“Sorry, I’ve been re-organizing, so there aren’t really any available surfaces.” It’s an unnecessary apology as I am welcomed into Taal Mala’s studio, which is tucked away in an old building in downtown Vancouver. My bag and jacket are left forgotten on the floor and I struggle to take in the sheer amount of musical gadgetry that surrounds the two antique cushioned dining chairs in the centre of the room. Most of the equipment here is set up to be easily reached and operated; drum machines and sequencers poke out on tilted adjustable arms above synths and from behind monitor speakers, yet there is also a tone set in the room by the presence of that which is not being immediately used. A shelf of vintage electronic noise-boxes that look too old to be operational, along with an array of hanging brass instruments create the definite impression of a space put together by someone who has a passion for musical creation and experimentation running a little deeper than most.
We are here to talk about Taal Mala’s upcoming White Label EP release with Modern Math Recordings. The EP will be the label’s first vinyl release: a fitting format given his obvious penchant for analog gear, electronic music history and vinyl culture.
“There’s four tunes on the EP,” states Taal Mala (a.k.a. Keenan O’Connor). “There’s ‘White Label Renegade,’ which is a 128BPM kind of jungle-techno/U.K. hardcore-type sound meets the rhythms of U.K. funky and dancehall, and super slowed down footwork. It’s a pretty ravey full-on hyped dancefloor track. Grenier’s remix of that, he took it in a little bit of a different direction and made it kind of a more straight ahead Detroit techno/electro kind of rhythm, slowed it down to 124BPM, and just really accentuated the groove element of the track and added a little bit of a tech-ier darker feel to it. The other two tracks, ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ and ‘Bubble’ are both 160BPM. ‘Bubble’ is more or less a jungle tune but with a lot of influence from footwork and all the hybrids of that that are happening right now, with some throwback to some classic jungle elements and samples. ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ is also a very footwork-inspired track, but it’s more melodic and synth-based rather than the other one, which is hyper-chopped samples and jungle edits.”
Clearly unfazed by the creative potential in blending elements from a variety of musical genres, O’Connor, as a long-time member of Vancouver’s Lighta! crew, is well known locally and beyond for his ability to traverse different genres not only in his own productions, but also with a blistering intensity in his DJ sets. Live performance for Taal Mala can range from expansive and enveloping ambient drone music to an as of yet one-off performance of his analog synth-based interpretations of classic Dixieland music as The Original Uptown Parlour Orchestra, presented at a noise music night at The Cobalt.
“The night was very much noise-oriented and darker-type sounds, and I came with this super silly over the top ridiculous happy music. There was hecklers and everything, it was great!”
However, when playing for a dancefloor, it is his earlier musical passions that shine through. “I was into DJing far before I came to Vancouver,” states O’Connor. “This was in Ontario when I was growing up, and I was into reggae and dancehall and really into metal and industrial and harder electronic music – breakdance and breakcore and that kind of thing, and discovered that ragga jungle was a mixture of this breakcore hard drum and bass that I liked mixed with the dancehall vibe that I really loved as well, and when I found out about that it was pretty much the best thing that had ever happened! That was really the thing that got me really into the fact that I definitely needed to have Technics 1200s even though I was only 14 years old and didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, and had to go out and buy one or two jungle records then bring them back home and mix the same five records over and over!”
Despite continually looking forward in electronic music, and pushing boundaries both in live mixing and production, it is clear that these initial influences continue to hold a strong presence for Taal Mala. The White Label EP defies categorization, yet proudly displays jungle roots in its sampling and intricate percussion. Similarly, when hearing O’Connor DJ, it is obvious that we are listening to a hugely personal and constant exploration into the possibilities of dance music. This honesty and integrity in both performance and production does a lot to explain why Taal Mala has such a loyal fanbase – something that was exemplified perfectly by the reaction to his hospitalization two years ago following a traffic accident.
“It was definitely a defining moment for me that really opened my eyes to how huge the community of people that my music has reached out to – how big that really is and how strong that really is, because the amount of support that I had through all that was really incredible, I was totally astounded. Friends came together and raised enough money for me to live and pay all my expenses for the first three months that i was injured, it was amazing. Even now two years later I’m still working through a lot of shit, but definitely that support was there and without that I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at right now.”
Taal Mala plays as part of the White Label EP Launch on April 12th at the Red Gate Arts Society. The White Label EP will be released through Modern Math Recordings in May 2014.
By Andy Soloman