Hidden in the middle of the Tate Modern’s sprawling Pop Life exhibition is a startling recreation of Keith Haring’s Pop Shop. The floors, walls and ceilings are covered in his bold, monochromatic graffiti, and garish, branded products new and old are shilled while vintage rap mixtapes blast around the room. London’s monolithic modern art gallery dragged a small corner of New York’s SoHo back from the ’80s in vibrant, living color. Zomby and I had arranged to meet here, but for reasons known and still somewhat unknown, our plans changed.
You may have heard Zomby does this. Or maybe you haven’t. You haven’t heard the stories about the maverick with a supposed disregard for, well, most things. He makes four albums a week. He DJs in a mask. He doesn’t turn up for shows. He hit on my friend. He called me a prick on dubstepforum.com. He’s an old black guy. He’s a teenage white girl. He’s a computer program. There are actually three different Zombys.
The truth is Zomby is not at all what you expect. More than likely, what you have or have not heard about him is wrong. Or maybe it’s not. He is a riddle, a contradiction, half fact, half fiction. Trying to pin Zomby down is fun. Don’t expect to learn his name or where he lives. There are pieces of the puzzle, maybe enough for you to know him a little, but he’s always one step away from the shadows.
Zomby is a producer, one of the most daring around. Because of a few early songs and the company he keeps (the equally enigmatic Burial and Hyperdub chief Kode 9 are close allies), he’s been claimed by dubstep, but his music isn’t so easy to pigeonhole. Like Aphex Twin, he’s a sonic swashbuckler, reckless and inspired, cheeky even, with an armory of sounds drawn from decades of British and American electronic music. He’s funny, too—a charmer. He told me a story about a movie premiere where he was seated next to Gwyneth Paltrow. Upon spying her neighbor, Chris Martin swapped seats with his wife. He was, says Zomby, “fearing my swagger.” We spoke about a lot of things that interest him, from rapper Max B to Lanvin menswear, the problem with video games and the allure of mathematics. But mostly we spoke about music.
If you live in London or loiter on dubstep forums, you might know Zomby from this year’s One Foot Ahead Of The Other, which saw chipped-console sounds spin and collide with a bassless bang like they’d been composed inside a particle collider. Or maybe you heard his debut album, Where Were You In ’92?, an ecstatic tribute to the golden age of rave. It bathed in the rush of the UK’s last outlaw music, its subtle complexities and unbridled freedoms. He gave Gucci Mane a frantic initiation to breakbeat culture on “Pillz” and found common ground between Baby D and Yoko Shimomura on “U Are My Fantasy (Streetfighter II Theme Remix).” Some Zomby songs are like gleaming pocket watches. They seem beautifully simple and slickly efficient, but prise off the back and you’re confronted with a million different ideas, whirring parts magpied from the badlands of Essex hardcore or the musica ricercata of Hungarian composer Ligeti. Other songs are stricken with anxiety and overwhelmed by their own possibilities. They wear chaos like a coat, but the awkward edges serve a purpose, they have a value. And together these songs make a glorious, lawless noise.
The Pop Shop is a good place to start because it represents the pinnacle of art as commerce, the epitome of subversive complicity. Zomby might be the polar opposite of all that. He’s fiercely private and insanely prolific. In a world where all lives are laid bare for digital scrutiny, he’s fighting to control what you know about him. He’s post-pop and post-internet. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have a laugh, too.
There are a lot of stories about you. I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not, but you seem pretty subversive.
I think a lot of misinformation has become standard expectation, really. It’s definitely lead to me having to take a long, hard road. I really love music and the people that make it. To me it’s the world. I can’t do other things I’ve tried. I could do it all differently, you know. I could wake up tomorrow make a load of bangers and go DJ every club in the world. But you have to wonder about the motivation behind that.
You certainly have your integrity intact.
I’m honest. I don’t think people like me though. I think the opposite mostly. People hear stories and they view the songs differently. But you can come to my studio and see piles of notation and calculations. There’s really no nonchalance.
I heard you’re into jerk music.
I like all sorts of things. Drum machines help. I’m addicted to the 808. It’s all hip-hop, which is still soul really. I mean I half grew up on rap, you know? My brother’s ten years older than me, so I had a head start. It’d be Beach Boys, The Beatles and De La Soul or Mantronix.
Would you like to work with any rappers?
I’d like to produce for an artist, sure. But then I’d also like to work with Philip Glass or Arvo Pärt.
Are you going to take loads of steroids then make an album of duets like Timbaland?
Haha. I’d like to, but I think I’ve got to wait. I don’t want to make commercial crap, but having an opinion on this can leave you hungry. I don’t want that. I want to be Pharrell.
Your Twitter has been full of Max B recently.
I love Max B. He’s one of the best rappers I’ve heard. I believe him. He’s got real style and it’s rare. Mostly now it doesn’t happen. Its kids like Chris Brown dancing and singing. If they didn’t work with a certain producer those kids would be on stage in leotards with their folks clapping, you know? Someone like Max B is totally different. He’s an artist making something valid. I love the way he works. He doesn’t give a fuck about promoting a big single or whatever. Every tune is a big single. It’s alive and every day it’s changing, being added to. I love that. It’s like pirate radio. I’ll never stop listening to pirate radio. Headphones and a fat spliff. It’s Max B all day, really.
Do you smoke a lot of weed? It’s kind of the official fuel of British electronic music.
Yeah, I love skunk, man. Like I love skunk. Blueberry Cheese and Super Ice. G13 and White Shark. Fuck, I love skunk.
Do you play video games? Weed, tunes and video games, that’s pretty much the bedrock of growing up male in the UK.
Not really. I don’t like how arbitrary they are. Video games annoy me because I have to pay attention to their system. The worst thing is the controls. I just want to grab it and move it. I want to shape it rather than conform and learn the system.
So I guess you were a bit of a raver.
Yeah. School was a rave with teachers in the way really. I had a wall full of mixtapes and a bedroom wallpapered in flyers. Spent a lot of time chasing vinyl. I was about 13 years old, it was mad.
What happened to the rave generation? It was like punk for a while, but then everyone got mortgages.
I think the Es wore off, man. Comedowns and nappies. It’s amazing how deep those records go though. You can find a classic in every direction.
Was that when you started to think about making music yourself?
My dad’s a songwriter, he’s always had gear about and whatever. I’d be messing about on keyboards and asking questions from quite young. I spent most of my schooling with headphones stuffed in my pocket, you know, I’m one of those kids. Expelled and resigned to headphones.
Let’s talk about fashion.
Yeah, I love that shit. I really like design. I just love why people design things. Buildings, clothes or whatever. I like a lot of the recent Lanvin and Raf Simons. I like it when Hussein Chalayan does elegance. I like houses like Vuitton and YSL, they rarely make anything that isn’t iconic. I’m a sucker for that shit, really. I mean I grew up going to school in like, Junior Gaultier and a Dior blazer. I was pretty religious about reading The Face and ID. Fashion and music. They were like bibles to me. When you’re 14 and reading about Goldie it’s like reading The Republic by Plato.
Do you enjoy DJing?
Not at home. I don’t really do that. I grew up in a bong smoke-filled bedroom mixing away like you do. Nowadays I prefer to write music. But I do enjoy it if I get to play a certain type of set. Like a solid jungle set or a French house set. But you know what, the problem is too much choice really. I could play anything from anywhere and what’s confining is the setting. Like the expectation at the moment is frequency perversion. So my tunes have to have a stupid amount of bass to boost the subs on the system and that’s a good night for people. I’m stood there thinking, fuck man, “A Forest” by The Cure would go down well now. But yeah, I should probably change this answer if I ever want to get a gig again.
Can we talk about the gigs you miss? I think people would be interested to hear you talk about it.
Yeah, it’s nothing in particular. I missed a few small DJ sets early on and then dubstep internet communities started to chastise me as some kind of patriarchal non-DJ figure. But it might be that a promoter had fucked up or I’ve missed a flight. Shit happens every day, it’s nothing really. I mean I might miss a dental appointment, but the nurse doesn’t go on a forum and flame the issue.
And the Animal Collective shows in New York?
I played a festival in Oslo the night before and just fell ill, you know. I was admitted to the local hospital with an infection in my stomach. That was painful, actually. The internet went wild with speculation as they do, but it’s really a lot more normal in real time.
Would you describe yourself as a private person?
Yeah, in this sense. In this business climate, because it’s unfriendly. It’s not about art, it’s about profit. My neck is on the line. But I don’t want that.
I don’t want them to own me. Not my actual face and image.
It’s kind of hard to be a private person nowadays with the internet.
Man, it’s fucking stressful because people can’t behave sometimes. Like your friends. It’s a shame. I mean all decisions of what I do with my image are mine anyway. Recently I was pseudo-bollocked for not having Mario Testino-esque press shots. I’m like well, there’s the fucking song, what are you talking about? I’m not a model...but I could be. Haha. Would that sell more records? Or would it be better if I was eight feet tall and green? It’s just ridiculous.
I like the way you control your image. For a long while you were just that guy with a triangle head.
That wasn’t actually me. I just took it from a Google search. I know what image I want. Whether it’s me or not doesn’t bother me. People think that’s bizarre, but I’m not an object. Maybe I might want to see a picture of you and hear your music before you see one of me, you know what I mean? Simply because I write music it doesn’t mean I have to have my personal life on the line for discussion all of a sudden. That’s fucking rude man. I’m not in court. But the expectation is that all of a sudden I’m rich and happy to have my nutsack photographed.
Private people, who don’t necessarily play the promo game, like yourself, Burial, Animal Collective, make some of the most adventurous music around at the moment. Why do you think that is?
Because of decisions made before any music is made. It’s about personality. Why do you do this and what do you want from it? How does it make you feel? Two years ago I wouldn’t play anyone my songs. I still get embarrassed when I hear them on the radio. It’s just a personal thing.
I want my music to be amazing. I want to be Mozart.
I probably need to spend more time learning than worrying about what the latest hot Nikes are, but there’s also a value in shoes. Do you like a shoe because of its color or the materials or the construction? Music is the same. If you look at everything in the world like that you’re going to have your work cut out, but it’s true to you. The internet has changed things. I think a lot of new musicians write music relative to the internet. Their career is the internet. I started writing music between Wiley and Pharrell really, then I just ended up here.
You’re very prolific. How much of your day is spent making tunes?
I have thousands of ideas. It’s neverending. Each one leads to a song. I make like 50 of a style, then leave that work a while. I’ll write a song on software in 15 minutes. Songs like “Kaliko,” despite the complexity, I’m writing in 15 minutes. My concentration spans about 25 minutes after that. I’ll clear the screen and start again. I work each tune only as long as the inspiration for it is alive. If it lasts it’s a good song. I write them fast because I think about it a lot. I’ve thought about it for hours and hours before, so when it comes to making it, it doesn’t take long.
I’ve made a million songs in my mind and say 5000 in reality, but neither is more real than another. They all exist. Just some are realized and some not. I’ve started to work with maths too. That made me decide the songs could be real and exist as equations. I can create geometrically precise work and that would have a real value. It’s atomic-level production. Haha.
Have you seen that movie Pi? It’s about this guy who sees numbers in everything. He thinks he’s found an equation that reveals the world’s secrets. It’s intense.
I feel like that. It sounds like my life. I think everything has a value. I read a lot about these things. Gödel and Cantor. Everything is changing all the time. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Zomby and I didn’t talk about how Pi ends. We talked about how he broke his leg playing football, about how he missed a few shows because of it. But the day after we last spoke he played a show with crutches. He enjoys playing football but not watching it because then he no longer controls the outcome. Maybe it’s this disregard for the rules of the game, the rules of all games, that allows him to make music with both prosaic ingenuousness and mosaic ingenuity. Maybe it’s why he knew a Prince ballad would sound amazing chopped over Gameboy grime. Maybe it’s how his new Eskibeat project grew out of an obsession with sculpture. Maybe it’s about new people with new priorities making new sounds. Or maybe it’s just about avoiding all the old bullshit. “I’m a slave to fate,” Zomby says. “I have no control over any of this.”