“… the track had a very heavy nostalgic feeling to it, like you were looking at an old photo album with the faded film of childhood memories, simpler times. We are both massive fans of video and with ‘Photograph’ it’s like we envisioned it to be scene of a film …” – Damon Kirkham reflects on the track’s conception
“… ‘Photograph’ takes the deep, emotive route of previous releases ‘Pacific Heights’ and ‘Sakura’ into the most beatific, blissful and evocative music they have yet conspired to create… in short, a modern masterpiece” – Triple Vision Distribution, Press Release, May 2009
Leaving the mid-90s drum & bass golden era and fast forward to 2009, the 8th installment of the blog’s ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ series is about a distinctive and quintessential track of the ‘Autonomic’ era, written and produced by Instra:mental, the masters of electronic reverie. Introducing a wide palette of sound sources and analogue production techniques, profoundly influenced by a variety of musical styles from years past, Instra:mental re-imagined the drum & bass blueprint, applying a cinematic vision with a cross-genre appeal to their production output.
Instra:mental has been a musical project formed by Alex Green and Damon Kirkham in the late 90s. They’ve had their first foray into production with Demonic Records, a label set up by Jim Baker of Source Direct as the successor of the iconic Source Direct Recordings. After a turbulent couple of years with commercial success and self-indulgence entwined, Instra:mental took a long hiatus. In 2006, they re-emerged, determined as ever, to make an impact across the electronic music spectrum.
“It was then, when we really came into the ‘Instra:mental sound’, with a blend of drum machines and influences from a few different genres. It opened up lots of doors for us, because it was a different sound that people weren’t used to. It had a very electronic, warped style to it and because it caught the ears of people outside of drum & bass as well, it allowed us to skip on the fringes of a range of different genres” – Damon
After the wave of noir that swept the scene in the late 90s, drum & bass was already following a different trajectory at the turn of the new millennium. A new breed of exciting artists and record labels emerged into the scene and productions became more dance-floor oriented, sometimes at the expense of innovation. A fresh outlook was desperately needed; many producers started to experiment again with time signatures and minimal forms, stripping down the sound. Analogue equipment was brought back to the studio process and new production techniques broadened the drum & bass spectrum, defying musical formulas and constraints. The tempo remained generally close to the average drum and bass speed (around 170 bpm), however many other aspects of the music deviated from the traditional d&b template. One of the main attributes is a half-time drum rhythm, reducing the perceived speed, while staying on the same bpm. The drum production versatility is retained with quiet percussions, deep sub-bass, eerie synths, subdued melodies and unconventional beats.
“If you listen to the likes of Deep Blue, Omni Trio and Foul Play you can hear the broken half tempo stuff, but nobody really jumped on it, people went for the more obvious things like neurofunk in the mid 90’s” – Damon
In 2007, Instra:mental signed with Darkestral Recordings, the eclectic leftfield drum & bass label run by Paul Laidlaw aka Rico Drkstr. Though short-lived, Darkestral introduced cinematic aesthetics, with outstanding releases, supplemented with bespoke vinyl art and packaging. The label’s ethos is summarized in the maxim: “170… respect the speed limit”. Instra:mental found their natural habitat and forged their own musical path with a string of ground-breaking records. The pinnacle of their Darkestral discography has probably been the ‘Sepia Tones’ EP, co-produced with dBridge; literally a musical artifact, which foreshadowed the emergence of the ‘Autonomic’ movement.
Ever get that feeling, when you‘re almost choking from melancholy and the next moment everything seems brighter? I guess that happened to me, the first time I listened to ‘Photograph’ on an Influence Records podcast showcase on October 2008, a few months prior to the official release of Sepia Tones. Instra:mental’s long-term dalliance with vintage synths has had a profound effect, evoking IDM memories in an abstract d&b context. The poignant stuttering notes trigger bitter-sweet nostalgia echoing blurred, distant images of carefree and innocent moments of a life long gone, but not lost into oblivion. The almost inaudible vocal samples and the half-time kick-snare breakbeat patterns fit gracefully within the track framework.
Damon eloquently narrates the background story, which captures the emotionally charged essence of the track.
“With ‘Photograph’, like all Instra:mental tunes, we didn’t set out to make that track with any guides or an outline for the vibe we were going for. We would normally start with a beat and then start jamming on the synths, this is where all the different emotions would surface from our influences and experiences. Alex would be playing some bass and I might hit strings and chords and then things would click and be like ‘that’s the one’ when you strike the combo that resonates with us, like nostalgia from our youth or melancholy. Once we had the initial emotion locked, we layered up loads of wonky ‘Minimoog’ keys and kids laughing (which is a nod to ‘Boards of Canada’; a huge influence on me) the track had a very heavy nostalgic feeling to it, like you were looking at an old photo album with the faded film of childhood memories, simpler times. We are both massive fans of video and with ‘Photograph’ it’s like we envisioned it to be scene of a film. Most tracks would come together like that; we had keys and chords we would always revert to that we liked so whenever we jammed there was no key clashing. ‘Sakura’ came about in the same way, the tracks paints a picture of being in Asia with a beautiful scene surrounded with cherry blossom. I like to think ‘Photograph’ is one of those tunes that will stay with people and stand the test of time”.
‘Photograph’ features on the 4-track ‘Sepia Tones’ EP, a 2×12” vinyl release with ‘The Dead Zone’ on the flipside. The second plate contains ‘Translucent’ b/w ‘Detuned’, both co-produced with dBridge. It was published on May 27th, 2009 by Darkestral Recordings. The EP was released in three vinyl colour variations limited to 500 copies (one in plain black, one in gold and black and one in sepia; the latter probably the most collectible and sought after version) beautifully packaged in reversed heavy board sleeves, coloured pantone black, both inside and out, with gold foil block logos and lettering front and back. ‘Photograph’ was also selected by Commix as the closing track on their Fabriclive 44 compilation.
“We didn’t really think about doing something different, we just wired up some old drum machines and did something we wanted to do and it kind of spiraled from there. But the sound took a long time to take hold… I remember playing gigs to around three people in the early days – the dance floor would empty as soon as we started playing. It was pretty disheartening, to be honest” – Damon
Undisputedly, it was dBridge & Instra:mental, who pioneered the new sound as a distinct sub-genre with their ‘Autonomic’ podcasts in 2009. The ‘Autonomic’ podcast series showcase a unique and versatile blend of productions, emphasizing not only on the new half-step drum and bass sound, but augmented with cross-genre sections with tracks from various musical styles, which have inspired and influenced them along the years. The release of their Fabriclive 50 mixed compilation to critical acclaim the next year, encapsulated the momentum ‘Autonomic’ was gaining and the ensued exposure to wider audiences, establishing dBridge & Instra:mental as the leaders of a new wave that redefined the shape of the genre.
It has to be noted at this point that, despite mostly working at 170bpm and using broken beats, the producers of the Autonomic collective prefer to describe their music as simply electronic that happens to fall into the 170bpm range most of the time, rather than drum and bass.
“People would come up to us and say ‘this isn’t drum & bass!’ But gradually, we started to see those same people on the dance floor next time we played and the crowds grew week by week. By the end of it we were playing big festivals” – Damon
Instra:mental carried on with their musical excursions, expanding their eclectic repertoire to a wide range of electronic music styles from electro and house, to dubstep and techno for prestigious labels such as NonPlus, Autonomic, Naked Lunch, 3024, Apple Pips, Disfigured Dubz, Semantica, Soul:r, Exit and more. They also took over remixing duties with remarkable success for Saburuko, Mount Kimbie and June Miller; the highlight however being their brilliant remix of Commix’s ‘Japanese Electronics’, returning the favour, for the ‘Re:Call To Mind’ remix project on Metalheadz.
Regrettably, life circumstances resulted in the amicable disband of Instra:mental, and both Damon and Alex pursued different musical challenges, going solo or in groups. A number of sketches and unfinished tracks, which featured on the podcasts or various mixes, will probably never see the light of day, adding a touch of romance to the Instra:mental musical legacy.
“The ‘Instra:mental’ days were good, but I like to see each part of my life as a chapter, and that was a really good chapter that we kept pure and never watered down. It’s good to look back and have that. The other day I had a scan back through all the ‘Instra:mental’ tunes and it really does stand the test of time” – Damon
“Damon is one of my oldest friends, we grew up together listening to a lot of the same music and watching the same films etc … Nothing dramatic happened between us which caused us to stop writing music together other than our lives ended up taking different paths as we got older. There won’t be any more music released under’ Instra:mental’, but who knows, in the years to come we may write together again, it all just depends on what’s going on in each other’s lives” – Alex
Epilogue – Life after Instra:mental
After two releases on Darkestral as Grey Goo (solo) and Transportation AAD (alongside label boss Rico), Alex established his main recording project Boddika for his techno, acid and electro explorations, combining a fresh take on the classic Roland machines with vintage synths and a modern production approach.
As well as being the driving force behind his NonPlus record label and having a shared interest in the Sunklo imprint, Boddika has also found a strong affiliation in Swamp 81, which has culminated in the high profile collaborations with Jay Orbison and Loefah respectively. He also maintains a busy dj schedule worldwide with regular appearances on festivals like Dimensions and Outlook.
After Instra:mental, Damon adopted the Jon Convex alias for his techno ventures. In 2013, he re-emerged as Kid Drama, which is currently the main recording moniker for his drum & bass and post-Autonomic productions.
Apart from his solo work, he’s been a member of the following all-star production groups:
- Heart Drive (with dBridge) – Essentially the second incarnation of Autonomic.
- Binary Collective (with dBridge, Consequence and Joe Seven) and
- Module Eight (with dBridge, Skeptical, Loxy and Resound).
During a stressful and emotional period, Kirkham created the Mikarma project to channel his depression. Replicating a minimal, vintage 90s setup and profoundly influenced by ambient/synth electronica and IDM Kirkham revisited Mikarma for Short Trips and recently for the ‘Engram Project’ on his CNVX imprint.
Every track that is presented here has been selected from my personal record collection and has had a profound impact on my musical taste. Featuring a variety of tracks across the electronic music spectrum, emphasizing mainly on drum and bass, from undisputed classics to underrated gems, all are tracks I wish I’d written, as the title of the series suggests.
Visit the blog’s archive for the previous installments of the “Tracks I Wish I’d Written” series here.
Alex’s comments on Instra:mental in green font are excerpts from an older interview for the Italian site Dlso. Read the full interview here.
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