Tommy Forrest is discovering mainstream success — without compromising the hardcore sample-mangling that has made Akira Kiteshi an underground hit.
It's late 2010. I'm sitting in the cinema with my friend Nat. We are connoisseurs of dance movies. Disney's Step Up 3D is dazzling us with fancy footwork and many objects poked quite needlessly out of the screen. During the most crucial dance-off, I literally squeak — because 'Pinball' by Akira Kiteshi comes on. How did the House of Mouse come to be so ice cool? And how did a self-confessed "little Scottish bloke living in a little town” emerge from the dubstep/glitch-hop underground to become a major Disney picture soundtrack star?
Tommy Forrest, the man behind the eyebrow-wobbling bass, is now a full-time musician and performs around the world, recently rocking the USA, Germany and Holland. Akira Kiteshi began in 2007, when Forrest started a post-rock experimental project where he played all the parts. Trying to secure a cool name for the project, he chose 'Akira Takeshi' but mis-typed it when a little worse for wear, whereupon Akira Kiteshi was born. In Forrest's own estimation, the early incarnation of the project was "absolutely awful”, and he soon moved into making electronic music, pioneering the distinctive blend of dubstep bass and glitchy beats he has since made his own. "Although I started by doing post-rock, since 1997, I was massively influenced by Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada, Leftfield and stuff like that. I was also really into jazz, funk and hip-hop. Jazz and funk are my number one love, I'm a big crate-digger. The riff element in my music comes from techno and trance.”
The role of human timing within electronic music is central to the Akira Kiteshi sound, as Forrest elaborates. "A lot of the current electronic music is missing that. It hasn't got a human feel because a lot of the producers don't play anything in real time, it's all in 16ths or eighths, gridded, quite sterile.”
Whatever period of Akira Kiteshi you sample, whether it's the early frenetically glitchy dance tracks or the more recent expansively cinematic material, Forrest's integration of human and machine is palpable. There is, even in his most robotic tracks, an irresistible funk going on around the hard-sequenced elements. "I feel that we spend the whole day listening to un-gridded sounds. Your ears are more accustomed to those sounds, so a lot of my tunes have this mechanical/human hybrid timing. You add your own timing. When you add something that has a shuffle, as a human, you never add it in the same way as cranking up the shuffle fader in Fruity Loops or whatever. It's still gridded, it's not a human shuffle: I'm a drummer as well, so timing is very important to me, in the way the song has a feel. I think it's also because I do as much as possible on outboard gear as well. I use the sequencer on my [Akai] MPC2000 and then that's a different feel to the computer sequencer. I'll also play a lot of stuff in in real time. I normally use an [Korg] MS10, I've got two of them. They've got a great low end.”
Forrest's working method is to enter his studio every day and simply work until something inspires him, whether that takes two hours or 12. "I've got about 10 different ways I start tunes off, but the majority of my inspiration comes from listening to music. I'll sit down and listen to a load of reggae, funk and jazz and eventually I'll hear something that I like and then load that into the Akai 950, start a tune. Normally, after two hours, I'll know if it's good or not. And, oh yeah, I'm ruthless, I'll just junk it if it's shit, not even save any sounds.”
Quality control is key here. "Yes, it is about ruthlessness. There's a new member to Akira Kiteshi, Chris Hall, who I've written with for around 10 years. He's a phenomenal musician. When we're working on something, I'll say something is shit and reach for the delete button and he'll go, 'No, no — that's got potential!'”
Samples often form the initial inspiration for his tracks, but Forrest very rarely leaves them recognisable. This is partly because of his love of mauling samples, and partly for very sound financial reasons relating to clearance. "Sampling is such a creative process. I had a huge phase of writing hip-hop music and that's what teaches you sampling. Every track on the new album has samples in it, but they're so manipulated you wouldn't know it, using granular synthesis or whatever. There's a track on the album which has a long sample from [he names a big rock band] but you'd never know it! And don't print their name, I don't wanna get sued!”
Forrest also attributes part of his distinctive sound to his software of choice: the affordable 'tracker' DAW, Renoise. "To be honest, I think a lot of it comes from the timing in Renoise. I've dabbled in studios with everything, Pro Tools, Logic, but in my own studio, everything has been done with Renoise. That's how I started pottering around with music: mod trackers on the Amiga. And even now, I still sequence a lot of my stuff on an Atari STFM. That's 'cause there's nothing in an Atari, none of the bloatware that loads up on modern PCs. Having said that, the timing in Renoise is pretty tight because it's not CPU-intensive as a program.”
Where others would baulk at the learning curve involved in using a tracker, and demand an immediately transparent program, Forrest sees learning to use a music application as no different to becoming adept on any conventional instrument. "When I did 'Pinball', that was one of the first accessible tunes I did in Renoise and you can hear the learning process there. I'd used trackers before but there's lots more you can do in Renoise: VSTs, effects.”
Forrest embraced the learning process of mastering Renoise and in turn let this take his music in new directions. "Now that I've got to the album, some of the tracks have micro-edits going on, crazy re-triggering modulation things going where you can hear that I've obviously learnt more in Renoise. But the album is not a dubstep album.” I ask whether this move away from strictly dancefloor-friendly tunes was a conscious decision. "Well, when I started the album, I made the choice, not to name names, but am I going to be like someone that is basically writing an album that is 12 single tracks or am I going to go back and listen to an album like [Leftfield's] Leftism, which I think has a lot more longevity?”
Though he's concerned to make Akira Kiteshi's album more than just a selection of singles, Forrest is also at pains to point out that he is no elitist, and has nothing against the current generation of dubstep superstars. "I think the people who diss Skrillex, Rusko and the other big artists, who call them 'brostep' or whatever, are completely missing the point. Dance music needs artists like that. I've seen people like James Blake live and people like Reso, and no disrespect at all to James Blake, but I know which gig I had more fun at. It was the one where I was literally throwing my shoes at Reso's head! So, you need that kind of release. I'll stick up for Skrillex, I think he's a phenomenal producer. I do think he's at the point where he should try something new, perhaps do a track which doesn't immediately tear your head off. But, yeah, amazing producer!”
The current storming of the pop charts by dubstep has polarised opinion amongst lovers of the genre. Some decry the pop producers as sell-outs, while others see anything that brings new listeners to the genre as good. And then you have Forrest, both undeniably of the underground and someone who makes obviously commercially successful music. "I love subtlety in tracks. A lot of what I do is balls-out, but if you listen to it multiple times, there are lots of things that I stick in there, small touches that you'll hear. So, in terms of influences, I like people who have that subtlety: Leftfield, Underworld, Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada, who are my fellow Scots and are simply phenomenal.” So you feel there's room for layers, for depth in even the most accessible music? "Absolutely! Taking a more modern artist, Flying Lotus will do something 10 times and you'll hear something different each time. Anything that has that element I really enjoy, which is why I love Reso's stuff as well.”
But there is one area in the more commercial arena that Forrest thinks has suffered lately: the build. "I'm a sucker for the build-up in a tune and I definitely think it's one of the things that's lacking in a lot of dubstep now. You'll have your intro, a breakdown and then it drops into the main riff. Whereas, I like that ridiculous build which comes from clubbing in the '90s. It was all the build, big 909 snare rolls that went on for two minutes. It has become untrendy to put a build in a tune, but it still works on the dancefloor. If you listen to 'Ming The Merciless', it does the build with the vocal and then when it drops, I've seen dancefloors go absolutely mental. It's all about the foreplay — the build-up's the most important part!”
Electronic music is notoriously problematic when it comes to live performance, but a cursory scan of the Web will yield many glowing reviews of Akira Kiteshi's gigs. Again, Forrest feels that this is a neglected area in the current scene. "The most important thing when I was putting a live set together with Chris was to make it interactive. To me, there's nothing worse than watching a guy with a cap on, huddled behind a laptop, not looking at the audience and hitting a few buttons on a controller. The Akira Kiteshi live sets are a lot more interactive. Chris is an amazing turntablist, he did the DMCs a few years ago. He'll be doing live scratching, I'll be playing things over that and it's properly live, as you can tell when we fuck up!”
So, is it the show or the spontaneity that is important? After all, quite a few electronic superstars essentially perform to a fixed backing track. "When I go to see an electronic act, the act part is quite important. If you go to see a DJ, you want to see someone who's into it, who's waving their arms round and having fun, doing all the clichéd DJ things that we do. That inspires me when I'm on the dancefloor, having a shimmy. If they're having a good time, I'm gonna have a good time too! When you go and see the Prodigy or, like we were saying, Skrillex, there's energy there. It's become too trendy to just stand there and look like you're doing sweet FA. It happens more with the 'deeper' types of music. If you're going to do the deeper, more sparse type of dubstep or IDM, it's quite trendy to stand there and act like you're a king. I can't be bothered with all that: you're there to have fun and entertain the crowd. I'm terrible for jumping around behind the decks and looking like a right tit, but I'm having a good time and people feed back off that.”
None of this, of course, answers the original question: how did music as leftfield as Akira Kiteshi's end up in a Disney film? "Basically, Ian Merchant, who runs Black Acre Records and is kind of my manager, rang me and said, 'I've had Disney on the phone, they want to use 'Pinball' in a movie.' And I pictured this dubstep tune being in some kind of animated story involving bears. Then there was this huge delay, months went by. Then we'd get a call saying they still wanted to use it, we'd get excited and then nothing for months. At one point they cut it out of the film and we were devastated. Then one morning I woke up and they said they'd posted a clip on YouTube, I sat there bleary-eyed and saw it, this pivotal scene. And I was thinking — how did this happen? But of course, I went to see it in the cinema too!”
So that's how to get your cutting-edge electronic music in a Disney film. Any other advice for aspiring producers? "In terms of the business, the best advice I was ever given was to treat everyone the same. Because you do meet the same people on the way down as on the way up. So if you're nice to someone on the way up, chances are they'll be nice to you when you're having a shit time and not doing very well. And they might be big at this point. I think that's a pretty important piece of information — don't become a diva! It's a job, a great job, but it's a job. You wouldn't go into Standard Life and start throwing stuff around and having a strop, being a diva!
"Then, in terms of production, just learn what you've got. If you're starting out on Fruity Loops or Acid, learn it as best you can, learn it inside and out. Listen to people you love and don't be afraid to rip them off. That's what I did. My first tracks sounded like really, really shitty Aphex Twin and in that process, you learn how things work. It's exactly the same as rock bands covering songs.”
Finally, Forrest has an admirably pragmatic, even sceptical attitude to both his own success. "I'm this little Scottish guy in this little town and, unless I'm out touring, I'm quite sheltered from what's going on, what's causing a vibe. When I used to DJ out, when Akira Kiteshi first started, I never used to play my own tunes because I have horrific self-doubt. Everything I write is shit in my own mind, I've never handed in a track that I'm actually happy with. It's normally my wife that says 'Send that in, do it' — she's a better producer than I am! I don't write music for other people, it's something I have to do, it's like breathing. It's the first thing I think of when I get up in the morning and the last thing I think of when I go to bed. I don't imagine it inspiring anyone because, to me, it's this little guy sitting in a room.
"There are a lot of producers out there at the moment who are very popular and they can't produce for shit, you can tell. What they are popular for is an image, which is all very well, but that doesn't have longevity. If Akira Kiteshi falls flat on its tits tomorrow and I'm out of a job, I know that I can walk into a recording studio and mic up a band and stick them on to tape. Really, just learn as much as you can. In music, every day is a school day!”
The secret weapon in the Akira Kiteshi mix arsenal is tape. "I mix to tape because I love the sound of tape,” says Tommy Forrest. "I've grown up with tape, Otari MTR90s, machines like that. The early stuff was mixed to an old TEAC quarter-inch reel-to-reel, but now I've got a one-inch 16-track that I can bounce stems to if I want and mix back out of. I just like the sound of tape, I never remove noise from anything.”
For Forrest, noise definitely does not annoy. "It's nice in music to have a bit of hiss, if it's a sample to have a bit of record crackle. It's a very homely sound to me. Take, for example, 'Transmission' — there's an awful lot of noise on it, because I use an old Seck desk, because I love the EQ on it! You can hear the noise pumping because there's a lot of side-chaining going on, and at the end you get this ridiculous noise coming in, but I love that!”
On first listening, it's Akira Kiteshi's mastery of bass that is most apparent. From slow, groaning swells to stuttering, psychotic riffery, Tommy Forrest effortlessly mangles bass into continuously inventive and surprising new shapes. What's the secret?
"The key is resampling. It's all about resampling. I'll start off, maybe in [NI] Reaktor or Massive or the MS10, and then I'll sample it. Then I'll record it into Renoise. Then I'll resample it again from within Renoise to add more effects to it. I love that old sampler thing that when you pitch up, the modulations will get faster as well. Also, I'm terrible for compression. I will squash the shit out of everything. You need to do this if you're using a lot of formant filters, you need to tame them down. So that's the high section done. Then I'll record in a sub-bass sound, normally a sine or a triangle [wave]. I'll mix the two together and render that file down, so I can carry on manipulating the sound. And that's how I get those not-quite-right bass sounds where, when they pitch up, the wobble time will completely change. That's the secret: resampling, resampling, resampling!”
Audio files to accompany the article.
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