Mark Dale caught up with one half of Stanton Warriors, Dominic Butler, to talk about Britain, breakbeats, Bristol, Banksy and bass.
Date published: 10th Nov 2015
Unlike many producer/DJ teams, Stanton Warriors' first major recognition came from the release of a mixtape. The Stanton Sessions emerged in 2001 and placed the duo in a field of their own.
Like so many other innovative UK acts, the duo took recognisable templates such as house, breakbeat and techno and crafted something unique, a sound of their own and one that was undeniably British. Over four such compilations and countless remixes they have not so much honed their style as they have explored the furthest reaches of its brash, party-fuelled possibilities.
Their music has been called big beat, breaks, garage and UK bass. They have influenced many of today's biggest UK bass contributors and high profile genres leaders such as Disclosure are very vocal in their indebtedness to the West Country duo.
They are seasoned party DJs, their bold, peak time and hedonistic sound (check out the set above) perfectly suited to the demands of the big stage and as such they have been relied upon countless times by the biggest spectacles around, such as Burning Man, Ultra Festival and Glastonbury, to thrill their sizeable crowds.
From their studio Mark Yardley and Dominic Butler have released singles, compilations and remixes for the likes of XL Records, Fabric, Dirtybird, Cheap Thrills, Central Station, Universal and their own highly respected Punks label, which also releases the work of other artists.
They have provided official remixes for the likes of Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim, M.I.A and Gorillaz and produced many semi official or bootleg releases familiar to many clubbers.
Although their Stanton Sessions mixtapes frequently featured much of their own original music and though their profile was already one belonging to true innovators and titans of British dance music, it was surprisingly not until 2011 that they released their debut artist album, The Warriors.
2015 has seen them issue their second, Rebel Bass, with the album and its lead two singles 'Loving Me Wrong' and 'The One' (below) drawing unanimously favourable reviews and high charting positions.
We spoke to Dominic ahead of their appearance at the UK Bass Music Awards (where they are nominated for 'Best DJ' and 'Best Album') and the continuation of their Rebel Bass worldwide tour.
Where exactly in the West Country are you from? Where did you meet and what were your formative clubbing experiences?
I'm from Bristol originally. I met Mark when I worked at a record label, 51st Recordings, back in the mid nineties. It was the first UK garage label and he was an in house engineer and I was an A+R man. I signed Tuff Jam to the label and licensed all this garage stuff from America like Todd Edwards and we started making tunes together during downtime in the studio.
I was involved in music from a very early age in Bristol. When I was 14 I was organising like warehouse parties in these big squats. I was Djing on pirate radio and working in a record shop when I was 15. So I'd always been involved in music, the free party scene, club nights and promotions, the whole shebang really.
Throughout my teenage years I'd been involved in all aspects of music. I was definitely a seasoned clubber from day one.
Why did you move to west London? That's the posh bit, not the trendy bit, no?
Ha! I used to kinda live in the trendy bit, east London, but I found it was too trendy and too full of hipsters. Being from the West Country I have a natural gravitation towards west London where there are more trees, more parks and nicer houses and stuff. You can get your head down and make some music without having to go out with a trendy haircut and wear meggings.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s acid house gave rise to the rave party scene that was evident all over the UK. In most other major cities, such as Manchester, London, Leeds, Birmingham and Glasgow, this was to be the start of those cities having a quarter of a century long love affair with house and techno.
Although Bristol embraced the rave scene, the subsequent development of music there was totally unique within the UK. From Smith & Mighty and Massive Attack through Roni Size, John Stapleton and the Blowpop crew, it was breakbeats that were adopted as the Bristol sound. Why do you think that happened?
I'd say the primary thing in Bristol, as opposed to the Manchester and London scenes or whatever, was the love affair with bass music. I think that came off the back of there being such a big Jamaican community there. But it was a particular Jamaican community that seemed to lock into early punk, in the same way that ska music happened in London.
What also came from the Jamaican community was the soundsystem culture, so a lot of the people you just mentioned, Smith & Mighty, Massive Attack, who were originally Wild Bunch, they all came from soundsystems. What came out of playing music in a soundsystem was playing music that people who danced to your soundsystem liked, so you weren't so confined by genres and stuff.
I remember going out to skate parks and hearing Wild Bunch or Fresh Four crew playing and they would mix an acid house tune with hip hop, an acapella over the top, a dub reggae bassline underneath. No-one really knew what to call the music and they didn't really care, they just liked it.
I really took that ethos with Stanton Warriors of not really caring about genres. I'd be thinking, I like that beat, I like that noise, I like that bassline, I'll whack them together and make some tunes out of it. I think a lot of early Bristol guys had that way of thinking. Roni Size liked jazz, he also liked drum n' bass, fuck it, I'll put 'em together.
Portishead guys liked weird, melancholic film scores and fucked up hip hop beats and they whacked it together and made their thing. Massive Attack liked hip hop beats, soulful vocals and electronic noises, so they did that. They didn't really care about copying other people, looking at influences, they just did what worked and what was in their soundsystem.
I remember once some guy saying to a Massive Attack guy, you can't mix that with that, that's not right. And they were like, well, we just have, it sounds good on our soundsystem and our people are dancing to it. That's all that matters. I've always taken that as our ethos in Stanton Warriors.
Massive Attack have always been very serious about the visual side of their art, both their product and performances. In the wider Bristol music scene, the city's love of hip hop has always meant that graffiti has maintained a visible presence on the streets.
Banksy is perhaps the most famous British artist of the current era, but his work is not just straight up graffiti. His social and political commentary is something else he shares with the Bristol music scene. What is it about the city that produces such a radical artistic voice?
Bristol's always had a rebellious attitude. I remember years and years ago the Poll Tax riots in London, London got trashed or whatever. When it came to everyone getting caught who'd turned up on CCTV, it turned out that a large percent of them were from Bristol.
There was a graffiti crew near me, back when I was growing up, who I remember seeing doing work. Four lads. One of them had come down from London, that was Goldie, another was Banksy, another was 3D who went on to do Massive Attack and the other was Inkey.
They had a street art thing going on taken from the New York graffiti guys, but at the same time they had an anti-establishment sentiment. I think Bristol's just always had that kind of dare. They just don't tow the line. They have their own opinions on things.
In an area called Stokes Croft in Bristol, for example, they tried to open a Tescos and the local people burned it down, smashed it up. That kind of thinking permeates the whole Bristol culture.
That, big basslines, smoking weed, a fuck you to capitalism and corporatism. I've always liked that about Bristol, it's done its own thing. It can't be constrained and restricted by the powers that be. That's come across in its music as well, and it gives it a rich culture.
Ourselves, we've always had a link to art as well. All our record covers we've used different graffiti artists, some more abstract work as well. It's always been important to us, part of our heritage. Our latest album, Rebel Bass, there's a graffiti caricature of a girl on there that, to me, is part of the whole, we'll do it our way kinda vibe.
I think that's a good way to have music. It's a kinda punk way of thinking and I think it's what makes some music against the grain, as opposed to being vanilla and fitting in with everything else.
When you listen to the French house music of people like Daft Punk or the house and techno that comes from Germany, it's very clear that their lineage comes from American house and techno music. At times, next generation dance music that comes from other parts of the world can sound like updated, but still remarkably similar versions to what's gone before.
You can't say that about next generation dance music from the UK. From the musics that were dubbed trip hop and big beat, through UK garage, drum n' bass and grime, the UK's next generation evolutions can be incredibly radical, boldly original and prompt even further innovation. Why do you think that happens uniquely in the UK?
Uff. Well, it's an interesting question. For me, dance music has always been about being really fresh and different. When I first got into dance music I was super young.
I remember I was forced into getting a pair of Clarks shoes for school. I didn't want them, because I was wearing sneakers and stuff, but my mum sent me to the Clarks shoe shop and what you got with the shoes was a free record token. It was a way of making kids get the shoes. We went to Littlewoods with the record token. Funnily enough, you couldn't choose the record you wanted.
To cut a long story short, the record I was given was Herbie Hancock Rock-It. It was a prototype electro tune, pre hip hop in a way. I remember hearing this tune and it was so radical compared to anything that I'd heard before, which was Michael Jackson or Madonna, I was only 12 or whatever.
I was like, I don't know what this is, I've never heard this before, but whatever it is I love it and I want to find out all about it. And it was really hard to get that music, I'd have to go to a specialist stall and buy really rare electro records from New York.
So, for me, dance music has always been about stuff that was really different and not just a drummer and a guitarist moaning about his life or whatever. It's got radical sounds and the different feel that comes with that. So I've always taken that into the studio with me whenever I'm making tunes, let's try and make something a bit different.
When everything went electro-house we were called electro-house, oh look, this dubstep thing's happening, let's make some dubstep. We've avoided that by going, what do we want to hear today?
We can only really talk for ourselves really for the fact that, if you're gonna try and make some music, you've got to try and make something that no-one's heard before. You might not always hit it, it might not always be the right thing, but at least you're not just making a sanitised version of something that has already gone before.
I think a lot of this music, German techno or French house or whatever, some of it's good, but it is just regurgitating what's already come before, from Chicago, Detroit and New York. I just wanna hear stuff which is like, wow, what is that?
I remember when we were younger and we would get tunes like Voodoo Ray and hear them for the first time and think, what the fuck is that? It's amazing and you'd get tingles down your spine that you'd never had before.
So I think it's always important to aim towards that feeling, whether you get there or not. That is the essence of dance music, in my opinion.
Although these musics, UK garage, drum n' bass and grime are innovations, they seem to last as scenes here. Why do you think that happens and they continue to hold followings here?
Well they're not just made by some guys in the studio thinking, what can we make that the kids will like? They're just made by kids who make the kind of tunes they wanna hear. For want of a better expression, they're real.
It might be made by some kid on a council estate who's not got hardly any equipment, they're on the Playstation, his mates come round and they're knocking out some beats, another mate comes round with a microphone and he's spitting lyrics, he's coming from the heart. I think that kind of music is real, that is the essence of any music, the rawness of it.
Those kind of genres you just mentioned they are original, a UK sound. You can't mess with that because it's real kids doing real shit. Their group of friends love it, it's more raw and real than 99% of pop music or EDM, whatever and because of that it has longevity.
Given that all these bass musics and breakbeat music are unmistakably such a British sound, are you ever surprised that they seem to translate so well to a global audience enabling something as far travelling as the Rebel Bass world tour?
Yeah, it never ceases to amaze me. The last 20 years, or even the last year we've done – apart from the more obvious places like America and Australia – big gigs in Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, some weird countries that I can't even pronounce and the music does goes down, it does work.
It's sometimes quite hard because sometimes we'll hit countries where all they've really heard before is techno and EDM, maybe drum n' bass if we're lucky. We come on at a festival and for the first ten minutes everyone's like, what's this? But then they get into it and then they really get into it and by the end of it they're like, wow, never heard something like that before, that's different.
So we kind of set ourselves out as a kind of challenge sometimes, but it does translate. I think a good beat is a good beat and a good bassline is a good bassline and for that reason it can translate. It certainly keeps us in air miles.
Do you think that bass music and breakbeat music in general prompts a different style of dancing to more linear house and techno sounds?
Absolutely. It's funny you should say that. We get booked for a lot of house things, you know. And, I love house, don't get me wrong, but we'll get there and they'll all be playing house and techno, which is great, you know, but it is quite linear, incomparable to what we do.
It's just bobbing along, maybe a few breakdowns with some hi hats over the top, but if you add the peaks and troughs of raw breakbeat, you get a real drop, like you do with drum n' bass, where everyone goes crazy, real hands in the air and everyone's grooving out.
It's got a slower tempo than drum n' bass so the house guys can still get into it, but there's definitely more build and drop. I think it gives it more bounce, in a way. If we do a set and everyone's got their hands in the air and they're screaming for one more... we're always aiming for that goal.
What was the motivation in setting up Punks? How do you go about doing the A+Ring for it and where do you find the time?
We found such good music on our travels. Also there's a lot of music that's put in the same genre as us that doesn't really fit our sound. If you put all 4/4 music in the same genre, trance, hard house, deep house and just call it house, there'd be a big difference in sound there.
To make a distinction between what we do and what other people who do breakbeat do, we put a label together to highlight some of these other artists and sounds. So, if people come to our gigs and say, I like this, what kinda music is this, they can go to our label and find some similar kind of sounds from people who are more in our camp.
Also to help a lot of young producers, to give them a voice, a platform, so that they can do their thing. We all help each other out. There's not that much money in labels these days. We swap remixes, assist each other, create a family record label kind of vibe.
Your music is so well suited to playing at festivals, raves, on the large stage. When you do play smaller club dates, in what ways do you approach doing that differently?
I think if there's a really big rave we got kind of a lot of bigger tunes that work on a main stage. We can also do a more warehouse vibe, a longer, deeper set to groove out with. We've been here so long we've worked out how to read the crowd. We've got the more hells bells, smash the main stage kinda vibe set.
Most of our sets are our own tunes, edits of other tunes and acapellas. We can go on three decks and have Mark putting all these sound effects and acapellas over the top, so you can really fuck with stuff. It a tune doesn't work so well we can move on really quickly, but if it does we can stretch it out, pretty much do a live remix of it, build it with crazy effects and build a performance.
These days most DJs are doing fuck all behind the decks, they're just pretending the buttons are hot. Hot button kind of vibe. I just find it a bit boring. It's been 20 years, for my own sanity I want to work the tunes. We've got a lot of technology at our fingertips, why not use it to its max? That way it makes it more enjoyable for us and for the crowd.
Where have your most memorable gigs taken place? Where are your favourite places to play?
I guess it'd be some of the festivals. There's the Shambala Festival in Canada, which is particularly good because the line ups there are really fucking cool. There's a real emphasis on good music.
When you play real underground music and the crowd reaction is more, you don't have to play anything really big.... and it's in a beautiful environment, it's in this forest with this lake and Canadians are all pretty lovely really. It's spectacular. Burning Man we go down pretty well. We've done some spectacular gigs there.
We did festival Kazantip in Ukraine. That was like a Russian Burning Man festival where we did these massive parties, there'd be more people than the techno or trance stages would get. And our own Stanton Sessions that we put together in London. We put on DJs that are working in slightly different genres and it works really well.
In 2001 when you recorded 'Right Here' (above) for Stanton Sessions Vol 1, you worked with Diane Charlemagne, the vocalist best known for Inner City Life, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago. Was it her work on Inner City Life that made you want to work with her? What memories do you have of the recording session you had with her?
We had this big album deal with Universal and we were looking for singers to work with. She'd done some cool stuff as well as that track with Goldie. I always remember her as this motherly, spiritual type person as opposed to some singers who can be a bit diva like.
Diane wasn't like that at all. We were young kids, we knew how to make tunes, but we didn't know how to write songs and she immediately guided us through the experience. We set a microphone up and she just jammed along. She actually did the vocal quite quickly, but then she stayed around, helping us to arrange it.
She stayed with us a lot longer than she had to, certainly for a vocalist of her stature. She really made us feel at ease, really helped us, cos we didn't really know what we were doing. Yeah, motherly is what I remember, cos in the world of music that's quite a rare thing.
What the favourite remix you've done? And what are your favourite remixes of Stanton Warriors tracks that have been done by others?
One remix that we did, that we still play to this day and everyone goes crazy, is our remix of 'Azzido Da Bass'. We got Slarta Jon of Basement Jaxx 'Jump N Shout' fame over the top of our mix. It still goes off, even today. The garage guys like it, the techno guys like it, even Sasha and Jon Digweed played it.
Best remix of us? Hook N Sling did a remix of Shake It Up, it was a house tune but with an amazing bassline and that still smashes it too.
You've just released a new album, so what's next for Stanton Warriors? What's next for Punks?
We've just got loads and loads of gigs. Two American tours before the end of the year, Australia over Christmas to do some festivals. America again for New Year's Eve, San Francisco for the night. Then we're doing this Shipsomnia cruise ship in the far east that looks pretty mental, with Pete Tong, Armand Van Helden, James Zabiela, Jazzy Jeff, that looks really exciting.
We've actually got a load more music done. You could almost put another album out with the new stuff we've done. There's still more tracks and remixes to come off the current album. Punks just signed loads of new artists, loads of fresh young bass artists who've come to the label now. That's quite exciting.
We've got Stanton Sessions nights coming up in London and Manchester and I think we'll be doing a Punks night too. So, more of the same, just even more of it. It's funny how we've been doing it for so long and yet we've never been so busy. In 2001, the launch of Stanton Sessions Vol. 1 we didn't have to do all these magazine (interview) things we're doing now because of this album.
Even though we're not actually playing any of the big genres like techno or EDM, we've still got our thing going, we've still got our crazy fans. 2016 is looking like it's going to be even busier and we're looking forward to that.