Leaving his motherland for the less likely location of Washington DC, the musical nomad is now ready to unleash his second album, Ghost People, with unlikely bedfellows Brainfeeder. The early indications of his new sound suggest a more rugged approach that sports the groove and tempo of house and techno, but densely layered in sonic debris. As one might imagine, his musical tastes roam as widely as his own output. RA's Oli Warwick dialed up Washington DC to discuss some of the key records that form a backdrop to the new LP in advance of his appearance at this year's Amsterdam Dance Event.
There's not much information out there on Stanley Cowell. What led you to his music?
I collected jazz from a very early age and for some reason this Stanley Cowell album really stuck to me. I guess there's a division for me between jazz basics like Miles Davis and Coltrane, and the often namechecked space jazz stuff like Sun Ra and other out-there free jazz. Stanley Cowell is right in the middle of those two. He was quite an important B-list pianist from the late '60s, and this album features some dons like Bobby Hutcherson and Woody Shaw. I like listening to free jazz, but not for too long. I need some sort of structure to hold on to, with jazz or classical music, so that's why I like this album a lot.
What is it about Brilliant Circles that you love in particular?
When you start collecting jazz obviously you start with all the key players but I always thought it was much more interesting to buy albums by people involved in the rhythm section, drummers, bass players and sometimes pianists. If you buy an album fronted by a drummer, then usually he will give the soloists more space, instead of someone like Miles Davis who is obviously in charge of everything and will tell all the musicians what they have to do. With a drummer he'll be like, "Oh yeah, just play and do whatever you want to do." I find that a lot of those albums are a bit more free, and usually have a bit more of an interesting outcome.
The Fog of War
Does your preference towards structure in classical music apply to your choice of the Philip Glass soundtrack too?
I like most of his soundtracks more than his symphonies because I guess it's a bit more like "applied art" if that makes sense? I started to listen to Philip Glass via films like Koyaanisqatsi. Fog of War is a documentary about Robert McNamara, the US Defense Secretary during the Kennedy and LBJ days. It's an interview about the most tense moments of the Cold War, so the interview is very doom and gloom and the soundtrack really fits the movie. What attracts me with Glass and also people like Steve Reich, is that it's quite mathematical the way they write their music, and it reminds me a lot of how you work on a grid in Logic or something. You can separate all the notes by certain numbers, for some reason there's not much happening at random, it's all quite mechanical.
Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass are all quite fundamental in the structures and repetition of electronic music. Do you listen to quite a lot of music by them?
I think I know more about jazz than I know about classical music, but I do enjoy listening to it especially while I'm doing something else. For me it's a nice textural music and I can listen to it while reading, and it enhances my reading in a way. Maybe because of these structures, it makes it easier to get your head around really difficult reading material? You can listen to this stuff in different ways. You can just do nothing and be completely immersed by it and you can use it for running on the treadmill, reading books or anything like that. The only thing I don't do is listen to that sort of stuff on the plane because it makes me too anxious!
Do you find listening to something like early Autechre can have a similar effect to classical music?
I don't know if I would consider it background music as much as, say, Phillip Glass. The thing with Autechre for me, especially with this album and Incunabula, is that at that time I just thought that techno was dance music that you would hear in clubs. That whole Warp Artificial Intelligence vibe really showed there's so much more to electronic music than just dancing. Autechre's music made a very deep impact on me as far as sound and ideas and a lot of that has stuck with me.
Have you been into all the Warp Records stuff since it first started to come out?
I started going to clubs in 1992/1993, and in the week I would go and buy CDs of all this sort of stuff, like Polygon Window, Seefeel, Higher Intelligence Agency, and then on into Orbital and early rave.
Were there clubs around at that time that would play the Artificial Intelligence style techno in the chill-out room?
No! At least not in the clubs where I went. I did see Autechre live once, in quite an early stage of their career, but the clubs were all about Detroit and Chicago. This sort of music was strictly on CDs and I would just listen to all that stuff at home. To make a connection with the here and now, I never really pick up on any new ambient or beatless music but I got a few Oneohtrix Point Never albums and that did bring me back to the early '90s era. I was actually quite inspired by some of his stuff and by the older Warp things for my new album as well, to take it in a more electronic, arpeggiated way. There are quite a few tracks that are kind of ambient.
The Oneohtrix and early Warp music has a definite sci-fi leaning which also points more to the roots of Detroit techno.
They were also quite influenced by early electro, like the instrumental versions of Afrika Bambaataa stuff and the very proto electro.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
It also has more of a roughness to the production which leads on to a few selections you've made that definitely carry that hallmark. They all share a quality which seems to be prevalent in your new output.
I never really looked at it that way but I guess so! When I was making my album I was reading this book from a series called 33 1/3. Every book in that series is about the making and history of a classic album, and I picked up the one about It Takes a Nation of Millions... It was really interesting to read about the timing of the album and what they wanted to say with it when it came out, but much more interesting to me was the production notes from the Bomb Squad, the little tricks that they used, sampling techniques, all really inspiring stuff. On my album, I tried out a few of those things. That album sounds so incredibly layered, even listening on headphones there's so much going on, all this extra noise on the beats that comes from the samples and the way that they produced it, and the way they used stereo and all that sort of stuff. It was just really inspiring from a producer's point of view to make things a little bit more loose and a bit more noisy, to get this organic feel on it.
Black Meteoric Star
Across all that music, especially the Gavin Russom production on Black Meteoric Star, it has a very grainy, rough quality to it. Like you say it's an organic quality that I personally felt was prevalent on your last two singles compared to Great Lengths which was quite polished.
One of the things I do like about the Black Meteoric Star one is the distortion of everything, where it feels like he just drives the music to the edge, and finds the fine line between it sounding good or it sounding fucked up. It's nice to explore that edge, and in the new album and on the single as well, the production was all done by me but the mastering was done by Daddy Kev, who masters all the Brainfeeder stuff. He also has that quality to his mastering. A lot of London-based masterers would say that he goes a little bit over the top when it comes to the sound quality. If you listen to a Flying Lotus album you probably know what I'm talking about, but I did want to see how far he could take it as well. The album and the single are really on the edge between distorting and what you can still have sound reasonable in a club.
What Have We Learned
Do you think the Morphosis album ties in with this concept we were talking about before, the roughness in the music?
Maybe, but it's not really what attracts me to the Morphosis album. I think what's really interesting about his stuff is that it's so separate from what everyone else is doing, and I quite like the idea that someone from Lebanon is so removed from that fashionable sound of what's played at Watergate/Berghain, or British techno or whatever. I think this album really shows how independent you can be and still be super fresh. When the album came out not too long ago, I had this whole period where I would just listen to albums, and every one was so predictable in a way. I think the Morphosis album is the only one in recent times that really caught me by surprise, because I didn't really have any clue what he was doing, and it just felt like it's really sincere and straight from the heart.
It's very emotionally intense music as well.
The first track I heard was "Too Far," which is a vocal track, and I think 2562 sent it to me and said, "listen to this, it's so much more honest than all this stuff we keep hearing every day," and I fully agree. So then I bought the vinyl and the CD and I have the download! When I really like something, I'll just buy all formats!
From the Mind of a Deejay
I included this because the rest of the list is so serious!
There's something so direct and uncomplicated about DJ Duke's music isn't there?
Yeah and it's got a lot of sexuality as well, which you don't really hear in electronic music too much in my opinion. A lot of people try to make something sound sexual in a housey sort of way but it's very rare that someone succeeds as well or as bluntly as DJ Duke. The thing is nowadays in the UK bass scene a lot of people are looking back at New York house, New Jersey, Wild Pitch and things like that, and it's always the names like Marc Kinchen, Terry Hunter or Kenny Dope that come up, but they're all quite sophisticated in a way.
MK especially is very clean and accessible, but Duke would just chuck all kinds of really weird or roughly cut samples into the mix.
And the other thing is that he does vocal house very well. They're always a little bit over the top in a way; like overly gay/androgynous to the point of cheese, stuff that you're not really getting away with in a normal club environment. For some reason playing stuff like that and taking it a little bit over the edge just makes it much more interesting and fun. I must say that I've played quite a few DJ Duke tracks here and there, and it works so well. It's a little bit dirty or a little bit cheesy, and you'll always have that one guy that comes up and goes, "Oh wow! I can't believe you're playing that!"
Miami Vice – Music From The Television Series
I presume this comes from the same mentality as having DJ Duke on the list?
I guess it's a little bit lighthearted as well, but I do think people underestimate the musicianship of Jan Hammer. What I really like about the Miami Vice soundtrack is first of all that it brings me back to being in Miami and also the 80s and watching Miami Vice obviously. Also from a production point of view, that album has everything that is kitsch about the '80s and synthesizer music.
Just to make a link with Oneohtrix Point Never again, you know that Games project he does? It's funny but a lot of music that I've been listening to over the last year like Games and Washed Out, and even Caribou maybe a little bit, chillwave or whatever they call it? It's funny how a lot of that comes back to quite cheesy '80s music and you hear a lot of cut up '80s samples like Scritti Politti and also some Miami Vice bits. You always have that obvious reverb on the snares and it sounds sort of cheesy, but cheesy in a good way, and I think the Miami Vice soundtrack encompasses that part of music that I like really. It's like watching John Hughes movies, where you have that very typical '80s soundtrack. When were you born?
I was born in the '80s, and I grew up with that sound too. It takes a while to grow up enough to appreciate those kinds of sounds with hindsight and nostalgia. It took a lot of people a long time to move from reviling the '80s to appreciating what the decade had produced.
I think as a musician or as a producer you can look at that stuff in a slightly different way as well, where you can even hear the tackiness in the production. The early '80s especially was a time where a lot of equipment became more affordable for people, and stuff like reverbs, cheapy synths with big strings, all the pan flutes and that whole sound that Jan Hammer uses.
Talking about the "chillwave" artists, the likes of Hype Williams and Maria Minerva have taken those unmistakably '80s sounds and filtered them through this foggy, wistful production style to almost romanticise them.
It's cool how that music and the Games 12-inch is constructed, it's basically LA instrumental hip hop. It's how Flying Lotus would construct his tracks on 1983, but the samples are different because they take '80s pop and New Wave music which has all these tacky sounding effects. They'll use MPCs or stuff like that just to trigger everything and it becomes a whole new style. I quite like that idea, just to go searching through old '80s albums and go cutting everything up and making a new music out of it.
The last of these Playing Favourites features I did was with Lerosa and his entire selection was based on early '80s pop.
Yeah, I could have easily picked early Peter Gabriel myself or Eurythmics, maybe, but I was a big Yazoo fan and if you want to go even moodier: early Kate Bush. My parents listened to it and for some reason it just becomes part of your DNA whether you like it or not. I think in your early high school days you want to stay as far away from that stuff as possible, but eventually it all just catches up with you. Before you know it, you're singing all these Kate Bush songs on your iPod! And then you become like your Dad! It's very scary!