The rise of the producer over the last two decades has complicated our notion of what it means to be a pop artist. We used to venerate the swaggering, champagne-guzzling superstar; now we equally celebrate the bedroom-bound, coffee-drinking technophile. Rudi Zygadlo seems to want to have it both ways. Each track on his debut album Great Western Laymen is structured around the idea of music as process and tireless attention to sonic play – both characteristics of electronic music – but also demonstrates a marked pop sensibility. Strictly speaking, the album’s thirteen tracks are best defined as dubstep; but superimposed onto the slow, stamping drums and quivering basslines of the genre is a vivid mosaic of stuttering synths, hammy guitar solos, and – most strikingly – extensive passages of Zygadlo’s own voice.
Take ‘Resealable Friendship’, the album’s lead single. One might imagine the debut single of an emerging dubstep artist to be characterized by the hiss of white noise, or a dark, angular synth melody. ‘Resealable Friendship’ instead gives us Zygadlo’s voice, multitracked in four-part harmony and sounding like a ketamine-addled barbershop quartet. The beginning of the song proper unveils a highly complex sonic landscape of interweaving synth lines, over which our narcotic chorus sings a strange, fragmented hymn. On a conventional dubstep compilation, the track would stick out like a sore thumb. On Great Western Laymen, it sits comfortably between its neighbouring tracks: an extensive jazz piano solo, and an exercise in soprano saxophone and gong.
As I head to The Cellar to meet the artist before his show, I expect to be greeted by someone hyperactive, flamboyant, and slightly mad – I envision an uneasy mixture between Syd Barrett and Peter Shaffer’s Mozart. I instead meet a Zygaldo who is reserved, thoughtful, and very down to earth. He takes time to consider my questions, and as he answers his words come out slowly and steadily in groups of two or three, as if he is blowing smoke rings.
Zygaldo’s influences range from 80s synth-pop to the nineteenth-century string quartet, but he is at great pains to set himself apart from the current British electronica scene. ‘I’m listening to less and less electronic music’, he tells me. ‘I don’t want to be influenced by a lot of stuff so I try not to listen to it too much’. Yet although he’s wary of being pigeonholed as a dubstep artist, his music remains more faithful to the dubstep blueprint than that of, say, James Blake. Most of the tracks on Great Western Laymen are carried by the familiar 140bpm tempo and wobbly bass, and whereas some producers are currently experimenting with new kick and snare sounds, Rudi’s drums are archetypal – dated, even. As I propose this, Zygaldo shifts uncomfortably in his seat: ‘I saw the first album as a kind of study… I mean, I’m still finding a sound for myself. The beat gives me grounding’.
Indeed, Great Western Laymen was originally envisioned as a setting of the Latin Mass. ‘When I’m writing, I need some kind of narrative, a project to use as a template’, he explains. This anecdote is typical of Zygaldo’s subversive approach to dubstep: he is keen not only to experiment with generic conventions, but also to expand the range of ways in which the music is disseminated. Yet, refreshingly, Zygaldo does not appear to be driven by a self-conscious desire to stand out as an innovator, nor by disdain for the contemporary landscape of electronic music. Rather, his innovations are simply part of an exploration of his own artistic creativity.
In four hours’ time, in order to please a crowd largely unaware of his music, Zygaldo will play a set of House anthems by other artists. He will discretely include just one of his own pieces: ‘Filthy Logic’. For the hour-long duration of his set, Zygaldo’s own artistic voice will be kept at bay, and his preoccupation will be to fill the dancefloor. But as our interview comes to an end, Zygaldo is still wrapped up in his own musical impulse: ‘I mean, there aren’t many dubstep albums out there’, he muses. ‘I’m thinking my next one should be an operetta’.