He's gone from underground hero to pushing Kanye and Drake into new sonic stratospheres – meet the pop maximalist as he prepares to change the game again
Taken from the spring/summer 2015 issue of Dazed:
Ross Birchard hasn’t slept. In the 24 hours before we meet, he’s had a “30-minute power nap”, having barely left the studio he’s been working in with Kanye West for the last five days. But despite his exhaustion and a slight case of the shakes, the Glaswegian producer better known as Hudson Mohawke is too endearing to give off anything like a difficult rockstar vibe. “I don’t know what fucking day it is,” he laughs drily, shovelling a handful of Smarties into his mouth.
The night before, Kanye made headlines for bringing out a cluster of influential London grime MCs, including Skepta, JME and Novelist, for a surprise show at Camden’s legendary venue KOKO. Straight afterwards, the rapper retreated back to Birchard’s private central London studio, where they spent the whole night recording. A longtime fan of Skepta, Birchard thinks it’s “fucking awesome” to see the gunfinger sound of his youth running headlong into the world of US superstardom; it’s also, at this point, sort of unsurprising. This is hardly the first time Kanye’s looked to grassroots UK scenes for inspiration: Birchard himself is now entering his third year as a producer for the rapper’s GOOD Music label, bringing the manic sheen of his production style, honed in Glaswegian raves and long hours spent abusing a PlayStation, to a global rap audience. The 29-year-old frequently has a front-row seat now when it comes to Kanye’s historymaking moments, like his performance of “All Day” at this year’s Brit Awards with some of London’s biggest grime talent. “I mean, I’m not going to be the one on stage with a flamethrower any time soon,” Birchard cracks. True: but he’s the one who stands close enough to feel the heat on his face.
Since the release of his debut album, Butter, on Warp in 2009, Birchard has come to embody the explosion in prominence of UK dance music, going from a guy in his bedroom emulating the beloved happy hardcore of his youth to a guy with Drake and Yeezus in his studio. As well as having one foot in A-list hip hop, he’s maintained a prolific solo career (his last release being 2014’s hyperactive Chimes EP) and launched the globe-trotting, trap-influenced side project TNGHT with Canadian producer Lunice.
Now, Birchard is turning his focus back to number one with his second full-length solo release, Lantern. Unlike TNGHT’s floor-fillers, which don’t have “the emotional impact I want to convey in my music,” Lantern is an album that swoops from ecstasy to fury via cinematic instrumentals, blasting pop hooks sung by the likes of Antony Hegarty, Miguel and Jhené Aiko, and even a ballad or two. No rappers, no predictable drops: this is a statement from an artist who doesn’t want to just be remembered as that guy whose set you were thrashing to when a stranger elbowed you in the face, or even the guy who pulls stunts like the amazing, 30-minute “The Rap Monument” he produced last year, featuring basically every hip hop artist in the US. “They’re not predictable club songs,” Birchard says of Lantern. “They’re club songs I don’t mind putting on a record, because I know I’ll want to listen to them in ten years. I don’t want people to listen to this record and be like, ‘What the fuck? You’ve got an orchestral song on it? Where’s the fucking 808s?’ I wanted to make a record you can listen to.”
It’s the right time for Birchard to get back in touch with his identity as a solo artist. Straddling the roles of hip hop producer and one half of TNGHT on top of his HudMo alias for the past halfdecade, Birchard has been practically living three lives. During the making of West’s 2013 album Yeezus, he would be in Hawaii recording Monday to Friday, before catching jets to Europe to play a couple of festivals each weekend. The high-velocity lifestyle even put him in intensive care at one point, when he had to be resuscitated after pushing himself too hard. “If you’re trying to pursue a solo career and be involved in something on the other side of the planet, it inevitably takes a toll on your health. You get extremely run down,” he explains. “Offers would come through to work on certain people’s albums – major, major albums – and I’d have to be like, ‘You know what? I’m really sorry, but I need to focus on my own career at the moment.’”
The decision to pull back came at the same time that TNGHT was taking off, threatening to overshadow Birchard’s solo work. The project “kind of started as a joke”, Birchard says while staring at a far-away spot – either looking for the right words or still trying to wake up – but it was a joke that went way further than they could have predicted. “It was bigger crowds all the time, but also less openminded crowds,” Birchard says. “I want to be able to play an ambient song or whatever. We were playing to 20,000 people, but they would only want to hear one thing.”
This time around, Birchard ditched the backlit-glow stereotype of a bedroom producer to emulate the way Kanye and Rick Rubin – who executive-produced Yeezus – preside over their work. “They direct the project and the whole aesthetic,” he explains. “I learned a lot from (Rubin), even though he’s a very private character, just by observing his work ethic. The current idea of a ‘producer’ is someone who sits in front of a computer, (but) I wanted to take on the role of producer in the more traditional sense of the word.” With that in mind, Birchard took on more collaborations for this record than ever before. He’s now in a position, after all, to entertain a queue of stars willing to fly over the Atlantic to join him in his personal studio. Alongside bighitters Miguel, Aiko and Hegarty, the Lantern sessions featured guest turns from leftfield UK artists like Kwes and Claude Speeed, and early-00s scratch DJ Ruckazoid, a friend from Birchard’s teenage years.
“I don’t want to be known as a beatmaker. Just a fucking producer guy. It’s so easy to just add layer upon layer of sound, but I want to make fucking songs” – Hudson Mohawke
In fact, Birchard says he’s always trying to recreate the “goosebumps” he felt at that age, when his musical diet was entirely composed of happy hardcore. You can still hear traces of its sugar-rush BPMs and unabashed sense of euphoria in his music. In his early teens, he began teaching himself to produce with the aid of a PlayStation game, and by the age of 15, he had become the youngest ever UK DMC DJ Championship finalist. Later assuming the HudMo alias, Birchard founded LuckyMe with Mike Slott, Dominic Flannigan and Martyn Flyn in 2007 at the age of 21; by 23, he was signed to Warp, despite primarily being known at the time for his DJ mixes and shows on Glasgow’s Subcity Radio. It was 2011 when Kanye first reached out online, the following year when Drake did the same. Nothing about Birchard’s route to worldbeating super producer has been conventional, and that’s why his music remains so determinedly off-kilter.
Today, he’s turning that approach to the world of pop, bringing fully sculpted songs into the Hudson Mohawke stable. Unlike his previous vocal tracks – like Butter’s zany funk anthems or his many bombastic R&B refixes – the songs of Lantern were mostly made with collaborators in the room, the instrumental moulding itself around the top line as Birchard and the vocalist wrote together. That slinky synchronicity is obvious on tracks like “Deepspace”, where the jagged synths expand and contract around Miguel’s rising anger, and on “Indian Steps”, where Hegarty’s voice floods across the instrumental like a long, warm sigh.
As unlikely as the collaboration with Hegarty, in particular, seems, it makes an odd kind of sense, particularly when you see Birchard’s face light up at the chance to talk about the singer. “I’d wanted to work with Antony for a long time. It’s funny because it’s the same thing that happened with Kanye. I’d wanted to work with them for ages, and then, after years of trying to get in touch, they ended up approaching me. It was like, ‘Hey, I’ve been fucking trying to reach you for five years!’” The pair initially linked up in London, where they made “Indian Steps”, but decided to keep going after clicking in the studio, with Birchard producing Hegarty’s upcoming album Hopelessness with Oneohtrix Point Never. “We were operating in such different worlds,” he says, pausing to think for a second, “or we were, at the time.”
Today, that concept of “different worlds” barely applies: big US artists are more likely than ever to slide directly into the DMs of an obscure UK producer, cutting out the middle man and going direct to the source. “Look at Nicki Minaj sampling Maya Jane Coles,” says Birchard, “or Drake and Jamie xx. It’s bizarre, but it works. Before, there was such a split between pop and the type of stuff we do – now you’ve got super-underground producers making massive pop songs.”
Lantern sits in that hybrid space between the US charts and the gritty UK dancefloors that artists like Birchard have found themselves occupying. While it’s overflowing with radio-ripe choruses and percussion that will rattle across festivals for years to come, the album also looks back fondly at the Glaswegian happy hardcore scene that never quite had its takeover moment. Legendary hardcore producers Darren Styles, Scott Brown and Gabber all contribute to the record, a coup that Birchard says is more exciting for him than working with major US artists. “That’s the music I grew up on,” he enthuses. “But even though that’s a big scene in itself, it’s also quite niche. A lot of people think it’s a joke. But those guys are super, super talented producers.” He’s still a devoted fan of the oldschool; just a few weeks back, he took a taxi from London to Manchester to get to a hardcore rave of just 300 people. “They’re the only people I idolised as a kid, even more so than a lot of the people I’m working with at the moment.”
It’s this dedication to his roots which means Lantern never veers into the territory of a chartseeking crossover record, which too often sacrifices character for radio play. From the fleshy kick drum that blasts open the chorus of “Very First Breath” to the glittering swarm of brass on instrumental “Kettles”, this is a bizarre, brash and totally unwieldy album. “Generally, I’m always making stuff for myself,” he says. These days, the only difference is that there’s a load of highprofile hands in the cookie jar trying to take it for themselves. “When I started working with mainstream artists, if someone was to ask, ‘Can I have this?’, it’d be like –” Birchard’s eyes widen like a child’s “‘– Yeah! Absolutely!’” Now he’s learned to say no, for the sake of preserving the HudMo identity. “That’s happened a bunch of times with fairly major artists.” Today, with his eyes still red from a long night working with Kanye, there’s one point that Birchard is crystal clear on. “I don’t want to be known as a beatmaker. Just a fucking producer guy. It’s so easy to just add layer upon layer of sound, but I want to make fucking songs. That’s something I learned from working with Rick Rubin: less is more.”
Lantern is out on June 15
hooded jacket by C.E; knitted jumper by Maison Margiela; hair Teiji Utsumi using Bumble and bumble; make-up Jenny Coombs at Streeters; photographic assistant Andrew Moores; styling assistant Margherita Alaimo; hair assistant Waka
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