INTERVIEW: Five Minutes with The Young Punx

The Young Punx came into fruition in 2003, through London’s underground mashup, bootleg and breakbeat scenes. The brainchild of Hal Ritson, the genre-defying act has supported Tiësto with a residency at Privilege Ibiza as well as performing as a live band with guitarist Guthrie Govan at major international festivals such as Glastonbury, SummerSonic and a 24,000 strong crowd at Nano Mugan in Japan.

They have just released their new single ‘Wonderland’ created entirely on vintage ‘80s synths and modular analogue equipment. The track is a deconstructed version of Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’, turned upside-down and inside-out, and re-imagined as a pulsing talkbox driven, ItaloDisco anthem.  The track has received a nod of approval from the George Michael Estate as well as gained praise from co-writer, Andrew Ridgeley.

The Young Punx remain enigmatic in terms of style, blurring the lines and combining a vast array of genres to create their own eclectic sonic landscape.

We caught up with them to talk gear, inspiration, and getting the crowd wet. Read on…

Set the tone for us. Why the arts?

Artist’s don’t choose the arts. They fall into them like an alcoholic to drink. I’ll just make one track, it will be fun, people will like it, I can handle it. 6 months later you’re busy making an album, spending all your money on string sections and trying to act natural in front of your partner while secretly trying to write a second verse in your head.

Which comes first when you’re producing – the sound or the idea?

I am massively idea based. What would happen if you made the shipping forecast into a rap? What would happen if a ragga vocalist sang over surf guitars? Can we put a shred metal guitar solo onto a house track? What would happen if Amanda Palmer and Peaches rapped about female body hair over a hip-hop beat? Can we make a list of everything that comes into our head that is no longer around and make it into a track that breaks your heart? How about recording an entire big band entirely on 1940s equipment, then making it into a dance track? These are the (genuine) stupid ideas that wake us up in the middle of the night then challenge us to make them into reality.

Does your material feature any collaborations?

Sporadically, including regular collaborations with legendary indie rapper Count Bass D and, probably the most skilled guitar player of all time, Guthrie Govan. Plus guest such as Amanda Palmer, Peaches, Phonat, Vato Gonzalez and CagedBaby (Thomas Gandey). However more broadly we’re rather anti the “collab culture” of featuring name artists in a cynical ploy to build a reputation. We rather have the opposite going on, where if you look under the covers of our tracks you will find some of the greatest musicians around, such as performances with Basement Jaxx, Jamiroquai, Elbow, Sigma etc all jamming un-featured, and often performing in a totally different musical persona to the one you are used to hearing them as.

What’s on your current playlist?

Coleman Hawkins, Lizzo, The Chemical Brothers, Principleasure, High Contrast, The Police, Louis Cole, Duke Dumont, Charlie Parker, Yola, Naked City, Randy Crawford, Cassius, Mr Oizo, Swindle, The Tribe Of Good, Wax Worx.

Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage.

I’d quite like to take this question literally as I do prefer it when the fans are actually on the stage. We often try and have anyone from the crowd who wants to come up join us for a party on the stage, sometimes to the chagrin of the security guards, who need to be coaxed into
understanding that the audience IS the show in many ways, and that barrier can be broken by having the crowd join the band as much as by the band crowd surfing.

We were originally quite renegade as DJs – standing on the decks, wearing masks, pouring drink into the crowds etc, at a time when DJs were always SUPERFUCKINGSERIOUS behind the decks. We always tried to dismantle the concept of the DJ as a cold aloof tastemaker. Over time the EDM scene embraced, commodified and ultimately tarnished this kind of party-punk approach, but at the time other DJs were like “WTF are you doing?” but the crowds had a good time.

The difference between a great gig and a lame gig with the same act is usually more a function of the crowd than the act. The best nights are always thanks to an amazing crowd. There is a 2-way energy exchange between a performer and the crowd – its what makes live events exciting – and it can’t work if either party isn’t up for making it work.

There is a massive difference in crowds around the world. In London everyone is like “Yeah we’ve seen music before, what’s so great about you?” and act like it’s uncool to enjoy yourself. In Japan, the crowd seems to arrive with a pact that you are there to lead them in entertainment, and the more you give to them the more they give back. The first time we ever went on stage in Japan, to a crowd who didn’t know us at all, we started clapping our hands above our heads and 20,000 people immediately joined in – every single one. If you tried that in most London venues they would just laugh at you. In fact, our London-based plugger DID laugh at the footage saying “What is this? A Bon Jovi gig?”. But I’d rather a crowd that was up for a party every time.

I have no love of playing prepared sets or prerecorded sets of any kind. Live music is only ever exciting if every night has the potential to be different and mould to the tastes and mood of the audience. The audience has to be part of the feedback loop, not just a passive listener. If a band has a set list, or even backing tracks, there must be some scope for improvisation. As a DJ I only really enjoy it if I am deciding the next track to play during the last 30 seconds of the previous track. If you know where you are going there is no excitement.

What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?

The Young Punx project has a very diverse sound, almost to the point of making no sense at all – but it actually has a very consistent production technique. We emerged out of the mashup scene – which was all about discovering the exciting surprises that come up when you combine 2 totally different sounds that were never meant to go together. Ultimately it became rather dull though, as it was limited to combining existing recordings and there is only so many times you want to hear the same few pop acapellas mixed with an ironically contrasting track.

However, we like to maintain the sonic character of the mashup, while usually working with 100% original material. So our production usually follows a 2 step process, which I call the “twice baked” track. First, we write and record a “vintage” piece of music, trying to be as authentic as possible to the vintage style. It could be Jazz, Calypso, Orchestral, Disco, Metal – whatever – but we try and work 100% in genre down to the choice of microphone, era of recording equipment, even how the performers stand while playing. At this stage, we are totally ignoring anything to do with dance music.

Once we have mixed and mastered our ‘pretend vintage song’ we then sample ourselves, and move the sound towards whatever form of electronic music might be entertaining to apply to the sample.

This way we maintain the aesthetic of sampled music, itself a reflection of the great artistic inventions of the 20th century (collage and pop-art recontextualising) while being able to work, when we wish, with 100% original material not tied to any previous work.

Take us through a day in the recording studio.

My life is rather frantic. I am working on different people’s records every day – usually several a day. My manager informs me I have now been on over 5000 records!

I am now the owner of The Old Hit Factory recording studio in London Bridge which was originally the Stock Aitken and Waterman / PWL studio in the 80s and 90s. We have an amazing collection of vintage equipment; mics, preamps, synths, guitars, many dating as back as far as the 1940s.

There many great dance producers around the world who are 100% in their element working on beats and basslines within the confines of their laptops. However, when they need to integrate the stuff you can’t do from your hotel room or home studio – vocals, modular and vintage synths, orchestras! Choirs! they tend to come to me to collaborate.

So a typical day might involve recording strings for The Chemical Brothers in the morning, a crowd chant for Dimitri Vegas at lunchtime and a modular acid line for Duke Dumont in the afternoon.

I then sneak in a little Young Punx the evening if I get the chance!

Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “this is what I want to do”?

I started my first band when I was 7 years old. We played Let It Be in school assembly. When the guitar solo entered the kids went crazy. They had never heard an electric guitar in the flesh before! I’m hoping that visceral excitement of the spirit of rock never leaves us, even in this the era of smartphones etc. A mere 25 years later I was able to support myself as a professional musician.

What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set?

A DJ partner! I find no joy at all in performing totally solo. I feel very isolated without interaction with someone else. For me choosing the next track WITH someone is social fun, while doing it on your own is like trying to choose something on the menu while a few hundred people
are staring at you waiting.

Any emerging artists on your radar?

I am currently enjoying several acts that are now 100% new, so much as existing artists stopping their careers, going “hang on – this doesn’t sound the way it should” and rebooting under a new artist name with a new sound. Our longtime Young Punx vocalist Yolanda Quartey has recently launched as ‘Yola’ delivering some of the most amazing country, gospel and 60s girl pop type sounds. Absolutely immaculate. Meanwhile, our friend Sharooz Raoofi has rebooted as ‘Principleasure’ making brooding 80s influenced techno entirely on analogue vintage synths and drums machines. The result is bizarrely organic, considering how machine-made it is, and represents an uncompromising personal vision for how music should be made.

What gets your creative juices flowing?

Ideas never seem to come when I’m trying to have them. They fall out of the air when your subconscious is running free. Walking around. Mowing the lawn. Often in dreams. These are when ideas present themselves, almost sounding fully formed in my head. The trick is to manage to build what you heard in your head in the real world. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t.

Take us through your collection of gear, tech or software that accompanies your creative expression.

It’s amazing what you can do with software these days. Every teenager is now growing up with a free recording studio on their laptop which provides facilities that would have cost a million pounds to put together a generation earlier.

However, this does tend to mean that everyone is making the same sounds on the same software with the same sample packs etc, leading to these ridiculous situations where every track in the Beatport Top 10 sounds the same as each other.

We try to approach The Young Punx more like a “best of” production equipment over the past 80 years, as happy to use a 1940s ribbon microphone as the latest plugin. We will do both in one track.

Check out our studio The Old Hit Factory to see the things we like to use but we have vintage synths including the legendary CS80, SH1000, Juno, Mini Moog etc, a decent modular rack, a wide spread of vintage microphones including the u47 from Abbey Road in the 60s that John Lennon would have done his vocals on, and a wide selection of classic preamps from each decade including REDD.47, SSL E Series, Never 1073, Avalon and more. They all bring their own colour into play and focus you on a specific sound.

Any side projects you’re working on?

Check out The Young Punx’ Soul and Disco side project The Tribe Of Good on Ultra Records. This project started off as a new Young Punx album but turned into something a little more serious, timeless and grown-up sounding so it turned into its own brand. This has, naturally, giving us free rein to take The Young Punx in the opposite direction and be as flippant as we want to be.

How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?

Learning the craft is an endless journey. Sometimes you feel like you are one of the world’s
greatest experts. Other days you realise you have hardly touched the surface of all things you can learn. Who really knows every feature in Logic? Who really knows instantly the difference in tone character between 40 classic microphones? Someone might know each, but probably no-one knows both. And if they do – they are too busy learning that to make music. The most important thing is to keep working with other people because that is where you really learn all incremental steps forward – sharing experience.

Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you this year?

One track a month, this year (and maybe beyond – who knows) building up to our fourth album.
I’m particularly excited because I have found my hard disk recorder from the late 90s, which includes loads of demos in Big Beat, French House and Jungle styles. At the time I didn’t have the skills or equipment to complete the tracks to a professional level – but the core ideas are there. So now I am hoping I can make some tracks not just influenced by the sounds of late 90s dance, but actually in some ways made back then when it was really happening. It’s like time travel. I am collaborating with a younger me!

Famous last words?
“It’s safe to touch this wire isn’t it?


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