Portrait by Leon Diaper
“The more you talk about the real, the further away it gets,” explains Toby Ridler, drinking tea in a North London cafe, percolating big ideas into softly spoken observations. Over the course of an hour he touches on the fundamental impossibility of reality, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jacques Lacan. “My music is always edging closer to becoming a full piece but it’s never really there,” he says. “It’s ever-changing.”
Becoming Real began to take form during the final year of Ridler’s fine art degree at the University of Kingston. Taking early grime – think Wiley’s influential Eski sound at its most tense and sinewy – as a jumping-off point, Ridler is using his one-time bedroom project to dismantle rhythmic parameters, nudging the boundaries of UK bass music to breaking point. “I think it’s very close to classical music,” he says of Wiley’s Devil mixes, the East London MC’s experiment in beatless instrumentals propelled only by bass. “A lot of what I’m doing is trying to flex classical, maybe with some Eski, but trying to take it further out of a grime context. If there’s no MC on the track there’s so much space to do what you want. I guess that’s what I’m toying with.”
Still, as you’d expect from an artist who takes his name from Lacanian theory, Ridler’s music tweaks the brain as much as it galvanises the limbs. Oozing synths and decontextualised samples create sounds in the same way the brain recon- structs memories, like dreams that fade the harder you try to remember them. “I’d like you to be able recognise parts, but not so much other parts,” Ridler says, describing his songs as offering “glimpses of other aspects of music”. Take his recent single, “Tracy Chapman”, in which disparate currents of vocals, ricocheting synths and eerie samples lap against each other until the track coalesces into a clattering, Hudson Mohawke-style anti-groove. The Eski-flavoured tune “Like Me” combines taut synths and tribal drums to create a song that, even as it lurches towards its denouement, never quite achieves closure. “I like incomplete sounds,” he says. “I don’t want the music to sound like it’s haunting – I want the track to sound like it’s haunted.”
A fine expression of this came when Ridler dropped his re-edit of Des’ree’s “Kissing You” in Shoreditch Church in November, while supporting Salem on tour. Pitched down and fed through a delay pedal, the original song’s mawkish- ness was twisted into glutinous revelation; “a memory of a Des’ree track,” according to Ridler, that was let loose to billow amid the grandiose Hawksmoor architecture.
Ridler is reticent on the subject of his past musical ventures, which include a punk band in thrall to the Dischord back catalogue and an electro/ambient folk project. Instead, he responds to questions with a succession of abstract tangents, including one in which he draws parallels between footwurk – the new Chicago house-derived club phenomenon beloved of dubstep DJs in the UK – and the world’s best-known sci-fi film. “I think footwurk’s got a very dreamlike quality,” Ridler says. “It’s surreal how the space in the music is used. It reminds me more of film than it does music. I watched Kubrick’s 2001 – you know the part when Dave’s friend goes out to fix the satellite? There’s a big build-up and when he’s pushed out into space there’s this silence and he’s just... scrabbling with the air.”
It’s an image that mirrors Ridler’s own artistic goals. “I’d like to say it’s like stepping into a kind of dreamscape,” he says of his music. It’s an experiment in losing oneself in the Lacanian gap between the symbolic and the real, between the beat of a snare reverberating in the cochlea and the infinitely vaster, invisible reverberations it inspires in the imagination. But Ridler can be as irreverent as he is thoughtful. When asked how he sees his sound developing, he says, “I think the new beats are no beats!”
The gaps are already widening. It’s natural to wonder where Becoming Real, a project still very much in its infancy, could possibly end up. But then, the ending was never the point. §