When Ellesmere Port’s EVIAN CHRIST answers the phone, he gives no indication that, to him, this interview is the public relations equivalent of shitting on his own doorstep.
Softly spoken, warm and gentle, one might expect trepidation from a man whose policy has been that of blanket anonymity across all Merseyside postcodes. To be sure, the differentiation between globally eminent production maestro Evian Christ and teacher-in-the-making, publicity-shy Joshua Leary is stark. So, when we chat to the prodigious 22-year-old beatsmith, naturally it’s not his relationship with professional deity impersonator Kanye West or his burgeoning music career on which bread is broken.
“I tipped Simon from the start,” boasts Josh of his early endorsement of 2015 Masterchef winner Simon Wood. “He just seemed to have an air of confidence about him. I thought it was a good one this year, actually. I guess that’s interview done then.” He’s aware that this is the last topic of conversation you’d expect one of TriAngle Records’ most promising young artists to espouse, especially one hand-picked by Kanye West to make beats for his highly acclaimed 2013 LP Yeezus. But the self-evident duality of Josh’s worldview goes much further than his proclivity for cosy middle-class reality cooking shows. Back in Ellsemere Port, Joshua Leary may as well be just another skint twenty-something, twizzling pocket lint in his fingers, because as far as he’s concerned, the kind of exhibitionism extolled by his American kingmaker should be kept well at arm’s length.
“I’ve still not really figured out what my mates think [about my music career], to be honest,” he says with a slight tinge of melancholia. “I’ve kept it quiet from a lot of people; I like to keep a pretty low profile in the Port, to be honest. I still hang out with my old school mates and play footy every week with the same group of lads, but I try and stay under the radar in terms of my music. Sometimes it feels too personal, so there’s not too much crossover with the music and my personal life.”
Having trained as a primary school teacher, Josh learnt the hard way that spinning too many plates can lead to personal disharmony. Torn between music and his studies, his first eight-track foray into experimental electronic music as Evian Christ had all the hallmarks of a part-time bedroom isolationist: introverted and cerebral, it borrowed R&B tropes en route to something more gritty and modern. Produced on an antiquated version of Cubase during the school holidays, visceral tracks including Fuck It and Drip found their way onto YouTube, and thereafter into the consciousness of the gratuitous music blogosphere. But bereft of any geographical reference points, his dark, guttural, and, at times, incongruous debut productions offered no clues as to who this anonymous beatmaker might be. “Making music while teaching felt like I was leading a double life,” he says. “But that’s just the way things are nowadays, I guess. You can put a couple of songs out and tour the world off them. That’s the internet for you though, isn’t it?”
As with any epoch-making internet upstart, you’re only as good as your last sardonic Pitchfork review. But with his career in education hanging in the balance, more extra-curricular activity still followed in the form of free online mixtape Kings And Them – the first fruit born from a record deal with idiosyncratic New York label TriAngle.
“During the first month or two [after releasing Kings And Them] I was trying to balance both my studies and music, but it turned out to be pretty impossible,” he admits. “I was starting to play shows, but you need every minute available to you to study and plan lessons, so it was untenable. After a month or two of trying to do both, I just dropped the music thing for another four months or so, which was the right thing to do.”
Needless to say, Josh passed his teacher training with flying colours and flew out to the US the next day to tour. But then the musical equivalent of Chelsea signing a Conference North amateur to play up front in the Champions League Final happened. Someone had been listening to Josh’s handful of discordant beats, and that someone happened to be Kanye West. Kanye was working on the material that would become Yeezus, and he asked Josh to work on some beats: the track I’m In It was the result, and made the final cut. When Yeezus had lift off, Josh went from being a self-censoring YouTube non-entity to a major league dexterous beatmaker overnight, and Josh was one of the key engineers behind its puncturing of the stratosphere. But fast-forward to 2015 and there’s a sense that this affiliation with contemporary hip hop’s most infamous caricature has begun to wear thin. Notwithstanding the plaudits received for his early solo offerings, has Evian Christ become a pseudonym for ‘that Kanye West guy’, and has the flavour-of-the-month-ism partly responsible for his meteoritic rise been a cross to bear?
“For the first couple of years at least, I accepted that people would interchange my name with ‘music producer’ or ‘Kanye West collaborator’,” he says with a measure of maturity unbecoming of his baby face. “I was actually out in Chester a few weeks ago, and some kid came up and said, ‘You’re the Kanye West guy, right?’. But I’ve just not allowed to get myself frustrated,” he concludes.
More Scottish separatist than centre-ground unionist, Josh positions himself to the leftfield of Kanye – a position he occupied with authority on 2013 EP Waterfall. Does he see the release of his debut LP as the post-Yeezus graduation present he sorely needs to distance himself from the Special One?
“I was really happy I got to work on that record with him,” he enthuses. “It was a career-defining moment for me, but I’m also ready to move on and do my own thing.”
Between modelling for brazen Calvin Klein adverts, putting the finishing touches to his first LP in the Port, working with US rappers in New York, and selling-out venues across Europe, he’s not doing a bad job of compartmentalising the Kanye question. For now at least, his post-graduate degree in existential studies will have to be deferred. With a headline slot tonight at Sound City’s new warehouse rave party to look forward to, he’s more focused on recapturing the excitement generated from his Liverpool debut at Abandon Silence, where “everyone in the venue was deliriously hammered”. Lighting technician Emmanuel Biard and booking agent/mentor Mike Deane (Elastic Artists) – who have “both played an integral part in taking my live show to the next level” – will do their bit (no spoilers) to make sure that plan comes to fruition.
Although Evian Christ the beatmonger is surely greater than the sum of his collaborators, it seems the path to becoming an artist in his own right has started in earnest. When I ask him what he’d do if his label dropped him tomorrow, his response is typically genial. “I’d go back to teaching of course,” he purrs, “because it’s way more important than music or Kanye West.”