The Punk Phenomenon

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Tom Withers has released some of the most heart-wrenching, rib-shaking music in d&b’s history. And yet he’s still somewhat of an unknown quantity. Why? We hook up with ex-punk Klute to find out where his head is at, and ask the vital question, ‘why is no-one listening any more?’

Knowledge is trudging up what seems like the steepest hill on the planet. It’s dark, hurling down with rain, and the notebook full of soul-searching and excellently researched questions in our pocket is fast becoming a soggy, incoherent pulp. But it’s all worth it of course, as we’re here to pay a visit on one of the silent assassins of drum & bass, Klute.

Tom Withers has been making and playing drum & bass for well over ten years. ‘No-one Is Listening Anymore’, his fourth studio album, is released in January, following hot on the heels of 2003’s excellent ‘Lie, Cheat And Steal’. He’s released music on labels as varied as Moving Shadow, Certificate 18 and Hospital, and has DJed in most countries that know what drum & bass is. So for someone so ingratiated into the mechanisms of the d&b scene, Klute certainly doesn’t command what you’d call a high profile.

Compared to his contemporaries, the producers and DJs that have been doing it for the same period of time, he operates on a different playing field. Last year, one unfortunate journalist mistakenly claimed he was Norwegian (he actually grew up in Ipswich), a mistake that has been made on more than one occasion. Like his music, Klute is a difficult man to pin down. But Knowledge, ever on the trail of the d&b gospel have travelled to North London’s leafy suburb of Muswell Hill to get the inside word.

Klute is 36 (although he doesn’t look a day over 25) and lives with his girlfriend and pet cat. He’s just bought a scooter because he hates all the steep hills in this area, and dislikes public transport. On entering the house, we’re immediately struck by the calmness of the surroundings, and the relaxed demeanour of its owner. “Do you fancy a cup of tea?” Klute asks in his quiet, measured tone, as he shows us into his studio. It’s a room the size of a small cupboard, but with a hardware-based set-up crammed inside that would make most wannabes go weak at the knees.

There are Bert and Ernie dolls sitting on the record shelf next to a rack of keyboards, and as we manoeuvre our way onto a low chair in the corner, Klute’s black and white cat saunters past the room, takes a nonchalant look inside, then continues on his way. It’s certainly not the futuristic, hotbed of production we had visualised on the way up. This cosy, relaxed home is like a hermetically sealed bubble, away from the hectic, constantly shifting world of drum & bass.

“I think that comes from my upbringing,” Klute says, sitting down in front of his Mac and lighting a cigarette. ‘I was actually born in America, but came to England after a couple of years. I don’t know what goes on in your head in the first two years of your life, but I definitely feel it’s given me a different slant on things. Not quite fitting in. I don’t quite belong in America, and I don’t quite belong in England. I mean, it led to an awkward adolescence, but it does mean that I liked doing things my own way. I like to watch people, culture, society, from afar.”

Doing things his own way and not conforming to the system have become recurring themes in Klute’s life. In the 80s, he was in a band called The Stupids, playing the musical epitome of antiestablishment; hardcore punk rock. He ditched the drum kit for a sampler in the early 90s when early hardcore seemed like the most exciting and reactionary sound in the universe. He likes to question the status quo.

But like many idealistic sorts from that halcyon era of punk, Klute has mellowed quite a lot, now choosing to convey his reactionary viewpoints through journalistic subterfuge, rather than throwing himself around on stage and spitting at people. But that anti-establishment ethos is still most definitely alive and well, albeit in a nice house in Muswell Hill, with a cat and a scooter. These days, it manifests itself in different ways. Like in the title of his new LP, ‘No-one Is Listening Anymore’.

“It’s got a kind of double meaning,” Klute says, leaning forward. “Firstly, we’re at a point today with the news and the media where we’ve just been overfed. Every magazine you read and every TV program you watch is not about entertainment anymore. It’s just a means to sell. And the message is rammed down your throat. I can’t help but€ walk down the street and see a billboard, look at a magazine, or watch TV without getting these things imposed on me. Which I find really offensive. So I’m saying ‘I’m not listening anymore’. It’s the same with politics. I don’t believe in voting because it gives everyone the falsehood that there’s a democracy when there isn’t’. It’s pretty much predestined. So I’m not listening anymore.”

This social standpoint is very admirable, but we’re sure most heads reading this feature will be thinking, ‘Okay, cool. But where does drum & bass fit into all of this?’ “Well the second meaning can definitely be attached to d&b,” he explains. “These days, there’s so much of everything, total over choice, I sometimes wonder whether people are actually listening to the music the way they did in the past. In d&b there’s the same problem. I get sent ten times the amount of demos I used to. There is just so much music out there. So there must be a point where your mind has to filter stuff ouºt. And perhaps we’re forgetting what actually made d&b special in the first place.”

Klute is a firm believer that drum & bass is the punk-rock of dance; a reactionary, untameable beast that says ‘fuck you’ to the rest of the music industry. But with so much material being produced, a large percentage of it following similar patterns and formulas, the danger is this most cutting-edge of genres may become increasingly homogenised and predictable. “I went to this night called Forward recently,” he continues, “a dubstep kind of night. And the stuff that they were playing didn’t follow the strict rules that we all know. The tunes were breaking down in weird places, and the beats were really obtuse. I thought it was absolutely amazing. It was really exciting to hear something that was just a different style instead of this ‘here’s the breakdown, now it’s going to build-up, we all know it’s going to drop now.”

Most d&b heads will be well aware ‘of this structural phenomenon, as it happens every time you visit a club. “Exactly,” Klute says, sitting back. “It happens at d&b events night after night, venue after venue, up and down like a rollercoaster ride. Problem is if you keep riding the same rollercoaster you’re going to become desensitised. When you come round that bend again you’re not going to think it’s such a crazy experience anymore, you’ll just be thinking, ‘I know what’s happening.”

Klute raises some interesting points. But there is a big contradiction in his opinion. He complains that there is too much music in d&b, and yet ‘No-one Is Listening Anymore’ is a double CD. And his label Commercial Suicide certainly isn’t sluggish in terms of output. So what’s the solution, if everyone is already part of the problem?

“I don’t know, really,” Klute says, frowning. “We just have to make sure everyone is doing it for the right reasons. You should be making d&b because you have to, instead of doing because you think you should. Almost on a daily basis, I get done in by what I perceive as this process. The status quo of drum & bass; this is what you do, this is how you do it. I’m just trying to think of ways I can break out from that. You know what? I’m going to try doing it this way, see if it works. And most of the time it does.”

Unsurprisingly, ‘No-One Is Listening Anymore’ is an unpredictable, stylistically varied gem of an album. Something we’ve come to expect from the man like Klute. He feels it’s his best LP so far, as “there’s a lot more emotion captured in it this time.” It covers the whole spectrum of d&b, without ever relying on clichés, and CD2 is an equally impressive journey into more Detroit-techno and breakbeat infested waters. “The non-d&b thing has been a bit of tradition since my first album,” he explains. “People know I come from a different musical background than just hip hop and d&b, and I wanted to make more of a statement than just ‘the gratuitous downtempo number’ you often get.”

Dragging himself away from 175bpms takes Klute back to when he was just starting out making music, and that excitement of the unknown was still very fresh. “It opens up some feelings I’ve lost,” Klute says. “You know, the mystery of producing. The mystery of ‘what am I doing?’ And ‘what if I try this completely wacky thing?’ Nowadays it’s more of a case of ‘this isn’t going to work.”

Getting too comfortable with what you’re doing can definitely lead to complacency and reliance on tried and tested processes, and our host suggests every up-and-coming producer should widen their musical horizons regularly. “With a lot of the demos I get sent you can tell that people are starting off from the ‘Wormhole’ era of d&b and that’s their basis of the history of music,” Klute says, releasing a cloud of smoke as he talks. “But generally everyone that I know who produces good drum & bass is influenced by outside genres. Like Calibre, for instance. We’ve got similar music tastes. And SKC from Budapest. He just listens to classical music, which I think is really healthy.”

Our time with Mr Withers is reaching an end. In between talking about the album, we also chat about American politics, film soundtracks, and getting repeatedly pissed-up with Illskillz in Vienna. He is, without doubt, one of the most intriguing characters in drum & bass, and it’s really refreshing to hear someone put so much thought into what is, as he so eloquently puts it, “just music for humans to swing themselves in time to.”

There is one question however that has been burning a hole through Knowledge’s soggy notepad. With so much music to choose from, being made by so many new artists, at 36 do you ever feel you’re too old to be doing this? Confronted with the question, Klute leans back and laughs. “No,” he says with conviction. “Maybe when I turned 30, I may have had some reservations, but to be honest I’m really not 36. I’m not. I haven’t changed a single bit since I was 18, so I see no reason to stop now.”

And is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’d really like to? “Maybe grow up someday,” Klute says, smiling. “I’d like to see what that’s like.”

All in good time, Klute. All in good time.

About Author

Colin Steven co-founded Knowledge Magazine in 1994. He also runs a book publishing company called Velocity Press specialising in electronic music and club culture.

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