Bok Bok on hardware, bitcrushing and vintage chip burners

The past few years have been busy for South Londoner Alex Sushon, better known as Bok Bok… although you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell from looking at his solo discography.

Much of his time has been spent DJing, both in the UK and abroad, and running the now-ubiquitous Night Slugs, the label and club night he co-founded in 2008 with James Connoly, aka L-Vis 1990.

Sushon’s background in graphic design – he previously worked at an advertising agency – means he also oversees the unique, bright, and bold aesthetic that characterises every Night Slugs release, poster, and music video.

These visuals often meld an alien, other-worldly feel to studio gear and '80s synths (a colour-inverted Yamaha DX7 stars prominently in the music video for Papaya Lipgloss, a creamy collaboration with NS up-and-comer Sweyn Jupiter), creating a juxtaposition that would make you think a certain gear fetishism was on display. 

But looking around the studio where Bok Bok works and collaborates, it’s clear that his work is process-driven and all about achieving the necessary results for the time at hand.

Hardware and software play equal parts in Bok Bok’s production ethos, which he has described as being equally informed by the eight-bar logic of early, raw grime and the pop precision of Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam.

2014’s Melba’s Call, a track that was as deep and soulful as it was futuristic, was a turning point for both Kelela and Sushon, who met through mutual friend and fellow DJ Total Freedom. Bok Bok’s work on the track hinted at the stop-and-start rhythms he had explored in earlier tracks and remix work, but also posited something new, bending an '80s FM bass riff into an origami masterpiece, jacking every inch along the way. 

Fast forward to 2017 and Bok Bok has returned with the appropriately-titled Salvage 2017, a new EP of four tracks that have been described as being “built with raw 12-bit samples and inspired by and intended for DJs, MCs, radio sets and sweaty, blacked-out dancefloors”. MusicRadar had a chance to chat with Bok Bok about some of the gear that's shaped his new EP, his recent affinity for vocals, and what it means to grow up in the club.

It’s been a while since you’ve released any solo material. Has the Salvage 2017 EP been in the works for a while? Had those tracks been completed and sitting around? Were they all made around the same time? 

“The tracks were made over the course of about a year, though it’s not like the whole time I hadn’t been releasing music I was working on this one EP. But to be honest, I’ve been spending a lot of time working on other people’s music, working on beats for people, travelling and DJing, so I’m never that great at being on-point about always releasing stuff. So, no, it wasn’t really in the works for that long. Two of them were made last summer, and they were actually in a mixtape. So I showed those to people early on, and then the other two tracks were made a little bit after that. Salvage Lurkin was made just before the whole thing came out, basically. About a year, total.”

Was there anything in particular that tied those four tracks together?

“Yeah, for one thing I’d say that I’ve got tons of other music lying around that doesn’t fit with these four tracks, but the reason I wanted to do it now is that there’s a story that ties these four together. I know it might not seem like it, because they’re simple and loopy, but there’s an internal story about me and my life in there, and they all felt right together in that way. There’s a bit of internal logic there which I don’t feel like I need to explain. I tried to tell the story a little bit with the cover art, or at least convey some of my mindset. But you know, a lot of the demos were actually started in the winter months, even though I know I just said I finished them in the summer. The conception was in a particularly stormy time, both literally and personally, and also in the world around me.”

And they all shared a common genesis point, right? 

“Yeah, they all began as pretty stripped-back pieces of grime-influenced music that I made quite quickly, all with the same equipment. There’s also this sampling aspect to three of the tracks on the EP. The fourth one doesn’t have any samples. Sometimes I feel like when you’re trying to be an artist, it’s nice to just have an internal logic that doesn’t necessarily need to be on the surface, and to not let people communicate with it.”

Sometimes I feel like when you’re trying to be an artist, it’s nice to just have an internal logic that doesn’t necessarily need to be on the surface, and to not let people communicate with it.

Once they were rolling, did you find that they came out quickly? Are you the kind of producer that lets things gestate for long periods? 

“With those tracks, I made them kinda quick and I think you can tell, because they’re really simple. They’re mostly just loops. Really and truly, each one probably took one session and a few days to complete. They weren’t particularly time-consuming. When I did Melba’s Call with Kelela, that track took me a year! And I learned a big lesson from that, which was don’t work on music for that long, you know? My whole thing now is I’m trying to do ten beats a day; trying to work fast. I never used to work fast but I’m trying to make myself a producer that works fast.”

Ten beats, from start to finish? 

“Nah, that’s just an aim. Even if ten don’t happen that day, I’ll end up with lots of loops and ideas. Definitely not full tracks. What I am trying to do more is get more of the track done in one session - rather than write a loop and stop, I’ve been writing a loop and writing the progression, actually figuring out what part you’ve made in the track. Maybe you’ve made a verse, maybe you’ve made a chorus. If you’ve made a chorus, maybe you need to try to figure out a verse before you close the project.”

Your studio has a nice variety of tools in both the hardware and software domain, and it seems very curated to what you’re doing, specifically. What gear would was particularly notable for these tracks? We’ve heard about a 12-bit sampler playing a large part. 

“Yeah, it was an Oberheim Prommer. Technically, it’s not even a sampler, it’s a chip burner. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it but it’s a fun little machine. It basically exists to create samples that you burn to chips and then put inside analog drum machines, such as the LinnDrum, the DMX, or, in my case, the (SCI) Drumtrax. So, I kind of use it in a slightly funny way, where sometimes I don’t burn the chips, I just kind of sample to it, and I think it’s the thing that gives the record the kind of grit that you hear.”

How did you stumble across the Prommer?

“Originally, I got it because I wanted to make drum chips for my Drumtrax. It’s great - you open the lid, and you can take out the sample chips and put in new ones. What I really wanted to do was put modern sounds onto an 80s sampler, an 80s drum machine and have it run through that vintage bitcrunch. So I would burn modern-day sounds to it, and that’s how I’ve been making my drums for a while now. I got all that gear because I want that original warm sound, but I don’t want to be limited by only 80s drum kits. It’s a great sampler. I use it for melodies and stuff too, it’s insane.”

Are you sequencing it from something or does it have a built-in sequencer? 

“I would send MIDI to it.”

Do you find yourself sequencing everything at once, like the old-school hardware approach? 

“No, it doesn’t do that very well. It only has ten seconds of audio at 12-bit. It’s kind of limited in what you can do, but the thing is that I don’t really write like that anyway. I like to write a part, arrange it, record it, fuck it up, and then figure out what’s going on with the track, listen to it for a bit, and then write another part. That’s how I tend to work anyway. It’s very rare for me to build a track outboard and then try to multitrack everything. I used to work like that when I was doing some of the house stuff, for example, some of the stuff I did with Tom Trago, and on my own; but these days I don’t really like doing that because these days a lot of the stuff I’m using is digital too. For example, I really like Omnisphere. That’s a wonderful synth. It’s not all about gear. I just want to make sounds that hit you in some way, know what I mean?”

You’ve been a big proponent of the Korg Triton in the past - was that a player in the process for the creation of these tracks? 

“Yeah, absolutely. I use my Triton pretty much every day. A lot of my drums come off the Triton and onto the Oberheim, and also I use it for melodies. Essential piece of kit.”

Totally. Do you still have your Korg Polysix? 

“Absolutely. I love that thing. That’s one thing I’d never let go of.”

Do you have it MIDIed? 

“Yeah, absolutely! Hacked and rehacked. It’s actually an interesting story because the guy that does that for me is getting on a bit, but he’s a great guy and he’s actually one of the original designers of the Polysix! So when I take it to him, he’s overjoyed because it’s like his little baby, you know? He gave birth to it at some point. Designed it. It’s mental to have that person working on my synth. He did the conversion kit for me, so it’s MIDIed up and sequenceable and all that.”

Lots of your drum sounds are very heavily compressed, very gritty, lots of character to them. Do you rely on hardware compressors?

“You know, I’m actually starting to a little bit more. There’s a couple of Neve preamps that I’ve started to record with that are really great, and I’ve also been bouncing stuff through a Chandler on the master chain. But to be honest with you, it’s not like I rely on it, because everything comes in UAD form at this point, and there’s a lot of great plugins that aren’t UAD that get the job done. Like I said, it’s not really about the gear, it’s more about the feel, you know what I mean? The Chandler is a 16 channel - it doesn’t have any faders, just knobs. I’m quite bad with gear names, and I’m also kind of new to it, but I’m lucky enough to have access to that and a few very nice preamps, a few nice compressors. I don’t rely on it but it’s nice to have those around for when you want it.”

Have you had those long in your studio? 

“No, actually, those are quite new. I don’t want to say too much but it’s a new setup that I’ve got access to at the moment. But it’s pretty great. There’s a new studio spaces that I’ve been using, and that’s where all that gear I just mentioned is.”

You’ve done lots of work with other artists, in many forms of collaboration. Some of that is surface level ‘feature’ work, and then you also do a lot of mixing and final editing of much of the Night Slugs releases. How have those things informed your own music and your own processes?

“To be honest, I owe the guys everything. I’ve learned so much from doing other people’s music. For example, we just finished Sweyn’s EP, and when I say that guy’s got ears, he hears shit that I’m not hearing at all. I’m learning every day. Every time I get to open up someone’s session, I’m gonna learn from it. To be honest, it’s taught me everything in a way. For one thing, people talk about the amount of hours it takes for people to become proficient at something - 10,000 hours, whatever it is - and all of that mixing is ear training. You get to learn new plugins and play with new kit and I’m grateful for it. It takes up a lot of my time and over the years it’s taken me away from my own solo work for sure, but I’m grateful for it because it’s been a huge education, and I wouldn’t have learned those lessons if I’d just been sitting there doing my own beats, you know?”

Over time you find those patches, plugins or gear that you want to keep using, but you can spend your whole life going through presets.

Has any of that led to mixing work for people outside of Night Slugs?

“Occasionally. There’s been a lot of talk for a certain artist, and sometimes it doesn’t quite happen, but people have been interested in the past. But I don’t know if I’m really up for it, to be honest with you, because I only do that sort of work when it’s essential to get music out, and the people that I work with need help with that. It’s definitely something I’ll consider doing more in the future, though, because I do enjoy it and it’s good work, satisfying work for me.”

Speaking of collaborations, I’m a big fan of your EP with Tom Trago. Do you two have anything else in the works? 

“You know, I haven’t seen Tom in a few years. He’s pretty busy being a crazy house guy, and I’ve been making a lot of rap beats… I think one day we’ll come back together and make something crazy, but it’s not on the cards at the moment.” 

Have any of those rap beats come out? 

“I don’t think so, but they are in people’s inboxes. Fingers crossed.”

There seems to be a resurgence of affordably priced gear of late. How closely do you pay attention to such things? 

“You know, I don’t really pay attention to any of that because I don’t feel like I need new gear in my life. The way the Prommer reached me was sort of like how people enter your life - if it’s meant to happen, it sort of just happens. But I don’t feel like I’m wanting for new sounds right now, and if I am, I’ll probably just open Omnisphere.

“Over time, you find those patches, plugins or bits of gear that you want to keep using, but at the same time you can spend your whole life going through presets. One really interesting thing that my friend Kindness told me that he learned from working with Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam – which is crazy to me, because I wouldn’t even want to set foot in the same room as them – but he’s so confident, so he goes and works with his heroes. And one interesting thing that they told him that he passed on to me is that they don’t tweak synth patches at all. They just find a preset and record it. The presets that come with synths are good, you know?”

What else is planned for Bok Bok in the near future? 

“There’s a lot of music just sitting there, but I want to see what coalesces and who wants to jump on what, because I really want to do vocal stuff. I always want to make the music that I’m most passionate about, and right now I’m not finding a lot of instrumental music that’s exciting. As I get older, my attention span is less, not more, and I just need those hooks. I need that presence and that melody and that warmth, that extra level of expression that you get.

“I want to make songs; that’s kind of what I’m interested in at the moment. I like the idea of how easy it is to flip a riddim into a song, and the few steps that you can take to get from one to the next is interesting to me.”

Finally, what do you think other producers can learn from you, without aping what you’re doing?

“I think it would sound a bit conceited to say people can learn this or that from me, and to be honest, people can take whatever influence they want from what I’m doing. But if I was to give someone advice, it would just be to focus on the sounds and make them believable in a real world way, even if they are digital. Some of the newer music I’ve heard doesn’t really have that quality to it. If I got to work on some new producer’s music, I would want to shape those sounds in a way so that they’re still believable, warm them and give them that ‘wooden’ texture we were talking about earlier. But I wouldn’t say that people need to learn that from my music - it’s just something I like. I’m not trying to teach any lessons, you know what I mean? I’m a humble person.”

Keep up with all things Night Slugs at the website, and find the man himself on Twitter.

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