Q&A with DJ Ralph Lawson of 2020Soundsystem, Playing LIV on Saturday


In this age of laptop-toting faux live electronic dance music acts, an actual band employing actual live instrumentation and vocals is a rare thing, especially when said band is delivering funked-out dancefloor bangers like 2020Soundsystem. The musical brainchild of Leeds-based DJ and esteemed 2020Vision label owner Ralph Lawson, the Soundsystem was formed in 2003 as a means of interweaving live electronics with his DJ sets and transcending the tried-and-true record-jockeying formula at the clubs.

Originally a duo comprising Lawson and percussionist Danny "Dubble D" Ward, the project became a quartet when Argentine transplants Fernando Pulichino and Julian Sanza where invited to join on bass and keyboards, respectively. Furthermore, the band began to experiment with guest vocalists, including an early collaboration with singer Diane Charlemagne, of Goldie's "Inner City Life" fame, although Pulichino himself has since taken up lead vocal duties.

The band has enjoyed increasing recognition since 2005, when they closed the Sonar music festival in Barcelona to an audience of 10,000 people, the live recording of which became disc 2 of their first album, No Order. The Live at Sonar disc is now widely regarded as a seminal work of live electronica and DJ/musician collaboration, and gave the band's sound more cohesion as they worked towards the completion of sophomore album, Falling, released in September 2009. Crossfade had a chance to catch up with DJ Ralph Lawson on the cusp of 2020Soundsystem's live performance at LIV on Saturday night and ask him what they're all about.

2020Soundsystem at LIV. Saturday, November 7. Doors open at 10:30 p.m. $25 cover. 4441 Collins Ave. (Fontainebleau Hotel) Miami Beach. 305-674-4680.

Read the full Q&A after the jump.

New Times: Your original focus was on DJing and running your label 2020Vision. What made you decide to delve into live band work and how do the two compare?

Ralph Lawson: I am still a DJ. My role in the Soundsystem is very much DJing, but with musicians. I always wanted to be in bands, I was in them all the time at school. Punk, dub and rock 'n' roll bands. I got into electronic music and became a DJ but it has always been an itch I needed to continue scratching. When we started 2020Soundsystem I was very much bored of clubs and there were loads of great bands coming out that I found really inspiring. It was time for a new challenge.

The actual project started when I was approached by Fat City Records in Manchester to make a mix for their "Stars on 33" series. I wanted to mix records from 1979-1999 and many weren't done on computers so you couldn't beat match. As I was a house DJ I had no scratch skills so wanted to find a way to mix them. I spoke about it with Danny "Dubble D" Ward and he suggested that he play a kit over the records and handle any changes in tempo and movement and then make 'breaks' out of the tracks. I would then mix in the next record into the drums that were now stable. I still really love that mix, I think it's pretty unique.

We left it for a while but I became obsessed with putting a band together. It had been a dream since my teenage years and an itch I still felt I needed to scratch.  So when I got sent a demo by two Argentinians called Silver City that featured live bass and keys, I put 2 and 2 together and we made 4. Our first gig was at BRB Bar in Leeds. It was more of a jam over records as at the time we didn't have any songs. I used to play drum tracks or bonus beats so the guys had space to play. Over time we started to get hooks and those then became original tracks.  If you want me to answer the question about running a label and compare it to running a band, I would say running a band is even worse. Don't believe the hype, trust your mum and dad and go and do something less stupid instead!

Your second album Falling seems to mark a stylistic departure from your earlier work. What can you tell us about this album and how it came about?

I don't think it's such a departure. I am sure every artist likes to think their work is progressing, but really it's just changing. New ideas, new influences, new people, usually better production. Sometimes the very first raw work is the best though. On this album we really concentrated our time on trying to achieve a cohesive sound that had songs written with the flow and dynamics of a live session. 

The first album No Order had a live show recorded at Sonar festival included alongside a studio-produced disc. We couldn't repeat the same trick twice. We wanted to get across our live edge, but show we had come on as song writers too. So we spent our time making live versions of tracks in the same way we do on the road. I mean, we set up the same way and all played together in one take, then later we added vocals. We spent a long time formatting them as we would in a live set, so it is how we would play them live. I am really happy with the results.

One of 2020's great points of differentiation is the fact that you play live instrumental electronica, as opposed to the more common laptop-based variety of "live" EDM. What is the impetus for this approach?

Yes, I think one of the main problems with Dance Music is how badly it has been done live over the years. Look at how big bands go when they spend time on their shows, like Kraftwerk, Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Basement Jaxx, Daft Punk, etc. We want to achieve a show as ambitious as acts like that but with more live playing. Isn't it supposed to be Man Machine? Yes, we have a DJ and laptop, but that is very much just a part of the show alongside playing bass, drums, keyboards and vocals. We also strive to make it look good and have developed visuals with the Leeds College of Film.   

Your music seems to get categorized as house/techno by the press a lot, but the new album draws just as much from the songcraft of rock and synth pop. Where do you place the band's sound amidst the landscape of contemporary electronic music?

Yes, you are right, I think. It is because lazy reviewers know my DJ style and automatically put us down as a house band. In fact, we are four people and come from very different places musically. Dubble D is a fully-subscribed jazz head. Fernando, who actually writes most of the songs, comes from a love of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and indie rock. Julian is a mad Professor Dub fan. So there is a real mix in there. The album took so long because we spend so long fighting over direction! But when we get together we do manage to create something fresh as a result. I think we should be placed alongside Who Made Who, Circle Square, DFA, Junior Boys, Hot Chip. Acts that have an individual edge but who all love dance music of all degrees.

2020 has played both dance clubs, like Fabric in London, and band-oriented festivals like Glastonbury. What kind of live setting do you feel is more suitable and why?

Well, we just did one of  the best gigs we have ever done at Fabric in London last Saturday, but we also smashed it up at festivals such as Glastonbury, Bestival, Rothbury, Bisco, Ultra, Sonar, Exit, Creamfields and many many more. I like them all. I do feel we are a good festival band. We are not afraid of a big stage.

We are thrilled to see you perform live at LIV on November 7. What can Miami expect during this show?

I have never been there, so I think it is more a case of "I don't know what to expect". But as always, we will be giving you 100%!

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Sean Levisman