Fanu Talks Breaks, Headz, Ableton and Producing DnB

To celebrate the release of Fanu’s second EP on Metalheadz, we caught up with the Scandinavian DnB and hip-hop producer to discuss what it’s like to record for Metalheadz, collecting samples, how his studio set-up has changed and some production/studio tips.

You can check out his track “Through Thick And Thin”, taken from “The Legacy EP” below.

So, before we talk about your new release on Metalheadz I feel we need to discuss “Siren Song” as that’s where I was first drawn into your sound. I was a massive fan of Good Looking in the early to mid-90s but then began to drift away from drum and bass and began to listen to more techno, house and early prototype broken beat at the end of the century. “Siren Song” was one of the main tracks that turned me back onto DnB in 2004.

Ah, thank you! If I have helped bring one person back to DnB or turn them to it, I’ve succeeded.

That period was very dear to me. I remember how this more synthetic, more drum-machine-beats driven sound was taking over, and I wasn’t feeling that, and that track just happened, and I somehow knew it’d work.

In a way, I guess my sound has always been slight ”counter-movement-ish”, but that period, around 2004–2008 was really about breaks being chopped and all that. I suppose it struck the right nerve in many. I was in touch with TeeBee a lot back then and it struck a chord in him, too – the melancholy that resonates in one Scandinavian will likely resonate in another.

I guess that song is the one from me that a lot of people know about, and I’m just happy about that. That song literally took me around the world and gave me my quick 15 minutes of fame, and it happened at the perfect time, as I was a student with surprisingly much time on my hands, so I could travel a lot all the time just to DJ and spread the sound.

It had everything I was so passionate about when GLR where at their peak, perfectly edited drums, bass that took the track to a whole different level, pads that genuinely took you on a journey, plus those vocals… The track had a genuine cosmic quality, everything fuses so impeccably it’s hard to believe that it’s made from a variety of samples from different sources as its so natural.

Safe to say I wouldn’t be what I am if it wasn’t for GLR, either. Their 90s releases were SO GOOD. I’ve always said, in that era of DnB, producers were bringing plenty of outside influences into the scene. Just putting music into DnB, without trying to sound like DnB too hard, if you know what I mean? In general, music was way more heterogenous back then, and diversity and individual voices were celebrated more, I feel.

The GLR camp was sampling deep house, jazz and all that – I sorely miss that organic vibe of those days. That music took you on a journey each and every time. That music you had to LISTEN to, and you did; it wasn’t just some light-hearted background music – it was so strong.
In general, DnB was a crazy melting pot back then.

This ability to forge different elements together so tightly has become a trademark of your sound, from your drum and bass productions to your hip-hop beats, from your first release to this new EP on Headz.

Thank you! I’ve been absorbing music passionately since I was 10 or so, so I guess that’s it.

What’s your vision as an artist and how do you set about making such emotive music?

That’s a broad question! When I started making music, I was 12 years old. My primary goal was to recreate those magical moments I experienced when listening to the music that seemed to resonate in me. And you know what they say: when you make music that’s true to you and makes you FEEL something, there’s a high chance it’ll vibrate in other like-minded people as well.

I always felt that in a lot of 90s music, or at least the stuff that found its way to my speakers, there was often this sense of “otherness”, this level of depth that you didn’t find in the mundane everyday life. Music always took me to places. E.g., I remember listening to FSOL’s “Lifeforms” album while just lying on my bed in a dark room, watching stars, and that was magical. I grew up in the countryside, and back then the climate was way colder there and you could see the stars and Northern Lights in the winter, the way my parents raised me and my twin brother when we were young was kind of relaxed and we mostly got to do whatever we wanted: we were always playing computer games from a very early age, and in them, I also felt that sense of otherness and escapism from the everyday life, too. And we got to enjoy nature and freedom a lot. I think all that kind of contributed to me becoming a creative person somehow; that’s how I see it. I guess the art that comes out is somehow a reflection of what you are inside.

You were always known as a producer who loved the hardware, now you teach Ableton. What’s your current workflow for producing and what is your studio set-up?

I, like so many others, mostly use a DAW (Ableton Live) for music these days. I also use an MPC Live and MPC X for some hip-hop. I used to use a bit of Elektron gear but sold it. Had a lot of equipment, and still have, for example, SP 1200, SP12, Akai S3200XL, EMU E5000 Ultra, Moog Minitaur, MPC 60, Access Virus C…they’re all good and I use them all sometimes, but a DAW is the most practical.

But it’s never been about what you use… it’s always your know-how. I’ve made tunes that got bigged up by some stubborn EMU heads like “That’s the EMU sound right there!” and haven’t felt I want to correct them that it’s all software.

I mix and master music as my job full-time and I do 100% of it in Ableton Live, so sometimes a little change feels good. I’m a massive production/DAW/audio nerd, and even do a wee bit of MPC testing on my free time, and also Ableton alpha testing (I was the first person ever to receive a reward from Ableton for reporting a large number of bugs and decent testing: I got the first-ever “crashologist” t-shirt they sent out). The older I get, the more proud I am of all the nerdery and knowledge, and people hit me up about it on my socials almost every single day of the year.

I still don’t really have a fixed workflow: sometimes I start with the drums and then do the bass, and everything else just serves that, but sometimes I may start with some pad chords and build things around that. I save a lot of clips and ideas into the Ableton Live library Clips folder and browse that when willing to spark an idea. I also have a gigantic amount of samples and breaks, as I’ve been sampling and collecting sounds for, well, a long time.

Ableton has been such a game-changer for a lot of producers, as you know I used to visit Sonar Circles studio in his spare room where he had a Juno keyboard and a Rhodes alongside his Akai and PC. Now he purely uses a Mac Book and Ableton, how do you feel about the way technology has changed the way producers work and do you have any basic tips for people starting out?

Technology has brought the joy of accessible music-making to us all, which is great. If you think of the 90s, for example, unless you were doing music with a tracker (I was!), you had to buy gear and it cost a LOT – which also meant the ratio of producers doing music very seriously vs those doing it for the lols was way different from how it is today. This may explain why it feels the ratio of absolutely golden music was better in the 90s.

Obviously now there’s a ton of crap and everyone’s a producer, releasing their music on the very same platforms you are, so that’s the downside…it’s harder to find music that really appeals to you, as you don’t necessarily even know where to start looking.

Tips: Learn one DAW really well. Don’t change your DAW just because your favourite producer uses something else. Absolutely don’t believe the “DAW X sounds better than DAW Y” bullshit; that’s by people who don’t know how to make their music sound good… they always blame their tools. I’ve heard “Ableton sounds muddy” etc so many times, and all I’ll say is what I do as an engineer and a producer speaks for itself. Make a lot of music, as you’ll learn about yourself in the process. Ten whatever songs will teach you more than trying to make two perfect songs. People won’t hear the minute stuff you spend 10 hours on.

I remember buying a batch of CDR’s from you on Dogs On Acid, you were pretty ahead of the game selling directly to the public. People reading this have to remember this was about 15 years ago now, way before Bandcamp etc. What’s it like being an artist in 2020?

Ah, I appreciate the purchase! That, for me at least, was the way to sell music back then: we had no Bandcamp yet, no streaming etc., and a lot of forum people were hitting me up about wanting to get my music, and sending 30–50 tunes as WAV files over the internet wasn’t as convenient as it is now, so I just told people if they paid me a bit, I’d send CDs. It worked well. I was a university student back then (I graduated in 2009), so that was some nice extra money for sure.

What’s it like being an artist in 2020…phew, that’s a big one. Tough? Ha. Tougher than it was back then. It’s like you almost gotta work harder. I don’t know, this would call for a 20-page essay. Like I said before, you’re kind of competing against everyone else in all the noise and BS of social media, where the music gets dismissed quickly, while your neighbour’s dog meme is being celebrated by everybody, haha. I’ve said often, one should market their music with funny images. Like maybe the next album cover should be a drunken pug humping a cat or something while doing cocaine, and you’d get attention for sure.

On the real, though, you gotta adapt to the times. I recently put out a breaks sample pack with over 170 drum loops (some of them really long) from a lot of my release catalogue, and it sold really well – just being honest. So there’s money to be made in some ways. The FatGyver Hip-Hop Breaks Pack will be coming later this year.

And people still buy my music, which is amazing, but then again I feel a lot of my followers learned to buy music, and many of them are 30–40 years old or so. I’m not one to complain about music sales, and my distro does a good job in collecting monies from streaming, so it’s all nice extra beer money on the side.

But I’ll point out I’ve put in a lot of work since the early 2000s, so I can’t say it’s been easy. I always say to aspiring artists: at the very least start a Bandcamp page early on and, for the love of God, don’t go for Spotify-only and try to post those stats, as I feel that’s somehow a race to the bottom, and you’ll earn money for Daniel Ek instead of getting some via Bandcamp etc. Give people options. I even do small runs of tapes of my hip-hop stuff every now and then, do a bit of merch, sell my Ableton Live videos and do Patreon. Mixing and mastering is my main thing and would easily pay for my living alone, but all the “artistry-related” stuff is a decent thing on the side – I obviously like doing it, and getting paid for it is a nice “bonus”.

But I’ll emphasize massively: even if I never got one more cent, I’d still do it all.

These days, gig life is harder, and I feel promoters are taking fewer risks and maybe doing less of smaller events globally (obv. Corona is fucking things up big time for everybody at the moment) so getting gigs is increasingly harder. I know if I lived in the UK, I’d score some, but I like it here. Getting any shows in my home country has always been a bit weird, I dunno, man.

The “Legacy EP” is the follow-up to your “Black Label EP”, released two years ago now on Metalheadz Platinum. It’s crazy to think how fast that time has gone! Can you tell us how you managed to hook up with the label and some info about these two releases?

I was sending music to Headz for a while. The first time was around 2007 or something if I recall correctly. But it’s not like I’ve been doing it all the time.

Funny or not, the very first tune that Goldie picked was “Baretta” (on the first EP), and it’s actually a slower track, so not DnB tempo-wise. I remember it very well: I was thinking it’s prob not worth sending, but hey, what do you know. I guess the aesthetics are very Headzy. The break on that one was sent to me by a person who had been following my music. When I heard that break, I thought, man, this is a sick one, and just had to do a tune around it.

I can work on a lot of different stuff, as you may have seen: I do hip-hop, downtempo, footworky/bass musicky stuff, and even house. Both Headz releases are the result of what I can do when I put my Headz hat on, so they’re a testament to what Headz sound is to me: raw, gritty, with punk mentality…how I’ve always found Headz.

I’m sure having a release on Metalheadz is most artist’s dream. Was that always one of your goals and, if so, what does it feel like now you’ve done it? Do you have any more achievements still to accomplish?

If I’m being very honest, that was my ultimate goal in DnB. I can’t lie. To me, there’s nothing doper than Headz in DnB, and it’s been like that since Platinum Breakz 1, which I bought in the mid-90s as it came out. To me, personally, there is no higher tier.

There’s been ups and downs in my career – I guess it happens to every artist – and I remember, around the time Goldie picked up ”Baretta”, I was somewhat discouraged and depressed about not getting any further in the field. TBH I’ve always felt like an underdog in the scene and support has been somewhat minimal. There, I said it.

When G picked that up, it happened at THE right time – it literally couldn’t have happened at a better moment. I also remember that to finish “Baretta”, I skipped some event where I was invited, and they had free beer there…but I remember I had a good vibe about that song and I said, nah I can’t come, as I gotta work on this song. Glad I did. A few days later G picked it up.

It definitely feels really good and it inspires me being on Headz. Feels like a “home” in a way, the dopest label standing behind what I do, 100% on my own terms – it’s a strong, warm feeling. They’ve been inspiring me for 25 years, after all.

More achievements… that’s a good question! I’ve definitely been stubborn with some goals, and a very similar thing happened some years ago with my hip-hop stuff (under FatGyver) as I was approaching my favourite hip-hop label, Redef Recordings. I was harassing them to no end via Soundcloud about a full album up to the point where I was feeling, fuck, it ain’t going anywhere, and this is getting embarrassing, but maybe I’ll send one more message…and then, they finally listened to it and they signed an album right away – no modifications needed. That felt good.

I’m not sure I have more goals that big or concrete currently, but as an artist, I want to evolve, and currently I’m working on hip-hop, DnB, and also house. I’d say if you can keep on making music that impresses you (that’s actually not easy when you’ve been into music all your life) somewhat regularly, I’d say that’s actually an achievement.

I’d love to a full album in Headz style, also doing slower tracks.

I’m always mightily impressed by the balance in your music, this EP especially. From the light and dark atmospherics to the crunch in the breaks which don’t muddy the clarity of the production. Is this a conscious effort or a natural part of your production?

Engineering-wise, it’s conscious. I want to make it good. I make my living as an audio engineer, after all, so I need to make it sound good…in a way, it’s almost like a business card, heh. I can’t have my music sound shit!

But music-wise, it’s “half-conscious”: I guess one always has a style that happens somewhat “automatically”, meaning you can’t accept everything, and I trash a lot of shit that doesn’t fit my “mould”. I know exactly how I want to sound and what I want to put out. In a way it’s really easy, and in a way, it can be really tough, too. Sometimes you’re really amped and you just come up with shit, and then there are days when you’re barely trying and you come up with some good shit that gives you goosebumps. Making music’s like that. The day I feel I’ve nailed it all, I’ll quit, ha!

I’m always banging on about character and purpose in music, with so many people having the tools to produce now and a never-ending stream of sample sources online. How do you make your creations stand out from other drum and bass releases?

I guess this partly relates to the previous answer: you have some internal filter in you that won’t allow you to do whatever…it has to pass your own quality control.

As for samples…I rarely buy sample packs. I’ve been sampling things forever, so my hard drive is full of sounds that not everyone has. This is important to me in every genre and style I do. BTW I don’t think I’m amazing or am reinventing the wheel or anything! But I want to stay slightly different from the norm at least. When you hear my music, I don’t want you to think it’s the same shit everyone’s doing. And I don’t want or even can’t do the typical cookie-cutter stuff, or the most accessible stuff – I can’t do it. I also am not trying to please anyone but myself.

I guess a lot of what I do leans heavily on the 90s style, as that’s when my musical backbone was mostly formed, and I suppose that’s not that much in the limelight. The modern DnB stuff, for example, it never really resonated me in that much. I’m of the school of Photek, Source Direct, early Headz, Certificate 18, Polar…you know, that type of shit. Those dudes were paving their own paths. I’m trying my hardest to do that…the stuff that kind of doesn’t age. Those artists are still being remembered. That’s what I’d like to achieve to an extent.

At the end of the day, if I’m happy with what I can do in the lab, that’s the biggest achievement, as I’m a picky dickhead when it comes to DnB – I can’t lie. That stuff will always resonate in like-minded people: DnB lovers that are around 30–40 years old or so, roughly.

I don’t think I’d be forgiven if I talked to you without discussing breaks! Whether it’s drum and bass or hip-hop, your samples are often unique and distinctive. To myself and others, this is one of the most interesting elements of the two scenes. Do you have any tips for sample digging and blending them together so they sound so natural?

I’d suck at trying to teach this. It all really comes from the, uh, some sort of musical understanding, or just aesthetics. To me, the common element is they (breaks and samples) have to be kind of organic – I always kind of disliked very electronic-sounding music. I suppose when you mix organic sounds, they go well together. Like coffee and cream. I dunno, someone who has been listening to my stuff might actually be better at explaining or analyzing this than I am!

As for digging: sample everything that moves. Fuck sampling dogmas such as “I can only sample vinyl”…that doesn’t impress me at all. Or, well, if that works for you, fine, but IMHO you’re limiting yourself heavily – which, again, can work, so who am I to say? But don’t feel restricted. Listen to early Good Looking: they didn’t sample DnB and they weren’t trying to sound like the next DnB guy, recreating the same gnarly basses and shit.

Go to record stores, sample movies, sample TV series, Spotify, whatever. Don’t limit yourself.

The rule I have: I never sample from the same gene pool. I’d never sample DnB for DnB (actually I’d never sample DnB in any way…it’d be like taking a few spoonfuls of someone’s sauce and adding it into your own sauce…I need to do that sauce from scratch myself). I wouldn’t sample hip-hop for hip-hop.

Musical cannibalism ain’t cool…I don’t want the music to sound all homogenic. I guess I still kind of cherish the sampling culture and aesthetics of the 90s that I grew up on. It rocked.

Keep your ears open and just be curious. I’ve seen people online asking for recommendations on what to sample and I just want to go and say, “Anything”. Mix and match!

Listen to Jonny L and Photek…they were amazing at sampling and sound design. Keep it interesting.

Finally, where can people find out more about you and check out your back catalogue?

fanu.bandcamp.com has most of all the worthwhile stuff, plus I’m on Spotify as Fanu and FatGyver, too.

Cheers mate!!

My pleasure! (opens a beer)

Link: Bandcamp

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