"Background" vs "foreground" is one of several visual analogies Whipple uses during our conversation. Having studied in the Design and Technology department at New York's New School, he describes himself as "raster" not "vector"—meaning he prefers to work with the grain of pre-existing sounds rather than generating his own—and discusses his musical inspiration in terms of "mood boards." He uses this term reluctantly while trying to explain his new album, Piteous Gate, a collection of tracks that are as elegant as they are mysterious.
In some respects Piteous Gate breaks new ground for Whipple, beyond the Autechre-like corkscrews of his breakout track "Scythians," and jackhammer two-tracker Infra-Dusk / Infra-Dawn. Its textures are subtle and gaseous, its rhythms and melodies hand-played. But Whipple's interests remain the same: to probe the borders between the real and the synthetic, the familiar and the deeply strange.
While in Japan Whipple is due to perform live alongside his PAN labelmates Bill Kouligas and Lee Gamble. After grabbing us a couple of Club-Mates from the fridge, he starts by explaining his unusual live setup.
You perform using CDJs, right?
I do this weird thing with three CDJs and a laptop, with the newer Pioneer CD players. I'll bounce three stems of a track so the tracks are separated into three parts: maybe a more percussive one, a musical one. And you can connect the CD players and do syncing or looping with quantised beats—so kind of using the CD players as samplers.
So you loop sections?
Sometimes a really short bit, sometimes a long bit. But then I also have the laptop with more evolved shit going on. Its been different each time, I'm just kind of experimenting with it.
CDJs are so powerful now, I often find it weird when people are bringing their laptops into the club for something that the CDJs could definitely do.
Right, the more standardised they become the more convenient it all is. So you're not plugging in all your shit when someone before you is trying to finish their set.
There was a Janus group interview where you were all talking about how the CDJ was central to your musical approach.
Yeah, a lot of that sound came out of DJs like Venus X and Total Freedom; the way they use equipment like that. There's a certain way of playing that you can only really do with that kind of technology.
Which is what? Being really proactive with looping and so on?
Yeah and abusing cues. Having more tactile control of the track.
Does that let you mix quicker? Does it mean you can do more extreme cuts and collisions?
Yeah, so with CDJ-2000s there's hot cues. So you can set a couple of points really quickly in a track. You could even set a snare drum or another percussive sound, or a vocal sample or something like that. And then you get into really cheesy territory where you're doing like, wedding DJ stuff, remixing a Queen song or something [laughs]. But just being able to jump through tracks quickly and take parts that you like, on the fly.
How do you practice? Do you have a pair of CDJs?
Nah, I've only ever touched them in a club.
I guess this is where the Janus residency came in handy.
Yeah, I learned the technical side of mixing just on the spot. I would love to be able to afford to buy CDJs.
Had you DJ'd a lot before Janus came along?
Yeah I had, for a couple of years, but I was producing for much, much longer than DJing. When I was living in the States I was so far removed from anything approaching club culture. I didn't even think of what I was doing as producing, I was just, like, making electronic music. I didn't have this sort of vocabulary.
Did that come once you arrived in Berlin? Or when you were in New York?
It was the tail end of living in New York before I moved to Berlin. I started going to more parties. I feel like one of the first DJs I really got into was DJ Kingdom, because he was playing a lot in New York when I was going to college. So that completely turned me on to that side of electronic music, I guess. That's not completely it, but that was what was going on in New York at the time. And then I came out here and got a bit into techno, and I was going out a lot and meeting a lot of people. Like Dan [DeNorch] and Michael [Ladner], who organise the Janus parties. J'Kerian, Lotic, I actually met him on SoundCloud when he was still living in Texas, through Dubbel Dutch—he recommended we meet each other.
I was throwing parties in this small bar in Neukölln called Times bar. He came and played my night. Having him here and then meeting Lars [TCF], who was DJing and releasing more club music at the time—that kind of kicked things off.
We should talk about your setup here. I notice you've got a subwoofer. I got into an argument recently about having a subwoofer in your studio. I'm told it messes with the sound in certain ways, but I'd struggle to work without one.
Yeah, I feel like the subwoofer is important while writing, to kind of feel what you're doing. Maybe your final mixdown isn't going to use it. But when you're working on music it's not about the most accurate frequency representation. You have to get into what you do. So I'll even be producing sometimes with really intense limiters on the master channel to make everything seem really loud, just so I can get into what I'm doing and not be thinking too much about sound design.
And then there's a later phase where you take everything back?
There's a very, very long phase of cutting things down.
When you talk about getting into what you're doing, is it a club space that you're imagining?
Yeah. When you're writing, mixing with software tools, you have access to the whole range. You have all these layers, then EQs for every single channel then, like, stereo separation effects for every single channel. So you're thinking of sound in this really expanded way—which is a way which sounds best on the best possible system, which is usually clubs. It's not really a conscious choice. It's just the way I started making music was through software tools, so I'm always considering the details more.
This is a common gripe with working in a DAW: the infinite choice. Is it something you grapple with?
Yeah. For this album I really wanted to do something that felt like a single piece, even though it's divided into different tracks. So before I even started writing I spent a long time making sounds and collecting samples, messing about with things and saving presets. I made my own huge preset library with all the effects bundled together, just so everything's ready to go. Because I really, really hate starting with a blank slate, it drives me insane. Often my tracks will all be splintering off from the same project file, I'll constantly be like "Save As...," "Save As...," "Save As…". I'm copying and pasting the project, and deleting everything, but all the sounds are still there. So the tracks are kind of feeding on themselves.
When you're choosing these sound sets before you start, do you have something in mind which is guiding your decisions?
Yeah, it's just very, very abstract. It's like some weird intuition I guess. This is a really bad example, but it's like mood boards. There would be like a field of wheat, a happy family and lemonade, or something like that. And for me it's scraping metal and a mandolin playing or something. So it's these really loose, collage-y ideas, these little bits of images or sound that make sense to me while I'm writing, and as I keep writing they connect more and turn into a little language.
Can they be visual as well?
Yeah, for sure. I do the artwork for my records so I'm constantly building up a huge image library. With Tumblr and everything, there's such a huge archive of images that you're sifting through. And you start to have acute interests in details of certain images and start, in your mind, making connections between different images. So maybe there's a case of that transferring over into the way I look at sound design.
Talk a bit more about the process that a track goes through on the way to completion.
When I'm making a new track, I feel like I need to have a background before I can have a foreground. I find it impossible to start by just tapping in a beat or tapping in a melody. It's like I have to have a sound-stage, whether that's through sound effects or a granular synthesiser that makes a drone kind of thing. It might not even end up in the final version of the track but there just has to be sound there for me to be able to write. So I'll start with a 30-second loop that's not even necessarily musical but that has a character to it. It could be a collection of samples that I put through a resonator, and then the resonator's changing pitch, and that gives an atmosphere for me. Then, with music I've done in the past it's been more produced in the style of club music, where you start with a loop, you put in the drums, you make the kick drum sound a certain way, you make the bass sound a certain way, you find a musical hook. With this record it's more like finding a sound and then just playing it. Trying to record improvisations, and most likely keeping the first take of that improvisation. That's why a lot of the record sounds loose and unquantised—because it is.
Certainly a lot of the drums on the album sound hand-played. What are you using to tap them in?
[gestures to an Ableton Push controller on a table at the side of the room] I'm using the Push because the pads are really sensitive. I'll play something in then play it back and record automation, or change the shuffle times, push things into triplets—sort of touching the rhythm.
That sort of approach—putting a human touch back into electronic rhythms—is often associated with quite traditionalist dance music.
That's such a meme: like, you went too far into the inorganic so you have to bring the human touch back in. Then you're making this folks-y music with record scratching on top of it [laughs]. That's definitely not the agenda I had here. It's more about me being able to free up the way I write. With Scythians I would spend ages on one track, with every single thing planned and preordained. To write an album, I felt like I needed to be able to get an idea down and divorce that a little bit from the production and mixing process. Because usually I mix at the same time as I write, which I think is pretty common for a club producer. Also I mainly wrote Scythians on headphones—this record I didn't write on headphones. It seems really arbitrary but I think it also affected the sound a lot.
So you capture these improvisations and often you don't tweak them that much. But then there's some kind of arrangement phase?
Yeah, I have it all on a timeline. Then I'll get something in and maybe I'll pair that sequence of notes with a completely different sound, or I'll copy and paste that layer five times and then compress it all together with slightly different pitch changes in the instruments or something. I'm constantly duplicating layers and making small changes. So the projects get really deep in layers.
That reminds me of Objekt, who has a similar process involving lots of versioning, "Save As…"-ing, and you can often hear traces of past versions in the finished track. And I feel similar about your music—you can hear there's been a lot of working through, even if it's just in subtle background details.
Yeah for sure. There's always a hazard of putting the production process too much on a pedestal and getting too into sound design at the expense of having ideas. But it's just my tendency to do that. But the way I work, even if I'm spending hours and hours doing something really intricate, it's not really like I'm doing it the "right" way, it's more like I'm making a mess—but it's a really finely detailed mess. It's not like I'm trying to get the sickest kick drum of all time. It's more like just being hooked on something interesting that I've found, and elaborating on it.
When it comes to finishing off a track do you get quite technical in terms of mixing techniques?
Yeah, I mean, I mixed the record myself. I don't really know what I'm doing. I cut out as much frequencies as possible from different layers and find ways to compress and limit without losing dynamics. I think this record has more dynamics than anything I've done so far. Just a lighter touch, I guess, when it comes to compressing.
Is it something that you find easy or do you agonise over how things should sound?
I definitely agonise. If you look at my recordings from this project it would be hundreds of .wav files—constantly versioning, changing the file slightly and re-listening.
How long did it take you to make the whole album?
[It was] actually kind of fast but I was working on it non-stop. Maybe three months. I thought I'd finished it so put it down for a while and then I added two new tracks towards the end, the two tracks on the B-side that are more structured. I think it really needed to have an anchor.
You've previously talked about working with presets. There's a producerly orthodoxy that you should steer clear of the presets. But that doesn't seem to worry you so much.
I don't want to sit there with three sine waves making little envelopes all day and then end up having some really boring synth sound. I mean, some people are really good at it—producers who make sounds that are more synth-based. I think my sounds are more sample-oriented. Even the synths that I like a lot are more sample-based. It's almost like with digital graphics: it's raster vs. vector. I'm more raster when it comes to sound.
Another thing I did on this record: with Ableton Live and with Max For Live there's lots of great ways to control the parameters using different types of LFOs and randomisers and envelope followers and stuff like that. There's a couple of tracks where I had a VST with like 30 parameters to determine what kind of sound I was making. I'd make all these LFOs that were sort of indeterminate, with a lot of jitter to them. And then I would assign that to different parameters on this preset, so when I start playing each parameter is slowly degrading in a certain direction. So the sound is sort of wobbling over time. When I'm working like that I just have to record everything. Sometimes the synthesiser will go in some really interesting direction and you'll have to record it really fast.
How deep have you gone into Max For Live?
Not super deep, I mainly use the built-in stuff. I used to use Max/MSP as a student, but I feel like everything I need to do, there's already commercial software that's…
I think a lot of people have a Max/MSP phase while studying, but then you realise, "Why am I spending ages trying to make it do stuff that Logic's experts spent years designing?"
You have to have a really specific reason. Maybe you're doing an art installation and that needs a certain type of mechanic. But when it comes to just making electronic music it's not super necessary.
You studied at New School, right?
Yeah, I was in the design department. It's one of these departments that's probably changed names five times over the last two decades. When I was in the department it was called Design And Technology but now it's probably called Mobile Communications or something like that. So it was a lot of the technical side. But also I took audio courses; that's where I learned Max/MSP.
Did it tie into the music you were making outside of the course?
I guess it did a little bit, but I was doing projects that were more installation-oriented. I did a project where I took all the blast beats from a bunch of black metal songs and built this big archive of gravity blasts. And then I made this Max/MSP patch that would fade between them, and would drive this drone from the dominant frequencies of the samples. So it sounded like this drummer that's forced to play this infinite gravity blast [laughs].
Then I made an audiovisual thing—and I guess this was 2006-2007, when the archive of videos was sort of growing on YouTube. I collected maybe 30-40 videos of people exploring caves and caverns and underground environments. They all have their own audio signatures as the camera is going through the tunnel, or maybe there's a diver going through an underwater cave. So I took that and made a patch which would randomly draw one of these videos from the archive, and then for each video I made a DSP chain that would mimic the environmental sounds in the video. So if it was a large, cavernous room, then there would be a certain type of reverb, with a certain type of reflection and a certain delay. So any audio that would pass through would sound like it was in the space of the video that was currently being projected. If someone was looking at the installation, and they said something, the voice would be put into the virtual space. I would also write music to play through it.
It's interesting how aspects of both projects have carried over into what you're doing now. In terms of handling a mass of online material, thinking about space, relationships between the real and the virtual. You having a design background reminds me of Untold, who is a graphic designer, and has spoken about how a design ethos feeds into his music, in terms of the importance of function and the steps by which you can conceptualise and execute a project. Do you feel a similar connection?
I guess anything involving design is about hierarchies and signals. If you're designing a poster, there's certain constraints where you want to make it clear what it's about, or maybe you have an agenda to make it less clear, but there's still a decision there. Design is about arranging information and I guess when you're working with sound that will apply there. You're thinking of contextual relationships more so than just standard musical relationships.
You mentioned that a lot of your music is sample-based. Where do you gather samples from?
Just with YouTube there's so many possible things. For example if I'm gathering video footage for a project, you can just search by a camera model or something like that. Some people that are amateurs end up having audio recording equipment, for these videos, that's pretty high-end. So you'll find these unintentionally really beautiful field recordings on YouTube. I collect a lot of those, go through favouriting a bunch and then record them. I used to make my own field recordings but I haven't done that in a long time.
I guess when there's so much out there already, what's the point?
The way I'm using it isn't like a real field recording artist. It's more that I need a certain scene—like if I need the sound of a microphone under ice in the North Pole, then I can find that.
Is there a conceptual drive behind the samples you pick out?
Yeah. For this record, there's lots of footage on YouTube and this website called Liveleak of people that have gone as volunteers to fight in, for example, Eastern Ukraine. So there's lots of incidental sounds, like people running, tank treads, tyres on pavements and stuff like that. There's been a huge volume of people's personal accounts—people uploading themselves in these situations that have a geo-political interest.
Is it the intersection between the personal and the geo-political that interests you?
You can go on YouTube and find videos of volunteer brigades in Ukraine laughing and joking around and stuff. I don't know, it's so addictive when you're following the news and you're following certain accounts on Twitter or Facebook or something like that. You're following day-to-day events as they unfold. I find that really addictive, maybe not in a cool way. It doesn't really relate to the music very much, it's more like my own personal interests, but I do follow a lot of stuff like that.
I guess this is a new era for media. You're not just getting footage on your TV from the other side of the world, now it's much more personal.
Yeah, it's very strange, following some dude that joined ISIS and he's posting memes on Twitter. It's a bizarre situation.