"This album is like starting a journey in a particular city, going on a world tour, and then coming back to your city again and appreciating it in a totally different way, because you've been away for so long."
DJ and musician, MJ Cole, is no stranger to the UK music scene, but his new album may be a bit of departure from his older sound. His roots lie in UK garage but have now bloomed into a strand of a different kind - classical and ambient music. We sit down to speak to him about the power of music, how it's all connected and his 17 year-long creative journey that's taken him to his forthcoming album, titled 'Madrugada'.
I’m all good, I’ve been keeping busy with a little studio set up which I’ve got at home and I’m also tidying my sock drawers.
What does travel mean for you?
Travel’s kinda been different for me throughout all my life. As a kid, it was exciting going with my parents on some of the first package holidays, during the 80’s when it was a brand new thing and we’d go to Sicily, Crete, Corsica, bits of Greece. As a kid it was an exciting, holiday thing.
Then I had this big experience when I left university where I came back with a goatee beard and was about five stone lighter. Me and my girlfriend at the time went to India for three months and went proper backpacking. I think we lived on £50 a week together. We got on a flight to Delhi, went all the way up to Kashmir on a bus (which took forever) and then worked our way all across the northern bit of India by bus and ended up in Leh, on the Tibetan border.
After that, my music career started kicking off and then travel became really about my work. I was DJing loads around the world, going to different places was amazing, but (probably everyone says this) when you're DJing you don't really get to see a lot of places. It's mostly airports, hotels and then clubs. I was still lucky to travel and get a little flavour of each place though. I always tried to go out and have a little local experience wherever I was. So, I guess travel-wise, if you connect it with DJing, I’ve probably been to most places on the planet.
Do you have any travel essentials?
I’ve been travelling abroad with my bike a lot. Most recently, I've taken it to Gerona and then twice from Lake Geneva all the way down to Nice in the South of France - that took us eight days.
What’s your wildest or most cherished Trippin memory - where were you and what happened?
I did a couple of liveaboard diving trips. You go out on a boat for a week with a bunch of people and go diving four times a day. I did one in Thailand once around the Similan Islands, which you can only properly dive if you're on one of these liveaboard boats because they're so far out from Phuket.
That was an amazing experience, being on a boat with so many strangers going diving four times a day. The underwater world is so fascinating to me - I love how peaceful it is. A lot of the vibe from this album was inspired by bikes and free-diving and the different words they take you to.
I like thrills. I’m not really a 'sitting on the beach with a book' kinda guy.
Where did your musical journey begin and flourish?
I grew up in West London and started playing the piano when I was five - I was a little piano wizkid. When I got to fourteen, fifteen years-old, dance music started to evolve and the classical thing took a back seat. Dance music was like this sort of unknown area - I spent my whole time going to record stores discovering music and having mix sessions in my bedroom with my mates.
My fascination with this new music continued all the way to university where I did my music degree. I just wanted to work in studios and be around music, so I applied for a job and ended up working at a label called 'Sour' that was based in Victoria. They predominantly made Drum and Bass, which was my thing and soon they discovered I could play keys. Thats when I started helping everyone out during their sessions playing keys and chords which then progressed into my own stuff.
During that time, my label had an affiliation with a pirate radio station called 'London Underground', which was a Garage station based in Dalston. Loads of their DJ’s started coming in for sessions with me and started showing me all these vinyls and music which I was never into before.
It guided me into making music that I didn't know anything about really. I got into Garage by mistake really... but through these sessions with the guys at London Underground, I discovered I had a talent for making it. Suddenly, I could put chords and vocals in, verse bridge choruses and backing vocals. It really suited me and after that I was off... I followed my own little path, making my own stuff in the late 90s, and then made the record 'Sincere', which got me signed in early 2000s.
We always say that journeys are as much metaphorical as they are physical. Yours sounds like both.
My journey began with classical music and the piano. Before I’d even seen a turntable or heard any other piece of dance music - that was my first musical love - the piano.
Throughout my whole life, that’s remained the same and really this album is not a return to my beginnings but instead a celebration of my foundations.
It’s like starting a journey in a particular city, and then going on a round-the-world tour, coming back to your city again and then appreciating it in a totally different way because you haven't been there for so long. And really this is me returning to the origin of my journey and celebrating that. It kinda felt like making a first album again really...
What was the inspiration and drive for your new album ‘Madrugada’?
Madrugada means 'the strange, seductive hours before sunrise'. This magical time at night has meant lots of different things to me throughout my life. Particularly, it was the magical hour when I’d make records, when everyone was asleep, you wouldn't get phone calls and nothing was expected of you at all. Most of my records from 1995-2010 were probably made during this time. It’s always been a special time for me.
I really wanted to capture the sort of magic during this time. We shot the short film we made during this time and throughout the film we show different people doing different things, but the one thing they have in common is their particular love for this time at night - Madrugada.
Why was Kiev the destination you chose for the short film?
Henry (the director) was looking for somewhere which was amazing to surf around and where we could get a really good crew together. They only shot I think for three days, but we have four music videos and a short film just from that. Kiev is beautiful. It has all these different things that make it special. It has its city, with beautiful buildings and it also has some sea to surf in nearby as well which we wanted.
The album brings a moment of peace and calm during these uncertain times. Can you talk about the energy dynamic of this body of art in relation to now?
It was a very meditative experience.
It's a bit of a weird time right now, what the world and we as a nation are going through - there's this feeling that we are all in this together. And some of the more frivolous things in our lives, actually don't matter as much as we thought they did. The short film sort of encapsulates that really, by letting you meet these different people and see their different walks of life. It’s not about what you have or what you say, it’s about coming back to the very human feeling of just being at one with yourself, during a very quiet time.
Photography: Chloe Anderson, Henry Dean & Pavel Buryak