Thursday, August 11, 2011

Concrete Cut: Warsaw's Elegant Industry

Concrete Cut are a label that first came to my attention with their fourth release, from Sentel, a chiptuney chunk of UK-funky indebted strangeness that sounded like Ikonika on Mars.  It was a good enough release to warrant keeping eyes on the label, and since then they’ve released the gorgeous ambient/dub/garage experiments of ptr1, the post-rock drama of Shoju, the hollow drums of Tom Encore, and the Shackleton-indebted dread tones of Rhythm Baboon.  With releases (notably their debut) from Liquid Molly, they’ve even dipped their toes into the straight-up dubstep stakes (indeed, you can download a Concrete Cut allstars remix package of the first Liquid Molly remix for free).
So yeah, they’re a good label. So good, I’m willing to overlook the fact that they’re a digital-only label (give it time). But what is it that makes them stand out?  Well, they’re based in Warsaw, Poland.  All of those artists mentioned above are Polish. While it’s not as if Poland is some barren, unknown frontier, it’s not the first place any of us look for experimental and groundbreaking dance music -- and if you do, then kudos.  But there’s really no reason for such discrimination, and thankfully the internet is doing its job in knocking down geographical barriers.  Home to the well-respected Unsound Festival and an increasing number of prominent UK and German DJs, the Polish club seem appears as vibrant as ever, at least as much as someone who lives in Vancouver can see and understand.
Taking a survey of the label’s output so far, one begins to realize there’s a vibrant spectrum of music coming out of Berlin’s oft-ignored Eastern neighbour, a localized hub of talent that seems unfairly ignored despite the constant upwelling of talent in a manner that reminds me a lot of my hometown of Vancouver.  While there are some obvious moments of debt to UK originators, each producer puts their own idiosyncratic spin on these sounds -- personally I can’t recommend the work of Sentel or ptr1 more, and their releases on Concrete Cut are 2010 highlights. The overall impression of the label’s output is of a scene that’s arguably more experimental in sectors now ignored by those other, more visible local scenes: just check the way Sentel incorporate UK funky ideas into their music when UK funky arguably lies at its least influential back in its homeland.  It’s that mixture of incorporating trends and discarding the actual trendiness that makes Concrete Cut so inspiring: these artists just sound like they’re doing whatever they want, and they do it consummately well.  Concrete Cut might be a digital-only label relatively green behind the ears, but it suffers from none of (what I call) the SoundCloud syndrome of shitty drums, cheesy pads and bad vocal samples. 
Because I was intrigued by the label’s obviously hefty store of talent, and wanted to learn more about this burgeoning Polish scene (there admittedly isn’t a lot of (English) writing about it on the internet that isn’t by yours truly), I got in touch with label head Dana Dramowicz for an in-depth interview discussing the label and the scene in Warsaw and larger Poland.  If that wasn’t enough, Dramowicz has provided Futureproofing with an exclusive all-Polish mix spanning music both signed to Concrete Cut and other labels, and it’s one hell of a ride showcasing not only the unpredictable grab-bag that is the Polish beat scene but the uniformly high production values and execution.  It doesn’t sound like the work of a bunch of relative unknowns, and with any luck, the lot of them won’t be relative unknowns for much longer.

What's the electronic music scene like in Poland, and what are the
most dominant "genres" right now? There seems to be a bit of a thread
around UK-Funky-esque rhythms
Everyone is doing their own thing, like anywhere else, but in the last couple of years a trend has emerged, definitely. Artists like Sentel, Zeppy Zep, Supra1, and The Phantom are leading the way with their own mix of UK funky, dubstep, and house. It’s quite nice that Poland is starting make a name for itself in that particular style, but there are just as many, if not more artists, making equally amazing music that might just not be qualified as so “trendy” right now in the tastemaking places like the UK. 
How long did it take for dubstep and related music to really hit Poland?
I’m probably not the best person to ask such things, not having been born and raised in Poland and really experienced its musical evolution. But as far as I can tell dubstep caught on very quickly in Poland, particularly since we tend to have pretty strong associations with dub music -- and the precursors to dubstep, like drum’n’bass, were huge. 

I think a lot of people think of Poland as a rather remote place for
whatever reason but it's not really that far from the rest of Western
Europe. Do you think being relatively close to Berlin has any impact
on Warsaw's scene?
When house and techno were the dominant genres in underground clubs, for sure. Berlin dictated and Poland followed, and Poland in particular has always tended to look west for influences much more than other Eastern Bloc countries. However, alongside the Berlin influence, the UK influence has grown hugely, particularly through the popularity of drum’n’bass, and now dubstep. Berlin still has a mystical musical aura, there’s no doubt about that, but most people I know would make a pilgrimage to Berghain to see SUB:STANCE rather than to see someone like Marcel Dettmann these days. 
What's your favourite thing about Warsaw, musically? And what are the
nights like - do you have many worthwhile interesting nights/clubs?
There’s a general feeling these days that Warsaw is on the rise, and I, certainly, even in just my last two years of living here, have noticed a huge boom in clubs and interesting nights. The opening of 1500m2 club in Warsaw brought about the most visible change, and introduced a real space for the local scene to grow. Last season I could, nearly every weekend, expect to stop by 1500m2 and see someone like Jamie XX, xxxy, Girl Unit, Oni Ayhun, Pariah... the list goes on and on. It was so mind boggling it almost became exhausting after a while, but this level of booking has really changed the city’s music taste as a whole. There are of course many other great clubs in Warsaw, such as M25 - a huge former factory which hosted parties with techno giants like Juan Atkins and Robert Hood and probably has the best soundsystem in Poland. Jedyne Wyjscie seems to be an up-and-coming home for underground club sounds as well. Some other great clubs in Warsaw (for their atmosphere above all): Sen Pszczoly, Powiekszenie, Luzztro, Obiekt Znaleziony, Cud Nad Wisla & Plac Zabaw (the latter two both summertime-only outdoor spots).
Is there a "Warsaw Sound" so to speak? And what makes the Polish
iteration(s) of this music different from the rest?
I think it would be hard to put Warsaw in a corner and label it with one specific “sound”, particularly since its many disparate scenes are so healthy. As a relative outsider, having only lived in Poland for a handful of years, I can tell you that Polish artists are humble and open-minded, and elitism or snobbery basically doesn’t exist. Visiting DJs love Poland because we’re not too cool to dance and look like we’re having fun. And this openness is what allows Polish music to be flexible, experimental, and to comfortably find its own voice -- which is a process, rather than a state of being, if you ask me.

Concrete Cut duo Shoju

How long have you personally been involved in music, and in what
I’ve been involved in music my whole life, first starting as a reluctant violin student and eventually discovering electronic music in university. I was playing in a post-rock band when dubstep completely stole my heart and I started getting seriously into club music of all sorts. You could say my journey has been a little unusual [laughs]. Since then I’ve been DJing as Artfruit and producing with my partner as Shoju, and I hope to try to bring together my entire, weird and wonderful, musical history into that project. In the last few years I’ve also started up Women in Electronic Music, which began as a Last.FM group and grew into a Facebook page. I also just started, a blog dedicated to female producers.
When did you start up Concrete Cut, and where does the name come from?
Concrete Cut started just over one year ago, in May 2010. The credit for the name goes to my brother Bart, who joined us in one of our very first label brainstorming sessions.
Are you the head of the label and how many people are involved?
There are two of us behind the label - myself and my partner Mateusz (who I also record with as Shoju). We usually divide our tasks by language, I do English promotion and Mateusz does Polish promotion. Between the two of us we’ve managed to cover almost every single aspect of the label by ourselves, and the DIY style of our label is something we’re really proud of. Mastering, photography, press & promotion, it’s all done in-house. We even built our own online promo delivery service. If we could distribute our own music we’d probably do that too. So many of our artists are also graphic designers that the vast majority of our release artwork has also been designed by the artist behind the music.
Did you intend for it to be representative of Warsaw?
Not really - our first release was by our friend Liquid Molly who actually lives in Bialystok, though of course our sound and intentions have evolved quite a bit since then.  There are a few elements that can be difficult to balance with the label. There is the desire to only release music we are truly passionate about, and then there’s the responsibility of representing the scene. Our label is probably somewhat representative, but filtered through our own taste, desires, and the atmosphere at the time. 
Was it supposed to be a "dubstep" label at first?  There seemed to be
a pretty sudden shift at some point towards something more open and
experimental, and if I'm right about that, what prompted that shift?
When we first started, we never thought we’d be a “real” label to start with. We wanted to help Liquid Molly get the word out about his dubstep tracks, and we just threw together a logo, a website, and some artwork and hey-presto we became a label of sorts. It wasn’t until later that we started thinking that there must be tons of other Polish artists like Liquid Molly, and started looking around to see if we could find some other tracks we liked. Think was our next artist, and while he’s already not your typical dubstep artist, he still stayed in that vague dub-tech area. Of course it all changed when we signed Sentel, based pretty much solely on the tracklisting of a mix (back then people with such good taste were hard to come by) and a couple very rough demos on their Soundcloud. We just thought - we’d be crazy not to release these guys.
In summer 2011, at this point in time, what is the sound you are
trying to push with Concrete Cut?
Right now, we are, as always, open to practically anything. Sure, we’d like to stay in the “bass music” genre, but what the hell does that even mean, anyway? I don’t think the people who invented that term, or the people who use it, even know (including us). The way I see it is that the more you try to pinpoint one style and focus on it, the more other, possibly more innovative stuff slips through your fingers. This is our dilemma, that by our current focus on Polish artists, it’s not feasible to focus on one very specific “sound”. Like probably every one else, we strive to be as open as labels like Planet Mu or Warp, who simply get by on releasing what they consider to be good music. And if you want to have a more concrete answer to that question, you need only listen to the mix, which has quite a few unreleased Concrete Cut gems on there.
Can you outline and describe some of the artists that are part of Concrete Cut?
We have the dubstep guys, like Liquid Molly, Tom Encore (who delivered some really interesting tracks for us, but actually best known for his releases on Rottun if you can believe it), and Think who is starting to go into Sepalcure-type territory these days. ptr1 tends to stick to chilled-out garage sounds, and is our local analog gear guru. I love Rhythm Baboon’s music because it is so out-there - no rules, and no barriers. Sentel injects a 4/4 party vibe and takes the no-rules approach to the max - it’s wild but it’s genius at the same time. Shoju is probably the most experimental project, and our tracks are usually the least dancefloor-friendly. As for future artists, there’s Deam and 0311 whose music you can hear in the mix.

Concrete Cut producer ptr1

What has been the release you're proudest of and why?
It’s pretty much impossible to answer this question without offending a large group of people haha.. but if I’m completely honest I’ll have to say that it would be Sentel’s Chapel 20. We took a risk with their, frankly insane, music, but we believed it was something so fresh and innovative we just went with it and put in the hours to promote the hell out of it. Its success really launched us as a label, changed how people perceived us, and we launched the career of a duo who I think has just begun blowing people’s minds for a long time to come. 
Have there been any difficulties or hardships arising out of the fact
that you're based in Warsaw?  How do you get word out about the music?
Of course. I think every label that is not based in New York, Berlin, or London (or anywhere in the UK for that matter), already has certain barriers to cross, but as a label east of Germany, these things can get near impossible. Luckily Poland’s reputation has been bolstered as a bit of a cool place, thanks to the work of such people like the Unsound Festival in Krakow, which is probably one of the coolest festivals on the planet.  We are not some experienced label professionals, and the way we get the word out is good old persistence and believing 100% in what we’re doing.
Has the label been a success to you so far, in terms of both sales and reaction?
The concept of paying for music has yet to reach most of Eastern Europe, probably it never did... That’s just the reality we operate in. And as a digital label we don’t even have vinyl to rely on for a little income. We are simply on a constantly losing battle with MP3 piracy. However, it’s not something that really concerns us as our priorities were never with sales but always with promotion and helping out artists we really believe in. When you consider how much our approach is basically amateur and completely DIY, I think the worldwide reaction to our label has been out of this world fantastic. And it just proves that all you need is passionate people and solid, innovative music.

Are there any other worthwhile or interesting labels or collectives in
Warsaw or Poland as a whole that are worth checking out?
For labels, there is New Moon, which tends to focus on more traditional dubstep or dubtech sounds with artists like Hatti Vatti and Think. U Know Me, which is the more modern hip-hop-influenced label belonging to the Junoumi collective, has also been influential, along with their many sublabels, parties, and DJs involved. Of course there is also Catz n Dogz’ Pets Recordings and Jacek Sienkiewicz’s Recognition, which are probably the most famous Polish labels right now. In Warsaw, the Mustnotsleep collective has been making waves with their summertime Music of the Future series inviting artists like Bok Bok and Kowton to play. But every city in Poland has its own collectives and DJs, it would be simply impossible to name them all!
Futureproofing: Concrete Cut/Shoju All-Polish mix
Think - If Only [dub]
0311 - It's Not [forthcoming Concrete Cut]
Rhythm Baboon - Shimmer [dub]
Liquid Molly - HDD (Sentel Remix) [Concrete Cut]
The Same - Fungeez [dub]
Broken Fuse - Wireless [dub]
Intreau - Alpha (Space, Ladies Remix) [Wicked Bass]
Sentel - Shut Your Eyes [dub]
Tom Encore - Spellbound (Zeppy Zep remix) [Concrete Cut]
Teielte - 7days [dub]
The Phantom - Arctic (Dub) [Senseless]
Deam - Joint [forthcoming Concrete Cut]
Liquid Molly - Zimba [dub]
xtnt - Loungey [dub]
Think & 0311 - Lookback [dub]
Shoju - SBNY [Concrete Cut]
Jacek Sienkiewicz - Sing It [Recognition]
The Same - Shipyard [Phatt Sounds]
Hatti Vatti - Great (Andy Stott remix) [forthcoming On the Edge]
Fau & Deam - Longtrip [dub]
ptr1 & E_nn - Crystal Drops [dub]

Further Listening: ptr1’s Above The Structures and Sentel’s Chapel 20 are essentials, but everything else beyond there is worth checking out too.

1 comment:

  1. thank you for this survey and interview. really cool and distinctive label than deserve to be known