“If I put a free party on in Ellesmere Port, no one would come,” laughs Josh Leary aka Evian Christ as we drive through the picturesque country roads that break up the hard edges of the industrial Wirral town like wildflowers in rubble. It’s a drizzly afternoon, but Leary’s sparkly-eyed self-deprecation saves it from feeling dank. The 24-year-old might not be famous in his hometown, but his swift journey from kindergarten teacher to Kanye producer is the stuff tabloid dreams are made of.
Scratch the surface of his life, though, and half a dozen more intriguing juxtapositions present themselves. For starters, the fact that Leary’s making music at all is “accidental”, he says when we settle into a booth of a chain steakhouse in an entertainment complex in the town centre. He had dabbled with music on and off for a couple of years, using a Roland keyboard borrowed from his dad that he still uses today. In December 2011, when he had some time off from his final year of teacher training, Leary spent his holidays messing around with some Tyga samples, and uploaded a bunch of tracks to YouTube. By the first week of January 2012 you couldn’t move for blog posts about the mysterious Evian Christ. Picked up by Tri Angle Records in the blink of an eye – “the first person I spoke to that I could really talk to about rap music and my favourite track on an old Clipse mixtape was Robin (Carolan of Tri Angle)” – the tracks were hastily assembled into a free mixtape called Kings and Them. By the summer he was touring the US in support of Purity Ring, and six months later he found himself in a studio for the first time ever. Not just any old studio, but Kanye’s in Paris.
Hats off to Ye. Alongside Rick Rubin and Daft Punk, the rap mogul assembled a cast of cutting-edge yet largely “unproven” producers that included Hudson Mohawke, Arca and Gesaffelstein to work on his album Yeezus. It paid off: it was a No.1 album in over 30 countries, and a satisfying reminder that “you can still sell records and make really crazy music.” Although, when it came to it, Leary made “I’m In It” – his contribution to the record – on home turf. “In my head I can’t process that I produced a song on that record,” he says. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. I saw him live in New York recently and I was like, ‘This is so funny!’ He performed the song to 15,000 people – huge system, huge production – and the first thing I thought was, ‘I made this in my garage in Ellesmere Port.’”
“If you can shake up the status quo, that’s how new progressive forms of music come out.
You can’t keep flogging the same thing forever. You need to shake things up to modernise”
It was especially impressive considering that he grew up with no ingrained knowledge of hip hop. Instead, “Scouse house” and trance soundtracked his early years – his stepdad was a local trance DJ. He acknowledges the leap. “In New York you grow up on hip hop, and in London, with my generation, grime was a community cultural thing. Whereas here it’s devoid of culture. I was experiencing all of these things completely second-hand.” His rap awakening began when he heard Wu-Tang’s “Gravel Pit” on the radio. “Ghostface’s verse was nuts. I remember thinking, ‘What is this? I need to find out more about this.’” He would watch MTV Base religiously, heading to HMV to buy a new hip hop album if he heard a song he liked. He would listen at home or on his Walkman: “It was just my own little world. No one else was into rap music here.” Over the years, with a bit of help from Myspace, he stumbled into a kind of music that was “a weird electronic take on the stuff I already listened to.” He credits Werkdiscs/Ninja Tune producer Lukid for providing invaluable early advice. “I’d make shitty music and send it to him and he’d be really positive about it. That was really cool. ”
While musically he spent his time scanning other horizons, the complex nature of Ellesmere Port has crept into his music in other ways. “It’s really serene and also really ugly at the same time,” Leary says of a favourite view from a hill that overlooks the industrial town. “It’s kind of perfect for what my music is. The ambient stuff and really ugly things around it.” Oil, paint and car manufacturers – the culprits for the ugliness – have long been the biggest employers in the area, but they’re all on their way out. His parent’s generation may have worked at Shell, but it’s chains like Pizza Hut and Costa that are providing jobs for his old schoolmates. “This town is just grey buildings. But I’m fine with it, because it was never anything before that. This was never a beautiful town. Without this” – he motions to the entertainment complex around us – “it’s just flat broke. It looks ugly, but who cares? If this suddenly disappeared almost everyone I know would be unemployed.”
In a roundabout sort of way, Leary’s new EP, Waterfall, could be his ode to Ellesmere Port. Rusty razorblade synths rain down on blunt, sluggish drums as industrial textures are chopped and structured as club-ready beats. Then, like a break in the heavy clouds that hang over the northern town, there are moments of sky-blue serenity: a classical piano refrain or an ambient melody. It’s both tougher and more tender than his previous work: punishment and salvation caught up in a dance.
Part of the reason he’s evolved towards more abrasive territory is his growing experience of live electronic music from an audience perspective. “The big one for me was going to see Pete Swanson at Birthdays (in Dalston). I’d just come off tour with Purity Ring where I had been playing the older, more ambient stuff. I was like, ‘This is cool but does it make sense?’ Electronic music live is a really weird one. If you can’t dance to it then it occupies this really weird space where you have to have crazy visuals or something. People don’t really know what to do and don’t know what to look at. Going to that Pete Swanson show, it was like a rave. It was more fun. I just wanted a bit of that.”
An acute awareness of dynamics also influenced his approach. “Basically, what’s happened over the past ten years, and it’s been prevalent in pop music forever, is that songs don’t really change volume as they go along. The way mastering works is that they make the quiet parts of the song louder and they make the loud parts match it. So if you’re listening to something on your headphones you’ll never hear background noise. It’s completely immersive. Cinema scores have super quiet parts – like, literally quiet in terms of the output level of the volume – and super loud parts. You don’t get that on pop recordings. And you can’t, because it’s a culture thing. So what I try and do is artificially create that dynamism, create that movement. The ambient bits sound quiet but they’re not really.”
Altering trajectories is something that Leary was familiar with long before he got into music. His life to date has been a series of left-turns into new territories, often surprising no one more than himself. At school, he was “one of those kids who put zero effort in and did alright.” It was an attitude that saw him sail through his GCSEs, but when it came to A-levels he “kind of flopped” – except in English, in which he was the only person in the northwest of England to get 100 per cent that year. Studying linguistics at Manchester University was a shoe-in, but he didn’t enjoy it. “I’d probably find it interesting now. I don’t know if I was too young at the time but I didn’t really give a shit.”
Instead he found solace in online poker, which was emerging at the time. “I’d play six or seven hours a day doing five or six games at once, across two screens. I’d try to do two hours of reviewing: I had a database software that tracked every hand played, profit, loss, whether you made good decisions, bad decisions.” He saw little excitement in gambling itself. It was the deep analysis that he found absorbing. “I was never good at maths but having a practical application for statistics was super fun to me. I learned so much about it. There are so many concepts in it that are relatable to life.”
One of which is playing a percentages game, something that Leary put into practice when he worked on Yeezus. “I probably made four albums worth of beats for that record. I sent through 40, 50 beats. My approach was, I’m just going to keep sending as many different ideas as I can and hopefully one of them will get used. I ended up getting even luckier than that: I got my own fucking track on there. I just wanted to give them as much to work with as possible. If you have a ton of my shit, more than anyone else’s, then the percentages are going to be in my favour. I worked crazy hard in the lead-up to that record. It’s funny because ‘I’m In It’ was the second beat I made.”
Having achieved so much so young, you could forgive Leary for a touch of braggadocio, but instead he balances sure-footed confidence with determined pragmatism. He says he can see himself teaching in the future, imagining that his music career will last ten years if he’s lucky. Teaching is a no-brainer: not only does teaching run in the family (“At the primary school I went to, my grandad was the head and my nan was one of the teachers. My mum originally trained to be a teacher. My auntie’s a teaching assistant”), but he clearly loves it. As he exclaims, “How many jobs do you know where you’re in a room with 30 people and they all want to be there? You don’t get that unless you’re super lucky – or teaching.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t have big ideas as to where he wants to take his music. With Waterfall, he feels like he’s finally set up a direction and identity for himself with his abrasive/ambient exploration: “I just feel like if I keep stretching that until it snaps, that’s probably when I’ve got an album. I feel like the EP is still just touching the surface of what that could be. Like, super brutal and super beautiful at the same time.”
“I probably made four albums worth of beats for Yeezus. It’s funny because ‘I’m In It’, which Kanye used, was the second beat I made.”
Beyond his own music, he sees a wider responsibility with working at a mainstream level: “If you can shake up whatever the status quo is, that’s how new progressive forms of music come out. Look at Timbaland and The Neptunes. That music was so fucking weird but it worked as pop music. Me and HudMo and everyone that makes electronic music that closely follows a lineage of rap and R&B exists because of those guys. You need figures like that in popular music to push all forms of music forwards.”
Leary draws a parallel with the evolution of his hometown: “It’s super important for Ellesmere Port to modernise because the old industries are dying industries. That’s kind of how I feel about music too, about pop music. You can’t keep flogging the same thing forever. You need producers and artists who are going to be given a chance to shake things up a little bit. I guess that’s kind of how I see my role in that world, if I’m given the opportunity to do those things. You need to shake things up to modernise sometimes but it’s in everyone’s benefit when it pays off.” At the risk of sounding a little Disney, for a 13-year-old kid in a rundown town, Evian Christ could be a gateway to a whole new world.
Waterfall is out now on Tri Angle Records. This interview was taken from the Spring 2014 issue of Dazed