Billain is a unique force in the dnb scene, striving to do something that hasn’t been done before: Taking a cinematic approach to drum and bass in a new movement he calls cyberneuro.
Appearing around 12 years ago, he’s come to be associated with a fast paced and frantic style of drum and bass, a style specific to himself. This, coupled with a fascination for science fiction and cyberpunk aesthetics culminated in the creation of everything from his Colossus EP, right up to 2019’s Nomad’s Revenge.
As risk-taker and someone who believes that music is about innovation, we talked with him to delve deeper into what he is trying to create.
– We’ve seen you mentioning a new album on Facebook, how is your style evolving? Will you continue with the cinematic approach or move more towards your pre-colossus EP style?
I think it will do a bit of both. What’s good about the whole creation of this album is that I can take a fresh approach, there are a lot of things to fine tune based on previous releases. I’ve got about 7 albums worth of material, and I’m switching tunes back and forth between them. I’m a big fan of William Gibson and ever since I was a kid I was really into this style of cinematography. One of the interesting ways to describe these visuals was always with good music and vice versa, they have a very nice aesthetic marriage which I call cyberneuro. It’s a kind of term I came up with when thinking about combining the terms neurofunk and cyberpunk, it’s new but they don’t sound too far away from each other. When you look realistically at the way people combine cinematography with modern beats it can be described as more than just 1 simple genre. Genres have limitations but when I say cyberneuro there is so much creative freedom, playing with plugins, tempos and more. It’s a natural calling for me to push this forward and gather more supporters who feel like they belong here. As for the next album, it’s a continuation of this story. After the first you feel like you have to step it up and try to outplay yourself which is always an interesting challenge.
– Speaking of plugins, I’m sure many have seen you showing your cyberneuro plugins on social media. What drove you to create them?
Throughout the production I had to have simple solutions fast, specific solutions I created for certain scenes. I’d be able to do that stuff really easily, whether it’s some sound design for a film or an advertisement – stuff I’ve been doing for the past two decades. I had a lot of these lying around and then in my free time I would play around with stuff that I actually don’t need but I was wondering, can I accomplish them, can I make them work? What if I try to make this and that and how is it going to sound? So curiosity is a fun factor every time of course, and they have stuff that I am going to use a lot for my own production. Initially they were a complete mess – just a bunch of knobs doing unexpected stuff – but then I started playing with the UI in the actual patcher. I was talking to Mr. Bill some time ago and we had these semantic jokes, funny moments like multiband depression – it was really amusing but I was thinking about how this stuff would actually sound. It became a sort of mission to actually get one working and have stuff sound depressing and sad no matter what you put through it. This kind of curiosity definitely gave birth to some of those. At that moment I felt that strong urge to give them this type of signature, but it was completely random. To me they’re more like hybrids of shortcuts, other plugins reverse engineered under the hood, kind of a plugin to circumvent plugins. You can see it if you go into the background of all the cyberneuro plugins I’ve done. However I suppose I only started thinking about them seriously when people started asking about them seriously, thinking about things I can’t find as a producer on plugin websites and stuff like that. I found interesting ideas and I started playing with them. They were born because people said they actually want to try and play with these, not to mention I wanted to have plugins that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Last of all, it’s just a ton of fun.
– So following on from that, how are you planning to release them?
Well the first bundle was put on sale on Gumroad, after that I’m planning to release more creative ideas. I’m pretty much finished with some of them and want to do another bundle. I’ve always been involved heavily with the FLStudio guys, I was in their alpha and would find myself tossing ideas around with them about new stuff to test, back and forth. That was a lot of fun for me because I always got to receive constructive advice and try to create something new. This was always a sort of personal really fun hobby to me which I never tried to the full extent until I started really thinking about cyberneuro so it definitely doesn’t stop here for me just with these files. Since I have these ideas written down now I’m thinking about creating real fully functional VSTs, with their own interfaces and their own engines so they work in all workstations. I don’t think this is a step that can happen this year, or even next year but who knows? There are actually a lot of people who want to help out with knowledge I don’t have, in terms of programming language and implementation. If we join forces fast enough there could even be some real plugins next year.
– You said colossus EP was your first move towards cyberneuro, what was the catalyst for that?
I think cinematography. To understand my background we can start around the age of 4. I don’t think I was similar to other kids, I wasn’t interested in pictures of parents standing in front of a little house with a swing on the tree. I was always going into some weird kind of fractals and stuff and people would ask “Is your kid ok?”, I think that was the start, that tied with the early introduction of Stanley Kubric and John Carpenter into my life, James Cameron and Ridley Scott. I was drawing so much, thousands and thousands of pieces of paper wasted in crazy ideas, being into this rebellious art which isn’t really academic, more street stuff, graffiti. Then I got into computer graphics, digitalisation and I guess Sarajevo at the time had that feeling of liberation because of the war that happened on the break of Yugoslavia. People through the war were kind of trained to survive, they had to invent things for water, for filtering – stuff that I had to do. So there was a lot of this weird assembling and disassembling devices to make some useful parts. A combination of that and then music comes in. Out of nowhere people were creating big festivals and the energy was just crazy. This really intensified 90s rave culture but to a new level, people thought “there’s no war so let’s just party every single day”. You could go anywhere, any warehouse and do anything, it’s this that got me into being a DJ with some of the first programs. From rebirth I made something like 300 techno tracks, then I started making hip-hop tracks (about 1800 of them) many of which I lost due to faulty electricity in my flat and stuff like that. Then I’d start again, new computer and the energy was that I was going all out. That’s the background. I was making techno, hip-hop and starting on drum and bass all while doing sound design, connecting visuals and sound which is an idea I’ve always loved. That got me into jobs, then serious jobs then huge jobs like films and advertisements. Working with this New York based company who are most known for doing the test film for district 9, doing Ridley Scott trailers like prometheus and I knew it was a really great place for me to test out what I can do with my stuff. I think the colossus EP was a big deal because it was an official statement from me, but the unofficial one was blockfield. That was the first drawing that was really heavily inspired by something I actually dreamed, and I really wanted to encapsulate it and create a story out of it. All of these stories are connected and writing them is something which is a big passion, and there is no better way to connect the stuff musically and visually than adding a story to it. Then you have a lot of material to actually create something as a film and some of the members of Blur Studio which actually made “Love, Death & Robots” are actually listening to my stuff now which is absolutely crazy to me. It’s funny that it just got itself into a drum and bass thing, I don’t see any other genre being so free of constraints where you can express and do anything. That’s how colossus was born then later you got colonize, extraction, you got enslaved, Nomad’s revenge and you start seeing interesting characters coming to life. I’ll keep doing that, and doing it even more now with every release.
– Going back to the sound design work, would you say that inspires the drum and bass you make or vice versa?
Well I think those two things exist in symbiosis. You have the idea of bringing music to film which is standard, it’s how cinema works but what if you bring film to music? Those were big experiments for me – creating scenes so real that you think you ripped sound design straight from a film, to get people to wonder if there is actual footage to it. Or you make this scene and people start making visuals around it, give them the hard task they usually give you. I think many people have different answers but to me sound design is a big part of drum and bass, extremely big. You might have been shaping up a snare for a long time but you might not realise that you can do this for every little thing and create something really cinematic. It depends what your aspiration is, if you want to be lord of clubs all over the world then I think you’ll be shaping up one snare forever and not be curious about other things because you don’t really need to be. I’m that other side of idiocy that wants to be curious about every single aspect, I think it’s worth it since drum and bass has been evolving because of these reasons. At the time drum and bass was a genre which has something that really no other did, and that was the element of surprise. That was so good because you hear the silence and you know there is something coming up but you have no idea what it is, drum and bass was the sort of invention of that surprise. To me that is the key of why drum and bass is such a cinematic thing – at that time it was something only films would do. It evolved to surprise you with new interesting sounds and people were curious about it, about how it was made. It’s crazy to me how many things I’ve learned to do for film and television through sound design for drum and bass, that’s how educational it’s been for me.
– You mentioned dnb was the sort of invention of “surprise” in electronic music. Do you say this because you’re comparing it to the techno you used to make?
Well that early techno which was really scientific and industrial sounding, I think it gave this very dark and atmospheric feel. But it lacked these kind of switches and exploration of alternative transitions, you can’t have that sort of stuff in techno. It was more club oriented with more gentle transitions because that’s the kind of music it is.
That’s why it was so refreshing to see the early jungle and drum and bass for me. At the time you had Photek, Aphex Twin, Metalheadz on one hand, then you go on a slightly more commercial side where you have Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim and Daft Punk. But then you go into their backgrounds and see they all share one piece of hardware that was the Sherman Filterbank 2. That’s why they can sound similar, that’s why they have all the gritty filters and distortions at that stage. Audio inventors inspire musicians, musicians create new eras – it’s all tied together in a really healthy symbiosis. I’m really happy to be able to see this happening time and time again (like the era of massive where people used that and nothing else, and how we’re seemingly coming out of the serum era now).
– Since you talked about how you implement methods from Aethek into Billain, can you give us a brief overview of your design process for a track?
Lately it’s been starting with a lot of sessions creating crazy basslines and stuff like that, playing with different chains of effects. Then I cut the sessions in little chunks, segments, samples, presets, close that project then open up a new one and play around a bit more. Start putting drum patterns around the basslines and you work until you find something you enjoy, and you have 1 minute and 24 seconds of signature drum and bass [laughs]. Then, you begin thinking about what kind of intro this need? So you put it to the side. I bought the ROLI seaboard because I’ve been playing around with synths a lot, creating a lot of melodies which means most of the time I create intros that do not have loops, and I just save them in a folder called “intros”. Then I create some loop and see what intro works with the loop. I have drops in another folder and end up trying to make this frankenstein of some intro with some drop which have been made completely separately. However sometimes I still do make it from scratch, make the intro and then you go into the drop making it in the same environment. Every time you make something you add a new unique decision to this case, you don’t have some dead method where you will always make this and then this and then this, it depends since every track is a bit different. I have different mixdowns to every single track I ever made. People say this is a signature from this guy and this other guy, which I think is true for me but it comes from my sound design work background, it’s that kind of demand to mixdown stuff differently. It can be good and bad since people have expectations in drum and bass which are in my honest opinion…not very wide in terms of what you can do with it. They think “you have to mixdown in this specific way or this specific style” such as following the F note. But I think what if you create this great melody which tells a great story and sounds fantastic but sadly, doesn’t follow the F note, it follows something else. I try to break standards because I don’t like to put music into a stereotypical view, if I’m doing that I’m not really enjoying it. I had a lot of offers from drum and bass labels and some I just refused because they were too intrusive in terms of creative control, which is a kind of interesting thing that happens in drum and bass here and there. I think the most important thing is to stay true to what you want to do.
– You mentioned that sometimes labels can be intrusive in terms of creative control, can you speak about that a bit?
As a producer you want to have your own label, so you create a label. From that point there are people who want to be on the label and who want to work with you, so naturally you become a curator. You tell them yes or no but there is this grey area which is really kind of questionable. You might go “yes, but remove this, or add this, or change this, or change it entirely”. In the past I had a few really crazy intrusions where the ethics were really shady. Stuff like “can you sound more like this other artist”. What’s the goal of that? Why would someone have to sound similar to someone from the roster of the label to have success. Is this a worthy sacrifice? You have the badge of the specific label because you complied with the specific rules of the curation and it happens a lot to some artists, they collect the badges to such an extent that they stop doing what they really like. The reaction from the fanbase is “oh their older tunes were better!”. That’s what happens with creative control, you know you’ve done something to make yourself distant from your true signature. You might compensate by saying you’ve evolved and it’s alright if that’s where you really want to be, but it’s the ethics. There are also the technical ethics which were more of a thing for me, I’d talk with people and they’d ask something like “why do you put so many sounds in there” and I’d reply with “well they describe a certain picture, or a statement, or it’s just very complex drum and bass”. For example I was asked once to “clean” a track up a bit, and I couldn’t because I made lo-fi bits here and there deliberately which sounded really appealing to me. Something like someone plugged a few things into a guitar pedal and gives it that gritty feeling. I like the punk attitude in drum and bass. Here’s the thing: you invite flying lotus on your label and you tell him to clean all of his stuff, how will they sound? After you clean up all their samples will they still be the same? I don’t think so. It’s their signature, it’s not some kind of technical problem. The dirt and low-fi sounds are definitely a signature. That’s how I end up with some intelligent argumentation between the labels and stuff. They have either a specific sound or taste preference and I’m fine with that, but it’s not for everyone. What people really want to do eventually they will do it, but you still have this problem. I’ve found it astonishing when some label comes in and says “I like this, be yourself”. That’s crazy because it’s a rare thing to hear. Then other producers tell me this is a place where people can be themselves and can do whatever they want I think “that’s really great”. So yeah drum and bass has a dark side to it [laughs].
– Leading on, how do you feel about collabs? How do they change your creative process?
A collab is like a short term relationship so you need to..[laughs]…you need to put a lot of compromise, you need to understand your partner. Of course you need to understand your friend’s sound. It’s a cross-disciplinary respect to each other’s signature and allowing each other to try to create a track together. It’s interesting because you never think about collaboration but when we speak about it it’s a really hard process, you want to surprise each other with new sets of basslines, moves and stems and that’s how it works. Then you find this middle ground where everyone is nodding their heads like “yeah this is it, this is it man.” I think I saw this in hip-hop when I’d record MCs, and they’d come out the booth asking “is this it?” and I’d reply “yeah you really nailed it man”. It’s a similar thing because now you have two producers dropping bars of their basslines which is quite a lyrically expressive thing. There are lots of interesting decisions, technicality, and mergers. You learn during the process how the other person works, you exchange some knowledge with good plugins and stuff. It’s a very crazy nerdy session and moment that you have, and it’s great fun because every time you have a different experience, you come out with knowledge about some plugins, you’ve done something that was really complicated, you learnt how to handle different elements and technicalities, mixdowns. At the end you get a really good track (and sometimes you don’t which is even a lesson in itself of how not to work). One of the earliest things that people knew was probably one of the collabs I did with insideinfo, and we worked really hard and it never ended up being something finished. We were under so much pressure after doing all these videos and I couldn’t come up with any ideas of how to work this out. These days I’m sure I’d act differently, I’ve learnt how to handle it but I didn’t know then. You learn a lot of things from collabs and I think that’s something that people need to exercise even more because we aren’t a big community. We’re a small community that can work wonders, we inspire other genres and that’s a fact.
– Q: And can you go into detail about the actual process when you collaborate? – A:
The collab term has been heavily digitised and with the speed of the internet certain ideas need to be delivered where each person is in the studios. If it’s different software then you bounce different stems back and forth and you don’t mixdown until everything is sorted in terms of that. I think the person who the collab belongs to is normally the person who has the task to do the mixdown and actually finish off the track. If it’s done in the studio then it’s done with everyone present there. I’ve done both of these and it’s an extremely unique experience. There’s more fun by being in the same studio together where you can stand up from your chair and say “this is what I wanted to fucking do!”, it’s a really human thing. At the same time I also had really great times in the studio
separately, being able to give feedback by turning on caps lock and going “YES”. Whatever works, as long as we’re doing something together, that’s the key component here and why both things work.
– So what was the inspiration for the artifacts that you leave around and can be found all over your Instagram?
That was really interesting, my mother actually kept some of my earliest drawings from back when she was wondering if everything was ok with me [laughs] and what struck me was she kept one of the fractal eyes that I drew, which I had been doing since I was 4. I don’t know how that came to be and I don’t really have an explanation. As a side thing I guess I was observant when I was younger, I didn’t really talk much until I was 22 or 24, I was just making music and drawing, drawing, drawing. Another key thing is that I have synesthesia which is kind of being able to see audio forms and being able to describe them visually. That combination of things gave me this kind of a boost, if you want to draw eyes just draw eyes, who cares? I was really bored at the beach some time ago, around 2008 so twelve years ago. I started leaving these rocks because I had these markers, and leaving the website on the other side. People found them and people contacted me. I did this because I can’t swim so I was always bored on the beach. When I was around 5 or 6 I drowned, died completely for some short time and had to be reanimated, recently I learnt to dive at least! Kind of strange I learnt to dive and am now trying to learn how to swim. So you’re bored on the beach if you have markers? I actually got a really touching emotional message who was in his 55th year of life or so. He lost the rights to see his kids through some big injustice from the side of his ex-wife, thinking about his existence, thinking about his life, being on a beach in Spain at his very lowest point trying to find a sign and all of a sudden he turns to his right and he finds a rock, which reminds him of his daughters eye and he starts taking it around with him everywhere, like a talisman. Eventually he got the courage to contact me to say “I hope this isn’t some kids joke because this really has a huge meaning to me”, so we got to talking and he eventually thanked me for the rock. I thought “holy shit”, I’m making some crazy impact to random strangers in real time, and from then on I thought anything you do you have to do it seriously. I really took care to create as many photos of everything
that I leave as I could, most of the stuff I’m putting on instagram is retroactive so I think I must have done about 5000 of them, a crazy number and I’m not sure what I’ll do with the photos. It’ll be interesting whatever it is, maybe release some crazy catalogue, locations and places, stuff like that. It’s gonna be fun.
– So final question! Do you have any announcements for our readers?
So I guess the known announcements are the album coming in 2020. I’m not sure about the name yet. Testing out all the stories, all the stories are connected, it adds another solution and another question to everything. Outside of that some huge new videos will be around the corner. I’ll be making more cyberneuro plugins and declaring my cyberneuro movement as a real thing, and everyone that feels they want to experiment and do everything that is possible to be done at 170 visually and audio-wise is welcome to join the whole movement. I think we definitely need more of this craziness because it’s fun – Oh, and more stones in different locations!