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Monkey Music

24 August 2012 | 11:03 am | Cyclone Wehner

The new generation of partygoers don’t necessarily know dance music’s history – but, then again, nor do some of the DJs

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British drum'n'bass DJ/producer Photek (AKA Rupert Parkes) always was a leader. He moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to pursue soundtrack work. Today the city is also home to Paul Oakenfold, Switch and Rusko, all capitalising on new opportunities for EDM types. But are they chasing a dream? “I think everyone who comes to LA is chasing a dream, yeah, but it's a pretty great place to live,” laughs Parkes, returning to Australia for the first time in seven years. “It's got a lot of pluses about it. The only difficult thing is it's not the easiest place to travel from.”

Parkes, a schoolboy raver from St Albans, was drawn to hardcore in the early '90s. He built his rep as a jungle producer with 1994's Natural Born Killa EP on Goldie's Metalheadz under what became his dominant alias (he'd initially aired music with Rob “Lexis” Solomon as Origination). Parkes presented a critically acclaimed debut album, Modus Operandi, his expedition into darkly jazzy, abstract and minimalist drum'n'bass, on Virgin's Science imprint three years later. He'd be identified with the 'intelligent' drum'n'bass movement, the music's counterpart to high Detroit techno. It was post-tech-step. Soon after, the martial arts buff's Ni-Ten-Ichi-Ryu was heard in the vampire movie Blade. Next Parkes deviated into avant-garde deep house. His 2000 follow-up, Solaris, comprised the hit Mine To Give with legendary Chicago vocalist Robert Owens. Alas, drum'n'bass purists were miffed. Once in Hollywood, Parkes stepped away from club music – and its politics. He contributed to Nine Inch Nails' US No. 1 LP WITH_TEETH. And he created music for TV and film (including The Italian Job). Yet scores are no longer Parkes' focus. “I've done a few movies over the years, but right now I'm just working on Photek music, basically.” In fact, the Photek Productions boss is mixing down a third album. “It's got echoes of my first album in some of the mood of it – it's got a bit more groove to it, though. So it's a bit more dancefloor than my first album, but all the texture and the mood of it is similar to Modus Operandi.” He plans to release it in October.

The mild-mannered Parkes has been particularly active of late. He received a Grammy nomination for his remix of Daft Punk's End Of Line off the Tron Legacy soundtrack. Then he began the year with a bassy – and experimental – volume in Studio !K7's cult DJ-Kicks compilation series. Parkes is currently plugging the single Levitation, enthusiastically hailed by Mixmag as a cross between Disclosure and Radiohead.

Being Stateside, Parkes didn't experience firsthand the rise of dubstep in Croydon, London. Nevertheless, he's stayed in the loop. “The last couple of years I've been back to the UK quite a lot – last year especially I lived there for about four months.” The serial reinventor tried his hand at dubstep on last year's Avalanche EP (with lowkey input from Switch). He's also issued music on Bristol DJ Pinch's Tectonic and expertly remixed Jess Mills' Vultures (not as out-there as his remodelling of folkie Ray LaMontagne's This Love Is Over).

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Ironically, dubstep is now huge in the US, Skrillex proclaimed king. The genre's popularity has even revived the fortunes of drum'n'bass, Parkes stressing their similar evolution. “I'm surprised that it's as big as it is, but I did think it would cross over in a much better way than drum'n'bass, just 'cause of the tempo.” What made dubstep “immediately palatable” to Americans, he believes, is that “it's halfway between rock and hip hop”. “At its most aggressive, it sounds like nu metal.” The US has previously taken an almost faddish interest in EDM, with The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim spearheading the '90s big beat phenom. Mind, Parkes feels that the Americans will stick with electronica this time – its grassroots. “People like going to club and festival-type events, rather than going to watch bands.” Disco, the original mass EDM, was ubiquitous in the US, only to sink deep underground due to a rock-fuelled backlash. That could happen again, Parkes says. “Ultimately, there's a lot of guitar people in America and there may be a backlash against dubstep. It may be like, 'Let's get back to people who play instruments and who've got some skill, rather than who can make the loudest wobble' [laughs]. I think you will see a backlash on that, but it doesn't mean that electronic music as a whole will be backlashed against.”

In 2012 Parkes tags his style as “bass music”. “I'm not playing drum'n'bass, per se. I'll play a few of my drum'n'bass tracks, but it's generally whatever music I'm into – and the thing I'm into more than anything is what you call bass music and a bit of tech-house, really.”

The new generation of partygoers don't necessarily know dance music's history – but, then again, nor do some of the DJs. David Guetta expressed astonishment that his Dutch protégé Nicky Romero was unfamiliar with Lil Louis' French Kiss. Are old-time DJs obsessed with the past to the point of fetishising it? ”Maybe we are, but it just seems insane to me that you can make house music and not know French Kiss – it's just ridiculous!” Parkes responds. “But it doesn't surprise me – because any monkey can make electronic music these days. You don't even have to like it!” The innovator has adapted to technological shifts in DJ culture – he's “accepted” the laptop over traditional turntables. “I think that's one big hurdle to get over mentally – that you don't need beatmatching skills to go out there and ply your trade,” Parkes says laconically. “I've just had to embrace that and said, 'Well, how can I turn this into a creative tool where I can shine?' So what I've been doing is composing my sets in Ableton and figuring out ways to change what I'm doing and extend sections of songs and make arrangements on-the-fly. That's what I do – instead of really skilful mixes, I do really creative mixes.” Parkes is bemused that a few DJs reputedly 'fake' their sets. “It's getting more about showbiz than it is about how you're putting your music together.” But he wonders if at big events the majority of punters would care about pre-records, “as long as it looked excitable what's happening on stage.”

Parkes is no crabby veteran, however. He's genuinely inspired by contemporary electronic music. “The possibilities of what you can go out there and do musically still excites me,” he rhapsodises. “I'm interested in what I'm gonna do next.” EDM is established globally, which is liberating. “It doesn't feel like the battle for electronic music anymore. When I first started doing it, I felt like it was a case of survival.”

In Melbourne Parkes will play Sound Lounge, a pop-up dance party in the foyer of the newly refurbished Hamer Hall, alongside Nitin Sawhney. The DJ admits that he's unaware of the prestige – and novelty – of such a gig here. But this haute bass designer has headlined arty venues before. “I just played at the MoMA [The Museum Of Modern Art], actually, I played at the MoMA in New York last week – and that was a really great show.” Still, Parkes notes, Melbourne booked him first. “Maybe they led the way?”