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Mark Pritchard

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Nobody but Mark Pritchard could have made an album like Under the Sun - because nobody has had the musical life that he has. This is an album forged from almost a quarter century of immersion and exploration in the most vital underground scenes the world has to offer, friendship and musical alliance with generations of the most important musicians alive, and hard graft in the studio under innumerable aliases. It's the sound of an artist confident of his ability to work in any genre or none, who is abreast of the most cutting edge sounds that culture and technology have to offer, but is deep rooted in the history of modern music and its production too. It ties together emotional memories of the countryside of the south west of England, particularly his native Somerset, felt strongly on the other side of the world, echoes of mythical and real pasts reverberating through the chord patterns of jazz, folk and electronic music, sensory deprivation and deep emotional introspection, all in a single ebbing and flowing musical stream. Pritchard grew up in Somerset, and absorbed everything that was interesting for someone coming of age in the late 80s: “The Smiths, Pixies, Sonic Youth, The Cure, My Bloody Valentine - and 2 Tone stuff lead me towards reggae and dub”. A breakthrough came when he made it to a club along the south coast in Bournemouth, where two DJs called North and South played the authentic house and techno sounds of Detroit, Chicago and New York: then the most cutting edge music on the planet. “I was lucky,” says Pritchard, “to hear that proper club music, properly mixed at that time. There was no going back from there I think!” Electronic dance music became all-consuming for him from that first experience, and he quickly began meeting other folk in the West Country, most notably Tom Middleton, who had cut his production teeth in partnership with Richard D James aka Aphex Twin, and with whom Pritchard would join up with in Global Communication, Jedi Knights and a host of other projects. His musical output was prolific and game-changing from the off – and, crucially, he never remained stuck in the leftfield electronica ghetto, but made his mark far and wide. Pritchard's tracks as Reload and Link remain highpoints for UK techno, and quickly gained him the respect of his Detroit inspirations. The breakbeat hardcore tunes he made as Chaos & Julia Set with schoolfriend Dominic Fripp got picked up by the biggest DJs in the rave and nascent jungle scene, and the dreamy drum and bass he and Middleton made as The Chameleon got released on LTJ Bukem’s Good Looking Records. A long and fruitful relationship with rave legend Danny Breaks also began around this time. His NY Connection releases remain sought-after by “proper house” DJs. The electrofunk of Jedi Knights would win fans from The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk on down, and Global Communication made one of the most important chillout records of all time in 76:14. All impressive enough in itself, but what's really astounding is that with Pritchard, this influence on the music world has never died down. His early-2000s Troubleman guise found favour with broken beat scenesters like Bugz In The Attic, and with no less than Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, a huge hero of Pritchard’s and inspiration for the project. In 2008, his Harmonic 313 album was dropped regularly at LA’s Low End Theory which showcased the best of the city’s beat scene including Flying Lotus. When he turned his hand to Chicagoan footwork beats as he did with Africa Hi-Tech's world-conquering “Out in the Streets”, it got played by the late DJ Rashad and his Teklife comrades. When he produced grime beats they ended up getting vocalled by OG heroes of the scene like Wiley, Trim and Riko Dan. His infiltrations into dubstep/bass have been released on Mala's Deep Medi Musik and Kode 9's Hyperdub label: right through the 2000s and 2010s this West Country boy somehow managed to find himself accepted by the most demanding and tight-knit scenes in the world. Indeed, Trim and Riko Dan joked between themselves “this guy deals with b-line like a Jamaican, what’s going on?!” It's something Pritchard puts down “to just working really, really hard to get things right. If I love a sound, I'll study it and study it, and work out what the signature patterns are, especially in the timing and feel, and I'll keep doing and doing it until I get it right.” This kind of egoless, hard-working approach to creation – using his many, many aliases to make sure his different styles are listened to without prejudice – is vital to his musical longevity: long after most artists might have settled into a rut, he has remained keen to learn and improve his craft, one technique or rhythm at a time. And it's this same emphasis on discipline that's led to the unique atmospheres of Under the Sun – though this time, instead of trying to master the production and programming of a particular underground scene, he's schooled himself in the timeless production and mixing techniques of the 1960s and 70s. “I like club tracks and I like things that are heavy and hard hitting,” he says; “but in this case I wanted to make something that draws you in.” To this end he focused on using old synthesisers and avoiding digital processing – often playing tracks through old amplifiers and re-recording the results in order to capture their warmth and presence. Talking technique with his friend Phill Brown – an engineer who has worked with everyone from Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix to John Martyn and Talk Talk – was a major influence here, with Pritchard's mission being to capture the spirit of those older records without compromising his own modernist sensibilities. This sonic timelessness was absolutely vital when it came to tying together the elements and voices of the record - so the dark poetry and vintage avant-garde synthesis of “The Blinds Cage” with Beans from Antipop Consortium can sit alongside the classic Global Communication style space voyaging of “EMS” and “Sad Alron”, and it makes total sense to have Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, resurgent psyche-folk hero Linda Perhacs (who Pritchard spent months trying to write the perfect track for), and the tropicalia and Beach Boys influences of Bibio all on the same record. He even managed to wrangle no less than Julie Andrews into it, thanks to the samples of her work with ultra-bohemian 20th century composer Moondog that pepper the closing title track, and again have this make sense thanks to the sonic coherence of the whole thing. From the basic principles he had decided on, and from the fact that he had absented himself from the world of DJing and the need to keep up with contemporary sounds, emerged a set of themes and emotions that gradually over two years came together into Under the Sun. Memories were very important, and a sense of the West Country of his youth echoed through his head as the album took shape. Certain musical moods started recurring, particularly a kind of tonality that he half-seriously refers to as “medieval” – a way with chords and melodies, and also a folk music sense of storytelling, that most obviously comes through the psychedelic folk influences you can hear in the Thom Yorke and Linda Perhacs collaborations “Beautiful People” and “You Wash my Soul”. Sequencing was an absolutely vital part of the process too. It's unquestionably an emotional record – “some are tense, some are more positive, some sort of happy-sad melancholic, some are just straight sad hitting you hard, some are sinister” – and as he became confident in the individual tracks, pulling them together into a narrative became the most important task. Deciding to use the ultra-dramatic drones-and-organs track “?” was key: it's the only previously released bit of music on the album, having been put out on a 10” single in 2009 after dubstep don Mala began using as intro music to his sets. “It was genius of him to see that it could work like that,” says Pritchard. “I sent it to him with a bunch of music and straight away he asked if he could cut it on a dubplate to play. What it did was meant he could play after anyone, no matter what they played and it would reset the dance, get people ready for his set... So I used it that way too. I guess it's a bit like how Kubrick just used a drone at the start of 2001: it's clearing your mind, and making you commit to listening.” Pritchard's partner is experienced in radio, so calling on her understanding of sequencing and programming, he built the album from there. Bibio's sweet vocal harmonies on “Give it your Choir” were the only thing that would work following “?”, and bit by bit the rest fell into place. Buoyed up by positive comments from the few musical friends he had played it to, he began to see it as a complete piece, and when mastering engineer John Dent said he wanted to master it like a classical album or a jazz album, it all made sense. “He didn't push the level on the mastering,” says Pritchard; “so it's not as loud as most modern records but still has its dynamics.” But don't be fooled, for all the care and attention, for all the wistful memories of times past and distant countryside, for all the “medieval” melody, this isn't a whimsical nostalgia-fest. This is the natural next step in a career that's seen Pritchard absolutely nail whatever style he tries, and it's a record with intense emotional and sonic power. Already, of course, he's working on a dozen other things. His insatiable urge for more musical understanding and technique has lately led him to the electronic new wave of the 80s, and he has an EP's worth of tunes in that style on the go. There's a batch of Detroit style techno done too, and all the footwork beats you could shake a stick at. Under the Sun doesn't represent any break from Pritchard's engagement with the club culture he's always loved: but it is a unique milestone in one of the most singular careers in modern music. Biography by Joe Muggs