Ralph Lawson is a British mainstay in the DJ world, a spinner known for his refined house music that contains a touch of electronic progressivism. In the mid-1990s he held down the Back To Basics club night in Leeds that helped inspire his 2020Vision record label and put him on the international spin circuit.
But today he's even more well-know for being the leader of a band, 2020Soundsysyem, that incorporates improvisation and musicianship while retaining the steady stomp of the DJ booth. The four-piece group includes Lawson on laptop, Dubble D on electronic drums, and Fernando Pulichino and Julian Sanza on various instruments including bass and keyboards.
2020Soundystem performs at an underground warehouse party in the Los Angeles area Friday. Info: 1-877-865-9788; losangeles.going.com.
(EXCLUSIVE interview with 2020Soundsystem's Ralph Lawson and FREE mp3 download, after the jump)
Download the FREE 2020Soundsystem track “Satellite” here.
The group started in 2003 as a way to get older, wobbly vinyl in synch with perfectly rhythmic modern tracks: Lawson enlisted the help of Dubble D, who underlaid a DJ track with modern drums to keep it steady. But after an Argentinean act called Silver City (Pulichino and Sanza) sent a demo to Lawson's 2020Vision, he recruited them. The act has been a success, playing the lauded Spanish festival Sonar as well as the vaunted British fests Glastonbury and Creamfields. Don't be surprised if you see them at Coachella someday, too.
The act recently released its sophomore album, Falling, and is touring to support the release, with a stop scheduled in Los Angeles Friday for a warehouse party. In anticipation, we asked Lawson a few questions.
So the genesis of 2020 Soundsystem was as a solution to the age-old DJ problem of how to beat-match wobbly old records? You solved the problem and then some.
Yes, basically that was the origin of the project — to find new ways to play records, but only to play with musicians. I've been playing with Dubble D for years and he's played with me at Back To Basics. He also made tracks with me, and we used to record material for our productions rather than just sampling stuff. It really started as a band when Fernando and Julian of Silver City sent me a demo and I could see they were really playing bass and keys on their tracks. I saw it would fit with what we were doing.
I think one of the key problems with live electronic shows was solved way back when acts such as Orbital sequenced the music so it was DJ-like. Is this how you do things? Is that a good or bad approach?
I don't really think you can talk in terms of a solution and there are different approaches. The Chemical Brothers and Orbital where two guys on stage making dance music by use of visuals and taking their studios to the gigs and presenting things in a dynamic way. It was a huge breakthrough in that it gave audiences something to look at and a new focus to do things live. It's the same for Daft Punk and Justice these days, so this is a real tried-and-tested way. On the other hand, we wanted to have more live playing, but with the same dynamic results. We wanted it to look great on stage but with the raw power of dance music at it's best. Big beats and kick drums, but real playing from musicians. So ours was a separate approach, but we had a lot of inspiration.
Do people dance or rock out at your shows (or both)?
We want people dancing. It has crossed over, and we did some shows on the European leg of this tour with indie acts and were shocked to see how those crowds react to the music. In England they just stare at the bands, and we wondered if they even like the music. We were freaked out by that. When we come here to the U.S., kids were jacking and jumping up and down. That's what we want.
You've said there's a lot more than house music happening at your shows. What else is going on?
There's a lot going on which is a result of the fact that we all come from very different places musically. Dubble D is a jazz drummer, and he often throws in some complex rhythms over my beats. Fernando comes from a real rock background and grew up on the Chili Peppers, so he's ready to rock out. Julian's into dub reggae and the music of Mad Professor, so he has all these great dub sounds. It ends up in a good area between us when we use those influences to create something unique.
I can imagine that the development and evolution of gear has been a lot more friendly to dance music sounds than rock and other genres. It's just where digital the action is. I wonder why more electronic dance acts, though, don't take advantage of the bounty. Or is there a wave on the horizon?
I do feel like we are ambassadors for getting more kids to try their hand on incorporating live elements into dance music. I do software showcases for Ableton and Allen & Heath. I really hope we can be inspiring. We've been doing this for six years. If we can be a catalyst to inspire kids to mix things up then I'd be really happy. There are so many mainstream acts out there today that take their influences from dance music but are packaged by the press as pop or rock – anything but dance, or even acknowledging the influence. Just look at all these indie songs with dance beats. There are lots of bands out there that cross the genre lines, but with us, sometimes it's not what you are doing but how you do it. We always try and do something interesting and unique.
If the Soundsystem is all about “live,” how did you all approach things in the studio with Falling? Was there more software editing and sampling going on, or was there a full-on band session?
We really thought about it and identified early on that we needed to achieve. On the first album we did one CD in the studio and another CD live at Sonar. On the second album we tried to get it all across in the studio. We set up all the tracks in the studio as we do at a live show. We have desks that allow us all to record at the same time, and we threw our parts down live like we do in concert. We did have to edit and overdub, but they were all done live in the studio. It's very much like how we play the gig in terms of order and structure. Sometimes a band offers the big hit first on the album but we sequenced the tracks as a show would come across from beginning to the end. In this way, the live show really comes across on disc.
A lot folks in dance music and elsewhere are now saying touring is more lucrative than making and selling music. Is that the case for you? Is Falling more of a calling card?
Not at all. We put our heart and soul into the record. Long after I'm done with gigging I'm thinking this will stand up to the test of time. We tried to make a classic album here.
Is it your aim to go full-on stadium electronic band a la Underworld? Do you think this is the future of dance music, or just a newer avenue?
We've already played in front of 25,000 people on a number of occasions and I love it. These huge gigs have been at festivals and to do that on your own you need big hits to attract that amount of people. We are totally confident that we can rock this level of show, but I also love those dark and dingy club shows that are intimate.
What's next for you?
We've finished the European tour dates and we are in the U.S.A. right now, and [we're] back to N.Y.C. on Saturday for the final show. I need to rest up as this is killing me to be on the road. I'm then going to DJ for the next two or three months. We already have good interest from festivals for next summer. Soundsystem is a bit of a beast as it takes so much time and money that we will be more selective as to what we do next year. On the 2020Vision label we have a new single just out from Art of Tones “Call The Shots,” and next we have the new 2020Soundsysyem single for “Broken” featuring remixes from Ekkhouse and Makam. We are also releasing some of the older label catalogue to celebrate our 15 year anniversary.