Kowton is one of Bristol’s brightest up-and-coming producers, as well as being a comforting fixture behind the counter at Idle Hands
It goes without saying, but it’s probably a good idea to immerse yourself in the culture you’re representing.
This is why it’s incredibly reassuring every time Crack walks past Idle Hands record store in Stokes Croft and sees one of Bristol’s foremost aspiring producers at work surrounded by rails of wax. Working in Bristol’s foremost record store means Joe Kowton, 28, is in the best possible environment to push his talent.
Hailing from the Lake District, but completely at ease in Bristol, which he now calls home, Kowton’s multi-faceted sound has found its roots in the city’s heady musical spectrum. Combining an intrinsic education in dubstep with the plethora of influences he has gained from associating himself with the cream of Bristol’s music producers and aficionados, Kowton’s sound is rounded to say the least. Harnessing sparse and heady dub influences, but with a nod to techno and house textures, his releases on the Idle Hands imprint, most notably the superb She Don’t Jack is a nocturnal wandering into house music’s darker headspace.
More recently, a collaboration with long-term friend and associate from Kowton’s time working in Rooted Records, Peverelist, has seen the formation of the Livity Sound label. With limited, strictly vinyl-only releases and a production process which is controlled from top to bottom as to eliminate as much outside influence as possible, it’s a return to the days of DJing on wax when the DJ had to find the record, not the record finding the DJ. This is something Kowton is clearly proud to be pushing.
Totally immersed in his music on a day-to-day basis either in Idle Hands or in his room, Crack’s time with Kowton finds him congenial, talkative and inspiring. A man who has been captured by the musical fabric of Bristol, Kowton is more than happy being one of the ‘heads’.
What’s the idea behind exclusively selling the [Livity Sound] record in Idle Hands on vinyl?
So much of electronic music culture is over-saturate; there are too many mixes, too many releases and too many people clamouring for hype. If you have a record that is difficult to get hold of it gives it something of an edge. For me it adds to its appeal. We deliberately made sure the record was available exclusively in shops that we felt affinity with: aside from the Idle Hands shop you could buy it from Hardwax in Berlin, Honest Jon’s in London and at Boomkat online. All these are places that support and represent underground vinyl culture; they’re places where quality comes first. I just feel that playing records is logical. I make records, I buy records, I work in a record shop. I like to think that by playing records I support others in a similar position.
So with that in mind, you obviously have a good working relationship with Peverelist. This goes back to your days together working in Rooted right?
I’ve known Tom for a while. I started at Rooted a few weeks after he left but I’d always chat to him before I worked there. I think what he’s always done with Punch Drunk is bring people through, the label generally releases new artists and they’re always killer records. It’s great that he asked me to be part of the Livity Sound project.
So is Livity Sound all about cutting out the middle-man and having control of the process at every single level of operation?
Yeah, there is no distributor, Tom just posts the records out himself. So often with releases the artist makes the record and it gets signed, then for whatever reason the release gets held up at the label or the distributor and it takes a year or two to come out. With the Livity record it was literally two months from recording the tune to having it in the shops. As a result it feels a strong representation of where we’re at just now.
With Peverelist quite indefinable as an artist, have you found your techno-influenced sound has grounded his experimental tendencies in a bit more of a 4/4 compromise?
We are both quite perfectionist. It’s not hard to keep making music, but it’s quite hard to force yourself to keep trying new things. So when you’ve two people working together that naturally happens. It doesn’t sound like you did half and half, but you can hear elements that are signatures of another person’s style. The electronic music making process is such that every artist has a distinct process they go through.
So has Peverlist been tied a bit more to the dancefloor with working with you?
Well I think a lot of my stuff is quite austere and sometimes lacks in colour, so working together hopefully we’ll get something in the middle with a colourful dancefloor combination. That said, Pev’s stuff always works on the dancefloor, it’s just not that linear. Conversely my stuff is often more 4/4 based but maybe more cerebral.
Do you see the label as a platform for releasing yourself and Pev’s music or do you want to bring other people into the fold in the future?
I think as it stands the next one is going to be a 12” from Asusu, it’s excellent.
With getting others involved, will that production process remain the same even if you were to get to the point of 10-15 releases. Will it remain vinyl only?
That’s the point. With the first release, it wouldn’t have been that hard to get a big distributor and do more copies and have it in every shop in the country. But it’s just so nice the way it is, seeing it popping up in shops one at a time and consistently selling out. Keeping it low-key is the plan I believe.
So while the process gives you that exclusivity and a good level of quality control of who is buying and listening to it, you also probably have fewer people listening to it. How does that sit with you? Is there other music you make that you are happy to have that digital release? Is Livity Sound a more personal side to your character?
I wouldn’t say personal. The heads will buy it, and if they like word will spread to people who aren’t into buying records but still like raving or whatever. There isn’t a huge amount to be gained by doing more copies of the record: we could’ve done another 200 copies for not much more outlay. A lot of my favourite labels have an air of exclusivity. With CD’s or Serato you can very much play anything, almost everything is obtainable online. One thing I like about vinyl is having your choice narrowed down. Being at a party and only having a certain amount of music to play from – ‘This is what I’m doing tonight’. I can see why people like Serato but it’s not for me.
Have you ever played digitally?
No, just vinyl. I’ve never had a CD deck so I’ve never practiced on one. If I went to a gig and tried to use on I’d be like ‘fuck, how do you work that’.
So musically where does your sound stem from? Were you a latecomer to electronic music?
Growing up in the Lake District pre-internet I was only really exposed to odd bits of good electronic music. I remember being into Andrew Weatherall quite early on, things like the Two Lone Swordsman. From there we got into Slam and Miss Kittin and whatever else was big around the turn of the millennium. When everything went electro-house I got really bored with music and listened to lots of the ambient stuff Boomkat would push, then dubstep came along and I was like ‘this is fucking brilliant – dark, moody, stoner music, that’ll do me fine.’ I guess you’d call the stuff I’m making now predominantly techno, but it’s still got the space and the moodiness that characterises a lot of these styles. I would like to make more dancefloor records, but when I’m making these records I’m not on a dancefloor, I’m in my bedroom in the middle of the night. That’s not conducive to banging it out.
So you grew up in the Lake District?
In a village called Grasmere with my folks. It’s famous for gingerbread, a lake and Wordsworth. Fucking tiny. I went to Uni in Manchester and went home again. Worked 60 hour weeks in a hotel for a bit and then a mate of mine got a house down here and asked me to move in. So I came down here and enrolled on a Masters in Music Technology. Got a job in Rooted last year and here we are.
There is a dark ambience that characterises a lot of the dub/techno crossover music from Bristol. Some of Pinch’s work is an example of this, and there is definitely that strand in your tunes too. You’ve found a good place for the kind of music you are producing.
I guess what ties a lot of this together is probably that its still a bit of weed thing. It’s creating a headspace that doesn’t have to be cluttered and full of sound. So it’s almost like the opposite of your Boys Noize, or your filter house stuff, or jump-up dubstep.
Surely that stuff is much more ecstasy informed?
Absolutely, or if not ecstasy definitely something other than beer and weed.
Your work in Idle Hands and your time at Rooted cements you as someone who is involved in Bristol music on a day-to-day basis. How has this played a part in your development as an artist and a person?
Working in a record shop you become incredibly versed in what makes a good record. Spending so much time talking about music with the others at Idle Hands – Chris (Farrell) and Shaun (Kelly) and Shanti (Celeste) – it’s obvious these people have pretty fucking incredible collections of music. All the time I’ve spent creating music, these people have been listening to it. It’s great though, being so immersed in that stuff gives me loads of fresh ideas. Sometimes its too much, but it would be ungrateful to complain!
In terms of the people you’ve just mentioned, they are all pushing music that, maybe six years ago, wouldn’t have been possible in Bristol.
I think the current climate is very open. I think the most important thing about Idle Hands is it shows what can be done. When Rooted shut it was like, ‘what’s going to happen? We’re out of work, there’s no shop’. Within three months we had the lease on the new spot and we all chipped in with the work. So many people came down and painted and it started to become a hub without even opening. It felt like we’d turned a corner. There was gonna be fuck all and now we’ve got something. With Chris owning it too, it’s a strong look. It’s a team effort. Everyone cares. There are a lot of people that spend a lot of time in there and it’s real nice. It doesn’t feel like you’re at work. It’s real fucking nice.
How has your DJing progressed?
Four or five years ago I’d just play dubstep. It was quite a purist thing, though in retrospect it was a little strange. Everyone was playing the same tunes. Say in 2005 there were was probably only 40 or so dubstep tunes available to buy on vinyl and a handful of guys playing them. That’s what made the new tunes so exciting as it’d be like, ‘oh fuck, now’s there’s 41’. I guess the sound developed from that stage around 2007 and it started getting techier with what Appleblim and Pinch were doing, with what Shackleton was doing. Since then, like so many people, I’ve been buying more and more house and techno and now I try and play across the board. My sets are probably more house than anything else now. That said I still think it’s important to respect the night you’ve been booked for. So if you’re playing a night that likes garage, play a bit of garage, rather than being completely unbending. The role of a DJ is still to entertain. The role of a DJ is making sure people have a good night. The more records you’ve got, the more scope you’ve got for making people happy. Or making them feel like they are part of something.
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Words: Thomas Frost
Photo: Liz Eve