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Scratching With Itch 

Teamwork helps Decoder juggle recording, producing, and playing out

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The first thing you hear when Decoder (Darren Beale) picks up the phone in the Bristol, England studio where he's recording is a woman singing at the top of her lungs. A producer and DJ, Beale is obviously in the middle of a recording session, and given the fact that Beale records for a number of different labels under a variety of pseudonyms, it's hard to say where the track will end up.

"We're just laying down some vocals on a track at the moment," Beale admits. "I don't know what it's going to be yet; it depends on how it comes out."

For Beale, finding studio time hasn't been easy. He and his partner Technical Itch (Mark Caro), who run their own label (Tech Itch Recordings) and studio (Tech Itch Studios), are in such high demand to perform at dance clubs and raves, Beale has to schedule the time he puts into the studio.

"We're getting booked quite a lot now, and I try to create a balance and make sure I'm not away too much to lose what I'm doing in the studio," says Beale. "If I feel as if I'm going away too much and neglecting the producer side of things, I try to block off some time and not go away for two weeks and just stay in the studio. We actually have two studios -- one which I just write in by myself in my home, and we have another one about 10 minutes from there which has more of a live room, where we record live vocals and stuff. The Tech Itch studio is the one we run ourselves, but [Caro] doesn't work there anymore, because he has a laptop. He just works wherever. I think he's in Philly at the moment, working on a tune with Dieselboy. I'm meeting him tomorrow in Houston."

When Beale and Caro first met in the mid-'90s, Beale was living in Bristol and Caro in Birmingham. They started collaborating on singles and eventually got a deal with Moving Shadow Records, which resulted in a number of singles. Then Caro moved to Bristol, the two built their recording studio together and, after issuing several singles together, eventually took on separate identities for their individual monikers, with Beale recording and performing as Decoder and Caro as Technical Itch.

"I think we both really like cutting-edge, forward-thinking music," Beale says of collaborating with Caro. "I think Mark's music is harder than mine. Mine has more of a laid-back roll to it, although they're not mellow tunes by any chance. I think his programming is a bit different than mine, and it comes through in the tunes."

Beale, who says he was heavily into BMX bicycles and skateboarding while growing up, took a circuitous route to drum 'n' bass. He says he was initially inspired by punk bands such as the Dead Kennedys, Big Black, Sonic Youth, and Suicidal Tendencies, and hip-hop acts such as N.W.A. and Public Enemy, before turning his attention to jungle and drum 'n' bass. He first played guitar in a punk band and says he attended his first electronic music "party" in 1990.

"I was kind of inspired by [Portishead's] Geoff Barrow, who lived near me," Beale recalls. "I was around his house one day, and he had a sampler. I was like "Whoa, what the fuck is that, mate?' He said you could do everything with it. I said, "Fuck it all, that's the thing for me.' I've got pissed off and been let down by people before, and I thought, "Shit, man, I'm just going to form a one-man band.'"

By the time Decoder began recording (and he's used a variety of monikers, including Orca, Kutta, and Alpha Proxima) in the mid-'90s, the U.K. drum 'n' bass scene was exploding, with artists such as Grooverider, Source Direct, and Photek creating skittish electronic music with decidedly dark soundscapes. Even though Beale says his music is "deep rather than dark," there's an ominous tone to the breaks on his second record, Concussion, which came out this month on Tech Itch. While the opening track, the aptly titled "Silent," starts innocently enough, with purring sounds that could pass for crickets, and segues into synthetic tambourine shakes and steady drumbeats, Concussion quickly lives up to its name, delivering a series of hard breaks that are cushioned by momentary lapses when the frenetic pace of the music comes to a near standstill. In fact, unlike many drum 'n' bass albums, which sustain a steady onslaught of rapid-fire percussion, Concussion has some variety. In "Relapse," the skittish drums subside, and by the conclusion of "Lo Voltage," the beats deteriorate into a series of ping-pong-like noises.

"I think it's a bit more laid back," Beale says of Concussion. "I think a lot of my stuff is not right in your face; it maintains that laid-back ability. I'm in this band with Substance and a vocalist, and that's called Kosheen. We have a drum 'n' bass tune called "I'll Hide You,' which is a big vocal track. That's a different side to what I do. I can keep different styles for that kind of thing and keep Decoder as a deep rolling vibe."

With EPs from Dieselboy and Biostacis, as well as a Decoder remix album in the works for Tech Itch Recordings (which Beale describes as "a selfish outlet for us"), Decoder and Tech Itch, who has a full-length due out this year on Moving Shadow Records, appear to be leading the drum 'n' bass revolution, although Beale admits he doesn't quite know where it will end up.

"I have no bloody clue, mate," he says when asked about the future of drum 'n' bass. "I don't know where it's going. I think there are a few vocal things coming out and an old hardcore revival as well, which I can see being quite popular. There's also some more laid-back music by people like Bukem that's creeping in. I think that stuff will come in with harder beats. I can see some doors opening for different things, but drum 'n' bass moves so fast all the time anyway, it's difficult to say what's going to be going on the next month, let alone six months down the road. It's always moving in different directions, but I think that's what keeps it fresh."

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