Name: Kuma (James Graham)
Vancouverite since: "the age of three or four"
Associated labels: The Konspiracy Group, Immerse
Associated acts: Gunshae
When we're talking about this whole "dubstep" / "post-dubstep" / "bass" / whatever shit in Vancouver, my mind always goes back to one figure: James Graham, better known in the city as Kuma and under any variations of the pseudonym involving bears. Or "Captain of the Great Dubship." You get the idea. One of the very first musical connections I myself made while exploring the city, Kuma has been enlightening in outlining the recent history of the city's electronic music scene, partially because he played such a big hand in it himself. This is the man who brought Kode9 to Vancouver to the infamous "Secret Location" all the way back in 2005, before most people in North America had ever heard of "dubstep.' Though his role as a promoter has definitely receded in the past few years, he remains a persistent spectre haunting the Vancouver scene: you're likely to encounter the looming stature of his person at the city's best musical shows, he runs a label and collective called The Konspiracy Group, and is also deeply entrenched in the city's flourishing ambient scene as part of the duo Gunshae with Lady Eve. He releases on his own TKG label -- the recent "What It's Not" single comes with a hearty recommendation from yours truly and also a Greivous Angel remix -- and he's also released on Bristol-based Immerse records, where he actually managed to rouse Horsepower from their hibernation in 2008 to remix his immense "Dawn Stepped Outside." If that weren't enough, he does a radio show on Thursday nights called Art of Beatz, which has become an institution over the years and even hosted local writer Andrew Ryce (har har) for a year-end retrospective late last year.
But for all my talk of O.G. dubstep cred, Kuma's own productions aren't exactly traditional dubstep. Owing much to the dark garage prototypes of very early Tempa records -- Horsepower, Horsepower, Horsepower! -- Kuma's music is tinged with mystical anxiety and Orientalist tropes, like Shackleton holed up in some remote corner of the Middle East instead of overcast London. Kuma's music shares the same snaky, wandering basslines (though his are more indebted to the lush pockets of sub-bass of garage then Shackleton's extensive feelers), and he's got an unparalleled sense for percussion, contorting 2step's bounce and swing into a woozy, punch-drunk sway. The tendency for decentered, floating percussion has only increased over time ("What It's Not" is a prime example), nicely showcased on the all-original 20 minute mix he's thrown together for Futureproofing. Coloured by tense, anxious strings and melodies, this is the stuff of old martial arts movies and low-budget sci-fi ratcheted up with modern production values and post-modern structural ideas. If Horsepower especially were fans of incorporating film dialogue into their music, Kuma doesn't have to, because he achieves the same mood and atmosphere of quivering dread without the need to make it literal.
I can't stress how proud I am to host this fantastic and personal mix here on my blog. "The Miraculous Image Of Sound Washed Ashore" says it all, really. It's a dense twenty minutes of intertwining basslines, cresting soundwaves, and stalking melodies, and it sounds more like a carefully composed multi-movement symphony than a "DJ mix." When I had the idea for the series this is exactly what I had in mind -- short, digestible, a perfect snapshot of what it is that makes Kuma so intriguing, so inspiring, and so, um, fearsome. I'll (try to) spare any more words, but I'll leave you with the idea that this is one unconventional, brave, and entirely convincing alternate vision of the hardcore continuum, where quick, lithe movements are valued as much as bassweight (though you'll find plenty of that here).
Kuma's "The Miraculous Image Of Sound Washed Ashore (Twenty Mins for FTRPRF)" Mix
1) Gunshae- I Left My Heart At Arena Mexico (Ohm Resistance)
2) Kuma- Don't Give Way (Dub)
3) Kuma- Hutch (Dub)
4) Kuma ft Juakali- What It's Not (Grievous Angel Remix) (TKG Music)
5) Kuma- Furnace Room Dub (Dub)
6) Kuma- EKG (Dub)
7) Kuma- Kuroshiro (Forthcoming Resist)
8) Kuma- Ursa Major (Dub)
9) Kuma- Luminescent (Dub)
RYCE: You're originally from Bristol, correct? When did you move to Vancouver and what's your current connection with the UK? Do you think being from Bristol had any conceivable effect on your musical career?
GRAHAM: Correct. Born at Bristol General Hospital in the dark heart of a warm summer many moons ago. I moved to Vancouver at the age of three or four. My mother was a single parent and unwilling to raise her first born in the shadow of Maggie Thatcher, so I got the be the kid with the weird accent as opposed to being a poll tax rioter.
Current connection to the UK? By blood, philosophically and label wise with the city of Bristol. I didn't run with the Wild Bunch and Roni Size's nan wasn't my babysitter. But I am proud to carry on a lineage of thought provoking bass action that dates back to people like Mark Stewart and the Pop Group; was brought to public light by 3D, Geoff Barrow and Roni Size and continues on via cats like Ekkoplekz and Peverelist. My first record came out via Bristol's Immerse Records and I am blessed for that linkage. As a label owner, Kid Kut has more balls than anyone else I can think of and I am forever grateful he not only signed "Dawn Stepped Outside" but didn't think I was completely insane when I said 'dude, can we get Horsepower out of retirement to do the remix?".
Bristol is in my blood, is my lineage and is something I'll carry forever. But I have always repped Vancouver since day. Where I come from is, was and will always be an influence, but it's never been a selling point. I'd prefer to stand on sound and vision than geography.
I would not be doing this and in the fashion that I do were it not for what acid-house era Psychic TV and Coil, as well as Scorn, Techno Animal and Dead Voices On Air taught me very early on. Individuality of sound, principles, philosophy, structural attack. These are all cats from the UK.
What exactly do you do in Vancouver? There are many facets of your musical persona from production to DJ to promoter to radio show host. Is music your de facto day job?
To steal a line from my bretheren; Winnie The Pooh: I'm the little black rain cloud, hovering over the honey tree.
For the last decade, I have lead an organization known as the Konspiracy Group, an umbrella under which we have run a booking agency, a label, a promotions house and a general home for the promotion of ambient drift and bass science.
We made our name working with SF junglists like Sage and UFO! early on and were the first agency to take on dubstep during its initial breakthroughs in North America. We are proud to have watched the homies at 11:11 and Surefire take from what we started and move on to the mindblowing work they're doing today and deeply amused to watch certain larger agencies latch on to the sound once they realised it was relevent and viable but also might actually make money.
As promoters, we were the first in Vancouver to bring in a UK dubstep headliner when we brought Kode 9 to Vancouver in the winter of 2005. We have continued to push a broad spectrum of bass appreciation through shows with T-Power, DJ Rupture and SF icons and TKG family, Kid Kameleon and Ripley. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we've also been doing ambient shows in a different city around the world for the last seven years. One cannot live on bread and water alone.
I have been DJing for sixteen years now. To this day, all I want to do is make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, just like the people who blew my mind back in the day did. Doesn't matter if I'm playing dubstep, ambient, jungle, techno or the occasional Godspeed You Black Emperor! tune.
I make music. I've put stuff out on Immerse (Vancouver's first dubstep signing), Ministry of Sound and our own TKG Music label as well as having remixed the likes of Clubroot, Sub Swara, the Blood Of Heroes and Tomas Jirku to name a few nice folks. I've got stuff due on The Agriculture, Resist and a few other places but I'm quite proud of our next record on TKG Music. We've had two of the most distinct voices in electronic music vocal a tune I wrote called "What It's Not." I'm tremendously proud to have Juakali, who for me truly is the voice of North American dubstep on one side of the record. Then, to have my old friend space jazz queen Amalia on the flip on the same rhythm couldn't be better. If you ever saw Sekoya, the band she fronted back in the day, you know just how close to Billie Holliday co-piloting for Sun-Ra she can get. The fact that Grievous Angel, a guy whose work I've respected for ages likes Juakali's version enough to do a ridiculously smashing remix just takes the cake. I am proud of these songs, they make my hair stand on end every time I listen to them.
I am one half of an ambient band called Gunshae with TKG's Lady Eve. Our second record is coming out on Brooklyn's Ohm Resistance in 2012, it's called "Out Of Darkness, Light." We make discrete music in an Eno style, post-apocalyptic mint julip drinking soundtracks or whatever you might imagine happens when you put a classically trained oboe player together with an old jungle DJ with a thing for live improv. Stars of The Lid meets Sunn 0)) uptown with Ryuichi Sakamoto leading the orchestra.
I am also currently one of the host/producers of a radio show called Art Of Beatz, currently the longest running home for electronic music from 0-200 bpm on the city's airwaves. Our remit is quite simple, electronic music culture by the people, for the people, because of the people. We have brought Vancouver everything from internationally reknowned talent like Kuedo, Kode 9 and Alex Paterson of the Orb to the cream of Vancouver talent from Luke Mckeehan to Hxdb and onward to kids just getting their start in their bedrooms. I spent several years hosting and producing a show on Saturday nights on CBC Radio 2, Art Of Beatz has been a platform for me to take everything I learned there and to give it back to the communty.
Music does not pay my rent, it makes me happy and that's all I want to ask of it. Perhaps when the day comes where rhythmic danger and textural delight outsell cheap thrills on Beatport. But untill then, I am happy to work 40 hours a week to pay my rent and continue the fight against conservative thinking in electronic music.
When did you start promoting shows in Vancouver and what has been your proudest moment so far? And why have you sort of stepped back in recent years?
I've been doing shows since I was 17 and specifically in Vancouver for over a decade. I have done time with infamous local techno theorists the Shrum Tribe and ambient and and as a member of downtempo/ambient collective, Team Lounge.
Under the Konspiracy Group banner we've done ambient shows, techno shows, jungle shows and dubstep shows. We've brought everyone from Pieter K to Move D to T-Power through Vancouver.
I'm most proudest of the Kode 9 show we did in 2005. Not only was it the first time Vancouver had seen a producer of that nature roll through but by linking with Dave Q of Dub War to split the flight costs, we were able to make sure Dave, Joe and Jua got what I'm pretty sure was their first international headline. It was a tipping point not only locally but on a a larger scale. While there may have only been 200 people there over the course of the evening, you look at the faces in the photos that were taken that night and you see the lineage of dubstep in this city today. In one photo, it's Ben, Jamie and Michael from the Lighta! fam. In another, it's Mako from the Wiggle Kru, the guys who long before I was dubstepping or Max Ulis, Jessie Proudfoot and Paul Devro were doing Grime Sessions, were running 2-step in the northwest.
I stepped back for several reasons. Around the time that we brought Kid Kameleon in, someone in my immediate family was diagnosed with cancer.
That was an immediate change in priorities. Between working 40+ hours a week, running the agency, making beats, DJing, the radio show and trying to do shows, something was going to go by the wayside or I was going to collapse. Which I almost did.
I also have this thing about wanting to do stuff when it feels right. At the end of the day, I'm still happier to work from instinct even if it is to my own detriment from time to time. We will be doing more shows, but we will do it when the cards laid out are right. We have a specific individual in mind to join us when we throw the Konspiracy Group's tenth birthday party. All things in their time.
You were one of the biggest actors in bringing dubstep to Vancouver. How do you feel about "dubstep" in the city now and what's your role in everything? How do you think about the electronic music scene overall in Vancouver?
The old Thelemic nugget is "Do As Thou Wilt For Thou Shalt Be The Whole Of The Law." I'm happy to see the culture flourish even if there are some elements I'm not entirely cool with.
There are a number of local promoters, DJs and producers who have no issue (or in some cases have had and have seen the light) in spoon feeding the city lowest common denimniator horseshit. Fair play, that's cool. However, there's a bunch of people who were here before you arrived that will be here long after you've left. Better to leave a legacy than scars.
On the other hand, there are a plethora of amazing producers, djs and promoters moving the city forward and making inspiring art in the process. The Daega Sound boys astonish me anytime I hear something of theirs. Michael Red remains one of this city's most uncompromising and unique soundboys. Prisongarde not only makes a mean cup of coffee but some of the dopest shit around; all the cats riding Machinedrum's jock are going to be on him next. Pari Kishi is for me, the dark horse for 2012. One of the most exciting DJs in the city right now, we are infinitely stoked that she is officially part of the Konspiracy Group. A ferocious jungle DJ, she's also done a vocal on the What It's Not rhythm that we're stoked to be putting out and if we have our druthers, she'll be doing an EP for us as well.
As for me, I'm just going to continue to do what I do and what I have always done.. I am happilly content to continue to attempt to be a catalyst. Anything the waves wash back in makes me very happy.
I have achieved a bunch and I'm proud of it. I feel blessed to have been able to work with the people I have, to have been acknowledged by people like Mary Anne Hobbs for what I've done and to represent this city internationally . I'm going continue to make beats that I think are dope, support producers who make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, put out records I believe in and bring in artists that I think will blow other peoples minds as strongly as they've blown mine.
As for electronic music in the the city of Vancouver on the whole, I think it flourishes wonderfully. We're not L.A., Berlin, Tokyo or New York but we have internationally known and loved labels like Nordic Trax, Upstairs Recordings, Panospria and others all sitting in our backyard. The culture and the sound continues to flourish and that's what counts.
Can you talk a little about the label you run?
We had talked about starting a label under the TKG axis for ages. After everything we've done, it just made sense. Then one of my former clients decided to take up working with another agency. That's totally cool, wouldn't be the first time somebody we repped for wanted to work with someone else. Trouble is, they neglected to tell us and have yet to actually speak to us to this day. We all handle business in different fashions and we wish them nothing but the best, but that was very much the catalyst to starting TKG Music
TKG Music is the umbrella under which we put out music that we love and that excites us. We love a ton of different kinds of music, so it throws people for a loop when we tell them we've put out ambient *and* dubstep. We lack the compelling urge to niche ourselves, which is why we put out Gunshae's first record alongside a compilation of artists that played at a show we did in Tokyo that encompassed 303's, steel pan and downtempo mixes of jungle tunes. Add to that my "Of Silence and Secrecy" 12" which takes one of my fave dubstep tunes that I've written and put's it together with Flippo's radical deconstruction and you begin to get the gist of where we come from. When I look the the labels I've loved over the years, people like Fat Cat and Kranky, it's been about vision, principles and sensibility much more than it has been about being "that dubstep label from Vancouver."
My "What It's Not" 12" with Juakali and Amalia's vocal versions plus the Grievous Angel reworking should be out sooner rather than later. The digital version should have Pari Kishi's vocal and some very special remixes I'm working on. After that, we're doing a 12" with Sharmaji from NYC's Sub Swara crew. Dave is a gent and a half and for me one of North America's most under-rated producers and I'm astonished at this record we're doing. It's as close to a devotional as I think dubstep will ever see. Then, we're also in the process of curating a compilation called TKG:10 which will be a celebration of a decade of the Konspiracy Group. Exclusives from folks we've worked with over the years, some remixes and other fun.
The future? A tune I wrote called "Mine." Some nice lads from London have the stems, we're looking forward to the remix. I have this 12th Planet tune that John sent me years ago that I want to sign eventually. We're not at a loss for interesting ideas.
What about Vancouver makes it different from other cities in North America? And what do you like best about Vancouver?
What makes Vancouver different? An abject sense of apathy, gortex and a seeming desire to be someone else as opposed to being itself. A lot of this is because Vancouver is young, it's just getting its training wheels going.
But what it has going for it is a core. A bloody, beating heart to the city of glass that has no greater a desire than to transcend all the things and people that make it shit; and to make art and culture which stands on its on two feet, leaving a legacy that's more than just condo towers and Fed Ex guys driving around downtown cranking Skrillex.
Vancouver is my home. A portal to the glories of the Pacific Rim, a capital of the Cascadian revolution and a melting pot like no other. It is home to art and culture and food unlike anything else, all things that would have not bloomed elsewhere. They are the revolutionary seeds of the Cascadian melting pot come to fruition. It is these blooming flowers that we fight for and why I'm still here.
What's It Not is out now on The Konspiracy Group, and Gunshae are currently wrapping up work on the follow-up to their debut album.