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Friday, Feb. 15, 2008

The teetotaler who conquered clubland

Staff writer

After winning arguably the biggest prize in dance music, any club DJ might be forgiven for going on the sort of Dionysian rampage that would leave Keith Richards begging for mercy. Not High Contrast.

News photo
The thinking man's DJ — High Contrast

Known to his friends as Lincoln Barrett, the drum 'n' bass producer's response to winning the BBC's Essential Mix of the Year in December last year — the accolade bestowed by star DJ Pete Tong on his Essential Mix radio show — was typically low-key.

"I don't celebrate much," says the 28-year-old in a recent telephone interview from his home in Cardiff, Wales. "It's good to have got the award because it normally goes to house DJs and drum 'n' bass used to be seen as a bit of a joke. I guess it shows drum 'n' bass is becoming more acceptable."

Acceptance has been a long time coming. The credibility that the genre is currently enjoying, not least in Tokyo — witness the large crowds who have been turning out every other month at Daikanyama Unit's "Drum & Bass Sessions" events — is due in no small part to High Contrast. On his three acclaimed albums and remixes and through his DJ performances, he has done as much as any other DJ to reinvigorate a scene that many were writing off after the buzz following Roni Size's 1997 Mercury Music Prize died down.

One of the reasons Barrett's music has connected with so many might be his catholic approach to art.

"A lot of people think of drum 'n' bass as 'underground music' and pop music as being the enemy, but one of the most interesting things is to do a drum 'n' bass remix of a pop tune, because then you get the two worlds colliding. I always like the contrast," says Barrett.

It's a philosophy he also employs outside the recording studio when DJing. Live, he adds to his arsenal of original anthems a set of remixes ranging from Underworld to The White Stripes and Coldplay.

The fondness for mixing it up is a prevalent feature of his third and latest album, "Tough Guys Don't Dance," released at the end of last year in which soulful vocals, cinematic strings and loops of plucked acoustic guitar flit in and out over a frenetic jungle backdrop.

It may not be a revelation to long term fans of Barrett, but first-time listeners will find the sound original, uplifting and accessible. There is also an eerie familiarity that leaves the listener wondering where the samples come from.

"The sound I am aiming for is one where you feel like you have heard it before, but don't know where," says Barrett. "Like memories of things you haven't done."

Unlike some of his peers in clubland, Barrett won't let his judgment be clouded by substances when creating music.

"I want to remove all the extraneous elements that could get in the way of what I want to do," he says. "I want to create things; drink and drugs make sense for consumers, rather than artists. For me, it is about knowing what is right and wrong within the context of what I am making. When I am making choices about what to include in a track, I need total clarity of mind. If I can make something that gives me a buzz when straight, it will have a bigger effect on people when they're high."

Is Barrett never tempted to indulge when he sees clubbers around him having it large?

"The state I see some people in is enough to put me off drugs," he says. "If people take drugs and drink to alter their sense of reality, then just by being around those people, my reality is altered. And anyway, when I look out into the crowd, all I see is a sea of faces in the dark."

Perhaps Barrett's frugal lifestyle choices comes from being schooled in rock 'n' roll lore from an early age. His father was manager of chart-topping 1980s Welsh rockabilly-throwback Shakin' Stevens, who Barrett refuses to talk about on the not unreasonable grounds that the singer once "got drunk and killed my mum's goldfish" a few years ago. His mother is a Labour politician.

"Both my parents are left wing, and I guess it rubbed off on me. I have a difficult time subscribing to any doctrines though, really. But when it comes down to it, if there is a communist revolution, then yeah, I'll get involved.

"Artists are generally liberal but don't want to see a revolution because art would likely suffer under these circumstances. But at the end of the day, revolutions aren't for artists, they are for people who are starving — they come first. I hope to see a revolution; it may be painful and scary, but revolution is."

High Contrast plays Lab Tribe in Kyoto on Feb. 22 (11 p.m.; ¥3,000) and Daikanyama Unit, Toyko on Feb. 23 (11:30 p.m. start; ¥4,000); www.dbs-tokyo

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