November 5, 2019
Sounds of the Studio is a series that takes you inside the recording spaces of our favourite artists and producers, exploring the instruments they use to make music. For this instalment, we head to a former factory in North London where producer Dego works.
Split between a live room and a main space, with a console that looks out over London, Dego’s studio is like a cockpit. At the controls, he is flanked by keyboards: Korg Polysix, Juno and Oberheim synths along one wall, Fender Rhodes and Hohner Clavinet on the other.
In that sense, the two sides of the studio reflects Dego’s twin influences in ’70s jazz fusion and the electronic realms of house, techno and dnb. As a member of 4hero, alongside Marc Mac, he helped capture the syncopated, dance floor mutations of broken beat – a sound indicative of the myriad influences that converge in London. It’s a movement of which he is considered a pioneer, although it’s not a word he’s keen on.
“When people talk about ‘legends’, they throw away those comments,” Dego muses. “I’ve been an influencer in the London dance culture thing, and I’ve got a bit on longevity. I’m more comfortable with that.”
It’s also clear from the array of electronic and acoustic instruments he has at his disposal that Dego is not interested in resting on a single formula. During the course of our interview he moves from vocoder to koto and kora, enthusing about their sonic potential.
Dego describes his latest album, Too Much, as a snapshot of where he is right now – writing songs because songs are what he wants to hear, slowing the pace and working with an array of vocalists on what is one of his most soulful offerings.
Exploring the relationship between composition and improvisation, he reflects on the making of Too Much, the nature of collaboration, and introduces the sounds that underpin a selection of tracks on the album.
Do you find the physical environment affects the music that you make?
The best studios I’ve been in have light and a window, that’s really important. For the most part, it also has to be somewhere I feel comfortable. Next door to my studio, there’s a sculptor, a painter, and a photographer. There are a lot of creative people. It’s cool and it’s quite relaxed.
You’ve been part of some iconic duos, with Marc and Kaidi Tatham. What’s different about working in the studio on your own?
I do like working with other people. There’s a buzz I get working with Matt [Lord] or Kaidi [Tatham] – we can bounce off each other and it makes for a better record or track. When it’s a solo project, we may bounce a few ideas around, but really I’m steering the ship, and I know how to be in that phase. If I was doing your album, I would know to sit back and just try to assist you. That’s what’s great about the people that I work with. It may be a solo album, but there is definitely help and assistance.
When you put together a track, do you play a lot of the instruments yourself?
Yeah, I play a lot of the things. I’m not really an expert on anything, I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. If I play flute, Kaidi would play it better, but I can get the idea down. There’s no better way of giving people an idea of what you want than showing them.
Are there instruments you feel like you can express yourself on more than others?
I think keyboard is the easiest for me to be expressive with, particularly an analogue keyboard like a Mini Moog. Bass guitar takes a bit of work. Stringed instruments in general mess me up a bit – I have to get my head around them. And then, when I’m in the pocket of that, I have to stick with it for a while. I might have a phase of just doing bass lines for a couple of weeks, because I’ve got my head into it.
Do you approach building a track in a certain way?
I didn’t go to music college, I was just a kid who met some friends who had a sampler and a drum machine. In those days it was a more formulaic thing. I’d start with the drums. Everything was drum-driven, because that’s what you knew from the equipment.
But as time has gone on, I’ve learned to not have a formula. So if there’s a lyric, I’ll go from that. If there’s a little riff on a keyboard, I’ll go from that. Before I start doing anything, I like to try to hear it in my head first.
How do you avoid falling into patterns?
Stopping and thinking. Imagine in your head, ‘What do you want to hear right now? What would you have fun making right now?’
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good sometimes to just turn on the computer and start messing around. You might not know what you’re doing, but something comes out that way.
Is that how Too Much came about?
Five years had passed since the last album and I thought I should make another. And if I’m going to make one, I’m going to do it between this time and that time. Otherwise I’ll spend forever trying to finish it. I think LPs are a snapshot of me at that time, and that’s it.
And that helps you not get too hung up on the finished product?
I’ve only come to that conclusion because of some people I know around me who I think are immensely talented, but will ever release anything, because they can’t let go. And fair enough, not everybody wants to do that.
You’ve worked with several vocalists on this album. How are they involved in the songwriting process?
It depends. Some of the songs I wrote myself, some of the songs they wrote, and for some of them they write parts. In dance music culture, one thing that’s been missing a lot is songs. People like to hear voices, and I like it too, so I feel it’s important to have voices on the album.
Do you have the dance floor in mind when you’re composing?
I reckon when I’m arranging I might do. Some of that is in my head, with the way the track is structured. But in general, for this album, I wasn’t thinking about clubs, I was thinking about whether you could put this on and not have to skip forward? Could you listen to this on a journey and be satisfied with it? It needed to make sense everywhere.
You mentioned the Mini Moog earlier. Has it been important to you to keep working with analogue equipment?
I don’t think you can beat that sound. It’s my preference. Even if I’m using the Oberheim and I’m trying to do something quite harsh sounding – a stabby sound – I still feel it’s better than some of the newer synths. They’re almost too clean, and I like the fact that all the instruments have a character about them.
Of the synths in your set-up, which do you come back to the most?
The Mini Moog. It can do top lines. Sometimes we’ve done things where we’ve tracked it several times to make chords. And then for the bass line, it can be funky. It can be so rounded and deep. I remember the days when I used to make drum’n’bass, everyone was using the 808 kick drum, but I was using the Mini Moog low end. It was just a different thing. It had its own character.
It has followed you through your career.
Yeah, it’s been a constant. I can rock with that on anything. If I’m making a house record, or a soul record… for most productions that I do, there’s room for a Mini Moog in there somewhere.
There’s also a great interplay between the acoustic and electronic in your work. How do you set out to define the final sound of a record?
The music that I enjoy listening to is from the ’70s, for the most part. And that’s when the electronic elements started to really come in. They’re the people that did it first, so to me that’s just how it’s supposed to sound. It’s not a conscious decision.
Has anyone inspired you in particular?
When George Duke plays the Arp Odyssey and the Mini Moog, you damn well know when he’s playing a solo. Even when he was working with Frank Zappa, you still knew. All through his career, even when he started to make disco records, or when he was working with Airto and Flora Purim. There may be a drummer playing too, but you’re hearing the maddest electronic sounds going at the same time, married on the track. That’s my ideal example.
Was there an overarching theme behind this record?
It’s just a snapshot, that’s it. I like to talk about where our minds are and what we’re doing and where we should be going, and, for the most part, that’s what the songs on the album are all about. So there’s a bit more to chew on if you want to listen to it that way.
Below, Dego plays and talks us through three key pieces of his set-up that were used to create Too Much.
What’s being played: Roland Vocoder SVC-350 > Mini Moog
As heard on: ‘You Are Virgo’
How it’s used:
We’re living in the world of autotune, but I’ve always preferred a vocoder. It’s because of Herbie Hancock. I’ve always been into his use of the vocoder.
I usually use it through the Moog, or I’ll use it through the Juno 106. I think you get a better sound if you use an analogue synth.
I plug in the mic, and then play and sing through it at the same time. The synth is triggering my voice. I can’t sing for shit, but through the vocoder I’m great.
What’s being played: Koto
As heard on: ‘Ogawa Okasan Said Just Play’
How it’s used:
My best friend is Japanese and that’s how I first heard the koto. There are a couple of ways to play it – plucked or with hammers.
Anyway, my best friend’s mum plays the koto, and I was on the phone to her, asking her whether she has any tips on how I should play the it, and she said, “just play! Just enjoy yourself.”
That’s why the track is called ‘Ogawa Okasan Said Just Play’. I’m basically just improvising on it. Sometimes when you get a new sound it sparks off a lot of ideas and refreshes everything.
What’s being played: Hohner Clavinet D6 > Cry Baby pedal
As heard on: ‘Just Leave It’
How it’s used:
Normally I put the Clavinet through a wah wah pedal, and maybe a fuzz pedal as well. Something like a regular Cry Baby [Dunlop GCB95]. I’d be playing the rhythm with that.
The keyboard is a cheats guitar in a way. It can bubble in the background and it doesn’t annoy you. It can chug away like a train, on the rhythm of the track. And then it can go mad within that and still feel quite steady.
Too Much is out now on 2000Black.