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Artwork interview: Art's House

Marko Kutlesa catches up with the dubstep pioneer and record collector extraordinaire about Pikes in Ibiza, switching rhythms in production and blagging he's Paul Macartney

Skiddle Staff

Date published: 11th Sep 2017

Image: Artwork (source)

Arthur Smith aka Artwork is an even greater veteran of dance music and DJing than you might suspect. Having been an integral player in the birth and nurturing of dubstep via his Croydon based Big Apple record store, he then went on to found Magnetic Man with two of the store's customers, Benga and Skream. They became the first (and perhaps last) main stage supergroup of the genre before some of its stylings were usurped by American based EDM. 

But Artwork had already achieved varying degrees of success in music by that point. In collaboration or alone, and using a variety of aliases, he had contributed countless dancefloor classics to the UK garage genre, as well as recording deep techno as Grain on Brighton based Fat Cat Records. It's that genre-bending approach which is now central to his clout as a DJ.

With well over two decades of record buying under his belt, he has returned to a more freestyle sound which incorporates house, techno and disco. It is with this sound that he continues to be invited to play across Europe and the festival circuit. And it is this sound which he has just spent several weeks showcasing as a resident at Pikes Hotel on Ibiza when we catch up with him back at his home, which he is currently in the process of rebuilding. 

Furthermore, it is this sound that he'll be taking round the UK from October to December when he tours his Art's House party, a living room-themed set up imported into some of the best small and medium sized clubs venues and based in part on his aforementioned Ibiza residency. Prior to the tour, and the completion of Art's actual house, we caught up with him for a tea break during renovations.

I really liked some of the more mellow, spaced out stuff you released as Grain. I guess it's the more dubby, Basic Channel type stuff I'm talking about. Who had you been listening to at that time who may have influenced the sounds you were making?

 A lot of Porter Ricks stuff, Basic Channel as you said. It was around that time when you could buy a techno record and on the other side it would maybe have one of those soundscape-y things and I was fascinated by them.

You released four EPs of techno for Fat Cat, and your music was being played by Richie Hawtin. Looking back, were there any significant moments or happenings that made you decide 'I don't want to continue in this direction, I'm going to go this way instead'? 

It was basically that it wasn't selling. It was pre internet so the records would sell 1000 and that was alright back then, in that world. Some of the bigger ones from the States were selling a lot, but at that point, I'd moved out and had to start paying rent, stuff like that. We were above a record shop, the record shop was selling garage and it was selling fucking shitloads of the stuff. So, I was like, I'll make some of that to make some cash and then carry on doing this.

But, then you're making that music and it just sort of takes over, you just find yourself doing that. It was weird. I was just sort of making it for fun at first and then the real world kicked in. We ended up making so much garage that at one point an entire wall of the record shop was us under different names.  

When you moved into making garage and then bass music, at that time those sounds were pretty adamantly geared to avoiding the 4/4 rhythm. Was that 4/4 rhythm something you had gotten temporarily bored of? 

As someone who doesn't produce, can I also ask if it was difficult moving into making songs with a new basis of rhythm? When I watch friends making 4/4 music on a computer it all looks regular, easy even for someone like me to understand. I'm not sure I'd understand a two step process... 

The two step garage stuff was great fun. I'd been making 4/4 music, techno, for a long time and we just went on to make 4/4 garage stuff. The two step sound was about and it did sound fresh, it sounded different and yeah, it was great fun to make. 

But we weren't working on a computer at that time, we were working on an MPC. It's just a drum machine, you don't have a screen. You've just got numbers, the whole track is just made up of numbers. But it doesn't matter if you're working on a computer or on a drum machine, it's just a case of putting things, like the kick, in different places. That's the only difference really.

Some producers don't much like listening to their own stuff, particularly sometimes their older stuff. Of all the stuff you were producing in the garage era, which songs do you like the best and do you still play any of them out?

I didn't even play it at the time. Still, when I go out and DJ now, I never play my own stuff because other people's stuff is much better, ha! 

There's a few of my own that I play and I've got a couple now that haven't yet come out, so I have to play those because I'm the only one who can. It's quite good because I know people haven't heard it everywhere. I like playing those.

The record shop, Big Apple, which your part of the scene was based around didn't exclusively sell dubstep. But it was a specialist music store, in a not very specialist suburb. Did you ever have strange or funny encounters with members of the general public who strayed in there?

We worked in a fruit market. So, a lot of the people who worked there were just bored out of their minds and they'd come in the shop all the time, just to give themselves a break. So, there were a lot of characters down there that we used to love. We were equally as bored as them so it was a good place to be, because there are so many people about. 

But, because it was Apple Records, we used to get four or five letters a week that were written to The Beatles. We'd get letters from all around the world, from China, everywhere. Proper weird love letters to Paul McCartney. People would send pictures of the inside of their house, with fucking shit everywhere, thousands of budgies or whatever. 

One guy was so mad, he kept sending us letters, and then he started calling. I've actually got recordings of him singing songs to us that he'd written. We'd told him that it was Apple Records and that Paul McCartney was there. He asked to speak to him, so one of us went on the phone (adopts scouse accent) “Alright, la!” haha. We talked to him several times as Paul McCartney and, it was funny for us, but also great for him, this guy, he's on the phone talking and singing to Paul McCartney!

Were his songs any good?

I can still remember to this day one was called 'I have a woman in my life and you can see her, I have a baggage in my life and you can see her'. Then it went off into something about onions. I've got it. I'll find it one day and put it on Soundcloud.

Without going over old moany stuff like the collapse in the sale of the physical product and fewer people willing to pay for music, what aspects of vinyl shops do you think are most missed today?

I think what's missing is that record shops were like a meeting place for people. Croydon is a shithole, but you had one place where you could go and everyone who was into that music would go, hang out all day, chat to each other, buy records, recommend records to each other.

Then they would start making tunes, then start making tunes with each other, bring in tunes to the shop to play and ask their peers about it. You had a whole musical scene start in our record shop, just because it was a place you could go to exchange ideas, I suppose like the old coffee shops of the 1700s.

I mean, nightclubs are alright, but it's so loud that you don't really get to chat to anyone, and usually, you're pissed. But, in a record shop, you go and you stand there all day talking about music with the people behind the counter and the other punters. It's something that I think is very sad, that it went. 

When you were playing at places like FWD>> at Plastic People there was only room for maybe 150 in the audience and, because it was a specialist night, everybody there was into it, maybe of a similar demographic. Comparing that audience to the ones you play to today, for example at somewhere like Pikes on Ibiza, where the demographic is much wider, as is the soundtrack, what are the plusses and minuses of each audience? Which do you prefer?

I don't prefer either, they're totally different things. At FWD>> sometimes it would just be producers who were in the audience. 100 people who also made tunes. They were going there to hear their tune played or to listen to other stuff that was new, it was a totally different thing.

But Pikes dancefloor, you have people who are 20 and you have people who are 60. It's a totally unique place. It's not like any other dancefloor in the world. And you can just walk outside the club, it's warm in the evening, you can sit on a bed and just start talking to someone. Everyone there is on the level.

Doesn't matter who they are. You'll sit down and start talking to the person next to you. I think that's something that's carried on from the first days of when I used to go raving, the classic “What's your name, where you from?” and you'd make a friend. That's what Pikes is like now. 

On your recent visit did you have much of an experience of the rest of Ibiza, outside of the beautiful little west coast enclave?

I have to say no. I just didn't leave. I don't know why I would leave. You've got the best music in Ibiza there and it's the best atmosphere, the best club, beautiful food. I find it hard to leave. Some of my mates go and play at other clubs and I'm like, right, tonight, I must go and see them. And then something happens, you get talking to someone or someone says “Can you come and play some records in Chez Bez?” which is the smaller room there and you just end up staying there.

Skream and Benga put out their successful debut albums on Tempa, but just prior to that they'd been signed to Big Apple. Was there never the feeling that maybe it wasn't the best idea financially for the label, to go through the whole process of nurturing them and then just let someone else come and reap the rewards of their album sales?

It wasn't about money. We knew those boys since they were 13 or 14 when they came in that shop and 15 when we signed them. We knew we couldn't handle where they were going, it was gonna be too big for us.

We knew Sarah and Gee from Rinse, they used to run FWD>>, in that whole scene we'd grown up together. We knew that they could handle it. We couldn't so, we're not gonna hold them back, we're not gonna get in their way or say “Well, we want 50%”. It was just, like, go. You'll do so much better if you go over there. Because we're mates. It wasn't a financial thing, it was more that it was the decent thing to do really. 

What are the positive and negative aspects of working in a monstrous set up like Magnetic Man?

The positives are that you can go absolutely crazy. And we did. We spent so much money, because there was so much money about. But we spent all of it. We'd have a show that would come in and it would be a huge amount of money, and we'd go “Yeah! We'll do that!” But then we'd say, well, let's make it massive. It was proper Spinal Tap, going ridiculous with the lights and spending every penny we had on the lights.

Then, you'd get to the end of the month, and you'd done four massive headline shows at four massive festivals, and you'd go “So, when do we get paid?” and they'd be, like “What are you talking about? You spent it all!” because you've got two articulated lorries following you round with ten people who need flights, hotels, food, wages and then all the rental of the gear. We just went mental to make it the best show we could. 

Just towards the end of it, when we knew we weren't making any money, an older, very wise guy at a festival said to me “Nobody comes to a festival to see the lights”. Hahahahahahaha. I knew he was right. He said, if you just put a strobe on stage you would have had it off and you'd be rich. I thought, thanks for telling me now.

You invested quite heavily in the recording process as well as the live setup. When you did that, were you expecting to recoup it over time? 

We had no plan. No plan at all. We just thought every step was just the next little one, we never thought about the future. If we had, if we'd been very smart business people, we would have OK, let's spread this out over four albums, tour after each. But, no. We were, like, put everything into this. Let's make it the best. Let's do everything we can, right now.

And then when it came to it, we'd done all that shit and the record company were, like, “Right, we need the next album ready for next week”. We were, like, "what are you talking about? It's taken us ten years to make that one!" We actually started to do it. We really honestly did, because we would have got a lot of money for the second record. But, we just thought, no. 

They were saying “It's easy! We want four tracks like that one, two tracks like that one and four tracks like that track” But it just felt as though we were a machine and that was totally not what the first album had been. So, we just decided no. Leave it. That was good, let's go and do something else.

What was your initial reaction when you were asked to revisit your Grain alias in order to do the remix for Midland?

That was great because everyone had forgotten about it. Nobody even knew it was me because it was pre internet when it came out, so there's nothing about it anywhere. I was just talking to Harry (Midland) one day and he knew. He said “You ever going to do something with that Grain stuff again?” and I was, like, woah!

Later, I phoned him to tell him how good I thought one of his new records was and he just suggested that I do a Grain mix of it. So, he re-sparked the whole thing. 

Quite a lot of DJs that were around the dubstep and bass music scenes can now be found playing more linear sets including disco, house and techno. Certainly, Rinse FM sounds a lot different to how it did quite a few years ago. That's something that hasn't happened with other UK originating sub genres, like drum n' bass. Why do you think that has happened in the scene you were involved with? Do you think the limitations of that music were reached?

I've got no idea. You've still got people who are still seriously true to that original sound. The DMZ guys are still making music. It's still fresh too, but they kept true to that original spirit. They were, like, we don't give a shit, we're just going to make the music that we love. And they are still smashing it, still making great music. 

When we were starting to do the Magnetic Man stuff we'd noticed that all around us it was getting noisier and it was getting more... well, shit really. And then the Americans got hold of it and it was just “What the hell is this??” That's not what it was. It started out as stoners music, everybody was smoking weed, that was dubstep. 

We started to do Magnetic Man just at the point where people started doing E's at those events, so you needed it faster, a bit more energy. Those tracks that we were doing were going off. But I don't know what it turned into. That EDM stuff, I have no idea about it. Now and again I hear a bit on the radio and it's always, like, what the fuck is that? Hahahaha.

Aside from revisiting Grain what else are you doing in the studio at the moment?

I'm not in the studio at the moment, unfortunately. I'm just building this house. We bought the cheapest one we could buy, but it was a complete and utter wreck and I though, oh well, we can build it. So, we got someone in and just about halfway through he said “You've run out of money” and just left.

We had one room that was finished, the bedroom, which we lived in. For two years I've been here and I've had to learn how to build. So, I build here in the week and I go away at the weekends and play records. I think it's going to take another month or so. 

So, after the house is finished, what are you going to do?

Sit on my arse for about a month and do nothing, I think. Hahahaha. No, I'm going to rebuild a studio and probably learn some of the new things. I went to see a Native Instruments thing the other day and looking at some of the stuff they've got is incredible. So, I want to get some of that, use some of my old equipment as well. I just want to sit in the studio for weeks at a time getting back into making music, which is going to be very exciting. 

You can catch Artwork playing All night Long across the UK for his Art House parties. Grab Artwork tickets for those dates via the boxes below

Artwork presents Art's House Edinburgh - Thursday 12th October

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Artwork presents Art's House Aberdeen - Friday 13th October

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Leftfoot & Shadow City present Artwork presents Art's House Birmingham - Saturday 11th November

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