"I always remember the first gig we did in Manchester,” says Alfie Granger-Howell in his posh North London lilt. “It was the first Dusky gig outside London. We got paid, but nothing to write home about. We got the Megabus straight up and straight back, with a stop at Burger King on the way home. It’s talking about these things now, on the way to gigs, that you realise how far you’ve come.”
He’s not wrong, because with partner Nick Harriman he’s just come off his biggest summer yet. It saw Dusky play major gigs everywhere from Hï Ibiza to Parklife, Tomorrowland in Belgium to Glastonbury. This last one was particularly special, because it’s a festival they’ve been going to for years as fans, and now frequent as headliners, playing not one but three different sets in 2017.
“It was the first time we had a yurt thing,” says Nick, the quieter, more reserved sounding of the friends who first met aged 16. “Normally we camp, but this was glamping. It was nice, there were proper showers and everything.”
Given that Dusky have gone from making prog house on niche underground labels to releasing a widescreen electronic album on a major, “proper showers” are a pretty humble thing to be excited about. Many of their standing would expect much more. “You have to be realistic in your demands,” says Alfie when asked what’s on their rider (vodka, soda water and fresh limes, if you wondered.) “We have simple tastes and needs.”
ANNIE MAC PRESENTS PT.2 – SATURDAY 7TH OCTOBER. BUY TICKETS
Musically, of course, their tastes are much more widescreen. Last year’s Outer album on Polydor proved that. It was a step up from their usual 12“ material and touched on lush pop-dance, pilled-up rave, grime and hands-in-the-air house anthems. Guest turns from musical royalty like Wiley and Gary Numan helped diversify the album and let the pair really show off their skills.
“It was an experience,” says Nick of working with the major after previously releasing on the likes of Aus Music and Dogmatik. “But I'd rather not work for them again. They made a lot of promises but then a lot of stuff is just pie in the sky that never materialises. They don't have the understanding of the music and the nuances of the scene so they just make loads of shit suggestions for collaborations. They did allow us to do what we wanted, but it was always like ‘what's going to be the A side or big track?’ They always wanted a single. It worked out alright. I think they wanted more commercial success, but we weren't interested in that, we were just hoping for a bigger platform for the release.”
Years ago, Alfie went to the Royal Academy to study composition for media, so brings formal music theory to the table, while Nick comes at things from the DJ and engineer side (before doing music full time, and after university, he started a business that imported animal costumes from Japan. "All in one pyjamas, like onesies.”)
Together they have shown a clear evolution from their simple but effective breakthrough tune ‘Careless’—which despite nearly not being released because it was “too simple” topped overall Beatport charts for weeks—to more mellifluous, lushly layered house. These days they craft proper arpeggios, killer basslines and swamp their tunes with emotionally pregnant pads. It’s still simple and traditional house music, but produced on another level to plenty of other artists out there. The duality of commercial and more underground offerings has helped them crossover whilst also keeping one foot in the more credible end of the scene.
That’s proven by the fact they play twice at The Warehouse Project, where, says Nick, the crowd “always has so much energy.” The first time is this Saturday, for Annie Mac Presents, when they will be in the main room and will play “more full on, more big room stuff,” then they’re doing a five hour set on December 1st with Sasha & Digweed, so will dig deeper in the second room and play stuff that wont work first time round.
Now both 32, Dusky recognise that in order to stay on top they have to be sensible, and admit they have always been professional. “You hear stories of people losing sight of what makes them happy and being over-worked,” says Alfie. “Over time, we've grown up. Before, we could do our gigs, two or three a weekend, travel all over, and get stuck in with partying and be alright on Monday. It's a different story now. You have to pick and chose your battles, look after yourself, be a bit healthier and take time off to stay inspired. It would be too much to be in the studio everyday we're in London, so it's important to have time to rest and recuperate from all the touring.”
To stay fit mentally and physically, he likes to get on his road bike and tap out “up to 200km” round Essex “while listening to Kraftwork,” quips Nick, who himself prefers to ride motorbikes as a way of relaxing. They’re talking from a studio in Hornsea, North London, which they’ve had for nearly ten years. That realisation draws a whoop from Nick, who jokes that there used to be a lot more prostitutes hanging around. “Inside, not outside, that is. There’s a big new housing development now, so the area is much nicer.”
The studio inside hasn’t changed much, though, despite the riches their elevated status has brought them. They’ve treated the room, got a vocal booth and set up decks in the corner, but haven’t splashed on loads of fancy gear. “We do everything in the box,” says Alfie, who also says there are some flight cases containing a few drum machines lying around the room.
They’re a left over from the live show the pair toured round the world in the last year or so. Including the visuals and extra production to make it a spectacle, the shows sucked up a lot of cash, just about broke even, but were “totally with it for the experience.”
Truth is, they had to happen. “It’s good to challenge yourself and it was a way to present the last album that wasn't just a DJ set, as there was a lot of music on Outer that wouldn't really fit into our sets,” explains Nick. Now back primarily to DJing, Alfie explains most of the music they’re working on at the moment is club focussed once more.
They often sketch ideas on the road, then come back to the in the studio to see what works. ”In the studio we try not think too much,” reckons Alfie. “We just follow ideas through, from weird and experimental to much more accessible stuff. If you obsess too much it can really get in the way of creativity. Some tracks write themselves, some need more tlc to get them done.” Nick says that nothing is ever really finished, you can always edit and tweak, but there comes a point where you just have to “draw a line under it.”
Much of Dusky’s music now comes on their own label 17 Steps. It’s their main focus going forward, but won’t be a rush job. Music drives it, so if an artist comes through with an album’s worth of material, they’ll put it out, but they won’t go searching for the sake of it.
“It has to be stuff we play,” says Nick of what they release from others. “If it's working for us, that’s the main pre-requisite. Then the other tracks we put on the EPs which aren't club tracks, we go with our gut instinct. It has to sound current, but also have something that makes it stand out.”
One way might be vocals, something Dusky have not been afraid of in the past. They’re often an extra musical element, a tonal or melodic addition rather than a way of getting a certain message across. “When I listen to music, generally I’m not really concentrating on the lyrics that much,” says Nick. “It’s hard to say what you want from them without being able to do it yourself. There are lots of good singers but not so many songwriters, so finding that balance between something that is tasteful but impactful is hard. Sometimes if you have something that is too overt, things become quite tacky. It’s a very nuanced thing and the way the lyrics work can bring something down if done wrong.”
So far, Dusky have managed to strike that perfect balance each and every time.
ANNIE MAC PRESENTS PT.2 – SATURDAY 7TH OCTOBER. BUY TICKETS