Bridging cavernous gaps and joining gargantuan dots since late 2007: Samurai Music began, and remains, at the forefront of fusion.
Commandeered by Geoff Presha Wright, the label was established almost 12 years ago after a long line of his services to the drum & bass movement. Playing a key role in amplifying the genre on the other side of the planet, he was one of the key promoters who imported the sound to New Zealand and was inviting UK artists to tour the country since the mid 90s. He also set up a distribution company to make sure their records were being heard 11,000 miles away from their source.
Geoff was so inspired by, and entrenched in, the culture he often flew the 11,000 miles to London just to cut dubs.
By the time he launched the label, however, things were very different. The digital switch had killed his business in vinyl and Geoff was no longer feeling quite so inspired or entrenched. Samurai was the result of this moment of flux. Originally established to support New Zealand artists such as State Of Mind, Trei and Need For Mirrors and align them with UK and European acts, it gradually developed such a strong voice and reputation it occupies a unique place in that transcends territories or indeed genre; especially after Geoff’s move to Berlin in 2011.
Back to the future, Samurai’s voice and reputation couldn’t be stronger. Last year was spent celebrating the label’s 10th anniversary with two massive albums that featured acts ranging from Clarity to Calibre via Marcus Intalex, Tokyo Prose, Shiken Hanzo and many many more. This year they’ve kicked off with an explosive artist album: Homemade Weapons’ sophomore Gravity. Released this month, it’s every bit as brutalist and tightly coiled as you’d hope it would be. If not more. Plenty more will follow in its wake… But first, we called up Presha to understand how we got here.
Belated congratulations on 10 years of Samurai last year. Are you a long game man? Did you envision it being around for so long?
Funnily enough, at the time when I launched it, I was looking at labels who were all turning 10 at that time and was looking at their discographies and who ran them and thought ‘imagine if Samurai lasts 10 years? I’ll be 10 years older… Will the music even be around?’
Around that time, and the years running up to it, a lot of people didn’t think it was going to last. But it has lasted, and it’s been great being part of that. For me, the main satisfaction has come from diversifying. There wasn’t much variation at the beginning of the releases, I’m the first to amid that, but as I found my feet things did pick up and the decade flew by. I wasn’t that deep into the process before I felt it was something I was in for the long haul.
What pivotal moments or releases that triggered or compounded that feeling?
There are loads of them. I first started the label because I wanted to get New Zealand artists’ music out there and up against the tracks by the bigger guys in Europe. I’d been promoting nights in New Zealand for years and had good links with the touring artists so I was nudging them for tunes for it.
That was the focus of your earlier label Subtronix, right?
Yeah that’s right. New Zealand was the absolute focus on that label, purely homegrown artists, but I realised I got a lot of attention from international artists sending us demos so that was the start of Samurai. But what happened was a New Zealand artist would release with us, it would do well and other, bigger European labels take them. I wanted something more than that, so I really focused on the musical identity of the label and creating something special that artists wanted to be part of. I went to guys like Calibre and Klute and asked them if they had any tunes that they felt were too deep for their own labels and if I could put them out. Maybe things they didn’t even think they’d release but would work on a different label that could show that side of them.
But the biggest flashpoint for me was moving to Europe where everything totally changed. I had a reenergised view of the music. Living in Berlin I was surrounded by a lot of techno and I started to get inspired in different ways and felt drum & bass needed more. I was getting into the music Indigo was making, Pessimist, Loxy & Resound, Clarity. That totally flipped everything for me and you can see that in the discography; there’s a very clear switch in the music and artists I was releasing.
What caused the move to Europe?
I was distributing records in New Zealand for 15 years and was the agent for ST Holdings, SRD, Nu Urban Music. But once the digital stuff took off, New Zealand dropped vinyl like a hot potato because it was so expensive. My business went from solid to big trouble really fast. I watched it evaporate overnight and was at a loss as to what to do. So I took a break and went to Europe, went to Sun And Bass, met everyone I’d been talking to for years, there was a moment we were all swimming in the ocean and they asked why I lived so far away and that I should move over here.
Alicia and Mark who run the ESP agency offered me a job and it was such a blessing. It got me out of New Zealand. I sold everything I had and moved. That was 2011 and that Sun And Bass experience changed my life. So many people were helpful; Marcus went above and beyond to make sure I was comfortable out here, he wrote letters for my Visa application and got me some gigs. Then I got to Berlin and, having hated for vinyl for several years and carrying a deep resentment that it had ruined my life, fell totally back into it. I was reborn and started Horo as a vinyl only imprint.
Ha! Did you sell your vinyl collection at home?
My friend Ryan RQ is looking after my collection at home though. I didn’t hate vinyl enough to part with that, mate!
RQ is a talented man. He does all the artwork for Samurai, right?
Since the second release. He’s done everything and has for the last 11 years.
He’s played a huge role in the label hasn’t he? Creating that image and aesthetic you have…
I can’t minimize his impact in any way; Ryan has created the look from the very beginning. He’s one of those great designers who, even if you’re idea is awful, he’ll just ignore you and come up with something a million times better. He puts so much thought into everything.
I read a quote of yours in an old interview saying ‘running a label is an artform’. Would you say that’s even more so now as people have become more interested in vinyl, we’ve accepted that this is a niche and small runs are common.
Absolutely. It sounds funny but some of my earliest releases were on coloured vinyl and people were asking why I did it. I felt digital was reducing the amount of people who bought records to play in the nightclubs so I was looking for people who were buying it outside of the club. I love special editions and coloured vinyl, I’m not an audiophile who moans about the miniscule reduction in sound quality on coloured vinyl. People might hate this, but there are a lot of people buying vinyl for the look and feel of it and that’s what these limited runs before. I’ve proved this to myself before; I’ve printed 200 black versions and 300 coloured ones and the coloured ones sold out while the black copies always hang around for longer.
Some people never even play them. They’re on the wall or part of a collection.
I do it myself. I’ve bought special editions and never opened them. It’s cool; people want to support you; they want to show that to their friends that they’re into the aesthetic and it reflects their lifestyle and the music they listen to. For them it’s like a poster.
Another thing I read in that old interview with you was that at the time of launching Samurai, you weren’t particularly bowled over by drum & bass at the time!
Not really. I was finding it hard to find anything boundary challenging but that was another reason to run the label and champion the sound I wanted to hear. I’ve actually become really inspired by it all again in the last four years. I had a couple of amazing gigs in a row, a collaboration night with Rupture and they reminded me of why I fell in love with drum & bass. Lots of inspiring and positive people, all the Samurai crew there, I played with Loxy and every time I do that I’m scared to death because he’s the beast DJ in our sector of the genre. His sense of DJing and the way he approaches every set marks him out against everyone. He’s in another league and has been since day dot. I remember coming over to the UK and seeing him at Metalheadz Sunday Sessions years ago. He was the tightest guy you’d hear.
You came over to the UK back in the day?
Yeah, many times, just to cut dubs!
Yeah. I’d get a box of lacquers and leave them at Music House and cut. Because I had good links with people who’d toured out in New Zealand for me I was getting great music. Marcus, Scotty, Klute and everyone. They knew I’d flown all this way to cut tunes so they’d give me things that a lot of people weren’t getting.
What was it like being an outsider from New Zealand in the tight community of Music House?
One or two people got dark. I remember cutting something Marcus had left for me there. A couple of guys were at the door and said to Leon the cutter ‘who the fuck is this guy?’ Then they’d try and get me to give them the tune. I said they had to call Marcus. But most people were really welcoming. I’d never been so excited as I was on my first day there. I got the super early, two hours before it opened and there was already one guy there. I was like ‘for fuck sake!’ but then it turned out to be Spirit.
Go on Duncan.
He gave me tunes to cut as well. It was a nice introduction to Music House. You can’t replace the feeling of that place. There have been some many kind people like that. I would stay with Storm and she went out of her way to make me feel at home and introduce me to people, it made me feel part of a wider family.
I think we’ve been feeling that vibe again a bit more, especially at events like Sun And Bass and since we’ve lost some special people…
I think so. Sometimes I take my head totally out of it and do my own thing, I think we all do, but then events such as Sun And Bass do remind of you of the wider picture and bigger community. You get reminded of the connection you have with people and the wider view of people into the label. Doing our parties at Sun And Bass is always interesting because the Samurai sound is pretty different but people are supportive and I think we’ve found our place within the genre and luckily we tend to just gravitate towards people who super positive about everything.
It’s interesting the artists you attract from Clarity to Calibre there’s a great range but yet a share sound or feeling…
That’s something I’m particularly proud of. Like Dev Paradox, he sits down to write a Samurai record and he always nails it. That’s the biggest compliment; that an artist can write a tune that catches our vibe and sound. Calibre’s tune, for example, is four or five years old. He was surprised I picked it out but it was amazing. For that to come together was really cool. I’m a massive fan of his and have been forever.
Who’s exciting you at the moment? I know Shiken Hanzo is….
I am going to stick to d&b because this is based on Samurai Music, so… Homemade Weapons! His new album is just a whole new level and I’ve been very lucky he’s entrusted me with the release. We’ve built a great partnership together, and I am really chuffed about the support he has been getting from key artists outside the electronic community like Mumdance, Tommy Four Seven, and Donato Dozzy. He’s also one of the key producers that has been the most supportive and helpful with getting this old guy to finally finish some d&b tunes. Our fist collab will be out very soon.
Other artists I’m really excited by include Torn, a Russian artist who’s been in every set I’ve played lately. Artilect is killing it, The Untouchables, Last Life, and there’s a new Russian guy called Roho who I’m really digging. I’m working on a project at the moment with Mako. He’s been taking my head off!
He did the last ever release on Soul:r, among many many other sick things…
He’s such a versatile and talented producer. He’s the bridge between what I like about traditional drum & bass and what we do. He knows how to bridge the gap and is such a talented guy. He sent me a tune a while ago, I was listening to it on my headphones, getting really into it and bumped into a couple on the street.
They looked at me like ‘fuck off! Who’s this idiot?’ I just smiled like ‘who cares mate? This tune is about to drop!’ He nailed that vibe! It made me so happy. And I’m glad I still have those moments; drum & bass might be an old artform that repeats itself but that feeling when someone nails it, you can’t beat it.
Love that. That’s the buzz that unites us all.
Totally. You can feel it instantly. I will always chase that feeling, it’s still what drives me.
Yes! So… How about another 10 years?
Who knows man? I’m old now. But I’m still inspired and love working with so many talented artists and being able to support music I love and Samurai still has something to say. I’m not ruling it out…