How Heartbreak And Valium Shaped Mikarma’s Debut Album

In the first edition of his new Signal Boost column, Laurent Fintoni hears the catharsis coursing through the work of Jon Convex’s new alias.

September 09, 2015

Earlier this year, English dance music producer Damon Kirkham wrote an album born out of pain and loss. It's some of his most honest work to date and he nearly didn't tell anyone about it. Passes, out September 11th via CNVX, is Kirkham's second solo album and the first under the Mikarma alias, created to separate it from his ongoing house and techno work as Jon Convex, and his drum & bass production as Kid Drama. Kirkham has been releasing dance music for over 15 years, beginning as one half of pioneering drum & bass duo Instra:Mental, but it took the unexpected dissolution of his marriage to create a situation in which he could truly lose himself in the music. “I just shut off and went into my own little hole,” Kirkham admits over the phone. “It’s the album I’ve always wanted to write.”

For the past few years Kirkham had been splitting his time between the U.K. and Sydney, Australia where his wife resides. Despite previous attempts, they couldn't live together due to conflicting professional responsibilities. After a string of three-month visits using tourist visas, Kirkham was told by the Australian authorities in 2014 that he wouldn't be allowed back in without the proper documents. By then his career had begun to suffer from his travels and in January this year he met up with his wife in Hong Kong to try and find a way forward. However, “things spiraled out of control and it fell apart” as Kirkham explains with striking honesty.

“I wasn’t going to share the story behind it but I realized that today it can be difficult for artists, or even just people in general, to hold down a relationship.”—Damon Kirkham

Dejected, the producer returned to his studio and locked himself away. Seeking to exorcise the stress, anxiety, and lack of control he felt, Kirkham found inspiration in one of his favorite albums: Autechre's Amber from 1994. “It takes me back to a certain place,” he reflects. “The emotion of it, even if they didn’t intend it. A lot of times the emotions you might read into music weren’t necessarily there when the artist wrote it but it resonates with whatever you’re going through at the time.” Kirkham stripped his studio set-up back down to “a stark, 1990s Warp approach,” in reference to the British label that released Autechre's albums. Using only a handful of outboard effects—including the Alesis Quadraverb reverb unit, mixing desks, and the Yamaha DX and Nord Lead synthesizers that shaped Autechre's early work—Kirkham went back to basics. “When we first started as Instra:Mental we had a similar approach, squeezing all we could out of every bit of kit,” he says. “I limited myself, rather than self-destruct as I've done in the past. I spent ten hours a day for a whole month locked into this setup.”

Another factor in the creation of the album was Kirkham's use of Valium to, as he puts it, “un-clutter” his mind. Just as outside forces were to blame for the breakdown of his marriage, Kirkham found himself writing an album almost as if he himself wasn't involved. “The drug took the edge off the anxiety of the break-up and general sadness,” he says. “I was in such a haze writing it, when I listen back now I find myself almost a stranger to its creation process.”

Passes is a deeply personal album, one that Kirkham wrote for himself, first and foremost. Sonically, it still fits within his artistic evolution. There are traces of Autonomic, the drum & bass label/club night/aesthetic that Instra:Mental and fellow drum & bass producer dBridge pioneered in the late 2000s, throughout—both in tempo but also in a certain melancholia articulated through the machines—while Jon Convex's house/techno touch can be felt in the hypnotic rhythms of "Spectral" or the slow chug of "Solitude." Above it all is the specter of Autechre, audible in the processing that permeates each track.

“I wasn’t going to share the story behind it but I realized that today it can be difficult for artists, or even just people in general, to hold down a relationship,” Kirkham explains. “People are struggling with so many different things, our communities have changed. Perhaps by speaking on my experiences people can pick up on it and relate.” Kirkham’s honesty is both refreshing and needed. Just as Autechre had once provided him an album that captured a time and place, the catharsis Kirkham sought in writing Passes may entice listeners to ascribe their own life stories to the music. “This album is simply me pouring out emotions while being sedated. Going into it. But it works. It does.”

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How Heartbreak And Valium Shaped Mikarma’s Debut Album