Words: Miljan Milekić
For the past twenty years, or a little less, Australian artist Dub FX has gained an iconic reputation in underground circles. Starting literally from the streets, he elevated himself to the biggest stages of the biggest festivals all over the world. Combining reggae, dub, hiphop, drum and bass, and everything in between, and combining it with deep, conscious lyrics, he created a unique style that can’t be copied. With days from the release of his new album ‘Roots,’ we caught up with him for an interview, which you can find below.
First of all, I hope you’re fine and safe. What’s the situation over there at the moment? We’ve been flooded with information from the media, but it’s hard to tell what’s really going on.
Dub FX: Currently, where we are in Victoria, we’re pretty safe. There are some little fires, but there are always little fires. It’s not like New South Wales, where there are crazy amounts of fires. It’s raining and it’s wet, I live in a rain-forest actually, but we’ve got lots of friends and family who live up in New South Wales, who had their houses burnt down. We know lots of people that are very close to the situation where it can be pretty bad. But it’s just the way Australia has always been, to be honest. It’s always been full of bushfires, and everyone’s kind of pretty well aware of it. Everyone’s pretty well prepared. The state government’s pretty good at it, as well, they alert people in time. It’s just unfortunate that it’s been such a hectic bushfire.
As an artist, you were always sharing messages about our world, our planet, and the importance of protecting it. So, when something like this happens, I think your opinion matters, and I’d like to hear it. Do you have any idea what we can collectively do to prevent this type of catastrophe in the future?
Dub FX: Well, I mean, at the end of the day, my opinion is that it shouldn’t be up to the consumers. This should be something that experts and the government should be doing, and we shouldn’t have to worry about it. Do you know what I mean? The fact that we have to do something about it is pretty fucked up, in my opinion, because there’s not a lot we can really do. I mean, these industries are going to keep doing whatever they need to do to keep making money. They don’t give a shit about the world, they don’t give a shit about society, and they definitely don’t care about animals and all the things that go wrong when their pollutants destroy environments. So, it shouldn’t really be us. It should be the government that makes sure that corporations don’t have all the slack that they currently have, to be able to do what they do.
But unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world where corporations are the ones that are buying politicians, buying the media, and they’re the ones that basically run the world. So it shouldn’t be us who decides to do less driving or to buy less of something. It should be less of that already in the system. We, the consumers, are the driving force behind making everything happen at the end of the day, but the point is that it shouldn’t really be us. It should be the government, and it should be the corporations that make these decisions for us. We need true people, scientists, who are unbiased, who understand the system. And that’s just not where we’re at. I think really it comes down to capitalism. The problem is in a capitalist world, where money is the bottom line. And then, of course, these CEOs and shareholders are going to do whatever they can to make their pockets fast. To sell us the shittiest version of whatever they can make for as cheap as possible, regardless of how pollutant that may be. I think the system is fucked from the very top, and it shouldn’t be us at the bottom that fixes it.
We’re all counting the days until your album drops. How excited are you about this one?
Dub FX: I’m very excited about this album. This album wrote itself very quickly, very easily. Normally I go into an album thinking: “Oh, I need to do this, I need to do that. I need to write a song that goes like this. I need to make sure there’s beatboxing in this song.” With this one, I didn’t give a shit about any of it. I was like: “You know what, I’m just going to go in the studio and just see what comes out.” I mean, it’s called ‘Roots’ for a number of reasons. One is that it’s the rootsy sounding album, in the actual genre of roots. It sounds like a live band. That’s where the name ‘Roots’ came from, but it’s also my roots. It’s where I come from as a musician. I used to jam with lots of reggae bands, jazz musicians, funk, hiphop musicians, all that sort of stuff. I guess it’s very heavily inspired by that part of my life. So that’s also why it’s called ‘Roots.’
I had the chance to hear the record, and once again, you’re delivering a strong album, keeping your recognizable style and vibe. How do you maintain the level album after album?
Dub FX: Um, I don’t know, man. I mean personally, I have very high expectations of myself, maybe that’s the thing, maybe that’s how I do it. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I expect everything to be perfect at all times. And it’s not, I don’t believe that my music is perfect. But this album I’m very, very, very, very happy with it. But you know, maybe in six months’ time when I’m finished with it, I’ll be like: “Ah, it’s not good. I need to do something better.” I think, if you listened to all my albums, each album progressively gets better and better, with my songwriting and my production. And I think this is definitely the best production and the best songwriting I’ve ever done.
And you raised the bar even higher this time, releasing a graphic novel along with the album. How did you get the idea to do something like that, and can you tell me more about it?
Dub FX: Well, I always wanted to write a graphic novel. I’m actually probably gonna end up writing a real graphic novel, not just short stories like I did for this. So, it was always my intention to write a graphic novel, and I never thought it was going to happen for this album, it just worked out perfectly. I was like: “You know what? Rather than making a video for the song, I’ll just make it a graphic novel.” I mean, we ended up animating the graphic novel into a video anyway, but that’s the point. It was something that just, sort of, happens there in the moment. And it was a lot of fun doing it, I’ve got to say. I’m planning on actually doing a real graphic novel soon.
How challenging was it to pull a project like this and synchronize two or three art forms? What came first, the music, or the stories?
Dub FX: Pretty difficult. I actually wrote and I finished the album about six months ago. And so in those six months, I was like: “You know what, I could probably do this. I could actually write this graphic novel.” So I kinda did. Basically, I contacted a whole bunch of different artists, on all different kinds of websites. Like, Fiverr is one of them. I also contacted artists through actual graphic novel websites where proper, real illustrators have their work up, so you can contact them and get them to work for you. So I just contacted a whole bunch of different artists, the artists that I thought I wanted to work with, and I just sent them the scripts. I mean, the scripts were small. There are only six, seven, or eight-page comic books. So, I wrote the scripts and them, they drew them, and it came out cool.
So, talking about your music, you created your own, unique sound. How did you get to it? What were your main influences?
Dub FX: Well, my sound comes from a combination of things. I started off in loads of different bands. I started in a punk rock band when I was 16, and that evolved into like a metal band. It turned into a new metal band, sort of Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Rage Against The Machine, Korn – that was the sound we wanted to go for. And then, at that same time, when I was about seventeen, I met other guys who were really into jazz music, jazz musicians. And I started jamming with those guys. So I was in a metal band, and I was jamming with a jazz band at exactly the same time. And then, around that same time, I also discovered Cuban jazz, reggae music, Caribbean music, basically. So I really got into reggae, like Bob Marley and Alpha Blondy, lots of different stuff. And I started writing reggae music, and then started a reggae band. Then I was also into hip hop because that was a really big thing going at that time. So I was in a metal band, a jazz band, a reggae dub band, and a hip hop band. And then, at the same time, I started taking ecstasy and got into raves, so I started MC-ing with DJs over breakbeat and house. That was probably a little bit later, but not much later. And I was doing all these projects at once.
And so when I started traveling, and I went to Europe, I kind of mixed all these sounds together. That’s why my sound has a bit of electronic in it, it’s got a bit of reggae dub in it, there’s a bit of a metal influence in there, there’s a bit of a hiphop influence in there, and there’s a bit of jazz influence. That’s all because I was in all those kinds of bands for so long. Learning how to use my voice over those different genres is what kind of helped me create my sound. And on top of that, I was also using an effects pedal over my vocals in all of those different bands. I would always come to the rehearsals with a microphone and a delay pedal. And that’s why they loved jamming with me, I could make my vocals sound like a recorded product. It just sounded different to anyone else that would be jamming with, and it was just fun for them, you know? I learned early on, in all these bands, how to use the effects over my voice. So when I started, when I found a loop station, and I kind of went solo, I already had all the tools in place that basically made up my sound.
I know you’re a big fan of extreme sports, from longboard to parkour. You supported it throughout your career, and even with your music videos. Are you personally involved in the scene?
Dub FX: I used to be athletic and good at sports. I loved longboarding and skating, but these days my lower back has a lot of problems, so I can’t do what I used to. So, not really.
So, you have the reputation of being an amazing live performer, and as someone who’s seen you play three times, I can only agree. Where do you find the energy to deliver the best show you can every single time?
Dub FX: ADHD is the key to my success, basically. You know what ADHD is, right? I think all the guys in my band have ADHD, and Mr Woodnote knows definitely got ADHD. (laughs) He’s with me right now actually. It’s one of those things, I’ve just always had loads, and loads, and loads of energy, throughout my whole life. My parents constantly told me to chill the fuck out. My friends were always like: “Ben, chill out, Ben, stop talking, Ben, chill the fuck out.”
It’s just always been in my nature to be over the top full of energy. And performing is the perfect outlet. When I rehearsed with some bands, everyone’s like, all right, let’s take a break. And I’m like: “Why take a break? Let’s just keep going. Keep going! I can keep going. Why, why? Why do you wanna stop?” I could just keep rehearsing all day, and I could perform all night, you know what I mean? But, I’ll be 37 this year, and I can definitely feel myself slowing down. I definitely get more tired, and I get more cranky than I used to. But I’ve also got two children. I haven’t had many new experiences for a while now because I’ve been around the world many times, I’ve been to pretty much every festival you can think of, and I’ve performed in any club… To me, the idea of performing for three hours, you know, it’s not like a new thing, it doesn’t give me the same excitement that it maybe it once did, but I still very much enjoy it. So, hopefully, my energy level hasn’t changed too much since you last saw me.
As I said, I’ve seen you three times, two of them being the Main Stage performances at Exit Festival in Novi Sad. How hard was it to translate your music to huge festival stages, having in mind the way you started? How does it feel to get on the stage and face 30 000 or more people all alone?
Dub FX: Well, I think street performing would be the key to knowing how to perform in any situation. When you know how to perform in front of people who don’t give a shit, like people who are walking past and just want to go to work or go to get a sandwich, or whatever; and you stop them and you make them listen to you and enjoy it, and they enjoy it enough to even buy a CD, when you learn how to do that, you can perform anywhere in front of anybody. You know what? Performing in front of 200 people in the street is almost more fun than performing in front of 20,000 people at a big festival because you stop those people, whereas the festival, they’re there anyway, they bought tickets to the whole festival. So, the bigger the crowd doesn’t really make a difference to me personally. Some people I know get really embarrassed or shy or freaked out by a big crowd. I personally, don’t, it doesn’t really bother me. I’ve always been like that us actually. I never get stage fright.
Apart from the two festival performances, my favorite would probably be the pop-up show in the streets of Novi Sad in 2014. How does it feel to go back to your roots, to get so close to your fans, and possibly play for random people who have no idea who you are? Do you still do it?
Dub FX: Ah, yeah, that was a great one. That was fun. I haven’t street performed in a really long time now, because I tour so much, and when I’m touring I do so many shows in a row. When I was a street performer, I would perform two, three times a week, maybe. And that was great. I lived off that. I made a lot of money doing that two or three times a week, and then maybe I’d also do a gig once or twice a week. But now, when I go on tour, I’m performing like four or five nights a week. So, I don’t have the energy to then go and street perform. I don’t even have that lifestyle. Street performing is really a lifestyle. I lived in a van, and inside my van, I had a PA system, I had a battery charging system, I had trolleys, and I had all my gear. My whole life was literally built around street performing. So when I would go out, everything was really organized.
Now, I don’t have that kind of life. I live in a house. Then when I come home from the big tour, I don’t really want to think about performing. I just want to think about being with my family. You know what I mean? I got two kids now, and I just want to be with them and my wife. So the idea of going out and street performing is like the last thing on my mind. But if I stop touring for like a month or two, all of a sudden I get itchy and I just wanna perform again. One day, I will go street performing, but it’s not something that I need to do. I did it because I relied on it. I did it because that was my bread and butter. Now, my bread and butter is touring. I lived in a van for six years, I did it almost every day, and that part of my life is kinda over. But I do miss it, and I’d love to do it again, but I just don’t want to go off and do a one-off. I’d love to get all the gear and make sure that I do it with the same professionalism that I once did.
In February, you will once again hit the road and tour the EU and the UK with a new album under your belt. Are you preparing anything different for this tour?
Dub FX: Well, the new album. I mean, that’s it. That’ll definitely be the new special thing that I’m preparing. The way that I perform the new album is going to be very different. I mean, there’s no beatboxing on the new album, so I’ll be doing beatboxing for my oldest stuff ’cause I still perform my old songs, and then I’ve got a different way of performing the new album. But it is a bit of a secret, I’m not telling you how I’m doing that yet. It’s going to be a pretty big show, there’s going to be a lot of different stuff. I’ll perform my music in a lot of different ways. But what I found is, people don’t really give a shit how I perform. They care about what I perform, which songs. As long as I perform certain songs they know and they can sing along to, they’re happy. So I make sure that I give everybody songs that they want to hear.
This will be the last one I have for you. I guess I’m one of many people who discovered you and your music via THAT video of you performing ‘Love Someone’ in the street. I’ve read somewhere that the video was made completely by accident. At the time it happened, did you have any idea on how would it be received, and the chain reaction it would cause?
Dub FX: Absolutely no idea, man. I don’t think anybody really knew the power of social media back then. That video was actually one of the very first viral videos on YouTube. Before that, there weren’t many viral videos. In fact, I’ve been told that that was the first main music viral video. You know, it was in 2008. Facebook was a different world. People shared things, and people clicked on links that people shared. They were very excited about this new idea, this new concept of sharing things. I think what was perfect about that video was that it was a guy on the street, a street performer that was doing something that none has ever seen before with beatboxing and the looping and then the effects over the voice that make the bass sounds and all that stuff. And people were really blown away by that. And then on top of that, I was singing something with the message, which again, is something that people didn’t get used to, because most music, you know, doesn’t have a message anymore.
So, to see a street performer with a message doing something completely original, with a catchy song, was such a different idea for so many people. That’s why it just went viral and why it blew up. I didn’t know it was going to do that, and I didn’t think that it was anything special at the time, but now when I look back, I kind of see all the different pieces of the puzzle, and I understand why it exploded, you know? And I’m very grateful for that. I am so lucky that I inspired a lot of people to buy loop stations, to beatbox, to sing, and to write conscious music. So many people told me that they now write conscious music because of me, you know? I’m very happy about that.
And I guess that means you’re doing something right.
Dub FX: Yeah, man. I mean, I can’t complain. The funny thing is I have a very, very, very resilient life. I’m very, very happy with everything that’s happening. Unfortunately, the social media world, platforms like Facebook and YouTube, are corrupt now. You can’t share things, people can’t see it. I’ve got around 600,000 fans on Facebook, but if I make a post, none of my fans see it. Even if I pay, my fans don’t get to see it because it’s all corrupt. Facebook wants to give the power back to the record labels, to the radio, ’cause that industry was about to die. So, now the media industry is getting a bit more power back because social media, sort of, doesn’t work anymore. And it did work. It was working so well. I used to be able to make one post and have, you know, 30,000 comments. Now I make a post and I’ve got 25 comments maximum. And it doesn’t make sense ’cause I’ve got 600,000 followers. So why is that even a thing? Corruption is bullshit, man, but what can you do? I’m lucky I caught the first wave, and it was a lot of fun.