He hasn't had a hit or achieved crossover success, but Ed Upton tells us why a 25-year career in the background has suited him just fine.
"We're both self-employed, me and my wife, so we have to share looking after our kid," Upton said. "So, you know, I'm a house husband as well as a record producer." As DMX Krew, the Londoner has been a fixture of DIY electronic music since the early '90s, most notably as a key artist during the heyday of Aphex Twin's Rephlex label. "Rephlex absolutely changed my life," he tells me. Before Rephlex shut down in 2012, Upton gave them 18 releases, one of which never made it to pressing. And that's to say nothing of the other 50 or so records he released on other labels, including his own, Breakin' Records and Fresh Up. When I asked him how many tracks he thinks he's produced in his lifetime, he did a quick check on his computer and calculated that it's upwards of 1,780.
Now in his early 40s, Upton's output has been both unpredictable and prolific. He's always worked more or less exclusively with hardware, and what he does with his arsenal of machines has touched on acid, electro, boogie, synth pop, techno, IDM, Italo disco, house and practically every permutation therein. "I didn't make any of my music with an eye to who was going to sign it or what it's going to be," he explained. "Once I realized there was no point trying to copy Detroit techno—however much I love Detroit techno, there's no point in trying to do straight copies of it—then I just went back to doing whatever I felt." Many artists have this mindset, but Upton's incomparable work rate brings an unusual depth to unchecked creativity.
Maybe that wild streak explains DMX Krew's cult status. Though you never know what to expect from his next record, it's always made with the same well-honed technique and old-school flair. Upton doesn't have a major hit under his belt, or any kind of crossover moment, and he's certainly fielded his share of negative reviews. But where he might lack universal critical success and mainstream appeal, he exudes dedication, consistency and authenticity. Those qualities are unquestionably key to his long and fruitful career.
You've been in London for a long time.
Oh, God, yeah. More than 20 years now. About 25 years. As soon as I was old enough to leave home I moved to London. When I was 18.
Where did you move from?
A town called Bedford, which no one's gonna know. There's not a lot going on there.
Did you start making music while you lived there?
Yeah, but it depends where you draw the line, like where you say it's serious enough to call it making music. I grew up with those Casio keyboards, and when I was really small we had an organ in the front room. It's a real 1970s thing to have an organ. So we had that and I had these little Casios, and I used to make tapes. So I was making music, but it wasn't anything that you'd want to hear, particularly.
When did you buy your first synth or first piece of hardware?
Like I said, I had these Casios. I'd beg my parents to get me these things for Christmas and birthday combined. When I was about 16 I had a decent one, it was like a home keyboard. It was from Yamaha and it had a little drum machine in it and an FM synth. So you could make your own sounds and you could make your beats, and it had a little sequencer, so you could make a track on it.
I definitely think those kinds of instruments were a big influence, as much as the music I was into. When I had this Yamaha thing, I think there's maybe one track released that I did on it. BOSS came out with the Dr. Rhythm drum machine, which I could afford, and I saved up and got it. This was still before I left home. And I used to twist the cables together—I cut the ends off the cables and twisted them together to mix the sound of the keyboard with the sound of the drum machine, because I didn't have a mixer. So I twisted them together and then just stuck them in the input of my mom and dad's cassette recorder, their stereo. And I would record these tracks, and they're only on one channel, they're on the left, and yeah, we did put one of them out on Rephlex.
What's that one called?
It's called "Metro 1990." I think it was just called "Metro" when I did it. When I left home and started getting my own money, then I was able to buy gear. And at that time analog gear was really cheap—no one wanted it—and samplers were really expensive. There used to be a newspaper called Loot, because this is long before the internet. It was a newspaper just for selling stuff. It was free to put an advert in there, but it cost to buy the thing. So I would buy this Loot and look for cheap synths. And because there was no info out there—you could find info about newer stuff by going into a shop, but for older stuff there was no info—I would just buy stuff based on the seller being in my area and it being cheap. It's funny because I'm sitting here looking at all of it now. I haven't changed my gear that much.
Did you start reading up on it, or did you just teach yourself?
There really wasn't anywhere to read up. I mean, there may have been a couple of books in the library. You could get magazines like Sound On Sound and stuff. But I didn't know anyone who was doing music, so it was just a question of working it out. I'm very lucky to be from a generation where you used to be given money to be a student. You know, now students have enormous debts, but when I was 18, the government gave me some money to go and study. And I spent all that money: I bought a Roland sequencer, a Fostex mixer, which was a very simple mixer, and like a 707 drum machine. And I just figured it out.
So you ended up skipping school?
Yeah, I did. I haven't got a degree [laughs]. I never managed any of that. I dropped out of college, not because I was so successful with music, I dropped out of college because I went through that kind of classic teenage nihilist phase, you know, where you're like, "What's the point in this? I'm learning to do something so I can sit in an office for the rest of my life and make money for someone else. What's the point of this degree? The point of this degree is so I can go to work, come home and watch TV?" You know what I mean? I'm sure a lot of people go through that.
You saw this money as a way to do what you wanted to do?
I intended to do the degree when I started it, but by the end of the first year... You know, I was 18 and it was 1991, and I'd moved from a small town to London when the rave scene was kicking off. And there were parties every weekend, with like 20,000 people in a warehouse or in a field. How are you going to want to get a degree and get a job in an office [laughs]? There'd have to be something wrong with you to want to do that.
But it was difficult. I was really down and I couldn't see a way out. I didn't have any idea what I wanted to do. It was a really good friend of mine who said, "OK, maybe you're right, maybe it's all pointless. In which case, you may as well pick a thing that you enjoy doing and do it and try to be happy. Because if there's no point to anything, then you can either sit around and cry about it or you can just make the most of being alive."
That's pretty good advice.
Right? It was pretty good advice. She was only my age as well, and she said, "So just get on with the music." And I started sending out tapes really seriously when I was probably like 20. Started sending out tapes every week to all the labels that I liked and even ones that I didn't like that much—anyone that I thought might like what I was doing.
Do you remember any of the labels you sent tapes out to?
Yeah, I sent one to ACV, which was the label that used to put out Leo Anibaldi and Robert Armani and Italian stuff—they're an Italian label. I was into quite banging music. I was into the early Rephlex, which was very hard, and Mike Dred—just pretty hard techno at that point. I sent one to Mike Dred's label, which was called Machine Codes. He had another label called Diatomic. I sent ones to R&S, which I never heard back from.
Mike Dred rang me up and was really supportive. He was correct in thinking I wasn't ready yet. The label that finally wanted to put something out was called DAP, Dance Arena Productions, which was a Dutch label.
That was your first record, in '94?
Yeah, I can't remember. It was '94 or '95. I actually did one earlier with a label in Bedford, believe it or not. You can see it on Discogs, and I bought a copy of it from Discogs. And it came and had my name on the label but was completely someone else's music. So I don't think it ever came out. I have a test pressing, which I got at the time from the guy who owned the label, and it has my music on it, but it's a test pressing so it has no labels. So whether my tracks actually came out or not I'll never know. But it's best left to history, that record. It's not good at all.
Tell me how you came to work with Rephlex.
When I did the record with DAP, I said, "Can you put my phone number on the label of the record?" Which they did. And Grant [Wilson-Claridge], who used to run Rephlex, called me up, and he said, "Oh, just calling up to say nice one. Good to see someone from around where we live putting a record out. Awesome, and respect. Keep it up." I'd sent him lots of demos in the past and had never heard anything, so I just said, "Well, why don't you put my record out then, if you think it's great?" And he was like, "Oh, I was just calling to encourage you." And I've done the same thing before. When I love a record I'll write to them, I'll write them a fan letter. So that's what he was trying to do, but I tried to get my foot in the door, like, "Well, come on then, why don't you release a record?" And he said, "Well, send me what you've been doing."
Before I'd been sending him stuff where I was trying to copy Rephlex, I was trying to be like Aphex Twin. This time I sent him this electro stuff, not like anything on Rephlex, but I was starting to understand that people like Grant don't want more of what they've already got. The label half belongs to Aphex Twin, why would he want to release something that sounds like Aphex Twin? He's Aphex Twin. So I sent them the other stuff, and they were like, "Oh, this is cool, let's do an album." I couldn't believe it. I was their biggest fan, I was buying all their records. So it was amazing.
It took about a year for Sound Of The Street to come out, and I did lose hope a couple of times. They were always really slow, Rephlex.
Any particular reason why?
It was just a couple of guys in someone's front room. They tried to do it quite seriously, but in the end they'd get sidetracked by listening to records all day, or whatever. They were just guys doing it because they loved it. They were doing their best, I guess, but sometimes it was really slow. It could be very slow to get your money and stuff, but on the other hand, they always paid you in advance. They paid great advances. And they were honest and they were cool and they were genuine—they were never trying to follow a scene or be music business guys.
Grant, who ran Rephlex, he's a fan of music. You know what I mean? And he wanted to be a purveyor, wanted to be the guy who could make it possible for these freaky people, like me, who all they can do is make music. He wanted to make it possible for them to get an audience, which is fantastic. Without people like that I would still be in the bedroom—well, I am in the bedroom—but I would probably be stacking shelves in the supermarket. So thank God for people like that.
When did you start to get the sense that people were interested in what you were doing?
I never did. I never got that feeling. I still feel the same. I'm not under any illusions. I know that I can go to a big city anywhere in the world and there will be two or three hundred people who will come and see me. There won't be 5,000, or 30,000, or even 1,000. I'm not under any illusions about my popularity, but there's a small group of people who get what I do. And, luckily, that's enough—you know, touch wood—for me to keep doing shows, which is what pays my bills. The mp3 sales and stuff help, but it's the shows that really make up the bulk of the money that I earn.
I didn't get big. My label [Breakin' Records] never got big—it got gradually smaller and smaller. Probably the biggest record we did was Man Parrish, which was a really famous early '80s track that we did remixes of. It sold a couple thousand, and then after that, digital, you know, SoulSeek, appeared on the internet. And that was it. Then suddenly we were selling 750, then we were selling 500, then we stopped. There was no way to carry on.
But you kept working with Rephlex and putting out stuff consistently.
I carried on with them until they stopped. And I've basically never said no to a label that wants to put something out. Unless I kinda don't get on with the people—whenever I get a sniff of music business attitude, or people that are into, like, cocaine or something, then I'm out the door. But as long as they just seem like cool kids who want to do music, then I always say yes. I've definitely got over a thousand finished tracks on my hard drive, sitting around. So anyone who wants to put out a record, as long as I feel like they're going to pay attention to mastering it well and get it out there to people, make an effort to get it to people, then I'm happy to do it.
I'm putting out like three albums a year. Because why not, if people want it? You can't put out one album and sell 10,000 copies these days, so you may as well put out five albums and sell a thousand of each. You know, keep yourself on people's minds. Keeping myself on people's radar is how I get gigs, which is the main thing.
I noticed that between 2005 and 2009 you didn't release any albums, which is a pretty big gap for you. I'm curious as to what was going on during that time.
I think, basically, Rephlex was running out of money. I waited a really long time... You know, they're my best friends in the world, and I wanted to stay with them and do my albums with them. And I did singles through other labels, but I wanted to be on Rephlex. I waited and waited for them to put stuff out. They had tracks for years and years—it was really frustrating.
Basically, it was just waiting, and Rephlex were—I'm not privy to the financial affairs of Rephlex, but I don't think it was going all that well. Everyone was struggling with file sharing. File sharing just fucked everyone, especially small labels. So I think they were just struggling, and they couldn't put anything out. But to me it was just like silence, it was so frustrating. A lot of the tracks that came out later, I really felt disappointed because I thought they would've been really cutting-edge when I wrote them. Like I'd come up with a sound, and in between me writing the tracks and me releasing them, loads of other stuff came out that was going in a similar direction. It was really frustrating.
I carried on doing singles and tried to stay with Rephlex, and finally we did Wave Funk, which was supposed to be two EPs and a CD. And the CD and one of the EPs came out, but the other EP never even came out. That's probably my rarest record: the test pressing of Wave Funk Volume 2. Because it didn't come out there's probably like ten test pressings. But the tracks are all on the CD, and that was the last thing I did with Rephlex. And Grant said to me, "It's over, man."
Would you consider your methods "old-school"?
Well, the machines I use are old, so in that sense it's old-school. But the kind of philosophy I have you can apply to any method. The decision to work fast I think is the main thing for me. Instead of doing it slow and doing it better, I do it fast and do more. It's a bit slapdash, but, hey, you know, with a lot of the records I like, one of the things I like about them is that they're the sound of a human jamming with some machines in a room, and you can feel that. They don't sound perfect. All those Analord records that Richard [AFX] did, they're, like, sloppy, you know. They make me think of jamming with my mates; they don't make me think of a number-one hit single, polished Trevor Horn production. Loads of old house records and techno records are so amateurish, and I love that. So I don't care. I'd rather do it fast than do it polished. If you think that's "old-school," maybe it is. I think it's more like "underground."
You take a very workmanlike approach to things. You're constantly creating and you always have a backlog that you're ready to release.
I have a pragmatic approach to releasing records. Like, they need to come out. The thing I like about putting out records is I get my music mastered by someone who knows their shit. I won't do a record with someone mastering it in their bedroom. So, when I put out a record I get my tunes mastered, which I really love. It's nice to hear your music sound as good as it possibly can.
But other than that, I don't care if anyone hears it. I don't care if it comes out or not. The only reason I want them to come out into the world is because that way I can get gigs, and that way I can feed my family, and I can carry on making music without having to get that job stacking shelves in the supermarket. All I want is enough money to keep on making music, in order to have the time to make music.
I already told you that I don't think I'm famous, and I don't think I ever will be. And I don't care. I just love doing the thing. I love being in the room that I'm sitting in now, playing with this stuff. It's like what Buddhists are looking for: the feeling where the whole world goes away, you don't know where the time goes, and you don't think about what you're doing—you just do the thing, and in the end you get this little piece of music that's come from somewhere. And that's what I love.