Currently riding the success of his latest drop for Shogun Audio, Detroit, Tom Green aka Rockwell’s made a huge impact on us since he first dropped his clutch of first releases four years ago. Soon becoming an illustrious producer across the drum & bass scene, collaborating with the likes of Phace and Alix Perez and securing a much lauded slot on BBC Radio 1's In New DJs We Trust show along the way, Rockwell’s surprisingly modest about his rise through the ranks.
Bearing quite an open-minded approach, he’s actively steered away from the shifts in musical trends with him focusing on his own fundamental persuasions. Speaking with Green, it’s clear that drum and bass will always be a main component in what he does, but as he says himself: "objectivity is key" and his ability to draw from a radius of different genres is not only evidently shaping his music but for him, it’s also what ties it all together. Catching him whilst he prepares to buckle down and work on his new album, we had a quick chat about working with BBC Radio 1 and his forthcoming album, just ahead of his set this in Room Two this Friday night.
Hi Tom, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. How are you today?
Not bad, just trying to fit some studio time in around the world cup ...
What have you been up to over the past few months?
Lots of gigging and studio to be honest, and little else. Apart from watching Liverpool narrowly miss out on the Premier League. Until my album is done I have a self imposed fun lockdown so I can concentrate on getting it done.
How has everything gone with your release ‘Detroit’? You must be pretty happy with the outcome?
I was very happy with the release. It got a lot of love from very disparate sections of dance music which is always satisfying as it reflects the ethos that I have regarding production and DJing - a good tune is a good tune regardless of genre, so it was satisfying to get people like Machinedrum playing it. People who you wouldn't necessarily think of as playing drum and bass. With every release, neither me or anyone at the label has any preconceptions of how it's going to do or how it's going to be received, so it's always a nice surprise when things all click into place. Trying to do a dance floor take on drum and bass, but by my own rules often isn't the easiest route to take, but to be honest I couldn't do it any other way.
So you’re playing at FABRICLIVE in couple weeks. You’re first set here was all the way back in 2009 alongside Fresh, Commix and Sabre. How do you think you’ve changed as a DJ since then and what does playing at fabric mean to you?
I think since I first played at fabric I've become a lot more accomplished as a DJ simply by playing a really wide range of shows, which has been facilitated by the variety of music I've released. Sometimes I might be playing at Renegade Hardware and a different set is required, for example than if I was the only 'drum and bass' act on a bill in Europe. Also, making the transition into playing larger festival and commercial shows has been a very steep learning curve as a set that works for 300 heads in a small club isn't instantly transferable into a massive tent. I'm not ashamed to say that sometimes I've learned this the hard way!
I think if you play the same type of show every weekend you're not going to improve, and I'm happy that every weekend is different so it challenges me as a DJ. It's always an honour to step up at fabric and play the music that I love and have spent many hours creating, and it's something I never take for granted as I always get the butterflies in the stomach when the DJ before me is putting on his last tune.
You’re playing alongside quite a different set of artists this time around. Do you think that says a lot about the clubbing circuit now in terms of this kind of cross-pollination of music, specifically in bass-orientated genres? How would you say it’s different to when you first began playing out in London?
I think the way lineups have evolved is quite interesting. As you mentioned before, its becoming less and less likely as time goes on that you would see someone like Fresh on the bill with someone like Sabre or Commix - even though in essence they all play drum & bass. But in 2014 you wouldn't bat an eyelid seeing Sabre or Commix on a lineup with Youngsta who plays a completely different genre of music. I think people are becoming more open to different styles and to be honest, a lot of the younger crowds I've played to recently have been the most open minded with regards to what they want to hear. They're not of the mindset: "this is a **insert genre** club and you're not playing **insert genre**, how awfully dare you" - they are just there for a good time. It depends where you are though, and as a DJ you have to gauge what you can get away with playing.
We always refer to how the music scene always seem to shift, especially in places like London. Is this something that has ever affected you? It's a natural thing that music tastes, especially in the mainstream, often swing like a pendulum from one extreme to another. You can see this from the fact that you turn on the TV and there are no aggressive dubstep compilation adverts anymore, but loads of deep house adverts with loads of ladies on them. As someone who never really dabbled in either to any great extent it hasn't really affected me that much. Sometimes you do get the impression that right now in the UK, especially outside of London, its a safer bet for promoters to book certain house DJs than it is to do a bass music lineup. With regards specifically to drum & bass in London though, I think its a constant. Its almost the original incarnation of bass music and I think it will always be there, even though its been apparently dead for years.
When you’re not producing or DJing, where are your favourite places to chill, buy records and listen to music?
Generation Records is the best record shop I've ever been to but I'm glad it's in New York as if it was round the corner from my house I'd be broke. It specializes in hardcore and I bought a great marbled red repress of the Cro Mags album Age of Quarrel which sounds unbelievable. London-wise, if I'm ever passing Sister Ray ill have a little flick though the punk section. Same with Flashback on Essex Road, before having a pint in the Queens Head. Apparently its now the go to place for d&b producers - Etherwood was in there the other day. You heard it here first.
Iv'e said it before but I like giving my ears a rest when I'm not in the studio and I like things that sound like they were recorded in a dustbin in one take.
The past year or so has seen the establishment of your BBC Radio 1 - In New DJs We Trust slot and your BBC Radio 1 Residency show. How did this come about and what are your main aims with the broadcasts?
Any DJs main love is talking rubbish and being opinionated about music, and I'm no different - you've probably guessed that already from reading this interview. I really enjoy doing radio and regularly did the Shogun shift on Rinse and especially Ministry whenever it was available. I heard that Radio 1 were demoing a lot of people for In New DJs We Trust, and to be honest I just got my management to ask if I could come in and demo for it. In between me demoing for it and getting a show on Radio 1 I was offered other potential shows on other stations, but I had my heart set on Radio 1, as it was the station that introduced me to drum and bass through the Fabio and Grooverider shows. It was a massive thing for me personally to be asked to present the music I love in a great slot on national radio and I think in a way it was the first time that a different take on drum and bass had been recognised by Radio 1m and integrated into a program alongside other genres of dance music.
I think for years drum and bass had been segregated into its two hour slot in the early hours of the weekend away from the rest of the dance programming, which is mostly dedicated to house music. I really liked the way the producers over there were keen to get me to select tracks to play on Skream, BTraits, Alice Levine and Phil Taggarts' show and also to be the only drum and bass representative on the Radio 1 live afterparty, so that I showcase the kind of sounds I am into to an audience that wouldn't be aware of me, or even a alternative take on drum and bass. I can remember selecting a Sam Binga track on Btraits show which she then continued to play on her show as she loved it so much, so for me this is a really positive thing. I think any chance that anyone gets to push the music onto new territories can only be a good thing whether its Netsky, Pendulum, Chase and Status or dBridge & Instra:mental. Although my slot on the residency has ended to you can still find me every now and again deputizing for Friction and Btraits. Hopefully there will be more things in the pipeline for me at Radio 1 so fingers crossed on that front!
Who has really stood out for you since you started the show?
Loads of familiar names and also some new ones: Stray, Alix Perez, I Am Legion, Coleco, Machinedrum, Calculon, Sinistarr, Sam Binga, House of Black Lanterns, Rustie, Chimpo, Darkhouse Fam, Moodygood, Ta$o, Joe Ford, Deft, Dimension, LSB ... and probably loads of people I've forgotten. If any of you lot are reading, send me some bloody music! I have to also give a shout to the Par Excellence crew who came though with such an amazing takeover when they did the guest mix ... they dug me out of a hole and absolutely smashed it!
In terms of your releases then, there are rumours you’re currently working on a new album. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
There's not much to say to be honest, because its quite boring to talk about! I am working on my debut album which mainly consists of me sitting in a room on my own not trying to get distracted by the World Cup. I'm looking to get it done as soon as possible, but as there is only one of me and I work at quite a pedestrian pace which is proving to be quite difficult. There will be minimal collaborations (as in low in number, not as in style) as it's my album. Plus I don't really like working with people that much unless I'm close to them on a personal level. Unless Glen Danzig wants to do a vocal? But I've heard he's an arse...
How do you think this will compare to your previous records?
It will reference themes that I've maybe explored before, but I'm looking to do something a lot more musical. I'm just going to write what I want, regardless of style/bpm. At the moment I'm into using sounds that sound like real instruments, but they aren't. Almost like there is a natural texture in there somewhere but it doesn't relate to any recognisable instrument. That probably doesn't make much sense...?
Well, do you have a set idea of what you want to achieve with it or is it more about working off your natural flow?
I'm just going to write the record that I want, as I usually do. I think with an album you're not trying to write twelve big tunes to shoehorn into a big DJs set, its more a personal reflection of your tastes and influences and what excites you in the studio. Achievement-wise, finishing it is the main aim at the moment.
I read that you tend to draw a lot of influence outside of d&b. Who/what has influenced you since the very beginning and where are you taking inspiration from now?
I was actually thinking about this yesterday. Ive been listening to lots of thrash and hardcore over the last year and subconsciously I've made a lot of my tunes quite fast and hectic, especially '1_2_3_4'. Arrangement-wise it was an exercise to build and release, maybe a combination of the ideas in 'Noir' where the bass doesn't 'drop' when the tune 'drops' and the textures and palette of 'Detroit'. It's never the intention to write 'a smasher' but I do quite like writing stuff for the dancefloor as when I was first getting stuff signed I didn't have the skills to execute it properly. Music wise, I rotate and obsess over different genres. Sometimes I'll listen to hip hop all week then not again for another 3 months as I'm listening to Rod Lee mixes religiously. It's not an easy thing to have but objectivity is very important if you are a producer. I'm fascinated by music that provokes a reaction and makes you ask questions. But on the flip side of this, I can also understand that for the majority of people, this is the opposite of what they want from music.
I would probably say 'Underpass', 'Full Circle', 'Say Nothin' remix', 'Detroit' and 'IneedU' are probably the most well known instances and good markers for the way my music has evolved. I think when I first started releasing records, what I could write was very limited by my proficiency in the studio. As time goes on I think it's opened doors to try a range of different things. The thread that ties it all together is my taste and wide range of influences, as disjointed as they are. I think if over a period of five years I was still writing things that sounded like 'Aria' and 'Underpass' I would lose the passion for what I do. For me, constantly being in the studio and challenging yourself and trying new things is what keeps me interested and motivated.
Finally, what else is in store for you over the rest of the year? Any releases in the pipeline you’d like to speak about?
I've got a huge tour coming up in Australia, New Zealand and Asia and I haven't been out there for a while, so that's exciting. I've got some great summer gigs including playing on that massive robotic spider thingy that shoots fire (Arcadia). And also in July, Shogun Audio are putting out a new 12" containing the tracks 'IneedU' and '1_2_3_4'. Both are very different and have been getting some great feedback from people I love. But before all that I'm playing at fabric on the 4th of July with Dub Phizix and loads of other people and I'm looking forward to it as ever!