Setting up with Shockone: An exclusive look at his new live show
Debuting exclusively to this year’s Origin Fields, one of Perth’s essential electronic musicians is saddling up for the biggest performance of his life.
Header photo and all in-article photos by Tay Kaka.
When listing Perth’s essential electronic musicians, Shockone is right up the top. For the last two decades, Shockone - a.k.a. Karl Thomas - has been a mainstay of the west coast music market despite its many genrelistic shifts; his brand of quick-firing drum’n’bass consistently attractive not just in the context of Perth’s cultural output, but how it’s viewed on an international market (Shockone’s biggest markets, for example, span from New Zealand to the UK and Europe).
Across this time, he’s become a stand-out example of how musical evolution and experimentation can ensure longevity in a time when streaming and cultural shifts seemingly favour glimpses of virality that are over as quickly as they begin. Of course, his music as a whole is a large reason behind this; his ability to merge a distinct sound with mannerisms from outside of his ‘electronic pocket’, like hip-hop and pop, ensures he can shift between sounds and textures without veering too far away from what’s expected by his fans. Just look at his most recent record A Dark Machine, for example, and how it’s an all-encompassing world that blends fierce dance music with elements from elsewhere: the Cruz Patterson-assisted, hip-hop-adjacent Bleed Black is an album highlight that showcases this at its best.
In another way, however, much of this longevity comes from his status as a go-to heavyweight of the Perth live music world that’s often found on lineups from thousands-strong festivals to intimate club shows; his show evolving and growing parallel to the gradual change across his recorded work. Over the last decade particularly, his live shows have transformed from a seemingly stock-standard DJ set to one that pushes the absolute limits of the skill, keeping the intensity sky-high and, as exhibited on his recent album tour, the inclusion of live vocalists to push it further into the ‘live’ realm.
At this year’s Origin Fields, however, this is being pushed to the next level. The festival - longtime supporters of Shockone, having hosted him a handful of times over their own decades-long expansion - will play home to the debut of a currently one-off live show designed, built and executed from the ground up. Joined by two band members - drummer Brody Simpson and synth expert Matt McLean - the live show will feature Shockone live and centre; his skillset as a musician spanning drums, synth, and even vocals exhibited through a completely live format for the first time.
Here, as a part of our latest feature, he exclusively walks us behind the foundations of the live show, including the show’s conception, creation and long, intensive build - everything that’s coming together to make Shockone Live a long-overdue reality. It’s a must-read for both fans of the Shockone eager to see how his live show is gradually morphing into a part-man, part-machine beast; as well as for those wishing to do the same - the insight from one of Perth’s most knowledgeable musicians worth its weight in gold.
To start, let’s talk about the live show’s inception. What are you hoping to bring with the live show, and how has the experience of putting it together been?
One of the whole points with this show is that it's not just me, standing there. I don't want to put down other people's live shows, but some of them aren't as technical as others, you know what I mean? So we're really trying to make sure that it's seen that way. I've always felt that I'd rather be doing something hard and maybe not doing it perfectly, then trying to look like I'm busy on stage when I've got nothing to do. Even sometimes when I'm DJing, it's gotten so easy with DJing on CDJs now that it can just be like "well, that's locked - now I don't have anything to do for 32 bars, I guess all I can really do is jump around a lot and clap my hands.” So, in my DJ sets, I ended up making it more and more tricky for myself: it gets faster and quicker and more hectic.
This is an entirely new kettle of fish for me, and I'm definitely the most out of my comfort zone I think I've ever been in my career, which is weird because I'm a musician - I've been playing the drums my entire life, and I'm an okay guitarist and a pretty shit singer but I'm still going to try and do that. That last thing - singing live - something I'd never ever thought that I would do. I've never even sung in front of my even my sister [musician Reija Lee], and every time I have sung - like on Crucify Me or Silver and Gold, which is on the new record - it'll be by myself in the studio. The idea of singing in front of god-knows how many people is, to be honest, petrifying and almost surreal - it doesn't feel like it's real because I never ever considered doing it, but every day is one day closer to me standing up there and singing.
The rehearsals here have been hectic. There's usually a couple of panic attacks each day where you're like, "What the fuck are you doing?" and I'm constantly to and fro in between like on the one hand, you got to be confident in yourself and I know that I'm capable of doing this, but then in the back of your mind, particularly with the singing, there's this feeling where you're like, "You could sound shit dude." Singing is the hardest thing to gauge whether it sounds any good when you're doing it, and I might go "yeah, I think I'm getting there," but still, it's always that doubt down the back of your mind that other people are going to listen to you being like "someone please tell him he doesn't have the talent." It's constantly swirling around in my head.
So your first go at singing in front of a full, live audience will be at Origin Fields?
Yeah. Also the first time I'd ever play the guitar on stage in front of people, and the first time I would've played the drums in front of people in... ten years? I'm confident in drumming though, I'd happily do that and that's always been my first instrument. It's been an interesting thing grappling with my own mental approach to this. I've DJ'd for so long that I’ve got validation enough where I go, "Okay, I must be pretty good at this - people keep coming back and they enjoy it.” So then you start to believe that, and then the insecurities move away from that. These days, for me with DJing, it doesn't matter if it's 1000 people or 20,000 people - I can get up and do it without really sweating.
[For the live show], I haven't had that validation for this, you don't know... you don't have that validation. I could be sitting here going, "I think this is fun and it's a challenge that I think it's really cool." But then again, there's that voice in the back of your head being like, "It might be just fucking self-indulgent crap." Nobody knows because it hadn't been put out into the world yet. I think half of this whole project for me - doing this live set - is just to prove to myself that I can do it because I've always thought about doing it, but the planets haven't been aligned in a way that made it possible until now, where we've got an album in the market and Origin were keen on debuting in the live set and paying the fee that enables you to do it. That's a huge thing about it. The cost of putting this together is so much more and as much money as I put back into doing Shockone stuff. I also have to live and feed my daughter and stuff. So like, I have to consider that.
I've known Saran and Daniel [Origin Fields directors] forever, and they were like, "We think it's time for Shockone to evolve into this live set." So, I realised when I was deciding whether I was going to do it, that I might not get another chance to do this for another couple of years, because you know, if I waited until next year, the album is a bit old and you're off-cycle again, so you haven't got that momentum behind you. Whereas now, we've got momentum in having a really successful album tour which happened when people were still digesting it. So now, coming back, people will have had some time to digest those album tracks. I've literally spent the last two months basically just working almost exclusively on this.
So the album wasn't built designed to be played in a live format like this?
It really wasn't. The album was probably a good two years of focused album work. Once I wrote the song A Dark Machine, I realised "Okay, I think this is the album: I think this is the theme of the album, I think this is the world that the album exists in," and that was kind of the spawn of like the entire concept. But even back then, I wasn't thinking about doing a live set, I was just consumed with making the album. I wouldn't want to write that way anyway. If I was going to write an album with a live show in mind, I'd write it with a band. It wouldn't be me sitting in this studio noodling away for hours, it would be a much more collaborative process. That could be something for the future, but not now.
This is also by no means the first person to come up against this problem of like "how the fuck do we do this?" There are certain songs which are much more naturally inclined to translate such as Underloved as it's a bit slower, the style of the drums translate to a live drum kit better, there's a live vocal on it and so on. Whereas songs like Pray for Me are the opposite - they really don't - because trying to do those things is almost impossible live. So, you need to work out a way where we don't want to have the whole thing as a backing track, but how can we slice these things up to make them a playable instrument while retaining the same sounds.
The other hard thing about this style - Pendulum probably came up to be the first people to attack this and truly succeed at it - is that such a large portion of the sound is just the sonic impact of it. The mixdown is half of the song, and that's the hardest thing to get to translate live when you're adding all these human elements into it. It makes you realise how technology still isn't really there yet? It's good, but most of the hurdles you come up against is technology not being able to keep up with you - issues like latency. When things are being played off the computer, there's always going to be some element of latency, and it might only be like 10 milliseconds, but even if my drummer plays it perfectly in time and then the computer's 10 milliseconds later, you hear that - you hear that flange and then you've got to consider how to avoid that. We had to offset everything by 10 milliseconds.
Thankfully, I've able to message Rob Swire from Pendulum and be like, "How did you do this, because you've done this before?" It's a nightmare, you need to offset the entire band by a certain amount of milliseconds so things correlate phase-wise. You need to have an audio engineer on board from the very beginning, because he's essentially another band member, even more so in this kind of thing. When he's there, we can play perfectly but if he's not there making sure the sonics are right, it doesn't work.
Crowds are so unforgiving these days too, they want everything.
With social media as well...
You see a lot of live sets that are basically a really great time-coded live show and a person who is doing stuff but like, they're kind of not opening themselves up to a lot of human error. I totally get that - that's the sensible way of doing things - because, at the end of the day, the crowd standing there doesn't give a shit. My thing was what I have to offer as an artist is the fact that I am a musician, so for me not to showcase that seems stupid.
It's so much easier to tour with a DJ set, or with a simplified live show, and it's a lot cheaper too, especially in Australia. Is your desire to move more-so into the live realm just a personal choice?
In its current state, this show is essentially untourable - it's just too much stuff. My thinking is that I know it's in Perth - which is obviously a really special place to me - so I'm going to go all out, and then I can scale down things later. I'm not going to lug that whole front of house rack full of gear across the country, I'll find ways to do it without that. All the rigging, all the stuff - drum kits, keys, etc. - we'd have to ship and so on. I so feel for bands, because it's so much harder to make money. My sister touring at the moment doing her Reija Lee stuff has found it so hard, particularly when you're an independent artist and you're doing support tours, and it's like "I'm getting 100 bucks a show for the support, but I've got to fly a drummer up - you're losing money. It's really hard.
What has been the process of translating your work into this live show, and building it from the ground up?
With the new stuff it's easy, but with the old stuff, it was a lot more work. I'm basically going back and stemming out all the songs again... not necessarily sending it out to 100 tracks, but sending the drums out into five tracks, and then thinking whether Brody is going to play all of that, or whether we will place certain elements of the drums coming off an Ableton track. That Pendulum/Shockone signature white noise cymbals are really integral to the sound of our drums, and you can't remake that with a live drum kit - that element of the drums will come off Ableton. Then, he's got his whole live drum kit with all the kicks and snares triggering pre-processed kicks and snares, so when he plays his actual kick and snare, which will be mic'd, there's also the big triggered things, and then you've got to match them up in timing and get them working together right.
That's the first thing, but then you have things like the sub and certain synth elements, bouncing it all out. Again, there are only three musicians on stage at any given time, so you got to choose which things you're going to play and which things are going to come off track. Some of my songs are very, very dense so you got to work out "Okay, which things are we going to play here and then how can we make them playable?" Sometimes it's sampling out instruments and remapping them into an instrument, other times I got lucky where on my Moog, I've been able to basically rebuild a lot of the patches, particularly for songs like Light Cycles where some of the leads in there that I made on Sylenth I've been recreating with the [Moog] Sub 37 to a point where I'm happy with the way that sounds. All the vocalists will be singing completely live too, including myself. I'm playing the guitar too. On some songs, I'm adding in extra layers - songs like Crucify Me - where I'm just riffing guitar stuff over the top of Matt playing some of the bass sounds, just because I feel like it'll make it a bit more energetic live. I don't want the songs to be like carbon copies either, you know what I mean? I want them to have some point of difference.
Going back and like rebuilding the mixes of old songs like Home, Chaos Theory and Lifecycles and Crucify Me - songs that I wrote five, six years ago - have been a lot. The production levels have changed since then, so I've got to bring them up to 2019 sonic standards. I'm replacing old drum kits with new drum kits and just rejigging those mixes with quite a bit of work. I've completely rebuilt Polygon from the ground up into a completely new 2019 version because I felt like if I didn't put that song in there, people would get angry, but I also don't really want to play that song. It's been a blessing and a plague. I did a brand new version of that. That's basically writing completely new songs. Then I want to be putting sneaky edits of other people's songs in there, which is a bit of fun. I've really tried to make it so we can have fun on stage and we can go off-script a bit. As long as the drops are right and you keep people happy at those moments, you can get away with a lot of other shit.
One of the other tricky things is that I was really sure going into this, that I didn't want to be playing entire songs, and stopping at the end of everything. I feel like part of what people have come to expect from a Shockone show is a really high level of intensity, so when I DJ mix really fast. While I can't play three songs at once live, there's only a couple of songs in the set where I play the entirety of the song and the rest of it is like double dropping songs, but in a live sense. The cool thing about that was, since all the tracks are stemmed out I'm no longer having to jam two whole songs on top of one another, I can choose the elements I want. "Okay, I'll just keep the drums from this song and have the leads from this song continue over on the second drop," and piecing things together that way. It still makes sense sonically, but still has that intensity and immediacy of a DJ set, which I think is half of what people really want.
It was so funny when I sent the first draft of the setlist, I plotted out the songs in Ableton and my thoughts were kinda like "yeah, let's just build a one-hour DJ set out of Shockone songs." The drummer was like "Are you fucking kidding me, dude? Like, I need some point to like, breathe." Even still, for the first 15 minutes, there's no break and he's having to switch between all these different kits and songs. Yeah, I've got a habit of making life difficult for myself and I've had to really consciously think about giving myself time between this song and this song to actually like get out and put a guitar on. I've never had to think like that before - the physical logistics of things come into play a bit.
Do you think that the process of putting this live show together is going to make you think more cautiously about building your recorded work in the future, so that's easier to translate?
Maybe. I don't want to invest all this money and invest all this time and then for it not to grow into something bigger and continue on. While it's been a few pretty stressful months of setting up and getting it right, it is heaps of fun, and I'm hoping that we can get it to a point where we can really enjoy playing it and we're not stressing out over messing up. That's where we've got two, almost three weeks of non-stop band rehearsal where we have to iron out all the technical things, then get to the point where we're like enjoying it and playing well together and performing.
I would like to do more of it. I honestly hadn't thought about that yet, how it's going to impact my recording and writing. One thing that I can foresee, which I'm noticing already, is that it's collaborative by necessity. The fact that I'm working with other people: I've got Brody Simpson playing the drums, who has got like 35,000 followers on Instagram just from him playing the drums and then Matt McLean is on synths as well from Lilt, he's flying over from Melbourne to spend like three weeks here because I've been really good friends with him for ages. He's got a wealth of knowledge on that side: live synth, computers being used in a live setting and automating things. That's the band - the three of us - and just working with them - spending time at Brody's studio - makes me think about it a lot. He's such an amazing drummer, he's so good at recording drums and there are lots that I'm wanting to use in future music. I want to record your drums and use that more because I'm getting inspired just hearing him play.
This collaborative nature of working with someone else is so important; just taking it away from working by myself, holding myself up here which honestly, I kind of struggle with sometimes. It's not the most inspiring thing, and you had to be so self-motivated and it can be a real struggle just working by yourself in a room with no windows for 10 hours a day. That will change things, if Brody wants to after this whole thing. It's just a matter of schedule.
The other thing with the live shows is visuals, which can get really expensive. I'm trying to work out a way that I can do that without setting myself broke. Honestly, I'm a bit over the 'visuals constantly smashing it over the screen' kinda thing, it's not my style anymore and I'm all about high-impact minimalism and working out how we can do that. If there are three people on stage banging stuff, the focus should be on that - not on like "Look at those crazy visuals behind you." Working out a way that the visuals supplement that and focus people's attention on that, rather than distracting people from the stuff that we're actually doing, is a big thing for us. DJing - the act itself - isn't the most visually enticing thing, is it? That's one of the things moving into this, the question was like, "Will I have a drummer? Because it complicates things dramatically." But at the end of the day, I believe humans like watching humans wack shit. It's entertaining and it's energetic, you know what I mean? Between me and Brody, whacking stuff together, that's a pretty visually entertaining thing.
There are acts out there like RÜFÜS DU SOL and ODESZA which have almost made their whole careers on doing that, or at least have had their careers so greatly accelerated because of it.
That RÜFÜS show is probably one of the best I've ever seen - it's so tight. That's the benchmark, isn't it? I actually really like the balance in the RÜFÜS show between visual and them, because they are part of the visuals - the way they set up their stuff is incredible. Their visuals is a perfect example, in my opinion, of like minimal visuals with maximum impact. It's more about shapes and light, and the bigger picture as a whole rather than like, "Oh my God, look at that!" You look at something like the Excision show, which is just crazy over the top visuals, but that's his thing - people go to an Excision show to see the visuals just as much as they go for the DJ set.
I don’t really want to do that, I want minimalism, designed for maximum impact. The live show is where the maximalism is.
Shockone will be debuting his live show exclusively to Origin Fields, which comes to Perth's Wellington Square on December 31st 2019, and January 1st 2020. For more information - including tickets and the full lineup - go to their website.
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