Feel the Subliminal Pinch: An interview with Rob Ellis

the uncompromising Rob Ellis (alias Pinch) cemented his standing as a seminal sub-bass shaman with his debut LP, Underwater Dancehall (2007)

Michael-Oliver Harding - May 28, 2014
Feel the Subliminal Pinch: An interview with Rob Ellis

His chest-rattling Subloaded parties, inspired by Kode9 and the immersive, sinister frequencies he first encountered at London’s game-changing FWD>> nights, made Bristol an early adopter of meditative bass weight in the early aughts. Deep dubstep’s resident philosopher and one of the genre’s longstanding pillars well before its recent flirtation with formulaic radio supremacy, the uncompromising Rob Ellis (alias Pinch) cemented his standing as a seminal sub-bass shaman with his debut LP, Underwater Dancehall (2007), arousing listeners’ most primal instincts and dramatically upending expectations with thoughtfully thunderous vocals and lush, genre-bending mutations. 


Over the years, the Bristol-based producer/DJ/label honcho has continued to expand the possibilities of murky, viscerally felt rhythms in a post-drum ‘n’ bass day and age. Launched in 2005, his tempo-shifting Tectonic imprint has championed floor-shattering innovators such as Loefah, Addison Groove and Digital Mystikz before the rest of the world caught on. His vinyl-only Cold Recordings, founded last year, explores heady musical anomalies averse to restrictive house/techno cubbyholes. He’s also released an inspired 2011 LP with hypnotic dubstep don Shackleton and is currently putting the finishing touches on an anticipated collaborative release with dub legend Adrian Sherwood (as Sherwood & Pinch). In the lead-up to one of Pinch’s rare North American appearances at EM15, we spoke with the passionate and talkative Ellis about the tribalization of music, the sonic revolution of dub and his adrenaline junkie approach to music making.


You’ve said in the past that since switching over from “band music” like Jimmy Hendrix and Frank Zappa to trip-hop and jungle (Massive Attack, Goldie, Metalheadz) in your early teens, there’s been no going back – that to this day, all-guitar based music sounds the same to you. It’s quite the incendiary comment in our increasingly fractured music culture – could you elaborate on that?

There was a period in my younger days when I thought all dance and rave music sounded the same. Since then, I’ve flipped! Obviously, it’s a very extreme comment that’s not meant to be taken literally, but the way things are recorded, through the refining of processes, certain production techniques have become more dominant and one of the side effects is that a lot of recorded music can have very similar sonic characteristics. If you’re listening to sonic textures, a lot of guitar music does sound very similar, from a detached perspective. Not to deride or undermine it, it’s just a personal observation.


This is one of the side effects of the tribalization process that music can have. As you increasingly focus on certain things, you take more from those little details and you begin to zone out of things – you’re no longer paying attention to guitar-based music, you don’t actively listen to it, so 20 years down the road, you stand back and it does sort of sound the same. I can totally understand how, for someone who’s spent 20 years in a garage band or listening to one particular wave of punk, most house, techno and dance music will all sound the same. It’s just what we tune our attention to. Mine is tuned to that side of things – weird, dark, atmospheric, obscure music with lots of bass in it. 


The philosophy of dub music has played a fundamental role in your practice, ever mindful of risky experimentations and pushing back limitations to the bass spectrum. Do those early incarnations of dub continue to inform and shape your work? 

As we’re talking, I’m working with very famous dub producer [Adrian Sherwood]! I think that especially in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the sonic revolution of dub was remarkable; so much that we take for granted in modern dance and experimental music really comes down to the great thinking of dub producers from back in the day. I think contemporary dub music, 30-40 years on, is perhaps a little contained within a fixed world, but the original spirit of dub was totally about breaking down invisible walls and moving into new spaces. That’s fundamentally valid and something I want to take to heart in my own approach to music. Moving in that kind of headspace, it’s not about committing to certain beat-driven patterns or instruments, but about manipulating space and our perception of it. I think that’s a really fascinating thing that we’re going to be exploring for a very long time. 


Does this forthcoming album with Sherwood feel like you’re coming full circle, given he was one of your earliest influences?

Definitely. A lot of the early records I used to have were records produced by Adrian! Stuff I would listen to when I was 9-10 years old and that I still listen to now – which is not true of most stuff I was into at the time. It’s an absolute honour to be working with him. He’s more than a legend; he’s someone who’s done so much that has gone under the radar, producing something like 200 albums, always working behind the scenes with different aliases. I have a lot of respect for people like that, because you know that their motivations are not ego-based – they’re genuinely into what they’re doing. 


What can we expect of the collaboration? Will we recognize your haunting, tech-savvy sonics and Sherwood’s analogue mastery?

I think so, yes! It’s dark, psychedelic dub music, and I use the term dub very loosely. It’s not a reggae-centric album, but hopefully it taps into that experimental headspace I was talking about earlier. It’s definitely the mash of sonics you’ve described: he’s much more based around analogue equipment, whereas I’m more attuned to productions with digital perspectives. It’s been really interesting; we had a few hurdles at various points, just because we work so differently, but I think what we’ve finally come to is a really great combination of sonics. There are some great tracks in there – some are very musical, others very psychedelic and jarring.


Your potent, foreboding collab with grime/d'n'b-schooled British producer Mumdance (on heavyweight tracks such as “Turbo Mitzi will reach new depths care of an upcoming mix album. What brought the two of you together? 

I met him briefly in Bristol a few years ago in the context of a gig, and he started sending me some dark, 130 [BPM] stuff via e-mail. A couple tunes really stood out, especially a few he was doing with Logos. I was really keen to sign them; their tune “Legion” is for me a really important tune, it felt very Tectonic sonically, with a very house-y tempo, really fresh but also full of retrospective sonics and vibes. They came up to Bristol, we did “Turbo Mitzi” and decided we should do more! This upcoming mix is essentially a snapshot of where we’re at in terms of those darker, house-y and techno tempos, without being either house or techno. Trying not to be too much of one thing, drawing in influences that we both share like grime, jungle, dubstep and hardcore, but not feeling anything around too strongly. Allowing these influences to guide what it feels like when making and selecting tunes. I’m really pleased with the mix. 


It sounds very much in keeping with the musical through line at the heart of your “Pinch” moniker: taking samples and snippets of various genres that appeal to you to give life to a Franken-creature that’s very much your brainchild, rooted in your core influences.

Absolutely. Fundamentally, you could distill my musical tastes and influences into something that will probably stay with me throughout my entire life. Without sounding too much like a drippy hippy and going all sci-fi on you, I think that if you’re actively involved in pursuing music, rather than passively consuming it, there’ll be a certain period in your life that will always have a really great influence on you. If you’ve never heard a particular form of music before, it can have a really strong impression on you because it’s able to take you out of the everyday. That’s one of the fundamental things that drives me from one form of music to another – to pursue similar kinds of experiences and headspaces, but through different forms, because once one form has been normalized, it loses its mystery and its power to transform you from the normal to the abnormal. Of course, this isn’t a fixed rule, it’s just the way I see these things. 


That, in essence, is why I’m keen to pursue projects like what I’m doing with Mumdance. In a way, it’d kind of like it if I could just get my kicks from listening to the same dubstep that was on my mind a decade ago. But I don’t, so it’s like an adrenaline junkie seeking out their next extreme sport. Essentially, I feel like I’m not quite hearing what I’d like to out there so I’ve got to be active and pursue it myself.


Pinch performs on Saturday, May 31 as part of Nocturne 4: Cruising the Sub-Dub Spectrum at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.


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