On ‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’, the latest musical adventure from Nightmares On Wax, George Evelyn explores the human spirit’s need for liberty. The process led to deep conversations with both others and himself 

When I call to talk to George Evelyn, aka Nightmares On Wax, aka DJ EASE, he’s in Zanzibar, of all places. The line is noisy…

“Can you hear that?” says Evelyn. “Sorry. This is going to sound really ridiculous, but it’s a guy making juices!”

These days, Evelyn usually resides in Ibiza, amid the hippie enclaves and meditation retreats in the hills to the north of the island. However, the legendary UK DJ and producer’s ninth album as Nightmares On Wax is titled ‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’, so it makes sense that while some of us are still calculating the risk of a trip to Tesco, Evelyn has taken the opportunity to check out a Tanzanian archipelago. 

The record is being hailed as his best in some time, and it is. In fact, less than a week after its release, the authorities at Electronic Sound have asked me to inform him it’s made the mag’s Top 10 of the year.

“Oh I appreciate that, man!” he says.

Raised in Hyde Park, Leeds – not Chapeltown, as some sources state (“I’d get lynched if I went around saying that”) – Evelyn has been making music as Nightmares On Wax for over 33 years. His records, including the once-ubiquitous ‘Smokers Delight’ (1995) and ‘Carboot Soul’ (1999), have become trip hop cornerstones. His habit of tackling big topics with humour, his encyclopaedic record collection and a little cannabinoid insight has helped his music find a place in all manner of unexpected places and influential collections. It’s the glue binding northern techno and US hip hop, Sheffield basements and Chicago house, Birmingham reggae and Bronx R&B.

Nightmares On Wax’s debut single, ‘Dextrous’, was Warp’s second-ever release and the label’s first breakthrough hit. Evelyn, alongside Warp founders Steve Beckett, Rob Mitchell and Robert Gordon, played a huge role in laying a template for a deeper take on dance, one that reached beyond pilled-up airheads to post-rave philosophers, to people who saw the music as a window to something different – a borderless alternative to the Thatcherite careerism of the early 1990s. So against this backdrop, and not wishing to minimise the mighty accomplishment of making it into our end of year round-up, it feels as if it’s worth asking Evelyn whether the baubles still matter?

“It’s great,” he says. “The music kind of takes on its own journey, so when you get these echoes come back, you have so much gratitude for all of it. I always like the comparison with having a kid. You look after the kid, you nurture it a bit, but then the kid flies the nest and goes and becomes their own person. Songs are like that.”

The songs on ‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’ are making a good life for themselves. It’s an album that really examines the nature of its subject. During the production, Evelyn interviewed his collaborators – OSHUN, Greentea Peng, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (The Comet Is Coming/Sons Of Kemet), Haile Supreme and NZ electronic musician Mara TK (Electric Wire Hustle). All spoke about their perceptions of freedom (many of their chats are on YouTube) and this all fed into the record. 

The responses were deep and varied, inspired by everything from health struggles to the Black Lives Matter movement to civil liberty and the assorted monkeys we, as individuals, all carry on our backs. Along the way, the record incorporates expertly woven threads of electronica, funk, reggae, jazz, soul and hip hop in the service of a joyful explosion – one that seems more exorcism than exposition.

Evelyn says its true origins run through to childhood, although it wasn’t until September 2020 that he became conscious of the freedom theme. Around this time he, like many musicians, experienced a new appreciation for his domestic surroundings, not to mention his studio at home in Ibiza.

“I call my studio The Other Ship,” he says. “Because I believe it’s where I go to travel, to make shit happen. And I see it as really sacred. I don’t have other people come and hang out there. It’s just not that kind of place. I’ve done a lot of spiritual, ceremonial practices, which have taught me a great deal. It’s being more aware of the space I’m in at all times. And that’s where I’ve got my understanding of space in the studio.”

At this point, Evelyn adopts what I can only describe as his “probing” voice. It is the one he uses when he references conversations with himself. It’s still delivered in a Yorkshire burr somewhat muted by travel, but it’s slightly higher in inflection and prolonged exposure to it has the slightly unnerving side-effect of making you question your own reality. I realise it’s going to happen a lot in our conversation.

“It’s made me think,” he says, “‘Do you realise this has been given to you? That the journey you’ve been on has brought you to this point? So what are you gonna do with it?’. And then you go in there, but not being serious about it – just being playful, like a kid. That’s how I started making music. It was the adventure of it all.”

By September 2020, six months into his downtime, Evelyn’s voyages in The Other Ship had generated a backlog of new material and he felt it was time to review his progress.

“I put what I had on my phone and I went to the beach. I took a joint, smoked and listened to everything. It was almost like throwing all the jigsaw pieces on the floor and going, ‘What’s the picture?’. As I said, I love adventuring and questioning consciousness, and when I was collaborating with these artists, I was asking, ‘What’s the inside saying? Because I feel very different right now…’. And everybody was coming back with something really profound – all different cries, or expressions of freedom.”

Evelyn started to home in on the theme, talking about it with his wife, his friends and the other artists, but it seems that the most profound conversations were the ones he was having with himself.

“I was asking, ‘Well, what’s freedom?’,” he says. “And I realised that it doesn’t matter who I put that question to, everybody’s going to tell me something different. I thought about all the stuff I’ve had in my life that I wanted to be free of. I started going, ‘Actually, everybody wants to be free of something’. They could look like the happiest person on the planet but I bet there’s something they want to be free of. It felt like this is a conversation that’s healthy for us to have.”

I ask Evelyn if he has recognised any clear moments in realising the value of his own liberty, either from being denied it or from experiencing it at its fullest.

“That question of freedom can be so deeply layered,” he responds. “I’d had some childhood trauma stuff and I didn’t realise… well, I did realise it, but I wasn’t getting through it. I decided to do something about it and I actually went and did an ayahuasca ceremony in 2012. And it changed my life. It absolutely changed my life, because I’d got to 2012 and I was like, ‘It’s 2012, man! We don’t know if we’re going to get to 2013…’

I recall, unhelpfully, there were a lot of prophecies doing the rounds at that point, before deciding to shut up.

“Yeah, I was thinking less the end of the world and more the end of reality as we know it,” continues Evelyn, as if that was obvious. “Going into a new reality, not doomsday bullshit. And I thought, ‘Well, you know, if I’m going into a new reality, I need to get rid of this baggage, man. Let’s dive into the fire!’. And it was really, really difficult, but it was totally worth it.

“It was like going to the basement of all your shit. And having a look around and saying, ‘This basement needs cleaning out’. I came to an understanding then that it’s only a story. It’s not you – the trauma, your issues, your insecurities, whatever – they’re just stories. And we determine their meaning and value.

“I realised I have an option to decide whether this is something that wears me down but that I want to carry for the rest of my life, or if it’s something where I’m gonna go, ‘It happened to me. It made me feel like this. I felt shit. I could have got over it years ago, but I decided to hang on to it’. And that’s the truth. That, for me, was my real first sense of absolute freedom.”

This revelation set a high bar for the influences that fed into ‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’. Equally, as he enjoyed the new-found release from his previous, punishing touring schedule, Evelyn realised his priorities were in need of realignment.

“I was looking back and going, ‘Where the fuck have I been?’,” he says. “I never really thought about how hard I worked. Never! Because I just love what I do. But when I thought about the schedules, I was like, ‘How did I survive it?’. I felt I’d dodged a bullet and I’d got away with something. And then, ‘There’s absolutely no way I would live that life again’. I’d been going out and giving the best of myself and then coming home and being the worst version of myself for my family.”

As if to underline the preciousness of this new situation, Evelyn also suffered a cancer scare during the making of ‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’. The recurring back and neck pain he’d suffered for years and had always put down to touring continued once he was off the road and so, at the request of his partner, he decided to get it checked out.

“I had an MRI. At first the doctor said to me, ‘We think it’s lipoma, which is fatty tissue. You could have it taken out’,” recalls Evelyn. When I came round, I felt like I’d been hit over the back of the head with an axe. Then the surgeon came up to see me and said, ‘We don’t think it’s lipoma. We need to send off for some tests’. At that point, I was like, ‘Fucking hell! Is this really my story? Like that?’. I didn’t tell my family. I just said I had to go back for some tests, because I thought, ‘There’s no point worrying people’. Nobody knows shit until it’s fact, right?”

That is very Yorkshire of you, I point out. Again, quite unhelpfully.

“Exactly,” says Evelyn. “But if I put worry out into the field, it’s just going to echo back at me, you know? Then I’m going to worry! And it was mad because I was in the middle of the album stuff and I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, now I’ve got this that I want to be free of. This is insane.’

“It’s like if you put it out there, creatively, it’ll come back to see how you live up to it. It will test you. And that’s what I felt. I was going through these different emotions, saying to myself, ‘Wow, there’s always been some drama, some reflection, or something going on when you record, but you’ve really chosen a big one this time, haven’t you?’.”

Evelyn returned home and carried on working. The question that kept coming back to him was, “If it was the last album you ever make, what would you do?”.

“It was a proper conversation with myself that helped me go deeper,” he says. “And with songs like ‘3D Warrior’ – there’s actually a 10-and-a-half-minute version, which is going to come out on vinyl at some point – I was working at 4am and pulling my head out of it going, ‘God, what is this?’. It felt as if it was coming from another realm. At the same time, I was really feeling what Haile was singing in there and what Shabaka had brought to it. And I don’t say this biggin’ up the music, but I just knew this was very, very special and like, ‘I’m journeying now, I’m really getting somewhere’.”

In the end, Evelyn spent two weeks waiting for the test results and the producing continued, as did the conversations with himself. Sometimes they were creative. Sometimes they went down what he calls the “dark path”. When the results arrived, the all-clear felt like another palpable taste of freedom.

“Maybe, as you say, it’s the Yorkshire in me,” he says. “But even though I was telling myself I didn’t worry about it, that I didn’t want to bow down to something – I really felt the lift! And I started thinking of all the other instances in my life where I’ve had dramas or something happened – car crashes, or whatever. Once I’ve understood them, I’ve realised the blessing in it. It’s been unpleasant but it’s brought me on this journey.”

The experience brought home to the producer the fundamental understanding that “time is our only real currency”. Something that has felt very apparent of late in the world.

“Everything else is superficial,” he says. “But time, it’s like, ‘Well, what are you going to do with it?’. Over the last year, losing people, whether they’re your family, friends – all kinds of mad stories – you’re going, ‘Shit, even if we know tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, it doesn’t mean you have to live in fear. If this was your last day, are you living it to the fullest?’.

“And that’s the really key point in all of this,” he says, going back to the theme of the record. “To be able to do that takes a certain element of freeing yourself from all the things you think are wrong with you or that happened to you. We carry this stuff and it can seem like a coat of armour, but it’s suffocating us, stopping us from being actually free. Maybe I’m being a bit selfish, but for me it’s such a valuable conversation. I feel I’m learning so much from it.”

Evelyn has always been a learner and a thinker. It’s what made him stand out from his peers in the basements and barren warehouses of northern England in the late 1980s, and what helped Warp build the bridge that would make Aphex Twin a household name. But talking to Evelyn in 2021 – motivated, happy and seemingly at peace even as the world melts and reforms around us – it feels as though he’s hit a point of transcendence.

They say with age comes wisdom and after 33 years he is getting to the stage where people will start to ask about his legacy. Many would argue he is, if anything, overlooked among the canon of electronic pioneers. Is he content with his place in that world?

“Yeah,” he answers, without hesitation. “It’s still a fairytale story to me. Especially when it comes to releasing music. Me and Warp grew up together, and that’s a fairytale. We were going to basement clubs together. Who’d have thought that this many years later the label would be the amazing thing it is? That I’d still be here making music? It’s crazy. When we started out back then, I wasn’t thinking about a career. It was, ‘I just want to make sure we get our tunes out, make sure another DJ plays it and we get the props!’. That was it, you know? So it’s bizarre. I feel content with it, but I still don’t take it for granted.

“The beautiful thing is that it’s such an insane story and it’s not even over yet. There’s still so much I want to do, and I feel I’ve reconnected to that youthful side of me again. Just playing and having fun with sounds. Kind of like… no, I won’t say this.”

He pauses a moment, weighing it up, playing.

“No, I will say this! Wouldn’t it be amazing if I made as many songs as I’ve played gigs?”

He chuckles at the thought.

“I’m definitely gonna come back out and do some shows but I don’t see me doing it to the extent I was before. So what does that mean? That means I’m gonna be in the studio. I’m like, ‘Does that mean I’m gonna make shitloads of music then? Well yeah, why not?’.”

There’s that probing voice again. And George Evelyn is off talking to himself once more, asking questions and spotting paths no one else is seeing.

‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’ is out on Warp

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