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Synthesis of Change: an interview with Teengirl Fantasy

After a string of madly hyped first tracks and their critically acclaimed debut LP 7AM in 2010, Brooklyn-based duo Teengirl Fantasy return with their sophomore full-length Tracer, out August 20 on seminal Belgian/UK label R&S Records. For the new effort, Oberlin College alumni Logan Takahashi and Nick Weiss abandoned the sampling that defined 7AM, in particular standout single ‘Cheaters‘, in favor of pure instrumentals and four staggering collaborations that feature vocal contributions by Kelela, Panda Bear, Laurel Halo, and the legendary Romanthony. After a long night of performing and partying at Berlin’s Naherholung Sternchen and an exhausting full day of interviews, I took Logan and Nick to the Tempelhof Airport park to have a little chat about their upcoming record, the duo’s musical development and various influences, and the changing electronic music landscape in the United States.

Electronic Beats: Since 7AM, what has changed for you, musically and personally?

Logan: In terms of our own abilities regarding production techniques, it’s been two and a half years between the two albums, and in that time we’ve just become more experienced working with our tools and getting deeper into programming our hardware and also getting better with mixing techniques. In terms of stuff that we’re listening to, I don’t think there’s any watershed sort of change of the sounds and music we’re listening to – one thing I did start listening to is stuff from the era of early digital production techniques, so I think maybe that had an influence on our music. Personally, we graduated from school so this album was recorded pretty much entirely after we’d left school so it was our first chance to really focus just on one thing from start to finish, and that felt different this time.

The new album feels like emerging from one coherent concept. Did you have an idea how it all should sound like or was it rather isolated tracks that somehow added up to an album?

Nick: We didn’t really sit down and plan how the whole album would sound – we wrote isolated tracks but we wrote them kind of all at the same time, we would have a couple of days of just jamming and writing sessions. Also, we went on tour with our friends Gatekeeper while we were recording and we played our new songs, and I think in the live context they maybe matched together more and more, and then we went back and worked on them in the studio, so it had kind of like a feedback effect that maybe gave the tracks all a similar feel.

Logan: One thing we knew we’d definitely wanted to do with this album is to try to make it be like a cohesive sort of listening experience from start to finish.

You take structures of dance music but the end result is not a dance album. What would be for you the ideal listening environment?

Logan: Ideally, a lot of the tracks would function in a club situation, and we had people dancing to them when we were DJing, but they should also work on a headphone level.

Nick: I think the album is really good for train listening, I’ve listened to it a lot on public transport. It’s nice in order to soundtrack your daily adventures.

What I found striking about the collaborations on Tracer was that each one has a vibe that resembles the respective vocalists’ own styles. Was it only the actual vocals the guest artists provided, or did they also have a say regarding the actual production?

Logan: Well the one for Panda Bear, we had already made the instrumental before even sending it to him, and he was only an idea for somebody who would sound good on that track, as we also agreed that it has some kind of a Panda Bear vibe to it, so we just emailed that to him and then he sent it back with his part on it. The song with Laurel, we recorded it all together in the studio, that was a little bit more collaborative, she gave her input for what she wanted her voice to sound like, but even then the instrumental had pretty much already been written.

Nick: Rather than having our instrumentation following the way their instrumentation is, in terms of vocal production, Panda Bear sent us his vocals already processed, so it really sounds like Panda Bear, and with all the vocals we kind of let them do their own sound, we didn’t try to change it so much, the same with Laurel, she told us how she wanted us to process her voice, and I think that maybe gives it the feel of their music.

But you always had an exact idea which vocalist you wanted for each of those tracks.

Nick: Definitely. We only chose the vocalist we felt like would make sense, yeah.

Logan: The starting point for the Laurel track was that we were talking about it with her and we said that we wanted to make a song where the vocals sound like ‘It’s a Fine Day‘ by Opus III.



What is your recording setup like?

Logan: The instrumentation is all the same as our live setup. So when we recorded it was all of our instruments going into a mixer, and then we just recorded all the tracks live into the computer. Most of the tracks had at least another layer of overdubs just because our interface had only eight channels. But apart from that it’s all live.

Nick: Usually, we’d write the songs in a kind of jam session style and then record scratch live versions and then go back later and listen to them and see if any ideas look good, and if so, we would try and play them again and again until we’d feel like we have something, and then on tour we’d play new stuff in the set and form it that way. The vocals then came as the last step. It was more like when we felt a song was empty or we had purposefully left a song with some room for vocals, then we would find people, but it was pretty natural. All the vocalists except for Romanthony are friends.

But the decision to abandon the vocal samples; did that come early in the process, before the decision to use actual vocalists?

Nick: I think vocal sampling is such an easy way to just drop emotion into tracks, like cut-up R&B vocal samples if you feel like a track needs something human or an emotion, but it’s actually a very inhuman way of doing it because you don’t have to talk to anyone, you can just be alone in your room and chop up someone else’s very emotional outpouring. Someone had to get in a booth and give everything, and now you just use a snippet of that. Not that I’m hating on that, I’m just saying, ‘Cheaters’ is exactly that.

Logan: That was one thing, like anytime anybody wrote about that track, it was usually just like, ‘…and then it samples this track by Love Committee…’

Nick: So yeah, we’d just already done that. And on our other tracks we also did use snippets of vocal samples and stuff, but after everyone was doing it, this time it was just like, ‘Okay, let’s not’.

Are you already working on new stuff?

Logan: We’ve been doing like some soul stuff for the last couple of months or so, kind of in between touring and finishing the album, we have ideas, but we haven’t started recording new stuff yet.

But it’s gonna be something entirely different?

Nick: I can only imagine (laughs).

When you were starting with 7AM, the whole house thing in the US was at that point rather small, but since then it has kind of exploded with all the 100% Silk stuff coming out etc. How do you feel towards that scene? 

Logan: Sometimes we get grouped into like that whole ‘Hipster House’ thing – but even before 100% Silk started we had run into all those guys just playing shows in the Bay Area, all those guys used to live there. Me and Nick lived in Oakland three summers ago, and we would see those guys playing parties, so we were aware of that scene. Even though the music they were playing wasn’t like straight-up house then.

Nick: When we started making music, none of our references were any contemporary artists or whatever, a lot of references were older, so I don’t feel a kinship with that scene at all. I think it’s cool though.

What do you find exciting about music right now then?

Logan: A lot of our friends (laughs). Laurel’s new album is really great, Gatekeeper’s new album is amazing, James Ferraro, also AraabMuzik is really exciting to watch.

Nick: All the Fade To Mind releases, all the Night Slugs, but yeah, a lot of the new music that I’m really into is stuff that friends are making, like Fatima Al Qadiri’s stuff for example.

What I was always wondering about is your name. When you started, some blogs and websites criticized you for that name and the Angelfire site you had made.

Logan: Well it started all out as a joke really, but not that we were trying to be a joke band, we just thought it was a funny, catchy-sounding name.

Nick: Yeah, we weren’t even thinking in terms of that anyone would ever listen to it, it was really like our own thing I guess, and I think it was only by coincidence people started finding it.

You guys just met at Oberlin College and then realized that you share the same musical direction?

Logan: Pretty much, yeah. It came very natural, I guess it was just coincidence, like we just found out that we have a similar taste in music, and we have this gear so let’s jam. It was pretty organic.

In a way your music feels very European. Is the reaction to your music different over here compared to when you play in the US or in Canada?

Nick: I think the understanding of our music is different here. Although our roots are American, in America a lot of those roots are kind of forgotten by the general public, whereas in Europe it seems like a lot of people kind of just know about the bases of house and techno.

Logan: It seems more accessible to people who haven’t ever heard us before to get into it over here maybe.

But I guess that’s changing now in the US.

Logan: I think it’s changing, yeah. Even like this past year or so in Brooklyn, there has just been way more warehouse all-night dance parties, those have gotten really popular, and even on the mainstream level it seems like people are getting more into like EDM or whatever.

But for that, apart from the fact that it is a stupid and misleading term, would you think the whole coverage of ‘Hipster House’ was also helpful in a way?

Nick: I guess. Though it seems from the outside like a pretty derogatory term, so I prefer to just not even think about it. That’s the same thing with like ‘chillwave’, any trendy made-up genre name is just lazy, and that’s also just not how we write music, we’re not influenced by micro trends. We try to not think about trends at all. We try to excavate sounds that are less typical so that it’s something that feels new in the end.

Published August 07, 2012.