The electronic music provocateur follows his killer debut album Sport with a mix of Belgian new beat, no wave, minimal techno and post-punk
Oscar Powell has been a fixture of London’s underground and experimental music scenes for the past five years or so, hosting the Melon Magic show on NTS Radio and releasing influential 12” records by himself and other like-minded artists on his Diagonal Records label. His music has been likened to noise, industrial techno, EBM and post-punk, built from spliced-together drum machine, synth and vocal samples. It’s not exactly easy listening, which made it all the more surprising when he signed to XL Recordings last year, sitting alongside artists like Adele and Sigur Rós on their roster. Besides releasing his killer debut album Sport last month, XL also afforded Powell the resources to carry out a playful and promotional campaign that involved billboards, emails with Steve Albini, sports gear and watermelons. Though it could be mistaken for gimmicky, the campaign showed that Powell’s music had personality: while a lot of electronic albums can come across as humourless or academic, Sport fizzes with energy. It’s also provocative: “Skype” is a recording of a conversation with Chicago DJ Traxx criticising the big business of DJing, while “Frankie” features HTRK’s Jonnine Standish deadpan drawl delivering the sloganeering line “accelerate culture”.
Powell’s Dazed Mix comes ahead of a handful of US dates including a New York show on December 10, and has been given the very Powell-sounding title Finally Some Spontaneity [OB-6 Hybrid Mix]. According to Powell, the mix was made pretty off-the-cuff, so there’s no tracklist – but it contains Belgian new beat, no wave, minimal techno and post-punk, all mixed together with an OB-6 synthesiser. Listen below, and read on for a recent chat with Powell at a west London pub to talk about what makes him tick.
Why do you make music?
Powell: I think the reasons I do it now are probably different to why I started. Making this album has been such a difficult, tormented process for me to go through, I wonder if I ever liked it.
In what sense?
Powell: You make something and you love it, then you have to go through five or six months preparing it, talking to people about it, questioning it – you start to question the reason that you make music in the first place. It’s only recently that I’ve made myself start enjoying that process. It’s really hard to articulate. Right now, (making music has) just become fundamental to who I’ve become as a person. I don’t feel like I’m me if I’m not making something that excites me. This is my life now, it’s not just a job. My mental wellbeing hinges on whether or not I make good music. I do it to stay sane.
I read an interview recently where you said you were ‘against’ a lot of things in music. But what are you for?
Powell: I feel against a lot of things, sure. I think I’m deeply cynical and frustrated about a lot of things – for instance, frustrated by a lot of music that passes through the net and things that get celebrated as innovative and original when they’re really not. I think it’s important to believe you’re offering some sort of alternative to something. I totally, 100 per cent believe in anything that has its own identity and set of values – originality, progressive art, people that are trying to be themselves and are expressing it in a beautiful way. I believe in people trying to do new things – I can’t believe the resistance you encounter when you (try to do that). So many brilliant artists deserve more credit than they get, so many influences on me were hardly known outside of their immediate circles.
I’ve heard people describe you as ‘opinionated’ before. What do you think they mean when they say that?
Powell: I think I’ve only ever spoken my mind, and I think as long as you speak truthfully and honestly about what you really believe, you can never really have any regrets about saying anything. You have opinions about things and ways of justifying them as you believe these things for a reason. I’d rather read an honest and transparent opinion from someone than the same old shit recycled, answers for the sake of answers.
“My mental wellbeing hinges on whether or not I make good music. I do it to stay sane” – Powell
Speaking honestly, how much money are XL likely to lose on this record?
Powell: First of all, they’re not going to give an artist like me a massive advance. Secondly, XL as a record label isn’t necessarily defined by financial success – it believes in making a cultural impact with musicians they really believe in. But they’re probably going to lose about £100,000 (laughs). There are models built into this contract – they take a cut of my performances, for example – but the idea is that it’s a ten-year plan, not that I change the world with one record.
What does ‘accelerate culture’ mean to you as a lyric?
Powell: To be perfectly honest, I never engaged with the meaning of the lyrics that much. I like the idea of counterculture, things existing against the norms that culture has for you – and ‘accelerating culture’ makes me think of progress – forwards, looking towards the future, you know? That’s why I think I was attracted to that vocal when she (HTRK’s Jonnine Standish) sent it to me. But the way I listen to vocals, I never really engage with lyrics that much. It’s always rhythmic, or an overall feeling that I get from the words, or a sound, or the way it’s delivered rather than the actual contents. Very often I’m using vocals and I don’t even know what they’re saying.
Do you feel any responsibility over the lyrics of a song, given it’s being put out under your name?
Powell: I’ve never really thought about it like that, but it’s interesting. I think you have to be responsible as an artist for the things you put out in the world. I learned that in my first ever Powell gig at Berghain. I played this new beat track (that sampled Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill). That was the first time I learned that you do have to take responsibility for your work as an artist – you do need to be aware of the things you’re putting out so you don’t look stupid when people come and talk to you about it.
How political do you consider your music to be?
Powell: It depends on how you define politics. In terms of my music being a vehicle for me to express the political – in the popular sense of ‘the political’ – I don’t think it is at all. If it’s political in the sense of standing for something, or as an alternative to something, or for progress, then I think it is political. I want my music to change the way people listen to things.
Is dance music boring?
Powell: Fundamentally, I adore dance music. I grew up listening to it. It’s not boring, because millions of people find it brilliant and they spend money every single week going to parties. And I make a form of dance music! But I think some of the cliches (around dance music) create a lot of boring aspects today, which I think people need to be careful of. I think electronic music is slowly losing its energy, the idea of it being new and terrifying and weird. What helps is knowing that there’s an alternative out there – all my friends, all the communities I have around me. In the last five years (I’ve been playing at) weird festivals all over the world where the line-ups are amazingly diverse, with people from all walks of life given a platform to play new and interesting things. There’s something surprising every time. I love being surprised, I love the unpredictability of music. Anything is possible.
Would you rather go to Ibiza or Berghain?
Powell: Ibiza, definitely, because I go to Berghain all the time to play. In Ibiza, you can go and sit in the sun, go to the beach, get high by the pool and then go out and listen to half-decent music.
Which do you think is the more authentic experience?
Powell: I wouldn’t say that one was more authentic than the other. There’s different types of audiences for different types of music. Berghain is for people who spend their whole lives consuming this type of music and believe in a particular ideology. Ibiza is no less authentic just because it attracts millions of dance music-loving people who just want to have a good time. I’d have a massive fucking smashup in Ibiza for the weekend, it’d be great.
“I think electronic music is slowly losing its energy, the idea of it being new and terrifying and weird” – Powell
Given the conversation that you and Traxx are having on the track ‘Skype’, do you think that DJing is overrated?
Powell: I don’t think DJing is overrated because I think it’s an amazing thing. Playing records is fucking beautiful. But everyone’s a fucking DJ these days. I always like when people treat DJing as an artistic identity, an expression of themselves. They don’t play the same way as everyone else. That conversation with Melvin (Oliphant III, aka Traxx) conversation is just that he’s an amazingly impassioned, crazy man, and liked using some (of his) vocals. It’s ridiculous how some people have made a living by playing other people’s records, and they’re not even very good at playing other people’s records.
What do you think of the mythology of DJing?
Powell: When I was growing up I had idols who were DJs, because they brought something different to the table from everyone else. Sometimes worshipping the DJ is ridiculous – the older members of the community say that, in the old days, people were dancing in a room and no one even knew where the DJ was – but times change, and the role of the DJ in society has grown, so inevitably there is going to be some degree of worship. I tend to play live these days so it’s a different experience, it’s more presenting what you do rather than playing other people’s records. Sometimes it’s liberating to go back to DJing and not having to play your own music – you can just go wherever you want, it’s an amazing feeling.
Powell plays in Brooklyn, NYC (venue TBA) with Silent Servant on December 10