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Performing Drum & Bass Live
Published January 2019
By Geoff Smith

WilkinsonPhoto: Justin De Souza

Drum & bass phenomenon Wilkinson tells us how his live show evolved from a simple DJ setup to a seven-piece band.

Hailing from the leafy suburbs of South-West London, Wilkinson is an underground drum & bass producer who has crossed into the commercial charts and Radio One playlists, thanks to his ability to pair compelling songs with flawless production. His first insight into making music came at just nine years old, when he began drumming in a band with his present-day guitarist Tom Varrell. At 14, Wilkinson's aspirations to be in a band ended when he discovered his passion for dance music. After fine-tuning his now legendary production skills, Wilkinson sent a folder of tunes to RAM Records, whereupon label founder and drum & bass legend Andy C signed him in 2010. It was through RAM/Virgin EMI that he put out his 2013 debut album Lazers Not Included, which went to number 1 on the iTunes Dance Chart in 10 countries, followed shortly afterwards by his breakout track 'Afterglow', which became a top five hit in the UK, selling 500,000 copies and attracting 65 million YouTube views. His schedule exploded.

"I was put in the position where I was being asked to play Radio 1 Big Weekend and big festival bookings, and I was playing between bands," says Wilkinson. "From watching the other bands and seeing all of the effort that went into the live process I knew I wanted to be a part of that, and take on that challenge." In April 2017, Wilkinson released his follow-up album Hypnotic, which became the most successful drum & bass album of the year and was in the top 20 iTunes albums across six countries.

Transforming a dance music album into a successful live show, one that integrates technology with a band of live musicians, is a considerable challenge. There are successful bands like the Prodigy, Pendulum and Chase & Status who have done this before, but due to the pace at which technology and production styles change, there are still significant challenges, and many different ideas about how it should be done. With few forerunners in the drum & bass genre to learn from, Wilkinson had to work out a successful formula for his live show from the ground up. Wilkinson explains how the live show links to his last album Hypnotic: "The thing I was aiming for with my second album is to demonstrate a chapter of where my production has got to. My first album was a very club‑orientated chapter, whereas this album was me pushing what I could do with vocals and euphoric synths, and also exploring new tempos. My journey is to push high‑energy dance music, to be able to go on stage at a festival and be 10 times louder than the other bands. I want my live shows to be amongst DJ sets, and if you go on after a DJ who has been tearing it out then this has to stand up. It's about who can make the crowd go as wild as possible, and that's the challenge here for the live setup. When the sonics are on point and we have made everything sit together so perfectly, and we haven't got loads of dynamics jumping around, we can push the overall level higher than anyone else."

First Steps

Initially Wilkinson started DJ'ing with a live vocalist; then, in 2015, he found live sound engineer and musical director Pete Thomas, and together they started working on expanding the live show, putting more and more elements in the hands of live musicians. As Wilkinson explains, it's been a gradual transformation: "We went through a process of me playing with a vocalist as the only live element, to me playing some samples with drums, guitar, and vocals on the Lazers Not Included tour, to now where it feels like I am in the studio playing all the elements."

Wilkinson's current band line-up is Wilkinson on keyboards and sample triggers, Tom Varrell on guitar, Alex Todd on acoustic and electronic drums, and Jem Cooke, Shannon Saunders, Simon Youngman Smith and Adam Brown aka Ad-apt on vocals. Anything that can't be performed live comes off a backing track courtesy of an Ableton Live rig. "I love the sound of acoustic drums in a live band, and for me, the fundamental core of a band is drums, guitar and either bass or keyboard; it's a three‑piece band that I wanted to create. When I started the live show, a lot of people told me, 'Your music is going to change, you're going to become one of these electronic acts that starts putting guitar on all your tracks.' But I could see, with the technology around, a way to write the record and then make what we do replicate the record, not the other way round. For example, if I have a song with no guitar on, I will get Tom to play the synth line, because he can make a guitar sound like any synth sound."

Although some artists can be secretive about the way...

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Published January 2019