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“There’s no room for nuance…” A Fox interview in the key of vibes

It’s half-way through 2021 and the post Covid, post Brexit, post Austerity late stage capitalism pressure cooker keeps on boiling away intensely. Everything is definitely not boss. But that doesn’t mean we can’t step back, think about things, not react to our initial base feelings, and find positive solutions and peaceful resolutions.

Just ask Manchester artist Fox, a man who’s been learning how to step back, think and push for positivity and peace for many years. As he alluded in our previous interview with him, that hasn’t always been his technique. But, as he continually alludes to in his work, his actions and his words, it’s the driving force behind everything he does creatively, professionally and soulfully.

His latest album – Squang Dangs In The Key Of Vibes – is the latest embodiment of Fox’s approach to life. A little more introspective and bluesier than his 2019 debut album Juice Flow, it captures a man in reflection over a lockdown working with long-time friends such as Calibre, Alix Perez, DLR, Redeyes, Satl and Lenzman. Largely written in isolation it explores the hypocrisies, double standards and nuances of human behaviour the real and digital realms and was released on The North Quarter earlier this month.

We called up Fox to find out more and find ourselves in a very different context than our last conversation with him in late 2017. Back then we’d caught him in a transition phase as he moved from largely collaborating and featuring on other productions to having his own body of work as a solo songwriter. Now, nearly four more years of Tory-ruled pressure cooker boiling later, he’s two albums deep into that body of work… And even better at exploring the long-lost nuances in life, calling out inauthenticity and finding positivity and peace, both within himself and, he hopes, anyone who listens. Here’s where he’s at…

Last time we spoke you said, ‘The idea is to get to the level where I feel confident to do an album like I Don’t Usually Like MCs, But…’ You’ve done two of those albums since then!

Yeah and they were done in a very short space of time for me. I’ve never had the driving force to do an album, I’ve just been enjoying making music. I suppose DRS’s album was a moment for me. Skittles’ Poor With £100 trainers was another moment. Also I think I got quite depressed with music and wanted to leave it, but before I left I wanted to leave something. And that’s what these albums came about through.

I think you were going through that at the time and wanted to build up that body of work…

Yeah I guess I got the bug for doing projects but a lot of the motivation is my experiences with music and being disappointed and depressed at what happens behind the scenes. On the surface music is love, it’s what you put into it. But behind the scenes it’s grimy. I’m not in this to stroke egos or have my ego stroked or play the hierarchy game. In drum & bass you don’t have any leverage or respect as a vocalist or MC unless you’ve got your name out there in this way. So it’s about that as well.

Shame to hear about that. Is it any better in Manchester because of the community aspect of the scene?

Nowhere is immune to any of that. The nature of what music is, it’s way more intensified. It’s a subjective artform, it’s about hype, there’s money involved, and that attracts people who want to be in the limelight. You bring all them together and it brings out the worst in people.

Yeah toxic. Have you been guilty of that yourself in the past?

Definitely. It’s wider than just music innit. The whole journey of my life has not always been pure. But it’s acknowledgement of self. Accepting your hypocrisies and working on developing yourself every day. The whole concept of being on the road and hustling was about being shallow and more materialistic and operating within the code of what success meant, so I’ve definitely had a lot of epiphanies along the way, learnt a few things and put my life in the positive direction.

Totally man. I was going to say. Squang Dangs is a much deeper, kinda sadder album than Juice Flow. I wondered if this was the influence of lockdown and life in general right now?

Well I’m very comfortable with my own company and don’t have a problem with being alone. I fill my life with a lot of stuff that keeps me interested. But the world has been building up with pressure points. There seems to be no give. First it was austerity and the recession, then Brexit, the rise of the right wing, then covid and issues surrounding the vaccine. Racial issues are still popping. Immigrant issues are still popping. Gender issues are still popping.

I tend not to say a lot online because there’s no room for nuance on there. I’ll be triggered and I’ll write something down and then leave it for an hour and if I still feel that way, I’ll post it. Usually I don’t, but those things I write down are things I come back to and think about a lot and develop and that’s what you’re hearing on the album. It’s like the crystallization of what those feelings led me to. So I guess it does sound sad in places because we’re living in a sad world. I’m an empath, I can’t help but feel that. But that does mean I also try and find the positive in a situation.

Finding positives stops you from completely giving up

Yeah. And it’s funny you say the album sounds sad because I like to pull out things that bother and frustrate me and like to look at them for the realness that they are but deliver them with a positive energy. So, for me, I follow that Jamaican tradition of reggae. I love it because it’s one of the most positive musics and leaves you with a good feeling but it never runs away from realness. Reggae says what it needs to say but does so with a positive experience. We can’t change certain things, but we can give ourselves a lift up and a reason to get up and do what we can. It’s not a downer, it’s survival music, it soothes me and I hope it soothes others too.

Survival music! There are lots of collaborations with close friends on there, I guess everyone having time to collaborate more was a bit of a silver lining of the situation

Yeah people had more time but it didn’t mean they were creative in that time. I suffered from that. I thought I’d be a lot more creative during lockdown. A few things were recorded before lockdown but found a home on the album but a lot of it was done over lockdown and done over long distance. That changes the vibe, doesn’t it? I like to be in the same room and exchange energy. The evolution of the music is different when you’re in the same space. I’m very sensitive to that. Say one person says something which makes you think about an idea or sends your energy down a different path. I do miss those random things where that happens.

Can you think of your favourite examples of that in the past?

Most of LEVELZ stuff for a start! The first album we did we went away in a nice villa in Wales, we had four or five different rooms doing bits all at once. 24 hours of the day you were bouncing from one room for another. I’d leave one room where I’d written something and needed to take a breather and then I’d go into the next room and I’d catch a spark off someone else in there.

That sounds like bliss – both creatively and just that time with your friends!

It’s definitely up there. It’s rare that many artists get to go away somewhere nice and concentrate on making music. The phone signal wasn’t great, so we felt pretty isolated from the world which did put us all in a special mindset. The pandemic has reminded us to celebrate and relish and appreciate that now. You never know when everything can be taken away from you, or if your health has other ideas or any number of things. Maybe that’s why the last year wasn’t as mentally destructive for me? I’ve been lucky to do a lot of things in my life. But lockdown gave me a chance to take up other things because I wasn’t out doing lots of things on road.

Like what?

A lot of reading. I read a lot anyway. I cracked on with a bit of writing, I’ve been slowly grinding away and writing a fantasy book. I’ve been doing a bit of Spanish on Duolingo, I’ve been dabbling with some basic digital art, I got into plants, I got a bike.

You’re writing a fantasy book? Amazing.

I’m a big fantasy fan and have been since I was a kid. But one of things that struck me was that it was hard to find good depictions of people of colour and different ethnicities across the world. I’m trying to move the book away from the mainstream Western civilisations and white supremacy within literature and trying to make some space for other representations and cultures.

Awesome. That reminds me of Afrofuturism

Yeah that comes from the same place. It’s funny with fiction, people just say ‘it’s just stories’, but it comes from the minds of humans and humans reflect society. I’ve read some incredible works of fiction that have blown my mind apart. But, at the bottom of it all, you have the same basic human principals and struggles.

The best books have much more subtle degrees in them. I love the work of David Gemmell Because his protagonists arent pure people. Everyone has good days and bad days, everyone does good things and bad things. No one can be understood as pure good or pure bad.

Yeah, lots of shades between goodies and baddies. No one is clear cut…

I’ll always remember this cab driver. I was doing a lot of youth work at the time and he asked me about my work then said ‘How can you work with evil people like that?’ I was like ‘Woah. My mind doesn’t work like that. Explain evil to me because from where I see these kids they’re just dealing with situations. They might have done one bad thing but then the next minute run into a house on fire and saved a family. You can’t judge someone on one act they’ve done.’

Everything is about choice but there’s no room for nuance in these discussions and there’s a lot of anger out there. I’ve had anger issues in the past, and it’s been my biggest stumbling block – acting on my feels. Some of the biggest things I look back on with regret are because of anger. Sometimes the worst anger is justified anger. When someone’s done you something and you know it’s wrong then, when I’m in my feelings, there’s no limits to what I think to do to you. The shit that comes out of me and the thought processes in my head aren’t representative of what I want deep down. Deep down I want a peaceful resolution but, when I’m in my feels, I want them to feel what I feel and that isn’t helpful.

Yeah, lashing back feels good at the time but won’t progress things to a better solution

I address it a lot on the album. I think as people we all need think more before we speak. We need to think about words and phrases we take for granted or that we’re indoctrinated to pay lip service to.

Like people might say ‘it’s world mental health week, be kind.’ Okay, but what does that mean? How does that present itself in the real world? Someone could be going through bad stuff and be so ground down by it and sick with it, they might not have the energy to care about anyone else and that might impact you in a certain way. This happens in every walk of life. You might think someone is being a ‘prick’ to you but they’re probably fighting some other trauma. Take time to find out what road someone is on before you judge. We’re all part of a broken system and a broken system can only create broken people. So you’ve got a lot of broken people rubbing against each other and broken things have sharp edges. We need to think about what we say, what we pay lip service to and what we’re aspiring to, because there’s a massive gap between them things right now.

That’s internet culture isn’t it. It drives the pressure cooker and, as you’ve said, it’s eliminated a lot of nuance. It’s made it easy for people not to think…

It’s a chicken and egg thing. Were we always this dumb and greedy and corrupt? Or are we being cultivated that way? I’ve worked in the education system a fair bit and when you see how curriculum is put together, and attitudes of schools, and the class sizes, and you realise that we’re not teaching kids to love education, we’re not telling kids to go out and embrace learning. We’re saying ‘Question things, but don’t question what we’re telling you.’ We teach them false positions. We were taught in history that ‘The UK did a lot bad things as a country but we’re not naughty any more’. But if that’s the case then how come, so quickly after World War 2, we can see the rise of the far right again? Mean nasty inhumane attitudes are back innit.

In terms of the internet, to some degrees I think it’s potentially a great tool. But such a tool needs to be introduced to society that has a reasonably high percentage of people with decent cognitive skills that are very chilled and make non-impulsive, non-stressed-out decisions about things. And we definitely don’t have that.

Haha, no we don’t…

I have a lot of experience with confliction resolution and the biggest thing is that the minute you take the audience away things become infinitely better. The internet also takes away tone of voice, you don’t have a human in front of you, reminding you of the basic human respect we should have for each other. People say things they’d never say to people’s faces! Then there’s the other side to it – do you even know how you’re arguing with? Is it a bot? Is it someone paid to be arguing those points? Perception is more valuable than truth now. If you own mass media and can influence a whole bunch of people to believe things that aren’t true, that’s dangerous power. We live in society that’s run by numbers. An alarming amount of people don’t have backbones. They wait and see if everybody is doing it, then they’ll do it. That’s how they decide which music they like or not. I’ve been in raves and the DJ’s dropped the freshest banger. No one has ever heard it before. And you see some people getting into it then there’s a whole load who will look around like ‘Let me see what the alphas are doing? What is everyone saying?’ It’s all numbers. If you see an amount of opinions that go a certain way then you tend to think that’s the majority. The proof of that was how many people thought their side was winning when Brexit happened.

Innit! That’s crazy on your vantage point from the stage looking at the dancefloor and seeing people wondering whether to dance or not. Do you think that goes back to what you were saying about the education system? We’re not being taught to how to think critically?

Come on G. School does what it does. It’s much easier to have a herd of cows who are simple to maintain and control instead of having people who are free and work things out with independent thought. I was involved in a project at a school that was researching why young people engage with informal music rather than formal music.

That seems pretty obvious…

Yeah I didn’t think needed to be researched either. But we did it and one kid at the end was like ‘This is great. This isn’t like music in school. In school the teacher tells you to play a chord and, if you mess up, you get detention.’ So that teacher is meant to be teaching something beautiful and expressive and creative but instead they’re teaching music by numbers. Beethoven was great, learn everything about him. But to be a Beethoven you need to have some independent thought. School isn’t developed for that. But I don’t blame teachers, it’s the system and when you’ve got 40 kids in your class and you got marking, it’s hard to come in every day and be inspired

Yeah teachers are being seriously squeezed. It is totally the system…

Definitely. I think our society should be restructured. Burn-out is a thing so we need to stop these situations where people feel undervalued, stressed-out and burnt-out. And, if they do, they can take a break and we haven’t lost their skills. People feel their choices are ‘deal with it here’ or ‘leave for something else’. People who have some element of social work in their job like teachers or nurses and so many other people should have the support where can step back, collect themselves and come back at it with fire. Parents should want that too!

This is the trap of the western world. It’s endemic in all sectors…

It is. The highest demographic of suicide is males over the age of 40. There’s something about grafting in society where the values are ‘What’s your job? How many hours do you work? What’s your wage?’ A lot of people feel trapped. We have such a hang-up about sick leave and talk about ‘lazy people’ who don’t want to work. But what are we working for? What is the purpose of life and existence? We are at a stage with wealth in the world and technology where we can provide housing and food for everyone. Why isn’t that our priority? Why is it wrong to not want to work every day and make someone else profit? Are we all just working to make Jeff Bezos richer? We should put our energies into pursuing a balanced life for all of us.

Can’t agree with you more! So what are you channelling your energy into next?

I took a bit of a break after the album, so I’ll be working on some features for some people and I’m contemplating some projects with people. I won’t say any names yet and definitely not jumping into things quickly but things are happening. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other and keeping it moving innit.

Fox – Squang Dangs In The Key Of Vibes is out now on The North Quarter

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