Sunlight on Spiderwebs: Rising Bristol producer Stumbleine in interview
Stumbleine has been self-releasing his solo music since late 2011, but his association with the rise of the immaculate, sun-drenched post-dubstep sound sometimes termed 'glo-fi' or 'chillwave' goes back two more years, to the release of the first EP by Swarms, I Gave You Everything. As one third of Swarms, a Bristol-based trio originally from Malvern in Worcestershire, he contributed some exquisite, hazy shoegaze guitar textures and production to the three EPs and two albums by the band, including 2011's Old Raves End, which was picked up by the Lo Dubs label and saw the band championed once again by the likes of Mary-Ann Hobbes. Much online hype followed, and before long Stumbleine's Ghosting EP was picked up by Hijo De Colombia, in March of this year. Now signed to Monotreme, an independent UK label, he is set to release his achingly beautiful debut album Spiderwebbed.
Swarms worked because they combined the talents of a bass music afficionado and DJ with the production nous of two musicians whose tastes lay more in the direction of shoegaze, ambient and post-rock. Stumbleine's guitar-playing was a huge part of creating this sound. On his self-released EPs, there were many experiments with oddly-pitched and timestretched vocals, dusted 2-step beats and washes of synth-noise – these elements remain present on Spiderwebbed, but Stumbleine's guitar-playing is brought more to the fore. One memorable track is a blissful, narcotic cover of Mazzy Star's Fade Into You. “I've been playing guitar for over ten years,” Stumbleine explains. “I was brought up on rock and indie really. I got into electronic music later through acts like Boards of Canada, M83 and FourTet. Burial's self-titled album was a game changer for me.”
This mention of the B-word pre-empts a criticism often levelled at 'post-dubstep' acts like Stumbleine, Swarms or Holy Other – that they are essentially Burial tribute acts. In the case of Stumbleine, this is totally unjustified. The way he uses vocal samples, and the intricate time-signatures of his beats, bears little resemblance to Burial's cold, urban, hauntological beatscapes, other than the fact that they both create rich and atmospheric sonic worlds. “Vocal sampling has obviously got very popular again recently so I don't think I stand out from the crowd in that sense, its just something I've always loved,” Stumbleine is quick to explain.
His music has more in common with the sun-drenched organic electronics of Balam Acab, or the reverb-swathed cathedrals of voice and guitar created by The Cocteau Twins. “I love walls of sound,” says Stumbleine. “I try to use guitars and piano to create layers reminiscent of my shoegaze and post rock influences. Many artists have a less organic style suited to DJing. I'm not dictated by tempos, and I like to experiment with irregular timings.”
These shoegaze influences are really brought to the fore on Spiderwebbed, with some tracks invoking the ghost of perhaps those greatest of shoegaze pioneers, My Bloody Valentine: “Kevin Shields is one of my idols, his guitar playing and obsessive recording style is very unique,” says Stumbleine. “Loveless is a masterpiece, you can hear something new every time you play it. Shoegaze is a very nostalgic childhood sound for me. There's something about the warm distortion consuming each track...”
He is still close to his indie-rock roots. Stumbleine took his name from a Smashing Pumpkins B-side: “They're one of the first bands I fell in love with,” he says. “I can remember as a kid stealing the double tape pack of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness from my older brother and trying to figure out how to duplicate it on his hi-fi before he got home. I also took his tab book for Siamese Dream, and they were some of the first songs I learnt to play on guitar.”
Like Balam Acab or The Haxan Cloak, he intends to use visuals if he starts to play live: “It goes hand in hand with the sound,” he explains. But that day is still a way off: “I've got no plans to gig at the moment, I produce for headphones mainly.” On headphones, his tracks evoke a particular feeling: “They're all based on the idea of fading memories and nostalgia,” he says. This love for nostalgic images and childhood perspectives is echoed in the artwork for his releases, with “layers of images trying to tell a story,” he explains. “It seems to match the lo-fi dreamy sound.” Designed by his close friend Low Sun, his covers are like half-glimpsed memories of childhood summers.
Another of the vital elements in Stumbleine's sound is the presence of haunting, dream-like female vocals, provided by collaborators Asa, Mush Records signing and Blackbird Blackbird collaborator Steffaloo, and German singer CoMa, who has collaborated with the likes of Sorrow and Sun Glitters. “I've done a lot of work with Asa since I started Stumbleine, we share similar tastes so it was easy to collaborate,” he says. They have released one EP as a two-piece, the enchanting Your Secret, on Inspected Records. “Our EP was a natural progression,” Stumbleine explains. “We've ended up living five minutes away from each other, randomly.” His other collaborators were discovered through Stumbleine's own listening: “CoMa and Steffaloo were vocalists I admired from afar. I tried to produce tracks that might suit their style before getting in contact,” he says, describing them both as “amazing vocalists.”
Between 2011 and 2012, Stumbleine has produced a frankly astonishing amount of music, both by himself and in collaboration. How does he manage to stay so productive? “Sometimes you can write two tracks a week and other times you can go months without writing anything,” he says modestly. “You need to make hay while the sun shines, I guess. Ghosting and Sunshine Girls are collections of early tracks, so some of those are over two years old. With the amount of samples I use, it's difficult getting a release together... The Night Before is an EP of tracks that were in contention for my debut album but had too many sample issues. Spiderwebbed is my first legitimate release.”
How did he approach the cover of Fade Into You? “I was worried I might butcher a classic track,” he admits, “but it didn't turn out too bad. I specifically set out to do a cover instead of a remix. I don't like the culture of artists remixing shit pop tracks to try and make a name for themselves so I thought I would cover an old track. I like to pay homage to my influences.” This is a key point – Stumbleine's music wears its influences on its sleeve, but never feels derivative. Rather, Stumbleine has managed to bind together fragile strands of musical webbing, from Radiohead (his first cover version was a haunting re-work of Fake Plastic Trees, featuring CoMa, from The Night Before EP) to Ride, to '90s R&B.
Stumbleine thinks of the early '90s as “a great era for music,” when he was at “a very influential age.” Of the '90s R&B influence, he says: “It's definitely engraved into the minds of our generation, you couldn't really avoid it growing up. Old memories come flooding back when I hear some of the tracks these days, so the nostalgic style fits perfectly with Stumbleine.”
There are very few interviews with Stumbleiene, or his collaborators, currently online. All three members of Swarms prefer to remain anonymous, known only by their chosen band names. Has Stumbleine deliberately created an air of mystery around himself, or is he just shy? “This is the first interview I've ever done,” he says. “I didn't set out to be a faceless character, it can quickly turn into a gimmick. I just like the idea of people making up their own minds about the music, I don't think it's really about me as a person so I stay away from the limelight.”
In an era where genres seem to be created and then disappear faster than bands themselves, how would he describe his music? Chillwave? Post-dubstep? Ambient? “It's funny how there's always huge debates about genre definition,” he says. “I've taken to using 'glo-fi' and 'nightbus!'” Glo-fi seems like a good term for Stumbleine, incorporating a sense of his music's warmth and beauty. He is not worried about how people define the music: “I don't think it really matters, some people just need to put things in boxes,” he says. “There are some terrible ones though, I don't like 'chillstep,' it sounds like some shit ambient compilation...”
In the final analysis, such reductive genre tags are worse than useless when trying to describe music as rich and enchanting as Stumbleine's – far better to press play on Spiderwebbed, close your eyes, and drift away into memory.