|Machine love: Brendon Moeller
The prolific DJ/producer reveals some of the secrets to his success.
Brendon Moeller doesn't like to tie himself down too much. As a youth, he moved through piano, trumpet and even tennis before discovering underground music and playing drums in a band at college. A growing interest in acid house, Mancunian hip-hop and early Aphex Twin and Orb kindled the electronic music fire, but he found the price for the gear prohibitive on his teacher's salary in South Africa. Dissatisfied with the job anyway, he moved from Johannesburg to New York in 1994 to follow his ambition. It was only after this that the process of figuring out what he needed and learning about it really began.
Since then he's recorded and collaborated under a number of different names; but none of them seem overtly dominant. After releasing a couple of 10-inches as Mono Blanco for Sm:)e Communications in 1997, and then later as Beat Pharmacy for Francois K's Deep Space Media and Wave Music, Echologist then came about. The aliases, however, have merely been a means to put his music out there in a practical sense rather than being linked to different musical visions. Collaboration, meanwhile, has been a part of his style since college, and still is, with projects including a pairing with Ramadanman last year as Shetland.
This sense of going with the flow—of taking paths as and when they crop up—is reflected in his music. His billowing dub techno builds and morphs organically, rather than following rigid sequences. It's not a coincidence that his studio and production methods have developed like this too.
When you got to New York, why did you want to make electronic music, rather than carrying on playing drums in a band?
I guess that when I left South Africa, [I saw that] you could essentially be your own band. I was working six days a week as a waiter, and I was not necessarily running out and socialising and trying to meet people to form a band with. I later incorporated collaboration with other musicians into my music, into the early Beat Pharmacy stuff. I still really enjoy the collaborative aspect of creativity.
What were the first bits of kit that you bought?
The first bits of kit that I got were a Roland R8 drum machine, an Alesis MMT-8 sequencer, a Novation Bass Station, an Akai sampler. I've had a few of them. I think the first one was an s1000. I initially had a cassette four track that I was using, and then I shifted to an Alesis ADAT, and then from an ADAT to a Roland 8-track digital hard disc recorder, and then finally I started playing around with Reason. I ended up getting myself a computer and I began delving deeper into Reason and Cubase, and no longer relying on the hard disc recording system. I finally went almost completely digital for a while, and then came back, and now I have a studio where I incorporate some of the favourite bits I've hung on to, like the Juno 106.
I think one of the biggest things that I've come to realise is the importance of just jamming until those moments of magic happen, and so now I try and make sure that I'm always stimulated to jam with the equipment I have around me. There's been a lot of question about whether laptops and software are instruments, and I've realised that if you add a controller keyboard with some knobs and buttons and faders, well, you're playing an instrument! So yeah, I'm really feeling quite comfortable now with my studio setup as is. The predominant programs I'm using are Ableton, Reason, along with an Oxygen 8 USB keyboard, an Evolution UC-33 controller, an Alesis MultiMix 6 USB mixer. I've got the Kaoss Pad and Kaossilator Pro just for fun and also to incorporate into my live stuff, and I've still got my Bass Station as well.
How has your jamming evolved over the years?
Well, when I had a band, we'd get together and grab a few beers or a spliff. I think one of the first things we jammed to was a cover of Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane." [laughs] We would jam on the ideas and the melodies, and eventually we managed to come up with a few songs. Now, I go in to the studio and I don't have a formulaic way in which I start a track. Sometimes I'll turn on the Juno, sometimes I'll look for samples, sometimes I'll listen to music, and just throw random things into the Reason sequences, and see when something sticks.
Once there's some semblance of a loop or something coming, I'll start laying it down. What's cool about having all this is that you can work on 15 or 20 tracks at a time and come back to them, you can let them breathe when you get frustrated. So that's the way I enjoy working now. I'm on my eighth album, which will be released next year on Speedy J's Electric Deluxe label, it will be a Brendon Moeller album. I'm going to be taking some of the new stuff into the clubs for my live shows over the rest of the year, and see how things sound. I'm also having Speedy J test things out, so we're working together to build a really great album that's going to work in the clubs as well as just for listening to at home.
At the same time I've been a serious music collector since I was 16, so my music vision is always changing. I'm always wanting to try new things if something triggers a new idea, and I guess I'm still trying to find my voice, that thing that's going to fifty years from now make Brendon Moeller stand out as someone who came out and made his mark. I don't believe I've done that. So that fire is burning in me, and there's no sign of it going out, so I relentlessly pursue it. I'm really happy doing this, I'm really blessed that I've had up until now to actually make a living. That living has become real tough after the digital world has swallowed what little money could be made from selling music, so there's a lot of challenges in this game, but I'm up for it.
I've also set up a system where it's not a big stretch for me to take what I'm doing here into the clubs and jam. If I went out there knowing what my sets are going to sound like, I would really be bored, and probably not want to do it. I think people appreciate that more, people like knowing that you're on a road but you don't know where it's going. And yes, you want to hear your favourite track, but it's going to be more impressive if you hear it in a new light.
So what do you use when you're playing live?
My live setup is a Macbook Pro, I'm running Ableton, I'm using a UC-33 controller, a Novation LaunchPad, a Kaoss Pad. I've set up 8 tracks in Ableton with all effects and loops, just stuff I've collected. Loops, elements, solos, acappelas, you know, my favourite songs, just everything. I'm armed to the teeth with stuff and I'm constantly updating that stuff. You know, keeping it fresh and keeping myself inspired. Shit, if I'm not having fun up there you can guarantee that the people in the club are not having fun.
Your production style often sounds similar to what they were doing in early dub. Is that a conscious thing?
Yeah, absolutely, the dub aesthetic and production is something that, once I heard it way back, fascinated me, and hearing it used in all styles of music, whether it was Pink Floyd, or King Tubby, or pop music, or whatever. Reverb, phasing, delays and echoes became an obsession of mine. Whenever I listened to this stuff I wanted to know how they were accomplishing these effects, and so it's definitely something that has become a signature of mine.
Do you use the Kaoss Pad mostly?
I use the Kaoss Pad not so much for that, I use it more for real sort of glitchy and phasey effects. All the dubs I'm using in Ableton, and I've set all the parameters up on the UC-33 so I can control the rate and the feedback and all these elements. That, accompanied by a Novation Launchpad, enables me to not have to touch my laptop really. It's just really a great setup. Essentially I'm just sculpting sound live, with the attention to creating this dizzying array of pyrotechnics using the effects I have available. I'm jamming with the mix as I would be jamming on a guitar or on a keyboard.
What soft plugins do you use while you're doing this?
Actually I generally use a lot of Ableton's own effects, particularly their reverbs. I use the Simple Delay and the Filter Delay when I'm playing live as well. As far as effects plugins, the only other one I use is the CamelSpace, which is an effects plugin by Camel Audio, which I got a while back. In my studio I keep it pretty simple. I [also] use Zebra2.
I've kept my setup pretty simple after spending a fortune on gear, and the addictive quality that having gear or software can have on you. And finally coming to the realisation that the more you know, the less you need with this stuff. [laughs] Honestly, if you have one synthesizer and you know how to work it properly, you can emulate so many things, and if you know how to incorporate distortion and effects, the sky's the limit. I can't say that I'm in any way bored or limited with my use of Ableton, Reason or Zebra.
And the Juno 106 as well, is that quite a central part?
As far as a keyboard to make all those dub techy sounds, it's the perfect synth for that. So what I would do is hit record on Ableton and then just jam, and then I would go back and listen and just snap little bits, either hits or riffs, and then throw them into a folder I have on my desktop called "fodder." And then just keep going back to that. So over the years, all these have accumulated, so whenever I need to dip into that I just grab from there, and I also incorporate loads of that into my live shows. But the Juno itself, it's such an easy beast to jam with if you enjoy just diving in, it's an incredible synth.
You've chosen the right synth for the job, for your sound.
Exactly, yeah. The Kaoss Pad and the Kaossilator pro as well are just great toys to bring along to live shows, and people do enjoy seeing an effort made. Those people are paying to come there, so I want to be trying to constantly improve that.
Do you have a certain difference in production styles for your aliases?
Well, initially Beat Pharmacy was the name I chose to work with exclusively with Francois' Deep Space Media, and Francois is paying me more than enough money to give him that exclusivity. So then it became apparent that I was making a lot more music than he could release, and he was like, "oh yeah, do whatever you like, just not as Beat Pharmacy." So then Echologist came into being, so it was more like a means to an end rather than thinking of an alias with a sufficiently different vision.
With the aliases, while there have at times seemed to be identities attached to each one, they're not really for that purpose. Part of my evolution is what I've released and how I can continue to release stuff. Whether I have more of an idea now of what I should release as opposed to what I should not—definitely, there is that, but I don't have any regrets about what I put out there, and, you know, it's out there. The decision I just made over the last few days with Speedy J with the album I'll be releasing, [is that it] will be a Brendon Moeller album just because it's distinctly different from that Echologist album. And if I decide to go back and take Subterranean to the next level, that option is there.
Looking at your studio, it looks like it's in the corner of maybe your living room, and there's no acoustic baffles or anything. How does this affect the mixdown? Do you have someone else that tidies it up?
Your recent album, Subterranean, was recorded in one go. How did that work?
I collected sounds over the course of about a year, and some of them went on to become tracks that I released on EPs and on my label, but the main objective was to get all this together and do a live mixdown, where I would take these elements, work them together, and just simulate a one hour live set. I wanted to have the album have a live feel about it. I wanted the album to be as propulsive, dramatic and engaging as a good peak hour techno set, but I didn't want to rely on the kick drum, the hi-hat or the clap to make that happen. I wanted to rely on sound, bass.
What about the rhythmic edges to the sounds, how did you go about doing that?
It was really an exercise in using filters, delays and reverbs to achieve those rhythmic elements. Essentially that was using Live's filters to the max, I'd mapped them out on the UC-33. And levels too, people forget, when you have eight tracks of stuff just going in Ableton, just changing the level of one of those tracks, you get a whole new picture.
Can you pinpoint any particular synth you used for a sound?
All the synth sounds came from the Juno 106. Every element in the album was the result of a jam session, either just dragged into Live as a track and cut up and rearranged, or just putting in one of the Simpler instruments in Ableton. And doing it in Reason as well. Reason is a phenomenal program for jamming, you can take a few hits and a drumkit and take those sequences and you can go nuts. So yeah, it's pretty much all Juno 106 on that album.
No, I do everything myself, and a lot of the stuff I've been releasing of late I master myself. I'm really utilising my monitors that I have, along with headphones. I have three pairs of headphones that I use, and I listen to things pretty carefully, and I know my studio, and I know my monitors well. A lot of guys have tracks that have gone on to be hits, and they've been mixed down on headphones, so it's about knowing and understanding more than it is about what you have. It's about knowing your setup and knowing how it's going to translate.
What about listening to commercial tracks and using graphic equalisers, do you do any of this?
No. I tend to want to build things from the ground up myself. I test them out on different systems. I have my little handful of people that I will send something to, and I can always count on getting some feedback either related to the content or the production.
You say you know your monitors, how would you describe them?
They're pretty bass heavy, a lot of the detailed high end gets lost, but I'm able to simulate the environment I'm going for. I live in upstate New York, and the nearest house must be about 40-50 metres from my studio. I can crank things up, and I really do. I'd love an upgrade, but it's not necessary.
How do you deal with the fact that the high end gets lost?
I have my headphones, Sony MDR-7509HDs. Super clear, so there are no real surprises. Before I was aware of all this stuff a few years ago I'd be going into clubs and playing my songs and they'd be unrecognisable to me. [laughs] Now, once you go in and you've played on the Berghain system a few times, it changes your perception and your understanding of sound in such a big way. All these gigs have definitely opened up my eyes. Now, I'm not going to be surprised when I hear things, because I'm trying to simulate that same context using headphones and my speakers. With this new album, I think as far as production, it's definitely the best sounding thing that I've done.
And what have you learnt specifically about club dynamics?
I guess the one thing that it has taught me is the cliché less is more. You realise how powerful a single little sound can be, and when there's clutter and muddiness, that takes away from the power of a track. I've really learnt to pay attention to only having the necessary stuff in there, because when something is crisp, clear, well thought-out, that's where those sound systems really teach you… just keep it simple. Any little effect or any little ambient thing you might want to put in there could drastically affect the feel of a track, so you really learn to say what you want to say with clarity and not embellish it with all these extraneous things that don't really contribute to the main message. Which is either the bassline, or the hook, or the drums.