Mala has always possessed a sage-like quality. Whether its via interviews or more regularly through his prolific discography, an air of prudence has always remained a constant. This is a man who was very much in the maternity ward when dubstep was born. And as one half of the Digital Mystikz production duo with Coki, and one third of promoters DMZ, he witnessed the movement’s full hike from Croydon obscurity to global repute during the mid-noughties.
Ahead of his second long-player, Mirrors, we host an exclusive interview with one of the greatest low-end engineers of our time. It was quite the exchange, including talks about the anatomy of this latest project, an introduction to the concept of afro-futurism and reliving last year’s game-changing Boiler Room session.
BOILER ROOM: Mala, how’s it going sir? We were just randomly speaking about museums. Are you much of a museum man?
MALA: Not really to be fair. My missus is but I’m not to be honest with you. I do appreciate a good museum whether it be something about ancient times or art museums but going to them was never part of my childhood. I don’t remember my parents doing that type of thing. So many years of my life has been around music that I’ve somehow become a little boring outside of that.
I’ve never been a museum man myself but I’ve been getting into the concept of Afrofuturism.
Being from another planet — I genuinely feel that we’re not from here even though we’re born here. I also think a lot of the music that we hear also isn’t from here even though we hear it here.
“Personally, when I make music there’s such a mystery around the production of it. A massive part of the creation remains so mysterious.”
I’m definitely in the same boat and I could easily get carried away with this topic…
Personally, when I make music there’s such a mystery around the production of it. A massive part of the creation remains so mysterious. I feel it, I sense it and somehow I’m able to hold onto it and translate it into what becomes sound. But it doesn’t start here. It starts in another world that I can’t explain.
I’m going to send you some more stuff about the subject, but let’s talk Peru. First and foremost, congratulations on completing the project as I’m sure these cultural explorations must take a lot of time. Why Peru though?
A number of reasons really. One was that when Gilles and Brownswood asked me whether I’d be interested in doing a record for them, some of the suggestions felt too obvious. There was mention of going to Africa to record, but where do you start in Africa? It’s so huge. Depending on what region you are in, the experience will change dramatically due to the history and their own vibrations. It felt like too big a situation to get involved in at that time.
I say this to everyone but I think I was Peruvian in a different life. My wife has always spoken fondly of her experiences in Peru and a lot of her friends are Peruvian. At the time, a lot of them were moving back because they were beginning to have families. When we first went to Peru my son was three and my daughter was about 16 months old.
A lot of people don’t understand the sacrifice a mum needs to make to constantly be there for the kids. Unfortunately I think a lot of kids get put into care too young, either because of economic or financial situations. I really wanted to be there for her and help bring up our children because of the sacrifices she had to make to bring them up — her own loves and her own passions.
“It was also a chance to really embark on a new journey. When I thought about Peru I realised I didn’t really know anybody that knows much about the country.”
It felt like the perfect opportunity to have that dream holiday; taking her and the kids to Peru so she could go and see some of the friends that she hadn’t seen for years. It was also a chance to really embark on a new journey. When I thought about Peru I realised I didn’t really know anybody that knows much about the country. I certainly wasn’t told anything about Peru in school. You’d probably only know about the Incas and Machu Pichu or the pan flutist playing a really bad Bryan Adams cover on Croydon High Street.
I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore a new world of music, educate myself and open up a new palette of sound to my audience.
For some reason, I imagined that you’d mention your partner as a real influence for this project alongside your own personal discovery. Listening to the album, I certainly found parts of it very romantic. Would you say that Mirrors doubles up as an ode to your other half?
The fact that we have a life together. The fact that we have kids together means that my daily existence is for her and them anyway. I don’t mean that in a cliche way. It’s just that when you have a family of your own you live massively for them. You try and fill your home with love and general well-being of mind, body and spirit. If anything, me going to Peru was inspired by her experience of Peru and her longing to go. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen Peru had it not been for our relationship. So yeah, I definitely think there’s an aspect of that in the record.
Did having your family around change the way you approached recording? For instance, if your family were out on the beach and your kids were paddling around in the sea, would you usher that into the record?
Me and my son went for an afternoon walk near some of the rivers near Urubamba, otherwise known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It’s about 90mins outside of Cusco and we stayed there for just under two weeks. We were just walking around and he was throwing stones in the streams, finding massive bugs and caterpillars that you don’t see where we’re from.
I thought the sound of the stream was beautiful and this being water that runs in a sacred valley, I thought there must be something special about it. I remember him looking up into the mountains and saying “papa, thunder is coming”. If you listen to “Sound Of The River”, you hear my son go “thunder coming” at the start. It’s just little things like that. Trying to incorporate the actual reality of my experience of Peru into the record.
Did you have any profound experiences? Did you meet any people out there that really changed the way that you recorded?
I found some very interesting instruments. Part of the country is Afro-Peruvian so obviously it’s rich in African roots. They play a number of strange instruments that I’ve never heard of; the only well-known one is the cajon — a wooden box which gives out a low bass frequency as well as a high pitch patter.
The quijada is the jaw of a deceased donkey. You hold the top end of the jaw and using the hand and a bone, you scrape the teeth. With the base of your fist, you bash the thick bottom part of the jaw. It actually sounds really nice when layered on top of a snare. Then there’s the cajita: a donation box used at churches. The combination of opening and closing this wooden box and bashing a wooden stick on the outside creates the sound.
It’s always the percussion that always attracts my ear…
Mine too. Again, probably because it’s African-influenced. How deep does that Africanness spread throughout the world? It’s deep man. That’s why I couldn’t take on that Africa situation just now. It is an ancient thing in all of us — that basic rhythm. A lot of the rhythms in Peru are also 6/8 too.
Really? That opens up a whole other world. An opportunity to totally mingle with polyrhythms.
For sure. Even though I incorporated 6/8 into some of the records, most of them are 4/4. But when you start adding poly-rhythms, you can get more intricate, complex grooves. For me it’s always about trying to challenge myself and my audience.
So what were the main challenges for you then?
Trying to truly represent my experience. As much as it is an abstract form of music, because I’m not singing about my experience, my word is through sound. That is always challenging to me.
Also when I work with musicians I really want to make sure I represent them and their stories. Some of the Afro-Peruvian musicians I recorded were elders, people that have really championed the music and might not be around for long so having permission to record them was almost a bit of history. You want to do them proud so when they hear the record, they feel happy with their contribution.
For me, the challenge is getting people to be as comfortable and free in the studio as possible. I always try to not be demanding or dictating. I go there as a student and ask them to educate me. That way it allows people to feel free to contribute as little or as much as they feel comfortable with.
“Making an album is a real mental mine field.”
Making an album is a real mental mine field. One week would be great and another time you just want to pack it in. There’s a real conflict that happens inside me. From complete enjoyment and confidence that I’m on the right path to complete disbelief and fear. Self-hatred is probably a bit too strong, but it’s definitely extreme doubt. I don’t know what it takes; some sort of faith and trust in the unknown. There were times during the Cuba album when I wanted to just call up Gilles and say sorry guys, that’s me done.
Credit to you for seeing it through. You describe the constant challenge for the creative.
It’s part of the process. Especially when you’re on the type of solo mission I’ve been on for so long. You have to be your own critic. In a way, you do start to get a split personality in order to look at and value your work.
On a side-note I think it’s beautiful that you had three years to make this project. Ample time to move through the entire cycle of self doubt and back around to the realisation of your abilities. All of those emotions provide the anatomy of an album.
I can only say positive things about Gilles, Simon, Emily and everyone at Brownswood. The album was actually finished last April, but for a certain number of reasons we didn’t get it out last year. It was really two years in the making from when I went to Peru to actually finish the record. Simbad, who did some stuff with me on the Cuba record, did sessions with me just so I could sit back from the engineering side. We’d be exploring things together. I’ve got a lot of respect for him because in those situations you need someone to be brutally honest with you and some people don’t have the ability to do that.
On sonic arrangement, when I was listening to “They’re Coming” I was particularly captured by the amount of breathing room in the track. It brought me back to “Lean Forward” and the fact that’s something you’ve always honed in on very well…
I don’t think it’s something I think about. Maybe it’s to do with me being deaf in one ear, I’ve got no idea. When making music, it’s how those sounds interact and speak with each other. It’s funny that you mention that “Lean Forward” record because I’ve spoken to a couple of people about it. They all say that they can hear — unlike the Cuba record — a direct relationship with some of my older tracks.
Same goes for “Looney”?
That definitely stood out to me.
When I was making the record and after touring the Cuba record, I toured it for a year and played in lots of different places — from main stage at Outlook Festival to the North Sea Jazz Festival. They have very different audiences. I would sometimes find myself in the middle of shows where it was a hands up rave affair, but my album wasn’t like that. A lot of the audience wanted to take it there but it just wasn’t that type of record. I guess I had all of that experience in mind when I was making this album.
Let’s talk about last year’s Boiler Room. It was a personal life highlight for me and a few others in the office as well.
I have great memories of that night. You guys really pulled out all the stops to make it happen. Truth be told, when the dates got changed I was thinking to myself “yes, I’m not going to have to do it”. Then everything came together your end, the dates lined up for the sound system in and I thought there’s no way out now. I’m so glad that we made it happen because it was a really great experience for the record label and it was nice to feel that nervousness and energy before playing. Thankfully the feedback and the response has been great.
Big ups to you. I’ve thought about repeating it, but in hindsight it was a moment and should stay as such.
If I were to do it again I would like to do it in a different country where there is a completely different energy. It would be nice to have a response from a different part of the world and also see the similarities. London or Peru — we all get down the same.
It’s probably the last thing on your mind, but have you thought about doing another album in another place?
There are a couple of ideas that I have floating around at the moment which I won’t share just yet.
Yeah I think so. I think there are a lot of differences between Central and South America. I think for my own journey it would be interesting to try something completely different. We’ll see.
Mirrors by Mala will be released via Brownswood Recordings on June 24 on 3x LP/CD/Digi.
Many thanks to Ceviche for the photoshoot location.
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