A musician and producer who has been behind some of Scotland’s finest underground hip-hop and experimental music, working over the years with a huge cross-section of the Scottish beat scene, hip-hop artists, classical musicians and live bands, Asthmatic Astronaut is both a veteran and a renaissance man, a real beatmaker’s beatsmith.
A founder member and driving force behind the Black Lantern Music collective, his emotionally textured, wildly diverse solo releases are as compelling as his collaborative work. Based in Edinburgh for years, and now residing in Glasgow, his current projects include Kromatic, with Krowne; Church Of When The Shit Hits The Fan, his hip-hop ‘doomcrunk’ project with Harlequinade.
His music has been released by Tru Thoughts and Wah Wah 45s, and has appeared on both volumes of the Stac remixes alongside luminaries such as Bonobo, Blue Daisy and Kid Kanevil. Originally discovered by Japanese label De:jine Records, he went on to tour with the consciously positive live-rap extravaganza Underling, playing with everyone from El-P, Roots Manuva, Mike Ladd and Aesop Rock to DJ Vadim, before going on to found Black Lantern.
AA grew up in a small village in Scotland, where his main access to music was the radio; staying up all night and taping DJ sets from shows like Breezeblock and John Peel. The only place he could buy music was a little store 15 miles from home. “You had to order in anything that wasn’t pop music,” he remembers. At the age of 16 he experienced his first ever gig in Glasgow and while in the city discovered the joys of the record shop, relishing time spent crate-digging in Fopp, Avalanche and Missing Records. “After that, my music collection grew substantially,” he says.
It wasn’t long before he started experimenting with sounds of his own, and a friend suggested he post his music on Myspace so people could hear it. “I had only just started teaching myself and I put the first three tracks I had ever made up,” he explains, “De:Jine got in touch and asked if I would be interested in working with them and I thought it was a joke!” He gave them a track, and the label set to work straight away making a video for it, by a director who has since gone on to work with Four Tet and Digitalism. “I was shocked and stoked all at the same time,” he says.
Church Of When The Shit Hits The Fan: Photo by Gabriela Silveira
After a chance meeting in 2004 at an event run by Harlequinade and featuring his band Sileni, Asthmatic Astronaut introduced his future COWTSHTF collaborator to a group of Swedish MCs looking to perform in Edinburgh. While they took to the stage, AA took to the decks, and it was the start of a firm friendship between AA and HQ. It wasn’t long before Asthmatic Astronaut was performing alongside Sileni and the Chemical Poets (Harlequinade, Texture, Tickle and Gung-Who), and meeting fellow producers like Morphamish. The DNA of the collective that would become Black Lantern began to take shape.
Asthmatic Astronaut has collaborated with several of the BLM family, most notably with Harlequinade as Church Of When The Shit Hits The Fan. After early interest in their debut EP by Vic Galloway and others, they played the T Break stage at T in the Park in 2011. His albums, ‘Super Intelligent Common Sense’ and ‘Narcoleptic Insomniac,’ have found a dedicated international audience who have embraced his refusal to stand still or be categorized as a producer.
As we release his new EP Human Abstract, a searing three-track missive of future bass, leftfield hip-hop and avant garde electro, we spoke to Asthmatic Astronaut about his prolific body of solo work, his collaborations, and his early influences.
You came to the label with a pretty impressive back catalogue of past gigs and releases; what drives you on to keep reaching further?
Originally I had some goals; I set them pretty high and never expected to meet them. But in the end I managed to hit quite a few of them with the help of friends and artists I met along the way. Mainly I just have this need to create something; it’s therapy for me in some ways, as my tracks usually sound like the day I have had or whatever I can’t get of my mind.
Working with COWTSHTF and Kromatic as well as your Asthmatic Astronaut alterego; how does each differ in the artistic output?
When working with COWTSHTF I have to get myself in a doomcrunk mood to begin with, but mainly I’m trying to make beats that are more suited to having rhythmic words over the top of them. I don’t want the beats to be too crowded - I want plenty of space for Harlequinade to let loose all over them. But I want them to also have you nodding your head and tapping your feet!
When it comes to Kromatic we will usually send each other an idea and then add to it: when we have the main bulk completed we will meet up and myself and Krowne will finish the track off together. It’s a fun way to work by bouncing ideas back and fourth - you always create something you would never have thought of on your own.
I think they have their own styles - I definitely try to keep them separate from my solo projects. I guess the listeners are a better judge of if that’s true or not!
Where does the name Asthmatic Astronaut, come from? Do you have asthma / have you ever been to space?
When I was very young I had told my teachers that my Dad was an Astronaut! At the time he was working at the University and when he had told me this I was so young that I thought he was saying that he was going to the universe. And so I assumed he was an astronaut! I wouldn’t want to go to space in our current space program; it’s not really at a Star Trek level yet. And yes, I am also an asthmatic.
You’ve worked with beats across jazz, experimental, hip-hop, electronic, and more - your music collection/taste must be vast and intricate.
Absolutely. I just like music; good music anyway! I have everything from Russian folk music and Polish jazz to hip-hop and electronic and back to funk and soul; lots of weird stuff and a reasonable classical collection, plus a large archive of local and independent acts I have met and seen perform over the years.
Most exciting moment in music so far for you?
This is a difficult one as I have been lucky enough to have done quite a lot over the last nine years, but I think playing KOKO in London with Roots Manuva and The Shape Of Broad Minds was a pretty amazing gig. Just being in such a large venue where you get six guys just monitoring sound for you! It was a sold out show with 2700 people attending, definitely the biggest show I have played to date! Also touring with DJ Vadim and One Self, I got to play some amazing shows and while we were in Bristol, Vadim switched with us so we got to close the show! I have never seen a crowd go so insane in all my life.
Who is the artist you are most proud of collaborating with so far, and who would be your dream collaboration?
I’m proud of every artist I have collaborated with to date. Harlequinade, Gung-who, Tickle, Texture, Krowne, Real Arcade and of course all the guys from Underling. These guys are my musical family and the reason Black Lantern exists. As for dream collaborations I’d love to work with Brainfeeder and their artists and Dimlite & Kelpe.
How do you feel your own music has evolved or changed with each release?
When I began making music I was sampling records, later I began recording musicians and found sounds and mixing them with samples. On my latest project I have programmed all the drums and played all the parts, multi tracking each layer with live takes and designing all my own sounds. I have been moving away from the sampling side of things for a while now. I just really wanted to have a release that I completely created on my own; from the melodies to the drums and bass lines, no matter how simple or complex they turned out to be.
Geek question: what hardware / software / real instruments or sounds do you use?
A PC laptop; I have had this for nine years. All my music has been finished here - kind of crazy that it still works but it does! Programmes; I use Making Waves and Ableton. In terms of hardware - two Technics turntables and a mixer, a DR Sample 303, midi keyboard, microphone, Voicemaster Pro. When I play live I use an APC 40.
Your last release for BLM was Lost, Unfinished, Thrown Away and Recovered – do you find you come back to abandoned tracks at a later date and rediscover something new you like about them?
Yes, indeed! All the tracks on ‘Lost Unfinished Thrown Away and Recovered’ are B-sides from 2010. I didn’t remember making half those tracks but they must have been made around the time I was working on the album ‘Super Intelligent Common Sense.’ They probably didn’t fit the vibe I was going for and so they got shelved.
There’s a sense of a computer gamer vibe from some of the tracks, not least because of some of the chirpy 8 bit tones on earlier work; there’s a sense or feeling of a story or journey and some of the sound effects wouldn’t go out of place on an action RPG…
I really like 8-bit sounding tones and I have been quite heavily influenced by artists like Pixelord and Kid Kanevil and I think that is where that comes from. If somebody wanted me to work on music for an RPG I would be really interested! As for a sense of story my music is kind of a running commentary of my life, which in a way is a story.
Tell us about the sounds on Human Abstract - is this a new direction for you in some ways, and what is it influenced by?
Originally I made these tracks to try and beef up my live set. I always try and make the live performance a more high energy event, and I just wanted to have some tracks that I could throw in to the mix that people had not heard before. They where made to be played live and never really had a structure as such, and were just improvised for each live show. It got to the point where people had been asking for copies of these tracks, so I decided to actually sequence them to give to the people who had asked for them, and eventually I thought well I should just package them up for everybody! So here they are, ready for the Black Lantern listeners.
These tracks where definitely influenced by the future beats scene, and the fact that I had just moved and only had a few items of my studio to work with. I guess they are a slight curve in direction from what I had done before on Exposing All Emotions, I have a folder full of tracks I was making for live shows and these were the best of the bunch, apart from three others that Harlequinade snatched for COWTSHTF tracks.
I get this image of a hip-hop party on a hijacked space cruiser when I listen to this EP. A friend mentioned that the opening track sounds like it should have a kung fu training montage-style video, I like the sound of that.
What’s the next project you are focusing on?
I have a project called Washed Away. It’s an Asthmatic Astronaut album and I worked on it for over a year. I made it for myself, as I just felt I had gotten caught up trying to prove myself as a producer and I didn’t really know why or how that had become the case, so I put a stop to it by focusing on an album just for me. I actually played a track from it live with the Decagram project and I was lucky enough to have live drums, bass, guitar, cello and violin play along with me. It’s quite an epic song and with all the added instrumentation from some of the finest musicians I know, it was incredible.