As he releases his first album in six years, the Glaswegian producer talks clean living, diving deep into his psyche, and why there’s no such thing as low or high culture
As anyone who’s ever cried in the club knows, the line between euphoria and sadness is closer than it might initially seem. One moment you will be dancing ecstatically, only to cross the threshold and find yourself breaking down into fits of tears. For Ross Birchard, the artist better known as Hudson Mohawke, these cross-wired emotions serve as the inspiration behind his latest album, Cry Sugar. “It epitomises what I was aiming for in the record,” he explains over Zoom. “There’s a lot of euphoric and sweet moments, but there’s an underlying melancholy about it too.”
Speaking from his home in LA, he’s sitting on a deckchair on his balcony, with a brightly coloured parasol shielding him from the early morning sun. “A bunch of people have hit me up since a couple of the songs [on the album] came out, telling me that they’ve been sitting in like floods of tears listening to this for the last hour. It makes me happy because I've managed to communicate the emotion that I was feeling at the time,” he says between drags of a Malboro. “It’s also part of the reason why I don’t have loads of albums. It’s because you don’t really make your best work if you’re not willing to go to the parts of your psyche that maybe you don’t want to visit all that often.”
Following on from 2015’s Lanterns, Cry Sugar is a smorgasbord of acid house, happy hardcore, and Mohawke’s own epoch-defining brand of euphoric rave. With titanic production across 19 tracks, many of them over four minutes long, it’s a demanding listen. But HudMo’s beat-making has always conjured strong visuals, and the tracks on Cry Sugar are so euphoric, the beats so bright that they will grab the attention of even the most attention span-fried listeners. “Maybe it’s kind of naive of me, but I feel like if you can manage to convey some sort of human emotion that translates to people that kind of can cut through a lot of the noise,” he says.
As part of his effort to debunk the myth of high and low culture music, Hollywood blockbuster-grade symphonic samples inspired by the classical compositions of Vangelis and John Williams rub against ecstatic synth stabs and swinging trap beats. It creates a sort of anthemic maximalism that subverts these binary tropes. “Listening to happy hardcore as a kid in the 90s, you realise that it’s frowned upon and seen as a joke genre. I always had this sense of, why does this euphoric, uplifting music have to fall under the banner of a joke?”
“You don’t really make your best work if you‘re not willing to go to the parts of your psyche that maybe you don‘t want to visit all that often” – Hudson Mohawke
While most producers eventually tend to settle on a singular sound, Birchard has always refused to be boxed into any one style or genre. He established himself as one of the leading figures in the Glasgow beat scene alongside the likes of Rustie and accidentally spawned the trap EDM movement as one-half of TNGHT with Canadian DJ Lunice in 2012. His beats stud the songs of Kanye West, Drake and Pusha T, but also alternative artists such as Anohni, Björk and FKA twigs.
Despite these considerable achievements, what strikes you most about Birchard is how quiet and reserved he seems. He spends large portions of the interview looking around distractedly, clearly unconvinced by the obligatory press run for his newest release. He’s largely left the Yeezus industrial complex behind him, keen to avoid being labelled a one-trick-artist. “The intent with TNGHT was that our favourite rap songs have really interesting production. We wanted to do our favourite instrumentals without the rapping. It wasn’t more considered than that. But it quickly became a whole thing until it was so removed from the original intention that we had to take a step back,” he says.
In 2016, Birchard moved to LA just as Trump was elected. “I watched the place go to shit for years,” he confesses. “I was having a shit time. It was a mix of feeling really down and not taking care of myself.” He’s since gone sober, swapping out coke-fuelled afters for 7AM grill sessions at an abandoned parking lot across his local club, where he hands out freshly cooked food to bleary-eyed ravers as they exit the venue. “It came about from enjoying being awake at that time of day but not wanting to be fucked up, like, how do I interface for this without being fucking hammered?”
He’s recently observed a shift in electronic music in the US from big stadium EDM towards UK club culture via the mainstream revival of house and techno (Beyonce’s Renaissance being the perfect example). “It’s funny seeing it taken as this new genre when a lot of the seminal records kind of came from here,” he says. “It’s nice that you have these big pop records that are house records. In the UK, there have been dance records in the pop charts since the 90s, but it’s interesting to see how much of a new thing it is here for the average music listener.”
That said, for now, Birchard is branching out beyond the realms of strict nightlife. He’s focused on running “Bob Ross-style” art classes for his fellow electronic musicians and conducting a 12-step programme designed to rid people of irony. “Once you get past the bullshit,” he concludes, “you can exist entirely out of the industry nonsense.”