Royalston: Sonic Assassin
Royalston has just unleashed his second album on Med School and as expected, it’s a little bit special. The forward-thinking, genre-bending, and truly intriguing long player is a perfect insight into the producer’s psyche, and it’s a snapshot of pure genuis.
From the breathtaking title track, to the militant sounds of I Saw the Face of the Person, the hard-hitting Scalps, and the screw-face inducing Sunburnt in Malaysia, the Sydney-based producer has taken the tried and tested conventions of drum & bass, flipped them upside-down and rearranged them to fit his own truly unique formula with stunning results.
Eccentric, bold and simply badass, People On The Ground is a testament to Royalston’s boundary-pushing creativity… And the force is strong with this one. We caught up with the man himself to chat about the album and more…
Yes Dylan, thanks for taking the time to chat to us! Straight to business – You’ve just unleashed your second album on Med School – People On The Ground. A HUGE congrats are in order! How long did this one take to piece together?
About a year and a half, with one or two tracks already started before OCD was released.
Wow, so quite a while then! Was it easier to approach this album having one under your belt already?
Yes, definitely. I was more confident with my production and knew what I wanted things to sound like.
Makes a big difference, i’m sure. When working on a project like this is it important to focus on the concept as a whole or do you just focus on each individual track and piece it together once you have all the tracks completed?
Well, I had a vibe/ feeling in mind the whole time during the writing and mixing process, but when all the tracks were finished we (Hospital & I) reassessed and took a couple of tracks that didn’t fit out.
I tried to use similar equipment and instruments on all the tracks as well, even though they are in different styles.
You’re in the UK at the moment touring with Hospital – highlight of the tour so far?
I think the gig in Sheffield was definitely a highlight for me – Getting to perform alongside MC Dynamite and the rest of the Hospital guys is amazing. Also Breda the night before was wicked. The Dutch people were going off!
Any gossip or funny stories from behind the scenes you’d care to share?
Discovering Etherwood’s love of Jump Up at 5:30am in the morning was good, as was watching Fred V versus MC Dynamite rap battles…
Haha early morning shenanigans are always an enlightening time… Let’s get to the music – The title track is simply breathtaking. The arrangement of the piano, the strings, the vocals, the way it builds… I find it really moving. Was this track inspired by anything in particular?
Only by Hannah’s voice & lyrics really. They build so well I thought the track should probably do the same. Having said that, it took a long time to get it there. This one was already on version 15 when OCD was released.
WOW. You really are a perfectionist, aren’t you? It shows in the music anyways. Talk me through the video.. Who was behind that?
I did the animation myself and the art is from an artist called Miranda Lorikeet who draws all her art using only a mouse and MS Paint. I love that she has such a strong unique style. I thought it would be perfect for the video…
And it was! And all on MS paint? Talk about talent! Hannah Joy’s vocals are absolutely stunning. I have a serious voice crush. She’s on ‘Give Me the World’ as well – How did you link with Hannah? She’s from Sydney, right?
Yeah, Hannah is from Sydney. She is a young solo artist who I’m betting will be huge one day. I don’t know a lot about her, but she was great to work with – and her voice is just amazing.
What I love about your production is that you take your time. You build a track and drop it whenever the fuck you want to drop it, and if that means towards the end of the track then so be it. The progression in your tracks always stuns me. Do you find it difficult to work within the confines of D&B sometimes?
Sometimes – The limits of a genre can be good – the ‘blank canvas’ can be kind of overwhelming, and knowing that you’re working at 174 can reduce that a little – also you get more creative with ways to get around the limits… It drives creativity.
The downside is that there can be a general expectation of the sound of a genre which can get really boring (for me, anyway). I love artists that bring new sounds/ ideas into the confines of D&B.
As do I, and what I feel you do really well. Do you play around with other genres in your own time (ie. When you don’t have an album to complete..)?
In the past, definitely. I used to write music for films and TV quite a bit. But for the last year and a half it’s been all about the album. I spend quite a bit of time just making weird shit on the modular synth. That is almost its own genre in a way. I also do the occasional bit of music for commercials or games.
Master of all trades mate! Moving on, Scalps is diabolical. For me it personifies what I love about your sound – Deep, dark, full of surprises, experimental, and simply badass. Tell me an interesting piece of trivia about this track.
I’m really happy with Scalps, so I’m very glad you like it. Most of the noises in this track (drums and bass not included) are made from one phrase of a B-grade 80s horror movie. I think the girl is saying “thanks for caring”, very sarcastically. She then gets murdered. That would have been an appropriate title for the track as well, I guess.
Ha! Incredible.. And DARK. Love it. Sunburnt in Malaysia is deliciously dark as well. Serious screw-face material. Lyflyk is absolutely haunting on this, really loving his flow. Tell us about Lyflyk and how you guys came to link on this one.
Lyflyk (Cem) is from Wales but he was hanging out in Australia for a year. He had been pestering me to record him but I didn’t have much spare time. One day before he was due to go back to Wales, he finally came into the studio. I didn’t know what to expect as I had never heard him MC. He absolutely blew me away and I did my best to record as much material as I could in the one session before he flew home. He did the whole track in one take. Then doubled it twice, without error. I even made changes to some lines and he incorporated that perfectly. I haven’t seen anything like that before, especially when you see how many lyrics there are…
That is seriously impressive!
Blight Mamba made it on to the Need For Speed soundtrack – HUGE! How did that come about?
I can thank Ash at Songs in the Key of Knife for that. He’s doing great things over there, getting D&B placed in all sorts of weird TV spots.
We need to talk about The Wrath of Mr Sparkles… It’s a bit of a beast. That reverb is seriously badass. What’s the story behind this one? Who the hell is Mr Sparkles and why must we fear his wrath?
Mr Sparkles was an angry surfer I met on a surf trip in Aceh, Indonesia. Actually, he was pretty nice, but you didn’t want to steal his waves. Then he was a c**t.
The video for ‘I Saw The Face of the Person’ – I’m assuming you’re behind this one as well? Really haunting that one.. gave me chills! So, who is the person? 😉
I like drawing portraits so I thought this might be an interesting angle to take on doing the video. The person in the title is my dad, who gave me the idea for the track as he was reading out a speeding fine he got. It’s a hard one to explain, but I just liked that phrase which was in the details of the fine.
Hidden From the Light is intriguing. Hearing tunes like this I honestly picture you like a mad scientist in a lab, adding a dash of this, a splash of that… I feel like you truly work within your own formula and that’s really commendable when the scene is often saturated with much of the same sound. What do you think the best piece of advice you can give to someone just starting out in production is?
Make your own drum breaks. Learn an instrument/ sing. Keep writing music – Don’t expect to be releasing tunes after 2 months or even 2 years… but make sure you enjoy it and don’t stress if your tunes aren’t perfect. Your first tunes should probably suck or you’re copying someone else’s formula off YouTube (or you’re a genius).
Find some people who will give you honest feedback that is not overly harsh. You want to improve, but you don’t want to be discouraged. When you think something is done, put it away for a few weeks, then listen back and you’ll probably be honest with yourself.
Wise words. What’s your studio set up looking like at the moment?
I’ve got a lot of hardware…a lot of which I probably don’t need!
Pearse Hawkins appears on a couple of tracks too. Lucien is one of my favourites on the album. Pearse is your cousin, right? Does the family link make it easier for you to gel in the studio, or for you to boss him around?
Yes, we can pretty much say whatever to each other in the studio and I probably do boss him around. We work on tunes that tend to morph from one idea to a completely new one each session, so they take months.
Louis (Pearse Hawkins) is young but has a lot of talent and he’s been making some great tunes lately which really have their own style (and which we will hopefully hear soon).
Where is that sample from Lucien from? I can’t pick it!
It’s not a sample actually but it’s a recreation of a line from a movie (slightly changed). I couldn’t use any samples in this album in case of copyright issues so I got a friend of mine, Colleen, from Canada to re-do the voice.
Intruiging. Does the album format allow you to explore and develop your sound more do you think? Give you a bit more room to be creative?
I think so. Making an album seems to be this epic journey you go on and hope it turns out well in the end. I don’t think my brain has comprehended that this one is finished, as it swallows up your life and seems like it will go forever. The good thing about being with Hospital is that you get guidance if you need it. It’s creative freedom with someone kicking your ass a bit if they don’t think a certain track is up to scratch. Often you can’t see the faults because you’re too involved so its good to have someone with experience offering advice.
For sure. Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of ears I guess! You designed the album artwork yourself — ok, wait a minute, let’s re-group here. Is there anything you can’t do, Royalston? I’m doubtful. List 3 things you can’t do…
Well, I’m pretty bad at keeping the studio tidy… I can’t understand a word of Dutch… And I can’t tie a tie… But wait, I don’t even own own a tie… Ok, I can’t cook without making a giant mess (I say this as i’m looking at the washing up)… So tidiness seems to be a theme here.
If these are the only things you can’t do, then i think you’re doing alright. To be honest though, with a middle name like Royalston you were always destined for great things. Back to it then – The album artwork – it’s really impressive. What’s the story behind it? I’m getting a real sense of isolation and fear, correct me if I’m wrong. Love the colour scheme too…
Thanks! I was thinking of lots of concepts around “people on the ground”, and it was a kind of a tricky concept. I ended up mashing all my ideas into one bigger idea which became the cover. I also wanted a subtle menace to be in there… like in a lot of my favourite films. I like there being an underlying disturbance but not knowing quite why.
That’s really interesting. I feel that subtle menace in a lot of your tracks actually! And so is illustration another passion then?
Well it’s my other job – I still do it when I’m not doing music. I like doing the album covers because it gives me the creative freedom that I often don’t get with a client.
I’m always impressed by your track names and find them intriguing – how do you settle on the track titles? What comes first, the chicken or the egg? 😉
I actually collect track names. If I see one somewhere or think of one I note it down and save it for the right track. Sometimes a track will dictate the title though.
Any tracks that were particular frustrating to complete? If so, which and why?
‘Give Me The Word’ took way too long. It was really hard getting that one to work the way I wanted.
Do you have a track that is particularly close to your heart?
‘Don’t Give Me Up’ was quite a spontaneous track and a true collaboration between everyone involved – I love playing that one.
You’re based in Sydney – how’s the scene looking over there at the moment?
It’s good – there are plenty of nights on in Sydney and lots of bush parties where D&B is really growing in popularity.
For anyone travelling to Sydney soon, any nights or promoters in particular they should keep an eye out for?
Any homegrown talent we should know about?
You’re a bit of a movie buff – best film you’ve seen this year?
There are so many and I always forget them. Ex Machina was great, Interstellar was good too – so much better than Inception – that movie sucks! It Follows is an awesome movie. I love Rick & Morty too, mainly because of that episode about Inception. Good movies really inspire me.
What’s coming up next then? Holiday mode or are you always producing?
I think I’m going to need a holiday after this tour. I also really want to get stuck into writing some more music.
Where can people catch you next?
Brighton on the 13th at Komedia, Tallin, Estonia on the 14th, Drumaphone in Kosice, Slovakia on the 20th and then finally at Leeds for the Med School night on the 27th of November.
Royalston, sir, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Big ups to you and keep doing what you do. Any final words of wisdom or shout outs?
Thanks Maja! Shouts to you and the Sydney crew, the Hospital crew and anyone that’s come out to any of my shows. Wisdom… check out my album? Brush your teeth?
Wise words indeed…
People On The Ground is out now on Med School. Get it here.
Listen to his DNB60 mix for Friction on BBC Radio 1 here.