Jeroen Snik, better known as Icicle, clearly takes his music very seriously indeed. His second album - based around and named after the thermodynamic concept of entropy, no less - is a dense, intricate but largely hook-free opus that's the polar opposite of the current trend in drum 'n' bass for increasingly disposable, poppy productions. Not one to make life easy for himself, Jeroen is taking the complex, software-centric long player on tour via a laptop-free live show.
We caught up with Icicle to chill out and discuss Entropy, his approach to sound design, and the ultimate fate of the universe...
It's tough to make a satisfying DnB album. What was your idea behind Entropy?
"With the first album I had all the usual struggles. I remember thinking really consciously I want to tell people where I came from, who I am, what I used to listen to, how I came to this point. But for the second album there's no point repeating myself. The first album was where I've come from, but the second album is where I'm gonna go. Practically, a lot of the stuff I got deeper into: sound design, dynamics, all that stuff, the real control of it. Rather than have happy accidents and chucking samples together, I wanted to really make it. I wanted to control it, and take a more technical approach, which felt more modern. Now computers are limitlessly powerful, they're not really a restricting factor for anybody.
"It sounds a bit corny, but I really wanted to imagine the future, or at least my own future. Once upon a time I studied chemical engineering, and a lot of physics. Entropy in physics is a measure of chaos, a state of disorder, and that was an idea that stuck with me for this. With the techniques I've used, it's all an effort to control things more, organise it more; but the more you do that, the harder it gets, so you'll always fail!
"So that's what this album is - the result of my process. It's become harder, more diverse, more up and down, and that's just entropy, you know? You can't fight it!"
How many of the tracks do you actually play out when you DJ?
"Quite a lot, to be honest, because I shape my sets around them. There are a couple of tunes that are straightforward, they work on the dancefloor; then there's some stuff that's more experimental and it fills the gaps. Entropy 4, the outro, isn't danceable at all; it's just sort of a display of electronic music that I find really fun. But it's hard to play!
"I used little inserts as well, just little bits that are like, 'What was that?' Then just give people what they want. I've always played relatively diverse - there's quite a bit of dubstep on there as well; I'll go into it and take it down a bit. The sound aesthetic is similar, so it still fits.
"I think what makes it fun for me is to look for new directions in which to take things. I know how to smash it as a DJ; that's not hard, everybody knows how to do that! So you want to see what the limits of that are. I like it best when I feel like I've done something more than I had to do, and it worked!
"So, with an album, it has to be diverse, listenable; has to have a story to tell; has to go somewhere; and has to keep your attention. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of music you're trying to sell! Sometimes I'll be sitting there, trying to make the same tune again and think, 'I could do anything I want… What am I doing?'"
There are definitely some tracks influenced by older dance music styles, though, like Amp and Acidic…
"Yes, that's true. Amp is the massive exception to that! Basically, it's an old rave synth line that we licensed from Vamp by Outlander. What it represents is that kind of pure techno, sound design, synthesiser music, but it has somehow got a character and personality to it. I used that riff in a bootleg, and it got such a reaction I felt there was a way I could rework it so that it worked on the album.
"With a concept album, things can get maybe a bit dry, so I stuck a couple of moments in there to shake it up a little bit. Obviously you can't escape your influences completely; you can't be that totally experimental, futuristic person! I tried to leave out the old Metalheadz and Ed Rush & Optical influences so much on this album, but that techno influence is always there, and it always will be there.
"Sound design has always been a big part of techno, and drum 'n' bass has always taken inspiration from that. Acidic is just acid techno, but it's a fun thing because I make a lot of techno under a different name as well. So this was like me starting a tune how I'd make a techno tune, but finishing it like a DnB tune. It's half-time acid techno drum 'n' bass. It just felt like a cool combination for me to do. It's definitely self-indulgent, to be fair, though!"
There's a lot of half-tempo stuff on the album, and, dare we say it, some of the vibes hark back to the days of trip-hop.
"Definitely. The trip-hop thing came naturally. With dubstep I was in a place where I was making quite techy stuff, but I wanted to put some more musical and deeper stuff in there. So I ended up in this place with this paddy, drawn out kind of music, which gives you a trip-hop sort of sound, which was exaggerated by Sarah Hezen's vocals. That really completes the trip-hop feel, I guess. It wasn't a conscious direction but it's definitely where I ended up, having the techno, and the dubstep, and more atmospheric music, all sort of meeting in the middle and putting a vocal over it. So that's been a fun progression, and it's definitely part of the album."
Call us crazy, but there are a couple of moments on the album that almost sound like Queen's We Will Rock You…
"I have to say I hadn't looked at it from that angle! That's really more of an influence from footwork stuff, but also it just sort of came together like that. I want my DnB to have a certain impact, you know? It has to sound big, and then when I take it half-time, I still wanted that high impact stuff with the snare providing the space, and Skittles' vocals are so fast and detailed. But to say it's a Queen influence, I'm not 100% sure about that!"
Space seems to be one of Entropy's most significant themes…
"It's always been like that with my production style; it can't be a solid wall of sound. I want to squeeze as many of the dynamics out as possible, without it being audible: I don't want people to say it sounds over-limited. I want to get the most out of the technology. Certain tunes on the album are about loudness; others are about dynamics. Dynamics are obviously what make music; the loudness war is bullshit. Every DJ mixer has a gain knob on it! But it's a challenge, and I like technical challenges. I really want to go for it, you know?
"An influence that I do have to mention is Amon Tobin, who has always been an important influence for me. He makes 'supermusic', which is really well sound-designed, dynamic… but somehow there's lots of space in there. There's a musical landscape being created there, which is something that really interests me, because it feels a little bit more like an art form than when it's so functional like dance music is. When it's that functional, it's just a product. But when you use all this technology, and put the dynamics and space and try and make something alien, that feels something more like a creation."
'Functional' dance music, especially drum 'n' bass, is all about dynamics in terms of breakdowns, drops and so forth. On this album, it seems as if you've tried to create these juxtapositions of light and shade on a more micro level - ie, every 16 or 32 bars - but also on a macro level, with some tracks being very dense and others less so.
"When you're making an album, it needs to 'move' a bit, so it doesn't become too boring. It is obviously repeating in dance music, but with the album, I wanted to start with something serene, almost classical, then have some moments where it goes really hard. Hard, almost 'overproduced' music does attract me; it's part of the way I produce. Then you can have these interludes that are more experimental expressions of sound. Somehow, it all belongs together in my mind: there has to be some harder stuff, some deeper stuff - I think it sounds coherent in a way, but going up and down, lighter and harder… But all of that together is what I want to be like as a music producer. When you start thinking about a vibe, emotions that you want to communicate, it's never as simple as 'hard' or 'dark' or 'angry'. This all sounds a bit on the pretentious side, I guess, but I'm trying to put more into it because, you know… there is more you can put into it."
It seems as if you've gone out of your way to make sure each track on the album is unique, be it in terms of tempo, style or vibe. That must have been hard work.
"Yeah, that's why it's taken so long! I can write 12 or 16 tunes in a few months if I have to… like, if I was at gunpoint! You have to start making some tunes, put them in a melting pot, take stuff out again, put something else in. It'll feel like some tunes naturally go together, but then you'll realise something else is missing, something that communicates a bit of emotion, or it becomes too mechanical. I started to build some more musical stuff, and I wanted to get some female vocalists in there, but retain something mechanical. Those ideas start to grow and fill in the gaps in my mind of what the track listing should be. It's hard to get the diversity. You feel like you haven't got a certain thing yet, so you try it, and you keep going and just scrap lots of music."
How much material did you end up making for the album?
"I made two and a half years worth for the project, and I definitely scrapped more than three albums worth of completely finished music! Then you've got all the just-started and half-finished stuff…"
You said you wanted to take a more managed approach to the album, but it seems as if experimenting with sound design is a big part of the process for you.
"Oh, it is, definitely, but you need to have a set sort of approach. You need to know what you can muck about with. You see people just clicking away until something comes - I hate that! You can sit there and try and conceive of a perfect, super cool, detailed, textured sound… but you can't! But you know where to start, and especially when you're working with the FM types of harmonics, they really sort of colour them in and how they interact, you know where you're going to have to look for them… but you can't really plan for FM! There are so many different harmonics in there with just a few operators being added to your carrier, it's almost infinite.
"So there is messing around, and going by ear… but that is the shortcoming of what entropy is. You try to have a controlled approach, but things become more and more chaotic. The more you try and learn to control, the more you know how to involve more techniques, the bigger and less controllable things become."
You seem very interested in more advanced sound design. Do you ever use Reaktor?
"Oh yeah, I'm actually working currently on my ultimate snare drum generator! It's still a bit early days, to be fair, but when I'm doing the FM8 stuff, matching harmonics, I've just been making something where you have a bunch of different sines and have basic controls over them, so I can build snares like how I do in FM8. I had this idea where if I start and I just keep on adding interesting types of harmonics, like a bit of FM, eventually the sickest snare of all will come out of it!
"Reaktor isn't that hard to work with, really. For the thing I'm building, I'm purposely not working with macros so it's really my own thing when it's done.
"So far I've just two or three sine wave generators, with one or two FM type things in the middle. I'm just starting to work out how to get the FM so it doesn't turn into a big mess, and there's some noise shaping at the end I was trying to explore, and some noise generation over the top. In FM8, I made a really nice snare a while ago, which had a real ring to it. That's really the kind of thing I need to get right - find exactly the sort of dissonant ring that's typical for those drums, like an inharmonic resonance."
When you make your kicks, you're conscious of the different frequencies you're putting in there. Does this extend to the music making process? Do you make sounds from the ground up to fit with the chords used in a track?
"It would be a good idea if I did that, but I don't! I tried that a lot. I know that a lot of producers tune all their drums to a particular note, which makes sense, but a lot of my tunes are around E, bass-wise, and, if you have a kick drum at E, it's either too high or too low! You need to be, like, half an octave off that for it to have that nicely hitting kick!
"At the end of the day, I just get away with sort of tuning by ear. I don't like making tunes where the bassline is a lot higher than that; I want that sub to hit, not that hard, mid aggressiveness. This approach is a bit contradictory when I'm trying to be so precise about all my harmonics. I look at the analysers a lot, but your ears win at the end of the day. But, if you layer two or three drums together and you don't tune them, you'll get a lot of problems - you lose a lot of weight! Sometimes, though, you can click away and make music and not care about anything. You've got to remember to do that too!"
You seem to be very keen on making your own sounds where possible…
"Yeah, there are no samples in my music. Now or then, there's a riff, but all my drums I make myself these days. All the pads are made with things like Absynth and effects; maybe some build-up sounds and weird FX are sometimes samples, but not a lot. Even all the weird percussion… there's a lot of FM8 precision, but also stuff like Twisted Tools S-Layer in Reaktor, which is the coolest sort of weird percussion generator. I do use Kontakt instruments, though, so I guess that counts as 'samples'."
Your approach now appears to be closer to the roots of techno than jungle?
"Yeah, definitely, I don't think I've ever been very jungle-y. The last time I used an old funk break in a tune is a long time ago. Apart from the occasional tune - there's a break in Amp I think - but all the other stuff, especially my drum 'n' bass, there's nothing in there like that. Also, in DnB, when your main break is one of those old breaks and you layer it up with a kick and snare, it'll never sound different. That's something that does annoy me about DnB, especially. I used to be like that, taking so much inspiration from old school DnB and really taking those same sounds and using those old samples, but if you're not changing your sound palette, even if you're getting better and better, it still sounds like the same tune.
"I understand it's cool to do the 'make the old music from back in the day' thing. I used to do the same, but that just becomes less and less interesting to me. I guess part of the problem is that people like to hear stuff that they know: they hear an old sample and it works. Obviously, you're not able to do that with new sounds in such a way."
You use a lot of Native Instruments synths, but are there any other soft synths you're keen on at the moment?
"The Virus TI Snow is definitely a major one in there. For the more simple stuff, the FabFilter Twin I really like; it's just a very simple subtractive synth, which is cool. Sometimes LennarDigital Sylenth1 but, to be fair, I'm not a massive fan of it. There's a couple of things on my list to check out… reFX… some kind of EDM thing..?"
reFX Nexus. Really?
"Yeah! Because it comes with its own wavetables."
We're afraid it's sample based.
"Ah, well, in that case I'm not going to use it!"
What about Omnisphere?
"I used it a bit, but I've got this feeling that between Absynth and FM8, I could almost make anything. There's not a lot left that's to be desired. Oh, and Razor is one that I used quite a bit - it's got a cool sound. What Razor has that's awesome, that I've never really seen in a synth, is that it has dissonance effects… That's just a sound you cannot make with anything else!"
Given the lofty concept behind the album, let's end on a philosophical one: Seeing as the ultimate state of the universe is likely to be heat death, what's the point of any of this?
"This is what I used to think! Everything we do is just making it worse. The best thing you can do is as little as possible - then you can slow the process down! If you want to perpetuate this universe… do nothing."