INTERVIEW: Illum Sphere – Crossing Boundaries
Different kinds of music befit different settings. The murk of a basement venue beneath a crusty old pub is an ideal setting for a night of hardcore, a vast club with a throbbing sound-system is perfectly suited to a drum and bass extravaganza and if you’re in the mood for something which pulses with electronic drones and erratic, elusive percussion, you’re probably best off with a listening club.
It’s a trend that’s actually been around for some years, but with recent trends in (ugh, this term) electronic music being what they are, their popularity is rising, especially in London. Much has been made of Spiritland, a venue in Kings Cross which combines comfortable surroundings, good food and good drinks with a state-of-the-art behemoth of a soundsystem. If this sounds like a weird combination, you really ought to see it for yourself. It’s like a bar collided with an underground club, a cyborg of pleasant ambience and audiophile artistry.
For somebody like Illum Sphere (real name Ryan Hunn), it’s perhaps the idea locale to play. The Mancunian DJ built his reputation on storming, eclectic DJ sets and the Hoya Hoya nights he used to run in Manchester flanked by Chunky, Jonny Dub and a number of others. More recently, he’s taken the Illum Sphere persona to new places, producing dark soundscapes which anyone more savvy with his DJing would likely have never guessed were his doing.
I met him in Spiritland as he prepared to preside over a playthrough of his second full length album, Glass, after which he would be getting on wax for the full 6 hours until the club closed. This album, he explained, was a bit more closely linked to his DJ sensibilities. “I’d never felt fully confident in my production ability, compared to DJing,” He tells me, after we’ve been corralled into Spiritland’s in-house recording studio. “I suppose the process this time was different, in that before I would overload things, or try and throw people off the scent. This time I was more subtle, I had it cross over a bit more with my DJ sets, there’s more of a nod to dance music than there was before. Some traditional dance elements, but my own take on them.”
Ryan’s previous album, Ghosts of then and Now, was a few shades darker, whereas Glass moves around, catches you off guard and might even pull you to your feet from time to time. “The thing with this record compared to the last one is that if you have seen my DJ sets, I don’t think this record will sound alien, or feel like a massive curveball, it’s consistent, but there’s a bleed.” Ryan explains, shuffling in his seat. “The way that I DJ has also evolved and progressed, I’ve kind of gone back to a vinyl based approach, which has its own challenges and restrictions, which I’ve almost tried to put on myself in a similar way with this record, use a more restrictive palette. Trying to focus each track on similar ideas.”
Ryan’s sets created a lot of buzz during the Hoya days, and although he’s since moved on, the spirit of that is still very much present, and many of the other Hoya crew members are still doing their thing in Manchester. “Manchester moves quite rapidly, there’s always a revisionist thing with it, but it’s such a progressive city, creatively, I think that I think that with things like Levelz and the Hoya guys, is that people were and are exploring their own tastes as they collaborate.” Ryan says, referencing the rap supergroup Levelz, which, among others, houses Hoya members Chunky and Jonny Dub.
“The reason Levelz are doing so well is because they are quintessentially Manchester, but they’re all doing their own thing within that. Chunky’s productions are on a whole different tip to that. That’s one of the great things about Manchester, there’s all this collaboration across scenes, nights, and artists, and people are always free to explore their own solo things as that’s going on. It was never just the Hacienda and something else, or Oasis and something else, there was always so much different stuff going on, people just do their thing there.”
Outside, the sound of Glass has started to ripple through. Ryan doesn’t have to take any direct part in that, his job comes later, but how exactly do you approach a six hour set when you’re playing to people who are sat around drinking Merlot and eating wild mushroom tortellini? “Something like Spiritland is different to a club, 6 hours in a club you know that you’re going to have a quiet opening that you can build on. I really enjoyed playing the opening sets at Hoya because it’s such an overlooked and massively important part of a night, that we found that, even when it was busy, the long you held off on really going for it, the more people would respond to the subtle changes.” He stops for moment, pausing for thought. “If you go in too hard to quickly, it’s much harder to maintain that momentum. With somewhere like this, which feels more like a listening session, you don’t need to go in hard, so it’s more about picking music that fits the setting, more things that are quite minimal. I enjoy doing things like this, it’s different.”
As mentioned earlier, places like Spiritland would seem to offer an ideal haven for the kind of sci-fi influenced electronic music that people are lapping up these days. Ryan has his own thoughts on the matter. “Things always move in cycles.” He says. “There’s a tendency with young people now to want to play on records on better soundsystems in better environments, which I think is a good thing. The problem with that is that it’s only fun as long as it’s not all-encompassing. You need the contrast, going to a punk at a borderline illegal value on a shit soundsystem is offering you a whole different range of emotions than going to somewhere and listening to really well produced music on a high-end soundsystem.”
Ryan stops for a second, expressing concern that what he’s saying isn’t interesting, but I encourage him to carry on, finding myself captivated by the way he picks things apart as he speaks. “There’s no one way to do things, I’m into a lot of different kinds of music, and I hope that this kind of thing doesn’t become any kind of norm, the novelty of it will vanish, and equally the raw, impromptu stuff is equally at risk of fading off. The best thing is choice. There’s enough room out there for everything to coexist. I’m in between worlds, I like to play in nice set-ups, on nice systems, but I also like to play in places where people like to get loose. That would be my ideal gig, the system’s great and the room sounds great but people are just going wild. There’s nothing worse that people standing around just saying ‘yeah that’s great’. That’s why places like Plastic People are so missed, because they were like that, people responded to the music in a unique way.”
You can hear that in Glass, each individual track is an exploration, and as a whole, the album plays out like a thought process, an extrapolation, and it serves as a better singular definition for the Illum Sphere sound than anything previous. “I started making music as Illum Sphere when I didn’t know where I wanted to go. Now I’ve stepped back and realised I don’t see it as any kind of brand, and the whole reason I experimented with this alias stuff is because I was making things that didn’t fit with Illum Sphere, and realising that that was not only fine, but it actually helped, in a way.” Ryan says, when I ask him about his plans beyond the persona. “If I was to press the reset button, completely ditch everything that I’ve done and start fresh, I would maybe do it in a slightly different way, some more conceptual stuff, some completely not, split them up. I wanted to do this kind of album this time, but I probably won’t next time. I’m not trying to bump up a level, whether that’s the right approach or not, but really there aren’t any rules, that’s just music.”
It’s an odd balance with someone like Ryan, he’s been in the game for a long time, but his approach still feels very young, experimental and untethered. His approach to DJing is all-encompassing and intuitive, because he’s reading the crowd and having a conversation with them about what he sees in music, but with the produced material, he’s reveal what he sees in himself, which is far more turbulent, more abstract. For some DJs, producing becomes an obligation, and then an afterthought, but with Ryan it is almost like he’s become two different people.
I stuck around afterwards for some of his set, since the last time I’d seen him previous to that was a back-to-back set he did with Mr. Scruff at a Solid Steel gig, an entirely different affair. Some people are taken aback when they hear a producer they like DJ, or vice versa. Certainly, fans of Floating Points or even Four Tet would probably be thrown if they went to a DJ set with only the recorded material to go by, and it’s the same with Ryan, but it’s almost an educational thing, a means of learning how a musician’s mind works in different facets. As for Spiritland, it’s certainly more than just a novelty, but as Ryan says, I hope that it doesn’t extend too far beyond its niche, there’s nothing worse for a scene than becoming too prevalent.
Glass is available to download, order and stream now. Check it out here.