes more of a live performance. I’m hoping it has a multi-dimensional quality to the experience; to hear music people will definitely not have heard before and for it to have that arresting trippy sort of vibe.

DRS: We both make a lot of different styles of music. I’ve got all these lyrics and songs that I can’t get off my chest in the purest D&B environment and I feel like Dom is the same. We’re only showing a quarter of our musical characters in drum & bass. So putting this concept together is a new way of showing other sides to what we do. The whole night has been really thought about. The mood, the lighting, the vibe. We want you to feel like you’re stepping into our studio. The first show couldn’t have gone better. It sold out even when people didn’t know what the concept was. They stuck with us all the way through from ambient to dub to 100 to 120 to 140 to drum & bass. They were happy to go on that trip with us and when the drum & bass eventually came in, after a lot of little teases in the build up, the feeling was evangelical. Just incredible energy. I won’t lie mate, we were shitting ourselves before, not knowing if people would be into it. We went as deep as we could go and people were really into it. We were blessed.

Long sets are the most honest portrayal of an artist in a club context, I think. The focus is on the music and not the line up. You’re free and so is the crowd.

DRS: Definitely. I’d also say we both work at very prolific rates. We have a similar approach; if the vibe is down, we bang it out. There’s never enough time to even touch one percent of the music so to have an extended set means we can finally let some of the music free. For the sake of our own sanity much more than any narcissistic point of view.

Calibre: Sometimes I feel like I’m in a lost world. They pull back the bush and there’s this amazing place with all these animals and plants and things you’ve never seen. It’s like a whole universe we don’t get to really experience, only in snatched glimpses. Other sets it feels like you’re trying to squeeze things in but this felt very natural.

This has been brewing for a while now hasn’t it?

Calibre: Yeah it’s been growing slowly. I know I can’t expect things to change overnight but more than those examples was the Essential Mix where I was able to develop the experience and have that really nice long build up. Not just jumping in at the top end. That’s all good as well, I’ve got nothing against it, but with all the material we’ve got and the wide range of influences we’ve got, it makes sense to do this.

I wondered what the first thing you two connected on. Was it your work ethic and creative approach?  

DRS: It was Marcus, god bless him, putting us together by chance. I can remember hearing a Calibre song and my mind started writing differently, like instantly. It sounds corny to say but Dom’s music inspired me in a totally different way. That hasn’t stopped for 15 years. We feel comfortable together, there’s no one else I can travel with like I can with Dom. We know each other inside out, personally and musically. It’s a natural progression and growth together. So the initial spark we clicked with was vibes. I can sit on any track but when it’s on a Calibre track it’s a whole other level.

You’re also both driven by pushing boundaries and having freedom.  

Calibre: For me the idea is about trying to amalgamate all these different tempos and styles into one cohesive picture. It’s a real challenge to capture that natural feeling. We want to give the whole experience side a really sort of soulful beautiful context. If you do that within drum & bass it stays trapped within that experience. I always ask myself ‘what can I put into this? What can I take out?’ It’s about bleeding these elements in and out and creating a completely different context for the drum & bass. Which is also what happens in the studio.

Speaking of the studio…. Time Out was your first track together, right? 2005.

DRS: We’d done bits and pieces but that was the first release that eventually came out. One of the very first things we’d done was a Breezeblock mix for Radio 1. We didn’t know each other much at all than and it felt like we were in the lions den a bit. But yeah after Time Out, it’s flowed ever since.

Every single year. 15 tracks together, including the Mist:i:cal tracks.

DRS: The collaboration thing for me is that I want to exercise my writing and my pen. Look back over my collaborations and there’s every artist from every style. Music is like food to me. I draw energy from it. I use my ‘featuring’ tracks like you might use the gym, working out. But then when I’m with Dom or Luke (LSB) that’s the tournament. My mind is tightly coiled and I’m full of all these vibes.

Dominic, you’re quite selective about who you collaborate with aren’t you?

Calibre: Well I’ve always been more interested in the blues and the melancholy. Whenever you’re making happy music everything is about the impact, which is often the case with a lot of collaborations, it’s hard to include the blues into that. But Del gets the blues. He understands that bluesy, gripey, moany sentiment. Lost loves, lost people, feelings that a lot of people share and where we’re at in our lives. That’s the reality for people. Not the other. The other is what you work up to. That’s the peak. The flatline. That’s not what life is about. For me the blues is an essential human thing. I think Del is there with me too. He’s not an MC, he’s an artist. He does all these different things that I do as well. It makes sense for us to work each other. He delivers a different part of the story as well. If you work well with someone then why not do it again?

DRS: Blues are real life. I’ve done something like 160 features and if you listen to any of them from the hardest to the deepest the blues is the thread. It’s all about how I personally, and all of us, bumble through life. Broken hearts. Feelings. Losses. Pain. You remember the blues. If you’re seeking happiness that’s great but when you find it know that it will eventually become the blues because everything will at some point. Not everyone feels good when they wake up every morning. They need music too you know? The blues is something we totally resonate with each other on. It’s unspoken. Just shared naturally.

Sounds like you keep each other motivated or perhaps sane at points?

Calibre: It’s about feeling comfortable in your surroundings and if your surroundings are always changing in the topsy-turvy way the music industry is, then that stability and trust and understanding is priceless. You have to hold on to those people I think. We have synchronicity in our lives, there are parallels besides the music but the fact we also have a very similar take on music and how we work creatively is another dimension to it. It’s like a double pay off. If I tell you the story of how I met Del I’m sure you’ll find it funny

DRS: Tell it man

Calibre: The first time I saw him was in a club in Belfast. He’s with Logical Progression, MCing for Bukem. I’m there on my own with a tape I’m hoping to give to Bukem and I can smell this really nice weed. Of course it’s Del smoking it. I thought I’d ask for a little smoke and he just looked at me funny and turned away.

DRS: Dom told me this story years later when we’re sitting in some penthouse suite overlooking a glamourous city skyline smoking blunts, music on, feet up, living the life. He told me that and it hit home man. I learnt a very severe life lesson. I went back through all my memories and I could remember him. I could see his face and thought ‘fuck!’ That changed me that did.

Wow. Dominick you once told me about a Bukem night when it felt like Belfast was opening up to drum & bass. Was that it?

Calibre: No that was the time before. I tried to give a tape to Conrad and he just ignored me. Like hard ignored me.

Worst then Del?

Calibre: Oh much worse! Del was like a stealth fighter ignoring me. Conrad was a misfiring catapult. For me, seeing Bukem in Belfast planted the seed for the transcendental. I mean that it gave me this view of music. Before those nights when Bukem came to town drum & bass just wasn’t acceptable at all. Suddenly here are all these people who usually go to house clubs were having a great time to it. It showed me that people can enjoy other things if it’s presented in a context or in such a way. I thought it was through the musical side of drum & bass. It is, or can be, but not in the case of Belfast. It was just about popularity. People wait around until things are solidly okay before they invest support in it. But that thing of seeing Bukem and Del and things like that started my real interest in musical drum & bass which is the start of the Calibre project. So those encounters were very influential looking back. I think I eventually got my tape to Bukem that night because he got in contact a few months later.

Didn’t Bukem have to fly over to you for dubs?

Calibre: He did! I took him to my local chippie. He asked for his burger to be ‘well done’ which I thought was hilarious.

Haha! So I guess you first met at a Soulution if it was through Marcus?

Calibre: I think so. Marcus had this amazing talent of bringing people together.

DRS: I’m pretty sure it was one of the first ever Soulution nights. If not the first and Marky played. It was his first Manchester gig and the night was legendary. That was the first time we played together.

I found this Signature launch mix from 2003. That would have been around that time then, too. Can you remember this particular set?

Calibre: I have a get-out clause; I was drinking very badly during that time. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing I don’t remember a lot of stuff but with times like this I’d love to say ‘yeah I remember’ and have a funny memory of the night myself. It was clearly a significant event. But no sorry.

Del what are your memories of Dominick during this time and how did you help him through his recovery?

DRS: He’s my brother. He can lean on me and I’ll carry him. Any time. He was in a bad place and I helped him. I’ve protected him and when he was ready to hang up his drinking boots I was happy because drinking has put him in a dark place. But if he wanted to start again then I would be there for him again. At the same time, what isn’t documented, is that I’ve been through a lot of troubles with drink and drugs and he’s been there for me. It’s nature. When a friend becomes your brother you are there for each other. We don’t ring each other up every night and gossip but when we do see each other it’s very important times and we give each other the medicine we need. We hug and nothing has changed. Yeah I helped him but he’s helped me just as much.

Beautiful. Let’s go future…

DRS: There’s a lot of music. I know Dom’s got at least three albums and I’ve got about that much too. We’ll grow it together. We’re planning more nights. Maybe an Alchemy album. Mixes. We’re in a good creative place. We feel like we’ve reached the next plateau. Not in the public eye but musically as human beings.

Calibre: All the work we’ve done over the years allows us to go int to different places and I’m really excited about that. I don’t want to think about dancefloors all the time. It appeals to me to see the different dimensions and qualities of music. Both me and Del are on the underground and I guess there’s a sense of what we do has contact with the overground. We’ve influenced something in the underground for sure and it’s nice to change things and diversify without too much concern.

This has always been on the agenda though. Neither of you have ever been just drum & bass. You’re artists. Artists don’t want to be defined by a set parameter.

Calibre: Whenever we travel we often sit and draw pictures together.  We encourage each other to go to different places together and explore places.

You draw together?

Calibre: Yeah we’ve done things on a plane. Something to show for the time you’ve spent on the journey really. The artwork on Overflow was done on a flight and Del drew an angel smoking a blunt that’s framed on my wall in my house. We exchange a lot of pictures and Del did the artwork for one of the Shelf Life albums. Either 2 or 3. As you know I have an artistic story outside of music and I’ve tried to integrate them before but I felt I failed. I’d like to try and bring them together a lot more in the future and see if we can do it under the Alchemy umbrella.

The imagery and music and mood is all part of the Alchemy aesthetic

DRS: That’s a big plan of ours. Mess with the space. Projections and artwork and everything. Take the focus away from the DJ. As the night goes on and grows that will come further and further to fruition.

So when’s the next Alchemy party night?

Calibre: Nothing concrete but it’s coming soon. We’ve got the festival season first so perhaps after the summer.

I’d love to see an Alchemy tent at a festival. A place where you know it’s not just going to be bangers and anthems and obvious crowd pleasers

Calibre: I think that would be really interesting and it’s something we’ve talked about. The sets can be long and, in those settings outdoors, it could be a beautiful experience for everyone. The DJ, the MC and the people. It could work really well emotionally. As you say, this is definitely the start of something new…

Calibre – Shelf Life 5 is out June 29

Follow DRS and Signature Recordings for more details on the next Alchemy developments