Words by:
Photographer: Alien Wang

CCL’s A Night in the Skull Discotheque, released earlier this year via Eris Drew and Octo Octa’s T4T LUV NRG imprint, is the kind of dense, narrative-driven voyage that genuinely emphasises the harmonies between a great DJ mix and an in-depth piece of music journalism.

Working like a musicologist, CCL weaves tracks from the 1970s, 80s and 90s into a dreamy sonic tapestry that exposes dubstep’s most inconspicuous and unexpected foundations.

There are, of course, the required components – like formative tracks from Mad Professor and Bristol sound system legends Smith & Mighty – but these are stitched alongside enigmatic cuts from synthpop outsiders Severed Heads, rap legend Jay Dee (a.k.a. Dilla) and post-shoegaze innovators Seefeel. “It was an experiment in the beginning,” they admit. “What if I could put these all together? Sometimes I laugh, ‘cause it sounds kinda funny, but I also like the darkness around it. Camp darkness. Glitter goth vibes.”

CCL is in Taipei at the moment, set to play at eclectic local nightspot Final and conclude a tour that’s taken them through China and Australia. There’s a seven-hour time difference between Taiwan and Berlin, where we both live, but CCL is surprisingly energetic, beaming from ear to ear. “[Taipei] is such a stimulating place,” they say excitedly with a mid-Atlantic twang. “I love coming here. I regretfully have to go back [to Berlin].”

They have been living in the German capital since 2019. Before then, they had spent their life shifting from place to place, painstakingly figuring out what it is they need to keep them anchored. Born in London to an Italian father and American mother, CCL moved to Washington D.C. as a toddler, before relocating to Moscow. “It’s one of the most vividly awful periods of my life,” they recall. “We went there because my mum does visa processing and my dad speaks Russian, because he likes languages. But I also got into the dance school, the Bolshoi, and that’s another reason we were there.”

Talk about burying the lede. One of the world’s oldest and most reputable ballet schools, the Moscow State Academy of Choreography was founded as an orphanage in 1793 by Catherine the Great, and quickly evolved into a notoriously austere training ground for the dance world’s crème de la crème. “I was the first western person to be admitted to the school,” they add nonchalantly. “I got in when I was six, and it’s the most intense dance school I’ve heard of. You don’t pay to go there, it’s state funded. You just go and get funnelled through their dance company programme. I remember spending so much time in this extreme environment.” This is a startling revelation; a period of CCL’s life they’d neglected to mention. “When I watched Suspiria it scared me so much. It felt reminiscent.”

Feeling isolated in Russia, CCL and their parents moved to Rome a few years later to be closer to family, but it wasn’t much better. “I was tired of being in this extremely oppressive environment, so I traded it for another dance school that was also incredibly intense, but in a different way.” They were taken aback by the institutionalised conservatism in Italy: “I would be in there for so many hours a day, every day, and every time someone enters the room, you have to bow to them. Every year we had to dance for the Pope, which was really odd.” Studying academically in parallel with dancing, CCL had no time for a social life, and, speaking Italian with a “funny accent”, they didn’t gel with their peers.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. At night, CCL would sneak off and drive to DIY venues on the outskirts of Rome, where they saw bands and, most importantly, were first introduced to drum’n’bass. This was a revelation, providing them with a far less triggering way to engage with music made for movement. When their parents separated and moved away from Italy, leaving CCL alone, they decided enough was enough. “I was 16 or 17 and I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I wanted to be in a band, so why am I doing this crazy dance school thing? I hate this, it makes me so miserable. So I quit.” Their partner at the time had moved to Bristol to study, and after visiting a few times, they left Rome behind in search of the community that had thus far eluded them.

“In Italy, in the circles I was in, there was a huge conformist vibe,” they recall. “Being super femme, being like everyone else – there was no way I’d ever fit into this. For all its good and bad qualities, in the UK, being different is celebrated, or at least being your own thing, and that was very attractive.” By the time CCL reached Bristol it was 2008, and dubstep had bloomed into a multifaceted global phenomenon. Local artists like Appleblim, Pinch and Peverelist had hit their stride, and the city’s sub-heavy strain piqued CCL’s attention. It was here where they were exposed to new sounds that felt vital and life-giving. Their early days were spent going to “really shitty” student drum’n’bass nights, but they soon received an education at edgier venues like The Croft, Trinity Centre and The Black Swan (“I still have a jacket that says ‘Club Gunk from The Black Swan’”), as well as the iconic St Paul’s Carnival.

“In sound system culture,” they gasp, tailing off, “there is this huge point of pride to have an incredible sound system. How people would face the speakers – it was really cool. I feel fortunate to have been there during that time, and it definitely impacted me a lot. More than I realised until this conversation.”

This period leaves an indelible mark on A Night in the Skull Discotheque. CCL’s obsession with bass music, and sound system culture in general, is well documented, but their autobiography is sewn into the fabric of the mix; it’s a celebration of the place that helped them find an identity of their own. So Bristol was a tough place for CCL to leave, but after hitting “rock bottom” following a failed relationship and a struggle to find a decent job, they made an impromptu move to Seattle.

“I’d never been there!” they exclaim. “It seemed like this super faraway place. It sounded kinda terrible.” Their mum was living there, and when they missed their flight home after a Christmas visit, they decided to stay a little longer. Seeing a job ad on Craigslist for the Triple Door venue, they tried their luck and were surprised when they were hired immediately. “I think part of it was because I had a British twang,” they laugh. Although initially desperate to return to the UK, and slow to make friends – “people were so cold, nobody wanted to talk, no one wanted to hang out” – after a while, they were pleasantly surprised by Seattle’s vibrant music community. “I’d be taken to these really sick punk or noise shows. I used to go to this goth club called The Mercury and listen to metal. It was a formative period that reminded me how I felt when I first moved to Bristol.”

CCL started working with the experimental festival Decibel, and when that ended, they teamed up with local DJ and promoter Nick Carroll to start an event series of their own, coined Research. “We’d been talking about doing a night that was dance music focused but pretty wide in genre scope and trying to include different kinds of acts on the same bill,” they say. “We would put on everything from Jlin to Galcher Lustwerk, the mix was pretty eclectic.” Behind closed doors, they’d been learning to DJ; they’d been shown how to beatmatch back in Bristol, but had been reluctant to take the spotlight. “I felt kinda embarrassed to appear to be trying to DJ in England because it was such a scene there. I felt like you had to emerge and be good at it, be ‘woiii!’ To be honest, it was a huge boys’ club.”

Over in the Pacific northwest, not only were expectations diminished, but genre purity wasn’t prioritised either. So they shut themself away and practised, learning DJ tricks and routines, and figuring out oddball blends with 12”s gleaned from thrift stores. “It was this dancer attitude I had instilled in me,” they say. “You have to practise, you must keep doing it, if you stop you fall off. It’s regimented.” It wasn’t just the rigour of ballet school that helped drive CCL’s technique. Years of grazing on different cultures had left them with a voracious, endlessly curious musical appetite, and they slowly figured out a way to channel their restlessness into coherent, kinetic medleys that resist dancefloor conservatism at every opportunity. “I really value uniqueness, because so much shit sounds exactly the same.” They pause for a moment. “There’s this thread in my life – I keep being confronted with rewards for conformity. It’s one of the things I hate most, it makes me bleurgh.”

Initially, CCL was hesitant to play at their own nights, instead choosing to spin at dive bars until the time was right. “I’d put all my records in a laundry bin and roll up with my own turntables and a mixer, and play the most random ass tunes to people screaming in a bar. Then, slowly, either other people started booking me, or very occasionally, I’d play at Research nights if I felt like I was really the best fit. But that wasn’t often the case.”

"I've realised, from sound system culture, that I have a very wide interpretation what bass music is"

When they moved to Berlin in late 2019, CCL was burnt out. They’d been promoting, performing and working multiple jobs, often sleeping under their desk – the American dream. The work-life balance in the German capital seemed different, and lockdown gave them some time to reflect and take stock. “I had free time for the first time in my life, it was crazy,” they say. “I finally had a more healthy attitude towards doing things. More exploratory, not just practising.”

The minimal techno-dominated club landscape, however, wasn’t hitting the spot. As Covid restrictions eased and they began performing again, they realised their genre-agnostic blends and kitschy sensibilities were too antagonistic for mainstream Berlin clubgoers. So CCL started their own night at the popular micro-club, Ohm. Called Subglow, it’s one of the city’s most mind-bending showcases; the next event will have cult Dutch virtuoso DJ Marcelle in the headline spot.

“The throughline is music that has bass, and that influence as a central theme, but it can mean so many things,” they explain. “I’ve realised, from sound system culture, that I have a very wide interpretation of what bass music is.” In the next few months, they’re also turning Subglow into a record label with the same philosophy. They’ll be releasing a “math rock-y” 12” from a Bristol-based producer – “it’s definitely so me” – and finally letting the world hear more of their own productions, which have been annoyingly thin on the ground. “My music has taken so many different weird turns, and often I feel like I’ll never be fully formed,” they admit. “Honestly, some of those horrible tendencies come from the ballet world – you must be this finished, perfect thing. But I’ve been thinking I’ve got to let go of that.”