How techno artist Blawan swapped daily flights for dairy farming
After becoming bored by the scene around him, the renowned producer found inspiration for his grizzly new material by taking a step away from the DJ booth.
It’s Crispy’s birthday. The French bulldog seems perfectly content, snoring through this interview next to his proud owner, the Barnsley-born, Berlin-based producer Jamie Roberts, otherwise known as Blawan. Roberts, an animal lover, also has something to celebrate on the day we’re speaking: the release of his five-track EP Woke Up Right Handed, which has caused ripples of excitement in the world of experimental club music.
The EP, released via XL Recordings, was led with the track Under Belly in October. A wildly demented slice of techno that Roberts made in about a day, it’s the wonkiest club tune of 2021, a song that could soundtrack a slasher movie from 2059. “It’s funny, every time I bring tracks from the studio, my partner says ‘why are you always writing stuff that sounds like it’s in a horror film?’ And to be honest, I’ve no idea,” Roberts says.
“I knew [Under Belly] was weird, and when XL wanted it I thought it might garner a bit of ‘what the fuck is this?’ which is kind of the point. It felt like a good one to say, ‘I’m doing whatever the fuck I want’ – a good representation of where my mind is at.”
Woke Up Right Handed encapsulates the sound that Roberts has been fastidiously perfecting for a decade, pushing himself into new realms, losing himself in modular synthesis without ever sacrificing soul for science. Opener Blika is the kind of ferocious banger you’d hope for from a man with the words ‘KICK DRUM’ tattooed across his knuckles, a menacing maelstrom of swung drums, distorted synths and Roberts’ pitched-down vocals. No Rabbit No Life is reminiscent of Richard D James’ work as AFX, with its elastic bass and eerie, piercing synths. It’s named after a ramen spot he loves in Shibuya, Tokyo that plays weird hip-hop, and has a T‑shirt on its wall with the song’s title on. The restaurant owners don’t know who he is, but he’s sending them the record anyway.
As was the case for many, lockdown offered Roberts perspective. He realised he wasn’t happy with the structure of his career, touring constantly and pretty much living on planes – Roberts says he took 340 flights in 2019 – as a highly sought-after DJ at clubs and festivals, as well as performing live sets as the duo Karenn with UK producer Pariah. And so, he committed more time to a new vocation: dairy farming in Germany.
“I started a part-time job as a farmer at the end of 2019,” he says. “Then the pandemic hit, I found myself being a full-time farmer, and having some time to reflect. It was always something I wanted to do. There’s not much money in farming, so I was enjoying it but there was also a baseline level of stress that I think everyone was going through. I had some time to think about what I’ve been doing the past ten years, and how unsustainable it felt.”
“I love DJing, and I love techno,” he continues. “But I don’t wanna be playing two or three shows a week anymore. There are so many more creative things to do in electronic music than just that, and I really feel like now’s the time for me to do that. I want to learn new things, I want to be in the studio more. If you want to be a famous DJ and tour constantly… I haven’t met anybody whose music has gotten better because of that situation.”
Although the live music industry has re-opened, Roberts has stuck to the farm job, which is based in the Mecklenburgische Seenplatte district in north-east Germany. He likes his co-workers and he’s played them his music (“they hate it, obviously”). One day, he hopes, he’ll have his own small-scale farm.
There’s an unmistakably British – and specifically Northern – atmosphere to his music; a murkiness, a grit, and a sense of humour. Growing up in South Yorkshire, in and amongst the sprawling British countryside, Roberts was a death metal vocalist and drummer. And he was no stranger to working in the great outdoors. In fact, he had a job on a maggot farm throughout his teenage years. “[It was] fucking horrible,” he remembers, “really grim work. But there wasn’t much where I grew up.”
Roberts first made major waves in club music with his 2011 Brandy-sampling track Getting Me Down, scoring another underground hit with the scuzzy, brilliantly grim banger Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage the following year. The success was bittersweet, as he soon realised he was uncomfortable with the spotlight. Also battling an illness, he withdrew for a couple of years and considered who he wanted to be. “It felt too much,” he says. “I couldn’t envisage what I was going to do after, and that was a really dark place for me.’”
Roberts returned to the music industry in 2015. But despite being adamant that techno is his number one passion, he admits he’s recently become disillusioned with the scene. “I don’t feel kindred to it anymore,” he says. “I accept there’s fresh, new young people involved and they’re maybe into something that I don’t really feel.
“Techno has to be a bit more psychedelic,” he argues. “I’ve found myself playing alongside people who don’t share that vision of it, of really progressing the sound… [they] just seem to be harking back to cheesy, bargain-bin techno from the 2000s that didn’t even get played back then! When you don’t feel a connection to a scene anymore, it’s usually time to jump ship.”
These days, Roberts is feeling free in the studio. He’s learned not to worry what people think, in direct contrast to how he used to be. There’s a restlessness to him that is often present in artists who are determined to better themselves and push their work forward, but there’s also a sense of humility and confidence that’s apparent when he’s talking about his new music.
“Every record has to be a progression from the last in my own way,” Roberts insists. “I want to finish a track and think: ‘fucking hell, I’ve not heard that before.’”
Woke Up Right Handed is out now via XL Recordings