Calibre interview: Good Vibrations

Marko Kutlesa spoke to the drum and bass don about his numerous past projects, ahead of a festival appearance at One Tribe Festival later this year.

Henry Lewis

Last updated: 6th Apr 2017.
Originally published: 23rd Mar 2017

Image: Beta Photographie

DJ and producer Calibre seems to have a strange relationship with drum n' bass. Like many aspects of his life, it's one where he defines the terms. A classically trained musician from Belfast, Calibre has made music from an early age and continues his father's love of collecting vinyl. He came to wider public attention in the early 2000s, signing for Fabio's label Creative Source where he produced his first album.

He has continued to record drum n' bass in a similar realm of 'liquid funk' ever since, starting his own label Signature Records in 2003 on which he has released nine albums including the Shelflife series which collects many of the unreleased music that lie in this prolific artist's vaults.

As a vinyl collector Calibre has wide tastes and it's natural that this should extend into his music making. Having first come to attention through D&B and having produced so much wonderful music in that area, it is for that genre that Calibre is best known, however he has made a considerable number of downtempo/hip hop tracks alongside house and techno. He released

He released Grow, an album of largely breakbeat-based electronica, on Craig Richards' label The Nothing Special in 2016, and in 2009 and 2013 released albums under his birth name, Dominick Martin, which offered a sometimes jazz-inflected take on the traditional singer/songwriter album format.

To many he will always be one of the most distinct and consistent producers in drum n' bass, but there's so much more to Calibre. Prior to his appearance at the One Tribe Festival and the release of new album The Deep, Marko Kutlesa sat down with him to see if he could uncover some of it.

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Hey, man! Where are you and how is it there?

Hi! I'm in Mönchengladbach which is in Germany, near Düsseldorf  and Cologne in Westphalia by the Dutch border. I have a daughter who lives here. It's pretty quiet. The only real disturbance is when they have their carnivals, which are very popular here in the Rhineland and all over Germany. People go really wild for them. But aside from that and when football teams visit, it's pretty quiet. 

You're really quite prolific. You released the Grow album last year and also the fourth installment in your Shelflife series. Now you're about to release another new album The Deep. Do you spend the bulk of your time in the recording studio?

No. I'd like to, but I don't. Obviously being a father takes up a lot of time. Because I've been doing this for 20 years you acquire a lot of angles which all require work and stuff that I never anticipated. I don't get to write as much as I want to. But I also believe that it's nice to have a separation from your work, so it's cool to not be working.

Do you have studio equipment that is portable or that you keep in Mönchengladbach?

I do quite a lot of the finishing here. I've got a set up. I've done quite a bit of writing here. It's not perfect, but I've never really worked in perfect conditions anyway. I'm used to improvising and getting by. 

How does your forthcoming album 'The Deep' differ from last year's 'Grow'?

I guess one of the main differences is the tempo. I don't particularly have any differing techniques when it comes to recording at different tempos. It's drum n' bass, a variety of soulful grooves. I suppose at this stage I'm trying to experiment and keep something that retains the original soundprint that I have. 

It's created something a little bit different, trying to work like that. I don't think it's what I wanted it to be, but these things never really are.

'Grow' appeared on the Nothing Special label, which is kind of unusual as you usually release your albums on your own Signature Records. What was the thinking behind that?

I guess I needed somebody to present the other type of work that I was doing that I didn't require on my record label. I'm not really in a position to test it all the time, play the material, so I needed someone who was dedicated to it, who loved it. Chris who worked for ST Holdings and who now works for me, he knew Craig Richards for a long time and it just seemed to be a natural thing. It wasn't that premeditated, but it turns out that Craig's a good ambassador. 

I try to do what I do with some kind of transcendence, so that the cultural thing doesn't really apply to me as much as it does to some others. I love so many different kinds of music that I try and break out of what's expected. There's a stigma in drum n' bass and I guess some part of me think that I do need an ambassador for some of the other stuff, sneak it into the back door, get it in the clubs and get it tested out.

Your old label mate Marcus Intalex has also recorded for Craig's label and Craig's playing at your launch party for 'The Deep' album. So, what's the link between you drum n' bass guys and Craig? On paper it doesn't seem that obvious.

I think it's because of there being a meeting point, a melting area between genres. People like Craig and ourselves are writing for ourselves, not for any particular genre. There's an anarchic quality to Craig that I really respect, he just does what he wants. 

I asked Marcus Intalex if he could think of something I could ask you about and he said to ask you about the record shop in Chorlton (Kingbee) that you like to visit when you come to Manchester. What is it you're looking for when you go record shopping?

There are always desires, stuff that sits there that you're always looking for. Then there are always some contemporary things that I'm looking for and then there are always wild cards. I'm always looking for different types of artists, different types of sounds, particularly in ambient music and independent rock and wherever things like that meet, because they make their own little worlds, don't they? 

Kingbee is one of my favourite places in the UK to buy records. The reggae section is fantastic. And obviously the Factory Records connection, there always seems to be a healthy collection of anything to do with the label or New Order. I wasn't really into Joy Division until I started going to Manchester. My brother was into goth when I was younger and I remember him talking about them. But when I went to Manchester there was this thing about Joy Division. I bought the records at Kingbee and I really love the music now. It has a wild beauty to it. I guess Manchester's a bit like that, a bit messy, but independent and beautiful.

When you do go record shopping are you only looking for music you can enjoy or are you looking for samples too?

Yeah, both. Everything's open when I go in a record store. Record stores are sometimes incomparable places. There's sometimes a strange ambiguity that's going on, like a stand off between the proprietor and the punters. 

I had a very good friend, who's now moved to Berlin, but he ran a record store in Belfast which he took over from Terri Hooley, who was obviously very famous for The Undertones. He was one of my father's close friends. We had this deep connection with the record store. My father would send me down to get records and Terri would always give me a bit of money off, because it was me. I had a nice introduction to record stores because of that. 

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Some musical composers, such as John Cage, sometimes set rules for themselves to follow when making music, a form of restriction. Do you set any rules for yourself and if so, what are they?

I don't think I do. Not consciously. There are rules, defined by what you want. I like to be able to get through something, an abandonment of process, to be able to find a new way of doing something. I think that's what rules are; just a way of doing something. 

I think everyone has a set of rules subconsciously, if they're working at something over a period of time. If you reach a certain standard there will be techniques that you employ. But I'm still trying to learn stuff, so I'm maybe a bit lax on the rules.

You were known for circulating advanced copies of your music to only a small circle of DJ friends. Who's in your crew?

I'm a bit shabby on that front. I'm sporadic, particularly over the last few years. I've always made a lot of music, so I've always had this kinda carefree attitude about it. 

Because everything is released digitally now it's become different, the way they treat the music. It's become restricted by scheduling, so we don't give out music as much any more in the way that they used to. 

Like, the first time I came to London and was taken up to (legendary dub cutting studio) Music House I remember meeting Randall there. It was a cultural angle that's disappeared from the music altogether now. It was fascinating to me. Pre-release music that was just for clubs, it was like it had its own life. That's just not there any more and it means that people have become very segregated. They don't have to rely on each others talents any more.

So, the idea that I give tunes out to people has changed significantly. Most people change their own style of music too, I guess, so it changes who you give it to. But there's always a core of people, Marcus, Fabio, Marky, Mala. Craig has his own crazy circle that he gives music to, but if I was to tell you some of the people who are in it, it would just sound like I'm namedropping. 

You mentioned Marky there. You studied violin and played Irish folk music on that instrument. Have you ever tried to integrate Irish folk elements into drum n' bass, I suppose in the way that some of Marky's early releases did with Brasilian music?

I remember talking to Sean O'Keeffe of 2 Bad Mice about this. He's of Irish descent, lived in Dublin for a while. He would talk to me about Lambeg drums and I cycle through the town of Lambeg quite regularly, it's not that far away. He was talking about employing these drums and then I informed him about the politics of it and I suppose that put him off a bit. 

I think there is some sense of it in my music anyway. There's a melancholy of some of the passed down music. Some of them are so old and there's a melancholy, almost a blues like feel to them which I really love. The techniques to playing some of the instruments on them is also in some cases unique to Ireland.  

I had a very close friend in Primary school called Harry Bradley. He was my best mate for years, but I don't talk to him any more, we went our separate ways. He didn't cross my mind for a few years but then I typed his name in online and he's become the leading Irish flute player. The best. He's pioneered his style of playing the flute, award winning. It's interesting, I'd love to get Harry in and get him to do some stuff with me. I don't know whether he would or not, looks like he's extremely busy. 

Obviously you're invested in this whole world of drum n' bass and it impacts on you just as you impact on it. But what kind of sounds impact on you to inspire you to write something like your 2013 Dominick Martin album Valentia?

To me, that's a thing I was always interested in, a more traditional singer/songwriter thing. I think it's a bit more deconstructed than a traditional verse/chorus style thing. I really love writing different types of music. I've always done it. It's been one of my difficulties with drum n' bass in that I've done all this different music, but because I'm in drum n' bass I've kind of ghettoised myself. Maybe for other reasons, I've never felt like I was able to develop it properly. It's an accumulation that I've acquired a sense of it like that. I don't really know what to say about that stuff other than it's music that I really love and that I wanted to write. 

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I came across an interesting quote from you online. Regarding your 2011 album Condition you said “it came about as it always has and that's the way its supposed to, enjoyable and moving fast to discover the stillness” What exactly do you mean by moving fast to discover the stillness?

It's almost a sense of automation. It's like I'm not really there any more and the process becomes thoughtless. 

There's a long history of downtempo releases coming from drum n' bass artists, which you're part of. What is it about breakbeats that keeps people locked on those patterns for life?

Just drums. People love drums and rhythms. The universe would be nothing without rhythms. Insects communicate through drumming. It's something innate within us, within the universe; rhythm, synchronicity, the timing of things. It's almost like a spiritual imprint of life. I don't mean to sound pretentious, but I really do think it's essential to realise how important is the timing of things. To me, rhythm, percussion and drumming is almost a celebration of that. 

Of course not everyone is down with breaks for life. I remember hearing techno on a Metalheadz boxset I have and, of course, your old running partner Marcus Intalex is experiencing success making techno as Trevino. Do you have any more 4/4 music in the vaults aside from what's already appeared and do you have any ambitions to continue in that direction?

Yeah. I've got lots of different styles of music in the vaults. There's a lot of material. I guess a lot of it doesn't particularly belong to anything, so it's not really affected by when you release it. I think that's helped be me not being too heavily immersed in any one genre. I listen to a lot of ambient music and jazz. And I love reggae. I can't really recreate that stuff, so.... what was the question again?

Oh yeah!. I've got shit loads. I think a lot of people work like that, they've got a lot of music that they don't put out or play to anybody. I'm a harsh judge, I actually don't like a lot of my stuff.

Calibre comes to One Tribe Festival, which comes to Cholmondeley Castle Estate in Malpas between Thursday 3rd - Tuesday 8th August 2017 - find tickets below.

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