Both members of Vex’d reunite to discuss their beginnings, their long-lost new LP, and their thoughts on the current state of dubstep music for an exclusive interview.
Vex’d are the British duo of Jamie and Roly whose 2005 debut album Degenerate is widely acknowledged as the first proper dubstep album, and still one of the very best, recently referred to by Mary Anne Hobbs as “the single most accomplished and important record in album form of the genre.” Released on Planet Mu during that label’s initial foray into dubstep, its metallic and aggressive sound not only galvanized a genre but arguably forever altered the direction of a label that is now regarded as one of the finest, most consistent, and most unique labels in bass music and electronic music in general.
On Degenerate, their unique aesthetic took the framework of dubstep and meshed it with jungle, grime, and even metal, turning the reggae-influenced genre on its head with serrated edges, distorted beats, and blisteringly fast tracks. The duo’s sound was mature and balanced, with as much room for quietude and introspection as there was relentless banging. Tracks like “Lion VIP” and “Crusher” showed an impressively-accomplished duo already at the height of their powers, expertly mixing ear-splitting beats with suspenseful near-silence. After the release of Degenerate was rapturously received by fans and critics alike, their output slowed to a trickle, with two 12″ releases on Planet Mu exhibiting a slower, more deliberate sound, notably the dramatic “Bombardment of Saturn” which stretches out over seven minutes and features ominous horn riffs.
The group began work on a second album but drifted apart before it was finished, leaving behind a number of wonderful tracks, simply too good to be ignored. Thankfully, the bright minds at Planet Mu have built a proper follow-up album out of these post-Degenerate tracks, presented alongside contemporary remixes to flesh out a remarkably cohesive, complete album. The LP, titled Cloud Seed, shows a more reserved Vex’d revelling in tension rather than release, and sees the band wholeheartedly embracing its latent ambient side for a record that could work just as well soundtracking a movie. The opening up of their sound is completed by the addition of vocalists, with spots by Warrior Queen, Anneka, and Jest, making for an album almost completely removed from its predecessor but undoubtedly a worthy follow-up, if not an overall improvement.
Vex’d, now operating separately, with Jamie Vex’d still releasing on Planet Mu under that name as well as his Kuedo project, have come together as a duo once again for an exclusive interview session with onethirtybpm, wherein they discuss their origins, the dubstep scene then and now, and of course, tell us all about Cloud Seed. They’re a little humble about their own impact, but trust me, these guys are massively influential.
How did you two meet and start to work together?
Jamie: We’ve been friends since school. We started making tunes together while we were sharing a flat, in about 2003 or so.
Do you think being in Bristol had an influence on your sound, or how you wrote?
Roly: No, I would love to have grown up in Bristol, I think its an amazing city but most of my influences in music were developed before moving here. The first clubs I went to were all in London and although a lot of that music was very much what people think of as Bristol sound, for me I related the whole experience to being in London. I still find it a hugely inspiring city, I just can’t handle living there any more.
Jamie: I only lived in Bristol for a year or so, that was where I played what Rols and I had been working on with Pinch and Ginz, who helped put out our first records. One of the reasons I moved there was because I was so into Bristol music, though: Portishead and Full Cycle, particularly DJ Krust, when he was doing really future tracks like “Soul In Motion” and “Future Unknown.” They had a huge influence on us.
How did you get into making dubstep, what were some of the things you were into that inspired that production style?
R: The space and lack of production at the beginning was really the complete opposite, at the time, of what had become of a lot of music, but especially drum and bass. It also felt like the obvious pressure to make people dance wasn’t there, which really allowed the music to develop. For a long time people didn’t seem to dance much, just listen and get into it on a mental level. It seemed a long way from jump-up tunes.
Did you ever try producing music — together or separately — before Vex’d, and in different styles or genres?
J: Yeah of course, but no one’s ever going to be allowed to hear it. Really amateurish copying of other people’s music. Mostly jungle tracks that I hoped sounded like Krust or Dillinja, sometimes slow stuff that was meant to be like El-P or DJ Krush. Roly’s stuff was much more creative at that time, he was doing these quite unique slow, sub bass, dubbish tunes with strings. He’s never interested in the tech aspect of any of it, he just straight away cracked on with writing decent ideas, he didn’t care that it sounded rough. It was in 2003 that we both started making 138 beats, felt like we’d found something that we could do together, that could achieve the ideas that we’d been failing to achieve separately.
How did you end up in contact with Mike Paradinas, and did you have any trepidations about signing with Planet Mu, considering its reputation at the time as a mostly ‘IDM’ and breakcore label?
J: Well, honestly at the time, I’d not heard of them. I mean hadn’t heard the word breakcore, I didn’t really follow electronica. The only IDM group I knew I really liked was Autechre. So it actually had to be explained to me who they were and why it was a big deal. I know that might sound ignorant but I hope it doesn’t sound irreverent, it was just outside of what we and our friends knew about. It was interesting finding out about all these new kinds of music, even if much of it didn’t resonate with me much. I went to a Mu party to find out about them and saw Remarc playing hardcore jungle, a guy doing really intense ambient with a violin and a turntable, and this dude called Venetian Snares playing breakcore with beautiful string movements, I’d never been to a night like it. It inspired me a lot, it also inspired us to be less conservative about what we doing, not worry about breaking form so much.
R: Yeah, big up Mike and Planet Mu. Really a great label and he’s been massively supportive to us from the start. Its been a while since I’ve been able to go to a night and listen to the same type of tunes from 10-6, with the exception of dub, so the first Planet Mu party we did was wicked. Its a real achievement to have so much variety but still manage to tie it together to make a coherent label.
You two are generally considered some of the premiere dubstep artists and certainly one of the first to make it ‘big’ specifically with Degenerate – do you agree with this perception?
J: That’s a nice thing to say. But I can’t really agree, mainly because we didn’t want to be dubstep as such, and our tunes were always a bit at variance with normal dubstep. We’ve always felt uncomfortable about hoisting up a big dubstep flag. The original dubstep lot were a little bit uncomfortable about us too for a while, everyone was really cautious about the music being developed in the wrong direction. We sympathized though, we tried to make it clear that we weren’t trying to steer it in another direction, we liked where they were going with it. But at the same time, we wanted to make what we wanted to make, not to be irreverent but just to be free of someone else’s reservations or whatever. Nowadays everyone throws the name over everything. But back then it felt small and precarious. When Mary Anne asked us on the Dubstep Warz show, when DMZ would ask to play their nights, we were always like.. ‘wicked, but, you sure?’ We didn’t want to upset their trajectory with our own. But there’s always been mutual admiration, a lot of those people became good friends.
Debut LP Degenerate
How does it feel to be credited with such an important achievement, given the ever-rising popularity of dubstep and related genres? And how do you feel about your role as supposed progenitors?
R: We can’t really be credited with anything like that. Each new genre is a collection of so many influences built up over time that eventually come together in a certain place. Nothing we wrote set any clear patterns for what happened to dubstep. Even though there are always influential artists and promoters who contribute to building new things, it also goes beyond music. The type of people that start listening to the music, the environment it’s played in, all go towards creating a new scene.
Do you hear your own influence in today’s dubstep or are you too modest to make any claims?
J: I don’t know, I don’t think it’s healthy to be listening to other people’s music hoping to hear yourself in it. I doubt it anyway, most of the newest generation only reference back a year or two.
What do you think of the rising profile of dubstep and where it has gone since the days of Degenerate?
J: Kode 9 described it as an abortion. That’s how I feel when see what it is on youtube, or when I hear some utterly generic new generation bedroom brostep DJ. A small fraction of the all out banging stuff has some genuine beauty to it, some real innovation and good intent, but the mass of that stuff is just heartless. Boys fucking around with their wobb presets trying to out do each other, it’s like lads revving their cars in front of one another, it means fuck all. But on another level, the 140 thing is still a hugely magnetic focal point for some of the most creative and diverse artists about, and continues to produce amazing, vibrant and unpredictable music. Maybe that’s only on the fringes, but it’s still attached to the rest, it has the same vertebrae. Ultimately there’s no way to surmise what it is nowadays. Swamp 81 is one of the handful of labels I still really check for, Loefah has found a new vision for the sound.
When did work on Cloud Seed start? Were you always planning to make a follow-up or did it just kind of congeal into an album on its own?
R: After Degenerate we continued writing, and obviously the thought of another album was there but even then we struggled with finding a concept for it that we were happy with. I have always felt that if you have a collection of singles, don’t stick them together and call it an album. It should have a coherent idea. I’m not saying we acheived that with Degenerate but it was something we really wanted to make work with a follow up. The fact that the dubstep scene had sort of solidified defnitely made things harder for me. When we wrote Degenerate there were just lots of very different, very exciting artists writing a wide variety of beats and I found that really inspiring. With Cloud Seed, congeal is actually quite a good word. I think it does work as an album which is something I’m quite surprised at.
When and why did work on it stop?
J: There was a point when I’d been living in Berlin for about six months that we realised that something wasn’t right. I was just going round and round with the tracks alone, we weren’t able to get any real studio time together, and I was beginning to drift off into another direction musically anyway. We realised the work was continuing past the point of inspiration.
Who compiled the album as it is presented now, and whose idea was it? I’d say it feels even more cohesive than Degenerate, which is remarkable given the situation.
J: Between us and Planet Mu we got the tunes to be included down, then Mike found a nice sequence for them.
Do you feel like the finished product is an accurate representation of your intentions? Were you at all reluctant to release an ‘unfinished’ album?
R: With the track listing we ended up with on Cloud Seed, I didn’t feel any reluctance about releasing it. Dance music evolves and changes so fast and if we had tried to release something specifically for djs but that had been written 2 or 3 years ago it could have sounded very dated, but as it is much of the material is aimed away from the club. It’s not restrained by current trends.
J: We didn’t have any major reservations once the tracklisting was finished, it sounded so close to the album that we intended it to be. It had the spirit and atmosphere, that contrast between itself and the first. I just hoped people would appreciate the tunes being released than not at all, but if it had sounded blatantly patchy then it wouldn’t have been put out.
Did you feel pressured after the success of Degenerate? Do you feel like you had to do justice to that album with Cloud Seed, or do you have more of a no looking back policy?
R: In the back of your mind there is always the thought of what people might want or expect. I really enjoyed tunes like “Lion VIP” and I know that it was a popular sound but the thought of disappointing someone who buys one of our records is not as worrying as the thought that I could find myself in a studio in another five years still trying to churn out copies of that same sound. Its fine to find something that you like and develop it but I always hoped that Vex’d as a project could be more varied than that.
J: Yeah. There was a point in time after Degenerate when I became aware that we stood a fair chance of garnering a certain kind of popular success if we focused on the aggressive, dancefloor tunes like “Lion” or “Angels.” We knew we could make bangers, that this could pull in a certain kind of attention for us. That some people expected that of us. That whole Cloud Seed period was a deliberate disavowal of that. I would hate ending up being one of those producers who knowingly bang out trite, just because there’s a demand for it. That’s so fucking cynical. We saw artists going toward that, and they’ve done well, they’re big, I’m sure they feel great about that. They are recognised, they have money. But we don’t respect them for it. And we deliberately broke away from that.
Cloud Seed, the long-awaited follow-up LP to Degenerate
So who does what — what does Jamie do and what does Roly do, and how did you two work together for this album?
R: Jamie does the thinking, the worrying, the work, and the music. I really have the easy life.
J: Well he does refuse to mix anything down, I am left with that bit. The basic idea and rough arrangement we try to do together whenever possible, but a lot of what’s been released has been actually been worked on separately. Neither of us are into writing Vex’d tunes separately any more though, we need to be in the studio together nowadays for it happen.
Where does the title Cloud Seed come from?
J: Cloud seeding means shooting explosives into clouds, to make them rain.
It feels almost like a concept album, there¹s quite a few atmospheric tracks and it feels almost like it could be a movie soundtrack, very cinematic. Was this sort of ebb and flow intentional?
J: Yeah. To be honest they might be my favourite moments. Without those, the other tracks lose some meaning I think, they transfer some atmosphere to what comes afterwards.
What fueled the experiments with ambience?
R: The ambient stuff wasn’t so much an experiment as something that has always been part of our music and certainly always something I have wanted to do. Although a lot of tunes on Degenerate were noisy, there are brief patches of ambience that kind of break it up. I always really enjoyed this and listen to a lot of beatless music so it was natural to expand this into a few full length tunes. I don’t think I’d ever write a purely ambient album, I like the contrast of space and noise.
J: We always loved the idea of beatless music, the beatless intros and breakdowns in Metalheadz-type jungle, string movements, atmospheric modern classical stuff. Before we ever released anything, when releasing tunes was just a pipe dream, we talked about having all our 12s as having a tough beat tune on one side and an ambient version on the flip. It was always part of what Vex’d was supposed to be, Degenerate deserved more of it really, I’m pleased we balanced it out with Cloud Seed.
Do you personally feel that that this record is different than Degenerate?
R: Yeah, it’s completely different in that you probably wouldn’t hear a lot of it in a club. There is a much bigger variety in tempo and style. Degenerate had a lot of tunes that worked on their own whereas Cloud Seed has a lot of pieces that only make sense as part of the whole, more like a soundtrack. Because of the variety, it’s much easier to listen through from start to finish than Degenerate.
How do you feel leaving Vex’d as it is at this point – do you feel like you’ve finished what you’ve set out to do, are you happy with the result? Would you be satisfied with Cloud Seed as a swan song?
R: There are so many factors in our lives that make visiting the Vex’d project difficult but personally I’d be sad if that was it. I don’t know about playing out but from a production point of view I think there is definitely room to take it somewhere new and still maintain the feel and sound of Vex’d.
Kuedo’s Dream Sequence EP, the latest offering from Vex’d member Jamie
Where are you two based now?
J: Neukölln, Berlin.
What’s different about the two of you working together rather than solo projects? What would you say makes it special?
J: It’s nice having someone who shared all the same early experiences, in raves and driving around listening music, skateboarding listening to mixtapes when we were 16, talking about music all the time. When either of us found a great film or album the other one would probably get into it as well. It’s cool to have all those shared reference points.
Is there any more music leftover from this period, and if so, any plans to release it at any point?
R: I’m sure everyone has piles of unfinished beats lying around but if after a certain amount of time nothing has come of them then you know they weren’t going to become anything.
What are your personal favourite Vex’d tracks and why?
J: “Pop Pop,” the original. Because it’s a proper raw underground tune. One of the few straight DJ tunes we’ve ever made, the fastest too. We wrote it in a few hours, recorded it to minidisc, pressed it to record a few weeks later. Few years later I was spending literally weeks on sound effects, background details and arrangements, but back then it was a more hardcore, roll out the tune fast kind of thing. I’m leaning back toward that attitude nowadays.
R: I really love an old tune we wrote called “Ghost” which was the flip to “Lion,” and I think “Disposition” by Jamie on the new album is amazing. “Pop Pop” has got to be my favourite though, it was great fun writing it, loved playing it out and even though its very simple it was just exactly what we wanted to do at that moment in time.
It seems like Jamie is moving towards the more colourful, dare I say wonky side of things with his Kuedo project. How do you feel about the fragmentation of dubstep and do you think it¹s a good or even necessary thing?
J: Dubstep as a unified movement had a wonderful stretch of mutually-agreed, controlled development, based on a very small tight-knit community, between 2004 and 2006. Maybe that was as long as it could be sustained for without becoming stale. If the brostep cloners hadn’t of taken over, maybe there wouldnt be all the amazing creative fringes that there are now, like maybe people needed something to reject in order to move on. I’d embrace the fact that it’s lost its cohesion. Without making up new genres that no one wants to be part of, if possible.
What sort of sound or what producers really interest you two right now Obviously Jamie has his Jamie Vex’d and now Kuedo releases, does Roly have anything planned for the immediate future?
R: No, nothing straight away. The more pressure I put on myself to write music, the worse it becomes. I need to find the time and space in life to enjoy it properly so I can begin to develop some new ideas.
What’s coming out of the Kuedo project next, after the Dream Sequence EP?
J: Life’s been a bit mad recently, but I’d love to get an album underway very soon. There’s so much I want to do with both projects, there’s so much music to write.
Cloud Seed is out now digitally and will have a full physical release in North America on April 13. Their final singles “Bombardment of Saturn” and “3rd Choice” were recently re-released as part of a comprehensive Planet Mu digital reissue campaign. They’ve offered us a free Cloud Seed track in the form of “Disposition,” featuring vocals by New York MC Jest.