Dubstep supergroup, men to take UK bass music forward, or both? Magnetic Man – the trio of Skream, Artwork and Benga – have been earmarked as the future of beat driven music in the UK.
We’re six floors up, by the pool in London’s Shoreditch House. Benga has temporarily disappeared, so it’s down to Artwork (Arthur Smith) and Skream (Oliver Jones) to talk us through their genesis and their self titled debut.
“We met probably 12 years ago now,” says Jones, “in the Apple record shop in Croydon.” “I had a recording studio above the shop,” adds Smith, “and used to run a label as well, and these guys used to come in as young whippersnappers and played their tracks.” So how have they found the time to keep the venture going? “You sleep and you’re dead!” says Arthur. “Yeah, it’s hard work,” agrees Jones, “and not much sleep. It’s getting the balance right you know, between killing yourself and barely living!”
The album uses a number of vocal guests, the most high profile of which is John Legend. Yet the Magnetic Man way is not to use him as the starry front man – rather, he gets a role towards the background. Smith explains. “What we’ve tried to do is use the singer as an instrument rather than the face of the track, and have them doing the things for us rather than doing a track for them. We met up with most of the guests on the album, but John Legend’s song was (done) over the internet. We sent him the track, then he sent some ideas back, and it was backwards and forwards across the Atlantic. Katy B we’ve known for four years, and she came into the studio with us and wrote things with us.” Jones takes up the mantle. “It was the same with Ms Dynamite as well, but with Sam Frank we met while using him as a songwriter. He was sending us songs in demo form, but we found we couldn’t really change it.”
Some pizza arrives, and the boys tuck in with gusto while talking about the studio sessions the trio enjoyed in Cornwall, where the bulk of the album was written. “We all knew what had to be done,” says Smith. It was very quick when we hit the ground running down in Cornwall. We did a lot of tracks in the first week down there.” “I couldn’t think after a while!” says Jones. “We went down there for a reason, and we eventually had to come back to London to finish it, as it was so quiet down there. We need hecticness in our lives, and it wasn’t provided there.”
“What we’ve tried to do is use the singer as an instrument rather than the face of the track” – Magnetic Man’s Artwork explains the group’s restrained use of guest vocalists
Is that also because dubstep is essentially a London sound? “I think its roots definitely started here,” says Smith, “but it’s a worldwide thing now. It’s gone completely global, though obviously the best stuff’s still made here!” They’ve had a good reaction in America, it seems. “Yeah. We’ve just checked the hype machine and John Legend was at Number 4 this week, and the Katy B single was Number 10. So really, considering no one’s really heard that yet, it’s quite crazy. It’s weird to see it happen, you don’t realise how far it spreads until things like that, and then you think this really is getting somewhere!”
As to the live set-up, Magnetic Man are already well established. “We’ve been touring for three years already,” confirms Smith. ” We use three of these” – he pats his laptop – “and they run in sync. One’s got drums, one’s got bass and one’s got the lead lines, and they swap around. The record’s on the fly, which is really good because you can put a breakdown in just when you feel like it, or you can keep something going for a lot longer. But now we’re going to do that with the vocalists, and we did it with Katy B at Reading. Her vocal was so good!”
The group were taken with their reception at the Reading Festival. “It was shocking,” says Smith, “because it’s bands and stuff like that at Reading. You just wonder if people are going to be in to it, and there are other bands on at the same time, but it was rammed! I’ve never seen so many people in one tent; you couldn’t have fitted one more person in there. But it was great.”
Returning to the album, we discuss the carefully crafted arrangements, proof surely that dubstep is an awful lot more than bass lines. “It’s not necessarily a dubstep album though, to be fair,” says Jones, noticeably more animated. “It’s just a bass-led UK album. We didn’t sit down and say we were going to write a dubstep album, and I think the only thing it has in common with dubstep is that they are at the same tempo. Each track is influenced by so many different things, so it’s dance music really – UK bass music, which I’ve said so many times this morning!”
“It was just about writing songs really,” says Smith, “and working with them and feeding off each other. It’s a really good experience to be able to do that, to be able to call up John Legend and that. He’s one of our best friends now, he always wants to know what Skream’s new tracks are like.”
“Every single step of this up until now has always been one tiny little step at a time” – as far as their future is concerned, Magnetic Man are looking no further than the next gig
Do the pair see Magnetic Man running for some time to come? “We don’t know!” admits Jones. Smith, an involving presence, nods his agreement. “Every single step of this up until now has always been one tiny little step at a time, and seeing what the next thing is. When we started making the tracks, the next thing was just to go on tour, and we got the grant to go on tour. Then the next thing was to do another tour. And then the next thing was to make some more tracks, and then the record company asked us if we wanted to make an album. We’re just sort of winging it really!”
So what qualities does each of the three bring to the group? Jones shrugs his shoulders. “We’re just friends; that’s what we bring to the table. It’s hard to bring too much when you’ve known someone for 12 years, you just bring what you have.” Smith agrees. “It’s great when you’ve started something, you can pass it to someone else and trust they’re going to do something to make it better. It’s very rare to find that. When we talk to other people they say it’s difficult, but we don’t work like that. We have the approach where if someone doesn’t like it then it’s out, you know? Then you put something else in until three people like it, and it’s a good quality control.”
The trio work with times of intense activity followed by space. “Absolutely, you really need that,” says Smith. “It was good going to Cornwall, but there were bits where we did want to split up, and have our own head space and do something to it. It was 50/50, it couldn’t have been all done there or here. It was good, the balance.”
Future collaborations are currently difficult to predict. “Shall we tell him about Prince?” says Smith, wryly. “No, OK then. We’re just taking it one step at a time, looking in the phone book of the publisher, and going yeah, right, they sound good!” Have they been surprised by any of their fans so far? “Yeah, very strange. But good!” “It can be difficult sometimes, as someone you’ve been wanting to work with forever you can’t work with because it just doesn’t go,” says Jones. When asked to reveal names, however, he becomes a bit cagey. “If you had your dream list of who you would want to feature on a track it probably wouldn’t work anyway. We couldn’t have done Perfect Stranger with anyone but Katy B.”
We suggest their choice of new vocalists is just as important, and that, given Magnetic Man’s track record, people will listen with greater focus to their new collaborators. “That’s nice,” says Smith. “I suppose that comes as a compliment. We’re always looking to progress.”
Magnetic Man’s self-titled debut album is out now through Columbia. They begin their UK tour in Norwich on 26th October. Full information can be found at their MySpace site.