In Conversation: Byron The Aquarius
From humble origins growing up in America’s Deep South, Byron The Aquarius is fast becoming one of the best-loved artists in house music. His releases for labels like Wild Oats, Sound Signature and Apron are a rare return in the modern era to the eccentric flair of early house, and to its spontaneous sincerity. That’s not to mention his debut for Jeff Mills’ Axis Records, which seemingly appeared out of nowhere earlier this year, signalling a digression from electronic music into jazz and p-funk. The unexpected plays just as much of a role in his music as it does in his career, and it’s central to the joyous, eccentric sound that he is becoming known for.
Semtek: I’m guessing from the sound of traffic that you’re out and about right now, tell me where are you and what are you up to?
Byron: Oh sure, nothing much really for real. Just going to get some fresh air. I’m in Birmingham, Alabama, which is where I live.
S: To cut quickly to the most pressing question on everybody’s lips, you just released an EP on Jeff Mills’ Axis label. How did that come about?
B: So it all started when he reached out to me on Facebook. He basically said he was a big fan of my music and he wanted to work on a project with me on his label. He gave me a budget to go to a studio to work with a band, you know what I mean? We chose a studio in Atlanta called Patchwerk Studios. All the greats recorded there from Outkast to Mary J. Blige. The musicians were mainly people I had connects with in Atlanta. One of the main contacts was Lil John Roberts. He was Janet Jackson’s drummer. We also had Rasheeda on the flute and Dashill on the trumpet who had both appeared on Outkast LPs previously. The LP is called Ambrosia and a lot of the ideas came to me when I was on tour in places like London and Paris, before the pandemic. Jeff also co-produced the LP with me and he scored some of the live instrumental parts.
S: It must feel like something of a breakthrough moment but you have been making music for a long time right?
B: Oh yeah I have been making music for a long time, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I had my first release. I was working with Onra and another beatmaker who was based in Paris. The project was called The Big Payback, that was my first vinyl release and that was in 2007.
S: How did you come to end up working with Onra?
B: The Onra collab came off of Myspace. We liked each other’s music and we started talking on there. We used to just send files back and forth and make music. Onra was the main connector of everything at the time. It’s crazy because I think we even ended up on a Reebok compilation with those collabs. I feel like during that time for a lot of artists, you know, they just were new with the Myspace thing so they would listen to each other’s music and be like oh man, that sounds nice, let’s collab, let’s do something. I think it was more fun and free during that time.
S: How would you go about collaborating with someone to begin with? Would you just lay some parts and send them back and forth?
B: Most of the time guys were sending me like a drum pattern and then I would lay keys on top or I maybe would send them keys and then they use their MPC and add drum programming on top of it. I ended up working with Flying Lotus through Myspace. We worked with some stuff and we released a project with this vocalist called Ahu from Turkey.
During that time I was doing a lot of hip hop because I was influenced by J Dilla, Sa-Ra Creative Partners and all that type of stuff, especially the soulful hip hop sound at the time, what people were calling neo-soul.
S: So from a sound that was rooted in the conscious, soulful, hip hop stuff you then segued into house. Had you always listened to house music?
To be honest I never really listened to house music. Like I maybe heard it, you know what I mean? Because there’s times when me and my friends would go party in Atlanta. Atlanta was kind of real cultural, it was kind of like New Orleans where you got gumbo, you got all types of different cultures and all these cultures is just put together. So during my college days I used to go there and just party down but most of the clubs that we used to go to, they’d be playing commercial hip hop, Outkast, you know what I mean. Sometimes they’d play some dub, reggae, then they started playing some house but what’s so crazy, I heard it but I never really knew it was house. I didn’t really have the history of it or that background, then I ran into Kai Alcé down in Atlanta. We were just kicking it. I used to come to his parties and dance with my friends and he was like hey come through the crib, so I came through his studio and then he saw that I could play keys and I started laying that on top of his stuff. I guess the more I started playing on top of his stuff the more he started schooling me on house music, Detroit house, things like that.
S: You’d been a keys player from some time before, but how did you pick up the keys and who did you learn from?
B: My grandparents got me into piano. My grandad always invested in me when I was younger. I started when I was around 5 or 6 and I was doing classical music, and then the older I got he had me going to The Jazz Conservatory where I was taught by this guy named Mr. Adams, who had played with Duke Ellington and Sun Ra. If you think about the history of Birmingham, Alabama, that’s where Sun Ra was from so back in the day all those guys played together. So the OGs basically were teaching us for free and giving lessons and that’s how I learned. They started teaching it and then I started learning jazz and then I started going to college and then I started doing some jazz studies and then after jazz studies I dropped out of college. After that I started just exploring and playing with different bands. That’s when my style started getting more universal because I was playing with different bands, rock bands, just everything, soul bands, jazz bands, funk, blues, so pretty much I did any genre, you know what I mean? I’d just play, yeah.
S: When you started coming to house music through Kai Alcé, it must have felt quite natural to play on those beats because that stuff kind of has its roots in a blues or a jazz progression, right?
B: Yes correct, it was easy. Kai doesn’t play keys so he was sampling the chords and he’d do this whole MPC thing where you can transpose them, but then he’d play me the idea and say can I play that live? I’m into it if it sounds good, you know, if it’s got some nice snares up in there that really hit, you know, I vibe with it pretty much and that’s how it was. It just was a really organic process.
S: Are there any other keys players who play on hip hop and on house who kind of have inspired you?
B: Really to be honest I was deep into the UK broken beat scene, like Dego, Kaidi Thaitham those guys really were an inspiration, you know what I mean, when it comes to electronic music. But as far as playing in general I am inspired by the old heads like Herbie Hancock and George Duke. I think about how Herbie changed from jazz and how he started using synths, he started messing with electronics but he really took his sound to a futuristic type of vibe, you know what I mean? To be real with you, Herbie Hancock and George Duke, those really were the first guys really that were really an inspiration for me, guys that I focused on.
S: It wasn’t until 2016 when you dropped the record on Sound Signature and things started to blow up for you. How did you end up working with Theo?
B: Oh really to be honest it was Kai because Kai always knew a lot of people. He’s lived in Detroit and he grew up in New York but he’s based in Atlanta now so he kind of like created this connection through doing his shows, bringing different artists into Atlanta and he DJ’d with Theo and other guys. So I guess at the time I think he had Theo to come for some type of event and he was in the crib smoking, kicking it and he played some music and he played my music and I guess I was kind of lucky because during that time when Theo chose it, Theo was getting more into live instrumentation. I think it just was perfect timing to be honest with you and you know, he listened to it and he was like, yo this is where I’m at, I want to put this out. But if it had been before then, I don’t believe he would’ve took it, you know what I mean? It just was perfect timing and Kai set it up so it went good.
S: You’re based in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s not the first city that comes to mind when you think of Black music in America. Is there a scene over there where you are?
B: Well there’s a lot of greats that came from here like you know, for example Diana Ross, which is kind of crazy. Sun Ra came from here. The Temptations came from here and yeah, Eddie Kendricks came from here it turns out. My mum just told me, his house is right up from their house, right up the street. So if you think as far as the music scene, a lot of people did come from Birmingham but due to the changing face of the city a lot of people migrated to the Midwest and migrated to New York. So a lot of people had roots in Birmingham, a lot of creatives that came from Birmingham, you know. They don’t show no respect to the city now, but maybe back in the day they did. It has become very gentrified since then.
S: How about amongst your contemporaries in Birmingham are there some young people coming through who you’re in touch with locally doing it?
B: To be honest, not really because this is more of an area now where you got doctors and those kind of professionals. I mean maybe when I was younger I had friends doing it, but since then a lot of people let the music go, people had families and stuff, people moved out. So really to be honest, there aren’t many people now to be honest with you…
S: That leads me to my next question because I guess being isolated musically it makes sense as to why when we turn on the Instagram we see you jamming, performing to a virtual audience. Has that helped you to feel connected with people this year, especially during the pandemic?
B: Yes, definitely. I guess with me I try to give people motivation as far as motivating people not to give up, continue doing their music their own way. So I always did that through my videos you know and also through playing, answering people’s questions and the rest. So for me just being a real person hopefully helps to encourage people to continue in their pursuits, you know. During the pandemic I’ve been getting a lot of people coming at me wanting to learn an instrument, which is kind of crazy, like even DJs, you know what I mean? It’s just right now you don’t have no other commitments, especially with all the stuff that’s going on so people are like ‘hey I might as well learn something’. It feels like a lot of people are really connected and I think it’s kind of dope for me because, you know, by me encouraging people and helping them, it motivates me too as well, you know what I’m saying?
S: Aside from the Axis release you have just dropped an EP Apron Records. How did you end up getting to know Steven Julien?
B: I met Steve really through Kyle Hall. They got their shit happening and then through Kyle I started kicking it with Steve when I was over to play, just hanging out. Steve was always showing me around, and I have always felt at home around Steve he’s just a cool person, you know what I’m saying? He’s real laid back, he’s a real person, so I guess naturally after we were cool, it just was like yo let’s do some music. So that’s how that happened but yeah, we used to just hang all the time when I was over. That’s how it really started.
S: You’ve been in London because of that and also to play shows. What are your favourite parts of London?
B: Oh man, my favourite part of London, I would say Dalston. I love Dalston, yeah oh my God, that’s my favourite part. That whole strip. I love just walking there because at first in the other parts, I forgot where I was at. It wasn’t the same because I think I was staying with my agents at first and it was kind of like a boujie area. It’s just where I was at so it was completely different but now when I got introduced to other parts, I was like oh yeah Dalston’s my favourite, I love it because the people there are just more laid back and chilled.
S: We often see pictures of your studio and there’s always new synths coming and going, little bits of drum machines and stuff. Which is your favourite synth at the moment?
B: I’ve been loving the DSI Prophet 6 synth. That and the Alpha Juno. I just focus on those, yeah I just use the Juno Alpha and the DSI Prophet 6 synths, nothing else, that’s it, you know what I mean? I stick to those.
S: How about for drums, are you doing it in the computer with samples or are you working with drum machines?
B: Well lately I was using the Behringer 808, you know. I’m not gonna lie man, people are sleeping on Behringer stuff but that stuff is dope. Yeah, you have to tweak it up, see I use UAD for that. I know how to beef the stuff up, you know what I mean? If you don’t beef it up man, it don’t really hit hard but I feel like if you touch it up and you run some stuff on it, like for example some guitar pedals, oh man it’s a whole different beast because there’ve been times when I used it, people be like man is that a real 808? I’m like nah.
S: One of my favourite aspects of your socials is that occasionally you give some life advice and it always feels very positive. In these trying times, what advice would you give to people who are having a hard time with the challenges that are facing the world right now?
B: What I’d say to them is to basically be patient. Never give up and be honest. I’d tell a person reinvent and redefine yourself. This is a great time to redefine yourself right now and I think like me and what I’ve been doing, I’ve been hiking, you know what I mean, meditation. Sometimes I hate to say it, you gotta do things that’s not music sometimes to get away. Especially if you stress on it, you know what I mean? It’s just like if you mad at somebody, you don’t need to talk to them right at that moment, you need to kind of get away for a minute and kind of calm yourself down and that’s the same thing I look at it is with music. You gotta get away from it sometimes. I think Steve said it too as well, you gotta get away from it. So I just say create balance and redefine yourself, find a hobby or something that you like that’ll get your mind off of it. Just go from there and you know and maybe you could turn other hobbies into a source of income or whatever because that’s what I’ve been doing, just doing different things man. Not only doing music, you know what I mean?
Byron The Aquarius – Apron EP is available now from bandcamp and all good stockists
Photographs: Tony Leon