I didn't know much about Dub FX other than some friends telling me to check him out. When he announced as a headliner for this year's Victoria Ska Fest (One of the major highlights on the Victoria music calendar) I took the opportunity to check him out. After hearing "Made" I was hooked. I jumped in the rabbit hole and quickly decided I needed to track him down for a little chat before his return to Victoria. Intelligent and warm, we had a great chat about his street-performing roots, the terrible music we both listened to in the past, Snoop Lion and the joys of playing music with the woman he loves. It's a bit of a long one this time, folks, but it's a good one. Much respect to Dub FX.
Rags Music: How’s Australia today?
Dub FX: Australia, today? Right now, I live out in the forests in Melbourne, up in the hills, so it’s peaceful, not much wind, lots of birds flying around, lots of kookaburras, quite cold.
RM: Sounds like a chill place to be.
DBF: It’s about to turn into winter here so we’re all the end of fall.
RM: lrighty, I guess everything is backwards. I should know that. So what was your introduction to music? How’d you get it into your life?
DFX: My whole family is pretty musical and artistic. My uncles played in bands and I got an auntie who’s a dancer, an uncle who’s a photographer. They’ve also all sort of dabbled in acting, so growing up I was always led to believe that it’s fine to do that, know what I mean? My dad is more of a business man, he’s got good taste in music and art and all that, and he never really told me it was a bad thing to do. Just from a young age I’ve always sort of been into it.
RM: What was the first instrument you picked up?
DFX: First instrument I ever learned to play was the drums. When I was about 12 in school I took drums. I did that for about two years and then my dad wouldn’t get me a drum kit because we lived in a small flat. He said, “Learn to play guitar, you’ll get more girls that way anyway.” So then I started playing the guitar.
BM: When did Dub FX begin?
DFX: Dub FX began when I was 23. Before that I was performing in all sorts of bands – jazz bands, hip-hop bands, reggae bands, heavy metal bands, and I started also playing with DJs, house and breakbeat, around 2000/2001, up until 2006 I was playing with loads of different bands and DJs and stuff. And then I went overseas to go travelling and street-perform. At the beginning I wasn’t even Dub FX yet, I was just Benjamin, that was the name I was going by and it was more kind of Jack Johnson/Jason Mraz-type, poppy acoustic reggae kind of stuff, very different. Then I got to England and realized they weren’t into that type of music so I adapted myself and my songwriting, adapted the songs I already had to music that I thought they would appreciate, which was more like drum n’ bass, dub-step, trip-hop, all that kind of stuff and that’s when Dub FX was born.
RM: Was London your first introduction to that kind of music or were you familiar with it beforehand?
DFX: No, I wasn’t familiar with drum n’ base or dub-step, the whole UK music scene is non-existent growing up in Australia. I mean, there’s indie-rock they have that’s from the UK. Not of the sort of, I guess, “bass” music, never made its way to Australia. In a way that was accessible to me anyway.
RM: Do you find that Australian audiences are opening more to that sort of music?
DFX: Yeah, I guess so. A little bit more. Australia is more into whatever America’s doing. I came back from the UK showing all my friends dubstep and telling everyone it was the new thing and everyone was like, “No, it’s not.” As soon as it was big in America with Skrillex and all these big characters in America that sort made it popular, all of a sudden everyone was saying, “Aww yeah, dubstep’s cool!”
RM: We get a little bit of there up here in Canada, too.
DFX: I’m sure you probably do. It’s not really people’s choice so much as it is the way the marketing system is designed, the way it’s been built. America’s machine is kind of what drives these western cultures, like Canada and Australia. England is obviously in Europe, so they’ve got more of a European vibe when it comes to their attitudes towards music.
RM: They seem to be sitting right in between American music and the European electronic stuff.
DFX: Well, I believe England to be the centre of the music scene. Just adding new things and being really innovative with music. They have an appreciation for music that I’ve not seen anywhere in the world.
RM: Have you been anywhere else where you’ve been surprised with the way the audience has reacted to your music?
DFX: After I went to the UK and I learned to do what I do now, I sort of get that reaction everywhere because a lot of people don’t really know about it. The way that I make my music is different from what most people are used to. So I generally get a pretty different reaction wherever I go anyway. People are already surprised. On top of that, because I’m bringing a very bass-heavy UK sound, which isn’t really accessible to anywhere else in the world anyway, people are also kind of surprised by that as well. They’re not used to that sound, they’re not used to the way I’m doing it either. So yeah, the reaction in Canada, the US, Sri Lanka or India, people are quite interested in what I’m doing because it’s not what they’re used to.
RM: How did you get into the pedals?
DFX: I started using effects pedals on the guitar, playing around with different effects on the guitar. To cover up the fact that I wasn’t a very good singer I thought, “Maybe if I use pedals to modulate my voice, maybe I could make myself sound better.” So I started playing around with effects pedals over my voice from the age of 19, 20 years old. That was like 2000/2001. I was playing in loads of bands using effects over my voice, doing delays and stuff, in 2006 I saw this guy using a loop station. He wasn’t using effects, just a loop station. I remember thinking, “Wow, if I got a loop station I could use the effect going into the loop station and create completely different cool stuff.” I was already making bass lines with the effects pedals but I wasn’t to record them, mix them and sample them in real time. It was just like a little effect, a little gimmick that I would throw into songs every now and then. Once I saw this loop station I thought I could do that, so I just sort of put the two together and went out in the street and performed, basically figured out how to use it properly.
RM: That must have been a challenge, trying to busk with all that gear.
DFX: I started off small with cheap, small stuff. Over the years slowly upgrading and once I took it to the boundaries and pushed the gear to its limits until I realized that I could go somewhere else if I upgraded, I slowly just learned the value of each thing and slowly upgraded. I always kept in mind that I’m going to be taking it out onto the street so the most minimal setup with the biggest sound is what I was going for all the time.
RM: That’s cool. How do you think the busking prepared you for performing in front of big audiences?
DFX: Like I said, I was performing in clubs for years before I started street performing. But the thing is, you can rehearse as much as you want in your bedroom and then go play a gig and it’s not going to be the same thing at all. Essentially you’re just practicing to yourself and you never quite nail anything because you’re always thinking, “Aww yeah, on the night I’m going to do it like this or like that.” But when you street perform you’re basically getting paid to practice and you’re practicing in front of people who are giving you immediate feedback. You can see straightaway if a song is working or not, on the street. In terms of preparation there’s nothing better than street performing because once I’d done that for a few years I could then go into a club and be able to read an audience really easily and basically just be able to tune into the consciousness in the room and sort of give people a show that’s so well-rehearsed, because I’ve performed it on the street in so many situations. I’ve had people “Boo!” me, I’ve had people cheer. The preparation on the street is like nothing else.
RM: Cutting your teeth, that’s awesome. Do you improve and freestyle much when you’re performing or do you go up with a pretty structured idea of what’s going to happen?
DFX: It depends on the situation. If it’s a smallish gig and it feels like everyone’s a bit “whatever” and they not many people know who I am, then I’ll do mainly improve to just try new stuff out. If it’s a show, like I did Coachella last week or last month, whatever, if there’s a show on a big stage and I’ve got exactly 40 minutes to do my thing then I’ll tend to go back to things…it’s usually a mix. I’ll definitely have a bunch of tunes that I’ll always play because I know certain people will love them, like certain songs from Youtube but in between that I do a lot of improvising. Also the way I sing tunes, not all the time, but sometimes I’ll mess with the structure and do things, singing in a different way, in a different way, maybe even take two songs and make a medley out of the two.
RM: That’s cool. I guess the music is a living, breathing thing, eh.
DFX: Totally. The beautiful thing about what I do is I don’t have to check with anyone. I don’t have to rehearse with anyone. Anything I want to do in the moment I can do. If I decide I want to extend this or extend that, I can do that. It’s not like I’ve made it all in the studio and I’m just triggering it live like a lot of people do, I’m making it there and then so the sounds that I make are for that moment and those people. It’s a unique performance just for them.
RM: Very cool, man. How was Coachella?
DFX: Coachella was good. I mean, it’s not my type of festival. It’s quite a commercial festival but we got a great reaction. I’m more into the hippy vibes, you know, the more spiritual kind of vibes. This was more a showcase, that’s how I see it.
RM: I can understand that sentiment for sure. Why stay so stridently independent? I’m sure you’ve had offers to get your music out there to more people. Is there something about keeping it small that keeps the quality of the fans a little more pure? Is there any particular reason for it?
DFX: Well the main reason is, no, no one has offered anything to me or approached me.
DFX: Yeah. No one couldn’t do anything that I’m not already doing. It’s not like…Look, I’ve got an issue, I wouldn’t have a problem spreading my music to more people and signing with a label, the thing is that most of these labels would try and then change what I’m doing and how I market myself and what I talk about. Some might say, “Yeah, it’s cool. Keep doing what you’re doing.” But I feel like I’d have to check that what I’m doing is cool, you know what I mean? I got no interest in doing that. On top of that I’ve got so many friends who signed to labels who have equal success to me and they’re all broke. Getting signed to a label doesn’t mean you’re going to make money doing what you’re doing. In fact, it means you’re going to get ripped off for what you’re doing. It’s just that up until recently it was the only way to have a life in music was to be signed to a label. Now you don’t need one. The relationship we have with social networking means that we don’t need a middle-man to tell us what’s good and what’s not good. We can just log on and someone will share something they like and that could be the next big thing and that’s sort of what’s happened to me. I had a couple of songs, videos that went viral and now I can live off it and I can live much better that someone who’s maybe sold five times more records than me and has much bigger tours than me but isn’t making any profit off it because there are too many overheads and too many people trying to take their money.
RM: It seems like the internet has brought about a very democratic way of finding and promoting music. Do you think hit at the just the right time with youtube, or is that actually a viable option for people trying to make a go of it?
DFX: The thing was it wasn’t like I just made a video and it went viral. I’d already spent four years street performing and I sold about 30 or 40,000 CDs in those years because I was out four days a week, 3-4 hours at a time making music and just really crafting, really working at it, selling CDs. You’re not selling shitloads of CDs to passersby in Europe, you know? By the time I finally had a good video to put on youtube, one that had good quality, I’d already sold the CDs and people were already waiting, ready to tell their friends about this guy they saw on the street. Finally they see the video and they go, “Hey! That’s him!” Then it kind of spread like wildfire but it’s not like I made a song and it just went “Bang!” like it has with some people. That’s like winning the lottery. Whereas I kind of made it happen because I was out there making it happen. I created this momentum.
RM: It’s obvious watching you that the work has gone in to it. It’s better to listen to and watch knowing it.
DFX: Exactly. If I had of been fluke…it’s something that’s taken time, though I probably look like a fluke to some people. There are a lot of other artists out there who are loop artists like myself, equally as good or better than me that don’t have quite the same amount of youtube hits and I honestly believe it’s due to the fact that I spent more time promoting myself on the street in a more face-to-face kind of way.
RM: The word of mouth is…Give people a memorable, personal experience and that word of mouth is a powerful thing.
DFX: Way more powerful than a billboard.
RM: You do what a lot people call genre-mashing, and people seem to be really obsessed with labels these days, defining things, do you find much resistance, people wanting to put you into a box saying you’re hip-hop or dubstep or whatever?
DFX: Well, the one annoying thing that everyone sort of labels me as is a beatboxer. At the beginning I thought that was quite funny, because I’m not a beatboxer at all. I beatbox a little bit. Beatboxing is like 3% of my show, if that. I make a beat and I loop it and that’s it! The rest of the song I’m not beatboxing. I only beatbox one or two bars, maybe four at the longest. The rest of the time I’m a vocalist. That’s what I am really because everything comes from my voice but everyone labels me as a beatboxer. And they’ve labeled me the beatboxer from Australia and they’re both misleading labels because I am from Australia but my sound and everything that I do comes from the UK. I learned what I do in the UK and I’m a singer. So that kind of label annoys me the most. As far as genre goes, people do label me as dub-step and the thing is I do do dub-step, I do drum n’ bass, I do hip-hop. I purposely mix it up as much as I can so no one labels me as a particular genre. At the end of the day I’m listening to music I like and trying to emulate it with the resources that I have. So I hear a wicked drum n’ bass tune and think, “Wow, that sounds awesome. I want to try to recreate that with my mouth.” And in doing so it comes out sounding completely different and I’ve written a song inspired by something I heard. The label thing, I label things all the time. I need to label shit in order for me understand what I’m listening to. At the end of the day I wish someone would just label me as a vocalist and not a beatboxer from Australia.
RM: I’ll do my best, brother. What was your introduction to Hip-Hop?
DFX: Doggy Style. Snoop Dogg was the hip-hop I ever got into. And also Beastie Boys, but I didn’t realize the Beastie Boys was even hip-hop. They do a lot of different stuff and I didn’t really understand or know that was hip-hop. I didn’t really know anything, I was too young at that point. Yeah, Snoop was huge. Really all that style…A Tribe Called Quest. I mean I’ve always like jazz and I’ve always liked funk. I really like Parliament. There was a time was a time when I was only into metal, grunge and punk rock, guitar music up until about 16 that’s all I bought. I thought everything else was shit. The kind of stuff you listen to when you’re young.
RM: You sound just like me.
DFX: Then one day you hear some great hip-hop tune and you think, “Hey that’s pretty sick.” I hated hip-hop until I got into Parliament, James Brown, the blues and jazz and then I started hearing them sampling that sort of stuff in hip-hop. Then I came to realize that hip-hop is just the next progression of R&B and jazz and all that stuff and I came to really love it. I can’t really stand the rock music any more. I can only listen to that soul music.
RM: I know what you mean. It’s so boring to go back and listen to some of the rock records I used to listen to. I just shake my head at myself.
DFX: Yeah. I’m the same. It’s crazy isn’t it? Singers I used to think were great singers and would say, “Wow, I wish I could sing like him,” I listen to them now and I think, “Fuck, he’s terrible.” I can sing better than him now and I remember when I thought that guy was great.
RM: On a kind of related note, have you heard that Snoop Lion record?
DFX: I’ve heard a couple of songs.
RM: How do you feel about it? I’m very torn. Part of me loves it and part of me does not.
DFX: I love the music. This is no disrespect to Snoop Dogg in any way, but Doggy Style is sort of the best thing he’s ever done and probably ever will do. You can’t top that. It’s one of the greatest records of all time. And he’s not a reggae singer…it’s like, look, I understand how he feels and why he’s been doing what he’s been doing but it’s never going to compare to what he’s famous for. I like the music, I don’t particularly like what he does over the music so much. I’ve only heard a couple songs. I haven’t listened to the whole record. They got some great producers involved and the music sounds really good. I need to really listen to it before I can comment properly on it.
RM: Fair enough. No other Snoop fans I know around me have listened to it so it’s nice to get another opinion.
DFX: I’ve heard a couple of tunes. I think the worst thing about them is Snoop Lion. <laughs>
RM: He does seem to be trying to expand his horizons and mellow out a bit. Do you think music has a role in expanding consciousness, I don’t know if that’s the way to say that, and addressing social issues? Do you think music has to do that on a regular basis?
DFX: As long as it’s not coming from a contrived place, sure. Music has so many different purposes to so many different people. At the end of the day I never sit down and say I’m going to write a political or a love song or this song, I’m just going to write about what makes sense to me in that moment. If it happens to be political, so be it. If I’m pissed off at something that’ll come out in the song. I think all music is is just art, which is just expression at the end of the day. If you haven’t really lived and haven’t seen much of the world and you try to do some art work it’s just going to be a copy of somebody else or rather quite simple and not so intelligent. If you go out and you live and you work hard and you fall in love, have breaks up and try to push the boundaries of who you are then you try to make art, then your art is going to have a lot more depth.
RM: What’s it like getting to play music with the person you love, getting to be on stage and sharing that with them? (Flower Fairy)
DFX: It’s brilliant. It basically cuts out a lot of the crap that artists have to go through with going on tour and not being there for five months at a time. We work together, play together. Obviously it has its ups and downs because of that. When you spend 24 hours a day with someone constantly it can put a bit of stress on your relationship. The only time we every have issues together is when we’re not alone. If we spend loads of time together but there’s constantly people around us, like on tour, that’s when the problems usually arise. If it’s just the two of us alone we never really have any problems. And that’s what it was like for a long time when it was just us in a van, driving all over Europe, street-performing, just the two of us on a little mission. We never had any problems.
RM: That’s fantastic. I get cooped up when I’m in the house with my ladyfriend for a whole weekend. It’s difficult sometimes, tiring and needing your own space.
DFX: Actually, no, for us, spending a weekend just the two us together without anyone in our house is like godsend. To us that’s what we crave. We never get that. We spend every weekend out performing, sharing our energy with people. It’s a really exhausting experience. Any moment we can spend just on the couch, not necessarily talking, even just watching movies, listening to tunes or doing nothing, any moment we have for that is our favourite thing in the world.
RM: That’s really awesome. I get much of that myself, I don’t have people around me all the time. I have plenty of time to spend in my loved one’s energy.
DFX: Nice. There you go.
RM: Dude, I really appreciate your time and your talking. I’m very much looking forward to Ska Fest. It’s going to be a good time.
DFX: No problem, man. Hey send me a link to whatever you do when it’s done. I don’t need proof or anything like that. <laughs>
Read the article "Road To Ska Fest Pt.2 - Dub FX" here.
Get tickets for Dub FX and Yasiin Bey (Formerly Mos Def) at the Victoria Ska Fest here.
Check out all things Dub FX related at his site here.
Give the good people at the Victoria Ska Society some love and check their shit out here.