Back To Your Roots: An interview with Dub FX
Dub FX is a multi-talented artist who has garnered plaudits with his diverse musical skills. Firmly at home on everything from drum & bass and dubstep to reggae, jazz and hip hop, he has also been a firm fixture on the festival scene for years now with his formidable live performances.
His brand new album, Roots, is out now and showcases his diverse range of influences. We caught up with Dub FX to hear all about the record and what went into the creative process for it as well as his foray into comic books for Roots, his musical roots and journey so far, what he has in store for his upcoming tour, his experience playing festivals and the secret of his longevity as an artist.
Your new new album Roots is out soon. How did the creation recording of the album go?
I’ve been doing music production since I was 16 or 17, for over 20 years and I’ve just been sharpening my tools for that long so I just kind of went in the studio and started with chopping up drum beats and I’ve got a lot of of synths. I have a lot of fun in the studio just messing around and coming up with stuff. Particularly on this album I didn’t really have any specific ideas at first, I thought I’m just going to write some songs and go in the studio and just lay shit down and see how it goes to be honest.
Who did you work with the album and what did you bring to the record and its sound?
Even before I was Dub FX, I was in a lot of bands, I was jamming with a lot of jazz musicians and I was in hip hop and soul bands. I used to MC with DJs in the clubs and stuff so I have a lot of producers and friends and stuff and I just gotta call them up when I feel like I hit a wall, so making a reggae track sometimes you can get away with a bass loop for a reggae tune, sometimes you just need the real thing, someone with fingers who’s just knows how to do it, for a particular kind of groove or even drums, you just can’t get the right samples or you can’t get the right feel then you can start calling people. There’s a drummer that I work with, and then a horn sections, trumpet, trombone and saxophone, and those guys were already in place as well. I’m given samples too, like I just show them a tune and get a keyboard out and be like, hey, what can you do over this and record some passages with them on that and then take what I need, it’s all pretty loose.
Is that the most comfortable way you find when you’re working on tunes, just keep it loose and that adds a vibe to the record?
Yeah, I mean, for me, it’s like just let the musicians be. The guys that I work with they’re all jazz trained but they’re all very dub minded musicians. They’ve all been in lots of reggae and dub bands but they all went through college studying jazz so they’re very good at what they do so I have full trust in them. I just know if I’m going to call them up, I’m not going to tell them what to do. I might say, can you make it sort of sound like slash chords or whatever but usually they have a pretty good idea of what I want. I use them for their feel, what comes out of their brain already.
What’s the reaction to the new material been like so far?
Everyone seems to have the same reaction that Ive made the best record I’ve ever made. I feel like for the first time, I’ve actually figured out how to capture my vocals. In the past, I was always rushing albums, I just kind of come home from a tour of two, three months and I just bang out a bunch of songs and I think that’s fine and then a couple of months after, it sounds like that’s really not fun because I’m the one recording it, I’m producing it, I’m mixing it, I’m writing it. It’s coming from my brain, and when you hear things over and over and over again, you kind of get into this thing where that sounds good because your brain fills in all these gaps, but then maybe six months later, you listen to it and you’re like shit, that’s actually nowhere near as good as I thought it was. Thats always been my reaction, but this particular album, I had a lot of time and I also spent a lot of time just changing things here and there. I actually did a lot of it going in so I could hear my voice coming through the compressors during the reverbs and maybe singing a different way so I could hear everything I was doing, so yeah, it was just another cocktail of hardware. Just plug it all in and record everything on the way in as opposed to recording a shitty thing and then try to spend hours with plugins making it better if that makes sense.
Would you say that Roots is your most personal album that you’ve made so far?
I don’t think I would say that. Lyrically, I feel like I’ve always been very personal I don’t have a problem being vulnerable and writing lyrics that I guess are personal but on this one, I think that because my vocal delivery is so much better and the production standards are so much better. It really feels more personal because you can hear everything, everything just comes across a bit more unforced.
You’re releasing a graphic novel with the album. Can you tell us about this and why you decided to release it with the album?
Yes, I’m a big graphic novel nerd. Not when I was a kid though. I got into them late, maybe whenI was 19/20. I was never really into the superhero stuff. I really loved Alan Moore before they even made all the films and stuff. I came across Swamp Thing and then I came across Watchmen and even though that’s a superhero comic, I was just like there’s something really dark here. I’ve always been really been into that and I always said to myself that if I could probably try, I’d love to try and write one one day, and I never really thought I would but I had this idea that maybe I could write graphic novels for each episode, because each episodes in the comics usually they’re 22 pages each usually, I was thinking maybe I could put out a track for each episode. If there’s one episode a month, that’s 12 tracks, that’s an album to go along with a complete story, which is 12 chapters and that was kind of my loose plan for it. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time then when it came to this album, I was thinking about how everyone’s done everything already, everyone’s doing music videos, I don’t really like doing them, posing in music videos. I’ve done it, I’ve tried it and I just feel weird doing it and then there’s the lyric videos but then those lyric videos can sometimes come across as cheap and a bit why bother, so I was thinking why not write a comic or short story, almost like a storyboard for each song
Is it for each track that you’ve done it?
What happened was,I listened to the song and I thought to myself all right, what’s the theme? What theme is in the song you what’s it talking about? Then I kind of came up with a new perspective, revisualized a different story and a different context for what the songs trying to say. After that, I just came up with a short story, there’s one that I really love, a track called Teach and that one is about a monkey, who’s one of the Apollo monkeys that got shot up into space and crash landed and was never seen again. He’s now experimenting on some crazy pills that he gives to the birds and these birds, they fly off over a city and shit them out and then these seeds fold down in between the cracks, then these vines take over the whole city and then fruit grows off these vines. The humans start being attracted to them, eat them and they’ll take their clothes off and run around and build fires so basically these monkeys single handedly destroy this city. It was the small short story of it and it’s a six page comic. I just love the challenge of saying if I could convey a concept, an idea in a short, comic book story without any actual dialogue and just use the lyrics of the song almost as the captions for the story. I’ve seen a lot of comics where they do that and they’ll use the dialogue from one story over the imagery of a different story. They kind of merge over, I’ve always loved that kind of stuff, and how the metaphors write themselves. I just thought it was a challenging thing I felt like doing. We were ahead of time, I finished the album and I thought, why not mix it up a bit. After this, I’m probably gonna write a proper comic, a proper graphic novel. That’s my plan.
Is that was something you would do again, maybe for your next album?
Now that I understand the concept because it was a lot of fun writing. I had to write nine short stories basically and script them and send them off to different artists and then watch what they come up with and then realise, I have to be more, descriptive to certain things, you because they can’t get inside your brain. It’s been a really big learning curve and understanding how different artists interpret different scripts so I’m probably going to actually just write a proper comic book and do that idea I said earlier, just run a whole storyline and rather than writing the story for the music, I’ll write the music for the story later on. Write a comic book and come up with music afterwards. Come at it from the other angle.
"Lyrically, I feel like I've always been very personal. I don't have a problem being vulnerable and writing lyrics that are personal"
What would you say your musical roots are?
Well, all the stuff on this album are my musical roots so obviously, when I started high school, I was really into punk rock, Offspring, Green Day, before that I was into poppy dance music because I lived in Italy. So I was listening to all that cheesy piano music as a kid. I moved to Melbourne for the start of High School in the early 90s.That’s when Nirvana and all that stuff was big so I got really into that. Then when I was about 15 or 16, I was like, Hey dad, listen to this band. It’s called Sublime. They do reggae music, and he listens to it. He’s like, that’s not reggae and then he comes back from the shop the next day. He gave me Bob Marley’s Legend and said this is reggae. I was like, ah, and then at the same time, that was when the Buena Vista Social Club exploded, and he was right into that Cuban jazz, and I got really into it because he was listening to it all. On one hand, I’m listening to Metallica, Faith No More and the Beastie Boys, all that stuff and then on the other hand, I’m listening to Bob Marley, Buena Vista Social Club and Afro Cuban All Stars and I had this realisation that all the music, this white music, I was listening to seemed to be really angry or depressed like Radiohead, I loved all that stuff but it was a bit whiny then all this black music that my dad was into came from poor people, and it was really uplifting and positive. I just remember thinking about that and it’s like, wow, it’s such a bizarre contradiction. I don’t want it to be whiny or aggressive or angry. That was kind of like my influences but I still like that stuff. I just have a strong appreciation for rootsy, jazzy, dubby kind of stuff.
Is beatboxing still a big part of who you are as an artist?
That’s a funny story because I didn’t really consider myself a beatboxer, it was something that I did for my mates when we’re at school and people wanted to freestyle. There’s always kids that just want to smoke weed and freestyle at lunchtime, and I was one of those kids but no one could beatbox so I just learned how to do very, very simple, rudimentary raw style beatboxing, just really simple stuff. Then at parties, I would get drunk and I’d always be that guy beatboxing and it kind of escalated, it was bit of a joke, you know, no one really thought it was good or that it could take me anywhere. Then when I started, because I’m singing in all those different bands, and I had this effects pedal that I used in all those different bands for delays and reverbs and pitch shifting over my vocal. I was kind of known around as the guy who could do all this crazy shit with his voice with the effects pedal. I saw this dude using s loop station and I was like, fuck if I can run all these effects that I’m doing with a loop station like a beatbox and make a beat and all these bass sounds that I was using in the bands, for example sometimes in the jazz band, to give the bass player a rest, i’d do the basslines and to everyone it was a big party trick, just a bit of fun. Then, I thought I could do it anyway, it was just one of those progressive things. When I moved to the UK, that’s when I started doing it more. I moved to Manchester and at first I was making World Music sort of stuff because Bobby McFerrin was the only influence I could think of that had vocal looping and then when I was on the street, all these rudeboys were coming up to me to and saying do a grime beat, do a garage beat and I didn’t even know what any of that stuff was at the time. They’re showing me and I’m learning from all these kids on the street and I’d do grime or drum & bass beats, that’s what they wanted and they’d rhyme over them. Grime, garage, drum & bass, jungle, dubstep, none of that shit was ever big in Australia unless you were really into the underground. I really learned on the street from all all these scallies basically!
How did you get into to producing and making your own music initially?
I did that when I was in high school because I was in this metal band, a bit like Rage Against the Machine, a rap metal kind of thing. We always would try to record and at school we did a music industry class and that was where you learn how to set up gigs, how to promote yourself, the management side of things but also production was a small part of it and a couple of guys in the band were a bit nerdy and really into computers and recording so I learned early on with them. I was a little over my head at the beginning, but it was just something that I felt like I could do. A lot of my family are musicians and dancers and actors and stuff like that. I’ve got a very arty family. One of my uncle’s, he told my dad, get him a computer and get him to learn music production because that’s the future of everything and my dad listened to him and he got me a computer. I just tinkered away with fruity loops and Cubase early on. By the time I was probably 21 or 22, I was on my way to recording myself within my home studio that had all the tools to get me on my way. Now I’m 36, I’ve been doing that for a really long time. I feel like I understand it on a professional world class level now. I feel like I’ve really come to a level finally where I could produce an artist and do a world class effort. It’s taken a long time though.
Is that something you’ll be looking to do in the future, producing other artists?
Well, I have done it. I’ve done quite a lot of albums for other artists, for example, I did record a track for ‘The Voice’ winner here in Australia, Sam Perry, who happens to do exactly what I do. In fact, he’s been copying what I did for years! He saw me on youtube years and years ago. He bought all the same gear and I’ve been in contact with him for a very long time and he never really got anywhere because he was literally just copying me, everyone could see that. Then he went on ‘The Voice’ and won and they said “who do you want to produce your first single” and he was like “Dub FX” so he came to my studio and I recorded with him. I’ve also recorded albums for other people and yes, I do want to do that in the future but for now, touring is what pays the majority of my bills and if one day when I don’t have to tour as much anymore, If I can just be in the studio producing for other people. That would definitely be my dream come true.
You’re about to hit the road next month for an extensive European tour. What can we expect from your your live show this time around?
The new album is a very live sounding album, a lot of live drums. There’s practically no beatboxing on the record. At this point my fans know me more as a songwriter. I mean, they all know me as a looping beatboxer as well, but I think they just care about the songs that I’m singing and they want to sing along to the ones that they remember. I’ve got a bit of a secret trick with how I’m going to perform my new record, I’m keeping that on the downlow but I’m going to be interacting with some different kind of technology that I haven’t really worked with before. I’ll still be doing my old stuff with all the beatboxing, the layering and then I’ll do a lot of my drum & bass stuff with drum machines and all that sort of stuff, and yeah, the new record, the jazzy sort of stuff, I’ll be playing that in a different kind of way that no one’s seen before.
You’re taking Woodnote with you on the tour. What does he bring to the show and how did you hook up in the first place?
I met Woodnote at a festival, mutual friends basically put us in contact together and we met at a festival in 2008 and we just connected straight off the bat. He’s another Aussie and saxophone player and what I do works really well with horns because I make a beat, a loop and the basslines Alucard and then I do my rapping and singing and I get someone to do a solo over the top. A good horn player can take people on journeys as well and we’ve just been jamming together for a long time. We had a song that went viral back in 2009 called Flow which has racked up over 30 million views and thats the most viewed song of mine on YouTube. Its kind of synonymous, Dub FX and Mr Woodnote. It also adds an extra dimension to my show because I’ve been performing a two hour show with me completely by myself, seeing me looping can get a bit boring after a while so it’s nice to have someone else there that can I can bounce off so that’s what he’s there for and we’re really good friends and known each other for a long time.
You are playing Reggae Summer Festival in Germany in August with Damian Marley and Protoje. Are looking forward to that show?
I’ve supported Damian Marley at a bunch of different festivals now, it’s really good. I have played right before him twice now in Germany so it’s really nice. German people are always like, you’re like another Bob Marley! No fucking chance but thank you haha! That’s why they always team us up together, the festival promoters say you’re like a white Bob Marley!
That’s a great compliment!
It is a great compliment! Sadly, it’s impossible and it’s not true we know that but it’s fun. They big me up loads in Germany. I’m really lucky, they look after me!
What are your live plans for the rest of the year. Do you plan to play any more festivals in the summer?
Yeah, so this February/March tour, it’s a Western Europe club show tour. Then in June, July, August, I’ll be hitting the festival season. All over, east and west and then October and November, I’ll come back for another club show for an Autumn run. That will be in Eastern Europe so I’m doing that rather than doing one massive club tour because Ive got two kids now and I don’t like being away for too long. I could have gone for eight to 10 weeks and smashed it all out in one go but I figured I’ll just split it up to six weeks then come home after the festival season and go off into another six weeks. So yeah this year I’ll be touring for seven months all together.
What are your favourite festivals to play at?
I love the UK festivals. I mean the UK crowds tend to be my favourite because I get a feeling that the audience really gets what I’m doing. They come up to me and they all sound like they’re producers! Like, when they’re complimenting me on what I’ve done and I just love that. The festivals in the the rest of Europe, they’re a bit more clinical, a bit more money driven. UK festivals always feel like they’re just trying to break even and that to me is what a festival is all about. People have got to make money, people have got to eat but also you can’t rip off the punter. A lot of festivals I like playing in the UK, they’re just super rootsy, lots of bass music and just good vibes.
"I gave money back to promoters when I heard they lost money and those promoters book me again. That’s the kind of thing that no one does"
Do you feel lucky that you can play a reggae festival and then fit right into a drum & bass lineup as well?
Yeah, I mean, I do headline big reggae festivals but then I can play EXIT Festival and play right before Andy C or Skrillex or Rudimental even, I’ll get that slot. There was one weekend last year that I played a metal festival, an electronic festival, a reggae festival and a yoga festival the same weekend. It was like I was the most booked man in showbusiness! My lyrics have a conscious tip to them so the yoga community love what I do. All these conscious hippies that make music, they’re always just making koombaya shit and I come along and rip the roof off the tent with some drum & bass and everyone loves it! I fit into the metal festivals too because I’ll come in with some face ripping basslines and shit and that satisfies them, so I’m pretty lucky. I’ve got a pretty diverse spectrum of places that I can perform at. It keeps the bills paid, that’s for sure!
What have been some of the most memorable moments of your career so far?
I mean, it’s been such a crazy bell curve, I lived in a van for six years and street performed around Europe when I was beginning and that was a lot of fun. It was really tough. There was some amazing moments, things that I wont even be able to remember because there were so many crazy things that went down! That was a really great and cool time in my life and the. watching things pick up, because I was never played on commercial radio or TV. I was never signed to a major label or big agency so watching myself get booked to these huge festivals and then looking at the lineup and seeing my name at the top and then realising that I was the only unsigned artist on the bill was always a big buzz, like, wow, how did I end up here, from just being a street performer to going viral on YouTube and I’m performing next to the biggest artists in the world. It was crazy and that’s always been a bit of a bit of a buzz but theres never been one specific event that impacted me like wow, that’s the best moment of my career. Just doing it on my own terms I guess, I see the agents these days, they don’t look for the slow and steady, for the longevity artists any more. They look who’s had a latest hit on the internet and say let’s milk them and price them out to all these agents all over Europe and overcharge which means the promoters lose money but the agent makes a shit ton because they’ve overpriced them and then the next year no one wants to book that artist anymore and the agents got a brand new artist that has just had a hit and they just try them out year after year. I see them all just die and we don’t make as much money but we keep on coming back and that’s the main thing, they don’t even make any money.
It’s a longevity thing for yourself.
Yeah and because I’ve had longevity, no ones ripping me off. I gave money back to promoters when I heard they lost money, you know, and those promoters book me again. That’s the kind of thing that no one does, you know, but when you’re your own independent artist, you can and that’s how I feel like I’ve just stayed in there as long as I have.