As a producer, Tony Colman aka London Elekricity has continually pushed drum and bass out of its comfort zone, combining his wide-ranging influences and production genius with live instrumentation and breath-stealing vocal features – forever thinking outside the box.
As a label head, he’s put his neck on the line time and time again to help give weight to a new sound or cultivate fresh artistry. Hospital Records, co-founded by Tony and Chris Goss in 1996, has brought us some of drum and bass’ best, innovating artists including High Contrast, Danny Byrd, Camo & Krooked, Metrik and S.P.Y.
London Elekricity has continually pushed drum and bass out of its comfort zone
Despite growing into arguably the biggest drum and bass label of current times, Hospital Records has remained independent for more than two decades and Tony assures us that will never change, and nor has their original motto: to do things differently.
He recently dropped his seventh London Elektricity LP, Building Better Worlds and we challenge anyone not to be blown away. Spanning the dark and euphoric light sides of drum and bass, with classical music influences, funk and more; London Elektricity also takes fresh building blocks and puts them together to create entirely his own space.
It’s also London Elektricity’s most personal record to date. There is an in-depth narrative to every song, tied together with a photo series from photographer Ben Beech, which marries each track to images showing decades-abandoned buildings in Japan, Taiwan and China.
This sense of self is ramified with a vocal feature from his youngest son, 9-year-old The Secretary-General, who raps Inja’s lyrics alongside him in the rousing Time to Think.
It’s abundantly clear that Tony hasn’t lost a morsel of passion for what he does and it’s a real pleasure talking to him about his 30 year career over a couple of cocktails at Pata Negra’s Noche Negra, before his set at the In:Motion Hospitality takeover.
People often think about drum and bass in terms of singles or short EPs, but Hospital Records notably makes a case for the album format. Both as a producer and label boss, why have you always been willing to support the drum and bass album?
Ever since we started Hospital Records in 1996, we decided that it would be album focussed and the reason was sheer bloody mindedness, because nobody else thought like that and I’ve always operated from a very simple standpoint – which is to do things the opposite way from other people.
When Hospital started, we existed in this very strange bubble that was completely outside of the seething centre of drum and bass at the time, which had recently transformed from jungle into drum and bass.
I’ve always operated from a very simple standpoint – which is to do things the opposite way from other people
I’d grown up absolutely saturated with albums. It’s what draws me to artists. My formative memories of music are nearly all from complete albums, not tracks.
Having an album to work towards is a fantastic focus for a label to build and develop an artist’s talent. All the other labels were signing one-off tracks or putting out 12”s and there didn’t seem to be a focus or continuity. The reason we decided on the name Hospital, apart from the fact that my grandfather was a doctor, is that there has always been an element of healing in our music.
there’s always been an element of healing in our music
Music is something that people listen to for a reason and you need to sit and think about what that reason is. For us, the reason is to escape from and maybe get a little bit of love outside of your normal world. An album is a perfect way to do that.
You can’t buy loyalty, so you have to earn it
Hospital is a label that inspires a massive amount of loyalty. There are several artists signed exclusively to the label, including Danny Byrd who has been with you from the very beginning. Why do you think this is?
You can’t buy loyalty, so you have to earn it. We earn the loyalty of our artists by being loyal to them. You just have to get up earlier than everyone else, work harder, think harder and be more creative. Engage your artists in what you’re doing and also listen to them and make sure that you’re helping them tell their story.
In your weekly podcasts, as well as in your sets, you champion drum and bass from around the globe. How do you balance your quite obvious commitment to the drum and bass scene as a whole, against using your platform to further your own music and signings?
It’s all one and the same. It’s all interconnected and there’s no division between the two. Whilst it’s the Hospital podcast, I talk very personally and I treat the podcast as if I’m talking to one person, and I don’t really hold back. So sometimes I’m very political and quite controversial – there’s a lot of face palming going on in the office. I’m perfectly happy to alienate probably about half the population of the country. For example, anybody who actually voted for Brexit, I don’t give a fuck if they buy our shit or not, quite frankly.
That’s not why I started Hospital. Sales wasn’t the thing, it was to have fun with it and to do something completely unique – and that hasn’t changed.
How involved in the A&R side are you still?
It gets harder the bigger you get, because there are more people to win over. When it was just two or three of us, I could just go and do it. Now I have to try and convince people why this stupid idea I’ve got is actually a good idea.
The summer holidays is a really good time for me to sign people, when everyone’s away, and then it’s signed and legally binding! So they come back from their holidays like, ‘Tony what have you done? You’ve signed Degs, who the fuck is Degs?’ This was last summer – I saw his Facebook page and he was freestyling over this music and it was absolutely brilliant. I’m convinced he’s going to be huge, so I signed him.
He’s just finished his debut album… sick! Absolutely sick! And last year he came out with Poveglia, which has become an anthem.
Now I have to try and convince people why this stupid idea I’ve got is actually a good idea
You were very quick to sign Kings of the Rollers, when jump up was still a dirty word to some DnB fans. How do you avoid snobbery in music?
That’s a very easy question to answer. You have to look at the artist from different angles. I’ve known Bladerunner and Serum and Voltage for a long time and if you look at the narrow jump up genre, they basically ruled it and been getting better and better and better. But I could hear that they were actually trying to break out of it and starting to experiment.
The first meeting we had with them was really funny, because they came down to our local for lunch and they hadn’t even thought of making music as Kings of the Rollers – and there we were offering them a deal, not knowing what on earth we were signing. But what we were signing was an idea of what they could be. And what they came up with was absolutely amazing. They are three geniuses.
Building Better Worlds is your boldest record to date and at times treads the line of what would normally be considered drum and bass…
I’m in love with so many beautiful, different chord sequences. I always push to come up with chord sequences that no one else has used, even outside of drum and bass, but definitely within drum and bass. There’s a lot of harmonic density going on and a lot of classical inspiration, as well.
There’s a lot of harmonic density going on and a lot of classical inspiration
I poured far more of myself into it than any other album I’ve ever made. I’ve taken no prisoners and made no compromises whatsoever, so I know that for a lot of drum and bass heads, it might be too much.
While I was making it, I was absolutely convinced I would never be able to play any of it out, because it doesn’t adhere to standard structures or even time signatures. It doesn’t really adhere to anything. But as it’s turned out, I can play quite a lot of it out and it sounds really good and people seem to like it on the dancefloor.
The album’s opening track, Final View From the Rooftops, was 13 years in the making – can you elaborate?
I wrote and recorded the entire backing track in 2006 and it was too weird. I was working on my album Syncopated City and I intended it to go on that album, but every vocalist that I gave it to couldn’t write a song to it.
Over the years, every time I’ve made an album, I’ve wheeled this track back out and offered it to my vocalist and he or she will try and write over it and can’t. I tried to write a song and sing it and it was absolutely crap. I knew it had potential, but I had resigned myself to fact that it hasn’t got a place in this world.
I had resigned myself to fact that it hasn’t got a place in this world
When it came round to this album, I was hot off the back of the London Elektricity Big Band in 2017. The band leader was Steve Pycroft, who is an amazing drummer, but also a brilliant orchestrator. He’s got his own orchestra called Kaleidoscope Orchestra and he also has a great band called the Riot Jazz Brass Band. I sent it to Steve and this was my last ditch attempt to make something of this tune that’s been knocking about since 2006, and within three hours he emailed back a sketch of his concept of orchestral themes for the tune. And it was beautiful, absolutely gorgeous.
I immediately then knew where the tune was going to go – I could hear it. I knew I needed a soprano because it was starting to sound a bit like Ennio Morricone, the soundtrack composer who created all the Spaghetti Western tunes – he’s the greatest soundtrack composer of all time.
I got in touch with Cydnei B who I went to college with in the early 80s, where we studied music together. She is a specialist in extended operatic techniques – where you push your voice into regions it shouldn’t go. Crucially, she loved the tune and not only did she absolutely smash it on the first take, I discovered that she could whistle. So there’s a whole section where she’s just whistling.
What else can you tell us about the new album in terms of direction, influences or whatever else?
Building Better Worlds is actually a catchphrase from the Weyland Corporation. If you’re a Blade Runner or Alien fan, they were the company responsible for going and terraforming other planets and turning them into worlds that you can inhabit.
I’ve always had this theory in my head that a really good piece of music, album or a good artist creates a kind of universe or an ecosystem or planet that you can visit and immerse yourself in to get away from the drudgery of daily life. And you can go there whenever you want.
the title was a natural extension of how I think about music (…) it’s building better worlds
I think of my artists’ music like this and I try and encourage them to build their own world. So the title was a natural extension of how I think about music and how I think about artists – it’s building better worlds.
It’s nothing to do with the way our world is at the moment, although as it turns out, we could fucking well do with a better world, right?
What is 2020 looking like for Hospital Records?
Our diary is very busy next year in terms of releases and events. There are some very, very exciting event changes that I’m not allowed to tell you about – two very big things that we have to keep secret at the moment.
On the artist side, we’re really consolidating the artist base. Camo & Krooked have come back to Hospital from RAM. They did two albums on Hospital and then wanted to sign to a major and they chose BMG, because they’re based in Germany. BMG had bought RAM, so they ended up on RAM for a one-album deal. After that they said, can we come back to Hospital, please? We said we’d love them to and it’s great, because they’re such fun to work with.
Photos by Dominika Scheibinger
Location: Noche Negra