Activa interview

Written by Remco on 30 May 2019 in Interviews
Activa interview
Rob Stevenson has been in the trance scene for over a decade now, mainly under the guise of Activa. He has released countless tracks that stand up only too well to the test of time today. We wanted to take some time to get in the head of the prolific entity and see what he is all about.

First of all Rob, thank you for being here, we know our community is crazy for you and would like to know more about the artist behind the music. How did you get started in all this back in the day and develop that into the early stages of your career?

Thanks for having me - I appreciate the opportunity. I started really early on, listening to UK hardcore but the constant MC’s kept distracting me from the music, some of which was pretty good at the time. Some of the guys at my school brought in the Gatecrasher Black compilation and that was that - I became pretty obsessed as to how this music was made.

I was messing around early on with Cakewalk Home Studio which was essentially a sequencer for outboard gear and although I had some dodgy midi keyboards they were general midi sounds only. Anyone old enough to remember when that was a thing will remember how bad the sounds were.

I hadn’t really found synths and samplers so I was a bit late to the party there, struggling early on to understand how the sounds were starting dull and brightening up (which I found to be cutoff). At the time I couldn’t understand how to include audio / samples in this.

This was when I was 11 / 12 so there was no YouTube no tutorials, no online help of any kind really. I didn’t know anyone else that produced music so had to basically stick at it.

As the internet started kicking in, I found that Cakewalk were going to release software called Sonar, which was a natural progression as well as Reason which was an eye opener to say the least; rewired to Sonar it opened up synthesis via Subtractor as well as triggering samples. With the rise of forums, where people could discuss and share information about producing and their setups, things spiralled and I eventually got to a stage where I was producing ‘releasable’ music and I had my first release in 2004.

How would you describe your sound in one sentence to a person who has yet to hear your music?

My ‘sound’ is pacey, driving uplifting and tech trance.

You have done two albums, This World and To The Point (okay TECHNICALLY three if you want to count the Remixed To The Point album spinoff). Looking back, how do you feel about them and all the work involved in the undertaking of actually putting together an album as opposed to single releases?

I class it as 2. ;)

I look back on This World, pretty fondly. It was a massive project for me as I dealt with all aspects of the album, including the artwork, a mini website and loads of other things which normally, other parties would be involved in doing.

The first album sold out which was great and it won’t be pressed again making things that little more special for me. Music wise I'm not hugely happy with the music mainly as I am my own worst critic and my production quality has moved on (I would like to think) a substantial amount.

The second album, To The Point, I think I am more happy with music wise. Again it was a project I deal with with a lot of components that are usually covered by the label, or other parties. I always appreciated Discover for allowing me the control on those albums both over the music and the products themselves.

You have also done plenty of behind-the-scenes work for record labels as well as run your own label. Tell us a bit about that side of your history and where it’s brought you now.

My work with labels started back in 2005 with Conspiracy, run with Jon O’Bir who became a long term friend and someone I still catch up with now. Over that time our styles started to separate and both our careers developed to a point where it was difficult to continue.

Label owner wise, I moved on and created Borderline which was a natural continuation of where I wanted to go style wise and label wise - Simon Bostock was brought into that project after a couple of years which really helped.

Owning labels is pretty difficult, especially if you're the sole person running everything, both of those projects taught me a lot of lessons about what to do and not to do. It's very easy to overdo it and suddenly you have a mass of tracks that all want attention, scheduling and accounting to. Unfortunately it became too expensive to run Borderline and we had to close.

I was also A&R and operations for Perfecto and its sub labels, and Discover which was a lot of work but significantly less risk. They were also more powerful labels so the ability to get bigger artists increased. It was great to work with some of the pay artists too through Perfecto - a very different world!

As I'm a glutton for punishment, I have joined Sean and what was Degenerate. We both clicked on certain areas to do with music and he asked me to get on board. As I was already releasing on the label, I thought it would be cool to do.

So now Regenerate Records, the spiritual offspring of the previously mentioned labels and Sean Tyas’ previous Degenerate and even Tytanium, has been born. This seems like truly formidable duo in the trance scene. What do you both want to do with the label over the next 12-18 months?

The next 12 months will see the development of the labels sound. Previously there was really only my music on Degenerate which had that softer, more uplifting sound. A lot of the Degenerate sound was quite aggressive.

Sean and myself have decided to take on more melodic centric tracks and pushing the quality by (as there are now two of us) putting more time into the tracks before release. More A&R, tweaks, mastering etc. and working with the artists more to get a consistent final product that will hopefully make the release stick out a bit more, no matter which artist it is.

We also don’t want to overdo it. We have an idea to take on a small number of artists who want to work with the label as much as we want to work with them and help develop the releases we take on, take them into the Regenerate fold and create a bit more of a label group.

Release-wise, you’ve really picked up the consistency recently, putting out track after track that sees constant hammering by the likes of Armin, John O’Callaghan, Aly & Fila, Sean Tyas, John Askew, Simon Patterson, the list goes on… Tell us a bit about the last 6 months of releases and how they are shaping where you’re are going with your sound.

As I have a full time job, music has become a hobby again. It's actually a blessing in disguise as I enjoy being in the studio more and because of that my output in terms of releases has actually increased.

As I write this, a remix for Lange has just been released on Black Hole and Found My Silence  on FSOE just before that.

I have stopped making what I think I need to make, I now make music that I enjoy whatever comes out; tech trance, uplifting, proggy under my Jay Stephens alias. While the sound of the tracks in terms of the genre may not seem that different it had become difficult to make uplifting tracks a few years back which started my fling with progressive psy and psy trance.

Now that I am making more ‘traditional’ uplifting trance, I am just going to continue to do that; make music that I don’t feel is forced.

Now, of course, onto the “work in progress” category…. Can you tease us with any juicy bits of info on what is to come from you or Regenerate in the near future?

I am always working on material. Some of it takes months and months to finish, some takes weeks so I have a bit of a backlog at the moment, in a way.

I have another release on Regenerate ready called Tidal which is looking like July time, then a nearly finished vocal track with Julie Thompson which has been great to work on. I'm really looking forward to how that is received as it's my first proper vocal track in some time and one that I think is far stronger than I have done previously.

I have a collab planned with Tyas too as we're both running Regenerate; it’d be rude not to!

There is one special project that is coming up too with long term mate John Askew. Some time ago we released a track called 667 under AA Meeting. It seemed to be a one off breaks track that I think John used on his Discover album.

Recently, we have been talking again about the project and will be doing a limited number of appearances as AA Meeting with a ‘live production’ set. Essentially it will be a live arrangement and production set up using ableton, controllers, drum machines and live elements but all of the music will be bespoke to that project, made only for the gigs we do under the alias and will never be released. The music will actually never be in an exported and releasable format so it should never appear in our own DJ sets.

That project is coming together nicely!

Thank you so much Rob for taking the time to give us a better glimpse into the world of Activa.  The next few months are going to be stacked with even more of your music to come, so we are all super intrigued and excited to hear it all. 



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