Photo: Press (Afrodeutsche)
The Manchester label Skam is legendary, but low-key. Home to releases by Gescom, Boards of Canada or The Fear Ratio since the early 1990s, it has barely been active in the past ten years. Hence when in 2018 promos were sent out for the album by a previously unknown producer debuting on the imprint, it was sure to raise some eyebrows. And the music did, too. On Break Before Make, Afrodeutsche merged abstract electro beats with techno sentiments and hopeful undertones. Since then, Henrietta Smith-Rolla has released one more EP under the moniker that pays homage to both her father and an Underground Resistance track and is now back with a film score for the mini-documentary Kamali under her real name. Ten minutes of stripped piano sounds is not exactly what you’d expect from someone who made her debut on a label such as Skam, but then again Afrodeutsche’s music came just as unexpected. Her mix for the Groove podcast turned out delightfully “wonky,” as she puts it during our Zoom conversation about her DJing and soundtrack work.
You’ve grown up in Devon and it’s well documented that the compilation Jungle Mania 94 and tracks like “Can You Feel It” were quite important for you. When however did you first attend a rave?
That’s hard to say because there were so many. I never knew who the promoters were, or how to get there. (laughs) When I was living in London, a friend was having a rave in the field in Devon. So I went home to go to this rave. I didn’t know who was playing but I recognised 80 to 100 people there. I remember lying on my back and thinking how incredible it was that I moved to London to experience all this music but needed to go back to Devon to have a feeling of how amazing this music is, the people, the effort to get there. The fun around it is what I remember most. I never remember who was playing. It was about being part of it. That was around 1999 or 2000.
What kind of music was it?
Electronic. It was jungly, there were a lot of MCs around at that time. I loved that vibe of having an MC jamming to records that wouldn’t necessarily be released, or a track would happen that night when an MC would be freestyling. It was very jungly, I wasn’t into drum’n’bass. It was breaks, loads of breaks, all very hip-hop-influenced and with a lot of sampling. It was my introduction to a lot of other musical styles because I wanted to find out where they got their samples from and it was a jazz record, or a soul song, or folk.
And in London?
It was a very different scene. I was working in the music industry at that time. I was working for a company that managed the Spice Girls, S Club 7, and Annie Lennox. I had moved to London with the expectation of being within the music industry. I ended up temping and was all over the place until I settled at the management firm and moved to the producers, engineers, and writers part of it. There, I actually copied Amy Winehouse’s demos from DAT. It was a very different world. I was really glad to be in it because I learnt about that side of the industry. I was 19 and I had left Devon and found myself in pop music. It was an interesting time.
Were you going to clubs at that time?
I was going to clubs in East London. Plastic People was a regular place, 93 Feet East, I remember when that opened up – I loved going there. It was all the bars and clubs down Brick Lane. The Old Truman Brewery. Jamie Lidell would play live sets there. It was circumstances, being in London alone and finding friendships and sustaining and maintaining those meant that you were in a certain scene.
And how did you get into DJing? Did you pick up producing first?
I was in bands before I was making any music myself. I was singing jazz, I was in a band called Sisters of Transistors, we played 60s organs and synths. I was teaching myself how to play the keys by being in bands. I was in a band called Silverclub and that’s where I first started using Ableton. I wasn’t really aware of it before that. That’s how I fell into producing, I needed something to facilitate what’s going on up here (points at her head). I was teaching myself and had some really close friends who were supporting that. Everyone was a teacher, all my friends were happy to share. If I had a question, I could just send a message and they’d be round and we would be making music. DJing was always there, but not in a professional sense. I had records and played them, sometimes at my friends’ houses, but I never really thought about it as a career. My friends DJed as a career and I didn’t think that was for me. Not until I moved to Manchester where I met other people who helped me with my confidence. I started a night with a close friend of mine called Claptrap. The idea was to play whatever we wanted to. That was around a time when you didn’t really hear any electro. We wanted to play our favourite 80s electro records alongside current electro records.
What role does DJing play in your work as Afrodeutsche? You play a lot of hybrid sets.
It started out as one thing and it became very different one before the pandemic. When I started out doing hybrid sets, I was so attached to my vinyl records. I spent so much time putting the selection together. When I had considerably less shows, I had more time to sit down with my record bag. With the hybrid sets, it was Ableton and my controllers and when I wanted to have more kick in a record, I’d have the kick ready and jam with that. It was a completely different experience to move on and learn how to use CDJs. It wasn’t practical to drag all these records around. What I love about CDJs is that you can use them like turntables. I don’t know how to loop anything… Well, I know how to do it, actually, but when the button starts flashing I just freak. So I use them like records and it’s about the fun I get from literally spinning it back in the right time to make a groove. Using CDJs means that I turned it into a live thing. It’s not just mixing to me. It’s about making other things out of what I brought with me. Obviously now, it feels really strange. Before I had shows, I would play for myself and it’s gone back to that. When you have a lot of shows, you listen to music slightly differently. When I’m selecting tunes for a show, I’m thinking about where I’m going, who’s going to be there, what the venue is, at what time I’m playing and that will influence what’s going into Rekordbox. Now I’m putting mixes together and the scope feels a bit wider. I always do what I want to do, but I feel like I’m more able to do what I want because the parameters have shifted. Now I have sleep! (laughs)
What are the parameters that you take into account when preparing for a regular club night?
The main one for me is time. I realised that my whole life is ruled by time and I’m very much a time person. Through doing live shows and being in bands I understood quickly that when you go to gigs, nothing runs on time. That’s the first thing I have to get my head around when I’m coming on after someone and get to the decks and all the settings are different and I’m freaking out because I can’t find this hole for that jack or the mixer is not the one that I usually use. I have to adapt to these situations very, very quickly. That’s why it’s important to me to be in that space on time, understand what’s going on in there, get a feel for the room about ten or 15 minutes before I’m about to play. I found that any time before that nerves kick in so hard that I just don’t want to play. (laughs) That’s not necessarily because of what the person’s playing before you, it’s like… I can’t put the feeling into words. It’s like… needing to poo. (laughs) It’s frantic and I like to be prepared as much as I can. The length of the set is also very important because I love to create a story, create an environment and I found that short sets aren’t as enjoyable to me. Because to me it feels like “IN – (makes hectic sounds) – OUT!” and then it’s like, “okay, and now I’m going to bed!?” With longer sets, your mind can go anywhere, you can prepare as much as you like. A four-hour set in a basement is just the best fun, isn’t it?
Speaking on a musical level: do you prepare different music for different locations? The room is always important. Helena Hauff for example made her name in a tiny club, Golden Pudel, and told me once she plays completely different music in bigger rooms.
That is a big deal and something I learnt over time. From playing a festival stage at Dimensions to playing Golden Pudel, that’s very, very different. My question is always: what do I want to dance to in this space? In smaller spaces, I want to dance to things that are a bit more lyrical, that might have an MC in it, that have some words in it. The Aphex Twin show in London was crazy. I was walking around and everyone was watching Aphex, losing their minds. And I’m thinking: “I’m going on afterwards! Am I prepared? I don’t know!” What I’ve done with that set was that I had decided to play all the things that would make me dance so out of my mind and take me back to that rave time that I had when I was younger. I packed a lot of stuff that I played years and years ago, from 1992. All this jungle, Mark Bell. That one was very much about the people who where there. What I do is that I run music through Ableton, put limiters on, basically do an edit of a track for the space. So there’s a lot of mastering going with digital music for those spaces. Unless you want to do a traditional hardcore set and everything is completely unbalanced and you don’t know what’s going on! (laughs)
That’s part of the charme though! You also spoke about the emotional aspect and how that is important to you – which can mean many different things. How does your mood affect the way in which you DJ?
I think it’s the other way round! When I DJ, it changes my mood. I’ve been on tour, I’ve been exhausted and I’ve played three shows in a row at 7 a.m. each time and I’ve not slept and I get to the fourth one and all my tiredness cannot affect how I play. The great thing about DJing is that as soon as you find the first thing that you are going to play, that’s it. My mood just goes to (exhales sharply) “Did I bring that one? Oh my goodness, I’m playing this next! Oh my god, I’m so glad I brought this! Oh my goodness, I love doing this!” Music flips my mood. I get excited.
Are there specific tracks that you can always rely on to have this effect on you?
There is one. I think it’s my favourite… Oh, this is a big one: I think it’s my favourite track of all time! It’s “Riptide” by Decal. It’s everything I need from electro, it’s everything I need from bleep, from the filmic aspect, sonically it’s just… (makes explosion sounds) It’s my last track go-to because it means that I can catch a breath and have a dance! (laughs) The first time I played Säule, I was doing a hybrid set for four hours. For that set, I had chosen records that I wanted to hear on the soundsystem. I didn’t know if I’d ever play there again, so I brought them all. There was no genre to me, just whatever I wanted to hear. And then I got to the last record, thinking: “I’ve done it!” So I put this record on and start jumping… and just slip the needle off the record. So I shouted “dance amongst yourselves!” and picked up the needle and dropped it. Miraculously, it was in time. I got away with something huge there.
You’ve mentioned before that the parameters have shifted though. How about your NTS Show, Black Forest, that you used to do monthly and now do somewhat semi-regularly?
I’m doing it quarterly, yeah.
How do you go about programming that show?
I always felt it was a slightly different voice of mine. When I started, I was so petrified of hearing my voice on the radio. What I did was recording my voice saying stuff and putting that into the show. What it led on to was me being able to speak but using other things. A few years ago I had a theme of Blade Runner running through every show, to take you through the film, so you might recognise skits in there from the film. Then it moved on to a different kind of voice where I was remembering growing up and my sound influences because it wasn’t just music for me, but also sounds. I would obsess about things. One of them was TV ads when I was growing up, so that was something that moved into the show because I was basically talking about my history. There would be certain jingles or shows that reminded me of that time, so I put them in there. NTS is amazing because they allow me to do that, having a show with zero dialogue.
Since you have already mentioned a film score, maybe we can talk about your new release Kamali. You have composed it without having seen the documentary that it was made for, is that correct?
That wasn’t with Kamali, but a different documentary called Baraka. But when I’m scoring things, I will not listen to anything that’s going on in that footage so that I can interpret it from that point of view. I get heavily influenced by any kind of audio and I will mimick it. In order for me not to go down that road, I won’t listen to things. Also when I’m writing , I won’t listen to anyone’s music but my own. Which sounds a bit mad, but it helps me process things and I’m not influenced by anything else.
It’s interesting that you mention that. What I found so striking about Kamali was that there are so many piano records these where you can hear someone sniffing in between, or the piano stool creaking – those little things put in there to create an air of authenticity. You do not do that.
I know what you are talking about, but that was not a conscious decision. It’s all down to what I have in my studio. I have a Technics SX-P30 and, disregarding uprights and grands, for me it’s the best. It’s full-sized, the keys are weighted in a great way and whatever they made the keys out of just works for me. That itself influenced how I was playing because I know it so well, I know how to touch it and how much reverb to use, but there wasn’t any intention for it to be so… “digital.” My mind just moved towards this piano. And the sampler on it is incredible. You can’t find them anymore and that’s what’s really devastating about them. I have to look after mine very well! (laughs)
After seeing the documentary and going back to the record, I also noticed how much space there was on the record.
That was intentional! I was writing a theme for each character in this documentary. I started by watching it with no dialogue and improvising over a scene over and over and over again. I recorded anything that was happening with the understanding of what was going on in the film at the time, so that also influenced which part of that section I wanted to use. The space was intentional because for me it needed to feel real even though I wasn’t using an upright piano or anything like that.
How do try to compose music around a character though if you cannot hear them?
It’s a weird thing to explain. I guess I approach it in the only way I know how. I get the film, go through it and pick out moments in which I think there should be music. Then I discuss that with the director, because they also have ideas about where they want audio and where they want music. And then you cross-reference those and then I sit with the film and mark out all those sections and loop them, and then watch the film again. It’s a self-taught process. For me there is a small formula to it and again it’s about time. It’s quite an intense writing process, but it works for me.
I imagine it to be quite difficult to translate a person’s character into a piece of music.
It’s definitely a task I like to take on. I do feel like it’s something that I can do. I don’t know how. (laughs) When you watch a film without audio, you start to notice other parts. In a scene, you might see something in the background that you hadn’t noticed before because you had been distracted by the audio. By not listening to anything what’s going, it’s almost like I get the director’s point of view. Say the director has a shot that is moving from the bottom of the screen all the way up to the top and it’s of an object. What I like to do is that I like to play with what the camera is doing sometimes and often you can flip things. A melody that is rolling down might make sense with a camera panning down on an object, but I would do the opposite. Coming from the director’s point of view is a useful tool to translate what they were doing. It’s like a back forth between what you’re actually seeing and how things are moving as opposed to the narrative that’s actually going on.
Since you’ve mentioned that you are self-taught: were there any soundtracks besides Blade Runner that were influential or had an impact on your work?
Yeah. I always forget his name… Batman Returns. Danny Elfman!
The Simpsons guy!
I love his work so much because he’s bonkers! I love his melodies. Batman Returns with Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer, that score blew my mind. So much that I went out and bought the VHS. I realised it has had an influence on me and how I do strings and how I make melodies. It’s a very melancholic score. If you listen to it all the way through, you don’t need to watch the film. It’s its own thing. And when you have watched the film and you love the film as much, it connects you back to the film and then it’s even more fun! It’s his darker, melancholic side that I really, really enjoy. It’s definitely influenced me in how I put strings together. It’s like he had all the rules and he understands all the rules, but he doesn’t adhere to them. Whereas I never had the rules, so I’ll never really adhere to them.
Stream: Afrodeutsche – Groove Podcast 279
01. Galaxian – Terminal Phase
02. Outermost – Mystic River
03. Unknown Artists – Circular Breathing_V1
04. Clark – The Chase
05. Dopplereffekt – Higgs-Mechanism
06. Simon Leeks – BME
07. Todd Terry Project – The Circus
08. Afrodeutsche – Dirt Hives
09. Sagat – Blow
10. Kosh – Headache
11. Simon Halsberghe – Close Mind
12. Mono Ekagra – Circuit Technician
13. Wee DJs Crisps – Fishcrisps
14. Leila – Melodicore
15. Simon Halsberghe – Human Voice Sample
16. Kosh – She Gets Mad
17. Martyn – Frozen Bread Snaps FYE4
18. R325 – 51381819
19. AS1 – Within Me
20. R325 – 151408420