Name: Ben Alpha
Current Release: 3rd Kingdom on Steppas
Recommendations: The Tao Teh Ching, I would consider one of the greatest works of art of all time. It's basically a really really old book, but the content is timeless. And Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks', it's an album that tells a new story each time I listen to it.
Website/ Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Alpha Steppa, visit his facebook profile for more background information and current news.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started from a young age, I began by learning the bass guitar, then guitar and a few other instruments, then my dad gave me his old soundcard, so I started making recordings. I've listened to various styles of music over the years, the first album I bought was 'The Chronic' and I'm still inspired by sample based production. My dad and aunt have been making dub since before I was born, so naturally they're been a huge inspiration.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Well I spent years making rubbish music. The hardest part is finding your sound, or just moving out of the way and letting it find you. The rest is easy.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The biggest challenge was simplification, to take a track and strip it right back, until you're left with only the essentials. My music was much too messy for a long time, the biggest lesson I learned was that simplification is sophistication. So I sold and gave away my entire studio and started from scratch with just a laptop and a midi keyboard.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio was technically way more interesting than what I have now. I had many instruments and pieces of hardware. These days it's much more zen, I just have the essentials and I like to have the ability to continue working on the road. My laptop is the most important piece of equipment. I have a Roland SH-101 which is a treasure. And I recently bought a sub-pac, which is really useful for monitoring bass when you have neighbours who aren't feeling the vibes.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Most of my productions swing between human and machine. I like to create a balance between the digital and the analogue. Being able to record on the move is vital, it's great to be able to record vocalists spontaneously, and field recordings are really useful starting points for tracks.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Yes I suppose it is a kind of co-authorship, you consolidate your sounds, run them through the machine, fiddle around with settings and find out what happens. Most of my music is made through experimentation and mistakes. This is the origin of dub music, it's kind of like one big mistake. A serendipitous mishap.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaborations play a huge role in our music, we work with artists from all over the world, so file sharing is really important. It always begins with a riddim, then I like to talk about some of the inspirations for the music and from that we'll develop the lyrics and song structure. I like to give as much freedom to lyricists and vocalists as possible.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Well I work too, with the label, distributions and various things, so first of all I like to get as much work done as possible, get it out of the way. Then I create space for music. Sometimes I won't make music for a few weeks, and the inspiration will build, from day to day experiences, travelling, discovering new places and meeting new people. Then when the time is right I'll sit down and document it all through music.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
We're working on a track now with a great singer from Ireland, Cian Finn. First of all we played him a new riddim, he began to ooh and aah on top, and from there we worked together on the lyrics, he began with the word Hosanna, which reminded me of the hymn from primary school, so we pinched some of the lyrics from the original hymn. From there we added in verses and recorded harmonies. Now we'll go away and rebuild the riddim around the vocal, and run off some mixes. The final step would be field testing, playing the mixes in the dance and paying close attention to the response.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Presence. It's as simple as that. For me, I just have to forget about past and future and create from the present. I dash any intentions, desires and goals and just keep an open mind. Leave your mind in the old cable draw and get on with it.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I need both the studio and live environment to be able to do what I do. The studio productions inspire the live performance and the live performance inspires new studio productions.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
We usually create a vocal track, and a dub version of the same track, this is great as it means I can focus on composition for the vocal edit, and then I can go deeper into the sound and have some fun with the dub.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
With the music we make it's not just about hearing it's also about feeling as bass is the foundation and the linking element throughout our music. Recently a woman came to a session and she had lost her hearing entirely at the age of one, but she's a huge fan of reggae dub music and soundsystem culture as she is able to feel the vibrations with great clarity. I found this really inspiring, as it shows how many dimensions there are to this music.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I feel the message is equally as important as the music. Music can raise awareness, it can make people ask questions and it can inspire change. I truly believe that music can inspire great shifts, political, social and even spiritual.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
It's incredible, it's something that has connected human being for thousands of years. Whether for celebration, contemplation, communication, meditation, warfare or worship. Music is a primordial aspect of human interaction and will continue to evolve for as long as we walk the Earth.