Beat Spacek is the latest solo incarnation of UK vocalist and producer Steve Spacek. Having invited much attention at the turn of the century with his broken soul project, Spacek, as well as numerous collaborations with the likes of J.Dilla and Mark Pritchard (as one half of Africa HiTech ), Spacek now finds himself exploring incandescent territory all on his own. Out on the heroic urban label, Ninja Tune, Modern Streets is a masterpiece of fragmentary excursions that delve deep into crepuscular states of being. Spacek’s voice paces back and forth across the mid-range like an impatient skag dealer; impudent beats soundtracking his rattled paranoia. It’s an album that rests on foundations laid down by Cheshire Cat bass and held together thanks to melancholy euphony and flashes of lyrical insight. Like with most good records, its beauty becomes apparent on repeated listens.
Framing itself against a backdrop of London’s New Cross in the 1980s, Steve Spacek’s latest solo offering takes a haunted look at the future to come. At a time when the overall landscape of popular music reveals itself to be predominantly impoverished pastiche, Modern Streets shines through like diamond weapon. It’s not as if moments of reference do not weigh in on Steve Spacek’s dissonant palette, like the electrified Ghanian Highlife trip on Tonight, for example. They do, but Spacek prefers to use these ideas as a springboard to launch his music into the future, rather than a bed on which to mourn the recent past. We caught up with Spacek over some virtual tea and biscuits to pose some questions regarding history, technology and ancient Greek philosophy.
Backseat Mafia: I came across Modern Streets accidentally, when shopping for the new Aphex Twin record at Soho’s Sounds of the Universe. The sales assistant mixed up the CDs (the on-body artwork for both is black), but I’m very happy that she did, because it opened up a new wormhole for me. Do you have any anecdotes regarding happy accidents? Or unfortunate ones, for that matter?
Steve Spacek: I suppose happy accidents are something to look out for when making music. Especially when working with electronic gear. You want to always incorporate them, as they add that human touch, for sure. They inspire you to work and think outside the box too. Originally, when I was at the beginning stages of making Modern Streets, Ninja Tune was the record label I had in mind for it from the off. Anyways, I was in Melbourne a few years back doing a DJ gig at a real cool spot called The Warehouse Project. Alex Nut of Eglo Records was there too with Floating Point and, of course, Fatima. Good peeps! I was talking to Nut about the new record, telling him about my interest in maybe doing the album for Ninja and, as it happens, he was consulting for them at that time, doing a bit of A&R. From then on it was happening. Definitely a bit of a happy accident there, I reckon!
BM: Do you often factor in mistakes or chance operations when working ‘in the box’? If so, have you experienced any difficulties in balancing the sleek with the dirty?
SS: Balancing the sleek with the dirty is a good way of putting it! Without that, there’s no excitement for me. I’m always looking for the juxtaposition in making music. Without that, it can come across a bit 2D for me. Also, there’s one function I always use, if I’m writing in Logic (DAW). I’m not sure what it’s called, but it is invaluable to me. Basically, once you hit play, there’s a buffer that’s always recording your MIDI strokes in the background. So what that means is, if you “happily, accidentally” play something that you like, you can hit the button and it will magically appear! As opposed to stopping, trying to remember what you just did, arming record and hoping you can replicate that exact same feeling or emotion, which is near impossible. I’m always talking about channeling ideas and this is a definite help in that respect.
BM: Modern Streets was largely created using iPhone and iPad apps. To what extent has this method of working shape the conceptual structure of the record?
SS: As I just touched on previously, the apps allow me to channel my ideas quickly and effectively. Most of my favourite apps hardly need any setting up to get into a vibe. The moment you click, you can be making music almost immediately. Conceptually, I suppose it has meant that when you are listening to the record, you are hearing the very first representation of all of my ideas. Even most of the vocals would have originally been guides, that have ended being the final takes, seeing as I could never begin to replicate those. So why even bother. I just print it as it comes out!
BM: In his treatise on pop culture’s fear of the future, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (2011), Simon Reynolds considers contemporary black music to be last bastion of futurism in the 21st Century. Everybody else seems to be busy reinterpreting the past, but your work makes subtle references to the past in order to comment on the future. How important is it for you to embrace new technologies and seek out forward-thinking avenues with respect to music making?
SS: This is very important for me. I hear a lot of talk about how everything being done now has already been done and that there is nothing new in music. If I believed that one, then I’d have stopped a long time ago! Within those twelve notes, I believe, there are infinite places to explore. You look at house music, for instance. It’s designed around the four-four beats. Yet, as soon as you take, say, the forth kick out, you still have what you can describe as house, but with a slightly different emotion. Programme a straight up house beat and try taking out the second and forth kick… man, you can go so many places. It’s almost a joke that you don’t hear enough of it! Not to say peeps are not doing this. It’s just that the industry does not promote variety. It’s all about homogenisation; keeping things the same so as to not freak people out, because they are all stupid and won’t know what is going on?! Another thing I would say is that so many people have no love or respect for new music. Yet, if you ask them, they’d tell you that, yes, they have a very eclectic taste in music, provided it doesn’t go past the sixties, seventies and eighties? Well, most of those amazing musicians, singers, songwriters and producers past were doing exactly what I love. They were using the very state of the art gear to make music that they felt was totally new, forward thinking and futuristic. That’s why that music has stood the test of time. They were always looking forward. I think a lot of people either are not aware of this or have just forgotten.
BM: There is evidence of fragility and innocence on the record and for the most part, I get an image of the bitter post-club 5am loneliness one experiences after a long night out. What did you see when putting the album together? What images spring forth when listening back to the album?
SS: Well there was definitely a load of late nights, that’s for sure! I suppose, for me, I’m always imagining how the music would sound in all the places I like to hear music like, of course, Plastic People down there in Curtain Road, East London. Sadly, recently closed down. I also like to imagine hearing my music through the ears of someone who I know and respect (in regards to music). That’s always an interesting exercise. It allows me to step outside of myself for a moment.
BM: Lastly, you mention wanting to ‘understand Socrates’ on I Want You. What have you been reading recently and how has it informed your working/research process?
SS: So the lyric goes: “I just want to understand the subtleties / I wish that I could read your mind / I know that the words reside right in front of me, / Yet still I fail to heed the signs”. I love when people interpret the words in my songs as something else! I do it myself, with my own songs, would you believe! Take the track Modern Streets. In the hook, I’m actually singing “these are the London streets”. But it always sounded like I was saying modern as opposed to London. Also, at the end of the second verse where I sing “as they were going to eat / Careless walking around in bare feet”. I like to swap bare feet with defeat. Hey go figure!
Modern Streets is out now on Ninja Tune. Photography by Mclean Stephenson.