Comfortnoise: Alpine dub
Transmitting bassweight signals from up in the mountains, new.com represents a fresh take on the dub tradition. We dialled up Switzerland to find out more about soundsystem culture in a less-likely location.
What makes a dub record legit? In purest terms, it comes from Jamaica, from the work of pioneers like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and King Tubby and the producers who followed in their footsteps, stripping riddims down to their skeletal bones and opening up new sonic worlds through the mystical, space-shaping power of delay and reverb. Like any culture, it’s since spread globally and been adopted and adapted in multifarious ways, but dub is unique in that the foundational premise of the music has such a strong imprint and yet its very nature embraces experimentation.
The path of influence and inspiration is often nebulous, and dub has certainly sprung from place to place leaving unique variations in its wake. The UK’s adoption of the sound is deep rooted and many sided thanks to the strong presence of Jamaican communities in the wake of the Windrush generation, and in turn the scenes and styles which have evolved there have gone on the inspire listeners in other places. So it goes for Marius Neukom, otherwise known as new.com, who progressed from championing dubstep in Switzerland to connecting with soundsystem music on a more fundamental level through his Comfortnoise label, mix series and events. Given the lack of Jamaican communities in Zurich or elsewhere in the land-locked, Alpine country, Neukom’s interpretation of the music is at least one step removed, leading to a distinctive end result which, in the second decade of the 21st Century, manifests in a run of records adding to the global exchange of dub-informed ideas reaching from ZamZam Sounds in Portland, Oregon to Dubkasm in Bristol, Disrupt’s Jahtari label in Leipzig to Undefined and the New Dub Hall crew in Tokyo and beyond.
No one past the originators claims any definitive ownership over dub’s sound – by its very nature the music embraces evolution and yet there’s a consistent solemn dedication and respect at the heart of the practice. That’s where the legitimacy comes from, and why records like those on Neukom’s Comfortnoise label land with such poise and purpose. It’s lean and intentional, true to the meditative, physical principles of dub while equally offering new rhythmic shapes, and melodic and textural impressions that add to the narrative. Just check last year’s Cloud Atlas release from new.com if you need further proof, or look out for the latest impending missive, Imagine The Truth. Given the seeming isolation of Switzerland in terms of dub music, our curiosity was piqued and so we reached out to Neukom to find out more.
Hi Marius – thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. To start, it would be great to understand what form soundsystem culture takes in Zurich and Switzerland in general.
Soundsystem culture in Switzerland is small; there’s hardly a community, and to my knowledge, an Afro-Caribbean or Jamaican population that would feed it doesn’t exist. Remarkable, however, is that Lee “Scratch” Perry lived many years near Zürich, until he passed away two years ago. I even once played an unforgettable intro set for him.
However, there are more than 40 documented Swiss crews running soundsystems. Only a few of them are publicly visible with events and international bookings, in cities like Geneva, Berne, Zürich, Winterthur, Basel and St. Gallen.
Justice Rivah (with the singer Iyah Ranks), Subsanity and OG Soundsystem are close friends, as well as Juan and Alvi, who run Berne’s famous regular soundsystem event Dubtopia. Recently, I promoted three great soundsystem sessions with around 100 guests in Zürich.
From 2007 to 2013, my friend Guy (a.k.a. Guyus) and I started to bring most of the foundational dubstep protagonists to Switzerland. This happened under the label Dubexmachina. That was the time when I began to understand and investigate the roots of this music.
My first experience with a soundsystem was in Berne at one of the first Dubtopia events around 2010, where we could play a couple of records early in the morning. That was a great experience, and from then we occasionally joined and organised soundsystem events and started to build up personal friendships and collaborations with soundsystem operators, artists, producers, club operators, promoters. The majority of the countless gigs with dubstep, reggae and bass music we played in Switzerland in the past 15 years happened in clubs on conventional PA systems.
What were you doing in music before starting new.com and Comfortnoise?
I started to go to clubs in 1994 and was heavily impressed and shaped by Berlin’s vibrant techno scene connecting Detroit and Berlin in Tresor, E-Werk and Matrix. Basic Channel, Rhythm & Sound, Maurizio, as well as the Burial Mix releases, are arguably the most important initial influences on my taste in electronic music.
In 2003 I founded the label Comfortnoise as an internet radio show and created hundreds of well documented podcasts, mixes and interviews. Later, Comfortnoise also served as a label for cutting edge club events.
Through the years, I joined various projects. From 2003 until 2009 I was running p45 Records together with two friends in Zürich. It annually lost 10% of its turnover until we were forced to liquidate it (while vinyl sales started to increase right afterwards). Ricardo Villalobos and Luciano were regular clients in our shop.
From 2013 until 2018 we played many shows as Comfortnoise Ploy – two DJs, a RE-201 Space Echo operator and a reggae singer. Bold was an intense party series for UK influenced techno and since 2015, I’ve been part of Umbo, a small independent underground music venue in Zürich run by an egalitarian collective of friends. I only started to seriously produce music from 2018 onwards.
Dub and soundsystem music has always innovated, but also carries a strong sense of tradition. How do you approach those two sides with your own work?
Starting with my growing interest in foundation dubstep and the UK music scene in general, I began to seriously investigate the backdrop of this music and culture [Editor note: check out Neukom’s excellent, instructive reading list, ‘Essential Dub Library’.] Seeing things critically, I digested my knowledge by writing the Basslines column in the music magazine Zweikommasieben.
I think it’s necessary and fair to be aware of history. Therefore, I constantly dig, investigate, listen and get inspired by reggae music: rocksteady, early reggae, roots, digital reggae, ragga, dancehall and digidub (besides the current output in bass music, garage, grime, and techno).
As soon as it comes to music production (and promoting events), I am interested in pushing things forward to reach advanced and ideally yet-unknown realms. I’m therefore not interested in copying or imitating any existing musical style or culture.
What kind of form do the sessions for Comfortnoise / new.com tracks take when working in the studio?
My personal clue is to stay focused and finish my shit. Generally, I start with pretty vague ideas, but always with a distinct mood or emotion that I try to preserve through the whole process of building a track what can last over weeks and sometimes months. Usually, I’m a bit surprised by the outcome.
Working mainly by myself, I elaborate track by track from an initial bassline and a drum rhythm. I hardly store unfinished sketches. Whenever I face difficulties, I persistently pursue solutions. This includes asking friends and professionals and accepting their in-depth support, especially when it comes to the mixdown and mastering. Also, I enjoy collaborations with musicians, remixers and singers and wish to extend such activities in the future.
Of course delay and reverb are crucial to any dubwise sound – do you have preferred delay and reverb units you turn to?
Starting in 2018, I was forced to learn to produce from scratch. I took private lessons and spent eternities in my studio. Owning a Roland RE-201 was crucial for me to understand and catch what dub is about. I practice limiting myself as much as possible. My studio basically consists of two decent monitors, a small mixing desk, and my laptop with Ableton live. There are no preferred units or plugins. I just try to find efficient solutions to make things sound the way I think they should.
Do you know of other dances where your tracks get played? Are there other scenes you feel connected to?
I’m happy my records receive a pretty nice international acceptance. Of course, Comfortnoise and new.com still need to become established, and there’s still a lot of work to be accomplished. My vision is to develop my own kind of bass heavy music that is compatible to modern dub, bass and club music. In Switzerland, and especially in Zürich, I feel well-embedded and enjoy a large network of friends interested and working in this kind of leftfield culture. To me, the most pleasant projects are definitively the ones which involve personal relations and allow reciprocal exchanges.
To learn more about Neukom’s many endeavours, head to the Comfortnoise site and immerse yourself in a world of articles, mixes and more.