Lauded producer/Ten Thousand Yen label boss, we got talking to the latest contributor to our Crackcast series from his new Berlin home
You think of electronic music, you think of Berlin. Ok, maybe you think of Detroit as well. Maybe if you’re feeling particularly patriotic you think of London, but everyone else is thinking of Berlin, alright? What no one is thinking of is Swansea.
Yet for a little while there Mial Watkins, as Doc Daneeka, made Swansea a place of real significance in the UK electronic scene. In a young career indicative of what can be accomplished in the modern age, Watkins became respected producer, promoter, DJ and in-demand remixer, as well as boss of the Ten Thousand Yen label, all from the confines of a bedroom in that scruffy seaside town. It’s a trail of success that now finds him accompanied by another Swansea boy, previously London-based Benjamin Damage, set up in Berlin at the behest of the overlords that are Modeselektor, producing a full-length record to be released on their 50 Weapons print. What’s more, he is currently preparing himself for an impending adventure with the Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid, an experience which includes taking over a pod of the London Eye alongside Ten Thousand Yen alumnus xxxy. It’s safe to say the boy’s come a long way.
He’s been making waves for some time. From the tropical drum patterns and punctuating bottom end of Drums In The Deep, initially surfacing on Fabric’s Elevator Music: Vol 1 compilation, to the curiously sombre strings and soulful vocals of Hold On, and to his most assured work to date, the impressive collection Television. It’s a journey which has seen him heaped with critical approval from important people. Like, properly important people. Like, Gilles Peterson and stuff.
Yet from a man developing a reputation for heavily rhythmic, ass-shaking tunes, dotted with the odd subtle melodic hook, the arrival ofCreeper, his collaboration with Benjamin Damage, was a curveball. Brooding and malevolent in tone, a pitchbent and warped synth dominates until the arrival of techy, clipped percussion and atmospherics which thrusts the listener into a pitch black warehouse. There’s a bleak and oppressive streak lingering beneath the surface, even when a more typically UK break takes hold toward the track’s close. In short, it sounds very Berlin.
We catch up with Mial in the early hours, fresh from a session at the studio. Yes, that’s Modeselektor’s studio, located somewhere in the city. We’re not allowed to know where. Around a month into his time there, he appears to retain a real sense of excitement at being in one of the world’s great epicentres of electronic music. “It’s an amazing city. I’ve been here quite a few times in the last year and I’ve always felt really comfortable. I’ve come over here to write before and it went well, so it just felt like a perfect place to be based for a while.”
It seems an incredibly timely change of scene for him, considering the affiliation he already felt with the city. But as Mial explains, it was his collaborator Benjamin Damage who initially caught the ears of Modeselektor. “They got in touch with Ben first – they picked up on his tuneDeeper which came out on Ten Thousand Yen, and did their own edit of it and played it out live for a whole world tour as a huge part of their set, it was pretty crazy.”
A collaboration between the two had been a long time in the pipeline. They’ve been friends since youth, and, Mial tells us, “Ben taught me how to sequence tunes, actually”, adding “he’s wicked at it, I’m a bit of a spaz to be honest.” It was not, however, preplanned. “Ben had a really good riff that I liked but it wasn’t really working for him so I said, “look, let me try some drums on this.’’ And when the track – which ended up becoming Creeper – was completed, there was only one place it was going. “We sent the tune to Gernot from Modeselektor the day before New Year’s Eve I think, and within an hour or something they called back and said they wanted to put it out, and they’d be playing it that night to however many people in San Francisco!” This direct, no-nonsense style provides an ideal balance for unavoidable Welsh procrastination: “They just said “get on with a B-side and get it to us by this date.” They’re really good with that, they have that German way about them which is great: ‘do this and do it by a deadline.’” He laughs when comparing it to previous experiences: “Some labels just say ‘when it’s done, it’s done.’ And you send it to them and it’s … like … four years later.” That B-side became Infamous, an equally intoxicating, vaguely intimidating, minimal yet undeniably hefty slab. Any suggestion that the album might stick to the formula which brought them this far, however, is quickly rejected. “It has a mood similar to Creeper, quite heavy on the atmospherics, but so far it’s a lot more melodic. That tune is going to be on the album so of course it will be part of the framework, but it’s not going to be 10 Creepers.”
The collaboration is an increasingly prevalent trend among UK producers. It can often accomplish more than a simple merging of ability and sound, but a collective effort where each pushes the other to produce something new and entirely separate from their individual parts. It’s not the first time Doc Daneeka has collaborated, having worked with C.R.S.T’s Rodski on the track Copz, as well as numerous vocalists, which suggests it’s something which he enjoys. “I did a lot of stuff like that when I was a bit younger, playing in bands, and I really enjoyed it. I think getting into production was a backlash against playing with other people, in a way. To start with it was great being able to do everything myself and have complete control, for better and for worse. Mind you, the music for several years was probably not too good (laughs). But I think now it’s got to the point where it was maybe getting a bit stale, and it’s nice to have a change and bounce off other people. You manage so much more, and find things that you’d never find by yourself.”
With UK electronic music at a level of strength and variety not seen in many years, pushing oneself to remain at a consistently high level is a must, and collaborations are a way to keep one’s output in constant motion. Mial has plenty of words of praise for his UK contemporaries: “There are obviously big ones who have made their mark and they’re proving points that I don’t need to make, people like Bashmore and Mosca. But for me, some of the people we’ve got coming up on the label I’m really excited about. Mickey Pearce, which is Shortstuff’s new alias, we’re releasing a 12” from him. He’s got two EPs on Swamp81 and they’ve got a rawness, no reserve … I don’t know how to describe it really. It just feels really unafraid, really fresh.” But perhaps the most zealous praise of all is saved for latest Ten Thousand Yen recruit, Presk, whose Love Again EP recently hit decks across the country. “I was playing a gig in Holland and he was supporting, and he asked me to come and check his set. He basically played an hour of incredible music. I said to him, “Where the fuck … where the fuck … what the fuck is this music?!” and he just said “it’s all me. Live”. So I said, “err, can I sign you please?” (laughs) And I hassled him for three weeks until he signed his life away.”
The calm nature with which Watkins speaks about running one of the UK’s outstanding young labels makes you wonder why everyone doesn’t do it. While many producers start up their own imprint as a way of releasing their own material without constraint, no Doc Daneeka output has been released on TTY of yet. So what was the mentality behind starting it up? “It was a really simple and logical step between me and one of my best friends, Yeti. There just weren’t that many outlets for the music that was coming out at that time. There was a handful of us who were lumped together producing and pushing tunes, and it was that simple. We had access to great music that wasn’t going to get released and people wanted them to come out. We just thought ‘we could do that?’’’ Surely the whole process can’t have been that straightforward? “Well, the actual physical process of putting them out was really hard, and massive shouts to Aled Simons who did a lot of that punishing work.”
Ten Thousand Yen has been a massive success and garnered significant support from figures of influence such as Mary-Anne Hobbs. At the heart of what makes it such an admirable venture are a set of simple values. “We had big crews of friends who were very active in terms of DIY punk shows, and that attitude and ethos had a big effect on the label.” That means super-limited editions of vinyl, hand-made, hand-posted, working alongside friends and promoting exciting acts that you truly believe in. “Myself, Aled and Yeti had worked together as a three-piece before, putting on and promoting nights in Swansea. We’re not trying to lock down people on massive exclusive deals and rip people off and make a living out of it. It’s as simple as having all this great music and wanting to do something with it.”
It’s safe to say that Ten Thousand Yen has already made a significant contribution to a thriving UK scene, yet the signing of Presk gives the label an international flavour. So does Mial see the movement as still primarily UK-centric? “I think it’s definitely spreading, and the cool thing is that nobody still really knows what it is. It’s just a bunch of guys and gals making good and interesting music. You hear so much about how names can possibly be mentioned in the same breath as one another – how Jamie xx can be in the same scene as Loefah or whatever – but somehow it just works. It’s incredibly healthy.”
His part in this movement has seen him travel the world, throughout Europe, to the US, and even a mini-tour of New Zealand and Australia, which makes him as informed an individual as any to comment on the state of the scene overseas. “The (Australasian dates) were smaller shows, but people were really up for it. It was just amazing to be far away and people be into it, requesting your tunes and stuff like that. It really was insane.”
And all the way back from the planet’s furthest reaches to his humble hometown. It’s perhaps when on this topic that Mial is at his most vocal and free-speaking, particularly when reminiscing about his formative years as a DJ. “I honestly believe that, at times, it had a really great scene. It’s got that small but vibrant punk scene, and it was very open; there was a big crowd of us who would be as likely to be found at a punk show as at a dance night. When we put on our nights we tried to be broad at a time when it wasn’t the done thing. The vast majority of nights would be, for example, hip-hop to a certain time and then the drum and bass would start, but that wasn’t us.”
When discussing these nights, his enthusiasm peaks further. “The way we did things was just a reflection of the city at the time. It wasn’t full of heads, really not a pretentious place – anti-pretension, in fact. In a lot of medium-to-big cities you’ll see a hardcore crew always at the front going ‘Why the fuck’s he playing this tune?’ But that attitude was never the way at our nights. We had a really good club where you could literally smoke draw in the window, everyone was taking pills all the time, it was just an amazing atmosphere. I was around 19 at the time, playing fucking crazy Soundmurderer jungle records to people and they were losing their shit, y’know! But we would mix that with old broken beat and Bugz in the Attic and … it was just sick. And that was before the licensing changed, so everyone would clear out of the club at two and go to house parties, so the house party scene was really vibrant. It was a properly great time to be there.”
As far as his music has taken him, from the bedroom to the very inner circle of European dance music, his affection for Swansea is nigh on impossible to shake. So only one question remains to ask the Doc, an avid Arsenal fan. Have you been keeping an eye on the football while you’re out in Germany?
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Words: Geraint Davies
Photo: Emyr Glyn Rees