Warp Week: Hudson Mohawke melts genres like Butter!

Our November cover star Hudson Mohawke doesn’t sound like anything else that’s come before – or at least, not for long. The rising star of genre-defying, thrill-a-minute underground uber-pop tells us why he can’t sit still.

Feature by Bram Gieben | 28 Oct 2009
  • Hudson Mohawke

Hudson Mohawke’s youth belies the fact that he has had a long and varied history as a producer and DJ. Starting out in Glasgow with gigs for Subcity, he moved on to become the producer in the hip-hop combo Surface Emp, who were part of the collective (along with Rustie, The Blessings and others) which would become LuckyMe. His viral hit EP Ooops! was a much sought-after platter, and soon the seminal Warp label were knocking at his door demanding more.

Now, on the eve of his debut album being released on Warp, Hudson Mohawke seems to be coping well with the pressure, despite some reservations: “It’s been pretty full-on in the last couple of months. Especially because I’m not really the kind of person who gets a kick out of being in the limelight. I prefer to be in the background, you know? (But) it’s rewarding to know that people seem to like what I’m doing.”

'Like' is an understatement – HudMo is the current darling of a scene which (suitably for a Warp signing) is currently in the process of generating and rejecting a series of outlandish names for itself. Wonky, aqua-crunk, or glitch-hop - as it is variously known - has a lot in common with dubstep and hip-hop. Hudson Mohawke’s album Butter, however, has a much broader palette of influences – from the exuberant funk of the Prince-like Joy Fantastic (featuring vocalist Olivier Daysoul) to the twinkling chaos of Fruit Touch, to the staggering electro-menace of ZOo00OOm, it is an album that never gets comfortable with one particular sound, genre or mood.

HudMo is adamant that this is more of an attitude than an affectation: “I am influenced by stuff, but I’m not trying to make a particular genre. I’m definitely influenced by particular sounds and genres, but I’m not setting out to make anything specific. I think the way that genres have developed is because people are like, ‘I’m not gonna do it that way, I’m gonna do it this way.’ That’s how it develops into its own thing. I can’t see a real point in following a template that’s been made by someone else. Not in a way of trying to be anti-genre, it just doesn’t seem like a natural way for me to work.”

 Cult Listening: 12 Scottish Records for the Discerning Fresher

As mentioned in our feature on Warp’s twentieth anniversary, the label considers the design ethic of their releases to be incredibly important; a view that HudMo shares. He worked closely with a designer to achieve the striking, dayglo images on the cover of Butter, which recall classic 80s hair-metal band t-shirts: “The design for the album was done by my friend Tom, who is known as Konx-Om-Pax. He’s Glaswegian, he went to the art school here, and he’s done a lot of stuff before – videos for Boards of Canada and Jamie Lidell, and he’s also done stuff for Errors and other Scottish bands. We had a big folder of influences and stuff we wanted to incorporate. He would work a bit, then I would give him some feedback. It took quite a while. The first EP, the design came together for that in a couple of days, it was really spur of the moment. With the album, because it was much more thought out, it took much longer. It wasn’t as much of an instinctive thing, it was much more methodical. We worked it out in the end, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. I think it’s the kind of thing where you either think it’s fucking horrible or you love it.”

The imagery is quite striking – the polar opposite of Warp’s early minimalist sleeves by The Designer’s Republic. “I think a lot of the attraction to Warp as a label is that they don’t really care a lot of the time. They’re not afraid to go against what they’ve done before – they just do stuff because they think it’s good. They’re not trying to stick to one thing, and they’re not afraid to branch out and go in a different direction. I find it exciting, and I think it’s exciting for people who are listening.”

HudMo is clearly stoked to be signed to Warp, although he doesn’t claim to always have been an avid follower of the label’s artists: “I wasn’t aware of the mid-90s Warp stuff at the time. I wasn’t really aware of it until I got into the 2000s. I do love that stuff. My favourite act is probably Boards of Canada. I was listening to them for a long time. Obviously Squarepusher and Aphex are big influences, I just wasn’t aware of them at the time.” Citing hardcore and jump-up jungle as his first musical passions as a youth, he explains: “I never really ventured to deeply into anything a bit more leftfield.”

Leftfield isn’t precisely where he has ended up, either. The polished sheen of Joy Fantastic, featuring vocalist Olivier Daysoul, wouldn’t sound out of place on daytime Radio One. On some level, HudMo is aware of the track’s crossover appeal, but he remains humble about it: “I’m not hoping for it to be a huge hit… I have no expectations. I think that’s the best way to be. I’m sure it will get some radio play. I hope so anyway.”

When we talked, HudMo had just wrapped up filming on a video for Joy Fantastic: “We were actually making a video yesterday, with Konx-Om-Pax and a few other people, some from LuckyMe. It was a collaboration. We used lots of costumes, shot some stuff on green screen.”

It was a shoot that nearly didn’t happen: “In the space of 24 hours Olivier managed to miss three flights to Glasgow. He caught the fourth flight and made it over. He’s from DC originally, but he was flying from London. Eventually he got here, and we had five hours to shoot his parts of the video, then he had to leave again!”

Daysoul didn’t spring from out of nowhere – he is a long-time friend and collaborator. “Olivier Daysoul’s been a friend of mine for a few years. I originally met him through an emcee called Oddisee, who I was working with a couple of years ago.” He seems to have enjoyed the experience of filming: “It’s my first video, so I’m quite excited about it. It’s possibly going to be a single, but definitely the video will be used to launch the album.”

Daysoul also guests on Just Decided – one of the album’s highlights, where the pop floss of the vocals and production contrast perfectly with the underground swagger of the beats. The tracks featuring Daysoul are a great demonstration of HudMo’s ability to produce for commercially-oriented vocalists, something that he has wanted to do for a long time: “That’s where I want to end up. I want to always keep doing my solo records, but at the same time I want to be an executive producer, and work with artists. I’d like to work on an entire album for someone; work together with them. That’s what I find challenging and exciting. I’m working on getting into a lot of places just now. I’ve just started working with a really good manager – he’s got a lot of really good hook-ups. He’s also managing a lot of other great bands – he manages Bloc Party and Phoenix. He’s really hooked up with A&R people and so on. I think it’s just going to be a matter of time – at least I’m hoping it is, because it is my ambition to get there. I feel like I’ve been doing stuff for long enough that I’m able to move into that scene.”

Undoubtedly, Hudson Mohawke has the talent, ambition and drive to make all these things happen, and more. Perhaps the most unique and multi-faceted artist to emerge so far from the LuckyMe collective, his first album is a bold statement of intent, equal parts humorous, maddeningly catchy, and sonically groundbreaking. It is a complete contrast to the somewhat deadpan, ‘serious’ experimental music that has characterised some of Warp’s most celebrated releases. Like a demented kid hopped up on sugar and excess adrenaline, it lurches excitedly around hip-hop, R&B and dubstep without ever coming to rest.

Hudson Mohawke is very ambitious, but Glasgow keeps his feet on the concrete: “If I have the possibility of working with major artists, the attitude of the people here keeps me from getting too lost in that. It keeps me grounded.” Despite this, it looks increasingly likely that the young producer will become a major star. Personally? We can’t wait to see what happens next – and we hope it involves more dayglo, more glitter, more funk, and more animals with spiky hair. You know – something a little bit different.

Butter is out now on Warp.