Instra:mental—Two video-store refugees refresh UK bass with vintage gear and stripped-down rhythms.
They spent years watching Aliens, Akira, Blade Runner, and Tron movies in the video shop, and hundreds of nights out exploring hardcore and jungle warehouse raves. Then there were countless days surviving England's bitterly cold weather and absorbing sunny '80s synth pop. Maybe it was buying their first studio gear or meeting drum & bass innovator Darren "dBridge" White at London club The End that fueled their dreams. These moments and a million others forged Alex Green and Damon Kirkham's friendship, and led the duo to form Instra:mental and define a new path for UK bass music.
Kirkham and Green's collaboration has lasted since their initial meeting at age 11 and culminated in multiple British music awards, a thriving label, and the massively popular Autonomic podcast series. Although initially aligned with the drum & bass circuit, Kirkham and Green's current output isn't locked in to a specific speed or cadence. Instra:Mental's music is defined by edgy, stripped-down rhythms that leave space for rich, synthesizer-saturated melodies. "We don't like to sit still on a tempo or an idea. We're [always] evolving through new techniques and rhythms," says Green. Resolution 653, Instra:Mental's forthcoming debut album on the duo's NonPlus+ label, unites electro, drum & bass, Detroit techno, and other electronic offshoots on tracks that blend 1980s influences with high-tech refinement. The album offers songs like "When I Dip," an ardent electro workout that sounds like Newcleus retooled for the Dirty South era with machine-gun claps, Moog-y bass patterns, and rap vocal snippets, while techno-dubstep hybrid "Thomp" features swiveling, stomping rhythms that sound like they should be blasting from a Rio favela. It all comes after a six-year break from producing, and they've virtually abandoned drum & bass.
After early years absorbing hip-hop, jungle, and rave culture and listening to everything from N.W.A. and Autechre to Optical and Drexciya, Kirkham and Green rented studio time to record drum & bass tracks and eventually bought synths and computers. A solo effort and two split singles with Source Direct on the Demonic label in 2000 did well enough that money started coming in. But quick fame led to stagnancy and life caught up with the pair. They retreated from music until 2007, when they released "Comanche" followed by "Rogue" b/w "Sakura" on Darkestral Recordings. "We re-entered the scene with the tracks 'Comanche' and 'Naked Zoo,'" recalls Kirkham. "We were pushing something new and refreshing into the drum & bass scene." Another single, "The Chamber," was also widely lauded despite, according to Green, being "to the left of what everyone else was doing."
Things moved quickly after that: By 2009 they linked with dBridge for releases on his Exit label, founded the NonPlus+ imprint, and started the Autonomic podcast series. A high point came in '09 when they released the moody, minimal vocal D&B tune "Watching You" on NonPlus+. "The track came together really naturally," says Kirkham. "Everything just slipped into place." The song was mostly written on a classic Yamaha DX-7 synth and features dBridge's vocals processed with Kirkham's custom Reaktor patch.
Just as fans and the press were praising Instra:Mental's complex, stripped-down drum & bass, the duo changed direction again. "I was struggling to write interesting beat patterns at 170 [beats per minute]," explains Green. "I was spending hours in a session and not feeling satisfied. As soon as we slowed the tempo down, things started coming together more easily." Kirkham echoes the sentiment, adding that some patterns and grooves worked better at slower speeds. "You just roll with whatever feels right," he says.
Instra:Mental's music is cemented by a precise balance of vintage and future studio technology. Working out of a studio dubbed The Zoo, Green and Kirkham still use the original gear they bought as teens with added high-end dynamic hardware and various synths. "We're always buying and selling different equipment," says Green. "It's fun for us to get new toys; it instantly inspires us." But, Kirkham explains, the duo isn't about to reveal all their production cards. "We've always been quite secretive about our set-up. We're always trying to create fresh sounds and processes," he says.
Their studio innovations are heard on techy tracks like "Tramma" or the electro-fitted "Leave It All Behind" on Apple Pips, whose tense, minimal beats recall Photek's or Source Direct's sparse production, minus the drum & bass meter. Stepping further leftfield, "Futurist" has a Mark Pritchard-style broken-beat feel. For these tunes, Kirkham and Green rely on vintage techno drum-machine rhythms and pads that hint at '80s synth icon Vangelis. Also trading on the retro influence, the title of their collaborative track with dBridge, "Blush Response," references Vangelis' composition from the Blade Runner soundtrack.
"I grew up in a video shop," explains Kirkham. "My mum owned it and I helped run it with her. Alex and I both used to watch all the films before they hit the shelves. Growing up in that time with wonky VHS tapes had a lot to do with the cinematic style of the Instra:Mental sound." Green has a similar fondness for his '80s upbringing. "Watching the films and hearing the synthesized pop music and film scores from that period made me who I am," he says.
The same retro/future mix is heard in the duo's incredibly successful Autonomic podcast series, which features significant electronic artists from the past alongside edgy new and unreleased tracks by friends and collaborators like dBridge, ASC, and Vaccine. The podcast's success also led to Instra:Mental and dBridge being invited to mix FabricLive 50.
Although Green and Kirkham's main focus now is promoting Resolution 653, the two compound their already hectic schedules with multiple side-projects, aliases, and A&R work for their label. Green solos as Al Bleek and Boddika while Kirkham moonlights as Kid Drama and other monikers that he won't reveal. They run NonPlus+, a label now 10 deep in singles by ASC, Vaccine, and Jimmy Edgar, with new titles by Actress, Skream, and Lotek on the horizon this year. Instra:Mental also releases tracks for other imprints like Nakedlunch or Loefah's Swamp81, and have an upcoming single for producer Martyn's 3024 imprint. The boys will explore solo releases this year, as Green's Boddika has six tracks committed to Swamp81 and a 12" for Naked Lunch with more material forthcoming on NonPlus+ and Hotflush.
And who knows, they might even return to their drum & bass roots soon. "I have some really interesting ideas for new beat patterns at 170 bpm now," says Green. "We may have to give them a whirl some day." He adds that like most great studio collaborations, his and Kirkham's music mostly happens spontaneously. "It was never a case of 'Will this work on the dancefloor?' or 'Who's gonna like this?'"Green explains. "The music we've written, we've written because we wanted to, and most importantly because we liked it."
Resolution 653 is out now on NonPlus+.
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