Hip hop outfit Dälek have technically been on hiatus since 2011, although their existing records have continued to reveal themselves to me over the course of the band’s dormancy. Even an album like Absence – which was the first Dälek record I bought, a whole 10 years ago now – is still only mid-bloom. New noises emerge in the margins; unheard harmonics erupt in the collision between processed guitars and manipulated synths; alternative lyrical interpretations present themselves in mini epiphanies during late night headphone sessions. The first listen to any Dälek album is always a tidal wave of too much. Gradually, over the course of numerous attentive listens, the wall of noise reveals itself as a tapestry of carefully crafted micro-details, consciously arranged into the illusion of chaos.
Asphalt For Eden is their first proper studio album since 2009’s Gutter Tactics. While it rekindles the group’s trademark combination of hip hop and ferocious walls of sound, the undercurrent of melancholy is more prominent than it’s ever been, dragging down the interwoven drones and driving Brooks’ rhymes toward exasperated yells or murmurs of lethargy. I’ve listened to the record countless times already, and yet I can’t shake the feeling that I’m still only a few yards into my journey of discovery. Below, Will Brooks and I discuss the experience of playing live again, the band’s meticulous studio process and the origins of the album’s underlying sadness.
I saw you guys live at the Oslo in Hackney back in May last year. It felt like you were pumped to be back doing this material again.
Yeah. That tour was a lot of fun, man. That show was crazy. My only complaint about that place was that they boot you out as soon as you’re done. It turned into a nightclub right away, and we had a lot of friends that had come out there to see us – we had to be like, “yo, good to see you!” and then bounce. It was one of the illest that we’ve done in London in a minute, and we got to hang out for all of ten minutes [laughs]. That’s London for you.
Having spoken to other people about this, I get the impression that you’re made to feel like a guest when performing live in mainland Europe. In the UK, it’s more of a case of having your assigned slot and then off you go…
The funny thing is that it kind of makes me feel like I’m at home, because that’s the way it is in New York. It’s all good though.
It was a really exhilarating set from where I was standing. Did it feel good to be back in the Dälek zone again?
Playing the old joints was definitely a lot of fun. I think we debuted two songs on that run too, so getting a crowd response to the new stuff was cool. Obviously I love working on this music in the studio, but there’s something about hearing this project at very high volumes that’s very satisfying. We were definitely excited to be back.
Everything is theoretical until you step onto that stage. You can be like, “I’m gonna start doing this Dälek project again” and everything could be planned out, but until people actually see you on the stage you don’t know what it’s going to be like. Having shows where it comes off the way it’s supposed to…it’s a morale-booster, man. People always say that the stage is the drug. There’s nothing like that feeling of people vibing off what you’ve created.
It was really interesting to hear the new tracks amongst material that’s over 10 years old. For me, it really highlighted how that trademark urgency and intensity is so apparent in the new pieces.
Yeah, I’m really happy with the direction we’re going in. I’ve been playing the new album to friends and family to get feedback from people, and one thing that a lot of people have been saying is how it’s definitely a Dälek album – there’s no question about that – but it doesn’t sound like any other Dälek album. It definitely has new elements, which is something that I’ve always tried to do with our music. We’ve never tried to duplicate an album we’ve already done. I don’t intend to make a Negro Necro Nekros or a Filthy Tongue or an Absence – I want to make an album for who I am right now, and that’s very important to me musically. Trying to create the same album over and over again would just be boring to me.
Is there anything in particular that helps define this album as Dälek in 2016? For instance, I know that you drew comparisons between Abandoned Language and the films of David Lynch, while Gutter Tactics was said to be influenced by The Melvins and Black Sabbath…is there any such tangible premise for Asphalt For Eden too?
As a musician you’re influenced by everything around you and everything that you listen to. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is with this record, but it all definitely has the same vibe. It’s still angry but it has this underlying sadness, which I’m really into. I feel like sad is the new angry [laughs]. The songs just have this weight to them; not that the old stuff didn’t have that weight or that sadness…I don’t know. There are just new colours that we’re playing with. It’s also a bit more electronic in a way.
I’m a fan of the album, man. I’m not a fan of singles. I always want these songs to work together, and I want it to be a listening experience from the start to the end of the record – not just a collection of individual songs. I’m happy that Asphalt For Eden turned out that way.
That undercurrent of sadness was very prominent from my perspective as a listener, so that’s interesting to hear that it was part of the palette you were working with.
Maybe it’s a part of getting older. You fight for so long and then you realise that everything’s cyclical. Not much really changes in the world, for as much as you fight and for as much as you think things are changing, you soon realise that things are the way they’ve always been. After a while it does get a little sad, you know?
Particularly with the last track on the record (“It Just Is”), there’s a real air of exasperation. Is that difficult to shoulder? It must be hard to acknowledge that, regardless of how loud you shout, everything is just destined to come back round again. I imagine that must way quite heavy on you.
We’ve always dealt with heavy topics and heavy emotions and that can definitely take its toll, but getting that anger out helps. Musically there’s sadness but it isn’t resignation. Even if the premise may be that you can keep screaming but everything will just keep coming around, I hope people don’t listen to me. If you listen to the lyrics there’s that hope buried in there all the time, to inspire people to speak their minds and think for themselves, and to challenge and push against the norms. This is part of the human experience, man – we want to change our surroundings and hopefully for the better. There’s always that constant struggle.
What’s it like to explore and interact with these issues through music?
Music is such a universal force. Initially, you write songs for yourself – you’re not thinking that anyone’s going to listen to them or care about them. I was humbled and shocked that people even gave a shit, and that I was able to tour the world with it. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and the fact that people listen to what I’m saying is crazy. When I get emails from people telling me how our music has affected them and helped them through rough times…I can’t explain how humbling that really is. You also realise that it’ll affect people from such a wide variety of backgrounds, nationalities, races and religions, and that aspect is really interesting to me. There’s something very primal about music. Even if the lyrics are political and have a certain point of view, people are getting something out the feeling of the song. There’s something that translates to everyone in that. It’s hard to deny the power of it –it’s an impressive force.
For me personally, it was definitely the “feeling” of the music that came through first. I came into your music from the shoegaze / noise angle – someone sent me the video for “Ever Somber” and I was immediately on board.
I think that’s great. We’ve gotten the whole, “I never listen to hip hop but I love you guys” thing forever, and I always want to put my arm around the person and say, “I hate to tell you this but now you’re into hip hop!” That’s the beauty of it – we spend so much time in this life trying to put things into boxes and categorise everything. It’s really hard to put Dälek into any one category. It’s hip hop because I say it’s hip hop. That’s what people don’t seem to understand. Hip hop is my culture. But at the same time it has so many influences and styles that you can’t really put it into one box. Instead of trying to categorise it just enjoy it for what it is, you know?
And I’ve always tried to emphasise this to people: the lyrics, more than anything, matter to me. Whatever meaning the listener gets out of it – that’s on them. I never try to explain my lyrics or bash people over the head with what I’m saying. I’m just trying to emote and get things off my chest. If you get meaning out of something I’m saying – and you might take it a completely different way from the way I take it – I’m cool with that. The ambiguity of the lyrics allows people from a different point of view to relate and get different ideas out of it. Obviously there are certain themes where it’s like, if you’re missing it then you’re missing my point. But if you get into it for the sonics and you’re not into the lyrics…maybe one day the lyrics will click for you.
There are different layers to it, and I appreciate music like that myself. I don’t want music that I hear once and get everything about it – that’s too cheap and easy for me. I want something that I hear 30 times and I’m still like, “I never caught that before” – be it a lyric or a sound or the way it’s arranged. I love music where you can find those surprises and those different layers to it. That’s what we aspire to do with our music.
That happened to me just recently actually. With Asphalt For Eden coming out I’ve been back listening to your old records again, so I had Abandoned Language on in the car. That album was a slow burn for me at the time, and even though I’ve since grown to love it, there was something about hearing it in the context of the new material that has just brought it up another notch. I love how your music seems to drip-feed its secrets over so many listens.
I appreciate that, man. I remember when we put Filthy Tongue… out, people were like: “whatever – Filthy Tongue… is alright but it’s never going to be Negro Necro Nekros.” And it’s kind of like, “you’re right, but why would you want it to be?” When we announced this record…you know, I read the comments on YouTube or whatever. Facebook or whatnot. I read the Tweets [laughs]. I saw someone saying, “it better be like Absence”. I felt like writing back saying, “dude, go listen to Absence! That record’s already right there – listen to it as much as you want. Buy 10 copies!” You know what I mean? Can I just exist as an artist and try to create something new? I understand people being passionate about the music and I appreciate that too, but that desire to have musicians and artists just stay as what you remember them as…I mean, if the records I’m making now sounded like the ones I made when I was 20, there’d be a problem. I’m 40 years old, man – my music needs to evolve. If it didn’t, there’d be a problem with me as a human.
It’s interesting that the desire for familiarity and comfort exists even within music that’s considered quite experimental and intrepid, you know?
Part of me gets it. I realise that our music isn’t for everyone, and secondly I realise that every album that I make isn’t going to be for everyone. As an artist you can’t really concern yourself with that. The second I’m trying to placate and appease people out there, I’m not being who I am. I’m just going to keep creating the stuff I create. I’ve always said that I create music for myself and I’m always humbled that people dig it, but I can’t be going, “what do people like? What should I do now?” Fuck that. Like what – it’s going to temper my millions of sales? [laughs] It’s a niche market and I’m alright with that.
Given that you had to assemble a new lineup for Dälek before making Asphalt For Eden, how long did it take to get the ball rolling with the new material?
Although it’s a new lineup, they aren’t new people. Rek was our DJ when we first started. He was the DJ on Negro Necro Nekros, so he basically took a 15-year hiatus and re-joined, which I thought was perfect. I’ve known Rek since I was 15 years old; he was the one that showed me how to use samplers. To have him back in the fold made complete sense. Mike Manteca was playing guitar in Dälek for almost 10 years, and was the opening act on European and US tours as Destructo Swarmbots. These are both dudes that understand the sound, so that was a no-brainer.
Primarily it’s me and Manteca that work on the music; Rek has just been adding cuts and doing the live shows. The first song we did was “Masked Laughter (Nothing’s Left)”, and that came together so quickly and so perfectly. It’s hard to even figure out how we made that one. Nothing else was ever as easy as that one, but at the same time it felt right. Working on the tracks and doing the overdubs and the lyrics and everything…I don’t know, it just felt like being back in the saddle again, man. “Masked Laughter” was like the first test, and doing that run of shows in UK and Europe was another test. I wanted to gauge what touring was going to be like.
To go off on a tangent for a second, what surprised me in a positive way was that, while I saw a lot of old school fans – and it was awesome to see them – I also saw so many younger kids, which was great to see. And there were also a lot of people like you, who were like, “I’ve been listening to your for 10 years and I’ve never seen you play live.” Seeing that there was this hunger for us to come out and play again definitely lit the fire.
It was going to be a 7” originally, then it grew to an EP, and while we were working on that it just ballooned and grew into an album. I was happy that everything happened organically – it wasn’t like we set out with the idea of making a new album. It just kind of happened, which was good.
What’s the dynamic like between yourself and Mike in the studio?
I work on beats constantly, without regard for where I’m going to use them. Making beats is what I’d do for fun even if it wasn’t my job. I’m being conservative when I say that I have a backlog of beats from 2005 that have never been used and I keep adding to that. Initially we just started going through the archives to see if anything stood out to us. We would just pick the ones that we were feeling would work together and set them aside, so we picked out a good 40 or 50 beats and whittled them down to the ones we wanted to start working on. I’d say that ¾ of the album started that way. In the midst of doing the record, I’d be making new beats that were influenced by what we’d been working on, so some of the songs started that way: the genesis started within the parameters of actually working for the album.
We were also recording a lot of affected guitar. We would go in and use that as our source material and then manipulate it using MPC’s or iPad software. We would just push it back and forth. When one of us would get sick of a track, the other one would take over – you know, just chill on the couch in the studio and let the other dude drive for a while. For some of the tracks we would tear aware some of the sounds and sculpt it into more of a song. This time round, lyrics got added once everything was there musically. Then we’d go back in and add some ornamental sounds, and then we’d have Rek come in and do the cuts.
There are a lot of sounds on this record.
Yeah, there’s a ton of layers man. I mean, there are sounds there that you’re not really going to perceive until you listen to it a good 15 times. That’s the idea: one day, that one tone is going to hit you and you’re going to be like, “oh wait – that’s in there?” It was happening to us when we went to mix it, as there were sounds coming out that we forgot we’d even put in there. When you have that many layers in music, inevitably there’s going to be some sort of harmonics and subharmonics that are creating their own thing too. You don’t even technically write that. Look man – I’m hip hop, so I don’t have a music PhD. I’m sure someone that does could figure out what we’re doing in there, but to me it’s magic and I love it. [laughs] After we add a bunch of stuff, there’s all of a sudden a new tone in there and we’re like, “yo, where did that come from?” I love that hidden presence in music.
I went for a run with the record the other day, and I just suddenly became aware of all of the vocal processing that’s going on: the little overdubs, the hyper-processed vocal inflections… I realised I was going to have to go back and listen to it again just to pick up on all that stuff. It brought back my experiences listening to Gutter Tactics, where I’d pick a particular sonic premise and use that as a basis for a start-to-finish listen.
That’s a cool way to approach it. I need to let my albums sit for years before I can listen to them critically, because as soon as we’re done recording we’re mixing and mastering. I’m listening to these songs so many times to make sure they’re exactly the way I want them to be when they’re released, but after that we’re rehearsing for the shows, so then I’m listening to it and going, “how am I rhyming on this?” For me to listen to it objectively as music, I have to wait until we don’t play it live any more. It’ll be a few years before I get back to this one, but I was really happy with the mix. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this.
Is this a strange interval for you? The album is complete but it’s not yet been released to the public…is there a tension in waiting for the moment that it drops and the reactions start flooding in?
Yeah, it’s exciting. It’s always cool when reviews start coming in and people start actually listening to it. For me, it’s not real until there’s vinyl. That’s the old school DJ in me. I have a test pressing, but when I have the vinyl in my hands with the cover art and everything then I feel like the record exists. But you have to get to that point where you let go, because you could sit and try to perfect a song forever. So you have to get to a point where you go, “okay – this is the song.” You just have to know when to let the record be. It’s out of my hands at this point. The music is what the music is. There’s no changing it anymore. But it is that point before the public has heard it, so it’s definitely exciting to wait for that time when it’s going to come out. It’s cool now that I’m starting to do interviews and get responses from people that have heard it, but it’s great when it’s out there with the other records and we can start working on the next one.
Speaking of which – I saw a picture on Facebook of you and Mike back in the studio. Are you working on new stuff already?
We’ve been rehearsing the new stuff, but we worked on a lot more than what became this album. There are already the beginnings of the next album, so we’ve already started the process over again. We have another 40-50 ideas and beginnings, some more fleshed out than others, but it may change throughout the year. We don’t really have a timetable for when it’s going to come out – it might be the next year or the year after. We’ll see. Like I said it’s about growing, so I’m sure that what we have right now is going to evolve as the year go on. That’s something I want to emphasise: I don’t want people to feel like this is one last record. Fuck that. [laughs] I make music, man. There are very few things that I’m good at in life and this is one of the gifts I do have. I’m going to keep making music. If people keep listening to it that’s great. If they don’t, I’m still going to keep making it. Either way you’re stuck with me.
Dälek’s website – deadverse.com