Overmono: Live and Direct

Overmono rail against the intellectualisation of dance music. Which probably explains their dynamic live show and bass-heavy techno sound. “We just sit down and make tunes,” they tell Manu Ekanayake. “We don’t tend to attach much meaning to them after that.”

Sometimes the direct approach is best. That’s probably the best way to describe Overmono’s sound: live (increasingly so, as they much prefer playing live to DJing, but more on that later) and direct, bassy rave techno that lights a fire under any dancefloor it’s played on.

Their UK garage, drum’n’bass and dubstep-influenced sound is “techno as an adjective, not just a prescribed notion of what ‘techno’ should sound like,” Tom Russell of Overmono tells us on the eve of a recent live show at Brixton Electric. This seems pretty direct, or at least well-considered, considering both he and his Overmono bandmate – and younger brother – Ed are completely stumped when they’re asked how they would describe their own style of music.

This is rarely an easy question for artists and sometimes elicits responses that are somewhere between the esoteric and the just plain laughable. But this duo’s bemused reaction tells its own story: Overmono are simply two studio heads who prefer making music (and playing it) to talking about it. As dance music in the social media era has become more of a performance for many artists, and who feel at pains to pontificate on the issues of the day or graft a political theory onto their beats, Overmono are definitely more about action than words. But as Tom’s quote shows, that’s not to say they’re not thinking carefully about every move they make.

Ed explains their direct approach to production a bit further. “We both have a bit of an aversion to the intellectualisation of music, especially dance music,” he says. “Because a lot of the time it doesn’t need it. As boring as it sounds, we just sit down and make tunes. We don’t tend to attach much meaning to them after that.”

This comment comes in response to asking what the title of the duo’s latest EP, ‘Cash Romantic’, is about. This prompts a burst of laughter from Tom, the quieter of the duo, but who shares the more talkative Ed’s wry sense of humour, which is clearly important to their musical output. “Can I get back to you on what it means?” Tom says grinning. “Honestly, giving tracks titles is one of the hardest things about making music, I swear.”

Not that it’s stopped them so far. Overmono started back in 2016, with the ‘Arla’ EP on XL Recordings, who took a punt on the brothers from Monmouth, Wales - a punt that seems to have paid off. But neither of them were unknown quantities in dance music terms. Tom is better known to UK techno fans as Truss, one half of Blacknecks, alongside Bleaching Agent (aka Al Matthews), a frankly ridiculous 2010s techno project that had its tongue placed firmly in cheek throughout.

He’s been making music since 2007, on labels like Miniscule and Perc Trax, so he clearly has a fondness for the harder stuff. As witnessed by his MPIA3 alias, which was all about channelling the love of free party-style acid techno he’s enjoyed since his teens. Track titles like ‘Squatters Dog’ say it all. Ed is also known as Tessela, who created ‘Hackney Parrot’, one of post-dubstep’s biggest bangers, as well as a slew of other bass-driven techno tracks.

Since 2016, Overmono has progressed, in true UK techno fashion, via a series of much-loved EPs. Until 2021, there wasn’t anything resembling a longer release, until the much-celebrated ‘Fabric Presents Overmono’ mix compilation, which they anchored with their own work but also showcased some influences like Smith & Mighty (‘Film Score’), Ed Rush & Optical (‘Bacteria’) and, of course, Blawan (‘Fourth Dimensional’) amongst many others.

But it was also last year that they really broke through to a wider audience, with a DJ Mag Best Live Act award cementing their reputation for tearing up festival performances. Talk of those shows prompts a typically straightforward answer. “Before the pandemic we’d played a few festivals, you know, but we’d always be thinking we could have changed the show in some way,” Ed says. “But then when we played at Gala in Peckham Rye Park last year, it just went fucking mental. Everyone knew every tune, the set had fallen into place, our set-up was locked…”

“… and we were so nervous beforehand, so we were just throwing a few drinks back,” Tom interrupts. “I’ve never needed a piss more in my life! I mean it was all I could think about during the whole set, I only really saw how busy it got afterwards on the videos.”

Bladder control aside, it feels like they’ve got another festival banger on their hands with the new single from their sound system culture-referencing ‘Cash Romantic’ EP, namely ‘Gunk’. It features twisted-up vocals by Kindora, whose “music we found on Bandcamp – we don’t know much about her, but her hooks are unreal” Ed notes.

Plus it has just the kind of powerful bassline you’d expect from these two. It feels like techno and, yet simultaneously a bit of ravey UKG too, especially with that time-stretched vocal sample.

"I’ve never needed a piss more in my life! I mean it was all I could think about during the whole set, I only really saw how busy it got afterwards on the videos."

“We spend a lot of time looking for stunning vocals, but we’ve never really recorded any,” Ed explains. “We prefer samples because that way you’re limited with what you can do as there might only be certain sections you can use without interference, so that makes you get creative. How are you gonna get that 12-second bit of audio? So we start chopping and trying to make it fit, which can lead to loads of different ideas.”

The idea of limitations actually helping their work is one that Tom takes up when asked about ‘Bone Mics’, the rumbling El-B bass-rumbling second track on the new EP. “Every single sound on that track, bar the bit of vocal, was done on the MS-20. We do that quite a lot. Just set ourselves some limitations of writing a tune on one synth and you start getting some weird, interesting stuff out of it,” Tom explains.

This love of weird and interesting things they can create in the studio is present when talk turns to the EP’s title track, ‘Cash Romantic’. Is that live timpani in the background? No. Everything you hear is programmed by them.

This offers a more general insight into how Overmono like to work. Tom says: “We programmed our own breakbeat and then sampled it. Ran it through a bunch of kit and recorded it again. And for that tune especially, we did that a few times to get it sounding right. There are no live drums or sampled drums on the record. It’s all from our MS-20 and maybe a few other synths. We process everything so much that it almost doesn’t matter what we record from in the first place. They go through so many different stages of processing and re-sampling that it sounds so different to how it started. We never really use drum machines; we just record sounds of synths.”

As Tom says when asked about ‘Gfortune’ on the EP” “We really like working with de-tuned synths and the one we used here, the Vermona PERfourMUR, is almost impossible to get into tune anyway, so that’s just how it sounds. That’s what makes it sound like there’s timpani or whatever, it’s actually three or four oscillators playing but they’re all slightly out of tune.”

This seems like a pretty direct progression from the cobbled-together technical arrangements that defined UK sound system culture (and indeed its Jamaican antecedent). And when this is mentioned, how two guys who grew up on the Welsh borders feel that culture relates to them, the boys proffer a very telling answer.

“We were talking about this recently,” Ed says. “And we said that the feeling of being on the outside of something is good. You never feel like you’re included, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You have to do your own thing and I think that has stayed with us. We don’t feel like we’re part of anything now; we don’t sit within one genre. But we’re on the outside looking in which gives us more freedom. If there is a tune on here that’s a weird take on R’n’B and then a d’n’b tune, then that feels very natural to us as we’ve always been pulling little bits from scenes we see, but are never wrapped up in.”

So what are the differences between DJing and playing live? Now the most animated they’ve been all interview, Ed answers: “I think it’s like before you start playing out and you start DJing in your bedroom. You can practice as much as you like, but you really learn by playing out. And it’s the same with playing live, but times ten. So you’ve gotta do a show, then go back and re-work the show, change the set-up, then play another show. That cycle goes around and around. And it feels like by doing that over the last few years, we now feel like we both know exactly what we’re doing. It’s taken us years to feel like that – and there were certainly a few shonky live shows back in the day – but you have to do that to get to this next stage.”

Tom is more succinct. More direct you might say: “Playing live is about keeping so many plates spinning that people really react when you pull it off. DJing nowadays just doesn’t get that same reaction.”

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