Ben Pearce caught up with Marko Kutlesa to discuss new productions, his return to gigging, musical themes and much more.
Date published: 26th Jun 2017
Ben Pearce burst onto the scene in 2012, with his deep house anthem ‘What I Might Do’ bothering the mainstream pop charts. Around the same time he founded his own label and DJ Agency in Purp & Soul, but has since concentrated on his own busy production career, which takes in remixes and work with other artists, and his DJ career, which has seen him hold a residency with ANTS and play across the globe.
In 2016 Ben bravely and publicly discussed his own mental health issues when cancelling some of his forthcoming appearances. Since that time he has faced his difficulties head on and is currently re-emerging from hiatus.
His first BBC Essential mix was broadcast last month and he is about to release the second of four conceptual EPs on Belgian label Different Recordings. To coincide with the releases, Ben has just finished a nine-date tour of Asia and Australia.
Prior to playing Brixton Rooftop on 1 July alongside Severino and Otter & Bear, Marko Kutlesa caught up with Ben to talk about the four themed EPs, his production work on the forthcoming April Towers album and his return to music following well publicised time off.
Your recent Essential Mix sounds like an old school DJ mix, quite a lot of new material, not too many effects or manipulations. Would you agree?
Yeah, I just approached it the same as how I approach every mix, really. Not over thinking it. Obviously I wanted to make it a good one, but I put quite a lot of effort into my own podcast. It's quite simplistic. Speaks for itself. I use more effects when I'm playing live to fill gaps when they're needed, but for listening purposes it's more about track selection and the way it flows, for me.
You're halfway through 2017's aim of releasing 4 EPs of music on Different Recordings. These releases are described as conceptual. What's the concept?
There's kind of a broad metaphorical concept about the feeling of being alone in this industry, especially with social media. You might just be sending stuff out into the abyss without anyone actually tracking it. It's hard to tell.
The more detailed bit is I'm following this astronaut's journey. The next EP is the eclipse, so everything goes kind of dark and he's struggling with stuff, trying to find his way. It's not necessarily dark music but there are some themes in there, within the lyrics.
How does the journey pan out across the 4 EPs?
The Ascension one is already out, the next one is the Eclipse, the third one will be Envisioned, where he's finding his way out of the eclipse and the fourth one is Copacetic, where everything starts to make a bit more sense, he's reached a place of more understanding.
How does one balance the peace that isolation affords with the noise and pace of modern life - and an interstellar career - without isolating to the point of loneliness?
I think that's a struggle. And I think that's why this metaphor stuck out to me. It is a balance. I suppose everyone has their own little ways of dealing with it. It's just finding a route through and the things that work for you. Everyone's experience is different, so it's personal.
Social media's a great thing for keeping in touch with people, but it also gets in the way of proper social interaction.
Are you back to full health now, as in, at the level you were at before you noticed any deterioration?
It's more the fact that I know it's there. I've got a lot more tools at my disposal so if I'm having a bad day I can just take it off and deal with it, whereas before I was just ignoring it, putting it aside, suppressing it with drinking. It still comes and goes but now I deal with it more head on.
I'm fully aware of it now and I think half the battle sometimes is admitting it, taking it on the chin and acknowledging that it's something you have to deal with.
I noticed that you'd mentioned you were using alcohol as a prop, a coping mechanism, prior to your taking time off. As a guy who spends a lot of time in nightclubs and at festivals, surrounded by alcohol, what are your feelings about it now?
It's the context of it really. Anyone using something like that as a coping mechanism, it's the context. It's not necessarily that that thing's bad, because after I was ill if my friends were asking me to go out for a pint, for example, that would be good because I'm out, I'm with my friends, I'm seeing them and socialising, as opposed to be on my own at home. So it's all about context.
What I want to do when I get asked questions like these is try and provide some kind of constructive answer and not just talk about my experiences. Because, at the end of the day, it's a sob story and I don't want people to read that. It's not very interesting and it's not very happy. So I try and answer something that I think will help.
What changes, checks and balances have you put in place to ensure you maintain an even keel?
There are certain techniques I got from different people I was speaking to. Meditation's been a massive one as well. Trying to work on my sleeping routine a bit more, trying not to stay awake all night worrying or watching TV. Getting out and doing more. Activity stuff, playing football more. Stuff like that has helped massively. Cooking more, eating healthy, doing more of the stuff you enjoy.
As you've mentioned football, what's your team?
It's Manchester United.
Wahey! Nobody says Manchester United. I ask lots of DJs, nobody ever says that. You're the first.
Spiritualized's 'Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space', which is 20 years old this month, is another musical work I like which has a bit of an astronaut theme. Do you have any astronaut or space themed favourites, either in music, film or TV?
I grew up loving sci fi films. I'm a huge Star Wars fan, for example. I know those themes have appeared in music but the way I'm using it is in a more metaphorical sense.
You quite like rock music yourself. To what extent do you view electronic music as 'work music' and rock music as 'enjoyment music'? Do you have any ambition to combine the two within your own endeavours?
There are no plans. I would maybe have a dream to combine them more, but there are no current plans. I have been getting a bit more involved in songwriting, working with my housemate who is a songwriter. It's a way of getting across a lot more. The lead single from the next EP is something I wrote the lyrics for. That way I could write what I wanted to say and not leave it up to the vocalist to interpret the idea. I'm hopefully going to start doing that a bit more.
There's loads of stuff I listen to, my tastes have always been quite broad. Unless I'm preparing for a show I don't listen to electronic music at home. I might listen to an electronic-ish band like Toro Y Moi, but I usually listen to rock, hip hop, soul, whatever at home. It keeps it fresh for me.
I suppose there is a way of crossing it over, especially if you say electronic music. There's a bridge between. But house music is so far removed from rock a lot of the time I don't think the two worlds would collide so well.
You've just produced April Towers album. Crikey, they are good at shifting key, uplifting for choruses! It's no wonder people mention Pet Shop Boys and New Order when they talk about them. That kind of song structure doesn't exist in a lot of DJ led dance music.
What was their brief to you before work commenced? Do you feel in any way that you've brought a more linear sound from underground dance music to their sound and alternatively do you think their unashamed pop sensibilities might in any way rub off on you and enter your work somewhere?
We've got the same management, so we got introduced, I produced the single 'Get Recovered'. But they produce their own demos themselves, so a lot of the time it was just a case of redoing some parts, a lot of the time they came quite fully formed. It was a pleasure to work on in that respect, it might only have been me doing some work on some drums.
They've got such an amazing way of songwriting, it's really unique. I'm excited for the album to come out. It's quite surprising, especially considering their previous output.
I didn't really bring any of my sound to it. Whenever I produce for anybody else, I've learned quite quickly to say that this is completely up to you. I have ideas but at the end of the day it's somebody else's record. It's their creative output. I'm just there to facilitate it, to try and help them realise exactly what they want to do. I put things forward and they say yes or no.
With regards to whether they've rubbed off on me, it was a great success and at that time it was strange to go back and produce my own stuff, so I had to do that separately. But no, I don't think it rubbed off on my ideas. Maybe it has subconsciously? Maybe it would be easier to say subjectively, from someone else's point of view?
If you had to build more music around a theme that you've not touched on in this series, what theme might you choose?
It's a hard one. There's a lot. I've really not given it any thought. Maybe something to do with society? Again maybe something futuristic? I don't know. I hate being put on the spot like this, ha!
If you're up for suggestion, one possible theme could be the understated brilliance of the Paul Scholes pass!
Yes! It would divide opinion, but I think you could get a couple of albums out of that!
What's forthcoming for Purp & Soul and for you once this series is finished?
Well Purp & Soul is on hiatus, on ice, for the moment. I'm not sure there will be plans to do anything with that again. When we started it we had a group of producers that were kind of in a family but who went their separate ways. I got a lot busier with my stuff. It didn't feel the same when we carried on. It might be something to revisit in the future.
At the moment I'm just wanting to get these EPs out. I'm doing a couple of remixes at the moment, for Whilk & Misky, a London duo, I think it's their first record and for a band called Kerbstaller. Then beyond these EPs, I'm not really sure. The astronaut is on my logo, it's an idea I've had for quite a few years, so who knows? Maybe he'll do something else?
Catch Ben Pearce at Brixton Rooftop on 1st July. Tickets available below.