Subtempo Guest Mix 045
Umber, the alias of Nottingham-based Alex Steward has steadily been releasing quietly sublime music since 2011. From his first EP ‘Morning’s Pass’ Umber’s music has incorporated electronics with wistful ambient soundscapes, and the latest record ‘Sometimes That Light, That Shine, Seemed Like A Pretty Nice Thing’ fully embraces the pulse of dance music, albeit with melancholic drones and shimmering textures. Recently the project has evolved into a duo, bringing Alex's brother Cameron on board to explore the live and DJ aspects of Umber's current sound.
Hi Alex and Cameron, first of all, thanks so much for doing this mix for us.
Cameron: You’re very welcome - thanks for having us!
Alex: Thanks, Rocco! We’re chuffed with how it turned out.
I’d like to start by asking what tools did you use to create this mix.
C: A pretty basic set-up using the Pioneer DJ DDJ-FLX4 and then a few tweaks and edits in Logic.
Is there a theme to this mix?
C: A year ago when we first talked about doing the mix we wanted it to reflect the atmosphere and tone of “Sometimes that light…” but as the tracklist came together it ended up spanning multiple genres and tempos. I think we’ve captured that mood of hope, which is so prevalent in the album and with Scatman Crothers’ magnificent baritone book-ending the mix we’ve created something beautiful and a bit unusual.
A: It was a back and forth between tracks that we both felt a connection with - especially ones that we felt were related to the theme and concept of the album. Cameron kindly put his DJ skills to hand and put together this excellent mix.It's rare when family and creativity meet, but in this case, the paths of these brothers have intersected throughout their careers.
You are brothers in real life, and have always shared a creative collaboration dynamic between you, which is unusual. How did that start? How did you transition from fighting over toys to collaborating in your creative pursuits?
C: I remember us getting on well as kids but recently our mum said we used to fight all the time.
A: Yeah, Cam may say we got on well but we definitely had a few fights and disagreements as kids - maybe I remember these more as I am the younger child. But finding a mutual connection in music and music production has definitely brought us closer together. I’ll always remember sitting in his room playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 whilst he DJ’ed some Trance vinyl.
C: Alex has always shared music with me, from his days in bands through to his solo material and I’ve always felt comfortable to give an honest critique of his work. I think as brothers, that closeness we have makes it easier to say whether something’s working or not.
I was happily surprised to see this mix come from both of you as a DJ duo. Tell me more about the project, and what the intentions for the back-to-back act are.
A: I’m eager to get back into playing Umber live again and sometime last year Cameron mentioned doing a DJ set with Umber could and should potentially happen. I just kind of went along with the idea and am hoping to try it out!
C: The potential of Umber being a duo allows for more areas of that sound to be explored, since we both have different tastes albeit with a lot of overlap. In a DJ environment we’ll both bring our own influences to the table and hopefully create a cohesive whole.
Will it be a strictly DJ set act, or do you plan to integrate live elements as well?
C: Initially the DJ idea was a way to play Umber’s music live but to bring in new elements that would work better in that environment - looping sections and experimenting with textures, bringing in samples, etc. At the moment it’s mainly DJ-based but I love bringing in samples from unexpected places. The Scatman Crothers monologues are taken from YouTube videos but I’m always interested in finding snippets of sounds that can add texture to the mixes. I think there’s definitely space for live elements to be explored and manipulated to enhance Umber’s sound and the tracks we choose to DJ with.
A: Absolutely. It would be great to combine the two elements of DJ and live music.Umber's solo output has a noticeable post-rock influence, ambient in nature. Alex uses music as medicine, and it definitely comes across.
Alex, you recently released your last full-length on vinyl with us “Sometimes that light, that shine, seemed like a pretty nice thing”. First off, congrats on the spectacular release. I know it was a marathon to get us here. How are you feeling about it?
Thank you, Rocco and thank you for putting so much love into what you do. It’s such a pleasure to be a part of the Subtempo roster. It's a relief to get it out there what with all the delays and setbacks but it was definitely worth it in the end. It's been well received which is great to hear!
Tell us a bit about what this record means to you.
It was my escape. When it was first being created (March 2019) I remembered this feeling of isolation and anxiety and getting into the studio after work was just a way of getting lost from what was happening outside of these four walls. It’s an album of hope and light - that there are good things to look forward to and things can be okay.
Now that you are done with it, what else are you working on? I know you’ve been doing these short passages that you post on socials with a small video.
Yeah, so those snippets began as a way of healing. I don’t want to go into too much detail but they again were a chance to escape from everything and focusing on that bought me comfort and a way to move on from things. It and they led me onto the next chapter of my personal life and I also guess the next chapter of my musical output. I’m working on extending these short pieces into full tracks and putting them towards a release under my name Alex Steward.
Whilst doing that I’m also working on the next EP with my friend Richard (Albosel). It’s probably best described as Bedroom Folk / Emo.. We struggle to find time to practice and write together due to other commitments but when we do it’s wonderful and great to bounce ideas back and forth with each other. We go back a long way and it’s good to have someone you feel comfortable writing music with.The recent vinyl release came out beautiful. SBTMP022. Listen in full.
In other conversations you and I have had, you’ve mentioned that one of your day jobs as a palliative care giver is quite demanding, and music is almost like a necessity, a medicine of sorts to come back to yourself. Tell me more about that.
It’s absolutely that. As you say it’s medicine. Writing music for me is a way of healing, reflecting and getting through each day. If i’m not in the studio i’m sat on the couch playing guitar. If i’m not sat on the couch then i’m out in nature capturing it’s sound and if i’m not doing that then i’m either usually at work or sleeping. Everyone needs that way to escape from work, as much as I enjoy what I do, I still need to find that way to just get out and do something different.
Cameron, you are a designer by day. You created the album package and zine for the record. How do you feel music and design intersect in your own life?
Even as a kid I appreciated the cover artwork to the music I had. My first record was Ray Parker Jr.’s Ghostbusters theme on 7” vinyl, which had a gatefold sleeve and a pop-up of the ghost - I loved that interaction with the product. It wasn’t just about the music but the entire experience that was packaged up.
I studied in Leeds and fully immersed myself in the DIY and independent music scenes there - screen-printing gig posters and working closely with promoters and bands. When I graduated from university with a degree in Music Production I didn’t really know what to do with it but during that course I had established contacts with bands and artists and have been lucky enough to design some amazing packaging over the years.
Even now, lecturing in Graphic Design and Illustration at Stockport University I strive to bring together design projects with music, including a relationship I’ve established with a Bristol-based record label CloudCore, who put out some of my favourite music right now. I’ve been working closely with them and have some really exciting projects lined up for later in the year.A deep connection to nature, as well as animals, seeps through Umber's music.
Do you have any thoughts on how visuals might integrate into the new Umber DJ act?
Absolutely. And I love the idea of expanding what Umber can be not just sonically but visually too. To me it feels like a place where collaboration can exist and so I’ve been talking with a student at the uni where I lecture and she’s interested in exploring a visual representation of sound. She describes herself as an “Archivist”, collecting fragments of video and sound - I’d love for it to come together.
If you had to imagine the perfect place to perform, where would that be?
C: I think a cave would be a pretty spectacular place to play an ambient set. Imagining you could just play the sounds dry and let the natural ambience of the environment provide the reverb. No raves in caves though!
A: Yeah, a cave or tunnel would be pretty ace. I would love to play live outside in a forest somewhere. Preferably during the summer or once it’s warm. Everything’s better in the summer right? Failing that I think intimate spaces are always great like a library or a gallery.
What are you looking forward to the most with this new DJ act?
C: I love the idea of it being this new unknown entity, and taking something like DJing but applying an understanding of production to the process; striving to create something new. With Alex and myself both having different skill sets, it’s a really exciting prospect to just bounce ideas back and forth, and see what we can do.
Are you both based in the Manchester area?
C: I’m in Manchester.
A: And I’m in Nottingham.
It seems like a place that has a very unique music culture. Synkro is based there. Lots of drum&bass. How’d you describe the scene?
C: Manchester certainly has a well-documented musical heritage with the Hacienda and Indie bands, and there’s some really exciting things happening in both Manchester and Stockport. I’m not necessarily aware of scenes but pockets of communities that are setting up and just doing their own thing.
Will you be playing out mostly locally you think?
C: For now, yeah. What Joe (Synkro) has pushed with SK1 Records and the nights he’s put on, he’s really invested in this idea of creating a community, and that completely aligns with my values, and that’s what I want us to tap into.
A: It would be great to get out and play wherever we can. There’s so many great places and venues up and down the country so it’d be good to go further afield.
Well, it’s been a pleasure. Wish you the best with the new creative endeavors.
C: Thanks so much.
A: Cheers, Rocco.
- [Intro] The Power of The Shining
- Brian Eno - An Ending (Ascent) [EG]
- Synkro - Cycles [R&S Records]
- worriedaboutsatan - Speak To Me [Shimmering Moods]
- Plebeian - Paradiso (Chewlie Remix) [Pseudonym Records]
- 3step - yea [CloudCore]
- Jeshi - 3210 (Ross From Friends Remix) [Because Music]
- Two Shell - Over U [self-released]
- LUXE - May I Help You [Radical New Theory]
- Leon Vynehall - Sugar Slip (The Lick) (Hagan Remix) [fabric Records]
- Luke Abbott - Modern Driveway [Notown]
- OSSX - Sigh Of Relief [Allergy Season]
- Doctor Jeep - Prisma De Luz [TraTraTrax]
- SYZ - Spiralizsa [Banoffee Pies Records]
- Olive - You’re Not Alone [RCA]
- [Outro] Acting in The Shining
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