Joker is a fiercely individual young man with a very singular vision
Crack’s first meeting with Bristol bass hero Joker wasn’t in the most orthodox of settings. In fact, it was across the famed Crack ping-pong table.
The story goes like this. It was a standard, quiet Wednesday afternoon at Crack Towers when, entirely out of the blue, we received a Twitter message from the man himself.
- Is it true you’ve got a table tennis table at your place?
- Well, Joker, that’s correct.
- I’ll be there in 20.
A man of action, before we knew it there he was, motorbike helmet atop his head, wielding two bats and a pack of balls. He immediately began firing off anecdotes about an evening spent in a bar in Japan going toe- to-toe with the locals, and after a full-blooded session at the table, which sadly deteriorated into a game of ‘twat the ball at everyone’s heads’, we’d locked him down. Not two weeks after the entire office had sat together taking in the masterful, smooth grooves of Back in the Days, a beautifully swaying celebration of everything that’s right about Bristol, we had an interview secured and a mix from one of the city’s hottest producers.
A few days later, we found ourselves in the rather intimidating surroundings of Joker headquarters. His studio is piled high with top-of- the-range equipment, synths and hardware galore – so much he requires an industrial fan to keep the room at a bearable temperature. Highly energetic and utterly unafraid to voice his opinion, he is a tireless presence. Be it sharply distancing himself from the dubstep scene with which his output is so often equated, eagerly clicking through his computer to show us clips of old tunes, or enthusiastically handling one of his prized synths, there’s never a dull moment.
And the same could be said for his highly-anticipated debut album, The Vision. From the punishing bottom-end of the likes of Slaughter House, the computer-game sounds of Level 6, the tasteful group chanting of Lost, or the slick R&B vibes of Electric Sea, the album is an ever-eclectic collection, held together throughout by an irresistibly melodic strain. Having suggested as much with his output to date, it’s a record which fully justifies Joker’s determination not to be pigeon-holed under any one genre.
And we still don’t know who told him Crack were the go-to men for ping-pong.
You were picked up quite early on by Pinch, is that right? How was it to be singled out by such an established name?
I didn’t really know of him. I hated dubstep, so I didn’t know anything about him. I was a grime guy. There’s a friend of mine called Henry, he cuts vinyl dubplates, and Pinch had cut a few dubs with him. Henry introduced me to him and it all happened from there.
So you weren’t aware of the dubstep scene when you started out?
No, and I’m still not. I don’t make dubstep. Just because I play a lot of dubstep raves, people class me with that scene.
So are you aware of what’s going on in Bristol music in general?
I don’t pay much attention to it; I just try to be me.
So is it only your immediate circle that interests you? It must have been great to work on a big tune like Back in the Days with all these guys you’re close to?
Yeah, we all grew up together so it was cool to make a tune about that. But I wouldn’t say it’s that big, it’s not ‘radio big’, most of the hype is still underground I think. It’s just a bit more original than other things we’re doing at the moment. It’s like, ‘here’s the kind of track that we all used to do back in the days’.
The new record has such a strong melodic aspect. While you’ve always made room for melody within your sound, how much input did you have on the vocals?
When it comes to vocals, I’ll write a track and think ‘this person could work on this tune’, and I’ll let them do their thing. If something doesn’t go then I’ll try to change the person involved, but pretty much everything that’s been done on the album was from their own heads.
So how do you go about finding people you think will work on your tunes? How about someone like Jessie Ware?
My manager hooked me up with her. I’d heard what she’s done with SBTRKT, and I was into it so my manager said ‘you should do a tune with her’ and I thought ‘fuck it, why not?’ So she came to Bristol and laid it down.
Were you conscious on this record of focusing on a more song- based, vocal style?
People seem to think this is a new thing I’m doing, but if you listen to grime, grime is very vocal-based, and I’ve got a hard-drive full of two albums’ worth of tunes from 2004, every track with vocals. When I was making grime stuff, I would always be going ‘I need a vocal on this, I need a vocal for that’.
It’s interesting that you were making such melodic stuff when you started out, because your production these days involves a real high-quality analogue synth sound. What kind of equipment were you working with back then?
I had a laptop and a shitty keyboard.
And what do you see as the difference now that you’ve got all this amazing equipment?
It depends on the way you work. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it. But I definitely prefer the sound of these, for sure, especially this one. (digs out an extremely complex-looking piece of kit). This is a synth where you have to physically plug the wires in and everything. This one here (points at another impressive synth) is all ready-made, you pick a sound like a sawtooth or whatever, and then put it through a filter, whereas with this one you have to pick out the sawtooth and then plug it into where you want that to go. It looks more complicated than it is; I learnt it in ten minutes.
Have you always had a head for the practical side of things?
Yeah, c’mon it’s a lot more fun than sitting in front of a computer, right?
Certain songs on the album, particularly Electric Sea with Jay Wilcox, are essentially soulful R&B tunes. Are you conscious that it’s not a particularly UK sound?
I guess so. I listen to a lot of R&B.
You were on the cover of XLR8R magazine in America a couple of years back, how has your stuff translated over there?
I think the problem with me in America is I’m being marketed as a dubstep artist, and dubstep in America is crazy shit. Most of them are nice guys, and if you listen to it they’re good producers, but the sound is just too much for me. If I’m marketed in the USA as dubstep and that’s the big thing over there, then people aren’t gonna get it. The shows I play, I make sure they’re the shows where they’re gonna understand me. But sometimes they can get a bit confused. If I were to play something like the instrumental of Electric Sea, they wouldn’t be into it.
You’ve been all over the world as well, how have you found it?
I’ve been to Japan, Australia … It depends what crowds you play to, that’s the same all over the world. There are crowds who get it everywhere; they’re the ones you’ve got to play to.
So back to the album, tunes like Tron were fairly well known before it came out, so how do you go about integrating those older tunes into the album format?
When I made Tron, that was when I thought ‘I want to make an album’. Every day I was writing a track, and some I’d just think ‘this will fit into the journey of what I’ve got so far’. If I came up with ten ideas, out of those ten, one would fit into that picture of what I saw the album becoming.
So you do look at album as a kind of journey?
I do, I wouldn’t say I accomplished it perfectly though. It didn’t come out exactly how I expected it to.
But The Vision is such a confident title, it seems to be a statement of ‘I had a vision, this is it’.
I did have a vision, but it morphed and changed with time. That vision is still there.
Have you been bitten by the album bug now?
I’ve already started work on a second album. I still want to do singles and EPs on vinyl and stuff, but I really want to get to work on another album.
There’s been lots of variation in sound throughout your releases, and you’re already thinking about a second album before the first one’s even out. Are you someone who gets quite restless?
I think I just need to find the right place and relax. I want to move out of here already. It’s too small and the neighbours piss me off. I need to be able to wake up at three in the morning and get straight into doing what I want to do. I need to get my studio set up properly, I’ve got another six or so keyboards at my old place, y’know. It’s not about what I’ve got, I just need it all set up properly so I can relax and focus. I don’t wanna see wires and shit, that shit fucks me off! I’ve got OCD about that shit, I can’t make a track if the place ain’t tidy.
It’s easy to forget how young you are, cause you’ve been making tracks for such a long time. I guess it can be difficult to keep focus?
I think buying stuff can make you lose track as well. When I had nothing, when I used to make the simplest shit, that was much easier. But times have changed. If I was still using what I was using then I wouldn’t be where I am now. I just want different shit, y’know. Everyone uses software, everyone can get that sound. Not everyone has this hardware, you’ve always got to work to afford it. This keyboard is two and a half grand man, that’s a car there.
The record is out on 4AD, which is a really interesting choice for you. It’s such an interesting label and with such a varied roster, people like Bon Iver, The National, Zomby, yourself. How did that come about?
That was my manager again, he had meetings with a lot of labels and of all of them, 4AD sounded like the ones who would give me the space to do what I want to do. I just want to make music and be me, not be someone’s bitch. I can’t tell you if that’s what they are about, but that’s what they give me: space and freedom, that’s all I want.
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Words: Geraint Davies