Sometimes, conciliating Electro with your way of life can be sporting. For almost 2 decades, Jason McCracken aka Illektrolab (Satamile, Duality Recs, Advanced Robotiks) has been haunting warehouses worldwide with some of the harshest dancefloor beats and subsonic Bass. But did you know that this versatile artist hailing from Arizona was also an adventure lover who found his Paradise in Costa Rica? Let’s talk about music, snakes and wild landscapes around a bonfire with this Electro survivor, author a few weeks ago of a brand new and must have 12'', "Illahertz", on the Shipwrec label out of Holland.
Chris Nexus 6: Welcome Jason, we’re extremely proud and honored to do this interview with you. I am a huge fan of your music since the first time I discovered it on Satamile. Could you briefly present yourself a little bit? How did you get going performing and releasing records?
Illektrolab: Thanks Chris, and all of the TB crew and friends tuning in. The pleasure is all mine and thank you guys for the huge support and brainwavez over the years! My music quest began at a pretty early age and was greatly influenced by scratching and the Hip Hop culture/Turntablist movement in the 80’s. I was absolutely fascinated by the Graffiti, Breakdance, and DJ culture, however coming from a very small town there wasn’t much of an "underground" outlet or influence available so we started it.
At the time I had no real idea how to properly mix, which in the end was a great thing, as I became self-taught, and sort of developed my own style, which back in the day was very helpful in getting things going globally. I also had an absolute obsession with scratching which helped pave the way during the time of tuning the mix aspects. In the early days what started as a bunch of friends (Bumpkin Family) and several outdoor raves in the forests and deserts with generators and soundsystems, began to progress very fast and within a few years, I came to the realization that I would need to move to a big city to chase this wild dream I had always felt in my heart. I had always been very intrigued by the idea of relocating to someplace in the EU or UK, in particular, London because I had heard that this was sort of the epicenter of the dream I was trying to achieve. I felt DJ'ing and production would be a huge part of my life and future existence, and did all I could to learn more, which a few short years later led me to selling all my assets and moving to London.
Living across the street from the Blue Note Club In Hoxton Square/Old Street during the Metalheadz Sunday session beginnings, and also In Camden Town were huge influences on my early foundations. I started playing what we called “Crusty” shows back then which were basically huge underground free Raves in squats and secret locations in and around London. In a short time I began meeting quite a few labels and artists that at that time were in the early stages of a huge movement in underground music, like Finger Likin' founders Jem and Justin whom I became good friends with, Mowax’s James Lavelle, and NinjaTunes' DJ Food, to name a few. I landed my first major show in the UK at World Of Dance at the Lyd Airforce Base under the name "Neon Beat", which consisted of a 2x4 with me on the cuts, and Darren on the beats battling the Psyconauts, and doing some experimental stuff with Massive Attack's bassist at the time, Malcolm. It was all an absolute dream to me and the synchronicity was mind blowing. Things came together in very surreal and magical ways I could only have imagined. Looking back on those times brings about many positive thoughts and emotions. The galaxy seemed to be smiling on me, bringing lots of luck and timing and reminding me I was indeed on the correct path.
Incredible story! So tell us a little bit about your early life then, what was it like before Illektrolab and your other monikers? How did you get into listening to music in general as a child?
When I was a kid even though living in a small town, I moved around to several different areas, and various schools in my city, which ultimately lead me to having many sorted friends across the board. Skin color, and ethnicity blurred to me at an early age and I had friends from all walks of life. The interesting thing was that they all had a “sound” they were into, and sometime around 4th grade I was turned onto Newcleus from a friend's mom who had a huge boombox blasting every time I was over at his house. I always loved Bass of all types, and had an infatuation with broken beat music and robot voices long before I ever knew what a turntable was... I was hooked!
Parachute pants, Hip Hop vids, breaking and graffiti ; it was all around me in the area of my city. I remember around 5th grade my favorite Christmas present I could have asked for arrived from my Mom. It was a step by step breakdancing book with pics and descriptions to do the moves. My mom would spend hours with me reading as I held the robot pose and she could rewind the tape deck. Very patient and loving Mom indeed! The path continued with getting more involved as I was old enough to dig deeper into things, and finally made my way to the UK and that was musically one of the biggest and best things I could have ever done. I always felt a huge pull to explore London, and when I got there the rest just went so fluid it seemed surreal to say the least.
"I still have much to learn and refine before I will ever feel the mission has been accomplished..."
Your sound is very particular to me, something quite fascinating, visionary, and revolutionary at the same time. What would you say inspires you specifically to write music the way you do?
The biggest inspiration is a huge love for Sub-Frequency sound, and really being a fan of massive sound systems from Car Audio, to Rave or homemade dub sound systems, to Home Audio. From the moment I was old enough to collect sound, I was consistently shooting for the low, low sound that penetrated deep within and sufficiently pissed my family off while in process! The idea that I could be playing on a wall of speakers while seeing people lose their inhibitions to the music; whether it was my own sounds, or playing records, I felt and feel still, that when people are dancing they are truly free and all social boundaries melt away as they move to the rhythms and Bass.
That was a natural drug to me, which from the start has fueled my desire to never stop, no matter what ups and downs in the music scene occur regarding trends, money, what’s popular, etc. I have really made it a point to never forget why I started, and what my dreams were from the first day of plugging in the mixer and gear, or testing my first vocoder with an ear to ear grin on my face. The people I have met all around the globe have helped to remind me how magical and powerful it is, and daily help to charge that inner flow of energy. When one realizes how powerful and far reaching music is on its own level, it's such an amazing tool of internal expression and healing output in so many ways. I would be absolutely lost without it in my life.
Music seems to be a way of life for you, definitely a powerful thing, no denying it! So did movies or books influence you as well? Are you a Sci-Fi freak?
I am a huge Sci-Fi freak and really about the only time I turn on the tube is to watch a Sci-Fi flick or documentary. Blade Runner has always been a fav from when I was a youngster.
If you had to select one song from your impressive repertory (lots of tracks remain unreleased btw) that is the most representative of Illektrolab, which one would it be and why?
Soundwise on my own stuff, I am always learning and moving in slightly different directions, so it's quite hard to pin a project that’s my favorite. I try to keep things interesting and mostly to flip the script depending where my heads at and where I am in the physical world as I move around quite often. Certain places I live or travel to really don’t coincide with my inner feeling for proper dark Electro, so as a result many influences from those areas end up mixed and mashed with my love for the Electro sound, but are quite different on the final output.
My Electro output typically comes out when I am in the Concrete Jungle, and specifically during the dark, gray winters in Europe. Always a good time to create the heavy rolling bits. The new illahertz EP out on Vinyl and Digital now on Shipwrec Recordings is one of the fav out at the moment, mainly because of the minimalistic approach with a focus on the lower tones and space involved, but there are several unreleased tunes that are quite abstract as they crossed creative ideas and at times were quite challenging reversing my whole receipt of how and what methodology I typically used to make an Electro tune. As mentioned above the newer stuff is quite minimal compared to many of my older projects, however I am always changing and gathering influences from all around me, so often I may love something, and a year later want to toss it in the bin. Its an ongoing path of creative addition and subtraction depending on life moments and energy flow. It all comes from the love that it began with long ago which was simply a love for the Bass and watching people freely dance. I still have much to learn and refine before I will ever feel the mission has been accomplished, and I am happy for that, as I never want to feel it is done until the space ship takes me back to my distant planet.
Looking back over the years, what is the project you are the most proud of personally and why?
It was a very happy moment when I decided productionwise to start sending my stuff out to labels. I never felt like it was really a finished product, as to this day and forever I will always be learning and adjusting methods and techniques, as it is closely related to my mood and environments like the weather always changing. Getting a final outcome that is “the one”, I don’t feel will ever happen, and honestly I hope it does not because then I must dig deeper for inspirations and feelings hiding in the galaxy.
I much prefer when those feelings are natural and fluid. I believe in this world you must try everything in order to learn, grow, and progress, for better or for worse. The only true failure is not trying and self-defeating one's inner voice to follow dreams, which often is the flip side of being any artist across many mediums. Generally speaking, creators are their own worst critic (which can be good and bad), so outside feedback and constructive criticism is imperative to push the creative boundaries and get the thoughts into reality often times in my opinion.
Tell me more about your creative process. How do you usually start a song? What's the basic Illektrolab setup in the studio?
My creative process greatly varies, generally as a result of where I am at when an idea strikes. A typical scenario is I will catch an idea at a very random time (often at night) or while travelling. In that case, I will usually beatbox a few bars, and right it on paper, sort of like a basic sequence until I am back in the studio. Although there never is a real plan, and most the time I start with drums and build around that. Occasionally I have written songs backwards, or from the peaks back to the beginning. The process for me personally is very random and case sensitive depending on when the idea strikes, I try not to take things to seriously as in the end, I started for the fun, and it’s a creative thought being translated into sound and some type of enjoyment. If it were to lose that in my process it would become a completely different direction from why I began.
As far as a physical set up, when I started I was really focused on MIDI, daisy-chaining loads of gear, writing everything with Cubase or Logic, and capturing live ideas as they came about, often times by accident. In today's process, mostly because of travelling and moving around lots, I really keep things as portable and packable as possible to capture ideas and move along during times when time may not be available. I do greatly miss the old days and process, however with all things in life, there is always an Eb and Flow and being able to adapt, or stretch one's mold is a very beneficial thing; whether it be creative, or with daily life. Each and every angle has its positives and negatives, which ultimately makes things more rounded and appreciated when the changes occur.
So what's the secret to creating a banging Electro Breaks track in your opinion?
For me the only tried and true “secret” is to focus on the dance floor, and something that represents your feelings, your vision, and can create a cyclical vibe with the crowd. I tend to use overly heavy drums, and focus on how it will affect the party on a large wall of speakers as those were my roots, observing and listening to what moves them and when it works is a huge key that heads me into the right dimension. For me the dance floor and large underground Raves and festivals where always a huge part of the puzzle which I do feel comes through on the musical outputs. It has been something I am really keen on tuning into, as the people, the gigs, the soundsystems, those are all the elements that got me stoked from the early days and why the torch is still lit and shining.
Stay focused on the dancefloor, right? I understand :) What are your favorite musical themes then and why? Do you think Electro must be the mirror of life, or a way to escape it?
For me Electro has always been a way to exist and escape. Like all music it’s sort of a sonic vacation of one's mind. The heavier tunes I create across the board I relate to the soul and spirit often being the drums, and much of the surroundings are the overtones and emotinal obstacles such as in life. The drums continue no matter how many obstacles they encounter, they may pause for a time to observe the obstacles from a varied perspective and then boom, their back. I see the drums as determined and relentless, trying to run the path of survival and adapt to the overtones as they go. Very similar to human adaptation and behavior in life's obstacles or lack of. In a nut shell that’s how I often approach a track or gig, and the energy that’s envoked is a very powerful and special drug to my creative spirit.
If not a secret, please tell us about your experience with New York label Satamile, one of the greatest Electro labels of all time. How did Andrew sign you?
I was in Japan at the time DJ'ing after I had sent a few bits out to my favorite labels. A short time later I received quite a bit of positive feedback and most notably from Andrew Price, Satamile mastermind. It was an honor for one of my favorite labels whom I'd always listened to, to offer me an EP release. Andrew was interested in the stuff I had sent him and not long after that I put the System Check EP together. It was a very inspiring time and really motivated me to work on loads more of the warehouse underground sound that I have always felt so comfortable with. Coming from a DJ background, tapping into dancefloors and twisting energy was, and is one of the main physical forces driving me to this day. I can honestly say if I would not have been a DJ in the early Rave days and played at so many great shows, my musical output would most likely be in a completely different world.
How about Advanced Robotiks, the label you started in 2008. What was its purpose as far as its philosophy? Did you stop it for a particular reason, or did you just put it on stand-by? Should we expect some new tunes on the label soon perhaps?
When I created Advanced Robotiks, my intention was to keep it on the heavier side of Rave, harder Electro, and other abstract underground outputs. On the first run I cut 1000 of the limited blue "I Am illektro" EPs, and did all of the distro myself which was a huge task; both financially and time consuming with travels and moving around. The EP itself took a while to pick up steam but eventually started doing much better than I had anticipated. When I cut the vinyl I was mostly doing it for the love and learning the process of doing it on my own, but also thought perhaps it may gain some interest. Strangely enough I have gotten more orders in the past year then all of the following years combined, Not long ago I did a short run limited signed numbered repress that are just about all gone. So it's very likely there will be another short run in the very near future.
Allthough it has been very difficult with shipping costs (with a majority of all my EP's shipping outside the USA), solo distribution, and time constraints, it's great to see the feeling is coming about for all Electro music again and the ears are surely listening; not to mention how many other genres are using core Electro elements within a tune. It is rising its head out of the underground, and I believe for all us Electro heads the future is bright and bassheavy. Hoping for more shows, and DJ's playing out which of course feeds the whole element as a whole, and inspires new and older cats alike to keep doing what they do, what they love, and hopefully pushing creative boundaries in the process.
"For me nothing feels or compares to some Vinyl.."
Helena Hauff in Germany even plays Advanced Robotiks in her Techno sets, which means a lot, and lots of new Electro artists are emerging as well. How do you judge the current Electro sound and the current Electro scene? Who are your current favorites?
There are so many good artists doing their thing these days, and it's really cool to see the growth in the scene and new people catching interest. To compile a list of my favorites would be quite tough, but to keep it short, just about any and all Producers and DJ's releasing, and playing the heavier side of the genre geared towards the underground party scene, They have my vote and ears. There are plenty of outlets nowadays, and with shows like Bass Agenda offering up a great format along with killer artists to be noted, I think it's only the tip of the iceberg to be honest.
As mentioned earlier though, I do feel quite heavily that one of the main ingredients lacking in the scene, are proper gigs. Generally speaking, most promoters and clubs aren’t interested in a full-on Electro night, and the ones that take it on, usually last as long as they can on love and minimal finance, but at some point any good event requires the cash to keep the machine well lubricated and running. In turn the lack of live shows also influences the production and sound coming about, as some of it is not focused on that crowd pleasing heavyness that a massive soundsystem dance vibe is built for. However, everything has its place and time and all requires balance in all aspects. I love so many genres of music, and on certain days just like to sit back and jam some jazz, classical, or something mellow on the mind. I do think the interest is coming together and there have been some excellent shows – here and there, but once it grows a little more stable, the entire Electro organism will benefit and it will also greatly influence much of the production and experimenting with trying new things that can ease people into new sounds inspired more so by the dance floors, rather than other sounds and outputs.
I see quite a bit of younger listeners at shows these days which is an excellent signal of growth in my eyes. For quite some time, many of the Electro listeners I spoke with were loving the sounds, however not interested in shows when they can stay in the comfort of their own home and save some hearing and a few braincells while at it. However, the involvement of a live show in any music is almost always a deep moving aspect of any genre given the right environment. I do see that changing quite rapidly across the globe from cities in Japan to villages in Russia. More live shows popping up all over. Keep it going Ya'll- One of the major (if only) missing ingredients to help grow and sustain the scene in my opinion.
What do you think of the Internet's influence on the music market, from music platforms such as Mixcloud and Soundcloud, to Social Media such as Facebook? What's your position and point of view?
I think the Internet is really an amazing tool, but like a sword it can be double edged and obviously has its good and bad sides depending which way the sword is swung. It's excellent for connecting the world and hungry listeners, however on the flip side, it makes vinyl sales and live shows a completely different animal. These days you can sit at home and listen to your favorite artists which is great, however it makes it much more difficult to get people out, when it's all at their finger tips. Vinyl sales are surely on a resurgence at the moment, but I don’t think it will be a long lasting thing, but more of a stylish thing for those staying true to an art which will always exist. But in the end just about all releasing are at some point evolving to cater to the way tech is going.
What about MP3 and the emergence of netlabels? How did you adapt to digital?
For me nothing feels or compares to some Vinyl, however on the flipside, I love making an idea come to life and being able to rock it as soon as possible to hear the results; not to mention it sure is much easier not carrying record crates all of the place hoping they aren’t lost in transit.
Have you heard of this “Loudness War”? What are your opinions on how over-compressed and limited music is lately, does it bother you? Your music is quite loud, it would be interesting to get your opinion on this.
The loudness issue is surely something I hear a lot about, and also something I experiment with on projects in the studio along with at shows. Generally speaking, I haven't seen a dance floor that cares about the difference, but in recent projects I have toned my own stuff down a bit regarding the loudness factor. I do think it's somewhat subjective to how busy a track is. I know guys in the Drum and Bass arenas that have it peaked the entire tune with no headroom left to do anything. But in that situation, again on the dance floor I don’t see much diference in the crowd response, but at home on some headphones, it makes a huge diference with enjoying music for long spells without ear fatigue and feeling like it's just noisy. I'm always working on assorted methods in my own projects and it is all so circumstantial to what's going on and how I feel. It's one of my weaknesses and a strength as well, being so spontaneous, and not having a plan...There we are with that double edged sword again, the spice of life!
How do you see the industry right now in terms of Technological innovation? Are you satisfied with these Techs and what they have brought, or do you see some things that need to change and perhaps even being lost?
Unfortunately with the tech these days, I feel and see much of the passion and craftsmanship of the trade has been long lost, mostly because just about anyone has access to the basic, and not so basic tools; depending on their pocket book and determination. Personally, I don’t let myself get too caught up in it, as then the very reason I started is completely missed and that reason was quite simply because I love it, and love the music. I know people that constantly want to argue about all of the "tools", Vinyl or Digital and so on, but in the end, for me personally the main objective is missed when taking that huge detour proving what is right, wrong, new, old, this or that. So often times I meditate on the core principals of why I started and where I had hoped to arrive, and travel along this journey.
Words of wisdom for our readers! So how is the Electro scene in Arizona where you come from? Has it changed since you started music? Also, if you can tell us, how is the Electro scene in Poland, a country you regularly visit as well?
The Electro scene in Arizona in the mid 90's for several years was absolutely amazing. We had several underground warehouse events, and clubs like Club Freedom where I was resident at some of the best shows that came through. The undergound in Arizona was focused on huge soundsystems Like GOD and Shredder run by the brother BASShead. There was an intensely good vibe and atmosphere in those days. When I played my first show and really started making some heads bounce in Arizona, it was hard for me to ever see a time when it would not be as good, I only saw things getting better. I mean back then I'd roll up with my vinyls to shows with anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people all ready for heavy Electro music and scratching.
The times have changed greatly now, and in my own opinion being involved with any music scene for a few decades you see that a few things that seem to be prevelant, are the current social trends and the drugs of the time and age group. Both of those elements are very different than they were in the 90’s. Plus back then it was all still quite underground, completely fresh, and new, so the shows were the only show. If you loved the music, you were there: heart, spirit and soul. It was the ONLY place to hear it, unlike in now times when the scene is deeply saturated with garbage and lack of skill, passion, or knowledge of the roots.
I haven't been back to Arizona up 'til recently, but do see some movement in the Electro arena, along with Kraftwerk having come to the state recently, that at least got heads discusing the term Electro again. As for Poland, that is just a great place: positive good vibes, great parties, good people, tasty eats, beverages, and loads of heavy history which I think greatly affects the music scene there in many, many ways. Plus the long dark winters and vodka may have something to add to that. Some of my more abstract Electro productions were made in Poland. They are in the vault for now, but should be hitting the streets in 2017 along with several other projects dance floor focused.
On a personal note, what are you doing in Costa Rica? You often drop incredible pictures of deserted landscapes you visit. Are you a survivor? An adventurer? How’s life there? What’s your daily job?
Ahhhh, now that’s a question I could write a book about, and it looks like this is turning into one! I am an adventure lover and have been from the early days. Any chance or opportunity I get to step away from the comfort zone or daily routine, I jump for. I do believe that as humans, we can become very comfortable and routine takes over what normally would be something your subconscious mind helps with. So when one stays in a comfortable place, often the subconscious mind becomes dormant, and when you get into the wild world it must awake, as its your only real survival instinct when you are out of your element. I have been and will always be completely addicted to it, and to the things that occur when it is activated.
Growing up in nature and Arizona has always been a big influence, along with attending a 3 month crazy intense outdoor wilderness survival school back in the early 90’s, at that intense course is where I decided I was going to DJ, make music, and let nothing stop me. However in that notion I knew that I would have to be in the city for some time to build the bridge. I had told myself from a very early age that once the bridge was built, I would go back to nature and find a balance of both. So I work now on music and adventure tours for people who are ready to get into some crazy ass situations in nature and create some long lasting memories.
Costa Rica is the epicenter of that experience. When I am in the States or EU I'm fully connected, and then there is complete disconnection: Sloths and Toucans and monkeys out in the garden, nature all around which is very, very healing and recharging. People come there from very different lifestyles and I guide them on crazy adventures into deep jungles or to the ocean for viewing crazy sea life. It's all a surreal dream to be very honest man, and believe me if you or anyone out there is ready for a killer adventure, Electro music is only half the fun….the rest is swinging from vines in a loin cloth not knowing what the next minute will unveil, but knowing it will be amazing! Let me know when you or anyone else reading this wants to hit the adventure bank. All are welcome with positive vibes and much <3!
What would you say you have learned there from that experience? Santino told me about a crazy situation that happened in Panama where you almost wound up in a prison due to some wild chase. Is that any true?
I went to Costa Rica in search of Paradise, and indeed found it. It is a HUGE job of very physical labor to own a property in the jungle, but it is something I love deeply; to feel challenged, and well worked at the end of a day is magic to me. To share this place I have worked so hard on with people who have never been, is in a way similar to sharing my music with people who have never experienced Electro. It changes lives and creates amazing memories in the mental bank. For me that is one of the most valuable things in the world, giving the gift of a positive memory rather than any materialistic gift. It lasts a lifetime. As for my run in with the Panama Fuzz, well...to be honest, that is a story much better discussed over a few frosty piwos and laughs to boot! Quite happy things worked out though! :)
So what’s your inner relationship with nature then? Do you prefer empty spaces to bubbling cities?
That has been one of the most difficult balances to try and achieve. My love for Electro and Electronic music, turntables and shows is so deeply rooted in me, it's crazy at times, and it has been there since I was a little kid hearing old school Breaks and seeing things that didn’t even exist in the town I grew up in. The Bass angels helped for sure! But it's always been a massive challenge on how to balance this with nature and outdoor exploring and adventures. I really love both, and have had to make sacrifices in both areas to help that balance. Often I have to put music on pause as there is just no way to have a studio and gear where my place is in Costa Rica, then again there's no way to see sloths and boa constrictors out of my window in Arizona. The balance has been tough but very rewarding, and one of the most rewarding things of both projects is hearing the feedback and good words from people who have been changed by the musical adventure, or the jungle/desert adventure. Seeing kids and families or friends from all over the globe create amazing memories and experiences is priceless, and so freakin' magical!
Any forthcoming musical projects we should know about?
My New "illahertz EP" just landed on Shipwrec Recordings out of Holland and is just about sold out. Huge Love and thanks to those swooping it, supporting my sound, and playing it out ! I do have several new tunes in the pipeline for 2017. Some tasty Electro bits I hope to cut on my label Advanced Robotiks; titled “Subterranean Designed”. MTBA I have been playing a bit of it out and the crowds have properly lost their heads and bodies on the dance floor, so I'm thinking things are on a good track and also it helps me to stay interested. Being an artist of any kind I feel you have to try new and different things to grow, learn, and progress.
The worst thing is to create and feel stagnant like you have to make an idea happen based on style or previous projects and perceptions. I am too spontaneous for that, and when things flow it feels right. If I feel like I have to make something flow, then I hit the Jungle and some surf and get back to nature 'til the timing is positively productive on the creative side. More often than not, traveling is my main source I tap into for ideas and feeling the vibes in various locations. I have a few projects in the works that are all created with “field recordings”, and sounds from the Jungle meshed with heavy 808’s that I am looking forward to finishing up as well. Massive love to the Techno Bass fam and to each and everyone who has been a part of this sonic adventure and continues to inspire me. YOU are what keeps things rolling in the lab! <3
Sounds all very exciting Jason, we can't wait to hear it all! Keep up the great work, you are an influence on many levels! Thanks for your time.
Interviewed by: Chris Nexus 6
Images Credits: © Jason McCracken