For: Dummy Mag

For all its diffuse sounds – the jerky, offbeat R&B, euphoric synth stabs and swaggering acapella samples – you’d be forgiven for assuming Fantastic Mr Fox’s output was borne of the inner city. It’s the audio equivalent of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, a mish-mash of designer flats atop underground clubs – the sleek, clean sheen of the former over the insistent basement bassline vibe of the latter. Yet Stephen Gomberg, the Wolverhampton-born producer and DJ calls the leafy suburb of Didsbury home, and a cosy attic bedroom his studio. It’s there we meet, on a typically dank midweek evening.

The idea of the bass music producer as a elder bedroom artisan, slaving away over one genre, may be one we tie to the recent streak of intelligent, inventive production, yet Gomberg has been producing his own brand of genre-defying bass music since the age of 14, and has experienced much in that time, carving himself out a niche after years of experimentation. “I started making music when I was 14, on Fruity Loops. I didn’t really know about genres, so I used to make really weird stuff. It was always really layered, but it didn’t make much sense. Then I got into hip-hop – Prefuse 73, RJD2 – and I used to make mainly hip-hop.”

“When I was 18, I started getting played on Steve Lamacq quite a bit, but that was just before his show was ended and he got replaced by Colin Murray. So I kind of had this brief couple of months where I was getting played on the radio every week and had quite a lot of major labels e-mail me stuff, but I wasn’t really ready. I didn’t send them demos, because I didn’t think I was good enough. I kind of had this early experience of a tiny bit of success, which was good for me because then I had a couple of years of nothing at all. So now it’s come around to this, I know more about contracts and stuff, what not to do… I got offered a couple of record deals when I was 18, but I just turned everything down.”

When this brief but hectic period of exposure quietened down, Gomberg’s move to Manchester marked a new phase – one of intrepid exploration into a new realm of production, buoyed by an enthusiasm for a new scene that was springing up around him. While his output was not initially shared with others, his time adapting to a new city was the start of a new creative drive. “I never stopped making music. I used to message people and ask if I could remix them. And so I did a remix of Untold, which was a hip-hop thing, and then I started listening to things like the Mary Anne Hobbs show and going out in Manchester to dubstep nights, and just had a go at making dance music. It give me a lot more drive to make music again, because there was a lot more interest from people in what I was doing – it was more fun to make. I’d made hip-hop speed stuff for so long, when I made stuff at this new speed it was really fun. I didn’t think I liked dance music!”

So is it fair to argue that the move away from Wolverhampton was a fruitful one? “There’s no scene for anything [in Wolverhampton]. People try and put on music nights; my brother used to put on music nights, and get Ninja Tune artists up, and there’d be like… 5 people come and watch. Anyone that’s into music just ends up leaving. There’s definitely a big community in Manchester. I’m not too involved in it, but when I do go out to nights, I feel like I’m a part of it. The main ones are Hoya:Hoya – Ryan and Jonny [Illum Sphere and Jonny Dub] who run that are very important in it – and then there’s Hit & Run, which is run by Rich Reason who I used to make a bit of music with.”

Gomberg’s first experiences with Rich Reason, a huge presence within the Manchester dance music scene, led to March 2009’s release on Hemlock Recordings – ‘Plimsoul / Bleep Show’, and ‘Fall / Lo-Fi-Ve’ on Black Acre just four months later. It wasn’t just a meeting of minds for the Manchester duo, but one between Gomberg and the label releasing his material. “I made two 140 BPM things with Rich Reason and sent them to Jack (Dunning, aka Untold) and Andy (Spencer) from Hemlock, and they wanted to release them. And now Hemlock is this massive label. Because I’d already done a remix for them, I was in contact with Jack and he was using sounds that I thought were really interesting, so I thought his label would be a good avenue to release tunes. That release didn’t really kick off that much, but then the whole scene started to move a bit. I was just trying to get known in Manchester, so I sent Rich some music and we talked about making some tunes.”

Co-producing, the pair created a blend of offbeat samples and driving basslines with a noticeable dancefloor bent. Their Black Acre release showcased more noticeable, imposing basslines than Gomberg has produced in his solo work. “I’d make the beat and the main part of it, and then he would come in and help me finish it off. Because he’s a club DJ, and I hadn’t really got into that kind of stuff yet, I wasn’t really sure how it was going to work in a club so he helped me with levels and stuff. It was a similar process on the next release, but he helped more with that one. There’s a song called Fall,with an LFO bassline and he did that. Since then, I’ve never really wanted to… I’m not really a fan of that whole ‘wompy’ kind of sound. It’s been done so much, what I like to do is create a song that can have a similar kind of impact without in-your-face sounds.”

While the co-production reaped rewards, Gomberg decided to return to a one-man approach for his next releases, meaning he could concentrate on the meticulous technical details that make his output so recognisable. “The thing about music is it’s hard to produce with another person, so I just decided it would be better if I concentrated on my own stuff. I was getting to the point where I just wanted to improve everything all the time, and in order to do that you do just need to sit there for hours and hours listening to the same noise, and be really self-critical.”

That mode of production – hunched in front of a computer screen for hours on end – looks set to change for the producer, with a new analog set up marking a change in production style. Coupling a newly bought Dave Smith ‘Mopho’ keyboard with its ‘Tetra’ module counterpart has led Gomberg into a new way of working, with the old approach of often time-consuming and frustrating Cubase edits being replaced by a tactile, tangible array of keys, buttons and dials. “On my Evelyn EP, all the chords and melodies are just drawn in on Cubase. Most of it isn’t sampled. With that EP, I tried to explore chord progressions a lot more. And if there’s a chord of five notes, I’ll have drawn in all five notes. I wanted it to sound real, so there’s all these tiny edits. You’ve got all the notes in front of you, so if you want to make an edit you can. It’s a very obsessive way of working. I have little things going on in the background that you don’t really notice. Little bleeps and stuff used to take an hour to make. But now I can just…” He slides his chair to his desk and twists the ‘Pitch’ dial on his Tetra. “… Go like that. Whereas making that noise before would have taken an age. I think that’s the main timesaver. It’ll definitely affect my progress.”

Incessant knob-twiddling is something that’s been part of his production from day one. Rejecting standard drum samples in favour of homemade beats, created from layers of effects and compression, has been a staple of his search for new and unique sounds, a desire instilled in him from his early love of hip-hop. “In terms of the sounds I use, they’re definitely rooted in hip-hop, because for me there are no better sounds than in hip-hop; the drum sounds in hip-hop are the best. When I first listened to dubstep, I liked it but the drums … were just preset samples. I like to hear new sounds, maybe sampled from old songs, or some weird recording that’s been distorted and turned into a snare. I just like music that sounds human and real. When you use drum [sample] packs, it’s just colder. I’ve never really gotten properly into drum and bass, I only really liked stuff by Instra:mental and dBridge, and not so much other stuff, because it’s a lot harder to connect to because it feels very cold. Whereas with a lot of hip-hop stuff, like Flying Lotus or Prefuse 73, it’s got this warm sound to it. And because the beats are slightly out of place, and there are samples of real instruments, it feels more human. The drums for me are always looking back to hip-hop. I try and keep that as a constant, so that there’s consistency throughout my work. The drums for me are the main thing; they’re the first thing I do. When I started making music, I was just making beats. I’d start with a layered drum beat and then the sounds always referred back to J Dilla or Madlib – really compressed, warm drum sounds. Then I’d try and apply it to a dance music template.”

Will that drum sound remain a constant? “It’s hard to know, because I get quite bored quite quickly. I don’t know whether I’ll always do beat-driven music. My first solo EP was quite a lot of bleepy sounds, and once that was out I decided on my next EP I wasn’t going to use any bleepy sounds. It’s kind of like a challenge. Maybe with this next one, I won’t use as many R&B acapellas. I like to try and regroup each time and try something new.”

It’s a conundrum he’s faced with, now that the hype of November’s EP has died down, and the expectation of new output grows stronger. Faced with fresh anticipation, and a self-imposed striving for constant reinvention, Gomberg has begun to play around with the idea of ditching his funky, two-step mentality entirely. “The first couple of months after I make an EP I hardly make anything – I just sit there thinking ‘what the hell am I going to do next?’. But I’m getting to the point now where I’m slowly putting together new songs. I might drop the BPM – I don’t think I’ll do anything at 140 BPM[on the] next release. I might explore the house-y side of things – like the end of Sepia, I might take that as a lead onto the next thing. I never know though, because I’ll start off with an idea, and by the time I finish it’ll be a completely different thing.”

In his circles, though, surely house is a dirty word? “I’ve got a weird relationship with house, because I enjoy making it but I don’t see myself as part of it. I used to hate the 4/4 drum pattern – I can’t go to a club if that’s all it plays. It makes me feel quite claustrophobic, the idea that there’s never going to be a break. That’s why I like UK funky – with the snares, it kind of takes the attention away a bit. I think, because I’ve been making music so long… I used to make much weirder sounding music, but the longer I made music, the more I realised that the most challenging thing to do is to give something a pop feel to it, or make a catchy element; I’ve realised that’s actually the hardest part of it. I could make a beat quite quickly, or some sort of soundscape, but if I want to make it into a catchy song, that’s the hardest part. That’s what I like about music, is challenging myself. Making a beat is fine, it takes me a couple of days, but to make it into a fully-formed song can take months, sometimes. The satisfaction when you finish it is unbeatable, but the process to get to that point can be quite frustrating.”

Especially when the end of such a project is followed by something extraordinary, as was the case last Autumn, when two months prior to ‘Evelyn’s release, he was invited to support The xx on every leg of their USA tour. “I’d met Jamie [Smith] maybe once before, and we’d swapped music and DJ’d the same night. And then he emailed me two weeks later, asking if I wanted to go on tour. I couldn’t believe it when I got that. It was an unbelievable opportunity. When I got there, it felt like the first few weeks of Uni – I got on so well with everyone on tour, it was like a really nice holiday where every so often I had to stand in front of 5,000 people…”

A gradual process then, and one that’s taken several years to reach this point, yet still has massive, and unexpected, peaks at every turn. Gomberg’s patience throughout is exemplified when, getting ready to leave, I ask whether he plans to work towards an album sooner rather than later. He replies, simply, “I don’t think I’m ready to do an album yet. I’m still learning.”