A chat with Chris SSG
Once a documenter of the deep techno scene, Chris Hobson, aka Chris SSG, has now emerged as a DJ in his own right. As a co-founder of the blog MNML SSGS, he helped uncover many acts that are now household names in the scene and inspired many others to learn the craft. These days he’s switched gears, playing regular gigs and promoting parties, primarily, though not always, with a focus on ambient.
After watching Chris play at an ambient event in Berlin in late summer, we were excited when the recording of his set arrived in our inboxes and jumped at the chance to share it on our mix series. In this follow up interview, Chris offers insights into his sound, looks back at the MNML SSGS legacy and explains why he hopes the term ‘big room ambient’ catches on.
Your recent mix for Patterns of Perception was recorded at the Dred Space Cakes event in Berlin. How did you put together the set? What was the response like on the day?
The event was held at a beautiful outdoor venue by the river, and that day it was lovely weather – sunny but not too hot. There was a nice crowd, people who understood what the event was supposed to be about. I played as it turned to dusk, so it was a wonderful setting. In terms of the music, I was mainly drawing on ideas that I had been exploring through the summer. It took me about 20-30 minutes to get fully settled but after that I was really comfortable and got in a good flow. What I was happy about was the way my set as a whole came together, it cohered and held together well. People seemed to connect with what I was doing, I got to play for my friends, it was just a very enjoyable experience all around, which is part of the reason I wanted to share the recording.
In a techno-fuelled city like Berlin, ambient is increasingly seen as much more than just warm up music, with more stand-alone events dedicated to the sound. Do you see a renewed interest in ambient as a genre? Is it a good time to be an ambient DJ?
There has always been a very strong scene surrounding ambient music, but most of the time this exists online and in people’s headphones. In the last couple of years there has been a bit of hype with ambient moving out of its little niche and getting more attention, which has partly been fueled by techno and house artists dabbling in the genre (and mostly quite poorly too, it is worth noting). This has led to some more events trying to organise chill out rooms or including space for ambient artists. Sometimes this works well, and it is definitely positive people are trying. But it is also frustrating that this often ends up as a ‘bonus’, with little budget for it, and often dancefloor artists doing a second set, where they just revert to Aphex SAW clichés. So to get to the final question, I guess it is a bit better time than before, but bluntly put, it is never a good time to be an ambient DJ. The opportunities are much more circumscribed, there are much harder limits on what it is possible for you to do.
You run the Sound Garden party series in Tokyo which is dedicated to more ambient and experimental sounds, along with regular MNML SSGS events. What are the key ingredients of a good ambient event?
The most important thing for ambient to work is the space. The requirements are different from a dancefloor event. It needs to be comfortable. People need to be able to sit down and relax. This means it requires more effort to set up or find a venue that is suitable, which can be a challenge. But it is better to recognise what is necessary than trying to force ambient to work in a setting that doesn’t fit. Then, of course, good sound and an open-minded crowd are very important. But I think if you get the setting right it is possible to help open people’s minds. My feeling is that a lot more people are open to ambient when it is presented to them in the right way.
How does Japan compare to Europe in terms of its embrace of ambient and experimental music?
Ambient events and chill out rooms are still pretty limited and niche everywhere, Japan included. We started Sound Garden precisely because we felt that type of thing was missing in Tokyo. Still, there are some points where Japan differs from Europe. On the good side, Japanese crowds tend to be more respectful, they are much less likely to come and tell you to play beats or talk loudly over the top of quiet music. On the downside, scenes tend to be very compartmentalised in Japan. The experimental scene is quite different in terms of the artists who play, the venues used, and the audiences. In Europe there is a lot more space for events that exist in that in-between zone which draws together club and experimental music. This is starting to change a bit, but there is still a lot more blurring of different sounds and scenes in Europe, and this is generally a good thing.
What first attracted you to ambient music? Do you have a particular focus or goal in mind when preparing your ambient DJ sets?
I’ve been listening to ambient and experimental music for as long as I have been listening to techno. They have always felt very complimentary to me, this has never changed. In terms of DJing, I am a bit unusual as I am primarily an ambient DJ and that is where I started with DJing. I am not sure exactly why, but I never had a great interest in playing techno music out, even though I am equally passionate about it. Perhaps because I already knew lots of fantastic techno DJs, whereas it was much less common for me to hear an ambient DJ, and even more rare to find one I strongly connected to. As I progressed with my DJing I gained a better understanding of what I want to do with my sets.
A lot of ambient music is pleasant, unassuming, good to have in the background. This is not what I am interested in. I want to create energy or a specific feeling, to do something that commands people’s attention and has a certain power to it.
So strictly speaking, what I am doing is not really ‘ambient’, but because this is the umbrella term that is generally used for listening music without beats, I just use that. I jokingly came up with the term ‘big room ambient’, so let’s see if this catches on.
What type of music do you listen to yourself at home, and when you’re out? Are there genres other than ambient that inspire you, and would you consider playing these to a crowd?
Almost all of the music I listen to is electronic music, in one form or another, and the genres haven’t really changed over the years: techno, house, electro, ambient, experimental. Just the balance shifts depending on my mood and what I find interesting.
Techno is pretty uninspiring now, it is going very hard and stupid, and I really think it is heading in an increasingly shitty direction. But there are still techno DJs and producers I love, and nothing beats dancing to a killer techno set. House has been lame for a while, so not much point discussing that. It is nice to see more people liking electro, but electro is a bit like comfort food: it is kind of always the same and that is why it is good but it is also very conservative.
In terms of DJing, I have focused on ambient, as this is where I feel like I am doing something distinctive. But I may have over-emphasised this side of me, as a lot of people assume I only play ambient, regardless of the context, and this is not the case. I do also enjoy playing more dancefloor orientated sets. When I do play beats, I tend to play more light and fun, I don’t like going too heavy and I still try to keep a lot of focus on the tracks I am selecting. But if I am honest, what I love most is playing ambient in an appropriate setting with a good sound system.
Which artists do you have your eye on lately – ambient or otherwise?
Steve Good is an ambient producer based in Japan, who has just released a new album on his Bandcamp. This is an excellent ‘pure’ ambient album and strongly recommended:
John Elliott and Drew Veres, who were doing Outer Space, have started a new project called Organic Dial and their first EP is up on Bandcamp and also definitely worth checking: https://organicdial.bandcamp.com/releases
Despite the closure of MNML SSGS, many people in the scene still refer to the blog as a big inspiration for their sound (Patterns of Perception included!). Looking back, what do you think the legacy of the site has been?
We were remarkably fortunate with the way MNML SSGS developed. We never really had any great plans for it, honestly, the blog was originally started almost on a whim, then it just naturally evolved. We had a really good run and we are very proud of what we did with the blog. I don’t know if thinking about a ‘legacy’ is a good way to approach it, but what we did connected with a lot of people and we were also able to play a role in helping artists we believe in. A lot of good and positive things came out of the blog. I am just grateful with the way things happened and that I could make a contribution to something I deeply care about.
Where we failed to leave a lasting legacy is in regards to fostering greater acceptance for critical engagement with electronic music. This was always one of our key aims – we come from an approach that sees critique as something that is ultimately constructive, and this is a perspective that differs from the usual boost and high five approaches you get in dance music. Of course, we were never influential enough to be able to have that kind of impact, but it is a shame that kind of independent mentality is becoming less and less common. When we were operating there was a really strong community of independent blogs – most not relying on any external financial support – and they have basically all gone and have not been replaced.
Things have become more monochrome, the space for critical engagement has shrunk drastically. Part of this has to do with changes in the way things operate online – blogs have largely disappeared and there are now a couple of major outlets that monopolise the discourse, while promo has become much more deeply embedded. Plenty of people are compromised by working for big corporate money. Artists have to deal with insecurity and being offered rubbish conditions. Social media regularly operates in a very oppressive way to stifle open discussion and enforce consensus. Put all this together, combine it with a bunch of other shitty trends, and you have less independent voices, less intelligent discussions, more hype, more bullshit. It is a bad zone.
What’s on the cards for you for the rest of 2018?
2018 has been a year of change and transition. It has been interesting and instructive, but it has also been pretty unsettling and uneven. One consequence is that it has been difficult for me to accept some gigs as my schedule has been unclear. Things are settling now, so I am hoping this will allow me to take more opportunities with my DJing. I have enjoyed having the opportunity to play in some new places and different contexts this year, and with some luck, I would like to do more of that in 2019.