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How Fred Again.. transforms the sounds of social media into rave-worthy beauty

Fred Again.. creates hard-hitting dance tracks that sample from everyday moments — ranging from self-shot videos to voice memos from friends.
Theo Batterham
Fred Again.. creates hard-hitting dance tracks that sample from everyday moments — ranging from self-shot videos to voice memos from friends.

Although electronic songwriter and producer Fred again.., born Fred Gibson, has long-produced for a range of big-name artists, from Stormzy to Ed Sheeran to FKA twigs, his solo career blew up at a time when club music was at its least popular: during the pandemic. The 29-year-old British hitmaker released the first album off his Actual Life trilogy, Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020), in April 2021, and found success in creating hard-hitting dance tracks that sample from everyday moments — ranging from self-shot videos to voice memos from friends and clips found scrolling through Instagram. Gibson's hit, "Marea (we've lost dancing)," from Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020), deconstructs a monologue from the DJ The Blessed Madonna, where she mourns the pandemic's impact on the dance music industry. It ends in a message of hope — acting as a rallying cry for the present's shortcomings and the future's untapped potential.

By using these clips, Gibson gave voice to a feeling people craved more than anything else: human connection. Actual Life 3 (January 1 - September 9 2022), the final installment of Gibson's Actual Life series released in October, is no different. At the core of Gibson's music lies the question: what happens when a search for escapism and real life meet? The result is a collage of digitally documented memories, as Gibson wholeheartedly embraces misconceptions and judgments about how easy it is for people to make electronic music, by turning mundane sounds into musical material.

From his home in London, Gibson sat down over Zoom for an interview to talk about his sample curation process, using social media as a source of content and performing live again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Teresa Xie: Before releasing "Kyle (i found you)" in 2019, you spent much of your career producing for a wide range of big-name artists. What did producing for other people teach you about how you wanted to approach music as a solo artist?

Fred Again...: There was a moment four years ago, when I was in the midst of working with a bunch of other people, and I had this really strong feeling that I needed to make something that I wasn't making. That feeling doesn't get smaller if you ignore it, so that kind of bubbled up and up. By some beautiful serendipity, at the same time, my mentor Brian Eno messaged me being like, "All right, Fred, enough. You've gotta go back to doing what you were doing when we met." From when I was 10 to 20, I was making my own s***. When Brian messaged me being like, "All right, enough," I was kind of on the edge of doing my own thing already, and he just pushed me over. Everything I make to varying degrees is still very collaborative. ... I'm just trying to express something that's in here [points to chest] as opposed to trying to combine my music with somebody else's.

In a time of isolation, what inspired you to continue making music often meant to be played in-person at clubs, rather than be discouraged?

I live with my best friend who is also a musician called Joy Anonymous, and we just spent most of our days in the flat making music and going for walks around a beautifully empty London. I did this mini mix for the beloved [DJ] Annie Mac, and I remember being really struck by this feeling of global synchronicity in a way that was really unprecedented. That word is so overused ... but regardless of whether it's positive or negative, there was an undeniably powerful sense of just like, if I call my friends in America and if I call my friends in Japan, there's just this sense of synchrony.

I know that your music samples from "real life" — whether its voice memos, clips from social media, etc. Can you walk me through how you find them and your process for actually incorporating them into your songs?

The thing that I kind of fell in love with is the feeling of making records that feel like a collaborative diary. At the beginning, I would just pull sounds from videos on my phone and random things from nights out and stuff like that. When my friends and I were out, I'd always be the guy filming random s*** on my phone so that when I woke up all hungover, I had some funny souvenirs of the evening to scroll through.

When I was first doing this, I didn't even have Instagram or anything, so I was very much just doing it for that next morning self scroll. Then, I met this guy working a construction job in Atlanta called Carlos. He just had this beautiful, very infectious spirit. When I woke up the next morning sort of hungover and scrolling, I was just looking at the videos and noticed he just had this amazing cadence to his voice. I was just kind of lying in bed in Atlanta, and I just started playing piano on my laptop keyboard over the things he was saying. I just fell very in love with the feeling that it gave me — of taking these seemingly quite mundane life moments and shining a light on all the beauty that is in those moments.

On "Mustafa (time to move you)," you sampled from Mustafa the Poet's song "Ali" from his Instagram post, while on "Nathan (still breathing)," you use a clip you found on TikTok. There's this growing pushback against social media — that it sucks up our time, shortens our attention span and makes us more disconnected from each other. What is your perspective on social media and what made you want to incorporate it into your music?

Social media is obviously capable of being a really negative thing. But it was also very clear to me that it is capable of being a very beautiful thing. One thing that's beautiful to me is the fact that so much stuff is recorded now, that you can make art out of the actual experience. Back in the day, it might be like, "I had this feeling on this night out and that inspired me to write my concerto." But now I can use that actual sound and samples from that very thing to make music.

A lot of people go to the dance floor to get lost or to disconnect from the everyday world. How does performing music with snippets from "real life" moments complicate that experience? Do you think it pulls people out of the present?

In a way, I'm kind of the worst person to answer that, because I've never seen a show of mine. But when I do a live show, I'll try and bring together various setlists that tell the story as a bigger picture over the course of an hour. Fundamentally, the story of each show is told through the prism of [what's happening] right now. For example, during the show, random videos from my camera roll will play on the screen. But for the last 10 minutes of the show, the camera will turn around and start filming the crowd. That's a really important moment to me because it feels like that's when we've caught up to the present tense.

You created and released Actual Life 3 at a time when people can finally go to raves again. Do you see performing live as an extension of your music or as something completely separate?

It feels totally like an extension. We've done shows before where I've had my friend Theo go out in the queue and film people and ask them questions about random things. Then he'll then give me the videos and I'll make a little piece in the next hour before we go on stage and then it will come up on the screen. I love the feeling of those kinda things. When we turn the camera onto the crowd, it puts the here and now in the context of all of these other moments that are being flashed around as well.

I read in an interview that you experiment with thousands of different ways to turn your real life samples into something musical. How do you know when you've found the perfect sound?

I think just an infinitely complex set of tummy feelings that you have of just like, this is giving me the feeling that I was hoping it would. It doesn't get any more defined or any less abstract than that. I try loads of different things and all I'm trying to do is chase that feeling, because when it does feel right, it's like a drug.

What was the most challenging song to make on the new album?

Maybe "Delilah (pull me out of this)." The most challenging song on any of the records is definitely "Sabrina (i am a party)" because her words are so distinctly personal and moving and powerful. I was so not at peace with taking her words and manipulating them into another state. I just felt like I was distorting her soul. Everyone has been really lovely, but [the writer] Sabrina [Benaim]'s probably the most effusively positive and sweet about the song that got made. I would manipulate her voice over different notes and chords and just be sweating and having anxiety attacks, because I was just like, "This is not good." For some reason, I just kept doing it, which is strange when I look back on it. Like, why did I carry on? I hated every second of it. I think thanks to lovely people like Sabrina and Kyle [Tran Myhre] and Angie [McMahon], I feel a little bit more at peace with the journey of the songs now.

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Teresa Xie
Teresa Xie is a reporter who specializes in media and culture writing. She recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied political science and cinema. Outside of NPR, her work can be found in Pitchfork, Vox, Teen Vogue, Bloomberg, Stereogum and other outlets.