Going back to his roots: Steve O’Sullivan

Mosaic main man - Steve O'Sullivan

Mosaic main man Steve O’Sullivan on his return to music and his latest ventures

For fans of House and Techno, Steve O’Sullivan is a name that should carry a certain weight and amount of recognition, if not for having made his mark during the mid to late 1990s courtesy of his Mosaic, Bluespirit , Bluetrain and Green imprints – then more recently because many of those records have since gone on to fetch exorbitant prices amongst record collectors and vinyl hungry enthusiasts. Post millennium, Steve took what could be described as a “creative hiatus” from production and music in general. However, over the last couple of years the UK based producer has been releasing part of his back-catalogue courtesy of the support and encouragement from Yossi Amoyal, boss of Sushitech. Whilst he has always taken cues from the likes of Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, Robert Hood, U.R. Mills and Chicago House, his sound has always focused on producing slowly evolving, minimally infused soulful sounds that bear all the hallmarks of a music lover – laced with subtlety, dubby effects and plenty of analogue groove.

Over the years, he has collaborated with fellow UK cohorts such as Ben Sims, Lee Grainge, Russ Gabriel and Mark Ambrose – producing under various guises such as Bluespirit, The Wise Caucasian , Precession and Bush Funk. Amidst a busy schedule, we managed to track him down for a chat and find out a little bit more about the man behind the mystery and why he still dislikes the word “Tech House”.

So, where did your musical journey start – what sort of stuff did you listen to as a youngster?

“Well, where do I start? I’m from Harlesden in North West London, which is a bit of a melting pot culturally, I suppose hearing reggae and dub blasted from every car stereo has had some kind of influence on my music making. Looking back, the 80s were also a pretty special time musically with new scenes, the rise of synthesisers, drum machines and sampling so I count myself lucky to have lived through that. One of my earliest musical memories (beyond pop music) would be hearing things like Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force for the first time through a friend at school. To the 11/12 year old me, it was like hearing music from another planet and I think that probably kickstarted my love for all sorts of electronic music.

By 83, Electro and early hip hop had also really gathered pace and was a huge thing at school. We were all getting into the “Street Sounds”compilations, there’d be playground breaking, beatboxing and rap battles everyday – it’s pretty funny to look back on now but everything was so fresh at that time and you couldn’t help but be influenced by it. I also definitely recall hearing the 12″ of Depeche Mode’s “People Are People” for the first time, that must have been around 1984 – it instantly made an impression, that whole mesh of sampled mechanical/pulsating sounds merging together. I found myself being drawn in and listening to them along with New Order religiously for a good few years.

By 1986/7 I was also listening to plenty of dub and reggae – I was instantly drawn to the whole use of delays and tape echo and the trippiness the effects gave the music. Tackhead, Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound system and Roddigan’s radio show were big big things for me at that point, as were the more EBM/ industrial vibes of groups such as Nitzer Ebb and the music coming out on factory and Mute. I guess I got exposed to so many different types of music and, I must admit, I was never massively focused on any particular genre but I suppose if you like music, you like all kinds of music…”

Streets Sounds - Electro Compilation CoverWhat got you into making techno?

“Well, I started out making pause button cassette tape mixes of my favourite tunes including the odd megamix (not a word you hear much these days I know) and the more I listened to music, the more I just became fascinated with how it was created. You didn’t have the internet and tutorials in those days to help so it was more a case of discovering what boxes were being used. If you had asked the 15 year old me what my dream would’ve been it would have been to have a record out but in those days, I never really thought it was possible.

In terms of getting equipment it all started for me with a trip to my local high street in 1986. I was walking past a music shop that had just opened up called Sounds Wicked (gives you an idea of what era it was!) and saw a drum machine in the window. There and then, I knew I had to have it so, after a bit of haggling I went home that day with a Roland TR505 . I found myself copying beats and re-programming patterns from my favourite records, not really much else until a year later, when I bought an Oberheim Prommer, which was designed to burn samples for the DMX – but I used for sampling. It was pretty low tech and with 0.9 seconds sampling time, you had to work around it’s limitations but I happily spent many hours mucking about making the worst music imaginable for a good couple of years.”

How did things progress from there…

“I went to university and by the time that had finished House and Techno were well and truly in my blood and I think the whole DIY ethic of that scene appealed to the wannabe producer in me. So , when I was again walking past another music shop (bit of a recurrent theme I know) and saw a Boss Dr660 in the window – I went inside, had a demo and bought it there and then. That must’ve been around the end of 1992/early 1993 I think. I decided after that to develop my set up in a bit of a more serious way.

In all honesty, it took me another 2-3 years of working on my sound to get it to a point where I started to feel confident I was making something worthwhile. At that point, I started sending out demos to DJAX Upbeats and GPR but still found that I wasn’t quite hitting the mark. As I was working full-time, the real turning point came when I finally bit the bullet and purchased a TR 808 and 909, along with a Soundcraft mixing desk and all of sudden I found everything just leapt to another level. Before I knew it, I had sent Russ Gabriel my first 4 tracks and the rest just seemed to follow from there.”

Mosaic records logoYou seem to have had a very productive period between 1995-1997, was there something in the air or was it more by accident?

“I was working with a lot of people for starters – I hooked up with Lee Grainge through Fat Cat in London, Stuart Wells from Troublesome Records in Kingston, John Beer and Russ Gabriel and I think those collaborations massively improved my production. Collaborating is something that I always found easy – especially with these guys and without it I don’t think I would’ve been inspired as much as I was during that time. I also think the way that I worked helped. It was all about the live mix – everything was done by feel and using your ears rather than programming arrangements. So things, if they worked , would come together pretty quickly. There would be days when 2-3 tracks would come together simply by jamming with the machines and within that first year I think I had 12 records out and had started both mosaic and green -I guess you could say I was in the zone and had really hit my stride.”

How does it feel then to see your work gain so much appreciation now?

“What can I say except that’s it’s pretty amazing. As a producer, you really couldn’t ask for more and I think the most satisfying thing is that it’s a new generation of DJs who are showing their appreciation and discovering the music for the first time. I guess the music crosses over between the house and techno schools a bit and that threshold between the two genres is something I have always liked to do (probably because of my own musical limitations if I’m honest) but I see the music as techno, plain and simple. Call it deep techno or dub techno if you will but whatever you do, don’t call it tech-house- that’s always been a dirty word to me.”

Did you reach a juncture where you chose stop making music then?

“It was a real mixture of things if the truth be known. In 2003 my distributor went bust, which had financial implications for everyone involved. Coupled with life in general getting in the way, I found myself getting to point where I started feeling I had nothing new to say. I’m my own biggest critic and the last thing I wanted to do was start repeating the same old formula, which would have been all too easy. One day, I thought why not take a break? It just so happened that the break lasted 9 years”.

Jamming live - Steve O'SullivanWhat made you decide to start up again…

“Funny you should ask, around the summer of 2012, I was sat in the living room on my I-Pad and thought I’d give I-Maschine a go. Although I had tried out making music on a computer before, it somehow didn’t capture my imagination… However, I just kind of got into a groove and before I knew it, the missus pointed out that I’d been sat there for 2 hours absolutely transfixed – who’d have thought it!?!? She suggested I should get a small set up again (probably to keep me out of the way!) so I’ve really got her to thank in a BIG way. I started really just for fun and found that I was feeling inspired again and a few months later, Yossi from Sushitech got in touch asking about licensing my old material. We spoke about my new tracks and it just seems to have snowballed from there. It was perfect timing really on his part.

As for now, well I tried the whole DAW production route but after giving it a serious go I’ve gone back to the way that I know best – hardware. Despite a few releases made on software back in the day my output has always been very reliant on machines as the hardware and external processing gives you something very individual and imprecise. Perhaps there’s a touch more soul and depth to old machines that appeals to me, or it could just be that I always have, and always will , love a good drum machine to play with.”

Where next then?

“Well I’ve had a lot of requests to repress my old material but that won’t be happening. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking back but techno is about moving forward and for me , the last thing I want is to be seen as some kind of dinosaur who is stuck in the past and living off past glories – like the Paul McCartney of Techno. I’ve got to say I was pretty proud of the Bluetrain retrospective on Sushitech last year as it included 5 new tracks and there have been a few one off tracks here and there over the last year on LMML, Mosaic and Ferox. I’ve been busy recording all year and I’m just at that stage now where we are finalising the tracklists for my next set of releases on Sushitech. We have dozens of new tunes to choose from and I’m pretty happy with the results so far – which is a good sign.

I also have a couple of remixes lined up for release after the summer including one that has to be one of my dubbiest production for years, which I’m pretty happy. It will be coming out on a small Italian label called “Sorry for This”. My main priority though is to develop Mosaic, after being away for so long, I recognised that there was a quite a bit of hype around my return so last year I decided that I wanted to use it in a positive way and launched “Mosaic Split Series”. The whole aim of this is to give new producers a platform to be heard, as getting noticed these days is incredibly difficult. The first four releases stand up well in my opinion against the old mosaic 12s and have included some fantastic contributions from the new guys involved, which makes me immensely proud. I’m also ramping things up with the launch of a new series “Mosaic Red Label”, which will be concentrating on the tougher/ jacking end of the spectrum. So, all in all, things are going well!”