Rob Ellis doesn’t believe in rushing things. His career path has been circuitous to say the least: there was a 13-year gap between Underwater Dancehall, his debut solo album as Pinch, and its follow up, this year’s Reality Tunnels. During that time he’s collaborated with a host of different artists, making one album with his mystically-minded contemporary Shackleton and two with a legend from a previous generation of sound system experimentation, Adrian Sherwood.
At the time of that first album, Elis was probably one of a dozen or so influential people in the then-emergent sound of dubstep. Underwater Dancehall was a landmark release, bringing soul, reggae and dancehall vocals to dubstep, with a sophistication and diversity that Ellis would soon apply to techno, grime, and more. Alongside Tom Ford, aka Peverelist, he was the first to introduce the sound to his hometown of Bristol. Given the city’s deep history of reggae, trip-hop, and jungle, it was a natural fit, and Ellis’s club Subloaded and label Tectonic became a part of the cultural fabric.
Now, with Tectonic over 100 releases deep, comes Reality Tunnels. It broods and glowers, featuring everything from distorted breakcore drums, gothic vocals from Emika, sinister grime from veterans Trim and Killa P, and even a surprise indie-rock finale (“that’s one for my 12-year-old grunger self,” he says). But its darkness conceals an idealistic heart, which is in line with Ellis’s personality. He’s drily funny in conversation, speaking in impeccably formed sentences—often scathing, but always constructive, reflecting a mind that’s constantly in search of the new, even as he contemplates the potential collapse of the industry that he’s made his name in.
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How are you feeling about the album now?
There’s been nothing normal about the experience. The sense of how time’s passed has altered in the last few months, which has made it an odd experience. You’re all geared up, the music’s done, then you watch half of what you do for a living—playing to audiences—disappear as a financially viable option. It’s been such a long wait, I got a little bit disconnected. So now I’m in that album promo run, I’ve had to reconnect. It’s funny listening back. There’s a process of detachment at the best of times: you feel it so deeply while you’re making it, at points you can’t quite see what you’re doing. Then you have this process of stepping back and getting further away from it, which also means you’re perhaps hearing it more like other people do.
The big question, of course, is why so long between albums…?
It’s a combination of things. I definitely don’t think I’ve ever given much of a fuck about what other people think I should be doing with myself. When I finished the first album, I was very proud and happy, but I decided I didn’t really want to engage with the album format for a while. I wanted to focus on 12”s and tunes to run in the dance. I suppose by doing an album with Shackleton and two with Adrian [Sherwood], it felt like I was filling my obligation as an artist. And I did that mix thing with Mumdance, which I think was an attempt to express a sentiment about a dance music album: this is music to be listened to, mixed by DJs. Why would you listen to a whole album with two minute intros and outros? I do really respect the album format though, so it could never be ‘Here’s an LP, because I’m due to make one.’ You need to have something to say. It just didn’t get to a point where I felt that very strongly. But then the track ‘Back to Beyond’ came about, and that opened things up for me. I felt, ‘OK I’m ready to put an album together. I’ve got something I feel proud and pleased with as a cornerstone for that.’
What did that track encapsulate?
I said in the publicity [notes] I had ‘a complicated experience with infinity.’ But the fact of the matter is that it was something I made which felt emotional. And I realized I hadn’t put much emotion in my music for a number of years, and that realization made me feel like I had reconnected with a sense of purpose and direction of how to approach things.
Can you expand on that sense of purpose?
I often think about the purpose of music—and not just in a functional perspective. I think that there’s a lot of strong stylistic aspects within certain genres of music that a lot of producers in those genres adhere to, and act as if that’s what you have to achieve in order for it to be authentic. That doesn’t feel very purposeful to me. To be purposeful, to me, is exploring something—approaching it differently, doing something that brings you a slightly wider picture as a result, rather than slightly cleaning up a pre-printed picture…Sorry, that metaphor’s gone a bit wild. It made perfect sense until it came out of my mouth!
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So how did that sense of purpose manifest with Underwater Dancehall?
The purpose there was to make an album. I didn’t even think of doing an album until Planet Mu asked me to. Then started to, and I thought, ‘But I’ll do it for my own label!’ That’s part of what made things easier in the earlier days: you didn’t have to think about any of this, because it was just instinctive. ‘There’s this music—dubstep—and I’m really excited by it, and it’s undefined,’ and that was that. ‘Make some dubstep’ was the motivation. Then, several years into dubstep and you’ve heard kicks and snares put together in every fricking combination you can think of at 140bpm, and you think ‘Maybe I’ve heard enough of this now.’ It doesn’t have the purpose it did, because there’s not that many ideas left.
Underwater Dancehall has a running theme of unity, while Reality Tunnels—down to the title—seems to be about separation. Does that represent a change in the way you think?
I don’t think the two notions are incompatible—it’s more that they’re two different observation points. A call to unity suggests an existing degree of disunity that needs to be addressed. Reality Tunnels is more an idea that helps gain some perspective—why two people can listen to the same piece of music in the same room at the same time and have two entirely different experiences of it. To have unity, we need common threads and relatable experiences. The important part about the idea of reality tunnels, for me, is not so much about whether or not it makes for an effective tool of social or psychological analysis, but that in thinking about it as an idea, we’re brought closer to better understanding those who are most different from us.
Perhaps the calls to unity that you can hear in Underwater Dancehall is more the naive perspective—’Why can’t we all just get along?’ Reality Tunnels is an attempt to answer that, and make steps toward a better understanding of how to achieve it. Can we have real unity without really understanding the sources of our differences? It’s probably going to take a bit more than a crowd cheering for the same track on the dancefloor.
How has the way you work with vocalists changed? You’ve worked with a lot more MCs more recently.
I have. I think I would’ve been keen to work with a lot of those guys then, but I just didn’t have the connections. What’s remained the same generally is that I’ve tended to not really want to influence the lyrics so much. So there’s a lot of trust that gets put into the vocalists I work with—or, I guess, you create a shared space. Trim especially feels like a really good fit. I’ve been happy working with all of them, but with Trim, I feel like we’ve come from equivalent space: we’ve both got pretty well authenticate roots in our scene, if you like. Him in Roll Deep, and I’ve been playing at [dubstep’s crucibles in London] DMZ and FWD>> since the early days. But at the same time, we’re both inclined to the more fringe elements of things. He can do hard road lyrics and he can do deep layers of poetry, which definitely attracts me to working with him.
Is there a political edge to what you do?
I have political leanings and ideas. There is an implication in a lot of my subject matter—and I feel we are at a very heady point in society and civilization, and probably have some very important choices to be making, which are perhaps more important than records and music and closed nightclubs and whatnot. But I am also very careful that I don’t want to tell people what they should be doing. I can imply things more subtly, and that can perhaps have an impact as well.
What about underground culture? Does that have the capacity to grow or nurture progressive ideas?
I think it means different things to different people. I think it has the potential to serve a lot of those roles, but that’s not necessarily what everyone gets out of it. Dance music touches all sorts of different corners. There is a political element in certain aspects, and there’s a certain element of collective consciousness where you’d assume that people into certain types of music might be more likely to lean in certain ways politically speaking. But a lot of it is implied, it’s not a condition of membership, as it were. And of course it’s an enormous industry. It was born out of something that was very much DIY and done for the sake of community and experience, but then money comes in and pushes things in all kinds of directions. Even before COVID-19 doomsday scenarios, where we were as a dance music industry is a long way from 30-odd years ago in a field just off the M25 somewhere.
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How are you approaching your music and what’s going to happen next?
Well, it used to be that back in the day people would make their money by putting the records out, then go and tour and do some gigs to sell some records. I think there’s no real reason we can’t go back to that. I think if Bandcamp, for example, can continue going from strength to strength, and artists are able to create a more fluid, quicker, simpler process—where you get your money straight away, you’re not waiting months for a distributor—then there is a possibility for artists and producers to make a comfortable living selling music and making that the main focus. That’s where I’m putting my optimism, because I don’t think gigs are coming back any time soon. I don’t think it’s going to go away completely. But I can see there being more focus on performances from home, and I don’t think there’s going to be a year’s worth of patience for people pressing play on CDJs for two hours at a time. So I think there’ll be more emphasis on exciting and innovative home performances. And there’s opportunities in that as well: all of a sudden, you can put on your own concert at home, you’re not limited to how many tickets you can sell locally, it’s worldwide. You might only have a thousand fans around the world, but if you can get 500 of them to buy a ticket for a tenner, you’ve got money for a couple of months! And you realize music is important for people, it is something quite fundamental. And where being a DJ, it turns out, is not that useful in a world crisis, I think that there is real value for producers and performers to provide some sonic relief for a very frustrating, confusing, and emotionally upsetting time.
Well these are the proverbial interesting times…
Yep interesting times. Not a dull moment. Apart from the sheer boredom of most days.