WORDS

“We need to take more risks”: Why Billain will never settle for a conventional dancefloor banger

 

Billain doesn’t make tunes; he tells stories. Approach the Sarajevan artist on any track in his discography and he’ll peel back the wrapper to reveal entire narratives, universes and details.

It’s been this way since he emerged over 10 years ago on labels such as Breed 12 Inches and Bad Taste… Even though many of his tracks radically exfoliate any serious D&B dancefloor, behind the exhilarating outer-planetary atmospheres and cybernetic aesthetics there’s always been a much deeper vision, ambition and story.

These stories began to develop in earnest around his Colossus and Colonize releases five years ago. Both EPs, they didn’t just contain worlds or solar systems but also generations and key protagonists. Fusing his passion for movies and cyberpunk ideologies and his ability to illustrate and write stories, these releases positioned Billain much closer to the realms of auteur than heavyweight bangersmith…. A position he realises with even more clarity on his debut album Nomad’s Revenge.

Out now on Minneapolis-based experimental label Renraku, Nomad’s Revenge dropped last week. Following the theme of video trailers he created for previous releases, the album launched with a movie-level animated short earlier:

The scene is set, but it barely scratches the surface of the worlds that await on the album. Diverse in its tempo, vast in its structure and featuring collaborations with the likes of Vorso and Vulgatron, it’s the most complex narrative Billain’s presented to date. The sound (and sight) of one of our scene’s most voracious fusioneers plunging elbow deep into a dark future and seeing what he can pull into the present, it’s just the tip of his creative iceberg, too. He’s got another seven albums all bubbling away in the background. Naturally none of them fit the conventional D&B mould. Just the way he likes it. Here’s the story so far…

Nomad’s Revenge. Where does this fit in with your own personal story and the story of the universe you’ve been creating with your previous releases?

I think what really attracted me to drum & bass was how cinematic it’s always been. It perfectly translated imaginary scenes for me and I believe it has potential to do even more. That’s why I thought ‘what if we amplify the cinematic nature beyond any point that currently exists?’

Any artist wants to see their music on films but what if we flip that? Instead of bringing music to films I want to bring films to music. So Nomad’s Revenge is the continuation from the worlds we left in Colonize and Colossus. It’s a non-linear album with a narrative that features the same personas from previous releases. Stories for me don’t add up unless they’re described well. I want something more narratively packed than a DJ tool.

Yeah I was going to say. This goes way beyond the dancefloor. Even on tracks like Bilocation which can absolutely smash up a dance, they’re uncompromised in their direction and will make people dance.

Bilocation is quite a liberating track. It was three drops, it has an intro as long as the outro. The outro itself can be a different track. And the third drop shouldn’t even exist by the genre ‘standards’ but that is liberating for me. It starts as drum & bass but it’s also a cyberpunk way of expression. For DJs, they can understand there are three different drops they can choose to spin. For listeners they understand the track is in three parts. It translates to different emotional states. It’s challenging to encompass more than one task in a track and find a perfect balance between those elements, but I gather much more experience from trying to create something like that. For every track like that I learn as much as I would from 10 typical dancefloor tracks.

And also unlearning? Krust discussed that in a previous interview; once you understand the science of a banger, you need to unlearn that to take the production to new realms and try new things…

Exactly. Excuse the pun but it’s a full cycle – you start off listening to different things. You go from pop to rock to big electronic bands, you develop an understanding of genres and their formalities and you practice them and learn how to express them. But I think deep down everyone wants to go back to that blank page and do their own thing. If they have the patience to get there. A lot of sacrifices need to be made to do this; I have to put less tracks out there, for instance. Because I focus on each track a lot more. And that’s something to unlearn. Bassline rollers and squeaky jump-up are fine  course- but I want originality and I believe originality is diluted and eventually lost in major recycling rituals.

Recycling rituals! That’s a great turn of phrase. Weirdly I have another Bristol reference. I recently spoke to DJ Die who said his favourite time in jungle was when it didn’t know what it was doing. It was a free for all pushing and pulling in different directions… No boundaries. That initial supernova.

This is the main thing; drum & bass’s most important point is the element of surprise. Like the intro that’s the opposite to drop. The silence that creates the feeling that something is going to happen but you don’t know what. That’s the spirit and essence of jungle culture. More than any other genre, I believe. But we’ve had this hyper normalisation of the industry because everyone wants to know how things are made. Everyone seeks the knowledge so it standardises things. And the ratio between the people who say ‘fuck that let’s try again from a different point of view’ is only around, I would imagine, 30 percent. Everyone else is happy to sell the same formula because it’s too much of a risk to do otherwise. Risk is less acceptable by labels now so that’s why you have artists self-releasing on Bandcamp and things like that.

Some of those releases are the best though. Akov’s new EP for example. So in this way, more risks are encouraged.

True. Hideo Kojima is a good example, I relate to his work a lot. He left Konami for obvious reasons. They told him the standard was that everyone wanted games on mobile phones so he said there was no place for him in the company. He could make those great big movies out of the games if that was the medium so he left. Sony supported him and they’re now making something totally new which brings games and movies together in an even better way. He proves that you can never give up for a submissive trend. At one point something will influence or fuse with drum & bass to create an even larger picture.

Isn’t that happening to you now anyway? You’re working with some big names in Hollywood… That came through your music, right? Is that the big picture? Movies recognising the skills of artists like yourself?

I see what you’re saying and yes it’s amazing to do that. But it was never my goal. It’s just happened that way. A few of the lads from Hollywood recognised my sound design more then festivals recognised my skills as a producer and DJ. I’m more involved in Hollywood – the films and projects I have revealed in the past and future projects I’m unable to speak of – than I am in the inner circles of drum & bass. That’s strange. It’s not how I mapped that out and it is a shame in one way because it wasn’t my intention.

‘A few of the lads’. I know there’s lots you can’t say about who you work with in that field as it’s not ready to announce, but who can we mention?

We can mention Pacific Rim and Hunter Killer and Scorn Game. I’m working with 1000 Toys in Japan who work with Tsutomu Nihei and Hideo Kojima. All these things are perfectly connected. Look at what Tim Miller did with Love Death & Robots. Everyone has similar ideas, it’s how they translate them. And I believe drum & bass is ripe for something like that. I released a short which I made with seven other people including Yan Caspar Hirschbuehl who worked on compositing on Bladerunner and Star Trek. We made the story together.

Like you say, it’s all connected…

It has to be in order to encourage the next development. We need more risk taking and crazy variation for the genre to be self-sustainable. I’m not going for the title of drum & bass’s David Lynch but I need to push in my own direction and no others. I wouldn’t be doing myself or the music any justice if I just made the same tracks over and over. You mentioned Akov and I agree – he’s making some very bold moves with that release and we need more artists like him to push things their own way.

The album is released on Renraku. I’m wondering if you pushed too hard for Bad Taste?

No no. This is one of seven albums. I’m sitting on another finished album and another one that’s been in the making for six years which involves some incredible people from film and videos. I’m also deep into another one. Picking the label hasn’t been done with any kind of specific purpose other than I really like to work with people who understand what I want to do. Kaya, the label owner, encourages a lot of people to step forward with crazy risks and the album is more experimental for this reason.

Tell us the video short and your collaboration with 1000 Toys…

I’m collaborating with them to make more profound cyberpunk narratives. It started with Colossus and Colonize, they both had trailers. I made some teasers for this and thought I’d go a bit bigger and make a trailer but the amount of people who got involved went to almost 10 so it became a full scale operation and turned into a full short.

The short has our heroes from Colonise and Colossus and develops from there. I’ve written up to 11 chapters while will become these neuro cyberpunk concept shorts that I help me showcase how drum & bass can be more than ‘just a track’. We also have a radio drama with an LA actor which is almost like an ASMR discussion on the top of a building. We’re using new echo location software where you have a person in the image and you predict how you hear the sounds and surroundings within the artwork. So we have these two radio dramas as well. It’s an incredible cinematic project.

Wow this transcends any comprehension of a typical album format. But all these disciplines take a long time to perfect. Most of us are lucky if we own one discipline or crafts. Where do you find the time?

The biggest problems I have is trying to make labels understand something big is about to happen and they have to think outside the box and ask themselves if they want to be part of the next evolution. Another challenge is self management which comes with its challenges. But by the endpoint of a certain project I find myself surrounded by people who understand my vision – the artwork, the visual, the sonic. The hardest challenge is the writing, making sure it’s not cheesy and has authenticity. How does the protagonist look? How does the background look? What are the logos of the companies that don’t exist but are in the background of the story? It’s fully developed. A finalised project has all assets so you can make a film out of it. And to do that I need to do a lot of side jobs to make money. Logos for artists, artwork for artists. You’re right it is crazy but these things happen over years.

Like the album you said you’ve been working on for six years?

For that album I’ve been working with a Japanese team of animators and they’ve taught me so many things. How to make story boards, colour correction, I can make my own posters and artwork. My independence is increasing. I can do more for myself. You learn so much after spending a lot of time in japan. That’s discipline!

True! I worry drum & bass lose you to a much more exciting world…

I guess electronic/modern/state-of-the art/sci-fi, whatever you want to put in front of the words music and film music are inseparable to me. They define what I am and I can only see that I’m going to find new grounds for it. I want to create new grounds for its development, I want to create new ways to describe it and apply it. I want to translate drum & bass in new ways.

Actually I keep saying drum & bass but when people hear the album they will hear a cross pollination of many things. I’ve been playing around with new music, creating new crazy stuff and recording. I’m making a new video because I want to show what’s happening in the studio in terms of production. I want to add something new to the whole discourse. Being in the same conservative music expression gets boring a little bit but what’s wonderful about music is that you can always make something new out of it, you can’t get tired of it, there’s always new ways of expressing how you feel. There’s always a new way to do this with visuals as well. It’s a wonderful ride. I can see myself being 60 years old and doing weird things with synths and videos. I’m not going anywhere, I’m just getting warmed up…

Nice. You talked about the art of surprise earlier. There aren’t many collabs on the album but guys like Vorso and Vulgatron are also synonymous with that essence of shock and awe…

Totally. Vorso is an absolute madman. I love how he translates multiple genres from his point of view. You can see there’s a new expression around the corner that we all share. The same goes for Orifice Vulgatron. I never stop liking that man. He delivers with such clarity and energy. He’s one of my favourite lyricists of all time and I knew it was only a matter of time before I worked with him. Also the visual collaborators; Yan, Tom and David. They all share the same crazy in-your-face punk attitude in our modern world as I do or Vorso and Vulgatron do, but they work differently. I guess the platform we create together gives us the freedom to express ourselves in the best possible way. And who doesn’t like absolute creative freedom? It was heaven to collaborate with everyone on the album.

So what’s next? 7 albums… how close to completion are they?

They’re constructed with the same non-linear ideology. I put tracks on albums I feel they’ll work best on. They’re just folders growing over time and once the folder is full it’s a complete album and I’ll approach it and bring it together. One of the albums was top secret for four years until I worked with top visual guys. That’s probably the craziest project in regards to going to such lengths and putting in 200% from all of us just to see what comes out. It was totally worth it. It’s at a movie level. It’s something I can’t describe in the way I would like. I don’t even know what it is I’ve made but I know it’s more than what I would be doing if I was just putting out tracks. I love this creative freedom.

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Billain – Nomad’s Revenge is out now on Renraku