Dickow had a disappointing time in the late '00s trying to tailor his work to European imprints that wanted a cleaner sound, but he's returned with a clear head and a huge amount of material—a track on Air Texture's new ambient comp, a 7-inch on ZamZam, a full-length in the works for Peak Oil, new 12-inches for 100% Silk and others. Indeed, it's been one of the busiest times in his creative life of late. Busy enough that he still doesn't know how to loop parts in Ableton.
I read an interview with you once where you said that one of your top tips as an artist was to backup your hard drive all the time.
Yeah, I've been up and down with that. Gosh, I don't remember when that was, but I have recently gotten another hard drive so I can backup the backups. [laughs] So, yeah. I'm not very good at technology frankly. I use it at the bare minimum of what I need to do—email and some kind of really basic graphic design and, you know, music... it's like a glorified tape recorder basically. When it comes to really understanding my computer and treating it well and being responsible, I only do an OK job.
Looking at your studio, I have a hard time believing that.
Well, I like technology. I just have a hard time, especially with computer stuff. I'm not against it and there are a lot of people who are against laptop music or digital recording. I'm all for it, but I find it has a really high learning curve, and my strengths aren't in using those tools. So I think in spite of my open-mindedness I just hit certain walls. Like, I've had Ableton but I've never figured out how to use the looping part of it. I just use it like a four-track.
I've had the most success with music environments where you're lining up lots of mixers and effects like AudioMulch. I never got into Max/MSP, although I always really wished that I had, because those sorts of environments are like an imaginary version of what a real studio is like, whereas the kind of linear multi-tracking environments are really perplexing to me.
My dad's a respected amateur computer programmer and a computer musician and he can write these programs that generate algorithmic MIDI and stuff like that. He programmed Commodore computers when I was young, and I just never was pressured to learn how to think that way. But it's not for lack of enthusiasm!
The human touch
Programming is a learned thing, playing comes first for me. I have a controller that's like a drum set. I have a Drumkat. When I make a song, I don't usually sit there and cut loops into shape. When I play drum machines and samplers, I'm really playing them.
When my dad did electronic music he would develop elaborate algorithmic MIDI. There was almost no performance aspect to it at all. And, for a long time, I had drum machines but I thought they were just like an electronic drummer that you played along to.
Then one of my early bands opened for Mouse On Mars and they recorded us playing and then sampled it into their set. That blew my world wide open.
When the bands I was playing keyboards and drums with took a break I thought, "Oh, I can play the boxes, I can make electronic music, I can make a pattern, then I wouldn't have to have a band." That's why it always starts from that point of playing the parts. I think that's why I like to have all this stuff. It makes me invent in a certain way.
Oh yeah. He's a music professor and was really steeped in new music culture. San Francisco, Berkeley, people like Pauline Oliveros. He got into using the computer for music when software and interfaces started to become available. He would build synthesiser equipment for the labs he taught in as well. So I really grew up in that context of a totally continuous spectrum of DIY ethics—ranging from traditional to avant-garde music.
So that seeped into your mind, even if you weren't necessarily liking the same music. It was the mentality.
I was really encouraged to pursue anything non-traditional. I was exposed to a lot of really interesting people really young but I was never nudged into participating. That was just on my own. I would say it's not even until the last few years that my parents started identifying with my interests.
Recently there's been a spate of activity from you.
After Future Rock came out in 2007, I changed my music set-up around, and I toured a lot, and I did a lot of little releases for smaller labels. I got really spread out, and then my job got more serious. And then all of a sudden I got too ambitious about an album I was going to make and I just kind of went into the hole. I got sucked into an album for almost four years, and it wasn't working, so for a full year of that I just didn't do music. But it's not like you stop having ideas, so I was like "OK, I have all these ideas, they've all built up, I need to just finish this album, even if I don't like it and just get it out of the way." I think I got some good things out of that time. In 2009 I probably recorded more music than I've ever recorded. I just didn't release it, because I was unsure if the music was finished. I had [a lot of] indecision.
So you had writer's block.
Yeah. But I also didn't have a music space. When I set up the studio, I pretty much immediately started doing music again—and people were shaking the tree for me to do stuff as well. I think without some people shaking the tree, it probably may not have happened. I wouldn't say it's an increase in ambition. It was just that things got backed up and when I opened the gate all the water came rushing out. So when I rented a little office in a building downtown right next to my work, I was running down on my lunch break and doing music really fast.
Tell me about how you hooked up with the 100% Silk label. They seem very "hip" and American. I guess I identify you, in some way, as an American dance producer—as opposed to a European one—so it seems to make sense.
I just sent a demo. After I was inactive I was like, "You know, I'm going to have to send demos again. I'm going to have to be that guy who's older and his labels that he worked with before aren't picking up his new track or whatever." I had to be that guy: Too established to be cool and fresh, but too new to be, like, an institution, you know? I'd been DJing their tracks and, for me, it was a natural fit because I tend to pick pretty unrefined music when I play. I pass over the majority of DJ music as way too lushly produced for me. I'm much more influenced by dirty, yucky music.
I had a series of experiences during my couple of years of inactivity. I had one 12-inch that was passed around between two European labels and one US label, who were very nitpicky over little minor nuances about the sound. Mind you, this is probably the cleanest, most produced track I'd ever made, and it had remixes from known European producers that other labels had paid for and then just said, "You can keep those." And they were asking me to fret over almost imperceptible things with the sound.
Finally I just had to say, "I can't afford the Apogee sound card and the bazillion gigabyte computer and the mixer that is completely noiseless." My resources are pretty limited and I express myself within that context, and I didn't want to... Well, I basically stopped demoing European labels hands down. I was like, "This is ridiculous, I do not want to have any part in this kind of reality." I probably drew a wrong conclusion from those experiences. I had worked with European labels before like Dreck and they totally embraced my weirdness.
Do you think it was a "we aren't sure we can release it if it doesn't work on the dance floor" type of reaction?
I think everybody was freaking out because vinyl sales were declining, the economy was fucked, it was newly fucked. I think it wasn't, "This won't work on the floor." It was like, "Your tracks are really inventive, but people don't really want that." What I've found works on a floor is something that hits, but there's also something that challenges you. That's what's great about well-done yucky music. You're like, "Fuck! It sounds so fucked and I keep listening to it, I can't tune it out." The ear, scientifically, is attracted to imperfections. We map sound by what's wrong. So if you have a piece of music that's perfectly mastered and compressed, you'll actually forget it. It's just forgotten immediately because it has no distinguishing "problem."
If it's fucked up and it has a hook, then you have this delicious problem, and that's where I think I live. Those are the tracks that I buy. So I just said, "OK, I'm going to identify all the labels that I play out that are still in business, and I'm going to send them demos." It was this list of American labels that just don't give a fuck. I didn't really get very far because 100% Silk replied right away. I didn't think of them as hipster. When I heard their records I was like, "Oh yeah, this is like Metro Area on steroids with tape hiss." There's lots of labels that have done lo-fi, challenging dance music, so I saw them as being part of this great tradition.
I'm looking at these photos you sent over and there's this circuit board that you have that you seem to be doing something with. What is that?
Yeah, I was testing it. There's this guy in Austin called Eric Archer that makes these little stand-alone drum modules that can communicate with each other using an IR wireless signal if they're close enough to each other. There are a few other companies that make compatible things, and you can buy them as kits for very cheap and put them together. Each one does one thing and then the whole idea is that you chain a whole bunch of them together and you can improvise patterns and stuff. I just have one which I set up to accept a trigger input from my drum machines but somehow, on the way back from a show I recently played, I broke it. I was just testing it and I fixed it while the photo shoot was taking place. There are a lot of DIY projects for people like me who can't ever afford a real 808 or a nice sampler.
You say that you're someone who can't afford these instruments, but looking around at your studio it seems like there's a lot of stuff in there. [laughs]
I guess I should clarify that much of it belongs to other people [laughs] or was picked up extremely cheaply. Like so cheap that it's a complete fluke. A lot of it is old and much of it doesn't really work properly. I mean, I've never gone out and saved up two grand to buy a Machinedrum. I just don't live in that universe. I think probably the highest-end thing is the Kyma system. It's a rack mount thing that's an older version of what's probably one of the most powerful computer music systems in the world. That used to belong to Kid606. He lives in Germany now, and I ended up with it.
One of the drum machines belongs to my friend Eric, the Korg Electribe. He's just like, "You can just have that, I don't use that anymore. I'll call you if I want it back." But it's been like four years. So that's kind of my life, I either build it or borrow it. Once in a while I'll buy stuff like a keyboard, but none of them had just come out. At the time I bought them they were forgotten, but now they're collectors items, so I guess I've always been able to build up my studio by being a little bit ahead of the curve and buying things on eBay when they weren't expensive.
What is the orange thing? It looks like a guitar pedal.
That's the first thing I ever built as a kit. It's a guitar pedal compressor, but I use it on everything. It's a clone of a circuit from the '70s called the Orange Squeezer, so when I did the box I made it orange and I did the knob orange too.
You said you use it on everything. Why?
It sounds really good. It sometimes sounds a little bit heavy-handed, like you can't really do much new on things, but it just always makes things sound really nice, especially electronics. It sounds really good on drum machines.
You said it was the first thing that you ever put together yourself. Was it tough or was it pretty natural for you to just go in there and do it?
It was hard, and I laugh about it now because it was probably one of the easiest things you could ever build. I don't have any background in electronics. I have a little bit of an understanding of it because when I was little my dad built synthesiser modules for the electronic music lab that he taught in. He built a whole modular synthesiser because the college he taught at wasn't going to buy one. He covered it in black tape, and it was called Darth Vader.
I think we probably built a radio or something together when I was a kid, but this is all really a recent thing for me. A friend of mine is an electronics technician and he's built a whole modular synthesiser system as well. It's just enormous. I was complaining that I couldn't find the perfect spring reverb machine. I kept trying different ones and he was finally like, "You need to start building your own equipment. I'll help you." He's been my mentor, his name's Romeo Fahl.
And where is your spring reverb machine now?
I built a guitar one. I actually haven't finished the one that we've started because it's so elaborate. It's called The Neural Agonizer, and it's like a modular synth spring reverb. It's hundreds and hundreds of dollars in parts. Once in a while I'll work on it, but it'll probably take me years to complete.
There's another thing that looks like a pedal. It's blue and it has some yellow knobs.
That's a pedal called The Noise Swash, it's a DIY project from a group also in Austin called 4ms. It's like a chaotic distortion machine. It distorts the sound in a really saturated and textural way, but it also has a mind of its own and emits random noises and feedback.
Is it important to you to have these things that mess things up in unpredictable ways?
Yeah, it's really, really important.
Why is that?
I don't know, it just leads me down paths I wouldn't have. I guess I don't like to be in control. I think for a lot of people, they treat gear like, "OK, I know this instrument so well, I'm getting into the driver seat of my Camaro and it's totally souped up and I know every detail, I know how this thing drives." When I get into my studio it's more like getting into a roller coaster. [laughs] I don't want to be in control. I want it to potentially scare me, but at the end of the day I want to be OK. [laughs] But it's really about relinquishing control even with the instruments I use that are inside the computer like Kyma or in AudioMulch, the software that I use. In a lot of ways the objects that are inside AudioMulch are a lot like the objects that I use as hardware and I use the two together. I really don't see a lot of difference between them. I don't give a lot of thought towards, "Oh, this is software music, this is hardware music."
There's never an environment where I want to be really in control unless I'm mixing down a track. That's the one piece of equipment that I really, really know and trust. It's a Seck mixer, a British-made mixer from the '90s that has a really low-profile interface. They just sound awesome. They've got really high head room. I really try to record in an improvisational way with all these things where I don't really know what they do or how they work. But when I go to mix down my tracks I have a really firm control over what's going to happen.
Have you tried other mixers?
I've tried a lot of other mixers. But this one just sounds the best and has the most channels and the most controls. The other ones I have had have either been really limited or they've just been more like live mixers, little small Mackie or Soundcraft mixers, appropriate enough for recording but they weren't doing everything I wanted to do. When you have a really big mixer like that with a humongous external power supply, you can get things really loud. The power supply dictates how much head room you have in the mix.
I think the main thing I'm trying to do in my studio is being less of a perfectionist about my instruments—especially since a lot of them only sort of work—and becoming much better about how my mixes end up sounding and learning how to make an appropriate sounding pre-master. I think, frankly, one of the things that's really held me back—especially in the realm of dance music—has been that my mixes are really lo-fi. I embrace that, and I think that will always be an element of what I do. But I want to have a lo-fi palette that I can present with the maximum detail, maximum impact, the maximum everything that I can.