It was basically kind of an improv jam with some of my babies. I took a random patch from the [Waldorf] Pulse 2, which is one of my newer synths, and sequenced it with the [Korg] Electribe and Elektron Octatrack, which just recently replaced my Korg ESX. It's kind of the MIDI brain for my setup. So I just basically programmed a sequence, ran it to this, kind of randomly brought this into the mix. It's kind of like the space machine, if you are familiar with the EMS synth that Hawkwind made famous. I use it for weird ethereal noises. And then this, I don't know if it was even in the mix, I kind of just was focusing on [the Electribe and Octatrack] for now, and then this I think was playing some kind of weird—
By "this" you mean the Dave Smith Evolver?
Yeah. This was actually my first synth that I bought. It was a friend of mine who was a big inspiration for me—who Ron [Morelli] knows, and the reason I'm on L.I.E.S. is because of this guy—he had this synth, and I was always amazed by it. If you are into learning synthesis, if you want to learn how to make sound, it's basically one of the most logically designed synths. People say it's intimidating, but if you like logic, you will love this synth.
It seems like you keep the gear that's been with you for a long time on the right side here—
And over here, these are the new bits?
Yeah, these are the two new ones. This [the Yamaha DX200]—I actually had to buy a new one, the old one died. The whole DX series that Yamaha put out at the end of 1999, they decided to, like, "Oh, we'll make a groovebox that's pretty much like a DX21, DX100, DX7." You know, if you ever mess with a DX7, you know it's—you can't program these things.
FM synthesis. It's famously tough.
What's really cool with this is basically this is a DX7 and a DX100, but it's also got ASDR, so you can treat it like a regular synth, and it still has the FM capabilities, harmonics and all that stuff. But it's really fun to program. I've had this synth for like three years, but it wasn't until I got the Octatrack that I was able to sequence it properly, because I was using the ESX. It's only got two monophonic sequence patterns, now I can actually make it do weirder stuff.
So to speak more generally about the setup, you've got a synthesizer, a groovebox that can also do synthesis, and you've also got some effects that everything's running through.
Right, right. This [the Electrix Mo-Fx] is traditionally used for my vocals, because it's a really nice delay. It's time based and it's MIDI-clocked, so it's really tight. But it weighs a ton, so I'm trying to figure out new ways to either eliminate it or teleport it to gigs or something like that. It's a really special device. They don't make them anymore—the company went under. I think they make USB keys or something like that now. They made a series of these rack effect units, like the Mo-Fx, the Mo-Fx Filter—which is like an analogue filter that's clocked to MIDI—and then there was one more that they made, but I didn't have it, so I don't really know what it is. But I also have the TC Electronic [M350] multi-effects processor. This is a recent acquisition. I'm kind of in the air with how I feel about it. Sometimes you get these things, and it's like a relationship you get into.
What don't you like about it?
I mean, it's just basically—it has two modes that you can use, and I tried to use it where I was just using the delay for one aux-in, and the reverb for the other aux-in, but when I tried to use my vocals through it, it creates a lag, and so like I'm saying hello and it's like, "[pauses] Hello." But yeah, this [the Octatrack] is another one of my—basically, I was looking for a more adequate sequencer. I found the Octatrack, right, and it's one of these things… Some gear, like I said, you get into a relationship. The Octatrack, the best way to sum it up: I'm looking for this girl all my life, I finally find her and she's wonderful, but every time she speaks to me, she spits in my face. And this is pretty much what this thing is.
So there's a learning curve with this thing.
It's not as hard to learn as I've been led to believe. It's just, if you're used to working with gear that's a little bit more intuitive—like, I feel that I can't really use this live. I think it's perfect for studio work, but this is my second show with it, and I was slightly disappointed with the results, you know? Because I'm holding the mic, and if I'm playing with the ESX, for example, you have a mode where you can hold the patterns and just play through the patterns. But with this, as you saw when I was playing just now, anytime I want to advance through a pattern, I have to hold this button, which isn't a bad thing if you are going through [steps] one through eight. But if you're doing a pattern on 16 and you have a mic, I have to dislocate my thumb or, you know, do some weird yogic shit.
And having a mic is a big part of your setup.
They've always been pretty integral to what I wanted the project to be. It was something I was inspired to do by my friend SSPS. I was like, "Whoa, this guy is playing a guitar, he's on stage with a mic." Even in early Chicago house, there was always a vocal aspect to it. That comes from the fact that a lot of these cats were listening to early industrial, like new beat, or any electronica that was coming from Europe: synthpop or coldwave or whatever genre you want to determine it to be. But I think that it creates a different dynamic. I'm not just going to stand up there and push buttons—it's something to kind of interact with the people, some kind of story sometimes. You know, I do have some twisted tales.
Is it all improvised?
No, I mean, it's not on the fly, but it just depends. Some songs are not set in stone. Some nights I may start off with something, but it's not the song that it was originally meant to be. Sometimes I improv lyrics, but I'm not really that good with rhyming, so I try to have everything kind of jotted down before. But you know, I smoke a lot of pot, so I always wind up forgetting a lot of lyrics anyway.
Svengalisghost was intended as a live project from the off, right?
Yeah. The basic story behind Svengalisghost was I was doing stuff as Below Underground, and I just reached a point with this project where I was really disgusted with the music that I was making. So one day I just destroyed all the files.
Like your decision—you just got rid of them?
It was a computer decision mixed with my own disgust. I couldn't retrieve the files, so I just ended up deleting the remnants of everything that I'd been making, and I decided that I wasn't going to make any more house or electronic music—I was going to start listening to fucking rock & roll. I mean, I already listened to it, but I decided I was going to dedicate myself to it listening to rock and hip-hop, and fuck dance music. And then, through this time that I was making music, I was sending stuff to my friend, so I got this idea that maybe the reason I was frustrated with the music I was making is because it was heavily edited—it was something that you spend hours and hours and hours on, just in your studio, and it's really safe. If you know the story of Svengali, he was basically a soothsayer in this novel Trilby, a French novel by George du Maurier.
Yeah, it's a wonderful book. So he had this control over [the main character] Trillby the whole time, but he realized as he was dying that he couldn't really control—you can't control reality, it's never going to work out the way you want it. So I took that as a metaphor for my death as a studio producer, and having this control in the studio, being able to edit everything, if shit goes wrong I can just erase it. I like this aspect of not really knowing what's going to happen. Like, this machine may or may not work, anything can happen. So yeah, that's pretty much like Svengali. [The project is] definitely meant to do live stuff, which I have a hard time separating when I'm in the studio—is this going to be for live, or is this actually for a release? So it's kind of confusing. I need to split my personality again and create a studio-based moniker.
Have you built some uncertainty or randomness into this setup?
Yeah. One of the first shows I had I think was in New York for Mutual Dreaming, and I was still learning how to go about setting a show up, but it was like it showed me so much because it was so disorganized. That it forced me to really become like a commando, you know—and if you are a Navy SEAL or something like this, and you can't get some kind of supplies but you still got to go detonate this bridge. So that's how I look at performing live. Even last night it was like something was off, but what am I going to do? I can't stop the show, so I have to just power through it and make it work. Sometimes the happy mistakes are what you are really looking for. I heard Pariah say this, too—sometimes the stuff that you don't plan for really amazes you, and you are like, "Fuck, this is really cool. I didn't turn the button, and this stuff sounded really good."
What you've got on stage today—how close is it to what you use in the studio?
I mean, this is it: this is the same setup. The same machines are on the road and in the studio. They don't get a break. No vacation for them.
I can see how you might sometimes be unsure whether you're making music for a 12-inch or your live show, then. Is there something that makes you gravitate toward one use or another for the music you're making?
If it seems like something that can translate to a dynamic setting, where you know, OK, I'm going to play at three o'clock in the morning, do I want to play something that is more abstract in the beginning or do I just want to go straight for the throat and heavy kick, or do I want to kind of tease the crowd a little bit? It's just in my own head, because I'm getting to the point where I just write patterns, and then, you know, I push a button. I am literally behind my shades, and I just close my eyes and hope that this shit doesn't blow up.
You said what you played here today was mostly improvised—
Basically, I wrote the drum programming last week before I left from Moscow, but this patch here was intended for another song.
The patch you're talking about is on the Pulse 2, right?
This is the Pulse 2 which is—man, it's really impressed me as far as its versatility. It's a three-oscillator synth, but you can ride it like a monosynth, or you can create really lush pads with it, so you can actually play up to four notes. It's amazing what they did with it, because I don't know any other synth that's like this—that has this range—and that's what I need in my setup. As you see, I'm into a more modular setup, anything that I can put into my luggage. So this was a big attraction for me. It's got a really nice arpeggiator, which I really don't use. Basically, the synth is maybe a month old now, and I'm deeply in love with it. I actually want to buy another one and then, you know, maybe start a little family with them, take them out on the road, maybe little trips to Disneyland and shit like this.
I'm sure they'd like that, too. How did you come across the Pulse 2?
Well I remember being on the lookout, because I was really frustrated for a long time. I was using the Dave Smith Mopho, and I was kind of feeling like a Dave Smith whore because I had all their gear. And the filters all kind of sound the same, so I was looking for a new filter and wanted something that had a really nice low-end. So I was just going across the net, and I saw this synth. I was always kind of impressed with [Waldorf]. My friend had the Waldorf Blofeld and another friend had the Microwave, and you know, Jeff Mills uses one of the older Microwaves so I was like, there's got to be something to it.
I was looking at some demos, and I just heard the pads and I'm like, this is crazy, because that's what I felt like I was missing—the ability to make really crazy pads, but at the same time have a synth that was able to go do crazy basslines. So with this thing I finally have it. So I'm still learning it every day. I wrote a couple patches on it. It's really easy to program, too, because it's the same layout just like the Evolver—it's got kind of the same grid-based layout, which is for me perfect. I don't really like diving into menus. That was the thing about the Mopho—if you are programming that, you got this little window, and you're going through each parameter, and it's like, man, I just want to turn a button. I got a really short attention span.
Apart from size and functionality, what are you looking for in gear? What sort of sounds?
I'm looking for slightly dissonant tones. I mean, as Western listeners, we have such a limited perspective as to what a scale is. If you go listening to any other music or go start experimenting with other scales, you are like, shit, there are so many weird pitches. When I hear something that is kind of bizarre to my ear, I know I'm on the right path. If it scares me a little bit, I'm like, OK, maybe. I like a balance. I like slightly dissonant tones mixed in with some slightly melodic, slightly attractive tones, but I tend to look for sounds that are beyond what's known. I don't want to get a 303, I don't want a x0xb0x because everyone has it, it's known.
I mean, the thing with acid is that when it was created it was a new tone. If you continually try to recreate acid, what's the next acid? That's my question. I want to make the next acid—I think that's the goal. Acid was cool; it was a mistake, create more mistakes, you know what I mean? I love acid, don't get me wrong. I'm from Chicago, it's something in me—I've got to play four or five acid records a day to keep my heart beating.
The other thing we haven't talked about in the setup yet is the mixer. Usually you use this Mackie?
Yes, the 1202 VLZ Pro.
But today we're rocking this Soundcraft.
I'm a freak for Soundcraft. I used to work as a lighting technician, AV tech. I mean, if you work around any audio technicians, Soundcraft is like the god.
Why is that?
The EQs, the preamps are sick. It's got a really clean sound. But so does a Mackie. It's just, like, snobbery. Some people like a Mackie, some people like Soundcraft, people love Allen & Heath. I've never used one extensively. I basically got this [Mackie] from a friend—this was another inherited piece of gear from SSPS. Basically, he gave it to me under the condition that I bring it back, but I never brought it back.
When you're playing live, how much mixing are you doing? Are you EQing on the board?
I'm still approaching it like a DJ, because I'm not smooth enough to have everything automated. I push a button, and these things start fading it. I'm still manually switching patches, and sometimes I go beyond the patch that I'm supposed to play, and I look up, and I'm like, what the fuck? And that's a happy mistake. Same thing happened today: I was supposed to be on 409, and somehow I ended up on 411 but it sounded good so I was just like, let's roll with it. And that's kind of one of those happy mistakes. If everything was just programmed, it would have been locked in the books—409—but seeing as it's human error involved, and you get these kinds of variations to it that I don't think would occur in a rigid setting.
We've spoken a lot about the tangible parts of the set, but part of what I like about your sets are the intangibles. Like stage presence is a big part of how you play. The shades always come on.
The shades are definitely on.
Let's talk a little about how you approach performance.
You know, I had to give a speech in eighth grade, and I remember it being the most terrifying thing. So now I fight it by wearing shades, because why not, if it helps me to get in my mode, you know? If I sat and paid attention to everybody, I don't think I'd be able to get as loose in my head. And that is the objective of performers: to be able to just go into their own world and pretty much make a fool of themselves on stage. It's like, life is a spectacle—we have to make fun of ourselves, so me on stage is a character.
I come from a father—my father was one of these cats. He was serious. If you look at people in the pictures in the '70s, in a lot of cinema, everyone was wearing shades at night. But now it's kind of taboo to have shades on at night, and I don't understand it. So I'm kind of carrying on his legacy, because he was one of these cats that my friends would see, and they were all like, "Man, your father is so fucking cool—he's rocking fucking Ray-Bans at night," and I'd be like, "Yeah, he's fucking stoned as shit."
It seems like your headspace is as important as any of the gear you're using.
Yeah, but I mean, that's the whole thing. That's why I'm kind of frustrated with [the Octatrack], because it really limits me. The way I'm used to jamming with the ESX, because it's, like, one button, I know I'm pushing it, I can move around and hit another button, but with this, if I had the microphone, and I want to switch a pattern in it, it kind of takes away from this action. I want to use this, but I might want to just try and keep it in the studio, because like you said, it's a big part of my stage presence. I think it's not just about getting on stage and being really academic. No, it's got to have a little rhythm, and that was my main thing when I'd see people doing live PAs—like fuck man, everyone has his own style, but you're on stage. If you want people to dance, you should be fucking moving. Like reciprocity: you give, you receive. So if I want people to fucking snap, I should be the first person snapping.
And that plays into the sort of music you're doing as well. As you said, some of it is pretty dissonant, some of it is pretty weird-sounding. But at the same time, there's always something that the crowd can connect with. Part of it is your personality, but part of it must be something going on in the music.
Oh for sure. I'm a total believer in psychoacoustics. I'm a believer in the way music affects the psyche. We are frequency, we are actually vibrations, so it's kind of figuring how to manipulate that. It's also, like, seduction. That's the whole thing for Svengali's persona—he's this great seducer, this kind of soothsayer, this hypnotist. So through these dissonant tones, at certain rates or slow LFO, changing the pitch over a certain timespan, or filtering, it creates this hypnotic effect.
There's an almost sinister quality to it.
There's definitely a dark edge. We exist in this infinite galaxy, and we've been fooled to think that it's bright, but in actuality it's always dark out, and I just try to bring that cosmic edge, you know? Everytime I make music I just want to open my mind up for the great cosmic vibe. I just want to be a conduit—I'm just up here in a trance. Somehow it works.