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London’s Hessle Audio has put out just more than 20 releases in its six years of existence, but it’s one of the labels that defines the boundary-shifting postdubstep sound of today: a sound based in house, garage and, yes, dubstep—but also one that doesn’t fit neatly into any single category. David “Pearson Sound” Kennedy (formerly known as Ramadanman), along with Ben UFO and Pangaea, are the men behind the influential label, and for the first time in NYC, the three will be spinning together when they hit the decks at Output on Thursday, April18.
You’ve played in New York before—I caught you last year at Mister Saturday Night—but never with your fellow Hessle Audio comrades. Do you DJ any differently when you are playing with them?
When it’s a Hessle night, it’ll be just us playing from when the doors open till when they shut. We don’t really plan much; sometimes we play back-to-back all night, and sometimes we’ll play separate sets. And sometimes we’ll just freestyle it—if someone wants to take 30 minutes to go down some little avenue, that’s cool.
How about the music itself? The Mister Saturday Night set was pretty much straight-up house, if I recall correctly.
You do! But musically, this might be a bit different. A party like Mister Saturday Night is quite rooted in house music, and their crowd seems to be focused toward house as well, so I think I did tailor my set more in that direction. As a DJ, you do have to be sensitive to what kind of party you’re playing.
Do you take the specific sound system into account? Output has a good one.
I’ve heard people say it’s the best in New York! So I’m pretty excited to check that out. And yes, it does affect how you play.
Are there certain tracks that you might play over a system like that—songs that you might not over a lesser system?
Absolutely—for example, my own tracks. A lot of the time, I might not play anything of mine, mainly because I’m so anal about how it’s going to sound. [Laughs] I really don’t want to play them over an inadequate sound system, so when I get to play on a good one, I’ll play a lot more of my own stuff. I know it will sound the way I intended it to.
The music that you produce has a lot of rhythmic interplay that people might not catch otherwise.
Actually, it’s mainly because of the bass. A lot of my tunes are written around bass impact, and when you don’t have a sound system that can replicate that, they can fall flat on their ass. But yeah, if I can play over a good system, I’m happy.
Are you still playing mostly with vinyl?
It’s a bit of a mixture, really. At Output, because it’s the start of a three-weekend tour, I’ll mainly be playing Serato using vinyl control. But pretty much all my digital files come from vinyl. Even tracks that I have the digital masters for, I’ll rip from vinyl. I’m going for a consistency in sound.
On a different subject—and I’m guessing you don’t have a quick answer for this—what, nowadays, do you call the kind of music that you produce and that Hessle Audio releases? Dubstep obviously doesn’t cut it anymore…
You know, it’s been a long while since we’ve really even thought about that. Bass music got bandied around for a couple of years, and I guess that caught on a bit, but it’s such a vague term.
I think people started using bass music simply because they couldn’t use dubstep anymore when talking about the Hessle Audio kind of sound.
Yeah, dubstep definitely became a dirty word for a lot of people. And the tempo now isn’t the same as what dubstep’s used to be, anyway. So if someone asks me what I play, it usually ends up being a long answer.
Okay, I’ll bite: What do you play?
Music that’s rooted in U.K. dance culture. I believe in the theory of the hardcore continuum, which says that there’s a line from rave music through drum ’n’ bass and jungle through to garage, grime and dubstep. And it ends up wherever we are now. [Laughs] I play old house tracks, I’ll play old grime tracks, I’ll be playing some stuff I just got sent last week, and I’ll be mixing it all together. I guess that’s how I would describe it.
That wasn’t too long. When I spoke with Ben UFO a few months ago, he said that when he started playing more 4/4 material in his sets, there was resistance from the crowd, and now he gets the same resistance when he plays more syncopated rhythms. Is that something you’ve experienced as well?
It really depends on the crowd. I’ve had some nights where people might have thought I played too straight or too housey, and there’ve been other gigs where you go off on a bit of a tangent and people start whistling at you. But I generally try to throw in at least a few rhythmic curveballs when I play.
The rhythms on some Hessle Audio releases, including your own, nudge up against the boundary of what a lot of people are actually going to dance to. Is there a bit of a balancing act going on between experimentalism and practicality?
That’s something that I do think about. There’s a fine line, and once you go beyond it, it tends to become experimentalism for the sake of experimenting. But I think the music still has to work on the dance floor. For instance, some people might have thought the Bandshell EP we put out last year was a little weird. But having played those tracks in the clubs, and seeing people’s reaction to them, I think we have a different opinion. Same with my last release on Hessle [the Clutch EP]; some people thought it was pretty out there, but Ben told me that every time he plays it for the dance floor, people would go crazy to it.
Are those differing opinions simply the result of different tastes?
Sure. But also, you can have different perspectives on a tune depending on how you hear it. If you’re listening in your bedroom on a laptop, you might think it’s rubbish in a club, it might sound great. It goes back to what we were saying about sound systems. A good sound system can turn what you thought was a weird track into a real dance-floor tune.
Clutch has been out for a few months. It seems like you, and the label itself, release records in a very deliberate manner; it seems as though you’re being careful about what you present to the world.
We’ve always been that way. I think the most that Hessle has released in a year was maybe five records; we average about three or four a year. We’re not in any rush to do anything. I also think sometimes you need to have a bit of perspective on a track before you really know if you want to release it. We’ve had some music for a year before we ever put it out.
Is it simply a matter of repeated listening, or are you playing those tracks in the clubs first to see what the reaction is?
It’s absolutely important to hear it in a club. Playing songs over a sound system is always the best way to gauge it. Sometimes I’ll have a tune in the record box or on the computer that I’ve always brought to a show, but I haven’t played it. Then you’ll finally put it on, it’ll sound great, and you’ll wonder why you haven’t been playing it. You need to hear it loud, and you need to hear it in the mix. Sometimes you need to hear other DJs play it before you know how great it is. Music takes on a different life in different contexts.
It is amazing how big a difference the DJ can make. One DJ can play a track, and people love it; somebody else will play the same track, and people will say, “Why the hell is he playing that song?”
It’s true, and that’s the beauty of it.
Hessle Audio has a residency at London’s Fabric. You did a mix-CD for that club in early 2011, and it seems like that’s when people over here first really started to figure out who you were. Do you get the same impression?
Definitely. You can’t underestimate the importance of CDs like that. There are plenty of people who don’t listen on the Internet and don’t listen to radio shows, but they might hear about a CD and buy it. When that CD came out, lots of people who had never heard of me were suddenly hearing my stuff. There’s so much information and music out there that it’s hard to keep up, so having a CD that summarizes what you are about can definitely be useful.
You also opened up for Radiohead at Roseland Ballroom and at about the same time, which I’d guess helped to raise your profile in New York.
It was real combination of things. There was Radiohead, the CD, I had quite a few records, there were some remixes and we did a big tour that April. That was a big time for us. It’s hard to believe that was a couple of years ago now.
Wasn’t it around then that you transitioned from using Ramadanman as your main name to the Pearson Sound moniker?
I think I started the change about a year before that. Pearson Sound just seemed like more of a serious name, but I’m not sure that the name change had much relationship to my music. I liked that Pearson Sound was a bit ambiguous; it doesn’t give away what kind of music I make, or whether it’s one person or three people making it, or whether it’ssome old German dude…or anything, really.
It just sounds kind of cool, too.
Yes, it has a nicely piercing sound. But that was somewhat unintentional, I have to say.
You had released a few Chicago-house-influenced tracks as Maurice Donovan a few years ago. Are there any plans to revive that persona?
The last I heard, Maurice Donovan had a heart attack and died. He had a good run…but maybe there will have to be a greatest-hits compilation at some point.
What’s up next for Pearson Sound?
I’ll have a single coming out in a few weeks, but we haven’t really announced yet. And I have a lot of new music that I’m sitting on—I’m still trying to see how much I like it—so there should be some more stuff coming out soon. I’ve been pretty quiet on the release front, but I’m feeling like I’m ready again. I took a bit of time off last year; I was deejaying constantly, sometimes 15 times a month, and felt like I needed a reset. I took two months and did everything I hadn’t had time to do for a few years, like just doing stuff around the house, resetting some of my studio stuff, and just getting back into gear. And I’ve been really productive since then, with new equipment and new sounds. It’s been a really good time.
Input: Hessle Audio Night with Ben UFO + Pearson Sound + Pangaea is at Output Thursday, April 18.