It’s become customary for anyone interviewing Hudson Mohawke to make mention of how knackered he looks, how “absolutely fucked” he’s feeling, the toll his busy transatlantic schedule is taking on him. Honestly, though, I’ve seen worse. The producer, real name Ross Birchard, only arrived in Glasgow a couple of hours ago, having flown in from London – on no sleep – where he was booked to DJ the opening of a Star Wars-themed nightclub (“I went dressed as Chewbacca: full regalia, grenade belt and everything”).
A few hours from now, he’ll join fellow Glaswegian luminaries Rustie and Jackmaster at the Poetry Club, a tiny venue where the trio are staging a one-off happy hardcore night. In between, he’s holed up in his city centre hotel room, trying to evade the camera crew sent to document tonight’s event and who, much to his exasperation, have “even interviewed my mum.” He’s not exactly a ball of energy, but he’s holding up better than most people would under the circumstances.
Such is Ross Birchard’s low-key demeanour, even his obviously expensive clothes appear slightly ill-fitting on him. He hasn’t lived in Glasgow for almost a decade, but he still curses with the casualness of a native, and when talk turns to the music he’ll be playing tonight, he lights up at the mention of DJ Sharkey and Hixxy’s classic ‘Bonkers’ compilations: “That’s what I was listening to in primary school and I still fucking love it,” he grins. “I went around the playground selling happy hardcore mixtapes.” You can absolutely picture it: the playground may be bigger these days, but in some senses, Birchard is still that same industrious kid hustling his way around it.
Next month sees the release of ‘Lantern’, the long-awaited follow-up to his 2009 debut, ‘Butter’. It wasn’t idleness that caused the delay, but rather Birchard’s inability to turn anyone down: “There were so many opportunities to work with people, and it all seemed too good to say no to.” When one of those projects – TNGHT, his collaboration with Canadian producer Lunice – unexpectedly took off in the US, however, he found himself with a big decision to make.
“We were essentially offered a blank cheque to make a full TNGHT album,” he explains. “It took us a long time for us to decide whether that was a good idea, or if it would be completely at the expense of our own solo careers. We had industry people whispering in our ear, going, ‘It won’t make any difference, it won’t affect your solo stuff,’ but things were just mounting up. There was always another tour, another round of press, and we didn’t particularly like the direction that genre – or what became that genre – was going in.”
While touring the American EDM circuit with TNGHT, Birchard began to notice that “the crowds only wanted to hear drops, they wanted to have moshpits, they wanted to go fucking bananas,” and began to worry about being pigeonholed – “I didn’t want ’TNGHT’ in brackets under my name on every poster.” He and Lunice ultimately decided to put the project on hiatus, and while they plan to return to it eventually, “it won’t be in the same vein as what we’ve previously done, because I don’t feel like that’s a fresh sound anymore.”
He might sound conflicted about it, but Birchard would be the first to admit that TNGHT’s success opened major doors for him, the most prominent of which was Kanye West’s. In his capacity as an in-house producer for West’s GOOD Music, he worked on ‘Yeezus’ and brought that experience to bear on ‘Lantern’ by assuming what he calls an ‘executive producer’ role. “I’d never been in an environment where I could witness how a major record is put together, and I wanted to know how it actually worked,” he says. “I guess every A-league artist has their own process, but it was eye-opening for me to see so many people involved in putting ‘Yeezus’ together, and that was an influence on ‘Lantern’. I wanted it to be a project that I directed and oversaw. I had a group of about 10 people, including Benji B, Zane Lowe and Mark Ronson, who I could go to and say, ‘Could you maybe do this for me? Can you finish this particular line on that one verse?’ It was a more collaborative experience.”
Yet the larger cast of collaborators – the record also includes guest spots from Antony Hegarty, Irfane, Ruckazoid, Miguel and Jhene Aiko – has paradoxically served to declutter his sound. There’s a streamlined focus to ‘Lantern’ that Birchard previously would’ve regarded as anathema on ‘Butter’, which was made in a spirit of madcap maximalism, or as Birchard puts it, “me sitting at home going, ‘How can I make this song sound even crazier and complicated and weird?’” With ‘Lantern’, however, “I tried to achieve more with less. Previously, I would’ve said a song wasn’t finished until there were 200 different elements flying all over the place. I still love ‘Butter’ but I think a lot of it was an exercise in technicality rather than songwriting. People who are involved in music production really loved it, but as far as a wider audience, most people were like, ‘What the fuck is this?’”
From a production point of view, however, that same technicality has served him well in the dog-eat-dog environment of GOOD, where, after an uncertain start, he’s earned the label’s trust. “It took quite a while for me to find my feet there,” he says. “Once you cut your teeth, once I’d cleared that hurdle, it became much easier. The thing is, they might approach you and want to sign you, but even though I was established in my own world, when you go into a situation like that, you start from the bottom rung and work your way up. There’s so many people I’ve seen come and go from that group. They’ll be there for a couple of weeks and then they’ll be told, ‘Sorry, you’re not needed anymore.’ You have to prove your worth to them.”
Birchard’s current standing at GOOD is such that he can pick and choose which projects to work on – one of them, obviously, is West’s new album, ‘Swish, though he’s loath to say too much about that right now. “Within that A-list world, you have to know what to say and when to say it – and what you shouldn’t say at all. I’ve put my foot in it a couple of times before, so I have to be cautious.”
Yet ‘Swish isn’t even the half of what he’s got coming up: he’s also produced a full-length LP for Antony (due later this year), is “working on some stuff” with Mark Ronson, wants to move into soundtrack work (“probably after this album campaign”) and has another collaboration with Foals’ Yannis Philippakis on the backburner (“I need to catch up with him again”). Evidently, Ross Birchard still hasn’t quite mastered the art of saying no. Here’s hoping he never does.