Everything starts with a beat: An interview with Dusky

There’s a sound inextricably connected with London on Dusky’s latest LP, Pressure. From the tangible Garage-influences to the atmospheres, heavily imbued with the weight of a post-dubstep experimentalism, the whole album echoes with the sounds of the English capital and the production duo’s heritage.  

“We both grew up in different parts of North London” explains Alfie Granger-Howell while Nick Harriman carries in a cup of tea in the background of a video call. The pair have been making music together for the better part of a decade with 4 LPs, a few dozen EPs and a record label (17 steps) bearing the fruits of the labour as Dusky. 

Coming to the fore during London’s explosive post-Dubstep era, Dusky established a sound in the fusion between House and Dubstep, bringing the heavy drones of the UKs bass traditions to the slower tempos of House. They broke through with tracks like Flo Jam, and as their contemporaries started solidifying their sounds around traditional genres like Techno and House, Dusky remained fluid in their approach and their style, based on a tradition of Djing that sees them channel a combined record collection through their work.

In different epochs, they’ve focussed their sound on different elements in their own music education only to land on where it all began for them as teenagers with the sounds of Garage. In the recent revival and new appreciation for these sounds, Pressure finds Dusky in yet another phase of their sound together, while retaining that thread with a track like Flo Jam, which was also re-issued this year on their own 17 steps label.

As a record, Pressure picks no bones about its designs on the dance floor, launching into a rhythm and bass combination that anchors the entire record in the club experience. Those familiar disembodied ‘90s R&B vocals that’s centrals to Dusky’s sound drift in and out of tracks, while two-step beats and those hollowed out bass sounds bring an eager Funk to the record. The record shows their evolution and growth as artists continue to hit a nerve, while that virtual melting pot of sounds that makes London such a unique musical entity on the world map, continues to feed their work. 

As Alfie and Nick sit down with a fresh cuppa, we get stuck into a conversation about how the city has influenced their work and how they have channelled various aspects of a UK sound through their work and DJing. We jump straight in with Pressure. 

With those Garage sounds and two-step beats, this record sounds like London. Is that something you were trying to achieve?

Nick: We had a few Garage-inspired ideas, because there a lot of new Garage we were enjoying and playing out in our DJ sets. It snowballed, and before we knew it we had a load of Garage-influenced material.  

Alfie: There was one track from the previous album that started it, called “Eros”. We really enjoyed making that and it came together quite quickly. It just kind of feels like the right time (for this music). There’s also a lot of reference to that era. It felt like the right time to hark back to that era. 

I think it would be safe to assume it’s quite different from your last two LPs Joy and Outer. Was this an outlier record for you or just a natural evolution in your sound?

Nick: It’s definitely natural. It makes sense (in the context) of our influences growing up. We used to listen to a lot of Garage; it was everywhere on the radio during our teenage years. In the narrative of all of our albums, it’s probably a bit of an outlier. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s good to switch stuff up and be a little different.

Another thing that I also noticed that is a little different is that it’s also more immediate. There’s no ambient preamble, it just kicks off with a … kick and goes straight into those dance floor tempos. Was that conscious?

Alfie: I think that is something that is very different to our other albums. The other albums were compiled as a listening experience, whereas Pressure is a lot more club focused. In a sense it is wanting to reference classic Garage tracks and our record collection. Everything starts with a beat and it’s a DJ friendly way of starting tracks. It just felt right for this stuff, because there’s this established thing out of Garage and classic House.

Garage is having a bit of a revival right now. It seems that you are pretty sensitive to what’s going on around you. Or is that just a happy coincidence? 

Alfie: No, it’s definitely influenced by what’s going on. Even going back to when we were telling you about when we started making music, both of us were DJs by then. Obviously we were not doing gigs when we were teenagers, but we were buying records. It’s always been a passion of ours, following what else is going on and seeing how scenes grow and evolve.  When we make something to a certain degree, whatever we feel like will be a blank slate and then the other part of it is referencing what else is going on in the zeitgeist or whatever. 

Nick: You need to be aware of what’s going on, but not try and chase what’s happening. Otherwise you’ll just be trying to catch up. You just need to take influences from what you were enjoying from music. You just need to take that into the music you are making, and inevitably it will be different from what other people have made. As an artist you’ll be bringing your unique take on those influences, whether from the past or present. That’s worked well for us over the years. 

DuskyYou mentioned, Garage was big when you were teenagers. Is that around the same time you started to make music?

Nick: Pretty much.

Alfie: I started making very rudimentary things, when I was 13/14 and that was the kind of peak era, end of the nineties. Garage was everywhere in London. The other big influence around that time was Drum n Bass and the very end of the Jungle era. Both of those things always stuck with us because they were such formative years.

So you were teenagers when you started making music individually, but how did you first meet, and what encouraged you to start working on music together?

Alfie: We met when we were 16. We both studied music in different places doing different things. We had this project before Dusky (Solarity), that we released a few EPs on via AnjunaDeep. 

Actually the first LP as Dusky, originally it was going to be an album under Solarity. It was only halfway through that we realised it drifted quite a lot from the Solarity sound. The label pointed out it was quite different, and you need a new alias.  

That would be around the post-dubstep era. Coming up in that scene, was there anything that particularly facilitated your music and your career?

Alfie: I think we were very lucky in that era that we started Dusky, it was a very interesting time. It was fertile ground, because there were a lot of people coming from these different scenes, which were merging. Dubstep got very noisy, and that put some people off. For whatever reason that “Deep House” sound seemed to attract different people from different scenes. 

Nick: I think what helped push us in that hybrid scene was Loefah. He supported our music on the Swamp show (rinse FM) and at that time that was the shit everybody was into. Even though we weren’t doing anything specific with post-Dubstep, that was the connection with that world and it opened up a lot more gigs for us. 

I think what facilitated a lot of  the creativity in that era was the openness to experimenting.

Nick: For sure. There was a lot of variety, and that’s what I was saying about that time being very (reminiscent) of what the younger people are doing now. 

It also seemed that there was a real platform for new artists to emerge. 

Nick: There weren’t any gatekeepers. You didn’t have to have the approval of anyone to be a success. There were less barriers

Alfie: It was a level playing field.  

The other record that piqued my interest this year was Flo Jam which you re-issued via 17 steps. Flo Jam wasn’t your first release, but certainly a breakthrough record. Would you agree?

Nick: Yeah for sure. A lot of DJs playing across the board played it. We just re-released it because we got the rights back from the label. 

Why reissue it now?

Nick: It was originally on Dogmatik for 10 years…

Alfie: Well they are no-more. It just came down from Spotify one day, and that’s how we realised the rights had come back to us. People were like; “where’s flo jam” and we thought; “we should re-release it.“

Listening to that record today and then Pressure, there is certainly a leap in terms of sound. Is there anything significant change between those two records for you?

Alfie: It’s quite hard to tell. It’s interesting going back analysing our music like that. Often we don’t try to think about it too much when we are writing it. I think they are quite different, but they do have some common influences. 

Nick: There’s definitely a common influence in the sense that Flo Jam was very much influenced by Garage, but at a much slower tempo. Everything was slowing down. Dubstep was quite fast and then House was just coming a bit slower. That nineties R&B vocal is the thread that ties in the stuff with pressure and some of our earlier tunes.

And what’s stayed consistent in terms of the creative process throughout it all in your music?

Nick: Our setup hasn’t changed much, it’s remained in the box. We are actually still using the same speakers.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

Alfie: Yeah, we tried some other ones and then went back. There are some things that keep track of the Dusky sound just in the way things are mixed and layered and the way we sample. I think most of it’s this kind of automatic thing that there’s this consistent sound. Broadly there’s this continuum. 

You’ve remained consistent as a duo too. Whereas some groups may go off into different directions, you’ve stayed together. What is the key behind that?

Nick: I guess it’s because we started making music together when we were quite (young). It’s always worked well, and it’s continued to keep developing.  It’s still enjoyable.  

Alfie:  And we’ve got complimentary skills. I was most interested in composition, whereas Nick was more focussed on the production side of it. That made it a good marriage. The other thing is that we have very similar tastes, but not exactly the same. If it was exactly the same it would be quite boring. 

There’s an idea that working in a duo that the music can go in a direction that you never thought it would, working as a solo artist.  Do you feel that’s true for you and your music or are there more distinct roles?

Nick: It’s completely mixed. It’s the same as when we’re DJing as well. If one of us is playing something the other one didn’t expect, then it just sparks new ideas. 

And while we’re on the subject of Djing; you mentioned earlier that you’re quite aware of what’s happening around when you’re making music. Is that the same for Djing?

Nick: For sure, because we need to be looking for new music all the time, right. To keep our sets fresh. 

The last few sets I’ve heard from you, were leaning to the sounds of House with some connection to the sound of your Joy and Outer records. Will it be leaning more towards a UK sound off the back of Pressure. 

Alfie: Definitely. There’s a lot of really cool straight-up garage or Garage-influenced stuff going on. There’s a nice little crew of people doing that stuff. Labels like time are now which are part of Shall not Fade and Instinct.

So it’s mainly new artists making that style of music, not so much the original artists?

Alfie: Mostly, we still play some old Garage records. 

Nick: Garage is quite an old sound now, so you want to play some of the old records to educate people that didn’t get to enjoy them the first time around, but equally, you don’t want to just turn the whole thing nostalgic. There’s loads of new stuff going round, which is pretty good. It’s about finding that balance between the old and the new and keeping it interesting. 

While Garage is big in London, it’s not always recognised in other parts of the world. In your travels as DJ’s have found it is easy to translate those UK sounds, or do you find yourselves having to adapt?

Nick: You have to adapt for sure. In Germany, for example, they are not as keen on stuff that’s not as straight up four to the floor. And in America they are quite open, but if you play something that is Disco influenced, sometimes they really hate it. 

Alfie: It’s different in the States, since when we first started (playing there), they didn’t want anything too experimental, whereas now it’s been very open crowds. We’re playing Garage, which is very specific UK stuff, and the kind of stuff that would maybe not have worked that well before, but it seemed to go down really well on the last tour there. Each club or festival is different.