Nu-jazz sensation Moses Boyd on intense drums, self-production and tearing up the rulebook
We meet the South London star to talk social circles, maintaining sanity in the studio, and his most important piece of advice: there are no rules.
Image: Dan Medhurst
Epitomising London’s young music-makers in the digital age, Moses Boyd was brought up on a mix of heady jazz and tough grime, and his sound moves in step with the hyper-culture of the capital, capitalising on our love of immediate gratification and genuine live experiences.
From his bold debut album, Dark Matter, to his catwalk soundtracks for shows such as Dunhill’s at Men’s Paris Fashion Week, the 28-year-old is warping traditional views of jazz and reinventing it in his own way. There are few young musicians like him, yet he hasn’t always been on trend.
“I was always the odd one out at secondary school,” he says. “There weren’t many people I could chat to about Weather Report records. But these days it’s totally different – 16-year-olds can talk extensively about the work of Pharoah Sanders. That wasn’t the world I grew up in. It just shows how technology and music streaming have changed everything.”
All that jazz
While the younger Boyd might not have immediately been recognised as trailblazer, the sound of this drummer, composer and producer is now regarded as a potent musical force, raising the bar among his peers. His journey through sound began during secondary school, where he cut his teeth using FL Studio and Cubase before discovering the drums. “I managed to get free lessons with a jazz drummer who would really push me,” says Boyd.
“He would bring me exercises, videos of live performances and advise me to go and seek out certain players and musicians. I just vibed off discovering new sounds and artists. It’s something I still love doing to this day.”
During his formative years, Boyd fell in love with the rhythm and sound of UK grime and US hip-hop before eventually tapping into an increasingly insatiable appetite for jazz. It’s the occasional collisions between these two all-important worlds that helped define both Boyd and his music.
“From artists like Roll Deep, Wiley and Dizzee Rascal to hip-hop stars such as Biggie, Tupac, and NERD and Pharrell, I loved it all. I just consumed everything that was put in front of me,” he says.
Boyd’s name rose to prominence thanks to his prolific partnership with saxophonist Binker Golding. Through a mix of technical proficiency and raw energy, the duo won over critics who were left in awe of their talents over several albums, including the ambitious Journey To The Mountain Of Forever. While the pair picked up Jazz Act of the Year at the Jazz FM Awards and MOBO Awards, Boyd was also tinkering with his solo endeavours.
“It all happened simultaneously,” he says. “I’ve known Binker since my first professional paid gig. He’s always been there alongside me, working, playing and writing. But I was always writing solo tracks too.”
Matter of fact
Boyd’s debut record Dark Matter arrived seemingly fully formed in February of this year. But this collection was preceded by 2018’s dance-floor smash Rye Lane Shuffle. Mixed by underground electronica heroes Four Tet and Floating Points, the track was adored by Gilles Peterson and BBC 6 Music, and quickly became a club hit. It certainly whetted appetites ahead of the release Boyd’s debut record.
“It took me more than two years to make the whole album. Originally, there was no grand plan to make a record,” says Boyd. “I’ve always made beats for fun, and it’s something I never want to stop doing. So I was just exploring sounds until some began to fit together sonically. But even then, I didn’t want the creative process to be too disciplined. Compared to other projects I’ve worked on where I’ve had to rigorously structure recording sessions, this was far more open ended.”
Giving himself creative space no doubt impacted the finished product – there’s an elasticity and innovation reverberating throughout its 10 tracks. “I’m self-released so there was no label making demands on me to finish,” says Boyd. “It meant I could take my time and experiment with drum machines, samplers, modular synthesisers. I wanted to capture interesting sounds, then piece the music together from them, rather than sitting down at a piano and crafting music in a more formal setting.”
“It’s a bit like being a painter. You experiment with various shades and colours but then you have to make a picture”
Recordings were laid down here and there, with Boyd calling on the talents of friends, musicians and collaborators he’d met on his travels to flesh out the bones of Dark Matter. “I made beats on my phone, recording things as I was out and about. I’d go to my friend Joe Armon Jones’ house – he appears on 2 Far Gone and doesn’t live far from me – with my laptop and we’d record in his front room. I was never really searching for studio perfection. I’d book a day here and there at proper studios to record certain rhythm tracks. But I really wanted it to be just me and my hard drive walking around capturing things from my community and my friends. It had to sound raw, not too clean or finessed.”
Featuring afrobeat vocalist Obongjayar and jazz-inflected singer-songwriter Poppy Ajudha, the album sports not only an electric energy but an eclectic musicality. It’s as if Boyd was able to harness the breadth of his most-played artists on Spotify and inject the same level of diversity into his own work.
“It’s all community and friends who I’ve connected with,” he says. “These are people I know well, who I thought would understand what I was trying to do and could translate what I heard. That’s not to say I couldn’t work with someone I wasn’t friends with but, for me, it’s more fun to collaborate with artists who I formed a strong bond with before we pressed record.”
Boyd’s creative process revolves primarily around Logic although, as he often works in bigger studios and with an increasingly wide array of artists, he’s also getting to grips with Pro Tools. “For me and the sort of music I make, Pro Tools has a few more barriers: it’s more expensive, a bit more complicated and the interface is less user friendly,” he says. “But it’s easier to take a Pro Tools file home and edit it rather than having to bounce it into another DAW, then rebounce. Getting to grips with Pro Tools is about workflow more than anything.”
In terms of the gear and equipment featured on Dark Matter, the musician states that there was nothing “invaluable” at the heart of how it was pulled together. “I used a Jen SX-1000, a 1970s mono synth, as well as a Mutable Instruments module called Clouds, and a few Logic plug-ins too. Ultimately, I’m not precious about gear, I’m a blindfold kind of person – as long as I like the sound, it doesn’t really matter what it’s being created on.”
Another technique involved in the album’s making was the rapid printing of sounds. “I got really into this,” says Boyd. “I’d make an effects chain, bounce the audio, then process further by routing to other effects chains and so forth. I really would push the tape delays and Space Designer in Logic. Print then repeat.”
Since he started out, Boyd’s method of laying down music has become less formal and more fluid, more focused on capturing intriguing sounds in the moment than trying to achieve that illusive ‘perfect’ sound and wasting all-important creative time. It’s a reflection of how he’s side-stepped out of the typical jazz settings and into clubs. “I liken it to a stream of consciousness,” he says. “I’m now more into chasing sounds and not really worrying about whether they make sense or not.”
Boyd’s traditional background in jazz drums informs his music’s direction but isn’t its defining characteristic. Rather, it’s Boyd’s inquisitive nature that guides him. “I have a great understanding of harmony and rhythm but I don’t rely on that to make my tracks,” he says. “I’m more into discovering and making things that really move me. I’ll invest my time in finding great sounds, then frame the songs with them later.”
While working in this free-form fashion might be bewildering for some, Boyd’s creativity is always tied to his sense of enjoyment. When it stops being fun, that’s when he knows to draw a line under a song or beat. “If it’s no longer enjoyable, I know that’s it,” he says. “There comes a point when the exploration stage is over and a track needs to be cleaned up. It’s a bit like being a painter. You experiment with various shades and colours but then you have to make a picture. The kind of consolidation process is different to creating. You take stock and realise that now is the time to clean and chisel the work in the best way you can.”
One of the most striking aspects of Dark Matter is Boyd’s wilful deconstruction of genre, a skill that has defined much of his recent output. Has he any advice for fellow sonic travellers looking to weave tapestries of such contrasting sounds and styles?
“There are no rules,” he says, with a laugh. “I’ve been exploring this for the past five years and realised you can’t be constrained by anything. Acoustic and electronic instruments are two different things but they can work together – you just need to find a way. It’s all about what you want to achieve sonically rather than evaluating phase or compression.
“I remember presenting that song to my mix engineer and he was like, ‘What is going on?’ I told him it would work, to trust me. We did three or four mixes before we arrived at the final version. But it was fun watching the process change from being mathematical to something more intuitive by the end. A lot of people are put off by what’s in front of them, and not what they actually hear. Just remember that there really are no hard rules and try not to over-think anything.”
While Boyd’s album is self-produced, he’s also worked for other leading artists, helping produce jazz singer Zara McFarlane’s 2017 full-length Arise for Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label, as well as killer tracks for vocalist Yazmin Lacey. For Boyd, his purpose on these projects is to serve the music, and strike a balance between leaving his own stamp on songs while delivering the artist’s ideas as best he can. “It’s not about me in these scenarios, even if they’ve come to me and asked for my services,” he says.
“I put my ego behind me and try to make the music work as well as possible for the artist. How can I make them sound the best they can and offer them things they perhaps wouldn’t necessarily think of? When it’s your own music, there’s no third party, so all the answers are coming from you. Both situations have challenges.”
Boyd may well be fast becoming one of our most vital new producers but it’s as a skilled drummer that he first gained attention. He believes technical proficiency is a must for any ambitious young musician but that it needs to be balanced with an ability to get along with collaborators and be good company in a studio setting. It will take emerging musicians a long way.
“You need to hone your craft but also remember to leave your ego at the door,” he says. “Studios are weird environments and there’s nothing worse than being in one with someone you can’t get along with. Music is a very social thing and if everyone in a session feels comfortable, the results will be better.”
Boyd cites the wealth of online resources and guides as useful signposts for fledgling players. But ultimately, nothing beats getting into a studio and experiencing this world first hand. “Even if it’s just doing the coffee run, you’ll learn lots about how recording works and the various processes at play,” he says. “It also creates opportunities. I’ve seen it first hand, when a drummer shows up, does a great job and everyone loved being around them, and then before you know it they’re touring with Beyoncé. It goes to show that being personable and easy to get along with is the key to this profession.”
As a musician, Boyd is one of extreme skill and versatility. His drum kit of choice is a Yamaha PHX, augmented by a Roland SPD-SX sampling pad and triggers when on stage. He recommends Yamaha for the consistency the company’s gear provides. “Having the same sound quality is really important, especially when on the road,” he says. “In the studio, I’d advise anyone playing drums to try and avoid suffocating them with tape and Moongel. Sometimes it can be important but you need to learn how to get as many different tones from a kit as possible.”
“There are no rules. I’ve been exploring this for the past five years and realised you can’t be constrained by anything”
When recording in a session, Boyd also advises getting your drums tuned as close to the source of the desired sound as possible. “Fixing tunings afterwards isn’t fun,” he says, “so save yourself time and effort and get it right first time, when you’re recording. It’s always preferable.”
He also believes that being a drummer has loosened his relationship with musical equipment. “I do have a wishlist of certain items. But the realities of space can really dictate what equipment I’m able to get, particularly as a drummer. I’d need a whole other house for all the things I’d have if I could. That’s why I enjoy the flexibility of working in-the-box.”
Alongside his artist material, collaborations and production work, Boyd has also found time to turn his hand to composing for fashion shows. So far his creations have soundtracked the Louis Vuitton Foundation x MoMa Archive film in 2017 and the Men’s Dunhill Paris Fashion shows in both 2018 and 2019. It’s another intriguing and exciting side to the young music-maker’s sound. “It’s a very different way of working from my other projects,” he says. “You need to remember that the show or production can keep on changing right up until the last moment, so you need to have enough music prepared because it can all be extended, blended or cut.”
This flexibility and improvisation feeds into Boyd’s experiences as a jazz drummer, toying with different rhythms and sounds. “You can’t really see what you’re doing as one seven-minute piece of music,” he says. “Instead, you need to treat it as lots of smaller ideas acting as visual aids to underline the important parts of the show.”
With his debut album dropping to rave reviews, Boyd has recently completed a brilliant UK tour, with a big show at Brixton’s 1,500-capacity Electric. Plans are underway for other projects and live events later this year (current world events notwithstanding) but this particular gig proved to be a real career high. “It was incredible, man,” says Boyd. “I’m from South East so to play Brixton Electric was something else for me. I had a friend from school who was involved and a lot of people came out. It was packed, which made it even more emotional.”
Moses Boyd’s music is ingrained in the fabric of London, and with his solo debut making an impact across the industry, his future as a producer looks assured.
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