Earlier this week, Lady Gaga instigated something of a supernova in the techno underground by enlisting UK techno DJ Surgeon to warm up the crowd before she took the stage during her artRAVE tour stop in Paris.
LADY STARLIGHT and SURGEON ARE MURDERING IT WITH SOME purely LIVE TECHNO!
— Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) November 24, 2014
The performance was live-streamed on Yahoo and later uploaded to YouTube, and the video shows the underground stalwart waltzing onstage in jeans and a t-shirt emblazoned with the legend “Constant shallowness leads to evil,” with Lady Gaga’s longtime friend and former collaborator Lady Starlight on his arm. The pair proceeds to pound out a live set of heads-down techno, which eases at one point to provide Starlight the opportunity to explain how she ended up jamming on hardware with Surgeon. “One day I was in Birmingham, and I shouted out from the stage one of my favorite techno artists, Surgeon,” she tells the crowd, and pauses to indicate that the crowd should cheer at the mention of his name. “Surgeon! Thank you. And he was in the audience, and we became really good friends, and it’s like, dreams come true.”
Surgeon shared the backstory with Bloc Weekend yesterday. Here’s the short version: He and his wife went to one of Lady Gaga’s concerts in his hometown, Birmingham, and heard Lady Starlight’s shout-out. After the show, he introduced himself to Starlight, and thus began an intense artistic connection and rewarding friendship that challenged pop listeners’ expectations and the techno intelligentsia’s illusion of isolation from the mainstream universe, which in many ways sums up Lady Gaga’s entire artistic mission. Starlight invited him to perform with her at the next artRAVE stop in Birmingham, and after that performance, Gaga invited them to play at Monday’s show in Paris as well.
We sent Surgeon some questions that Bloc Weekender didn’t ask.
Did you know or meet Lady Gaga, or did she reach out to you out of the blue?
Honestly, I didn’t know much at all about Lady Gaga before all this. Although I do remember seeing her perform on a Japanese pop music show—she played a version of one of her songs just singing and playing the piano. That really struck me, so I knew she was a “real artist.”
Were you surprised when Lady Gaga asked you to open? Or was it Lady Starlight who asked you to hop on stage with her?
The idea didn’t come from Lady Gaga. After meeting at the first Birmingham gig, Lady Starlight came to stay with me during the off days between their UK tour dates, so we got to hang out a lot. We did some live jams together in my studio and we connected instantly. No effort. So much fun. Since their tour was returning to Birmingham in November, we had the idea to perform together. It all came together very naturally.
You were playing with Lady Starlight, so was your set any different from what you’d normally play?
We played a totally improvised live set. Whenever I perform with someone else, it’s like unique conversation between us. I’m very picky about who I do that with, and there has to be an almost telepathic connection for it to work. We made heavy, raw techno. It was very important for us to present real, raw techno and not water it down, or try to make it more palatable. It had to be the real deal, otherwise we would have been doing everyone a disservice.
Did you have any personal contact with Gaga backstage? What were those interactions like?
Yes, she was very enthusiastic about the onstage chemistry and raw energy created by our performance. She made time to hang out with me and my wife at the Paris aftershow party. She was having a great time along with everyone else.
Have you performed in these sorts of contexts to those kind of audiences before? What was it like playing to huge spaces and a non-techno-oriented audience? How was it similar or different to the shows and environments you’re used to playing in?
I’ve played to very large audiences before, but never in that situation. As I said, I love how absurd it was. My focus was really on the connection and improvising with Lady Starlight. We were having a great time up there.
Playing this sort of set puts you in an unusual position for an “underground” techno producer. Do you think this is the beginning of a trend of co-opting techno for “pop” contexts? Or rather, what does “pop” get out of affiliating with techno?
I don’t think it’s the beginning of any connection between pop and techno. What we did was too raw. I’d like to think that Lady Gaga fans got to hear something new that night and one or two may investigate further. Bear in mind that Lady Starlight has been opening the whole seven-month tour with her no-compromise techno live set and telling the audience what it is.
Do you like Lady Gaga’s music?
I really like about half of ARTPOP. The first few songs are awesome.
Are you going on tour with her? Or were these gigs a special case?
Just dipping in on two dates of their seven-month tour has made me realize how hard they all work. No thanks! I just take everything as it comes, no plans. I love the techno gigs I play so much. This experience has given me a really different perspective on everything and I’m really, really touched by the overwhelmingly positive response from techno music fans, I know this whole thing has pushed a lot of peoples buttons, so seeing so many people “get it” really means a lot to me.
This isn’t the first time we’ve asked an artist about what it was like to play with Lady Gaga—in 2012, we hit up Wolfram to chat about sharing the stage with the pop titan, which you can check out here. Also related: the astute dissection of ARTPOP harsh noise legend William Bennett did for Electronic Beats last year.
Following their lively discussion of Lady Gaga’s Artpop last September, Lisa Blanning once again spoke with controvertial Cut Hands mastermind and Whitehouse member William Bennett—this time about Lana Del Rey’s current venture further down the rabbit hole of shifting pop identity on her new LP Ultraviolence.
Lisa Blanning: William, were you interested in Lana Del Rey’s music in the past? That is before Ultraviolence came out?
William Bennett: I had this superficial understanding of who she was. I originally assumed from the name—and this is an example of how you can project so quickly—that she was some sort of Cuban, South American songstress. Also echoing seventies porn star pseudonyms like Vanessa Del Rio, which is no bad thing. The name resonates in a way that it’s hard to imagine she’s of Scottish descent.
LB: It’s a memorable name.
WB: And it’s a powerful filter to how you experience music, I think, through a name.
LB: That’s interesting. Because obviously her real name Lizzie Grant is a completely different projection than Lana Del Rey.
WB: That’s right. And after getting familiar and after listening to Ultraviolence, I started exploring some of the early work, in particular the unreleased set of songs from 2005 recorded as May Jailer, and then she used her own name, Lizzie Grant. It’s interesting because I think people might say, “Oh, she would never have become famous if she’d been ordinary Lizzie Grant,” but I disagree with that. It would have just projected a completely different persona. And I think she’s interesting and charismatic and talented enough; very different to how Lana Del Rey feels, thematically, but I think still a great success.
LB: A friend sent me a blog post by this producer who had been brought in to provide early beats for Lana Del Rey before she got famous. It’s actually two posts: one right after their initial session and after she first blew up. He talks about how all of the elements of what we see now were there from the beginning, and he predicted from the get go that she could make it. So it seems like she had this purposeful direction to begin with before all of this; she had a sound, she definitely writes the songs, and she’s got a whole aesthetic that’s already been worked out, even before she started receiving major backing. I think that’s both interesting and cool. I haven’t actually heard any of the pre-Lana Del Rey stuff . . .
WB: Well, the Sirens set that I’m referring to from pre-2005 is very, very stripped down. It’s just her singing with acoustic guitar, which on the face of it, doesn’t sound too interesting. Yet it’s actually a very beautiful album and the songs work brilliantly. As an album to keep in one’s collection for a long time, I think it’s arguably better than Ultraviolence, funnily enough. For being so young then, it’s remarkably confident, and not just in a retrospective way. I think Sirens stands on its own merits.
LB: That’s one thing that you can tell all of her records as Lana Del Rey: essentially the songwriting is the same through all of them and then they’re dressed differently.
WB: Very true.
LB: I would say that Ultraviolence is my least favorite Lana Del Rey record. I have to admit that I’m not the hugest fan, but the Paradise EP I think is really good. That’s eight songs and almost every one is very good, whereas on her first album, Born To Die, I feel like there’s only a few good songs on there and there’s a lot of throwaway material. Paradise is a fully realized piece and it’s all one aesthetic, as well. I think the problem I have with Ultraviolence ultimately is the producer. I really don’t like the inclusion of Dan Auerbach, who is famous for working with The Black Keys. I feel that this actually takes away from her sound what makes her special. To me, it’s a big step backwards, although I understand how as an artist you want to try different things.
WB: I guess it’s a question of personal taste: What kind of dressing do you like with your Lana Del Rey? I agree with you, I personally don’t like this band-with-guitars-in-a-big-empty-room thing. I prefer the dark hip-hop, electronic style, which I think works really well with her music. There are moments on Ultraviolence where the songs are, for me, ruined by cheesy guitar solos played right over her voice.
LB: I agree, the retro rock production. For instance, there are two songs especially, that I really dislike. One of them, “Cruel World”, is co-written by the guitarist in her band, Blake Stranathan, and the other, “Brooklyn Baby” is co-written by her boyfriend, Barrie-James O’Neill from the band Kassidy. On the first album, the hip-hop leaning is the most obvious. In the second release, it’s this modern production that takes from hip-hop but isn’t really hip-hop, but is so rich and full, it makes it unusual. For me, it worked because she’s got an old-fashioned style of songwriting, but with the modern production it created a frisson. That’s lost now. There are a couple of tracks that have that on this new album, but all that mystery is lost. I don’t know if you noticed, but also on a couple of songs on the new album her voice sounds very thin and off-key, and that’s not how she sounds in any other context that I’ve heard her, including live. I feel like that’s a bad way to portray her.
WB: Going back to 2005’s Sirens, that stripped-down approach actually would work as well. Either it’s just her voice and acoustic guitar or the style on Paradise.
LB: She says she works with essentially the same team for both Born To Die and Paradise. For instance, Rick Nowels, Emile Haynie, and Dan Heath, these were names that appeared prominently on both of those releases. Nowels and Heath appear on the credits for Ultraviolence, but Haynie doesn’t at all. And Haynie was a producer that started out in rap music, he actually worked with Eminem and Raekwon and Cormega. He worked with all of these big rappers before he came to her. Auerbach is the major producer, obviously, and that sound really makes a massive difference.
WB: I agree. It might just be the influence of rock types she hangs out with including her boyfriend. Because we know that since the beginning her songs are similar in style and approach, maybe she’s not that invested in the actual production and leaves a lot of that to the people she’s hanging out with.
LB: It’s obviously pure speculation, but it’s a shame, because I feel there was something very special. But I still think she can definitely write a song, but I’m no longer interested in listening to it when presented as it is on Ultraviolence.
WB: In mitigation, I think the songs survive on Ultraviolence despite the production, as her personality shines through so powerfully that it could be dressed up in anything and it would still be quite affecting. A lot has been said in reviews about all these dodgy men referred to in the songs and, barring the bonus tracks, I don’t feel the main tracks on Ultraviolence are really about these men. They’re much more a vehicle for her own responses or narcissism, which clearly is what interests her audience, and me.
LB: Yeah, but if she didn’t portray herself as this Lolita/bad-girl figure but everything else was the same, would she still have the same draw that she has? Personally, I do think it’s a really interesting aspect to her persona, but I was trying to deduce what it was about her that made her of such zealous interest. Her fans are very passionate while other people are equally enthusiastic about tearing her down; she’s very polarizing. I think she’s got this really strong charisma, which I can’t really define except to say that it’s star power. My feeling is that she is very talented, but there are celebrities out there who are more or just as attractive and talented. But for whatever reason, she really captures people’s imaginations.
WB: This is the thing: She’s definitely anomalous in the modern era where there are so many of performers straight out of performing arts schools with everything’s so practiced, in terms of their interview technique, the way they look on stage, the way they sing their songs. It’s almost high-class karaoke we have now, where they say the right things, they do the right things, they sing all in the same kind of way.
LB: Right, where with her it doesn’t feel that way.
WB: No, she’s an original pop icon of an era that’s almost passed us. She’s unusual. She doesn’t fit with people’s expectations. We were talking before about her interviews and how jarring and clumsy they come across, which I personally find endearing. She’s not practiced. She doesn’t say the right things, which rubs people the wrong way because we live in an era where interviews are absolutely necessary for your career.
LB: I know what you mean, when she doesn’t say the “right” things, but having said that, I do think she has a narrative that she continues to push and is important to her.
WB: What do you think that is?
LB: I feel as though she’s really intent on making people think or realize, one or the other, that she hasn’t had a leg up, so to speak. She doesn’t want people to believe the accusations that she comes from a rich family. She’s also intent on telling people that she hasn’t had any sort of plastic surgery—although that blog post I mentioned earlier, that producer says her lips are definitely bigger now…
WB: I’ve seen pictures of her when she was younger and she does look very different. I think she was beautiful when she was a teenager and she looks beautiful now, and it’s not a big deal. I can also understand why people would be touchy about plastic surgery.
LB: It’s more what it signifies. The whole furor surrounding her in the beginning was this question of authenticity, i.e. the claims that she’s completely manufactured and the accusation of surgery is just another example of that. I think now that’s unimportant. But the focus of authenticity changes. Now it’s less about, “Has she been propped up by her dad?” who actually works in advertising and probably helped her promote her early on in the music industry—and more about, “Is she actually the wild child she portrays herself as?” And that she consistently refers to herself in interviews as. Because that portrayal actually makes the basis of so many of her lyrics, I would say there’s probably some truth in them.
WB: My base feeling with the whole issue of authenticity is that, as a fan, I care that it’s presented to me in a believable way. So I don’t care if it’s true or not, I just don’t want to know. It’s your job as an artist to give me your art in a believable way. There’s a music industry machine now that’s very effective at doing that. In rap and all kinds of music, your background is now really important to your credibility. I think she probably found herself in a tricky position where she started out her career, signing a deal for not very much money with the original record label, and then in order to make her career believable through Interscope, who are part of that machine I’m referring to, she’s having to rationalize that period of her musical career. Which may have been awkward for her.
LB: Yeah, I feel as though the question of authenticity leads you down a theoretical cul de sac where it doesn’t matter. And I agree with you that essentially people don’t care, and let’s use Rick Ross as an example of that—he portrays himself as a drug dealer in his tracks when actually he was a corrections officer who named himself after a famous drug dealer. We all know this but that doesn’t mean we don’t like his music or that he ceases to become popular. Maybe with Lana Del Rey, specifically, it feeds a really particular male fantasy, doesn’t it? More so than an artist like Lady Gaga.
WB: Absolutely. I think it’s interesting to compare her with is an artist like Beyoncé, who’s that typical I-woke-up-like-this flawless. Where she peddles this idea of perfection, everything being done the right way, a benign image of what empowered women look like: hetero, family-oriented, sexy but ultimately wholesome where it counts. I love Lana Del Rey’s open wallowing in daydreamy, suicidal ideation. I’m not qualified to say this and I’ll go out on a limb and say it anyway, I think it may speak better to many women’s experiences of being a woman—in ways where Beyoncé doesn’t.
LB: I don’t know if I would agree with that, as a woman. I don’t think she speaks to me so much as a woman, although I see how possibly she would. She’s definitely said some things that speak to me as a person.
WB: Can I give you an example? This song “Pretty When You Cry” from Ultraviolence, portraying a woman checking out the wreckage of a horrible face after or during crying is a powerful notion, and it’s something that you definitely wouldn’t expect in mainstream modern songs, these ideas of beauty in misery or tragedy.
LB: There’s a point you hit on that isn’t about womanhood and is actually about personhood, and that’s the real. That’s the thing about all of the dark things that don’t just happen but are within us and that we either choose to explore or we don’t. And she openly says that she wants to explore that side. And I think that’s the part that is really interesting about her. But that doesn’t have anything to do with being a woman, that just has to do with being a person that is willing to admit that shit exists. And also saying so in a pop context, which is usually a very safe, anodyne place.
WB: The difference here isn’t the fact that it exclusively happens to women, but in terms of its presentation. In other words, the voice that we get is typically one of the hetero, family-oriented, wholesome-where-it-counts. And Lana Del Rey is providing something that women may not commonly be exposed to, that kind of self-expression or communication. It’s a glorious outlet. You don’t hear often these things in the context of women, so if you’re listening to the radio and Lana Del Rey comes on, it speaks to them in a way the usual crap doesn’t.
LB: You’re obviously correct in that assessment, because apparently Born To Die has now sold seven million copies worldwide. We’ll see what happens with her next tour, I don’t think she’s at the stage yet where she’s playing stadiums, but that’s a lot of records. So, I suspect that she’s on her way to that level. And it’s interesting that she could get to that level when there does seem to be a tangible darkness to what she’s talking about.
WB: It’s remarkable how uncompromising the whole project is. And considering it’s selling these kinds of numbers, I think she’ll have quite a long successful career.
LB: I think the lucky thing for her is she’s one of those kinds of artists who will never be required to change her sound. I really do think she’s talented and I also think she possesses something unique, and she’s got charisma, but I also think her work falls a level short of being truly great. It’s strange because it’s obvious to me that she wants to reach these depths, but she does it in kind of a shallow way. I think she’s capable of recognizing that deepness, that resonance, but I don’t think she’s actually attained that level yet. A lot of that comes down to her lyrics, though. Conversely, that’s also what makes her unusual in the pop realm. Again, I think it’s the tension between those two things—her desire to reach the kinds of levels of the people she admires, like Allen Ginsberg and Lou Reed—and the affect of her music. Maybe that’s part of what makes her compelling as a character. Her words, I feel, are more interesting when she does this poetry in between songs, like she did in the “Ride” video and in Tropico, a short film that incorporated three songs from Paradise EP. A lot of the lyrics in her songs themselves are ultimately pretty shallow. Except for “Ride”, I feel as though that’s saying something big. When she says, “I’ve got a war in my mind.” That’s a line that really sticks out. So many of the rest of her songs are about being the object of male fantasy, and luxuriating in that role.
WB: Yeah, I actually thought about that. I thought it might be a deliberate process, because in some ways, the vagueness of the lyrics—if they were much more dense, like say Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and so forth—it would actually detract from the power of the songs. Otherwise, the more meaning that can be taken out of it, the less detail there is, the more you can project your own personal situation into the song.
LB: That’s the driving mantra of pop music, isn’t it?
WB: Exactly. This is something that is interesting from the field of cold reading practiced by fortunetellers and so forth, that they can use detail that is essentially a “universal experience” detail. Typically, a medium for example might say things like, “I’m seeing somebody, his name begins with J. J, J, who could it be? Who do you know whose name begins with J? Is it John, is it Jimmy?” With a direct hit it can sound uncannily personal, “How did you know I have this friend named Jimmy?” Songs are most effective in my opinion when that happens, and it’s usually either something like that in a song, which seems to speak to us personally, or via the environmental association we had when we heard the song. I think that’s how a lot of music works and Lana Del Rey, consciously or not, achieves this extremely effectively with her songs. ~
With first single “Hideaway” charting across Europe and a viral music video to match, you’ve probably already heard of Kiesza. If you haven’t, brace yourself, you soon will. EB met up with the Royal Canadian Navy reserve-turned-folk-singer-turned-pop house-starlet to find out what summer 2014 is in for.
Who is Kiesza?
No really, we’re as confounded as you are. The twenty-four year old from Calgary barrelled out of nowhere in April with “Hideaway”, a dance-pop record with a one-take video optimized for maximum viral impact (24,779,084 views, last check). The song adheres to the newly drafted dance charter set down by Disclosure and other predominantly British crossover artists raised on sub-bass frequencies but urged towards the radio-friendly dimensions of pop-house. It’s glossy and fun—an artist having a bash at being a Jessie Ware for the Generation Zs—but something else pulls focus. Kiesa Rae Ellestad herself.
While the curtain has long been open on the mechanisms of stardom (none of us believe pop stars were born ready for all their protestations), Kiesza is an intriguing case study. There’s the pre-fame false starts preserved on the internet and a backstory that casts her as drama school kid, tall ship sailor, and Navy reserve. Then there’s her wide-eyed desire to be a pop star, a primal need which manifests itself in the unsolicited offer of a photograph at the end of our interview. It all strikes an enthusiastic, if not outright puppyish note. Yet it’s one which has chimed with her fans who’ve got very loyal, very quickly. Observing her doing a boshing rework of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” while performing a dance routine somewhere between Zumba and vogue, it was hard not to be caught up in the Berlin crowd’s enthusiasm. Just as well, a quick glance at the comments beneath her videos suggests criticism is closely policed by her fans.
We headed to the offices of her major label to find out what exactly was going on, only to find ourselves being pulled into her world.
We’re trying to piece together your background, because there are so many odd tidbits of biographical info floating around online. You were in the Canadian Navy Reserves, right?
Yes, when I was in high school. So I couldn’t sign up full time.
You can be in the Navy Reserves in high school? Like a cadet?
No, this was the real Navy. Technically if you wanted to drop out and join the Navy you could. But I would always just train in the evenings after school and then do boot camp during the summer. I trained for about two and a half months and then went back to school.
What did your boot camp involve? Like landing in a massive pool with a helicopter and figuring out to escape?
No, we never did that. Maybe I would have done the helicopter thing if I stayed and was training to go off to Afghanistan. But we had simulations of war, obstacle courses and training to sneak up on people in the grass. Camping out in tiny tents and then getting ambushed in the middle of the night—that kind of thing. Fake bombs and grenades going off. When you’re in between being awake and being in a dream and your hearing all of these explosions it can be very weird. It’s kind of traumatic, you feel like you’re at war.
Is there a history of military service in your family?
Actually, yeah, now that I think of it, my dad was in the military. But he didn’t stay. But my grandfather flew planes in World War II. We love boats and airplanes in our family. My grandfather’s life was way more interesting than mine. He was the first person to land a plane in Trinidad! He couldn’t afford to got to flight school but really wanted to fly, so he found a pilot and just trained with him. He was only sixteen at the time, but when they were recruiting he showed them what he could do, was the best in his class and they made him a commander… at sixteen! He flew all these different jets and became a commercial pilot. He actually ended up flying lots of famous people like the President of the United States. Or maybe not the President, but super famous people. But he was so humble that he never told us, and then at his funeral a couple years ago people came out of nowhere and recounting all sorts of insane things. He sailed too. Actually, if you trace back our genetics, it’s all sailors, Vikings and whatever. The Black Douglas’s on my Scottish side. It’s basically a history of people who’ve done terrible things. So guess I have to make up for it, we traced out lineage back to the thirteenth century. On the Norwegian side too.
I guess that must be where the black metal influence comes in to your music.
Actually I was in a death metal band for a minute. Some band had their singer cancel last minute so they asked me, and I learned all these songs. I was screaming the whole time and literally had no voice the next day. I don’t know how people do it. But each their own. I got a lot of rage out.
Speaking of rage, we found a song you did a while ago called “Oops” which is supposedly about having unprotected sex. How did that come about?
Well it was a bit of a joke. I was writing for another artist and we demoed the song and the artist we recorded it for got a little nervous about the content. At the same time I was learning to do animation, so I thought it would be fun to do a little video with my friend’s baby, sitting there with goggles on. I ended up having to take it down because I didn’t want people to think of me as that artist.
So the baby in the video is the result of having “made an oops” i.e. not using protection?
Yeah. It’s about getting knocked up. We just dressed my friend’s baby in a tutu and put goggles on her and had the lyrics fly all around her.
Did you have anybody come and try to moralize with you—tell you that teen pregnancy is a huge problem and lecture you on the dangers of unprotected sex?
No, the song wasn’t out long enough for it to be controversial. But I was worried about it. If it was out there long enough it probably would have.
You mentioned in a previous interview that you’ve written for Rihanna. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Yeah, she’s recorded two, but they’re not out yet. Kylie Minogue has also recorded one. The thing is, I’ve written literally hundreds of songs during the gap between going to college and getting involved in the industry. You have to get in people’s faces and be like, “Come on, just give me a chance!” A lot of people listen with their eyes rather than with their ears. They look at what you’ve already done and not what you can do. It took a while for people to put me in a room with a big producer. So I found my own producers. And I took part in a couple of writing camps, where sometimes there are big name producers you can work with. My first camp went well, and that’s how I started getting calls. I had to build a repertoire to get to work with a certain level of producer. And with these things you write for a specific person, like Selena Gomez or Lady Gaga—well, not Lady Gaga, she writes her own stuff. But it’s always for somebody.
Is it a boys’ club?
No, there are a lot of women writers—mostly for melody and lyrics. There are more male producers. I’ve come across a few girl producers who are pretty good though.
Why do you think there are fewer women producers?
I think it’s a more macho thing. And I think women want to be singers. They gravitate to that and maybe become writers as a result of wanting to be a singer. Whereas men aren’t necessarily trying to be artists. Maybe it’s the same reason that boys like to play with cars and girls with dolls. Although I never played with dolls, I liked to play with cars.
Maybe it’s because boys are encouraged to play with cars.
Yeah, men are more “expected” to be producers and women are “expected” to be singers. But when the tables turn you get interesting stuff. The few women producers I worked with were great and had a different quality to their sound.
They had a different touch. I don’t think it had to do with whether they were male or female. They were good. I think we’re all exactly equal in what we’re capable of.
Your website is set up like a Tumblr and it has all these aphoristic looking quotes from you. Can you tell us about that?
My Tumblr originally was always the documentation of my own inner thoughts and artwork. And when I put it online I didn’t make it private, but I didn’t tell anyone about it really. I thought if people find it, then they find it. Sometimes I just get really introspective and start thinking about life. I love quotes so when I get inspiration I would just come up with a quote myself. Then I’d be like, “I like that!” so I started putting them online. Sometimes I go back and look at them and wonder what was I even thinking. Somebody asked me about a quote of mine the other day. They were like, “What does this mean?” and I was like, “I have no idea!”
Your website is interesting because the further down you go, the more personal it gets. There’s one where you mention finally arriving in L.A. and having your own room for the first time in months. It seemed revealing—like insights you don’t usually get into the life of popstars. Most want to build up a mythology around what they’ve done, like “I was born this way.”
I have a different theory on that. I think of it as stepping through a veil. There’s a veil between normal life and the celebrity world. I’m straddling that right now. And from the outside looking in, if you want to be a pop singer, you wonder, “How do I do that? Everything looks so perfect and polished.” I am open to people seeing me mess up. There’s a lot of lip-synching nowadays, and I avoid that under all circumstances. Even though when I sing and dance it’s like an aerobics workout. It’s hard to sing and dance. But I want people to see me progress. Because I think the progression is more inspiring. It wasn’t just an overnight thing—you have to work for what you love, you have to work for your dreams, you have to work for your art. It takes years of constant work and consistency and keeping your eye on this goal. And you have no idea how you’re going to get there because it’s never the same road.
So you would say you seriously busted your ass to get where are?
Definitely. I really busted my ass. There was a time when I almost had to go back to Canada because my visa was expiring, I didn’t have a sponsor and nobody was taking a chance on me as a musician. I was like, “What am I gonna do? If I go back I have to start from scratch in a new scene with new people.” It was really tough. But you have to bet on yourself. And here I am. One hour defined the rest of my life.
What hour was that?
When I wrote “Hideaway”, which was actually under an hour. I was supposed to catch a plane and I was in the studio and ready to go and then my producer started something else. Then the melody popped into my head and I was like, “Can I just lay this down before I go?” And I ended up writing the lyrics and the melody. There was this moment between having to catch a plane and deciding to drop my bags and staying. Had I not done that I could have been starting from scratch in Canada.
Your sound is noticeably based on a nineties pop vocal house sound. The genre has been around for a long time and…
Yeah, it started in Chicago and then disappeared. Then it blew up in Europe and now it’s back in the U.S. and everyone’s like, “Wait, what?” It’s like crossing back. And that’s what drew me in. When I was a baby, my mom was really into that music. Even though I was so young when it was playing, there was a sense of nostalgia. It reminds me of my childhood and all these diva singers I used to listen to and idolize. I was like “How do people do that?” To be singing the music I thought was impossible as a kid is pretty amazing. But I just identify with that nineties sound. But Rami [Samir Afuni] is a hip-hop producer, not a house producer. And so even though it is nineties house, there’s something different about it. It’s a former folk music person and hip-hop person coming together to make deep house, a soulful dance track.
There’s this new concept of deep house that’s recently emerged. Deep house once meant something very specific and now it’s been redefined in a more pop context. What makes this music “deep” anymore?
The sound of the bass is very important. The quality of the sound. It’s very… deep. It’s a deep bass sound. You notice when you compare these tracks they’re very similar. I mean everything you’ve been listening to for the past three years, progressive house they call it.
Yeah. It’s fist pumping, 128 BPM. It’s so fast you can’t dance to it. Deep house is slowed down to around 120 BPM.
Which is where it started.
Yeah, it doesn’t go past, say 124 BPM. You can move your whole body to it and when they play it in a club, people are moving. When a song comes on you just start moving. And it feels so good. It feels much better than this [pumps fist].
The bro fist pump in a club is never great.
Yeah! But sonically you can’t just have one element that makes something deep. But deep house is very simple, very open. It leaves a lot of space for the vocals. Maybe it makes you go “deep” into yourself.
Hmmm. There’s been this whole backlash…
Because it’s become commercial. You know, it’s cool and underground and then the world finds it and you have to find something else. But what is the backlash?
It’s related to appropriating an existing genre that was not fixed to pop sensibility. “Deepness” referred to a warmth and understated quality to the production, a jazziness. And to focusing on an idea at length. That is, it wasn’t confined to pop structure. And house music in general of course was appropriated from predominantly queer black culture.
I hope at some point in history it won’t matter. It won’t matter that black people do it, that white people do it, that it’s gay or straight. I understand there are different cultures but if a song is good it should bring people together. What’s happened is that the sound of deep house been put into commercial structure. People call something “deep” because it has the sounds of something that is nine minutes long but it’s been formatted for the radio. Then people are saying because it’s formatted for the radio it’s not deep. And others say because it has the sounds it is. Is it or isn’t it? It’s a huge debate. To me it’s not. The definition has been redefined.
Do you remember your dreams?
Sometimes. I should write them down because they’re crazy.
What was the last dream you can remember? It can also be a nightmare. Those are sometimes more memorable.
I remember my last nightmare. First I was in this world, it was a zombie dream, but not normal zombies. It was sailor zombies actually. We were on this boat sailing away from land because there was a zombie infestation. And the zombies would separate souls from people’s bodies and the souls would hang in limbo. They had no souls. Nobody knew where each soul was. And there was this mad scientist who had invented this machine that shined a purple light, and with that light you could see where the souls were. And if we could get the soul in contact with the body it could come back together. ~
Cop a free download and hear a stream from new Swiss electronic pop band Kamikaze—today’s double-header premiere. First, allow us to make introductions: Kamikaze are Fabio Pinto, Claire Huguenin, Jeremias Keller and Alexandre Maurer and together they make horizon-skimming pop from an arsenal of analog hardware. Like many bands operating today, their influences are broad—including Jon Hopkins, Bowie, The Knife, Angelo Badalamenti, James Blake and the weirder realm of jazz, to namedrop a handful. Still, the way they reconceptualize these touchstones within their immaculate collage-pop feels refreshingly effortless. We predict big things.
The full, exclusive stream of the Beta EP is above and if you like what you hear, hit up the free download of “Tomorrow”.
Kamikaze’s Beta EP is out May 23rd, 2014 on Mouthwatering Records.
In our new regular feature, we ask artists to delve deep into their memory banks to surface with some of the tracks that have defined their lives. For this edition, we speak with Brooklyn art-poppers MS MR.
In 2012, only a few people really knew who MS MR were. Fostering an air of mystique, their press shots were faceless, their names withheld, they left it up to the music to win over people’s overtaxed attention. And it did: tracks like “Hurricane” quickly garnered numerous blog plaudits and the ear of Pitchfork with the help of the ace Tumblr-referencing video. Now, with a successful debut under their belts, MS MR have thoroughly outgrown the internet sounding—and looking—every inch the arty popstars they always aspired to be. The time seemed apt to ask the band, who rocked Zagreb instalment of Electronic Beats Festival last month, to give us the soundtrack to their lives. These are the results. Warning: contains Eiffel 65.
1) What song makes the dancefloor go crazy?
2) What was the last song you bought?
3) Which song do you never want to play again?
4) What was the first song you ever danced to?
5) Which song would make you leave the dancefloor?
6) What song is your guilty pleasure?
7) Which song do you play to impress someone you like?
8) What’s your favorite song to play when you’re getting intimate with someone you like?
9) Which song do you know all the lyrics to?
10) What song do you want played at your funeral?