Across the course of four albums, numerous singles and remixes, and an astonishingly long list of DJ bookings, British-born, Berlin-based producer Paul Rose (aka Scuba) has slowly but surely established himself as one of the most high-profile names on the global underground dance music circuit.
Yet his steady rise to prominence has been an eclectic one. As a producer, DJ and boss of lauded label Hotflush, Rose has had a career full of stylistic twists and turns – from his loose early affiliation with dubstep, through the spacious beats of his breakthrough album Triangulation, to the playful rave influences of its follow-up, Personality; and helping to kickstart the careers of the likes of Mount Kimbie, Joy Orbison, George FitzGerald, Locked Groove and more along the way.
Rose's latest LP, Claustrophobia, plays like a summation of all those influences; crafted with intricate found textures and custom reverbs that bring to mind his more atmospheric roots, but built around a bold framework of powerful beats and thick, complex synth parts. Created in a short, enforced time frame - due to Rose being forced to pack up and move out of his Berlin studio - the result is the most cohesive and impressive Scuba release to date. With the dust settling on this latest phase, we caught up with Rose to find out how Claustrophobia came together…
How much did the composition and production process change over the course of Triangulation, Personality and Claustrophobia?
"The general process hasn't really changed that much over that time; I've had a similar sort of studio set-up. There was a difference with this latest album in that it was all written much quicker than previous records - it was all really done from start to finish in about ten weeks, including mixing. The previous ones had taken the best part of a year, on and off. So that's a different approach compositionally, but on a technical level all of them have just been me sat in a room hunched over a computer. Basically sweating it out until it's done!"
Where was Claustrophobia created? Do you have a studio space in Berlin?
"I've had various studio spaces while I've been living in Berlin, which is since 2007. Each album was made in a different studio. Personality was done in a studio I had in a rehearsal space and art complex in an old brewery, in a suburb of Berlin called Friedrichshain. I had to move out of there because it was being demolished and turned into flats, so I left there just after finishing Personality. Then the last one, which I moved into straight after that, I must have had for nearly three years.
"It's not ideal moving around so much; each time, you have to get used to a new space, and get used to how things sound. In my experience, it takes a year to get used to a workspace. So I'm looking for something now that I'll be able to have on a long term basis, like ten years or something. Every time you move, you feel like you've set yourself back."
You recently tweeted a couple of pictures of your studio while making Claustrophobia, showing a fairly simple Universal Audio-equipped computer setup. Is that minimal, in-the-box setup fairly representative of what you used to make the whole album?
"Yeah, all the processing I did in the box with UA plug-ins. What isn't in that picture is a guitar amp, which I used for running a lot of things out of and re-recording them back in. A lot of the reverb on the album is done like that - running stuff through an amp and then having that in quite a sharp acoustic environment. I put the amp in the bathroom, basically, and then was recording stuff from that. Then there were a lot of field recordings on the album too."
What was the idea behind that? Were you consciously trying to get certain textures into the album through those recordings?
"I'd played around with the idea of going down the proper analogue route for this record, and I do own a Juno-60, which I've had for ages. But, to be honest, those sounds have been used so much that it's nothing original anymore, going down that route. What I wanted to do sonically with the record was make something that sounded really distinctive, so it made much more sense to collect sounds myself and process them internally, rather than crunching stuff in ways that's been done loads of time before. The easiest way to capture distinctive sounds is to just go out and record stuff."
How long did you spend capturing those field recordings? Did that all happen alongside that ten-week writing session, or did you spend some time before gathering a big bank of samples?
"No, I did most of the recording as I went along, really. I had an enforced period of absence from the studio before writing the album due to illness, so when I came back I had an idea that I wanted to get something done quickly. In fact, I had to get it done fast, as I knew I had to move out of the studio by the end of October. It was a real 'against the clock' exercise. But I had a lot of free time; I cancelled a lot of shows and just had quite a free diary. So I started making tunes, but on the way to the studio I'd have my little recorder and just record anything interesting that came up. I'd just have it running when walking around, and end up with a couple of hours of audio to go through and chop up to extract the interesting stuff from. It was just a period when I was trying to get as much stuff done as possible in a short time, really. Sometimes that's quite an effective way of doing it, as it forces you to think creatively."
So did you end up running up against the enforced deadline of having to pack up and move out?
"I probably spent the last two weeks mixing it, so there wasn't any last minute writing going on, but there was definitely a fair bit of tweaking. When you're mixing your own stuff, it's quite different from mixing other people's music, because a lot of it is just getting your head around what you've actually written. During the writing period, it can be quite difficult to be objective about what stuff actually sounds like. You'll think something sounds good and then you'll play it with someone else in the room and it'll totally change your mind on it. That sort of stuff happens a lot. So I had two weeks of just tinkering with it and doing that sort of mix work. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't conscious of the time, but equally it wasn't a big pressure or anything."
Do you always mix your own tracks in your own studio, then? Would you ever consider getting someone else involved at the mix stage, or renting a bigger studio space?
"To date, I've mixed every track of mine apart from one. Certainly, all the albums I mixed in the same space as I recorded them in. For me, I wouldn't consider going to somewhere bigger, just because I think it's really important that you know the acoustics of the room you're mixing in. Even if you're in a space that is imperfect sonically, if you've been in there and you've worked in there for a certain number of hours, you know how to work around it. Even if things don't sound right, if you use multiple reference points and you take things out of the studio and listen to them in different environments - which I think you have to do anyway - you can get really good results regardless. Up to a point, anyway; there are certain limitations. But if it's half decent and you're confident in there, then that's the most important thing.
"Mixing is a fairly tortuous process, and it's not something I'd necessarily recommend to any producer starting out. Although the techniques you use in your mixdown can be quite useful in the writing stage, too."
"I'm not a complete purist about it though. People use mix engineers, and I think that's fine to do that. The most important thing is the writing stage. As long as you're crediting people accurately then it's fine. Mixing is a fairly tortuous process, and it's not something I'd necessarily recommend to any producer starting out. Although the techniques you use in your mixdown can be quite useful in the writing stage, too. The more knowledge you have as a producer and engineer, the better, really. It can be incredibly rewarding, too, as the mixdown is essentially the final realisation of an idea."
Do you master your own tracks too?
"I draw the line at mastering. There's no fucking way I'm getting into that! [laughs]"
There seems to be a unifying mood to the record as a whole… Is there an underlying concept to it beyond the technical approaches that you've mentioned?
"It's difficult to say whether there was a conscious effort to create a concept or a story, I don't really think there was. It was certainly born out of a certain kind of mood I was in when I was doing the work, and the fact that it was created in quite a short period of time I think explains why it all sounds as if it's coming from the same place. Even though there's quite a lot of different styles and genres within the album, there's a lot of commonality across all of the different tracks. So I think it's just a case of having a streamlined approach to it, rather than having a pre-defined vision."
Over the past few years you've kept up a pretty hectic DJ schedule. How much does that inform your creative process when you sit down to make an album? Do you feel aware that you need to make tracks that will work in a club environment?
"Yeah, the vast majority of touring I do is as a DJ, so you want to have stuff to play. I think for someone like me, in the position I'm in, making an album is a balance between making an artistic statement, and having stuff within that you're able to present in a club setting, and that the people who come to see you play are going to react to. It's about trying not to compromise between those two things and to integrate them in a way that you're happy with, and is consistent and coherent.
"That said, I didn't want to make a whole album of dancefloor tracks - that was clear from the outset. I wanted it to be something that you could stick on in any context. You're never going to play a whole album in a club, obviously. The context when people listen to an album is more likely to be on their iPod on the train, on the car stereo, or sat at home or whatever. So it was important for me that it was going to be enjoyable in any of those listening contexts.
"You're right, though: DJing-wise, I've been hard at it for many years now, and it can be quite creatively destructive. You see that in a lot of people's music - people who become big DJs off the back of making interesting stuff, and then spend a number of years playing big rooms. When you play stages of a certain size, you quickly realise that to be effective in that environment you have to make musical compromises, otherwise it just won't work. I think that's why a lot of DJs will tell you they don't like playing on big festival stages. Your freedom is so curtailed, just by the fact that things that work in a small club just won't work. Usually the sorts of things that will work aren't the kind of things you'd necessarily be wanting to play. It's kind of a balance, really - when you go back into the studio, your instinct is to make stuff that you can play out, and if all you've been doing is playing on big stages, then suddenly you find yourself making these enormous stadium tracks, which probably isn't what you were known for in the first place. It can be difficult - the higher you climb up the ladder, the worse your music is in danger of getting.
"As I said, though, around the time of this album I was on a period of enforced absence from the touring circuit, and I think that really helped – not having played any gigs for a couple of months, and not playing any whilst I was writing. By the time I was mixing down, I'd had a chance to play some of the tracks out, but not really before that. In fact, I remember the first time I played Why You Feel So Low I was properly like, 'Please, let this work!', as I knew it was going to be one of the main parts of the album, so if it had fallen flat I would have been totally fucked. Luckily, it did work and I was very, very happy about that. That's the other side of the coin - if you can't test stuff out, you don't know what's going to work in the environments you're intending to play these tracks. You can quite easily get into trouble that way, too."
Following Personality, you did a run of live shows with a custom stage set-up, rather than straight DJ sets. How did you find that? And is it something you're planning on repeating this time around?
"I found it pretty difficult, to be honest. Mostly because, again, you're caught in that trap of playing on big stages, which I inevitably was, because the stage show was physically quite big. To get it out the door, it had to be on a big stage, otherwise it wouldn't have been economically viable. It was a case of balancing that with an attempt to do something different to what I do in my DJ sets, and it meant presenting music from previous albums that definitely wasn't created as big stage music. It was a difficult balance.
"There were some shows that it worked really well at; there was one particular show at Primavera festival in Barcelona, and I thought that one worked really well. But there were definitely others where it was more of a struggle. With festival stages, a lot of the crowd don't know your stuff, so they're basically just stood at this stage waiting for some massive thing to go off. If you come on playing a much more esoteric kind of music, it can be pretty difficult.
"I'm certainly glad I did it. It was a pretty steep learning curve, and it worked some times and didn't work others. I guess that's like anything; you chalk it up to experience. I'm not sure if I'm going to do any more with this album. There would be a context in which I'd consider doing it, but I haven't got any shows booked in. The live rig is still there, but I'm not completely sure if it's going to happen."
Your label, Hotflush, seems to have shifted focus over the years in line with the sound of your own releases. How much does your own creative process influence the tracks you sign to the label, and vice versa?
"I think they're two sides of the same coin, really, and there's another side as well, which is that what we put out on the label tends to reflect my DJ sets. So there are those three different things that are definitely interlinked. I think they all sort of feed into each other - there isn't really a chicken and egg process that goes on with any one of them. What I'm interested in at the time can come out in any of those three things. It's difficult to pick out and pinpoint a single factor that influences any one of those three things, though.
"The A&R for Hotflush has always just been me, and what I'm interested in at any one time, so it's changed a lot over the years. There have been three or four definable phases of it, so it tends to be a couple of years of something and then I'll get bored and want to do something else, for better or worse. I don't know; it's not something I particularly think about. There'll be the occasional period when I'll have released a couple of things in a certain style, and I'll be happy with the way it's going, so will try and push things in that direction a little more. But it's rare that I'll decide to suddenly change direction; it's quite an evolutionary thing."
You've had quite a few cases where you've picked up artists for their earliest releases and then they've gone on to make a pretty big impact, such as Joy Orbison, Mount Kimbie, Locked Groove, and so on. Is nurturing new talent like that an important part of it for you?
"When I'm signing someone new, rather than signing a one-off massive tune that some unknown producer has made, I definitely try and sign people who have longer term potential. That's quite a motivating factor for me. It's my main source of satisfaction from doing it, really - getting people who are unknown and then gradually building them up over time, and then watching them go off and do well. That's a big part of why I do it. Certainly with Mount Kimbie, especially, but also with George [FitzGerald] and Sigha and all those people.
"When people move on, I tend to be pretty philosophical about it; if people want to do something bigger, like Mount Kimbie signing to Warp, for example, or George signing to Domino, I can't argue with that."
"When people move on, I tend to be pretty philosophical about it; if people want to do something bigger, like Mount Kimbie signing to Warp, for example, or George signing to Domino, I can't argue with that. That's cool; I'm not going to stand in their way. Even if there's a contract involved, I've never stood in front of anyone who wants to move on and do something that's genuinely bigger and genuinely good for their career. That, for me, means that we've done our job."
How involved do you get with new artists like that? Do you ever lend a hand on the production or mixdown side, or do you stick to a purely A&R role?
"It really varies quite a lot, actually. There have been times when I've got quite involved on a technical level, but I don't like doing that, generally speaking. For me, it's much better if people are able to work through things on their own and gradually get a handle on what it is they want to be doing. If I've got involved, it's been at quite an early stage, and then they've got the idea and then taken things on further on their own. Much more common is I'll try to encourage people in different ways, but without actually saying, 'Okay send me the stems, I'll mix it for you'. I try not to get involved to that extent."
Claustrophobia is out now via Hotflush Recordings.