Five years amongst the upper echelons of electronic music have proved an adventure, a whirlwind, and a proving ground for Kidnap. On his homecoming gig to the UK after eighteen months, CTC caught up with Matt Relton to discuss letting go of control, beauty in sadness, and what’s left of the music when the sheen wears off…
At the end of an unusually warm April day in London, and five minutes before CTC is due to meet Kidnap in the upstairs bar at the Laundry Building, London Fields – the venue incorporating a creative hub, the restaurant Wringer & Mangle, and the basement club Hangar, where the gig later is due to take place – an email pings through from Matt himself: ‘Mate what’s your number? Text me when you get here, the bar is packed’. Sure enough, when we arrive Matt meets us at the door in T shirt and shorts, to breeze us through security and downstairs to find a quiet space to chat – no management or assistants in sight. It’s indicative of the hands on, no fuss, down to earth attitude that sums up Matt, and the approach he seems to take to most things on the night: why ask someone to do something for you, when you can get it done just as well yourself?
This is his night after all – a launch for his new EP, ‘Ashes’, out on his own label, ‘Birds That Fly’, in a venue not far away from his London home, supported by some of his closest friends. “Yeah the DJ before is my housemate, we play a lot of music together… and the guys after him are really good friends. I’ve wanted it to be a family feel to the whole affair, and take care of all the little things”, he smiles. Which he does, even before we’ve sat down – as we’re grabbing a beer from the bar he’s checking in with the guys setting up on the decks, and giving instructions on what colour the lighting should be. “There’s been more to take care of than normal, but I’ve quite enjoyed that to be honest. You can dig your fingers into different aspects” he says.
I ask him how running the label is coming along – are there benefits and challenges? “It’s good! Pro’s and con’s” he says, “It pleases my controlling nature, and wanting to do everything myself”. Is that a big part of his nature, I ask, already half suspecting the answer. “Er, yes” he laughs emphatically. “But I’m working on stepping away from that. I know it’s beneficial to collaborate and get help. I signed up with new management at the end of last year – a whole new team, more or less everyone I was working with across the board was new. They’ve been really helpful in helping me get the whole thing up and running again”.
Kidnap’s rush to the top wasn’t followed by the clichéd star’s spiralling in flames – but it’s true he’s reached a point where he’s strongly reflecting on where he wants to go next. After DJing drum & bass parties around his native Sheffield as a teenager, and later studying a degree at Sheffield uni while pouring his efforts into producing, 2012 brought the change: ‘Vehl’ won electronic music awards, he moved to London and released more music on Black Butter Records; and before long was touring internationally at some of the biggest festivals in the world. “I’ve covered some great ground” he says earnestly, modestly referring to sets at Glastonbury, EDC, and Manchester’s WHP amongst others. “But I think it all caught up with me for a second there. I was full steam ahead for so long, fresh out of university like ‘bam bam bam’. I dove into this head first from being very young, where I never really thought about what I was doing – I just knew I wanted to make music and that was it, so I was churning stuff out and playing as many gigs as I could. For the first time I actually sat down and thought: whew, beyond the next month, what do I want to get out of my life?”
Although this could be a conveniently mature line, crafted by a PR team around his brand refresh, there’s no reason to think that Matt is anything less than completely genuine. He laughs when I joke with him about the press releases promising ‘a new mature Kidnap phase’, talks about dropping the ‘Kid’ from his artist name on his 27th birthday, and speaks candidly about his desire for a fresh start. It’s tragic coincidence that the news of Avicii’s death falls on the day of our conversation, and the parallels haven’t escaped either of us: “It caught me off guard how sad I was about it… I was just like, fuck, 28”, he reflects, “Maybe that’s why it hit home”. After spending many years splitting his time between the UK and the US, changes in his personal life brought him back to London considering his next steps: “I sat down and was like… that was amazing and exhausting. Do I want to do another five years? And the new beginnings thing is about saying ‘You know what, yeah. I’m signing up, let’s do another five years and see where I can get with that'”.
I ask him if there was ever a plan to ‘break America’, as he spends so much time there, and once again his typical ‘down to earth’ northern attitude comes out: “No definitely not – I was just following what was working easiest”. Does he think his music connects more with American audiences? “Yeah 100%. The whole sound just works better in the States at the minute. The UK can be very… without being denigrating, very scene-y and transient. The new thing’s in, and everyone loves Lo-Fi now, for instance. Things move a bit slower out there – which can be a blessing and a curse”. He reinforces this point of ‘not following the scene’ when I ask him for his opinion on the state of EDM: “My take on it is it seems to be popular currently in my circles that aren’t really involved with that, to talk about its demise? And then you go to the festivals… I mean, I’m on the house stage round the corner, and there’s a thousand people there, and I’m like ‘this is incredible’. And then there’s twenty thousand people all up there with Tiesto, or formally Avicii, or whoever. So it’s just something we like to say”.
He gives the impression of a guy who thinks hard about what he wants to say – and says it without malice or judgement. He spreads his hands: “Yeah, I would be screwed without the EDM thing. I mean, I feel like the kind of people that are accessing my music is growing, definitely – which must come from people accessing EDM, then delving deeper and discovering more electronic music. You can see it in a lot of the festival apps, who’s favourited to come and watch you… you can see they want to come and see you, and then they want to go and see Tiesto. And I think that’s a really good thing, people who aren’t like ‘oh I only like underground music’. It’s only a good thing if it hooks 18 year olds into dance music, so long may it last”.
Once again proving his desire to do it himself, when I ask him about the future he shares some of his plans: “I actually never had a single formal music lesson in my life. One of the things I really wanted to do was feel more accomplished musically, so now I’m studying for my theory exams, restudying piano, that sort of thing. I’m loving it – it’s like being back in school, but engaged with something I really care about”. It goes without saying that someone who’s attained Kidnap’s level of visibility could sign with a major label, gather a team of writers around them, forge some pop hits and brand partnerships, and reap the rewards while DJing around the the world – but this would seem to go against his very nature. “Yeah all of that… I’m not really interested in. I mean I am to an extent… the DJing and all the other bits around it are wildly fun; but if I had to pick one thing to be able to do for the rest of my life, it’s the writing” he says. “It’s not like I ever had my sights set like ‘oh I wanna play Glastonbury’, and once I’ve achieved that I’ll be happy. It was amazing, but it’s not the tick that’s making me happy; it’s the feeling like I’m creating what I can musically. That’s the bit where I’m like, yes, this is what I want to do”.
Fans can rest easy that the essence of the project will remain the same; he’s not cancelling the gigs, and he’s not going to stop putting out his signature music. “It’s the same project, with refreshed intentions”, he affirms. The residency at Audio San Francisco, “Yeah that’s going ahead again this year. It’s a club I love, although they have a different understanding of a residency in America!”. I ask him what he thought of a December Billboard review that claimed he was moving in a more instrumental direction. “I think that was the first piece of the puzzle”, he says, his brows knitting in concentration. “So one of my aspirations for the next few years is broadening the scope of what people understand the project to be. It doesn’t mean ‘oh, I’ve done this release that sounds like this, so this is what I’m doing now’. It means that I can do this, and I can also do some club tracks, and I can do some atmospheric tracks, and I can do some pop songs – and I’d like the project to be able to encompass all of that, but you have to tell the story piece by piece. So by them writing that – they were absolutely correct, but that’s kind of the first step”.
Matt shows the characteristic sign of an artist – passionate and ever so slightly defensive of their work – by becoming more animated as he speaks about his plans. “I want to paint the story of what the whole thing is, and what I’d like it to be – rather than ‘Here’s my new club EP’ etc. I still love that music – the last one I did was a club EP! But I want to be able to spread my wings..” he says, laughing ironically at his own label pun. Could that include an album, I ask? To which he heaves a sigh: “I’ve tried and failed, time after time”, he says. “I’m going to keep trying – it’s taking me a little while, but I’ll get there”. What are his challenges? “I’ve never managed to collect the body of work that feels cohesive enough. By the time I’ve written twelve tracks… they’re too disparate to me. So that’s what I’m going to try and achieve – it’s an aspiration not a commitment I’d say”.
And would it be on Birds That Fly – with the same artwork? “Yeah why not? It seems to be working well. And the art is so amazing right? It’s an artist called Simon Birch, who’s Hong Kong based but actually English. A few years ago I was playing at a super boujee fashion week party, with models and artists and stuff… and this guy came up to me, and said ‘I’m an artist, actually I’ve named some of my paintings after your songs’, and I thought ‘ok cool, nice one mate'” Matt laughs. “But he gave me his card, and I looked him up the next day – turns out he’s a very successful, and very talented artist. All of those pieces exist, as two metre oil paintings! And he just said if you ever want to use my stuff, get in touch. So he’s been amazing, I owe him a lot”.
The thing about Kidnap’s music, as his fans well know, is that it has the power to connect with people because it’s just so – well, sad. “I’m a very happy person – I walk around most of the day with a massive grin on my face!” Matt laughs again. “But yeah I send stuff to my mum, and she’s like ‘Are you ok dear?”. What is it that attracts him to this emotive, gloomy style? “I’ve actually thought long and hard about this”, he says unsurprisingly. “I think what I’m actually interested in is beauty in music – and sadness is the vehicle that I use. Everyone has their ups and downs in life, and if you’re in a very sad place… the world kind of shimmers around the edges, and everything’s imbued with meaning and is devastating. I use sadness as a vehicle to arrive at richness of emotion, and beauty, and it’s the most direct route to get there. And it can be quite comforting – what is art, other than human connection? If you can reach out through space and time and put your hand in someone else’s via a sad song… that makes the whole thing worthwhile.
Does he get that a lot? “Yeah, I do actually. People will hit me up and give me a brief summary like ‘I had a really difficult time when my parent died, or I was struggling with depression, and this song was a mainstay for me’, and that’s really really nice” he says, with his characteristic warmth. “So I’m very happy to continue down that route. Music, and certain songs, have been so important to me in my life”. Any in particular? “Like Little Dragon, ‘Twice’. That song has got me through so many… in just providing support. If you can have a shot at featuring in someone else’s life, or providing support in that way, fantastic. You become a part of someone’s existence then, and that appeals to me”.
Huge thanks to Kidnap for taking the time to chat with us.