Oli XL – Scaling up
“I didn’t want to be on stage – so I put out a casting call for an eight to 11-year-old lookalike.” Oli XL is recounting one of the weirder gigs to have taken place at Copenhagen punk venue Mayhem last year. The idea was to find a small child, stand them on a couple of pallets, their identity hidden by a Russian pilot helmet, and have them act out a knob-twisting live electronic set on behalf of the producer.
“I got my mum’s friend’s daughter to do it,” he explains. “We got her some gear that wasn’t connected up and asked her to follow the sounds she heard with her movement. It went crazy, she was so good!” When the show finished the girl took off the helmet, jumped off stage and ran over to her mum for a hug. “There was confusion in the room,” he laughs. Meanwhile, the artist looked on from the shadows.
Beaming in from his neatly arranged living room in Stockholm, Oli XL says he’s never really wanted to perform live. “Music is so introverted to me,” he explains. XL is more comfortable as the engineer of his own universe, an alien terrain of weightless syncopation and free-floating samples, which formed one of last year’s most accomplished debut albums.
Released last July as the first record on his new label Bloom, Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer is a debut album of microscopic detail and panoramic world-building. Its creator claims to rarely get excited by new music, and its reference points are chronologically chaotic: melancholy echoes of jungle and garage, pitched-up vocal fragments in tribute to Quasimoto, showers of blissed-out synth tones, odd flotsam pulled from a phone’s memory card. On Clumsy, the chorus of Beck’s Loser gets pumped full of helium and set free like a sad balloon. Mimetic interrupts a tweaky sing-rap with a GiffGaff voicemail message. Flat surfaces and stable rhythms are hard to find.
None of this was obvious to the album’s reviewers, who invoked everything from toxic masculinity to meme culture in their assessments. But as XL explains, the album isn’t a political statement, nor is it bogged down by the mundanities of modern life. The opposite, in fact – it’s an escape hatch to a different reality; a journey of “childlike curiosity”, as he puts it, of “walking through weird sonic landscapes”. Anxious to explain himself but wary of how his words might look in print, he flips in and out of interview mode during our long Skype call, occasionally scolding himself for using “Silicon Valley talk” or going off the record to say which IDM artist he thinks is overrated, as if this were highly sensitive information. This isn’t a live performance, but the pressure of presentation is weighing on his mind.
Like the rest of us, he’s been stuck at home for the last few weeks. In a world without coronavirus he would have been on tour in Asia right now, but the slowdown has brought a sense of calm he hasn’t felt since he was a kid. “It feels like summer break in elementary school. You walk around and see a couple of ants walking along and wonder where they’re going,” he chuckles. XL is easily gripped by small details. Peering into his flat via video call, the room is a vision of calm: lava lamp bubbling away, a bunny ear cactus, a bulging mirror straight from a Renaissance portrait. His creative process also reveals a craftsman rather than a conceptualist. As a Gen Z-er raised on digital media, he longs to grasp music as an object. “It feels so much better having something in your hands, on so many different levels,” which is how he came up with Relic, a 3D-printed music player produced for labelmate Celyn June’s Location EP in 2016.
“Instead of dropping vinyl I made these small sculptures,” he explains, turning what looks like a freeze-dried chunk of the Guggenheim Bilbao around his hands, showing how the headphone jack fits into a chunk of ceiling foam. Relic was released through Worldwide International, the label XL started when he was just a teenager to release his own music along with like-minded artists he discovered online. (Last year he wound down W-I and launched Bloom, a new label with a similar mission to release anything “from music to weird objects or experiences”.) The manufacturing of Relic turned out to be extremely laborious. “I sold them for way too little ‘cos I wanted to be really democratic about it,” he laughs, “but after a week it was too much work.”
“It’s easy to make unique music. But doing that while maintaining a strong, catchy pop essence? That’s hard as fuck”
In earlier interviews, XL named two vintage electronic acts as his primary influences: 90s drum & bass enigmas Source Direct, and 00s dance titans Basement Jaxx. Of the two, it’s the latter’s euphoric hyper-pop that continues to confound and inspire. “If you listen to them now there are so many ideas completely out of leftfield, it comes from nowhere. That’s what I like about music the most – when it’s totally unexpected but still manages to be pop,” he says. “It’s easy to make unique music – just put together some trash sounds and you have music that doesn’t sound like anything else. But doing that while maintaining a strong, catchy pop essence? That’s hard as fuck, and that’s what I’m striving for.”
Basement Jaxx’s Rooty is the first record he remembers falling in love with, aged six or seven. He spent school holidays in the UK, visiting his mum’s family in Croydon, where an uncle who was into making grime gave him a cracked copy of Fruity Loops. “I didn’t talk to people about it, so it took me a really long time learning the most basic shit,” he remembers. “I wasn’t looking up anything, there weren’t YouTube tutorials then.” The UK dance continuum provides the framework for XL’s intricate drum programming, echoing the history (and revival) of jungle, garage and grime, as well as the “weightless” sound of the Different Circles label. “Those rhythms – every hit is really unexpected, it’s all syncopation basically. I love it.”
He starts small, collecting samples and building playlists with names like ‘Stress Cut’ and ‘Forgot the Transition’, catalogues of curious musical events that he’s collected across genres. Sometimes there are fixed rules for inspiration, like a Fluxus composer drawing up a list of actions to be performed. One self-instruction involved imagining a high wire between two buildings and the feeling of teetering off-balance, “going from extreme sloppiness to extreme precision. How I apply these ideas is very literal in that sense.” The crash-bang-wallop of classic cartoon sound effects is another source of miniature ideas. “I’ve always subconsciously anthropomorphised all music that I listen to. I see tracks as small weird characters – or big dumb characters,” he explains, pointing to the “human presence” lurking within a Burial track, “the grunts or breaths that make it feel so much more alive.”
His next record is currently under construction, its characters waiting to be sculpted. “The [first] album was very light on its feet. I think I want something a bit chunky and crunched up,” he ponders, thinking about the smoky textures of 90s trip-hop, a recent listening obsession. The aim is to keep carving out his own space, inch-by-inch constructing a world of his own, shielded from the mess of pop culture and the endless content feed. “I don’t want it to be contemporary,” he says. “Everything doesn’t have to be ‘current’. I want it to exist in a parallel universe. It’s not supposed to exist together with anything else going on in this boring world.”
Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer is out now via Bloom