Bubblin' Up: Brothers Black - XLR8R

Bubblin' Up: Brothers Black

The rising duo muse on their beginnings and finding their footing in the techno landscape.
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James Sison and Edward Antonio are the two brothers behind Brothers Black. Originally from London but now residing in Berlin, the brothers first released under the Brothers Black moniker in 2016 with Trials, a five-tracker on voxnox Records that balanced driving club-focused rhythms with a refreshing emphasis on melody. In the two short years since the release of Trials, the UK duo have maintained a commendable work ethic and release schedule, dropping a further seven EPs on Safer at Night, Counter Pulse, Gynoid Audio, and their own Bade Records and Brothers Black imprints—the latter of which is a new vinyl-only label from the duo. With every new release, the brothers gain momentum, aided in part by the support of industry heavyweights such as Ben Klock, Richie Hawtin, Josh Wink, Danny Daze, Truncate, and Laurent Garnier, and a growing touring schedule that has seen them perform at institutions such as Berlin's Tresor and Wales' Gottwood Festival. With their new EP, Identity Crisis, now on the shelves, we dialed up the brothers to muse on their beginnings, finding their footing in the techno landscape, and what's in store for the year ahead.

Brothers Black will be performing alongside Magda, Sonja Moonear, Ricardo Villalobos, Vera, Ellen Allien, Apollonia, Praslesh, Bella Sarris, Molly, Anthea, Oshana, Topper, Varhat, Janeret, and many more at Prague's UP Festival from May 11 to 13. You can find more information and tickets to UP Festival here.

You can also download and stream an exclusive mix from Brothers Black at the bottom of the piece.

Let’s start at the beginning—what are your musical backgrounds?

Growing up together we were both always heavily involved in music in one way or another. With only 18 months between us, our musical tastes have evolved pretty concurrently and we’ve always shared musical interests and knowledge—laced with a healthy dose of sibling competitiveness. Musically, neither of us are formally trained. We both played guitar growing up, James to quite a high standard, and both played in bands, with Ed as a singer for a pop-punk outfit. But before diving more seriously into electronic music, music was an informal passion for the two of us.

Who were some of your biggest inspirations?

Ed: The first album I ever bought was Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory and in my preteens and early teens I was very into rock and metal. The intensity of this type of music really left a lasting impact on me, and I feel there are actually a number of parallels between the scenes I used to be a part of and the one I’m part of now, particularly here in Berlin. Long-lasting inspirations from these formative years that left a mark were City & Colour, Rage Against the Machine, Killswitch Engage, and probably John Mayer.

James: The first album I ever bought was Papa Roach’s Lovehatetragedy, which unfortunately wasn’t as highly acclaimed as Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. Like Ed, I was influenced by rock and metal before moving into electronic music. I’d say I was inspired by a broad range of artists—Guns ‘n’ Roses, Pink Floyd, Oasis, and Moby being particularly notable.

Do you remember the first time you experienced electronic music?

Ed: I was 14 or 15 when I first came into contact with dubstep, which I think was my first "proper" introduction to electronic music. Skream, Benga, Kode9, and Coki were just some of the artists we used to sit listening too while drinking warm cans of Fosters, with me trying to figure out if I liked it or not. Caspa & Rusko’s fabriclive 37 (2007) was a pretty seminal record at the time. At this point, I wasn’t really clubbing as such; I was still going to a lot of rock gigs and things like that. The most important electronic music experience of my youth, however, was definitely seeing Daft Punk live in 2007. To this day that remains one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and it really left a mark on me. It wasn’t really until university with the deep house explosion that I first discovered house, disco, and techno. Having flitted from genre to genre I finally found a "home" that stuck, and that was house music. As an interesting side note, James and I did go to a Deep Medi (dubstep label founded by Mala) night at OHM as one of our first nights out when we moved to Berlin and it was great.

James: I was also in my early teens when I got into electronic music. One of my mates gave me a load of trance CDs, which I listened to all day every day, cycling through the tracks on my iPod Shuffle. I then got really into French electro, which was my first real introduction to electronic music parties. It was definitely an intense experience, but it was wicked—it actually turned out one of our good friends was playing at one of the first parties I went to as a teenager before we met... small world. Dubstep was also something that clicked with me, particularly the deeper, more minimal end of the spectrum. It wasn’t until a bit later down the line that I started diving deep into house and techno, but it definitely felt very natural when I did.

When did you begin producing music?

Ed: James started producing a few years before me, making electro, but I first got a copy of Logic when I was 20 or 21.

James: A friend of mine suggested music production years ago and I thought, “Why not?” I was 18 at the time and had no idea what was going on—I have to say when I first opened up Logic I was very confused, but I loved it.

What did these early experiments sound like?

Ed: I think I first started by trying to rip off Miguel Campbell and early Life & Death stuff—either way, it wasn’t good.

James: Terrible. A combination of electro and...kind of Burial-like influences, probably. Needless to say, it didn’t work and the outcome was awful. It wasn’t until I started DJing more regularly and producing house that things started to really improve.

So when did DJing enter the picture?

James: I started DJing pretty quickly after producing actually. Of course, getting booked is tough when you're starting out, but a close friend started putting on nights at the Horse and Groom and then started Tessellate, which I was a resident at. It was a pretty amazing entry to the London scene and the parties were great. We played all over the city, with Corsica Studios still being a personal favorite. Around this time, Ed and I started playing together more and more and it worked well; our tastes were really in line and we’ve always had similar mixing styles.

Ed: I think I bought my first controller at 21? Proper bedroom DJ style with a Traktor S2, which I played in my room. I started doing university house parties pretty quickly after that, and not long after, James and I went back to back for the first time at the Horse and Groom pub in London at a Tessellate night. I think I’d been djing for about four months by then. After, that we started to play b2b more regularly.

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As solo artists, your sounds both sat in much housier territory. What was the catalyst to head towards harder and darker sounds and the Brothers Black project?

The Brothers Black project actually came about quite naturally as we both finished university at the same time. For the last two years of uni, we’d started playing b2b very regularly and had premeditated that once we finished uni and moved home we’d start producing together as well. We also wanted to start buying some outboard gear, so it made sense to team up as we’d split the costs 50/50. Our first projects that we made together weren’t necessarily bad, but stylistically we were still in this housier realm. We tried mixing things up a bit, producing different types of music—ambient, and tech-house, for example—all the while building a solid workflow together. We’d both been getting more and more into techno at the time, with MDR, Answer Code Request, and Ilian Tape playing an influential role. It was that summer on the festival circuit that the penny really dropped, particularly after seeing Jeff Mills for the first time. Then the inspiration and drive really took over.

Once this inspiration kicked in, was there a clear sound in mind for the project? And did this new focus lead to different working methods?

These early influences certainly played a role in shaping our early productions, but admittedly we never had a clear vision for what our sound might be. At this time we were still finding our flow in the studio and experimenting with how each of us would contribute in our own way—who was more predisposed towards rhythms or synth components, who had more of an eye for automation or structuring, what was the best way for us to work together etc. Looking back over our output now, it’s quite easy to map how our sound has developed, but I think this can be attributed more to us finding our sound for when we DJ. Our DJing and production styles have always maintained a melodic edge, and this is certainly still present, but over time they’ve certainly become a lot more dancefloor-orientated. Both our sound and flow within the studio have come from quite an organic process of trial and error and experimentation.

Your debut Brothers Black EP, Annexe, dropped on Bade Records in February 2016—how long had you been producing together before this?

Putting out this record was a bit of a gamble as the two of us had only been producing properly together since the start of September 2015. The two of us have a very productive work rate, so we managed to get to a point where, at the time, we felt confident enough to put the record out. We secured a really fantastic remix from Italian duo Hiver, which really helped the release along and picked up a lot of great support. Listening back now, the production standard is certainly a bit looser than we’d like, but we think there’s something to be said for taking the plunge, and it certainly gave us confidence moving forward to our first releases with Safer At Night and Voxnox Records.

Can you tell us how Bade Records came about?

Bade Records is a collaborative project between ourselves and two friends from London Charlie and Henry (Tape Fear). We started the project back in November 2013 purely out of passion. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing but all shared a very clear vision of the kind of music we wanted to put out. We scoured SoundCloud to find artists that we liked and offered to put out their music. The learning curve was steep but it was a great way to learn about how the industry worked and meet people within the scene. We’ve hosted stages at festivals on the UK circuit, including our regular yearly hosting at Gottwood, as well as running our Bade Presents series in London.

Do you see Bade as being a key point in the growth of your career and as artists?

Ed: Undoubtedly. Bade was really our entry into music and the industry and got us thinking more critically about DJing and production. It was the point where music transformed from just a passion or hobby to a potential career path. For James, it was the start of him putting out music, and we both started DJing together under the Bade Records banner. We were always going to put out the first Brothers Black record on Bade and our second Bade Release, Network, was an important milestone for us in terms of its reception and success. This year we’ll be releasing the first vinyl on Bade as a collab between us and our label mates Tape Fear. We’re super excited about this one, so keep a lookout.

Was there ever a specific moment when you realized that you could make a viable career as DJ/producers?

It would be impossible for us to pinpoint a proper "a-ha!" moment, and like many other artists, we’re still not at a point where music is our sole job and source of income. We’re just doing what we love and hopefully we’ll be able to make the transition to full-time musicians in the future.

Last year saw the launch of your self-titled imprint Brothers Black—can you tell us about the label and the plans for this year?

This was a particularly special and personal project for us. We wanted to have a platform where we had complete control over the kind of music that we put out and to release music from artists that have either really inspired us or we believe deserve a lot more attention—or both. We also hope that, eventually, it’ll become a great platform for us to showcase new talent, particularly those artists for whom it’s their first release. BRBL002 will be a various artists compilation EP featuring ourselves and three artists we really admire, but we aren’t ready to announce who they are just yet. Following that, BRBL003 will be an original Brothers Black EP with a remix from one of our favorite artists Jeff Rushin.

You're both now based in Berlin—do you think the city has had an effect on your music?

Undoubtedly. Berlin has a very specific type of techno: sparse, minimal, bleepy. This sound has definitely found its way into our productions, particularly in the low end with the big boomy kicks that we use regularly. The most influential impact of the city on our music, though, has definitely been the increased frequency with which we are exposed to electronic music. When we were living in London, nights out were often chosen because someone specific was playing, and just because of the nature of London culture and life, this would often be an irregular "event" that we would premeditate. Conversely, in Berlin, punters are often attracted more to specific clubs and parties than DJs, and given the lengthier running times, even if you want to see a specific DJ you’ll often end up discovering new artists every time you go out. This has definitely helped to broaden our musical spectrums, but more importantly, the increased frequency with which we go out here has really allowed us to focus on what works well in clubs. All the different DJs, styles, and mixing techniques on showcase in Berlin have greatly shaped how we approach making music by leading us to ask of our own music: how is this going to translate onto the dancefloor? How is this sound design going to sound on a big sound system? This isn’t to say that all tracks should be dancefloor-focussed, far from it, but for us, it's an important impact that Berlin has had on us.

Do any key moments of inspiration or learning standout?

Aside from clubbing, some of our greatest inspiration and learning has come from our friends. The first two people we met on arrival were Luca and Fabio Venezia (who are not actually related). Luca is one of the founders of Safer At Night and Fabio the founder of Voxnox Records alongside his brother Silvio. All of these guys and the people they’ve introduced us to along the way have always been a massive source of encouragement and support. They really pushed us to focus our sound and to improve, and where we are today is in part thanks to them. This goes for all of our friends who come to every gig, endure the relentless demo sending and requests for feedback, or simply those who share music and party with us.

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The Brothers Black project has a noticeable punchy, machine-driven sound. What is your current studio setup?

Our current studio is actually built under a mezzanine bed in James’ bedroom. We’re lucky our neighbors are forgiving, but being freelance also means we operate as the postal depot for the whole building...

The setup includes a Nord Lead 4, Elektron Analog Keys, Yamaha An200, Roland Tr8, Elektron Analog Rytm, Sherman Filterbank 2, Yamaha MG16XU, Adam F7 monitors, and Adam A7x monitors.

How does it work in the studio? Do you both have set roles and routines?

Our method of working is pretty regimented. Both of us work part-time in other jobs so we dedicate specific studio time to work together. We usually start work at about 9:30 a.m. and we always start out with a jamming session. The default rolls are that James starts working on synth components with Ed laying down a groove. Once the basis for a track has been found, we’ll record in percussion and lay out a structure for the track. After that, we’ll record in the synth components until the main body of the track has been locked in. We’ll then take a step back, usually for a delicious snack or leftovers from dinner the night before, and then come back to it to add any final details or pads. We’ll then go through and texture and add reverb and delay automation and any last transitional FX. We like to work quickly and spend ideally no more than one or two days on a single project. It’s also handy that there’s two of us as often we "tag team" throughout the day, with one person working away at the project and then swapping turns when that person feels fatigued. This way, we can maintain a level of high-intensity work through the day.

Do you think having a day job helps or hinders in regards to creativity and motivation?

It can be both, but overall we’ve found that having a day job actually boosts our creativity and motivation. We both work part-time, but we’ve found that having less time to work in the studio actually boosts our output. Knowing that we’ve got a limited time frame within which to make something happen definitely adds some welcome pressure and prevents us from getting complacent. Being at work also allows us to take time away from being creative, but more importantly, allows us to listen to music which always makes us hungry to get back into the studio.

What’s next for Brothers Black?

2018 is already shaping up to be a really great year so far. Our latest release is a label collaboration between our Brothers Black imprint and Safer At Night family and contains a slamming remix from Cosmin TRG. Following that, we’re pushing out the shared vinyl with Tape Fear on Bade, two further releases on Brothers Black, and another scheduled release with the voxnox familia. We’ve also just very recently signed to one of our favorite labels but we can’t announce anything about that just yet. Gigs wise things are looking great, too. Our schedule across Europe is picking up nicely and we’re especially looking forward to the debut of UP festival in Prague and returning to Gottwood Festival in the UK. It’s going to be an incredible experience sharing such a big stage with such great artists. Hope to catch some of you on the dance floor throughout the year!