Scheduled for release towards the end of this week, Joe Cowton is set to release his debut album. Entitled Utility, the release is an interesting one for the producer and Livity Sound, the Bristol-based imprint/collective he co-runs alongside Tom Ford (a.k.a. Peverelist) and Asusu. Not only is it Livity's first solo LP—its first full-length barring 2013's Livity Sound compilation—it also comes seven years after Cowton's first release under the Kowton alias. In advance of its April 15 release, the album is exclusively available to stream in full below. XLR8R also caught up with Cowton to learn more about the LP and the significance it holds for both the Bristol scene and all those key figures that surround it.
Utility comes at an interesting point in your career—seven years after your first release under the Kowton alias. Why now? Has it taken some time for you to feel mature enough in your sound to produce an LP?
I’ve been making music for almost 15 years in total now, and the shift from being someone who made tunes for a laugh, to someone who’d done a couple of releases, to being where I am now has been so gradual that, until recently, I’d never really had a plan or stopped to think about where I was at. As we’ve developed the Livity Sound label, it’s felt right to embark on something more substantial. We’d done the compilations and the remix series, and it just felt like the right time to do an individual artist album.
I think all producers are constantly developing, whether that's going for particular stylistic traits or learning new engineering techniques. Taking on the challenge of writing an album gave me a chance to really qualify what I am about as a producer right now; something to look back on and feel that I’ve produced a body of work thats represents both me as a producer and Livity Sound as a label.
When you go in the studio now, do you feel ready to produce the sound you have in your head, or is this still a process of continual evolution?
I always have ideas when I get in the studio; sometimes things come to me at random points throughout the day, and other times I’ll be listening a mix or whatever and something will just click. I’m getting better at laying things down as I want them to sound more quickly; quite often though, rather than being the finished tune, that initial idea will provide a starting point for something that ends up sounding completely different. I know what I like and I know what I dislike; my writing process involves bouncing between the two and knowing when to stop.
"My whole style is based around reduction, and this album is as reduced a work as I’ve done."
Sonically speaking, how do you feel Utility compares with your earlier works?
I don’t see the record as a deviation from what I’ve been doing previously at all really. The kicks and bass remain heavy and propulsive; the percussion is still raw and abrasive; there are aspects of melody where necessary, but nothing overblown. My whole style is based around reduction, and this album is as reduced a work as I’ve done. That said, it's no more sparse than, for example, the first solo record I did on Livity Sound in 2011. Either way I’m really happy with it; I think its the best work I’ve done to date.
Producing an album throws up a number of challenges that don’t appear when releasing just an EP. As much as you enjoyed the process, what parts did you find challenging?
The main challenge I found was keeping on top of all the tracks at the same time: With a 12” it's easy to simultaneously finish two or three tracks at once and keep track of the details in each; once you’re thinking about nine or 10 it becomes much harder to remember what needs doing to each track still. I had an endless series of stickies with notes that I made listening back to the album about changing the most minute details on tunes:“Turn down reverb tail, 3.45”; “less compression, hi hat, more 5khz?” etc. In the last few weeks before mastering, I’d wake up umpteen times each night with similar thoughts and ideas. It drove me fucking mad to be honest!
How long did the album take to produce? Was it a conscious decision to produce a full-length LP, or was it a case that you had the material and it fell into place for an album?
The record took me about nine months from start to finish. While we’d talked about it at length and I’d started working on bits a few months before, it wasn’t until I toured the USA with Peverelist that the idea became concrete. At that point I presented Tom with a folder of tracks and that was enough to suggest we could go for it. I’ve no idea if any of those tunes made it from there on to the finished album; in the transition from initial idea to finished record we went through so many versions of so many tunes it was insane. It definitely wasn’t just a case of sticking together some tunes and calling it done.
For an LP, it’s common for producers to take time away from touring to allow them to be completely at one with their own productions. Is this something you tried to do?
To be brutally honest, I’ve never had the option of being able to take time off; I’ve got bills and rent to pay, and whatever bigger name DJs or producers might get paid, that certainly doesn’t trickle down to our end of the scene. For the past four or five years, I’ve toured constantly—sometimes more often than others, but it's just become what I do. Without the weekly travel, I feel like there is a gap in my life. As positives, playing the tunes out before they were finished gave me a chance to see peoples' reactions, which is invaluable; travelling gave me the chance to listen to the tracks over and over away from the studio.
Did you include sketches/tracks that date back to much earlier in your career, or is all the material made exclusively for the release?
Everything was new pretty much. I think there were a couple of riffs that came from ideas started the previous summer, but they were changed considerably by the time the record was finished. I’ve never really been one for taking older ideas and trying to reinvent them; I generally find if something didn’t work the first time round its not worth persevering with. I’ve got hundreds of half-finished tunes, most of the ones that didn’t come out just aren't that good.
In many ways, Livity Sound has essentially carved a niche outside of the "Bristol Sound,” by spurring interest in the label’s mix of techno/jungle/grime/dub/electronica, and laying the groundwork for a whole new generation of producers. It’s a remarkable story. Is this something you agree with, and is it something you anticipated? How did it happen?
I moved to Bristol in 2008, pretty much just as the first wave of dubstep innovation was running out of steam. As I became more involved in the scene, that coincided with a shift towards more house and techno-centric sounds. I’d been buying 4/4 records as long as I’d been DJing, so as dubstep became less exciting. I happily reverted back to doing 4/4 tracks, and some of these were released on Keysound and others on Idle Hands.
By the time Livity Sound was up and running in 2010, we were agreed on this template for taking what we like best about techno—repetition, groove, propulsion—and melding that with what we’d like about dubstep and grime—big sounds, sub-bass and a no nonsense attitude. It has been fantastic to see how the label's profile has grown. Now newer producers like Batu, Hodge, Bruce, Simo Cell and Facta are all coming through with great new music too.
"I think that especially when trying to push a sound outside of the standard parameters, it's vital to have people around you to feed off and bounce ideas off."
A career in music can be very solitary—and you hear about collectives, such as Livity, where producers/artists all share ideas and support one another. Do you perceive your involvement with Livity, and the support it has offered, as fundamental in your growth over recent years?
The label has been very important to me—both in terms of direction and as a support network. I think that especially when trying to push a sound outside of the standard parameters, it's vital to have people around you to feed off and bounce ideas off. We play each other's tracks and get honest feedback. I’ve a huge amount of respect for Tom and Craig. This said we’re all very much individuals in our own right; our characters and tastes are all very different. The music is the common ground.
Besides 2013’s collaborative compilations, Utility is the first full-length released by Livity Sound. Was it an obvious decision to release on the imprint, and not elsewhere? Did it offer you a certain creative freedom?
It just made sense to release the LP on Livity. I’d had offers before from bigger labels but I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea of contracts, deadlines and gig obligations. Doing it on Livity, I was free of all those things; I also had creative freedom to make it sound as I wanted. Pev was brilliant as an A&R; we almost came to blows a few times over particulars, but on the whole he was encouraging when I needed it and critical when necessary. Overall, the process felt very sincere and kept the music true to what we’re about. I hope people hear that when they listen to the record!
Rumours are that you have a solo live show in the works, based around the album. What can you tell us about this, and when can we expect it?
Yeah, it's coming. Thats all under wraps for now.
What else have you got planned for the coming year?
I’m exhausted. I might take a holiday.
Utility is available for pre-order here.
Marking the album's release, there will be an launch party on April 15@ Phonox, London with Kowton, Peverelist & Anthony Naples.