When London producer Sara Chen, aka Ikonika, first started making music, her bubbly, video-game inspired, electronic style became part of the growing movement that came to be known as dubstep. But listening to her new album Distractions, it’s clear that her hyper sound has been overtaken by something much darker.
Distractions, her third full-length (Hyperdub), is a collection of icy, robotic songs designed to yank you out of the horrors and mundanity of life, from overwhelming Twitter feeds to, in Chen’s case, a car crash that kept her from traveling. Even on the record’s brightest moments, found in the glossy beats of songs like “Manual Decapitation” and “Love Games,” the music of Distractions always seems to drive your attention elsewhere as the dialtone of a phone dings in the mix or an ominous bell tolls throughout.
Chen talked to Jezebel about the themes behind Distractions, her favorite sci-fi, and the beauty of UK club trends reaching artists like Drake. Our interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Distractions is a pretty pertinent theme for an album right now, given our current political climate. What got you thinking about distractions?
SARA CHEN: When I was first writing this album I said it wasn’t going to have a concept. But then I started making it and I kept seeing people rant on Twitter about unimportant things and just felt like there’s a disconnect with what’s going on in real life. I was thinking about how you have your online you and opinions as well. I just wanted something to distract me from what is turning out to be sort of a dystopian storyline today. These tracks are essentially my distractions from all of that. I need this album and this music to just kind of take me away.
Do you have a strained relationship with social media?
I really only use social media to say that I have a new track out or I have a new mix out. It’s more of a promo thing or like I’m bit of a bot, but that’s me! I just see too many arguments on my timeline. It’s like, can’t you just call each other? Can’t you just meet up? Obviously people have their opinions and want to voice it, but it just makes me feel tired [laughs.]
You’ve said this album is inspired by a sort of dystopia and a lot of your music is inspired by sci-fi, like how your second record Aerotropolis was inspired by the film Gattaca. When you want to read or watch sci-fi, what do you usually gravitate towards?
For this album I was into the movie Strange Days. It’s about how the apocalypse is about to happen and everyone’s freaking out and needs a distraction from that. People are either partying really hard or using this technology which is like this kind of net you put on your head and you can experience any kind of fantasy you want. It’s like VR but very realistic.
I like a lot of J.G. Ballard books. I feel a weird attraction to his books because he grew up in a town called Shepperton which is a little bit farther than where I live. And when he went to London he would have to take the same routes that I would to go back home. You can see that in parts of his books Concrete Island or High Rise. Stuff does go on where I live but with music and nightlife nothing goes on here. It’s the suburbs and hard to commute to places like if I wanted to go to a night out in Hackney Wick. It’s difficult to try to teleport yourself anywhere. And I feel a bit like Ballard when he sees London disintegrating behind him as he goes home back to where he lives. I stopped also driving recently because I was in a car crash and I’ve been taking Ubers everywhere and feeling like I’m wasting my time commuting to places all the time.
When was your car crash?
This was about two summers ago now. I was pulling out of my road and just didn’t see this guy speeding down the road. It was my mom’s car, I totally fucked up her car, she’s really not happy with me [laughs]. I got away with bruised ribs and chest pain and I’m still working on my back now but just being unable to walk to the studio, which isn’t even that far, it was torture to me. Or just not even being able to laugh because my chest was hurting. It made me think, I need to write this album ASAP.
Your 2010 debut Contact, Love, Want, Have was so bubbly and video-game inspired, which is very different than this record. How would you say your music has changed over the years?
Distractions is a little bit dark in some places. It’s more reflective, than anything. I’m just getting to that age now where you start thinking about your future and how long you’ve got left in this music business and whether you’ve achieved everything you want to achieve in an underground music space. I’m very happy with this record and all the sounds I’ve picked. I’m still very retro in terms of synthesizers and I hope that doesn’t go away.
You really love to work with ‘80s synths and ‘80s synth-pop has sort of had a mainstream comeback in recent years. How do you use them without falling on something that sounds too gimmicky or too retro?
I think that was the problem with my album Aerotropolis, it was just too nostalgic in some places. Running through modern technology and running through my modern computer, you’re never going to actually get that ‘80s sound. In the ‘80s all this technology was new and people didn’t even know how to use things. Little accidents like over-using reverb or getting an accidental lo-fi sound by pushing the buttons too hard have become standard. It’s hard to get [those accidents] these days with modern technology, though there are plenty of things that are built to replicate those sounds.
Were you listening to anything that might have trickled into the process or inspired this album?
Usually my DJ sets will inspire a lot of what I make in the studio. I was listening to a lot of the dancehall comeback in London and people mixing dancehall with afrobeats, guys like J Hus and Belly Squad. I like that African music is getting good recognition. I was in South Africa a few months ago and felt really inspired by their house scene. They have an amazing scene called gqom and is pioneered by people like DJ Lag and Rudeboyz. There are just layers upon layers of really dark tones. It reminds me of really early dubstep when everything was stripped down.
You have quite a few guest vocalists on this album (Jessy Lanza, Andrea Galaxy) as opposed to your past records. Has remixing for other artists made you want to incorporate vocalists more?
I was very scared to step up my game and work with vocalists. I think for the longest time I thought I was just a bedroom producer who was just really lucky to get to make tunes and release them. I kind of got out of my comfort zone maybe four years ago, taken on a lot more remixes and really understanding how modern pop mechanics work and teaching myself that way to make music. Now I’m able to say, yes, I can work with you, let’s have a chat and I can send you some beats. I would really love to be that kind of producer. I would like to work in pop music but also retain what I still believe. I think that’s also my problem as well, I’ve been in an underground scene for nearly two years now, I think it’s kind of time for me to sell out? [Laughs] Or not even sell out, just step my game up and see how far I can take this.
You feature Jammz on the song “Sacrifice” and in America, grime is becoming more mainstream, especially since Drake just included artists like Skepta and Giggs on More Life. What are your thoughts on grime and UK club trends trickling into mainstream pop outside of London?
When grime first came out the mainstream just denied them. A lot of artists had problems even just playing shows for their fans. This was a sign of subtle racism in this country, people just trying to stop grime from being a part of youth culture. So what grime [artists] essentially did was just say, nah, we’re going to do it ourselves and show the world our scene, our culture, which is London in every form. And now it’s gotten that stage where Skepta is big, Stormzy’s number one, Drake is on this as well, so it’s a nice love story for me. I was that kid who was into grime and we’ve been waiting for grime to overtake the world. It’s nice to have something like that come out of our city, our country, when it comes to music.