Did production come easily to you?
I spent about a year-and-a-half learning the software and the synths and everything. It was only a hobby for me for a long time before I started actually writing with a purpose, and putting out records. It was about a year after that I started working on things before I signed my first record to Connect Four.
What sort of synths and software were you working with at that time?
I've used Ableton from day one, and I am still using Ableton. As far as hardware goes, I don't use a ton of hardware, but we've got a Super Jupiter, a Juno 106, a Jupiter 8 (owned by Jamie Jones), a Waldorf Microwave, a Moog Slim Phatty and a Tetra. So we've actually got a decent amount of stuff between the two of us. I mean for the most part in the studio, though, it's mostly plug-ins. Kenny actually used to have a massive studio back in the day. He was writing, producing records like ten years ago and then he stopped for a long time until I kinda lit a fire under his ass.
When did you light the fire under his ass?
[laughs] I guess it's just over four years ago now that I started putting together plans for [my label] No. 19 Music. As soon as I got the idea to start it, I had Kenny writing an album for me. He was working on like an 11 year old laptop with a old version of Logic. It's pretty amazing what came out of that computer.
What is it about Ableton that you like so much? You said you haven't known anything else obviously, but it also has seemed to fit your needs thus far.
Yeah, I haven't found it to be limiting at all for me. For me, that would be the only reason to move on to another medium. In earlier versions of Live there were the sound issues. The audio engine wasn't producing the same kind of sound as Logic. But now, with Live 8, I find it's pretty close. After mastering and everything it doesn't really hurt the sound. I taught myself as well, so I'm pretty sure I do everything ass backwards. But I find a way to achieve whatever I need to achieve using Live so, for me, that's a reason to stick with the software
Is there someone that you go to when you have an issue getting what you want?
Oh yeah, Noah Pred, who owns Thoughtless Music and lives in Toronto as well. He's a certified Ableton instructor, so he's given me tips over the years and if I run into a problem I will gave him a call. James Teej as well. They are very proficient with the program, and I am not much of a technical guy personally.
You mentioned a Waldorf in your hardware list. That seems like a curious one.
Yeah. I've actually been using that thing for years and in most of my solo production which was often very influenced by a lot of older dub techno. I used it much more prominently then, but you can hear a lot of very low frequency shots that act almost as an off-kilter kick throughout some of the Art Department songs like "Vampire Nightclub." It's also the Microwave almost anytime you hear the slightest sweep or FX on an Art Department record.
I think I read in a previous interview that Kenny writes a lot of the initial stuff for Art Department songs.
Yeah, the Art Department project is really based around Kenny's vocals, and I have nothing to do with that. Kenny writes all the lyrics and melodies for the vocals on his own and lot of the times the idea is just a vocal and a bassline and maybe one mid-range synth or something. The process changes. Sometimes he'll write an entire song. Sometimes I will write an entire song front-to-back. But, for the most part, it's Kenny writing the vocals and usually a bassline and passing it my way. I then kind of turn it into what Art Department is.
What makes an "Art Department track"?
The bassline is a big part of it, but Kenny's vocals are what really makes it stand out. It also has a lot to do with the mix down, the arrangement and the percussion that I use. It's similar to the stuff I was doing on my own and Kenny's synth melodies are very similar to what he was doing on his own before Art Department as well so we both just bring what we offer to the table, and it just works really well.
It feels like there is a lot of space in each of the tracks on the album.
Yeah, there is a lot of space for everything—for every sound to do its thing. That's really important. I've always thought that the space in which a sound is able to move around in is really important. Especially when you're listening on headphones. You really get that feeling of the creation of space, that everything has room to breathe.
Obviously the album is built for the dance floor, but at the same time I was just listening to the album on headphones earlier and I felt like I heard it in a whole new way.
For me, one of the most fun things in listening to music is the first time you put on headphones when you're kid and you realize what all goes into it, and you're not just listening to an overall sound. The first time I listened to a Led Zeppelin song in headphones, I was just like, "Wow!" Their use of space just blows your mind, so that's been really important—and very interesting—for me and Kenny.
Is there anything you do to Kenny's vocals in particular?
Most of the time he will give me the vocals the way he wants it to be. Maybe I'll add something, but it will be very minimal. Maybe just a bit extra reverb or something. He gives me his vocals pretty bare and pretty raw for the most part though, aside from "Without You," which was pitched down and some effects.
Was that a conscious decision to leave them unfiltered, especially after the success of "Without You"?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean with tracks like "We Call Love" or "Living the Life" I think just letting that vocal sit there sounds great. You know, if you got a good voice just let it be a good voice.
Tell me about your philosophy on arrangements. I was really interested in "Much Too Much," for instance, where it almost seems like there are two tracks cleaved together.
If you listen to Kenny's album is on No 19 Music, most of the tracks that he writes on his own are like 11, 12 minutes long and there isn't really a whole lot of structure although there is almost two tracks within the song. What I think I've done is take that stuff and make it more structured. There is more obvious separation between different parts of the track. With "Much Too Much" specifically, when it comes back and that new bassline comes in at the end of the track it's like... I mean you can write a 12 minute song, and incorporate all of that into it, but that doesn't t necessarily work on the dance floor.
How long does it take to tweak those arrangements? How do you go about that?
My system for doing arrangements is literally starting at the beginning of the track. It's not like I record on Ableton a mock layout and then tweak it. I start at the very beginning and work my way through it taking away and incorporating the parts we've written. Basically, by the time I end up at seven or eight minutes, the whole thing is finished.
So a lot of the arrangements are almost done live and by feel?
Yeah, I think that's the best way to get a feel for when the things should happen in the track, when you're actually building it and reaching certain points in the track, and you're feeling this needs to happen or this isn't the right time to go on to something... That's the best way—to let it build organically.
I find it interesting that obviously you're using Ableton, but you still seem to have a very classic palette in terms of percussion. Are you consciously trying to stick to that sound?
Yeah, absolutely100%. There is one thing we kept repeating when we were writing The Drawing Board and that was that we wanted to make a classic-sounding album. We wanted to make something that would sound amazing 10 to 15 years from now. We kept referring to Daft Punk's Homework as something to aspire to. We weren't trying to change the game or anything. We weren't thinking we were doing something super different. We just wanted to take the best of everything we love and had been listening to our whole lives and put it into our production. Percussion is a really easy way to achieve that too. You can change the feel of a track so drastically by making it really bare and minimal or really tight, using closed hi-hats or open hi-hats.
Was there a particular thing you relied on a lot on the album? A particular drum sound? An open hi-hat?
Yeah, that open hi-hat that I have been using on all my productions and then on all Art Department's production was almost something that you try to steer away from towards the end of the album because I thought it was on too much of the record. But I mean there was nothing we were relying on even though we were using a lot of the same sounds to keep the sound of the album consistent. Now that we are writing more sporadically and for more smaller projects, we can kind of venture off and do something that sounds a bit different.
You also said you were using plugins quite a bit throughout the album. Are there any ones that stand out to you as being particularly useful?
To be perfectly honest, I don't really like to talk about that stuff because it just gives people that reason to try and replicate our sound. I try not to talk about it a whole lot but I'm a huge fan of the Arturia plugins. There's one other specific one that I use that nobody else seems to know about, so I'm gonna try and keep it that way.