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MilaneseBreaded Meats, Shredded Beats
Spannered's Derek Szeto taps up music producer Steve Milanese for studio tips and real ale recommendations
By Derek Szeto aka Mortgage Junglist
The city of Birmingham has long history of spewing forth dark, menacing music, from the nosebleed metal of Black Sabbath and Napalm Death to the frazzled and frenzied electronics of Scorn, Surgeon, Regis and PCM. Originally from London, Birmingham resident Steve Milanese has few ties with his local music scene, and even fewer with the aforementioned artists, yet the music he makes is some of the most intense, hard-hitting and futuristic material currently coming out of the city — or anywhere for that matter.
Milanese builds startlingly complex, abrasive rhythms, referencing styles such as jungle, techno, electro, dubstep and grime, but stamping out a sonic footprint clearly his own — a clanking, hissing take on dancefloor electronica, where B-movie samples and mangled ragga vocals swell among crashing beats, and snarling basslines head straight for the jugular.
Since his debut release, Cognac on Various Production in 2003, Milanese has appeared on Warp, Arcola, Planet Mu, Seed, MG77 and Combat Recordings. His first full-length album, Extend, dropped like an anvil last year on Mike Paradinas' Planet Mu imprint, pulling together vicious grime workouts, haunting techno and gritty sound design. The end of this month sees tracks from Extend chopped up and reconstructed by the likes of Clark, Hrdvsion and DJ Distance, and released on Planet Mu as a remix EP entitled Adapt.
On the eve of the release date, Derek Szeto, aka the Mortgage Junglist, talks to the Brummy Londoner about his production techniques, life in the UK's second city and the troublesome task of finding a decent pint.
Photography: Matt Burden
So then, what have you been up to the past six hours?
So then, what have you been up to the past six hours?
I had a meeting about doing the music for the trailer of a horror film, and was getting drunk afterwards with my old mate One Eye. Dunno if the trailer thing is gonna happen but the film looks brutal and it would be loads of fun. The drink was nice; lovely sunny day, but man too many pubs cannot serve a decent pint of ale — what is that about?
What defines a good ale? Give examples.
So this is gonna be the first thing people read about me? Haha, okay: Old Peculiar is great but you don’t wanna get drunk on it — get some over winter and drink it near a fire. Fursty Ferret is nice and smokey; Bitter and Twisted is lush — it has a citrus aftertaste (hence the name). Deuchars IPA is my favourite at the moment though; cheers to Mr Landstrumm for introducing me to it. Don’t get it from the Edinboro Castle in Camden Town though, ‘cos they don’t have a clue how to serve it. I don’t get as much of a hangover with ales as I do with lagers, that’s why I started drinking them.
Okay, back to that film… A while back, Jamie from Vex’d also talked about working with sounds for Manga (or more accurately, anime — Japanese animation films). It’s sorely needed: proper futuristic sounds for futuristic films. For example, The Matrix had such an appalling soundtrack...
The music in The Matrix is rubbish yeah. It’s a big bucks Hollywood film — what did you expect. The ‘Hollywood techno’ in a lot of films is dire, but they’re trying to appeal to the mainstream, and the studios think most people don’t want to hear real techno. Bear in mind that if you did shove some mad techno into a film like The Matrix it might stand out for being too good, if you know what I mean? The sound design in The Matrix is top notch though.Your Seed label buddies Digitonal did a superb re-score of The Shining. Which films could you see yourself making sound for?
I haven’t heard that — sounds great. It would be really good to do the music or sound for some genre of film that made me do something totally different. I’m all for sci-fi or horror stuff if it’s done well, but trying to avoid the cliches would be a nightmare. How about some rude boy grime in a period drama man — that’s where it’s at, haha.It might bring in a few more pennies too. With copying and downloading so rampant these days, it can be easier to earn money through making sound for films, and even ringtones…
You can just put any old mp3 on your phone and use it as a ringtone now, though; I’ve got a Dabrye tune on mine at the moment, the one with Beans on it. Not the best bars he’s done but the beats are rough. Warp started to sell their catalogue as ringtones through bleep.com — don’t think that took off though.What kind of music were you making before appearing on Arcola and Warp?
Before Warp/Arcola I was working with Adam from Various Production, doing all sorts of little bits and pieces, recording and mixing a few things for other people… We did some music for a Stella McCartney fashion show; not sure how that went down I wasn’t there. I was experimenting with stuff by myself, doing weird electro and techno mixed with R&B or elements of jungle. Before I signed with Warp I had only been out of uni for three or four years and was still getting to grips with acousmatic music and trying to get it into dancefloor stuff. Cognac was my first release, in 2003; I wrote it after hearing the Brandy track What About Us?; it was Rodney Jerkins’ incredible production that inspired me there.Tell us about your output on various labels? eg. Shockout, Seed, Combat…
I like writing in lots of different styles; I’m not just going to write dubstep, grime or jungle all the time — I’d like every track to be different, unless I feel there’s more to say within a specific area. That’s why it takes me so long to make any music. So I guess it makes sense to release different things with different people. But really it’s not as contrived as that; different things have come up at different times and I’ve either been able to do it or not. Kid 606 approached me about doing a mashup with some vocals he had for Shockout. That was fun — it enabled me to do something that was slow and heavy but with a fun little melody I already made of feedback from an electric guitar. Back when Seed was still functioning before it imploded, Josh was always up for starting new projects and doing interesting things like the 5x5 series. Dunno if you’ll be able to find it now but the free mp3 thing Seed did to promote their Soviet night in 2006 had a really weird track I did on it. It was really bouncy abstract pop with guitars and big analog bleeps, called Seedy Sadako. I might give it away on my site one day. And I requested to do a remix of the Cursor Miner track on Combat, ‘cos it was so rough.Adapt and Extend are out on Planet Mu. How did that link come about? How would the album have sounded if you went with a different label, and how do you think that would that have affected your audience?
Before I hooked up with Mu I was talking to a couple of other labels: Bpitch, Sublight and Schematic. I’m really into what all of them are doing but ultimately thought it was best for Extend and Adapt to be on a UK label, as they are heavily UK-influenced. I wrote most of the material before sending it out, so the records wouldn’t have been any different had they been on another label; I wanted the LP to be built as much by myself as possible. As for the audience and how that might have been different, I have no idea; I get less IDM geeks at my shows now, haha. Not sure what’s next though — gonna have to stop doing shows and hide away for a while to do something different.For Deadman Walking (on Extend), what was it like working with the Virus Syndicate?
Wicked, couldn’t have been easier; they emailed me the vocal and I wrote the tune. Have to shout out to the Sequence lads in Manchester for putting me and Virus on the same night in ‘05 — the track wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t meet then. Nice one lads, brapple init.The gigs seem to have really kicked off since the Extend album. Describe the maddest place you’ve played?
Malta is the most amazing place I’ve played; the people that brought me out there weren’t really promoters, just a group of mates who’re into electronic music and saw me at Glade. It was wicked fun hanging out with them, much more like chilling with a bunch of friends, and the party was mental; people were freaking out all over the place, dancing on tables and shit. Had breakfast the next morning at a cafe sitting outside overlooking the sea from a cliff — I didn’t want to leave. Played at an old iron mine factory in Sweden, the Norberg Festival — that was amazing too.Any funny tour stories?
All the funny stories tend to be unrepeatable in interviews though, sorry.Some of your US listeners have been asking if you have plans to tour the states?
I’ve had a few people ask me that, but no, no plans; no one’s made any offers. Be good to get over there one day though — such a bonkers country. I reckon I’d have a better chance of finding trainers I like over there, haha. I can’t buy Nike shit or any of the big name sweatshop brands; I really want to just get a dozen pairs of Dada Solesonic Force trainers, but you only get them in the States or Japan now.I have a press release that says you’re a qualified trombone player. Have you considered busking?
Yes, haha. To clarify I only played the trombone for about three months, when I was at school, a long, long time ago. I don’t play any instrument now; I played the piano for about 13 years, the violin for about seven years, the trumpet for a while too. My girlfriend’s got a really nice piano, so I might get back to it one day.So, tell us about the vibe in your two albums on Planet Mu, Extend (September 2006) and Adapt (May 2007).
For the two years that it took to write Extend, my house being a building site for months while I did ceilings and walls etc., having no job for ages after the house was finished and eventually getting a job that was really shitty… that all made me pretty crazy, and that’s partially why Extend is so aggressive.Anger can be a good source of energy for creativity. Paradoxically, I find that harsh music releases stress both from the person making it, and from people listening to it. My neighbours probably disagree though.
I bet they do; give it to em.Absolutely. Anyway, what kind of shitty day job did you take on?
I was teaching at an inner city college. Some of the students were always trying to fight each other, bringing weapons in and stuff — I had to step in a few times. It was quite an intense job and not a lot positive came from that year, although some of the kids made it through. This year is better though; many of the people I’m teaching realise that what I’m showing them means they might not have to get a job in Tesco for the rest of their life.What musical influences went into Extend?
Musically the influences were from all over the place: hearing bits of garage in kebab shops and jungle on pirates, some acousmatic or sonic art music, old techno, trance and hip hop.I could be wrong, but some of the structures in the tunes hint at jazz. Do you have a favourite jazz musician?
Some of my tracks have a very standard pop song or dance music structure, but with elements out of place and very odd sounds; some of it takes a technique or structural device from a style or genre like minimalism and that forms the basis. Trying to vary the structure of my music is a challenge; I find myself really wanting to comply subconsciously with cultural templates, where I want things to progress in a certain way to follow convention. At the same time, I’m not interested in doing something completely different — more a gradual subversion or experiment on a style. I like a lot of Herbie Hancock stuff, and Pharoah Sanders is really cool; I guess you could say that in some way my music takes cues from jazz, but it doesn’t sound like jazz at all. A tune might go beyond what you’d normally expect from a house track or whatever; it evolves into something different and ends up somewhere else entirely. I never played any jazz on the piano — a lot of classical, romantic era and 20th century stuff though.That’s quite a wide range of influences. On a dancefloor level, were there any particular or events/raves that really shaped your tunes?
Hmm, gonna embarrass myself here. I used to go to Megatripolis in the early 90s — hahahaha — just discovering house, techno, trance and hardcore, then jungle. But slightly earlier than that, when I was into guitar music, I went to see Ozric Tentacles in Kentish Town. They played and the gig was cool, but afterwards someone gave me a bong and Eat Static came on; that was the first time I heard trance/techno very loud, and I entered a strange place that I’ve never returned from — a world within a world, haha. I was just absolutely stunned — it was the best thing I’d ever heard. I’ve still got that Abduction cassette they did in 93; I listened to it the other day when I was painting the kitchen… still like it. I also remember going to see Orbital at a New Years Eve Megadog rave in 93 — I was really, really into the Brown Album then — the rave was insanity; me and my mates got into such a state I can’t even say. Bandulu at Megatripolis were wicked; Underworld were good back then too — their Dubnobass... LP was great. I think the first Trance Europe Express compilation was my introduction to a lot of artists. Then came the dirt of squatter parties, dancing to filthy techno in weird places like the Camden Parkway cinema or the university building in Kentish Town; I DJ’d at a few too, but wasn’t much good — I just played the hardest & darkest jungle I could find, or very, very fast trancey acid. London in the 90s was wicked; I’m sure I saw Mike P somewhere as µ-Ziq, may have even seen The Black Dog, but really a lot of this time is a blur.Adapt has an unusual assortment of remixers — all top notch but very different in style; how were they chosen?
Chris (Clark) did a remix of So Malleable a couple of years ago — he plays it out live sometimes but we never got around to releasing it; we talked about it the other day and both still want to put it out. Anyway, after I wrote Mr Bad News he was well up for doing something with that — I think he likes working with the kind of vocals and samples I make for those kind of tracks. I also wanted to do something more with it, so I reworked it into Mr Good News. I got in touch with Nathan (Hrdvsion) on the internet, as Chris had met him and spoke very highly of him — he seemed like a nice geezer and his music was beezer. I sent him some tracks and he offered to remix one. Greg’s (Distance) remix we had already from the Dead Man Walking 12”; I asked Greg ‘cos his stuff on Mu was wicked and thought he could bring a more dancefloor element to the track. There’s also the one by Venger, this guy who just started giving me CDs at gigs — they were pretty good and we got along quite well. I gave him the parts to a couple of tracks to see how they’d turn out; I really liked one so we put it on there. So the EP sort of developed like that, along with the tracks that I remixed, as there are things that I wanted to say with them that I hadn’t on Extend.Other than those mentioned, which other artists do you find interesting, and why?
I’m looking forward to getting the new Bjork album — if I could remix or work with any artist if would definitely be her. Recently I’ve been listening to the new Timbaland album — it’s well cheesy but some of it is the best pop music I’ve heard in years. There are about three tracks on there that are incredible and I can’t stop listening to them. Respect to Timbo for making The Way I Are, Bounce and Scream, ‘cos they’re wicked. Found that Deathprod Treetop Drive EP last year — that’s beautiful; also the Dabrye album 2/3 is a favourite too.The vibe of the tracks seems to sit in between music you’d listen to at home and on booming club soundsystems. When you produce, do specific listening environments spring to mind?
Yeah, that’s the different influences in me fighting it out or (as they should be) fusing together. I write most material to work on a dancefloor and on headphones/hifi. I want the dancefloor stuff I write to also be intricate and varied enough to withstand repeated listens on headphones. Whether it works in both contexts or not I don’t know; sometimes the more adventurous DJs manage to play my tracks but much of Extend is probably just too weird for the average dancefloor, except Caramel Cognac — that’s a party tune, and Double Face on Adapt as well.Tell us about the fearsome electronified ragga vocals in your tracks. Where do the voices on Mr Bad News, Billy Hologram etc. come from? Were they picked for their texture and vibe, or are the words saying something?
The words sometimes mean something, sometimes not ;-)Living in Birmingham, how’d you reckon a strong Brummie vocal would sit with future productions?
I am supposed to be doing a remix for an act called Disinvectant who are from Birmingham — great stuff, but I haven’t had time yet.Mr Good News (on Adapt) has plenty of weird hisses, clanks and indescribable noises, yet it functions well as a dancefloor track. How did it come together? Can you describe the process for making that tune?
It’s mainly down to two or three things: the bassline — how it was made and how it interacts with the drums — and then vocals. The bass sound was made for Peggy Flynn; it was a soft synth, nothing special, just a saw and a sine wave with a few other waves stacked and detuned. It had about 10 or 11 plug-ins on it to shape it and that’s why it sounds a bit nuts. Roughly something like this: eq > chorus > stereo imager > pitch shifter > reverb > compressor > low and high pass filters > overdrive/amp sim > eq > compression. Completely over-the-top processing, but it sounded mad. It was output to a buss with all the drums and they all get hugely compressed together, which is why the bass seems to bubble up out of the drums. I like it when different elements of a mix interact and force each other down. The vocals are mainly done by pitch shifting, ring modulation, a short metallic reverb and loads of compression — no really special hardware or expensive plug-ins, just lots of processing in a very specific order, which gives rise to the chaos. I think I’ve done enough tracks like that now … I’m going to be trying other stuff in the future I think. Especially seeing as there are others doing similar things now, even on Mu. Time to move on man.When starting a track, do you have any idea how something will turn out?
Rarely, it’s like a lottery man. I have an idea, start working towards it and then go off on some tangent after discovering some wicked new sound. That’s usually what its like, except with Caramel Cognac, Iacon, Sight Beyond Sight and Dead Man Walking. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with those and managed to stick to it.You’re a Londoner living in Birmingham. For the past few years at least, the party scene there hasn’t been as full-on as, say, Bristol or London. Has the city’s long-standing undercurrent of dark, mental music (Napalm Death, Scorn, Surgeon, Regis, etc.) influenced you at all?
There are a few things going on here — a couple of big weekends every year — but they never seem to put on the kind of people I like, and if you don’t go to those two big weekends, well, you’ve had your chips init. I’m quite happy to not go out raving here though; it means when I’m at home I’m concentrating on my own music. So no, the music of Birmingham or the scene here has not influenced me whatsoever; I’d probably be writing the same stuff had I been though the same shit in my everyday life if I’d been living in London still or Venezuela.On your MySpace, who is Crimpalength on your friend’s list, and will he/she be collaborating in the near future?
Crimpalength is Mr Millions’ Spanish cousin; they are not interested in creating music although that is not to say they don’t appreciate our culture. They just have bigger fish to fry; they’re all about the business.And to finish off… some other questions thrown in by some Milanese fans:
Tea or coffee?
Espresso in the morning or after supper, and cups of Earl Grey during the day. Different drinks for different situations, init.Spaceships or dinosaurs?
What kind of a question is that? I don’t have a spaceship or a dinosaur. I really hope space travel becomes possible for ordinary people before I get too old though — I’m well up for it. I’m not bothered about dinosaurs; you get some nice ones but, you can keep ‘em.What are there more of in the world: fish or beans?
Probably beans; fish stocks are going down, its bad; I don’t eat fish.Would you do an interview for Smash Hits?
Would be honored — can you hook it up? Let’s go man, that would be my big break surely! Haha.Does your name relate to the dialect from the region of Milan or the slices of meat and cheese covered in breadcrumbs?
It doesn’t really refer to anything now; at first it was about the meat and breadcrumbs, but now it’s become just an exclamation; if you say it with a lisp, like Milaneth, then it just sounds funny. A lot of Brits pronounce it Milaneze, which I don’t mind, but you should know the Italians are laughing at you.
With thanks to Mila’neth, Mr Million and Crazy Legs
Adapt is released on Planet Mu on 28 May
Listen to an unreleased version of Braggin' by Milanese, from 2001