High Contrast Interview: A mix of high and low culture
High Contrast discussed his love of films, collaborating with Underworld, reinventing his sound and much more with Marko Kutlesa before he plays Fabio & Grooverider's 25 years of DnB party.
Last updated: 14th Nov 2016
Lincoln Barrett aka High Contrast is one of Britain's most high profile, contemporary drum n' bass producer/DJs. Born in Wales, he attended college in Newport for film making, an interest than stemmed from his youth and which he holds to this day (he has recently directed music videos). He scored a job in a record store in Cardiff which opened the worlds of electronic music to him and a route to becoming a DJ.
He soon found his way into producing music and, having been inspired by the mid 90s drum n' bass sound, pursued that music releasing in 2002 his debut album True Colours on Hospital Records, a label he continued a long association with, particularly at their Hospitality nights where he was one of their most popular DJs. The tracks 'Return of Forever' and 'Global Love' from his debut LP made the UK pop charts.
He has since released the albums High Society (2004), Tough Guys Don't Dance (2007), Confidential (2009), The Agony and The Ecstasy (2012), released several mix compilations, including one for fabric, remixed the likes of Adele, Calvin Harris, Kanye West, Missy Elliot, The White Stripes and Dr Dre and co-produced the last studio album by rave veterans Underworld.
In recent years he has added the production of house music to his portfolio and has just performed his music at his first live set, a string to his bow that will surely please the huge crowds he attracts at festival dates.
What kind of movies made you want to go to college to learn about film making?
I fell in love with films when I was really young, maybe and I started making films when I was around 10. It was across the board, a lot of horror films, Hitchcock films. John Carpenter films, and I suppose that crossed over a bit into music. John Carpenter always wrote the soundtracks to his films as well as directing them and, I guess as it was the 80s, every kid had a synthesizer, so that was my first taste of music making, trying to play John Carpenter music on my keyboard.
Alfred Hitchcock movies? They are not really the kind of films that most 10 year olds are into. How did that happen?
I dunno, I suppose I was a precocious kid. My parents called me the 42 year old midget because I was so kind of intellectual at a young age. I would read a lot and watch lots of films and be creative. I was like that from a really young age.
I presume you've seen all the John Carpenter movies by now, but which ones stuck out to you when you were young?
Assault On Precinct 13, Escape From New York and my favourite was probably The Thing, which is probably the goriest.
That was too scary for me, I liked.... did he do Big Trouble In Little China?
Yeah, I saw that in the cinema when I was about 6. I loved that one too.
John Carpenter has been on tour in the UK very recently, doing his music from the movies with a live band. Are you enough of a fan to have been to any of the shows?
Funnily enough I saw him in Bristol the other week. It was just before I did my own live debut, so it felt fitting to go and get some inspiration from one of my heroes. I saw that he was using one of the same synthesizers that I use on stage.
You've worked quite a lot with live musicians in the studio, replaying samples etc, but this was your first outing as a live artist?
Yeah, it was the first live show I've ever done. Well, as High Contrast. I used to be in hardcore rock bands when I was a teenager, but this was the first live drum n' bass thing I've done.
How do you think it went? Is it something you're going to be repeating?
Yeah, I think so. It seemed to go well, the crowd seemed to like it. I enjoyed it. It's a very different experience to Djing, it's a very different frame of mind. When you DJ you're used to getting a crowd reaction every 30 seconds, doing a live act you've got to approach it differently. It isn't like that. It's not about hitting people with drops all the time, you have to look at the bigger picture.
What was your role? Was it with a band?
It was kind of a one man band, so I was playing two keyboards, filtering stuff, manipulating the beats. There were two live singers too. Maybe I'll look to expand it as time goes on, but I'm very wary of losing the sound of the records. Drum n' bass is such a studio created music, I don't feel you can really do the drum justice if you do them live, so I'm wary of a live drummer. I'm trying to treat it more like the audience is there with me in the studio.
I went off on a tangent there, just to momentarily ask you again about films, which directors use soundtracks the best and which composers make the best soundtracks?
Well, my favourite composer of all time is Ennio Morricone. He's such a hero for me. It's the fact that his melodies are so memorable and seemingly simple, but they have so much emotion in them. That's definitely something that I try and do, use as few notes and elements as possible to try and say the most you can. The breadth of what he can do, from westerns, to avant garde, jazz and rock, he's so versatile.
Yeah, it's an incredible catalogue of work.
Yes, his productivity too. He's done over 500 film soundtracks. That's the equivalent of doing 500 albums. It's staggering.
Today I don't think there are so many soundtracks that blow me away. It feels like people have turned away from melody with memorable scenes and are doing things more for texture and effect. Try and hum any of the theme tunes from any of the Marvel movies. There's nothing memorable there in my opinion.
The director that uses music the best today is probably still Tarantino, for me, and that's predominantly not music composed for his films, it's more like he's sampling from the past, which I guess is why I feel a connection there with what I do.
Some of your productions are quite refined and intricate. How do you know when a track is finished? How do you know when to stop tinkering?
When the record label rips it from your hands. Writing a track I can do pretty quickly, the heart of it can be down in no time. Adding the finesse goes on indefinitely and can become quite torturous. I need deadlines and people putting pressure on me in order to finish.
How did you first come into contact with Underworld?
They got I touch with me. Turns out they'd been fans of my tunes for a number of years, so that was a really nice phone call to get. 'Born Slippy' was one of the first dance music tracks I was aware of when I was a teenager and Trainspotting was a big film for me growing up. To get involved with those guys, then to become friends with them, it's been great.
Their last album, which you co produced, was the not the first time you've worked together.
No. they did a track on my last album and I did a track with them on their previous album. I think that was in about 2011. Then there was the Olympic opening ceremony, which was a big one we both worked on. Co-producing the last album was a big honour.
What kind of discussions did you have before beginning work? Did they tell you what they expected from you?
They had done the vast majority of the songwriting and recording already. The way they work is they record a lot of material and you end up with these 15 minute songs that need to be edited and reshaped.
That was what I was brought in to do which was really fun because it was almost like sampling Underworld. There was a lot of back and forth. I would make changes, some they would like, others they wouldn't. We figured it out as we went along. I was basically living in their studio for a month or so.
Before you'd started the work, but after they'd asked you to get involved, did you at any point go back and listen to any of the band's work from the Darren Emerson period and use it as a reference point?
I did listen to a few previous albums, that I hadn't heard in a number of years, but that was more for an overall album structure. I think one of the reasons they wanted me to get involved was that I like their music but I'm not a total aficionado or obsessive fan who was going to be too deferential to the past.
They wanted me to come in and give a new energy to things rather than be caught up on what they'd done previously, try and make another 'Born Slippy' or whatever. It wasn't like that. It was more like, "What is the most beautiful thing we can make right now?"
Will it be a continuing collaboration?
I hope so. We're still in contact, we're still talking about stuff, so I'm sure there'll be another collaboration between us very soon.
Your most recent track 'Remind Me' has a big soulful feel and a soul music sample. How did you get into soul music?
My mum had a Motown CD box set that, when I first started messing around with music and Cubase, I grabbed and started going through it. I really didn't know what I was doing, I didn't really know about dance music, I just knew that people sampled old stuff to make it. So I started looking for loops to use and began collecting soul music from there.
As you got more into it, what labels, producers or artists were you looking out for?
I'm quite cut throat in that I'm mainly just looking for things to sample, otherwise I'll just end up with such a vast, endless collection of vinyl. I try to only buy records that I want to sample. It's like an addiction, finding old samples. And generally I'm looking for stuff that hasn't been used too much.
In the case of 'Remind Me', that was obviously sampled by Mos Def previously, but I felt that enough time had passed that I could do a new spin on it. But generally, when I'm buying vinyl, I'm just looking for anything obscure. If I've never heard of the artist then I'm more likely to buy it.
When you started off you had a close relationship with Hospital Records, which you continued not least with regular appearances at Hospitality nights. You were also quite invested in that sound, I mean you'd play a lot of stuff from the label. In the latter half of your career you've played music from a much wider variety of sources, so what prompted that change? Your evolving tastes or their evolving sound?
I guess a mix of both really. I think, as an artist, you've got to evolve, buy new things. That's what keeps me going, finding new angles to pursue musically. In terms of DJing, I play whatever tracks I think are great at that moment so, in a way, you're dependent on what tracks are being produced across the whole scene.
In the early 2000s there was a lot of really good, soulful drum n' bass being made, but then I felt that sound had got quite stale and there weren't as many great tracks being made, so I started to play some harder things, some different sounding things that interested me more. It also depends on where you hear me play. Sometimes I'll play more musical, sometimes I'll play harder. I believe that a DJ has to flow with the overall vibe of the night and the crowd. If you go to see me it's for my taste at that moment.
People such as Marcus Intalex, Hidden Agenda, 4 Hero and yourself have also made 4/4 music, house or techno. Whereas a lot of their influences in that style of music were techno, especially from Detroit, I think maybe I hear different influences in your 4/4 tracks. So who are your influences in that area?
I think a lot of French house from the 90s had a big influence on me, because it was often very sample based, taking soul and disco samples. A lot of the drum n' bass I've made is trying to get that French house sound. It's also there in the 4/4 stuff so, generally, disco, deep house and then some electro and techno stuff.
Any particular French stuff stand out for you?
Anything on Roule, Alan Braxe and Fred Falke 'Running', stuff by DJ Falcon, Cassius.
How do you think it's come about that you've become the go-to guy for really big pop acts who want a drum n' bass remix?
I don't know. What has always interested me is mixing the overground with the underground. It's just that contrast that I like. I think hearing DJ Zinc's remix of The Fugees 'Ready Or Not', that was a really big tune for me when I first got into drum n' bass.
That mix of the mainstream and the underground just appealed to me, in the same way a director like Kubrick or Hitchcock made mainstream films but with an arthouse aesthetic. It's that mix of high and low culture.
I think nothing can personify that more than a drum n' bass remix of a pop act. If drum n' bass becomes more mainstream then maybe it loses that and maybe I'll have to find another angle.
That's a really good answer regarding your own ethics and personal feelings, but I also wondered if there was anything more specific that had happened, like any particular remix or piece of work, that had opened the doors to major labels, or if there was one particular major label or one particular person in A+R, who kept pushing to develop your efforts in that field?
I suppose my remix career developed like a stepping stone thing where you do one and that leads to another. If they keep being good then hopefully they'll be a bigger remix each time. It was fortuitous doing the Adele 'Hometown Glory' remix because I got offered that just before she was an absolute mega star and that remix really took off, reached a lot of people's ears.
From the people that I know at the labels, they all seem to be really supportive, at least the A+R guys I've had contact with. It actually amazes me that there are so many people who seem aware of what I do. That leads to more remix offers. I definitely turn down more remixes than I take up, because I only want to remix songs that I really connect with.
Sometimes you get sent a track and you think, what do you expect me to do with this? It's not my vibe at all. Thankfully, there have been a consistent stream of tracks that have been up my street and that do allow me to express myself. This year I haven't done many remixes at all because I'm really trying to finish my own album.
What's on the immediate horizon for High Contrast?
I have a new single out in a few weeks, then early next year there'll be a new album from me.
Are you allowed to tell me any of the guests you might be featuring on the album or the single?
I don't think so. I'm not trying to load up my album with featured people. I think sometimes you can lose your identity as an artist if you have too many featured guests and I don't want to feel like I'm riding on the coat tails of other people. I just want to give people a High Contrast album that is really me.
You're playing at the Fabio & Grooverider's 25 years of d&b event at the warehouse in Leeds on 19 Nov. In what way have Fabio and Grooverider directly influenced your career and what do they mean to you?
Fab and Groove have been a huge part of my story all along. As a teenager I listened avidly to their Radio 1 show from the first broadcast, it was THE place to hear the freshest sounds in the genre. As I began to learn how to produce DnB my main dream was to make something that they would play on the show.
When that actually happened it blew my mind and gave me such a boost to carry on my path. They supported me right from the beginning and even though I was making stuff that sounded very different from most DnB that had come before, they embraced it and really helped break my sound to the wider DnB community.
25 years is quite a landmark for the genre, and one many may not have expected it to reach. Do you foresee drum n' bass thriving for another 25 years?
One can never predict how long a musical movement will last but DnB has weathered many storms and survived them all thus far, so who knows. Something in its favour for further longevity is how malleable it is, it's so open to the interpretation of new generations of artists that it can flow with the times and morph into ever new shapes rather than be rigidly defined by too many trappings. Its fast breakbeat music with a lot of bass. From there you can take it anywhere you want to.