It’s been incredible to witness 96 Back’s trajectory over the years. The ‘Excitable, Girl’ album on Central Processing Unit was one of our favourite records released that year and since then, the Manchester-based producer has non-stop, consistently breaking the boundaries of who he is as an artist. Having released on four labels last year alone, 96 Back (real name Evan Majumdar-Swift) is ready to slow things down a little, at least publicly, with a more considered approach to his release schedule. That’s not to understate the work he has done before, with outstanding records on Hypercolour and Happy Skull alongside notable collaborations with Skee Mask, Happa and Special Request. He really is a master at work and so early in his career too.
The recent release of ‘Love Letters, Nine Through Six’ shows Evan at his best and his truest sense as an artist. The last instalment of a trilogy series he has been releasing on Local Action over the last year, Evan has created this enveloping world filled with colour and emotion, bringing together some of his close friends (Iceboy Violet, Joe Paisan, and Tryphème) and for the first time, showcasing his own vocals in a more direct way. There’s no holding back on this release, an album he has been working on for the last year and a half, completely pouring himself into the project. You can hear his vulnerability in the record through the all encompassing tracks which are both delicate and heavy, inviting you into this otherworldly realm of wonder.
Now nominated in DJ Mag’s Best Of British awards for Breakthrough Producer, we catch up with Evan to discuss ‘Love Letters, Nine Through Six’, the making of and inspiration behind it, his approach to live performance and trying to manage creative burnout.
You recently took some time off, what have you been up to?
I was working on the trilogy project over this past year, and that’s kind of been a bit nonstop, so I was just at a bit of a loss when I finished that. I’ve not even taken that time off as I’ve still been writing just as much, just more without a goal I guess. It feels nice to just write and not have a plan for it just yet.
And not have a deadline in mind, I guess.
Yeah. Although that creates its own issues, which is when I do want to do something else, I’m probably gonna have to come to that project with like, 200 tracks, and then try and decipher that, whilst probably writing more as well. But actually, I think in terms of time away from I guess, career music, I’m still in uni so have just been trying to double down on that.
Wow I bet that’s been hectic.
It’s an odd one because I’m doing music production. I think I’m learning a lot practically but sometimes I’m not there because I’m doing what the course is supposed to get me to do. Sometimes I have a bit of a back and forth with them in terms of when I’m not there for professional reasons, and trying to balance those things because I do want to do well.
I guess it must be hard to find the boundaries between what you’re doing professionally and what you’re doing for uni as well.
Yeah, this is it. So the first two years were pretty rough for that because they’re pretty regimented in what you’re actually doing such as working to their set brief and then you have your final projects in the third year, which means I can kind of just write around that and the work that I’m doing as 96 Back can be the same thing. I just have to write about it and that’s the hard part.
Like critiquing your own work?
Yeah. I usually have something to say about all of my music, but I don’t often think about it when I’m writing it, if that makes sense. I more just follow an idea or a path and then if people ask me about it after it’s like coming at it from a post critique. It’s almost as if it’s someone else’s music at that point that I’m looking at and figuring out a meaning to.
And talking about meanings, this leads nicely into the album. What’s the story behind the title, ‘Love Letters, Nine Through Six’?
It literally is a series of love letters. I think in a way all my music is, at least in my head. There was a skater called Jeff Grosso, who died last year, and they did a series on YouTube called Jeff Grosso’s love letters to skateboarding. I think the thing that struck me about that is how earnest it was. It was like it had no intention other than being extremely earnest and its adoration of things, which is how I wanted to approach the album. I wanted to have it be a competent and sort of, I guess, developed piece of work whilst also trying to, I don’t know, have that kind of quaintness of just really liking something and really being into something. The second track on the album, which is quite similar to a pop song, is very earnestly that and it’s very colourful in that way. I really wanted lots of colour in it.
And you mentioned that this album feels intensely personal. Would you say that your work in general was more informed by your relationships or process?
I don’t think that they are exclusive from each other. I think the process and personal relationships are kind of one and the same. The processes that I go through on a technical level are informed by a personal ethos. I want to build systems that can build on core ideas on their own and trying to build a system that has a personality to it, that kind of reflects the relationships I see with music.
When it comes to making albums and EPs, do you have a different approach to each format? Did your workflow change at all when making Love Letters?
Everything I’ve ever written at some point has been in an album. I find it really hard to write EPs because I find it really hard to structure those and make them make sense in my head. ‘Love Letters’ was different because it felt like we approached it I guess in a far more, I don’t want to say professional because I don’t think there is a professional way to do a creative process like that, but a considered way in that I ended up writing I think around 50 tunes which went down to those 12. There was a lot of phone calls with Tom from the label, it wasn’t just a process where I was writing a record that I knew only I was going to listen to, which is why I tried to actually put more of myself into it in a way because I really just want to get across what my music is about.
I guess you had already had the context there of where the record would sit rather than writing music and then adding the context to it later.
Yeah. I mean it started off as a club record and the framework that we started on when writing ‘Love Letters’ was an album. I sent 14 tunes over and was like here’s an album, and then we started chipping away at it and adding stuff back in. I guess it went through iterations. I think it’s really hard to do a club album successfully. I think there’s a lot of albums that do but I think it’s really hard to do, sometimes it can end up like an extended four-tracker.
So what was it that made you step away from making a club focused record and add in more pop elements into it?
I think I’d be trite to be like “locked down, not going to clubs” [laughs] and that’s probably part of it but I also feel like that’s probably an understatement on the fact that I’ve been writing tunes like that for years. A lot of it just hasn’t been released because I kind of built up this idea in my head of what I had to release. It doesn’t diminish the music I’ve already put out because I still like all of that music a lot. That’s just the stuff that I felt was appropriate for my identity to put out, then this opportunity came along and it felt like a good time to do something that sets the groundwork for showing that I can work outside of this format. You know, I can write a pop song if I want to, even if I’m not very good at it [laughs].
When you say you poured more of yourself into this record, this the first time you’re using your own vocals as well. What inspired this decision? I can imagine it to be really daunting at first to include your own voice in your records.
I’ve kind of had a soft entry into it. I think maybe all but the first record I ever did actually has my vocals in, in some way. Sometimes it’s really hard to get a computer to do like incidental things and even if you do that ends up sounding a bit too like IDM or whatever. Whereas a voice cracks, a voice wobbles – it has loads of weird noise in it and has a really complex interplay of the two tones between it that are really interesting so I’ve always used my voice in sounds. On ‘Love Letters’, there are lyrics but they don’t really have to mean anything and they aren’t really decipherable. It’s more about exploring if I can use my voice in place of a lead synth. In the case of ‘Feel Hard’, the second half of it I tried to use my voice as a big lead guitar. So the way that I would write a lead line, what if that was just my voice?
So using it as an instrument instead of trying to put lyrics on a track?
And in a lot of ways that wasn’t too daunting because I could process that. I would be terrified of putting out a track with kind of very raw vocals. The biggest thing I noticed was when mixing the record. My partner, she said to me, when I was playing ‘Nine to Find Six’, that if these weren’t your vocals you’d mix them way louder. That was quite an interesting thing, which is like, oh yeah I still haven’t totally divorced myself from the fact that I hate my own voice and subsequently I’m trying to hide everything. Realistically I could turn them up a bit more and put them at the forefront.
You mentioned that this album is you trying to project all of the records that you’ve loved. Are there any particular records that stand out to you that have helped really shape this album?
I guess they are all obvious references for someone who makes the music I do. I was listening to ‘Classical Curves’ a lot. I was listening to every Mono record and being like these are great. There’s also this blog that Skee Mask showed me called Wet Dreams and they post about 20 tapes a day that maybe like 10 people have heard. It’s amazing. It’s so rich for really, really weird stuff but really shaped my opinion on how stuff can be arranged. It’s all band music, like no where near dance music. There was something about listening to all of those where people either let stuff roll for like 10 minutes or there’s a three minute track where stuff just changes all the time. It made me be like, oh, maybe I just don’t like to have to do the Intro, the drop, the breakdown, the drop, which really shaped how I wrote this record.
When it comes to your collaborators, you have three on this record, how do you go about choosing who to work with? These are all your friends, right?
Yeah, Lu (Iceboy), they are one of my really close friends who lives in Manchester with me. They’re an amazing vocalist and I was quite interested in getting them to sing – they don’t sing a lot and they’ve got such a lovely voice. Joe Paisan is a really old friend of mine, who actually I mostly know through skating and that’s how we got to know each other. But I think he has such an interesting approach to putting out music where he will just do it under a different name every time and it’s not really about who listens to it. It’s all amazing. It’s really, really, really well produced in a way that a lot of like hyper produced stuff isn’t. I guess sometimes people who are really good at production, it just ends up sounding like they’re really good at production and then you kind of lose the allure of the record, but he has a thing that I think a lot of my favourite artists do, which is writing really complicated or really in depth stuff that also doesn’t ever lose sight of a core idea. And then Tryphème, she’s also a really close friend and someone who, sadly, I don’t get to see enough because she lives in France. We wanted to write something together for ages. I think she just moved to the countryside in France and she was like oh, you should just come and stay for a week, I’ve got a studio set up. She’s again a brilliant vocalist and I’ve always listened to her music. I’ve always had a thing, when listening to her music, I felt a lot of kinship with it and I always felt like she was doing a very similar thing to me. It felt very natural to write music with her.
Did you take away any new lessons from working with these artists on Love Letters?
Working with two vocalists who are also amazing producers but especially in a vocal context was really interesting in terms of being in a studio or like being in a studio environment and trying to make things work. It introduces new avenues that are blocked off when you are on your own. When you make tunes on your own and you are working on them three hours a day you build channels, and you can’t break out of them. I mean the amount of times I’ve literally opened Ableton and written the same melody and just been like, Oh, it’s this one again!
How did your relationship with Local Action begin?
I think it just started with a message via Twitter. It was around the time where I had just put out the self-released album and I just started sending him stuff which ended up on the EP that came out last year. It was really natural doing this and Tom is a good friend now. It kind of opened my eyes to what working with a label can be like. I got so absorbed in just putting out releases. I think I released on like four labels last year and I wasn’t getting anything from that. I wasn’t getting a lot of satisfaction. Then I went to have this working relationship where we’re both very eager to make good music but also someone who’s also willing to be like, no, I don’t like this but we can make it better or this is cool but we can make it better, instead of like, this is cool, let’s put it out – it’s quite a nice thing.
Did Tom help with building the trilogy idea? How did that come about?
I think with the trilogy, we’d already started on Love Letters then I called Tom and said I’ve got another album, shall we put that out first? I literally just sent it, it was so easy. I wrote the mixtape in a week. It was perfectly natural. Conceptualising that in terms of the trilogy just made a lot of sense. It felt like the mixtape in my head acted very much as a signifier of where I am and these are the worlds I know how to operate in. It kind of hinted at the ideas of what’s to come. You can hear in a couple of tracks that they are just really quiet moments from Love Letters. You can’t totally make them out but they are there. I like cyclical things like that. I guess you could listen to the album and then go back and listen to the mixtape and it makes a lot more sense. I’ve come full circle with it.
That’s really nice. When you’re making this much music, do you keep all of the tracks that you don’t use for a future project? What do you do with all this music
Just goes in a Dropbox folder, just goes in a big folder.
Oh yeah, I just remembered you released a link to a Dropbox folder recently, didn’t you?
Yeah! That was just drum & bass stuff that I kind of knew that I wouldn’t end up doing anything with. It’s all in various Dropbox folders, sometimes I send it to people. I guess it’s interesting, because I’m not necessarily writing as many tracks that are like dubs anymore. I’m not necessarily writing the hot new unreleased thing that someone’s going to play in a club. I just quite like the idea of looking at a folder and there are 400 tracks in this folder and that’s nice. I could sit and listen to that if I wanted to.
Do you find yourself revisiting some of them and end up releasing them one day? Or do you kind of just leave them and just revisit to listen?
I think because I write so much I change very quickly. I can be a bit disparaging about all this stuff because I’m like well I just wasn’t as good of a producer then or this comes from a different headspace. I think the oldest tracks I’ve ever put out were on the Happy Skull record, those were like a year old but even that felt like a long time. So everything kind of stays fresh. But I’ve had this idea where anything that becomes past its sell by date I might just upload to YouTube under a different name and it will be one folder of music. It would be this six hour video on YouTube and I won’t talk about it, just to see what happens. It doesn’t matter if people listen to it.
Just somewhere to be archived?
I guess. Yeah.
When it came to turning the album into the live show for No Bounds, what was that process like?
I’ve done three iterations of a live show. The first was super hands-on and I wrote all the music in the project so it’s like all new music. I only played it once [laughs]. I realised very quickly that it’s hard work and I didn’t think it paid off. I didn’t like it being that hands on. I actually think it detracted a lot because suddenly I was getting sucked in. I don’t really want to be in a club like worrying about how resonant a peak is or whatever. It didn’t feel super fun. Usually if I’m in the club, I like to have a beer and chill out a bit, have fun. The next live set I did, I’ve only done that once as well, was the Fold live stream and that was way better. That was club tracks but everything was in stems and I just basically gave myself a few knobs to twist and a fader, which was great. I really enjoyed that, because it felt far more direct and felt like we could have way more fun with it. There’s a video of that and I’m clearly having a lot of fun. Someone commented asking if I was having a seizure in the chat [laughs].
I wanted to kind of take that approach into doing a live set for the album. I guess the biggest change was, oh, shit, I’m gonna do my vocals live which is hard. It’s scary. Actually it’s only scary before. When I do it, it’s quite interesting. It’s quite fun. I think there’s a lot of interesting facets of performance and there’s a lot you can get away with. No Bounds had a really lovely reception. It was around 600-700 people and I was on a big elevated stage. I’ve never done that before. I had only done the live show with vocals at The White Hotel to about 30 people, most of whom are close friends, so it was a big change. But it had a really lovely response and being able to talk to people, build a rapport and have fun with it. I had quite a few people talking to me for a while after being like, oh, I really enjoyed that. I actually got sent a file from the event and I was like oh shit, basically all of my processing was so wrong. Most of my auto tunes were in the wrong key. It doesn’t necessarily sound how I wanted it to, but people still really enjoyed it? So I can iron out the kinks and I can make it sound better but it was really interesting being like, sometimes that doesn’t matter because it’s about the performance, I guess in that way.
Did you enjoy being a performer?
I’m warming to it. It doesn’t come incredibly naturally to me. That has its own charms. I think there’s ways you can get around that. As a concept, it’s something I find really interesting. It’s nice to hear versions of records that aren’t just studio. There’s always something magical about going to see an artist you really like and seeing them perform something.
Yeah I agree. To go back to your productivity and how much music you make. How do you keep up your motivation and creativity? Do you not find yourself burning out?
Honestly, I think I’m in a constant state of burnout. This is actually something I’m trying to work on. I don’t think it’s overly healthy. I think I’m just obsessive with it. It physically hurts when I can’t write something. Whenever I’m going through a creative block I write more music then when I’m not. I get so pissed off. I’ll wake up and go on my computer, write a tune in like a few hours and I’ll be like, this is shit and then just start another one without even taking the time to listen to what I just made. I’ll just keep doing it until eventually I’m either too exhausted and fall asleep or I end up happy with something. It’s something I want to fix because I could probably do with writing a little less. It’s really important for, especially conceptually heavy music, that a lot of influences come from outside of the studio. If you’re just sitting in the studio staring at the same four walls, you’re not going to have any new ideas. Now I’m making a lot more time to do other things, like cooking, going for walks, I’ve been going climbing with Lou which is lovely and spending more time with my partner.
That’s great. It’s so important. Especially since we’ve basically been doing nothing for a year and a half and then trying to go back into going out all night, it’s so tough.
It’s insane. The first weekend back I had a panic attack. I think I would have regardless but that was hard that first weekend back. I did two shows and I was just like oh wow this is a lot. I think that there’s probably like that for a lot of people, I imagine. There’s just not been a gradual reentry and I think that’s really been needed. I think everyone’s struggling so much with it. I’m kind of glad I don’t have a huge amount of gigs on at the moment. It’s nice because it’s like giving me the time to actually think I guess.
To end I wanted to talk about your DJ Mag award, congrats on the nomination for Breakthrough Producer! As you have been nominated for this award, who are some of your favourite emerging/breakthrough artists that we should be watching out for?
I think I’m gonna keep it very local. I think Henzo is killing it, he’s just the boy. There’s Clemency and BFTT who are absolutely unreal. I’ve been really keeping an eye on all the TraTraTrax stuff. That was like the first time in a while where I was like wow these guys are really killing it. I don’t know if you would say they are emerging but they are blowing up at the moment! All the Slink stuff and Stolen Velour, they’re all really killing it. Happa’s working on a lot of stuff at the moment, he’s one of my best friends who’s really amazing. Also all of the stuff happening in Salford and Manny with Rainy Miller and Blackhaine; the Space Afrika boys are just on a massive come up as well, they are a huge inspiration because just looking at what they’re doing is incredible, they just have this cohesive idea of stuff. And obviously not emerging but Aya has just been my star this year, like she’s so fucking good.
‘Love Letters, Nine Through Six’ by 96 Back is out now via Local Action – buy here.