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Smile for the Camera

Photek, born Rupert Parkes, proves to be the most ambivalent of DJs.

By Marc Weidenbaum

In mid September of this year, 1998, just before he was due in San Francisco for a stop on a DJ tour, Rupert Parkes, better known as Photek, took half an hour or so to discuss his fear of remixes, life on a major label, coping with broken technology, and why he stopped playing the saxophone.

Marc Weidenbaum: What will you be playing on your DJ tour?

Rupert Parkes: I’m going to be DJing, and the selection is going to be about 80 percent my own music.

Weidenbaum: Will you have anything aside from turntables with you?

Parkes: Just my mixer, that’s about it. It’s basically DJing.

Weidenbaum: The word DJ is tossed around a lot, and it certainly has come to encompass a lot more activity than it did five or 10 years ago. Could you explain the correlation between the person up on stage keeping people dancing, and the person in the studio with quite a bit more equipment and no audience.

Parkes: For me, DJing is something that has never been an ambition of mine. DJing is not my purpose in the bigger picture. I am very much primarily a studio musician — studio composer and producer, that’s what I do best. The DJ thing is an offshoot of what I do. Wouldn’t say I’m the best DJ. I’ll just be playing a selection of music within this DJ context in the way that I feel it should be presented and “within my skills,” kind of thing. I really am focused on the studio, I suppose.

Weidenbaum: What is you studio like?

Parkes: Pretty bad at the moment [laughs]. Been having non-stop problems with equipment, and I’m due to update it when I get back from America; I think I’m due for an overhaul, some new bits of equipment. I can still work reasonably well, but I’ve been having some problems with equipment, crashes and stuff

Weidenbaum: Do you know Ben Neill’s music at all?

Parkes: No.

Weidenbaum: He plays a mixture of electronic and analog music on a trumpet he has designed. He takes about his frustrations with technology, and how he has grown to appreciate that machines don’t necessarily sound the same every time he turns them on. Do you similarly sense an organic give and take with the equipment?

Parkes: The only benefit I can see in the crash [of a system] is that I come back with the attitude that I’m not going to let these things beat me and I come back — usually, in all but one case — I come back to do something better than what I was originally working on. And the crash generally means I lose everything I’ve done, or it results in the same thing. If I lose the samples and am left with the arrangement, that’s not much use; or I lose the arrangement and I’ve got samples to work with; that’s a bit easier to find your way back from.

Weidenbaum: The first music I’d ever heard of yours was the “Hidden Camera” single, and the “UFO” single. In preparation for this interview, I kept trying to concentrate on what it was about your music I liked so much, and I kept returning to this idea of sparseness.

Parkes: Yes. I mean: that is one of the main characteristics of my music.

Weidenbaum: The reason I like your music is that it sounds like music I’ve imagined but never thought I’d have a chance to hear. As new as it is, it’s very familiar.

Parkes: It’s the music I thought I heard years ago when I was in a club somewhere in London when I was 17, but I never heard something actually like that when I listen back to the music at the time — but it contains the atmosphere of that music, so it is something that I haven’t heard yet, but I thought I knew already.

Weidenbaum: There’s something very solitary about yours, whereas so much electronic music is dense, whether it’s by one person or a small group.

Parkes: Yeah, most people — there’s usually no more than two, three at the most, involved in any drum and bass projects, but I definitely prefer to work alone at the moment. Although the possibility of collaborating with different people is nice, there’s a lot of stuff — I have a lot to do for my interests before I start trying out experiments with different people . It’s very much a personal thing for me, the music I’m making at the moment.

Weidenbaum: Much of your music suggests conflict between two parties, and yet it’s just you making it. Who is the other party: the listening public, technology … ?

Parkes: The sword technique — the “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu” — is really a separate track, an individual track really set apart from the other things that I do; it’s the only track I ever planned and had a true concept around. And there’s no conflict in the music other than a sonic basis, one sound and its relationship to another within the music.

Weidenbaum: There’s certainly something volatile at work.

Parkes: Yeah, maybe it has a mood of that, although there’s nothing quite so direct.

Weidenbaum: How much of your music is in the movie Blade — I’ve heard conflicting things. “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu.” “Yendi.”

Parkes: Was “Yendi” in there as well? As far as I’m aware, “Ni Ten” is over the closing credits.

Weidenbaum: Exactly.

Parkes: And there’s a couple of bits where Source Direct’s in it. Either it hasn’t been released in England yet, or was in the past few weeks. I don’t know quite where they’re playing it;

Weidenbaum: Do you keep up with contemporary Hong Kong films.

Parkes: I don’t, really. No. I suppose people might expect that of me, since I refer to martial arts two or three times.

Weidenbaum: What things are you passionate about?

Parkes: Music’s really dominated my life for the past five years, but I think probably motor racing, I think, Grand Prix Formula One racing — on the personal level. And I’m into the whole car thing, anyway.

Weidenbaum: You drive or watch?

Parkes: Grand Prix — that’s a bit expensive. A very small handful of people actually get to drive in it. I’m a big fan, and I like to get as close as I can to it.

Weidenbaum: There’s definitely a man-machine thing going on.

Parkes: Yeah, it’s a classic big-boys toy thing.

Weidenbaum: What your favorite toy in your studio?

Parkes: I’ve grown to like the Mackie mixing desk and Emu samplers, but I think the key to it all is the sequencer I’m using, and that’s Cubase.

Weidenbaum: Seems to be the favorite of most electronic musicians. Which version do you use?

Parkes: The original-style Cubase with no audio — the sequencing package only, three-point-something.

Weidenbaum: PC or Macintosh?

Parkes: PC.

Weidenbaum: You were one of the first on Virgin Records’ Science imprint.

Parkes: I was the first signing to the label, actually.

Weidenbaum: Can you describe the transition from your own label, Photek Records, which you’d been running, to working with a major label? Parkes: It was, actually — I’m trying to think of what I felt like at the time. I decided what I needed more than anything was to not worry too much about business and running labels — I just needed to concentrate on making music and let someone else trustworthy deal with it. The key man was Steve Brown, who runs the label. I put my trust in him and he’s come through, been a good friend, and the best A&R man I could have hoped for. It’s given me confidence to just let things run with the label, and the ability of knowing things are taken care of is the biggest bonus in signing the deal.

Weidenbaum: Security?

Parkes: Financially, actually, it’s more profitable to do your own thing, although life is so much easier on a major — if you get with a good company. Some people aren’t so lucky

Weidenbaum: Have you found that a large label is able to deal with new types of music, or is it stuck in song format?

Parkes: I think the framework’s already been set up before; before drum and bass was around, it had started to broaden a little. There’s a stereotype image of a big record company. I think record companies are a bit like advertising companies — they’ve got their finger on the pulse a little bit more than most businesses, and I think Virgin are one of the most progressive major labels. One of the main things is there are so many sub-labels and personalities involved that there’s room for everything. Obviously, the major earners are the Spice Girls and people like that, and then there’s room to have people like Steve Brown doing an experimental music project like Science Records; so that framework’s been there for a while. The major labels know they have to look to the future and keep their hands in every possible development. It’s commercially sensible to do that.

Weidenbaum: Where are you right now?

Parkes: Peshay and Spirit are the studio. Peshay’s just finished a track and is playing it — for V Records or something.

Weidenbaum: How did you come to start making music?

Parkes: I played the saxophone for about a year or something — that was my first musical thing, although it doesn’t relate too heavily to what I do now. I made a decision, actually, when I was playing the saxophone that the reason why I wasn’t going to progress there was that I wanted to make pieces of music rather than being a playing musician — I was more in the direction of being a composer.

Weidenbaum: What year was that?

Parkes: Around when I was 16, but what I did over the years, since I heard my first electro and early hip-hop things, was I listened to the way drum patterns were put together, and I was trying to imagine what how things worked together — just seeing the relation between different sounds and instruments the initial idea was to buy a sampler and make the ultimate track by taking the high string sound from a Roy Ayers track, the rhythm track from a hip-hop track, the bass line from a jazz-funk track, put them all into an ultimate final track, “best ever” thing. I think that was my first thought, and it just developed from there.

Weidenbaum: Like making a mix tape, but simultaneously.

Parkes: Taking the best element of every track that I had ever liked and try and combine them in different ways.

Weidenbaum: You’re known for singles, primarily, and your two full-length records thus far are collections. Do you think of yourself as a singles artist?

Parkes: No, I think more in terms of bigger projects now. I prefer the possibilities of creating something more significant, with a journey of several tracks rather than one here or one there — I’m much more tuned in to doing the larger projects.

Weidenbaum: The reason I mentioned Ben Neill was because I was working on an article about jazz and electronica. You’ve been quoted as saying that you’d be a jazz musician if it were 20 years ago.

Parkes: I think that’s because that has a big influence atmospherically; it contains some of the same energy as that music. I was recently asked what would I be making if I were living in the ’50s and the answer is: I wouldn’t have been a musician, because I realized I have relied so heavily on technology. And if it wasn’t there, it would have gone as far as playing the saxophone for year and not going much further. This music is the result of technology being available to play around with.

Weidenbaum: Will that availability change the relationship between listener and musician?

Parkes: Well, I think I’ve had a similar question asked of me before — you’re referring to being able to manipulate music on new formats, to change music around.

Weidenbaum: You can buy a boom box with different sound settings — the Taj Mahal, a chapel …

Parkes: As someone recording my own music and making it in such a specific way, the idea of someone changing what I’ve done — it’s not a prospect I look forward to. I would love to change other people music, because that’s what I do. If I could mess around with different aspects of other people’s music, I’d love to. This remix album is the first time I’ve ever allowed my music to be remixed.

Weidenbaum: Why the delay?

Parkes: I was never a big fan of remixes because I didn’t think, in the early days, there was enough music about — I thought a remix was a cheap way of getting another release on a record label. But the Photek Records thing is a very personal thing to me, and then finally I thought, yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard them and I’d like them to resurface in a new form.

Weidenbaum: I’ve got the original 12″ singles. I always found it difficult to tell one from another, since they all are plain with this big symbol on the cover.

Parkes: There’s probably two which look pretty much the same — the blue one and the green one. When they came out, I got mixed up looking at them myself. The idea was for them to look distinctly different; that was the original intention. You can tell the red one from the green one.

Weidenbaum: Why did you choose Form & Function as the title for the compilation?

Parkes: Since that is the title of the first ever release, and since this is a summary of what’s happened so far, it seemed fitting to refer to the first release.

Weidenbaum: Electronic dance music is very avant-garde at times, but it’s still dance music, which is to say it’s aware of its value as a utility.

Parkes: I think from a couple of years ago, I have forgotten about the dance aspect of my music, and I just make music I like, within a certain boundary, which happens to be dance music — so sometimes what I do fits with the dance floor, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Weidenbaum: Could you recommend records to fans of yours?

Parkes: A Love Supreme, John Coltrane —

Weidenbaum: How about recent things?

Parkes: Modern music or very recent?

Weidenbaum: Fairly recent — stuff people might pick up on your recommendation, much as people might pick up your record because they’ve liked other Astralwerks releases.

Parkes: I think Source Direct’s “Black Domino” is one of my favorite things they’ve done, and they’re on Astralwerks. I’d say check out the Peshay record, which is coming out early next year. I’d say check Goldie’s first album, Timeless. What else could I recommend? I dunno. I think just have a look through this whole genre in general.

Weidenbaum: Is that some of the stuff you’ll be DJing?

Parkes: No, there’ll be a lot of stuff from my next album, which is completely unheard at the moment — this will be the unreleased stuff I’ll be playing. I’ll be playing much of Form & Function as well. And there will be stuff by DJ Digital, who recorded the first track on the new label, Photek Productions, which is like the reborn Photek label; a lot stuff from him, DJ digital, Spirit, Peshay.

Weidenbaum: So you are running a label again?

Parkes: Yeah, it was so long — “UFO” was the last thing I did on the label myself — that was sort of the end of one chapter, and the next chapter starts with the label having a slightly different name. The Photek project is me on Virgin, and Photek Productions is the record label.

Weidenbaum: I’ve asked a number of musicians to imagine a musical instrument that isn’t currently available to them. Do you have one in mind? Parkes: Um, I think that the pace of new developments is already ahead of a lot of people’s imaginations and uses for the technology. I was asked before if I was being held back by the technology, but I think part of what I do is exploit any possible use for technology as it develops, rather than wait for the piece of technology to arrive that fulfills a need that I had. To create a piece of music, I think I’m just testing out new pieces of equipment and technology as it comes. And I’m not looking for a particular result, so I’m not hoping for a specific improvement that’s going to make something possible that I have in mind.

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