INTERVIEW

The Bristol music scene has always had one foot heavily rooted in experimentation and a few toes from the other in grimey and raw dubstep beats.

Photography by Phil Sharp

Photography by Phil Sharp

LIAM MCLEAN IS NO JOKE. NOT MUSICALLY, NOR WHEN DISCUSSING HIS SLICK RNB

The Bristol music scene has always had one foot heavily rooted in experimentation and a few toes from the other in grimey and raw dubstep beats. A glance back to the ‘80s, when battling sound system the Wild Bunch were still packing out clubs from Brizzle’s St Paul’s to St Pauly down in Blighty – the same Bunch that birthed trip-hop greats such as Massive Attack, breathy rapper Tricky and award-winning producer Nellee Hooper, who was also in Soul II Soul – and it’s clear to see why 22-year-old, Bristol-born-and-bred grime producer Joker, or Liam McLean to his mum, is busting out the sounds he is today. He may claim nonchalantly that he’s “into everything”, but his jagged rhythms and sample choices tell another story.

How he’s bringing a refreshing twist to the scene, however, is in his clean-cut production style and the playful atmosphere he creates with retro Nintendo-like noises, recalling an endearing sense of nostalgia for all the 1980s children. “I like computer game music,” he answers abruptly when we ask about the samples. “I like a lot of R&B, hip hop, just everything, man,” he huffs impatiently.

It’s hard to believe that someone who makes something so fun, albeit incredibly considered, can be so dismissive and reluctant to shout about it, but we get the impression that fame isn’t something McLean is concerned about. “You can have a commercial audience. Who cares really? You either like it or you don’t,” he explains about grime breaching the mainstream. “If you don’t like the fucking commercial stuff, then go to the forums and find some underground stuff. Know what I’m saying?”

Perhaps Joker is a little het up because with the addition of vocal overlays from R&B/soul singers and MCs from within the Bristol circuit on his newly released debut album, ‘The Vision’, some people have accused him of selling out and becoming too poppy.

“Right, I’m glad you asked this,” he states, testily, before justifying that he’s, “always made music like that but I’ve not been putting it out. I’ve got two CDs already, from 2006 and 2008 that I was supposed to put out, full of vocals that sound similar to [‘The Vision’]. People think it’s a new me trying to be pop or whatever, but fuck what everyone says, yeah? I’ve been doing this shit for days, know what I’m saying? I listen to a lot of R&B and shit, so it’s nothing new.”

McLean tells us that getting that old material out himself took a lot of energy, which is why he’s waited until now to release his first LP proper, through both 4AD and his own label Kapsize, named so in dedication to his late cousin DJ Kapsize.

“For the first CD we put out like 100 copies,” he continues. “We had to burn a load of CDs ourselves, cut loads of paper – shit, it was long, so I just made music and put it online, which was a lot easier.”

In terms of the approaches McLean takes to music making, they vary. “I could be sat down watching TV,” he begins, “or playing a computer game and get an idea. Then I’ve got to run to the computer and try and get the idea out of my head and onto the computer. Or I can be sat down trying to make a tune, trying to get a beat going. Sometimes I’ll be sat playing with synth sounds or strings. It all depends. There isn’t a right or wrong way.” It’s worth noting here that there’s no live instrumentation on the record – everything you hear is synthetic, which is amazing to imagine when you hear the flutter of violins and hammering piano in the intro to ‘On My Mind’.

“It’s software,” McLean clarifies. “You press a key and it sounds like strings, so you don’t need a violin player to actually come in, you can just do it on a computer.

“When you think of grime, dubstep, bass and R&B – that’s not really band-orientated, it’s computerised music and when I first started making music at a young age, that’s what I was listening to.”

He even channels his vocals as if synth lines, but when we ask if he ever felt tempted to sing over his own tracks, we’re met with a resounding and drawn-out “naaaah”.

As Joker, McLean has also claimed in the past to have taken inspiration from the colour purple, and you can easily find old press shots of him decked head-to-toe in the opulent shade, but he hates to mention it now, along with most other topics we discuss, in fact.

“I think that whole purple shit went a bit too far,” he says irritably. “It’s just a bit gay and people are always like, ‘Oh purple this, I wanna see some purple’. So now I’m trying to go a different way and try different shit.”

He’s already started writing for the next album, despite ‘The Vision’ having only hit shop shelves at the end of last month. “I’m one track in,” he admits modestly. “I don’t even know if it’s going to be my second album.” But no matter where this track leads, it’s clear that Joker is one Brizzler who doesn’t mess around. Not in conversation and certainly not in the slick electro-grime that makes ‘The Vision’ sound far bigger than its modest keyboard’n’mouse origins.

By D K Goldstein

Originally published in issue 33 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. November 2011.

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