In 2017, Aaron Bell came back from Moogfest, the annual multi-day arts, tech and electronic music festival held in Durham, as inspired as he’d ever been. The Charlotte-based DJ/producer, who performs as AXNT, got right to work on a new project that he wanted to make “the loudest, the hardest, the grooviest” project he’d ever made.
Earlier this month, Axnt dropped Double Image, a seven-track EP that he says is the first step in the evolution that began two years at Moogfest. How fitting that two weeks after the release, Bell will get a chance to play some tracks from the new EP at Moogfest. He’ll perform at Quarter Horse Bar & Arcade with the Raund Haus record label that released Double Image on Saturday, April 27, before returning home to play at The Milestone alongside local acts Modern Moxie and Deion Reverie and Philadelphia-based Son Step on Monday, April 29.
Before then, Bell stopped by the Queen City Nerve offices to chat about the new project, his inspirations and what comes next.
Queen City Nerve: Has music always played an important role in your life?
Aaron Bell: I’ve always been around it. My dad was always playing Bob Marley or Jimi Hendrix or Pink Floyd, all the old classics. Miles Davis, especially, to the point where I’ve heard the songs so much that when it came around to me listening to and finding music of my own interests, I picked those up no problem. That made me want to play bass and drums, which is my strongest background. The guitar and everything, I picked those up over the years. It wasn’t until college that I found electronic music and a lot of electronic bass beats and stuff that was going on in the West Coast and UK and things like that, so I started picking up a lot of electronic bass music around that time.
Who are the producers that inspired you once you got interested in electronic music?
In high school, I was a shy person, so I never would just go to people and say, “Hey, I play this instrument, let me play in your band,” I felt like I was a little too out there, or the people I was talking to were a little bit intimidating. So when I went to college I gave up on the fact of playing in a band, and I ran into one of the people who really got me interested in producing solo, this guy Shigeto, he’s from Ann Arbor. At the time he made beats that were very jazzy; they were hardcore jazz and hip-hop beats and he played drums. I saw that and was like, “Wow, so I can make music and perform it by myself.” From there, I was already kind of hip to Flying Lotus, and then once I really started coming up I really got attached to that. A lot people in the L.A. scene and in the UK scene were meshing a lot of those sounds together. College being the time when you find the most eclectic sounds and the weirdest sounds out there, just picking up everything around that time made me go, “Wow, I didn’t know what this is.” It was called dubstep, I picked everything up from there and as time goes on you just build and realize.
I’m surprised to hear about all the classic music and then dubstep that inspired you, because when I listen to your music I hear a heavy foundation in hip-hop. Did that ever play into your musical interests?
Oh yeah. Even with hip-hop, it kind of snuck its way into a lot of the Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis that I was listening to. It started with A Tribe Called Quest, that led me to Wu-Tang, that led me to Nas, all the ‘90s classics, Dr. Dre. I was a gamer nerd, so I played Tony Hawk [Pro Skater] and Grand Theft Auto, so the soundtracks in those games came from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and the West Coast, so it attached on to me at that point.
You grew up playing instruments, and your music is instrumental now. Were you ever lyrical?
Naw, I keep my mouth shut as much as possible (laughs). I can’t get around to hearing my own voice. I pretty much just keep it all in my hands.
So as an instrumentalist, production came more natural to you?
I’ll say creating was more natural, depending on what it was I was trying to go for. I always had it in my mind that if I want to make this, I’m going to figure out how to make that sound. I’ll make electronic sounds out of just recording me playing bass and I’ll modulate it, flip it, make it sound like everything else other than a bass — same thing with guitar and keys. I’ll make electronics sound more organic and organic stuff sound more electronic. It’s really just breaking things down and reassembling it, making soundscapes.
How would you describe your sound?
It’s very loose electronic music that is beat-driven, so to speak. I’m trying to also break the boundaries of what that’s supposed to mean, where it can still be a song that has structure and just not something that has hard drums or something that has abrasive melodies or soundscapes and things like that. The word dubstep in itself has such a hard connotation, but once it died out there were sounds that still evolved from that and became a mind of its own. So I say the term bass music more than I say dubstep because the origin of it, like a lot of music, kind of just evolves where it goes.
A lot of people that were making that kind of music, beat music or electronic music, all went their own directions. Like TiKO is more band-driven now, before he was making more instrumental electronic music. A lot of my friends would say [my music] sounds very like IDM [intelligent dance music], which is loose on Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada, which is one of my favorite groups. So I draw a lot of inspirations, especially Massive Attack.
What new things were you going for with Double Image?
A lot of the tracks that ended up on Double Image really came out of a bag of stuff that I’ve been creating over the last two-and-a-half years. For the very first time, I went to Moogfest in 2017 and coming back from that I thought to myself, “I can do whatever I want, I don’t have to feel like I have to be pinned to something,” A lot of people that started making beats started the whole lo-fi trend and that’s great, I make a lot of that stuff myself, but what comes natural to me are sounds that come from sessions that sound like Double Image.
Double Image to me is like the first step to evolving into what I have planned. The vibe that I wanted to go for with Double Image was more of something that’s almost cinematic; it acts like a wave, it has a mind of its own, its own life. It has a beginning scene, middle scene and the end of the movie, so to speak. I’m a cinematic person, so that’s kind of how I put my projects together. In doing that, I just pick from my bag like, “I think this might go well with this,” and it just evolves naturally into each other.
You just came off the record release party, which you held during a Repainted Tomorrow event at Petra’s. How’d that go?
It was very hot (laughs). If you watch videos, I’m just sweating the whole time, but that’s just me being in the groove — how I play. I played a handful of tracks that are on the EP, but I tried to make it more of a live experience. I like to make people go, “Oh wow, he played that?” or just catch people off guard. So in the middle of playing a bunch of heavy beats I’ll play Radiohead, just turn it into a dance track. Once you catch people’s attention, from there you can kind of just control what they do.
That’s why I feel like I always have that control when I perform, because I catch people’s attention and I’m like, “I have you now,” and from there you can go wherever. I had got a lot of positive feedback from the show and from the release itself, so the whole night was really a nice experience.
You seem to have a tight relationship with some of the other producer/DJs in town, like Simon SMTHNG, who hosts those Repainted Tomorrow parties, or Yung Citizen, for example.
We’re all very tight with each other. We know where each person is going to be at if we need to hit them up or talk to them and say, “Hey, I need your help.” I have no problem coming to help you out.
I remember first meeting Yung Citizen; Jason Jet held a beat-making competition, and I went up first and I think Yung Citizen came up after me, and what he did just completely blew me away, and I’m like, “Oh God. Can I go again? That was amazing.” Ever since then, I see Yung Citizen around every now and then, but every time I see him it’s like “Dude, it’s great to see you,” because he’s such a humble guy, and I’m always picking his brain about little things. The same thing with Simon; I’ll go and ask him, “What do you think about this or about that?” And seeing what he’s done with Repainted Tomorrow, the progression that he’s made, it’s really inspiring to see.
The difficulty in booking hip-hop acts at local venues has been a hot topic lately. How does that translate to your circle of DJs and producers?
I wont say it’s easy, but it’s very accessible to find work as a producer/DJ. Because when you’re looking at it from a visual standpoint, it kind of sounds the same, but depending on what it is that you’re playing, it can be very open to get lost in, “Is it my music, or am I DJing, so to speak?” I get a lot of gigs, just like my buddy Simon and Lavonte [Hines, aka] FLLS, we do a lot of work together, DJing over at Le Bang or places around town. Me and Simon DJed for the anniversary of Buffalo Exchange, so we just posted up for the entire day just playing music, and we loved it.
It’s very easy to find work like that for producers, and I think this is what a lot of people get confused about — and things like this is what me and Simon try to fight for — is producers can be artists that stand on their own. Because once people hear the word producer they think, “Oh yeah, they work with somebody.” People like me and Simon know that people have been doing this for years before us and we’re products of picking that up and bringing it into our own as artists, so we try to expand that to people locally and say, “Oh yeah, you can be a producer and be your own artist. You don’t have to work with people.”
You mentioned how Double Image is just the first step in your evolution. What’s the next step?
My overall plan was to make a mixtape at first, and I was saying right when I first came from Moogfest that first time I went because I was so inspired, “I want to make the hardest, the loudest, the grooviest project that I can make.”
I figured, to reintroduce myself more so to people who know me as I’ve kind of been away from releasing or playing music more seriously, Double Image is that first step. So once that is out there and people get accustomed to it, from there, I want to build on it and bring more of those sounds in that are more groovy and more open. And I definitely want to play more jazz.