When Zak Brashill first crept on people’s radars as Etch aged 21, he displayed a prodigious instinct for deep-rooted UK sounds, from jungle to garage. His first releases on Soundman Chronicles and Keysound tapped up the eerie sense of space, subtlety and sub pressure that made the best of those genres so seductive. In 2013, as today, there was no shortage of artists chopping up breaks and looking for new ways to frame them in the time-slipping, genre-hopping to and fro of contemporary electronic music. What made Etch stand out, which still rings true today, was the lack of conceit in his music. Where many either tried hard to wholesale emulate the 90s or do weird new things with ‘old school methods’, Brashill was laying down tracks that hid the finesse in their production behind the same understated moodiness that made the best of the early jungle, garage and dubstep movements.
A lot of the magic in Etch tunes to date have been due to his deft approach to breakbeats, but more importantly the atmosphere in his music strikes that same melancholic, wistful, dreamy tone that you would get from an early Photek or Horsepower cut. While breaks have been fundamental to his musical identity, there is much more to Etch than that, which came through in spades on the dazzling, wonky rhythmic trysts of last year’s Cosmic B-Boy EP on Purple City Soufflé. With a rapidly expanding catalogue that spans such respected labels as Soundman Chronicles, Wisdom Teeth, Sneaker Social Club and lots more besides, now seems as good a time as any to check in with an artist whose music serves as a true and worthy celebration of UK soundsystem culture, past and future.
To sit alongside the interview, Etch also recorded an exclusive mix for us that moves beyond the music he’s best known for, to showcase some of the deeper influences that make up his unique sonic DNA, moving from post-punk and industrial through to hip hop, shoegaze and noise...with a few breaks for good measure in a head-twisting mixtape style.
Thanks for recording a mix for us. What was the idea behind it?
As with most studio/bedroom mixes, it exists as a separate entity to what I'd play in clubs and on radio. It contains some tracks I play out, but predominantly it’s just a stream of thought based on how I’m feeling and what’s influencing my music at the time. It’s definitely more based on selections than blends, and this mix in particular is focusing on darker sounds, particularly post-punk.
There seem to be a lot of different frames of musical reference on this mix, and throughout your back catalogue. What sorts of sounds were you raised on?
My Mum had me when she was 18. We grew up on a terrible estate just outside Brighton. Drum & Bass and jungle were always blasting through the ceiling of the flat from the two heroin addicts living upstairs. I always found it easy to get to sleep, so maybe that started it. My uncle was always blasting tunes from his room at my nan’s where I spent most of my time - he was really into UK hardcore, jungle, then D&B, and also hip hop and trip hop. He did some cover art for labels like Ninja Tune and Skint. I remember borrowing my auntie’s hip hop CDs and ripping them.
My mum absorbed what my uncle and auntie were into – she was a lot more into the partying side of it all. They all went to illegal raves together – legend has it she went into labour with me in a UK hardcore club night. She was also very into psychedelic rock like The Doors, and also soul and Motown, Portishead, Massive Attack, Mogwai, PJ Harvey.
My uncle moved away in 2005 and left me all his records and a hard drive of tunes, and also all his VHS tapes, which were instrumental in my visual attraction to music. On top of this my nan was a mod in the 60s and was hugely into The Who, and that resonated hugely with me. I wanted to be Keith Moon as a kid – I was always drawn to drums.
It feels like drum breaks are something of a fundamental in your music? What is it that keeps you so devoted to the practice?
Breaks are the first thing I started practicing with when I got a cracked copy of Fruity Loops when I was 13, trying to make stuff like B-Key and the breakcore I was listening to at the time. I loved seeking out rare breaks, ones used in hip hop mainly. Breaks are definitely fundamental – they are slowly taking more of a backseat [in my productions] but I can never let them go. I love the journey of discovery when you trace where all these breaks and loops come from. I will always do break-y tunes but more and more I’m being drawn to broader horizons, as people will see over my releases in the next year, and the past couple of years to be honest.
Considering breaks have been rinsed through many phases of electronic music over the years, what compelled you to take that approach with your own music?
I have no doubt received some discrimination for using breaks, despite using really obscure ones at time. I just see them as another colour in the palette of paint that makes up my music – a mish mash of everything. I’ve seen a lot of people using the same washed up breaks, the same samples, shit flabby Reese basslines. Do your thing, but the spirit of jungle, hardcore and D&B for me was experimentation. It paralleled hip hop in the US, finding those unusual vibes and samples, chord progressions, space, atmosphere. A lot of that has been lost to bravado dancefloor functional hits.
Do you source your own unique breaks or stick to the canonical ones? What’s the strangest / most obscure break you’ve chopped up?
I obviously love the rinsed breaks and do use them – the Amen break, Think break, Apache, Funky Drummer etc... but I do enjoy finding less known ones. Stuff off Krautrock records, bands like Embryo, Can, The Cosmic Jokers, Popul Vuh, and Italian library records. There’s so much great stuff out there.
I’ve got loads of unreleased tracks where I fuck with mad, obscure breaks. I was obsessed with finding Photek and Source Direct breaks. I don't want to bait out too many because part of the fun in my opinion is finding them, but “A Lover & A Friend” by Eddie Bo & Inez Cheatham was used (heavily processed) by Source Direct on “Two Masks”. I used that on my track “The Scientists” on Soundman Chronicles. On “Chemotaxis” I used an Italian library record break from an LP called Zoo Folle by Guiliano Sorgini.
There are of course plenty of other sides to your music. Your Cosmic B-Boy EP on Purple City Soufflé notably embraced other styles...
The Purple City Soufflé thing was an absolute blessing. Matt who runs that label is an absolute don – he was super enthusiastic and helpful in making that project work, and it's opened a lot of avenues for forthcoming releases where I am able to be more creatively free. I’m so proud of the Cosmic B-Boy EP – the artwork, the poster insert, the coloured vinyl – it really was a dream come true.
Your first releases landed in 2013 on Soundman Chronicles and Keysound, which is a strong start for a new producer. Were you producing for a long time to reach that point?
The first label I released on was Soundman Chronicles. It was Wen and Parris who pushed me towards Dusk & Blackdown, more so Dusk. I had loved Keysound since like 2006-07, and that 2013-14 era was so fruitful. That little crew we had – there are still dubs from back then that never came out that are fucking great. It’s a shame we all went in different directions.
Prior to the Keysound era I was dabbling with music software beginning with FL Studio 3. It wasn't until I was about 15 that some friends heard what I was making and said they liked it. By 17 I was getting some props on SoundCloud, and then I believe I got my first vinyl release around 19 when I moved to London. I always dabbled with different styles of music, initially breakcore and drum & bass, then dubstep, then garage, but I enjoy doing things out of my comfort zone, so I'll always be dabbling.
You’ve forged strong connections with labels like Soundman Chronicles & Wisdom Teeth - do you consider that corner of electronic music a ‘scene’ in particular? What do you think about the convergence of different genres going on in dance music these days?
I don't really seek allegiance with any particularly label, but Soundman Chronicles I continue to return to and I will do more with other labels I've worked with. I'll be doing a lot with Well Rounded and their sub-labels. I love Donga and his interests and ideology. But I don't want to really want to be part of a clique, it can be very limiting.
I don't follow genres really. Genres are just different colours to paint a unique picture. I think we’re absolutely in a time of creative freedom but it needs to be embraced more. Lots of great artists are doing great things – it’s a real vibrant time.
You’re the latest in a long line of producers to sample Predator in a track. Why does it remain such a rich and appealing sample source?
Good question! It's just an absolute classic, one of those films that was so ahead of its time much like Blade Runner, THX1138, The Running Man, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hellraiser. I've sampled all these films, as have many other producers over the years. The UK Hardcore era really blew that apart, moving into jungle and D&B when things got more paranoid and dark, then into early dubstep too. I love that. Me and my uncle always gas about clocking and figuring out the samples used.