Put the date in your diary – on Thursday April 29th at the Cardiff Arts Institute on Park Place, the one-man-band-like-no-other Bass Clef will be in town. Following a late-afternoon performance in the lobby of the Cardiff Museum (part of the Artes Mundi celebrations, and quite possibly the first time live dubstep has been played in a museum), zwolf, Kruger DJs (Adam & Phoenix) and Mr Healan will be warming up the crowd from 9pm in the Arts Institute, before Bass Clef takes to the stage at around 11.00pm.
I caught up with Bass Clef – AKA Ralf Cumbers – and found him waxing lyrical about the joys of playing in Cardiff. “I think I’ve done Cardiff three times, and each one has been a cracker, especially the last Swn show (in 2009), it was one of my all time favourites!”
A visit by Bass Clef is any city’s gain – and back in 2007, when Ralf played The Point as part of Mary Anne Hobbes’ Warrior Dubz tour, Cardiff knew he was something special. “I love the Cardiff crowd”, said Ralf, “if they’re in to it they will really let you know!”
And what’s not to be into? The Bass Clef sound is visceral but sophisticated – a blend of dancehall rhythms, trombone flourishes and electronic production that never fails to blow the roof off. Most people’s introduction to him was through the stunning single ‘Cannot be Straightened’, lifted from his debut album ‘A Smile is a Curve that Straightens Most Things”. Operating in the same anthemic bass territory as Roots Manuva’s ‘Witness (1 Hope)’ or Dead Prez ‘Hip Hop’, dropping ‘Cannot Be Straightened’ is a shortcut to a skanking dance floor.
The new album – titled May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way and released earlier in the year on Blank Tapes – keeps up the pressure, although there’s a little more depth to the songs. “I had a few lovely reviews, but if one person out there gets it and loves it then brilliant” says Ralf humbly. “I’ve been gigging a load, plus writing a ton of stuff, some of which may or may not be the start of album three…I’m currently based in London and most of my music is recorded at home. But with the latest album I took my home recorded tracks to a fantastic south London studio called Snorkel, to add the stuff I can’t do at home: brass, percussion, drums. It’s something I’d like to build on, the blending of electronic and acoustic is the exciting thing for me these days.”
Bass Clef is only on his second album, but given the speed that electronic music seems to move at, it feels like he’s something of a veteran of the dubstep scene. “I guess in these accelerated times, having released records in 2006 would qualify me as the 2nd wave of old skool or something! God knows, ask someone who cares about the hardcore continuum thingy.”
It’s a refreshingly self-effacing attitude from a man who has done as much rummaging around under the engine of the dubstep-mobile as any of the more consciously cooler Hypedub crowd. While refusing to be pigeon-holed by lazy journalistic clichés is the prerogative of any underground artist, the acts that make up the prism of styles that dubstep has splintered into are sensitive about the way their music is labelled and described. It’s probably a sign of a scene filled with healthy self-confidence, but Bass Clef has a slightly different perspective: “I think I started on the outside edge of dubstep, now I’ve moved farther out and the egdes of dubstep have moved waaaay closer to the centre. I haven’t ever thought about where I stand really. I just try and make tunes I think are good and true, and then whatever anyone wants to call it is fine with me.”
Whatever we do-or-don’t call it, 2010 is a ridiculously exciting time for electronic bass music with new acts and labels popping up everywhere, and Ralf is right in the mix: “Hell yeah, there’s a ton of stuff going on. The new Mr Majeika tune on Numbers is absolutely rocking my world. ‘Because of you’ by Panagea is an amazing record. Geiom is kicking it as always. There’s a new act called Raime that will release their debut 12″ this year and it’s absolutely stunning. I’m deep in to Kenyan Benga music from the 70′s too. It’s really stripped down, but so funky.”
With such an eclectic bag of influences, its no surprise that Bass Clef is such a unique artist. What other dubstep artist could play a museum lobby and the Scala in London in the space of a week? “I think the weirdest gig I’ve done would have to be at a Cambridge May ball. I played at 4am, after a Take That tribute band, in the courtyard of a beautiful old historic college, to a lot of drunk people in tuxedos and ballgowns. Good times! Well I say a lot. There were about 7 people.”
We’ve all been there…drunk in a tuxedo that is, not playing a trombone and Theremin at 4am in the morning at a Cambridge ball. But what next for the Clef-monster? “There should be a 12″ of ‘Promises’ (single from his new album) with an absolutely beautiful Appleblim & Peverlist remix, then not one but two shows with the almighty Konono No.1, plus my first trips to Malta and Tel Aviv…and of course my return to wonderful Cardiffland!”
And wonderful Cardiffland is looking forward to his arrival…