On Ninja Tune
“Sometimes, it’s easier to describe The Qemists by saying what we’re not,” laughs Liam Black. “We’re not a ‘standard’ Rock band, we’re not ‘standard’ Drum & Bass producers, and we don’t try to be those things. But describing what we are, that’s more tricky...”
The Qemists are, in many ways, something of a Qonundrum. They’re Rock kids seduced by the dancefloor, Dance kids equally happy playing live instruments or building tracks on the computer, Drum & Bass aficionados who believe their hurtling breakbeats sound best under muscular metallic riffs. Their debut album, 2009’s 'Join The Q', juggled Junglist Metal monsters like ‘Stompbox’, gonzoid Techno throbbers like ‘S.W.A.G.’, and wall-shaking Dancehall boomers like ‘Dem Na Like Me’ with a diverse guest-list including ex-Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, Grime legend Wiley and Drum & Bass chanteuse Jenna G.
On paper, such a soundclash seems like a trainwreck in the making. However, pumped as loud as your hi-fi will allow, or booming through the PA at one of their live shows, The Qemists make glorious sense. Having already won a fevered following across the globe for their fearless genre-mashing, their ballistic body music, they return with 'Spirit In The System', a second album that’s bolder and broader than its predecessor, their next evolutionary step in their fusion of Rock, Drum & Bass and everything else that they love.
The story begins a decade or so ago, in a barn on the rural outskirts of Brighton, where schoolkids Liam Black, Dan Arnold and Leon Harris began making music together, as an escape from the mind-numbing boredom of their sleepy village. Even then, their work ethic was fearsome, meeting up to rehearse three nights a week, and all day Sunday. Drawing initial inspiration from the brawny Rock groups of the day –Soundgarden and Nirvana, RATM and the Chili Peppers – they kept their ears open and listened without prejudice. When they weren’t rehearsing in the studio or out at gigs, you could find them tooling along to raves with their friends, DJ Hype mixtapes blaring on the car stereo, or losing themselves at Drum & Bass nights, finding the same energy and dynamism that they loved in Rock music alive in Jungle tracks.
Soon they were spending their days studying music production and technology and building Trip Hop and Drum & Bass tracks on the computer, and their nights and weekends rehearsing in the studio. A slew of lead singers filtered through the ranks, until the boys decided it was best to remain as a trio, and to begin fusing their electronic ideas with their work as a live group. “We thought, fuck the politics of being ‘a band’,” remembers Dan. “We could be producers, we could be the band, we could play any kind of music we wanted to, and people would just have to accept that.”
Locked away in their studio, they were fiercely productive, honing their sound and recording many albums’ worth of material, which they’d play to friends but never send to record labels. They recorded two 12”s for Mastermind Records in 2004, but their career truly began when Liam began working as an intern for Coldcut’s Jonathan More, who invited the trio to remix ‘Everything Is Under Control’, the lead single off Coldcut’s 2006 LP 'Sound Mirrors'. Their high-octane rebuild became a regular highlight of Coldcut’s world tour in support of 'Sound Mirrors' – “They emailed us from the road, saying ‘Oh my god, your track’s just demolished Japan!’” grins Leon – and The Qemists signed to Coldcut’s record label Ninja Tune, to record the debut album – 'Join The Q' – that would make sense of their riot of influences and styles.
Spirit In The System, then, is The Qemists’ second chapter, drawing confidence from their debut’s success, and from slaying audiences across the globe with their bionic hybrid-noise. “We tested our music out by playing it live and DJing all around the world,” says Liam, “and got a better understanding of what people like about our music, and how they respond to the different things we do. It’s great to see how emotionally affected people can be by Dance music; they can have their best, deepest experiences on a dancefloor. We wanted to capture that range of emotions on the album.” They again enlisted an impressive and eclectic roster of vocal talent, to help them tap that deep vein of emotion. “We just said to the vocalists, ‘think about the emotion, sing about what matters to you’,” says Dan. “We wanted feelings on this record. We got one of the most emotional tracks from Jenna G, who returned for ‘Hurt Less’. She knew us so well from touring with us that she was totally unafraid to give it everything, and sing what she really felt.”
The album also includes collaborations with Grime MC Maxsta and Drum & Bass MC ID, Danish Doom-rockers Kellermensch, Chantel from Invasion (who Liam describes as “a Death Metal band fronted by a soul singer”), along with some of the cream of modern UK Rock talent. “We got in touch with Rob Hawkins of The Automatic because we’d heard them all over the radio,” says Leon. “He’s just got a fantastic voice; it’s really versatile, so we had him sing on ‘Apocalypse’, which is a real dance track.” Enter Shikari, meanwhile, took The Qemists along as support for their 2009 European Tour, and are, Liam says, “our favourite rock band in the whole world. We wanted more than just a guest vocal from their singer Rou; we worked with Rory on guitar as well, to make 'Take It Back' a true collaboration and it was a brilliant experience”
Aided by these guests, The Qemists deliver a decisively powerful, nuanced set, balancing balls-to-the-wall bangers like ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘Your Revolution’ – where the galloping break-beats and blasts of sub-bass send the listener hurtling on a sonic roller-coaster ride – with powerfully emotional tracks like the yearning, desperate ‘Hurt Less’ and the melancholic pulse of ‘Fading Halo’. The music contained on 'Spirit In The System' might defy definition, but it does so boldly, proudly and brilliantly, fusing the dynamics of Rock with the muscular tempos of Drum & Bass and the visceral rush of Rave into a sound that’s fearlessly all their own.
The answer to the Qonundrum is this: The Qemists sound like the sort of music The Qemists want to hear, and their ears are too adventurous to heed petty generic borders. “The younger members of our audience know its okay to be into all different kinds of music, that you don’t have to limit yourself in your creativity,” says Liam. “Yeah, we’re a band; no, we don’t have a lead singer; yes, we do have singers on some tracks; yes, we do DJ; and yes, we play live. It’s okay to be this new cross-breed, to do what you want; it’s the way forward, creatively. And I don’t see how anyone else does it any other way, to be honest. It would be terrible, we couldn’t ever limit ourselves like that.”