The DNB Vault speaks with Utopia label boss Mako and gets deep about his past, inspirations, the illusions of self, as well as upcoming projects.
For those that might be new to the genre or your name please introduce yourself.
Ez. My name is Stephen. My producer name is Mako. I mostly make drum and bass. I represent and record for a number of different labels, but my main ones are Metalheadz, Symmetry, Samurai, Dispatch Recordings, Warm Communications and my own label Utopia Music. I live in a lovely English town called Bristol with two cats called Ethel and T Dog and my studio.
Thanks for the introduction. Your resume of labels is impressive! Let’s go back a bit… What music were you into before Jungle/Drum & Bass?
My first memories of listening to music came from my mum. She used to love to clean the house to loud music, mainly folk and the occasional Michael Jackson. When I looked through my dads collection the things that stood out of me where the synthesized sounds of Jean Michael Jarre and the broodiness of the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack. But my first listen of dance music came when I was 13 or so, through my friend Ross, who gave me a DJ Sy mix tapes. I didn’t like most of it, but the tunes I gravitated towards (that I would later identify as jungle) contained amen breaks and 808 bass hits. The rest of the mix tape was hardcore which wasn’t really my thing as I found it a bit too ‘happy’. I was also into a lot of Indie, metal, rock and punk listening to a lot of early Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, The Pixies and Therapy?. I even went into a brit-pop stage where I listened to the early Oasis and Blur albums a lot.
Aside from the jungle tunes on the DJ Sy Mix tapes, do you remember how you really came into drum and bass?
Yeah. I went round my mate Ben Fields‘ house, whose brother is Andy Villem. Andy had borrowed some records off his mate and they showed me how to mix records on a pair of turntables. The rest fell into place, especially when I came to university and I spend most of my student loans on vinyl! I ended up getting into smoking a load of weed and mixing records for most of my 20’s. It seemed to be the ultimate way of relaxing and immersing my mind in the ‘moment’. Nothing really mattered. Love was won and lost, friends came and went, but the constant was music, drum and bass music especially.
And soon after “Mako” was born… Speaking of that… How did your name come to be?
The name Mako came when I was offered a residency in London. I had been recording mix tapes in the late 90’s and one of them got picked up by a guy called Mek who had been running nights in Croydon, at the Black Sheep, before it had become famous through the birth of dubstep. He asked me to join his (already well established) team and I said yes, even though the thought of playing live was scary. It was the first experience I had of dj’ing outside my bedroom and I realized I needed a name to represent myself. I had no intention at the time to produce music but I choose the name Mako, after my favorite sea creature, the Mako shark. I had done a project on sharks when I was a kid and I always had an affinity with the way they were misunderstood as a species. I’m a (fairly) large guy who can come across as quite blunt sometimes and it often got peoples’ backs up. I always felt I had good intentions so got pretty confused by the reactions I was getting sometimes. Thus I felt misunderstood. The way I dj’ed too was influenced heavily by the smooth sleekness of LTJ Bukem’s mixing style. I liked to blend quickly yet smoothly and this was analogous with the way the Mako shark operated in the deep blue ocean. Mako, the drum n’ basser, was born.
It seems that many djs like yourself at the time, start off without the intention to become producers. Like many, you had a change of heart… How long have you been producing?
I made a tune about 11 years ago with my mate Sobr (who has now gone on to leave drum and bass and makes music for film and tv). He showed me a DAW called Pro Tools and I made my first ever tune on that, some amen breaks, some bass sampled from some vinyl and some samples from the series ’24’, combined with some rhodes and a crazy arrangement. It wasn’t perfect by any means but it gave me an insight into what I needed to spend more time on. I ended up spending a lot of energy on a relationship with a girl that was at the time pretty upsetting yet ultimately rewarding as when I came out of that ‘mess’ Utopia was born and I knew I had to start producing seriously. It was 4 years and a drug bust later that I had the impetutuos to send my tunes to people. I was lucky as people knew me as the guy who ran Utopia so they would give my tunes a serious listen. I’d had music out with Fields and Villem (aka Mute) on a few different labels like Ingredients and Hospital before my first solo release came on Warm Communications in December 2013. Since then I’ve had solo releases on Horizons, Samurai Music, Symmetry, Dispatch and Metalheadz. I’ve got more coming too as well as an album completed for Metalheadz with my good friend and production partner (as OneMind) DLR. Thats what I’m most excited about but more news about that next year.
Do you find it difficult to be an expressive (experimental) musician yet produce tunes geared towards the dancefloor?
I guess its always a balance, so its not that difficult, but not that easy! There are a lot of different labels catering to a number of different sub genres so whats right for the dance for one label is not right for another dance for another label. I try not to get too caught up in that. What I do pay attention to is the overall loudness and power of my mixdowns. Even when making more experimental tracks I still want them to be punchy and bassy enough to stand up to the more classic sounding dancefloor anthems. I think the mixdown is the most important thing in drum and bass that people forget to spend time on. It really makes or breaks a tune and can help you stand out in the sea of music that people send to labels.
You have made quite the name for yourself through your solo efforts, collaborations and your label. What do you attribute your passion and success to?
The universe first and foremost. My past experiences have shaped me and driven me along this path. More recently meeting DLR has helped a lot with general vibes and motivation. My lovely girlfriend Ash is a massive inspiration too. She lives in London and I live in Bristol so I’ve had to move towards a more organized way of living to make sure I spend time with her and spend as much time as I can on music. Love is a tremendously motivating force. Imagine, the brain is flooded with a desire to spend as much time with your loved one as possible, but you’re caught in a paradox because for the last five years you’ve felt the same love for music and producing and now time, or more accurately, how MUCH time you have, becomes the focus. This pretty much goes against most of what I had been teaching myself through meditation the last few years so it has been twisting up my brain a little. But this suffering of life is synonymous with the passion of life so i’m eternally grateful for the continued inspiration that I encounter.
Can you tell us a little about your label Utopia Music? What made you want to start a label? How does the name fit your vision/ethos?
Utopia was started in 2009 after I broke up with my girlfriend. I had been in a destructive relationship on and off for years leading up to its inception. I had poured my energy into another person thinking it was helping but in the end it just made things worse for both of us. Trying to fix someone else is not the way. Just being there and understanding (in the classic sense of the word, supporting, listening, non judgment) is by far the most healing thing you can do. So after we broke up, I had this massive reserve of energy that I felt like I wanted to use. I started learning how to make music and how to run and manage a record label.
The name Utopia came about because I had the realization that a name is a name given to an illusion, that is, something that isn’t quite what it seems to be. Think about it for a second, what is in a name? When you start to break it down it becomes pretty insane. You are just a bunch of atoms arranged in a particular way. Take away those atoms one by one and there is no essence of who you are. I find this whole concept of letting go of the idea of self quite fascinating. My brain, as much as yours, believes it is a separate entity, mine thinks its called Stephen, who has his own desires and belief system. But a lot of people will tell you this isn’t real and that the brain does that (creates an idea of a ‘self’) as a survival mechanism. It certainly makes it ‘easier’ to function in this world of ego’s though. Utopia is a name that comes from the greek ‘outopia’ meaning ‘no place’ and the greek ‘eutopia’ meaning ‘good place’. I used it because it defines me, Mako, this imaginary me, who believes he has good morals but also believes that he is ‘nothing’. An old kung fu master used to say, ‘Be nothing, then you have everything to give to others’.
I also use Utopia to support artists that I like and that have a similar style and approach to music (and life) to myself.
You recently had an EP signed and released on Metalheadz called ‘The Narrator EP’ . Could you “narrate” on how that came about and tell us about your approach?
I had a release on Metalheadz XXX so had established a working relationship with Goldie to the point of where if I sent him stuff he would listen to it straight away. I woke up one February morning with a crazy epiphany running through my mind. ‘Make a tune for Goldie today, make a tune for Goldie today, and good things will happen’. So I started the morning with a session I had played with the night before called ‘The Narrator’. After a couple of hours of playing with it, I felt like I had a playable demo that I could send Goldie. He phoned me up straight away, getting pretty hype about it, but then told me that he was playing at a 20 years of Metalheadz night that evening in London. He needed to play the tune, but he needed it to sounds more legitimately headz, that is, to contain some of the classic Headz samples. He gave me a few and I sampled a few and the final track was born. I had a few other things to send that I had in the pipeline and over the next day or so, Goldie signed everything I had sent him. Then demanded an album! I had to politely decline but said we could do an EP with the tracks that he had recently signed. Then I started the mixdown process which took another 6 months. I needed the mixdowns to suit what I thought was right for the label. I had no real approach as I had written the tunes before I knew that they were coming on the EP. Goldie decided what he wanted on there. I just wrote the music organically with no preconception of where it was going to end up.
Do you have a favorite tune on the EP?
Probably ‘Candle in the Cage.
Now that the Ep has been out for a bit what other projects solo or otherwise do you have in the works?
I have another EP coming on Metalheadz in the winter, I’m finishing off an EP for Dispatch Recordings which will released next year, I’m doing another single for Warm Communications, I’ve got a flip side to finish for another Samurai Music 12″, I’ve got a solo EP for my own label Utopia Music to finish. But the main focus is finishing off the collaborative album I have done with the the badman that is DLR. We have decided to ditch our names and combine forces to be called ‘OneMind‘, but more info on that in the new year.
Last thing you listened or album you have purchase to outside of DNB?
I’m a big fan of dub and reggae. I also love dub techno and have been listening to a lot of Rhythm and Sound.
Last embarrassing moment?
When I first met my girlfriend she beat me at basketball!
Last piece of advice that has stuck with you?
Base your career around your life, not the other way round.