Paper Dragon: "It's all about making instruments exist in a real space - putting them through distortion channels, reamping and incorporating ‘air’ into the sound"

Bristol-based three-piece Paper Dragon only have a handful of releases to their name, but they’re certainly not newcomers to the world of dance music: each member has their own varied roots in the industry. 

Jon Savage has spent several years on the road managing and working with acts including Fred V & Grafix and KOAN Sound. Bruce Turner is a multi-instrumentalist who has played guitar for acts such as drum & bass artist TC and teaches at Bristol’s dBS institute, while Kris Burton has worked as an engineer at Abbey Road.

Formerly a four-piece fronted by vocalist Ruth Royal, Paper Dragon returned this year with a refreshed lineup and a stellar EP of nostalgic, rave-influenced tracks, Amplified Nostalgia

We caught up with the trio at Bristol’s dBS to get under the hood of their techniques, read the interview below or watch the embedded videos to hear Paper Dragon explain the methods behind their latest EP. 

How did Paper Dragon come together as a group?

Bruce Turner: “Me and Jon met studying a master’s degree in music at Bath Spa university.”

Jon Savage: “It’s probably almost 15 years ago. We hit it off on the first day. We started an act called Playhead fairly swiftly after meeting. We were just making eclectic dance music. We made an album as our masters project, and then we made another EP. Then Bruce started working at dBS where he met Kris, who’s the other member. 

 “Initially, we were working with vocalist Ruth Royall, and it was the four of us. We did two EPs. And then Ruth sort of moved on to focus on her solo work. And we had a little bit of time off, sort of figuring out what our next steps were. And then at the start of this year, we came back with the new, revamped Paper Dragon.”

What were your individual musical backgrounds prior to meeting?

BT: “I’ve been performing all my life, mostly as a guitarist. That grew and grew over the years and eventually I started doing hybrid electronic and live music, which then sort of led me into the drum & bass scene. I was doing guitars for TC, who’s a drum & bass artist. That was my introduction to performing on proper stages and festivals and things.”

JS: “I started drumming at the age of about eight or nine, and then got into playing in championship brass bands and orchestras. Then in my teens I found electronic music. I started producing on an Amiga, with Notator, and a synth. Eventually I moved into show production work and started working with the likes of Fred V & Grafix and KOAN Sound, and other electronic acts, sort of curating their live acts and how to translate their studio music. That gave me the insight and know-how to start working on those things.”

How did the sound evolve between your early project Playhead and Paper Dragon?

BT: “I suppose there are certain values that we’ve sustained – the trans-genre kind of approach, which means we do kind of dip in and out of all kinds of styles, but it’s a little bit more accessible. I think the stuff we were doing before was a little bit too experimental, which some people absolutely loved. But you know, it’s not sustainable.”

JS: “I think working with Ruth helped us hone the songs’ accessibility. It made us think more about how to create electronic music with a slightly more accessible view in mind. We’re always striving for that underground/overground balance – sometimes we get there, sometimes we don’t.”

Do you all tend to agree on what you want to do as a band?

BT: “I would say our values align quite well, based upon our experiences and the sort of things that we enjoy. Many different genres, but pretty much all in the rave. We all work with instruments as well, in different ways; I’m more experienced with playing instruments than programming, whereas, Jon is sort of half and half. Kris has got amazing experience with some of the best musicians in the world, but from the point of view of recording them.”

Do you all have different roles in the creative process?

JS: “We have areas that we sit into, but it does all blur. I think I come in as a connector – I have a really good overview of lots of musical stuff and quite often I have a lot of ideas for starting tracks. But then Bruce is the best musician of all of us.”

BT: “That’s my main language, better than I can talk. I tend to do the orchestration, though I’ve gotten weirdly into drum programming, which used to be Jon’s main area. I’ve done so much that now it’s become the focus of the PhD I’m doing.”

JS: “Then Kris is producer, sound engineer, arranger. I suppose he has the overview. But then we all contribute to everything.”

Do you each have your own individual studio setups?

BT: “Yeah, we’re quite lucky in that respect. We’ve all got our own studios. Although I tend to do a lot of work here at dBS, because of the clean sound and the soundproofing. The treatment is just so good here. It’s really convenient.”

JS: “When we first started working, we did a lot of stuff in the studio all together. But then we had the pandemic and other things, and that has shifted, which did make things difficult. When we were making the music together in the studio, it was a blast, you know? We had those moments when we’d lay a track down and you get those collective ‘oh my god, this is the one?’ moments, as you’re all in the space together.”

BT: “It’s an energy, isn’t it? There’s nothing that needs to be communicated. Whereas I think when you’re working separately and also in different listening environments, a lot of things that can sound brilliant in one studio don’t always translate. There are a lot of WhatsApp messages.”

Is there much difference in the gear you’re each using?

BT: “Working with Kris is always an education, but he’s quite keen to try and unify what we’re using as much as possible. Down to what sort of monitors we’re using, which would be amazing. Right now there is variation, though. We all tend to prefer real instruments rather than software. I started out playing guitar, and now I’m using a few analogue synths too.”

JS: “The Sequential Prophet-6 gets used a lot. Kris has got the rack version of that.”

BT: “I’ve got the Rev 2 as well.”

JS: “The Moog Sub Phatty too.”

BT: “Both Kris and I’ve got Moogs that we use. I don’t have too many synths though, I’d rather have fewer and know them a bit.”

JS: “Then another classic is Juno – that’s one that just has a sound that always fits into tracks. There’s something about those Roland synths, the bandwidth. We’re not fortunate enough to have an actual 808, but we’ve got a couple of the new releases, like the TR-8.”

BT: “I love running that through the MXR distortion. I’ve actually got a cab modeller, so I’ll run the drum machine through the MXR Super Distortion, out of this Mesa Boogie amp, through an amp sim, which has got all of its own profiles to mess around with.”

JS: “Part of how we work is about making those instruments exist in a real space. We call it incorporating ‘air’ into recordings, putting them through distortion channels or reamping.”

BT: “Kris has so much experience working at Abbey Road, making use of the space and the environment and using that as a kind of way of binding everything together.” 

Paper Dragon's Amplified Nostalgia is out now.

Si Truss

I'm Editor-in-Chief of Music Technology, working with Future Music, Computer Music, Electronic Musician and MusicRadar. I've been messing around with music tech in various forms for over two decades. I've also spent the last 10 years forgetting how to play guitar. Find me in the chillout room at raves complaining that it's past my bedtime.

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