Photo of Bok Bok
Photo of Bok Bok
Photo of Bok Bok


Club Culture

Interview by Alfonso Gomez + Cindy Low Shot by Euseng Seto

Founded by Alex Sushon (Bok Bok) and James Connolly (L-VIS 1990) in 2010, Night Slugs didn’t exactly begin as a label – it was a club night that provided an alternative to London ravers wanting something that projected genre diversity. Alex himself intended Night Slugs to represent his personal interpretation of what ‘rave culture’ is, or could be. That goal, lofty as it was, seems to have reached its natural conclusion – the label has become a movement on its own. The grime-informed spatial sounds of Bok Bok – to borrow Alex’s structural imaginings of music; a soft synth-y, icy, and metallic sonic monolith – can be heard in the music of fellow labelmates, and their followers as well. With the Club Constructions series offering a manifesto to their fans on how to engage with the label, that shouldn’t come off as a shocker. Recently brought down to Kuala Lumpur for the first time, managed to snag some time off Alex for an in-depth discussion on club culture and the appropriation vis-à-vis influence debate that often comes with it.

Why didn’t grime take off in the early ‘00s, you think? What’s different now?

There are many, many reasons, but I think the biggest thing was because there was no infrastructure for it, really. I mean, this was music that was made by people that were disenfranchised, very much without a platform. They kind of created their own platform over time, but the music was so ahead of its time, it was so radical that I don’t think it was palatable, digestible for people. I think that’s why it really took that long for people to really appreciate it, you know.

We once used the term ‘post-grime’ comically, but it seems like you guys had been described as exactly that (by RinseFM, no less). Is this really even a thing?

Uh… no (laughs)! In a word, no. We just make music that we wanna make. We’re influenced by many things – not just grime. And so, I don’t really see it that way. But you know, no one has really been able to really name what we do; we don’t really give it a name. I think that’s the best way to go about it, to just feel out track by track – what you wanna do [with each track]. But certainly, grime had a huge influence on us. I mean, a lot of our music that we’ve put out has been grime, but not ‘post-grime’, it’s just straight up grime! You know?

As we understand it, rave culture is such an ingrained subculture in the UK. Coming from Malaysia, this isn’t that familiar of an experience (especially for younger folks). Could you explain to us what that was like and what it is like now in relation to the internet (SoundCloud) being the source of new, unknown music for young folks?

The biggest thing about raving is it was like a physical real-world experience. It’s where you can feel connected to your peers and your fellow ravers through the music and the experience of dancing together. You know, for better or for worse, it’s changed a little bit now that the internet is the main source for people to hear music. I know that a lot of people do listen to music online, and people who don’t have geographical access [to that culture] such as yourselves will be checking out online; I think it just creates a different experience. To some extent, there’s a physicality in the music that needs to be felt by your body, and very much, music is about the body and for the body. To some extent, something gets lost, but another beautiful thing about music is that it’s so universal. Context doesn’t matter as long as the tracks work and you can choose to listen to them however you choose to. I’m not preachy about this stuff, but I would say if someone had the chance to listen to music on a great sound system in a club, then that’s the environment I would recommend first and foremost.

“… it’s impossible to not be influenced by music once you hear it. The way the world is structured now, this crazy, nonlinear, online, viral environment, it’s impossible to fight that, it’s too late.”

Night Slugs seem to have a distinctive sound, and now with sister label Fade to Mind, it seems like that ‘sound’ has travelled far in the sense that a lot of folks are trying to do the NS sound now. How do you feel about having copycats? Or is it more like being a pioneer of a whole new thing?

(Laughs) To be honest with you, I don’t pay much attention to it, because I think it’s not a good energy to focus on, so I’m focused on finding new, interesting music that I find stimulating. I listen to a lot of pop, r’n’b, rap, and that’s where I get my good energy from. In terms of music that I think is derivative, I don’t really spend too much time on it because it’s a soul destroyer.

Most people, we are guilty of this as well, see the two labels (NS and Fade to Mind) as interchangeable when it comes to ethos and sound. What would you say are the core differences between the two?

Well, the thing is they do have different cultures in a way, because one is from London and very much rooted in that culture that I grew up with, and Fade To Mind is very much American, you can feel it in a way. We treat subject matters differently and I think we have similar philosophies, but there are underlying differences. It’s subtle and it’s hard to put into words, but I think it’s a feeling, and you can kinda get those different feelings from the two labels. Although there is a lot of interchange, [for example] someone like Kingdom who was a Night Slugs artiste before Fade To Mind came into existence. So, it’s very much drawing from the same pool of ideas. But Night Slugs will always be based in, I guess, like my idea of what rave music should be, and ultimately Fade is like Prince Will and Kingdom’s vision. But you know, one thing that we share though is this idea to keep music personal and experiential. I know you didn’t ask for similarities, but I think that’s one of the things that unites us. But yeah, the differences are more textural, I guess.

In a Red Bull interview, you mentioned that the Club Constructions manifesto was meant to keep that series cohesive. But having a direction such as “production is gritty,” wouldn’t that make the intended ‘grit’ disingenuous?

Possibly, yeah. I mean, the whole thing was a bit of an experiment, really. I think it was interesting for me to see what would happen if you gave people some limitations, although I’m not sure what words I used at that time. But I mean, like keeping the scene cohesive seems like a huge project. It wasn’t quite what we set out to do, it’s more of an attempt to give structure to the demos that we were getting, because as you mentioned earlier on, we did get a lot of copycats from the stuff that we’ve released. So, we wanted to say like, “Guys, if you wanna take inspiration in what we’re doing, here’s a guideline on an entry level on how you could be useful to us right now, and try to experiment with the sounds that we’re creating right now.” You know, it’s not like, “This is the way to make club tracks,” or any sort of prescriptive instructions like that. It’s just like if you wanna interact with us, this is the way to do it.

“Our role [as DJs] in culture is a counterculture role, and that’s important.”

Speaking of grit, dance genres like juke, grime, vogue have all been appropriated by the haute couture world. We think Death Grips’ Fashion Week album was a parody of this phenomenon. What do you make of ‘high culture’ borrowing from subcultures and countercultures?

Well, I think we’ve got to be really careful because by definition, we’re talking about economics here. So, high culture is usually a culture with a lot of privilege, money, and access, whereas a lot of the music that we take a lot of influences from are from a place of not great privilege. So, there’s a power relation there, which I would personally be quite wary of. Although having said that, there’s a good way and a bad way to go about it all. A good way is to include the original artiste where your ideas are generated from and kinda engage with them, and the wrong way to do it is, I would say, to exclude those originators, which happens a lot. But it’s not my place to police this, although I do think people should have a moral responsibility when it comes to this stuff. Ultimately, the originators of good ideas are the ones who [should] benefit from them.

There was an advice that you gave to new producers; to be careful of appropriating new sounds indebted to a specific geography. How does one differentiate between appropriation and influence when it comes to music?

This is a really tough subject, because again, I’m not the one who’s to be policing this, you know? Who am I to say that what I’ve done in the past hasn’t been appropriation versus influence? It’s a very, very blurred line. I would say that again – what I said earlier – I think it’s important to engage with your influences, show them enough respect to treat them in a humanistic way, and you know, involve them and engage them in any way. And if possible, when you’re benefitting from taking influence from something, then that benefit needs come back to that original artiste. These are the basic principles that you can work by to try to get a bit more balance, because it’s impossible to not be influenced by music once you hear it. The way the world is structured now, this crazy, nonlinear, online, viral environment, it’s impossible to fight that, it’s too late. The structure of the world has now changed, I think there are certain responsible ways to maintain some fairness and responsibility in what we’re doing. But having said that, I’d never wanna suggest that people should hear music and not take it in or not to be influenced because that’s not the way culture works. I mean, if you look at how influences and genres merge, even before the internet, it’s been so important for people to take influence, to use tropes, to use cultural signifiers. If you see what I mean, I would never discourage people taking influence, you can do it in a way that’s considerate to your sources of influence.

You mentioned that it was important to have a sense of humour in music and art, but since dance music is oftentimes wordless with the exception of a few vocal samples here and there, how does one convey that?

You know, for one thing, I don’t really know what dance music is, apart from… (chuckles) I know in the ‘90s, it’s house, trance, and whatever else. I play music that people dance to, I play a lot of rap, I play a lot of r’n’b, I play a lot of jersey club tracks, and a lot of them are hilarious. It’s just in the music; sample choice, the colour, it’s certain types of vocals, it’s certain types of lyrics, it’s a certain type of attitude that we are drawn towards. I don’t really play faceless dance tracks in my DJ sets, I don’t really play techno in that sense – I don’t play techno with a capital T. I don’t play dry, faceless tracks. Sometimes when we play Club Constructions, you know, that’s an in-between for all the other stuff, connecting all the other stuff that we play. Humour is humanity, it’s about trying to convey that through the DJ sets, you know?

You mentioned that you don’t like hearing music where you can ‘hear’ the DAW software in its sound (like Logic). What does a producer need to do to avoid the artifice of ‘electronic music’?

I think artificiality is fine because a lot of the stuff that I like sounds very much in a digital environment. Take grime as an example, when it first came out, it was made sort of lo-fi almost, and that’s not something that people can aspire to, because you can’t fake that. In terms of the aesthetics, it has lost a bit of that because now people have access to really good software. Everyone is basically producing on industry standard software and bouncing their tracks, just like how people bounce their tracks for the radio. It’s just a slightly different environment, really. Everyone has to just find their way to do it. My way was to come out of the box a little bit, now my process is very hybrid – I use digital processes, but I use a lot of outboard and analogue processes as well. I’m not saying that is a right way or the wrong way, but that was my way out of sounding like I’ve made tracks on Ableton. It all comes down to taste. I mean, yeah, you can hear a lot of DAWs in a lot of modern music, but maybe that’s what those producers wanna sound like, you know? For me, it’s just a matter of my own personal taste. I like a bit more texture. I think over time music that’s well-mixed, all the elements [will sound] believable. They’re generated digitally, and I think they all sound like they’re happening in a space and they sound tangible. I guess what I don’t really like to hear is just Logic-y sounds.

Does that mean DAWs have ruined the scene with same-y sounds?

No, I don’t think that at all. Their access to DAWs and software is actually a really good thing. It means that [a potential] producer talent is never going to be lost. Anyone with a laptop can try their hand at production. For better or for worse, a lot of people out there, they are probably on this planet to make music, but then maybe I’m on this not to make music, I don’t know, so there is a lot of possibility there. Ultimately, I think access is a good thing. I don’t like the idea of the elitism of the lack of access. I wouldn’t say that you need any sort of hardware or any kind of equipment, you can make music on pots and pans, but if you’ve got a DAW, then great!

But going back to what you said about the internet being a nonlinear, viral environment, there’s a potential lack of quality control in the music that’s being produced as a result. What do you make of that sentiment?

Yeah, I would say that’s true – there’s very little quality control these days. There’s a lot less to force producers to finish their work. You know, this has been said before, in the days of dubplates, if you wanted to cut a dubplate, there is a commitment to it because it’s a physical medium and it’s quite expensive. So, your tracks had to be a certain standard and finished to a certain level. Otherwise, you wouldn’t want to cut the dub nor would any other DJs. It’s just motivation to keep reaching for a higher level. But now, you can just bounce and put it in a USB and five minutes later, playing it in a club. It’s really interesting too, because it’s opened things up to an intense degree now, and I think we just have to deal with it. As I said before, times have changed and we can’t go backwards, so it is just how it is nowadays. You know, there is a lot of stuff out there and it does make it harder to go through, but I think music that connects with people is gonna shine through the noise.

Some have mentioned ‘futurism’ in relation to Night Slugs’ look and sound, but do you ever feel that today we’re already living in some future dystopia predicted by an ‘80s cyberpunk book? Do you ever visualise your music as the soundtrack to a dystopia?

No, but I’ve heard this idea before; us being dystopian or something like that. We have been to that territory, when I released ‘Silo Pass’, I would say that was dystopian music, for sure. When Jam City released Classical Curves, that’s exactly what that record was about, that record was set in the belly of the beast. I mean, we do change as people, we do develop, so I think now, the path that we’re on, is very much about keeping the warmth and humanity and positivity and finding those connections. The thing is the cold music thing can be a bit of a dead-end. And at this point, I think it’s important to communicate something valuable with what we’re doing. We have a responsibility to not be complicit and not speak in the same language as advertising, language of oppressive political systems – you know, these are the things that we as artistes have to make into something valuable. Otherwise, we’d just be contributing to a greater problem. I think we are living in quite isolating times. I think [living] in developed countries in 2015 is quite alienating, I think it’s our responsibility to create something that counteracts that to some extent and find something warm and human. I think if you go through our catalogue, yes, there are dystopian tracks like ‘IRL’, ‘Silo Pass’, and [the EP] Classical Curves, but if you look past that, there has always been this vibe, this emotion, this colour, connecting to our much more primal senses and emotions that aren’t simply mirroring what’s out there, and taking part in dystopia, so to speak. So yeah, it’s a bit complicated, but I hope it makes sense.

You’re something of a club culture scholar, what do you make of clubs becoming increasingly more expensive, higher end, and faux-futuristic very much in the same vein of most dance festivals?

Really? That’s interesting. I don’t know if it’s a phenomenon that’s happening everywhere, but I think life has become more prohibitive and expensive in general. I can only talk about my experience in the Western world I suppose – everywhere I look around is aspiration, everyone trying to look like they can live well (laughs). I don’t think it’s a great thing, but at the same time, I don’t know if it’s an overriding trend where clubs are becoming more expensive and fancier. I think it’s just how culture is going that way in general. I think it’s quite sad, our role in culture is a counterculture role, and that’s important. I’m not a bottle service DJ, although I sometimes play at this sort of clubs if I’m brought there. Ultimately, my home is always in a place that’s gonna be gritty and accessible, and to keep a punk rock element is super important.

That’s it. Thank you so much for your time, Alex!

Thank you! Wonderful questions. Thank you for your time.

Red Bull Music Academy Pres. Bok Bok went down on Saturday 26 September ’15 at Zouk Club KL