Diggers & Muir make album with mysterious writer John Twelve Hawks

John Digweed, the Bedrock head honcho, and production partner Nick Muir have just made a collaborative album with mysterious sci-fi writer John Twelve Hawks.

Twelve Hawks, known as J12H to his fans, is the author of 2005 dystopian novel The Traveler and its sequels The Dark River and The Golden City. The cult author has sold more than 1.5 million books worldwide.

Like a sci-fi Burial, the identity of J12H is a mystery. He lives 'off the grid', has never met his book publishers, and only communicates using the internet and an untraceable satellite phone, usually employing a voice scrambler. As Digweed explains below, him and Nick Muir tried recording J12H's vox over the internet, but it didn't come out clear enough so ended up meeting up with the mystery figure.

The resulting album is something of a triumph. J12H's deep voice is interspersed atop some of the most creative music Diggers & Muir have ever come up with — ranging from deep melodic tech, emotive beats work, psychedelic ambient, chuggy tribal digidub, cerebral Steve Reich-style electronica, as well as the odd pumping progressive house cut. Segued by John, it's an immersive trip and really gives a flava of J12H's dystopian visions.

DJ Mag grabbed some time with John and Nick to talk about their new collaborative album...


Hi John and Nick, how did you first get in touch with John Twelve Hawks?

John: “The first contact was from J12H's publisher who sent me a copy of The Traveler along with a note explaining that J12H had apparently written his next book, The Dark River, while repeatedly listening to one of my mix CDs and Transitions radio show. 

“I later found out that someone on John's web forum had commented that the ideal soundtrack for reading John's work were mixes of mine, and this is what first alerted him to my stuff. He obviously took the recommendation on board! Anyway, I eventually got round to reading the book and loved it.”

“As I explain in the sleeve notes on the album, John subsequently sent me an email which annoyingly found its way directly into my junk mail, so I didn't see it until a year later! I was gutted, but sent him a reply as soon as I realised what had happened and we established contact.”

John, was it a surprise to hear that the mysterious sci-fi novelist was a fan of yours? Have you got other (in)famous fans?

“Yes, I guess I was surprised to find that my mix had been soundtracking the creative process behind the writing of a novel, particularly from an eminent author like John. I mix music that I love and believe in, it comes from the heart and hopefully that comes through. Maybe that's why some creative people like the music — also, I like to try and build a mix if I can, tell a kind of story, so that may explain it a bit.”

And it was J12H's suggestion to do the collaboration, no? What did you think of the idea at first, and did you have any doubts?

“It was John's suggestion, yes. We get proposals to do various projects from time to time but this was of immediate interest. The Traveler had been on the New York bestseller list, it's a great book and John is an eminent author. 

“Also, the subject matter is very relevant to the times we're in and the way John presents himself in public (or not) is really fascinating. He maintains a degree of secrecy about his identity, is extremely wary about modern communication networks, social media and so forth. Right now it seems that every day we hear more stories that demonstrate that his suspicion is justified. Plus, The Traveler is a great story. 

“Obviously a project like this is a bit of an undertaking but I was confident that Nick and I would be able to make it work, so I wouldn't say we had any doubts about it, no.”

He's obviously a mysterious character — what logistical difficulties were there when it came to recording his vox?

“We wanted to respect his privacy, so we had a go at recording his voice over the phone through the voice-changing software that he always uses when making calls and doing phone interviews in relation to his work as an author. This was only partially successful. 

“By the time you've put a voice through a voice scrambler, then put it down a phone line, then mixed it over a rhythm track, intelligibility really begins to suffer. It was obvious quite quickly that this approach wasn't going to give us the sort of results we were after. So, rather sheepishly, we asked if he would be willing to meet us so we could get the clearest recordings of his voice possible which we could then process and treat — and to our relief, he agreed.”

Did you not even see his face? Where and how did you record him?

“Ha ha, yes — we assured him of our discretion, and the practicalities of it meant that we were lucky enough to meet him in person. John came to Nick's studio in the countryside — it's quiet there and nobody bothers us — and we recorded his spoken pieces properly.”

It's turned out great — how did the process work from your end, cos it's more snippets of dialogue than huge great chunks, isn't it...

“That's right. John, of course, played the large part in selecting passages and phrases from the book that he thought might be suitable to be matched up with a track. He sent us some scripts with these selections, then Nick and I started working up tunes using some of those phrases — and gradually it became obvious which tunes were working. 

“We had quite a large selection of phrases which we had recorded over the phone with John, and we used those in the initial stages of production. When we had whittled down the number of tunes to those that we knew we wanted to finish off, we arranged the recording session with John — it literally took us a couple of hours to record him, his delivery was impeccable.”

“The album does not slavishly follow the time-line of the book. We wrote the pieces using the spoken phrases for inspiration and then I sequenced the tracks according to their mood and energy. We wanted to give an impression of the atmosphere of the book and also frame the narrated contributions, rather than re-telling the story.”

The music is very varied, too — was this deliberate, or just how it turned out?

“Just the way it turned out, to be honest. There has always been a more atmospheric side to my mixes and I wanted the album to reflect that. I used to love some of the early electronica acts like Scott Hardkiss, Young American Primitive, Rabbit In The Moon and so on. That music has bags of atmosphere and mystery. 

“Also, I know Nick loves the British ambient sound, The Orb, Brian Eno, Jon Hopkins and of course we both come from a UK dance background, so it's not surprising there's a number of different styles on there. But it was not heavily planned, we just wrote what we felt. I wanted the album to sound sequence-y, lots of patterns, the sort of music that takes you out of yourself — that chimes with some of the themes of the book, but it definitely has a life of its own.”

It feels quite conceptual, progressive... what have you been calling it?

“We honestly haven't been calling it anything in particular. To us, it's not really a concept album, like I say we just set out to reflect the spoken passages in a musical setting. We think of the tracks kind of like songs, only with spoken content instead of sung. If that provokes a little thought in the listener then great, but the chief motivation was to provide an enjoyable bit of music to listen to. For the most part I suppose the current term for this kind of selection is electronica but that covers all sorts of genres of course.”

Are there any other sci-fi writers either of you would like to recommend?

Nick Muir: “Check out Philip K. Dick if you haven't already. He wrote 'Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep', which was adapted to become the film Bladereunner.”

John, when you're putting together 'Transition' mixes, do you imagine what people are going to be doing as they're listening to them?

“I grow up listening to live mixes on the radio checking out what the new tracks are, so I hope my show has a big influence on budding DJs and fans alike.

Anything else you wanna tell DJ Mag readers?

“Get yourself down to Bedrock 16 at Electric in Brixton on Oct 4th. We will also be having a special pre-party at Plan B in Brixton between 7pm and 10pm where we will be holding a special playback on the album pumping out of their Funktion One soundsystem while Nick and myself sign copies of the limited CD/book that will be available there.”

The John Digweed & Nick Muir featuring John Twelve Hawks album 'The Traveler is released on Bedrock on 6th October.

The album is available for pre-order here