Label Love #75: Bokeh Versions
Initially beginning life via the airwaves – a one hour transmission where you are as likely to hear the visionary dub of Keith Hudson and the narcotized drawl of Leslie Winer as you are the organic machine music of Pierre Bastien (a sample of what I heard on first listen almost a year ago) – Bokeh Versions has since flourished as an outlying channel for an experimental dub music that’s undeniably futurist, intercontinental, even interplanetary in ethos.
Just as the outlandish space fictions of The Scientist, the austere sub-bass mesmerism of Rhythm & Sound and the anarchic Illbient collisions of the WordSound label have conceived dub as a route to exotic new worlds, infinite dimensionality and unyielding evolution, Bokeh Versions has aimed to explore the radical facets of dub that emulate these qualities, whilst incorporating the divergent characteristics of artists who always stay reassuringly out of orbit.
Run by Miles Opland aka Bokeh Edwards, Bokeh Versions has been a going concern since the end of 2015, a name chosen to signify the labels inherent speciality in dub, disorientation and occasional irreverence (if sometimes unintended):
‘Bokeh's a camera term that roughly means blurriness. It's also Osaka slang for 'dickhead' (had to go to Japan to figure that out). Combined with (Dub) Versions, it seemed a pretty good encapsulation of what I wanted to do.’
In a relatively short lifespan the venture has welcomed the robust, beat-driven low-ends and meditative submergence of Voodoo Tapes, the sinuous short-wave jump-cuts of Mizunokuni and the mystic Muslimgauzian fracture of Abu Ama. Although all of them have added to and expanded upon the Bokeh remit, Dimitris Papadatos’ Jay Glass Dubs project and the prolific Seekers International collective have been particularly central to the cause. In fact, as Miles reveals, it was the Seekers crew that proved to be the determining inspiration:
‘I'd been in touch with SKRS a few years before – through a Sonic Router [RIP] piece I featured them in. They were everything I wanted dub to be. I wanted to get their music out there, push that sound, get more people listening. That seemed the purest intention to start with.’
The culmination of that desire produced the label’s first release, the ‘TrustInDigikal / IfUWantMe’ 7”, an effervescent melee of looped lovers rock, soundsystem heft and bubbling, zapping FX reminiscent of a sophisticated arcade game on overdrive. It almost didn’t come together:
‘It all started with SKRS. For ages I didn't think that first release was happening – no SKRS no Bokeh.’
If that was the overture, ‘LoversDedicationStation’ (their second Bokeh release, this time a full-length) was the pay-off, a plunderphonic scrawl that seemed to hotline lovers rock, rare soul, dub and disruptive electronics all at once, rewiring them into an alive and evocative collage. Hearing both records suggests why Miles was motivated to go to such lengths to spread the word about them.
Yet if the early aim was to champion the Seekers project, the purpose of the label has since built on what Miles perceived in the collective’s work; the idea that dub could be something more radical than what it was/is in its classic and modern iterations:
‘Bokeh was meant to be a home for experimental forward-thinking dub – no rootsy throwbacks, no overly-bassy system tracks. Definitely no dub techno. Pre-re-issue On U Sound, I couldn't see a lot of labels like that. Stellar dub releases existed but they were dotted around and no-one talked about them. There was a time when most alt-80s tracks had a dub remix on the flip, this stuff was pretty pervasive, thrilling and 'out-there.'
Coming from a place of acknowledgement and respect for earlier forms, mingled with a determination and ambition to split from the herd, there’s an aspiration to push the potential of dub music onwards, into unchartered territory:
‘Throwback stuff is really necessary; we need systems, roots, steppas, toasters – and the productions to support that. But there's this thread of dub as experimental music that seems to be forgotten. There's a weirdness and a madness hard-wired into dub: 'stop the tape, rewind, get those chickens in the booth, mic up your ride, play it through this metal spring'. Riding a 4/4 beat for 12 minutes of marbled vinyl – there's nothing dub about that. Something Spectre [Wordsound bossman] said always stuck with me – that dub makes the most of whatever technology you have to reach a higher plain. It seemed weird that there were no new combinations we could try, that music and tech is progressing but we've got nothing new to feed through the machine. On one level dub is a process, a set of FX and techniques you can apply to any input. It's kind of a reductive way to think about it, but it opens up a lot of possibilities.’
As with Seekers, Jay Glass Dubs is another project that unlocks this potential and delivers on these ideas. But instead of fluid energies, Papadatos seeks permanence through persistence with an exercise in acute dub reductionism. Across ‘Glacial Dancehall’ and ‘New Teeth For An Old Country’, spectral figures and percussive patterns recur, gradually layered with profuse showers of echo and reverb, eventually building to heady swarms of drum, bass and oscillation. Listening becomes like hypnosis in a vacuum, an entranced state in unfathomable chambers of sound.
It’s an otherworldly quality that’s in keeping with the other overarching concepts driving the label’s identity and activity, like getting a star named after you:
‘There is actually a Bokeh Versions star now – I think it's in Orion if that Star Registry thing is legit.’
Or, reimagining cross-culturalism for deep space:
‘Outernational is a really central concept: international + outer-space (I'm not sure if that's how everyone uses it) I want to have a release on every continent. I really want to go to Mars. I hope the label is still around when I do.’
But besides world domination and space travel, the more recent happenings around the label have displayed the shifting, broad-minded foundations upon which it’s based, how there’s incongruity and difference but a loose sense of coherence too, from Aquadab & MC A’s uncompromising Nippon beat missive ‘All Over There’ to Tradition’s pioneering early 80s dub curio ‘Captain Ganja & The Space Patrol’. As Miles sees it:
‘None of the releases fit in with each other really, but they all have this warped sensibility that's more dub in spirit than sound. That's how something like that Aquadab & MC A release came about. This intense Japanese language beat tape that grows the constellation outwards rather than keeping things in a comfortable zone.’
As for that most recent Bokeh excursion – the Tradition rarity – it’s a record that seems to certify everything that the label has set out to do from the beginning:
‘Re-issuing it was easier than buying it 2nd hand @ £300. It's the Bokeh white whale. I always dreamed of owning a copy and then the label happened, it felt like it had almost grown around that sound. Things started slotting into place but it took a good 6 months to track the band down. [When people mention] the mixing desk it links a lot of space music and krautrock and library music and dub – the studio as an instrument. [You can see] this shared futurist vision through people like Connie Plank and Raymond Scott. Suddenly it's all there in one record, it's stunning. Tradition were asked to work on the Dr Who soundtrack so there's this bizarre radiophonic link [amongst it] too.’
Besides this discovery there are other precursors that have helped shape the Bokeh cosmos, records and outfits which, like SKRS and Captain Ganja, have fed into what the label has become. For Miles the 90s UK steppas production house Blakamix holds a similar sense of anomalous distinction to more recent, direct inspirations:
‘Take an LP like Mixman's Antiquities Dub Series IV. It has this loose afro-futurist concept, an ancient Egyptian elegance, a lot of it sounds like sino-grime or proto-dubstep, a mate called it 'new-wave' once. And no one is talking about this stuff any more, people really struggle to place it in time or space. We're swamped with really dour and ponderous 'experimental' music at the moment, Blakamix just rips through everything.’
Outside of these more select climes, there are a few additional influences that have retained an impact, influences that make sense but might prove surprising to more purist persuasions:
‘A. R. Kane taught me to hear dub in the least likely places. They were this loose art rock band with ideas flowing freely through a dub lens. I listened to them a lot before I got into dub and they've only recently taken on this other meaning for me. There's this slight dub lineage through the 90s indie and shoegaze I grew up with. The story's a bit too fractured now but bands like Seefeel and Slowdive were using these massive dubby basslines swamped in echo and reverb.’
From the way Miles describes the sounds that have framed his own listening and, by extension, the Bokeh trajectory, there’s a sense of assurance, a firm idea of where he’s coming from and where he’d like to go. But it’s not as if anything is set in stone. There’s an open-mindedness and diversity running through what Bokeh releases, a liberated mindset exemplified by a willingness to collaborate, an opportunity which arose recently with Duppy Gun Productions, the dancehall label run by Cameron Stallones of Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras. This represented a chance to work with a similarly inclined outfit and confirmed where the future of dub could emanate from:
‘Duppy were playing in London round the time the BKV 001 test press should've arrived, I was meant to hand them a copy…..they played See I's 'Why Not Tonight'. Don't think I chatted to them but it's weird to be in a position to link up now. They had a last minute funding call out to JA to set up a studio and needed riddims stat. Some Bokeh artists came through rapidly and we had enough unreleased stuff for a split vocal excursion. The vocal stems give everything this new life and you realise that the future of this music has to still come from Jamaica. Duppy have been dreaming these fresh ideas that might only be possible when you remove dub and dancehall removed from its original context. Beaming them back to the island is really fucking important and totally changes the tone of these kinds of projects.’
Although, as Miles testifies, Duppy Gun have struck upon a revelatory interpretation of dub, Bokeh Versions have fostered their own factional network, one where dub as a process and a form feels invigorated and compellingly subverted. Judging by the volume of what they’ve got coming up, that’s set to continue:
‘[In our next run of releases} the centre-point will be this Jay Glass Dubs 12" – he's grown so much musically it's been really humbling. We've been working with this cult vocalist/poet from the 90s; it's some of her best work and a total mindfuck that this is even happening. We're rolling in some big guns for Glacial Dancehall vol. 2 – a split tape of chop and screw dancehall versions – one half Jamaican one half French. There's too many projects with SKRS, at least two I can see making it past the finish line for 2017. Two new acts from Japan. One will be an exotica/dub 7" with vox from Berlin. The other is totally different – tuff dancehall/gqom/grime hybrids. There's a few more re-issues in the works too. Plus some acts from Argentina and Portugal I've been chatting to for a while. I'm really hoping one of those happens – those countries have some of the freshest takes on dub at the moment. One more country on the Bokeh map too.’
It sounds like an unlikely premise but a label originally out of Peckham, now based in Bristol, is completely reshaping dub for the modern era, with sci-fi futurism, itinerant intent and an authentic love for the genre it celebrates and seeks to elevate. A mission to get behind.
‘2017 Bokeh, we've got the means to get vocals for everyone and make things truly outernational.’
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