Straying over genre lines, and writing lyrics on the bus
Charlie Steen’s garden is a surprisingly tranquil place. The only sounds are the creaking of a swing as it sways on a branch of an old tree, and the faint roar of an aeroplane engine as one passes overhead.
The sun is beating down today, and Steen is making the most of it. Pulling his shirt over his head, he laps up a few more bites from his bowl of cereal before reaching to grab his tobacco tin. Next to him, Samir Alikhanizadeh, aka Happa, is also drinking in the peacefulness of his backyard. “You know it’s hot today; I’m wearing sandals,” he sighs before flashing me an almost apologetic grin. “I’ve still got my socks on though – the world isn’t ready to see my feet.”
Happa has long been something of a prodigy on the UK bass and techno scene. Back in 2012, aged just 14, Loefah played a rip of his track ‘Boss’, and the Leeds-born producer seems to have been on an unstoppable upward trajectory ever since. It only took a matter of weeks for Four Tet to track him down for a remix of his track ‘Jupiters’, and to date he’s still the youngest person ever to have played a set at Berlin’s legendary Berghain.
2019 is already marking an evolution in Happa’s career. Just this morning his track ‘Only Light’ was released. We’re here to talk about the single’s b-side ‘Only Darkness’, which happens to feature vocals from the Shame lead-singer. While ‘Light’ is all monolithic synths and euphoric drops, ‘Darkness’ is a brooding, ominous slab of techno punctuated by Sheen’s paranoid, desperate vocals. Taken together, the two somehow manages to feel like an infinite emotional loop – the unabashed highs of track one bleeding into the mournful regret of track two and back again. Forever.
And that brings us to the reason we’re both sat in a garden watching Steen munch through the last of his breakfast. We’re sitting down to talk about how the duo met, worked on the record and why the pair have decided to stray across genre lines.
Samir: This [Peckham] is such a sick spot.
Dominic: It does seem like you have a proper community round here.
Charlie: Exactly! Most nights, when you get back, people are out and about, and you can chat. The parties here have also been so jokes. I mean, there’s a squat just down the road that has parties every Friday and Saturday. You can never hear it, as it’s all in the basement, and as we’re neighbours we can usually get in for free.
Samir: Wait? And your neighbours are cool with it?
Charlie: Mostly. We can’t ever have parties again, though. We had a ‘cease and desist’ letter after the last one.
Samir: Did you end up getting a bit carried away?
Charlie: Yeah, we had, like, bouncers and a bar and everything. There’s one house on the street that has a family in it. Y’know, like normal people. We had the doors all open, and the bass was so heavy it was making the floor rattle. When they came over, it was like, ‘what the fuck are you doing? Please, fucking stop’.
Dominic: That must’ve been a mental party. I mean you literally managed to get shut down after your first proper rager.
Charlie: Oh no, we’d had one before. They’d come over that time as well.
Samir: Haha, so that’s why you had to have a bouncer this time?
Charlie: I ended up having 250 in this flat. There were points where I was looking around going, ‘there are at least 80 people in this room who I’ve never seen before in my life.’ Believe me; I never want to be doing that again.
Dominic: I suppose we should do some actual music journalism – how did you end up working on ‘Only Dark/Only Light’ together?
Samir: I guess it began with Dan Foat – my manager. He produced Shame’s album with Nathan Boddy who is his production partner, and somehow I ended up getting involved with one of the tracks.
Charlie: ‘Dust on Trial’ – it was the first track on the album.
Samir: I ended up doing some atonal synths and adding in background noise. We worked well together, so when we were making these tracks I thought it would be a sick idea to get Charlie to work on one of the songs.
Charlie: We boshed it out in a couple of hours. I was living with my parents, so I went down to Wandsworth Town, through Southfields and got the bus from there to Fulham, which is where Universal is and is where we were recording the track. I had lyric ideas together already, but I wrote most of them on the bus.
Samir: Yeah, I think it took you, like, two or three takes, tops. It’s almost like a stream of consciousness, spoken word thing, so it was really quick to lay down. I remember you went through it a few times and then added on a bit of screaming at the end.
Charlie: It was a really nice process. I’m not a musician, and I’ve only worked with a band before, so it was nice to come in, work with Samir and just freestyle.
Samir: It was just one of those things that bizarrely work straight away. We didn’t have to mess around with it or anything.
Charlie: It was a very different experience to doing things with a band. Usually you’re in a rehearsal space where you have to wait around while everyone plugs in and tunes up… It was good to have a track that was pretty much done, so all I had to do was my part.
Dominic: The whole EP is sort of about a night out, right?
Samir: Well, that’s the idea at least. I wanted to reinterpret a night out, but build it from memory. It’s quite nostalgic. I’ve always felt a bit gutted that I was not really alive during the ’90s.
Don’t get me wrong; I still really enjoy going out. But I don’t get to do that much since I’ve moved to London. Partly because I’m a bit poorer than I was in Leeds, and partly because I’m more tired. Most of the time I’ve been out has been my gigs.
Dominic: Clubbing experiences do feel a lot different from how they’re usually remembered. I went to a club in Soho a few months back, and it was like getting into a maximum-security jail.
Samir: I know, right. Things are just so uptight now. It’s like you enter through airport security and it ruins it. Having a relaxed time is the best way to have a fun time, and it’s so much harder to be comfortable when you’re clenching your arsehole.
Charlie: When you have that paranoia about security, it makes it so hard. That’s why I think people are way more into throwing house parties and things like that. It shouldn’t matter if people are doing drugs or if you’re mashed, all it should be about is kicking people out for being wankers or fighting.
Samir: Honestly, I think that would be a reasonable approach. I mean, kicking people out and strip-searching isn’t going to stop drug culture – it should be about making people safer.
That’s definitely how it works in Berlin; the whole vibe is just so chilled there. I mean, you have clubs with gardens and fire pits, where people can sit around and catch their breath. Could you even imagine having a fire pit in a club in the UK? It would be surrounded by bouncers screaming “get away from the fire pit!”.
Charlie: You should try that squat down the road. They have a party every weekend. The favourite part of my week is waking up and watching all the people struggling out. You have the most beautiful encounters – there’s like people heading to work, kids playing in the playground, and these five people sat on the curb, smoking roll-ups and staring into the middle distance. There’s something so English about that.
Dominic: I think ‘Only Darkness’ does an outstanding job of tapping into those feelings of existential dread.
Samir: Most of the EP is quite positive. ‘Only Light’ is meant to be peak time. It’s like that bit when something drops and it makes you want to stick your arms out in a club and go like ‘aaaaahhhhhh!’. ‘Only Dark’ is kind of like the one dodgy moment mainly because Charlie doesn’t like going out.
Charlie: Haha, that’s true. You might like clubs, but I fucking love pubs. I think my dislike of clubs comes from the fact that most of my mates from school we’re like electronic-loving pill heads. My whole memory of being a teenager revolves around throwing up in club toilets; XOYO, Fabric, Village Underground – I’ve puked in all of them. It only took me 11 or 12 times to figure out that I couldn’t handle pills.
The lyrics, like ‘only darkness can save you now’ comes from that. It’s that feeling of being so mashed and feeling so shit. Y’know, like when you’re just blinded by strobes and have been stuck listening to a kick drum for half an hour.
Dominic: Is that why the lyrics feel so dark? Otherwise, it must’ve been a pretty apocalyptic bus journey.
Charlie: I’m not religious, but I was raised catholic. I mean, I didn’t get dragged to church or anything like that, but something must’ve stuck with me as I always like referencing religion. It’s so dramatic.
Samir: I think it works though, as it’s over the top in the same way that ‘Only Light’ is over the top euphoric. It’s like that fear of dread that washes over you as you fall into a K hole.
Dominic: One of the coolest things about this EP is that it messes with people’s perceptions – it kind of fucks with the concept of a techno record in the same way it messes with the idea of a punk record.
Samir: Why do you have to be pigeon-holed into one thing? Just because you’re making music from opposite ends of the spectrum as it were, in the end it’s just two people hanging out and making music together.
Charlie: At the moment everything is just so fucking derivative. It’s like you have no choice to sort cross-borders and genres. That’s been happening a long time because anyone who likes music doesn’t just listen to Bob Dylan or The Strokes or whatever. Everyone’s tastes are eclectic, so I don’t see the reason why making it has to be such a cookie-cutter.
Samir: Even when you look at DJing and electronic music, it’s starting to be a lot more of conversation. You have techno DJs who also play garage. I think everything is becoming more of a mish-mash of everything.
Charlie: I don’t think about that at all. Unless you’re on a major label, then music doesn’t sell at all. I think that has created a situation where you’re allowed to try anything. I mean, if it isn’t selling then why not try and do something different?
Samir: As long as it’s interesting, yeah?
Charlie: Yeah. I mean I’m 21 and your 22, right? Naturally you want to spread out and try to do different things. You’d be mental if all you wanted to do is the same thing over and over again.
Samir: I mean, for me, collaboration is something new. Usually, if I work with someone it’s a studio session with someone who I’ve never met before. There’s nothing wrong with those, they’re an excellent way to gain experience and learn something new, but this time there wasn’t that pressure. It was just good to able to work with a mate.
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