DVA on Sci-Fi Sounds, Emotional Technology, and Music to Play in the Dark

DVA, photo by Sarah Ginn
DVA [Hi:Emotions]. Photo by Sarah Ginn.

Leon Smart—aka DVA, Scratcha, Scratcha DVA, Soule:Power, and most recently DVA [Hi:Emotions]—isn’t old, but he’s already been around the block and back in London’s underground community. While still in his teens, DVA became a player in the grime scene during its first flush in the early ’00s. He earned the patronage of grime originator Terror Danjah, and the pair created the criminally under-appreciated sub-genre of “R&G,” pairing soulful R&B vocals with grime’s rugged beats. In the late ’00s, his tracks were picked up by DJs like Marcus Nasty and Roska in the “UK funky” scene—a short-lived genre where grime’s attitude and heavy bass met house music’s danceability. It was the de facto sound of Britain’s cities for a couple of summers, and DVA’s unorthodox take on it caught the attention of electronic music heads across the country. His visibility continued to increase with a stint as the rambunctious, often hilarious host of Rinse FM’s Grimey Breakfast Show between 2006 and 2012.

In 2010, he started releasing music on Kode9’s Hyperdub label, and very quickly found a natural place among the label’s family of misfits. 2011’s Pretty Ugly was a bamboozling mish-mash of experimental electronics and R&B slickness, augmented by a huge cast of guest vocalists. He continued to test out different sounds on various EPs for Hyperdub as well as his own sporadic DVA imprint. Some were more successful than others, but all of them demonstrated a questing intelligence. He was vocal on social media—both critiquing and poking fun at the hierarchies, cliques, and racial politics of club music and its media—winning fans in the process, while alienating others in equal measure. When we meet him at the studio of Radar Radio, where he now has a weekly show, he seems way more settled in himself. He’s as animated as ever in conversation, but more focused, and less inclined to be willfully controversial.

That confidence comes through on NOTU_URONLINEU, an album that sounds more focused than anything he’s released in a long time. Which is not to say that it’s in any way orthodox: it’s a wild ride of a record, spiraling through a sci-fi dreamworld of orientalist cyberpunk visions, seductive artificial intelligence, and complex, glossy dreamscapes. It only features one vocal track—“ALMOSTU” with Rae Rae & Roses Gabor in sultry form—but perversely, for all its weird electronic angles, it’s among his most direct and emotional work. It’s a record that gives up more with each listen, and one which should land on every Best of 2016 list, if there’s any justice. So, obviously we wanted to know if he was satisfied with it.

How are you feeling about the album as you prepare for release?

Well, I wish I could say I’m at that… [sighs loudly, mimes relaxing into chair in a satisfied slump] …stage. But I’m not, because now I’m starting to work on the live show. I’m not going to be DJing any of it, because it’s not a dance record, it’s not a DJ thing. I’m not going to be playing any of them tunes in the club. I just want to give it to people in the live setting, in one of two ways: either in total pitch black, or with visuals by [Filip] Roca. He specializes in projection-mapping onto buildings. Just this weekend, he projected his video art onto the largest building in Belgrade—that’s the sort of thing he does. I gave him the album a long time ago so he knows the concept for it, and he’s put together a live AV show. So it’ll either be that, or total pitch black, where you can’t see shit.

You weren’t tempted to rework it for the clubs?

Nah. I’ve had a couple of people say, ‘Ah just stick a kick drum in there,’ but, no, I want it to be heard the same way I made it: sitting in the dark. I know that might not sound fun, but when you’re in the dark listening to stuff, especially stuff with some depth to it, you ain’t got visual distraction, so your brain starts visualizing from the sound. That’s a better experience for me, and I want to give that.

DVA, photo by Sarah Ginn
Photo by Sarah Ginn.

Did you come up with this as a concept before you started on the album, or was it just your natural working process?

Well, I wanted to feel good making the album. I’ve hit a couple of stages in my career where I wasn’t feeling great, so before I started on this album, I thought, ‘What used to make me feel great when listening to tunes?’ One thing was listening to music when I had to go to bed on school nights. My mum would put the lights out, but I’d put headphones on and listen to whatever: on Sunday nights, it was Rinse FM live call-ins—I think it was 11 until 1am. Kool FM as well, all these [pirate] stations. Or I’d listen to Goldie “Timeless.” Pitch black, headphones on, your mind starts to put pictures there. So I decided to replicate those conditions in my studio: I blacked out every window so even if the sun came up while I was working, I wouldn’t know about it. It’d be dark all the time. I’d turn off the laptop screen every time I wanted to listen back to something I’d just done. And I felt good about that, same as when I was a kid. So I did it for the whole year, and made the album like that. Now if I listen to it in the light, it’s not the same. It doesn’t translate. I know people will listen to it how they want, but I want to give them that experience of listening to it in the dark.

It’s funny—there’s a whole tradition of the word “dark” in underground music, and people assume it means moody or threatening. In fact it can just be literal: music for dark clubs.

Right. When the club’s dark, people let themselves loose more. I’m always having to tell the light guy, ‘Turn this light off, turn that down, I don’t need that light, we just don’t need it.’ Sure, for some music, it’s great to have bang-bang-bang, flashing in your face, everyone’s going mental. But you know what? Maybe if you just turn all the lights off, people will dance. Or smoke [the venue] out, Hype Williams style—smoke the place out so you can’t see nothing, you can’t see your own arm, nobody can see you, and you’re just going to let yourself go, and visualize what you want to visualise in your mental state. I think that’s important. In a different way, I made a track ages ago, “Just Vybe” with Fatima, and I sent that to Hyperdub, to [Kode]9, and he just wasn’t into it. It took all the way through to summer, for the sun to come out, for him to get it. He listened to it in the sunshine, and suddenly it was amazing. It’s got to be the right context. If I send MCs or singers a tune like that, I’ll say, ‘Wait ’til the sun comes out, go down the park, then listen to it, and it’ll translate into what I intend it to be.’ It’s not just a piece of audio, you understand? It’s more.

This album, to me, is your most coherent. Did you consciously try to fuse the various influences on your sound here?

The main thing is, it’s the first time I’ve had a vision of a story in my head, [so this record] was about making the sound for that film. The film was going to be about a love relationship between a human and a robot—which has been done a million times, of course, but I had my own special way. I had my twist on it. All I wanted to do was create the music for each scene. That’s how this started. I didn’t get round to doing the film for financial reasons, so this is just the audio story. I’m now working backwards into making the actual film, but it was meant to be the other way around. It had to be a very digital, advanced sound for that reason. It’s really weird: in one way, the sounds could probably have been made 20 years ago, so it’s not advanced at all. But, at the same time, it is.

There seems to be a move to very futurist, high-definition sound in electronic music lately—I’m thinking of people like Chino Amobi, Elysia Crampton, Oneohtrix Point Never. Were you thinking of any of your contemporaries while writing this?

It’s more that I just love technology. I love how we’re going into this phase of technology with our online personas and shit, and how much time we spend on the laptop. We’re basically a laptop! How much do you look into this screen every day? All the time! We’re basically integrating with the machines. This is not a joke—we’re integrated. So to put that story across, the sound had to be like a computer making the music, not a human being. I mean, I love Oneohtrix Point Never, his music is great. But just as much [the record] was about [Detroit techno originators] Juan Atkins or Terrence Dixon stuff from back in the day. There’s a whole load of influences in there. There’s still chords in there from R&B and jazz. I work with Danalogue—he’s in two great bands, The Comet Is Coming, who are a jazz trio and got nominated for the Mercury Prize this year, and Soccer96, which is a duo. Everything I’ve always done is still in there. It might be futuristic or whatever, but R&B is still in there, the grime element is still in there—it’s grimy as fuck, in fact. A grime DJ might not call it grime, but in my head it sounds like grime to me. It’s an extension of what I’ve always done.

DVA, photo by Sarah Ginn
Photo by Sarah Ginn.

Your previous albums would jump between styles quite a lot, but this one really fuses them.

Exactly. It’s under the Hi:Emotions name, because that’s what I’ve used since 2010 for my more ‘left’ stuff—the deeper things. A couple of years ago, I sat down with Marcus and [Kode]9 from Hyperdub and I said, look, I love “Ganja” and “Natty” and those clubby tunes I’ve done for you, but I want to make music with depth. That’s what I started doing in my bedroom, before grime or anything. And, sure, I’ve made tracks that DJs play, but it’s not what I’ve aimed for. So this time, I put all that completely aside for the first time, and just went in without thinking who’s gonna play this or who’s gonna dance to it. And doing that, I’m happy!

It’s funny you mention Juan Atkins, because back in the early days of Detroit techno, through into rave and jungle, futurism and sci-fi was everywhere in club music, then it seemed to die off. But lately, a lot of people seem to be picking that up again—like there’s unfinished business or something.

Yeah. Weirdly, it’s a time in music technology where there aren’t big advances. We don’t have anything new! When them lot like Juan Atkins and whoever were doing their stuff back then, they had new synths popping up left right and center that could do things that had never been done before. It was brand new, like, ‘Wow, how’s this thing doing that just from flicking this switch or moving that knob?’ Each new bit of kit changed the sound completely. But then we got software, and it was like, ‘OK, well, we’ve got everything all together inside our computer now, we don’t need all that gear no more. Cool.’ But in the last good few years, a lot of the software just seems to regurgitate other software, other instruments. What landmark is advancing us into doing something else? I’m not saying music is rubbish now, because it isn’t, but maybe this is why we’re regurgitating a lot of things, why we’re going backwards for inspiration. We don’t have a revolutionary thing like they did, something that will make that leap from the acoustic world into the synth world, then into the digital world.

But you’re saying you’re able to take inspiration from technological advances, which might not be changing the way we make music, but they are changing us—changing our brains and our sense of self.

Yes, right. Programs like [British writer Charlie Brooker’s dark sci-fi drama] Black Mirror is not a joke. All these things are really happening—if not now, then soon. It’s real. And it’s exciting. Scary, but exciting as well. I was saying to someone the other day: Go back 20, 30, 40 years, take someone from there, teleport them here, and show them the streets, show them your laptop and stuff—they’d be mind blown. And 40 years from now is going to be that different again, or more. And that’s what interests the shit out of me, so that’s why I started thinking of what we might have in that time, like the headset that’s in the advert video for the album. It’s something I bought in China because it just looks fucking cool. I modified it and sprayed it silver so it looks all high-tech, and I made up this advert where the headset does multiple things. It’s got sensors to your brain, so if you want to make music you just think that shit up and the audio happens, then it goes straight into your music library, and it’s instantly online for people to hear. Or when you’re emailing, the headset reads your mood and changes the colour of your text. If you’re angry it’s red. Greens or yellows are happy—whatever—so you’re getting feedback.

This happens already! There are posture detectors, or tone detectors, that can spot your mood and nudge you if you’re hunched and angry.

There you go! The future is happening. So, this stuff is what’s interesting me. I made this headset up, and it’s from this company [Hi:Emotions] which plans to take over all technology. So Apple will be gone, Google will be gone, you’ll only have [Hi:Emotions], and by the end of it, you’ll just be living in virtual reality. Which is exactly what’s going to happen.

DVA, photo by Sarah Ginn
Photo by Sarah Ginn.

With the musical advances thing: It’s been said before that if you took someone from 1975 and played them 1995 music, it would melt their brain, but if you played someone from 1995 today’s music it wouldn’t be such a shock. If there are going to be advances, they’re going to have to either be cultural—coming from far-flung countries, maybe—or radically imaginative.

This is what I’m saying. That’s why the idea of this headset inspired me: you put it on, and the possibilities are endless. You literally can think up anything, and it will be replicated in sound or art. There’s been a million times when I’ve heard something in my head and not been able to get it out through my hands into the speakers, but with [headphones like that]—that’s the way forward. Or you’ll start getting things like the way SubPac [a new wearable bass speaker, that allows you to feel music through your body] is going. It’ll go into feeling. We’ll find ways to transmit certain frequencies that do certain things into your body or brain. You know how a happy chord, if someone plays that on a piano, instantly you’re going to smile inside, because it’s a nice chord. You play Chopin’s Funeral March and, straight awaym you’ll go like that [slumps shoulders], you’ll frown, you’ll feel bad. So if we can figure out what every frequency in the range does to us, and put it straight into your body, that’s the end of the game. That’s it. It’s got to go that way to get any more out of it, and I do think that thinking about that sort of thing when I make music helps me do something I’d never have done before.

Moving back out of the realm of the imagination: Do you think much about your place in the music scene now? You’ve certainly been vocal about scene and industry politics in the past.

Nah. I don’t say anything no more. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be, nothing I say’ll change it. I don’t really think about my position, because I’m happy with the music I’m making again. When I’m not happy, you might see me tweeting up a storm again, I dunno. But I don’t plan on being unhappy. It’s not like I’ve ever followed anyone or any trends or anything in the past. Right now, I’m just happy I’ve got this project that’s all me—and this is just the start of the project, too. It’s not like I’ll do this album, then next week I’ll be making funky with Roska. This is a project I’ve got a long-term plan for. There’s a million things you can do visually with something like this. There’s a million things you can do with an album now. Just because you’ve put it out doesn’t mean that’s it, it’s finished, locked in one shape. I can change it if I want. I can do whatever I like. So, no, I don’t think about my position, I’m just happy people like my music, I’m happy that I’ve stuck with it long enough to understand where I’m at and how to get what I want out of music. I don’t have to be RA number one DJ, I don’t have to be anything to anyone. I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing.

Joe Muggs

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