While some drum & bass OGs have developed the role of consummate spokesmen, anchoring the ever-accelerating genre to its cavernous foundations and heritage, other pioneers prefer to speak from the shadows with their music alone.
Spirit is one of those shadow men.
Perhaps not through choice – get him talking and he’ll have you wrapped up in anecdotes and nerdy drum & bass details for hours – but in attitude and diligence, Spirit (real name Duncan Busto) is a stealth operator whose spotless discography says more than any rare interview with him could.
It’s a near gapless discog, too. 2012 is the only year since 1996 which he didn’t release anything due to a relocation back to the UK from the US. The rest of his 21 year history as a producer has been consistent, varied and supported on the most respected labels (Headz, Shogun, Horizons, V, the list goes on and on) from the very top DJs (few Andy C or Goldie sets go by without at least one Spirit special, for example)
Respected for his attention to detail and one of the handful of legends to emerge from the Ipswich scene that centred around the longstanding Redeye Records store in the mid 90s (alongside Photek, Klute and Digital), Spirit’s fingerprints are hardpressed into the scenes of some of drum & bass’s criminally futurist incidents. From his early jazzy outings as The Spirit on the hugely influential Timeless imprint in 1996 to this month’s slew of hurters on his own Inneractive and Digital’s Function, he has continually forged at the starkest bass coal face and contributed some of the most important underground records of every era. Key constructions include riff monster Raygun, brutal drum-slapper Soul Survivor, the multi-version rewind-or-riot beast that is ReDial and much deeper, smoother synthetic journeys such as Spark and Disconnected.
That’s the just the tip of the iceberg… We haven’t even acknowledged his longstanding partnership with fellow OG Digital and the phenomenon that was Phantom Force – a track which triggered their buy-on-sight Phantom Audio label and galvanised them as artists with their own sound, agenda, attitude and a vast body of work that includes critical cuts such as Cool Out and Love Is Love.
Since reuniting four years ago, Digital & Spirit’s body of work continues to develop. In fact, as Digital revealed to us earlier this year, they’re working on an album as you read this. But for now, as the dust settles from two remarkable and heavily supported EPs released this month, we’re celebrating Spirit’s work as a solo operator as he steps out of the shadows for his first interview in years…
Let’s get some history. I know you were a DJ for a few years before you even thought about putting your name on wax…
Yeah I was DJing from the late 80s when I was in college in London. I was massively into hip-hop and the guy running the college discos was as well. We were buying the same records and he suggested I became a DJ. I hadn’t even thought about it but it suited me. Back then the DJ was some nerdy guy playing records in this shadowy corner, no one would see you and you’d do it for free. Then house came along and college bought some decks with pitch control so I taught myself to mix. At the time I was hanging around with some guys making techno under the name Ubik, they were a big influence on me as a DJ.
So if you’d had released music earlier in your career you may have gone techno?
It was possible. One thing was sure – I didn’t want to get into production until I knew what to do myself. I didn’t want to rely on anyone else to engineer or push any buttons. I didn’t raise the money for that anyway but yeah if I’d had done it before then I might have gone in a different direction.
That sense of independence in strong in Digital too. Was that what brought you together?
Yeah we definitely share that attitude. But that can also be detrimental because we’re both the type of people who have an idea in our heads and want to get it down ourselves. We’ve learnt to take turns and we’ve had such a long history that we’re able to explain an idea a lot quicker. We don’t even have to finish our sentences.
Whether you’re collaborating or solo one thing is consistent: you know your way around bangers and deep, dark riffs. Are you cool with that description?
It’s interesting. I guess I’m cool with it but I see myself in a more facets and guises than just one style. I try not to plough the same area over and over and over again. That works for some people but I get bored too easily. I think what confuses people sometimes are the release schedules. Some tunes that have a similar vibe may come out at the same time but were written months apart.
Is that the case with Stalker and Bounty Killer? They’ve both come out this month and both take me back to vibes like. Riffs that burn your skin and stay in your head, basically.
Those two were done not too far apart. But between them I wrote some melodic and lighter tracks for Dispatch. They’re definitely the tougher edge to my sound, though. To be honest, I love working on both the melodic and darker styles of drum & bass and really enjoy it when the release has both sides to what I do. There was a great point in the Inneractive catalogue where every release had a hard tune on one side and a melodic one on the other.
Let’s go back to Ipswich, early 90s for a minute. You, Photek, Digital, Klute, Redeye Records. It’s quite an unlikely drum & bass hub!
It was quite healthy for a farmer’s town wasn’t it? I knew Tom Klute a bit but I actually went to school with two other members of The Stupids. I properly got to know Tom more when he’d come back to Ipswich from America and he came into the shop. That was 92 or 93. My first attempt at a track was with Tom in 94 in his parent’s basement. Working in Redeye was great around that time because everything was happening so quickly and I got a real insight into how things worked with labels and distributors and all the side you had to figure out yourself back then.
When did you stop working at the record shop and go full time?
It was around 97. I had to make that jump because I was just working 24/7. Working in the store then writing until 3am, then back up at 8am. It was killing me. Then Aquasky, who were also making hip-hop at the time, asked me to do a remix for Passenger. I got paid well enough to convince me to have a proper go at this and take the risk. I quit working the record shop and focused on making music. From then on followed the borderline poverty for a few years!
Was Phantom Audio the switching point from the breadline?
There were a few small victories on the way but I was mainly threadbare. Phantom Audio arose from that. I’d done stuff for Timeless and CIA but I was on that weird edge of drum & bass. When the Virus sound took over it was hard to get people to sign my music. Then I released Final Chapter on Timeless and that caught more people’s attention. Grooverider was finishing his sets with it and Goldie was ringing me up about it. There as an old school / new school thing in there but still quite sparse and heavy. I’d been mates with Digital for years and we’d done some bits together so we were like ‘fuck it, we can’t rely on anyone else, let’s do it ourselves’. Then we did Phantom Force and had no idea it would get the response it got. So we set up the label off the back of the momentum.
Then you got the label bug and set up Inneractive a few years later
That actually started from my track Memories which was on the much more melodic vibe. No one else wanted to release it because they wanted something more along the lines of Phantom so again I said ‘fuck it’ and put it out myself. This is an ongoing theme in my career.
Inneractive’s played a role in the careers of other artists – Nomine, Proxima, Jubei. Have you considered signing music from more new artists?
I’d love to but I’d want to offer them some security. As a label you’re always on this threshold of making a tiny amount or losing loads. I need to rebuild the label more before I can go into any development. What Steve (Digital) has done with Function is a good example. He’s built it up again through his album and the strengths of his 12s, he can release music from other people and he can take that risk a lot more, it’s exciting to see.
How do you work out what you’ll send to other labels or release yourself?
I never make tracks specifically for labels. It just happens the label who signs it likes that vibe that I’ve made. I remember when I played Steve International – I finished it the night before the Rupture birthday party so Steve heard it through Corsica Studios system for the first time. He was all over it. What I really like is when I’ve got my Inneractive releases and a few things for lined up for people and there’s no pressure when I go into the studio. it really doesn’t matter what I make, I feel I can do what I like. The shackles are off.
I hear the shackles are off with yours and Digital’s album?
Oh the shackles are completely off with that. We’re not thinking about any labels it’s going on but rather just sit down and make the album we want to make. Just working on music we love. We’ve also got more stuff for Phantom Audio planned, plus VIPs of Phantom Force and this mashup of ReDial and Deadline which seems to be going down well.
It’s been great to get the opportunity to do this and revisit those moments in our career and in drum & bass. What was important is that people were interested naturally. Nothing was forced, there was an interest and genuine support for what we can write together. It’s the same with the stuff we’re doing together with Total Science. Just getting our heads down, writing what we want to hear, staying true to that but also staying relevant.
It seems to me that staying relevant is the hardest self-imposed worry for artists…
It was for me for a bit, when things got a more minimal musically my soul wasn’t in it as much. And when I moved back to the UK, too. But I’ve resettled and drum & bass has, too. I have to be realistic – I’m often DJing to people who weren’t even born when I put out my first release. But if you’re loving what you’re doing and staying true to what you do then that doesn’t matter. People on the dancefloor don’t give a shit when you were born or how long you’ve been around. They just want the best possible set you can give them. In this sense I’m a DJ more than I am a producer and have stayed relevant with the selections I play. Plus any way I’m a lifer… What else am I going to do?
I love the term lifer.
There’s no other description for it. When you’ve been doing something for so long and you’ve committed your life to it then you can’t imagine yourself doing anything different. I couldn’t possibly be employed by anyone! So yeah; this has been my job for over 20 years and will be forever. It’s my job to stay true to what I do, survive the cycles because everything always comes back around, continue trying to push the barrier and most importantly, still enjoy it.