Having made his name by fusing lively grime synths with the bass-heavy sounds associated with his home town, Bristol, Joker belied his reputation on his 2011 debut album, The Vision - a lucid and charismatic mishmash of R&B, pop and dubstep.
Four years later, and still refusing to be pigeonholed, Joker's follow-up, The Mainframe, attests to something even bigger and bolder. A mixture of cinematic, synth-driven instrumentals and sonic cross-pollinations, there's no sign of the artist pandering to the grime/dubstep sound that initially made his name.
You're no longer signed to 4AD. Was it a risk releasing this album on your own label?
"I sent them an early version of the album and was not 100% sure they were getting it. It felt like it was a bit of a risk for them, so I just put it out on my own Kapsize label, which is probably the best decision anyway. If people wanna download it, they're gonna download it. I try not to pay attention to that; I just put the music out."
Four years is a fairly long delay to follow up a well-received debut…
"I guess I was on the road quite a lot and associated with the dubstep thing, but that quietened down a bit, and for the past year and a half I've been stuck in the studio. I created a track called Old Era in 2012 and was slowly working on The Mainframe since then. I really liked the concept of that track; it was grimey yet cinematic, which triggered me off to thinking about creating another album.
"Over the past few years, I've had time to get to know myself a bit better and just do my thing. I try not to worry about anyone else's opinions. I didn't think [The Vision] was successful; I enjoyed it but didn't feel it came across to everyone correct. The majority of people knew me because of the underground grime stuff I was putting out, so I think The Vision alienated people. But since then, people have had more time to get know who I am, so I think the new album will make more sense."
How do you think you've improved as a producer in that time?
"One of the biggest lessons I've learned is that it's very easy to get caught up in shit. It's more of a life lesson than a music lesson, but it helps a lot in music - just be you. I found I was losing myself for a second, trying to make something or trying to impress; then I had to remember why I got into music in the first place."
The title of the album evokes images of something quite expansive. Is it conceptual?
"Yeah, I guess the title makes it sound powerful, but it's actually the name of my studio. The concept of the album is just my take on a very cinematic, grimey, sexy thing. The word 'pop' is a weird one, but I would say The Mainframe is a lot more musical than the last album. Each track key changes and blends in to each other on pretty much the whole album. Whenever you think of the word 'cinematic', it makes you think of movies, so I thought if I'm gonna do this I might as well make the whole album flow like a movie, so there would be no gaps - it should just be a continuum. I'd like to work in film, but that was not what I was trying to reach out for; that would make the album sound a bit fake."
Boss Mode is very capacious, almost theatrical. Was your intention to exist in a space where nobody can pigeonhole your sound?
"Yes and no. I was trying to create music without thinking of genres or making a dubstep or hip-hop track. It's weird because most of the album's at 140bpm, so… I don't have the right word without sounding rude, but most people who wanna hear that can only think of grime or dubstep.
"With the track Boss Mode and the bassline, the first thing that's gonna come to people's minds is dubstep, but my friend described that track to me as an 'Anime movie on crack'. Some people would call it grime, some EDM… and I'm just like, 'whoooah'.
"I think Boss Mode is one of the tracks that people will try to pin down because of the bassline, but as a piece of music, if you pay attention, there's a lot going on."
Are you turning your back on the grime sound?
"I don't think of genres, I think of feelings. In my mind, I've always created grime and I got associated with the dubstep thing. I appreciate that, because it brought me around the world. I played shows here, there and everywhere, and it helped me build up my studio. It's been good because it got my name out, but bad because it also stuck me down to one thing. I would still say The Mainframe has all those things, but a thousand more, so I don't think anyone will be alienated or let down by it."
"I think I only know one Prince song. With some of my music, the inspiration is more likely to come from Sonic the Hedgehog."
How did you go about choosing the artists that you wanted to get involved?
"For Wise Enough, with Zak Abel, I had a demo instrumental and my manager sent it around to a few labels to get some vocal ideas. One that came back was Zak just humming on it and saying a few words on his mobile phone; it was like a voicemail with the track playing in the background. I thought, yeah it's cool, but when someone sends you a bit of music you're very quick to judge it depending on where it comes from. It would be good if you could listen to every kind of music blind. Like, if you heard the new Kanye West track blind and didn't know who he was, would you like it or hate it?
"Some time later, my iTunes was on shuffle and the track came on. I knew it was a track I'd made but completely forgot someone had sung on it, and I was like, 'Whoooah, this is sick'. So I got Zak's mobile number and rung him at two o'clock in the morning. He's like, 'Who's this?' I'm like, 'It's Joker. You wanna write this track? I'm coming to pick you up now.' I drove all the way from Bristol; picked him up at Reading station and we rewrote the whole song."
Do you guide the vocalists or allow them to interpret the demo instrumental as they see fit?
"99% of the time, I think artists like being free, so I feel like if I'm giving them too many instructions they're not going to be able to be free. It's about feeling what you feel and what I felt on the instrumental.
"I like to let the singer paint the picture of what they see from what I've created. All I can do is like it or hate it; if I don't like it I'm not going to use it, otherwise great. Unless The Mainframe was literally about a mainframe and I was talking about some crazy Tron stuff, I guess I would get them to be a bit more specific, but in this case it's just all about good music.
"The track Lucy, featuring Sam Frank, I loved it but realised it was really cheesy. Then I thought, 'Who gives a fuck? I like it'. If I'm worried about what other people are thinking, that's not why I got into music."
The track you mention has quite a strong Prince influence. Is that someone you admire?
"Believe or not, I'm very shit with music - I think I only know one Prince song. When people say you got influenced by this or that, I usually don't know their music even if their name is huge. With some of my music, the inspiration is more likely to come from Sonic the Hedgehog.
"A lot of the computer game music, especially Sonic, Shinobi and Streets and Rage, is just like some Ghetto Funk. They were taking ideas from stuff I would have probably liked anyway. I'm a massive, massive fan of Metal Gear Solid. Their game called Snake Eater had a very Bond theme to it, and that shit was so inspiring.
"One of my favourite tunes in the whole world is Tomorrow Never Dies by Sheryl Crow."
You started with Reason and moved onto Logic; is that still your choice of DAW?
"Yeah, in fact I started on FruityLoops. I went to my cousin's house from school; his dad's Roni Size. All he had was some PC speakers and he was playing music I'd never heard. It was like grime, but I guess at the time it would have been called garage. So I got a crack of FruityLoops; actually it wasn't a crack, it was a demo, because I could never save a tune. I had to make a tune and be happy with it, then export it, because once I'd closed FruityLoops, that was it, there was no going back to the tune.
"It was the most addictive thing I'd ever come across in my whole life. I was up all night trying to make beats."
Who did you want to sound like in those days?
"I was always trying to recreate a Wiley or Skepta beat, just really trying to figure out how they did it. At the time, I was in a crew and I was a DJ. I couldn't MC because I hated my voice, so all I could do was make music. You know when you're like 14 years old and you hear a song and that shit just sounds amazing? Well I was always wondering why they didn't make that sound go longer or why they couldn't repeat or make a bit of the song last more and more. So I was like, I need to start creating my own bits; make the good bits more so I could be happy [laughs]."
Do you still use FruityLoops and Reason?
"When FruityLoops 12 comes out, I can't wait to hit it. I think in this day and age they're all the same, but the one DAW that stands out is Reason. It's just the most crazy, weird and, I would say, fun, way to work. Ableton's quite different as well - not that I like it, but I know a lot of people do and it's quite good to get creative with. But Reason's very different. It's more up to date with extra synths and expansion packs; before, you couldn't really add anything to it. I just get what I wanna get out of it and export it into Logic.
"When I was a kid, I didn't know about VSTs, and people used to say my stuff sounded different because all I was using was a bunch of sample packs. I've been using Reason since I was 13 or 14 and still use loads of sounds. Nowadays, everyone's trying to buy the new synth or find the new VST - at one time, everyone was using the Triton for hip-hop and grime, and you could tell, as everyone had a similar tone."
You're now using Logic Pro X. Is the upgrade sufficiently different?
"Yeah, they've added a few things, but all these DAWs do the same thing, and all the upgrades mean is that everyone is catching up with each other. I think a new look's cool; when you look at something new it inspires you. When I had my studio in my bedroom, I'd change it around every six months just because the new look was inspiring."
Do you use common sidechaining and ducking techniques?
"When needed. I'm infatuated with heavy kicks and basslines. The two don't really mix, so I'm having to sidechain the kicks to the sub. I like frequency sidechaining as well, so you've got the sound of your bassline, not your sub, and a snare. If they sit around similar frequencies you can move them around so it just gives the snare some space to breathe."
"I do think plugins like Diva and Zebra are amazing, but when you've played with the Moog Voyager - no plugins sound like that ."
Would you call yourself a sound designer or do you prefer to arrange from a library of sounds?
"I used to make 80% of my sounds, but I love the sounds from my modules. Whether a synth is hardware or software, I like to flick through the presets, edit and go. But when I do create my own sounds from scratch, I always do something a bit special. Sometimes I might bring my Triton or Prophet 12 home with me and just sit in bed nerding out, making new sounds, so I've got something to play with when I get back to the studio."
Last time we spoke you were just starting to get into hardware and debating which was better to use…
"It's funny because I look at all my hardware, yet a lot of my album was done in the box. I keep on forgetting how much better it sounds out of the box. We could argue all day about what sounds better, but when you listen to old garage, drum 'n' bass and jungle, or even hip-hop, there's something about the old stuff. It could be the nostalgia element, but I think it's the gear that they were using. I've got old modules and I usually prefer what they're doing to what a lot of plugins are doing now. I don't know if it's the way the sound is coming out of the converters, going through electricity and stuff, but my Korg Triton and Roland Juno-106 sound so thick and ready to roll."
Does using hardware give you a better appreciation of how sound can be controlled?
"In Reason, the Subtractor was simple and taught you how to use a synth, and I thought this must be emulating something; there must be real versions of this. I didn't know anything at the time, like these delay things - are there real versions of delays or a real reverb? What's a reverb?
"In this day and age, there's not a massive difference between software and hardware, but when it comes to sound modules and analogue synths, I don't think we're there yet. I do think plugins like Diva, Zebra and all those analogue ones are amazing, but when you've played with the Moog Voyager - no plugins sound like that, bruv. I don't have it no more - I lent it to someone and it got stolen - but I remember having problems finding drums that would fit with the Voyager because it sounded too big for any drums that I had.
"I've got an Alesis Andromeda as well, and plugins just cannot step up to that shit."
Would you say the Andromeda is your favourite hardware synth?
"I have a lot of keyboards and there's always a time and a place for one of them. My favourite one right now is my Triton, but before it was the Roland SH-201 - that was the cheapest keyboard I had. It cost, like, £400 and made all my hits. I still think it's one of the best synths; it's laid out correctly and easy to use. I'm happy with my collection, but if I was going to get another hardware synth I'd get the Voyager again."
Do you sample off other records or use field recordings at all?
"I used to have a deck and some old records, because I liked the idea of sitting down and bringing that stuff in, but I've always been shit at finding good, rare samples. Any time I do use one, it'll be a good one, like a little hit or something; but I hardly use samples now."
Where do your ideas come from?
"When I was a kid, it was almost too much. I'd be walking around the house or down the street full of ideas and I would go to the computer already knowing what to make; but now it's more about sitting down and playing some keys or going through sounds. It's starting to come back, and that idea always ends up as a song because it's already been made. The hardest bit is when the sound in your mind is not a simple bassline but something alien; then you're sat there trying to modulate and create shit, but I think trying to sculpt something that you've heard in your brain is fun."
"When I was a kid, it was almost too much. I'd be walking around the house or down the street full of ideas and I would go to the computer already knowing what to make; but now it's more about sitting down and playing some keys or going through sounds."
Do you still DJ, and do you only play your own tracks out?
"I play a lot more of my tracks than I ever have. Since I finished my album, I've created 90 tracks. Depending on what kind of setup I'm doing or where I am, 90% of what I play will be my tracks.
"The other day, I played at Motion in Bristol and decided to play a lot of old grime, but if I'm at a small arts festival or club and trying to get a point across, I have to be ready. The problem is, when you have vinyl you always have a limited set."
Do you use decks live or prefer to take the software route?
"Nah, I even feel bad about using a CDJ. Unfortunately, it's got to a point where everywhere I'm going the decks are not working. People don't look after them, or you turn the music up and it vibrates, so you're forced to use CDJs now. Vinyl has a nicer sound to it, but I like being able to carry the equivalent of 1,000 record bags around with me.
"I guess it doesn't really matter what DJs use, as long as people are enjoying themselves; but with the whole Ableton thing - I can send my little brother on stage and get him to press a few buttons. I guess you could say that about DJing as well - it's not really that hard, is it? I mean, the word 'live': if you're on your laptop, you're not live, you're hardly doing anything - it's half as live as DJing.
"That's why I've not gone live yet. I'm not going live until I've gone 'live'. The money's not there to do what I want to do. I would like to go on stage with a fucking symphony, a billion synths and crazy drums - something that needs a huge stage."