Peddling the Dark Arts

Spannered meets the Warlock of south London, and is relieved to find he's neither an oathbreaker nor a male witch


Warlock is in fact one Jason McDowell — some may find his music a little scary, but there's certainly no need to burn him at the stake. Those who followed the UK's techno scene in its heyday will remember the Warlock from his A&R stint at Kickin Records, where he conjured up classic compilations such as Techno Nations and Underground London/Underground UK. He was also a regular spinner at Knowedge and Eurobeat 2000, and many other seminal clubs that embodied the vibrancy of the country's techno scene during the mid-nineties.
Fast-forward to 2007 and McDowell is making waves with a dark, broken, bass-heavy sound that inhabits the fringes of London's most exciting underground electronic styles. With his latest release ready to drop on Rag & Bone Records, which he runs with long-time partner-in-crime Noyeahno, Spannered donned its protective amulet and tracked him down at his south London base.
 You can listen to Warlock's recent Mutant Dubz mix here.
Tell us a bit about your history. When did you start making music?
I first started making music in about ’95 — that’s when I first got some equipment and started working it all out for myself. I was working down at Kickin Records just before that, A&R-ing and sort of running the label — signing stuff, doing compilations… They had a studio there, so I spent a bit of time in there, working things out – and then got a bit of kit myself.
It didn’t really appeal to me to start with, to be honest. I was DJing from about ’89 and I was more just into playing… I had quite a few opportunities before that; I did some stuff in the studio with a couple of drum ‘n’ bass people — A Sides and Optical. This was before Optical was Optical – then he was a guy making techno; A Sides was doing drum’n’bass and hardcore. I went in the studio with them a few times, but it didn’t really grab me straight away — I was just kind of focusing on the DJing.
Wasn’t one of your first tracks made with some of the Spiral Tribe crew?
Yeah, that was around that sort of time. I was working with a guy called Sebastian from Spiral Tribe [69db] — he’s done loads of their releases; he’s like the main producer alongside Crystal Distortion. They were based over in a squat in Hackney for a little while, and we had one session one night and they released the track on a twelve. I think it was only ever a white label of 500 copies — it was a really hard and fast track, but quite minimal. The other side was a really good track two guys called Unknown Source, who were making really banging techno, verging on gabber. But it was the same thing — working with other people who know the controls; I wanted to learn the equipment so you don’t have to mediate through someone else.
The techno compilations you put together at Kickin Records were classics. You must be proud of achievements like that…
In recent years I’ve become a bit more proud of what I did there. It was always quite a battle when I was working at Kickin, because they were a record label, trying to making some money, turnover, profit, et cetera — and I was coming along with this underground music I really believed in and they were like ‘ooh, well, it ain’t gonna sell loads’. We managed to find a bit of a middle ground, but they were always trying to push me in more of a commercial direction. The last few years, I’ve been in second-hand record shops and seen the compilations going for, well, not loads of money, but enough to make it seem like a worthy piece of the past. I learnt a lot from there — when I started working there I knew nothing about the workings of the music industry from the point of view of running a record label. I learnt about pressing up records, manufacturing, promotion, the legal side of stuff — and now I’m running the label it’s all really useful.
Having been heavily involved with the techno scene at that time, what are your thoughts on that scene now, ten years on? Why do you think its popularity has dropped off so much?
I think the reason I moved on from that scene is that it became very boring, and very limited. It became very loop-orientated — people just writing four-bar loops, and then just jamming on that. Which is fine to a certain level, but everything just got, well…
Stuck in a loop?
Yes, literally just stuck in a loop — it really was. The biggest talking point was ‘oh wow, they’ve changed their hi-hats’. That was how much development was going on. I’m kind of surprised that there’s still a scene there doing the same thing — it’s changed a little bit, but not that much. Techno is such a loose term nowadays though — it applies to many different things. But that old style of techno, it’s kind of done its thing really. I must admit, I’ve heard people like Surgeon who are still playing some of that style, but they’re experimenting and blurring the boundaries a lot more — he’s been playing some of our Rag & Bone stuff over the last year or so, which has been really interesting since we both used to play on the same scene, went our separate ways, and now there’s some convergence again. I myself have been rediscovering some Surgeon and British Murder Boys tracks over the last couple of years.
As a DJ you started out playing acid house. What path has your DJing taken since then?
I’ve moved through quite a lot of different genres really — the reason being that I’ve always wanted to exist at the new frontiers of music, wherever that may be. That’s what excites me – new music that’s challenging what’s going on. From acid house that was a natural progression into Euro, hardcore, early drum ‘n’ bass… and then it was a battle between drum ‘n’ bass and techno, and I took the techno route. Then went into the new electro thing, and got kind of bored of that, and a lot of the breakbeat stuff was coming through, which was quite interesting; and from that into all this back-end of garage/dubstep stuff. But it’s the same thing — just driven by new, exciting music. Now, to be honest, I’m at a point where I think a lot of dubstep — though it’s still a very exciting period – is getting successful and people are realising there’s a formula and sticking to it; but this is a process that every genre of music goes through at some point. There’s still good music coming out, but I’m looking more to the fringes, at what else is going on.
Dubstep has had a big impact on the UK’s electronic music scene in the last few years, especially in London. How does Rag & Bone fit into all that?
We’ve always been on the fringes of it with the label, before many people even knew about the label or what dubstep was. From the first release, it [the label] had kind of dubstep, garagey influences, and techno as well — and there are probably not that many people doing that. Some of our tracks get support from the dubstep scene, radio DJs et cetera, but we’ve always been on the fringes — and I’m quite happy with that really, because you’re not tied to anything. That’s why we set up Starksound actually. Partly because of really being inspired by dubstep, but also partly to go against any formulas. Lots of people are inspired by dubstep but they’re not really part of it, or won’t ever be part of it, but they’re really inspired to make beats like that, combined with their own backgrounds — whether it’s electronic, electro, techno, breakcore or whatever.
There is quite a rave atmosphere to the events…
Yes. A lot of people criticise dubstep for being slow and quite boring — and it’s certainly a bit of an acquired taste — but when you go down to somewhere like DMZ and there is a packed venue of people really up for that kind of music, it does really kick off like a rave. People are jumping up and down, hanging on every bassline — it’s brilliant to see that a music so challenging can have that kind of effect.
You have strong ties with the free party scene. What’s the connection there?
Yes, since the early nineties — all the parties that came about just after the Criminal Justice Bill. From playing techno, I was in contact with a lot of people, like Spiral Tribe, Bedlam… People would always call me up to play, and I was always up for playing. There were some brilliant parties organised, in some amazing venues — massive rigs, and full of people. I didn’t do much in the late nineties, but then after 2000 I hooked up with people like Dead Silence; we’ve done a lot of parties with Dead Silence — mad parties in mad locations, dotted around the country. I remember one in a quarry, which was pretty cool, which went on for about three days.
The UK’s free party scene got a lot of mainstream press last year, with many newspapers proclaiming ‘the return of rave’. But then it never really went away, did it?
Exactly. It was really funny to see that — I think it was last summer. It’s kind of good that they haven’t really been paying attention. I can’t remember what it was last year — something sparked the interest; I can’t remember if it was a drug link or something else.
London’s party scene has had quite a bad rep over the last few years muggings, fights, ketamine… Surely the music struggles a bit to shine through in environments like this?
Unfortunately with London free parties, people from all sorts of levels have got wise to these things going on. Obviously, the beauty of a free party is that it’s an environment where there’s no control, and everyone is free to do what they want, in a hippy sort of sense. That’s all very nice, but there are some people who have realised ‘oh, we can come along and take advantage here’. So unscrupulous characters have come along, tried mugging people… And you mentioned about ketamine — I’m not really into that at all, and I’m not really into what it does to a party — if people are on that, they just look so vulnerable; it’s just easy pickings for people who are that way inclined.
There was a really nice party up in Tottenham, up on the marshes; it was a great location — a massive long-grass field area, surrounded by all these industrial buildings, factories, refineries… that kind of thing. There were about three or four systems, and it was all really cool, but then people got wise that the party was going on, and loads of people got mugged. People were doing bars — you know, selling beer at sensible prices — and they ended up getting all their money taken, stuff like that. It’s an unfortunate thing. But I think when people take their parties out of the city, those who are going to do unscrupulous things aren’t going to travel, and as a result the parties have a nicer safer vibe.
Have you been putting parties on recently, legal or otherwise?
No not recently. For parties, the ones we’ve done, we’ve taken the legal route — because we don’t have a soundsystem. I’d like to have a soundsystem, and pursue that path, but you can only do so much in life, and in some ways it’s better to leave it to the people that are dedicated to doing it. We’re dedicated to DJing and running a label, which is why we’ve put the club nights on the back burner for a while. Doing club nights is a lot of work; we really love doing it — it’s great, because you get to curate the party completely how you would like it — but unfortunately you’re in the party organising it, so you don’t really get to appreciate it quite in the same way. But watch this space as we’re looking at getting something off the ground again soon.
You seem to have been playing a fair bit on internet radio of late. Is that the case?
Yeah, a bit. I’m thinking of doing something regular with Noyeahno but haven’t got around to sorting it out. I haven’t found a radio station that I’d be totally happy with. With internet radio… I don’t know… only a certain amount of people seem to listen. I played on pirate radio, which I really liked, and knew lots of people were listening,
Didn’t you have your own pirate station at the end of the 80s?
For about four months, when I was at college. I managed to link up with a guy who was studying electrical engineering. I told him I’d really like to run a radio station, and he said ‘oh, I can get a transmitter kit from this electronics magazine’, so we did — and had a great time. He just wanted the buzz of setting up a radio station, and I just wanted the buzz of having one and playing on it. It was quite a low-level thing; it had a radius of a couple of miles, and was just me and a load of college mates who were into DJing.
Pirate radio still plays an important role in the spread of new music. Would you say internet radio is a long way off superseding the medium in that respect?
The thing with radio on the airwaves is that you just have to turn the radio on. Everyone’s got a radio, so it’s one switch and you’re there, whereas internet radio is a bit more of a fiddle — you have to know about it, in amongst the whole myriad of internet radio stations, be familiar with the technology and so on. But I do think it’s a brilliant thing — you’ve got the global reach. A lot of London pirates anyway are doing their pirate broadcast and also doing an internet stream — which at this point in time is probably the best thing to do; you’ve built up a local reputation in your area, and then people around the world want to know about you, so they check out your stream.
There seem to be a fair few sites cropping up now, just to archive radio shows like Barefiles for example.
Have you checked out Barefiles recently? The guy who was running it has closed it down. It [Barefiles] was a brilliant idea.
It was. I sent him a fiver.
I think there were issues with some of the artists and DJs from Rinse FM — a large part of what he was doing was archiving Rinse FM shows. Management of some of the artists were complaining that a lot of their music was being downloaded for free, et cetera.
It’s a bit ironic, when you’ve got a pirate station complaining about someone hosting recordings of their pirate station.
It wasn’t the people from the station; I think it was the management of the artists and DJs — they weren’t too happy about it. Although I’m not totally sure... It’s a shame really. The files aren’t that great quality — an FM stereo broadcast is technically about 96 kbps, so it’s not even that good a recording. What with interference and so on, I don’t think it’s really going to comprise record buyers that much. There’s a whole debate that’s going on in the music industry at the moment. It’s good promotion really, especially for loads of people abroad. Rinse FM is a good example: it’s a London pirate, playing a lot of dubstep; people around the world have been listening to it, and you can tell, because there are now dubstep producers appearing from all over the world, like Scandinavia, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand; and they’re all making tracks which are definitely comparable to what’s going on in London — and they’re a million miles away. It shows you, in this age, the power of internet radio. In my earlier days of being into music, you’d hear someone who was trying to make their interpretation of a London sound or an England sound, but it wasn’t quite right — it was like second or third-hand. But people listening to Rinse FM, they’re listening to DJs playing dubplates of tunes that are unreleased, probably made that week, hearing them, processing those same ideas and going in the studio there and then.
Have you made digital versions of the Rag & Bone back catalogue available?
There are mp3s for sale on a few sites, like Juno, and Additech in the States. In terms of it affecting vinyl sales, I don’t think it’s affecting us because we operate at quite a low level anyway; we’re quite underground and niche market. We would like to be selling more records, but we don’t need to sell a minimum of 2,000 copies or anything like that to get by.
Quite a few labels are saying ‘that’s it, we’re moving purely to an mp3 platform, because we can’t afford to carry on’. Do you think that means their music isn’t good enough, or just not sellable enough?
Well, it is tricky. In another six months or another year, I could be saying ‘oh, it’s affecting us now’. This sort of debate has been going on for the past two or three years, and we’ve been fine during that time. We’re not selling loads of records, but we’re selling enough to keep the label going. At the end of the day I really like the sound of vinyl. Technically it’s not as good quality as a CD, but when you take it into a club environment, when you’re playing a record over a soundsystem, there’s something about the physical connection of a stylus to a record, and the resonance that comes from that… There’s also the actual vinyl process, when you put something onto vinyl. It’s like pottery – when you’ve got this raw clay, you put it into shape, you put a glaze on it, put it in the oven… and when it comes out it’s got that seal — that’s what vinyl’s like; it gives the music that seal, like an extra warmth. As long as we’re playing music on big soundsystems in clubs very loud, that’s always going to sound better, in my opinion.
Each Rag & Bone release sounds pretty different to the last. Would you say this is where many labels fall down, by sticking rigidly to one sound?
Definitely. The first few records we put out — there would be an electro track, a breaks track, a kind of garage/grime/dubstep track — I remember taking it to a few distributors and they were saying ‘you can’t do that, you’ve got to keep it to one style or it’ll confuse everyone’. I was like ‘no way’. I buy records, and I know what I like in terms of buying records, so I try to make and release records that I would buy. We quite like putting out challenging things. There have been a couple of points where we’ve felt the label was becoming defined, and we thought ‘oh, we can’t put that out because it’s not Rag & Bone’. But then we’re like ‘no, we’re not like that at all’. We want to put out what we like, because we think it’s good. One of the releases — the FZV — it fitted into Rag & Bone in terms of style, but it was a bit harder. I thought some of our distributors might not get it, but we really liked that release and we’re glad we put it out. The whole ethos behind the label — I run it with Stacey [Noyeahno] — has been about combining all our past and present influences.
Are you getting sent much music?
Yeah, getting sent a lot of demos. It’s just with the advent of MySpace. People are approaching us via MySpace… and just from being on MySpace; there are a couple of things I’ve come across that are just brilliant — I’m now DJing with them. Only last night I was going through MySpace’s approving friends and that kind of malarkey, and came across this guy from Hungary — the tunes are brilliant, on a dubstep tip in the same vein as Vex’d. I’ve asked if he can send me a CD.
What’s lined up for the label in the near future then?
We’ve got quite a lot lined up actually. We’ve just got TPs of a new one I’ve done. There are a couple of things we’re finalising, such as an EP from Aaron Spectre — he’s just finishing off a couple of tracks for us. I’ve been talking to Drop The Lime as well — pretty much got a finalised 12 from him — and then we’re probably going to do another Blackmass Plastics 12 as well, and there are some other artists which I can’t name yet. And with Starksound, the new label, potentially we’ve another four releases lined up.
And finally: London do you ever see yourselves leaving there?
Maybe one day. I did actually go off travelling for a couple of years, to have a break from, well, not just London, but everything that was going on in my life really. I went away with Stacey, and towards the end of being away we laid down plans for the label, came back, were quite inspired from being away and got on the case with it. It’s not like world domination or anything, but we’ve got a little project going on that we’re quite happy with. Maybe one day we’ll leave London, but I’m quite happy at the moment. As grim as this place can be sometimes, it’s where things are going on — and I like that.
 Listen to Warlock's Mutant Dubz mix
 Warlock's Window Smasher is released on 21 May on Rag & Bone Records
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