Interview With Mr. Mitch
Since his first single dropped in 2010, Miles Mitchell has been pushing against the boundaries of what’s possible in grime. As an instrumental producer and DJ, Mitchell has helped redefine grime as something more than the central figure of the MC. Rather than filling the vacuum left by the absence of a vocalist, the music plays with negative space, a sense of weightlessness which sometimes spills into the euphoric.
Devout, his second album for legendary electronic label Planet Mu, is about to appear. It’s a step in a new direction for Mitchell, featuring a host of collaborators and, for the first time, his own vocals. It’s a soft album, a late-night headphone listen, that tackles the theme of fatherhood in a major way. Whether you could still call it a grime album is almost irrelevant – Devout is something new, something still undefined. More than anything, it’s the sound of a musician growing more comfortable with his own story and his own sound.
Grayscale: I noticed you’re singing on this new record. This is a first for you, right?
Mr. Mitch: It's the first time I've actually recorded my voice on a track. I've always been singing these little melodies to the tracks, but this is the first time I've ever put anything down. At first I was nervous about anyone hearing it, but now I'm used to the idea of it. I think I need to be in my own space completely when I'm recording myself. For a lot of years, when I've been making music, it's been in my old bedroom at my parents' house, and they're just downstairs or in the next room and I felt like they were listening. It was never really a possibility there. My dad, even when I was just a young teenager making tunes in the house, my dad would always be coming in and giving me tips or just standing by the door and giving me compliments. Sometimes it would put you on edge, like there's someone standing behind you. These tracks I recorded in Domino Publishing, they've got a writer's room that they let me use to record. It's like a little mini-studio and I just recorded all the tracks in there.
So what sparked the singing? Given you’ve worked with so many vocalists, why did you feel the time was right to use your own voice?
All the tracks that I'm singing on were recorded all in one day. It was just a moment of inspiration I guess where I was making the tracks and I just really needed to get some vocals down on it straight away. It just felt like the right fit. Because the tracks were so personal to me, I couldn't imagine getting anyone else on them. The intro track features my two sons. They're from video clips from my phone. One of them was of my oldest son, Milo, and I found this video on his iPad of him singing randomly, so I decided to cut that out and put that on it. The other was actually the first time my youngest child, Oscar, the first time he said 'Dad'. My partner was recording it so it was a great thing to put in there.
That’s such an intimate and personal thing to put on a record, like you’re really leaving yourself so open and vulnerable in a lot of ways. Are the feelings around that, around fatherhood and family, just easier to express or to get across with words than with instrumental music?
I think it's easier to express that with words. It's more explicit anyway. I found that the only thing I'm really confident in talking about wholeheartedly is fatherhood, at this moment anyway, and it's definitely the easiest thing for me to approach. Especially at the time of writing it, my partner was pregnant at the time and so it was obvious to me about the issue of fatherhood and my role in the creation of it, the creation of life.
Are you nervous about presenting those songs in a live setting for the first time? It’s so different from a private studio environment. You’re really bringing those songs to life every time you perform, and it’ll be different every time.
I'm not even sure how it's going to go down yet. I'm still in the process of making it and working out how exactly it's going to work. I'm not sure how I'm going to feel actually performing the tracks. It's a completely new area for me. Even for the last album, I didn't have a live show for it. I've just played out DJing and stuff like that. But the live element of music is a new thing for me, and actually performing the music I make is going to be a new experience. Certainly as a DJ, the music changes and it's all to do with the context where you're playing it, the environment you're playing in and who you're playing it to. It makes a big difference to what a song means I think. With the live element, time will tell how that will effect me and how it will change.
I’ve noticed, from listening to mixes you’ve done over the last few years, that you seem to be getting more comfortable playing tunes that aren’t exactly dance tunes. Like you’re more confident in taking the set in your ow direction: a bit slower, a bit weirder maybe.
A lot of recorded mixes I make are not made for the club, but then my club set will have elements of that, with elements that are made for the club as well. Obviously I do want people to have a good time and I want people to dance, but I want them to do it within my frame of mind and what I'm feeling at the time. What you would expect from Mr. Mitch I guess, rather than just any party set. You could just play the club tunes everyone wants to hear, but what would separate me from any other DJ if that was what I was doing? I like to try and put a piece of myself in the mix when I'm DJing and it's something that I've been learning a lot more over the last year or so. Putting in more of my influences. It's helping a lot that a lot of people I'm listening to, people I'm playing, people who are inspiring me, are playing around with their tempos a lot more and it makes my sets a lot more varied. It means I can put a lot more of different influences in there as well, music I used to listen to growing up – R’n’B and dancehall. Just stuff I want to dance to. To me, a lot of dance music – or what I would consider dance music, music that would make me dance in a club – is R’n’B or dancehall and not your typical club music.
Has Boxed helped in that regard? It seems like an ideal testing ground for new ideas.
Boxed has helped a lot. Although the stuff we do there is predominantly grime and around the grime area, you could throw in some proper curve-balls on a night there and the crowd don't leave the dancefloor. They still enjoy what you're playing, regardless of how strange it might be. It's really made me realise that you can have these peaks and troughs in sets, that you can't have a set that's just bangers. Boxed, over the last four years that we've been doing it, it's been like a training ground for me. It's been a very good way of learning how to read a crowd, how to manipulate a crowd to give them what you want to give them without making them leave basically.
Boxed to me is a community and I've learned so much from everyone who has had a hand in it – whether that's the four of us who actually run it or just the DJs who we've had down. Just learning, picking up little bits from everyone who's passed through. Everyone has their own speciality or their own sound, and we all feed into each other. We all support each other. A lot of them, the Boxed community, we live on emails. Even though we're all Londoners and we see each other out, it does still very much live online. We speak to each other quite frequently and share tunes with each other and get opinions from each other quite a lot. It's a good community.
That seems to be true of Devout too – there’s a lot of co-credits on the record, a lot of names alongside yours. How important was that for you, to have people’s names on the actual record?
The track with Duval Timothy for example, he's a very old school friend of mine but he's also an artist and an author and a jazz pianist and many other things. He inspires me a lot and to just get him on a track was an honour for me. No matter what his part is – on that particular track he's playing a lot of the chords on it – you could easily just give him some money and he would be like a secret session player, but that's not what I wanted. I wanted to collaborate with him and have his name on it because it makes me proud to have him on my record. It was very important to me to have him on there.
And P Money, growing up in South-East London and watching his career, he was always like one of the best MCs in the area, so for me to have him on my album as the only MC on there... I've seen him on a Planet Mu release before with Starkey and he's got this ability to go on slower tracks or in a more calm way than you would typically expect from a grime MC, even from P because a lot of his stuff is a lot more uptempo or more aggressive sounding. He's also been very open about being a father so it was important for me to get him on there.
A lot of the people I've got on the project are people I'm just really into as artists, not just people I want to get on for name’s sake. They're people I've had a relationship with over the past couple of years. I remixed for Py and we've been working together over the past couple of years, and I've helped her a little bit, listening to her album and giving her feedback and that. Denai Moore, I did a remix for her last year and I just really wanted to work with her since the first time I heard her feature on someone else's track. And Palmistry as well, we met at FWD a couple of years back and just been in conversation since then. He was almost going to be on the first album but timing didn't work out. It's people who mean a lot to me as artists and who I actually want to work with, instead of just having their name on the album.
It’s nice as well that there’s other voices in there, that it isn’t just a single-issue album with a single theme.
I think if I made an album that was completely about fatherhood, it would be very uninteresting to a lot of people. I don't think people want to hear my story on every single track, even though it is my album. There's a lot of other stories that I can give a context to, and that's what I've aimed to do.
You’ve mentioned in the past that it’s important to you to be seen as an ‘electronic musician,’ not just a ‘producer.’ That you’re trying to make sure grime is seen in the same light, and treated with the same respect, as other genres. Is that still the case with Devout? Is Planet Mu an important part of that?
This album isn't a grime album, but coming from the viewpoint of a grime producer, it was always important to me to try and get grime put in the same bracket as any other electronic genre and respected in the same way. Producers are creating extremely innovative sounds and it can quite easily be put down as this lesser genre than others, and I don't know if it's because of the socio-economic status of the people who are making it or what, but it was important for me to be with a label that people respected and hopefully change the perspective of how people look at grime. Certainly with the first album. This next album is gone off on a different tangent slightly, the sound of it, but it's still very important for me that people, even if they've never heard of me, that they will respect the label first. I guess that's a good starting point.
Also working with Mike [Paradinas – head of Planet Mu]. I think if I was with a different label that didn't A&R tunes the way Mike did, the album might sound very different. Other labels, from speaking to other artists, some labels will sign you based on what they've heard before, you'll deliver them an album and then they'll say, thanks, and do their thing with it. Mike is very hands on with the process and he'll tell you if this track isn't good enough for the album or this one needs more work. Stuff like that. It really helps to make the album better. Especially after you've been working on it a long time, you can lose perspective or you could get to a point in a track where you've had enough of it and you're ready to just go with it. Mike will just say, ‘No’. It's really good having someone like that supporting you and making it the best album it can be.
Planet Mu is also such a forward-facing label. It’s totally anti-nostalgic and that’s something I think ties in with what you’re doing. The music you make and play is very digital, very contemporary, which is almost unusual given how different scenes seem to have such a fetish for throwback, analogue sounds right now. Does that just come natural to you?
I've been making music with the tools I have since I was twelve years old and it's always been within a digital setting. It's what you learn to experiment within. A lot of it is to do with your finances as well, because it's going to cost you a lot more money to make music in an analogue setting, to buy all this different equipment. I've got a couple of synths but really I'm only going to get one or two sounds out of each one per album maybe. I find it a lot easier to manipulate sounds digitally. Even on one of the tracks, I was trying to get some sounds out of my Prophet and it was connected to a reverb. I was getting fed up with it so I turned it off. As I turned it off, as it was still connected to the reverb, it made this really nice click sound and that turned out to be one of the snares on one of the tracks. It's stuff like that I find a lot more interesting than these analog synth sounds.
It's the way you manipulate certain sounds digitally, I find it easier I guess. There's a lot more interesting stuff that I could make from it. It's quite easy to make a sound on a nice synth and it sounds just like something you've heard before and it makes you excited because you really loved that sound on someone else's track. That doesn't mean it's right for what you're making. You've just got to make the track for you I guess.
With the first album, you talked a lot about how it felt very visual, like there was a set of images that went along with the tracks. Is that true of Devout as well?
With the first album, a lot of the images that were in my head were very clear and defined. It was almost like a movie in my head. With this album, a lot of the imagery I get in my head is a lot more abstract. It leaves a lot more open to interpretation and actually I think working with a visual artist with the stuff I've got in my head now might be easier because there's a lot more room for interpretation and a lot more room to explore different ideas. It's not so defined in my head. It's more like a set of ideas and a set of colours.
Do you feel that will make it easier to work with Rachel Noble on the visuals for the live set?
I think it'll be a lot easier to translate what I've got in my head now than ever before. I've worked with Rachel a few times on records – she's done a couple of bits for Gobstopper, and she designed the artwork for a mix I did for Dazed a couple of years ago, and she also did the Yaroze Dream Suite record that I made with Yamaneko. So we've worked together quite a lot. But in terms of a live setting, it's quite new for me to have control over the visual. Not full control, because we're working collaboratively, but an input into what is actually going to be shown visually is a new thing for me. It's something I'm excited about. Hopefully we can make something that we're both really happy with it and is good to look at.