Want to make it big in the record biz? Then become a teaboy at your favourite label. Everyone from ’80s pop puppet Rick Astley to Cassius’s sadly departed Philippe Zdar started by brewing cuppas before churning out hits. The thinking is, if you loiter around long enough, your break will come. Just ask The Qemists.
“It’s true,” says Liam Black. “I started out making the teas for Coldcut in their studio before getting our break. They needed a drum & bass remix and an engineer points to me and says, ‘Liam and his mates make drum & bass, ask him’. That was it. They gave us 24 hours to turn something in. We did, and they signed us for an album off the back of it, without hearing anymore!”
Liam, along with Dan Arnold and Leon Harris, gave Coldcut, and their legendary Ninja Tune label, the heaviest record they would ever release. Join The Q, which turned ten last year, mixed rock and metal guitar energy with cutting edge electronic science, redefining the modern sound of drum & bass in the process.
“Everyone was saying at the time just how ground-breaking the sound was,” says Harris. “I only see that in hindsight. We’d been in a band and it just made sense to fuse our live playing with dance music. It was new, and it created a lot of hype around us.”
Every DJ worth their salt, from Chase & Status to Andy C, was opening their DJ sets with Qemists’ tracks. Radio tastemakers like Annie Mac and Zane Lowe were relentless with support. Even Japanese baseball teams were running out into packed stadiums to a banging Qemists soundtrack.
“It was bonkers,” says Liam. “Our third gig was the Tokyo arena in front of 30,000 people, and it was rammed!”
It was a rollercoaster ride. They rose rapidly from humble beginnings to becoming ‘the hottest thing in the world right now’, and this album was the start of it all.
So, pop the kettle on, sit back, and let The Qemists tell you how it all came to be...
Dan Arnold: “I remember finishing it the day before it had to be handed in to be mastered.”
Leon Harris: “It was eight in the morning, and it had to be mastered at nine! It was the first one we finished. I was pretty devastated, sending that off. I remember thinking, ‘It’s not good enough! It’s not good enough!’ I was just worried it was gonna bomb. And then the next thing, Chase & Status were putting it in their sets.
“We thought It was the heaviest sound we could make – big guitars, sirens. We just wanted it to be completely over the top. We wanted it to be impossible to ignore this record. I remember talking to Rob Swire (of Pendulum) and he said, ‘That sound just really came out of nowhere’. He thought they were the only ones who were doing it.”
On The Run
Leon: “Jenna G on this one. She later joined us as our live vocalist for the Join The Q tour.”
Liam: “Also, we wanted to write a track in one day. The first remix that got us signed took 24 hours. Everything else was so laboured over. We wanted to get back to that.”
Leon: “It was Wednesday night (which was the original title for the track!) and we made the entire thing from start to finish on that day. It then took about five months to mix it [laughs]. We just had some samples that weren’t playing ball.”
Dan: “It did well on radio as well.”
Leon: “Yeah. Annie Mac was all over that. She was, and still is, the tastemaker. She put that on her TV show! All that stuff seemed pretty normal to us at the time.”
Dem Na Like Me
Liam: “It all came from that reggae sample, lifted off a 45. We got it re-sung as we couldn’t find who owned the original. The thing with some of the older Jamaican samples, people start putting their hands up saying, ‘We own that record’.”
Leon: “We wanted to apply drum & bass sound to this grime kinda beat we’d made out of it. The obvious person to get on it was Wiley. The only thing is getting hold of the man! Anyway, after several false starts, to his credit, when the artistic vibe took him, he came to Brighton and recorded his amazing vocal over at our place.”
Leon: “We’d made this intro, and just couldn’t chuck it away. This long bit didn’t fit with the track, but the vocals that Zoe (Devlin Love) had built, in layers, were so beautiful that we just had to find a place for it.”
Dan: “Back then we were way more interested in making ‘an album’. It was an LP. We wanted people to listen from start to finish. Which is quite unusual for a dance act.
“We’d been reading that Bob Katz book, Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science, and it had a big chapter on album sequencing. I remember that being a big thing for us.”
Leon: “Someone who we knew had a link to Alabama 3, and Zoe was singing for them, and so we got her on this track.
“She had this idea to speak to Bruce Reynolds, The Great Train Robber, who was a relation of her boyfriend, and record the conversation. So there’s a sample there, that didn’t actually make it on the album, where he’s talking to her about an idea for this song, ‘S.W.A.G’, about a train robbery, and that’s where she got the inspiration.
“There was this sample of him saying [adopts gruff Cockney voice], ‘Oh. I got my swag, boy’. That’s why she sings that line, ‘You got that swag, boy’.
“We had On The Run and now S.W.A.G, so we had this narrative theme that kept popping up [laughs]. Mostly with female singers.”
Leon: “This features MC ID. He’s now Sub Focus’ MC. He’s a mate of ours from Brighton and he had a residency at Devotion.”
Liam: “He was just around one night and it was like, ‘Look, we need a vocal. We’ve got an idea. Come give it a spin’.”
Leon: “We were like, ‘Do what you do, live. Give it all the club vibes’. And that worked really well. He’s got a really good delivery on that one. It’s like a rock record because it’s such a heavyweight vocal.
“It was big in Japan. They went mental for it. It was the number one foreign album out there. Again, it was like, ‘Oh. That’s what happens when you release a record’ [laughs].”
When UR Lonely
Dan: “Yeah. It does have a bit of a Voodoo People synth line, doesn’t it? I think it came out before the Pendulum remix…”
Liam: “One of our earliest ideas.”
Dan: “There are some similarities. This was the Stompbox B-side, the first single.”
Leon: “There are a lot of dancehall beats to be found on this album. And this track is the most notable.”
Liam: “A mate was moving and asked if he could leave his record collection at ours. We just dug through it at night and sampled stuff. We didn’t even think about it as being such a valuable source.”
Leon: “Lots of 7” singles. It had quite an influence. We just loved that sound, and it appears all over the record. Even though it’s not really thought of as a reggae record.”
In the studio with The Qemists
Leon: “Back then we were using underpowered PCs, with about 4GB of RAM. We were half sample/half sound design-based. Softsynths were just getting good enough to do sound design.”
Dan: “A lot of the bass sounds and Reeces were on Kontakt. That was the only thing we had to make all those different sounds.”
Leon: “We would sample, distort, resample, and layer, constantly. Then we had plugins like the Korg Legacy Cell. We used Trilogy a lot for live bass. We also had Z3TA, which was a trance synth, almost, but it was used unprocessed on the album a lot.”
Dan: “We had a TC Powercore, too. That had a huge effect on the sound of Join The Q.”
Leon: “We had a Focusrite Liquid Mix as well. We used the EQ and compressors on that a lot.”
Liam: “I had the E-MU E5000 sampler as well!”
Leon: “We recorded vocals on a hired Neumann U87 with a Focusrite ISA430. Those two things together just give the nicest, crispest, dance vocal sound, ever.”
Leon: “This features [human beatbox and live vocal sound designer/performer] Beardyman. And you only need one thing to do a track with Beardyman, and that’s a microphone.
“There’s a little bit on the tune that goes [adopts a Northern accent], ‘He’s got so many sounds in his face’ [laughs]. It’s absolutely true! But he comes at it from a producer’s point of view. So when it comes to a snare, for example, he was like, ‘How’d you want it to be EQ’d?’ And he’s like, ‘I think we should have more top on that’. And he’d adjust it to add the treble. Then he’d say, ‘I’m gonna pitch it down a couple of semi-tones’.
“He’d take mid out, or put it in. Then layer it with kinda 808 type sounds. Just amazing. Every sound on that track is from his voice.”
Got One Life
Leon: “MC Navigator here. We got him down, early on. He sat there, listening to this beat we had on loop. And he just sat there, and sat there. He didn’t have a pen or paper or anything. He was in silence.
“So I stopped the loop, after about a half an hour, and said, ‘You…wanna get on the mic?’ He’s like, ‘Just. Play. The. Song.’
“I put it on loop, again. About two hours later, he’s sat there with the song on loop!’ Then he jumps up and goes, ‘Right! I’m ready’. Goes in. One take. Whole tune. And it’s not a slow rap! The lyrics are not random.”
Liam: “He planned the whole thing in his head.”
Dan: “It was like a Jay Z thing.”
The Perfect High
Leon: “A friend of mine from Brighton came round and wanted a recording of a poem he had of his friend, Mike Mann, digitising. Mike had sadly passed away and all he had left of him was this amazing poem called, The Perfect High.
“I put it on the studio computer. And, seeing as this guy had passed away, we wanted it to have gravitas.
“Liam put these strings together and it just went together really beautifully. Then it was like, where do we go from this huge string swell?”
Dan: “It was then a case of doing any ideas or tricks we had. It was like, anything you want to try, try it.”
Leon: “We threw in some Amen breaks, live kit, guitar and strings, and outrageous synths.
“We still play this out today. People are just like, ‘What are they doing? This is mental!’ But they jump up and down.
“It was a good experiment. A lot was learned making that album. And it really set us on a path.”