Starkey Produces Club-Thumper “Drama” for 18+, Chats Charli XCX, Grime

Photography courtesy of the Artist

Starkey is a native Philadelphian who has been crafting dubstep/grime tracks for years. His first album, Ephemeral Exhibits (2008), was a revelation, blending dubstep with ambient and melodic electronics. Last year’s The Transponder Orchestra found him further stretching the boundaries between melodic synths and epic bass blasts.

Starkey recently produced four tracks with 18+, including the single “Drama” for their upcoming album Collect releasing May 20th on Houndstooth. He’s also worked with Charli XCX for the track “Lost in Space.” Rock On Philly spoke with Starkey about his artistic process, collaborations and influences.


Rock on Philly: How did you get started in music? Did you just begin making tracks in your bedroom or were you coming at it with any musical expertise?

Starkey: I grew up playing piano, saxophone and oboe. In middle school I picked up bass because my friend wanted to start a band, but I was playing classical and jazz piano since I was five. I was in a boy’s choir for six years, did regional and district chorus, and played bass in the school jazz band.

ROP: I’m assuming you use Ableton to write songs?

S: I use Ableton for my live sets, but I mostly use Logic for production, which I prefer just because I’m really fast in it. It doesn’t really matter what you use – they’re all just tools. I’ve started tracks in Ableton and moved them over to Logic. Recently, I almost did an entire track in Ableton for the first Art Dept. residency show. I ended up exporting the stems out to Logic to do the final mix, but the whole track was pretty much made using Ableton.

ROP: Do you work with any kind of hardware or are you all software-based?

S: The last tour I did around when Transponder Orchestra came out, I did a live set with a modular synth. Last summer, I put a Eurorack modular synth together, and that was the first time I did a live set for a long time. I switched to DJ’ing because I didn’t really like lugging around a lot of equipment. I became bored with doing live sets, because Ableton’s not really challenging unless you make it challenging. The new album was a bit more out there, it was a bit less “dance floor,” so I didn’t feel like I could sit behind turntables and play those records. I felt like I needed to do something else, so I started getting into the whole hardware thing. Now, I use Ableton as a sequencer, with parts getting sent out to the synthesizer.

ROP: You probably like the modular synth because it has a bit more of an open architecture.

S: Yeah, you can patch stuff right on stage. I wanted to be able to touch stuff, for it to be really hands-on. The synth has become a staple in my studio. I use it on nearly every track now.


ROP: The live element is a problem that electronic music has been dealing with since the beginning. A visual correlation with the music seems to be important. When a drum is hit or a guitar is strummed, you connect sound and image.

S: I don’t personally look at anything when I see a show. For me, it’s about the music, but I like the show aspect to it too. I incorporated the synth to make it more interesting for me. I don’t mind jumping back and forth between live and DJ’ing. It all depends on the venue, the crowd, and what the promoters are used to seeing. It’s good to be versatile.

ROP: Speaking of venues, are there any festivals in electronic music to keep on the radar? I’m a big fan of the Montreal edition of Mutek.

S: I’ve never played Mutek. I’m hoping to get there, especially with a lot of the new stuff being more “out there.” The music would feel better in that environment. The last festival I played was Giants Stadium at the Electric Daisy Carnival which is not really my thing (laughs). It’s just not what I’m used to, but it was cool, there were definitely people there that knew my music. Moog Fest in North Carolina seems cool, and I’ve always enjoyed Decibel Festival in Seattle. Last time I was there I did a lecture on the business of music.

ROP: I agree that your stuff is getting more experimental. Do you ever find resistance when you tour because your smorgasbord of styles veers from strict club music?

S: I remember a couple of shows on the last tour that were really just the wrong venue. It was a big city, they got the offer for the show, and they didn’t want anyone else to take it. Things like that happen sometimes in the bigger cities. People who are all about that type of music and scene don’t necessarily go to those bigger venues on a regular basis. There isn’t that community. On the other hand, places like Low End Theory in LA on Wednesday are a staple. Even if people haven’t heard the music it’s at least something they’re going to be interested in, and there’s a community of people that support the music. Those types of events are always the best.

ROP: The venue stands for brand recognition. Any memorable Philly venues?

S: I have to go back to when I was coming up and constantly playing Philly. Philly’s one of those towns where some nights it’s amazing crowds and, other nights, it bombs, and you still have to put on a good show. It makes people who perform here have a thick skin since people expect a lot. I would play a lot in the old Silk City. There used to be this venue called Tritone on South Street that isn’t around anymore. There’s also a whole bunch of warehouses that have since gone away that I’ll say were “semi-legal.”


ROP: God’s Basement was one of those parties. It was a rave that was in the basement of a church.

S: Back then, when I played we’d have a weird grime/dubstep floor, and the other floor was more of a techno floor and people would just drift back and forth. But all that was back in 2005 when I was going out all the time. Nowadays, I love going to Union Transfer. It’s the best venue in the city, but it’s a big place. I’ve seen Autechre, Skream, Benga, and Woodkid there.

ROP: I’ve been listening to Autechre for over twenty years. Who are you listening to these days?

S: I’m listening to all the stuff we’re putting out on my Seclusiasis and Slit Jockey labels I run with Dev79. There’s tons of things in the works. Billie Holiday is my go-to. I’ve been listening to the latest Kendrick Lamar, Untitled Unmastered. I wasn’t really a fan of his, but I dig that record. I find the eight-hour Max Richter Sleep album really interesting. I like Kanye’s Life of Pablo a lot.

ROP: Space is clearly one of your obsessions defining your style. Why? I wonder if it’s simply a childhood obsession, or if your music lends itself to themes of space.

S: My parents own a drive-in movie theater and my dad was a projectionist, so I saw lots of sci-fi movies growing up. I was always drawn to stuff like 2001 and Star Wars, and got into more of the obscure stuff when I got to college. Interestingly, a lot of those films like Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run and THX-1138 have really interesting soundtracks. I’ve always been fascinated by stuff like space travel and conspiracy theories about landing on the moon. When you’re writing electronic music, naming songs is really hard, especially if they’re instrumentals. Musically, a lot of my stuff has that space vibe and influence, so it’s just natural to keep coming back to it.


ROP: You produced four tracks for 18+, including the single “Drama.” Talk about how that came about.

S: I know the main guy over at Houndstooth through relationships with Fabric, the London nightclub. Houndstooth got in touch with me about working with 18+ and I was down. We had a little back and forth on the early tracks, just to see what they liked, and we ended up recording on four of the tracks. I was sent all the vocal parts but only mixed “Drama.” That was the first track we did. It was one of the first songs they did for the album, so it kind of sat around for a while, so it ran the risk of people getting bored by it, but everyone was still keen on it when the album was finished.

ROP: Talk about the collaboration with Charli XCX for “Lost in Space.” The song takes its time. It’s unconventional from a pop music format, which I really dig.

S: That song went through like thirty mixes. It was insane. There’s an edit that gets right into her vocals, and that’s the one that got radio play. There’s also a whole additional verse in the radio edit that wasn’t in the music video version that most people know. I always think of things as film music. A “drop” can happen at the three-minute mark. But yeah, the main version was five minutes long so we cut it down for radio. At that time, her management knew that Charli had talent and was a great vocalist, they were just trying to figure out what her sound was going to be.

ROP: She was originally coming from this gothic, dark direction.

S: But, then, she also likes Britney Spears!

ROP: Dubstep’s been around for a long time, before Skrillex pushed it into the mainstream in 2010. Did that affect your music scene?

S: I’ve always been more of a grime guy. I tend to go out less and listen to music on my headphones more, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make tracks with beats. Lately, I haven’t been making too much stuff that’s strictly dance music. When dubstep got bigger a lot of the guys abandoned it for that reason and started working in other genres. I personally never abandoned anything. I never really felt like I had a home anywhere, because I’ve always been kind of an outsider. I just always made what I wanted to make without being confined to genres.

Join Starkey at The Art Dept’s 4th Fridays on April 22nd. Get more info and tickets here. In the meantime, Enjoy 18+’s “Drama” below!



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