After stepping back from the scene for a few years, award-winning Brit producer Simon Shackleton is back with renewed vigour, a new sound and a raft of beautiful new tunes. Best known for his prolific output as Elite Force in the early 2000s, fusing elements of house, breaks, techno and electro into dancefloor destroyers, Shack was omnipresent on the global breaks scene of the time. Now, producing under his own name, Simon is exploring “emotive electronica” and the results are extraordinary. Featured on the recently released ‘Anjunadeep 13’ compilation, his stunning ‘Traumstaat’ track announced his return. Now comes ‘Oplot’, a collaboration with Canadian outfit Objekt22. As melancholic as it is uplifting, ‘Oplot’ is a cinematic and brooding slice of broken beat electronica. We find out more about where Shack’s head is at these days…
Hi Simon! Welcome to DMC World. It’s great to see you back on our radar. Pandemic aside, what have you been up to over the last few years?
I’ve been busy creating a range of varied music in the shadows. After many years on the DJ frontline, I decided to take a step back from the brink for mental and physical reasons. I’d started to feel like I was slavishly creating dancefloor ‘content’ and it felt like I was simply servicing demand to drive continued DJ work.
It wasn’t easy to reconnect with music as a vehicle for self-expression, but as I worked through some of my personal challenges I started to lean into music again as my primary vehicle to feel and express emotion. I did quite a bit of work for film, TV, VR and advertising and with that came a lot more range and breadth, which helped me find a new creative voice.
Musically, you’re producing “emotive electronica” these days. Why the newfound focus?
Over the past 25 years, I’ve always strived to create emotive music that doesn’t belong to a singular rigid genre but previously I haven’t allowed myself many opportunities to do this outside of my artist albums. By taking the focus away from the dancefloor I’m making music that feels honest, passionate and heartfelt. I also feel like certain strands of electronic music have matured to cater to a huge audience who’ve participated in club culture over the years but aren’t interested in the highly commercial world of bubblegum EDM. And, in many cases, they’re now done with clubbing altogether but still love the sounds of that world.
You describe your new emotive electronica series as an exploration of “the transitional period between sleeping and waking”. Tell us more about that…
I’m fascinated by what happens in that murky transitional space between the subconscious and conscious mind, especially the zone between sleeping and waking. The instant I wake from a dream, it feels real and compelling, but in seconds it becomes unclear, opaque, and all that’s left is the over-arching feeling… the essence. In a way that’s how music feels to me. It’s a perfectly and universally understood communication of a feeling.
Anjunadeep recently picked up your ‘Traumstaat’ track for the label’s latest compilation album. Not a bad ‘re-entry’…
It’s been very positive in terms of exposure, and I was thrilled that they picked up on it for their Anjunadeep 13 compilation. You could argue ‘Traumstaat’ isn’t entirely typical of what they release on their label, but I think it’s great that they’re willing to explore new musical avenues.
The way that Jody Wisternoff and James Grant used ‘Traumstaat’ as one of the closing tracks of the mixed version made perfect sense – it feels like a euphoric send-off for what’s gone before. I always finished my seven-hour One Series sets in a similar way – with something deeply cerebral for people to take with them into the night.
‘Oplot’ is “a brooding piece of broken beat electronica”. Talk us through the production process on this one…
The track had an unusual beginning and then quite a lengthy fermentation process. Early in 2021 a friend of mine, Geordy Carson, sent me a track that his fledgling Objekt22 project was working on. I was really drawn to the melancholy tone of a couple of samples they were using from an old Ukrainian operatic recording. I asked if I could grab the samples and create my own interpretation of them. When I started work on it I soon realized I was somewhat limited by the nature of the original recording so I set about creating my own orchestral string parts using the DNA of the original samples and then went off on my own creative journey with the piece.
It took a year of revisions and reversions to arrive at the definitive version that’s just been released, taking the track away from my more traditional ‘wall of sound’ approach towards something a little more spacious and melodic.
How are your Elite Force fans reacting to your new direction?
The feedback’s been amazing so far. My favourite comment – and believe me, this was very humbling – was that ‘Oplot’ “Nails the breaks and orchestra crossover in a way I haven’t heard since [Hybrid’s] ‘Wide Angle’ 20 years ago”. Another long-time Elite Force follower described it as being like “Massive Attack without words”. I’m very grateful that so many people have followed me over the years across all of my many musical experiments.
What are you relishing most about creating this new sound compared to your output under your Elite Force, Zodiac Cartel and Lunatic Calm aliases?
In some ways it’s an amalgamation of elements of all my previous artist incarnations but my Simon Shackleton output’s always been reserved for music that’s especially close to my heart. It feels like the purest expression of my creative core to date, to be honest.
What other artists are inspiring you in this emotive electronica space?
There’s so much great music out there that’s been inspiring me over the last couple of years and it’s especially exciting to see such a renaissance of intelligent broken beat and electronica that sits so comfortably around deep organic house and techno. It’s also great to see artists not shying away from actual musical ideas rather than uniformly regurgitating the same dancefloor tropes we’ve been grinding on for the past 30 years.
I’ve been loving the work of BOP, Echo Map, Synkro, Aera, Jon Hopkins, Pavel Dovgal, Recondite, Rival Consoles, Aether, Bicep, Coeus, Andy Stott, Litherland, Aonian and my good friend Max Cooper, who continues to excel in everything he touches.
How will your new music translate into a live set-up?
I started rehearsals in late March with a world-class drummer, Jez Noble, who used to be our live drummer in Lunatic Calm. It’s been amazing to reconnect with the performance aspect of things. I’m classically trained and was a decent pianist as a teenager, as well as studying music at Masters level at University, so the piano and orchestral side of what I do has roots that run deep. I’m in the early stages of piecing together an immersive live show that also features live string players and gorgeous visuals with a view to kicking that out on the road in either late 2022 or early 2023.
What have you missed and not missed about being on the road?
As Paolo Coelho said, “I think it’s important to realize you can miss something but not want it back.” That sums up my relationship with DJing right now. I certainly miss the first-person connection you get from live performance and the instant gratification of seeing how your music moves the floor. I don’t miss the late nights, loneliness, jetlag and constant exhaustion that comes with the territory.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a producer in the intervening years?
That your music is merely an extension of who you are as a person – you shouldn’t ever allow it to define who you are as a person. Conflating your self-worth with your work is a terribly dangerous road to go down.
Since I stopped DJing I’ve fallen in love with music again and creating and listening to it doesn’t feel like I’m on a constant hamster wheel anymore. Interestingly enough, alongside my new emotive electronica output, I’ve also started making a few bits of dance music again. It feels like a big recalibration.
You made a huge impact on the worldwide breaks scene at its height. What’s your favourite memory from those days?
There were so many benchmark highs but I think it must be the release of my ‘Revamped’ album [as Elite Force] in 2010. By the end of the first week, all 14 album tracks were in the Global Beatport Top 50 and held I held Top 10 places in the Breaks Chart for a full month. That project was at least two years in the making and I was incredibly proud to see it fly so high given it was self-released, self-promoted and self-created.
What’s exciting you most about today’s electronic music scene?
A sense of musical adventure that’s been, in part, cultivated by the nature of streaming services and a movement away from a culture of ownership to one of access. I understand why so many artists are opposed to the likes of Spotify from a revenue perspective but as a marketing tool and music discovery platform, it’s pretty much unparalleled. It’s gone some way to creating more of a balance in the electronic music world between music to listen to and music to dance to.
The future of DJing lies in the metaverse. Discuss.
I’ve had an Oculus headset for a couple of years now and back in 2020 I worked with a company out of Philadelphia on a range of projects that ranged from high-end virtual gallery spaces to teaming up with SXSW to create a virtual concert performance from Theon Cross as an avatar. We recorded his performance in a MoCap suit at Abbey Road.
I feel like the pandemic really accelerated thinking in this space and I used the time to learn how to create 360 audio sound design and built some algorithms in Ableton to create semi-randomised ‘mixtapes’ from a small footprint of source materials.
There’s an exciting world of possibilities out there and I’ve had some awesome nights hanging out with friends and family at various events, including the inaugural virtual Burning Man, and I can see the hosting of virtual events adjacent to real-life events becoming the norm in the very near future.
When will we hear the next slice of new music from you and what can we expect?
I have an album’s worth of material ready to go but am releasing it methodically over the course of this year, with a single called ‘Draumur Innan Draums’ coming out at the end of June. I just started work on the video for that with filmmaker Chele Gutek and cameraman Jez Noble.
This summer I’m releasing a track called ‘Afterglow’ on Nick Warren’s next ‘Soundgarden’ compilation and I’m also discussing a standalone single release with Anjunadeep for ‘Traumstaat’ later in the year.