These past months have been crazy for Robin Perkins aka El Búho: he’s become a father, he released a new album titled Ramas, and all his summer gigs have been cancelled due to Covid-19. 
The British artist, one of the most representative DJs and producers of the new ‘organic electronic’ scene – a sort of movement spearheaded by artists like Nicola Cruz or Chancha Via Circuito –, uses music a way to collaborate with people he finds interesting, draw attention to environmental causes and connect people around the world. Today, we catch up with him to discuss politically-engaged music, collaboration as a beautiful creative process, and how is he overcoming the current crisis.
Robin, we first interviewed you back in November 2017 when you released Balance, your first LP. Two years later, you’ve published lots of new music, and most recently, the collaborative album Ramas. After these years, where do you feel you stand now both musically and personally?
I think on both levels things have changed a lot! Musically, I feel I have evolved, matured a little more and as of seven months, I quit my job and am focusing just on music – well, almost. I also had my first child seven months ago, so I am now officially a DJ dad! This has been a huge change of course on a personal level but also a huge inspiration musically, it has been truly beautiful, humbling and super difficult at the same time.
In 2018, you released yet another album, Camino de Flores. Do you feel it was a sort of passage between Balance and Ramas? How does it differ but also connect with the previous and the following albums?
Well, Balance was my first album, so there is always something special about launching your first album. On Camino de Flores, I felt much less pressure and it was an album of tunes that were all made at the same time and fitted together. It was also at the time when one of my cousins sadly passed away way too soon, so it was a homage to her. On Ramas, I felt the need to challenge myself and do something totally different, hence the idea of collaboration as the central theme tying the album together. I feel it’s good to push yourself in new directions as a producer and Ramas was born out of it.
Let’s deepen into Ramas, your latest work. It’s one of your most – if not the most – ambitious projects to date, in which you’ve collaborated with nineteen different artists from twelve different countries. How did you come up with the idea, and how did it evolve over time?
For many years playing shows, travelling and meeting different producers, I have been working on little collaboration ideas, messing around in the studio or creating something out of a shared experience. As time went on, I began to realise this was something quite unique and beautiful for me as a producer; I was making music I never would have made on my own. Hence I started to collect the ideas I had and then, organically, the album just grew. I didn’t have a checklist of artists, it was more just by meetings, by feeling or opportunity.
The singers, DJs and producers you’ve worked with range from Chancha Via Circuito to Baiuca, to Rodrigo Gallardo or Captain Planet. I’d like to know more about the process you followed to choose the artists you wanted to collaborate with. Do you feel they all have something in common? Or did you choose them because of their differences and the various approaches/results you could get?
As I said, the basic commonality is that they are all family. Either Shika Shika family or family from the global scene. I’ve shared stages with many of them, released albums with others or we are on the same label (or indeed one is the label boss, Nickodemus from Wonderwheel!). It was more organic and there were also a bunch that fell through or we didn’t finish, so nineteen is just the tip of the iceberg. When I listened to the tracks, I realised then there were different approaches, sounds and styles, which I think makes the album almost like a compilation.
You already collaborated with Joaquín Cornejo on Mirando el Fuego, a song from your 2018 album Camino de Flores, and you two have worked together again on the track Salford Cumbia, which is the last song of Ramas. Could you tell me more about your relationship with Cornejo and why did you decide to work with him again?
Joaquin is one of the few producers that when I first heard his production I felt it had something unique. This doesn’t happen very often as I hear/get sent a lot of music. Joaquin is from Ecuador but was living for a while in Manchester, where I’m from, so there were a lot of commonalities there. We released an EP of his through our label Shika Shika and have been collaborating and in touch for a while. He is one to watch for sure.
Let’s deepen into the creative process of the album. Once you chose the artists and they agreed to collaborate, how was the song-making and recording process?
So, to be honest, each track was totally different. Some were made in the artists’ home studio, like the track with Thornato, but the majority were done at a distance. Usually they started with an idea or an unfinished beat shared over Google Drive, each producer adding then sending it back until it was finished. Some tracks were born out of a shared experience (Gaviota with Rumbo Tumba, for example), others through a shared inspiration (the remix I did with Baiuca, for example). I’d say 95% was remote and at a distance, I’ve never even met some of the artists on the album like Stas!
As collaboration is the keyword of the album, you wanted the music videos to also be somehow collaborative. This time, you did an open call so dancers and choreographers worldwide would send you clips of them dancing to a particular song. Could you expand more on that? What were you expecting to receive and how did you decide the winners?
For many years, I have seen how people use my music in dance or yoga just organically. It has never been something I pushed. As the theme of this album was collaboration, I thought it would be interesting to expand this to another art and see what would happen if I asked for dance collaborations. The response was incredible with over fifty responses, and the quality level was mind-blowing. Basically, I chose the final selection for a diversity in dance styles, location and gender. Then, each dancer chose a track and made the video. The whole process was a little insane but the results are just beautiful.
Ramas means ‘branches’ in Spanish, another reference to nature, which is one of the main sources of inspiration of your work. Are all these collaborators the branches while you’re the trunk uniting them all? Or does the title have a more symbolic, universal meaning?
This was the concept. Originally, the album’s working title was El Búho & Friends, but the more I dug into it, the more I loved this idea of Ramas. A metaphor for our global scene whereby all the artists are connected in some way but each going in a different direction. I guess I’m actually another ‘rama’ and together we all form the trunk of the tree! There is also something there about growth and pushing in new directions which I think is crucial for any artist.
You’re a politically-engaged artist, especially on environmental issues. Could you tell us a bit about your work as an activist and resulting projects like the albums A Guide to the Birdsong of Latin America and A Guide to the Birdsong of Mexico, Central America & the Caribbean?
Yes, I do believe music can play an important role in social or environmental issues without being too depressing or heavy-handed. Music has the ability to transmit emotions, feelings and messages in a way that say, NGOs, sometimes struggle. The Birdsong project was born out of one of my early experiments to make music from birdsong of specific species. This is not something new, classical composers have been doing it for hundreds of years, yet there are not that many examples of electronic music. The concept is to challenge artists from a certain region to use the song of an endangered bird to create a track. The resulting album raises awareness about the plight of these birds and 100% of the profits are donated to conservation organisations in the region. We raised almost fifteen thousand dollars in Volume I (South America), and Volume II, which is focused on Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, will be released on the 26th of June after a crowdfunding campaign where we reached over 400% of our initial goal!
But on Ramas, you also have a track with some political undertones: Resiliencia, made in collaboration with Chilean producer DJ Raff, which somehow references Chile’s uprisings earlier this year. How do you feel music (or art in general) should contribute to improve and change the world? And how do you expect to do so with yours?
As well as being an art and something creative, I feel the best music is a reflection of you, your world vision, experiences and identity. I have political views, I consider myself to be an activist and I feel my music should represent that. It’s not always that way, of course, there are tracks inspired by non-political stuff, but it’s what gives me fire, inspiration and hope for change. And as I said before, music can be an incredible messenger. I feel often artists sit on the fence for fear of offending or being seen to be too heavy, so instead, 95% of the pop music talks about love or making money. In the times we are living in, I think the world could do with a bit more political music…
Covid-19 has turned 2020 into an extremely weird year. You’ve just released the album, which meant touring around the globe through different venues and festivals, but I guess everything is on hold now and postponed until we know how to deal with this. How are you managing the situation both personally and professionally?
It has been very strange and totally unforeseen. All of my shows over the summer have been cancelled and a lot of artists are really struggling. It’s hard not to get depressed about the whole situation, but then, in times of adversity, crazy things can happen. For one, the birds (and their songs!) came back (smiles). Just this last weekend, we did the biggest ever online b2b with over a hundred artists from all over the world playing one track, each from their living rooms, gardens and kitchens, all on behalf of inspiring climate action. For the Birdsong project, we did a beautiful videoconference between the people who backed us on Kickstarter, the artists and the organizations we supported. It has given birth to these other connections and opportunities we would not have had otherwise. You have to try and focus on these moments.
El Buho Music Metalmagazine 1.jpg