Always looking forward with Teebee

Teebee discusses the origins and future of Drum & Bass in an extensive interview that traces the lineage of the genre through his own career. 

The general consensus around here is that Techno is the music of the future. We’ve adopted it as our mantra for some time, and I’ve written about the subject at length, but perhaps I and we’ve been getting it all wrong, and it’s Drum and Bass that is in fact the music of the future.

Did Drum and Bass actually supplant Techno at some point as the most innovative music in the electronic music canon? A half an hour on the phone with Torgeir Byrknes (Teebee) points to a resounding “yes”. A theme that echoes through our conversation talks of looking ahead, negating nostalgia and embracing cultural development. It’s about progression, it’s about living in the future, adapting to your surroundings and about assuming everything that has come before you is irrelevant. “You’ve got to step up if you want to be a part of this,” explains Torgeir in no uncertain terms towards the end of our conversation, “because time waits for no-one.”

It’s a very existentialist perspective for an artist of Torgeir’s calibre. As Teebee he’s been a genre figurehead for as long as it’s existed. He’s released records on prominent Drum and Bass labels like Moving Shadow and Photek Productions as well as establishing his own significant contribution to the industry in the form of Subtitles. He’s also one half of Calyx and Teebee, who have been a major contributor to Andy C’s RAM records and one of the biggest crossover successes in Drum and Bass. And he’s played to audiences in the tens of thousands as a DJ, but at the heart of all of this is a humble and an almost altruistic ideology that informs his work across all these projects. For Torgeir it’s all about “the art and love of culture rather than for the financial aspects and billing on a poster” and the older he gets the “more important that becomes.”

At the centre of this culture is the idea of progression for the 40-something artist and DJ, and like every other aspect of your social structure, it needs to be nurtured and it needs to constantly evolve and adapt with its surroundings. This means “you can either change with the times or die” and in Drum and Bass this sentiment is what keeps the genre moving forward in Torgeir’s opinion before he adds “but we still remember where we’ve come from.”

Drum and Bass’ legacy is intertwined with the legacy of Rave culture in the UK and Europe. It gestated in the broken beats of early nineties Techno, and as that genre moved into stoic, minimalists 4-4 kicks, Drum and Bass grasped at the shredded beats of proto-acts like Prodigy and LTJ Bukem to make its own intense impression on the world. By the late nineties it was an international phenomenon with people like Goldie, Photek and Andy C becoming household names and dedicated scenes coming up in places as remote as South Africa and Australia, all before the incremental rise of the Internet. Teebee was an integral part of this movement by then, but for him and his peers the music and scene has its roots much further back than that, back in the ninety-eighties when as a youth living in Bergen, Norway Hip Hop came to Scandinavia.

“I have a lot to be thankful for,” he says about growing up in Bergen “because ultimately that’s where I discovered everything that lead to me doing music for life.” Torgeir’s story is a familiar story in the Norwegian electronic music scene of that generation. Breakdancing and records like Beat Street sparked an early interest in music, which for Torgeir came at the age of five. “I have never been as impressed with anything in my life,” he says about the “acrobatics of breakdancing.” Breakdancing led to music and Torgeir started buying records with his own money as soon he was able. It was a “really exciting time for us,” he says “because it genuinely felt new and history proved later that it was.” The music was “real and raw” and Torgeir still looks back at those informative years as the building blocks for what he would eventually do in his own music.  

Drum & Bass at Jæger with Teebee during Romjulfestivalen

The music led to DJing through the local youth centre, and when the UK rave scene broke, Torgeir’s “fascination with broken-beats” turned him onto the new emerging sounds coming out of the UK, especially “those first Prodigy records on XL recordings.” It was “like hip-hop but flipped,” he reminisces about the sound that would eventually come to dominate his interest as Hip Hop’s golden era started coming to a close in the mid-nineties.

One of the most significant moments in Torgeir’s career came during the ninth grade after he and some friends peeled off from the rest of the class do some shopping in the white label section of a neighbourhood record store. “I found a record that just blew… me… a-way” he says dissecting the last few syllables like a chopped amen break. He brought the record home, but the white label yielded no information about the artist or the label behind this record. It weighed on him and he started calling up record shops in the UK – much to the “extreme dismay” of his parents – playing this record down the phone to anybody that would listen. “All I wanted was to hear more of this kind of music,” he says and encouraged by a youthful exuberance and a musical hunger he eventually found the title and artist behind this record. It was LTJ Bukem’s “Demon Theme” and that record sealed Torgeir’s fate and a lifelong obsession with this music and its culture.

His career in production came from necessity, rather than want, when as a youth in 1993 his record collection was still rather small. When tasked to do a DJ set, four records simply wouldn’t cut it to provide music for a whole set. “I thought, I can moan about there not being enough records to play or I can try do something about it,” he remembers of that fateful experience. He asked his dad to “front” him some money for a computer studio and what “started off as just a curiosity, turned into a massive love affair” by the time Torgeir came of age.

As Teebee, Torgeir has since released three albums, not including his collaborative albums, and countless EP’s in a career that spans twenty-odd years today. And as Drum and Bass evolved, growing through the height of its popularity in the late ninety nineties and early 2000’s and then falling out of favour with audiences that turned to genres like Dubstep, Torgeir remained steadfast. There’s an interview from around that time with Torgeir online where, posed with the question of making Dubstep, he simply smirks by way of dismissal, and says; “we don’t like dubstep, it’s a waste of time”. It is clear from talking to him and by the work he has done that Torgeir and Teebee is a lifer when it comes to Drum n Bass.

He was there for the best moments of the genre at the hype, when divergent scenes had started cropping up the world over, but he says “it’s nothing on the hype of today” stretching out the first syllable of “nothing” like the sub-bass drawl on his classic Sade-sampling track, Lifeless. “Back then the thought of going to Siberia to play to 10 000 people or Korea to play to 20 000 people” would be completely unheard of. At the height of its popularity, the people behind it were “kind of misunderstood, which made it a bit of a political statement” according to Torgeir. They were largely outcasts of society, who “bonded over something really exciting” that popular culture could never quite grasp at that time. Torgeir looks back fondly on those early years, especially the Sunday Sessions at the Blue Note in London, which he would later name a track after. He and his Norwegian peers would regularly fly over to London for the Sunday Sessions as soon as they came of age. “That’s how I spent all my money” exclaims Torgeir. “The beautiful thing about the Sunday Sessions,” was that “they started so early, so we could catch the first few hours before we had to catch the last plane back.” It was at these nights that Torgeir would get his demos in the form of ADAT tapes (this was before CD burners) “into the hands of people like Grooverider.”

“I’m so glad I was a part of it,” he says about the melting point of the scene “because you really had to go out of your way to be part of something you truly love.” He “doubts future generations are going to see anything similar” but almost in the same breath he says “it wasn’t all better before,” catching himself before he falls into some nostalgia. Drum and Bass is a technologically driven genre, and if you don’t evolve with the technology you’d “be left behind“ according to Torgeir. “My strength as a producer and an artist,” he says “is that I’m always looking forward.”

That was at the root of Drum and Bass’ ultimate demise, during a period in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s according to Torgeir; people weren’t looking forward anymore. “My main problem with how culture develops is that art imitates art,” says Torgeir of this period. “So all the new producers that grew up listening to my stuff, they’re going to make music inspired by the genre and in a sense it will be mainly watered down, because we drew our influences from elsewhere.” He believes that the scene has gotten back to those early ideals of Drum n Bass again and that’s why it’s currently enjoying such a big resurgence, bigger yet than it was even during the height of its popularity. “People have stopped looking at what everybody else is doing” he suggests, and from the young bedroom producers to the established old guard like Teebee it’s breathed new life into the genre again.

Torgeir has had to constantly evolve with the scene and the culture to still remain relevant and in that vein he is wrapping up that part of his legacy today with a couple of Archive releases, records and tracks that were previously unavailable, and re-mastering his first two albums, “Blacksciencelabs” and “Through the eyes of the Scorpion”. These records still stand as barometers of the genre and even though Torgeir is always looking towards the future, we have to take a moment to reflect on them too.

“With Black Science I had an idea of what I wanted to achieve and I went for it”, he says. “I was young, hungry and arrogant. I was brimming with confidence and the record reflects that. That record is unapologetic, it’s raw and it’s me.” It’s the record that catapulted his career, getting DJ offers all around the world on the merit of that record, which in turn left him with a dilemma when it became time to record his next LP, “Through the eyes of the scorpion.” It was “a difficult record to complete” for Torgeir, because he was “torn by what my heart was telling  me to do and what the club reaction told me to do” and to “find a happy compromise wasn’t easy.” Between those two records that raw, unapologetic premise ties the two records together, but on “Through the eyes of the Scorpion” there’s a polished, cinematic narrative that very much reflects that era of hyper-modern production through the progress of computer recording technology of the time it’s recorded in. “You want to something to work on a head and body level,” says Torgeir about his music, “that’s the main challenge of writing music for me.”

And how has his music evolved since? “The ultimate change is  that music sounds better,” he says. “You can take something that was made in 1995 and make it identical. If you took the same record today and made it to the best of your abilities, it would sound a million times better.”

After these releases he is looking forward to making some new music as Teebee, but he is currently committed to a contract as Calyx and Teebee with RAM Records, before he can work on any new music of his own. “I signed an exclusive three-album deal” he says and vows “never to do that again” after they complete this album together. It’s “been a tremendous stress” on Torgeir who refers to Larry Cons (Calyx) as a brother but believes: “Who I am is not the sum of the parts that is me and Larry.” They are currently finalising the album, which is just not quite there yet in their opinion. They “keep going back to it because it doesn’t feel like a record yet,” he says. “An album has to tell a story, it can’t just be a collecting of singles. You want to showcase what you can do, but you also want to showcase your progression.”

Progression, there it is again, that word that dots our conversation throughout. This ideology haunts Torgeir’s entire musical purpose, from making records to DJing. In the context of a DJ set, he hardly plays anything from his back catalogue because his role he believes is to play “the most cutting edge, groundbreaking music around” for audiences. He might play some of the more recent releases that still “hold up” from his point of view, but he “won’t even go near” his older tracks. He keeps echoing the altruist approach that brought him into the scene and in that spirit he is also raising his Subtitles label from the dead. He’s got “big plans” for the label in the new year when he is out of his record contract and it’s all intrinsically tied to the ethos that runs through his entire musical career; it’s about doing it “more for the culture and the progression of that culture. “

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