Hudson Mohawke on 'Lantern', Kanye West, and the importance of new influences

Jet-skiing with superstars is all in a day's work for Glasgow-born Hudson Mohawke. Shaun Curran meets the protean producer

Shaun Curran
Tuesday 08 December 2015 19:11
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Great Scot: Hudson Mohawke's collaborators include Mark Ronson and Drake
Great Scot: Hudson Mohawke's collaborators include Mark Ronson and Drake

Two days before I meet Ross Birchard, aka Hudson Mohawke, a short film about him is released. With the help of family, friends and collaborators such as Mark Ronson, Very First Breath follows the 29-year-old Glaswegian back to his hometown to retrace his rise from pre-adolescent music obsessive and aspiring DJ right through to his present-day standing: studio innovator, EDM superstar and producer of choice to hip-hop luminaries including Kanye West, Drake and Lil' Wayne. It is a touching, humorous portrayal of ambition being fulfilled.

“When they were doing the initial filming of it I thought, 'Oh, I'm going to have my mum talking on it,'” Mohawke says, smiling. “The funny thing is, I haven't been keeping track of much of the feedback but people keep sending me screenshots saying MILF!'”

Mohawke laughs at the absurdity of it, which is reassuring because when we first meet in a chic Korean restaurant on the rue Saint-Denis in Paris, he tells me from the outset that he's weary of “answering the same questions” from journalists.

Snapped up by Warp Records in 2009 after a string of unofficial and limited releases for his LuckyMe collective, Mohawke's debut album, Butter, made him an underground sensation. In 2012, together with the Canadian producer Lunice, he formed TNGHT, which helped popularise the new music genre of trap music, making American festival headliners of the pair. Simultaneously, he caught the attention of Kanye West, who drafted Mohawke as an in-house producer for his GOOD Music label: Mohawke's fingerprints are all over Yeezus stand-outs “I Am a God” and “Blood on the Leaves”: sonically expansive, multifaceted tracks resolved on shifting the parameters of what is achievable in pop music.

Lantern, Mohawke's first solo outing in six years, wilfully rejects any trace of his previous musical DNA: rappers and famous friends are overlooked in favour of up-and-coming soul singers, including Miguel, Jhené Aiko, Irfane and Antony Hegarty. The result is a gentler, more restrained affair, eschewing build-and-drop dance-floor rushes for distorted pop moments, fuzzy ballads and sweeping instrumentals.

“Six years of working on several different projects in very different worlds opened me up to a lot of new sounds and influences. So it's obviously going to be a very different record to something that was done in my mum's house years ago,” is how he explains the creative volte-face.

“It's kind of selfish, but I want to keep myself interested and motivated. In my head, it's not a weird thing at all. Working with Antony, how does that fit in with doing hip hop stuff? It makes sense in my head.”

Lantern seems to have confounded critics, who expressed surprise that Mohawke had outrun his past. “But I'm grateful for that; it means they are listening.”

Anyone with their ears tuned to pop culture will have heard Mohawke's work over recent years whether they've realised it or not. On more than one occasion he refers to the realm of superstardom he's been invited into as “that world”; and though he's guarded when discussing it, he is keen to stress the business-as-usual attitude of its principal players.

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“Genuinely, Kanye is one of the hardest if not the hardest working person I've ever met. He will sacrifice sleep for days on end to get stuff done – and not just on one project, but on five projects at a time. I really respect that about him.”

Still, it's hard not to look at Mohawke – quiet, polite, level headed – and think him ill-suited to the celebrity sphere he now inhabits.

“Going to Hawaii and jet skiing with Kanye was like, 'What is going on here? I should be in rainy Glasgow'… but I think once you get over that it's a work environment; we're all here to get together and put in 100 per cent effort from each of us. This is what I felt was the next step I wanted to make. And I've managed to do it.”

Hudson Mohawke plays London's Roundhouse tomorrow, Manchester's Warehouse Project on 11 December and Glasgow's ABC on 12 December. 'Lantern' is out now via Warp Records

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