But as time went on, the duo began following different musical paths – soon after they put out their defining FABRICLIVE 44 album with us, Brewer had moved to Berlin to start producing hazy techno as Shifted. At the same time in London, George Levings was also starting to dabble in 4/4 as Endian.
It’s been a decade since their seminal LP dropped, and Brewer is still producing techno under his Shifted guise in Berlin. Levings, meanwhile, has also recently vacated London for the German capital. But rather than carry on making techno, he’s begun to pick up where Commix left off. With a recent EP on Metalheadz and a string of club appearances, he’s developed a newfound interest for the scene in which he first cut his teeth.
Levings was in a reflective mood when we Skyped him on a Thursday afternoon at the start of this month. As we spoke about his recent move to Berlin and the new album he’s recording, he revealed how exactly the city has changed his approach to music, and the main reasons behind his return to the scene.
“I’ve always kept my ear on the scene, and I just felt recently it was a good time to come and do some new music,” he says. “And I had some new ideas, so it seemed like the right time. I never intended to retire from drum & bass entirely, it’s just I needed a solid break to do some other things in my life.”
While it seemed sudden at the time, the pair’s departure from drum & bass shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After Call to Mind had been called a masterpiece from every corner, the lengthy recording process had left the pair feeling creatively drained in the years that followed. Where they’d been known for making emotive and often experimental music at the deeper end of the D&B spectrum, finding inspiration after the release of their album had become a challenge.
Elsewhere in the scene, the music was also suffering. Like when acid house first hit the mainstream in the mid-90s, by now interests had changed for many in the industry. Having already made their name in underground clubs, some of the genre’s key players were instead selling out arenas by using a sound not far off America’s EDM movement.
Many of Commix’s peers started pursuing new avenues as things changed – Instra:mental famously went separate ways to start making techno as Boddika and Jon Convex, meanwhile Marcus Intalex and dBridge went on to put out house and techno records on Craig Richards’ label. More recently, Calibre has also put out an LP on the coveted imprint.
Having had some time to reflect on the years since Commix, Levings has been using his admiration of the earlier generations of drum & bass artists as a source of inspiration. “The older drum & bass, it was people just pushing new boundaries,” he says. “And I think those boundaries are still there. You can keep pushing. It’s not like the music has run out of new ideas. For a while I thought it had, but then you hear new directions and it’s interesting and it makes you realise that music doesn’t run out of ideas. It’s an infinite thing, and can always be rethought, reverse engineered.”
“I really think D&B has become more diverse, and I hope it will do increasingly.”
This burst of ideas has been helped at least partly by his move to Berlin. Maybe unsurprisingly, he’s become familiar with the city’s techno scene – two days before we spoke, he’d been at Berghain’s extended New Years’ party, while he’s also adept in conversation on artists like Donato Dozzy and Andy Stott.
But beyond the techno sphere, for some years the city has also been seeing something of a drum & bass renaissance: you can often find artists from Felix K’s experimental Hidden Hawaii label playing at Berghain, meanwhile Hard Wax regularly stocks some of the genre’s best new releases.
It’s this strength and variety within the scene that’s helped give Levings new ideas. “I really think it’s become more diverse, and I hope it will do increasingly,” he says. “I’m writing an album at the moment and I’m focussing on that far more than I am on pleasing the dance floor. I’d much rather write a record now that’s 100% original material, it’s different and sending what I do in a new and exciting direction rather than competing with the dance floor culture. And I think the dance floor needs that as well.”
Recording with Brewer, Commix’s music was almost entirely sample-based, but Levings has since teared apart and rebuilt his studio set-up to change the way he approaches music. This has meant picking up a range of drum machines and synthesizers, as well as working with other musicians. “I’m working with some percussionists that I met in Barcelona, a group of Afrojazz percussionists, and I’m working with a string arranger in London,” he explains. “I’m just trying to be a bit more of a producer so to speak, rather than just being an all-signing all dancing bedroom producer – I’m trying to outsource material and nurture stuff instead of just sampling everything.”
From the first use of Gregory S. Coleman’s Amen break, the importance of sampling in drum & bass hardly needs noting. Commix, though, have always had a longstanding affinity with hardware: they were heavily inspired by the 808 sounds of Detroit techno artists like Drexciya, and they also had Underground Resistance reworking one of their cuts for their ambitious Re: Call to Mind remix project.
“I want to write music that’s feathered with a drum & bass mentality, but ultimately I want to write music.”
By changing his studio set-up, avoiding self-imposed limitations like sampling and finding the perfect bass line for the dance floor has also given Levings more scope to alter his sound. “I want to write music that’s feathered with a drum & bass mentality, but ultimately I want to write music.” he continues. “Something that can cross over and have credibility across the board. In electronic and music in general really. I want it to be more soundtracky, more cinematic. More experimental with distortions and more boundary pushing.”
This diverse outlook on electronic music across the board has also affected his DJing. It might not seem like the first port of call for a drum & bass artist, but Berlin’s party offerings, where house and techno DJs will regularly mix music from different eras in the same set, have helped open his eyes to a different way of mixing records. “I’m trying to adopt a policy of breathing life into old records that should not be forgotten,” he explains. “Just because they’re engineered slightly differently, or because they don’t sound as amazing as the new Skeptical 12” doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be played.”
For a scene that’s so often plagued with looking back at the past through rose tinted glasses, it’s an interesting paradox: a DJ who was feeling uninspired by the music coming back to play his older records again. But rather than going for the overtired ‘Classics set’ mentality every time he plays, he’s more interested in the concept of nostalgia, and how exactly this affects our response to what we hear. “There’s an ambience or atmosphere that I’m trying to create. I’m very interested in the social side of music and how we as humans interact with music. I came to a realisation recently that everyone has a golden era in their lives musically. A lot of people say to me that music was better in the 80s or 90s, but I realised that that isn’t the case. Music is always good.” he continues.
“It’s almost like there’s a 20-year gap – kids that are listening to new stuff now, in 20 years they’ll look back at 2016 as a magical time. So if I write an album now that’s new and will challenge people, once it’s sat there for 10 years, maybe people will look back on it differently. And hopefully that will challenge what people think of Commix.”