Breakbeat and musicality aren't always easy bedfellows. Some noisecore terrorists shun the sounds of any real instruments, but the productions of Ils have always managed to combine melody and harmony with astute dancefloor savvy. Whether it be some of the jazzy drum + bass tracks he released on LTJ Bukem's label in the mid-90s or the amazing 'Next Level' - one of the biggest breakbeat tracks ever - Ils has quite a pedigree of tracks.
His third artist album, 'Bohemia', carries on his tradition of exploring assorted flavours in breakbeat science. Spiritual, rocky, decadent and moving - the byword throughout is quality. Ils has already started the process of having some of the tracks remixed for singles, but as a body of work the album stands up as something a bit special.
"The working title for 'Bohemia' was 'Masterpiece'," Ils explains, "which I obviously wasn't going to call it in the end, but I had that name written on post-it notes all around the studio. It kind of raises the bar in terms of quality, it's just a way of psychologically upping your own standards. The working title of my last album 'Soul Trader' was 'Green Fields', just because I had my studio out in the countryside and I wanted it to be less of an urban thing and more just good music that would work out in open greenery - as well as in a club environment." Ils initially did a dummy run of this album with just one singer - Val from London indie band the Bee Stings. He then brought in other vocalists - Bulgarian duo Desi and Roni, growling grime/garage MC Wonder (on the Prodigy-esque 'Feel My Addiction'), Plavka who sang on Jam + Spoon's hit 'Right In The Night' a decade ago, R+B singer Rhalia - to weave his production magic around and flesh out the meat on the bones. One track even includes snatches of his late friend Stevie Hyper D, the junglist MC who passed away a few years back. The resulting kick-ass breaks track 'The World Is Yours' is a fitting tribute to the drum + bass hero.
There's a tale behind all the vocalists and the elements they bring to the melting pot, but the story of the Bulgarian singers is perhaps the most, err, bohemian. Deeply into spiritualism, the two spend a lot of time looking after a renowned 98-year-old shamanistic woman who lives up a mountain. "These two are deeply into spiritualism and I wanted that kind of influence brought in to give the album an extra dimension," Ils outlines. "I've been DJing in eastern Europe quite a lot in the past couple of years, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and Rumania. One of these women singers helps arrange a lot of the club-nights, or parties on the beach. I've used their voices like another instrument on a few tracks."
As well as the ethereal Bulgarian voices, war is another thread that runs throughout 'Bohemia'. "I was really upset by the Iraq war and the media images around it," says Ils. "There was tens of thousands of innocent deaths - I was shocked and horrified. The whole album was being recorded during that time, so it was a big influence. That's why I had to put a track like 'Life Is Precious' on there. And 'Storm From The East', which I was originally going to entitle 'A Mother's Pain' because it has a certain emotion...""It's not in-yer-face, though - I like art to be open to interpretation. I didn't want to do a political album, there should be question marks after every track. That's why I thought it was really funny when Ann Summers got back to me..." The lingerie firm have already picked up 'Angels' to use in one of their films, apparently (see track by track rundown, below).
It might surprise some breakbeat fans to hear that Ils has used guitars on every track. Once upon a time guitars were a dirty word in dance music, but now the boundaries are increasingly blurred. "I started out as a drum + bass programmer, and d+b was the antithesis of that whole thing, but what I found from my first album is that every track's got a guitar on it," Ils says. "I started off playing a guitar before I could use a sampler. Mixed in the background it's not obvious, I've always hired guitars in to my tracks. Now I just turn 'em up a bit more. They've always been there. "I feel less restrained as a producer now,'" he continues. "I listen to Xfm all day long, so why shouldn't that be reflected in my music.
Ils hasn't had much luck with record labels over the years. He delivered the finished 'Bohemia' album to Adam Freeland's Marine Parade imprint in August 2004, only to experience the label temporarily fold with the collapse of distribution company 3MV a week later. If Marine Parade was to continue, Freeland had to cut back. "There was 10,000 Evil Nine albums sat in a warehouse somewhere, so for Adam the actual thought of taking on another album project as well was maybe a bit much," Ils says now.
Let's hear the story from the breakbeat freak in his own words. "The olive branch Adam extended was 'Let's release the best singles off this, do singles and remixes', but to me that's like a painter having painted a portrait and someone coming up and saying 'I really love the ears'. Getting a pair of scissors out and cutting the ears off. It's a body of work, all the tracks were designed to work together, so just pulling the best three tracks off would've made it impossible for me to do anything with the album after that. We both knew that."
"As soon as that happened I immediately thought of Distinctive. I'd done one of their Y4K mix series, got to know them and thought they were all really switched on. They've got such a good reputation, too, and it seems they've helped introduce a lot of people to breaks all around the world."The Y4K had rolled off after the success of 'Next Level', 'Music' and 'No Soul' which all did really well. And for 'Bohemia' it's all worked out smoothly. Distinctive just sent a bike down two days after Adam gave me the bad news, and suddenly I'm on Distinctive in time for Christmas. It was a pretty flawless transition."
"Adam's written me a really nice email since, saying he hopes there's no bad feelings. That was really cool of him, because in the past when I've left previous labels there's been some sort of bad feeling..."
Ils was born Ilian Walker, his mum making up the name while she was pregnant with him and reading Homer's epic book The Iliad. "I've always been called Ils from school days," the DJ/producer recalls. "It was handy only having three letters when the first Atari came out, cos for the highest score for Space Invaders you could only have three initials."
He grew up in a hippy commune, and the first music he was exposed to was Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon' - an album left to him as a present by a departing squatter. The other record that was a big influence on the young Ils was 'Never Mind The Bollocks' by the Sex Pistols. "I remember that was being blasted from the house all day long," Ils smirks. "Then the first thing I ever bought, when I was 11 or 12, was Grandmaster Flash + the Furious Five 'The Message'. Everyone in my street was into electro and breakdancing and I saved up for that for about three months." Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones inspired the young Ils to pick up a guitar, after Ils heard that the punk rocker learned to play the instrument in two weeks with just one finger. The fact that Jones also lived in the neighbourhood, on Shepherd's Bush Road, brought it home to him that he too could be involved in music.
Ils got into bands in his teens - big time. He joined school bands, swapped instruments around a bit, got put onto funk bass duties. "When I was 18 we used to club together and book into a West End studio," he recalls. "That's where I first saw the Atari and sampler at work. I was always pissed off at how shoddy our school demos were. When I saw beats coming out of a sampler I had a vision of finished records, as opposed to messy demos. I was getting annoyed with people not turning up, and started coming to the conclusion that I could probably rely on myself more than the super-flaky people I was hanging around with at the time."
Disenchanted with unreliable band-mates, Ils got his own sampler and did some business training courses, going through the Prince's Trust start-up system. He did a business plan, got a grant, set a studio up and began advertising in Loot as a full studio. By this time Ils had got involved with drum + bass pirate stations ("it was like having those old funk breaks sped up, your own youth culture as it were"), and knew that to make drum + bass all you needed was a sampler and an Atari. "I knew there was loads of young DJs who wanted to do dubplates for their pirate stations,' says Ils. "Most were booking into these big expensive studios with engineers who were good at live mics and guitars and stuff, but not good at Cubase or samples. I spent a year learning how to use my equipment, and soon would get people's dub plates finished in four hours. That whole DiY concept of music I liked, and I slipped straight into that subculture."
The first Ils release was on Rugged Vinyl, though he soon gravitated up to LTJ Bukem's Good Looking imprint. "He was a DJ who knew what his sound was, he was out on a limb at the time," believes Ils. "Working for him for as many years as I did possibly alienated me from the rest of drum + bass. When I came out of Good Looking it was like 'Where do I go from here?" After mid-90s success and critical acclaim, Bukem told the artists on his label one day about his financial difficulties. "He pulled us in for a meeting, said he had a forty thousand pound tax bill and that none of the artists would get paid for two years," Ils remembers. "It was annoying going into clubs and having your track played, or it's tune of the month or something, and you weren't getting paid for it. I had to bunk tube fares to get to a club to hear my own stuff getting played. I had six singles out on Good Looking and I was having difficulty retrieving any payment." Luckily his studio engineering work kept paying the bills - just.
Ils did a couple of drum + bass tunes that Goldie liked, but his close association with Bukem for three years boxed off most other opportunities. He soon drifted into working with James Lavelle's hip trip-hop label Mo'Wax. "We ended up getting passed most of the advert work that was coming into Mo'Wax, cos we weren't MCPS and PRS registered at the time," he explains. "We were like the backroom boys of that company, not name producers as such, and that's exactly what the advertising boys who were phoning up Mo'Wax wanted. He worked on a number of big ad campaigns and TV synchs, often working under intense pressure to meet tight deadlines. "I think it permanently changed my brain chemistry with regards to my approach to making music," Ils reckons. "Through this advertising work I learned to write music differently. It was a constant learning curve - less about jamming and having fun, more learning how to make tracks in high-pressure situations. It gave me grey hair and chest pains, but it was a good experience. Maybe spiritually and creatively it wasn't that fulfilling, but the money was good."
But with all this advert work and no record releases, Ils feared he was going to fall off the musical map. Still engineering for other artists, one of his clients was Dave Tipper. Tipper was doing something called breakbeat with some crazy guys from Fuel Records. "It was a new type of people," he believes. "With drum + bass by 1999 there was a thick rule book about what you can and can't do in d+b production. Dave Tipper was coming in buzzing, he'd started his DJ thing, he was getting a lot of work. It was the time of Wall Of Sound, Derek Dahlarge - I was engineering for him as well. My clientele expanded to working with these guys at 125bpm, and I found it more enjoyable with these different bunch of characters - it was exciting and fun.
Ils was inspired by the vision of Fuel's Richard Warren, "which was putting bass speakers in the back seats of old American Starsky + Hutch cars and driving around listening to Tipper's or my music. At 100mph in the darkness on motorways." Inspired by this dream, Ils made the dark, atmospheric breakbeat album 'Idiots Behind The Wheel' for Fuel in three weeks.Unfortunately Fuel went down a week before Ils' album was released. The ten thousand stock was seized by the distributors, and he never saw a penny. Ils approached the first DJ he could think of who played his records. This was a guy called Adam Freeland, who'd done a stint on Fuel and was playing at this nu skool breaks night at London's Bar Rumba with Rennie Pilgrem and Tayo. Ils asked Freeland if he had a label and Adam mapped out his vision for Marine Parade and how he wanted to sign Ils as his first artist. Ils told him that if he signed him for an album, he'd guarantee him at least two good singles out of it.
Ils then moved his studio to France for the album, near to the Le Mans race track. "It was basically a house 18 kilometres away from the nearest village, and all you could see on the 360 was green fields. Hence the working title," he says.'Next Level', the most successful single from the album, sprang from the organic vibe Ils was on at the time. "I wanted to do something that was the representation of maybe sitting in a field at sunrise," he outlines, " a thing of beauty. The track was first written as a string interlude, it was originally called 'Psychedelia' and was my 1960s psychedelia track. It got mutated so many times."The burbling b-line in 'Next Level' had an almost UK garage feel, but Ils had no desire to sign up for that lifestyle. He was just happy that the three big singles from the 'Soul Trader' album - 'Next Level', 'Music' and the bluesy 'No Soul' - did really well and were licensed for TV for added exposure."That kept me loyal to Marine Parade," he says. "After the success of 'Soul Trader' I thought they'd commission me for another album. But Adam's album had to come out, then Evil Nine's album, so i just had to wait."
Now safely ensconced on Distinctive, Ils is looking forward to the coming year immensely. But why has he called the album 'Bohemia'? "Because of Desi and Roni and then Plavka, the album was having quite an eastern European feel to it. The thread through the whole album was spiritualism, so I just thought 'Bohemia'... hopefully you can just sit on a sunny beach and listen to it on a walkman; it's hedonistic, but with a spiritual element. "Bohemia itself was a triangle linking Austria and Czechoslovakia, a very small segment of territory that predominantly produced beer. People in that region were probably called Bohemian cos they were pissed out of their minds 24 hours a day. It was a part of Europe that if you hailed from it you were probably a little bit off the wall, you probably didn't conform to normal social norms. Maybe you were an artist, or drank a hell of a lot, or both - which was quite fashionable in those days.