Martyn Talks New Album on Ninja Tune “The Air Between Words,” Working With Four Tet, and the Dance Scene in the U.S. vs. Europe

Image via Ninja Tune / Photo by Mel D. Cole
Image via Ninja Tune / Photo by Mel D. Cole

Martyn may very well be the Dutch electronic scene’s most prominent innovator. Even so, he isn’t easily categorized. Early in his career, he became known for his unique application of techno and drum & bass techniques to dubstep, before putting out full-length releases that showed the true span of his versatility and creativity.

His debut album Great Lengths came out on his own label, 3024, in 2009, and it literally showed the “great lengths” he could take dubstep, deep house, and techno. Fast forward to 2010, and he’s done the esteemed FabricLive series (number 50), and in 2011, he released his second full-length album, Ghost People, on Flying LotusBrainfeeder.

His album The Air Between Words is out now on Ninja Tune, and it’s his most simple, realized, and intricate release yet. Including features with Four Tet and Inga Copeland of Hype Williams, the album is preceded by the Forgiveness EP that came out on June 3. It notably contains an extended “8 Hours at Fabric Dub” version of “Glassbeadgames,” which is a perfect union of Martyn and Four Tet’s already mixed styles and sounds.

Forgiveness is not only the name of the EP, it’s the name of two songs on The Air Between Words (“Forgiveness Step 1″ and “Forgiveness Step 2″). We asked Martyn how the different versions of the song relate to one another, the EP, and the album’s overall concept, in addition to asking him about how he views the American versus European club scenes. Get to know Martyn and his new album in our interview below.

Where in the world are you right now?
I’m in Washington, D.C. I got home yesterday after being in Europe for 10 days. I’m recovering and trying to get some extra sleep.

Has moving from Europe to D.C. affected your music at all, or do you find yourself traveling all the time, and it’s just a new home base?
I mean, the traveling will never really stop, but I’ve also never really lived in musical centers. Even when I lived in the Netherlands, it wasn’t in the middle of a certain scene. I’ve always preferred to be on the outskirts and travel to places like London or Berlin but not live there. For some reason, it just keeps me a lot fresher if I stay outside of the center. I’m more able to work, breathe, and find some rest.

Is there a dance music community in D.C. that you’re a part of?
Yeah, there are quite a few things going on actually. There are a couple nice clubs like U Street Music Hall and a couple good labels popping up, too. It’s actually getting quite healthy, I must say.

How and why did you link up with Ninja Tune after releasing Ghost People on Brainfeeder?
Well, Ninja Tune works with Brainfeeder in Europe. So for me, it was a logical step because I’ve already worked with the people at Ninja for a while. I played them the record, and they were really enthusiastic about it.

I released my first album on my own label, and I know how hard it is to do that. If you make the music and also try to sell it, it’s just very difficult. I actually prefer to have someone else organize all that so I can just make the music.

I had a good relationship with Ninja Tune, and obviously they have a lot of experience from putting out records in the early ’90s until now. In the last few years, Ninja has really worked its way up again, where they’ve signed people like Machinedrum, FaltyDL, and a couple other interesting artists who are doing albums with them. It just felt like a good home for me and The Air Between Words.

Is it important to you to make full albums? It’s interesting that your Forgiveness EP came out earlier this month, but the full album comes out today.
I like albums, because they give you time to make something that’s worth more than an EP or a 12-inch. When I have a good idea, I really enjoy spending a week trying to fine tune that idea, and for some reason 12-inches are more like short bursts. You do a couple tracks in a couple weeks, you get it all mastered, and then you get it out. With an album, you have a couple months, a year, or two years to really develop an idea and try to make something that’s a bit more coherent and hopefully keeps someone’s attention for longer than 10 minutes.

Way back when, I would always buy albums, listen to them the whole way through, and then read all the liner notes on the back. I quite enjoy the experience of sitting next to the turntable and playing something in its entirety. I just want to provide that experience for others, as well.

Previously, you said that each album “signifies a period in your life.” What have you learned from making The Air Between Words, and what time of your life does it signify? If Ghost People was a return to the roots of DJing, as you’ve also said before, is this a return to something else?
This album is a bit more back to basics. It’s stripped down to just the bare essentials, not just in the amount of tunes but also in the way it’s produced. For me, Ghost People had a lot of layers, and there was always a lot going on; it was quite hectic. This album is a bit more quiet, and it’s simple in that way. It’s basically all melodies, beats, and a bass line.

That back to basics approach was really important for me. It has a bit more peace. It’s less ADD and anxious than Ghost People was, and maybe that has to do with age. The music just develops itself. I give it time and space to do that instead of just trying to cram every single idea that I have into one album.

You’ve also said that this is your “most natural sounding album.” Is that related to using purely analogue equipment to create it?
A little bit, but it’s more related to the peaceful and calm way of making the album and letting the music do its thing.

How do the songs “Forgiveness Step 1” and “Forgiveness Step 2” relate to one another, and even the name of the EP? How do you decide to put these very different songs and the EP in dialogue with each other?
All three versions grew from the same idea. I worked on an idea with Inga Copeland for a while, and that turned into one of the versions of the song. We did many versions because we wanted to have something to play live, as well. It just became a bit of a theme. I wanted to include something inside the album with these songs that connect to each other and also connect the EP to the album.

I’m showing three different ways of exploring the same idea. Step one is the melodic way of doing it. Step two is more a tech-y/melancholic way of doing it. And step three is more of a breakbeat way of doing it.

Why did you decide to work with Four Tet on this album? He told Benji B that your collaboration took place over the Internet. Do you mind these disparate collaborations, or do you still prefer working with someone else in-person?
It really depends on who you work with. Some people are really enjoyable to be around in the studio. With others, you might have a more fruitful collaboration if you just work with them by bouncing ideas back and forth online.

With Four Tet, we did most of it online, and I guess it was a little bit easier, because he has a completely different way of working in the studio than I do. Instead of sitting next to each other and trying to overcome all those differences, it’s easier to send the audio back and forth.

There are other people who I work with that work the same way I do. In that case, it’s more fun to be in the studio together and jam away. I guess it depends. With Four Tet, obviously he travels so much, and so do I. The fastest and the best way to get it done was to do it online.

I saw that you recently played the Panoramabar at Berghain. What are your thoughts on American club culture in general? As in, is it overly villainized by Europeans, or does it just truly suck? I saw your show at Terminal 5 in New York when you opened for Four Tet and was impressed at how receptive and hyped the crowd was.
That was a fun show, actually. The music was really weird most of the time, but it really worked. People were open-minded, and the response was really cool. I think the main difference between the U.S. and Europe is that European club culture has more time. The people who are inside the club at night actually stay around for quite a while. Actually, Panoramabar is an extreme example, because the people are in there for…I don’t know how long. A friend of mine was there last Sunday, and I think he came back out after 11 hours or something. So he was in one club for 11 hours.

Obviously that’s a bit extreme for a lot of U.S. and Canadian clubs that close at 2 a.m. It basically means that you only have 2 – 2.5 hours to really make an impact for that night, because you know that people never go to a club before 11. It just leaves you with a very short amount of time, and it influences your sets. It’s much more difficult to build something or to veer off in different directions, because you just don’t have the time. That’s a pity. A lot of clubs in New York, nowadays, are open a little bit longer. Like Output stays open until 6 a.m. sometimes.

It’s tough to really make your voice heard, basically. Whether Europeans think that the U.S. sucks or the other way around? I don’t know. You’ll probably always have that anyway.

I don’t think people should worry about it that much, to be honest. It’s just very different. As far as me being happy playing in the States, I’m definitely happier now than I was maybe two years ago when a lot of my bookings were me stuck between two bro-step DJs who would do something completely different from me. Every gig was just a struggle basically. Now, it’s really taken a turn for the better with a lot of the “EDM” going to festivals and club culture going back to where it was.

How do you find the time to run your label, 3024? What do you try to do with your label that you can’t do with your own releases?
It’s hard because it’s usually a time issue. I have a few people who help me out with day-to-day things like press and PR. I run the label with my friend who does the artwork.

For me, the most important thing about the label is that I can use it to promote others and promote sounds that maybe won’t otherwise be heard…or won’t be heard by as many people. Because people connect the name of the label to my name, it gives them a tiny bit more incentive to check out those records when they come out. It gives me that opportunity to break new artists or make people listen to music that they normally wouldn’t listen to.

Even if you’ve been a part of and been influenced by so many genres, whether it be drum & bass, dubstep, house, etc., you’ve said that, throughout, you’re attracted to the “melancholy” in music in general. Do you think melancholy is lost in today’s music?
It’s a sign of the times. Living today is quite frantic, you know? There are a lot of things going on, people are constantly engaged with their iPhones, and you can’t really escape the news, or the developments, or social media. You always have to know what everyone else is doing, or what everyone else is thinking, or what their opinions are.

There’s really not that much time to relax, sit back, and let an emotion get to you. People are also emphasizing action more than thinking. People would rather consider things relatively and short-term than think about them long-term. Like, “This guy tweeted that two minutes ago, now I have to respond and say something so everyone else can see that I think something.” I think that emotion is lost because of that.

There are definitely musicians who still make melancholic music. Yesterday I was listening to an older Hype Williams album, Black is Beautiful. It’s really spacey and peaceful, but it’s also sad. The funny thing is that I listen to that music on the plane when I have nothing else to do, and there is no Internet connection. I guess it’s just a sign of the times. People don’t really have the time or the attention span to sit back and think about stuff.

I hope when people listen to my album, they listen to it in one go and understand what I’m trying to say.

You’ve discussed at length your decision to make music for yourself and use your own name instead of an alias. What advice do you have for the younger generation of producers and DJs, in terms of making music for oneself and having ownership over one’s music, at a time when anyone can get the music they want for free?
The best advice I can give is to take time to develop your sound. You don’t need to step out into the limelight too soon. When I see new artists emerging onto the scene, most of them have not even begun to find their own sound, you know? They haven’t developed what they’re all about yet. What they come out with is usually not as focused as it should be, I think.

That’s really important, especially if you come out with your name, as in, your own name. It has to be something that you’re going to be happy with for at least a decent amount of time. You don’t want to release a record and then a year later, you’re like, “Oh yeah, I really shouldn’t have done that, because it sounds like this, or it sounds like that, and that’s really not what I’m all about.”

Usually if I work with people who are starting out, they send me emails like, “Oh yeah, I signed to this digital label, and I’m gonna put a 12-inch here and a 12-inch there, and then I’m gonna have a manager,” and I’m like, okay, easy now. Just work your way through your own artistic views first until you really stand for something or you really have a sound of your own. Then you come out with everything, and it makes more of an impact.

It’s just like what we were talking about. It’s the culture of everyone feeling the need to communicate something just because there’s a social media circus that wants you to do that. It actually asks you to have a statement or an opinion or some music that you can throw about.

That’s what gets lost in the mix. The quality needs to be there, not just the fact that you’re doing something.

  • http://soundcloud.com/the-colonel-mc The Colonel

    Strikes me that most music is melancholy these days, at least compared to prior decades. Bright, upbeat pop is almost dead, rock is dust, RnB is on ludes and most of what we’re left with is trying to be “deep” or “thoughtful,” which almost always doubles for downbeat . . .

    It’s why guys like 813 stand out so hard. Who else is making happy music (besides Pharrell, haha)