Down The Studio With Wu-Lu
WORDS: EMMA WARREN
IMAGES: THOMAS EDWARDS
2130 words, 00:07:06
Miles Romans-Hopcraft aka Wu-Lu fulfilled a lifetime ambition to say the words ‘hello Glastonbury’ this summer when he and the band – Jordan Hadfield, Blake Cascoe and Jaega Francis McKenna-Gordon – played the Williams Green stage at the festival. It was packed out, despite the line-up clash with Black Midi, with an audience ready to soak up songs from the newly-released album LOGGERHEAD. Single ‘Blame’ amped up the already-high energy levels, which went sky-high during ‘Ten’ when Wu-Lu’s younger brother took on crowd surf duties.
The following day the band squeezed onto the stage at the Crow’s Nest for a secret acoustic set, which his other brother Ben (who plays in Warmduscher) joined for a song. A stripped-down version of their 2021 BBC playlisted ‘South’ became even more intense on this sun-baked Sunday afternoon. “I transcended into the roof of that tent,” says Wu-Lu. “I kid you not. It was a vibe.”
The vibe is spreading, as the band take LOGGERHEAD out on the road to festivals and shows across the summer and into autumn. It began life as a series of jams recorded in a Norwegian studio which Wu-Lu chopped up and turned into twelve fiercely feeling-powered tunes that draw from furious punk, lo-fi rap, grungey skater sounds and a deep musicality. It’s urgent, unique and necessary.
His music-making process is similarly urgent and unique – although right now he can’t even get into the studio because of electrical issues. So instead of showing us round, he shows WARP through his current musical HQ through the medium of talking about it. “It’s a melting pot,” he says, from his car, outside his mum’s house in South London, “and the most exciting part of the studio are the people that are there.”
How is your studio looking at the moment?
It’s in tatters. There’s no electricity because it’s in the bottom of a pub and it’s had some weird fault which means all the sockets stopped working. There’s a big drum wheel of cables and loads of tools.
How does your studio look when it’s at its best?
Some of the greatest moments I’ve had in the studio with those guys is just about the vibe. It’s about catching the moment. It’s not even being recorded sometimes. Everyone gets so hyped and excited about finding that moment. I know I’m onto something when I find people poking their head round the door. Tag [bandmate Tagara Mhiza] will be like ‘what’s this?’ then [bandmates] Jordan, Blake, Jaega will come in. It becomes this stream of consciousness of brotherly energy and excitement. I love it. Then it starts getting hot. It gets well hot. Then it becomes survival of the fittest. Those that can handle the heat will stay. Everyone starts getting sweaty. Then I’ll tap out.
Ah, so the band have their studios in the same place…
Yep. I’ll poke my head around their studios. Tag and Jaega have got those tiny little Volca drum machines, they’re as big as my hand. It’s like a car boot magical wasteland. Cheap drum machines, keyboards from car boots. I came into their studio one time and Tag was on this little synth thingy with this little delay. He’d leave it on a long loop so it’ll start feedback back after ten minutes. It becomes this churning, swirling, magical paddy-sound thing. Jaega’s playing a bassline, drum machine lights twitching and I come in - ‘this is hard, cuz!’ You can’t pluck me out of the vibe. The amount of stuff that has been recorded on voice notes in comparison to what should have been archived properly…
Tell me about jam sessions and the role they play in your music.
Jam sessions are for getting out the feeling. Once you do it for long enough, you just start trying other random stuff. That’s a really important part of the magic, to be able to create songs out of jams. Riffing is a meditative state, and when something changes it sparks something else. That’s a big part of what I’m into: being like, 'I don’t know what he’s doing but I now feel confident to match what he’s doing’. Everyone’s saying their bit then someone throws in a curveball and everyone changes their tune, literally.
What happens once you’ve got a recording of a jam?
It can go many different ways. One way could be: lemme just get the best bits of this long piece of music and find a way to stitch it together and then I’ll write to it. Sometimes I’d listen to recordings for hours then find the tiniest piece and put it in the MPC. Other times, it’ll be ‘this is an interesting jam’ and trying to find something within it. I might hear a sound, or a mic that’s picking up the wrong thing but it sounds cool. I might mute everything, find that one bit of microphone sound, make it really loud. Put it into the MPC or some kind of sampler or send it out into an effect or put it into an amp and re-record it, and try and create some kind of melodic weird looping sample that inspires me to make a 16 bar loop out of it. Or I’ll make it so intense, like I can imagine the whole song in a loop. I’ll be muting stuff as I’m listening to it, forming some kind of structure. It’s a tightrope. I’ll be splurging, going back, splurging, going back. Then I’ll get overwhelmed with all the sounds and all the ideas floating about. Then I’ll stop, go and do the same thing on another tune, or I’ll go back to an old one and do the same thing but listen to it with fresh ears.
Is that how something like ‘Night Pill’ came about?
That was a stitched together jam. ‘Scrambled Tricks’, that was a bit of a jam that wasn’t really anything. I just took Jaega’s drums, distorted them, started playing a baseline over it, and that’s what sparked other ways of doing it. It got a drum n bass thing, started adding 808s. Then I knew what I was making.
What do you have in your studio, kit-wise?
I’ve got a few synths, an MPC graveyard, a bunch of mics, a drum kit, loads of guitars. I usually just use the microphones, pedals and try and make all the sounds before it goes into the computer. I want it to sound like something before I mess with it. Synth-wise, I’ve got a Moog Voyager, a Yamaha PSR, a microKORG, an Arturia MicroBrute, another Yamaha PSR-36 and an Oberheim 1000. A big favourite is the Casio SK-1. It’s a sampler. I can talk into the mic, like Bob’s Burgers.
Are you fussy about microphones?
I’m more of a ‘get the idea down’ person, just from the first set up. There was a ribbon Rode mic I used a lot but it’s broken right now. For vocals I use a Shure SM7B. There are times where I’ve used voice notes or drum breaks from iPhone recordings just to chop it up – there’s something about capturing the first try that’s usually the most inspiring bit.
So the technique is more about energy, emotion and feel rather than cables and mic placement?
I’ll do close mic on the drums, some kind of overhead on top, and some kind of room mic. Most of the micing comes from the drums. If I’m going to focus in any way, it’ll be on that. I don’t focus too much on the engineering side, unless I’m spending the day setting everything up, making it sound nice so that when I come in, everything’s ready to go. If I’m talking details, I’ll put two mics on the snare drums, maybe a SM7 on the top, maybe on the bottom as well. I’ll probably use a Beta on the rack tom and the floor tom. At the moment we use an AKG C414 as the overhead and we also use a Neumann for the overhead as well. Sometimes I use the SM7B just over the kick drum. Then I use the ribbon for the room. I don’t have loads of space, but if I could choose that’s what I’d do.
Basically you’re about capturing the moment…
I need it ready to go. Once I’ve caught the feeling I hold on to it as long as I can, til it’s faded, and once it’s faded, I’ll go and get some food or I’ll go to bed. If I catch the feeling and I can’t get it out quick enough, I’ll be like ‘ah fuck, I missed it’. My brother told me about Bill Withers working in an airplane factory. He’d get an idea for a song in his head and he’d sing it over and over for as long as he could, all day, until he got home then he’d grab his guitar and get it down. At Glastonbury Ben was like ‘get the voice note!’ He’s good with that, remembering the moment. I did a session with the drummer from Blur and Gorillaz and they brought an engineer with them. I was like ‘rah, I need someone like you around’.
You did a lot of youth work at Raw Material in Brixton. What did you learn from the young people you were working with?
They’d come up with an idea of how to get something into the computer. They’d use the Ultrabeat in Logic to make keyboard sounds, but rather than pressing the melodies on the keys they’d draw it in on the beat machine. I was like ‘that’s not what it’s for but that’s a dope idea’. A lot of people would just draw in their melodies in MIDI. It felt like they were showing me a way to execute beats fast, just drawing stuff in – especially this guy Naz, who now runs Raw Material. I’m very out of the box, plug it into a guitar, plug it into an amp, record it. They’re very in the box – it can all be done here, within Fruity Loops, or getting this plug-in or drawing the melodies in. They’re living in a headspace that resides in the 21st century digital age. YouTube to MP3, rap on it, done. They taught me to not fuss about too much, just get it done.
Can you tell me about an early production tip you picked up, back when you started?
Andrew Ashong. He put me on to a process of layering and being on the fly. He showed me a way of not caring about it too much, throwing stuff in the pot and then stripping it back. Hector [Plimmer] really opened my mind up to Ableton. He showed me about the warping. You can put little markers on the audio and stretch bits out. I was super on Logic and Reason back then. He put me onto the workflow of resampling and showed me how easy it was to do in Ableton. I was making stuff that had too many tracks, too many things going on and my computer was freaking out. Hector showed me that I could re-sample myself and make samples of what I’ve made. That was a next ting. Before that I was just sampling records, that’s a risky thing. Then I realised I didn’t have to do that.
What’s the most recent piece of music you made?
It’s a tune coming on a mixtape with Anja Ngozi from Síbín and it features a guy called Teme Samuel. I was at The Room [the studios Wu-Lu ran with Kwake Bass until earlier this year], hadn’t been there for a few weeks, I was messing around. I got the microKORG out and I was just messing on the MPC, chopping up a break, just trying to do stuff that I don’t usually do – thinking ‘lemme do this different’. I started pressing the microKORG and then got into a ragga tip. I got on this deep voice chatting vibe then Temi came in and was like ‘yo, this is sick’ so I gave him the mic and he freestyled some bits and pieces. Then Anja hits me up – I need a tune for this compilation. So I’m flicking through my beats and find this tune. I listened to Temes bit and was like ‘Blud! This is sick!’ I phoned him: ‘come to the studio, let’s finish it. It’s a banger’. Then same thing as usual – I was in the bloody studio, Jaega pops his head round the door. I’m like ‘you wanna play some drums’? Now it’s turned into this jungle-break slash grungey-bassline-slash-rap tune. It’s called ‘Wickedness Divide’. As in, the wickedness divides us. It’s heavy.