King of All Trades
Instead of doing a boring, self-serving biography talking about how f—ing awesome I’ve been since I dragon-punched my way out of the womb, I decided it would be more amusing, and certainly more in character for me have a couple drinks, then be asked a bunch of questions I’d never seen before. Without further ado:
Somewhere in Burnaby in an advanced state of intoxication…
First question: if you could use three words to describe your music, what would they be?
Serious words or random words?
Just words. ?
Alright, let’s say donkey, punch, … yeahhhhh. And then for serious words I would say funky, creative, and bangin’. I think that’s what I hope would describe my music.
What genre would you describe yourself as? ?
I don’t know – is that important? I’m sorry, I just think people spend too much time worrying about what they should sound like if they’re making ‘genre A’ or what the rules are if you’re gonna make ‘genre b’. Just make the music that sounds good to you, and let someone else worry about shoving it into some labeled box. Do you think Amon Tobin loses any sleep over not fitting in to any particular category?
Ok, what inclined you to start writing and producing in the first place? ?
My warm, Kodak-moment answer is that I like music too much to not create it, but to be honest, what first got me started is my friend lending me a copy of Reason 3. At the time I was listening to cheesy ’90s hard house, and with that as inspiration I created a couple of absolutely terrible techno songs – the worst being a remix of the Oompa Loompa theme. Yeah. Unable to really produce anything decent sounding, and convinced that the only way I’d be validated would be to get ‘just one’ song signed, I gave up several times trying to learn the software.
Yeah, I can say I’ve been there… ?
Yeah, and now that I’ve learned some music theory, become familiar with my software and hardware, and started making an effort to read up on different techniques and ways to do things, this whole other world has opened up. It’s one of those situations where you can never really know how little you know until you know better. I probably still don’t know s—. But I have learned that trying to skip ahead to producing professional quality material by brute force is like giving a monkey a typewriter and telling him to bang out a really awesome porno script. Theoretically it could happen, but it probably won’t.
How would you describe your current lifestyle?
Well, being an engineering student I spend a fair amount of time at school. When I’m not studying, I’m either working on music or hanging out with friends, usually feeling guilty about whichever of the two is getting neglected. If I’m being social a lot, I feel bad about not getting tracks done, and if I’m at home writing tunes, it can get lonely after a while.
Okay, so say when you’ve decided to stay home and are feeling all depressed, which artist do you look to for inspiration?
Depends on how emo I’m feeling. If I’m on a roll it’ll be the artists I look up to stylistically – maybe trying to model an idea around something especially funky they’ve done. In that case it’s a lot of the obvious choices – say Joel Zimmmerman or Joey Youngman (I’m a big fanboy like that). I like to think if they were ever to make a baby together I could be there, maybe sample it into a crazy electro song, you know?
If I’m feeling more frowny, I listen to Boards of Canada or maybe Trent Reznor. Well produced, and it helps me channel the angst.
What is your producing process and also, do you have a favorite time of day to produce?
Well I hate to be the douchey artiste, but I’m pretty picky about this. I like to have an open schedule, for example. If there’s something else I have to do in like 5 hours, even if it’ll only take me 10 minutes, it still preys in the back of my mind cockblocking my creativity. My best environment is usually late at night when it’s nice and quiet.
Yeah, but I hear you’re pretty much nocturnal anyway…
More or less, but that’s at least 50% school’s fault. Also, I’m distractible like a little puppy, so when everyone else has gone to bed that’s usually my best time to get things done.
Addressing the issue of my process, this can usually go one of two ways: half the time it’s an experimental process where I’ll write a cool beat, or randomly diddle out some notes on my keyboard, basically play around until I stumble onto something cool or catchy. From there, it’s a matter of adding layers: starting from the bottom, drums, and other elements that are repeated rhythmically, then some bass, or a synth part, or pads, or whatever – just getting a feel for how the track is going to build up and tear down. Once I have a good idea for the overall concept of the song, it’s a matter of tweaking the noises and setting everything up the way I want it to be in the final version. One of my main challenges at this point is spending way too much time worrying about the little details, especially because at any point any part could get tossed out if it no longer fits into the picture.
My second method is weirder. This usually happens to me in the shower
I think I know this one – when you’re in the shower you bring your notebook into the bathroom, right?
Yeah – I’m guilty of taking showers for no other reason than to get ideas. I don’t know what it is; I guess it helps my mind wander. Anyway, I’ll be in the shower, and more or less an entire song will start playing in my head randomly. This is not some song I heard on the radio, this is my brain randomly producing on its own – which sounds cool, but is actually the most frustrating thing ever, because from this point on it’s a matter of running around, dripping water everywhere, trying to get the idea down. What sucks is that there’s really no way to capture it all before it slips away, but I can usually get a cool melody or concept and do my best from there.
Say you’re getting stuck; do you have any method you use to find inspiration when it gets blurry like that?
One is to say f— that and bail…
How many times have you done that?
A couple to be honest. In the previous example it’s a matter of having the idea drift away, or getting frustrated because it’s not coming together like I’m hearing it in my head, but there are a lot of songs where I’ve just lost momentum and moved on. I don’t delete the files, and they often end up getting stripped down and used for something else. In general, if someone was sticking with it, take a shower – seriously. Do whatever you have to do so that your mind is empty, then eventually the answer will pop into your head: “oh, I just need to harmonize the main lead – it’ll fill out the sound in the chorus.” Pew. Done.
So I think we’ve all heard this before, but if you’ve ever seen an interview with deadmau5 he usually gets pretty insulted if the interviewer calls him a DJ…
*giggles* we’re going there?
Well I think you feel the same way on this, but I want to know why exactly it’s so insulting. So yes, we’re going there.
I’m going to start by admitting that this is definitely a generalization, because a lot of really talented people DJ. Most producers use the medium to play their music live, and a lot of straight up DJs do interesting and inventive things on stage, or simply have a rock solid understanding of the craft. What really pisses me off is generic, cocky club DJs who smirk with self-accomplishment while crossfading the same handful of top 40 songs end to end. I don’t see the artistic value in that. That’s like being a cover band that uses pre-recorded material.
Well you DJ too, so what’s the difference?
Well first off, I write music, I play that music live, and as such am aiming to be recognized as a musician, and not a jukebox. From that standpoint it’s almost an issue of how you market yourself. For example, to quote a Pete Tong interview, Carl Cox could write a f—ing symphony orchestra and would be still be perceived as a DJ, while a group like the Chemical Brothers, having made a conscious effort to avoid the title, are generally recognized as musicians despite the fact that the majority of their shows are DJ sets. That being said, given that I don’t yet have enough of my own music for an entire show, I do currently fall into the more traditional process of DJing. But even then I try to explore the creative possibilities available – instead of lining up song after song I like to deconstruct the elements from many different tracks and recombine them into something new, put my own spin on it. I guess the difference is that although DJing is fun, it doesn’t really spark my artistic pride, because at the end of that day I’m still playing other people’s music.
Do you feel the same way about making remixes?
Well that’s a bit different. When DJing I’ll try to put my own spin on a song, but when making a remix, it can be completely reimagined. Generally what I do is try to find the most distinctive moment in the track, isolate it, then use it in a completely different way. To use Scuba as an example, the only thing that’s shared between my version and Amon Tobin’s version is that one sitar hook. That’s like… 1% of the song, but it’s powerful enough that you know right away that it’s a Scuba remix, despite the songs having completely different energies.
What is your favorite piece of equipment or software?
Well, getting a keyboard and proper monitors has been awesome, that’s really helped me take it up another level, but I’d probably have to give it out to Propellerhead’s Record. I’ve used Cubase, I’ve used FL Studio, I still use Ableton a bit, and maybe it’s just ‘cause I started with Reason, but it’s definitely my favorite tool. Even before I’d actually ever seen any of the hardware the synths and effects and such are modeled after, I’ve always felt a lot more comfortable with that physical analogy. Which is cool, because when you finally do run into the hardware in real life, you already have an idea of what to do – like kay, this is a compressor, I probably dial in the gain here… et cetera.
That all being said, if this was fifteen years ago and you couldn’t use your computer to produce, do you think you’d still be pursuing music?
That’s a good question. Ultimately I think I would still be doing this, but as much as anyone hates to admit it, the equipment or software you use has a subtle yet potentially dramatic effect on the style of music you end up creating. This is especially true in the past, where the sounds you were able to use were restricted to the instruments or synths you owned, when digital editing was non-existent or expensive and the difficulty in re-editing or re-sequencing performances might encourage producers to shift a song’s emphasis towards showcasing the talent in the individual elements of an arrangement… little things you wouldn’t think of can have a large overall effect on music, and the expectation people have when listening to it (remember – ‘80s sampled drums used to be ‘cool’). This still happens today – sure, with the advent of computer controlled synthesis you can more or less create any noise you can imagine, but one piece of software might be able to do something a little easier than another, thus promoting a certain sound or style, or whatever. Just imagine how many fewer pop stars there would be if autotune had never been invented.
This probably should have been asked along with the DJ question, but how do you like to run your live shows?
Right now I use my turntables (Numark TTXs), and a Korg Zero 4 firewired into my laptop to play what could be described as electro house in the style of a trance DJ – big builds and big drops. I like to move between genres, and mix different elements from different songs together, even sampling movies or Youtube or whatever, all while maintaining a smooth flow of music. The way I see it, a set should be like one long continuous song, with the audience not knowing if or when a track has been dropped until you want them to. As I accumulate more of my own music, what I’d like to start doing is my porting my songs to Ableton, where I can control each element – drums, synths, vocals individually. This way, I could be generating the tracks in real-time, with absolute control over the flow of music.
If someone was just starting out, what would you tell them to do?
Practice and enjoy! Most of all – do your own thing! Everyone’s journey is different, and you don’t get anywhere new by following someone else’s footsteps. When I first started, buying shitty belt-driven decks off my buddy, I had no idea what I was doing – I just started playing with them. It was funny, because in that moment I remember thinking to myself: “I bet when I look back to this in a year I’ll laugh at how much of a n00b I am.” (I do.) I’m a little bit old-school, but I like to beat match things by ear, so I spent a long time just getting that process perfected. I told myself I needed to be able to consistently have tracks synced within 10 seconds before I moved on to anything else. After that I spent a long time on the internet looking up tips and techniques, and practicing ways of building up and mixing between tracks. What really helped me get better was recording my practice sessions and noting what worked, and what didn’t. Also, starting up a radio show at my university forced me to produce two sets of polished content every week, as opposed to my practice sessions, which were more carefree and experimental. When all other forms of inspiration fail me, I go so a wicked live show, which will usually remind me of how very far I still have to go and put my nose back on the grindstone.
Ok, last question – you are currently nearing the end of your Engineering degree at SFU – why did you decide that music was a better path for you after all the money and time you’ve invested in school?
Well, going to school isn’t just about what it can do for you – you take home a lot more than a degree at the end of the day. Besides, it’s pretty bad-ass to say my back-up plan is engineering! In all seriousness I guess it occurred to me when I was on my first work term: I realized that while it’s an interesting job that I am reasonably good at, it will always feel like just that, a job. Tommorrow I could be hit by a bus – why should I spend today doing s— I don’t truly aim to achieve? I think it’s easy to put something off, blink, then find yourself at the end of your life wondering why you hadn’t gone for what you really wanted. My fear of complacency has given me two expressions I try to live by: ‘there’s plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead’, and ‘every step you take that is not directly towards your goals inherently takes you away from them’.