It’s easy to overlook how seminal the '90s were in birthing pretty much everything that has since come to dominate UK culture. In just a matter of years garage, jungle, UK funky, bassline, and many more genres exploded out of one another like firecrackers. In the mix of it all was MJ Cole, whose pioneering 2-step sound went on to influence everything from grime to dubstep to bands like The XX. His breakthrough track, “Sincere," was one of the first proper garage songs to penetrate the UK top 40.
Over the years, Cole has established himself both as one of the most consistent producers in Britain and a mastermind for bringing through new talent. He’s produced tracks across the spectrum for artists like Dizzee Rascal, Katy B, and Example. In 2014, he co-wrote and produced “Nobody But You” for Mary J Blige, alongside Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes; and just last year he teamed up with the ferocious young grime MC AJ Tracey to create “The Rumble," a dark, industrial colossus that showed just how diverse his sound has become.
Aside from dropping “Bouldaz” on Disclosure’s Method White label, “Alcatraz” on Redlight’s label Lobsterboy, and the aforementioned “The Rumble," Cole’s last two years have been spent on a secret side project. In the heart of central London, he’s taken over and renovated an old abandoned gin factory into a mecca for new artists and producers. Aptly named The Gin Factory, it is a 12 studio soundproof factory reminiscent of Cheiron Studios in Sweden “It’s a good vibe,” says Cole. “People are constantly nipping into each other’s studios to tune vocals or play keys or sing.” It’s here, on the basement floor in a spacious room decorated with synths, pianos, and old records, that MJ Cole gets down to work.
The latest output from The Gin Factory is Foundations, a three-track release described as "irresistibly emotive and club ready all at once." It features new singles "If Only," "Phoenix," and "Liquid," and marks a return to the 2-step sound. In support of the release, we caught up with the London-based artist for 20 quick-fire questions.
01. Describe your surroundings right now.
I’m sat in my natural habitat: my studio in Clerkenwell, London. My favourite place where the weather is always dependable.
02. What advice would you give yourself 20 years ago?
Take breaks from creating music, if you can. Forcing creativity can grind you down so create time to live as a human being. The best music comes from experience and an open mind.
03. Your Carmen Mcrae remix “How Long Has This Been Going On” is a favourite in the XLR8R office. What tracks do you look back on with the most amount of pride?
It’s an obvious choice but "Sincere" will always be a special record to me. I wrote it in my bedroom with minimal equipment with no preconceptions or boundaries. It represents complete fluidity and creative freedom to me. It became the ticket to the best show I’ve ever been invited to.
04. What do you think of the garage music scene now?
There’s some great records around at the moment. I’m not hearing anything ground-breaking but I’m not sure that’s even possible now with the internet and the amount of cross-fertilisation of genres.
05. Do you think that technological advancements in production and the fact that anyone has the capacity to produce music has led to a higher output of quality?
It’s certainly easier to make records sound good these days but the magic still comes from within. The tools are sharper but the the finished sculpture is still all about the sculptor.
05. We know your love of pianos and playing live but what would do you prefer: DJ set or live band?
I love DJing. Always will. But I’m a keys guy at heart. It’s what I grew up doing to play music live again is important to me. I’m just about to start putting together a new live show for next year. Looking forward to it.
06. Which DJs are inspiring you at the moment?
On my travels I always come across some DJ sets which really stand out. No matter what anyone says, DJing at the highest level is an art form. In the garage world, EZ will always be king; he’s amazingly creative with the CDJs and can make the place erupt even with a 7/10 track. It’s all in the timing and lead up.
07. What musical genre is played most in your house outside of the studio?
I listen to music across the board away from the studio from classical to dub to jazz to ambient. I’m also pretty big on podcasts at the minute too—mostly of the non-musical type as my musical ears need a rest—Distraction Pieces, Inquiring Minds, WTF with Marc Maron, Desert Island Discs, and the Adam Buxton podcast are all favourites.
08. What are your favourite albums at the moment?
Maribou State Kingdoms in Colour
Kendrick Lamar Damn
Cinematic Orchestra Motion
09. What is your favourite aspect about producing music?
I love creating. Creating new art which will hopefully be around forever.
10. What growing music scene are you most interested in at the moment?
I’m constantly inspired and interested by a wide variety of musical flavours. I’ve recently started work on a project involving classical music so that’s been my musical diet for the last few months. It's not exactly a growing scene or up and coming is it, but it is hugely inspiring.
11. A lot of garage from the early '90s and 2000s is now making its way into contemporary house and techno sets. Can you see a renaissance of the early garage sound?
I hear the “it’s coming around again” thing often and have done for the the last 15 years. Garage had its elevated time around 2000. I feel new genres back then were jumped upon, rinsed, and spat out. I saw the same thing happen to dubstep. So, no, I don’t see a renaissance happening per se, but I think garage has become a solidified genre now. It’s paid its dues. It’s great to see some bits popping up in cross genre DJ sets.
12. Where have you played recently that has stood out as somewhere with an amazing atmosphere?
I played a tiny venue called The Shipping Forecast in Liverpool a month or so ago. An intimate venue underneath a bar. Had a great time in there. The crowd is everything and you can never tell how a gig is going to pan out.
13. How much time do you spend in the studio a week?
I spend about 40-60 hours in the studio per week at the moment. Autumn is my most productive time.
14. Tell us about your new release, Foundations, and where the idea for the music came about?
This EP is all about a return to the way I used to make records before I had access to recording equipment, just a sampler and a computer. It’s all about tiny samples and fragments of sound, woven into a musical tapestry. It’s not trying to be pop or radio, it’s a natural flow of creativity using the instruments and sounds I love.
15. A couple of the tracks have quite a deep emotional current running through them, almost melancholic whilst also sounding fresh and new. What influenced this deeper sound?
This is the sound of non-prescriptive music. Often there’s an expectation to make music that follows a format or ticks certain boxes. I’m naturally drawn to deeper sounds, deeper harmonies, deeper colours.
16.Would you ever be interested in making a film score?
Absolutely. With bells on. This has always been my dream.
17. What are the best films you’ve seen recently?
Really liked Idris Elba’s “Yardie." Man’s got a few talents.
18. Your Back to Mine compilation album was on repeat in my house growing up. If you were to make a compilation album for an afters hours vibe now, name three tracks that would be on it?
Thanks. Good to hear.
Karriem Riggins “Bahia Dreamin’”
Gizmo “Red Balloon”
19. Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Writing film scores in my woodland studio.
20. What’s the first thing you’re going to do after answering these questions?
We are currently in the process mixing my next release so I’ll be working on that. I’m really excited about this one. It’s an unexpected collaboration. I’ll say no more except for that it’s sounding very very good.