Illustrator, hardware specialist, producer, and musician, Rex the Dog (Jake Williams) is jack of all trades, and master of every one of them.
With a career spanning three decades and, largely, two separate aliases, Williams offers a unique insight into both the pop and underground dance industries. Fresh out of school he entered into the charts in 1994 as JX with ‘Son of a Gun’ on then renowned label Hooj Choons before going up to fourth with ‘Nothing I won’t Do’. The following decade saw Rex the Dog traverse between a more underground sound with Kompakt before encompassing his more pop-influenced roots on tracks such as ‘Bubblicious’.
It wasn’t until 2015 that he would return to Kompakt with modular emblazoned techno track ‘Sicko’ whose bouncy bassline and drum machine would set the tone for many of his records thereafter.
In light of his remix for Desert Sound Colony we spoke with Williams on all these stages in his career, as well as discussing the evolution of dance music itself and how we might only progress so far at a time:
So I hear you’re touring Europe playing a live modular set?
Yeah, it’s a kind of ongoing tour – no beginning, no end sort of thing. But yeah I’ve been taking my modular out to clubs, probably for a year now, the first time was May last year, it’s going pretty well.
What sort of places do you have lined up at the minute?
I’m actually at the Kompakt pop-up store in Barcelona for Sonar. That’s not with the modular. But otherwise, I think I’m in Georgia quite soon, in Tbilisi. Then I’m in Barcelona after Sonar with the modular. And then I don’t know. It’s quite spotty, my calendar. There’s no concerted touring period. Just a gig every three weeks.
So you’ve been back with Kompakt now for two or three years?
Yeah, two years maybe. I think ‘Sicko’ was the first sort of phase two record, and that was 2015.
So what brought you back from your nine year hiatus with the label?
Well we kind of drifted apart after the first few records, we were still in touch but our schedules kind of clashed. I had my album finished just after their last deadline. The only time they could put the album out was in 2009, a year away from its completion. And at that point I decided to put the album out myself, so from then we sort of drifted. But I still saw them, and there was a big party when we got back together, one of the big Kompakt Off Sonar parties, a year before ‘Sicko’. And I went to that and hung out with Michael [Mayer] and Jon Berry, the label manager. And they were just so nice and enthusiastic, I thought they would be like ‘oh you again’, but they were actually like ‘Hey, if you have any new music send it.’ And I didn’t have any new music but I was just so energised by the fact that the party was so good, and that they were so nice and open to new music. So I got my head down for a while. It was kind of nerve wracking sending it to them again, it was like the first time where I wasn’t sure if they would be into it.
Do you think Kompakt’s family ethos is important to the running of a label?
Oh yeah definitely. I don’t know if they still have their own chef. But they used to have a chef who would prepare lunch and everyone would eat together. They’re incredibly social as a unit. I think there has to be an element of that – people who to play together stay together.
Do you feel much of a connection with other artists on the Kompakt label?
Yeah you do hang out quite a lot, because there’s quite a lot of Kompakt events. Patrice Baumel is lovely, although he makes you feel quite stupid because he’s very intelligent. Just before Brexit we were in an airport, and he was like, ‘what about this Brexit thing?’ And here was something I thought I’d have authority on because I’m British, I’m going to know more about this. So I said ‘well on the one hand there’s this and on the other hand there’s this’. And then once he started talking, it was like talking to a politics professor. So yeah there’s some really good guys and it’s always good to hang out with them. Superpitcher as well, he’s kind of amazing. We hung out a little bit the first-time round [For Rex with Kompakt] and he still remembers all that.
Do you feel like your sound has been shaped by whether you’re with Kompakt? For me listening to your music it feels as though when you weren’t with them you had a vastly different sound, and since re-joining them your music’s gone down a much darker, heavier route.
Yeah I think that’s probably fair to say. The period between first being with Kompakt, and second time with them I probably drifted away from clubbing. It was going clubbing and going to parties that brought me back to Kompakt and I think there’s definitely a common thread. I feel more grounded [now], I was more drawn off in more of a pop direction for a while. I love the utility of club music, it fulfils a really good purpose. It’s not like a bland utility, it’s a focus.
I feel as though the suggested videos on YouTube for say ‘Bubblicious’ are very different from the suggested videos for the music you make now.
Yeah I mean ‘Bubblicious’ seems like a very long time ago now. It feels like a different artist. But yeah that was very, very pop.
I think part of why ‘Bubblicious’ got such high numbers on YouTube is because of the video. I think it’s a really good video. Etienne de Crecy’s brother Geoffroy de Crecy is an animator, and its just one of the best collaborations I think I’ve ever had.
But yeah I’m much more into synths and sounds now rather than vocals, although I’m still using vocals. I’m quite obsessed with very modular sequencer-y sounds now. Like ‘Sicko’ is quite focused on the electronic sequences, where ‘Bubblicious’ is all about the big 80s sample.
So you made you made your own modular synth, the RTD-001?
Yeah, it’s a one off. It’s not really a commercial enterprise. It’s a D.I.Y Frankenstein kind of thing. There are two actually, there’s the RTD-002 which is a much bigger one as well.
And those are what you take on tour with you?
Yeah, so they’re what fits into the case with lots of other modules. I don’t know how much you know about modular synths but the basic thing is that it’s sort of like a custom car. So every component is from a different manufacturer or is something you build yourself. So it’s a case with space for maybe thirty units. Those units are modules and they can come from anywhere, from American manufacturers, from European, and a few I’ve built from kits, and a few I’ve built from the ground up. So they’re components within a kind of rack.
You seem to be creating on multiple different fronts then. You’re creating synths to suit your music, you’re doing illustrations, then obviously you’re creating music.
Yeah I’m definite control freak. But creating synth modules is fun in itself. It feels separate to the music. It’s not like, ‘Oh I need this sound so I’m going to build this module’, it’s more like I want to stop making music for a bit, so this is kind of an adult equivalent of Lego. So it’s definitely for fun.
You’ve worked under different aliases. Do you want to tell us about your work as JX which seemed pretty successful in the early nineties?
That was straight of school, in ninety four. The first hit which was ‘Son of a Gun’ was a kind of collaboration that came out on Hooj Choons. They were a small indie, but pretty well respected. They’d done a record the year before with Felix, called ‘Don’t You Want Me’, a huge, huge club banger that I loved.
I’d been sending them demos and then a guy called Red Jerry (Jerry Dickens) got in touch, he was the kind of A&R guy, it was his label.
He brought me into his studio and we worked on stuff for six months before the first track was feeling right. He had some kind of connection with London Records, so when that first record started building in the clubs London Records came in and did a licensing deal. It went into the charts at top twenty, well it went in at thirteen, I’m still pretending I don’t know the exact figures (laughter) but I do , although the mid-week was seven (more laughter).
But the label felt it could go higher, so London Records released it the following year and it went to sixth. And then I did a few more tracks in the studio with Jerry, it was always with Jerry. Then there was ‘There’s Nothing I won’t Do’ which went to number four in the charts, which was unbelievably exciting, but also so long ago.
What brought JX to an end?
I think the JX thing, the intention was just to make these tracks because I was really excited by things like Felix, and these kind of Italian, Euro house records. There wasn’t a commercial intention, just a kind of excitement, but then it accidently became successful.
Not accidently, because you wanted to make it well and you wanted to license it and you wanted to get it in the charts, there just wasn’t an expectation of that while making it.
Then towards the end, it just felt as though it had run its course. The last JX record was called ‘Close to Your Heart’, and it wasn’t that fun to make. It wasn’t as strong hook wise, it wasn’t as strong vibe wise, it didn’t feel that good and it didn’t do that well. I think I lost that feeling of doing it from the ground up for the right reason, it was like ‘Got to keep JX going’, and it didn’t really work that well, and the label weren’t particularly excited, so it just fizzled out really.
And were you playing out much at this point?
No, not at all. I never played out as JX. It was just a studio project really. We had a club PA thing going on, which I didn’t attend. So it was really quite mercenary, but there was a lot of that going on in the nineties with studio producers making tracks and then they would have an arrangement going on with a singer, or a pretend singer, or a dancer – someone who could put on a good Top of The Pops-y performance in a club. And that was quite an efficient, if kind of soulless way of having a promotional front. I didn’t think of it, it’s just what people did at the time. I know it sounds terrible, I wouldn’t do it now.
It’s hard to imagine it now.
Yeah, but it was everywhere, like N-Trance and Living Joy, even like Blackbox and Snap they would be playing at a local ritzy, like Reading Ritzy or whatever. It wouldn’t be anyone, they wouldn’t even have met the producer, it would just be ‘Oh yeah we met at Pineapple studios we’re dancers, and we never switch the mic on.’ I dunno, I think it’s quite funny looking back.
So you would consider yourself more as a musician than a DJ?
I think so. I do DJ but when I changed to a modular live set a year ago, I feel more like I’m being me. When I’m out and really representing what I do and what I enjoy I prefer it like a million-fold.
Do you think there are more people playing live with people like KiNK?
Yes, I do think there are more people playing live.
Do you think that’s a good thing?
Yeah I think so. People generally tend not to do five hour live sets as well, so it’s a very different animal in a club. I think you appreciate it in a different way or digest it in a different way, if you know someone’s coming on with all their gadgets you stand differently. I’m not saying it’s better but, they have different jobs.
As someone who’s been around for so long, do you think it’s best to stick to what you know rather than listening to others?
No, because if you think of yourself as having a sound then you’re just going to replicate that. I think you just become an increasingly shitty photocopy of yourself. You need input to make something. If you don’t have inspiration then you won’t make anything at all. So it’s all dependent on other people’s work, and what you listen to, even if it’s stuff from ages ago, or something you stumbled across on a really great night out. If you don’t have any of that stuff then there’s nothing to make. It doesn’t come from inside, I don’t think. You put all the stuff in and process it and then spit something out that’s your own interpretation, your own response.
So you think it’s understandable then that there are eras of different styles?
Yeah, but I think it’s a natural, organic sort of thing, and that’s what makes it so nice. Someone played me something the other day that they were making. He was like, ‘I’m not happy with it, I’m not sure why but I’m not going to use it.’ And I was listening to it and was like ‘Yeah it sounds like it should have come out in 2004.’ And he said ‘Yeah exactly’. I was like ‘This should have come out when Alter Ego, ‘Rocker’ came out.’ You can really pinpoint when something sounds as though it had been made then [in a different decade] or just like it should have been made then. But it’s good, everything stays fresh. There’s a natural cross-fertilisation of what people are making, what people are playing, what works, what gets picked up.
Have you seen this film called If I think of Germany at Night? It’s a documentary that follows Roman Flugel and three or four others, like Villalobos and stuff. It’s DJs who are also producers, and the documentary follows them and interviews them and shows them in a club. It’s incredibly well produced, and well shot. It’s a really well considered piece of work.
So there’s a moment when Ata basically talks about that question. He says basically it’s about a six year cycle, that house, everything, comes back to the basics of house music each six years, and that it finds a different way each time. And feels like an observer because he’s been in the business so long. So every six years it comes back to its roots, to the basis of house without any kind of conscious guiding hand. And every time it happens the people that are young and it’s their first time are like ‘Wow, this is amazing! This is the greatest development!’ But basically, it’s just come back to the beginning again. He’s not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s the kind of joy of it.
Rex the Dog’s remix of Desert Sound Colony’s EP ‘Wake Up’ is out now: Buy Here