INTERVIEW: Conrad Pack
Earlier this year, Threads sat down at a cafe near SET Studios Woolwich with Conrad Pack, the producer and DJ behind SELN Recordings (previously SELCHP) alongside DJ Gonz, to chat about his collaborators and influences. You can hear his latest release Greatest Hits, out now on SELN Recordings, below.
Alex: Let’s start by delving into your general trajectory into music. So you began releasing music in 2019, with The Best / The Truth. Had you been producing for a long time before that?
Conrad: Maybe three or four years, so not super long but long enough. I’d messed around with making stuff before that but I’d never been in a full on band that made songs together. I’d been jamming and messing around on music programs. But about 3 years, kind of trying to get to know and actually make songs. I think they were actually the first things I felt were finished, to be honest. I’d been making loads of tracks and I was like, “oh yeah, these are the two”. It was three years leading up to that, so I was just sort of desperate to get something out really. So that’s kind of how that came about.
Alex: So this was self-released?
Conrad: Yeah, self-released. I did send stuff to labels and things like that but I had no musical connections with anyone in London at that time. I knew a few people who did parties, but all the nights I was going to I didn’t really know the people who were organising them on a personal level. So I was sort of detached, in a way. And so, when you’re trying to reach out to people, labels— I wasn’t really part of anything like a scene at that point. So there was that side to it, and then there’s the other side of thinking if it’s my first thing, maybe I should just try and do it exactly how I want to and that will sort of set a bit of a marker in terms of how I’d like people to receive my music, or see the world its coming from, so self-release seemed like the most viable option basically.
Alex: Sure. So you’d been going out to lots of events. Were they mainly techno events?
Conrad: It was really, really broad and it kind of still is a little bit for me. I started going out when I was in my second year of university. I was going to these nights called Top Nice—I think they were coming to an end. There was a tutor on my course who used to DJ for them or help organise it: Paul B. Davis. My housemate was in his tutor group at university and he said: “Ah, you should come to this night” So I went to that and I was like, “wow! this is amazing” And then at the same time, I had a friend who was a couple of years above me and he was a bit more… not “integrated” in the dance music scene, but just knew more about dance music. I think he was a bit into Hessle Audio, maybe not the actual FWD nights but the stuff that comes from those nights—like dubstep sort of stuff, and he was telling me to come to that all the time. It was just when the Ø (Hyperdub) night started. So I was going to Top Nice, going to Ø. We had a friend that worked there so we just went to all of them. After graduating, we had the gown, threw the hat in the air one minute then went and saw Dillinger, which was quite good—Gonz was still in his suit. So that was the really good thing, going to all these things and then at the same time when I was there, just as I finished university in 2017, there were loads of… I call them “free parties” but we had to pay about five pounds to get in, in squatted buildings. There was a squat near Blackfriars that was having regular events and the music wasn’t always to my taste but just as a vibe, as something actually happening that’s new, I was like “wow this is amazing,” so I was just being exposed to a lot of different things. Who did I see… Vladimir Ivkovic, seeing him was the first time I’d been exposed to a professional DJ or something of that level. And then at the same time, I had a friend at university—he was a bit older, so he’d grown up through acid house, gone to Jungle sort of things and then gotten into Mills and Hood and Berghain. So we made friends without really having to think about it. We talked about music and he was always sending me Minimal Nation and the Bells and stuff like Conrad Black, or just other things I never would have heard otherwise. So I was getting really exposed to lots of different things because I’d have the free party where there’s a crazy vibe, and then you have Hyperdub where it’s a bit more like an anorak-y and London-y, you know, but still fast and crazy. And then the Whities (AD 93) thing, that was a bit more, I don’t really know what word to use really, but I was just exposed to them and then the Top Nice thing, it was a lot smaller, a basement, the Caribbean Social Club. There’s different aspects of them that I liked and I guess that’s what I was trying to pull together when I decided to start putting stuff out and making music.
Greatest Hits [SELN 003]
Alex: It’s great to hear the context of your music, because in your first release The Best/The Truth, I was thinking you can hear the sounds of UK bass but it still has this groovy, techno swing. But your sound, correct me if I’m wrong, becomes grittier over time. Deathplate, for example, moves into a more industrial territory, and Stations of Control accentuates the groovy and hypnotic techno side, so your sound is kind of splitting into two aliases after the first release. You have a very London sound, so it makes sense that you’ve been surrounded by all of this. In terms of where you feel like your sound is going, with the SELN releases, I feel like it’s settled back into this kind of industrial, dub-y techno hybrid.
Conrad: At the minute there’s no strict agenda. I think there was maybe when we started it because we’d been making music together for about two years, and we were playing at the Scram events that Guy (Lee) was doing. During COVID I started buying hardware, and my sound really changed because of that. Beforehand it was all a bit sort of painstaking to be honest, like, making The Best/The Truth wasn’t fun at all. I don’t know why but I had this idea in my head that to make something good, you had to be a real sort of martyr for your art or something, and it had to be a labour of love, and if it wasn’t painful then it wasn’t good, which is totally ridiculous. So part of the reason the sound’s changed is a practical thing. I’m making music with different equipment. And my process is very different. The Best / The Truth probably took around 6 months to make or something like that whereas Depart took, like, three hours—which I much prefer.
Alex: Ok, cool. So you now have the label SELN, which you recently had to change the name of. Do you want to just briefly talk about that?
Conrad: Sure. So if I start with Scram maybe that’s a good way to start it. So I made friends with Guy Lee before the pandemic, he heard The Best/The Truth and was quite into it. We were talking and sharing music loads over lockdown. I really opened up in terms of how I was making music and I think part of that was also because of the hardware, the actual practical aspects of how I was making music. Because with Horizontal Phase, Stations of Control and The Best/The Truth, I kind of knew how I wanted them to sound and be released while I was making them. When I was doing Stations of Control I knew it was going to be a CD; I knew how I wanted to market it before I’d even finished the tracks, which, looking back on it, is insane. I’m really not trying not to do that now. Part of that was probably that it was taking so long to make a song, your mind starts to go to other things. So all the tracks and all the music were all quite project-based. It was like “this is going to be a track that’s going to do this thing on the CD”. I guess it’s kind of like how you might record if you’re a band I suppose. Then when the pandemic hit I started getting more hardware and recording tracks a lot more quickly. And also because of the pandemic there was no one to play to, there was less pressure in a way. Obviously there was other stuff going on, but I was kind of like, “Ok, maybe I should just make a track and it can be terrible and no one has to hear it”. Whereas before it was like every time I make a track I would have to finish it and I would have to put out but I wouldn’t ever want to have made anything bad. Whereas when I started talking to Guy about music, it wasn’t necessarily that he was telling me to do that, but just through having conversations around music.
Alex: So you’re recording tracks live now?
Conrad: Yeah, in one take. Also, with Gonz, all this music stuff, it’s always been “us”—we’ve done all the stuff together. Like all those nights I was talking about, I was always going with him. We met at university, and so when I was sharing music with Guy I was also sharing it with Gonz. Gonz got on board and we were just making and making and making loads of music. Guy had asked me and Gonz if we wanted to do a release on his label he’d started, which is called Wain. So we had a year and a half of back-and-forth sharing music: me, Guy and Gonz. The release never materialised but he started this night Scram at Ormside Projects, which was off the back of this night which he was doing, and still does, called Loose Trax. It’s a monthly thing on a Sunday at MOT where people come and play what they’ve been making. There’s always about seven people there which is nice because you always just end up talking to other producers, which I think is exactly what Guy wanted from it. But he did one just as we were coming out of Covid basically, just after restrictions ended and it was dead busy. Denesh (Acolytes) played, Alina (Lolina) played, Gonz played and then Julian (Fairshare) played at the end and it was this weird moment where it was all these trendy, art school types and they were dancing to steppers. They were really into it and it felt really unforced. It was really weird. We were all like “this is mental” and so he decided to do the Scram night at Ormside and it carried on monthly. Me and Gonz were relishing having an opportunity to make stuff to play in a particular space regularly. We were doing that for ages and because Julian (Fairshare) was hosting it, we were both also getting really into dub at that time. So then we had all this music that we’d been making and we were like, “hey, maybe we should start a label” because we’d been wanting to do it. We’d done the Superfluid stuff before, but Superfluid was so broad that it didn’t really make sense to do a label from it. And because we’d had the break from Covid, it was the perfect time to for us to do something new, and we’d honed in on the sound a bit. So we took the opportunity.
Alex: You also mentioned before about building a world that your music comes from, and the concept of paranoia, of there being “something else”—how do you feel this is expressed in your music?
Conrad: I think when I first started making music it was coming from quite a negative place, and it’s not anymore. It was like what I was saying before, it was painstaking and took ages and everything was really over-considered. I mean, it sort of worked. The songs are good, but it wasn’t a ‘take it as it comes’ attitude. I think, in terms of the paranoia, I like music that when I listen to a song… well, let me go back for a moment to when I studied Fine Art for three years. That course, for all its faults, was amazing. It was three years of just doing what you are interested in and having people that are also interested in it and having quite an intense level of criticality on a practice and I’ll never get that again. And to have that on something you’re interested in, you can’t put a price on it, it’s insane. Obviously the flip side of that, is that it can make it very hard to just get on with it and make stuff. But in retrospect, I was really lucky to have had that. So I try and use that framing when I listen to or make music. And when I listen to music I want something that is going to take me somewhere else and present to me a logic that isn’t this. I mean this cafe, as much as I love it, is kind of boring. Like having to go to work and all the rest of it. It’s not so boring, but I love the idea of something else, you know what I mean? And it is possible, and music is such a great gateway into that. You can’t always put your finger on it but I think I just want a vibe and when I go to a club and hear music I want to feel like I can’t when I’m sat here in a cafe. The point of it is to have a space where I can, not not necessarily be myself, but just engage with parts of myself and you’re not able to on a day-to-day basis because we’re really not able to. That’s why I love something like Throbbing Gristle, it’s good to sort of engage with these dark parts of yourself or society or whatever it might be. It’s good to be able to engage with that and I guess I use music to try and do. So maybe that’s where the paranoia comes from.
Alex: It seems like you’ve established yourself in this overlapping scene of underground music and a scene that I feel is quite associated with Goldsmiths—they have quite a theoretical, critical take on underground music. I don’t know if that’s a lineage that you see yourself as part of. Do you see yourself as a UK producer? A London Producer?
Conrad: Yes. I think so. Britain and the UK have got such a rich musical history so I think it’s really lucky if you’re making music and you live in London, then you’re just going to be somehow part of that sort of trajectory I suppose, even if you go off in different directions. I guess more recently I’ve been kind of thinking about the historical side of it. Not from hundreds of years ago, just maybe from the 60s or something like that, in terms of bands and music that have come out of the UK. I just think it’s quite healthy to, no matter what music you make, place it within a history. Even if you’re making Garage or whatever, it’s quite interesting to maybe reference or see how it relates to something like The Beatles, for example. Like I was saying before, it’s just really important to remember that all these things are music, and to think about what music is and what music can do and not get too caught on the surface, top-level part of things. If you make a track it’s always nice to have it come from somewhere quite deep down. Even though when it rises to the surface, it might just be a track that sort of sounds like dance, dubstep or techno or something. I think it’s good to maybe let go of that side of things because if you’re engaged with them then it’s going to come out anyway. Music is important and it’s good to remember that dance music is music. I suppose making music that’s very repetitive and minimal, but it’s still a “song” rather than just a slab of sound.
Alex: Yeah, I feel like it is very soulful and emotional music. It can also be seen as “doof doof”.
Conrad: I guess some tracks are like that, which is great. There’s no right or wrong with any of this. It’s just going with what feels right.
Alex: What are your plans now then?
Conrad: Just got to sort out this label name. I’m a little bit behind with the music I’m putting out. The last CD was quite good and those tracks were made not that long before it came out. But I’ve got a lot of music that’s not super old but I would have liked to have put out. So I think my general aim is to catch up with my output so that I’m at a level where it’s more immediate. I think it’s worth just keeping on putting stuff out and seeing what happens basically. But sorting this name out is task number one.
Alex: People always say how great you are at production and it seems to come very naturally to you.
Conrad: It is now but it wasn’t for ages. The other thing is I really try to alleviate myself from the idea of “correct”. Before when I’d do a mixdown or make a track I’d have this idea in my head that there’s only one way for it to be the finished thing, or that there’s only one option for what that could be—the same for a mix down, the idea of like a perfect mixdown is where this would be at this level and that would be at that level, and I’ve tried to that alleviate myself from that and accept that there will always be something that you could have changed, and to just do it and move on and learn from the past and take that with you into the next track or whatever it might be, next release, next bit of artwork or whatever. Just trying to alleviate the pressure. So I think, for me now, it’s more about just making loads and loads of music and then picking it up and putting it into a release and framing it, that can happen afterwards. And that feels a lot better at the moment, whereas before it was all quite curated. I think it’s good to hone it in and give stuff a touch of class, to make it exciting so you think “what is that?”. That’s what I always respond to. I like listening to music or seeing artwork and having that feeling of “oh where’s this music come from?”, “What sort of event was it played at?” “What was the time it was made?”. And I quite like not knowing as well. I think I quite like the counterbalance between the epicness of these songs and then the reality of where they come from. Making a song that sounds like the opening track to an amazing cinematic masterpiece but the reality is it was made in an ex-HMRC cleaning cupboard on the 10th floor in Woolwich. For me, that’s great. I like that.
Alex: I definitely can see how that relates to even the visual identity of the label.
Conrad: When we did start the label we thought let’s have a template, like how a label might have a template for the middle, centre label of a record. We wanted to do that just so we didn’t have to think about it, but then we didn’t have enough money to do records. So we did CD and you kind of need to have something on the cover I suppose. So, in terms of that stuff I do relate it to 80s industrial. I guess it’s like world-building, putting across where I imagine this music coming from or the reality of where it comes from and how I see the placement of it.
Alex: So the SELN world that you’re building. What is the emotional pull for you? Is it a dystopian vision?
Conrad: I mean I can only speak for myself. Obviously the label is a shared thing with Gonz but I feel like it’s just the reality of where it is, Southeast London. It’s near the docks. There are still a lot of industrial areas over towards Woolwich, you go through Charlton that is all still an industrial area, Penarth, South Bermondsey. Obviously, that’s all changing now, but that was also an industrial area. I’ve been around here for like eight years now so you do get caught up in it, this type of music. Techno, it’s been around now for about 30 years, it has a history, which is that: warehouses, so there’s a tie in. I supposed like that’s the reality of where I am, even if I’m not going to work in any of those places, just walking through them all the time and that’s also where all the art studios would be, in warehouses. I had one in Brixton for two years, just a warehouse that was falling apart, it was cool. As I said before, people have been doing that for the last 30, 40 years, making artwork and music in these spaces. So we’re trying to reference that tradition but kind of update it. We live in such a weird time, that’s a bit of an old man thing to say but technological progress is going super fast, you know, just like Instagram—I’m really sounding like an old man now—but this technology is crazy! But when you walk down the street near Ormside you’re walking past all these knackered warehouses. I guess trying to merge those two things: FaceTime and an old scrap metal unit. Trying to merge that vibe. I don’t go to the nights, but as a sound I really like drill and it’s the same kind of thing with dub. I really like the sounds and I really like where it comes from and the mood it creates. The SELCHP (SELN) thing is maybe trying to take that and strip it back quite a lot and give it back in some sort of industrial template but without thinking about it too much.
Alex: I’m sympathetic to this narrative about techno, that it’s a specifically post-industrial form of music, and that it reflects something about the time that we’re in. Even just the gatherings and what they mean. I like the phrase “high tech, low life”—for example, I have an iPhone but I’m using the HD camera to take pictures of derelict living conditions.
Conrad: I guess the interesting thing about something like techno is that it’s really young in some respects, but it does have a history to it, so all those producers when they were first doing it—you listen to them speak and a lot of them say, “oh, it was so exciting because there was no history to it”. Whereas now there is and I think that’s absolutely fine. I think it’s good to not get too hung up on that side of things and just keep going forward. The best thing is to be open to mistakes, really. Obviously you want to try your best and make it good, but you’ve got to allow yourself a bit of room to go wrong a few times. That’s the interesting thing I find about techno now, that it does have a bit of a tradition to it but it’s so malleable. You can kind of really just take it anywhere, and that’s the great thing about it. The endearing fact about it is it’s so faceless.
Alex: I guess the producers or DJs have different attitudes to how visible they should be. Is visibility something that comes naturally to you?
Conrad: A little bit. I think I’m getting there. Before it was always that what I was making was quite different to what I was playing. And then, with the Scram thing, when I was DJing there, as I was only playing my own music and nothing else would really fit in. I just really enjoy DJing, I actually love it, and I was doing that before I was making music, I think. I can’t really remember. It was at the same sort of time basically. So I’d say, to some degree maybe it comes naturally, but I wasn’t born with the ability to beat much.
Alex: There’s a little bit of natural aptitude but also takes skills that you need to learn.
Conrad: Oh yeah. It took ages.
Alex: Are there are DJs that you want to shout out or talk about or that you’re excited about at the moment?
Conrad: Yeh, there’s loads. I think there’s too many to name them—DJ Gonz, Susu Laroche, Leeway, John T Gast. The thing for me is that the thing I engage with the most is the people around me and that’s the thing that gets me most excited, people in my immediate circle and friends that are making music. So everyone will know who they are. Maybe I should just highlight the Superfluid thing a little bit more. And how, all four of us—me, Gonz, Ivan (Robirosa) and Chloée (Maugile)—that had a really massive influence on my music and without those three, I definitely wouldn’t be making the music that I am now. And obviously, I’ve been saying all this stuff about music, but the really integral and important thing is having a scene and having a friendship group that you can share ideas with. I’m so lucky to have kind of had that coming out of university and just finding people that are on the same page as you and being able to share things. For example, with the Superfluid parties, Chloée was doing the more visual side of things, getting dancers involved, doing costumes and stuff like that. The other thing about music is that it’s just really important when I’m making music, that I’m always thinking about it almost like a soundtrack to the current situation, with my friends and all the stuff I find most exciting. You can tell it’s coming from a place and a time. And so, I just think it’s really important to highlight that although we kind of look at individual artists, it’s about a scene and a moment and all the rest of it. I feel really lucky to have been exposed to several different versions of that, because I wouldn’t be able to make any of the music I’ve done at all without any of the people I know who are into art, music and all the rest of it. That’s just as important as the synth I’ve got or the gig I’ve got or any of it.
Alex: Thanks for your time, Conrad.
You can check out SELN Recording’s catalogue on Bandcamp.
Editor: Alex H Honey
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