Breathless breakbeats and warped techno that drip with the energy of club walls; ASOK sets new parameters for making music in the moment.
“It all changed for me in 2013.” Stuart Robinson, producer and DJ, AKA ASOK, isn’t recalling his breakthrough moment in music here. By this point, he’d been DJing for over 15 years. And by the moment he’s about to recollect, he’d been touring the world as Cosmic Boogie, a project set up with Merseyside’s premier loop digger Greg Wilson. At the height of its success his lightbulb moment in music was about to flash before his eyes.
“I was playing at a party in Montenegro on a beach, a private party,” he begins, essentially alluding to the first steps towards this conversation we’re now having today in his home studio, one centred on his jagged breakbeat, warped techno and jungle-infused productions. “There was probably around 2,000 people there. About 1,500 were probably the most beautiful women I’ve seen in my life.” In the world of the jet-setting DJ, the picture he’s painting doesn’t seem like the crux for change, but he continues. “There was DJ Robinson, sweating behind the decks in 40 degree heat. People doing lines of coke from the decks. It was wild. It was going off.”
Starting out as a DJ in the mid 1990s, picking up a pair of Vestax PDX-2000s in exchange for designing a website for Manchester record purveyors Eastern Bloc, Robinson came up through raves in Manchester and Liverpool. He cites escaping to musical scenes thriving beyond post coal mining Newton-le-Willows as the gateway to dance music. “The best way to go somewhere new was to get absolutely twatted and go to dance music clubs,” he colourfully illustrates. Attending his first rave at 14, his first forays as a DJ came later in the world of drum and bass, jungle and hardcore. Though, he says, there was little change in approach whether in front of the decks of behind; always unadulterated release.
By 2003, he’d moved away from breaks and studiously delved into learning about dance music and its history. “I just started reading books and learning a lot. I met Greg Wilson through that, and we started the Cosmic Boogie project, playing disco all over the world for about five or six years.” Robinson was an in-demand DJ and label owner, doing his thing at headlining shows across the world with a slick mix of house, funk, boogie and disco. Then came that day on the beach Montenegro. The turning point, as 2,000 dancers waited for the cues of his next selection.
“I looked up and I just thought, ‘I’m not enjoying this. I’m playing the same set everywhere I go. I’m painting by numbers. I’m not learning anything’. I came home that night and ended Cosmic Boogie. One million plays on SoundCloud, 15,000 Facebook followers – I just wiped it out that night. Finished.”
The very next day ASOK was ushered into life. Initially a name adopted in his drum and bass days, the moniker served as internal resurrection. The restrictions of disco were forcibly pulled from the record bag, erasing a world of beach parties, four-figure attendances and indulgent hedonism. Robinson was to stop playing for everyone else. From 2013, the focus became creating something of his own. “I felt free. And as soon as that freedom came, I told myself to buy some equipment and make a tune. I bought a Juno 6 and Roland 707, opened up Ableton for the first time and realised I had no idea what to do.”
The baby steps into production quickly turned to strides after perseverance. The incessant reading and research soon developed into a knack for songcraft, energised by a sweat drenched empirical understanding of the dancefloor garnered in his youth.
Six years down the line, Robinson now has an enviable release discography. A slew of EPs and singles on revered labels Lobster Theremin and Mistress have arrived since that day in Montengro. Releases that meld acerbic acid house, twitchy jungle breaks, hissed atmosphere, blissful piano and pounding kicks. It is music written from the heart. Quite literally. It feels its way through like a heart rate rapidly powering the necessary bodily movement the track demands; rising, hurtling and, in moments, resting in the euphoria – if given the chance.
“For me, producing has been about recreating the feelings I had on the dancefloor, as a dancer, as a fan. It’s all about capturing that raw emotion in the moment.” The commitment to recreating the momentary euphoria is reflected in his producing style. Rather than piece together his tracks in arrangement view, everything is mixed live. The visual accompaniment is forgotten about, essentially. It’s as though Robinson could shut his eyes and completely let go of the walls that surround him once the music begins to rumble from his studio monitors. It becomes personal. Attached to the now, the moment, the happening. The mix has to be led by intuitive feeling, rather than the precision that can come to rule when gradually knitting small pockets of music together.
He further underscores the dancefloor DNA in his production when asked about the motives to produce in such a way. “I make a track as though I’m dancing to it in the club,” he says with an energetic animation. “I’ll be playing certain tracks through, feeling when parts get repetitive, when aspects need to breathe, when more urgency is needed. I’m always thinking of the rhythm of a room, feeling as if I was a dancer and wanting the break to drop out at that moment – when the body expects it.”
The process is like buying a set of paints, preparing them in front of an easel and allowing emotive drive to take its course. There’s no set plan. Rather than follow the paint-by-numbers DJing of Cosmic Boogie, his own music allows the heart to pluck random numbers form the sky a fill the space with energetic reds and yellows, all washed with a bright white flash of energy. It’s all about catching the spark, making the most of that high you know can’t last forever. “You can sit there and sift through so many hi-hat samples. By the time you get one, that raw feeling you had is gone and you’re no longer feeling it. You can over engineer it. You lose the part that made you excited about the track. You’ve got to connect with the music the way you’d want others to.”
He loads up Ableton and plays a track formed from in a recent rush of energy. The process seems even more urgent when he informs me that most of his tracks have been made in less than an hour. He continues to explain as he presses play. A breakbeat immediately serrates through the room. This is one he’s aiming towards release on Lobster Theremin. He starts to talk me through its foundations, but shouting has become necessary, such is the decibel level. “I get a load of channels up. Hit record, then start to bring everything in.” The shouted conversation tapers off as the syncopated drum patters take hold of his attention. The music has already caught him in just over one bar. As he later informs, music has to be cautiously rationed to avoid it stealing the abundance of his days. “I become totally lost,” he informs me, once the stop button is found. “If I put some dance music on when trying to work at home, I can’t do it. I’m in it, part of it, thinking over the incidental notes, any parts I’d change. It grabs me so much. My brain is triggered by dance music.”
Robinson has severe ADHD. It’s something which he has lived with all his life, yet remarkably has only been recently diagnosed. It’s highly evident as we talk; conversation regularly trails off into new topics. His voice is breathless at times, taking draws on a cigarette in the moments he pauses. His mercurial nature embodies the title of his 2016 album, A Mind Forever Voyaging. “You can see where the name comes from just watching me. It never stops,” he says with shades of humour.
Above his monitors and computer sits a sign reading the words ‘Don’t Make Techno’. It’s a mantra subtly rooted in his ADHD. Something which, in a musical sense, he’s taken ownership of, using the condition as a vessel to journey through worlds that require more than a 4/4 stride. It’s a jovial swipe in reality, knowing he does incorporate the genre into his productions. However, it speaks more of his unwillingness, or inability, to remain in one place. To endlessly look beyond the steady pace; running, sprinting pausing and quickly changing direction. “When playing, I have to change direction every three tracks. I get bored,” he attests. “The sign is just a little reminder to try and make something that’s not continually the same. Ultimately, I’m always voyaging, always drifting around.”
Mistress 14 by ASOK is available via Mistress Recordings in January 2020.