Breakbeat Confessions

When the definitive history of what has come to be known as the Bristol sound is eventually written, the pantheon of Massive Attack, Portishead, Smith
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When the definitive history of what has come to be known as the Bristol sound is eventually written, the pantheon of Massive Attack, Portishead, Smith

When the definitive history of what has come to be known as “the Bristol sound” is eventually written, the pantheon of Massive Attack, Portishead, Smith & Mighty and Roni Size will undoubtedly provide the grist for the main narrative. Yet the saga would be far from complete without a reverent nod to the uniquely soulful efforts of Way Out West. Known for its inventive juxtaposition of club and techno music — which the group infuses with everything from the street attitude of dub and hip-hop to the lush, string-heavy arrangements of the jazzy “balearic lounge” style — Jody Wisternoff and Nick Warren have stood apart from their Bristol, England, brethren largely by opting out of the trip-hop and jungle aesthetic. For them, it's always been about straight-up attacking the dancefloor.

“I don't think we've ever really represented the Bristol sound,” Wisternoff reflects. “We've always been on a different kind of tip and sort of skirted 'round that. I mean, the Bristol sound has never really been associated with house music or dance music specifically like what we're into. There's no scene to speak of down there, either — it's just a bunch of people making music. Massive Attack have got their studio around the corner, but they're also touring or just really busy doing other things. Everyone's got their own little agenda. It's not like we get together once a week and discuss how to forward the Bristol sound. [Laughs.] It never has been.”

But that's not to say that the best of Bristol didn't play an early role in the duo's future direction. Years before coming together as Way Out West, both lads received a valuable leg up from their musical forebears, Wisternoff from Smith & Mighty (which spotted the whiz kid's talent at programming and funded his first studio project when he was just 15) and Warren from Massive Attack's Daddy G (who caught the youngster's DJ set and offered him a supporting slot on Massive's Blue Lines tour). In 1994, Wisternoff and Warren joined forces to create their first 12-inch single, the Asian-flavored trip-house classic “Ajare,” and, suddenly, Way Out West was on the map.

The funky hooks of “The Gift” broke the UK charts wide open two years later, prompting the release of the group's debut full-length Way Out West (Deconstruction, 1997), which assembled the existing singles with new studio tracks. Solidifying their rep across Europe and around the world as one of the more forward-thinking breakbeat acts, WOW switched gears with Intensify (Distinctive, 2001), bringing in several guest vocalists and exploring what the BBC described as a more “wide-screen, cinematic feel” with its music. Between albums, Warren also assembled a string of critically acclaimed mix compilations for the Global Underground label, including Brazil 008 (1998), Budapest 011 (1999) and Amsterdam 018 (2000).

Having toured the world several times over and crafted killer remixes for everyone from Art of Noise to Orbital, Paul van Dyk, Sasha and Roni Size along the way, Wisternoff and Warren ultimately decided to circle the wagons for their latest studio project. Don't Look Now (Distinctive, 2004) was nearly two years in the making, and with the addition of lead vocalist Omi, it signifies the group's calculated move toward more of a band-oriented formula. Plans are afoot to tour the U.S. this fall with drummer Damon Reece (formerly of Spiritualized and Echo & the Bunnymen), giving American audiences a live taste of what is surely Way Out West's most song-driven and cohesive statement to date.


Checking in from the overcrowded grounds at this year's Glastonbury Festival (where Way Out West is due later that night to drop a DJ set at a huge outdoor stage called The Glade), Warren's voice squelches in and out over a mobile phone. “I think we've come back to our earlier influences on this album,” he observes. “It's very much more of a listening experience, and I think bringing Omi onboard contributes to that. She has helped us a lot, because we're actually focused as a band now instead of getting different vocalists in to do different tracks — I find that fairly inconsistent, as far as our last album was concerned. I think this one flows much more as an album, and it reflects the fact that we're both more into a melodic sort of break-based sound with warm bass lines, which is what we started off with.”

Wisternoff agrees and jokingly cites the slower tempos and warmer sound of Don't Look Now as a sign not only of WOW's gradual development as a production team but also of having grown a bit older. “To me, 130 bpm sounds fast now, you know?” he says with a laugh. “But five or six years ago, we were doing mixes at 135 bpm as a standard tempo, and everyone was at that kind of speed. Progressive house was pretty racy then, wasn't it? Lately, a lot of stuff that we're playing out and a lot of the CDs we get sent, you're feeling 128 as kind of an average tempo. That's made the trance sound — you know, what the hard-house boys are playing — seem really high-tempo now.”

Fittingly, the opening track and leadoff single, “Anything but You,” clocks in at just about 128 bpm and features Omi's breathy trill over an undulating bed of synth textures, guitar samples, driving snare breaks and what sounds like a Roland Juno-106 bass line with nearly bottomless low end. “One thing we do quite often is to take a sample or loop and ghost around it to the point where we've built up enough that we don't need the original loop anymore,” Wisternoff explains. “‘Anything but You’ actually started with a few samples from a Jeff Buckley track. We ghosted that and replaced the guitar with a strummed acoustic, which gives it kind of an exciting edge. And, actually, the chorus was one of the first things Omi sang when she auditioned for us. She just got on a hand-held mic and rocked it out — so that came from the heart really quickly.”

Warren points out that the vocal is up-front and prominent in the mix, which is something of a departure from past albums. “We sort of stuck our heads out a bit and made the vocal really loud on that track,” he says. “Rather than have it sitting in a bed, as most progressive-house vocals are, we wanted it to be a really sparkling song. It really shows off Omi's voice.”


As a seasoned veteran of Steinberg Cubase; Emagic Logic; and, more recently, Digidesign Pro Tools (not to mention numerous analog keyboards, going back to his piano lessons as a kid), Wisternoff has assumed most of the firepower for WOW's technical headspace, although he'd be the last to identify himself as a gearhead. “I'm definitely not that much of a full-on tech geek,” he insists. “I mean, when I was little, I was always fascinated by what you can do with electronic equipment. I probably should have been out chasing girls and getting drunk back then [laughs], but you know, it just gave me a buzz.”

By contrast, Warren brings his formidable strengths as a DJ to the (turn)table, corralling many of the unusual breaks, samples, loops and effects that fans have come to expect from a WOW mix. “Really, if you want to simplify how we work, I find an awful lot of the sounds, and Jody does an awful lot of the programming,” Warren says. “When we get together, I'll come in with a stack of sounds and samples, and we'll work for a few days, layering sounds and sort of getting the initial idea for a song going. Normally, I might be away DJing after that, but when I get back, it's not surprising if Jody has actually evolved what we've done into almost a whole track already. Then, we work on the arrangement.”

He takes the epic tribal foray “Fear,” which is built entirely around live drum parts by Reece, as a case in point. “It was maybe a year-and-a-half ago,” Warren recalls, “and I had met Damon and suggested to him, ‘Look, why don't you come into the studio to record some drums?’ So he brought all of his drums down, and I just put a click track in his ear, and he played all the rhythms that you hear in that song. We ended up with about two hours of drum loops, and out of that is what ‘Fear’ became.”

Originally conceived as an instrumental track, “Fear” took further shape as the synths, sounds — and eventually Omi's lead vocal — were piled on. “I think we used the Kawai K5000 synth for the strings, and there are a few soft synths there, as well,” Wisternoff continues. “Atmosphere pops up quite a few times for strings and pads, too. The idea was to make a track that had strings going all the way through it. So we had what we thought was a nearly done instrumental until Omi came in and heard it, and she was like, ‘Wow, I can write a song to this,’ and it evolved even further from there.”

This open, organic and collaborative approach to songwriting runs as a subtext through much of Don't Look Now, with the songs themselves seeming to “breathe” with a personality all their own. “Melt,” for instance, starts with a straight, naked breakbeat, gradually morphing (one could say melting) into a swinging, syncopated rhythm that seems to spread out and engulf, with the help of Omi's beautiful melodic lilt, everything in its path. “That's what we were going for, that flow and that dub, reggae kind of warmth,” Warren says. “And most of the vibe there comes from our indie days, as well. We've always tried to make a track sort of evolve from start to finish, but we never have strict guidelines of what one of us does, and I think that's gotten us through 10 years — there's never been an argument, so we both respect each other's tastes and choices.”


Ten years can bring about a lot of change in a partnership, but one thing that has remained constant in the music of Way Out West is the duo's inherent love of trippy atmospherics and a willingness to take chances with them. Whether it's in reverence to the dub style or the indie-trance style, sound effects like delay, flange, echo, extreme stereo panning and other dynamic sound-imaging techniques add to the overall hypnotics of Don't Look Now, propelling the entire album into strange new areas of processed sound.

“You can hear it in a song like ‘Everyday,’” Wisternoff says, citing one of Don't Look Now's more experimental dance tracks. “We went sample fucking crazy on that tune. [Laughs.] There's a bunch of plug-ins for the effects, a lot of the Pro Tools TDM plug-ins, really. Mashing up feedback loops in Pro Tools is something I've gotten quite into. You send a delay and then send it back to itself, and by doing that in the digital domain, it gives the sound kind of a gnarly edge.”

The slippery, downtempo dub of “Just Like a Man” (with Omi giving a vocal nod to Sade and Tracey Thorn in the same breath) draws Warren's enthusiasm the most. “There must be 50 samples in that — not loops, but just individual sounds that are layered,” he marvels. “That's our trademark, really. That's what we love. It's mainly Pro Tools, but with Logic, as well, you can create any sound you want to now. Amp Farm is a big favorite of mine. There are even soft synths like Cheeze Machine, which is another Logic plug-in that's amazing for manipulating very lo-fi strings.”

As with everything that Way Out West espouses, Wisternoff once again sums up the group's approach to track building and production as an open and evolving process — the key, he says, is to remain receptive to possibilities, no matter how unfamiliar or outlandish. And the digital realm helps expand those possibilities even further. “It's all about your imagination, because there isn't any limit, really,” he says. “You're not limited by cables anymore. It's all about how much CPU power you've got and how far you want to take things. But you've got to be careful not to go up your own arse and manipulate samples just for the sake of it. If a sound is right in the first place, then you have to just leave it as it is and move on.”


For all of the obvious advantages offered by recording and editing on a Pro Tools system, Way Out West prefers more of an old-school method when it comes to mixing, according to Jody Wisternoff. “We did all the recording at our own studio down in Bristol,” he explains. “But we did the mixing up in London on a really nice SSL desk at Soho Studios with an engineer there named Joe Fields. I find you can't really get the proper final sounds mixing in Pro Tools. It's really important to separate it into a good desk and let the engineer get the sound right when it comes to EQing instruments and vocals.”

Portability is also key to the group's method of composing. “We've both got laptops, so we'd do a lot of stuff in Logic at home, and then, later on, we'd whack it onto Pro Tools at the studio,” Wisternoff says. “It's good to work with a few different programs. I mean, I think Logic sometimes is better for the MIDI side of things, and it's better for soft synths and all that, but Pro Tools is much better for audio editing, and the plug-ins are much stronger.” Below is Way Out West's whole kit list, with comments by Wisternoff.

Computer, DAW, recording hardware:

Alesis ADAT LX20: “I must be the only person to have kept this, but it's very useful for the live shows.”
Apple Mac G4 computer, Titanium G4 PowerBook:
“Mostly running the Reaktor 4 software synth, which is amazing!”
Digidesign Pro Tools 5 (“The heart of the studio.”), Pro Tools LE 5
Emagic Logic 6 software, including ESX24, EVP88, EVB3, EVOC 20 soft synths
Fostex D-5 DAT recorder

Console, mixers, interfaces:

Digidesign 882, 1622 audio interfaces w/ADAT Bridge MOTU MIDI Timepiece
Soundcraft Ghost analog mixing desk: “Mainly used as a 2-channel line mixer these days.”
Studiomaster Mixdown Gold desk: “Good for delay feedback looping and distortion.”

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixer:

Akai S3000 sampler: “250 quid on eBay — how times have changed!”
Allen & Heath Xone:92 DJ mixer: “It makes records sound amazing!”
Roland TR-606 (“Great hi-hats!”), TR-727, TR-808 (“My first proper drum machine — classic invention, like the wheel.”), TR-909 drum machines
Technics SL-1210 turntables (2)

Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:

Ableton Live 3 software
Access Virus Indigo TDM soft synth
Arturia Minimoog V soft synth
Big Tick Audio Cheeze Machine soft synth
GMedia Oddity soft synth
Clavia Nord Modular synth
Digidesign Bomb Factory 1176 compressor, Focusrite D3 effects plug-ins
Kawai K5000: “I used the same pad patch on about 10 tracks!”
Korg MS-2000, Prophecy synths
M-Audio Oxygen8 keyboard
Maxim Digital Audio JX10, DX10 VST synths
Native Instruments Absynth 2, Electrik Piano, FM7, Reaktor 4 soft synths
Propellerhead Reason software
Roland JV-2080 synth module (“The workhorse of yesteryear.”), JD-800 synth, Juno-106 synth (“Kicks out a lot of sub!”), JX-8P synth w/PG-800 programmer, SH-101 monophonic bass synth, TB-303 Bass Line
Sequential Circuits Pro One synth: “I still use this all the time. It has a surprising amount of scope for a monosynth.”
Sony Oxford EQ plug-ins
Spectrasonics Atmosphere, Stylus, Trilogy soft synths
Steinberg The Grand soft synth
Wave Mechanics Pitchblender

Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:

Alesis 3630 compressors (2), MidiVerb 2 effects unit:
“Very outdated, but it has a charming, rough sound.”
Aphex 204 Aural Exciter
Avalon Vt-737 preamp: “Makes the vocals sound lovely.”
Blue Kiwi condenser mic
Drawmer DL221 dual compressor/limiter, DS201 dual gate
Electrix Filter Factory, Mo-FX (“Great for infinite looping ideas. My brother stole it from me!”), Warp Factory effects units
Lexicon LXP1, LXP5 effects units
Sherman Filter Bank: “Sounds gnarly when it works, this ancient bit of kit!”
SPL Optimizer parametric EQ/notch filter
Yamaha SPX-900 multi-effects unit


Genelec 1032s
Yamaha NS-10s: “These still sound good after 15 years.”