Oscar Powell likes music writers so much that he provides them with a list of tips for ‘maximising your interview time’ with him. ‘Tell him he looks good’, it suggests, also advising you to refer to him as a London-based EDM producer, ‘like Pitchfork did 12 months ago’. It also lists some questions not to ask – chief among them being anything about watermelons.
“I’m not gonna talk about it,” he says, when I ask him about watermelons. “There was an incident with a watermelon. I was 14 years old, and the melon theme just stuck.” Notably, there’s his NTS show Melon Magic, so called in joking reference to Magic FM’s Mellow Magic – a joke that’s not so bad given the two shows are polar opposites. A hellish mess of raw, often brutal electronics, broken DJ equipment and terrible patter, each episode embodies the unfiltered chaos that Powell and his label, Diagonal, have brought to club music over the last five years. Diagonal recently celebrated its fifth birthday at Berghain with a party featuring Powell, Helena Hauff, and noise terror and long-time friend Russell Haswell going b2b with cult electro veteran DJ Stingray. One week later at XL Recordings’ London HQ, Powell’s reflecting on how much the night meant to him. “Growing up, Berghain was a temple, and so to be there playing music with my best friends was a great reminder why I even bother,” he tells me. “You need space to appreciate why you love music, otherwise looking after your head gets difficult and you accumulate anxieties. Berghain was perfect for that. I didn’t actually care about my performance much – I’m sure it was the worst of the night – I was just happy to be playing music in an environment it was actually made for.”
He’s now on the verge of releasing his first LP, Sport, on XL Recordings – the relatively lucrative independent whose roster has ranged from Zomby to Adele. Powell kicked off his music career in 2010 after approaching UK producer Regis at a gig with a demo and being encouraged to start his own label, and Sport provides the most complete picture of his music to date. Abrasive and playful in equal measure, the press campaign for the record has seen some appropriately mischievous behaviour.
In 2015, Powell emailed alt-rock figurehead Steve Albini to clear a vocal sample for his track Insomniac. Although Albini granted permission without even hearing Powell’s music, his response was typically, hilariously grouchy. “I detest club culture as deeply as I detest anything on earth. So I am against what you’re into, and an enemy of where you come from,” he ranted. Presumably delighted by the hostility of the esteemed producer and musican, Powell and his team decided to print Albini’s email in full on billboards to promote Insomniac. When it came to announcing Sport this summer, the Powell billboards reappeared – and this time he’d put his own email address on them, inviting the world at large to get in touch and shoot the shit.
"Sometimes you make something ridiculous because you love how stupid it sounds"
In total, Powell claims he had around 900 conversations with, as he puts it, all kinds of weirdos. “I heard a lot about people’s personal health problems, got sent a lot of stupid GIFs, and was surprised to find out I have fans in Brazil,” he says. “There was no concrete ambition behind it, I just felt now would be a great time to invite myself to be trolled, and in the end, only one person did.” Troll or not, the person in question was incensed by Powell’s seemingly irreverent attitude to ‘something people love,’ dubbing him the ‘electroclash Richie Hawtin’ and a ‘fake ass fuck’ who’d probably never danced in his life. But what some perceive as irreverence, suggests Powell, is just his natural way of showing people how much he loves what he does. “I remember when Skream used to have show called Stella Sessions,” he tells me, “so called because he’d just play dubplates and neck Stellas. You could feel how much he loved what he did. And there’s a lot out there right now which I just don’t get this feeling from. A lot of it is serious and austere – there’s no chaos about it. I love dicking around, and I want that to come through on my music.”
It comes through loud and clear on some of Sport’s skits. One example is Skype, a low-quality Skype call between Powell and ‘Jakbeat’ house don Traxx, in which we hear the influential Chicago selector rant at length on what it takes to be a good DJ. “He’s incredible at what he does, and he’s also capable of saying some utterly crazy shit, particularly if he’s had a few blunts before breakfast,” says Powell. “Sometimes you make something ridiculous like that because you love how stupid it sounds, and I wanted to bring that side of myself to the record.”
Other conversations from the email campaign proved to be more, ahem, fruitful. Having collected people’s phone- shot footage of themselves and friends smashing and playing with watermelons, Powell compiled them to create the visuals for Jonny, the second video to emerge from Sport. The track itself is typical of the album – bone-dry drums thunder away beneath stabs of analogue fizz and splintered, deadpan vocals, delivered by Jonnine Standish of the band HTRK.
But particularly noticeable on Jonny, and present throughout on Sport, is the abundance of punkish guitar samples. “Last year I made a lot of very aggressive music,” says Powell, “a lot of which didn’t come out because it just wasn’t sounding new or interesting. I like music that’s fun, so things like riffs are a great tool when I’m trying to make fun music that still sounds like Powell. There’s this persistent idea that experimental music needs to be difficult, antagonistic or unpleasant, and as much as I love that, the idea was to dream up new ways to be groovy, stupid and fun.”
It’s not just riffs that help with this – Sport’s tracks are littered with sonic debris incorporating snatched voice- memo samples, un-synced drum flourishes and other oddities. In previous interviews, Powell has said he’ll often work with 60 to 70 samples onscreen at once, mashing as many voices together as he chooses.
“Some people resist computers, but I love them,” he explains, “because they let me make tracks in the same way you might make a collage – you chuck a load of shit at a wall and chisel something from it. It’s the editing I really enjoy. If I play with tonnes of little ideas at once, I never need to have four bars that sound the same, because every four bars is an opportunity to say something else and move things forward.” If that sounds a little like IDM, it’s partially because figures like Aphex Twin and Autechre, renowned for their micro-editing, are still a big influence on Powell. The difference, he says, is that his main concern is the groove: “I love the type of music where there’s something for your body, whilst on top of that you have things which are pulling your brain in every direction.”
Notably absent on Sport, and many of the productions that came before it, is any extensive use of reverb. In Powell’s view, reverb is about placing a sound within a space that people can relate to, like a church, he offers as an example. “For me, the nature of electronic music is that it’s divorced from real life,” he says. “I don’t want to be in a fucking church. So why not embrace the sound for what it is? I don’t like this idea of lending my sound an organic, ‘real-world’ feel. It feels like taking a dog that’s grown up fighting and trying to domesticate it.” “The synths I use have this raw, acidic fizz that I get turned on by,” he continues, “and the same goes for the dull, dead drum hits. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to analogue synths, you should embrace their natural sound. It’s easy to stick a bunch of delays and filters on something, and before you know it you’ve got something really moody.
Suddenly you’ve got a witch house record, and whilst some of it’s great, some of it comes off a bit lacking in confidence.” Confidence is key to Powell’s career. Not only does Sport, even when purely instrumental, exude his cocky and antagonistic humour, it also sees XL Recordings continue to earn credibility among leftfield electronic circles. But what about plans for Diagonal? “We definitely don’t have one of those,” he replies. “A lot of Diagonal involves going to the same restaurant in Dalston, getting too drunk and getting no work done.” If things do look more or less professional, he says, it’s because of the polished artwork. “It’s a lot of fun though,” he adds. “It’s just sometimes people send us their bloody CVs asking for jobs – don’t do that, it’s literally just me sometimes.”
Diagonal’s next promises to be the label’s ‘hottest and sweatiest yet’ – a Double 12” LP from N.M.O, self- described as ‘military space music and/ or fluxus techno.’ The first 100 copies will come with a battery popper of hot sauce made by sauce maker and visual artist Alexander Krone. This could be the kind of behaviour that Powell is referring to when he speaks of “getting back to doing things that feel natural” in the wake of getting Sport out. “The LP is a format I always resisted. It’s turned out to be a very rewarding experience, but it’s a horrible process. I got very, very caught up in it and when I finished I was pretty depressed for a while,” he concludes. “But now it’s coming out. And now I’m in a great mood.”
Sport is released 14 October via XL Recordings. Powell performs live at Simple Things, Bristol, 22 October