When you think about the more precise, moody and hard hitting side drum and bass, the mind goes to a select few names and one of them will almost certainly be Sustance. Rapidly making his way onto labels such as Vandal, Dispatch and Invisible in the early stages of his work under the alias, the last 12 months has seen Oscar Harding’s music find a home on Shogun Audio.
Having recently moved to Berlin and boiling his studio down to a set-up which is as stripped-back as some of his music, a change in environment for Sustance led to the creation of a five-track EP. The release, out now on Shogun, showcases his versatility at the controls with explorations of different styles within drum and bass. Collaborations with Visages and Ruby Letitia demonstrate his more soulful abilities, while the rest of the EP offers varying forms of jaw-clenching weight (which most definitely includes the malicious title track, Quasi).
Speaking to Sustance, we found out more about his move to Berlin, the rewards of running a Patreon and how he went from being the tea boy in a studio to engineering tunes with Lethal Bizzle.
How are things mate? It looks like you’ve had quite a lot of change recently.
Things have been good, thanks! Yep, lots of big changes. I feel very lucky considering what’s been going on in the world. My partner and I have recently relocated from London after 12 years of living there to Berlin. She’s an artist and also travels for work. We decided to make the move due to Brexit and managed to get set up with 10 year residencies as part of the Withdrawal Agreement Act. It’s been a big change but a really exciting one and I wrote my latest EP in Berlin. Germany was in full lockdown the entire time we were there so I just wrote music everyday without any distractions. We’ve actually back in the UK for summer due to the live music industry kicking off here before the rest of mainland Europe.
What’s it been like creatively for you in Berlin since you were a bit more isolated there?
Everyone gets inspiration from different things and playing out is a big one for me, but I don’t rely on that. I’m quite happy to just sit anywhere and make music. I had a studio in London for the last eight year with hardware, nice monitors and it was fully acoustically treated. It’s amazing having a place where you can lock yourself away to make music everyday, but fresh scenery is really good for creative inspiration. When I moved to Berlin, I packed up my studio and put it in storage. I just took my laptop and bought a pair of Audeze LCD-X headphones. It was the most creative three months I’ve had in a very long time – no distractions with new sites, smells and sounds. I loved it and it was a nice change of pace. It felt more free and fun. Some people might think that’s a step back after having a studio, but it’s amazing for me creatively.
It’s interesting that it’s been so positive, you could think that losing the physical interaction with your old studio equipment could be more restrictive.
The thing that I’ve learnt over the years is that I need to refresh my surroundings and workflow regularly if I want to feel creatively inspired. Sometimes you sit down and wonder why you don’t feel inspired to make music when you have all the tools at your disposal. If you switch up the scenery or workflow, that can be so refreshing.
Well it sounds like you’ve taken that a step further and moved a few hundred miles away to a different country! Do you think this EP is any audibly different to what you’ve made before because of these changes in your life?
I hope so. You’d like to think that you get better and implement new techniques you’ve learnt on every new record. Hopefully this EP is a progression, but at the same time music is so subjective. What I might like, other people might not so I try not to think too much about it and just write for fun. I always try to push myself to make the best music I can and keep it credible.
You’re just doing your thing and people are feeling it. A big change for producers over lockdown was Patreon and having a more direct relationship with supporters. What was your motivation behind setting up your own Patreon?
I started mine a couple of years ago. It’s another reason why I felt lucky when lockdown hit, because I already had a pretty strong subscribership. When I started, I was working it out whilst I was going along – how I wanted to give back to the scene, how I could A&R new music and just what I offer in general. At that time, the only other people doing Patreons in drum and bass were Noisia I think. Then when lockdown hit, a few producers asked me for tips on setting up their own Patreon. Now it’s great because there seems to be a whole scene of people who are able to offer their expertise and earn a regular income through the platform.
I’m a big advocate for Patreon, the music industry is constantly evolving. We’ve seen things move on from records, to the introduction of the internet and now we have Bandcamp with direct access to fans. I think the days of the big record labels are fading away because artists have a more direct interaction with fans now. You can make a decent living off just Patreon if you really focus on it.
Well one of the biggest sources of income for producers is gigs, which obviously weren’t on for a while. This thing that artists have been relying on to pay rent has just suddenly disappeared so something like Patreon must be amazing. Plus, just from a fans point of view, having such a detailed insight into your favourite producer’s workflow is amazing. You’ve taken that mystical and illusive thing and given people behind the scenes access.
Exactly, I remember when I started making tunes and none of this was around. I got a free spectrum analyser, SPAN, with no knowledge of music and looked at other producers’ records to try and get my tunes to look like theirs. It was so long. But the progression I’ve seen in some of the people on my Patreon has been outstanding. I did a remix competition with Overview at the start of lockdown and got a lot of submissions – around 60 or so. Almost all of them were release quality. People who did well in that have gone on to smash it in the scene.
Didn’t Echo Brown win that?
Yeah, he’d been making good tunes for ages and was subscribed to my Patreon for a while. Then he won the competition and now he’s released on 1985 Music and The North Quarter, he’s killing it. There are also so many people who haven’t had releases yet too. As they’ve got better, I’ve started sending their tunes onto A&R’s for big labels. They’re not asking me to do it, it’s just because it’s good music and deserves to see the light of day. Patreon is a good way to get into the industry.
Definitely, especially when someone is as well connected as you.
I knew when I started making music that I was crazy hungry for it. If you want something enough, you can make it happen. You just have to work your ass off. I’ve seen it through the Patreon where you can tell certain people want it. It’s a big learning curve to make good music so they deserve recognition.
It must be so rewarding for you to see people progress.
The more good art in the world, the better the world is. I’ve never been one of those people who try to block things from happening if they think it could be a threat to their career. I hate that sh*t. It’s such an archaic way of thinking. I’d rather spread good energy – the more good music there is in the scene, the better the scene will be.
I couldn’t agree any more! What’s it been like to be back in the dance and hearing your tunes through a sound system again?
So good! I went with Jon [GLXY] to Unglued’s album launch at Studio 338 just for a party on my weekend off. I got there and The Sauce were meant to be playing but they were stuck on the motorway. Josh [Unglued] asked if I wanted to jump on the decks for the last half hour for a b2b with Jon and it just went off. We all looked at each other and were so happy to be back together doing what we love. It was raining but the crowd had umbrellas out and everyone was smiling, then the sun came out. It was just the best vibe. It’s been so good to be playing out again.
What was your first gig back?
I was playing at the Dispatch night in London quite late so I went down to Phonox first for the Exit night. We rolled down and caught Skeptical’s set, that was the first time I was back in a club. It was packed out and the tunes were sick, everyone was loving it. Ash [Skeptical] played a couple of my new tunes too which was vibey. Then I went to Lightbox and I was a bit worried that it would be quiet in room 2, but it was packed. I’m not going to lie, I did feel a bit nervous at first because it did feel a bit COVID-y but that was all in my mind because I hadn’t been out at all yet. I’ve played a few shows since then and they’ve all had the same sort of vibe. Everyone is so happy and buzzing to be back out. It’s the best.
It’s been pretty special! Everyone’s been having a lot of fun. Just going back to the tunes, you popped up with your first EP only four years ago on Dispatch LTD which is a pretty impressive label to work with so quickly. Where did that come from? Had you been producing for a while by that point?
I think my first tune was released on Invisible. I grew up listening to a lot of heavy metal so when I first got into drum and bass, I was listening to much heavier, techy dnb. When I started writing drum and bass, I was making music like that. The Dispatch EP was when I had started to refine my sound.
So was that your first solo release?
In drum and bass, yeah. When I first left uni I got a job in a commercial studio. I was an in-house engineer/producer for a studio in South London. I did a couple of tunes for Lethal Bizzle under a different alias and also worked with some other guys in the studio. The tune with Lethal B did pretty well and I got the chance to play it at the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge in the Maida Vale studio which was pretty special.
I left that studio because I just wanted to write drum and bass. I met Pavan and Ebow from Foreign Beggars in a recording session and I was a big fan of their music. After speaking to them, I decided that I wanted to start making my own tunes full-time instead of working on music for other people. So I got a studio with Pavan and Ebow, which is how I met Alix [Perez] and got properly into the drum and bass scene.
Looking back on that must be really special.
For real. They all became very close friends, Ebow especially. It’s been an interesting 12 years in London for sure.
Sounds amazing man, I’m sure you have some amazing memories together. Do you still work under different aliases?
No, that was all a while ago. I can’t even remember when, there’s been a lot of partying since then [laughs]. I got that job straight out of uni. I moved to London because I wanted to work in the music industry and I blanket emailed a load of recording studios everyday. One studio replied and they gave me a tea boy job, then I went on to be an engineer and then an in-house producer. It all came together pretty well but as soon as I had the opportunity to do my own thing, I took it. I’ve been working on the Sustance alias since.
It seems like that move has paid off as now you’ve got another EP out now on Shogun. What’s your relationship with the label?
It was through Pete [Deadline] actually. He hit me up a long time ago and wanted some tunes for SGN, so I sent him over some tracks which he signed. He’s a wicked guy and has never put pressure on me to do anything that I don’t want to do. He’s one of the best dudes that I’ve met in music. I built a relationship with him through SGN and that led me to releasing the Blood Money EP on the main label last year. I’ve got a great relationship with everyone at the label. They’re all wicked over there.
Nice. So this new EP has that signature concise and stripped-back sound that you’re known for, as well as some more soulful tracks. Did you just write the EP in Berlin with no particular aim?
The sort of sound that I like is exactly what you mentioned, soulful but also bangs in a club. I wrote the idea for the title track, Quasi, in London ages ago. I found the project file when I was in Berlin and ended up re-mixing the tune. I love EPs and albums so I like having a bit of light and dark on all of my records. I tried to encapsulate that in this release. A couple of the tunes are deeper and more soulful, a couple are more rowdy and club orientated and then obviously Quasi is just a bit bonkers.
I remember Skeptical dropping it at the Exit night and it was pretty mental. How about the collaborations on the EP, how did you end up working with everyone?
Ruby Letitia hit me up a couple of years ago on Instagram, she just said that she liked my tunes and that she sings so is up for working together. People do that occasionally and I always take the time to check them out. I always want to have at least one tune with a singer on an EP and when I was in Berlin, I was working on Rumours and decided to send it over to Ruby. She sent me back the vocals and they were wicked, so different from anyone else that I’d heard with such an interesting character to her voice. She’s an all-round musician as she’s also part of a band and a producer of stripped-back 140. Super talented.
With Visages, I’ve known them for a long time. Valentin has his own alias called Ak:Hash and he released on Noisia’s sub-label, Division, around the same time I was working with Invisible so we’ve been chatting online since then. It’s been amazing to see Visages go from strength to strength. For a while I’ve had this inkling that they’d go on to do big things, and they have. We’ve been sending ideas over to each other for years and have finished a few tunes that were good enough to play out, but not for releasing. Then this time I started I’ll Be There and sent it to them. When I was in Berlin, I think Valentin and Etienne decided to completely rework the stems and chucked in a new sample. It took the tune from being good to really great. They smashed it and they’re all really great guys for sure. So much love for them!
Amen! What have you got coming up then?
There are a few things in the pipeline. I’ve got a collab with Klinical coming out at some point. Apart from that, I’ve been working on my first full length sample pack and also on Patreon stuff. I’ve actually had a lot of boring admin to do over the last month which I’ve been trying to get out of the way so that when I go to Berlin, I can just start working on music again. Hopefully I’ll be touring again but that’s all a bit up in the air at the moment. So just knuckling down really, it’s all I ever really do. I’m a pretty boring guy!