015: Ben Boe (Boe Recordings / For Those That Knoe)

By Simon

DJ, producer, record label owner (twice over) – Ben’s managed to leave a comprehensive mark on the music we love, and managed to do so without a compromise in quality in any of his fields. Beginning his first record label, Boe Recordings, in 2007, Ben established the label as an underground stronghold, with an uncompromising attention to detail and clearly discernible aesthetic. Releases from the likes of KiNK, Leif, Anaxander and John Shima show a pedigree to be respected, and many of these records I personally own, love, and play at Backdrop. Ben’s second label, For Those That Knoe, was established in 2013, serving as an outlet for forgotten or unreleased gems from unsung heroes of the house and techno world – Derek Carr and Casy Tucker to name a couple – and maintains the same high level set by Boe Recordings. 

Besides running two labels Ben has also managed to amass an amazing collection of modern rhythm boxes, legacy synthesisers and samplers and dusty 12 bit effects units, releasing seamless records on the likes of highly selective labels like Contrast Wax. As if this wasn’t enough, 20 years plus of DJ experience have led us to the moment that Ben has created this absolutely stunning mix for us all – truly a feast for the ears and mind. I was also delighted to find that Dr. Joseph and I would be sharing the stage with Ben at Jane Fitz’ Field Moves Tent at Field Maneuvers. Excited doesn’t come close, and after strapping in for this mix, seeing Ben spin is an absolute priority for me!

Hey Ben, absolutely love the mix, took me on quite the journey, thank you!

Thanks! My skills have been a bit rusty recently as my life has been upside down due to my entire home being renovated.

Home upheavals like that are the worst for finding time for mixing, and the rust doesn’t show! Where was the mix recorded and on what equipment?

It was recorded in my new kitchen which has terrible acoustics. I used my technics decks that I’ve had since 1997 and an Ecler Nuo 3.0 mixer that I acquired a couple of months ago after sending back a boutique rotary that failed me too many times. I recorded straight onto my Olympus digital recorder and then imported into Logic for some final limiting, EQ’ing and enhancements. Upon listening back I think I need to clean my records and get some new cartridges!

A tough mixing environment then, especially after such a long period of forced rest. What were your aims with this mix?

It’s my first mix recorded at home in two years, which is a long time for me. I used to record at least three a year. I wanted to do something sonically respectful to Backdrop so I pulled out some older techno and electro plus some deeper pieces I’ve collected recently, both old and new. The programming is varied but I like to think it flows smoothly.

It’s honestly amazing, and really inspiring for us here at Backdrop. When you construct a set like this do you think about the piece as whole, a few songs at a time, or do you just go on instinct and feel it out?

I used to labour over mixes far too much. I used to spend hours practicing mixes, getting the programming just right and perhaps over-analysing things far too much. This one I took a bit of time selecting about 50 records or so that I could use to record an hour mix. I then cherry picked a handful of tunes I would definitely want to put in there. Then I like to piece things into phases so each mix I record has an interesting flow to it. I’m not really one for recording a mix of 12 deep rollers that doesn’t go anywhere. I practiced a few things over the course of a couple of hours one evening then recorded it in one go. Previously I would take a couple of weeks to record a mix (including all the practicing), this one took me one evening.

Do you think that change from painstakingly putting mixes together to this more free form has anything to do with your personal circumstances of home upheaval? Or is it just more of a natural progression in the life of a DJ?

It totally has to do with time. I just can’t fart about anymore and to be honest, technically, I reached my peak. I reached it years ago, so really, the flow is better when it’s part planned rather than meticulously put together. Time boxing stuff forces you to commit and be creative.

Any tracks you want to point to specifically in the mix?

Well, I’m totally going to use blatant self-promo opportunity here and point directly to the Carl Finlow production; “Voice Stealer  – Undercover”. I’m just putting the finishing touches to a truly special pair of releases involving a selection of Carl’s work over the decades that will span two double 12”s at the end of the summer on For Those That Knoe. That track will be included.

We allow blatant self-promo at Backdrop, it’s all good :). You mentioned the home renovation, but there must be more to it, why such a long time between this and your last mix? And you can’t have totally put everything on hold?

I’ve just been crazily busy with personal stuff, moving, renovating my house, family life and busy periods at work. I’ve been buying records. I will always buy records but I just haven’t had the time or the right set up to record something in the last 2 years. I’ve just got all my records out of storage which have been languishing there since November 2015, I moved house, renovated the entire place and hopped between rental places in between. I really need an environment where I feel comfortable to enjoy music; be that playing records, mixing or making music. The whole building I’m in requires an element of Zen in order for me to get focused. My surroundings inherently reflect my mood.

Has this always been the case? Like a clear mind to unleash focused creativity? I currently live in a slightly chaotic environment and have to force myself to make time to make music or mix, so I’m wondering if, when you were younger and starting out, that the environment was so important? Or whether, as you get older and life gets more complicated with more responsibilities, you need that level of organisation to be able to release your creativity? 

The environment really didn’t matter in my formative years. For a number of reasons. The main one is, I’m older now. I like to be comfortable. Whereas before I would happily DJ anywhere that had speakers. I knew nothing about room acoustics and speaker placement when I was younger so I didn’t appreciate how nice things could be when set up properly!

Favourite labels, tunes, artists at the minute?

There’s too much good music out there right now. It’s actually unsustainable. Lots of new labels starting up on the crest of the vinyl resurgence. Many to never get past cat no. 001 or 002. Lots of good stuff yes so for the consumer it’s great but for the vinyl label it’s tough to compete. Nowadays it’s a full time job trying to keep up with what’s new and a crazy vinyl addict like me will always be scrambling around trying to listen to everything. There’s not a lot of new deep house that interests me these days but there are some amazing labels pushing fantastic material. The Danish folks behind Regelbau and other spin offs are really hitting the target. A couple of labels Slow Life and Imprint always hit the spot for me too as they put out the sort of house music that I’ve always loved: deep & melodic with swinging rhythms. Future Times is another go to label for that classic sound done well. Clek Clek Boom has been a staple for that deep druggy sound I like. Aside from that I’ve mainly been cherry picking the odd new bit and buying old house, techno, electro, ambient and dub. I’d say 60-75% of the stuff I buy is old.

The terrain for a sustainable vinyl-only record label does seem incredibly rocky at the minute. Do you think it will improve, or are things set to get worse in the world of wax?

My current prediction is that vinyl sales it will tail off to a flat level in the next 5-10 years. A new pattern will emerge in that consumers and pushers will adopt settled business models. There will always be the odd person on a vanity project doing one or two releases, burning through a couple of grand and left with 300 copies of his/her releases in his attic doing nothing. That is the reality of it. Most labels make a loss. A big one. This is mostly unsustainable. Digital will always be the most popular medium so to survive I think the majority of pushers will have to do at least some digital sales. Platforms like Bandcamp will become more popular (hopefully) and newer web technologies will make it easier for people to buy music direct from the source. The main challenge is shipping costs. What I’d like to see is some sort of shipping broker team up with Bandcamp where if you make a purchase from a number of different artists but in the same country, the shipping is amalgamated. The buyer pays the price of what it would cost to ship the records all together, Bandcamp pays the shipper through some agreement and then the seller just drops off his/her stash of sales to a collection point with shipping labels provided as the time of sale for free. Maybe I’m onto something, I should call up Dragon’s Den.

How did you get into electronic music?

I first got into electronic music via rave compilation tapes in the early 90s, primarily the cheesy chart compilations and then the hardcore tape packs. There was a period of my teens where I shunned electronic music down to peer pressure until I got into house music via the Ministry of Sound and Fantazia compilations in the mid-90s. These mixes influenced me to go out and buy decks and start collecting records. Luckily my taste has slightly improved over time. The rest his history.

Ah so you were a raver before a musician, always love to hear that. Do you think you’ll always be involved in electronic music or will your tastes change?

Always. However, I enjoy a broad spectrum of music, I just don’t have the time to divulge in it more in terms of buying Jazz records for example. I get my fix through some of the phenomenal radio stations and shows that you can access online.

You began For Those That Knoe in 2013, as a label to show of the fruits of your vinyl digging by re-releasing forgotten old gems. Thank you for that, as discogs prices can get a bit out of hand at times! Can you tell us a bit about that and how it came about?

I had run Boe Recordings for a number of years and I was sitting on some unreleased material from Jaime Read that I wanted to put out. At the same time I noticed that loads of music was being reissued poorly (it’s even worse now) and I thought, hey, I’ll do something a bit more interesting. I thought about who I’d target next and having discovered Casey Tucker’s music randomly a few years earlier I got in touch with him. His response couldn’t have been better. I’ve just put out a third EP of music he recorded in the 90s and the fruits of his DAT archive will offer another two EPs to be released over the next 12 months.

You mention that a lot of reissues are done poorly – can you clarify in what way you mean? As in the sound quality, the marketing around the release, poor choices for reissue, or the resurgence/Record Store Day problem? And what advice would you give to stop this happening or improve the current situation?

This is just my humble opinion. Reissuing of house and techno is a touchy subject for me. There are a few labels out there that, in my opinion, do an absolutely awful job of it. Where there is absolutely zero thought gone into the finished article. It’s almost as if they’ve scanned Discogs, found an expensive record and thought, “Aha! I’ll just reissue this one!”.  And then rather than be creative, even if it just has one killer track on it, they’ll just reissue the whole thing, with the crap tracks on it. I mean ffs, make an effort! Do something different! Each to their own, there are positives in that it makes older records more affordable, I only ask that it’s done with a bit of grace. Contrary to that, however, there are some labels that do an incredible job, to the extent that it embarrasses me they do it that well. Rush Hour, Clone, Delsin, Mojuba & Styrax are cases in point.

Obviously each has their place, but which do you see as more important (either to yourself or music in general) – labels like Boe that brought in new music, or labels like Knoe bringing back old and great tunes?

New music will always be more important. There will only ever be a finite supply of undiscovered old music.

True there is a finite supply, but I always feel like, as the general perception of music evolves and changes (and it changes so much), that music that wasn’t appropriate for its time can always be reintroduced and feel as if it’s a newly relevant piece of music. Do you feel that the reapplication of music to different contexts is limited then?

Not as much as the music that was made in the late 80s and 90s. The reason being is that all the ideas have almost run out. There has been a trend of people making super edgy music in the house and techno realm but they realise when they get their first DJ gig that that sort of music sucks in a club. So they buy loads of old 90s house/techno bangers and rinse them out because that’s what makes people dance. You’ve got kids making “Lo-Fi” house music or whatever on their laptops, painfully trying to emulate a style which was lo-fi as a side effect of the recording limitations rather than an aesthetic! And these kids have never been around club culture, so again, they get to a club, play their lo-fi jams and it sounds crap. House and Techno has a formula which will never be subject to change.

So in ten years’ time, I doubt there will be as much rejuvenation of electronic music for the period between 2010-2020 than there has been recently for the music pre 2000s.

Would you consider running a record label to be your primary role? Or do you see yourself as more of a DJ or producer?

I’d like to think an equal combination of the three, however my time spent as a label owner seems to bear better fruit than the hours I spend trawling through records! Ideally I want to focus more on the DJing and producing, I’m desperate to get more music out there but I’ll only be able to do it once I’m comfortable with my working environment.

When it comes to production, you love your machines, and it shows in the sound, but which bits are your favourite bits of equipment and why?

Yeah I do love hardware, in particular drum machines and step sequencer based sound engines. I’m not a keyboard freak, I really don’t see the appeal as I can’t play keys very well, plus they’re bulky and take up too much room. I don’t have a lot of outboard gear, I’ve bought and sold many pieces and whittled my collection down to what I really enjoy using, and specialist pieces so they’re all favourites really. I had a bit of a pseudo mid-life crisis a few years ago. Rather than do the old classic of buy a sports car and drive off into the sunset with a woman 15 years younger than me I spent a load of money on music equipment. I decided to move away from using a computer and go all hardware. I painfully undertook this migration finding out that a stable and fluid combination of both is difficult to attain and then finally getting to the point of using all hardware I realised I couldn’t do the things I loved to do in the box! Hardware is fantastic for inspiration, being hands on real time is conducive to achieving results quickly however, for me, I like to get detailed on things like the arrangement, editing, signal processing etc. I always found the use of hardware on its own as a limitation for my approach. Plus trying to get everything in time and synch is an absolute minefield!

I’ve learnt that I need to be using the best of both worlds and luckily I’ve passed that crossroads now. My studio is makeshift at the moment and nothing outboard is wired up. It’s refreshing, as I’m loving some the features of Ableton and Native Instruments Komplete. When my studio is finally finished I will hopefully have a set up where I can use both hardware and software as seamlessly as possible, affording maximum creativity: rather than spending hours working out which midi channel my Blofeld is on and scratching my head wondering why the f*ck things aren’t working.

To answer your original question (despite all my hardware being favourites) my favourite bit of hardware is the Teenage Engineering OP-1, it has its own sound, music making is fun and endless and it forces you to be creative. It has some unique sounding synths, it has an on board sampler where you can take signals directly from FM radio or the microphone and the sequencers and effects are really interesting. For software, I think Kontakt the NI sampler is my go to instrument. I used to use it loads before going off on my hardware binge and coming back to it now having used outboard samplers, I really appreciate it for how incredibly powerful it is. Sampling is now a big part of my process. Not in the classic sense of taking a jazz chord and messing with that, I’m into the total redesign of sound. I’m a big fan of creating new sounds from unexpected sources.

Teenage Engineering OP-1

Your journey as a producer sounds awesome, and really feels as if it’s given you the basis to be totally confident in how you want to create. Do you find that now that you’ve reached this idea of stability in your equipment setup that it’s easier to make music? Much like the needing the zen environment, your headspace and how you see the tools you’re working with could be seen as just as, if not more, important?

It’s definitely easier to make music now. I’ve spent a lot of time analysing compositions and I dedicated hours to watching Youtube videos on production. This has helped me tremendously. I’m also comfortable not starting out with a means to an end. i.e. I never approach something with the thought, “Damn, I have to finish this by the end of the week”. Knowing how stuff works really helps. There are people out there who load a few presents, plink about on some keys and cobble together something releasable. It’s really easy these days. That’s not how I want to work. I’ve always wanted to create my own sounds and that takes time and investment. Now I can make pretty much any sound I want using the equipment I have. It might take some time for me to get there though.

How do you work? For example, some see production as a throw paint at the wall and see what sticks approach, but obviously that isn’t for everyone. 

Nowadays I have a number of different approaches depending on my frame of mind or mood. Building these varied strategies has been one of the most important things I’ve learnt over the years of making music and learning on the job. The most important one of these is that I have a rule where I only attempt to go into Ableton and start piecing a track together when I have a clear vision of the end result. I don’t open Ableton and start doing what they do on “FACT Against the Clock”. And I certainly don’t even entertain arrangement or mixing (properly) until the idea is complete. I’m either making a sound, jamming, arranging or mixing down. They’re four separate processes and I like to isolate them all.

The majority of the time I either test the boundaries of my machines / computer to see what comes out and then take it from there. I may program some drums on the Machinedrum or Analog Rytm or a breakbeat on the Octatrack. Other times I’ll make a patch on one of my synths and save it with nothing in mind. Now I have a better DAW set up with Komplete I’m just starting to sketch out sounds using the amazing tools at my disposable. In each one of those approaches I’m solely focused on a single sound or a rhythm building block. If it’s good I’ll take it to the next stage or save it for later / sample it and store it away in my sample library and create a new sound. Sampling myself is another fun thing that I’ve learnt to do. Turning something forgotten into something fresh is really rewarding.

Time-boxing stuff helps with the creativity too. If I’m not feeling something then I’ll just park it and leave it, move onto the next thing. It’s refreshing for the mind. I used to hammer tracks, trying to get them right, often meandering with their construction and ending up down a dead end really easily. You need to force yourself to let go and see failures as a positive and start afresh.

Your release on Contrast Wax is awesome, such a selective label, and you can see why they’ve put out your work. Did you have to work specifically for a piece for them, or was it just something that came out of you and you knew would be for them? Or was it just a piece you’d already made that you sent to them?

Thank you. I originally made the main track “Steel City Fly By” about a year before it came out. I thought about releasing it myself but didn’t have anything else that would work with it at the time. I’ve been a fan of Contrast since it started and I was mates with Mark on facebook for a few years so sent it to him just to get feedback. He loved it and we took things from there.

What’s your favourite of your own productions? Hope for Enceladus is lovely I have to say (that late emerging acid is class)!

Thanks! Hope for Enceladus was actually made very quickly, I had agreed the two other tracks with Mark and he needed a third. It took me a couple of days to piece it together properly. Some tracks just come naturally and that was one of them. The little lead line was done live in one take and tidied up afterwards. My favourite track is probably “Steel City Fly By” on Contrast Wax as it’s the most unique thing I’ve written IMO. Contrary to Hope for Enceladus, that track took a long time to get right. The drums were done very fast but I wrote a number of synth parts for the bassline and wobbly atmospheric lead that I edited, fx’d and chopped up.

What’s on the horizon for you and Knoe?

Knoe will plough on with more releases from Sir Lord Commix (May 2017), Derek Carr (Summer 2017), Carl Finlow (Autumn 2017), Casey Tucker (TBD) and maybe some other irons in the fire. I don’t expect to run the label forever. It maybe has a couple more years. The day I’m struggling to find the right material is the day I will close things out. As I said before, old music is finite in existence.

Obviously Boe Recordings is no more, which is devastating, but understandable. Are you considering starting another record label ever, or is that it?

Yes BOE XXX was the very last release on the label. It was sad but necessary to let go. I’d ploughed the same furrow for too long and I didn’t want to change the label so far down the line. It was great while it lasted and I’m really proud of the music I released and the artists I worked with. Doing something new is on my mind but I’m not going to do anything that’s remotely associated with Boe or Knoe.

What do you like to do totally disconnected from music?

Cook! I’m almost as mad about cooking as I am music. I’m as fanatical and equally as critical about it as well. My fiancé also enjoys cooking and we have very similar tastes in food (unlike music haha) so we really bounce off one another. She’s a great muse for my cooking. And my little boy eats such a wide variety, I’m so proud. He had his first Indian dish at about 6 months I think (minus the chilli of course)! Indian / Middle Eastern food is my passion.

If not for music, what would you be doing with yourself?

God, the thought of not having music in my life absolutely crushes me, however I’d like to think that if I didn’t have music I’d have my own little restaurant or deli by now. I’d have given up the day job and I’d be living the dream, maybe cooking a few days and curating the menu and buying interesting stock when I’m not in the kitchen. Ideally I’d like to get to a place where I have an iron in the cooking fire and one in the music flames. With both supporting my family and lifestyle. I think I need to work a few more years before I can do that though. Here’s to hoping!

Thanks Ben, see you at Field Maneuvers!