Going Rouge with Rockwell

A kingpin of the drum & bass scene, UK DJ/producer Rockwell has entered into a new chapter of his creative outlook with the arrival of his sophomore album, LOW ART. Jake Hirst has the story…

16 min
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Jul 21, 2023
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By
Jake Hirst

He’s a name newer faces to the drum and bass scene may not recognise, but the heads who’ve been in the scene for years will be all too familiar with Rockwell and his reputation for pushing boundaries with genre-defying music. D&B, jungle, footwork, grime, 140 – you name it, Rockwell flooded elements of it into his productions between 2011-2018 (and did it with style). From staple DJ weapons including “1_2_3_4” and “Detroit” to the beautiful experimentation of Rockwell’s debut album Obsolete Medium in 2015.

But things changed. Rockwell left Shogun Audio to pursue his own venture with new label Obsolete Medium, listeners stopped wanting deep, technical D&B, the pandemic hit, and Rockwell went quiet online to focus on pursuits outside of the genre. Many believed he had stopped making music altogether, but really, Rockwell was working away in the background – he just didn’t have the same exposure he once had. You could say it has been like hitting the reset button for an artist who has had to find his feet all over again.

Now in 2023, Rockwell is back with new album project, LOW ART, and there’s something different about this latest venture. The music sounds rejuvenated and the artist seems more present. Maybe it’s the fact Rockwell has had time to work out who he wants to be as an artist in the midst of a global pandemic, or maybe it’s due to the artist embracing sobriety and feeling clearer with his vision. Either way, the Rockwell Renaissance is here, and we can expect plenty of exciting developments – starting with the release of LOW ART. Jake Hirst caught up with the artist to better understand the new chapter of Rockwell that is unfolding.

Rockwell’s latest album LOW ART is out now via Obsolete Medium. Buy it on Beatport.

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I’ve seen your name much more in recent months than I have in a long time. Do you feel more active?

Definitely. I’m busier than I’ve ever been behind the scenes, but not as busy as I’ve been previously on the show front, which is a bit of a paradox. Drum and bass is a funny beast. This is a conversation I’ve had with my management. I’m a producer. I like to go into a room and shut the door. But the same time, that’s quite self-indulgent, so I’m putting more effort into my socials to show people what I’m doing. It’s one of those things we all experience where if we’re not seeing somebody online every day then we assume they’re not busy.

That’s the world we live in now. A lot of people in the scene thought you had stopped making music.

It’s because I wasn’t active on socials around the pandemic. There weren’t any gigs and D&B was on pause for me. I was still writing music, but I was focusing on other things. I did a postgraduate qualification alongside learning video animation, editing and Photoshop. A lot of my energy went into those pursuits. If you can’t take a break during a cataclysmic shutdown of civilization, then when can you?

That was the moment when social media went into overdrive. We’re still seeing remnants of that in the scene where people who rose to prominence off the back of the pandemic have made a name for themselves, while other people who had to concentrate on other things to pay bills and support their families suffered.

Did leaving Shogun Audio in 2018 have an impact on your exposure too?

Definitely. I naively thought I could put music out and it would be the same. I was wrong. I didn’t realise how much of a miss it would be to not have a big label with a big social presence supporting me. Quite often online I see people saying “It’s good to see you’re still doing stuff”. I’ve actually been releasing music pretty much every year since 2018, but if you’re not closely following artists on socials then you won’t realise what they’re doing. It’s been a case of trying to gradually claw these people back. It’s a long road.

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LOW ART
is an important step towards doing that. How did the album come about?

I was writing tunes over lockdown and was stuck in the gears. I was going to do a selection of singles, but realised one day when listening to them that they all worked well together. I thought it could be an album, but I didn’t want to release it as an album straight away and forget about it. After the last album I wrote, Obsolete Medium, I said I’d never do another album because it was such a traumatic experience. LOW ART is an album, but it’s an unintentional one. If I’d sat down with the intention of writing an album then I’d never have finished it.

Why was the last album such a traumatic experience?

I was locked in the studio from 9am to 9pm each day, which was horrific. Content-wise, I put so many themes into the tracks with the intention of pushing the envelope in the genre. I wanted to create music that was D&B, jungle, grime, footwork, but at the same time, didn’t sound like any one of those. The album got lots of attention outside of D&B, but not inside of it. I genuinely came away from the project feeling like the attention it got wasn’t proportionate to the grief I went through.

With Low Art, you seem to have honed in on D&B and pushed your influences through it, as opposed to trying to do too much at once.

It was intentional to make a D&B album. Unlike Obsolete Medium where I bent the D&B to fit the influence, with Low Art I’ve bent the influence to fit the D&B – meaning I could be more flexible with intros and experimentation towards textures. Over time, working them into more traditional themes D&B audiences are familiar with. For example, post-rock intros going into D&B. There is a concept to Low Art, but it was unintentional. I wanted to experiment with things I hadn’t worked with before.

Low Art Rockwell

The visual design of the album is wicked. I can tell you really thought about the aesthetic and its link to the music.

I’m very pleased with how everything looks. The artist I worked with, Joshua Hughes-Games, does a lot of the artwork for a label called Bandulu, who release with the likes of Kahn & Neek. Really gothic 140. I’m into the same influences as those guys, so I was happy to get him onboard. It doesn’t look like a D&B record. It throws back to what we were seeing on our screens during the pandemic. Burning cars, chaos, civilization going down the pan.

Do you feel a sense of fresh energy in your music and your approach to it?

Definitely. It has been a lot of hard work mentally trying to get back on the horse and be visible again after the pandemic. It felt so alien. I’m a new, old artist in some ways, because I’ve had to rebuild myself. I feel the pain of newcomer artists because I’m experiencing it too. But I’m finally getting over the hill. The ideas are rolling and momentum is gathering.

The mood of your music has certainly changed. You’ve striped things back to basics – but doing those basics better than ever.

For sure. When I made “1_2_3_4” and “Detroit” I was essentially putting out a single a year because that’s how long it took to write the tunes. So I set out to strip things back and be more economical. It’s influenced by something Sub Focus once said to me. “Consider every element in the track. If it doesn’t need to be there then take it out.” That’s something I’ve been trying to get into my music. Focusing on creating a good piece of music rather than something with all the bells and whistles. It’s a new approach for me.

It’s a little change to your thinking, but one that’s so effective. Are you feeling more content with this new writing process?

I’m having more fun in the studio and finding it less stressful. There was a point after my first album where music was becoming formulaic and unenjoyable. It was like filling out a spreadsheet. But now, I’ll write a whole track before bed without thinking about the technical details. It’s much more fun to be flexible. The era of going away, experimenting, then putting an album out every three years is gone. Music artists don’t have time to do that anymore. You need to be putting music out constantly.

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Amen. What tunes on LOW ART were the most enjoyable to work on?

I particularly enjoyed the elements of experimentation in the album. Like the part before the drop on “Estranged” with the distorted pad, and the similar texture on “Recognise” where there’s a distorted organ. I wrote both of those elements in the same day, and that was me plugging in a guitar pedal primarily used in Swedish death metal. It’s really aggressive, but If you get the levels right, and play the right chords, it brings loads of depth. Sending basic tones through that created these distorted soundscapes that sound unlike any synth or guitar. There was a lot of experimentation like that on the album. I wanted to get away from the polished Serum, OTT sound that is present in so many people’s music. There’s a big gap in the market right now for forward-thinking D&B.

That mindset translates nicely to what you’re pushing with your label Obsolete Medium. The label intertwines seamlessly with your music vision.

Thank you. I really believe in what I’m building with Obsolete Medium and the music I’m putting out. It’s a slow process. It’s like building a wall and only putting one brick in it every month. But eventually, you’ll have built something meaningful. Obsolete Medium is completely D.I.Y. I do all the A&R and socials and I used to do the artwork. It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding.

I particularly love surrounding myself with fresh energy on the label. I’m working with new artists like Erotic Café – a guy from Italy producing crazy tracks with full 4X4 cinematic soundscapes. His track “The Interference” is one of my favourites. We’ve got some horrible bits from an artist called Thread too. I’m not trying to put out records I think are going to be #1 in the charts. I’m trying to put out records that are important for people to hear. Interesting music pushing the scene forward – rather than the formula of track build, gap, jump up bassline, drums, which is everywhere.

Despite feeling like a new artist, are you happy with how things have panned out? It’s like you’re starting with a clean slate for this new chapter of Rockwell.

100%. I’m enjoying finding my feet again – putting out regular releases, building the label and working with new artists. Even though I’m now active on a much smaller scale than I was in 2015/16, I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities that come my way. I enjoy them much more than I did in the past. Maybe it’s because I was drunk all the time. I used to play important gigs, not reflect on how well they went, then forget the night because I drank all my rider. It was such a shame. I’m sober now and feel more productive.

As an artist in the scene, it’s easy to get stuck on the big label conveyor belt where everyone wants to know you and it all falls together easily. But you don’t get time to think about what it is you’re really doing and appreciate it. That’s exactly what I’m doing now – not expecting anything, but appreciating everything that comes my way.

Jake Hirst is a freelance writer living in Bristol, UK, who has previously been published in UKF, DJ Mag, Data Transmission and Ticket Arena. A certified drum & bass head, you can keep up to date with his writing on Instagram.

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