Looking back at their discography pre-2022, it could be easy to make the assumption that Traces are a dubstep duo, especially when thinking about tracks as memorable as ‘Adapt’. On the surface, even their debut release on the 140-focused Innamind could reinforce those assumptions as two of the tunes effortlessly bend the mind in true dubstep fashion. But you’d only have to go as far as listening to the B2 on the release, ‘Barebones’, to realise that there are more strings to their bow, as they rounded off the EP with a trippy curveball.
Listening through their three self-releases from 2022, a world of possibilities is opened up. Drawing on influences including but not limited to garage, broken beat and breaks, the releases entice you into wondering what else they’re capable of. The start of their South East London-based club night, Random Select, only heightens this intrigue as it’s a space where you walk into the unknown and are served up an assortment of low-end focused dance music.
We caught up with the duo to retrace their musical journey and find out about their exciting plans for 2023.
How did you two meet and start working on music together?
George: We went to school and played video games together. One of our mates’ older brothers was a DJ and so we had a chance to check out the equipment. Theo and I then went to university and started working on tracks. We were mostly making lofi hip-hop and DJing grime, but started getting into dubstep. My beats were whack but Theo was making some sick tunes. We then thought we needed a name if we were going to produce together. We were arguing if it should be Trace or Traces and decided on Traces because it’s plural.
Theo: I loved the facelessness of underground music. Our logo fits in with this idea because it looks like a face but is abstract. Traces draws on the idea of facelessness and putting the music first. It’s a tired trope but it’s something we always wanted to do. This has changed a lot recently with how social media works, we have to use our faces a lot more to promote ourselves.
Unless you’re someone like Banksy then it would be hard to be completely faceless. Hopefully as you continue to grow you can go back to how you wanted Traces to be, but social media makes that tough.
Theo: Especially with how the algorithm works and how often it changes.
George: That’s the thing, as nice as it is to be based in principles, when you do something creative you realistically have to be changing and ready to adapt. Initially we weren’t so keen to do that and were quite idealist with how we imagined the music industry to be. Nowadays we find ourselves having to change more, but we’re getting used to that and it’s doing us good. Even if it’s tough to stay on top of things like branding, releasing music and even having the time to produce it in the first place. It’s a labour of love.
Do you still try to work together in person?
Theo: A bit of both, but now it’s more sending stems to each other. We’ve self-released a few EPs recently and we’ve worked on all of them individually. One Can Not See was all produced by me and George put out YOKE PSYCHE which was all produced by him. We did think about doing separate aliases for them, but we decided to keep it under one name and push Traces in a different direction.
George: I was really set on separate aliases, but we thought we’d see what happened. We both were able to put music out separately that we cared about personally. We both got to see how we want to make and release music, but also see what the other wants to do. I think it definitely improved our workflow and musical relationship.
That can only mean good things for the future. It seems like you had a really exciting 2022, you toured the US and also played at Fabric. Did anything else stand out?
George: Fabric was amazing, one of the best shows ever.
Theo: We also started Random Select which is a club night we’re working on. The last one had loads of MCs and guests which was a lot of fun.
I came down to the first one in the Four Quarters basement in Peckham which was you guys playing all night.
George: That was the blueprint for what is now Random Select. It was loads of fun and we wanted to keep it moving, so we used it as an opportunity to get other people involved too. We still want to give ourselves sets though. It’s weird that we can tour America but getting booked in the UK is a bit more complicated.
Why do you think that is? A US tour is probably a bucket list experience for a lot of people.
Theo: The US tour came about because of a producer called Old Gold who was planning a tour with Taiko. We knew that Rolando [Old Gold] had worked on US tours for other British artists so we just messaged him and asked if we could make it happen. Since he was already doing the tour with Taiko, he said yes and it was quite simple. It seems like it should be some big deal with a big agency, but it was nothing like that. There were lots of highs and lows, but it was such a cool experience.
Knowing that people are feeling your music so far away must be a nice feeling.
Theo: Yeah, it is weird out there though. The US is very interesting when it comes to this kind of music. I saw someone say in an interview that it feels like they’re five years behind the UK. Here we started with garage and grime, but the US started more with brostep and they’re working backwards in a way. It’s interesting because they see the music differently and react to different kinds of tunes. I definitely found myself needing to change my set a bit for the crowds.
George: They are just different people. I used to be a bit small-minded and think it’s one world, that we’re all the same. But Americans are not the same as British people. The music culture is different.
To answer the question, I think the reason we don’t get booked as much in the UK ties into budget and how profitable club nights are. Events are often under pressure to make money and the easiest option might be to look for artists who are touring because it excites people more if someone not from their city is playing at a local club. In America, it felt like promoters had a bigger budget compared to the UK and the cost of tickets there was a shock. Those kinds of ticket prices wouldn’t fly in the UK.
The whole point of Random Select is to have a free club night, where you can come no matter how much money you have. We book more local artists who are still very sick. Last time we had Tailor Jae, which was a great opportunity for us to bring a friend of ours down and people could see her for free. That’s a bargain. We’re trying to get people back into clubbing and show them there are good options out there.
Does it make sense for venues and promoters to do free events if they’re struggling though?
Theo: We could ticket it and we do get a small budget, but we choose to spend it on artwork and photographers. We say to artists that we’re not making money but just want to put on a show. Doing things this way can get a bad rep if people think we should be paying people. But at the end of the day we’re not making any money, we’re just trying to have fun and play at a club.
George: I think a lot of people don’t get the opportunity [to play out], so we’re also giving people a chance. It’s just meant to be fun at its core. It should get a little bit rowdy and cheeky.
It does get pretty sweaty down there. Was the plan always to do a few events, or did it just develop from the first one?
George: It was just meant to be a one-off Traces all night, but then we thought we’d do one with a few more artists and it was fun to have other people play. We thought we should brand it and came up with Random Select. The lineups we have scheduled are great, I’m extremely gassed.
Sick, it’ll be exciting to see how things go in 2023. You’ve just had your debut EP out on Innamind which is wicked. How did that come about?
George: I met Jeremy from Innamind at one of the HVYWGHT shows a few years ago. We’d been sending him demos and he said we should keep making tunes, that it’d take time. Three years later we have the record out.
Theo: We’ve always loved Innamind but it was a weird time because there were a lot of other things happening. We were sending our music to a few labels, but certain things didn’t work out. We’d been sending Jeremy tunes and eventually he came around to the idea of a release. We knew we always wanted vocals on ‘Ritual’, the track with Riko Dan.
George: Theo and I started the tune together and he thought it sounded like ass but I wanted to finish it. So we finished it around the time coronavirus was happening and saw that Riko Dan was doing vocals. We thought he was the guy for it and was our first choice.
Theo: We locked down the release with ‘Descent’ and then pushed for ‘Ritual’, especially once we had the vocal done. We needed a third track and I think the label is going in a different direction with not being as focused on dubstep which is cool. Not to toot our own horn, but ‘Barebones’ is different and draws on wider influences of club music. It’s been cool to see the reactions and how people take to those tunes. You just have to back yourself and think that we like the tunes. If people aren’t feeling them because they’re unsure about them coming out on Innamind then fuck it. We like them and the label likes them.
If the label is trying different things out and you’re part of that by not doing straight dubstep, that can only be a compliment.
Theo: That is part of our ethos now. With Random Select and some of the tunes we’ve been making, we still want to be inspired by dubstep but put our own twist on it. That’s what makes your music unique. Dubstep has historically been influenced by other genres. Making dubstep by drawing from dubstep doesn’t make a lot of sense for us.
George: You end up compressing what you think the song is about and copying that, so you end up with imitations that aren’t going anywhere new or growing the genre. Credit to artists who are making tunes that sound like the classic dubstep tunes and go hard, but I don’t think that’s us. We’re thinking about what’s fresh, interesting and fun. We’re just trying to enjoy the process which means we’re not trying to do things by imitation.
Things can become saturated if you’re influenced by the music you’re making. You can even start to question if you ever enjoyed that music.
Theo: It can become an echo chamber. But you don’t want to get to that existential point of questioning your taste!
For sure! You must have been pretty gassed to be working with Riko Dan, how did that happen?
Theo: He put a post up on Instagram saying he’s doing specials. That normally means reusing old bars and adding your name into it, like a dubplate special. Anything collaborative can be quite tricky because you have to get them to love the tune. Over time it seems like he’s really come around to it. It’s a cool feeling because he might have been a bit sceptical working with us and not knowing who we were.
George: Anyone can message an MC and ask them to do a tune.
So when were the tunes finished?
Theo: They were done mid-2021 and we got the masters at the end of 2021. Then we pretty much waited a year for them to come out. Some of the tunes are two years old, maybe more.
George: ‘Barebones’ is now a battered club tune and probably gets the most plays from supporting artists. Lamont played it out quite a lot.
Theo: He gave it a wheel on an Addison Groove livestream. I was like, “What is this!”
George: It’s done its time. I like that we’re able to have a mix of tunes that people might have heard and those that are more fresh, plus that the B2 is a weapon. That’s what the B2 is meant to be about.
It’s definitely the curveball in the EP. You guys are probably most well known for your dubstep work, especially before 2022. But recently you’ve had some self-releases which draw on wider influences, plus ‘Barebones’. Was having this variety in your tunes something that happened naturally, or did you intentionally set out to do it?
Theo: It’s been a natural change. If I always approach writing music in the same way, I’ll always end up writing the same tune over and over again. Just changing the BPM opens up new possibilities.
How did this lead to you self-releasing?
Theo: The whole thing was in response to how long it takes to press vinyl now. We work closely with Planet Wax, a record store in New Cross who also cut dubs under 1800-Dubplate. We did consider doing a short run with them, but we just wanted to get music out there without worrying about other things. The tunes on Innamind are old now and they represent Traces, but not what we’re listening to now. If you wait ages for tracks to come out, the artist moves forward but the tunes don’t reflect that. The whole point of self releasing is to get music out there which shows people what we’re working on and interested in right now.
George: It was really fun to put those tracks out, I think it’s stuff people weren’t really expecting from us. YOKE PSYCHE was about music you listen to in your own time. I was listening to a lot of beats that I was making when I was on my way home from work. I was digging them in my headphones by myself and thought I should find a way to release them. That fed into the aesthetic of the release, the tracklisting looks like the bus timetable. It’s music to listen to on your commute. The Bandcamp projects give us a chance to make songs that weren’t entirely about the club. It’s a whole other avenue of music for a different purpose which we hadn’t explored up until that point.
When we played in America and at Fabric, we got to play dubstep dubs from artists which we’re really grateful to have plus a lot of our own stuff we’re sitting on which was really fun. But it was 140 all the way, and the fun thing about Random Select is that we can play anything. When I do one thing a lot, it pushes me to the other side. I want to do something else now which makes me want to go back to dubstep.
I’ve heard others saying similar things since lockdown, you can be more selfish with the music you make and step away from what you’ve been doing for years. With tools like Bandcamp it seems a lot easier for artists to get that sort of music out there.
Theo: It’s all on our own terms. If you give a tune to a label, it’s almost alienating you from your music. That’s not a bad thing, but we like doing things on our own terms too. The environment in which you listen to music is also important, it can give you a whole different perspective on a tune. You can listen to a track on headphones and think that it sounds okay, but when you hear it in a club it can make you go, “Oh shit!”
Definitely, and it’s not just the sound system. It can be the context of where you are and how you’re feeling.
George: Context is hugely important, this year was the first time we could feel that. People always talk about how tunes can feel different on a sound system and I always thought it was cheesy. Unfortunately I’m not in a position where I can listen to my tunes on a system. But in America, we got the chance to properly do that. I was like, “Shit, that’s what they mean!”
Now I’m addicted to it and trying to get as many shows as possible. That’s why Random Select happened and I want to build up to it happening every month. The plan is to do it as much as possible and give opportunities to other people. It’s also a post-COVID project meant to get people back into clubbing without having to pay £20 for entry or a lot of money for a beer. The aim is to allow people back into the club without becoming broke … because a lot of us are broke.
What’s next then?
George: We’re thinking about releasing music through Random Select, but we have to build the platform and see which way it goes.
Theo: We’ve got a dubplate vinyl-only release on Innamind, hopefully coming out in 2023. We’ve also got a collaborative track with Sub Basics coming on their next release. Then we’re also working on another Innamind IMRV release.
That’s wicked to hear, I’m sure you’re working on loads more too. Just one last question, imagine you’re just about to get back to your homes and notice there was a fire inside. If your studio equipment had set on fire and you could only save one other thing from your house, what would it be?
Theo: Probably a Traces dubplate I got cut, it’s a 1 of 1. I’d probably grab that because it’s so important to me. I wouldn’t grab another release because there are other copies of them.
A sentimental one! How about you, George?
George: I’ve got my old art sketchbooks from school, they help me get creative and make me think that I was popping off when I was 17. At that time it was the only thing I gave a shit about. I didn’t even like music that much, it was just about art. I went to war with my teachers after they gave me bad grades and I’d get in loads of trouble because I felt there was a lack of care towards marking my work. I’d actually recommend doing that because they actually ended up treating me a lot better after that.
Theo: Those sketchbooks are where all of the original Traces artwork came from.
George: Yeah, the monoprints I was doing in school. I recreated them until we settled on one to use as the logo for Traces.