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Steve Vibronics: 'The masters play their mixing desk like an instrument'

UK dub legend gets heavy ahead of his bone-rattling Beijing set with fellow reggae giant Zion Train

This month, Beijing gets a dose of roots reggae in the form of two UK dub heavyweights: Zion Train and Vibronics. The former collective, founded in Oxford in 1988, went on to inspire a whole tributary of currently trending dance music genres, including, of course, dubstep. The latter, formed in 1995 with founder Steve Vibronics at the centre, signed to Zion Train’s label early in their career and have subsequently maxed out subwoofers at music festivals around the world with their self-proclaimed ‘future sound of dub’.

Ahead of this one-two punch, Time Out talks with Steve Vibronics about the sounds and social causes underlying his music, and dub’s enduring, global relevance.

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This is your second time playing Beijing. What made you want to come back?
There is a small but strong scene for underground music in China, so it’s a joy to see it grow. For me it’s exciting to visit places as exotic and dynamic as China. What I look forward to the most, though, is connecting with fans of my music.

Your 2013 album Empire Soldiers tells the story of Asian, African and Caribbean troops that fought in the First World War. How do social themes connect to your music?
We picked these themes because they link with the fundamental themes of roots reggae – the struggle of oppressed people and, particularly, the results of slavery. One hundred years after the First World War, oppression and brutality continue.

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What have you been working on since the release of your latest album, last year’s The Return of Vibronics?
As well as recording Jamaican legends Earl 16 and Rod Taylor, I have been recording two new EPs for release during the summer. One features the vocalist Jah Marnyah, the other will be an instrumental release. After that it’s some recording with a live drummer and bass player – something a little different to my usual digital style.

You’re coming to Beijing along with Zion Train, who gave Vibronics their first major break by signing you to their Universal Egg label. What are some key lessons you learned from working with Zion Train?
Zion Train have been my mentors since I first released music back in the ’90s. I really connected with their independent, DIY ethos, and that has stayed with me with the establishment of my own record label. It was Zion Train that showed me how music can be turned from a hobby into a job, but without compromising what you believe in.

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How have you seen the UK dub scene change?
The UK dub scene has for sure gotten bigger over the last 20 years. Some off-shoot genres like jungle and dubstep have used dub as a big influence and brought people to the source music. The explosion across the world has been the most surprising thing. The scenes in France, Italy and now Spain are growing all the time, and the dub scenes in Mexico and Brazil are really healthy.

Is there much overlap between dub and other bass-heavy genres, like dubstep, in the UK clubbing scene? Or do people mostly stick to their own niches?
These genres have always lived side by side, like the way punk and reggae were friends back in the 1970s. There will always be purists that want only one kind of music, but most people like a range of styles. I enjoy playing to both crowds: people who know every note of every track and people who are experiencing UK dub for the first time.

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How does dub in the UK differ or mutate from the original Jamaican dub experiments of the late 1960s and ’70s? In what ways are the sounds of ‘digital dub’, for example, distinct from the homemade spring reverbs and other analogue inventions of early dub producers?
UK dub is surprisingly similar to the Jamaican foundation music, especially in the UK where Jamaican producers and artists live and have shared their unique knowledge. I look to the masters, like Scientist from Jamaica, who really ‘play’ their mixing desk like an instrument and make a live dub mix on the fly through improvisation. It is possible to use computer effects, but the original tools have some amazing limitations that keep you working extra hard.

Are there any corners of the world where you’ve been surprised to find a strong scene?
We have yet to receive an invite from North Korea, but in the last year we have been to Russia, Mexico, China and all across Europe. As for different audiences, in some places I have to play more of an ‘introduction’ set, as UK dub music can be pretty intense. Other places want it raw and heavy with no compromise. I’m happy either way – I love my job!


Zion Train and Vibronics will be hitting the decks at Dada Beijing on Friday 17 June.

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