No demo review yet
No live review yet
Walk the Bassline
Old enough to know better, young enough not to care, Agent X duo Greg Bonnick and Leon Spencer have been destroying speakers and serving up the fuel to smoke dancefloors across the country for ten years now. I caught up with the boys on a rare day at their Essex palace to meditate on all things X-related and why Leon dreams of producing The Good Ol’ Boys.
Travelling bleary-eyed to their gaffe on a Tuesday morning, rain announces the arrival of the British summer. Endless thousands of suits stream down the M11, dreading the day ahead whilst humming tunes to themselves that have been shivering down their spines since mash-up Friday. Chances are that they have at some point turned their Mondeos into 90mph boogie boxes to the tune of Agent X, who have remixed the likes of Beenie Man, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey since their debut production, Decoy, went massive back in 2000. As I finally turn off the motorway and ring on the doorbell, Greg opens the door with a massive grin, laughing and exclaiming “Easy, bro!” whilst pointing at Leon who is berating a customer service advisor over the phone about a utility bill fuck-up.
Getting the coffee on the go in a vain attempt to wake up whilst suffering the jibes of Leon and Greg, who rip me to shreds on production of an ancient Dictaphone (‘Did you lose the crank for that, bro?!?’), we have a listen over a few new tracks coming out on the AX imprint, Heatseeker, over the next few months. Uplifting vocals and beats surfing between Garage and RnB are the order of the day and at the time of writing I can think of nothing else that sounds quite like it – the coffee is now redundant and I could swear I’m getting ready for a big fat wrong night out. Greg interjects two minutes through the second track “Our hearts have always been in dance music: House, Electro, Garage – it’s what we’ve always been about. We’ve been doing a lot of production for other people recently which has been a fantastic experience, but we made a decision that we wanted to get our focus back on the writing side of things where we started from.”
The nascent Agent X had its first spark of life at Stratford College when Greg and Leon met whilst studying sound engineering. It wasn’t love at first sight, but eventually they started noticing each other from opposite ends of their tech labs. In the studio today, Greg is still at the mixing desk twiddling gain and EQ settings. Entering the room, Leon has now put down his phone, shouted “CUNTS!!” and joined the conversation. “Greg was firmly on the DnB tip at college and I was into me House and early Garage,” he recounts. “We came together at the start by getting each other involved with beats we were making. Everyone else there seemed pretty lifeless – we were the only geezers there ridin’ the beat, so I guess working together was a natural progression.” That progression became obsession, taking over the lives of the two already experienced pirate radio DJs who worked all-hours for years for scant reward. Payback came eventually with breakthrough track Decoy. Sampling from a track by Garage powerhouse E-Z and swiftly gaining his approval, it was spun regularly during his club sets. Explains Greg, “BOOM! In came Warner with a deal. We knew how to put together a track, but we were a little surprised at just how quickly our first efforts got recognition.”
With demo tracks and works in progress still playing in the background, we are all sat back in their studio on director’s chairs with a view from the rear of the house looking at a slightly overgrown but verdant garden. Greg is relaxed, now sitting near the French doors and enjoying a few rays of sunshine that have had the audacity to break through the morning gloom. “It nearly didn’t happen at all though. We were out of college, Leon had gone to Uni and I was working in a record shop, Planet Phat. After that he went out to Spain for a few months and I was texting him all the time saying ‘get back here – there’s music on the go!’” This raises a smoker’s laugh from the bronzed and stubbly recent holiday returnee, Leon, who asserts, “Yeah, but there was pussy out there – as I kept telling you! Nah, seriously though, we grafted bloody hard to get where we are today, finding money to buy outboard, rackmount synths, all the other hardware...” our Man Friday look-alike is at pains to point out, “…now it’s all on your fuckin’ computer and you can promote it there as well! Technology has cheapened the experience. To be honest mate, I think things are on the slide for the industry at the moment.” Wondering if this was a little jealousy regarding recent successes like Arctic Monkeys et al, I enquire further to be corrected and rebuked firmly. “It comes down to this - tracks generally have a shorter shelf life today. Everything is quicker now in terms of production and releases and the quality has to suffer as a result.” Greg, nodding at this point, offers further, “The Agent X sound was always there but took ages to perfect. Well, it still ain’t perfect. Our stuff is based around…” he muses “…sonic elements. I dunno how to explain it exactly, but there’s a sound within our sound that people can recognise instantly. Maybe it’s the energy, but the important thing is this – our shit makes you move.”
Changing the subject a little, I ask crudely what they did with the cash from their inaugural success after such a long time without. Greg is straight in before I have even fully exhaled, “We bought cars…this house…went on holiday.” He adds quickly with the same mischievous grin I was greeted with this morning, “Not all at the same time though! We figured after five years of fuck all we should live a little – we deserved it.” Living well is something that is important to Agent X – the house is clean and tidy (though Greg points out this is because Leon has been on holiday) and there is the air of general tranquillity all round. A tidy driveway to the front houses a sparkling pair of new Autobahn-busting German and Italian motors just back from Sunday night at Niche in Sheffield. At a lull in conversation the boys discuss lunch, eschewing pastries from the corner shop in favour of pasta salads, fruit and water. Lifestyle on the agenda, I enquire from Greg and Leon if there was life after music. Leon, still mildly agitated by his customer service experience and fiddling with his phone, answers, “Yeah, you need to find a balance in life. You can’t burn yourself out like we used to before. It’s gotta be said, anyone that gives up on music doesn’t have it in their blood. For us music will always be there, but other things are important. We’re learning that as we get older.”
Continuing the theme and expounding his retirement plan has the sudden effect of drowning out both the music and Sky Sports News in the background as laughter splits the sides of both Greg and me. “I’m really into boats, so when I give up the music as a day job I’ll get a narrow boat…a barge, and pimp it. Flat screens, sound system, diamond fittings. The works, mate – the plans are already there and it’s gonna be BIG!” If this was an indication that these boys subscribe to bling culture, Greg rebuts it immediately, stopping laughing and informing me, “We don’t schmooze. We’ve got no time for kissin’ industry ass either.” Leon concurs, “I’m very selective about the people I’ll spend time with. I’ve got a very particular sense of humour. Greg’s one of the few people that really knows me well enough for me to hang about with.” Greg says further, “We don’t go out much to clubs and don’t get on with this whole cocaine and champagne thing that bling is about, especially here in the south.” Both pause for a split second and agree that ‘cocaine and champagne’ would be a good name for a track and we spend a minute giggling like school kids whilst finding synonyms, eventually settling for Greg’s winner, ‘rubble and bubble.’ Wrapping it up, he concludes, “We don’t rave a lot anymore anyway. It’s really difficult now to go out and not analyse everything you’re hearing.”
Not content with focusing on just the one facet of their music career, Agent X DJ up and down the country as both Agent X and Mask, the latter particularly in the north where they have been doing a lot of work recently. “Yeah, the clubs in the south are a bit stoosh, if ya get me?” Leon quips. “DJing up north at the moment is what clubbing is all about. We play this thing called Bassline up there and the vibe is fantastic. It’s a lot like the old shit from about ’98, like Armand Van Helden and stuff. Weird thing is though, if you play those old tunes up there the people really don’t want to know. It’s gotta be exclusive and fresh. Just as weird is when you play the new stuff down in London – everyone there thinks it’s just the old shit again and they don’t react either!” Greg remarks, “We’ve been having a great time up there and it really brings it home – get the selection right and you’ve got a major night on your hands. One thing I’ve really noticed with a lot of nights we’ve DJ’ed at, play vocal based stuff and you get women on the floor first, play more drillin’ kinda shit and you get blokes and women – but mainly blokes.” Leon agrees by means of facial expression but says he’s not so sure, “I reckon it doesn’t matter – you get birds and blokes dancing to everything. I don’t really believe in that gender divide thing.” Greg continues, “My girlfriend is from Liverpool so maybe I’m biased, but all the fittest women are up north as well!” Leon tags on, “The people up there are like the old school ravers, but for Garage. It’s so different down here now. I went to a club a week ago in Romford and they were playing Come on Eileen for fuck’s sake! Then you go to somewhere like Faces over at Gants Hill and all the birds are done up like wannabe footballer’s wives…I guess it ain’t all bad down here.”
The attention is switched briefly to Sky Sports News with the story of Simon Jordan and Ian Dowie breaking to a plumber-like sucking of teeth from all in the room. A chorused “Naughty boy!” sums it up whilst we run over Greg and Leon’s pasts and look to their futures. Clear musical influences emerge such as fellow Essex boys The Prodigy, breakbeat noise monkeys Bassment Jaxx and Gallic vocoder addicts, Daft Punk. This seems an obvious time to question which direction they would like to take in the future. Leon admits to not being such a big sports fan and so answers first, “Well, in terms of collaborators we’d really like to work with JK. We love that ‘thing’ in his voice and want to drop that in with the Agent X sound. You know, remove that Jamiroquai approach and give him a fresh hook.” Greg, a football fan and Arsenal fanatic in particular, finishes laughing at his London neighbours’ misfortune and turns his conversation back to the interview, suggesting to a snigger from Leon, “At the end of the day we’re writers and want to produce good music. We don’t want to work with other people just to surround ourselves with celebrity faces, our lives just aren’t like that. We just want to make good tunes with talented people. So yeah, to JK: Bring your Ferraris down and let’s do it.” They chorus, laughing like a big brother daring his younger sibling to jump in to a fast-flowing river, “Go on…do it…Go on!”
Changing tack to the surprise of everyone in the room, Leon diverts, “Actually, I grew up with my mum playing Kenny Rogers’ records. I know it’s really fashionable for artists to nail their colours to the flag claiming influences like Stevie Wonder and whatever and I don’t deny that it’s an influence over me either, but at home my mum always played Kenny. It has been a long held ambition to produce a country record at some point.” Greg has cracked up again to the point of tears and his face suggests that this has been kept a secret up until now. He catches his breath to distance himself from the project, “You’re doin’ that on your own, bruv!” “This is the key to it…” intimates Leon, “…we want to push boundaries, become respected artists and not plough the same furrow to end up pigeon-holed in one genre. It’d be great to fuse styles, maybe getting little flecks of House and Garage into a country tune. I dunno. Don’t print that!”
The subsequent conversation over the aforementioned pasta lunch leads on to some recollections of highs and lows. Greg starts, “There have been a lot of great things that have happened over the years, like when we first got our publishing deal. That was really special. We’ve been so grateful to have the experience of remixing some great tracks and artists. We were totally choked when we got our first offer of a remix for Mis-Teeq.” Leon adds, “I remember being on the phone to the guy from Telstar, trying to hold it together. Decoy had just got big and so I was trying to give it over the phone but my legs were shaking! Fortunately we got away with it though and got the gig. There have been some things we want to forget though, like playing a half-hour warm up set in Aiya Napa and being asked by the management to finish early so a twelve year old, I think his name was DJ Charlie, could come on.” Before going much further, Greg’s grin resurfaces at a memory just resurfacing. “I have a habit of speaking first and thinking later. Case in point – a real toe-curler. Six months ago we did a track called Tongue Tied. I thought it was wicked so I started sending it out to mangers and A&R people."
They both agree that working with Danni Minogue when dressed up in a bunny outfit, hopping across the studio to sit on their laps was something of a career highlight for both of them.
My time with the boys expires rapidly - they have to rush off to a meeting. On my way out of the door I manage to glean two predictions for 2006. The resident non-sports fan proffers a very well informed opinion that England will go out in the quarter or semi-finals. “Someone will step up and take the responsibility for getting us out with a red card or penalties as usual. It’ll be the same old story.” Greg adds “Wankbollocksshitcunt – what’s his name – he’ll win Big Brother without a doubt.” Walking from the studio to the front door, they are cagey on who will make it big this year. “Riplash and Sus maybe. I only back my own stuff though, ha ha ha ha!”
Blue Sky Publishing