MEET GARDNA, THE BRISTOL DUB ARTIST EXPLODING THE SOUND SYSTEM
In recent years, UK Dub and sound system culture has continued its evolution as one of the founding pillars of homegrown underground music. Artists like Eva Lazarus, Gentleman’s Dub Club, Kiko Bun, Mungo’s Hi-Fi and Dub FX have continued the legacy of the first wave of UK sound systems by reinventing and reintroducing a new generation of ravers to the wonders of dub music. Those that grew up frequenting the finest raves 2000s Britain had to offer, fell in love with the music and the culture created by artists like Congo Natty, Roots Manuva, Demolition Man and General Levy. Stood front and centre at many of Bristol’s finest dub nights was the quick-witted wordsmith we have all come to love for tracks like ‘On Road’, ‘See The Vibe’ and ‘My Show’... Gardna.
After making his presence known with the release of his 2019 album ‘Good Time Not A Long Time’, Gardna has captured the attention of all those impressed by crafty penmanship paired with feel good DnB rollers. Besides starring on Gentleman’s Dub Club’s recent album ‘Down To Earth’, he has also jumped back on stage alongside Catching Cairo at Lost Horizons to perform the hit of the summer, ‘Back In The Dayz’ by Mungo’s Hi Fi. We caught up with Gardna following his return to the stage to recap on the sh*t events of 2020, his love of all things dub, rap technique and the impact of sound system culture on UK music.
First off, how has the last year or so been for you, particularly as creatives trying to stay inspired and engaged with your fans?
Lockdown really took some getting used to, it took a while to really sink in that I would have no gigs for a really long time. As a self employed musician it meant that I had to essentially figure out how I was going to pay the rent. I definitely had the moment of, “Shit, what am I going to do?!”. So I sat in my flat and started to come up with loads of different ideas of new ways to pay the bills, it would be T-shirts one month, then hoodies the next, then the obligatory face masks and even pint glasses. All while trying to create music that will hopefully go on to form a second album. It was a lot of getting used to, particularly because I live in a flat in Bristol city center and the whole time everything was so eerily quiet, like a ghost town. I swear to God it was like everyone that lives here just left. Overall I would say it was productive but just so long.
Was it harder to create new tunes during that lockdown context or was it in some ways easier without any distractions?
I feel like a lot of artists during lockdown fell straight into the nostalgic thing of talking about the days where parties and seeing friends was still a reality and I definitely did too. I wrote ‘Back in the Dayz’ with Mungo’s roughly this time last year when it was only a few months into the first lockdown so I was really missing the rave environment and was looking backward on the good old days. Similarly, my collaboration track with DRS ‘2020 Vision’ was all about the madness that unfolded last year and how much of a messed up time it all was. I actually think it’s a bit of a shame that I approached it that way because I really loved the track itself but because it’s so rooted in 2020 I can’t bring myself to go back and listen to it again…it was definitely a tune of the times.
Was stage time something you always enjoyed just as much as the creative process or has your fondness for performing grown while it’s been absent from your life?
I would say that predominantly for me it’s always been about the gigs. I love gigging, touring and getting to see new places and cultures as much as possible. That’s always been a massive reason why I create, to be able to take the sound we have cultivated to as many people as we can and see how far we can take it. So to have that taken away was crazy but now that sits back the opportunity feels even sweeter.
You recently jumped back on stage at the Lost Horizon to bring back the Gardna and friends shows. Was this your first chance playing Back in the Dayz to a live audience? Are you ever nervous to play a new track live?
With ‘Back in the Dayz’, because it had such a good response online with it being a Mungo’s Hi-Fi track, I put it straight into my live set and didn’t feel any nerves about it. I was lucky enough to have Catching Cairo come out on stage with me at the event to perform the track so it made it a very special return to doing live shows. We of course kept in a lot of the tracks that we know people want too her when they come to a Gardna show but we added in some new mixes and new switches into tracks. When we play live we really like to mix it up and construct it more like a DJ set that moves between different types of sounds and tracks rather than the typical hip-hop start and stop arrangement. It’s very much like a free flowing set that starts with dub and reggae tracks and then builds all the way up into the drum & bass and heavier stuff.
Taking things back to the beginning of your relationship with music, what was playing around the house as a kid and when did hip-hop first introduce itself to you?
In my household there was never really one thing that was playing but we all listened to all sorts from across the board and I still do to this day. I’m very much open minded to all styles of music but it was my dad who was a big reggae and dub fan so I guess I first picked that up from him. He always had lots of random tapes and records lying around like old Goldie albums or Drum & Bass Arena compilation mixes. My parents have actually taken me to Glastonbury festival ever since I was a kid and we literally haven’t missed a year going together so my family have definitely helped shape my interest in music.
As a total 360 to that I actually got my Dad a gig at Glastonbury last year that was pretty mad! He was playing reggae tunes and he actually has a couple of dub plates himself now so getting to see him performing at the Unfairground Tent at Glastonbury was pretty live. It was a surreal moment because he got me into this style of music by letting me burn all his CD’s onto my iPod and then there he was performing at Glasto.
Growing up on the outskirts of Bristol meant that we were exposed to a massive variety of sounds once we started to go out and attend gigs, particularly sound system culture. The first night I ever got booked for at this scale was at Tokyo Dub which is now turned into the massive Tokyo World Festival in Bristol city center. They used to do these great dub nights at Motion and by going to them and a few other nights as a 16 year old kid it set me on a path where, fast-forward 10 years later, it’s now a full career. Bristol itself and all the events available was definitely the starting point for a lot of this. It’s kind of mad to think that its been 10 years though, I’m getting old haha!
Your pocket control and ability to glide over beats is surreal and works on any kind of beat, when did you discover you could spit like that?
Before going out raving, I used to hand out my mixtapes all around Bristol but the content was actually mostly hip-hop or grime. I found my niche of spitting double time over reggae riddims through grime music when me and my mates would be at the skatepark after school bluetoothing each other’s grime tracks. It was those back of the bus times where I would try and just sit as fast as I possibly could over old Eski rhythms that I really learned that I could do the double time thing. Then as the writing and delivery began to mature as I got older, I figured out that I could keep that fast rhythmic and melodic style of rap but over beats that I felt more at home and in tune with, like dub and reggae beats. I absolutely loved UK hip-hop but I didn’t necessarily click with the culture as much as I did with the junglist and sound system culture that permeated Bristol. That is how I found my niche of spitting double time over reggae influenced beats.
Was there a particular MC who did the double time style really well that influenced you or was that laawasy your most natural style of delivery?
At that time a big influence would have been someone like Rodney P, not that he did that double tie style a lot but he was definitely touching upon a lot of the themes that I wanted to adhere to like spitting over reggae. Roots Manuva as well was a big influence but really it was in those Bristol jungle nights that I first heard guys rap like that and felt akin to it. MC’s like Skibadee and Demolition Man also give that inspiration to try and be something a bit like them. I also have to say that the Mungo’s Hi-Fi stuff and all the MC’s around them always had a massive influence on me. Artists like Soom T, Top Cat, Solo Banton and YT were always a huge inspiration for me as they really defined that sound system genre that I wanted to be a part of so getting to tour with them later in my career and see them up close was amazing. Everyone I’ve mentioned made a big impact not just on me but my whole friendship group.
What does your writing process look like? Are you a short spurts of creativity kind of guy or are you always writing down bars and saving them for later?
I would definitely say that I have to catch a vibe for something before I can start writing for it. I always need the beat first and I need to be by myself, although not so much these days, and just listen to the beat over and over again until I catch a vibe for it. If I don’t get at least a sixteen down in that initial listen then I tend to start thinking that it’s not the one. I try not to sit on things for too long because I want it to be as fresh as possible. I recently have been writing my new album down at the Devon Analogue Studios with Brad Baloo from The Nextmen and an amazing young producer from Bristol called Kreed and together they would smash out a new beat every hour.
So I found myself having to sit and write the track as quick as possible whilst they craft and build the beats to the point that we had the whole thing done in three days. So that experience really went against everything I thought I knew about myself and my writing process and forced me to adapt and challenge the way that i work. It was really a collaborative effort and I would totally recommend to any artist to at least one try the experience of being locked away somewhere for a couple days and getting lost in the music. Especially somewhere like Devon Analogue where the equipment and the vibes are just so incredible and the whole experience has resulted in us having a really amazing record man.
You and Kreed have had quite an extensive collaboration history together right?
Yeh man, Kreed has been making beats for me since he was about 13 years old and I was roughly 15. There is a really embarrassing Gardna video somewhere in the depths of YouTube that we worked on together and then we later did the full collaborations EP together, ‘Gardna x Kreed’, back in 2017. Recently I’ve been project managing his debut album which has just been completed with the final masters in the tin this week. He has been waiting to put this album out for ages but he’s a true perfectionist and so I like to give him the time to really work on it because everything he does finish is just next level. He’s also producing the entirety of my next album, so he really has been a very long term partner of mine. To celebrate that we have actually just agreed to do another collaboration EP together once both of our albums come out, so we are slowly taking over the world together haha!
What’s great about your music is that I feel like you can feel your friendships with the artist that you’re working with throughout the tracks and that’s why it’s amazing to hear you constantly working with the same familiar cast of characters. Do you think that familiarity with each other ultimately results in better music?
Totally. Our scene is very connected so we all know each other really well so i really like to return and work with artists that I know and that bring that familiar friendly energy. Particular artists like Brad from The Nextmen, Kreed, Catching Cairo and Mungo’s. These guys are my friends first and foremost so the fact that they are also sick musicians is a wicked bonus because we end up spending a lot of time together.
It just feels right when you work with these people, like I originally did ‘See The Vibe’ with Tiffani Juno, before she changed her name to Catching Cairo, and then she has featured on every single one of my albums since, including recording three new tracks for my next one. It’s that thing of if you have that really special connection on a track then it’s pointless changing it to be honest. Because all the tracks that we have worked on together sound so different, I think it comes across more as a progression of a creative partnership rather than sounding like a broken record.
How did you and Mungo’s first come to work together? And now when they send you through a beat, do you know that it’s going to be dope before you even open to it based on the countless bangers you’ve made together in the past?
I think I actually first met Mungo’s fan-boying them at a gig in Bristol because I always used to get booked on the same line ups that they would be headlining. I guess after a while, with Dom or Craig from the group asked if I wanted to get on the mic and drop a few bars during one of their sets. I think I made a decent impression on them during those early live shows and I’ve always been in their ear saying “please send me a riddem” as much as possible. I try to be quite persistent in that way, where if I really want to work with someone then I will not give up until I get that chance, if one thing doesn’t work then I’ll try another until it happens. We first worked together on ‘In my Zone’ featuring Charlie Brix which was actually a Mungo’s cover of Dry Cry by Coki, which is a very underground dubstep riddim.
With ‘Back In the Dayz’, I think they were looking to make something a little bit more ravey. Whenever I play with Mungo’s, Craig has that Glaswegian electronic hardcore head mentality and they all absolutely love a party so I think they wanted to make a tune that reflected that. I think they probably just associate me with those kinds of vibes too, so now they graciously ask me to get involved when they want to bring that energy. Working with those guys is just amazing, they really are my heroes and I feel like everything we work on together is just getting better and better as the years go on. When they sent me that beat I just knew straight away exactly what they wanted from it. I believe it was originally Kiko Bun on the chorus so when I sent them my first version I kept it quite melodic until they turned around and said “Gardna we want all the bars bro, give us the bars!”. I knew exactly what that meant so I wrote my verse in a couple of days and recorded it in my flat, flash forward a year later and it’s done really well man, so it just feels like a blessing to get to work with those guys again.
How has sounds-system culture in general helped shape you as an artist?
I honestly wouldn’t be anywhere without the whole community around sound system culture. It’s very very rare that you come across anyone that is a nob. Everyone is just so sound and I guess that’s rooted in the music we make and the positive message of dub and sound system culture that sits behind the music. When people go to our events they just want to connect and have a good time, not only with the music but with the people there, the smells, the food, the whole aesthetic of the rave, it just makes you feel good. When you’re in front of a massive sound system with your friends and the music is good, it just creates great times and great people. Throughout my time in this scene I’ve got to meet so many incredible people that make up the culture and that’s really why sound system culture is so great, it’s the people in it and the sense of unity.
The creative collaborations between yourself and Gentleman’s Dub Club dating all the way back to ‘Raised On The Amen’ all the way up until ‘Rudeboy’ has been prolific. What is it about your working relationship with GDC that results in so many bangers and how talented are those guys as musicians and instrumentalists?
The way ‘Rudeboy’ came about for me was actually crazy. I’ve been mates with Eva Lazarus for years and she’s been really instrumental in a lot of the big moments in my career. She’s been with me every step of the way and she always comes through with some kind of link or connection that helps to sort me out with what I should be doing. She was recording a track with Brad from The Nextmen when she hit me up and said that she needed an MC to spit some bars over a beat. So I recorded my verse and sent it in, then within a day I got it back and it had Johnny from Gentleman’s Dub Club on the hook and instrumentation from the whole band throughout it.
It was unbelievable how thick and full they were able to make that beat sound in just 24 hours, they completely levelled up the raw vocals I had sent into a full composition. It was hands down the best track I had ever made up till that point and probably still is my most renowned piece of music. Just before Covid started I managed to squeeze in a 14 day tour with them where I got to open for them and then come back out at the peak of their show to perform the 170BPM Bish & Grey Remix version of ‘Rudeboy’. I loved that transition so much in their set that I’ve pinched it for my own haha!
Lastly Gardna, I gotta grab your desert island disks , 3 albums to get you through a lifetime trapped on a desert island?
I would say that ‘Black Sands’ by Bonobo is certainly up there. Then i think ill take ‘Welcome To Jamrock’ by Damien Marley because it’s just such a classic that you can play on repeat. Then lastly i’ll go with ‘More than Alot’ by Chase & Status for the nostalgia factor.