Label of the Month: Astrophonica
Label of the Month: AstrophonicaNovember 1, 2022
There aren’t many UK imprints who have been as fiercely loyal to underground music culture as Astrophonica has. 13 years deep into the venture, Jake Hirst speaks to label head Fracture about Astrophonica’s rise.
Mondays are a slog most weeks, especially if you’re self-employed and worrying about the week ahead. Fracture knows this all too well. He’s been teaching on Zoom all day today – something he started doing just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit as a way to “alleviate the pressure of being a self-employed musician and label owner”.
As an independent label treading its own path over the years, Astrophonica has been a labour of love for Charlie Fieber (aka Fracture), but equally a testing relationship to say the least. He’s dedicated 13 years of his life to building the brand, and when asked how that makes him feel, he mentions feeling “old” before chuckling. “13 years on paper looks like a long time, but it doesn’t actually feel that long. That’s until I look back at the first releases and realise how the label’s sound has developed.”
Launched in 2009 alongside Neptune, Astrophonica was initially a vehicle for Fracture & Neptune productions. But other label mainstays were eventually introduced, including Sully, Om Unit, Moresounds, Client_03 and Sam Binga. For years, the label has operated in a niche corner of the drum and bass and jungle scene, pushing forward-thinking sonics to a close-knit community of heads. While you’d assume most labels older than a decade would have nailed their sound, there’s something unique about Astrophonica where you can’t pinpoint it – and that’s been part of the beauty.
“I can’t put my finger on the A&R process, but the music has to make me feel something immediately,” Charlie explains. “I guess that something is a make-up of my influences and my past.” While the sound of Astrophonica – which blurs the lines between D&B, jungle, footwork, electro and breakbeat – is hard to categorise, what listeners know to expect is a mark of quality in every track. Just like an independent artist pouring love into their hand-made creation, Charlie ensures every Astrophonica release aligns with the label’s sonic trajectory. It’s a big reason why Astrophonica has become a buy on sight imprint. A quick scan over the label’s already sold-out Bandcamp vinyl is all the evidence you need.
For Charlie, “the quality has to be at the top level”, and his latest ‘0860’ project on the label is testament to Astrophonica’s vision to create releases with meaning. Arguably Charlie’s biggest project yet, ‘0860’ is an album, mixtape, radio station and interview series exploring the history and legacy of pirate radio and its importance in the development of UK underground music. From jungle tracks filled with wicked breaks and beats, to an online radio station in 0860.fm, to interviews with influential music figures including Bryan Gee, DJ Flight, Scratcha, Sherelle and Dextrous.
While Charlie admits his intention “was never to create this bigger project”, when he started writing the music for the album, he “felt like it was something bigger, so decided to expand it into an archival project.” It began with a fateful sample on the “0860” title track of East Man reading out the Kool FM phone number, and it grew into “an incredibly personal project” paying homage to the people of pirate radio who helped drive forward the underground music scene Astrophonica now calls home. But it’s not just that. It’s a window of insight into his upbringing in East London during the ‘90s, where a teenage Charlie would listen to pirate radio in his bedroom, making tapes and dreaming of the time he would be old enough to immerse himself in the culture. While listening to the likes of Kool FM wasn’t the start of Charlie’s love for music, it was the moment sparking his interest in underground music culture, as he explains.
“Growing up in East London, it was hard not to listen to pirate radio. It was coming out of cars and people were talking about it at school. It was local to me. That’s what fascinated me about it, as I had a real connection to it. At the time, I was listening to American grunge bands like Nirvana. Although they were amazing, and I still have an attachment to the music, when I realised that pirate radio stations were operating in the same area I lived, I needed to be part of it.”
As Charlie reflects on his pirate radio experiences with a nostalgic gleam in his eyes, it becomes clear ‘0860’ is a project representing something greater than a collection of music and insight – it’s a celebration of the pirate radio origins Astrophonica is built on – a time when the music didn’t seek sonic perfection, studio set-ups were minimal, and there was a freedom to the music. Symbolic of that time, Astrophonica prides itself on being a label straying away from the pursuit of sonic clarity in favour of “music that’s raw and from the heart”. Charlie continues. “People worry too much about how their tracks will sound against others these days. I’ve stopped trying to compete with the sonics of other incredible sounding records and have gone back the other way to instead using, and mastering, a more limited set of tools.”
While diving deeper into the past that laid the foundations of Astrophonica, it becomes clear nostalgia plays a big part in the identity of the imprint – in other words, showing respect to the deep roots of underground music. The wall of vinyl sitting behind Charlie on our call is just as much a testament to this. But Charlie is quick to stress “while I can’t help being nostalgic of how much the ‘90s, the DJs of the ‘90s, and pirate radio had an impact on how my life unfolded, I’m aware that being stuck in the past causes you to stagnate. So for me, it has always been about – how can I take my influences and present them in a way that hasn’t been heard yet?”
Pulling past influence and transforming it into something fresh has become the Astrophonica calling card. Whether it’s fusing two genres together in order to create something people haven’t heard before, or delving into the music archives with a new approach, creating curveballs has helped the label to stay at the forefront of the underground scene. It’s a motivation to embrace the new originating from the label’s early years releasing footwork edits of their jungle back catalogue.
“That was in 2012 off the back of Jim [Om Unit] doing work with Phillip D Kick,” Charlie recalls. “He did footwork edits of old jungle tracks and gave them away for free. I was inspired by the idea and thought – why don’t I take that concept but apply it to the back catalogue?” This launched the direction of producing VIP edits that weren’t strictly footwork, but were inspired by it. From Fracture’s VIP of “The Limit” to Machinedrum flipping the label’s debut release “Clissold” to Om Unit’s “Bad Habit” VIP – it’s a series that Charlie looks back on fondly as a moment levelling up Astrophonica. “It was a big turning point for us,” he affirms. “It pivoted the label away from being solely a D&B label into a space where we retained the same listeners, but opened the door to new ears.”
Opening doors to new music spaces is exactly what Astrophonica has set out to achieve over the years. Charlie has constantly looked to grow the label and its sonic identity through an adventurous – and somewhat unpredictable – attitude towards the music he signs. For Charlie, it’s important to “keep people guessing” by having “one foot outside of the box with a slight curveball mentality”. From the VIP edits to the label’s electro delves with Client_03 – Astrophonica’s drive to be different is something Charlie considers to be a “mantra of the label”.
One of Astrophonica’s stand-out curveball releases is Fracture Presents: Turbo (2019) – an album packed with 160bpm turbo Berghain techno, a phrase of Charlie’s choice. It’s a musical concoction the artist chuckles at before admitting he “cleared quite a few dance floors with it” when he first started playing it in his DJ sets. But that didn’t faze the label head because experimenting with new sounds before they’re popular is something Astrophonica thrives on. As Charlie points out, “there’s something about being on the cutting edge of something I’ve always found exciting. As a DJ, I love playing new music that makes people think – what’s this? Even though I’ve just done a nostalgia album, the grand picture is all about pushing the label forward.”
This desire to be at the forefront of underground music culture circles back to Charlie’s pirate radio days, in particular, listening to Bryan Gee. “You might not be able to make the link between electro, techno, footwork and Bryan Gee, but Bryan always had the freshest dubplates,” Charlie reminisces. “If you wanted to hear what was coming out in 18 months, or what the new sound was going to be, Bryan was the guy. When Dillinja started doing his nasty 808 basslines, Bryan was the first to play it!”
When it comes to releases, Astrophonica has had many influential ones over the years. But there’s one in particular Charlie highlights as a major moment of progression for Astrophonica – Gradients (2017). As the first V/A album from the label, it allowed Charlie to champion the label’s identity with a cohesive collection of sounds and artists including Falty DL, Dismantle, Stray and Tehbis. “Gradients allowed me to galvanise the sound of the label, and present a clear definition of what it was at that point – rather than it just being a collection of releases,” Charlie says. “What was lovely about Gradients was getting artists I looked up to involved. People like dBridge and Luke Vibert, who are two of my biggest inspirations.”
As an album, Gradients represents Astrophonica’s openness to underground sonics, and reiterates Charlie’s “particular A&R” seeking the highest quality for the label. But it also demonstrates something else, and that’s a focus on getting the visual aesthetic right. Named and designed by his brother at Utile Creative, who Charlie reveals has “worked on the visual identity of the label since day one”, it’s just one of many beautiful visual pieces helping to tie the narrative of the label’s music together. “Visual identity is as much a part of Astrophonica as the music,” Charlie emphasises. “My brother does all the artwork by hand, which is often pencil drawn before being translated. The care we put in on that level reflects the care in the A&R.” It’s not just the release art either. Astrophonica’s merch game is one of the strongest out there, and the list of sold-out products shows what the label’s passionate community thinks.
Achieving high levels of quality is the Astrophonica way, and it’s a major reason why even the label’s early releases are being picked up by younger music heads coming through today. As Charlie points out, “when I look back at early Astrophonica releases, I could still play them out now. I’ve always unconsciously looked for music that stands the test of time.” It’s a stance Charlie will continue to uphold in years to come. Despite pressure to increase the label’s release output in order to keep up with the demand of the music-hungry younger generation – Charlie feels proud to have stuck to his guns over the years with a more considered approach.
“If there’s one thing I would have liked to have done more of over the years, it’s to have put more records out. But when I look back at the catalogue, I feel proud of every release. All of them have a reason as to why I’ve released them. It’s easy to saturate the scene with too much music these days, and I think that’s the downfall of a lot of labels. But for me, I can’t change the quality level.” Flooding love into the label’s aesthetics is something Charlie plans to continue doing through more conceptual projects demanding as much care as 0860 and Omura (2022) with Sam Binga did, and he hopes the Astrophonica family will continue to follow the journey.
“I feel like this is where I want to be: creating project-based work. We’re still going to keep releasing with the same artists we love, but I can see some wider projects on the horizon. The people who like the music we put out like the story of the label and the lineage of the music. People are on board for the ride and that’s something I feel humbled by.”
Fracture’s album 0860 drops on Friday, November 18th, 2022, via Astrophonica. Buy it on Beatport.
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.