Powell: a 21st century noise-merchant
It made a lot of sense interviewing Powell at the end of 2014. It had been an incredible year for him as an artist (a forthcoming release on XL a fine example of where he’s at) and arguably an even better one for Diagonal, the label he runs with his pal Jaime Williams. A flurry of unclassifiable 12”s, EPs and albums, coaxing some beat tracks out of legendary noise-merchant Russell Haswell, earning spots on numerous end-of-year lists and a triumphant label showcase at Unsound Festival are all achievements a label could strive for over the course of its entire existence, let alone accomplish less than three years into their rapidly-hastening stride.
Oscar Powell booted Diagonal into life in late 2011 with an EP of original material and a rare remix from British techno legend Karl O’Connor under his Regis alias. Three years on and with 17 releases bearing the Diagonal name, six of which are his own work, he’s clearly got something figured out. Across those six EPs Powell has crafted one of the most singular audio aesthetics in club music. A strikingly identifiable style, there’s no mistaking the collision of chopped up post-punk drums and bass with fizzing, upfront synths, myriad vocal tics and whispers pulled from who-knows-where. Rhythmically, it strays from the traditional grids that electronic music has built for itself, instead locking into something much more primal and propulsive. Body music, above all else.
The understanding of what makes bodies move is a skill that’s hard to quantify, but the process of running and sustaining a career is something that’s a little easier to pin down. Sitting on his bed in a hotel room in Krakow while Jaime sleeps off the previous night’s adventure under the sheets, Powell tells me, “It’s easy to put some good records out, have some people talk about you for a few years, do a bit of touring, whore yourself out on Twitter. But can you be doing that 10 years later, and still have something to say?” This is a question that plays on Powell’s mind, but there are role models in the scene, “the real dudes” that have proved that positive results come with “committing their entire beings to this shit.”
The people he’s talking about – Juan Atkins, Traxx, Russell Haswell, Jamal Moss and the aforementioned Karl O’Connor – all function through a confrontational, challenging approach to music. And far from alienating audiences, it gives them a longevity which is the result of a total dedication to the art and the craft of making people really feel something. This mirrors in Powell’s own approach to DJing: jarring, aggressive, and with beatmatching fairly low down on the list of priorities.
While Powell has no intention of giving up playing records – “I will always DJ, I never want to stop” – the rapturous unveiling of his brand new live show the prior evening at Unsound proved he has the ability to take his studio work into the club without sanding off the edges that make his recorded output so unique. If anything, the set amped up the intensity to an almost absurd degree. “I think you need to put yourself outside of your comfort zone in life as much as possible, so this was a chance to do that,” he explains. “It’s Powell to the core, not Powell as collagist. An opportunity for me to present what my idea of club music is.”
That this initial show was met with such a raucous reaction was helped, in part, by it being the centre piece to the debut Diagonal showcase; a label that has built, through its artists, its curation, its radio show (Melon Magic, monthly on NTS) and its artwork (by celebrated designer Guy Featherstone) an almost completely self-contained world. Far from being part of a grand scheme, Powell confirms it’s an organic process. “The more you hang out with people the more you share ideas. Automatically it starts forming its own thing rather than necessarily constructing it deliberately. It’s really only when you take a step back and look at what you’ve released that you think ‘oh yeah, that makes perfect sense’.” While Powell isn’t sure if Diagonal has a specific sound, he acknowledges there’s “definitely a thread” that runs through everything they do: Prostitutes’ thumping, punk-ish approach to techno, Shit & Shine and The Skull Defekts’ guitar-mangling, kosmiche-referencing groove therapy and Bronze Teeth’s live wire, gnarled acid all seem to come from a primal need to challenge something. Powell agrees, stressing the challenging desire that unites Diagonal as cathartic, self- improving, fear-abating, something worth working towards.
“Every day I doubt myself,” he tells us. “I think you have to do that, otherwise what the hell are you fighting for? You’re just standing still. It’s important, for me at least, to be fighting for something — or against something. You’ve got to push yourself into uncomfortable areas. And yeah, it’ll make you nervous.”
Sylvester Stallone / Smut is released soon via XL Recordings