At 23 years old, Charlie Sparks has infiltrated two fields hardly welcoming of such young faces: architecture and music production. In the latter, he’s even received the nickname “Baby Techno,” from a fan. He grew up in Kawasaki-Daishi, where he continues to visit every summer, but is now based in London, where he enrolled in architecture school and learned how to DJ. Actually, the beginning of his architecture studies coincided with his entrance into electronic music. “In the UK, it’s all tech-house and drum and bass, so I was into that for a short while,” he shares, “then I started to come across the more progressive hard-hitting style of music such as Techno, and from there I have just slowly moved faster and harder with my taste.”
For his most recent project, Sparks has joined forces with Manchester label Moments in Time, founded by Rudosa, for the eight-track VA Moments Vol. 2. In his “Phobia,” track 4 of this album, he refuses to reveal any of the naivete or ambivalence we might expect of a genre newcomer. “Phobia” begins in media res, explosively. This is not to say Sparks lacks nuance. As he builds the percussion, infusing lasers in the track, he makes sure to include periodical pauses, with only ambiance or the vocal accompaniment punctuating them, before launching back into the loud industrial pulse with which he began.
Thinking about his production in architectural terms, much thought is put into the structure. We get moments of calm and total vitality. But Sparks is concerned primarily with the human dimension of his music. For both building and song design, audience is vital. “As a creator, you design a piece of work to generate a certain emotion or reaction when the user encounters the art,” Sparks says, “just like a DJ or producer will create music or select certain tracks to make the crowd feel a certain way.” It’s hard to imagine now, but for a live audience, those moments of quiet in “Phobia” not only create tension and thrill but also provide breathers.
But, out of personal preference, these breathers are added only in moderation. “I love my music to be around 150 – 155 BPM,” the artist says. He delights that the vigorous “old school ’90s style” of techno seems to be making a comeback. Naturally he is drawn to industrial techno, with the driving pace and metallic, even hair-raising, texture we see in tracks like “Phobia” and “Be Quiet.” “Phobia,” especially, produces something like fear or fledgling panic in the listener. “The hazardous style is what enticed me before I became a DJ,” Sparks reflects. “The feeling of the music gripping you in an aggressive manner, which raises your senses and gives you energy.” He continues, “I just want my listeners to feel the energy and power run through them!” While the prospects for a live show are little, even listening to “Phobia” with headphones is chilling.
Perhaps his youth plays into the vigor of these songs and, before COVID, of his performances. He is excited to gain more experience but acknowledges that a young perspective can breed fresh ideas. He finds that those songs which are assembled intuitively, without too much thought turn out best – but during a creative drought, he explores other art forms, watching a movie or an anime. Sparks cites anime as one of his main sources of musical inspiration; he tries to sample his favorite ones and replicate the intensity of the scenes.
For Sparks, techno is liberating, as an art form and a culture. “The whole scene is about expressing yourself and that is why when you are [at any techno event], no one judges you,” he says. “Everyone is there to just dance and let themselves be free from whatever is holding them down in the real world.”
So much of its beauty – that of crowd participation and the synchronicity between DJ and audience – has ceased with the pandemic. But artists like Sparks, with the Moments in Time release and even at-home livestreams, have kept the energy high where concerts are scarce. He holds out hope for the return of those roiling live shows, where the “hazardous” style can flower. He enthuses, “COVID has really affected the whole industry but I think it is amazing that I still see artists, labels, events and promoters still sharing the love through livestreams and new tracks, even though we cannot see the emotion of the dancefloor. It is great to see the industry is preparing for when we come out of this and I love that the music is stronger than ever.”