Glasgow producer imo-Lu only started making drum & bass two years ago, and already she’s making a name for herself as one of Hospital Records’ proteges.
Her first single Circle came out last year on Hospital’s Future Symptoms compilation, and was quickly followed by Hard Feelings on Lens’ Hospital Mixtape (which has been nominated for Best Compilation at the DJ Mag Awards 2022) and a soulful remix of Degs’ Can We Talk? on Soulvent Meets Hospital. She’s also co-host of 170ish, a dedicated drum & bass show on Edinburgh radio station EHFM, where she spotlights Scottish drum & bass producers with co-conspirator WhyTwo.
Her rise in the scene has been so fast that, according to imo-Lu, she’s still learning on the job. Her mix for Hospital’s Rinse show last year was her first mix ever. She took on her first DJ set – at Junglism Scotland’s Castle Party in Dundee – before she knew how to DJ (cue a three day cramming session in Pirate Studios with WhyTwo). But none of that phases imo-Lu. As a lifelong fan of drum & bass, and an accompanying pianist for Scottish Ballet and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, music is in her bones. She’ll have a crack at any new challenge that is tossed her away.
We met up with imo-Lu to hear more about her entrance into the Hospital fold, her day job playing piano for ballet, and the exciting changes that are happening now in Scotland’s d&b scene.
Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Where did you get your first introduction to drum & bass?
Geographically in Glasgow, but it was more the internet, to be honest. I was a big Tumblr kid. It’s so embarrassing, but I was really into EDM when I was a teenager, like Deadmau5 and Zedd. Knife Party was the crossover. Through Knife Party I got into Pendulum. Also, weirdly, I was really into Enter Shikari and they did a remix album with Hospital when I was in high school. I was like “Hospital Records? What’s that?” I didn’t even understand the concept of a label remix album. Then I went and listened to a bunch of music by the artists that were on the album.
I love that. I was an Enter Shikari kid as well. And when did you start producing?
I only started producing in lockdown. I always liked the idea of writing my own, because for my whole conscious life I’ve played music. I’m lucky enough now to make money solely from music, but I did not know where to begin with making drum n’ bass on a computer. I knew what the screen looks like, and I knew that people use various types of input, but I couldn’t have told you anything more than that.
It wasn’t until lockdown, when I ended up staying in Edinburgh with Alex [WhyTwo]. At that point I lived in Glasgow on my own, and I thought “Fuck getting stuck on my own here for an indefinite amount of time.” So I went to Edinburgh and suddenly I had all this free time, and I had his setup at my disposal, because he had done all the hard labour of figuring out what is worth getting and what isn’t. He also studied sound production at uni, so he has a lot of really technical knowledge.
Having all that gear, and somebody on hand to not just show you the answers but show you what the questions are, was invaluable. I think if it weren’t for COVID I still wouldn’t be producing.
Your music sits on the more soulful side of drum & bass. What sort of feelings and ideas are you trying to get across in your productions?
I don’t know if this always comes out, but the feeling I often start with is melancholy, or a kind of yearning. Drum n’ bass is such an old genre of music compared to something like trap. There’s a lot of chat in drum n’ bass like, “the best days are over,” “the golden years were in the 90s before you were born,” and “you had to be there in 2001.” I know young people laugh about it, but it does make me quite sad. It kind of ties in with the general state of the world. Our parents’ generation bought a house for 10p and went to uni for free, and that’s all over now. I think, with the music that I write, I’m trying to capture that feeling like you just missed out on something. That you’ve just missed the train or you’re late to the party or you’ve just missed the boat.
I’d like to speak about your other work as a pianist with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Scottish Ballet. Do you think that the two sides of your music career complement each other?
I always say as a joke that they’re both technically dance accompaniment. That is the goal at all times – to make music that people want to dance to in two incredibly different ways. What I’ve realised about DJing is so much of it is knowing where you’re at in the structure of a piece of music just by feeling it, knowing when to cue something in, knowing when that’s going to drop. And that is what I do every day at work.
There is a side of ballet accompaniment that’s playing Swan Lake for a rehearsal, but most of what I do is technique stuff, and that is all improvised piano music. You watch the dancers get given instructions and then you have to come up with something off the cuff that’s going to fit. Going into DJing with that skill already built in was really helpful.
I think, as well, having to constantly generate ideas for nine hours a day is really great for writing music of your own. You play something that just comes out of you and you’re like, “Oh, I could use that later.” A few of my productions have started from that.
During lockdown, you arranged London Elektricity’s “Just One Second” on piano – was that for ballet as well?
That was for ballet. What a lot of ballet pianists do is, rather than improvising everything, they will take a popular tune – usually songs from the shows you know, or a pop song or TV ads and radio jingles – and they’ll add the right musical quality and turn it into a ballet exercise piece. One that I always do at work is the Wii shopping channel music as a waltz.
The London Elektricity thing was me turning it into the kind of piece that was required for that ballet exercise. London Elektricity actually contacted me after I posted that and said, “I’ve seen quite a lot of renditions of JOS, but yours is the most original. Transported me back to Brian ENO era David Bowie.” I was like, “Oh my god, this is so surreal,” because he is one of my musical heroes. This was before any of the Hospital stuff kicked off so it was totally out of the blue.
How have things changed for you since Hospitality took you on?
A lot. It’s so crazy. I thought this would maybe happen two years from now. but I’ve said that about every single thing that’s happened in my career so far. It’s not that I thought I couldn’t do it. I just thought it would happen in like five years after some hard graft. I think everything has come before I’ve been ready, which is good in a way. But it does mean every time I do a project, I’m having to learn how to do six new things at the same time. I did a guest mix for the Hospital Rinse show last year, and I’d literally never made a mix on a computer before. But what am I going to do? Say no?
I remember when the Future Symptoms compilation came out, there was this big overwhelming boom of people trying to contact me, because I kind of came out of nowhere. I’m not in the geographical epicentre of drum n’ bass, so nobody on the scene had ever even met me or seen my face.
People were like, “Have you got anything in the vault?” and I was like, “I literally have nothing to offer,” because the only track I ever properly put up is the first track I’ve got coming out. It’s taken me until very recently to have a backlog of demos. I’m incredibly grateful and very surprised that people have believed in me with such little evidence.
It’s changed so much. I used to feel like being in Scotland and Glasgow was a barrier to making music and doing stuff in London and Bristol, but I no longer see it as a negative. Since being given a bit of a career, I definitely see it as a good thing to not be in the heart of it.
Even in Scotland, people say that Glasgow doesn’t have a drum n’ bass scene. Do you think that’s fair?
I’m so glad you asked. A month ago, I would have been like, “Yeah Glasgow’s dead. If you want drum n’ bass, go to Edinburgh. Go to Dundee. Glasgow’s a techno city and there’s no room for anything else, bla bla.” And then last month, Alex and I played at an event called Symbiosis, which runs every two months in Glasgow. It was maybe the best gig that I’ve ever done. Such a good atmosphere. Surprisingly well-attended, because it’s Glasgow and I expected people to not care about drum n’ bass.
It was a really diverse crowd, both in terms of the usual axes of diversity, but also subculture-wise. There were a bunch of different types of people there, and different ages and stages of life. You had a few cool students, and then you had bams, and you had old heads, but everybody’s just having a good time. It was really that thing that people say about drum n’ bass where it brings everyone together. I really feel like I saw that.
Between you, WhyTwo, Refracta and Anikonik, it feels like Scottish drum n’ bass producers are having a moment, possibly for the first time ever. Why do you think that is?
It only takes one for people to go, “What else is going on up there?” I remember reading an article about Refracta and I was like, there’s someone else? An Edinburgh producer? You never hear about that. That was the first whiff of Scottish producers having a moment that I saw. I don’t know if people are genuinely more receptive now to music from places that aren’t the drum n’ bass heartland or, because I definitely used to feel worse about it, I don’t know if I’m just more confident.
There is a bunch of talent in Scotland that has been quite untapped. I don’t think I quite realised the breadth and depth of talent in Scotland until me and Alex started doing the radio show [on Edinburgh’s community radio station EHFM]. We’ve got a policy that if you’re from Scotland and you’ve made a drum n’ bass tune, we will play it. We have no quality control. Not to say that anyone’s sent us bad music, but if they did, we would still play it. We’re here to promote Scottish music, so we will. I imagined us struggling as time went on to find people to fill each slot, but there’s been no shortage of music or mix slots that people filled.
That reminds me of when DJ Metragnome did 59th Degree [a weekly DJ livestream on Facebook]. I think he was also surprised by just how many bass music DJs he found all over Scotland, even up in the Highlands.
I know! Our first guest mix was Poros from Inverness. We met him at Junglism Scotland, the castle party in Dundee and we really liked his set. He was from the middle of nowhere. He did a great mix and is a talented guy making drum n’ bass.
You teased some new works in progress on the Hospitality Rinse show. Can we expect an album in the works?
No, you cannot! I have just been trying to build up a backlog of sketches and demos and ideas so that eventually I can pool a bunch of the better ones together and create a coherent project.
Drum n’ bass albums can be amazing, but I’m not a fan of a gratuitous album release. A lot of the old drum n’ bass albums are great and really work as albums. I lived in London this summer for a temporary job, and my commute was so long, so every day I listened to an old jungle album on the tube. That was a very enriching experience. But modern drum n’ bass often is better as an EP. If you’re making an album of two-step tracks with a 32 bar intro, 64 bar first drop section, etc, that doesn’t need to be 12 tracks.
I think an album has to really justify itself being an album. Not to plug Alex too much, but it was an album that really demanded to be an album. All of the Kimyan Law albums demand to be albums. The Monty album demanded to be an album, because it’s a bunch of different BPMs, genres and ideas. That is a very long way of me saying I’m not working on an album yet.
Did you have any favourite old albums that you discovered on your London commute?
Yeah! Blu Mar Ten’s Producer O3 really did it for me. I listened to it and 40 seconds into track one I was like, “Oh, this is what I’m trying to build on.” It was like walking through a door that you thought was going to take you somewhere else and it’s your house. It was so weird how much it felt intuitive to me. LTJ Bukem’s Producer O1 was another seminal album that I hadn’t heard where I was like, “Oh shit, this is incredible.” Basically the theme here is Good Looking Records was a good label in the 90s.
You’ve accomplished a huge amount in two very short years. Is drum n’ bass something you’d like to do full time? Or do you have other genres and styles of music that you want to explore?
There are a lot of other genres that I listen to and enjoy hearing on my own or in the club, but I think drum n’ bass and 170 BPM music is where I want to stay at the moment. I’m not saying that I would never do anything else, but I’m still learning so much in terms of drum n’ bass production, and there’s still so much in this genre that I want to say and achieve. It’s been the thing that I’ve always been into since I was a teenager. I’ve never had a massive garage phase where I knew everybody that was releasing garage. I’ve never had that intense encyclopaedic passion for any genre other than drum n’ bass.
But do I want to do it full time? It’s tricky, because I really like my day job. The ballet stuff scratches a different itch to drum n’ bass. I think I’d be quite sad to give up ballet, because I’ve been doing that for 10 years now. Playing piano for ballet has been part of my life as long as I’ve been into drum n’ bass.
And I’m quite a slow worker at the moment, partly because I’m new and I have to learn how to do five new things whenever I write a track. I see on Instagram Hugh Hardie posting montage videos, and it’s like, “Here’s me putting in some drums. Here’s me playing some chords, here’s me adding some effects.” It seems like a second language for him, and that’s how I am on the piano. It feels like I’ve got one bionic arm and then no arm. It’s like being bilingual and speaking in your second language and being like, “Do you know how smart I am in French?” That’s how I feel whenever I try to produce. I’m angrily looking at my computer and being like, “You don’t even know how good I am at piano.” It’s quite a humbling experience.