“I didn’t really want to do it. Why on earth would I want to hook up with two kids?” laughs Gove Kidao. One half of the UK beat phenomenon Ivy Lab previously answering to the name Sabre, he sits in front of a mixing desk alongside Ivy Lab partner J Fogel, or Stray as he’s sometimes known. Taking a moment to consider what may never have been, they both lean back in their studio chairs and pause. DJ Mag soaks up the scenario; it’s late Friday afternoon, we’re in Ivy Lab’s lab the mood is mellow, comtemplative, unhurried.
The low-level studio glow certainly doesn’t stymie the afternoon’s vibe, but the measured ambience should largely be attributed to these factors; they’re about to drop their most significant body of work to date in the form of their debut album ‘Death Don’t Always Taste Good’, and host a 20/20 LDN US club tour. This is also the first face-to-face interview Gove and J have done since ex-member Laurence Reading (Halogenix) left the outfit.
A lot to discuss, then, even before we get to the matter of their remarkable rise, their current stature across numerous musical fields from hip-hop to drum & bass, and the ever-divisive matter of how their music should be categorised. But the main influence on the temper of the room is that these are the type of deep fellows Gove and J are. Thoughtful, articulate, pragmatic and focused, this was never going to be a hypey 20-minute visit as part of a cynical album promo pack-em-in-churn-em-out press day: these men are peeping over the brink of what could potentially be a revolutionary chapter for Ivy Lab and 20/20 operations. They take their story, their stance and the significance of their current situation seriously.
To appreciate this current situation, we should understand the random chain of events as to how they came to be here in the first place. And to do that, we need to go back to 2010 when Gove, J and Laurence first started collaborating after being connected, or at least in loose contact, since the mid-2000s. The fact they even crossed paths in the first place is a sheer case of coincidence. Gove’s younger brother and Laurence’s older brother met at university, knew their siblings shared a love for drum & bass, and so made connections. At this stage J and Laurence were teenagers and Gove, who was already enjoying a peer-respected position in the genre, was in his mid-20s.
In hindsight it’s fitting that the two remaining members of Ivy Lab were the first to collaborate. The session was so fortuitous they created an entire tune; the undulating, unreleased roller ‘Nature Nocturn’. As good as it was however, neither J (who was studying Maths and Philosophy at Leeds university), or Gove (who, as well as being a producer and DJ, was also working as a TV news journalist reporting from war-torn locations) had much of an inclination
to form anything solid. Perhaps a little ironically, it was the now-departed Laurence who solidified the collective. Having sent demos to J (who by now had released a small amount of singles on Critical Records), and already in contact with Gove through their brothers, it was when the three of them first started working together that slight traces of what would eventually become Ivy Lab began to appear. Yet it wouldn’t be until 2012, when their first release reached bona fide anthem status — the smouldering, melancholy stepper ‘Oblique’ — that they truly formed an alliance.
And several years after that, that the Ivy Lab beast as we know it now, would really begin to rear its head. “The success of ‘Oblique’ gave us the confidence that the work we’d done was good enough to go forward,” reflects J. “It was only when that track came out and had the accolade it did that we decided to form as a trio at all.”
“It’s funny,” Gove considers. “I wasn’t sure about working with these guys or doing anything in drum & bass at all. I’d had a bit of a hissy-fit about my career; by then my album had been out for two years and I already felt it was a mistake. I felt jaded about the whole thing, so my wife and I were moving away to Thailand for an adventure. When ‘Oblique’ came out, I didn’t see the groundswell of support it had, because we were in this very unnatural situation where J was in Leeds, Laurence was in London and I was in Thailand. We’d send over bits on Dropbox along with these super- long emails about one single snare. It’s peculiar to think that we kept this process going for over two years. ‘Oblique’, ‘Make It Clear’, ‘Afterthought’… all those early tracks were done in that way.”
Their position and working scenario as fractured as their beats, Gove’s return to the UK in 2014 was the final piece of the puzzle. If Laurence’s arrival solidified them as a trio, Gove’s state of mind, work situation and move back to London galvanised them as a tightly-knit crew. A crew with a mindset, ethos and workflow that set the foundations for everything they’ve achieved since. “While I was in Thailand, a lot of my TV work in London disappeared. I’d come back and started to panic, not knowing what to do,” admits Gove. “I owe a lot to J and Laurence because of this, and the music we were making gave me a second wind. I shouldn’t have had a second bite of the cherry at 33! Who else has stopped, gone away for a few years and come back in and done this? I felt cheeky doing it. But that’s just it… Ivy Lab was built on strength in numbers. I still had a good phone book, these guys had great ideas and hunger. It really worked for that reason. We needed each other. There was self-interest and correlation in our creative vision.”
This is where the Ivy Lab story really kicks in: the trio had formed a pact with a firm vision and understanding of each other’s strengths. The success of their debut single may have taken them by surprise, but by now they knew their capabilities and started to explore them much more confidently. Unsurprisingly, it’s here, around 2014/15, that they started hosting their own 20/20 LDN parties, and their first halftime tracks dribbled out: first ‘Sunday Crunk’, a track that’s developed its own narrative by way of a monolithic Mefjus remix, then a series of beatsy refixes of hip-hop and jungle classics such as Cam’Ron’s ‘Oh Boy’ and New Blood’s ‘Worries In The Dance’.
The following year saw more halftime bumpers on their ‘20 Questions’ EP. Ranging from the slimy, weirdo funk of ‘Slinky’ to the primordial wooziness of ‘Taste The Mango’, if the message wasn’t clear already, these sealed the deal: a new Ivy Lab sound was cooking and the trio had unapologetically switched from shivering, sinewy barbed soul two-step to swaggering toxic space beats. By 2016 they’d launched 20/20 LDN as a label, with an album-sized mixtape collection of their own halftime recipes (‘20/20 LDN Vol 1’). They also released their last known drum & bass EP (‘Arkestra’ with Alix Perez).
“We’ve not made a big decision about never writing it again,” clarifies J. “It’s just we don’t write it at the moment and have no plans to.”
“We have contempt for people who overstay their welcome in genres of music they’re not able to achieve high standards in,” Gove adds. “I fear if we went back and did 2012-15-era Ivy Lab now, it would feel a little pastiche and underwhelming. We’d be disappointed at us polluting the drum & bass landscape with music not up to the previous standard we’d been known for. Occasionally I try and make some d&b, but I’ll be the first to admit I’ve lost my way.”
They might have lost their way making drum & bass, but they certainly haven’t lost their stature within that scene. As one of the key protagonists in the latest chapter of the halftime movement, Ivy Lab remain relevant (and regularly booked) in the drum & bass scene, even though they haven’t released anything remotely traditional in almost two years. For a while there was a sense that Ivy Lab wanted to move away from such close associations style of music they no longer made — the thoroughbred halftime ‘Peninsula’ EP on Critical, a label they’d largely released d&b on, was a particularly strong statement — but recent developments have changed their perspective.
“There was a point in time when we were trying to make a big song and dance about not being drum & bass anymore, yeah,” admits J. “But one of the things that’s happened in the last 12 months that makes me mind the drum & bass tag less is that the US has really opened up to us, and our fans over there aren’t as aware of our d&b history. When we’re out there, there’s the odd person who might ask for it, but most people over there have got into us after we’d transitioned into the music that they see as future beats/hip-hop. They group us in with that sound naturally.”
Interestingly, this US migration was accurately forecast by Ivy Lab themselves last time they were interviewed in DJ Mag exactly two years ago, in May 2016. Weighing in on a discussion with Om Unit, dBridge, Kid Drama and Amit about the future of the then- burgeoning halftime sound, Gove stated: “In America there’s a parallel scene that’s totally unconnected to us but coming up in the same lineage musically. Bleep Bloop, Tsuruda and G Jones; those guys are essentially playing to a similar audience to us in the UK and Europe. These two worlds haven’t merged yet. But it’s only a matter of time before they do.”
“We like unsettling people, but doing it in a way that’s kinetic”