Album Reviews Q&A: Magnetic Man
Take three acclaimed dubstep producers. Stick 'em together, and leave to brew for several years. The end product: Magnetic Man. Featuring Artwork, Benga and Skream, the dance collective has probably been the most talked-about breakthrough British act of 2010. Their eponymous debut charted at five in October, and its two preceding singles - I Need Air and Perfect Stranger - were both hits on the singles chart. The album features vocal contributions from Katy B, John Legend, Ms Dynamite and more, but it was down to the core trio to answer our Album Reviews Q&A.
Your name, and details of this album, got out there a long a long time ago. But just how recently was the whole record finished?
Benga: The end of March, or the start of April.
Artwork: The difficulty has been keeping it under wraps. Usually, with this sort of music, you give it to your mates. That's what we've all done in the past. You want people to hear it - but with this, we couldn't give it to anyone at all. We couldn't risk the album leaking. So we've had several close friends asking us when they could hear it - up to a week before its release.
B: We're all used to giving our tunes out straight away.
Skream: If you do a tune on Monday, you want it played in the clubs by the weekend. I'd normally play it myself.
With dance music not necessarily regarded as much of an album genre - there are big hits in the clubs, and the charts, but rarely big albums - how pleased are you that this record has been so well received by different critical camps?
S: I think a lot of people are starting to realise that there's so much good music in dance circles now, especially in the UK. This is the best place in the world for dance music right now, and I'm talking about dance music with real crossover potential.
B: Also, the production levels are really high, so you can ensure the consistency across a full album.
On the production side, has the increased availability and affordability of technology necessary to produce this music - the software to string the pieces together - had an effect on the quality of what's coming out?
A: It's really encouraging to see what's going on.
S: Most people I know are still working out of their bedrooms. Alright, so they're not really bedrooms anymore - but they're working from what are essentially home studios. I'm still working in what was my old bedroom, at my mum's - but it's not a bedroom anymore. It has been consumed by all sorts of gear... and burger boxes.
B: Can you say that we want a (Chain of Chicken Restaurants - have a guess) Gold Card in this interview? We've got to get that in there.
Do you see Magnetic Man as a long-term collaboration?
A: Well, we've all known each other for about ten years.
B: Our music and our friendship goes back that long.
S: Everything's sort of rolled into one.
A: It goes back to the Big Apple Records shop in Croydon... Actually, before that. These two used to come into the shop as teenagers; then they started making their own music. Pretty soon they were doing really good stuff, so we started the label just so we could sell their records in the shop. It went from there, really. Because of the name of the label, lawyers for The Beatles' own Apple sent us a letter saying we couldn't be called Apple Records anymore. That was the original name of the label - albeit with a banana on the logo. But because of that, we changed the name to Big Apple Records.
No bad feelings towards Sir Paul, then?
S: I have no bad feelings towards him at all. He's a legend. I'd love to get him on a record. Make sure that gets in there!
As for a second Magnetic Man album?
A: We'll just have to see how we feel, once this one has done what it can.
You three, what with such high-profile live shows, have been very forward in putting a face - or three faces - to this music. That seems fairly unusual when so many producers are keener to stick to the shadows.
A: Initially we wanted to hide behind the Magnetic Man name, so we could make music without people knowing who was involved, to see if they liked it regardless. That is what it was meant to be.
B: We weren't hiding because we thought our music was going to be rubbish!
A: But things went pretty well, so here we are.
And the vocalists on the tracks, are they as much of a part of Magnetic Man as you three? As in, is the name one for the entire collective?
A: I think so, yes. John Legend comes to stay with us - he stays at my house when he's over - and he's become a really good friend of ours. So he might come out and play live with us. He doesn't like too many late nights, though, which might be a problem.
As for the album, just how important was the sequencing? As, again, this is an area few mainstream dance albums seem focused on - they can be front-loaded with the hits, and the filler is just that.
A: That was very important, actually.
S: I think the final order is what took the most time of any part of making this record. For me, it is the most important thing. You make an album to be listened to as an album, you know? It's meant to be heard in a very specific order.
A: We had millions of tracks, and to cut them down to what's on the album was hard. But to then get those final tracks in the right order took ages. We all made different versions, and it took a while before we all agreed.
The first and last tracks sound as if they were always going to be in those positions.
A: Yeah I think they were in stone. But we have had to move tracks slightly for the vinyl release. But there's a different relationship that people have with vinyl anyway, as you have to physically pick it up and turn the record over. So we moved a track for the quality of the treble. We weren't too happy initially, but when I played the album on vinyl it's good, as there's a natural pause where you have to turn the record. It's a little break, and it works fine.
You must be prepared for people to pick and choose, and download, a handful of tracks though, rather than buy the whole thing?
S: That's just the way things are now.
B: I guess people don't play vinyl much anymore, not even in clubs. So it's not like we're expecting DJs to get this on vinyl.
S: I stopped DJing with vinyl last year, after a tour in America where we were the only ones playing from vinyl. Every club we got to, they'd have to wire up the decks when we got in. When the crowds are getting bigger and bigger, you can't risk turning up to a venue where they don't have turntables - and the records can jump all over the place. I've really been forced into this position. You want a show to go as well as possible, so it's sensible to just play CDs now.
Back to vocalists, were there any you didn't get to work with this time, who you'd like to collaborate with in the future? Paul McCartney aside, obviously...
A: It's hard, as there's three of us so we don't have a 'dream' vocalist.
S: We did all the music first...
A: And then you look for the vocalist. When you see a list of who you can get, some just jump out.
S: And until you hear the track, you never know.
A: You can get a track back and it's nothing like what you expected. It's not that the vocal is bad, or that it doesn't suit in some way; but it's not the right way.
S: If it didn't fit the record, it didn't go on.
To reach the upper end of the charts with your singles, how much of a surprise has that been?
A: It's been a big surprise. But we take things little steps at a time, and back when we could never have predicted that we'd put a record out that's going to sell what this one will. I mean, it wasn't long ago that we'd all be really happy with a thousand sales, tops.
S: It's a good thing that this music has grown to be accepted across the board, rather to a specific crowd.
B: I think radio has a lot to do with that - Radio 1 has been very supportive of domestic music in general. They're taking steps to support better music.
S: Look at the charts, and there's loads of UK acts in there.
B: But the album...
A: It could have gone nowhere!
B: I would have been disappointed if the album hadn't gone top 10. Because this album's been 10 years in the making, it's taken that long for this project to reach this point. Who else has done that in the music industry, at the moment?
A: Hopefully we've made something that isn't necessarily representative of what's going on in dance, or in the underground, right now - it's more universal than that. I hope we've made an album that people can like, play to death and then come back a year later and still enjoy. Granted, we can't please everybody - but you've got to do what you feel is right.
And, finally, what are your favourite albums of 2010?
S: I really like the Plan B album. The xx was last year, wasn't it?
B: I can't think what's come out this year...
S: The Tinie Tempah album is actually pretty good.
B: I didn't like it.
S: Aeroplane's album is good.
A: I like the Skream album, myself. It's very good.
S: I was hoping someone would say that.
A: Honestly, it really is very good. It's the best album that I've bought this year. Genuinely, I thought it was amazing.