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The Enigma of Fred again..

Words: Dylan Murphy

Just as Fred again.. was hitting his stride in his now famed Boiler Room set, the music unexpectedly stopped. Whilst in full flow, the flailing arms of a punter touched the jog wheel and briefly stilled the sea of excitement. It’s the kind of incident you can’t prepare for and one that’d understandably throw most off course. However, Fred’s subsequent recovery not only averted a disaster but added to the theatre of what was to become a viral moment.

01

That Boiler Room

In the past, impressive Boiler Room sets and their memorable moments would slowly trickle down through the comments section into the collective consciousness. Now, the pervasiveness of short form video content has sped up the process. Sure, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram shared the videos widely, but TikTok is a different beast and its algorithm is frighteningly precise. It’s also indiscriminate when serving content, so you don’t even need to follow Boiler Room to see their videos on your feed. So it’s easy to understand why so many people have seen the clip of the clumsy raver named Rodney. While these events usually have a short shelf life, Rodney has actually become a strangely enduring presence in the English producer’s post-release world.

“I’ve actually had two bump-ins with him since Boiler Room”, says Fred Again.., who is nestled in the corner of his brightly lit dressing room in the 3Olympia Theatre. The first instance occurred shortly after the viral set. As he was leaving the stage at Warehouse Project, he was greeted by a vaguely familiar voice saying “hello mate”. “I was like ‘no fucking way’”, Fred laughs.

Shortly after, in the midst of post release celebrations for Actual Life 3, Fred invited any listeners with a bike to Hyde Park to ride with him. Fans turned up in their hundreds, dancing and zooming around on their bikes in what became the video for ‘Clara (the night is dark)’. The only thing he hadn’t thought about was what would happen with the crowds when he was finished. “I was cycling away and going quite fast because there’s like hundreds of people. I was like ‘we’ve done the thing now and I didn’t really think this bit through’. I pull up to the lights and this voice goes ‘hello mate’. I was like ‘What the fuck!’, the gods are shining on him and they are presenting him at all the most jokes times”, Fred laughs. 

The Rodneyverse is actually a very revealing piece in Fred again..’s otherwise oxymoronic presence. In 2022, the super producer turned solo artist has been both the centre of attention and a cryptic force in music. On the one hand, he’s intentionally created attention-grabbing experiences. There’s the aforementioned bike ride, while at the time of speaking, he’s planned a secretive 150 capacity afterparty in a small pub and has a treasure hunt scheduled for Amsterdam. Predictably, third party clips from these kinds of moments have flew online, plastering him across the timeline.

On the other hand, Fred doesn’t do photoshoots (he uses phone selfies for press shots). In fact, he rarely even does interviews. When he does, he avoids talking about his personal life in favour of talking exclusively about his music. Which is why the video interview with Zane Lowe was such a rare look behind the curtain. Moreover, intentional or not, there’s also a certain enigmatic quality that comes with using the voice of others to communicate to your listeners. He’s certainly more visible than Burial and makes different music. That said, it’s not outlandish to draw comparisons to his innovative peer’s solitary crusty press photo and cryptic presence. When you couple this with the fact that, in his absence, Rodney picked up his DJ Mag award on his behalf, it only bolsters the mysterious presence of someone who is always in plain sight. From the outside, one could surmise that, at its best, he’s a private, music-oriented individual with an eye for creating moments. Conversely, his critics would argue it’s all another cynical branding exercise designed to create near mythical status. 

Fred again, “Actual Life”

Fred doesn’t do photoshoots (he uses phone selfies for press shots). In fact, he rarely even does interviews. When he does, he avoids talking about his personal life in favour of talking exclusively about his music.

Either way, the Actual Life series became an unofficial soundtrack of sorts during the pandemic and a lifeline for so many. On his three album run, he spliced voice notes, audio from poetry readings and videos from his camera roll to convey the power of tiny moments by stretching them into hypnotic affirmations. Take the words of an open mic poet on ‘Kyle (i found you)’. Its electric deconstruction of human connection understandably became even more powerful during a time of social distancing and Fred describes them as “close to perfection as 8 words could get”. While the rest of the deeply personal diary entries make for supportive headphone music, it’s the live arena where it really thrives. So when he finally had the chance to tour the records in America, Fred felt the full force of thousands of people collectively letting go of two years worth of pent up energy.

With that stateside experience in mind, he’s been building a new show for Europe which kicks off tonight in Dublin. When Fred is reminded of this, he quickly moves from the corner of the dressing room which has become a makeshift studio for the evening and reaches for his mobile. Every night, the 16:9 screens behind him showcase different notes and livestream whatever is being captured on a nearby phone. In the case of his Dublin show, that’s a message he sent his team at that very moment. While later on it consists of live footage of him entering the stage and people hugging each other in the crowd during the performance’s emotive apex. It’s not exactly a new trick, but it lands perfectly for an act who made three albums about human connection in a time we had to stay apart.

02

The Core Essence

In the ‘studio live’ performances on YouTube, his Coachella set and throughout his shows in America, Fred manipulated many of his own songs, often extending them in new ways to match the energy of the crowds. It’s something he’s taken to an extreme in a yet unannounced forthcoming project with his long term mentor. “I’m really thinking about that on an album I’ve done with Brian Eno which is very much stretched to that furthest” he reveals. “We’re planning to do some sort of performance in a gallery or something where it’s just a piano and an effects board and the screen or something”. If that elusive project is singular moments being stretched to their very limits, then the new live show is an opportunity to showcase the samples from the Actual Life series in their rawest form. Sure, delivering songs according to the crowd is DJing 101, but editing the songs themselves on the fly is a whole other kettle of fish and Fred is keen to ensure he doesn’t abandon their original essence in his search for innovation. 

“I think most of the time, the core essence of what I try to distil the sample into would remain. But sometimes there are songs that we do totally differently…” Fred says, swinging round in his chair. “The thing that I love the most is trying to show more of my working. That’s why I love at the beginning showing Kyle’s poem from ‘I found you’, but before he says the lines so people recognise the voice and the tone and the emotional spirit of this man. Then he says the sentences that they recognise and he starts to find a home in the song. I love showing the working of it. I think that’s a part of the process that I really like to bring people into the shows”. 

In an era where music is being designed for TikTok and artist’s brands can be the soulless creation of a market-researched campaign by a label, it’s hard not to be cynical. In performance videos and even in the previously mentioned interview with Zane Lowe, Fred’s passion for playing samples live on his drum machine has become a memorable feature of his arsenal and a way of showcasing how he creates. However, it’s no gimmick – he really is enamoured by the process. Even when he has a whole new, yet untested show in an hour, he can’t help but chop and play with samples.

“There’d be loads of music I make built on samples in a way where you wouldn’t notice it”, he says, flipping his laptop open and loading his DAW. “So a sound I just made just now for example is actually from ‘Ghostin’ by Ariana Grande” he says tapping at keys, playing chopped synths sounds made entirely out of the pop star’s vocals. “So like almost every synth sound is built from vocals and samples”, he explains.

“So a sound I just made just now for example is actually from ‘Ghostin’ by Ariana Grande” he says tapping at keys “So like almost every synth sound is built from vocals and samples”

While sampling is at the core of what he does, Fred also sings, albeit infrequently on his latest record. There’s more flexibility and the power to create right from your own thoughts with singing. So the obvious question is: what can sampling do that singing can’t?

“You surrender control and the sample is insisting on things on you”, Fred replies, without missing a beat. “You are in a dialogue. I’m not interested in my ideas, all I’m trying to do is create things that allow me… to perceive it as innocently as possible as opposed to create it. You can hear very easily how pressing… these… buttons.. is very natural” he says, pausing between words to emphasise the notes. “I’m almost always.. Well, sometimes I get into moods, but almost always not, interested in what I write. I’m much more interested in being confronted by something.”

It makes sense that Fred expresses himself more clearly when he shows you what he means, rather than telling you. It’s why he doesn’t do a lot of interviews. You can find almost everything you need to know in his music.

It makes sense that Fred expresses himself more clearly when he shows you what he means, rather than telling you. It’s why he doesn’t do a lot of interviews. You can find almost everything you need to know in his music. Moreover, Fred’s creative process suggests that the emotions he is faced with and the overarching story is at the centre of his music. Not him. He’s just trying to witness and share. Sure, he might enter the frame throughout but never at the cost of the bigger picture. Likewise, when somebody like Rodney is presented to him, he becomes part of the story.

“Storytelling. That is the word that we talk about.. That is the word that we talked about the whole time. Increasingly, the live show is malleable and I can change things on the fly. We’ve got huge, different pre-programmed aspects on the visuals, but all we ever talk about is like, ‘Okay, if I do that, does that still work in terms of the story we’re trying to tell like if I decide to randomly go into this song? Does it compromise the storytelling on the screen and the storytelling?’, Fred muses.

“So yeah, it’s a kind of endlessly complex puzzle”.

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