For the newer or uninitiated drum and bass fans who have never heard of Skynet, he is largely considered one of the geniuses who brought the original neurofunk sound to the genre around the late 90s and early 00s along with his sometime writing partner Stakka, as well as Bad Company, Dom and Roland and The Usual Suspects. The likes of Noisia, Black Sun Empire and Alix Perez credit Skynet and his compatriots for leading the way not only in neurofunk but in the direction darker, harder drum and bass has taken in the last twenty-odd years. Needless to say, Skynet and his return to drum and bass and his new set of releases this year are kind of a big deal.
Skynet took a break from drum and bass around 2005, and this interview with Your EDM is one of the first he’s done since beginning to release again around 2014. His new EP/double single Stuck In Mind/Underground released in late June and is being hailed as a more than welcome return to form by his fans and the neurofunk heavy hitters he helped to create.
Skynet, real name Nathan Vinall, has seen a lot in both drum and bass and the music industry at large, and when he sat down with Your EDM to talk about the current condition of EDM today, its prospects for the future and the reason staying true to one’s creativity is so important. Aside from just talking about his EP, Skynet offered an amazing perspective on pop music, EDM, and even the psychology of computer music in this interview, and would-be producers, artists and creative types would do well to heed this EDM veteran’s words.
So happy to have you back producing drum and bass! Launching right into it, the Stuck in Mind EP just came out on June 26, and the lead track is “Underground”, a very classic-sounding Skynet track. Where did you find the vocals on that track and what made you decide to use them on an opener like that?
Thank you, I’m very much enjoying writing DnB again. The vocals are actually from a documentary about near-death experiences. I found that bit (from the movie) really interesting because most of the time when people describe near-death experiences, it’s all lovely and there’s a tunnel of light and stuff, but this one guy’s (experience) wasn’t so lovely. He felt he went to hell, and so he was talking about how there was this dark, bubbling underground, so I just thought “dark, underground…that’s good enough for me.” (Laughs) When I’m looking for vocal samples, mainly spoken word and this goes back to my older style as well – It has to trigger a visualisation, a story, almost like it’s cinematic within the track. So that vocal really set the tone for this song.
The vocals are also really interesting on the title track, “Stuck in Mind”, and some people may not know what language the vocals on the title track are in. What is the language and what was the reason you chose them?
I’ve actually been living in Thailand for a few years – I’m back in Brighton at the moment – but my wife is from Thailand and so I understand that song is from an old, traditional Thai song, originally. However this is a modern version of it has a very haunting ring to it. The moment I heard it I just knew I had to do something with it. It’s beautifully haunting, perfect for me.
I don’t recall ever using foreign vocals before, but after working in Los Angeles on various pop project’s I’ve wanted to experiment a little more with vocals in DnB but I’ve always felt most things where a little cheesy, but these vocals really hit the mark for me. To me it has that Bladerunner vibe.
Well that’s going to be something surprising to drum and bass fans. You were producing pop in LA?
In 2004 I needed a break from drum and bass for various reasons, I needed something different and I needed to challenge myself in other areas, whilst remaining anonymous. It wasn’t about me, it was about enhancing my musical experiences & skills.
I actually ended up working in Babyface’s studio who is regarded one of the world’s greatest RnB artist/songwriter, alongside Antonio Dixon and Damon Thomas, who were part of the Underdogs whose list of song credits would take up a few pages. It was really different for me, but I’ve always loved the RnB big production sound. They are all really amazingly talented and kind people too. I feel very blessed that they opened their doors to me.
I am anti pop, I hate cheesy pop culture. I come from a punk mentality so it was lucky enough these guys didn’t make cheesy pop songs. Their music and production is world class and solid. When I moved to America in 2004 I started in Philadelphia and I worked with Chuck Treece from Bad Brains, Aaron Fishbein, who has written music for chart-topping songs by Beyonce, Christina Aguilera and R Kelly and Kam Houff – Scott Storch’s engineer and various hip hop/rap artists. 4 years later I then moved to LA and ended up doing the pop thing.
And was it a challenge?
Yeah, writing instrumental, underground dance music for the past 20 years to full pop songwriting and vocal production is a challenging switch to be honest, but it was very interesting and I had a lot of fun, kind of nice to be behind the scenes too. When you produce for someone else, the focus is all on them, and obviously when I was making my own music the focus was on myself. I don’t really care about, you know, getting all that attention, fame or whatever. I’m not really into it, so I got to relax and have fun. I was working in million dollar studios with all this amazing equipment (which I love) and experimenting with production, and I don’t have to be the frontman. None of the attention from the public is on me.
Did you find that the people in pop were easier to work with and maybe not as shallow as you might have thought? Coming from punk and drum and bass as well, there’s a perception that people in pop music are sort of vapid and only care about money, so did you find that was really the case?
When I met these people and started working with them, I found that they’re all just amazing musicians and really awesome people. They could play any instrument, put tracks together in crazy ways, write songs, vocal produce and I was like “oh shit, these guys are some next-level producers.” But what I later found was how more incredible they were at business. And that really opened my eyes because they were all super talented and could do these amazing things musically, but in my perspective they were limited by a formula as that’s what makes money. When you put art out into commerce there is a certain calculation that enters into the creation process, a mold/formula and when you it you stray too far for that you’re lowering your odds to make money. It’s big business! So to maximize profit, you need to follow this mold & that’s whatever is in vogue at that moment. You need something that is familiar already to the populous, keep it within a framework.
So in that sense it was sort of as you thought it would be?
Yeah, I sort of knew that’s how the game was, but when you see it from that end of things, it’s really disheartening. I tried to sort of tickle their minds a bit with something different a few times. We had some free time in the studio with a couple of the guys where I was playing with filtering distorted bass sounds and tempos. If I’d stayed a little longer, maybe I could have converted them (laughs) but it didn’t happen. That was it for me and pop music. What’s funny is around that time, electronic music started to become more pop as well, so I saw the same machine I saw in pop really take over electronic music. It was a little odd, because I took a break from electronic music to work in pop, and then suddenly electronic is the new pop!
It must have been quite shocking, especially coming from pretty much the exact opposite philosophy in drum and bass and punk. Did you find the experience helped you strike a balance, learning about how pop is made, especially now since EDM is considered pop?
Well, coming from the underground, I mean there’s always been pop, right? Rave music originally was not pop, it was anti-pop in fact; even house and trance were underground when we came up. So as far as I’m concerned, that’s the ethos of rave music, or it was. People had more creative freedom in rave music or EDM, and now they don’t have as much because as soon as the pop scene or machine gets a hold of them, it changes because money comes up and money becomes more important than the actual music. I understand, everyone has to make money, but what we have to be mindful of not diluting the music down just to fit into a mold that makes the most money, where does that end… “Take That”?
I think most people these days are fully aware there’s not as much money in music sales anymore, so the financial focus has shifted to DJing/gigs and mega festivals. Everyone’s trying to get on it, scrambling to stay relevant, some just to stay alive. Capitalism at its finest! So that’s what’s driving people, and I fear it’s all going to end up sounding the same or anyone who does anything outside of that won’t have a viable career anymore.
Do you think that’s affecting drum and bass as much?
You can definitely see it. We are all living the same system after all. There’s a lot of drum and bass songs with vocals. I was even in the supermarket the other day and I heard a sort of watered-down pop version of drum and bass. For some reason that cheapens it for me, makes me cringe to be honest.
Do you think DnB can pull it out of the water though? Since so many people in the DnB scene are still older and want to make sure people coming up in the scene are educated about the history of the music?
Who knows, I would like to think people are learning the history and stuff. But I’m really not sure nowadays if people really care too much and just follow the hype of the moment as it seems to be all about getting clicks and likes, the social media presence – that’s how people get booked nowadays as people think that equates to them be good. It’s become about the performance, image and the gimmicks! Again something you mostly see in the pop artists.
Well that speaks to recorded sets as well and CDJs and Serato and stuff. That’s made things a lot easier in some respects, but since there’s not as much skill involved in mixing, people don’t have much to watch in terms of what the DJ is doing so artists feel like they have to come up with a show for entertainment value.
It’s become a bit of a circus. Not to knock EDC, but it really is a carnival to which some people don’t even go for the music. It’s about the big show the spectacle and that’s cool for people if that’s what they enjoy, but I feel the music has become secondary. That may be why drum and bass didn’t take off in the small clubs over there (in the U.S.), because no one cared as much about a few hundred people solely there for the music as they do here (in the UK) & Europe. America has always been about hype, big business and big muscle cars! To me this highlights the ego fuelling nature of that culture. It is what it is, I just think it stifles creativity. You can get caught up in it and become infected. So that’s why I try and shut myself away from it all.
It’s really heartening for old and new DnB heads to see people like yourself and Ed Rush and Bailey continuing to produce and both educate on the original sounds as well as push against those formulae.
Yes it’s cool to see original heads sticking to their thing. So to come back 360 degrees to the release of this music (Stuck in Mind EP), when I put this all together, I had to really look at what I wanted to do and I know full well it’s not in vogue, what I’ve done here. It’s not the way neuro is right now or jump up is right now. It’s just…the “classic neurofunk”, what people are terming it now, from that era in the mid-to-late-nineties, that’s what I love, that’s what I do and that’s what I feel when I get in the studio and making music, I want to express that feeling the way I’ve always done.
That is funny, because a lot of people from that era may see this as a return to form for you, but you’re right; so many of the current drum and bass fans will just be hearing this type of sound for the first time.
Yeah! And at the end of the day like I said I have to be happy with it. I am my own worst critic, I know that may sound cliché and sometimes it’s really a nightmare in my head but it’s better than the alternative, isn’t it? I’d rather be happy with it at the end of the day. I really feel so lucky right now (with the EP and recent Skynet releases) because it’s actually taken off really well. I’ve got so many comments along the lines that “this is the sound that we love, we missed,” and so I am on the right track I suppose.
There has definitely been a resurgence of the older techniques and sounds from the ’90s and early ’00s lately, so it’s a prodigious time to be bringing it back in your own style and the style you helped create.
Well I can only do my own style, can’t I? I love that people are influenced by what we’ve done in the past, but…you can only really ride your own wave or you will always be trying to catch someone else’s and never really fully carve your own distinct style. Back in the day, we were part of that neurofunk explosion, and it’s timeless now, but to see people looking back and praising it as a golden age, well it was because were trying to do something new and different and take the sound somewhere totally uncharted. So doing that now and seeing people digging it, it’s given me more confidence to know that still staying true to myself, I am on the right track and I don’t have to question that part of my own creative process.
So how do you feel that translated for you to the technical end of the music? You talked about the “classic neurofunk” sound, and that’s definitely evident in both of the tracks on the single release, so how did you go about putting that together?
Yeah, absolutely. Simply put, it can’t be done on a computer. With computer music, when that got bigger in 2004-2005, it just sounded too robotic and cold to me which was another reason I had to move on and challenge myself in other fields. I couldn’t get the sound that I love in the computer. So when I came back to drum and bass in 2013 I had to go back and the equipment that I used before. The MIDI samplers and some other hardware pieces.
Wow, straight back to MIDI. That is dedication. Was that just the drums and the rhythm aspects of the track, or every bit of it?
It was everything. I did everything on the old sampler and the old equipment. The most important part of that, if I had to give it one reason, is timing. What I mean by that is that when you make beats or music in general on computers, it runs off of pinpoint accurate, basically atomic time. It’s all on a grid. So what that translates to in music is it’s stiff. There’s no swag, there’s no movement. It’s too perfect. Nothing in the natural world is like that, you know? You need that imperfection because that is LIFE. If it’s too perfect the brain switches off the interest.
So that’s what happened when everyone went to that rigid, perfect timing in 2004-2005. It was different at the time, that new neurofunk, but there’s no real solid rolling groove. I noticed a lot of music around that time started to have a lot of edits and switch-ups to sort of trick the brain and find some other point of interest. Dubstep is the same. All these mad crazy noises are there to keep the brain’s interest. Now if you go back to the old machines like the MIDI processors, it’s very, very loose. It’s all over the place, basically, but it gives you that movement, that interest. So when I put a drum beat in there for, you know, 30 minutes, I thought I could just leave it at that, really. What else do you need? It sounds running and natural, it maintains my interest. It’s completely randomness that swings back and forth.
So did you use any computer-generated sounds or techniques at all?
Only to mix it at the very end. I record all the channels from the sampler into the computer and then mix inside the computer, I find that digital really shines when it’s created & recorded right.
So with these tracks you’re really trying to mix in modern techniques without losing that groove & tone from the old machines.
Yeah, I want to keep that tech edged, funk sound. I’m trying to mix that new and the old in a way that continues to inspire me. I love the swag, and for me that’s all about the timing and the movement. Like a James Brown track, if you put that all in the grid, it wouldn’t be right! The soul of it would be lost. You’d never be able to create a James Brown song in a computer. So it’s there that I’ve discovered what it is that inspires me. I’m really excited about it all. People may not know what they like about it, and I’m getting that feedback, “how’d you get those drums and that movement”? You have to be willing to be a little bit messy and rough edged.
You have to be willing to not be perfect.
Exactly! Take “The Nine” by Bad Company, for example, supposedly one of the most iconic and best drum and bass tracks, and if you listen to that track production-wise, it’s technically a mess. Seriously. And a huge part of that was midi timing and the tone that vintage samplers give. I remember Fresh’s computer was a bit messed up at the time too. He had this old Mac, 7200 I think, that just made a mess of the whole grid, but it made it have that crazy rhythmical movement and rolling groove, it’s still played a lot these days, it doesn’t get old because it’s alive and it’s moving all the time. You can never pinpoint it, but it’s there and it stands the test of time. It holds people’s interest. That helps make a classic imo. So I’m so glad people are appreciating it again and that I can go back to what makes me happy. It’s just a bonus if people are responding well.
So to bring it back to your journey of taking a break and them coming back to a more pop-centric EDM culture, how do you feel about making music with your sort of philosophy in the current climate?
I just make what I like, really, and if it becomes popular and people like it, then that’s great, but if not that’s still great as I’m enjoying it. Job done for me. I find the social media and the marketing of myself difficult for that reason, because it’s not about me. It’s about the music and I try to get out of the way of it and let it speak for itself. In performance as well, I just want the music to speak for itself. I hope people continue to enjoy what I do, and at the end of the day I also hope that producers can continue to find their creativity and keep their integrity whilst making the music that they love. I know for the minute that’s what I’m going to keep doing.
The Stuck in Mind single is out now on RAM Records’ sister label Program and can be purchased on the RAM website or on Beatport. Skynet has also provided a playlist of some of his favorite tracks for this summer, both new and old, streamable on the player below.