Mancunian bass music producer talks about his unique sound, working with Martyn and his 3024 label, and more.

Interview: Illum Sphere

Photo by Eleanor Marechal
Interview conducted by Andrew Ryce


Manchester’s Illum Sphere, whose sound is a unique fusion styles both distinctly American and English, is one of the biggest bubbling-under artists for 2010. Making quite a splash with his bewitching Long Live The Plan EP on Fat City Records (with a counterpart follow-up soon to come), he was recently snatched up by Dutch denizen Martyn, who prominently featured a remix by Illum Sphere on his last EP. Currently 3024 is preparing to release Illum Sphere’s “Titan” on his own 3024 label, his best work yet. We chose “Titan” as our Dubstep/Bass Record of the Month for April and in our review we said that it was “a huge, sprawling beast that seems to inhale every mutant strain of bass music it can and exhales it in one exhilarating 4:20 blast.” Illum Sphere agreed to chat with me for an excluse interview exploring his musical history and getting to the bottom of his mysterious, unpredictable sound.

So who are you, where are you from, what do you do?

I am Illum Sphere, I’m from Manchester and I make music, allegedly.

What inspired you to start making music? Tell me your story.

I started playing instruments at age 11 and started writing songs etc. I started buying records in my first year of uni and started DJing, and switched to experimenting with music software, then started properly producing a couple of years ago.

What do you use to make your music?

Various forms of software and hardware, I like to use hardware as much as possible, just because I prefer things being a little imperfect or a little unpolished and then I throw it together in Logic.

You run the Hoya Hoya blog — how did that come about and what do you feature on it? Does it influence you or your music in any tangible way? What exactly does “Hoya:Hoya” mean?

It’s the blog that was set up to support the night, which I run with Jonny Dub. We actually started it to offer the recordings of the nights for free download. Recently we’ve upgraded it and have started adding photos, links to other things that we’re associated with and also upload videos. There are shitloads of nights in the UK, but we think Hoya’s different, so, by allowing people to see what goes on even if they can’t get there, then people will see that it’s different too.

Hoya-hoya actually translates as ‘fresh’ or ‘new’ in Japanese. So we just replaced the dash with a colon to make it more unique.

What would you classify Illum Sphere as? I ask because you’re often associated with some big names in bass music, but your music is typically more deliberate and at somewhat of a slower tempo. How do you think your music fits in with the rest of the ‘scene,’ if there is one?

It seems as though it’s starting to be known more as ‘mutant’, which I actually feel is quite an accurate description. It takes various influences that I have, from psych through to techno through to dub etc, and essentially mutates them into various forms of ‘bass’ music. I don’t produce at one tempo, or feel, I produce stuff that ranges from 80 through to 170 bpm, so it is a bit harder to categorize than someone who just produces funky or dubstep or whatever.

I’m not too bothered about fitting in really, sound wise. I have been blown away by the support shown by a lot of people and producers that I respect immensely, and that means a lot to me. There’s a core group of us who constantly push eachother’s stuff, in Manchester and further afield, so it’s exciting that we seem to all be progressing well.

Who ‘influences’ you, to put it bluntly?

To give a brief answer: Dabrye, Dilla, Drexciya, Scientist, Fela, Radiohead, Axelrod… the list goes on.

There’s often a very dramatic feel to your music, very stately, where does that come from?

I don’t know really. I don’t actively attempt to make anything dramatic. I like making songs, pieces of music, as opposed to beats or whatever, so maybe because of that it sounds a bit more dramatic, big endings, little twists etc.

Would you consider Illum Sphere ‘dance’ music? Even a faster song like Titan..

Not particularly no, however, I’ve started to put together the live show and it’s surprising that the stuff seems to become more dancefloor when put together live again. I think the live show will be more dancefloor than the releases feel, however, I do think Titan is the most club friendly thing that I’ve released. I wanna make more dancefloor stuff, but I also wanna make more beatless stuff too, bit more extreme, less middle of the road!

Your EP Long Live the Plan came out on Fat City earlier this year, and it’s got a follow-up EP to be combined into an LP. What’s the story behind this release, why the decision to release it in two parts and what is the thematic significance that binds these tracks together? Why did you choose to work with Fat City?

Well the initial idea was to release them closer together, then I got kinda caught up doing remixes and scrapped a lot of stuff I wasn’t particularly happy with. The idea of a two-part album was to release two records that linked instead of two that didn’t. I didn’t, and still don’t, feel ready to make a full album in one go yet. When I do it, I want to do it with a specific vision, and I don’t think that I can fully realize that vision as yet.

I was sending music to the Fat City label as I was working in the shop, and it felt like the right move to release on the label that was linked to the shop, like a local family.

How did you meet Martyn and end up working with him? First your remix of his Brilliant Orange, and now an EP for his label…

We put Martyn on in Manchester and we were chatting regularly for about a year, swapping music etc. We played a couple of shows together and kept in contact. I was actually asking him to remix something for me, then it turned into me remixing something. He then showed interest in a couple of tunes I’d sent him, and this then became the three-track 12” for 3024.

Tell me about “Titan.” It seems at once more assertive but also more insular than your previous tracks. It really blew me away, I haven’t heard much like it recently that I can remember. Was there a bit of a ‘eureka’ moment when you had the tune down?

‘Titan’ was a weird one really. It was finished in an evening and was definitely one of the fastest things I’ve made. I think it’s slightly cruder and less intricate to the stuff that’s come out so far. I often spend ages tweaking stuff, or definitely feel like I should tweak something, but with Titan it was done really quickly and that was it, no tweaking.

What about the rest of the EP — it seems a very ‘psychedelic’ release, to me, would you agree with that? How did you choose the tracks (or did Martyn) and why those three?

Yeah I hadn’t actually thought about it, but it is kinda psychedlelic. ‘Technopolis’ was just a little idea I’d done after playing in Athens (at a venue called Technopolis, hence the name, no link to the genre). I’d sent it to Martyn and he was really into it, which surprised me a bit as it was in such an early stage. I then did ‘Titan’, and he showed an interest in signing that along with a finished version of ‘Technopolis’, but felt like it needed something a bit weirder to link the two, so I did ‘Go Killum’ and that was that really.

So what do you have planned for the near future? Releases, tours, etc.

I’m doing my first live show on May 29th at Hoya:Hoya, and am hoping to play live from then onwards. I’ve got a remix of Kidkanevil coming out on a 12” with remixes from Blue Daisy and TOKiMONSTA, as well as a remix for Nice Nice on Warp. Then I’m going to finish ‘The Plan Is Dead’, and do a few more remixes before maybe locking myself away and making a full album in one go.

Gigs wise, I’ve got another couple of trips to Croatia for festivals, some gigs round Europe and hopefully a trip to the US later in the year.

What’s your own personal favourite Illum Sphere track and why?

Hmmm… that’s definitely a tough one. In terms of musicality, “Kaleidoscope,” but in terms of dancefloor, then “Titan.”

What are some producers, artists, bands, what-have-you that are really doing it for you right now? Who gets you excited?

There’s a lot of people in Manchester that are amazingly talented, and I feel proud to be part of this group of producers coming through: Indigo, Synkro, Fantastic Mr Fox, Krystal Klear, Numan, Demdike Stare, Andy Stott; Zed Bias is still killing it and is another Manchester head. Outside of Manchester there’s a long list of people, The Blessings new record is so good, and American Men are unbelievable, Blue Daisy, and Ikonika, the list is endless, it’s an exciting time.

What’s your favourite label past or present?

For current labels, I think Warp have obviously owned it over the last 20 years, and constantly keep coming correct with new artists, Hyperdub is killing it too obviously. In terms of older labels, Buddah and Vanguard on the disco tip and the regional labels run by people like Philips and EMI were incredible for such a wide range of music in the 70s.

Being an artist not really tied down or associated with any one label, what is your opinion of the role of a record label in 2010? Considering how easy it is to get tracks out there and spread them around. Do you feel they’re necessary and do you feel like they’re helping you get your music out there?

I think the role of the independent label has become more important as the major labels have become less important. I’ve noticed the difference it’s made releasing on 3024 and hitting other people that may not check for Fat City stuff, for example. I think the role of the smaller labels is more important than it’s ever been, as the evolution of technology means the potential listeners are endless and can be reached with far less cost than at any time before, even though physical sales may be down, awareness of various smaller labels is higher.

Are you a ‘dubstep’ or ‘bass music’ fan yourself, and what do you think of the current scene? There’s loads of experimentalism and amazing stuff happening at the fringes (quite like Illum Sphere), but at the same time things seem to be converging on this horror-obsessed midrange wobble scene. Do you think dubstep has any farther to go as a genre?

I do like dubstep and I like bass music. But to be honest, I don’t consider the horrible wastey shit to be dubstep anyway. I don’t go to ‘dubstep’ nights, cos I find that my favourite dubstep gets played by non dubstep-specific DJs mostly. I love labels like Deep Medi, Hessle Audio, Planet Mu etc, that’s the kind of dubstep I like. I don’t really know if dubstep’s dead or not though, I’ve never really thought about it.

What sort of stuff do you listen to nowadays?

The artists I listed earlier as well a lot of old stuff. I rarely listen to new music whilst I’m writing, lots of psych, old techno, boogie, Kluster associated stuff etc. I listen to such a wide range of music though, old and new.

Is there anyone who you would really like to collaborate with, and why?

I’d love to work with someone like Bat For Lashes, I think as far as more mainstream stuff goes, her approach is sick. Visual element in music is important to me, and it’s good to see someone like her really pushing that side of it. So, if anyone wants to hook that up for me, feel free.

I’d love to do some work with MCs like DOOM, Guilty Simpson, Jay Electronica, people like that, but those guys must get approached all the time, so it’s difficult.

What’s your favourite release of this year so far?

The Dimlite thing for Now Again is ace, and the new Actress thing, and the Ikonika album. Sorry, that’s three.

Anything else you’d like to throw in…

Go check!