LONDON – When Rustie (Russell Whyte, 29) makes his Japan debut at SonarSound Tokyo this weekend, it will mark the culmination of a remarkable few years that has seen the Scottish producer swap house parties in his hometown of Glasgow for headline spots at some of the biggest clubs in the world.
Whyte’s debut album, “Glass Swords,” was released to unanimous acclaim in October. It’s hyperactive — bombarding synths evoke a “Blade Runner”-esque landscape, retro video-game samples conjure up pixelated nostalgia, and blasts of the “purple” sound coined by Bristolian dubstep frontrunner Joker (with whom Whyte released a split 12″ single in late 2008) add yet more color.
Another of Britain’s most exciting producers and the man behind Werk Discs, Actress, recently designed a hypnotic soundscape for artist Yayoi Kusama’s retrospective at London’s Tate Modern. In comparison, the exaggerated effervescence of “Glass Swords” would find its visual equivalent in the Superflat works of artist Takashi Murakami. Whyte’s 2009 track “Inside Pikachu’s Cunt” even sounds like the name of something you’d expect to find inside Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki studio.
The energy imbued in the individual tracks lends itself to a club atmosphere — the anthemic “Ultra Thizz” in particular, conjures up a four-minute-long natural high. More impressive, however, is how well the album works on its own.
“I wanted to make something that I could play at clubs, but also at a house party or on headphones on the train,” Whyte explains, and his efforts are evident not only in the mastering (the album sounds as good through headphones as through a club sound system), but also its careful composition as a whole. Techniques such as the self-cannibalization of riffs and repetition of key samples and phrases throughout lend cohesiveness to the chaos.
The comparison with Murakami is one that would likely not be lost on Whyte, who acknowledges that he has a big interest in Japan’s cultural output: “I love the attitude, enthusiasm and creativity,” he says. “I love Studio Ghibli and Nintendo, Konami … all the video-game music,” he remarks, before singling out prog-jazz-rock act Kenso as an unlikely favorite. The band’s instrumental arrangements feature catchy melodies alongside technical complexity, much like that displayed in “Glass Swords,” and highlight just how widespread Whyte’s influences are. More obvious points of reference can be found in the resounding slap bass that features on many of the album’s tracks and recalls 1970s R&B like Cameo and The SOS Band (but with a space-funk twist), as well as in the nods to the aquatic techno of Detroit duo Drexciya, the latter so big an influence on Whyte that he was tagged with the tongue-in-cheek genre label “aquacrunk” upon his emergence around 2007-08.
British music journalist Simon Reynolds and other critics have used the term “digital maximalism” to describe the dominant trend of excess in recent electronic music, and have offered up “Glass Swords” as the movement’s centerpiece. The term suggests a digital framework in which the Internet has provided access to a literal torrent of genres and generations, and technology is so suitably advanced to have rendered musical possibilities limitless. But Whyte plays down the technological aspect of the creative process, saying, “I’m not greatly technically-minded and I tend to stick with programs that I know.”
He’s also keen to avoid being tarred with a faddish label: “Most of these terms irk me because as soon as you describe something in a certain way that contains it, it instantly makes it feel stale. Putting things into boxes is necessary for critics, but it’s something I prefer to remain oblivious of.”
Not only is “Glass Swords” not stale, but it even manages to reinvent and give new life to sounds from the past that could be considered as such.
“I’m incorporating music from lots of different places that I grew up with that take me back and give me a certain feeling that I connect with,” Whyte explains. Much like Zomby’s “Where Were U In ’92,” which revisited early ’90s rave and, in doing so, updated the sound for a new generation, so Whyte draws on myriad inspirations and ultimately creates something entirely new. His sound has proved a success with both critics and clubgoers alike. Whyte’s recent “Essential Mix” for BBC Radio 1 is already being tipped by many as the best mix of the year, while “Glass Swords” won British newspaper The Guardian’s prestigious First Album Award and has just been nominated for Scottish Album of the Year. I ask Whyte whether he’s pleased by the latter, which sees him pitted against acts such as Mogwai. He replies with a chuckle, “Yeah definitely, my mum and dad are really chuffed.”
Rustie plays SonarSound Tokyo’s SonarClub stage on April 22 (5:05 p.m.). SonarSound Tokyo takes place at ageHa in Koto-ku, Tokyo, on April 21-22. Advance tickets cost ¥14,500 (two days) and ¥7,750 (one day). Tickets cost ¥8,500 at the door. For more information, visit www.warp.net/records/rustie or www.sonarsound.jp.