That his sound laboratory doubles as his bedroom doesn't mean music-making is a hermetic pursuit for Letkiewicz: his process doesn't consume his life so much as bleed into it, with friendly jams and collaborative projects forming a major part of his output. His new label, Confused House, has thus far collected music he's made with his roommate and fellow L.I.E.S. artist Bookworms, whose own hoard of keyboards and stompboxes intermingles with Letkiewicz's. Calling the place a studio diminishes the living, breathing nature of what's going on in there. In advance of Letkiewicz taking some of his key components on a trawl through Europe this spring, we spent an afternoon talking busted laptops, benched 707s and how he never intended to sound lo-fi.
You started out recording on a computer, but you moved over to an all-hardware setup at some point after your laptop got fried, right?
Well, sort of. The first thing I did was with Ari [Goldman] from Beautiful Swimmers. We did Manhunter, and that was just the red and the blue [Korg] Electribe. Then while we were on tour, I became curious about Ableton. I got that, and I got really into using it basically just as a sequencer for the hardware, and then using it to do multi-track recording, but not as much to use it as a self-contained program.
At one point we were going to go on tour and bring a computer, sequencer and 909, and then [the computer] just completely went to shit a week before we left. So then we had to use just the Electribe, so we basically switched to hardware as the sequencer. I had this distrust of wanting to take my computer out after that, so it was just an easy way for a transition to hardware. I got into removing the visual component of the sequencing. It just felt like a pretty natural way to work after a while.
I've heard producers say it's hard to jam on a computer. Does working with gear make the process a little more improvisatory?
The way I usually work, it's all a live jam or a live take, and then maybe occasionally I do overdubs. The stuff I do with Nik [Dawson, AKA Bookworms, his roommate] is all live—two tracks. It's just easier to jam with hardware for me. I never got into jamming with VSTs, but I am sure you can make it feel similar. I just never went that route and didn't see any reason to, really, because I'd already found what spoke to me.
I basically have two ways I've been doing stuff. One is this 24-track ADAT. That's something that I inherited from my dad, who used to do recordings. With that I just record all the instruments on their own track, and then that runs through a 16-track mixer. It's just like doing a live dub. The effects are on there, and that runs down to two tracks. It's nice because if I do some mix I don't like, I can just keep going back, and it is always different because you're never going to play the faders or the effects the same way twice. I really like that.
The other thing I do a lot is record everything coming out of a mixer straight to a Zoom recorder. A lot of times I get in a mood where I don't want to do them separately and mix down later, so it varies. If I get bored of doing that, I move to the Zoom. And if I get bored with the Zoom, I move back, changing the combination of everything I'm using so it stays interesting.
You said you inherited some gear from your dad. Was there a recording setup at your house growing up?
Yeah, a studio in the basement that grew and shrank over the years. When I was in this high school band, he was our recording engineer and did all the mixdowns and stuff. Then he got into recording live jazz bands, and he did that for a while, but as he got older, his hearing started getting to him a little bit. He kind of stopped doing it, so I inherited some of his stuff since he wasn't recording anymore.
Did you pick up any of what you're doing now from hanging around his studio?
No, that's the thing. My dad was always really into MIDI, and he had WaveLab. I learned basics about MIDI and stuff from him, but I never actually had him show me how to sequence. He would have rack synths and stuff like that, but I think at that time I was still not really into the tonality of all the stuff he had. So I kind of avoided working with it because it seemed kind of cheesy to me. Years later when I started getting into it, it was kind of sweet, because when I had questions about something he could help me out.
It seems like a lot of the guys who are making dance music in New York right now come from a noise or rock background. How do you make that transition? In terms of making music, is the transition more intuitive than it looks on paper?
I guess for me, it felt like there is still that rhythmic quality to some of the noise stuff I'm into. That eased the transition. I was really into Boredoms and stuff like that, which is right on that threshold. I don't know, it felt like it was a pretty easy transition. Even in the beginning, I'd still be doing sort of noisy loops or something, but as I kept discovering more and more music, my taste kind of changed.
Was there a piece of gear that started it all for you?
The first thing I got was the Electribe EMX-1. That was the first sequencer or synth I had, and it took a while to really get into it. But at the same time I also got this Future Retro 777, which [came out] before they did the Revolution. At the time I couldn't make sense of the 777, and I ended up selling it and regretting it years later. But the Electribe made sense. Before that I'd been doing abstract noise and soundscape stuff. Once I got these things, it became more rhythmic and dance-oriented. That's sort of what started it for me. Then the first synth I got was the [Roland] Juno-106, and I pretty much used that all the time up until recently. I needed to take a break from it.
Have you been using something in its place?
I use the Juno 1 a lot. As far as I know, it was the last analogue Roland synth. It's pretty similar to the Juno-106, although there are some differences in the tonalities. There is something about the 106 that just feels bigger. But there are things about the 1, like there's chord memory, the portamento is a little bit better, and the LFO is more interesting on that. I understand it pretty well, so it's kind of easy to make sounds on it. We have, like, three different [Junos] at the house. In Nik's room we have the Juno 2 and then the Roland MKS-50, so yeah, we use a lot of Alpha Junos when we're doing our sessions.
It looks like your room is divided in half. This side over here looks like it's your current setup, and this other side, where your Juno 106 is hanging out, is the bench, so to speak. I see you've got a 707 on the bench side, though it strikes me as one of your workhorses. When I listen to L.I.E.S. records, the 707 is where a lot of the key drum sounds come from.
Bookworms: [shouting from the next room] There's a rule!
Steve Summers: Yeah, you can't use a 707 anymore. It's gotten the ax.
Bookworms: Ron [Morelli] said it. It's too popular.
Steve Summers: You get to the point where you have used it a lot and want to break from it. I feel the same thing with 909.
The sound palate on L.I.E.S. is actually pretty wide-open, but do you risk getting pigeonholed with these drum machines?
I mean, I've known Ron for a long time. That just seemed like the vibe, in a way, or it just sums up the kind of stuff that appeals to us. I didn't know my music was lo-fi until I read it in a description on a record, because in my mind I was using hardware and synths and I was recording it as best as I could. So it was just interesting… all of a sudden—oh, wait, I guess it is a little lo-fi.
That's interesting, that the aesthetic wasn't something you were consciously aiming for.
Some stuff I can hear I made on tape. But even some of the early Rhythm Based Lovers stuff, that was all recorded to ADAT, and it was recorded as well as I could because I wanted a little bit more of a clean sound and that was like what I was trying to do. It was kind of fun to know I didn't really achieve it [laughs].
OK, let's talk about the stuff that's not on the bench.
I like the Electribe, and I really like the MPC. Right now the layering on MPC is interesting.
How have you been working with the MPC?
I use it to sequence synths and have samples. I usually do a live improv take as opposed to sequencing out a song, especially these days. I've used the Electribe a little bit more recently with the Steve Summers stuff, like the Electribe and the [Dave Smith] Evolver. The Electribe will be drums, and it also can be sequencing the Evolver lines. I'm just trying to do a lot with a little. It's a pretty limited setup, but I enjoy trying to be creative with it and seeing how much I can get out of it.
When I go on this next L.I.E.S. tour, it's just going to be the Electribe, the Evolver, [MFB] FilterBox and maybe the [Electro-Harmonix 2880] Looper, but I guess I will figure that out in the next couple months. The first time I went on tour, I brought a little bit too much, but at the same time I don't feel like I'm bringing stuff for the sake of it. I've been able to come up with a setup that really works for what I want to do. Those four things are sort of the main focus right now.
Do you tend to come up with the idea for a track or the idea for a setup that you'll make a track with?
Yeah, that's usually what it is. It's almost always the result of getting excited about some system or some flow, and hopefully somewhere there's some element that's random or slightly chaotic, and it will relate to something that you had not really thought of. For me getting the Looper was really cool because—I mean, you can do [similar things] in Ableton easily with the built-in loops, but you get like five tracks, you can play with the levels and get these really psychedelic backdrops going.
Is the Looper one of your newest acquisitions?
Yeah, I got that a couple months ago. Sometimes I'll play just a synth through it. It's really fun. You can change the pitch and everything. It's a really intuitive piece of hardware for me, and it will sync with the drum machines. They just came out with a new one actually.
Well, if the old one still works…
Yeah, the new one does not have that much more so I do not need to pump any money in it [laughs].
You mentioned your MPC before. Are you using a lot of samples these days?
Yeah, I've started sampling more. Nik does that a lot, and us jamming—it's a nice reminder of how well samples and layering can work. Another reason for adding that is having the ability to bring in more elements if you want, especially in a live setting where sometimes you play for longer and the audience is more willing to go on a different journey.
I make a lot of the samples through synths and stuff, or just record layers of sounds into the Electribe and use those to play melodies. With the MPC, it's records, or just recording stuff on QuickVoice on my iPhone to get some background noise.
From watching your Beats in Space set from a little while back, I know vocals play a part in all this as well, right?
I only really do them with this Steve Summers stuff, and I almost always use this pitch shifter pedal. Sometimes you have a line that pops in your head. You're jamming, and you're like, "This needs a vocal," and it's just as simple as that. I do not really overthink the vocal aspect, to be honest. Sometimes I just get the feeling that I want to add one.
You, Bookworms and other producer friends get together to jam pretty often. How do you guys go about it?
A lot of times friends will bring over couple of things they are comfortable with. You just try to focus on a couple of things that you really want to put your attention to. This is why I like jams, because you don't even necessarily hear it very well as it's happening. You go back and hear all these times you have been interacting together in a new way.
What do you usually turn your attention to?
When we do stuff in Nik's room—because he's got his MPC there—I'll bring in some synths, and we kind of work on the synths together. Then I'll focus on the Looper or some effects. Occasionally I'll bring in the Electribe for additional drums, but Nik's been doing the drums on the MPC lately, and I let him do his programming thing and focus on some of the synthesizers. There are like three or four synths here, so sometimes he'll handle two, sometimes I'll handle two.
What are some of your favorite effects?
I love this [Electro-Harmonix] Catherdral reverb. It's pretty lush. Boss PS-3 pedals, I have a couple of those. FilterBox, delays, flangers, whatever. I have just always liked to put in tons of effects. It just tickles my ears.
Is there something new you are looking to get into production-wise? Is there any gear you've got your eye on?
I am definitely a little tempted by the Korg MS-20 coming out again. I really like that synth. I have an ARP Odyssey in the shop that is getting fixed. I want to sell that and use that money to get something. I've had my eye on a [Dave Smith] Poly Evolver for a while, but I can't bring myself to buy another giant synth right now. I think that's why the MS-20 is appealing, too.
What would the MS-20 bring to your setup?
I actually played on one a couple of days ago for the first time. It's semi-modular, so you can run stuff through it. I've heard the result from these people who have run their drums through an MS-20, and it sounds amazing. It is like nothing I can recreate in my studio, basically. Even the tone of the synth is different.
Yeah, it's got a very specific sound.
There's this active high-pass/low-pass parallel, so you can get really interesting sounds that you can't get from any other synths.
Have you lived with another producer before?
Not quite in the same capacity. I lived with Ari and Andrew [Field-Pickering], but it was right when Andrew had started doing the Maxmillion Dunbar stuff—the very early years. This is sort of the first time I have lived with someone who's completely self-sufficient and has his own thing. We can come together and there's no confusion in the studio.
[Bookworms pokes his head in the room]
I guess this is a question for both of you. What have you guys learned from each other musically?
Steve Summers: It has been pretty mutual, I would say.
Bookworms: He has learned a lot of stuff from me [laughs].
Steve Summers: I think the last time we really did stuff, we were on a lockdown during Hurricane Sandy, and we basically worked on tracks for four days straight.
Bookworms: When we first started jamming, there was no intention of making a record at all, and it actually sounded kind of bad.
Steve Summers: I was like, "Uh, you know everything was panned hard-right, right?" [laughs] I was red-lining the whole time. I was just like, fuck it, like it's not a big deal. It still isn't. We try to keep it very social and just laidback. People will come over, and we would go hang out in the other room while all the machines play for a little while. We just try to keep it relaxed and fun.