Q&A: Shadow Child

Tell us about your journey. How long have you been producing music now? Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started?

I started making Electronic music when I was 11 or 12 at school; we’re talking back in 1989. It wasn’t like now where music rooms have iMacs with software on, schools were very traditional, with regular instruments; trumpets, recorders or maybe a drum kit if you were lucky. Our school actually had some money invested in it for arts and the music teacher was somebody who wanted to develop music technology which at that time which was pretty much unheard of at any other school. I didn’t know that back then; I thought all schools were doing this kind of thing. I was so lucky.

At the same time, I was discovering Acid House, which was weird for a kid of 12 years old when I look back on it. My step-dad had a soul record (Londonbeat ‘9am’) that strangely had a wicked Acid tune on the B-side of the 12”, I remember being so blown away by it. I was going into school and trying to make those same noises with the equipment and it completely opened it all up for me. It just all clicked together and made sense to at that moment.

So you’ve always been surrounded by music?

Yeah, both my parents had really varied record collections, so I grew up playing their records. My Dad was really big into the Rolling Stones and different Rock bands mainly, but he also had the odd John Michel Jarre record and things like that, my Mum loved bands like New Order, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, real ‘80s music, so I grew up playing all their records and being really taken by any music that had electronic sounds in. Anything that had an Electronic vibe to it I was really obsessed with. I just remember thinking ‘Where is that coming from?’, how are they doing this?’

How old were you when you started to go out nightclubbing?

I didn’t really go properly until I was about 18/19… before that I just went to a couple of under 18 raves. My mates and I would go when we were 15 or 16 which was around the first time I’d seen DJs mixing vinyl in the flesh. My MC mate and I blagged a spot once to perform some of my tracks, copying the classic Rave acts we’d see on TV with dancers and stuff. Our year head at school actually caught wind of it all and offered us a spot at 9am in assembly once. Pretty unreal at the time, playing Breakbeat Rave music at 930am in the school hall.. I guess it was 1992 after all!

I did know what was going on with DJ’s and the direction of the music because I’d collect mixtapes and go to the local record shops, but I wasn’t attached to the culture and raving so much, it was just all about making the music, I’ve always been a nerd.

So you were really fascinated by all these different sounds in school, but at which point did you know you wanted this to be your career?

I knew from school. I knew as a 14 year old this is exactly what I wanted to do. When I was in school, the Prodigy came around and you had a few rave acts getting on Top Of The Pops, although there was still a very underground thing happening. The whole scene was actually pretty negative in the press up until that point, but they’d inadvertently fuelled the fire for the whole scene and everyone of a certain age wanted to get involved. All I knew about at the time was the music and I knew I could make great tunes if I just kept going.

My parents at the time would never have seen it as a career path. As much as they were encouraging me to make music, they were also aware of the negative side of this music at the time. It wasn’t a realistic thing for my teachers and parents to be pushing me to do, but I already had it in my head that this was going to be it, I didn’t know how but I just knew music is what I wanted to do.

In the April of 1993 just before I left school, The Prodigy came to play in my hometown of Portsmouth and I got to meet Liam Howlett. We hung out the whole time before they played and he was really interested in my music, when I told him I was making tunes at school. We stayed in touch for a short time afterwards and he encouraged me to send my music to XL Recordings which didn’t pick me up, but sent me a hugely encouraging hand-written letter, which goes to show how much music has changed these days! I’m also really close with Nick Halkes nowadays, who wrote that letter back in ’93. Madness!

Can you read music? Are you classically trained?

I’m not actually, no. I used to play a trumpet when I was about 9 years old for a couple of years at the most. The trouble is I discovered this music… and trumpets don’t make these noises! If every Rave record featured trumpets I’d have been all over it.

It’s actually an interesting point and it came up on the Q&A video I did for you. I know one pretty well known Techno producer who is classically trained and it’s defiantly a plus, but I think it could be also hard to turn that side of your musical brain off. A huge part of what we all do is not musical in a way, it’s a vibe. So, sometimes I’m glad I’m not classically trained. I’ve always winged it and totally just learnt everything myself. I’ve taught myself everything and you can’t beat that.

What was the first DAW you started using when you started to produce?

Oh… so in school it was Notator on an Atari ST which was a MIDI sequencer only, no plugins in the box, and then when I left school I didn’t make music for a few years until Propellerhead made Reason in the late 90’s which I ran on a really shit PC! I’ll be honest, I didn’t have much at all at that time. I was working part time, I had a big record collection and my dream. I didn’t really have any money, so my friend lent me a really old desktop PC which Reason could work on. So they were the first two.

Talk us over your studio kit. What is your most prized piece of gear?

It all kind of varies… it depends what I’m doing. I guess the Holy Grail in my studio is the Roland Jupiter-8. I got mine about 4 years ago, and it’s my prized bit of kit. Admittedly, I don’t use it as much as I thought I would – there are other bits of kit which I do use all the time, like the drum machines for example, but the original JP8 is special.

What gets you inspired to make a track?

Defiantly DJing. I love playing, but it is always secondary to the studio. I’m someone that makes music first, that’s just me, but I feel like I can’t not be inspired by DJing. There’s something really special about playing a wicked set and having a responsive crowd. It can be a real spark in the studio.

My roots also inspire me still. The music I make always has a bit of a throwback element to it. I always get ideas and vibes from old records, not the sounds or the samples, but just the vibe and the kind of feeling you get from it. I’m not somebody that gets deep into art and stuff… going to exhibitions and then writing music, that’s just not really me. I make so much music all the time, but there’s only a little bit that people get to hear because I feel it needs to have my character and my stamp on it and I can tell if it’s there or not. I cant just put out any old thing, it has to reflect where I’m at, that’s really important for me.

So you’re always making music, can you tell us a little bit about what your studio schedule is like? Do you structure your studio time like a typical 9-5 job?

It used to be all over the place. But since I had my little girl two years ago, life is obviously a little different. The last couple of years I’ve been less staying up all night and trying to do a more 9-5 plan with it all.

I also do my Rinse show every week, so Wednesdays are taken up with that. Friday I could be traveling. So Monday, Tuesday and Thursday are my main studio days. Sometimes I can work on music every day, sometimes it might every other. It just depends. What I try and do now though, is have an arrangement of a track finished, even if I’m in there for a few hours or all day… so when lock the door, I have a bounce of something that sounds like it could be a track rather than a 16 or 32 bar loop. I did that for a long time, just making sketches and loops, but I felt like it wasn’t really getting anywhere. So yeah, no matter how long I’m in the studio for, I just try and get something done.

You’ve worked on many remixes, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced doing these? How would you recommend handling a remix? Any tips / advice you could offer?

With remixes I’m always very respectful to the original and I try not to pull it too far away. I try and keep the vibe of an original if I can. The last few years I’ve been really fortunate to have so much come my way, meaning I can be choosey about what I want to do. I really have to hear something in the original that I can work with. I can’t just grab something and do anything with it. If someone said to me “What can you do with that in two hours?” as a challenge then I would do anything, for fun, but when it comes to doing a proper remix production for release, I have to hear things in the original that I love. If I’m not sure I ask for the stems. I might have a play around with these to see what happens before I commit to it officially. If I get something that is 80BPM and I have to bring the tempo up a bit, then the vocal might sound weird or something.

Also when I did the Hot Natured remix a few years ago, I used the whole vocal, and I think there are record labels that come to me now and ask me to do that still, but I’ve moved on.

You do have to make it your own, or what is the point in someone coming to you for a remix? So it’s a hard one to answer. It’s a mixture of stuff. But when you get it right, it works really well – and I don’t mean just me, I mean in general.

Do you have a certain set of plug-ins you absolutely couldn’t live without? If you were stuck on a desert island, and could only bring 1 plug-in, what would it be?

Well if it was one plug-in it would be Omnisphere. I always go to that for ideas. If we’re talking a group of plug-ins… I’m a heavy UAD user.

Anything on Shadow Child’s hardware wish list?

Always! The one bit of kit it would be right now would be the ARP 2600 synth.

How many projects are you working on at this moment in time?

Well, constantly Shadow Child music. That’s always on going. I have another project that I’ve just started, which is different to Shadow Child, a little Balearic, a bit lo-fi in places too… I can’t say much on it at the moment but we’re going to launch the music first before people know its me. Basically I’ve been record shopping heavily again over the last couple of years for my radio show and getting really inspired by a different kind of sound. There’s something in that sound and that vinyl-only world which I really love.

Many producers will use several different references for their final mixdown such as headphones or the official ‘car stereo test’. Do you have any particular methods that work well for you?

Both of those things actually. I use headphone a bit and the car stereo is great. I will finish a tune, put it straight on my dropbox and play it in the car. The car is an important part of the studio for me because you’re not sat in that same environment. You can sit in the studio, turn the screen off and pretend you’re somewhere else but when you’re in the car or the headphones on, it’s a different experience and you do need it.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given in your career?

That’s a tricky one really. I think it would be to stop worrying what everyone else is doing, and concentrate on being productive in your own way. It’s a hard lesson to overcome as there’s a huge emotional connection with what you do and making it a success, but Just thinking about what you feel you should be doing isn’t going to help. If you’re putting such an expectation on what you’re doing and you’re also limiting you creativity. It is a business, and you do need to earn money but it’s easy to tie yourself up in knots by looking at the Beatport top 10 and solely aiming to emulate that. For instance, Tech-House is the thing at the moment, but the amount of music that sounds like it’s produced my one person is unreal. It’s just about being original and thinking of something that offers character in some way, something a bit different, even if it has to fit in somehow. Balance.

From Dave Spoon to Shadow Child… Why did you feel it was right to change your artist name? Musically, were there certain barriers with the Dave Spoon alias?

Massively yes, and I know I put them there myself. It’s hard to explain, but if I came from a background of going out raving, to then just becoming to a DJ who makes a few tunes, then there’s a different mind set (I think at least) and you can adapt. However, I came from a more creative music-making background and it’s easier to get emotionally attached in a different way that can limit you, so I really fell out of love with the Dave Spoon sound. The ‘EDM’ thing started to become to me what Trance music was, and it just wasn’t what I was feeling anymore. There are still people who love that sound and I still get messages now about it, which is really great, but I did just feel Dave Spoon ran its course.

I remember playing at Creamfields in 2010 and I was playing the biggest arena with Steve Angelo but I just didn’t want to play anymore. I didn’t want to be involved in it and I felt so selfish. There were so many people who wanted to be apart of it, working so hard on their sound and who would totally deserve to be there more than me with my mindset. So that’s when I stopped and I stopped taking Spoon gigs. I felt a huge detachment with that was going on. In 2010, I remember being at ADE and that was my final decision to stop… I was done with it and I had to separate myself from a lot of things that came with it so I could move on musically. Fortunately, I already had the ‘String Thing’ idea and then in 2011 I heard Eats Everything’s ‘Entrance Song’ which was his first big turning point, and I remember being like ‘wow, this guy is going to understand ‘String Thing’… he’ll get it!’ and I was right! That then led on to Dirtybird signing my first Shadow Child record.

It had to be a completely clean break for me. I had too many boundaries when I was trying to be creative otherwise.

(As Dave Spoon) How did it feel when you were giving BBC Radio 1’s ‘In New DJs We Trust’ slot alongside Heidi, Nerm & D-Code in 2008?

Oh it was incredible. I think it was the Christmas Eve I found out. I was out delivering presents to a mates house and I got the phone call when I was in the car. It was such a big moment for me. I’d always wanted to step foot in the BBC building, never mind do my own show! It was all about the music, which was great. It was a brilliant 18 months. Getting to know people at Radio 1 was cool, becoming friendly with people like Zane Lowe for instance.

I’d never done radio before that moment, and learnt so much which I carry with me now into my weekly Shadow Child show on Rinse FM. Always thankful for the platform to share great music.

In this course you seem really relaxed and comfortable, is teaching something you enjoy?

From 2000 to 2006, I used to be a lecture at South Downs College. I used to teach music technology so that’s where it comes from. I love sharing things with people, I never had that when I was a kid. There wasn’t anyone to show or tell me. Some people have an issue sharing what they are doing and I totally respect that but I’m showing people the tools. You need to come with your own inspiration and ideas to truly do something in music. In my course, there’s a lot of direction and an inside into how I do things. Hopefully it will inspire people to get in the studio after. I’m so chuffed with the Toolroom Academy video.

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Learn how to make cutting-edge House and Tech House with our 3 month online Production Certificate taught by Ben Remember & Ben Keen.