John Owens

Creative Director
Instruct Studio

John is a multiple award-winning designer working in brand, strategy and creative direction. He specialises in experiential design with a background in architecture/regeneration and interactive design. He is co-founder of the creative festival Design Manchester and Creative Director of design studio Instruct.

What influence does music have in your life as a creative?:

Music has been incredibly inspirational in my career and personal life, it’s driven me forwards when I’ve needed it or soothed me when I’ve been down. From an early age I was exposed to the heavy riffs of Zeppelin, Sabbath & The Stones with my Dad playing along on the guitar and me duly learning (giving up to play football with mates instead, much to my regret). In my early teens rave and euphoria culture was everywhere and watching friends older brothers come back from raves, mix tapes in hand gave me an interest in early Hardcore and Jungle. The early 90’s were a massive melting pot of electronic music, baggy/indie and then West Coast Hip Hop. This heady mix combined with the arrival of MTV in the early 90’s pushed me into live gigs at the age of 14, thirsty to sample everything I had seen and heard over the years.

A large part of what influenced me with music was energy, be it speed or aggressive sounds. Listening to early Jungle, then Breaks combined with euphoric sounds or dark bass-lines seemed to make a real connection with me. As productions became more complex I started to swerve towards multi-layered sounds, labels like Warp Records, Ninja Tune and Skam and in turn the designers creating those labels became a huge influence to me. I collected vinyl for as much it’s design as well as production, opening me up to an incredibly diverse selection of artists, not all great mind, but those sleeves all had a purpose.

Now I have a tendency to play the same albums/tracks a lot, I own a couple of thousand vinyls and but occasionally an artist or label will appear and the hunt starts again for new music. Admittedly the thrill of the chase ended many years ago due to digital, I feel lucky to be of a generation of analogue and digital and putting together this mix on a train using my phone’s wifi is a testament of how far things have come.

Tell us about your playlist:

This playlist really is one of two halves, or maybe 11 bits depending on your ears. Kicking off we have the heavy bass shaker ‘Dynamix II – Give The DJ a Break’ not strictly the version I have on battered vinyl but the one on Spotify which has Breezy Beat MC on it. This track really showed what an 808 can do and pretty much started a movement (Miami Bass). I remember hearing it on a mix tape and constantly rewinding it to the strain of my busted hi-fi speakers. It’s pure B-Boy, heavy heavy bass and electro and a great set opener. In the same vane the next track by The Chemical Brothers takes inspiration from the same sample/cut and paste era but to more devastating effect. This era of The Chems was really golden, Big Beat was storming the UK and they hit the big time with their first UK no.1 (which this is a B-Side to) but their real impact was playing live, which is where I witnessed this track aged 15 in 1996. It’s fair to say it blew my head off, the whole Dig Your Own Hole album did and still sounds great to this day.

I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t have at least one Prodigy track on here, who are possibly the greatest influence on me musically overall. I owe a lot to their music, from their first album bought in 92 on tape to hearing Firestarter for the very first time live in 96 following on all the way through my formative teenage years. It’s easy to forget that in the mid-90’s they were the biggest band on the planet, No.1 in the UK and US and 2 No.1 singles all in one year signed to the indy XL Recordings and forging their own distinctive electronic punk sound. Whilst the Spice Girls were saying Zig a Zig ah, they were destroying live venues with Smack My Bitch Up, even sicker is the fact years earlier Liam Howlett had dropped Music For The Jilted Generation at the age of 24. Liam was always B-Boy, his first production aged 18 was ‘Cut 2 Kill – Listen to the Basstone’ with a small hip hop crew based in Essex. The track chosen ‘Girls’ was released in 2004 as a mainly solo effort from him due to the band drifting apart. There’s so much going on in this tune, heavy beats, funk from D Train, lyrics by The Ping Pong Bitches and the twisted Aphex-inspired ending.

Carrying on with the beats this is closer to home, like many creatives, Boards of Canada has a space in our collections and some of their early productions led me to the Manchester based Skam label. I’ve dipped in and out of this label for years, listening to the likes of Bola, Gescom and VHS Head but I wanted to pick a track by Cylob, ‘Scram’ to typify the sort of complex production I could endlessly listen to. The twisted and distorted riffs bouncing around the beats create a disjointed but then ultimately structured track that has an distinct flow to it.

With the internet you can easily fall down a rabbit hole looking for music, it’s hardly like digging the crates (Every dinner break at Vinyl Exchange Manchester for years) but can end up in some unexpected but very welcome places. I found Happa on YouTube when watching Flux Magazine’s ‘Made in 10 minutes’ (Highly recommended!) production challenge, skipped through a few tracks and thought he was okay but then stumbled upon Bum Trance which is an absolute face melter of a tune.

All of the track above have a real energy, it’s not always the speed but small incremental breaks or samples which catch the ear but now it’s time to give your ears a rest.

Growing up with club culture, going to multiple genres of nights from breaks, house and trance (I also used to run a Hardstyle/Gabba club night!) your head needs musical balance. I did listen to a lot of Indie music, beats from the likes of UNKLE and Shadow and I guess those MoWax years made me appreciate more downbeat productions. I started to really like layered and emotive records, not the shit ‘Chill Out’ CD’s that were flogged for comedowns on a Sunday but sounds like Ulrich Schnauss. This track by Ed Chamberlain, well in particular the Ochre remix, starts with such a warm intro, lush notes and loads plenty of atmosphere which hits the right spot.

Like The Prodigy, Plaid have an equal influence to my musical tastes but in my older years. I first saw Plaid live in 2000 supporting Orbital and the track ‘Last Remembered Thing’ really stuck with me so as with many artists I started to dig and collect. They are prolific with their output, turning out consistent remixes and an album every few years, I feel they really don’t get the respect they deserve but then like a lot of non-mainstream artists don’t. Their last album ‘The Digging Remedy’ has some of their most accessible productions to date but there’s plenty of tracks to pilfer in the archive and I’ve gone for ‘Eyen’ from the album Double Figure. This is the album opener and a firm live favourite, it’s 4 minutes of beats and emotion with lush guitar by Benet Walsh.

What follows takes us further back in Plaid’s career, their former incarnation as the techno-pioneers ‘The Blackdog’ and to the incredibly influential album ‘Spanners’ on Warp. The highlight of this IDM masterpiece was the track ‘Psycosyin’ an incredibly complex track given it’s time. It has Latin inspired beats and rhythms alongside middle eastern horns but the real treat is the complete flip around the 7.30 mark. The absolute beast of an acid line and chants over the constant rhythm, creating a nomadic techno journey… leaves me scratching my head on how the fuck did they come up with this in 1995.

I might of ventured into beats again, sorry that last one is a bit heavy at the end, so to make up for it the last two tracks were again found due to a rabbit hole, largely the producer Random Console and the label Erased Tapes. I’m an avid listener to BBC 6 Music and heard Mary Anne Hobbs pushing a producer called Nils Frahm, I recognised the label and thanks to their Erased Tapes compilations found a slew of new artists. Both these tracks have a soundtracked euphoria in equal measure, whilst writing this i’m listening to them sat on the train looking out the window captivated by the sounds and the journey they take you on. ’Says’ is even more mind blowing when you realise it was done in one take, played completely live. Ben Lukas Boysen’s Golden Times I is an equally mesmerisingly emotive track, a great way to end the mix.

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Beats & Peaces

  1. Give the DJ a Break – Dynamix II
  2. Prescription Beats – Chemical Brothers
  3. Girls – Prodigy
  4. Scram – Cylob
  5. Bum Trance – Happa

  1. Ochre Remix – Ed Chamberlain Styge 
  2. Eyen – Plaid
  3. Psycosyin – The Blackdog
  4. Says – Nils Frahm
  5. Golden Times 1 – Ben Lukas Boysen