In Depth
Mark System Dissects His Debut Album, Final Approach

Yesterday we published a specially commissioned mix from Mark System ahead of his Final Approach LP's album launch party - which is happening in Room Two this Friday (6th March). We presented it readily, advertising it as a prelude to this very interview, but one of the things we wrote in that introduction really stood out, even to us. We’d noted how he'd successfully "made one of the most accessible underground drum & bass albums in recent memory" and honestly, since then we've been trying to assess and analyse that particular sound-bite. But more as a sentiment.

In between vigorously listening to the record and alternating it with the mix he made us as an accompaniment we’ve been trying to work out the best way to communicate his album’s real successes. And although (no offense to System) what he’s done on Final Approach isn’t so much a vivid re-embroidering of the entire Bayeux tapestry of drum & bass, it has cemented a number of things, most notably his lightness of touch as a producer and his utter commitment to the scene. It’s obvious from listening to tracks like ‘So Soon’ that System’s absolutely in love with the art form. The way he thinks about the functionality of his music from a DJ’s perspective, the way he balances the melody, incorporates the funk and then lets his drums thunder is purpose built for fans of drum & bass. But his constructions also feel so open that it’s not all about the relentless drive of his rhythms and the depths of his bassline. There’s an excess of space in there and it’s proven to be a very welcome thing.

More simply put, the lad’s made a record that sparkles and ahead of the launch party we caught up with him to discuss the project at length…

First up, Final Approach - that seems like a pretty oblique title for a debut album, no? Is it a reference to the final stretch of the process, like getting past that last hurdle? Is it fair to assume that this has been something you’ve been working on for a long time then? How have you found the process?

Yes, I love the oxymoron of a debut album having 'final' printed on its cover. It throws you off a little doesn't it? The title nods to my creative process and how my work-flow comes to life in the last moments. In fact, some of the tracks started out as drafts that I'd written over the last five or six years and then developed recently. I had no recollection of writing some of those sketches which was enjoyable because at times, it felt as though I was collaborating with myself. Having written a lot of the ideas on an old broken PC though, several of the arrangement files have been corrupted including that of the title track. They're lost forever. Some tracks never made it to the final cut because the files corrupted during production. Thinking back, it was the electronic composer's equivalent to a fire in a painter's studio. The night before mastering, my computer was systematically corrupting files as I tried to open them. I guess it's one way of stopping a perfectionist in his tracks. You can't get more final than that can you?
“..when you're made to feel 100%, you give 100%.”

What does the album mean to you, in personal terms? Does it feel like a massive accomplishment? I mean, it should. Working with Exit in the first place would be enough for a lot of dudes but I’m trying to get more at what it means to you to be putting out an 11 tracker on there? How does that feel?

If you're not careful, it can feel like you're holding the weight of the drum & bass scene on your shoulders at times. There's a lot of responsibility that comes with writing an album for Exit. I owe it to my contemporaries not to slip at any point. Plenty of people would love this opportunity and I'm all too aware of that. On the other hand, I tend to focus on the job which is how I stay calm under crisis. If I were to step back and look at the bigger picture for too long I'd be at risk of freezing up. dBridge likes to give you every impression that you're the musical elite, the absolute best and that he really couldn't do it without you which of course isn't true at all. But there's a huge sense of self pride that comes from that. It's motivational and when you're made to feel 100%, you give 100%. I've been fortunate in my career to work with very talented people and superb record companies because it keeps me on my toes. I need that kick-up-the-arse sometimes.

What made you want to write an album in the first place? Did you feel like there was more to say than you could on an EP? What can people expect from the music do you think? What does it say about you do you think? Do you think your experience as an MC and producer and DJ gives you a rounder vision of the music? Do you think about what you write in those sorts of terms, like writing one with your DJ hat on and keeping in mind space for an MC or whatever…?

I imagine that everyone who's written music since they were a child share my life-long desire to write an album. Several years ago, I only wanted to write albums. The challenge of producing singles wasn't enough of an incentive for me. Exit have told me there's a home for a long player with them for a number of years. One night, over a few beers and a splash of rum, dBridge convinced me that we should stop talking and make it happen. I had to get my head down. We went through around 150 sketches that I'd written and chopped the stack down to around 50 which we then broke up into the final handful.

I'm always careful not to talk too much about how I perceive my own music because I don't want to disturb other people's personal attachments to it. I would say it's a "new beginnings” and “spring-like" feeling album. Uplifting and exciting. Empowering. But music seems to mutate with time. I expect I'll constantly develop and associate different feelings with the LP throughout the future. With this debut, I didn't want to flex my producer muscles because I think that's selfish. I wanted this to be an album of music that everyone would enjoy dancing to and listening to. I love writing music that makes DJs look good and this is music for the people, for the scene. Have a good time. It's music from me to you.
“I really am a product of this music.”

It’s something of a unique prospect for a producer to have one foot in a camp like Exit and the other in a crew like Digital Soundboy. Obviously they’re different sides of the same d&b coin, but can you feel out a thread that runs between them perhaps, aside from the obvious ‘it all came from the same place initially’ sort of thinking? I guess perhaps it’s more the reputations of each that I’m thinking in terms of, are the mechanics of the label’s A&Ring incredibly different or are you just ‘making tunes’ that you like regardless? Because I think that’s always something that resonates and I know dBridge has talked about just asking people he likes to work on projects and then helping present their vision using Exit as the vehicle….

For someone like me who gets most of life's joy from writing music, it's great to have an open door for different styles that I come up with but even greater to know that my music will be treated responsibly.
Unless you step behind the scenes, you might not realise it but Digital Soundboy and Exit are both driven by an identical energy. They care deeply about their responsibility as part of the electronic music scene. As an artist, that's appealing. I always need to know that I'm working with people who care about the bigger picture and not just feeding a narcissistic desire to release music.

The A&R approach of both labels is to be very open minded. DSB are about to remind us of that with Breakage's album and I think Exit are making a statement with my LP too. Shy FX and dBridge both get a kick out of contrast within their label catalogues and all you have to do is watch them DJ for it all to make sense. Their sets can go anywhere and that's exciting. I work with people who excite me.

What’s next for you after this album’s out?

I find that if I put time limits and end points on life, I get more done. I'd like to write d&b for another 12 months and take stock after that. Exit and I have, of course, discussed ideas for our next project together which we'll develop in the summer. I'd also like to take on some challenging remixes, y’know, really create some new fusion between drum & bass and other music genres. It's the heart of jungle music and it's in my heart as a producer.

I'm releasing a single with Warm Communications, there’s a remix for Metalheadz and I'm going to get in the studio with a couple of guys you know too. People tell me that my music can feel experiential so I'd like to work with a games developer or film director and see what comes up. I'm also developing a live setup that I can take to venues for a string of one-off performances. There's some considerations before I take it on the road because I love playing instruments and I don't want logistics to force a compromise.

I'll be DJing a lot this year. As long as you're prepared to stay with me and you've got enough trust and patience, there's a lot that I can do with a three hour DJ slot. I can play drum & bass from its early days to the future and make it flow as one. I really am a product of this music.

Friday 6th March

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