Owen Darby, better know by his producer alias WEN, lives up to almost any artist’s life scenario—a small town guy, who found creative outlet in his country’s capital, London. But don’t rush to pin him down. WEN never comformed to the city’s urban and concrete narrative, and in 2008, at just 16, he had already instituted his unorthodox manner of meshing grime and early dubstep that provoked a re-imagination of what the genres’ sound could be. Darker and murkier settings met grime vocals that were condensed into seconds-long snippets. 2015 saw the young producer’s outlook switch, with his work becoming more challenging yet delicate and thoughtful, which culminated in his recent release of EPHEM:ERA. Spellbound by the album’s warm tunes as well as cold club sounds, we talked to WEN with hopes that our hunger to know more would be fulfilled.
In what ways has London inspired you and continues to shape you as an artist?
The collision of musical styles got me excited. I still hold the handful of FWD + DMZ nights I went to as invaluable to my sound. Whenever writing music, I imagine it playing in one of those rooms.
How do you relate to the city’s sound and scene?
Early on, I was deeply engaged with it, but it has become less and less so for the past few years, if I have to be honest. I don’t go clubbing in London as often as I used to, and my main relationship with the city recently has been to record radio shows with Parris. We were speaking about the scene this weekend, actually, and I’m not convinced that London’s scene is as important as it was in the 00s. There’s a lot of really cool artists and labels here, for sure. But generally, there are cool artists everywhere else now, and those artists are able to shift sounds and draw attention individually and quite remotely, without the need for a local scene to validate what they’re doing.
Back to your beginnings… how did you first enter into the world of electronic music and how did you begin to develop your signature sound?
I used to watch a lot of skate videos, so I think that was my entry point into discovering left field electronic music. Some of my friends twigged my interest as well. J-One and Lex were making 2-step and hip-hop beats at the time, and they showed me how to get started. Keysound was my stepping stone, via Rinse FM. I sent dubs to Dusk + Blackdown and they kept playing them. We figured out my first EP and continued the momentum through to Signals being finished.
How important was pirate radio to your development as a musician?
Immense. Something in the energy of it has stuck. The DJ and MC’s technique combined with a dodgy signal transmission gave you urgency in the way you listen and pay attention to the sound. Plus, it gave me a strong yet surprisingly untouched library of samples to experiment with. The sonics and the gritty aesthetic of those samples naturally added a raw texture, which I still strive to replicate.
I like to think we turned a new page and took cues from the best of dark garage, grime, dubstep and funk. For me, the dualism of space and off-kilter rhythms in the beats was intriguing. I didn’t have the cash to get vocalists on board at that time, so I sampled MCs and found a way to hybridize the frenetic broken beats and the dark, swung yet danceable stuff I was into.
2015 saw you change both your sound and outlook. What instigated this change in your approach and signature sound?
Having been honed in on a very niche sound up to that point, I was conscious of the vocal-sample calling card becoming a lazy habit. After the first album, I wanted to challenge myself, really, widen my boundaries and set some new parameters to work in.
EPHEM:ERA, your latest album release, is some of your most developed, bass-driven work to date, but spans a vast array of different, distinct moods. What inspired the album and the sound you achieved?
I was doing my Masters in architecture whilst working on the album, which was exciting, isolating, stressful and, in the end, very rewarding. Thus, the span of moods reflects glimpses into that 2-year timeline. I worked on new loops at various stages, while impatiently waiting for a render to complete, after a critique review or at the end of a late night as a way to wind down. I’d scrutinize the loops a few weeks after to flesh ideas out, and then proceed with the detailing stage months later. Naturally, that 3-step process led to an amalgam of moods. I also got obsessed with night-drives to test music out, which brings its own array of moods linked with the weather. Rain is definitely my favourite. In addition, doing radio over the past 3 years was hugely inspiring. All artists that contributed guest-mixes created from entirely different angles and introduced me to so much music I wouldn’t have heard otherwise.
In what ways do the themes of the album address and reflect the current social and political climate?
Just personally having noticied the increasingly quick-fire approach to media consumption, social relationships and unintelligent political decisions—it’s reactive to that. I decided the album needed to be urgent, abrupt and cut-through on first listen. I wanted it to be an album that felt in flux.
Your sound has altered drastically over the course of your career so far and your vision matured. Where do you see yourself going next? What does the future hold for WEN?
Just wherever the energy sparks for me, really. Off the back of the album, I’ve got a lot of potential narratives and parameters I could scrutinize further. There is opportunity to explore several visions in isolation, but I haven’t decided the format for that yet. At the same time, I want to work on some raw club music again, taking forward some of the stuff I learned writing EPHEM:ERA.