The Age of Nostalgia
“Nostalgia is a hell of a drug and we are in the age of nostalgia”, says Lincoln Barrett from his home in Penarth. Behind him the walls are lined with row after row of DVDs and conversation falls to popular culture at every turn. The art of recycling, not recreating, is something that’s been playing on his mind as he releases his seventh record, Notes From The Underground, even borrowing the title from an 1864 Dostoevsky novella.
Born at the end of the '70s, Barrett grew up just too late for the era of warehouse parties and illegal raves when jungle was at its peak. As a teenager his true passion was film, studying at Newport and setting his dreams on making movies. However, on hearing J Majik's “Arabian Nights” his head was turned to drum and bass. He took a job in Cardiff record store Catapult, started DJing around town, and began making his own tracks.
Fast forward twenty years and he’s a revered name in the world of dance music, has six albums under his belt, curated music for the Olympic opening ceremony in 2012 and most recently was nominated for a Grammy for his remix of “The One" by Jorja Smith.
Barrett attended the LA ceremony in February, and while he didn’t win, he did leave feeling victorious. “I didn’t mind because I got to meet Paul Williams who’s one of my heroes,” he smiles across a jittering internet connection. “A day or two afterwards, I just spotted him sitting outside a restaurant, so I waited for a convenient moment to bother him and he was incredibly nice. It was worth doing the trip just for that.”
However, it was on his way home that Barrett became aware of something strange happening around him. “I started noticing people wearing face masks and going to the airport leaving LA was like, suddenly seeing a sea of face masks,” he says. “It did feel like the opening scene of a movie about an outbreak, like Contagion or something, so I quickly came home and locked the doors and I haven’t been out since.”
The months spent indoors with no gigs to distract gave Barrett time to focus on an arsenal of new tunes he’d already begun. Originally meant as a mixtape, the extra space to create gave birth to a new record of fourteen rich, cinematic, and in moments retrospective tracks. “The way I work is tricky, I generate lots of ideas and chip away at them, it’s like a race seeing what gets to the front and actually gets finished,” he explains. “I only ever finish tracks that I’m actually one-hundred percent behind, but there’s hundreds of others that are only twenty percent there. I had most of the plates spinning, but the real leg work of it was done here in lockdown.”
The genesis of the album came last year when Barrett borrowed a sampler from a friend. “I’d started thinking about making lofi hip hop and seen YouTube videos of people using samplers and then it just struck me in one of those eureka moments that are just so suddenly obvious you can’t believe you didn’t think of it before,” he laughs. “My whole career is built on sampling and I didn’t ever use a sampler. And I kind of prided myself on that in the early days because I think I was one of the first people to release, certainly drum and bass music, that was made entirely in a computer, that never went through a mixing desk or any hardware, it was just inside the computer. That was a radical thing when I was starting out that a lot of people were sceptical of and now it’s just completely normal for people to make things entirely on a laptop.”
For Barrett, bringing a sampler into his creative process was as much about disruption, about forcing himself to adapt and grow as it was about the sonic nuances. “If you take it down to 8bit you really hear the crunch. It is giving it a certain sound, maybe only dolphins and complete audio nerds can pick up on that,” he smiles. “More importantly to me it just changed my process. More than the mysterious sonic quality, just finding ways to switch things up is always good.”
This year especially, the past has become a comfortable escape. As we were all locked down and deprived of new stimuli, our minds fell on the things we knew and loved, from vivid dreams of old lovers to reconnecting with friends from childhood. It certainly feels that the past is more prevalent than ever, and in creating an album that reimagines a specific era, is Barrett aiding this addiction? “Growing up in the 80s and the 90s it felt like our species was heading into the future. It felt like there was a sense of momentum that we were going somewhere, and then I feel like the world did end in the year 2000 and we just didn’t realise it and I feel like culture has frozen since then,” he says. “If you look at a teenager in 1955 and compare them to a teenager in 1975, just incredible differences in so many ways. But then if you look at someone from the year 2000 and the year 2020, I don’t think there’s actually that much difference.”
It’s a fair assessment, especially as certain early 00’s fashions make a comeback. But Barrett admits that change is there, beneath it all. “I think the thing that has changed, and changes rapidly, is technology,” he says. “It’s almost like the technology has ramped up so much it’s actually pulled the rug out from under people so we don’t know where we are anymore or where we’re going and it feels like a lot of uncertainty and I think like retreating into the past is the one safe thing you can do.”
Interviewing artists in this new world gives you a through-the-keyhole experience. With the click of a video call you’re inside their houses and privy to rows of guitars, a distant keyboard or wall of gold discs. But behind Barrett there are rows and rows of media, his collection cutting short at the turn of the millennium. “I’m not so interested in a lot of stuff that comes out these days. I see cinema as the art form of the twentieth century,” he explains. “Peter Greenaway said that every artistic movement goes through the foundational stage where the rules are created, then they get perfected, and then they get broken. And that happened with film. Birth of a Nation made the foundation of what a film is as we came to know it, Citizen Kane perfected it, and then Jean-Luc Goddard broke those rules with Breathless, and so it’s already gone through that all those years ago.”
Through the internet and the democratisation of information, it would make sense that niche or underground media is more accessible than ever. But Barrett sees a converse concern in this. “I think just the average person now is all in on streaming and aren’t really buying physical media and that just puts us in a really dangerous situation where you’re at the mercy of whatever the streaming giants have in their library,” he says. “So a kid growing up now whose parents don’t have any DVDs, they’re only gonna see whatever happens to be on Netflix and it’s very limited and a lot of the great history of movies isn’t on there and so it becomes reduced to what Netflix makes and I feel like the majority of their programmes feel like they’re all made by the same person.”
When I was growing up, you were defined by the music you listened to or the movies you watched. That seems much less prevalent in 2020, and while the broadening of genre lines can have its benefits, Barrett can also see the darker side. “It’s paradoxical because for one I miss the tribalism we used to have. Even within dance music, the jungle/drum and bass scene, it was really antagonistic with the garage scene. And then house was very dismissive of drum and bass and it really felt like you had your tribe and that was your family and you stuck with it,” he explains. “Then some time in the mid-2000s I really started to feel we had this opening up and now you’d be very niche to just be into one genre, and most people I speak to, they like a bit of everything. Maybe that is good, but I also feel if you’re into everything and you have access to everything, you end up being almost nothing. What do you stand for? Because you can’t know everything intimately and in detail. You just have a generalised appreciation of everything and I think that can result in a lack of passion and a lack of specificity that I think results in people having more generalised lives and pastimes and the stuff they make might be more generalised and homogenised.”
And it doesn’t just affect the audience, this malaise of specificity also applies to the music creators. “You kind of see it in electronic music over the last twenty years where all the genres have actually sonically blurred together because everyone’s using the same equipment for the most part and the same plugins within that equipment,” he says, “You could listen to a drum and bass track, a dubstep track, a house track and probably a pop track, and they could actually all have the same sonic palette, the only thing that differentiates them is the tempo and the particular pattern of the drums, but they could all actually have the same sonic elements.”
And so with great power comes wasted responsibility, and Barrett twists our data dreams into a dystopian disaster. “I also just think with access to everything, we’ve got the world’s knowledge in our phones on us at all times but then people mostly just scan through Instagram and it’s almost like something out of the Twilight Zone where people finally achieve this nirvana of knowledge but only use it to look at pictures of food,” he laughs. “Everything is accessible, all these wonderful, obscure films, a lot of them are even on YouTube. But how is anyone even gonna begin to find them if you don’t have someone guiding you? And there aren't really gatekeepers or real cultural figures to point you in the right direction because everything is equalised, flattened out now, so it’s just relentless content everywhere.”
With all of this in mind, and in using vintage equipment to create a sound that in part pays homage to an era from the past, was Barrett mindful in not rose-tinting Notes From The Underground? “Absolutely. I was definitely trying to keep my nostalgia in check in making this album,” he nods. “Part of the concept of it was I always begrudged that I was about six years too late to have taken part in jungle’s initial blossoming and I missed out on the rave era of the famous illegal parties and the warehouse raves, so this album is kind of me thinking, what would I have made if I had been making tunes in 1995? But I also didn’t want to be a complete slave to the past and let that completely dominate the creative process. It’s mixing those old ideas and this retro concept with where I am today. Because I've always felt like you want to recycle not recreate. Because there’s a million jungle tunes from the mid-90s that sound amazing. Why just make something that sounds exactly like that today? I’ve felt like that with everything. You don’t wanna just recreate a form from the past exactly because you love it. What is the point of that? It’s kind of an artistic dead end if you go completely down that route, you’ve got to reinvent it and make it personal to you today.”
On Notes from the Underground, Barrett balances stuttering percussion under cinematic soundscapes that expand over nagging, welcome hooks. At times it can feel like a kitsch pastiche, full of well placed, knowing cuts and quotes, titling tracks like “Windows 95”, “Met Her At A Dance In Leicester” and “Snare The Blame,” but the humour is warm and inclusive, almost tribal. As much as Barrett likes to think of himself as an editor rather than a musician, the record is full of irrepressible musicality with chord progressions that unlock euphoria and rhythmic patterns that repel stasis. He may play within the boundaries of genre, but his construction surprises and rewards with guttural drops and piercing highs. Standout single “Time Is Hardcore” pitches Kae Tempest’s arresting and formidable delivery over Barrett’s punishing, nihilistic production, borrowing a familiar rush of synth. There are times when you can really hear the rub of the samples, glitchy and grimy and rich in dynamism.
Barrett’s choice of guest vocalists on the record ranges from the established and revered to the virtually unknown. “There’s always a bit of randomness to how things happen in the creative process and I think the finished product ends up reflecting your personality and I do like contrast,” he smiles. The elegant and emotive “Arcadia” features Bim. “She’s the vocalist from my band when we do High Contrast live as a band, rather than DJing, so I've been working with her for a number of years. I just thought she would be a great pick for that track,” he smiles. “Rhythm Is Changing”, a banging old school dance track that’s been lauded by Annie Mac on Radio 1 features the similarly underground vocals of LOWES. “With LOWES, they’re newcomers to the music game or whatever you want to call it, but they’re quickly establishing themselves with a number of collaborations that have done really well,” he explains. However the standout collaboration is “Time Is Hardcore”, that dark and pulsing slice of drum and bass that melds with the spoken word of Tempest. “With Kae Tempest, I wanted to get them on a track for a number of years, I just felt a real connection to the music and just thought that would be a really interesting combination and maybe because of lockdown, not much else happening, Kae found the time to finally do it. Every cloud has a silver lining,” he laughs.
It certainly adds a fresher feel to the record, bringing it back to the present day, side-stepping the comforting pull of nostalgia. But musically as well, Barrett made an effort to avoid certain tricks and tropes that would result in just a recreation of the past. “I think I did make a point of trying to avoid certain sounds that are the stereotypical jungle sounds and trying to find other sources to create sounds that have a similar feel but aren’t crucially those specific sounds,” he explains. “But then there’s also a thing where you can’t change things so much that it stops actually being that thing. An obvious one is the Amen break, the drum beat that’s used in a million jungle tracks, it’s probably the most sampled thing in the world, I mean there’s been documentaries made about it. I tried to avoid using it because I thought, it’s just too obvious, but it kind of got to a point where I was like, I actually do need some Amen on this album because it’s such a part of the DNA of jungle that if you don’t recognise it, doesn’t really feel jungley enough.”
Even though Barrett did relent, trying to use the classic beats in an impossibly new way, he found himself having to get particularly strategic with one category of samples. “I actually did go through a process of I sampled lots of things from films but then not wanting to get in trouble for the copyright of doing that I went on Fiverr and found actors to re-say the dialogue,” he laughs. “I had to find a Liam Neeson impersonator to record this one particular Liam Neeson line and then find someone who could do Jack Nicholson and things like this. I got these actors to recreate the dialogue and then I took those recordings and then put them through samplers multiple times to try and give them the texture, and also putting Foley sounds as if they were in a mix in a film so there’s like the sound of wind behind them or doors creaking or whatever it is from the scenes. So then I put that through the sampler and resampled it to try and give it that authentic texture. It took some digging to find the right people.”
Listening to the record, and how it juxtaposes innovation with retrospectivity, and then thinking back to Barrett quoting the Welsh director Peter Greenaway, is it possible that music has already been through it’s three stages of evolution? “If we’re being real, music’s probably been dead since Beethoven died,” states Barrett with finality. “Everything that’s come since really pales in comparison. You’re just pissing about, really, aren’t we? I think if my records are at all interesting and have any worth, it’s more in the sound of the sound. With drum and bass it has almost no value in notational terms, turn it into sheet music and play that? It’s kind of worthless. It lives in the way that those three seconds of the Amen break when it’s sped up and resampled and chopped, it does this magical thing. That’s where I feel like we’re at with music. But when you feel like it’s all been done, then someone does come along and does something that you go wow, I haven’t heard that before. But I feel like those moments are getting less and less over time and everything seems to be pointing to the past now. We’re just ghosts wandering around a wasteland.”
Maybe, but at least we have the benefit of hindsight.