Nightmares On Wax interview: Shape The Future

Marko Kutlesa spoke to the Leeds producer as he looks ahead to another album release, and subsequent live dates.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 23rd Nov 2017

Image: Nightmares On Wax (credit

Founded in their home city of Leeds in 1986, Nightmares On Wax were the second act to release music on highly influential British electronic music label Warp Records and remain their longest serving artist. They have released seven albums and many EPs on the label and in 2014 issued the career retrospective 'NOW Is The Time' compilation.

Applying an adventurous experimentationalism to their studio work, they have transformed their sound during the course of their exciting three decade evolution.  Starting out with a sampled and electronic-based dance music sound, familiar to fans of classic, early Warp, Nightmares On Wax have since gone on to explore soul, funk, hip hop, downbeat and electro-influenced styles.

These styles have become a particularly strong element to their critically acclaimed live show. Originally a duo, since their second album Nightmares On Wax has been helmed by founding member George Evelyn, later joined by permanent member Robin Taylor-Firth. But since the mid 1990s this duo have added live vocalists and musicians to their recordings and tours in order to produce a live show that has become a festival favourite and which frequently sells out venues internationally.

Early 2018 sees Nightmares On Wax hit the road again with an intimate show which will be unlike any they have previously undertaken. Alongside Nightmares On Wax's established live favourites, these dates will showcase material from their eigth album, 'Shape The Future', released on Warp Records at the beginning of 2018. Having worked with Grace Jones's stage and live producer to design the show, it promises to be a thrilling experience.

Nightmares On Wax's George Evelyn aka DJ E.A.S.E. is also a considerably talented DJ. Like Nightmares On Wax's more contemporary sound, he is rooted in hip hop, but he uses those roots as a base to traverse a wide range of music styles including electronica, disco, soul and afrobeat. Evelyn now lives in Ibiza where he is currently working on pre production for the tour. Marko Kutlesa caught up with him there to ask him about it.

Hi George! You have quite a lot of guests on forthcoming album 'Shape The Future'. Who will be undertaking the February UK and Ireland tour with you?

Hi! Kicking off the tour, in the band I've got LSK and a new addition Sadie Walker, who's also on the album. They're the singers who are going to be with me for the majority of the tour. I have a drummer from Manchester, a guy called Grant Kershaw, who toured with us on the Feelin Good tour.

Then, in London, we've got Mozez on board, who's toured with me quite extensively over the last four or five years and was also on 'In a Space Outta Sound', 'Feelin Good' and then this new album. We've got a couple of surprises as well, but at the moment I'm not really allowed to say. 

How much of the material you will perform will come from the new album?

I think it comes out just a week or two before these dates.

Quite a bit of it. Generally, when you go on tour, you have to do some of the classics because they are what they are, the fans want to hear them. I would say probably 60%-70% would be the new album. That's a guess because I'm still working on pre production right now.

I believe it's important to come with something new and to have a fresh show. We've had some great tours and great shows in the past, it would be quite easy to slip back into what you've already done. But you want to keep challenging, keep pushing yourself and make sure there's a new experience. Not just for the existing fans, but for any new fans too. 

The album features quite a lot of orchestration. How do you reproduce those sounds on the tour?

With quite a bit of difficulty! If I had my own way I'd have a 52 piece orchestra with me! But that's just not doable. At the moment.

A lot of it has to be done through samples, which I don't mind because I come from a sample background. Some of it just has to be resampled, basically, then triggered. Operated live. Other parts of it is done through keyboards.

You mentioned your background. When you started off on Warp, Nightmares On Wax was more of a studio based project. Do you think there's any correlation between your decision to establish yourselves as a live act and, at a similar time, Warp becoming a more artist lead label?

I think we've just grown together, to be honest. It's all about expansion, it's all about growth, it's all about discovery, whether that's being a record label or an artist. Even when we started out we were based on discovery. We were experimenting with new pieces of gear, new sounds, sampling. I think it is related. I think the difference is that we've had the privilege and the openness within the music world to venture into different areas, such as using orchestration. Things like that.

You've got to remember that when we started out there wasn't really a marriage of live performance and electronic music. Before doing shows for Warp we were doing live PAs (obviously the DJing has always been there). Today, there is a marriage between all of that.

Who are your favourite fellow artists associated with Warp and what are your favourite pieces of work, other than your own, released on the label?

Wow! Good question. As far as production goes, I'd definitely put Aphex Twin in there. I'd pick out his track 'Windowlicker', not only as a stand out piece of music but also just as a standout moment in the time of electronic music. He turned a corner with that, really took it onto another level. I've got a lot of respect for his earlier stuff, the 'Selected Ambient Works' era, but I just think that was a real cornerstone. A whole movement of electronic music was pushed on from that moment.

As well as him, I always loved Red Snapper live. I thought they were an amazing live band. Of the newer, more contemporary artists, Flying Lotus obviously. I have a lot of respect for what he does. HudMo too. Battles, great band, amazing live. Trying to think and not miss people out here. I have a huge respect for Autechre. I think they're very stand alone in what they do and it's incredible that they're still doing what they do. They don't just stand apart, they're on a different planet. Them and Plaid.

Titles from the new album like 'Back To Nature', 'Tell My Vision', 'Shape The Future' and 'Tomorrow' suggest a forward thinking and somewhat philosophical mindset. Are such themes apparent on the album?

Yeah, definitely. The underlying thread of the album is waking up to the realisation of your relationship to the reality you're living in. And how much you play a part in that. When I say you, obviously I mean everybody.

We all live in different realities, we all have different experiences, we all have different outlooks, but we all have a relationship to that perception. And that relationship to that perception, I feel, affects our reality and affects us emotionally in how we live. 

So, it's me kind of looking at that, really. Not looking at it in a way that I'm trying to preach about it, just offering an awareness for people to look at their own realities. I definitely think that the way you think about things affects the way that you're living.

Your show in your home city of Leeds sold out within 24 hours. How does it feel to clearly still be so loved there considering so much of your original audience must've now grown up and you yourself have long since left the city?

It's fabulous. It's fabulous and it's also a pain in the arse because I've got so many people complaining. Ahahaha. But, you know, that's the way it is; if you sleep, you sleep. 

But, nah, it's amazing. I was pretty blown away by that. I'm really happy about it.

I've probably been back to Leeds to DJ the most in the last year and a half than I have done in a while and every time I've been back, the love's been like that.

When I went back a few years ago thinking, oh, I've not played there in a while, there might be a few of the old familiar faces, I got there and I knew about ten people. Literally. It was all new school kids, all next generation, which blew me away. It was wonderful. 

Going back more, since then, each gig seems to bring out different people from my old school world. But there's still a prominent quota of new era fans coming through. It's just wonderful. Nobody could've planned it and I couldn't have wished for anything better. It's an honour for me to go back and play in my home town. It's still a bit of a fairytale for me that I came out of Leeds and how Leeds has changed so much. The neighbourhood that I grew up in doesn't really exist anymore. It's a beautiful thing to go back and play and have all my family there.

Did the club scene of Leeds have an influence on you or the sound of Nightmares On Wax? If so, which clubs and DJs in particular?

I would say yes, but also we were a part of it. The Warehouse, Leeds was key in that. That was the club we used to beg to get into. We were 14 or 15, trying to get into a club. That was the club we wanted to go to and blag the doorman that you were old enough and you'd have to get your maths right in order to be able to blag him properly. It was a smorgasbord of music. 

There was a lot of indie and goth, but there was always this hour period where it was funk, soul, bits of hip hop and electro. You would really go to a night just to capture that hour, because there'd be dance battles going on and you were trying to catch stuff you'd never heard before. The DJ that played there was a guy called Roy, who was there for a good 15 years, maybe longer.

In Leeds, there was the youth scene, which we'd go to on a Monday night, where we'd breakdance and stuff like that, but coming out of that time there wasn't that much other stuff going on in Leeds so we started doing all the illegal parties and afterhours stuff. Really, the Leeds clubbing scene as it is was born out of that. Everything that's there now is a remnant of that. We were the ones putting on those parties in warehouses and basements and eventually we were approached to put our own club night on in the city. It definitely played a large part in my life.

But I wouldn't just put it down to Leeds, I would just as much put it down to being in the north. We were going to Manchester, Sheffield, Huddersfield. All these places played a really important part. We had a relationship with them because we were all part of breakdance crews and we used to battle all the other crews in the region. For us, it was like going on a mini tour to somewhere new, where you'd pick up new dance moves and discover new music. That wasn't just in dance culture either, that was in reggae culture too, because we used to go to the sound clashes too

When you would put on your illegal parties who else would DJ with you?

There were some local guys and some students. There was a guy called Mark Kelly, a guy called Rob Wheeler and a guy called Steve Taylor. They ran a student night called Downbeat. Me and Kevin Boy Wonder, my original partner, went to this party and we said, if we go and get our tunes, can we play? They said alright, so we did and we totally smashed this party. So, they invited us to play their club. 

Apart from Roy at The Warehouse there just weren't any urban kids playing at clubs in town. It was all just your regular disc jockey types. We were the first of those kids who came from any kind of electronic and hip hop background that ended up playing in Leeds city centre. So, when we started doing the illegal parties we returned the favour and brought those guys in. 

They had their student following and we'd mix that with our ghetto crews and have a mish mash at our parties. In 1989 we had a after-hours party called Twilight, which I played with the founder Dj Mikey at a blues called Sunny's. 

From your old home to your new. You now live on Ibiza. How does living there affect your ability to work with an ensemble of musicians, either for a recording project or for tour rehearsals?

Everything's doable. I'm actually working on pre production at home in Ibiza now, but I'm going to go back to Leeds to work with the musicians. I actually went back there to record some of this album, just because I felt I wanted to reconnect there. It was great, brought back a lot of feelings and brought a different energy to the record.

It's great making music in Ibiza, being in this idyllic place, but you need a bit of city grit. But if I ask anyone if they want to come here and record they always say yes straight away ahahaha. Everyone wants to come here. 

Having made the transition from a studio based project to a live band, do you ever feel that dictates what you do in studio, knowing that you must translate anything great you end up doing into a live band format? You you ever miss the basics of bleeps and beats?

Well, it's all swings and roundabouts. I sit there and do a track and think, how the fuck am I going to do this live? Ahaha. I do! Working with orchestration in Berlin... some of the songs on there, they're big songs. It's a dream to do those things. But you end up constructing a piece of work and then deconstructing it so you can perform it live. But it never affects my creative process. Ever. 

I think when you're making music you should allow yourself to channel it without any conditions. The only condition needs to be that it feels good. I think if you start to make music and you're worrying about how you will have to adapt it, you're putting the hows, whys and whens into it, which slows the creative process down. So, make the piece of work first, then deconstruct it. 

You can find Nightmares On Wax tickets below

Manchester - Gorilla, Wednesday 7th February 

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Birmingham - Hare and Hounds, Thursday 8th February

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Liverpool - Invisible Wind Factory, Friday 9th February

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