Systematic: The Bok Bok Interview

It’s taken me a while to nail down Bok Bok (or Alex to his friends), and its not because of lack of trying. It was mainly thwarted due to timing; our original plan was messed up by him going on tour in Australia, then he was at SXSW, then he was in New York and then I was in Germany. Eventually however, it worked out, and I met up with Alex in his small East London studio to really try and get to the bottom of the guy that crafted and masterminded the Night Slugs label into the consistent and unique beast that it is.

Whats a typical day like for you? 

I’ll get up late, and I’ll do a bunch of shit like. Well, a lot of the label running is actually being handled by someone else now, finally thank god. But thats only recently, so up until now its been me getting up, doing all my officey, label, arranging everything stuff and then basically getting that done as early as possible then trying to come here [to the studio].

But realistically though I don’t make it here until early evening and I’ll just stay until really late. Also I mix down at home, I come in here to compose and like, write and record from the various equipment then come home and mix and edit.

So you’ve found the bunker mentality helps the creativity as you can just come in here and create and compose with no distractions? 

Yeah definitely, theres no internet in here so there’s nothing to distract you apart from your own brain so if you haven’t done anything that day then it’s your own fault, you have nothing to blame. Having a zone with no distractions is so fucking important doing music, especially now when it’s so easy to whip your phone out and start going on Instagram or something you know?

Before Bok Bok, and before music, you were a designer weren’t you? 

Yeah I just used to work in advertising and shit. I used to do some cool freelance work, but mainly my daytime hustle was I used to work in advertising.

When you left that professional period as a designer was your career as Bok Bok already kicking off or was there a gap? 

Yeah it was, and I actually designed freelance for a bit, and what I realised was that the only contacts I had were in the music world and to be honest the music thing was happening while I was at the agency. I was already doing shows and on the weekend I was travelling a lot and things like that so things had started to happen. I didn’t have an agent or anything. Pretty typical for me I was really DIY but I managed to make it work just through Myspace. That was a good little side income for a long time and also for making my name and learning how to play in clubs and stuff – and that all happened before I left the job.

So you left, and you were getting more and more gigs, was that about the point that you started the Night Slugs clubnight with L-Vis 1990? 

You know what, the night actually started before I’d even left my job I think about a year and a half into it, so the night was already around. We actually came up with that while he [L-Vis] was also working at a creative desk job and being kinda bored with not doing his own creative work. We were on AIM alot and he was only across the way in Soho – we’d meet up for lunch and then go back on AIM and talk about ideas all day long. We came up with the label/night name back then too.

Where was the night originally? 

It started off at Redstar in Camberwell, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that place but its got a little bit of history. It’s changed hands quite a lot and it used to be a proper venue for a while. I remember going to my first proper student Camberwell parties there when I went to Camberwell art school and then a few years later it fell into disrepair and became squatted. At that point things became interesting as we were at Uni just down the street and dubstep was kicking off, grime was kicking off and it was cool cos a lot of us were DJing and myself and a collective of people kinda started doing really regular nights at this squatted venue.

These guys from Spain, I think they were Spanish anyway, just came in and just put this massive sound-system in there. They were a travelling sound-system and stayed for about 7/8 months and then moved on. But they created something, because what it meant was that people like myself and Ben UFO and Oneman and loads of people who are around now, all met each other there, we all started playing in this venue, this squatted South East venue pretty much every week and they were our first real bookings. So really it was the start of some new phase as far as I see.

It wasn’t very well documented as it was in South and nobody wanted to really travel to it too much and it was kinda a low key thing, but it was cool, especially at the time as we all felt like the actual institution of the London scene had got a bit stale so it was cool for us to do a night inspired by the old school FWD where there were a lot of different flavours getting played all night long and the DJs all brought something of their own to the table. Not everyone was just playing half step or whatever. It was a good little period.

By that point the venue wasn’t illegal anymore it just had new owners but we thought we’d continue along that little southside path and the first three Night Slugs nights were in there.

If Night Slugs had never happened, and you weren’t DJing, what would you be doing to satisfy those creative urges, what would be your creative outlet? 

Who knows? You don’t know where life will take you. When I left my job I really wanted to start an agency and be servicing the music industry. Thats where my contacts were and was the only real hustle I had as a freelance graphic designer.

To be honest I’d probably be doing print graphics, and I’d probably be doing web stuff I dunno. Some kind of design and I imagine it’d be for music clients even though I know thats not even a sustainable way of living these days, unless you’re one of about three select agencies.

Have you done any music graphics that are around now that we would know? 

Me and Kate Moross did some stuff for Simian Mobile Disco which I think is still getting used. They approached us for a complete overhaul and redesign and during that time we developed two music videos for them, and off the back of that came all the logos and all the infographics and stuff.

Which ones? 

One was called Synthasize and another was called ‘10,000 horses can’t be wrong’. They were done in the little period in between my music taking off and my design job. So I imagine I’d be collaborating with people like Kate and other design friends. I just like to work with other people. I’m not much of an individual guy, thats why I like being in crews and stuff. Hopefully I would have found a team of people who are like minded and be doing some kind of design thing. Although honestly I don’t think i’m cut out for it. These days, even with the label, I can’t create anymore I can just tell other people what to do.

So you’ve really taken more of an art director role 

Yeah absolutely, it’s all art direction now. Non of it is actually made by me now, apart from really small things. The typography is me, but no image making or illustration work as I just haven’t got it in me anymore.

Sick of it or…?

I dunno man, I just … It’s because I started doing music. You can only really have on passionate focus at one time I reckon. Something about it just throws me off.

This seems like a good time to start talking about the label and the artwork. It’s honestly one of the only labels in recent years thats come out full formed almost. 

You know what, that wasn’t intentional, but I really appreciate you saying that. I guess it seemed like that down the line but I have a tendency to making things look like they’re part of a series and it satisfies me.

You’re a real stickler for consistency then? 

Yeah totally, consistency is like is the single main thing that drives me to keep on doing stuff and adding things to a set is the most satisfying thing ever. Especially when they really stack up, so when we were 9/10 releases in I was like “YES” [laughs]. I look at them together and just feel the upmost satisfaction. And it’s all just because they stack up you know? The artwork is systematic and I just find it hugely satisfying.

Does the music and the record itself influence the look of the cover? 

Yeah, 100%.

Kingdom’s ‘Dreama’ EP is a good example, what part of that record, of those 5 tracks dictated the cover? 

It kind of does but a lot of it comes from talking to the artist and and I always want to make sure, sorry, I never want to have a situation where they get the artwork and they’re like ‘what is this’? This doesn’t correlate at all with what I had in mind. Cos it’s like, I’m really aware that everyone is quite visually minded and that a lot of people picture certain scenarios for their music and stuff.

The whole process is trying to give the music somewhere to live, a little space it can occupy or something like that. For example with Dreama I would chat to Kingdom and find out what his ideas were for making these tracks and what king of inspirations did he have

Some people differ thought, like take Egyptrixx, he’s not a particularly visual guy and he’ll tell you more about the process of how it was made and it’s just about having a conversation with him and trying to gleen some key words or whatever. For example Girl Unit was like, ‘I want something Catholic’, cos he imagined this space like…

… but isn’t it frustrating as a designer having vague descriptions to work off? 

Nah it’s perfect! It’s exactly what I need, thats the perfect starting point. It’s perfect because I know the parameters, so I know how it will be rendered approximately. So the colour and the styling, I know that already, so what I really like is for the content to be filled in for me, because the template is already there.

Theres that EP with Jam City that he done before the album called ‘Waterworks’, and….

Thats the one I was going to say looks like the music sounds…

… Yeah exactly, but all the guys come from a visual background. Most of them have cool imaginations and stuff so a lot of them will be thinking about scenarios or certain themes and stuff while they make the music so its really important to try and channel that as much as possible so it’s definitely important to have a chat with them and just gleen stuff.

With Jam City he went way more specific than ‘I want something Catholic’ and he said ‘These are tracks set in grimy red brick, in the boiler room of a grimy red brick building’. Stuff like that, thats that specific. and I’m like, ‘cool, I’m gunna make it’. So actually thats kinda perfect for me. There’s only been a few that I had to pull completely out of thin air that were not artist driven. Like Lil Silva, his first EP for us, he didn’t really come with visual ideas and thats fine cos that’s not what he’s about but to me it was power, the tracks were really driving so I wanted something to do with hydro electricity and thats where the dam came from.

I do a lot of Google images, especially now that I’m just art directing and not actually making things myself, its just a lot of google imaging on a theme or colour or texture or whatever.

So you do you make mood boards then? 

Do you know what? I do, but they’re mood folders not boards. I don’t actually print them out and put them on a board

Out of the recent releases the one that really feels like the music sounds is the video and cover art for ‘Ballads’. 

Yes, definitely. He [L-Vis] just said straight away that it was going to be underwater. He called the track ‘Ballad 4D’, and everyone called it ‘Submarine Tune’ cos of the submarine tone, but even before that he was like ‘yeah, this is underwater. This record is sunk deep down’.

In your RBMA lecture you talked briefly about the Jam City album artwork, and you said that the story is too long and you didn’t want to talk about it on the sofa. Lets talk about it. I really want to know the story, it’s made me intrigued. 

In a way I don’t want to blow the mystique too much, so I don’t really want to say too much. But the story is that he wanted it to look photographic. A lot of people did think it was a photo which is cool but if you look at it properly, especially if you have the 12″ and look at it in hi-res, it looks more than real, like it’s hyper-real or something and thats really the whole point.

At first he said he wanted a photo but for various reasons I can’t go into that just wasn’t actually possible. Even though the place is a real place, it does exist. On the site there is an interview with him and someone called Ms Muzik Channel and there’s a whole series of videos he did in the place, set to music and sound effects and it’s all a background the what the record is about.

It was done by these two genius guys from an agency called Bowyer Worldwide. It was meticulously art directed to the tiniest detail. A lot of it came form Jam City cos he really knew where that record was set and what it was about so I can’t even take that much of the credit for it. But between us we art directed it in our heads to the point where it looked exactly like that. Then it was just the process of going back and forth with those guys. Thats the ‘official’ story without blowing it too much.

So how much of your touring schedule and your career depends on being in america? Is your profile, and the labels profile big over there? Obviously L-Vis 1990 is living in New York now… 

Well a lot of stuff has changed in the last year or so because Fade to Mind started and thats such a big deal for us because this year we did SXSW joint Fade to Mind and Night Slugs parties and we really felt like there was a synergy there. It’s really amazing to have two camps that overlap like that. Kingdom is really the lynchpin that keeps it all together because he’s kind of Slugs style but kinda Fade style

Now that L lives out there thats made a massive change as obviously he’s able to do parties himself now, and collaborate and link up with people and talk to them which makes a massive difference. Things out there are really cool at the moment because here there’s certain stigmas about what we do and there there isn’t that.  Audiences seem more open minded, they also have less of this kind of stuff so they’re really hungry for it.

Do you feel like you can almost start afresh, like a clean slate? 

Kind of yeah, cos they don’t really have that whole [Club] culture. That can be a bad thing and a good thing, depending on where I am. If I’m in New York they totally get it and they’re really hungry for it, but if I’m in, and I don’t want to slag off anyones city because all my shows are cool, but if I’m in a smaller city thats more of a student town and less of a major city then I’ll probably feel the effect as theres really no context for what I do out there. I feel like I’m much more of a ‘electronica’ artist when I go out there because people don’t know what the fuck this shit is.

So people categorise you in broader terms, instead of putting you in some dumb micro genre

Yeah, well here there’s a context; we’ve all grown up with it. And what I like about this country is that I can go to any city and play a student party and my music will pop because kids just get it cos it’s the way we’ve all grown up, we’ve all grown up with dance music and going out and stuff like that. Everyone totally gets it already, you don’t need context or to break it down or explain anything, so thats great. For America it can be a bit weird, but the bigger cities are definitely hotting up. LA is amazing right now and New York is amazing right now. Texas is killing it too.

With L-Vis in NYC now, how does the label workload split between you two? Has it changed the dynamic? 

It hasn’t changed at all cos so much of the work is done online and over email anyway. We might email each other if we’re in the same room; its just a system and that way you both remember whats going on. So really it hasn’t changed at all.

The biggest change thats happened in the inclusion of a guy called P.O.L Style. He’s a Scottish guy that now lives in Tokyo. He’s been part of the Numbers crew since before he moved to Tokyo and he’s been living there for about 7 years. He’s an amazing DJ, and he’s been a friend of mine since he first brought me out to Tokyo a few years ago.

So he’s managing the label now? 

Well, he hasn’t quite got to managing it yet, but he’s doing a lot of stuff to help me manage it – eventually with a view for him to take over, and thats the biggest change thats happened. But in terms of L moving that hasn’t really affected us, and the way the split would work with us is that I would do a lot of it. However creative decisions are always made together and in terms of A&R decisions and the way things work we do together. Plus we listen to mixes together.

How does it work now as it feels like there’s a set crew of you, and it’s quite consistent and the latest addition was Helix, right? So are you still looking for new guys, and are you still A&Ring new acts? 

Man if something comes to me I’ll take it. I’m only concerned with how things sound, thats all I ever care about. I actually don’t care if the record was made by Jam City or my Dad. If it’s great I’m going to sign it, because if it sounds right and if it’s got the right effect and if it’s got the right atmosphere and gels with the other stuff that we’re playing then definitely, it doesn’t matter who it’s by.

For sure I’m listening out for new stuff. It just so happens that people aren’t really on that tip. Also I’m a picky cunt and I’m only getting worse as I get older. It’s kinda hard with all that, but I’m not closed to new artists, I’m not trying to make it this exclusive team of people or anything like that. Thats just how it’s come about because we’re all mates from before the music thing, the four of us – me, James (L-Vis)… actually, well, it’s more me knowing all them individually somehow.

When you started the label, you hadn’t run one beforeand you were on new ground; how much of of an intense learning curve is that over the last 3 years? 

Fuuuuck man. You know what, you never really… lemme say this yeah, anyone who’s thinking about starting a label better put everything aside for a while because it’s just more work than I’d imagined. When people make music you never think that putting it out isn’t going to be that much of a stress but it did end up eating my life. So thats why we now have Paul [P.O.S Style] so I can now go back to making music because it’s kind of a crazy huge commitment, especially if you want to do it the way that I did it where… cos a lot of labels are way more hands off than me, I’m involved in pretty much every aspect of it, down to mixing, as I mix a lot of the records for the releases too.

I gotta say huge bigups to Jackmaster because if it wasn’t for him there probably wouldn’t be a label as the whole thing is I wanted to start putting music out, and make it just a digital label. How weird is that, I’m so into vinyl, I love vinyl. But when you start of with these things they’re just little pet ideas, you’re just thinking small about them. It’s more of a case that they were tracks that weren’t going anywhere and I wanted to see them come out, so the quickest route to get them out was to just have a digital label. I’m glad we didn’t do that because vinyl is important but if it wasn’t for Jackmaster we wouldn’t have anything. He sorted us out with distribution because at the time he was working for Rub A Dub.

He pretty much gave us our infrastructure. I learnt a lot from him in the first few months of doing it just from doing a few releases and seeing how it goes. The biggest thing I was surprised by was the huge commitment of time. that it took. It ended up being my full time job which is kind of crazy.

Was there any point where things went wrong and you thought that you couldn’t carry on with the label anymore? 

I never thought it can’t run, but theres been times where I’ve wanted to change the it’s set up, which is what I’ve gone and done [with P.O.L Style] cos it’s a big change from me doing everything on a daily basis, and now it’s me doing hardly any of it on a daily basis. Its a big change.

2011 was our slowest year in terms of releases and output and I felt it as 2010 was our breakthrough year. When you do a million releases in a year and they’re all really consistent people have certain expectations. I like to talk about it in terms of Second Life, you know the phase Club Rez and Rez Day and stuff? You know like Girl Unit’s tune?

Those are all references to second life cos Rez is when you appear in a new place in Second Life, when you teleport. Everything starts to load up and thats called Rezzing. Sometimes if the world is really complicated or they’ve done too much, or there’s a lot of people walking around, or the connection slow things tend to take a while to come through and fill out with detail and its the most frustrating thing because you’re trying to interact with this world thats not quite there yet and I think thats how some of our 2010 fans felt in 2011. The label wasn’t coming into existence fast enough and the rate really slowed down. Like if you’re playing a good game and it suddenly starts to buffer a lot you’re like “ugghhh” – you know what I mean? So I think thats the effect we had.

The reason for it is that I wanted to write a record, and I just wanted to just do a five or six track EP, which I did do, but thats what it takes for me to be able to do that is to basically shut that shit down for a second. And it’s frustrating because really I want to be doing that all the time and I’m in here doing it now, but its either run a label successfully and stay on schedule and keep putting stuff out or be prolific in the studio. So hopefully things will improve in that sense.

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