- Mon, 2011-08-08 11:45
Joe Ray and Daniel Stephens are Nero, dubstep’s highest-flying new production duo. Turning their hands to dubstep after some minor successes in the world of drum and bass, their profile has grown bigger with every remix and every track that they have dropped. Now signed to Chase & Status' label, MTA, and with a clutch of top forty singles under their belt, they are getting ready to unleash their debut album, Welcome Reality.
I Like Music caught up with Joe and Daniel to chat about discovering dubstep, working with Chase & Status, Welcome Reality, and their Dubstep Symphony with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
”I Like Music because…what else would we do?” Nero
ILM: This year has been crazy for you guys, starting with appearing on the BBC Sound of 2011 poll and all the subsequent mainstream attention. How have things changed for Nero?
Joe: That poll came off the back of our song Me & You doing well at the end of last year. To be in that poll was amazing. We followed that song up with Guilt, which we were kind of nervous about. We weren’t sure that it had the same kind of potential. That did better than we expected as well. Then the Dubstep Symphony with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra came about, which was an amazing opportunity. The BBC have treated us pretty well to be honest!
ILM: Lots of support from Zane Lowe too...
Joe: Yeah, Zane Lowe supported us from our very first tune back in 2004. But yeah, 2011 has been really good for us. It’s all worked well as a build-up to the album, which has been on the brink of being released for a year or two now. It’s finally coming out in August. Hopefully then we can have a holiday!
ILM: I imagine it’s been a pretty intense period!
Daniel: Yeah, it’s been pretty non-stop. It’s been a crazy two years, and we’ve never really had that before; literally having to book a day just to go down to the studio. We’re still just getting used to it. I guess after the album drops we’ll…actually I think it’s going to turn out to be an illusion that we’re going to get a holiday!
ILM: What was it like back in 2004 when you first started making music together?
Joe: We both had rough studios in our bedrooms, so we’d go around to each other’s houses and write tunes, or just write them separately. We didn’t have a studio like we have now where we both ‘go to work’.
Daniel: It was more just a laugh back then, which is probably reflected in the comical sound of some of the tracks that we did! We were totally just doing it for fun. It was quite weird in that one of the things that we were doing was trying to be quite controversial. We were writing drum and bass, but using quite odd classical samples.
Joe: We didn’t take it too seriously.
Daniel: That’s the main difference; now it’s a job. But at the same time we’re enjoying writing the music much more now. Back then we didn’t have a sound or vision, but as we matured as producers and musicians we really found our sound, so it starts to become enjoyable. In the early days it was enjoyable because we could just do what we wanted and have some fun with it, now it’s enjoyable because we’ve really hit our stride.
ILM: What were you guys doing before Nero?
Joe: We both went to uni.
ILM: Did you do music at uni?
Daniel: I did music technology, which was a tame course. I should just have stuck with straight music, which I did for A Levels. For some reason I chose a bit of a Mickey Mouse course! It was fine though, because all I did was stay at home producing, which I probably learnt more from. Joe was doing a much more classical, hoighty course!
Joe: I did French and Philosophy. Not really music-related. Not really job-related either! But then I came out and got a part-time job and we just had a go at it. We weren’t sure for a while; it was kind of borderline as to how it was going. I guess it wasn’t until 2008 when we did a remix of Blinded By The Lights…it was when we started doing dubstep that we got a break. It was hard to break through when we were doing drum and bass. We didn’t really have an individual sound. We had a few tunes that Andy C had been dropping, but nothing that took us to the next level. Then dubstep came along and we had a crack at it. Our first tune sold more than our six drum and bass releases up to that point and we were like “ah, we should have done this all along!” Dubstep was so new that we felt we could do something original with it, which we couldn’t in drum and bass.
Daniel: It’s really hard to be original in drum and bass now. You’re so limited by the tempo of it and the nature of the music. To come up with new ideas in a format that’s been going for over ten years is really, really hard. That’s why our drum and bass output has kind of disappeared. There are a few half-time things on the album, but that works because it doesn’t feel like drum and bass anymore. It’s funny, we always felt like the drum and bass scene didn’t do us any favours. That was hammered home when we went into dubstep and it was instantly so much better for us. But it’s funny how once you stop writing drum and bass a lot of people come out of the woodwork and start asking “where are your drum and bass tunes?”
ILM: Do you remember the first time you heard dubstep?
Daniel: We heard a bit of it in its earlier stages, around 2005/2006. Even then it had already been around for some time. That earlier, more dubby-sounding dubstep was cool, but it wasn’t anything we were tempted to write. It was very different from what we looked for in our sound. Then we heard Skream’s Midnight Request Line, and that got us really interested. It showed us that you can do middle-bass stuff in dubstep. That was the turning point that made us want to give it a go. When we started writing it we’d never even been to a dubstep night or club.
ILM: How do you work together as a duo?
Joe: There’s no set routine to it.
Daniel: It might start with a sample, or we may sit down and decide to write a song that’s quite ‘80s, but with a half-time drum and bass feel, or something with an italo-disco feel…
Joe: Quite often we write when we’re on tour. We always have laptops on us and there’s quite a lot of waiting around at airports and stuff. We can just sit there, twiddling away, and come up with a riff that we decide might be good for a tune.
ILM: It sounds like you’re quite in tune with each other in terms of liking the same things and so on.
Joe: Yeah, definitely. It would be pretty dire having to work with someone that you’re in conflict with!
ILM: You're signed to MTA Records, Chase & Status' label. How did you meet them?
Joe: Blinded By The Lights was the tune that they liked: our remix of The Streets. They got in touch with us off the back of that.
Daniel: Our first ever dubstep song was This Way, and I think they heard that. Saul’s told me since that they’d just released a dubstep tune and were like “we’re the drum and bass guys doing dubstep,” and then they heard our dubstep tune and were like “these guys are stepping in on our thing,” but then decided that actually it was good. So they were into what we were doing from the start.
ILM: What have you learnt from working with them?
Joe: They’re really good at giving advice and encouraging us to push ourselves in certain areas. That’s one of the reasons that we signed with them. They were clearly into us and were quite enthusiastic about the idea of working with us hands-on in the studio. That’s great. It’s good to have record label bosses who also make music. It’s not just some guy giving you rough feedback when he doesn’t even have the vocab or know what to say. They’re kind of one step ahead of us, so we have the benefit of their hindsight.
Daniel: We also have total freedom at MTA. There’s nothing expected of us in terms of what we’re writing. We could go to them with two minutes of white noise and say “we’re really into this, it’s the next sound,” and they’d be like “okay, cool.” They support us wherever we want to go creatively. It’s really nice to have that. Before we signed with MTA we were looking at a lot of other labels and they all wanted to be really involved with what you do musically. They’ll choose what bits go out and what don’t. MTA give us a lot more freedom.
ILM: What’s your studio set-up?
Joe: We do most stuff with software; Cubase, loads of VSTs [Virtual Studio Technologies], a Neumann mic…
Daniel: ...A Neve preamp. We’re really into analogue, old synths. We have a synth called Roland Jupiter 8, which is the synth of the ‘80s. A lot of those ‘80s pop tracks are written on it. There are only 2000 of them in the world, so it’s quite rare as well. Getting that was probably a big influence on how the album ended up sounding. You just can’t get away from it when you start playing it. We’ve got a mini Moog Voyager as well, which was made in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, which has a really funky sound. Quite old school.
Joe: And it glows in the dark!
Daniel: Yeah, that’s why we got it really! But yeah, we mainly use the software. It’s just so good these days.
ILM: How are you feeling about the album, now that the release date is finally approaching?
Joe: It’s been in the pipeline a while, so it’s a weight off the shoulders. We’re really happy with how it’s ended up. When you release individual tunes you can get a bit sick of some of them, and start to think of how they could have been improved. I’ve listened to the album through a couple of times though, and I still think it’s alright!
Daniel: That’s gotta be good, cos normally you’d hate an album after hearing the same thing for two or three years!
Joe: We’ve had good feedback off it. We just wanted to write an album that’s a bit more than just a collection of songs. It’s not a concept album, there isn’t a storyline or anything like that, but there’s a bit of a running theme to it. The songs all flow. Like the albums we used to love when we were kids.
Daniel: We really hope that people will buy it and listen to it from start to finish, not just listen to the first two minutes of one track and move on to the next.
Joe: It’s harder now with the iTunes generation who listen to a preview and think “yeah, I like that tune,” or “no, that’s not my kind of thing.” Hopefully there will still be a lot of people who buy the whole thing and listen to it through and get into the whole vibe. We did spend a lot of time trying to get the whole journey of the album right.
Daniel: It’s quite like a film score in the way that it’s written, with the segues and stuff. The artwork reflects that as well; it’s like a poster for an ‘80s film. There is a bit of a concept there. Not in the ‘70s progressive rock way. But I think it will get called a concept album actually, as time goes on. Whatever; that’s cool!
ILM: Can you tell us a little bit about the show you did with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra? How long did it take to prepare?
Daniel: Probably about two months.
Joe: But it was when we were finishing the album, so it wasn’t like we were doing it every day. We were fitting it in here and there. The musical director, Joe Dudell, helped us to arrange it for the orchestra.
Daniel: We have a big sample library of orchestral stuff, so we’d basically written the whole piece using the orchestral samples. You’d have one or two different samples representing the woodwind and the brass, and then the strings were written very precisely. What Joe then did was flesh everything out a bit.
Joe: We’d got the whole rough idea together in the studio. We had the 18 minute piece coming out of the computer, but obviously it sounded pretty crap, and it needed him just to help arrange it for the orchestra.
ILM: Where can you go from something as amazing as that?
Daniel: I’d like to do a soundtrack for a film.
Joe: We could do our own film and do the soundtrack for it; proper ego-stroking!
Daniel: I’d love to make a film to the album. That’s obviously a pipedream, but there is that ‘80s, dark, dystopian, apocalyptic vision of the future to it. We’re so influenced by films like Blade Runner, which projected this dark vision of the future that was so different to earlier films, when futurism was clean, sparse, white and minimalist. In the ‘80s futurism became cluttered, metallic, dark and industrial. But yeah, we would love to write a score for a film that had that kind of a vibe.
ILM: What can people expect from you in the future?
Joe: After the album comes out we’re doing a tour in October in the UK, then over to the States. That’s with a live show.
Daniel: Next year it will be more of a worldwide tour. At the moment it’s only ten dates in the UK and ten in the US.
Joe: And we’re looking forward to starting on new material. It’s been three years finishing this album, so we’ve got loads of new ideas...