Few DJs can claim to have had such a lasting impact as Daniele Baldelli. Throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s he was an instrumental figure in the development of the curious Italian sound known as Afro/cosmic music, or “cosmic disco” as it’s known today. His residencies at Italy’s Baia Degli Angeli and Cosmic clubs are the stuff of dance music legend, and mixtapes of his wild multi-genre sets are still poured over by eager fans and internet trainspotters alike. His unique techniques and off-the-wall selections continue to be employed by adventurous DJs working the international circuit to this day. Noted dance music historian and regular EB contributor Tim Lawrence, author of Love Saves The Day: A History Of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 and Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983 caught up with Baldelli to record the definitive account of the Italian cosmic master’s story straight from the man himself.
You first started to DJ in 1969. How did that come about?
In Cattolica there was a little club called Tana that I used to go to. I think it opened at the beginning of ’69, and it was the first discotheque in Cattolica. Everyone used to say that the man who opened it worked in Paris for many years and experienced discotheque culture there. I was very young. When the resident DJ left, the owner asked me if I wanted to take over. He’d noticed me because I was looking at the DJ all the time. That’s how things started, although at the time, the owner of the club bought the records and told me how to play. He stacked the records like a newspaper and said, “You start from this and follow the line. When the line is finished, you can choose another line.” He made the program. There were no headphones, no mixer and no monitor. It wasn’t a problem if there was silence between the records. People were used to dancing to a song, stopping and then dancing in a different way to the next song.
What music did you play?
Most of it was rhythm and blues: Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, Ann Peebles and Arthur Comely. But there was also music from the UK more than the States. I played records from bands like The Stooges, Atomic Rooster and Pink Elephant. I also played Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”, for instance.
Were there other clubs in Cattolica?
In 1969, there were dance halls featuring live bands. But after Tana opened, a lot of little clubs opened too. The Adriatic Coast was full of little clubs during that period. Everyone liked to go to clubs; they were something new at that time. Either you went to the cinema or to the club. Because Cattolica was a tourist spot, there’d be 15 clubs open in the summer and three in the winter.
From Tana you went to a club called Tabu—is that right?
Yes, maybe in November or December 1969. At Tabu, the owner didn’t buy the records. I said, “Listen, we need more records!” It was always the same, so I told him, “Pay me more money, and I’ll buy the records.” So I spent all the money I got on records. I was still going to school, and buying new music was my passion. I spent more on records than I made playing records. Nobody told me what to do; I just followed my instinct.
I played at Tabu from 1970 until 1976. During this period, I started to use a mixer with two faders, which was a novelty. I don’t remember when I started using headphones. But I had two Elac turntables—it’s a German company. It was automatic. You pushed a button and the arm went by itself. So I had to calculate how much time it needed until it touched the record. Then came the Lenco turntable. It had a little lever for 33, 45, 78 and 16! After a while I realized that it turned faster if I had the lever not exactly on 45 but closer to 78. So I tried to adjust the speeds to reduce the difference between the tempo without mixing.
What was the dynamic of the night at Tabu?
In the beginning the DJs played both fast and slow music. The method was to play five fast records followed by three slow records for the entire evening. After one year, by maybe 1971, we played ten fast and three slow, until we arrived at a part of the night where we would only play fast records, with one 10- or 15-minute break in the middle when we played slow. By 1975 or 1976 we started to play only fast dance tracks.
Can you remember some of the records you played during this period?
Some records from this period are important. For example, “In Zaire” is an African song from Johnny Wakelin. I played this at Tabu and then later at Cosmic, and I still play it today. Other songs and artists I played a lot included Rufus Thomas, Johnny Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s live album Gratitude. And, of course, there was James Brown.
Was this period important to the way you developed as a DJ?
I was doing everything instinctively, so I didn’t think a lot. But when Baia opened we saw DJs executing mixes for the first time. Of course, at that time mixing meant mixing maybe three or four beats, and sometimes they just cut.
This is Baia Degli Angeli, right? Can you tell me how you heard about it and what made it different?
I went to Baia some months after it opened. Everybody was talking about it. I heard about it for the first time when a young barman at Tabu was asked to work there. I knew something very big and very different was coming. We also started to see the logo of the club [an angel] all over Cattolica and maybe also Rimini. There was no writing, just the log. A few months later, Baia Degli Angeli opened. It was a beautiful club. Everything was white, whereas at Tabu everything was dark. Because of that, the spotlights were very effective; if there was a green light, then the whole club turned green. Seeing the whole club change color had a really big effect. Another big difference was that it was the only club that stayed open until 6 or even 7 a.m.; all the others closed at 3. They had these two American DJs, Bob Day and Tom Season, who came from New York, and for at least the first six or eight months they had music that we’d never heard before. They had everything—TK Records, the Philadelphia sound, a lot of 12-inch singles and a lot of free promotional records that nobody knew.
So Baia left a big impression?
The first time I went was in the summer of 1975, and in the summer of 1976 I went regularly. I worked at Tabu until 3 a.m., and when I was done I went to Baia and stayed for one or two hours. We thought Bob and Tom were crazy because they played with records that were warped. One afternoon they came to Tabu when I was playing. I was afraid and at the end of the afternoon Tom said, “You’re very good, but why don’t you take away the rubber mat?” Turntables come with a rubber mat so the vinyl doesn’t slip. To mix by hand, you take away the rubber and replace it with a slipmat. But at the time you couldn’t buy slipmats, so they replaced the rubber with a 45 single instead. This was why their records were all wobbly.
How come they came to Baia?
Because Giancarlo Tirotti was rumored to be the lover of Carmen D’Alessio [a New Yorker who worked in fashion and became Valentino’s PR chief in Rome], and he went to New York and met Tom, who was a friend of Carmen’s. At the time there were a lot of little underground clubs in New York. Tom and Bob had maybe played the first hour in some important club. The first to come was Tom, and then two months later he brought Bob, who was a friend of his. They were both gay and they mixed records. It was the first time I heard this. Sometimes the mixes were good, sometimes not. That was their style.
Did they have a mystique about them?
Yes, of course. In Italy, everything that’s not Italian is the best. The United States was the leader in disco and rhythm and blues. Italian music is rooted in Pavarotti and the waltz. We don’t have a tradition of blues, rhythm and blues or funk, so all the music we got was from the States or the UK. It was only later that the Italians became better!
So was Baia the most important discotheque on the Adriatic coast?
I think this club really changed nightlife in Italy. It was the first of its kind. Nobody had heard DJs like Bob and Tom before. It was open until 6 a.m.. Everybody came from all over Italy. After that, big and beautiful clubs started to open everywhere, but Baia was the first.
Where was it located?
Gabicce, which is a little hill near Cattolica. It’s a little tourist town. There’s Cattolica, then Gabicce. It’s a very beautiful spot. You can see the whole Adriatic coast. Originally Baia was opened as a high-end restaurant and sporting club. Once Giancarlo Tirotti realized that the restaurant wasn’t busy enough, he turned the indoor swimming pool into a dance floor.
What happened to Bob and Tom?
After a while, Baia became too crowded and there were too many drugs, so Giancarlo Tirotti sold the club. Bob and Tom decided to go back to the States. One night they came to me and said that they had advised the new owner to hire me. At the same time someone else approached Mozart [Claudio “Mozart” Rispoli], who had started to DJ. They asked me if I had a problem with Mozart, which I didn’t. I was actually happy they hired him as well because I was afraid to be the sole successor of Bob and Tom.
What drugs were popular?
Heroin. Before people went out, they might smoke or maybe take a bit of cocaine. But when Baia became famous all over Italy, it changed. After a while there was a heavy heroin and cocaine scene at Baia, much to the frustration of Giancarlo. He didn’t want to run a drug hangout. He wanted la musica. Personally, drugs didn’t work for me. I smoked a joint, and I was sick. I tried cocaine, and I couldn’t have sex. I drank, and I was sick. So I took nothing.
So when did you start DJing at Baia?
It must have been October or November 1977. I stopped in August 1978, after Baia closed for good. It was me and Mozart until he had to leave for military service in February 1978. He came back after three or four months, so I played alone during that period.
How did it work with Mozart when you played together?
We usually played 90 minutes and then changed. The club closed at 6 a.m., so we had two slots each.
What were you playing?
I was playing different kinds of styles. I didn’t play records with a lot of vocals or melody. I played more instrumental records, more aggressive records. Also, I don’t know if all the songs I played were disco. For example, I played a song by J.J. Cale, “Cocaine”. He’s like a country and western singer. That was a very popular song. I also played Timmy Thomas’ “Africano”. John Forde was also a hit, and so was Miroslav Vitous’ “New York City”, Passport’s “Ju Ju-Man”, Dogs Of War’s “Spaciula” and [Laurin] Rinder and [W. Michael] Lewis’ “Gluttony”.
Was your taste different to Mozart’s?
At that time, Mozart was maybe funkier than me, but I also played funky records. When I played all night by myself I played Kebekelektrik’s cover of Ravel’s “Bolero”— it was the whole side of an LP, 15 minutes. When I played this song as the last song of the night I introduced a lot of effects from Pink Floyd, Jean-Luc Ponty and some African chanting. The sound was disco, funky disco, some Euro disco and some electronics. Other favorites were Bunny Sigler’s “It’s Time to Twist” and Final Offspring’s The Destruction of Mundhora.
So if this is 1977, was Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” a big record for you?
Yes, in the beginning. But I stopped playing it when it went on Italian radio. I was always attracted by records that were a bit different, a bit stranger—something not so easy. When The Destruction of Mundhora came out, it was really different to the other records I was playing, and that appealed to me.
When you were playing at Baia, did you pre-program what you were going to play for the whole night?
Yes, I prepared a lot, but I also left space for improvisation. The first night I prepared a tracklist, but I changed what I was playing when it seemed as though the dance floor wasn’t really appreciating it. In the end I developed a lot of tracklists, but changed from one tracklist to another depending on the mood of the dancers.
I was crazy about mixing. I always wanted to make the perfect mix, but this was sometimes impossible because the records were recorded live and the tempo was always changing. It was a really big problem and meant that some records were terrible to mix together. At home I would put on a record and try a hundred records on the other. I was looking for the perfect mix, not just in terms of the beat but also in what was musical to the ear. I’d make a note of the speeds and how the records mixed together.
How did Cosmic happen?
I was DJing at Tabu after Baia had closed when a big man came in with his wife and some friends. They introduced themselves to me and said they were from Lago di Garda, Verona, where they were planning to open a new club in the spring. They said that they’d been listening to my sets at Baia and liked my style. They wondered if I wanted to become their resident DJ, and I said okay. Back then, it was a bit strange, because at that time, if a DJ worked in a club, he was the resident for life. But I said, “Okay, I’ll come. I want the money you’re offering plus a house. Please, not an apartment—a house, because I have too many records.” And so they found a little house by Lake Garda. I made about 50 trips in my Citroën to take everything over.
Who was the owner of Cosmic?
Enzo Longo and his wife, Laura Bertozzo. Enzo Longo came from a well-off family. His wife had two Fiorucci boutiques: one in Verona and the other on Lake Garda. They opened Cosmic because they went to Baia and liked it. They found this club called the Mini Piper. The story he told me is that he bought it and left it closed for one year because he wanted everyone to forget what it was before. Then he started to build Cosmic. He was thinking about it being a dance club—he liked to say, “palestra da ballo”—a dancing gym. The club was maybe for 700 people, and the dance floor was for 600 people. There was no place to sit down; only the dance floor and the bar.
Was it unusual to have a club without a place to sit?
Yes, very. And another very unusual thing was that, because he really wanted to make something clean, no alcohol was served for the first year. So there was no alcohol and no place to sit down. The sound system was made up of a Macintosh amplifier and GBL loudspeakers. The lighting equipment was also very good and the dance floor was like the one in Saturday Night Fever. The DJ booth was like an astronaut’s helmet. After two years he made a new facade that looked like a starship.
Cosmic opened in April 1979. How was it different from Baia?
The music was similar to what I was playing at Baia—funky disco. The only memorable thing is that the opening was scheduled for a Thursday. So many people came that there were maybe 1,000 people inside and 1,000 standing outside, so they gave the people who couldn’t get in a ticket and said, “With this you can come to the opening night we’ll hold for you on Friday.” So many people came again that they organized another opening for Saturday. Then they did one on Sunday as well.
You were the only DJ at the beginning?
Yes. At the start of 1980 I had to leave for military service, so the boss of Cosmic asked me if I knew someone who could work with me. I knew a guy named Claudio—Tosi Brandi Claudio—who called himself TBC. He was from Riccione. I asked him to come and they gave him the same deal I had: a house and a job for his girlfriend. He also had all my records at his disposal! After two years we fought with each other, and so for six to eight months another guy named Marco Maldi worked with me instead. This was in 1982. Then after some months Marco stopped DJing and TBC came back. We worked together until the club closed in 1984.
What happened to you working with TBC and then Marco Maldi? And how did Cosmic close?
TBC and I fought for the first time in 1982. One evening in the DJ booth he got upset and left without finishing his DJ set. This kind of prima donna behavior made me cross, and I was even more upset because I let his personality overwhelm me. Probably there was a kind of jealousy between us, because people said that I was “the brain” and he was “the showman.” So the competition was about this. But the boss didn’t like Marco Maldi so much and eventually he said, “Come on, you and TBC were the perfect combination,” so we started again until Cosmic closed. Police had already closed the club once and they shut it down again in 1984.
How long were you in military service for?
It was supposed to be 24 months because I was in the Navy, but I was 28 years old when they called me. I told them, “Please let me work.” I did a lot of illegal things to not be a soldier. It was all fake. I stayed in the hospital pretending to be ill—pretending to be a drug addict—because the last thing they wanted in the army was a drug addict. I said I was dependent. They said, “How?” I used an empty needle to put holes in my arms and said, “Look!” I also took a drug that put me to sleep during the day and another one to keep me awake at night. In the hospital I would run out and go to work. You could make a soap opera about my military service. After six months I was discharged.
So were you aware that there was this backlash against disco in 1979?
I didn’t understand what had happened. I was working every Saturday night. During the week I stayed at my home on this nice hill with a beautiful panoramic view—all of Lake Garda—and listened to records. So how I went from disco, funk and the Philadelphia sound to Depeche Mode, Gary Numan or Klaus Schulze. I didn’t care what was happening outside. I was living on my hill listening to music.
So the backlash against disco passed you by.
Until 1978, disco was a good sound. But then they started to mass produce records, and it became different. It wasn’t as beautiful as before. But I think Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Klaus Schulze, Brian Briggs, Jean-Michel Jarre, Phil Collins, Mike Oldfield or Sky Records—they didn’t make music for the dance floor; they made music just to make music. So this is how music came to me, and once I had it, I played it in the club.
Can you tell me more about how your music selections changed in 1980?
I’d play Ravel’s “Bolero” and layer other songs on top of it, like an African song by Africa Djolé or something electronic by Steve Reich. I would mix this with a Malinke chant from New Guinea, or I would mix T-Connection with a song by Moebius and Rodelius. I’d play Cat Steven’s hypnotic and tribal Izitso album, and then Lee Ritenour and Depeche Mode at 33 1/3 RPM instead of 45 or a reggae track by Yellowman at 45 RPM instead of 33. I’d play a Brazilian batucada record and mix it with a song by Kraftwerk. I’d also use synthesizer effects on the voices of Miriam Makeba, Jorge Ben and Fela Kuti. I’d play the Oriental melodies of Ofra Haza and Sheila Chandra with the electronic sounds of the German label Sky.
Did you buy a Revox tape recorder in 1980?
Yes, I started this in Cosmic.
Did you buy the Revox specifically to make edits?
Yes. The Constellation Orchestra had an album on Prelude Records called Perfect Love Affair and on it there’s a song called “Cosmic Melody”. It had the line, “Cosmic-cosmic-cosmic-cosmic, me-lo-dy, me-lo-dy.” I thought, “I need this sentence for Cosmic.” But it was much too fast—it ran at 130 beats per minute. So I recorded it with the turntable at minus-10, and then I looped it together many times so it lasted for three minutes. I also made mixtapes and on every tape I included “Cosmic, cosmic, cosmic…”
Did you start to use any other electronic gadgetry at Cosmic?
In 1982 or 1983 I also bought a drum machine. Because my wife’s brother is a musician, I asked him to program the bassline of Richard Wahnfried’s “Time Actor” for me. Then I asked a friend who was a drummer to create a specific drum track for me. I’d play the track and mix maybe 30 records over it—Antena, The RAH Band and others. I never left the drum machine running alone. When I took away a record, I was immediately ready to put on another one. It became like a little show that I did for maybe three years, but only for ten minutes. If I did it for an hour people would say, “Go back home!” So it was like a little show during the DJ set.
When the first sample keyboards came out in 1983 or 1984, that opened a grande apertura, a big door. So when I was playing 1984, 1985, 1986, I took my own turntable, my own mixer, my own monitor, three keyboards, two drum machines and two sample keyboards. I was really a DJ band! That’s why I always had a big car.
What drum machine were you using?
The Roland TR-808 and also the TR-909, which I bought in 1982 or 1983. At first I used the Korg, which was like a typewriter. This drum machine only had preset loops and you could only manipulate the speed control. So you could choose “rock” and it played a rock pattern or “cha-cha” and it would play a cha-cha pattern. But you could speed it up or slow it down. I used to play a pattern from the drum machine just to introduce something strange, something different.
And you also bought a keyboard in 1980?
Yes, a Yamaha CS-10, and because TBC was a little bit more musical than me—he could play the guitar—I said, “Hey, if I buy a keyboard maybe you can do something?” But I also wanted to be able to play, so I went to the brother of my wife and like a child learned how to play, learning some parts to play in songs that I liked. I would say, “Teach me this melody!”
Did you introduce any other technical innovations?
I started to play with four turntables, but I needed a partner to do that, so I did it with TBC. I played the first turntable, mixed the second record with the second turntable and then had TBC put on a third record. When the three were playing together, I would prepare a fourth record and then take away the first, so there were always two or three records playing at the same time.
And what music were you playing at this point?
Music was changing. I don’t know if there was a genre like folk or punk, but I took from everything. I was playing all the electronic music from Germany and from England. The best labels were Richard Wahnfried’s Innovative Communication and Sky. There were artists like Klaus Schulze and Jean-Michel Jarre, and there were lots that were less famous, such as Clara Mondshine. Then there were these strange groups like Tri Atma—this was a group of German musicians with all the innovative keyboards and synthesizers. They introduced percussion and flute from India, so they mixed their own electronic music with ethnic music, which was perfect for me. I also played Paul McCartney’s “Secretary”, and I’d maybe mix this with Babatunde Olatunji’s “Jin-Go-Lo-Ba” or something off Cat Stevens’ Izitso. I played Brand X, who made a type of electronic jazz, and also African music like Touré Kunda, Pierre Akendengue, Fela Kuti and Manu Dibango. Then there were elements of Brazilian music—Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben, Tania Maria. All of this was the style that people started to call the “Cosmic sound” in 1980.
Italo music was starting to come through more strongly at this point. Did you play much of that?
I played Gino Soccio’s “Dancer”. It’s strange, but most of the records I bought had an Italian in the lineup somewhere. There’s always an Italian in the middle. But in terms of music made in Italy, I played Klein & M.B.O. a lot when it came out. I played Easy Going’s “Baby I Love You”; I played Gaznevada’s “Japanese Girls”, which wasn’t a big track but ran at 103 BPM and was strange enough for Cosmic; and Koto’s “Chinese Revenge”, which came out in 1983, although that’s really an electronic song that happened to come out in Italy. Otherwise I played the Cosmic sound.
I didn’t know what Italo disco was. When Italians tried to record disco music, it was considered commercial. Of 100 productions, maybe I’d play two. I never played Alexander Robotnick’s “Problèmes D’Amour” because it wasn’t the Cosmic sound, but I played “Love Supreme” by Giovanotti Mondani Meccanici with Alexander Robotnik. I think people from America and the UK listen to shit sounds from Italy and think it sounds new. I know this sounds a bit nasty, but we Italians look abroad and are very influenced by this music, so maybe we are too critical. Maybe we didn’t realize that we were also doing something good. I’m also a victim of this. But when I listen to records in a shop, the first thing I do is listen to the sound. I wouldn’t say no to something just because it’s recorded in Italy. Generally, I thought Italo was too commercial.
How did the dance floor respond to what you were doing?
One of the big things about Cosmic is that people came to listen to what I was doing. I think people came with the idea of, “What will Daniele Baldelli make us listen to tonight?” Before I would start to play, people would talk and drink. Then I would start with my signal, some electronic effects that I put together—the soundtrack from Flash Gordon, a violin solo by Jean-Luc Ponty and some effects—and they would start to listen and dance.
It seems as though you also slowed down the tempo when you went to Cosmic.
I did this a little bit at Baia and Cosmic. For the first half hour of the evening I would play slow. It was the same in Baia, because there were some nice disco records that ran at 105 or 108 BPM. It was normal to start the evening with slow music and then to go faster. But in 1980, 1981 and maybe also 1982, Cosmic was only slow, by which I mean it never got to 120 BPM. At the most it would get to 115. At the start it would be 95, 98 and then maybe 100 or 105 for two hours. Maybe it was because era bella, it was nice in this way. And maybe it was also because of the kind of drugs people were taking. They smoked a lot so they couldn’t jump like little goats. Now, looking back, I think that we played slow because it seemed natural to play slow. It wasn’t that people were smoking. It seemed that, after uptempo disco, playing slow was new, a novelty. Then there was also a matter of making mistakes, like putting on a record at the wrong speed and realizing that it sounds nice. After that I tried this with all the records I bought.
Can you tell me more about the club setting and the crowd?
In 1979 there was no alcohol and nowhere to sit, and the people who came to Cosmic were kids of upper-class parents who were mostly well-dressed. The owner of Cosmic said that people from Veneto drank too much, and he didn’t want to have fights. During 1979 we didn’t have any problems with alcohol or drugs. Then in 1980, because the club became very famous, everybody came from different parts of the north—Bologna, Brescia, Venezia—and during the summer, the holiday season, they’d also come from the south because Lake Garda is a holiday resort. People would also come from Austria.
After one year the club started to sell beer and—because of the music that was coming out at the time, changes in drug culture and changes in the crowd—the club became druggier. But the drug problem didn’t happen inside; it happened outside, because there were maybe 1,000 people inside, but outside there would be 2,000 people in the parking area with tents, loud speakers and so on. It became a place to meet and they would play tapes of my DJ sets.
Can you tell me more about the tapes?
It was a good business. I started doing this in Baia, but the real business of selling tapes started in Cosmic. From 1980 on it was really a boom. Every week there’d be a new tape, and I’d sell a thousand copies. One boy would come from Torino. He never came inside Cosmic to dance. Instead he arrived in the afternoon and said, “Can I meet Baldelli?” He came back every couple of months to buy all the tapes. He came back once with a Citroën Pallas and told me, “This is what I’ve bought from selling your tapes in Torino.” At one point the authorities found someone who had bought the tapes and they made me go to a judge. My lawyer said, “Okay, we have to do something, but what has Baldelli done? We have to know the quantities involved.” To work that out, they had to listen to the tapes, find out the titles, ask the labels for information and then make a charge. After four years there was an amnesty.
Listen to Daniele Baldelli’s recent EB Radio mix here.
Hailing from Perth in Western Australia, one of the world’s most isolated cities, Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker might seem an unlikely candidate to top the charts alongside Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. But in only a few short years, Parker’s infectious brand of lysergic, riff-heavy pop has gone from bedroom project to global juggernaut, striking chords with young festivalgoers and aging psych-snobs alike. With his latest album, Currents, Parker draws on new inspiration from the funky crucible of ’80s electro-pop and a beguiling set of new life circumstances.
Kevin, you’re from Perth, which is thousands of kilometers from the next major town or city. How has that affected the music you make? Or do you think people unnecessarily romanticize the idea that isolated spaces promote innovation?
I still don’t know. There’s definitely something to be said for Perth people doing what they do to please themselves rather than anyone else. I think we have that balance going on where we’re so far away from the other cities in Australia that we feel disconnected, but we’re connected enough to know what’s going on in the outside world. We have our interpretations of styles of music that are popular in other places, so we catch on to the rest of the world. Touring in Melbourne and Sydney isn’t really in the cards for young Perth bands because it takes ages to fly there and costs a lot of money. So we said, “Fuck it, let’s not bother. Let’s stay here and make music for the rest of Perth.” Maybe it’s that sort of decision that makes the city musically productive. Since everyone has already seen everyone else play, there’s an onus to do more fucked-up shit.
Besides, I never relied on a music scene to do what I do because I make music alone, and when I started out there wasn’t a scene around me anyway. My experience of the “Perth scene” was just my friends and the people I lived with. Perth is so spread out that everyone has a huge backyard by anyone else’s standard. That was one of the things that shocked me once we left Perth: I always assumed that everyone around the world had a backyard. Only when we started traveling did I realize how naive that perspective was. We were more about backyard parties and weird jam events amongst friends that would go on for way too long.
Would you say playing outside established venues with your friends fed a healthier musical instinct? Playing in bars always seems to foster a competitive tension between young bands.
For sure. The competitive thing never changes, though. You can’t escape it because it’s human nature. I always found it constructive. Like a sibling rivalry, it only makes you strive harder. I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as good at what I do if I didn’t strive to be better than a band I saw or played with. I wanted to make music on the level of my friends. So that was competitive in the best possible way.
Do you think bands tend to get too deep into the mechanics of how they’re going to make it too early in their careers? There’s a tendency to focus on getting plucked out of your hometown by that cool, foreign label.
Before we got “plucked,” as you say, which is exactly what it felt like, I didn’t want to be a part of that grind: raise some money, record a demo, get a manager, get some more money together, record an EP, shop that around to every single person you can think of—from rural radio stations to giant labels. Then you go and raise more money from extended touring, record an album, and that’s your moment. I saw the painfully rigid structure of it.
I read that you got the call from the Australian label Modular, your pivotal “pluck” moment, on your way to a university exam. The world is pressuring you to get a life, or a “real job,” and then the complete opposite happens.
We were waiting for Modular to let us know whether they would actually go through with signing us. They’d been in contact with us before but they were like, “We need to talk to the boss,” who I guess was [Australian promoter and Modular founder] Steve Pavlovic. The call was to confirm that they would fly us to Sydney to play at a showcase for them. I was walking around uni, the exam was in 20 minutes and I was meant to be studying but I was thinking about this call. Then five minutes before the exam I thought, “Fuck, I better start walking to the exam,” and then the call came on the way there and I was like, “Fuck it, sweet! I’m out!”
After that I drove home to our share house and told Jay [Watson, touring member of Tame Impala], and we were like, “Whoa, sweet.” We didn’t even have a manager and we needed a lawyer to decipher the contract. It all went pretty smoothly after that. Each step on the ladder of success was as weird as the last. Getting flown to Sydney and put up in a lush hotel was like, “What?” Modular was so cool at that point. They put on a gig with us as the sole act in the middle of the day just because they wanted to see us. No one had even heard of us. Literally no one. And they had all these cool people there. So that was kind of crazy.
It must be weird thinking back now to something that seemed like such a huge deal at the time. Are you losing touch with the person who was stoked and surprised at something like that happening?
It’s true, which is sad. I still consider that the most exciting time of my life. The initial feeling that something great could happen is immense. Not to say that amazing things haven’t happened since then, but I’m getting better at digesting them.
I assume your resources and creative possibilities have expanded with your success. Do you feel like there’s a trade off in that regard? Are there constraints that appear in other areas to offset the appearance of freedom?
I think the more people you have involved—like with these big American labels—the more you have to fight for what you believe in. In the early days, if I thought something should be a certain way, I could say, “I think this should happen,” and I’d deal with it myself. Now it’s on a different scale. For instance, if you’re asked to stream your live set at a festival and you don’t want to, it’s a big deal. Some phone company sponsored a festival we played, and it was stipulated in the contract that the top three headline bands must be streamed, and I’m like, “No, I don’t want to be fucking streamed. I want to have a good time on stage and know that it’s not being broadcast to the entire Internet and stored forever and picked apart.” So suddenly, if you don’t want something to happen, if you want to do it your way, all hell breaks loose between managers and festival promoters and whoever. Even though there are lots of people working for you who care about your work, you’ve got to fight for what you believe in more when it becomes a bigger deal.
The business interests of the infrastructure become tightly linked with your private decisions.
That’s what it is. When more people, companies and brands depend on you to make a living, suddenly you have to please a lot more people than you did in the early days. Some people just ignore it and say, “Fuck you, I’ll do what I want,” and others are quite considerate. I guess I’m somewhere in between the two.
With Currents, you drape your signature songwriting style in electronic, funk and R&B-inspired aesthetics. The press has tended to paint this slight shift as a big, risky move for Tame Impala. What would happen if you released something that was really going to confound expectations? If slight changes in instrumentation are heralded as a fundamental change, what would happen if you released, say, a drone record?
Or the sound of a washing machine in reverse.
Not purely to be weird for the sake of it—but if your audience considers slight generic change as some huge step, perhaps that’s something to play with?
I hate the term “going electronic” or “going pop.” A lot of bands who have an established sound and a bit of success can become overly aware that people consider them to represent a particular brand of music. It’s a cool thing for them to throw those expectations out the window and make something totally obtuse. I find being inaccessible for the sake of it more of a cliché than going the other way.
Could the infrastructure veto such a move? Render it somehow impossible?
At the end of the day it’s still down to the artist. That’s probably the reason why a lot of bands make an experimental album: to pull a middle finger to the people who are expecting them to do something else. In a way that’s kind of how I felt when I was making Currents. I was making songs with a drum machine rather than a drum kit, or songs without a chugging riff. I knew that [Tame Impala’s 2012 hit single] “Elephant” did really well in America. The radio stations just kept playing and playing it months after its release. The record label was like, “Sweet, this ‘Elephant’ tune is sick.”
Ten more of those, please.
They never straight-out said that. The people we work with would never expect me to regurgitate formulas for the sake of success. But they’re probably thinking, “If he makes another ‘Elephant’, then we’re minted.” If I did, it’d get played on the radio, even if it was less inspired. As long as it was the same kind of thing, they’d be like, “Dope, there’s the next one—ship it out!”
Your production tends to get put on a pedestal, and people like to emphasize your self-questioning isolation within this dreamy soundworld. Album titles like Lonerism and Innerspeaker make such a connection quite immediate. While Currents is aesthetically pleasing on the surface, there’s an insidious aggression in it that’s contrary to the production style.
Some people focus purely on what the sounds say to them. The production style forms their opinion of how optimistic or pessimistic an album is. For me, Currents is meant to be about looking forward and a sudden adoption of confidence. Suddenly this interior voice is declaring what they are and what they want, as opposed to the other albums, which are more self-questioning. The overall consensus on Currents was that it’s heartbreaking and really sad, which kind of confuses me because Lonerism was really dreary in comparison. The lyrics are quite defeated, and Lonerism in general has a depressed tone to it, yet people were saying it’s really upbeat and positive. It’s weird that I always seem to have the opposite interpretation of my music.
Production can be such a red herring that it can say one thing with this hand and another with that.
Oh man, that’s one of my favorite things about music: putting two different kinds of sentiments together. I always thought a sad song with sad music and sad lyrics is one-dimensional. When you juxtapose positive lyrics with a melancholic sound, suddenly you have this weird friction that plays with your emotions. That’s one of my favorite things to do. I gravitate towards that musically.
Would you consider production to be surface or content? Some critics say your production keeps listeners away from meaningful interaction with the actual content of a song. Do you consider production musical material in and of itself?
My instinct is to say that it’s extremely inherent in the music. Production is the music as much as the aesthetic dressing because so much of how a sound comes across dictates how the brain responds to that sound. If you play a guitar nice and clean with some country rock strumming, it says one thing; if you overdrive it, suddenly it’s a really angry, aggressive chord with a completely different emotional value. And that’s what production is: it’s how the sound gets from the source to the ear. So from the ground up it has emotional weight. I dream about being a hotshot producer in the same way a kid dreams of being a rock star. See, for me, production is part of the songwriting process. I’m completely unable to write a song without considering how it would be produced at the same time.
Surely there are loads of people asking for your services.
You’d be surprised. I think there are a lot of production requests coming from fans sent to my manager. She filters through them, so not many requests actually come to me. Some big names have asked me to produce their stuff. I wouldn’t be able to say who, because then I’d be saying whom I denied. Sometimes I say no because I love their music and I’m too afraid to fuck it up and ruin it for them. It’s such a personal thing; people have to know each other to work together properly.
Now that you’re playing these huge festivals, is there any sort of musical monotony setting in or does the mega-festival keep surprising you musically?
I’ve slowly become that guy who doesn’t check out bands, which seems to be the ultimate sign of becoming a jaded festival veteran. You just rock up, play your gig and piss off. I still maintain that you can learn something from every artist you see, especially watching them on stage. That is, if they’re not exclusively using backing tracks. Having said that, I don’t go out looking for my new sound. I wait for it to come to me. Music has always come from such an internal place for me. I have a hard time thinking about it any other way.
When you’re a teenager, music can be a huge factor in shaping your identity, maybe because it comes from a highly personal internal place, as you say. I guess that especially goes for musicians. But for most, real success will remain a fantasy and their identity readjusts to everyday life. But when the opposite happens, I imagine music can have a volatile influence on your sense of self.
Absolutely. I guess that’s why artists go crazy. [Long pause] That’s how insanity happens.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine with photos by Luci Lux. Click here to read more from past issues.
Brooklyn noise-techno label Primitive Languages is powered by two starkly different personalities: Nick Klein, the overly-manic alpha, and his mega-chill counterpart Miguel Alvariño. They’ve joined forces to launch the imprint as well as a boutique record shop that’s located in a shipping container in Brooklyn. Like many constituents in the contemporary psycho-techno community, both have roots in the noise scene that informed their wild take on dance music. The recipe has proved popular at home and abroad; Klein and Alvariño recently returned to New York from a European tour booked by Unknown Precept, a likeminded outpost from Berlin that has released killer industrial-tinged vinyls and tapes from Klein, Corporate Park’s S. English and brutalist beat-maker Profligate. If you’re into the more bizarre moments of techno, take note of these working visionaries.
Miguel, did you change your stage name to Enrique?
Miguel Alvariño: Yeah. I had been thinking about it for a while. It’s just my middle name, but it seems more simple and to-the-point and a little more ambiguous. “Miguel Alvariño” was a little too long and specific. It’s a little more bearable to hear white people say “Enrique” than hearing “Alvariño” [in a very honky American accent].
Nick, are you going to start going by your middle name as well?
Nick Klein: “Barry”? No, I don’t think so.
MA: That would be fucking ridiculous.
NK: At this point, I should probably come up with some type of pseudonym or something, like an alias. The reason why I’ve always just used my name is because I want to be able to account for everything I do—like really account for the art that comes out and the growth. I was listening to my stuff on SoundCloud yesterday, and the things I was making two years ago were really different. But there’s still a through line that makes sense. The work is an extension of me.
What’s changed since you moved from Miami to New York a few years ago?
MA: A lot, but also not really anything. That was a big transition for me from just doing like, hard work, like physical work, into making digital work and exploring sounds or rhythms that I was already interested in. It’s been an ever-developing work ethic that we both cultivated when we were in art school.
NK: A lot has changed, but pretty much all for the better. There’s more clarity, a little more foresight and a lot of focus. It’s just a matter of focusing on your practice and making sure that it’s intentional and it’s real and it has integrity. But yeah, there’s been so many changes. Sleeping on people’s couches. Having drug problems. Getting fired. Getting hired. Crazy girlfriend issues. I guess that’s the same all the time. People are just more receptive to what we’ve been doing, and we’ve gotten amazing opportunities. We played Bossa Nova [Civic Club, a venue in Brooklyn] the other night, and there were people that had in the past said, “Nope, we can’t have those guys play a weekend show. We gotta keep the floor moving.” So while we were once a liability, I think now people are a little more receptive to our perspective. And that’s cool. And we didn’t really have to change that much.
MA: We didn’t change.
NK: That was the one time for me where the normies were there, the freaks were there, and everybody was just going off and having fun. It was finally the actualization of the democratic potential of what interests me and Miguel in dance music. People were together—moving together—and it’s really hippie. It’s a really beautiful thing.
How has your friendship and artistic relationship developed over time?
NK: I think in our entire friendship we’ve had one fight, and it was about the label.
MA: It works based off of our personalities. That’s probably why we’ve been friends for so long: a certain combination of acceptance and non-expectations for a lot of things in our relationship. We’re not emotionally dependent on each other for certain things, so we just chill. That’s why we can do projects together without tearing our faces off or something.
NK: There’s a stasis chamber that has existed since we became friends. There’s a lot of yin and yang aspects to our personalities. I’m fucking crazy; Miguel’s chill. We push each other really hard to work.
MA: We have similar work ethics, and we see that in each other, and that pushes us even further. When he makes something good, it makes me want to make more stuff, and vice versa. But we’re not dependent on it because we’re just making stuff constantly.
NK: The thing that gives us the power to dialogue artistically the way we have is this idea of no excuses. It’s either being done or it’s not. Is the idea executed? Did you get the shit done? That’s in the back of our heads. And I think we want to get even more shit done. This year we put out about 20 tapes for people. It’s simultaneously manic and super chill. And that’s just Miguel and I. There are a lot of people who’re really close to us who inform our work too. Alex Suarez [Cienfuegos], Danny Moore [Pvre Matrix], Kieran Morris [Negation], Justin Lakes [Shredded Nerve], Lucy Lewis.
MA: They’re outsiders who’re obviously just doing this regardless of whatever situation they’re in. They need to do this. This isn’t a passing fad; it’s something in their lives that needs to get done, because what else are you going to do that gives you a little bit of purpose? And it’s taken seriously in those ways. But it’s also this ridiculous thing that’s completely selfish and completely pointless.
NK: It’s only important to us.
MA: But that’s how you know. When it’s only important to that person.
Tell me about what Primitive Languages. How and why you did you start it and how has it changed?
MA: When I first moved to New York, we were going out a lot because we didn’t get a chance to see a lot of these people in Miami. Nick was talking about starting a label to put out friends who we had been seeing but we knew weren’t getting a chance to be released. I wanted to immediately put something out, and that became our first tape. Then we were like, “Oh shit, we can store the music in a shipping container and have a home base and a store.”
NK: The store aspect of Primitive Languages was really un-thought out, but it was an important investment in our lives. We suck at being businessmen. But as far as identifying important work, it helped. Primitive Languages is now and will continue to be a curatorial exercise as long as we can sustain it and as long as people think it’s worth buying from. We put out the people who inspire us and kind of don’t get enough shine. It’s like every other [small-scale] label, I guess.
Spawned from a conflation of Viennese Actionism, Burroughs-ian dada logic and hijacked electronics, pioneering industrial band Throbbing Gristle beat an inspired route out of the discontent of late ’70s England. After parting ways with founding members Genesis P-Orridge and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti embarked on a string of inspired albums under the moniker Chris & Cosey, drawing equally on the pitch black content of early industrial and a burgeoning interest in pristine synth pop. In 2012, Carter and Tutti teamed up with Nik Void of Factory Floor for a series of live shows that became Transverse, an album of live-cuts which garnered considerable acclaim from old TG-heads and younger techno-types alike. Where TG’s political stance was aggressively self-evident, CTV offer a more subtle and perhaps insidious means of recalibrating your sense of self. Their new album, f(x), is a studio creation that takes a fascination with motorik repetition and sonic minutiae, strips them of club bullshit and leaves listeners with something properly primal.
Catch Carter Tutti Void live appearance on November 6 on the Field Day Stage at Club To Club Festival in Turin.
Your first record,Transverse, developed out of a one-off live collaboration. What inspired you to go back to the studio together for a pre-meditated record?
Chris Carter: It was because of the live shows. They went really well and people were extremely receptive to what we were doing. At that point I think we realized that there was mileage in the project and that there was more to create by going back into the studio again.
Cosey Fanni Tutti: We really enjoyed playing together anyway, and I personally didn’t want it to stop at just the one live show because it seemed to work so well. We sat so incredibly well together when we got playing.
Nik Void: We didn’t even talk about it really. It was extremely natural.
Did f(x) require more premeditation than the first record? Or did you try to harness the energy that was developing from the performances?
CFT: As you say, the momentum was already set. When we decided to do some more recording in the studio, we were keen to keep the same approach because that’s what we love doing. It gave us all a sense of freedom to go wherever we wanted with our music. That’s what was so refreshing about it for us, and I think for Nik as well. There was no history between the three of us towards any kind of music collaboration, so we could do what we wanted and we didn’t want to change that. We wanted it to be what it had always been from the beginning.
CC: There was definitely a lot of give and take. I am constantly working on rhythms and ideas. It’s just what I do, almost like a hobby. The rhythms on this record are completely new, but we were playing some of them live before we had recorded them. I like to get new gear and try out new ideas and reconfigure how things are connected together. I never have the same setup; month to month it’s always changing, and it really inspires me to do new things.
The last time I saw you perform, everyone was dancing, but at no point could I have ever qualified it as the type of dancing one sees at a traditional contemporary “dance” club. It seemed like the rhythms and sounds encouraged a type of movement—a churning—that precedes the idea of electronic dance.
CFT: For me, it’s always about encouraging a primal instinct more than anything else, ensuring you can’t just stay still. That’s what I like in turn to feed off. When people start dancing like that, and you can tell it’s not like a techno dance, I like to feed off it and throw in little sequences that I have samples of. Or Chris will pull back a bit on his rhythm, and Nik and I will go in a new direction on guitars. That’s what it’s all about. When I’m feeding back the audience’s primal response to what we’re giving them, that redoubles what we will give them again, and it’s a wonderful collaboration. For me, that’s where the power lies: building this wonderful atmosphere together and the physicality of the sound.
CC: Sometimes the rhythms on the record are almost just an undercurrent, like a subsonic undercurrent. It’s definitely veering more towards industrial, but it also remains really fluid. We had a problem with syncing at the first show at the Roundhouse. I couldn’t figure out who was in sync with who, so I put my metronome on, and you can actually hear that in the recording at some point. Or was it Nik’s?
CFT: No, it was yours. Don’t blame Nik!
CC: After that we decided that we wouldn’t be synchronized, and it would create a lot of slippage.
CFT: It gives you room to manoeuvre. You don’t get tied in, and that allows for a lot more texture in the sounds that we use.
NV: Yeah, you just respond to your own body clock. Playing the guitar like Cosey and I play is all to do with the movement of the body. When we time with Chris’s beats, it’s a bit like clapping or something, but instead you’re running a bow or a stick across a guitar and you’re generating all these envelopes of sound. If it was all synced up, you would get all of these harsh “full stops” in our sound, and it wouldn’t reverberate in the manner which it does.
Cosey, you’ve mentioned previously that you’re surprised at the lack of truly challenging or different sounds coming out recently. Would you say there was a direct retaliation to that with f(x)?
CFT: I can’t say it was a conscious decision to inject them only for the sake that there was nothing that really grabbed my attention. That wasn’t the purpose of what we did. In fact, what springs to mind is, when we first did TG, we would inject the kind of sounds that we didn’t hear anywhere else—that we couldn’t find anywhere else. And that’s how industrial music was founded: by trying to generate sounds that reflected our emotions and how we felt about the world. I think CTV is a different iteration of that. In TG, it was half unconscious and half not. We wanted to deliver something that was anarchic, but on the other hand, we wanted to express something. This time around, it was much more organic and much less intentional. When we get together, we make sounds that we feel primally, and put them through whatever instrument we choose to manufacture that sound.
TG’s approach to creating something anarchic seems related to the music’s expression of anger and the political climate of England in the ’70s. That form of expression changes over time, but today England seems once again marked with political problems. Given the generation gap that separates Nik from Chris and Cosey, is that anger is still there? Has it changed?
CFT: I’m always angry! Nik, are you angry?
NV: I’m actually the opposite. I’m really baffled because I just don’t understand how I came out with this angry-sounding noise. When people actually meet me in the flesh, they always say, “Oh, you’re actually quite nice.”
CFT: But there are still evocations of anger I need to get out. In the last five years, I dare say I’ve felt a little hope, that something will come through. I just find it very sad that things have to almost crash completely before people get off their backsides and do anything positive. And that’s the saddest thing about humans really. Whilst we are comfortable, we don’t think of doing anything that moves us forward.
CC: I think in the ’70s, TG were more political because of the political situation at the time, but it’s getting a bit like that again with the right-wing government we’ve had for however many years. But it always disappoints me that the youth aren’t more angry, actually. There used to be a load of demonstrations in the ’70s and the ’80s, but you get hardly any now.
NV: I think in our generation, the Internet has pushed our awareness further around the world so we aren’t so focused on what’s happening in England. I think anger has become diluted. You’ve got so much information thrown at you just by looking at your daily Facebook feed. You have to turn it off because it makes you angry. That’s probably the reason why there isn’t a lot of music that’s as strong politically as music from the ’70s and ’80s. Things are more subdued at the moment. I’m thinking about contemporaries—a lot of whom I love—and I can only assume it’s because people are feeling quite jaded by the information overload. You feel a little bit helpless, that you can’t do anything about these issues that are constantly bombarding you. London is completely drying up in terms of creativity, and I don’t know what’s going to happen in 20 years. Hopefully that changes when musicians realize that they’ve got things other than a computer that can make music and start being more primal with the process again.
CTF: Music can get you back to personal, inner empowerment. It can give you the “values” if you like, the knowledge, about where you might want to go and how you think humanity should share in it. And this actually gives you something to say in the end, because you have an opinion of your own. I think finding that empowerment is a way to make sense of this stinkin’ world.
CC: Sound does follow a fashion. There are definitely fashionable sounds and fashionable singers, but it’s when someone comes up with something new which sounds different that you start to arrest people’s habits and trigger an effect. People should stop using preset synth sounds and just switching on their brand new drum machine and using the patterns it came with. In a way, Cosey and Nik are better off in that respect because they play guitar. It engenders a very personal relationship and an individualistic style of playing.
CFT: I don’t know about Nik, but I do feel at one with it. When I get into that zone, it becomes my voice really.
The idea of allowing rhythmic slips and improvised changes to shape what a performance can or should be can be quite a jarring idea to a generation of electronic producers who often use very grid-like structures.
CFT: It’s not quite soul destroying, but when you go to festivals and see people are running Logic and they’re just playing on top, you just think, “Oh, fucking hell.”
CC: “Not again!”
CFT: And everybody applauds, “It sounds just like the record, doesn’t it?!” It’s because it is!
CC: It’s like karaoke. But with us we literally are making it up as we go along with all the intention of playing what we think is the album, but it in all likelihood it won’t sound anything like it.
CFT: I would be so bored going up there and doing the same thing every time. Wouldn’t you, Nik?
NV: It would defeat the whole purpose of what we’re doing. I don’t do what I do to try to impress an audience. I go up there to enjoy what I’m doing. If I went up there and pressed play, I just wouldn’t know what I was doing.
CFT: I had a similar thing with someone else I did a project with. They expected me to go on stage with them and stand there while they’d press play. I got up, he pressed play, and his face—the look of horror!—when I didn’t follow the script. I’d usurped him. But it was fantastic. I don’t go on stage just to pretend to play.
Was there any significance to releasing f(x) on Industrial Records? It feels like a really neat tying of the present to the spirit of the label’s past.
NV: For me, releasing on Industrial Records is amazing. We are forever changing, and the whole project started off without any responsibility to each other, it was just to see what happens. I don’t think any of us own the music as individuals and I can’t pinpoint this music fitting anywhere specific. I didn’t go through the production of the album, so when I heard the album back, it was like nothing I had heard before. That’s what the spirit of Carter Tutti Void is, to keep changing.
CFT: Yes, I think releasing it on Industrial Records speaks to the spirit of CTV very well. Industrial was really about representing a spirit of independence, and that’s what CTV is. As Nik says, it’s for everyone. It’s not to be categorized or tamed in anyway.
In a number of interviews, Daniel Lopatin has attributed the anxiety embedded in his musical productions as Oneohtrix Point Never to an experience in a dentist’s chair. Under fluorescent light and with a mouthful of spiny metal instruments, the Software label founder heard a Phil Collins slow jam piped through the office speaker system. The contrast of sap and discomfort intrigued him and fed into his signature sonic aesthetic as a musician. The uneasy drones and synthesized vocal fragments on Garden of Delete, or G.O.D., Lopatin’s second full-length for UK indie giant Warp, are immediately recognizable as products of his sonic imagination. This recognizability has established him as a figurehead of so-called “experimental” music to audiences that aren’t so familiar with the field. To delineate this tension we paired up Lopatin with André Vida, a Wesleyan graduate and PAN alum who invested his life to the marginal recesses of electronic expression that Lopatin has come to represent.
André Vida: I got a copy of your album, Garden Of Delete (G.O.D.), a few days ago. I’ve been listening to it, and…I don’t know where to start.
Oneohtrix Point Never: Well, thanks, I guess. Did you like it?
I don’t know. I was really confused by it, but I didn’t really have a chance to digest it yet. My first impression of it was confusion, because I was wondering, “Where’s he coming from? Why does he make this?” So why did you make it?
I guess it’s somewhat of a whimsical process. I get obsessed with certain ideas, and I let that imbue whatever my circumstances are at the time. My circumstances were very clear in that I’ve been a professional musician for a number of years now, and I was on a very strange tour with Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. I was driving to these amphitheaters to make soundcheck every day from the previous city.
So you were following their bus? Someone was driving you, right?
The bus would go overnight. I would sleep at a Holiday Inn Express, wake up, and then my friend and I would drive. We’d make it to these venues by around 5:30 every day, and each one looked exactly the same. It was a Live Nation tour, so it was like a military operation, and I had never been exposed to anything like that. The machinery of a huge rock tour got me thinking a lot about that music. When I first made my own autonomous decisions about taste, that’s the kind of music I was brainwashed into buying; Soundgarden was definitely something the market told me that I should like. Nine Inch Nails was something that my sister loved and I had a more intimate relationship with. Then, suddenly I’m on tour with both of them. It just got me thinking about all these pubescent twisted crises.
Did it make you interested in achieving that status yourself?
In a sort of playful way, I suppose. But I’m pretty down-to-earth. I don’t have like any desire for global domination, but it was funny to find myself in this tour, invited by Trent Reznor but essentially opening for Soundgarden and playing for their trickling-in audiences.
Were the audiences supportive?
They were OK. I chose to play a more difficult version of the set I usually do, and it was a little bit to antagonize people and also to protect myself from even being thought of as being music. I wanted to leave them with a very sour and bilious taste in their mouths.
Do you think you achieved that?
I think I did, but there were two pieces of music that I played on that tour that were actually quite beautiful, in my opinion. Kim Thayil, the guitarist from Soundgarden, came up to me on the second or third night and was like, “Dude, I really love what you’re doing with these drones. They’re sweet.” That makes perfect sense, because Kim is a huge fan of drone music—guitar drone music, like Sleep. So Kim totally loved it, and that made me feel really good. I don’t know about the rest of Soundgarden, though. Trent was even more [into me] than Kim; he invited me [on tour], liked my records and was cool about hanging out. I definitely look up to him. He randomly became a mentor for a while, so of course he influenced the record. Some of things that happened on that record are a direct reference to me thinking about Trent as a producer.
It’s interesting that you say that you thought of some of your pieces as beautiful, but not others. How would you describe the not-beautiful ones?
There were some more antagonistic moments where it was just about playing with noise and seeing what happens when I put a bunch of noises into process. If you go to any basement noise show, it wouldn’t be different from what I was doing in front of 5,000 to 6,000 people. That, to me, was humorous because I wanted to re-designate that kind of practice in a space where it’s not really allowed. And on top of that, it was within a Live Nation tank, and I really have no place in that, so I wanted to at least feel that in some weird way I was slightly in control of the situation.
Sort of like a…god?
Less like a god and more like a wizard—like a weird wizard guy. I got off that tour, came back to New York—where I live—and started renting a basement studio. I would routinely stay there for a very long time and get into this hypnotic headspace that was a different way of operating. I think also it influenced me to be slightly more bratty and to make more personal and intimate work, because wasn’t self-consciously thinking, “Are the neighbors hearing this?”
How evenly distributed are the “beautiful” and “not beautiful” tracks on this album?
It’s mostly beautiful. I kept thinking that nobody listens to records like they used to anymore, like the way you’d say, “Oh shit!The Wall just came out? Lets sit down, smoke a joint and listen to The Wall.” Now, you get obsessed with singles, make your own playlists and disregard the album. I was like, “Is there a way that I can achieve both of those states, where very track on the album is its own entity and kind of just a single, but if you step away from it, it’s also really connected? So that you can experience the record in both of those ways and not just to say, ‘Well, our records are relegated to this thing of the past when the record industry was different and now it’s this way,’?” Back to your question: I think making every track a “single,” at least in my mind, means making every track beautiful.
But when I think if a single, I don’t think of eight-minute tracks like you have on G.O.D..
There’s only one eight-minute-long track. It’s a four-part idea that’s a series of themes that fit together nicely, but are also each their own weird little plateaux.
It is interesting to hear the word “plateau” because the first few times I listened to the album, I felt that there were definitely structural elements in the work. Sometimes it sounds really emo to me.
There are definitely super emo moments all over the record.
I have to say that, at other points, I felt a kind of emptiness… I can’t really describe it. This is partially why I felt kind of confused when I heard it, because I didn’t know your music. I guess I was wondering if you were somehow being critical of electronic music, or if there was some kind of commentary that you felt you were making in some of these tracks?
Well, yeah. I used weapons of mainstream music against themselves a lot. I’ve always done that. Something that might help you situate this hunch of yours is that, from the very beginning, Onethrix Point Never recordings were about taking the formal parameters, techniques and sounds of new age music and making them anxiety-ridden. That was where is started for me. I was after that contrast, so there’s always a twistedness, an anxiety in the beauty for me.
A friend of mine said that she really liked seeing you play live. Is it that live show directly related to the album, or do the live versions of the songs differ?
I always make two records when I make a record: One is the version that you hear as a record, and the next one is a totally re-interpreted thing that I usually present live. With this record, I’m curious about how I’m going to deal with the vocals. Am I going to sing them or have some kind of technique for dealing with them? I’ve been trying to memorize the lyrics so that I’ll be able to sing them somehow. I didn’t sing at all on the record; it’s all synthesized voices.
They’re very synthetic. I would even use the word “cheesy” to describe them in some moments when they’re like a hyper kind of pop.
Very much so. There’s one thing that’s pretty close to a Vocaloid. It’s a speech synthesizer but it’s used a lot by fans who will make their own Vocaloid interpretations of music that already exists, like Taylor Swift song or one from a cartoon that they love. I really wanted to use Vocaloid, but you need a PC to run them. Then I found similar software called reFX Nexus, which is like the McDonalds of EDM sample-based instruments. It’s like EDM in a box. Earlier you asked if there’s some kind of sardonic criticism happening. Yes, very much so, in the EDM sense of it. I use those types of tools and then see if I can bend them or break them, freak them out or put them in some kind of uncomfortable space.