Sunareht is here to serve up more euphoria on the dancefloor. The Parisian producer, born Sylvain Dessagne, stretches samples to their emotional limits. After starting the Paradoxe Club label along with fellow French artists Le Dom, Birol and De Grandi in 2016, Sunareht released two EPs, Hyul and Sagas, in the following two years. Just last month, Sunareht performed a set with his label mates at a Boiler Room Paris show.
Before finishing up my own studies in the French capital, I had a chance to sit down with the Parisian producer to chat about his influences, upcoming projects and his ideal club.
Amanda: Could you talk a little bit about your musical background and some of the stuff that you grew up listening to?
Sunareht: My mom used to make me go to music classes when I was very little, like maybe six or seven. At the music school you would learn one instrument a week, and if you liked it you could stay with it and learn more. I ended up doing the saxophone. Then I went to the drums. I really liked the rhythmic approach. I also had a small band when I was 14. I had a group of two friends with me. It was very crappy, but it was my first experience in creating music. At home, my mom had a big vinyl collection. Lots of classics, disco stuff, Bob Marley and the soundtrack to Blade Runner. I also remember listening to the group Art of Noise and being really moved by it. My stepfather used to listen to Massive Attack and bands like that. He played it really loud in the living room. I liked the bass [laughs].
Amanda: When did you start getting into more electronic music?
Sunareht: A neighbor that lived either upstairs or downstairs from our apartment, I can’t remember, he had a massive music collection with lots of stacks of CDs. He would just give me stuff like “Listen to this, listen to that, take whatever you like.” I ended up taking a lot of stuff and putting it on my iPod. I really liked some ravey stuff and some stuff from Aphex Twin.
Amanda: When did you begin DJing and producing? Which came first?
Sunareht: The producing came first. When I was 16 maybe, my friend asked me, “What would you do if you could do anything?” I said “DJ” out of nowhere. I never thought about it, but I was always amazed by guys like Aphex Twin and I was trying to think about how they made music. In my head, I thought there were a lot of little sounds fitting together. It seemed really hard and tedious. When I was 17, a guy in my class was producing rap beats. He showed me how to do it, and it was way easier than I thought. So I’ve been producing stuff for 10 years now.
Amanda: Getting into some of your most recent music, your first EP, Hyul, has this unique stuttering effect. It sounds very ethereal. Would you say it draws from the French filter house tradition of sampling?
Sunareht: When I made the track “Mole Hunt” as a single for Paradoxe Club, I was playing around with certain effects and ways of treating the samples. I really love grimey sounds, so this track was like my take on that kind of music. I used that same sample technique on the Hyul EP.
Amanda: Paris is often overshadowed in terms of its club circuit by cities like London and Berlin, but it seems that things are starting to change with new venues opening up around the city and in suburbs like Montreuil. What do you see happening and where do you think the scene in Paris is heading?
Sunareht: It’s been really hard for us in the past few years. We used to have a club called the Social Club. That’s where I was going like three times a week for a few years when I was like 18 to 23 years old. They had some jersey club nights, trap sound nights, I knew I could go there during the week because it was free. I was broke at the time so I was going there for free by myself. I didn’t drink anything, I was just there for the music. I would go from midnight to 6am.
We were talking with Teki Latex and everyone about how we could make the music in Paris a bit more of our own and not a copy of club tracks or tracks from the UK. At the time, I was like either I do that type of music and move to London or we stay here and try to do something a bit new in Paris, so we decided to create the Paradoxe Club label two years ago.
Amanda: It seems like Teki Latex is a driving force in the Paris scene.
Sunareht: When I was 18, I started downloading tracks from blogs on the internet and stuff like that, and I ended up on the Canblaster track. He was a guy from France. I thought it was really nice, and eventually that led me to Teki and other Club Cheval guys like panteros666, who released an EP on Sound Pellegrino, Teki’s label.
I went to see them play at Social Club. I also knew Teki from his rap years, everyone in France knows Teki from his rap years. He always has had a vision that I think is really interesting, so being close to him now is crazy.
Amanda: You grew up in Paris, so what are some of your music influences from the city?
Sunareht: Daft Punk, easily. When I was little, the Daft Punk albums were coming out and they were everywhere. When I was 10 when Discovery came out and I would hear it on the radio all the time. I think it really influenced everyone.
The whole filter house scene was really big in France. When I would drive around with my friends in middle school or high school, we always played Daft Punk and stuff like that. It’s really French.
Amanda: The French also seem to love Michael Jackson and disco. Why do you think that is?
Sunareht: The disco demolition stuff that happened in the U.S. never happened in France, so disco never died here. In France disco morphed like it did in the U.S., but in France it was still on the top of the charts. In the U.S. it was more underground. I had my disco phase when I was 16, and I still use it for samples.
Amanda: When you sample do you use vinyl at all?
Sunareht: I don’t have the gear to sample vinyl. I have no music theory knowledge. I took like three piano classes, so I know notes, but that’s about it. I used to try to compose and make my own synths. I have a bit of knowledge in synth-making and plug-ins, but I’m more inspired when I work with samples. I think it’s more like sculpting than production. I take something and I sculpt the part I like.
Amanda: What is your approach to DJing and working a crowd?
Sunareht: I think having seen a party from start to finish for years and years, I kind of know what makes people come and stay on the dance floor. So I think the biggest thing is to keep people on some kind of edge.
Amanda: Have you thought about traveling and playing your music elsewhere?
Sunareht: I’d love to. I’ve only played outside of France once, it was in Berlin.
Amanda: Why do you think it’s hard to incubate a new scene in Paris?
Sunareht: I don’t know any other cities, so I can’t compare. I mean, people say that trends start in the U.K., then they go to the U.S. and then to Paris [laughs]. We have to wait until it becomes popular in the U.S. before mainstream people in Paris start to like it.
It’s like grime. We had to wait for the U.S. to like it before getting it in Paris, like with Skepta or Stormzy. It’s right there, but we had to wait for the other side of the world to like it. The exception is French rap, of course.
A shift came when a lot of the clubs started to play a bit more techno. They tried to make Paris more like Berlin, but that’s not Paris. I think people that are doing techno now like people were doing techno 20 years ago is the same as someone doing some weird guitar thing from medieval times. It’s a bit extreme, but you’re more like a historian than a musician. It’s like how some people want to live back in the 1920s, it’s the same thing with techno. They want to be in the 1990s, and I don’t think it’s healthy for music as a growing, functional thing. It can’t only be nostalgia.
Amanda: You mentioned before about how you and Teki were trying to build a sound that doesn’t pull directly from the U.K. and is more of your own thing. How are you guys at Paradoxe Club trying to shape this new sound?
Sunareht: We made the label because we saw that a few cool artists from France were on the English labels or were trying to move away from the scene in Paris or trying to affiliate with other scenes around the world. So we said we had to do a label for French people, somewhere to release music that pushes an artist’s vision.
CLUBKELLY was with Crazy Legs, which is based in London. Sylvere was with the Sans Absence crew in London. We were like “Ok, we need to do something here for French people.” So we made a compilation with all the artists we could get at the time. Some people said no, but we asked around to artists we liked in France. It became the Boss Rush Compilation. That was really cool. We just want to push everyone we like to do their most original EP. We’re not a label that’s like “You have to give us your EP now.” We want our artists to give the best of themselves.
Amanda: Where is your favorite place to dance in Paris?
Sunareht: That’s hard. I love to go to Le Chinois in Montreuil. There’s a good energy and stuff, but the sound system is crap. I would really like to see a place with a good sound system. This year I went to clubs in England for the first time, and they have great sound systems. So, why not us? It’s a bit sad. I think we need someone that is really passionate about pushing boundaries in electronic music to create a club in Paris, someone with money [laughs].
My ideal club would be a small, dark room with a great sound system. I feel like in a dark club people don’t care as much about their image or how they dance. They’re more into the music and they let go more. Maybe it’s scary for some people, but I really like the freedom of letting go. We need that in Paris.
Amanda: You recently released a pair of remixes to Eric Pyrdz’s classic dance hit “Call On Me” with CLUBKELLY. Why did you guys decide to remix that specific song and how did the collaboration come about?
Sunareht: So he sent me a track that was a remix of “Call On Me,” and it was a bit similar to what I do. And I was like “Yo, I should put this in my mix.” And then I just decided to do my own remix. He ended up doing one as well, so we decided to release them together.
Amanda: Any new projects in the works?
Sunareht: I did my first live show a few weeks ago. I was working on that since my EP, so I made a few new tracks for the live show. I have three new tracks I really like and loads of drafts. I’m thinking of doing an LP next. I’m going to try to expand my style a bit. I’m trying to do something a bit more interesting in the long play format.
Amanda: How would you say your style has evolved since the release of Hyul, your first EP?
Sunareht: That’s interesting because I think “Hyul” is still my favorite. It took me like three years to make it, just trying stuff out. When it was finished I thought, “Ok I really have something here.”
Amanda: Earlier you talked about looking for a certain emotional effect when sampling. Could you elaborate a bit more about that?
Sunareht: I usually cut up a sample randomly and then play around. It’s really like an instrument. I use my fingers [mimes piano playing], and then when I get in the mood, it’s sort of a trancey thing. I’m really in the mood and I’m like “This sample right here sounds good, let’s find something that can go after it and extend the emotion.” So then I have two sample splices, and then three. When I get hooked on an emotion I have to record it as soon as possible because it’s not gonna last. It’s a really small moment. I’m just trying to expand it as much as I can.
Marc: Thank you for joining us, on behalf of WNUR we really appreciate it. Do you mind introducing yourself for our listeners?
Binocle: My name is Marc-Olivier Comeau… aka Binocle. I am a VJ [Video Jockey], and I also do VJ booking for Igloofest and all the coordination for everything visual.
Marc: Can you explain a little bit just about what VJ’ing is?
Binocle: Absolutely. VJ’ing is all about putting visual help or support to the music. So we try to support, as well as to put an image to the sound that comes out of the DJ. One thing that is maybe different for VJs is that VJs have to adapt to different environment, or sculptures, or whatever stage setup there is. And there’s a specificity to Igloofest which is that VJ’s are promoted as artists. So any festival you go in the world, the VJ’s are really more in the shadows. Here at Igloofest we promote them as artists, we add program information, and in all the commercials we try to put them forward and we give them also [creative freedom], so they can do whatever they want, total freedom. This is one of our things that is different for VJ’s at Igloofest than at other festivals.
Marc: So what brought you into that world, to VJ’ing?
Binocle: It was an accident. I studied in film in school, I just started doing clubs, a long time ago. So you just start doing it. I think everybody has the same… every VJ I’ve met around the world has the same story. So I did visuals for a couple of beers, because you like music, you like techno, you just want to get involved or whatnot to be there for free and a couple drinks, you know, and it grows and grows and grows.
I started getting better at it, then working with bigger and bigger shows. I think everything that you need to be VJ is a love of imagery and a love scenery. There’s a lot of putting in imagery, so [your work] grows to the size of small clubs, you know bigger festivals to work on two different types of music artists.
Marc: When you’re creating as a VJ, what do you use and what is your process?
Binocle: It’s maybe a bit technical but I use a software called After Effects, Cinema 4D, and I’m one of the VJ’s who still shoots a lot of visuals. I like to shoot, but I think it’s pretty rare. But most of them, most of us come from the background of animation or stop motion, whatever. I like having shot footage and mix it and have visual or anything…but the process I think is like any other. I think it’s just about getting inspired, and then to follow that.
Marc: Usually, when you’re VJ’ing live are you reacting in the moment to make things change, or is it kind of like a set that you plan in advance? How does that work?
Binocle: It’s a bit of both. So the term VJ comes from the same term is like DJ was just Disk Jockey and VJ is Video Jockey. So you prepare your visuals in advance, and that’s the idea.
For me, for example, every time there’s a DJ coming in, I’m going to listen to what they do live. Some DJ’s might change what they do live versus what they do in an album. Bonobo is a good example of a DJ who does a certain type of music, but live he goes a bit to the right.
So you listen to what they do, and I prepare according to this. I have kind of an idea, and then I mix live. And I do the same thing for the bookings, and listen to every DJ. And I know which visual style my VJ’s have, I booked them accordingly. So if a DJ has more of like an Ambient organic feel, it has this type of imagery over it. If it’s more cartoonish or whatever, fun music, this type of VJ, like this, always.
Marc: So it’s like a puzzle piece you’re kind of matching, it’s big picture but then when you’re there it’s in the moment still.
Binocle: You mix it up because you never know what the DJ is going to do. You have to be there to follow. It’s why also I don’t know if you know this, but we’re not on stage. We’re like really like far back, to have this big picture. To go with the music, we listen and we see everything with the lights. And try to follow. Our role, I think, is not to be the guide, but the follower. We listen to where DJ wants to take us, and we support that and bring the audience, as much as we can in that direction.
Marc: Are you usually in the sound booth in the back, seeing everything, or where do you usually oversee everything?
Binocle: Usually with the sound and the lights. Exactly. I always like being with the light guy. So we can coordinate some parts of the show, like some colors, or some drops. We can talk in and be like, okay, I think I’m gonna take this part, you take this part, so it doesn’t become like a rainbow too much, with everything mixed together, crazy.
Marc: So you guys have to work in tandem with one another?
Marc: Very cool. Is there is there anything else that you would like to explain a little bit about VJ’ing to typical music listeners or to keep them on the lookout?
Binocle: I think it’s to pay a bit of extra attention. Because there’s somebody, there’s always, somebody thinking about what they’re going to present you, and that scenery, and how we can support the music journey you’re on. You can have the same journey and you can amplify, with the visuals and everything you see. Just to take some time and then just open your eyes look around and get taken away, because there’s somebody thinking, and has spent a lot of time thinking about what they’re going to do. Spend time listening to what the DJ does. Sometimes also, it’s a touring party, you know. There’s some DJ’s, especially in the techno world, who have their own vision, have their own show, their own production, there’s a lot of thought process, so just take time to go into the full journey.
Marc: It’s like a multi-disciplinary experience. It’s not just the sound, but it’s everything else attached.
Binocle: Yeah, definitely. It’s going to make your experience better.
Marc: I’m curious, how are you inspired in order to pick out when you film? When you choose these different pieces, like this is more ambient animation, this is more hard-hitting or whatnot, where do you usually glean your inspiration when you pick these visuals?
Binocle: That’s a very good question. Every year, for example, I tried to renew whatever I have in the bank. If I implement, I think it’s just a matter of how I feel, what I want to do. I always start with the bigger story. So what’s the kind of feeling? And I try to transcend that feeling and that story, into visuals. It depends on year to year, but it’s hard to pinpoint what it is. I think what music I am into at that moment also plays a lot. If you go darker visuals, more cerebral or more just bright, funny, more fun.
I had a joke, like three years ago, I had some very dark visuals of like, dark forests coming to life, and one of the VJ’s came to me and she’s a good friend, she’s like, “Are you okay? Are you feeling good? Okay, you are good?” And then the next year afterwards, I had pineapples with sunglasses on dancing. It’s just the feeling of whatever’s going on your life. So transcend it, put it into images, a little bit like, you see the music and try to put it in images, and how you would feel. Put it in images.
Marc: So it’s a little bit of your own mood and emotion but also matching?
Binocle: Exactly and what’s funny… [speaking about another VJ] his visuals were completely crazy, they’re like super animation. He has like an Arnold Schwarzenegger lifting cats. But he’s a super shy guy, really introverted, doesn’t speak and very calm. You see the visuals come up, and it’s just like neon cats, dinosaurs, everywhere. So it’s like where your personality shines. Not like, how you speak or everything, but you can see the person through the work…There are a lot of VJs that are very calm, but you see their stuff and it’s super graphic and super crazy. Neon cats and lasers!
Marc: It’s amazing and its a very important and pivotal part of the art form. But it’s just overlooked sometimes, hopefully not so much now?
Binocle: Yes, but it’s ok. I understand it’s always music first. That’s always going to be and I think that’s the way it should be, especially for the techno scene. It’s like underground raves, all dark and everything, but sometimes you want to take it to the next level. So you bring this in. It makes something nice, you know. You can put the same DJ in a cave and it will still work to sing and dance, but you can then take them on another journey, or better journey, from time to time.
Marc: It’s like a little more sculpting.
Marc: No doubt. Thank you so much. That was really interesting. I love visual design as well so it’s exciting to hear how this has come to be and how you’ve found this.
Maxime, chiming in: The pineapples with sunglasses, I remember… [laughter]
Binocle: Good ol’ pineapples, you can never go wrong…
Marc: So first off, I just want to say thank you guys for joining us, and speaking to us on behalf of WNUR 89.3FM Chicago. First off, just a little bit of background about your group and where you’re from?
Le Matos: We are a band based in Montreal. We started about 10 years ago, 11, actually 12 years ago. Yeah so in 2007 we started a band. We were actually three before. But then [an earlier member] had to depart the band, so we continued until now.
Marc: Ok great, and just starting off a little bit about your music. When I’ve listened to it, it sounds very 80s synth inspired. Who are your inspirations when you’ve created music, or what is your direction when you’ve been making music?
Le Matos: I mean, we’re kids from the 80’s. We’re not trying to recreate the 80’s but we’re from the 80’s so I think it is there. The nostalgia and the melancholy is from this era. The plight of this childhood, every time. Everything, we used to watch like Saturday morning cartoons, to big American blockbusters, to cheesy italian horror films. And also like indie horror, American horror films, so I think it’s all that sound like Carpenter and other stuff also, Evangelist, who was I guess my first, the first thing I really listened to electronic music was to his music.
I also was a big fan of Kraftwerk, all of the early 80’s and 70’s works. And also, I used to listen to house and techno in the 90’s, because of my brothers who were like, ravers. When I used to listen to their cuts, and I wanted to do something, like in that vein, electronic music.
You kind of feel those two things when you really listen to it, and I think this is really what’s different from like other stuff like synth waves. You feel like the 80’s that I am really fond of, when I grew up, and then also the 90’s techno that Jean-Nic was really a part of back in the day. It’s kind of those two worlds.
Yeah, the mashup of influences.
Marc: Absolutely, and I know you guys’ music has also carried over into some film and some other art forms. Do you mind talking about that? That experience, and what it’s been like?
Le Matos: Yeah, I mean, like first of all, the way me and Jean-Nic met, and we became roommates, and at some point we started making music, for fun… I was and still am a cinematographer. So that’s my actual day job. Jean-Nic was making sound design for movies. So I shot a short film, and he was making all the sound design, and at some point we did a couple of tracks just for fun. They needed tracks for their short films so they used our music. And for the next one we decided, let’s actually score that short film, and it lead with those directors all the way to Turbo Kid. That was a full feature film that I shot and that we did score.
Marc: Hasn’t that also been shown at some festivals?
Le Matos: The two movies we scored were launched at Sundance. Turbo Kid did, amazing, we’re still surprised by how well it did in festival. We won, best score, that’s crazy for our first score. I mean everything’s surreal.
It really opened up a whole new area of fans, that new our music, because of that movie.
Marc: Very neat, so was the inception of the group, did that really begin through film then?
Le Matos: Yeah kind of, I mean we met when we were working in a movie theatre. We liked electronic music, we liked to play shows together, we became roommates at some point. The other member, is still like one of our best friends, is like a sound mixer on set. He did the sound on Turbo Kid. He was not in the band anymore but he’s still a part of it. It’s funny, one day we are at home, and Max called me, our friend, and he’s like…”I got robbed at my place and they stole, like, a bunch of stuff.” So he got crazy and was like, “I don’t want them to come back and steal all my guitars and my synths, like the big collectors. Can I bring the synths to your place? I’m sure your roommates will like it.” So I said yeah and he brought the synths to our place, and we connected them up, and we did our first draft that night. So it all started like this.
Marc: So a robbery, almost started everything?
Le Matos: Yeah, exactly, me and Max did film school together. We worked in a movie theatre together, so it’s really from that that brought us together.
Marc: And you mentioned you guys use a lot of synths and you use a lot of analog [equipment]. What’s your process usually? Both making music and performing it. What equipment do you typically use? What does it look like?
Le Matos: We typically like everyone use a computer. I start with some beats, like basic drums.We go on the analog synths and also vsts, whatever sounds good, and then we just start a jam, we jam it out. We make different parts of the song, and we do it all together. We play on stage the part that we like the most to play. Pretty simple.
Like an actual, just like a normal band. The fact that we are two and we used to be three and at some point we actually had a drummer as well. So, it’s just, he’s making beats on his computer and then we jam and jam and jam and do loops. It’s like a normal jam session.
Marc: So it’s really just a jam session that makes everything?
Le Matos: Yeah, if we play a loop for like, 3 hours, and we still think it’s good. You know, when you hear the loop for three hours and you’re not tired of hearing it, you’re like: I think we have something.
Marc: Well is there anything else that you guys would like to share with our Chicago listeners?
Le Matos: I mean, if they don’t know us at all, were not that big in the States now…but I think it’s good to look us up the first time and join us, but also to see us through the movies we’ve scored. Because I think we are changing a lot because of the movies we are doing. And I think it’s cool to experience this music on actual image. I think it’s a good way to see us for the first time.
Marc: Absolutely. And I think it’s interesting not a lot of groups adapt through the context of another medium like that. Through film, cinema, it’s very neat. It’s up to you to disclose, but are there any other things that you guys have in store outside of what you’ve just released? Review, or are you working on future films, things like that?
Le Matos: I mean, Turbo Kid 2 is in the process, so for sure if this thing happens we will be on board. Also we are starting to remix…people are remixing us, we are having a new EP coming out that is a score for a web series, also. So a bunch of stuff is going to happen.
Marc: Awesome, thank you guys!
Le Matos: Thank you.
Cory Wong doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Through dynamic visuals, goofy stage antics, and explosive funk music, the producer and guitarist is effortlessly captivating, despite the vast majority of his music being void of words.
He ran on stage at Lincoln Hall like a starting quarterback coming out of the locker room before erupting into the NFL Sports Intro with drummer Petar Janjic, bassist Kevin McIntire, keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay, and legendary brass ensemble the Hornheads.
The band, all sporting pizza-themed black jumpsuits, immediately grabbed the audience’s attention and then moved into some live favorites and cuts from Wong’s two studio records.
Wong weaves comedy bits and pre-recorded skits throughout his setlist, telling jokes that are so bad they’re funny and shamelessly plugging his merchandise in between songs. At the beginning of the show, he insisted the crowd let “all that tough guy stuff right out the back” and promoted audience unity (even between Android and iPhone users).
The way the band seamlessly slid from one song to the next made the show feel less like a concert and more like a fluid entertainment experience, complete with special guests like Antwaun Stanley contributing vocals on “Pleasin’” via internet broadcast. Stanley, despite not being physically present, dominated the room with smooth R&B vocal runs.
“Welcome 2 Minneapolis” was a highlight of the show, complete with an entire bit about peanut butter being brought into an American venue in 2019. “I don’t know how they do it in New Zealand…” Wong joked as Kiwi opener Emily Browning dangled a jar of Skippy over the crowd from the balcony.
Wong, a self-proclaimed “Millennial Ambassador to Smooth Jazz” whipped out the silky, flute-driven “Cameron” and paid homage to smooth jazz veteran Dave Koz, with whom Wong has collaborated. Wong also taught the crowd how to count in a 25/8, a time signature common in Janjic’s native Serbia but almost never heard in American music.
Wong and Co. played with such cohesion and feel that even when it seemed like Wong was drifting off-script, everything soon snapped into place, making it apparent that the show was tightly rehearsed.
The solo-filled “Encore E Jam” showcased each member’s incredible musicality while songs like “Jax” relied more on fast repetition and groove. The show reached almost two hours but never once lulled.
Wong not only bends genres but also entertainment formats, delivering a multimedia show filled with humor, education and of course hard-hitting, hip-shaking funk tunes. Long-term fans and unfamiliar newcomers alike are guaranteed to enjoy being a part of Wong’s endlessly fun experience.
As the Minneapolis-born producer and Vulfpeck guitarist closes his North American winter tour and prepares to make his way to Europe, bringing gags and groove along the way, WNUR had the chance to speak to Wong about touring, technology and the future of funk.
As a guitarist who doesn’t sing at his shows, how do you manage to keep the show so entertaining and the crowd so engaged?
Well it is definitely the number one riddle that I am trying to solve as an instrumental band leader. I have a lot of shticks that I create and bits that I use to divert the attention in different ways. It’s not just like, “Hey look at me shredding on the guitar for 90 minutes,” because that gets old to me. I like to showcase the other guys in the band but also bring in a nice element of humor and lightheartedness to the thing. The way that I set up the show in the beginning is just having some fun, zany, different things happening, and then also amongst hopefully what people think is some dope music. Bringing a multimedia element to it is fun and helps a lot with having guests up on the projector or video content that people can watch while the sounds are happening. And bringing special guests up as well.
You had Antwaun Stanley up on the screen during the show, and you’ve also said in previous interviews that a lot of your musical ideas exist on your phone in the form of voice memos. What are some of the pros and cons of the prevalence of technology in the musical process nowadays? Has technology ever failed you in a major way?
Technology only ever fails when it fails me. And what I mean by that is like, “Why is my computer all of a sudden frozen? It’s worked every show this entire year.” We did a show in Boston and live-streamed it. What happened? The computer froze the second we got on stage. And I’m the only one who knows how to fix it, so I had to give the drummer a solo for three minutes while I reboot my computer and got all the programs back up and running. And it was fine, but that’s the only time technology has failed me. There are a lot of pros and cons. I never rely solely on technology, so it doesn’t fail me very often. I use only its pros, which are things like, “Wow, at any time, I can pull this device out of my pocket and record the idea that I have in my head and be certain that I don’t forget it later.” If somebody in Japan is like, “Hey man, how do you play that guitar part on ‘Starks and Ewing’?” or whatever song, I can just say, “Oh, well here’s a quick video of me doing it. That’s how.” And I can just send it over. It’s incredible that technology is able to grant us those opportunities. Also, I can tune my guitar by putting my phone in front of it, and it’ll tell me whether I’m in tune or not. That’s pretty cool. I’ll sometimes do songwriting or production sessions with people on the other side of the world through Skype or FaceTime. That’s pretty incredible. The other plus side is the relationships and the community that it builds. I met a bunch of people in the guitar community through Instagram or Facebook. It helped me to meet my friend Ariel Posen. I just put out a video of us hanging in a studio together and playing. I met Emily Browning through the internet, and then we met in person at a house party and stayed in touch through the internet. When it came time for me to pick an opener for my tour, I just thought, “Oh! Emily would be great!” And sure enough, I could send her a message all the way to New Zealand, and she could just say, “Yeah, I’m in,” and fly over and do it.
During the show, you briefly touched on the millennial computer generation of music-makers. Where do you fall on that line of traditionalists who don’t think a computer should serve any purpose in music production and new-era DJs who don’t use any real instruments, producing solely from their laptops?
I don’t mind the computer era of music that much. I think it’s important that you can fall back on something. Can you show me something that shows that you have musical ability? Great. I think the best use of it is for when it helps you express your art. For me, when I’m making demos, I’ll put a loop together, but I’ll build the loop and I’ll program it myself to the groove that I want and make it feel how I want, and I’ll play instruments on top of it. So I don’t mind using computer instruments—I do on all my records, and I think it’s great! There’s ways to use it artistically, but then there’s also people who don’t get how to do music or write music or play any instrument, and that’s kinda lame.
Gonna switch gears a little bit. Who came up with the peanut butter bit?
[Laughs] That was me, I just dragged Emily along with me. I just said, “We should have somebody in the crowd with peanut butter,” and she was the only one of our crew who wasn’t on stage, so naturally she drew the short straw. She’s down, so that was nice. She thought it was genuinely funny, so that helped.
What’s your favorite song to play live and why?
Wow, that’s a hard one. On this tour, I love playing my tune “’91 Maxima” the most because I got to fire off my inflatable air men. A lot of guitar players get excited about guitar pedals they press. The most exciting pedal for me to press all night is the one that turns Larry and Jerry on. And yes, that’s their names.
The stage looked like a car dealership.
Do you notice significant differences in terms of stage dynamics or even crowd dynamics when playing solo, with Vulfpeck, Fearless Flyers or any other projects that you’ve been involved with?
Fortunately, they’re all pretty similar crowds. The main difference is how big is the crowd. The second difference is whether Antwaun Stanley is on stage. [Laughs] For whatever reason, when he’s on stage, the place is just hype. And he is such an insane, hype guy. It’s incredible. So with Vulfpeck, obviously the scale to which the crowds are is so much larger than what I’m doing with my solo thing, but that’s fine. And my solo thing will continue to grow, and that’s great. But the crowds are very similar.
How was working with Nate Smith?
That was a dream to play with him and to continue to play with him because I think he’s the best drummer in the world right now. He has all the chops that you could want and all the groove that you could want, and he knows how to artfully and musically use those skills. A lot of guys have a ton of chops, but not a ton of groove. Or they have a ton of groove, but not a lot of chops. It’s fun to play with a guy like that who’s just got all of it but knows when to harness it and when to let it loose.
As an aspiring guitarist growing up in Minneapolis who looked up to Prince, what was it like getting to work with Michael Bland, Sonny Thompson and the Hornheads?
Those guys I’ve worked with for years because I cut my teeth and grew up playing in Minneapolis, so from early on, I was playing with those guys and learning from them. Now having them view me as one of their peers is pretty fun and exciting. But my first times playing with Michael and Sonny, I got pulverized and tenderized through his school. I went to college, but I feel like my formal training was from Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson. That’s where I really honed in the musicality stuff.
So do you think a certain level of intensity is necessary when playing with new people? Or is there a balance, and where do you fall on that spectrum?
I think there’s a balance. It depends on what the future holds, what the relationship could potentially be with that person. But also, how much does that person care? If everybody is playing for keeps, then yeah, there’s a certain level of intensity, and that’s great. I’m a high-energy, high-intensity person in general, so I think I will draw that out of people who can bring it. But I think also I can use it to bring the energy of something up if it’s lagging. I like having a good amount of intensity, but an appropriate amount.
Tell me about “the hang.” Can somebody achieve it, or are you born with it?
Some people are born with it. Your natural schmoozers in life are born with “the hang,” you know? “The hang” is basically just all the off-stage. Some guys have all the on-stage musical stuff together but their “hang” is terrible. So what happens is they get hired for one tour and they don’t get asked back. Even though they’re the best one for the job, if their “hang” sucks, they’re out. I’ve seen that happen dozens of times. “The hang” is all about your interpersonal stuff off-stage and your professionalism. It’s more just how you are as a person. I had a keyboard player sub with me once, and literally 10 minutes after we got off stage at a festival, he was like, “Yo, I need you to pay me right now.” Like wait what?! We just got off stage, give me a freakin’ second. The guy was great, but I’m just not gonna hire him again. Bad “hang.” Do this guy’s feet stink and every time we get in the van, he takes his shoes off? You’re losing some “hang” points there.
You cite Pat Metheny and John Scofield as major influences. As jazz seems to be having some sort of rebirth, especially in the context of hip-hop music, do you see funk ever coming back in a major way or will it remain this niche genre that artists like yourself continue to spearhead?
Groove is groove. Groove-based music will always be around. How people decide to express that sometimes is more funk, sometimes R&B. You can throw a funk guitar part on a hip-hop song and all of a sudden it just is funky. You’ve got guys like Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake and Emily King playing funk. There’s all kinds of people doing it on different scales. Even like Niall Horan from One Direction has some kinda funk tunes on his solo record. I think it’s fun to see it’s coming back more in the pop culture.
You’ve cited Rivers Cuomo as an influence for how you organize your unfinished projects. So, are you team Blue Album or team Pinkerton?
I’m team Blue Album all the way, 100 percent. I like Pinkerton, but Blue Album is it for me. That might be my favorite album of all time. Definitely in my top three.
What’s your guilty pleasure music? Or is all music guilt-free?
I think all music is guilt-free as long as the message of it is fine. I’m fine listening to “basic music” and feeling great about it. I love Katy Perry’s PRISM record. I think it’s a brilliant freakin’ pop record. Anybody who has something negative to say about me because I like a Katy Perry record—screw them. I don’t care, it’s good pop music. And I can get down with a Cecil Taylor avant-garde solo piano jazz record. A lot of my friends who are into pop music would be like, “How can you stand listening to that?” Fine. Whatever.
Speaking of pop, you’ve referred to Continuum as one of your favorite pop records. Have you ever gotten the chance to meet or play with John Mayer?
I have not yet. We have a bunch of mutual friends. We have a bunch of times that we intended to connect, but it has not worked out yet. Hopefully that will happen very soon [laughs].
How do you name an instrumental song?
That is the hardest part about music for me. It comes from all over the place, but it is the hardest thing for me to do. It will take me less time to write, record, produce and mix an instrumental song than it will for me to name it. Although I’ve got a buddy who’s got the gift of naming things. He’s got a certain type of synesthesia where he’ll hear things and visualize them. It helps him name things. I’ve thought about putting him on retainer and having him just name things in my life.
Your song “Upstream” is available as downloadable content for Rock Band II. Did you ever play Rock Band or Guitar Hero?
I did, and I was never as good at it as the real guitar.
Interesting. Did you play guitar before playing the games?
Yeah, because I started playing guitar in sixth grade, and I think the games came out when I was in high school. So I figured, if I wanna play “Symphony of Destruction,” I’m gonna figure out how to play it on the real guitar.
When did you figure out you were a Strat guy? Did you start off on one and never stray or was it a discovery process?
Day one. I was a Strat guy from day one. My dad convinced me. He was like, “So, you wanna play the guitar? Let’s look at all the guitar gods. Hendrix, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn. What do they all play? Stratocaster.”
If you could work with any artist dead or alive, who would it be?
You’re pretty popular in Peru. Are there any noticeable differences between performing in South America versus playing in the States?
I have not been there for a while, but the audiences in South America are generally more attentive audiences to musical nuance. The way that some other cultures respond to musical nuance is very different than in the United States. In the United States, I know what gets the crowd to go wild: the loud, the fast, the high, the super exciting. In Europe and in South America, that stuff gets them excited, but also, they’ll respond the same way to a very musically nuanced thing.
What’s the most useful touring tip that you’ve learned while on the road?
You never need as many clothes as you think you do. You’ll find a way to do laundry. Also, you gotta eat clean. It’ll help you feel better and healthier. Life will be easier for you if your body is working properly.
Where do you think you’d be without music?
I would probably be doing something in architecture. We had a really good drafting program at my high school, and by 10th grade I basically finished the whole program. So I got a job with an architect as a drafter drawing all the blueprints and everything. I did all the residential projects.
Do you have any upcoming plans besides touring?
Fearless Flyers just finished recording a new record. Super stoked about that. It’s gonna be insane. The album turned out great. I am almost halfway done with a new Cory Wong record. I’m going to Europe next week to do some touring. Fortunately, the entire tour is sold out, so that’s gonna be fun. Vulfpeck is doing a Red Rocks show that’s sold out. Madison Square Garden with Vulfpeck and the Fearless Flyers, which is gonna be insane. I’m excited to see what this year brings.
This February, Mexican-based electronic group Boombox Cartel will be back in Chicago for their “The Cell” tour. The pair, composed of Americo Garcia and Jorge Medina, was recently named the #1 Mexican DJs in the world, according to Insomniac. You’ll know them for their trappy, festival-ready tracks like “B2U,” “Moon Love” and “Phoenix,” as well as collaborations with Flosstradamus, QUIX and NGHTMRE. “Cartel,” a 2017 EP, has been followed by a string of singles, with an album to come later this year. But before all that, I took some time with Garcia, the touring member of the duo, to chat over the phone about the inspiration behind “The Cell,” recent music, and his Cartel Sound label project.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
RK: It’s a new year and you’ve got a new tour coming up – what’re you excited for in 2019?
AG: I’ve been working on music this whole last year and now am incorporating some of that into the show while saving some for the upcoming album. I’m just preparing everything for this year. There are lots of moving parts: tour, music, even merch designing. I’m sitting on about forty tracks right now, and am just trying to curate the right time to put it out and how to release it. There are videos to make and other artists to coordinate with – lots of little suit and tie stuff behind the scenes. We’re just here creating every day.
RK: Where did the inspiration for “The Cell” come from?
AG: Cartels and jail cells go hand in hand, so we’re building a giant jail cell. We rented an abandoned prison and went in there with a whole film crew. They shot every angle of it and have really creepy footage of what it’s like to be in there. We’re telling a story, putting a movie together, and combining it with the sculpture and the music. We have about 160 lights we’re attaching to the cell, and hired a shop in northern Los Angeles that’s been working 24/7 for the past month and a half…And there are some vibes within the stage production that will add new production to the songs. I’m just grabbing elements from them because I don’t want to release them yet, but I do have over a handful of unreleased records I’ll be dropping. It’ll be sick. I’m really excited and nervous.
RK: Why are you bringing this tour to Chicago? You were here last spring – are you excited to be back?
AG: I’m always excited to be in the Midwest. Boombox started in Minneapolis, so I have a special place in my heart for it. I just want to show the city what’s up and elevate the expectations of a DJ’s show. This tour, it just feels right. It feels cool to be able to spend a lot of money investing in art. I never had that opportunity starting out, so it’s nice when everything comes together – especially in a city close to home.
RK: As you mentioned, then, starting out you could never have pulled off something like this. How does it feel to be able to do that now – and to hold the title of the #1 Mexican DJ in the world, to boot?
AG: When Boombox started out, EDM wasn’t even a thing in Mexico. I would play reggaeton in the clubs and get kicked out, but now they’re playing EDM in every club in Mexico. It’s nonstop. I’m super honored. I don’t know how to express that. I just never imagined EDM reaching the point where it’s at now in Mexico.
RK: Your recently released tracks sound very different – at least to me. “Whisper”’s drop is pretty unconventional, and “People I Know” could pass as indie rock, almost. In other words, you’ve been throwing some curveballs at us! What journey will you take your listeners on in 2019?
AG: Growing up listening to indie rock, then doing EDM over here, obviously you miss the indie rock a little. It’s always cool to bring it back and bring in the culture of where I grew up, and the music I listened to in school. It’s one big circle. As for the journey, curveballs are great. We’ve got a few lined up. There’s a lot of bigger picture stuff to, like working with a lot of really established artists in other genres and getting them out of their comfort zone, into the EDM bubble.
RK: What’s that like, introducing all these artists to your genre?
AG: I’m always really nervous, working with all these people with established fan bases and sounds. And saying, “You might be used to this, but let’s try this.” If they come from the pop industry and the rap industry, they don’t know much about EDM. They know everyone goes crazy at shows, but once you play them stuff, they find it’s more complex than they’re used to. It’s about teaching the culture, and saying “Look how loyal the fans are.” Then they’ll gain interest and watch festivals, go to DJ sets, and see how many people are there. It’s just putting people onto EDM, and onto the culture.
RK: I’d love to talk a little bit about “People I Know,” since it’s just so different. Tell me more about that track.
AG: I’ve always listened to rock, punk rock, indie, and have so many ideas out there. This one was that fuck it moment, like, “Let’s just make something that sounds like it’s playing at an Apple store.” I love MGMT, I love M83, I’ve always loved all that, like Foster the People. I grew up with all those bands. And the track turned out, and just happened to sound really good, so I thought, you know what, let’s throw a little curveball and put it out. About a month ago I was at the Apple store, and they were playing Kanye (West) and Flying Lotus. And then, “People I Know” started playing. I was like, “This can’t be real.” And then they played M83 and I was like, “Damn, that’s insane. That’s the inspiration right there.” It was a fun thing, and it was the experiment, the vibe, the idea, the goal. It’s awesome to see it happen. I don’t want people to think Boombox should always to EDM. It’ll always be the main thing, but I really want to show off everything else I’ve got.
RK: Tell me a little about Cartel Sound, and what’s happened since it’s debut at SXSW last year.
AG: Pretty much, here are artists down to make cool unique music that will change the game, and I want to help them. Cartel Sound is something I want to put together in the future, not just right now, but I want to get a family of artists of sound together and create this really unique family vibe. I want to help starting, talented artists and give them the exposure they deserve. At the same time, I want it to be a beneficial platform for them, not for me, where they can release whatever they want without barriers. We’re creating a family, a bubble, a hub for everyone.
RK: Are barriers to your music something that you personally have experienced?
AG: There are always barriers in this industry. You can be really proud of this song and then get pushback from a label. There are always limitations to getting a song done to the point when it’s finally on Spotify. I just wanna remove those barriers as much as possible so it’s easier for everyone to create and feel comfortable.
RK: Relating pretty directly to that, WNUR-FM, my platform, is all about giving space to “underrepresented” artists. That being said, what makes you excited for the future of EDM and those artists that are underrepresented?
AG: EDM is such an unpredictable genre. There will be one style that catches on and a few artists will blow up and start a career on it. Then the genre will move on to another style that blows up a few. It’s incredible how it’s so collaborative, too. All these different producers bring a little bit to it and steer it left, right, up and down. I’m really fascinated by how our genre’s grown.
RK: Tying it all up, what can we expect at your Chicago show? What should I look forward to?
AG: Everyone’s gonna have to see it. When the first show happens and people start seeing videos on social media, they’ll figure it out. I’m not telling anyone everything because it’s all about the experience, and I want the loyal fans to have that. This is for them. We’re almost done building now and are super excited. It’s been a team effort with lots of people, and it’ll be a pretty big stage. Now, I’m just waiting to see what everyone thinks.
We were just talking about the record y’all just put out, and the kind of tedious recording process…
Houle: Yeah, it was…tedious on our own parts, as well. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it the best it could be.
Delaware: (On recording Iowa City’s Magic Barn) It was something I’d always wanted to do my whole life, I know Clay wanted to that too, you know…When you have artists you’ve looked up to your whole life that are recording on gear that makes their shit just sound professional…It’s inspiring, it makes you want to do that. And we’ve been recording, you know, through interfaces and computers in… just studios that most people wouldn’t really know of. This was a studio that, I think, is gonna be famous someday. And…David Bowie recorded his last two albums on all this gear, I think it’s good enough for us… We were lucky to land the opportunity.
How was working with the whole team [at Magic Barn]?
Delaware: It was a… self-produced album, we had our friend Wolfgang Zimmerman help out a little bit , but mostly of the work was us and the engineers putting it together to make it sound the way the album does…I’ve helped record other people and produce in the past, Clay [Houle] has been in other projects…where he had a lot to do with the art…It’s fun, when you make songs, You kinda can hear the production already and it was an easy thing.
Houle: That’s really true, once you’re writing it, you have a vision in your head of what you want it to sound like.
Yeah, and y’all keep it pretty organic in terms of production.
Delaware: We put as many roto-toms on this as we could
The sheer diversity in your instrumentation was really interesting. What makes you choose all those different elements?
Delaware: Yeah, all the exotic instruments… I’ve always loved Indian music–I guess I haven’t always loved it, it’s been a thing in the last couple of years…There’s guys like Christian Adas, there’s exotic instruments over there that I can’t even pronounce the artists so I’m not even gonna give it a go. It’s something beyond what I’ve heard here in America and it was just really cool to put, like, any touches of that into our Americanized songs. It’s different, too. We could have gone a lot further with it but it’s just really hard to track down those instruments. The koto thing was really cool That happened to, like, land in our lap because one of the engineers had a friend who had a koto that was only like an hour away so he ran to the studio And then our co-producer, his friend plays the sitar really well… and he created a nice intro
Houle: A lot of those world instruments, maybe it’ll be because we’re writing some of our stuff on Garage Band So we’ll have all these different instrument patches and stuff, and we’ll play with some of that. We really didn’t know what the sitar was gonna sound like, but then we heard it and it was like, “Wow–holy shit, that sounds cool”
Delaware: He sent over two different tracks of them and he harmonized the parts. Once we blended them and put the effects on that were needed..it sounds awesome.
That’s one of the things that stuck out to me about your album, it blends a lot of different stuff. Because everyone’s going electronic, I love talking to people about organic stuff.
Delaware: I love it too. Those guys out of Atlanta that did like at the R&B, hip-hop stuff in the 90s for TLC and [Organized Noize] that was what was so cool about those guys, they were creating music that was usually made by machines and doing it with like, actually bass guitars and real guitars and that’s why it’s so different. Everything’s kinda become a bit more synthetic, nowadays.
Houle: And it’s weird, like if you ask us the kind of music we listen to… We gravitate more towards more organic sounding stuff.
Delaware: You create the song first, then when you’re doing overdubs, like for the song “First Time” the demo version has a really Chinese sounding guitar that Clay played…And we were like: “yeah that sounds great” The koto happened out of nowhere, so that kind of took place over …the style of guitar that Clay played, that guitar part. There’s bands that have kinda done that lately, it is the future, all these cultures are gonna unite…In like five hundred years If we’re still on this rock hanging out… culture and tradition are just gonna be one, or two, or three things.
Getting back to the tour a bit, how does playing so much affect your relationship to your music?
Houle: Your relationship can get affected–like with a song you play repetitively, maybe you lose your love for it a little bit…Some of the songs we’ll play, we haven’t even recorded, we’ve been playing them for like six months. You just have to remember how you felt when you wrote them.
Delaware:It can get a little pedestrian, playing them over and over…We’ll do like 130 shows this year, an we took time off…It’s interesting, you gotta dig deep and remember how it was when you wrote it.
Houle: Sometimes you’ll write a song and you’ll be like “This is my favorite song” and as the year goes by maybe [your favorite] is a different one you wrote in the same period.
So thinking about the future, what’re you guys doing to move forward as a band?
Delaware: We plan for the future, we keep pounding the rock. It’s like the Spurs…that’s what their coach [Gregg Popovich] says…Perspective is huge, too in life…We’re worried about our goal, and not making it–
Houle: We’re just bitching about, you know, enough people don’t like our band…There’s so much more important shit.
Delaware: It’s about getting your head out of your ass (Houle laughs). You move forward, and you keep doing what you love
So to get back to the new record, what are y’all listening to and pulling from?
Delaware: I’m excited to do a completely different mix for this next album…I’m excited to get down to the heartland rock thing, but to do it in a classy way…It was really big drums, and we were into that at the time but now we’re ready to go back even further, 70s instead of the 80s.
Houle: Yeah, 70s and even the Americana of the 90s, it just sounds really real. It’s not overproduced, it’s all about the song writing.
Delaware: I want it to feel like it’s one or two takes, I don’t want it to feel overprocessed…I want it to feel human, I want there to be mistakes, blemishes all over. Some of my favorite records…there’s mistakes all over them, but you never notice…like the bass isn’t even hitting the right note. We’ll immediately get insecure if that happens, like: “we gotta cut that” but I don’t think we should. Unless it’s really bad. You couldn’t have made a perfect record, back in the day. And now you can. I don’t think that’s human. The songs are telling a neat little story, about trying to escape your life and find something new to grow towards.
Any words on those greater themes?
Houle: [Delaware] really got it. I mean we recorded that album almost two years ago. It’ll be nice to record again…to produce ourselves again and see what happens.
Delaware: Yeah it’ll be awesome to record again, it’s been too long.
Houle:Yeah, we enjoy recording–it’s fucking fun.
Delaware: The only thing that hold us back is money, it’s expensive…We wanna have this new album out in 2019…it took so long to get our dots connected and get this first record out, so now it’s just like: ‘Let’s get going’.
Houle: And all of our favorite artists are putting out music… Unfortunately, in our day and age, it’s more about ‘let’s keep people’s attention’. It’s so true.
Delaware: It’s neat because back in the day they managed to put out so many records anyway,too because that was a way to make a living…The Beatles and The Stones were putting out like–what, two to three a year? Yeah, we can go back and do that again.
Who are y’all listening to nowadays?
And are you guys really in touch with the southern music scene?
Houle: Well I’d say we are, because that’s where our band started. We knew a lot of venues in the south…Athens, Charleston…
A producer/DJ who is currently attending NYU for music recording, Beshken, from the start of his performance at Subterranean opening for Gus Dapperton, made sure his music was felt, not just heard. With booming bass and soundscapes that he hopes create what he described as a “digital forest,” I spoke with Beshken after the show and found out how he can create so much sound with so little help.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slade Warnken: How did you start playing music?
Beshken: I started playing Led Zepplin and Jimi Hendrix on guitar when I was like 11 because my best friend was taking guitar lessons. I got really into music production because I wanted to be a DJ…LA is cool because there is this beat scene there. It’s kind of dying now, but from 2008 to 2014 Low End Theory [and] that whole scene really influenced me. [Low End Theory] was like a club–it’s an Alphapup run thing. Alphapup is a record label, Daddy Kev is the guy who owns it…it was a lot of beat makers, there was an outdoor area, it was a community. People said they would go there as church every Wednesday night. I would go there with all my friends, and that was really influential to me.
SW: How old were you when you started producing?
B: I was 14 years old.
SW: When you’re performing, what is that process like for you?
B: So I produce all the music, this is our first tour and this is the first time I’m playing with José. There are a lot of backing tracks. Most of the backing tracks are just drums, and then José is playing on bass and keysynth, and then I’m playing guitar on top of that with a lot of effects.
SW: In a lot of ways, especially with your live performance with the heavy emphasis on bass and drums, music is felt, not just heard. When you are approaching your live set, what are you trying to create for the audience?
B: I want it to be really enthralling. During a lot of my sets, I notice people are just standing there watching it. I’m totally cool with that because I feel like I make dance music, but only music I would personally dance to in my bedroom, not necessarily what people would dance to in a club. I call it a digital forest. A lot of the sounds are field recordings. A lot of the drums are field recordings I’ve taken and recorded as samples and manipulated, so it has this organic feel to it. When I was in Italy I recorded a lot, or when I was in Japan earlier this year I recorded a ton of sounds. I went to these shrines that have these speakers that play a lot of traditional Japanese music, so I recorded a lot of that. You can literally use anything and make music out of it. That’s kind of my thing, or what I like doing. Not just limiting myself to instruments.
The world-renowned producer and electronic music household name started his day with the release of Neon Future III, the third installation of his most recent album series. With a list of featured artists that boasts Bill Nye, blink-182 and Lady Antebellum, the series is based on Aoki’s fascination with our current age of technology. Taking a break from his touring schedule, Aoki spoke to me over the phone to talk about Neon Future III, streaming culture, and his roots in radio. We also discussed his upcoming Dim Mak Neighborhood show in Chicago, which will be the release celebration for Neon Future III and feature supporting talent from the label he started over 20 years ago. I will admit — answering a phone call to, “Hey, it’s Steve,” was a way cooler than I was prepared to handle on Wednesday afternoon.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
RK: With the Dim Mak Neighborhood show coming up here, what’s special about the cities you chose to bring the showcase to – specifically Chicago?
SA: When I think of crowds from all across the US, the most memorable crowds definitely are from Chicago. It has historically been one of the most important cities for supporting my music since I started touring across the US. And I should actually research how many times I’ve played at the Aragon Ballroom. I really want to know the exact number, but a wild guess is that this will be my fifth time. It’s always been a big moment for touring. Whenever I do a bus tour, we always have 3 or 4 shows on the map that are very very integral shows of the entire tour and Chicago is such an important marketplace for me. And also, Neon Future II was premiered in the streets of New York. Neon Future I was in the streets of LA. The only difference here is, of course, that I had to pick a different city, but also that we’re not doing it on the streets this time. We’re doing it in one of my favorite venues in America. I wanted to pick a city that was first on the list as far as really crazy crowds and amazing, amazing fans. At the end of the day it’s really about the fans. They dictate why I come to this city.
RK: Bringing that full circle a bit and focusing on the “neighborhood” aspect of the show, what’s important about touring with artists from your label?
SA: It’s a family. We’re our own neighborhood. We’re a family. Dim Mak’s been around for over 20 years now. It’s a big part of my identity as an artist. Being able to grow as an artist would have been very difficult if I didn’t have this community, this “neighborhood,” to build and develop my sound — and now the sound of young artists. That’s the whole point of a label, is to help and develop new artists with incredible talent with something the world hasn’t heard yet. I really believe in these young artists we have fostered and in helping get their sound out into the world. It’s also not just about EDM. We definitely help to curate artists in different genres, like Bok Nero, the hip hop force of Dim Mak. I also wanted a diverse lineup from the Dim Mak belt because we don’t just put out one kind of electronic music. Bear Grillz is more dubstep, Max Styler is more house. Brohug represents the more future house sound. It’ll be good to bring in all different sounds from the Dim Mak family and throw a big party.
RK: Particularly in today’s streaming culture, what power do you believe there is in a label today – and in you as the founder and frontman of Dim Mak?
SA: I think streaming allows for artist-run companies to have much stronger influence than ever before. That’s why you’re seeing that any artist with any sort of influence is starting their own label with their friends and putting out records. It’s working, it’s effective, and it actually really does help out younger artists that wouldn’t otherwise have a voice. At the end of the day, even for me, as I developed my sound, there were certain artists I looked up to and followed because I really liked their whole sound and concept. If they’d come to me and said, “Hey, I’m going to help you out,” I would find that to be more meaningful than a bigger institution or company coming in. I’d rather work with an artist that gets my vision and the intricacies and details of what I care about, and put it out there to the world in a way that makes sense to me. Streaming culture has absolutely allowed for more power for artists and artist-run companies. And what happens in the end is that it allows for more diversity. It allows for more growth and expansion of the culture. It’s not just the highest ones that sell the most mattering, which is how I feel big labels work. It’s statistically driven, and it’s not necessarily for the culture but for the bottom line. With artist-driven companies, or at least with Dim Mak, it’s always been more about the company’s culture instead.
RK: Since WNUR-FM gives particular attention to “underrepresented” music, what are some genres or artists we can pay better attention to within electronic music? Where do you see the future in electronic music?
SA: Electronic music as we can see it has spread its wings really far. It’s a big part of pop culture. When you look down the Billboard Hot 100, you see a lot of DJs that are part of the music-making of what’s popular in America, even outside of EDM. It’s come that far, so that with electronic music we have a large say in the music cultural space. Artists from our world can really go into every genre. That then makes it really exciting for producers in EDM. I didn’t start with EDM, but with rock music. My dream was always to collaborate or work with my favorite bands. But that would have never happened if I’d continued down my rock road. As I built my electronic career, one of the first things I wanted to do was get in the studio and make music with Linkin Park. Make music with Fall Out Boy and Jim Atkins and blink-182. Even now, farther down the path, I’ve done a song with a country artist. Earlier in my days I never thought I would do something like that, and I’ve always wanted to. It was just a question of how I could get across this line, and electronic music has built the bridge so that I can work with artists that want to do something unique. It’s really exciting to do that. The genre is just constantly spreading its wings and hybridizing. There’s so much exciting stuff happening in the electronic space.
RK: Continuing within that vein, where do you see opportunity within EDM? What do you think up-and-comers, especially my college student audience, can bring to the table? (for context, student and community DJs have shows through WNUR’s Streetbeat segment every night.)
SA: You have to have the passion and the heart. It lies in you. And that’s always been the case, not just for music. When I was in college, my heart was full of passion. I still have that same fervor, but it’s something unique when you’re young. You’re going to do what you need to do, get no sleep, handle your business and then you get to play early in the morning. I was on a radio show when I was in college, called KCSB. There was a training wheels program that was only broadcasted on campus. No one listened to it. And I was like, “I wanna be a radio DJ.” I would play at 2, 3 in the morning, and I never made it from the training program to KCSB. But in any case, there were thousands of other kids like me. You have to start somewhere. And when you have the heart and the passion, all you need are the tools. You then can develop your skills, and hone into what you’re good at and find your knack. That’s how it all started for me, was when I started DJing. I developed a curation program and said, “Hey, I’m gonna put on these parties and focus it on a specific genre targeted at a specific person.” And that original indie underground thing spread to other genres and became something very groundbreaking for LA. Kids and teenagers can start developing and honing skills and building a little community – a little neighborhood in a way.
RK: Even beyond that, do you think there are opportunities within the actual music of EDM – unexplored ideas or things that haven’t been explored enough?
SA: If you want to go into unexplored sound, you’ve got to get into the studio and start making some music. It just takes time. At the end of the day, you need to surround yourself with the culture of the music. You don’t have to have a college degree, you just need the passion and the drive to get in front of a computer and figure out what kind of music you want to make. I remember when I first started making remixes. Most were horrible, and eventually I made something people cared about – 3 years later. If you love it, you’ll spend the time to do it. And you can’t think too big, and want Drake or Post Malone to listen to your remixes. You need to start in Soundcloud and start communicating with smaller artists with a very specific sound. If you get the respect from them, that’s how you’ll really learn and get constructive criticism. Honestly, the bigger DJs who have influence are going into smaller pools. We’re looking at where communities are being built and seeing, “Who’s chopping it up down here?” I want to hear it. But you have to start small with a community of people who get what you’re doing. There are so many different genres that you don’t need all this training. Like you could start a whole thing with weird sounds crinkling water bottles. You can build it up. And someone will say, “I really like what you’re doing with the water bottles. I’m going to do it with Pepsi cans.” And then all of a sudden, there’s something happening. That’s how culture gets created.
RK: Finishing up, you’re now headed toward Neon Future III. Since the first Neon Future, which you’ve previously said was inspired by the intersections of humanity and technology, there have been a ton of new tech developments — how do you view those changes, and are they relevant to this newest installation?
SA: Neon Future is becoming more and more real. For me, it’s the intersections like you said. It’s really the conversation of science fiction becoming fact, and that’s the conversation I want to be in. I want to know how close we are to these “impossible” ideas, these imaginative ideas that we think of in movies and in cartoons and in our imagination. It’s about where we want to go and where we’re afraid to go. And there’s a lot happening. It’s an exciting conversation that happens mostly in smaller circles. I have a fascination and obsession with it, so I like to put myself in those circles and see what the hell is going on. It’s very exciting, meeting up with these scientists and researchers. It’s a big concept for me. I don’t just name one album Neon Future, but a whole series, because it’s a whole ongoing conversation. Who knows, soon we’ll be able to telekinetically make music and share it without having to open up a computer.
RK: Is this album more of a projection, then, for what you’re hoping to see in technology? Or is it more cataloging and processing the changes as you see them?
SA: It’s definitely a projection. Of course I catalog as I go through. Each album is a timestamp, in the essence of what the music is. It’s a timestamp of my creative output on a musical and production level. And I like that. It’s like looking back at baby pictures or teenage pictures. But they’re all so integral in developing who you are now. The cataloging is part of a whole musical package. But the hope is, and the vision is, a projection for sure. I look forward to the future. I’m a techno-future optimist. I’m a junkie when it comes to science, information and that whole space. I don’t know how long this Neon Future series is going to last. I thought it was going to end here. But I already have more coming, and more music on the way. I won’t get ahead of myself, but it’s not over yet.
RK: How can we look forward to seeing that tech junkie enthusiast embodied in this album? What can we look forward to seeing?
SA: There are a ton of songs. My song with Bill Nye about the collaboration between science and music. There are very diverse collaborations in the rock and country space. And then there’s this incredible song that Mike Posner wrote that I collaborated with him on. I’m really proud of that one. And one of my favorite songs was what I made with Era Istrefi. She did an outstanding job. There’s a big conversation in regards to Neon Future III. It’s a stacked album.
Today I am providing you with the first interview from the series of conversations I had with artists at North Coast Music Festival last week. This was a special interview for me since I had the privilege of talking to a guy I have admired as both a producer/DJ and a tastemaker for quite sometime. The artist’s name: Barclay Crenshaw.
It’s hard to know where to begin when introducing Barclay Crenshaw. The producer and DJ who often performs under the alias Claude VonStroke has created his own brand of funk-infused techno and house records and toured the international circuit playing many of the hottest venues and festivals on the planet: from headlining Movement Festival in Detroit this year to appearances at Coachella, Creamfields, and Tomorrowland (among many others over the years). Crenshaw is prolific and seemingly tireless. In 2016 DJ Times named him the Best DJ in America. And beyond his own productions and DJ sets, he has also established one of the most respected labels in the dance music industry, Dirtybird Records, which was named label of the decade by Mixmag just last year.
From the get-go, Barclay Crenshaw has done things differently: Although he had been making his own music for years, Crenshaw launched his music career out of a film project. In the early 2000s he worked on the documentary Intellect: Techno House Progressive with the intention of getting into the minds of successful DJs and producers and figuring out how they operate. After finishing the film, he subsequently began to produce and release his own records and DJ across the U.S. He established Dirtybird Records in 2005, released his debut album Beware of the Bird in 2006, and created a Fabric mix for the illustrious Fabric club in London in 2009, all the while quietly building a steady and loyal following in the American underground techno and house scene. Now, Crenshaw’s meticulous productions and distinctive style have made him an internationally recognized name in dance music and a respected tastemaker both at home and abroad. Moreover, he’s brought his own events to cities and towns across the country: his Dirtybird barbecues-which often feature street food, outdoor games, and of course, music-have helped solidify his brand and his label’s prowess-from LA to Brooklyn. Yet in spite of his many achievements, Barclay’s ethos has remained down-to-earth and unpretentious: based on the performances I have seen and the time I spent talking with him, it appeared clear to me that he focuses on presenting his listeners with danceable music that does not take itself too seriously or masquerade as something it’s not. It’s about having a good time and truly enjoying the atmosphere and mood music can create for the audience or even the casual listener. So without further ado, here is my conversation with Barclay following his evening set at North Coast Music Festival:
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Brennan White: Alright this is Brennan White with the Sonic sanctuary show for WNUR 89.3fm Chicago, Northwestern’s radio station. I’m here with Barclay Crenshaw, also known as Claude VonStroke, the Dirtybird label owner, the man behind it all! Barclay, how are you doing?
Barclay Crenshaw: I’m doing great, thanks for having me on the show!
Brennan White: Of course, we’re happy to have you! So, you grew up in the Midwest, right?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yes, I did.
Brennan White: So you’re originally from Cleveland and you had some of your roots in Detroit. What’s it like being back in Chicago and being in the birthplace of house? How does that feel?
Barclay Crenshaw: Chicago’s always been a really fun city to come and play. It’s always been a little more wild than other cities. I don’t know why, I can’t really explain it. It gets a little crazy here, so I enjoy it.
Brennan White: Ah, Yeah, for sure! So, I read that you had a radio show in high school. Is that correct?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yes that is correct.
Brennan White: I’m wondering how that show influenced your perspective on music from an early age, and how did it affect how you think about music and presenting it to an audience, or a crowd, or anyone else on the other end?
Barclay Crenshaw: I haven’t thought about that show in a really long time, and when I think about it I did the show with this kid Derek Ordway who is now deceased. Rest in Peace Derek. He was into punk rock and new wave and all that kind of stuff, and I was only into rap. So the radio show would be like I play Eric B. and Rakim and he plays Nitzer Ebb, and I play a Salt-N-Pepa track and he plays Depeche Mode.
Brennan White: Was that back to back?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah! the show was very eclectic.
Brennan White: So it was jumping around a bit?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah, but we both talked, and the way we would get people to listen to it is we would order a pizza every night and we would give the pizza away outside the station to the winning caller. So if you listened to our show you could always get a free pizza.
Brennan White: [laughs] Did you find that helped your show out a little bit?
Barclay Crenshaw: No, it helped the calling in but it didn’t help the show [laughs].
Brennan White: Because I was gonna say, in the 21st century sometimes it feels like radio is a bit of a dying art form.
Barclay Crenshaw: If it’s live then you should just give away some pizza!
Brennan White: That’s a tactic I’ll have to adopt because I certainly need some more people calling in on my show!
Barclay Crenshaw: People love pizza… But not only do they love pizza but they love hanging out with the host of the radio show while they eat their pizza.
Brennan White: You brought them into the studio sometimes? Or…
Barclay Crenshaw: No we would hang out outside.
Brennan White: It was a nightly show? once every week?
Barclay Crenshaw: Weekly, weekly.
Brennan White: Gotcha. Cool! So I know you have a background in film. You worked on the film Intellect: Techno House Progressive. So you learned a tremendous amount from the dance music scene from that film, right?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yes I did.
Brennan White: So you learned some of the benefits and glories as well as the downsides. Can you talk about how working on that project impacted the beginning of your career and what [ideas, concepts, information] you took into account when you were launching your career as a DJ and as a producer?
Barclay Crenshaw: I did that film basically to launch my career. I interviewed all of the most famous techno and house DJs to kind of find out how they got famous because I had been making music since I was 11 but I couldn’t figure out how to get past the stage of just making music. And I couldn’t get to the getting it out there and getting gigs stage. So, I basically just asked everyone how they did it and made a movie about it.
Brennan White: Are there any key elements of advice that stuck with you? Some of our listeners are aspiring producers and DJs.
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah, I mean one of the best interviews on that whole thing is a guy from Chicago named Derrick Carter who really told me how when the outside public looks in at djing they’re like “oh it’s so easy you don’t really have to do anything,” but Derrick Carter told me “it’s really hard, it’s only gonna get harder, and even when you make it, it’s only gonna get five times harder.” So you have to work your ass off.. Like every second.
Brennan White: And would you say some of those difficulties come from, I mean, obviously increased pressure, but also just larger crowds, you have more scrutiny from people in the audience or if you have a radio show, or if you’re releasing records with Dirtybird you’ve got a large audience?
Barclay Crenshaw: It’s like time management, doing everything, and being able to be on when you’re supposed to be on. Like playing six gigs a week and every single person that books you, pays you money, wants it to be the best set that you’ve ever played…
Brennan White: Absolutely. So there’s that constant pressure. So another question I’ve got for you is with the Dirtybird barbecues. With Birdhouse Festival next week in Chicago, you’re taking your brand to all these different cities, and I’m wondering how you decided to focus on cultivating this grassroots house movement within America, and it seems also that you’re not preoccupied with Europe: labels like Defected, Diynamic. You’re doing your own thing!
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah, I really feel like the opportunity is in America. And we’re one of the only people actually taking advantage of it and really building the community properly and getting the data and making events for people to go to outside the massive corporate rave system.
Brennan White: Definitely.
Barclay Crenshaw: We’re doing our own thing. If you look at the market, it’s so obvious that we should be doing what we’re doing. Like no one else is doing it. It’s crazy. I don’t understand it. Like why isn’t anyone else doing it? It’s so weird!
Brennan White: Yeah, for sure. So I want to ask you about one of your recent remixes. You were tapped by Mark Ronson and Diplo for the remix on Silk City’s “Only Can Get better.” Can you talk a little bit about how that remix came together?
Barclay Crenshaw: I originally went in the studio with Mark Ronson to be a writer on that track, and then I kind of just hung out there for a little bit, and I’ve been friends with Diplo. He remixed “the Whistler” before he was Diplo. He was Diplo, but he wasn’t “Diplo.”
Brennan White: [laughs] Was his name Wesley or something?
Barclay Crenshaw: No, his name was Diplo but you know what I mean! He wasn’t like Megatron Diplo.
Brennan White: Yeah.
Barclay Crenshaw: So [Mark Ronson and Diplo] were like we didn’t really use your bits on the track but we want you to do the remix. It was kind of a weird flip flop, but whatever. I did the remix and because of it Mark Ronson’s playing at Dirtybird Campout, so it was cool!
Brennan White: really! I didn’t even know that he was playing there. That’s amazing.
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah. It’s like a good thing. You know who always says yes to everything? You will never believe it.
Brennan White: Who’s that?
Barclay Crenshaw: William Shatner!
Brennan White: No way, seriously?
Barclay Crenshaw: [laughs] Shatner’s like, “that’s the secret to my life. I always said yes to every request.”
Brennan White: He’s a yes man, I guess!
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah. Don’t say yes to every request…Unless you want to be William Shatner.
Brennan White: It would make you insane. I don’t know how he lives his life [laughs]… So another question I have for you: we see pop music is now embracing a little bit of the house music style: if you look at Calvin Harris’s recent records and Diplo and Mark Ronson linking up with the Silk City project, what do you make of that and how do you think, especially in America, house is moving?
Barclay Crenshaw: I still wouldn’t call that like house house. But…
Brennan White: Yeah, I agree with you. But you can see the house influences at least?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah.
Brennan White: And What do you make of that?
Barclay Crenshaw: Really smart highly successful producers just get on whatever’s going. Like Whatever’s the hot shit. And I feel like this is starting to be the hot shit like for five minutes and that’s what’s gonna happen.
Brennan White: Yeah.
Barclay Crenshaw: Who knows if it’s going to be a long-term thing? It’s something rappers have been good at for ages. They find out what’s good-or not what’s good-what’s smoking hot, and then they just sample it or get that producer in to make something for them. It’s just an intelligent way to work.
Brennan White: yeah, I mean we saw that with the most recent Cardi B record, right?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah.
Brennan White: And I even saw Don Diablo had a recent record that sampled am old house song from the late 90s, or not that old, but… [this was a reference to Don Diablo’s record “Momentum” which samples Fatboy Slim’s 1999 dance hit “Right Here, Right Now“] Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah, that’s old. That’s pretty old!
Brennan White: yeah. So I guess my last question for you is: with Dirtybird, you’ve managed to curate a specific sound, but it seems like there’s not really any compromise on the parts of the artists that contribute to your label.
Barclay Crenshaw: No there isn’t!
Brennan White: So how do you go about being so specific and scrupulous with picking tracks but still allowing people to have that energy, you know?
Barclay Crenshaw: Yeah I don’t actually sign anyone, sign as in contractually-
Brennan White: So you sign tracks?
Barclay Crenshaw: I just sign individual pieces of music. And that gives me so much freedom. Because when you sign an artist you’re committed to everything they make and sometimes I don’t wanna go that direction.
Brennan White: Yeah.
Barclay Crenshaw: So I’m like a purist in that sense.
Brennan White: that makes sense.
Barclay Crenshaw: So we’re only signing tracks. But there are people who have made a lot of tracks that come out on Dirtybird, like Justin Martin…People I think that are amazing that I sign a lot of records from. But I never actually sign them. And the other thing I notice is, this is a big life lesson that I learned, the more you try to clamp down and tell people what they have to do for you the less they want to be involved. And the more you just let them do whatever they want and tell them that they can be involved just if they feel like it, the more they want to do with you.
Brennan White: Uh huh.
Barclay Crenshaw: Which is like counter intuitive; You think you have to control everyone but really you just have to be like “I’m just having a fun party do you want to come?”
Brennan White: Yeah, and I think it was Richard Branson, who had some part in that thinking. With his work with Janet Jackson, I know it he didn’t sign her to a [long] contractual agreement, it was like we’re gonna release this song and these couple records but I’m not gonna own everything that you do next and you’re not obligated. It’s kind of an interesting way to free up the artist but also allow yourself to continue to produce what you want.
Barclay Crenshaw: Everything is based on relationships anyway so if the artist feels good about working with you, then they’ll work with you. If they don’t feel good about working with you then it doesn’t even matter if they have a contract. They’re just going to tank it or figure a way out of it or just fuck it up.
Brennan White: Absolutely.
Barclay Crenshaw: It doesn’t do you any good to have bad vibes going down.
Brennan White: For sure! Alright so I think that brings us to the close of this interview. Barclay I appreciate you spending time with us!
Barclay Crenshaw: Thank you. Come to the Birdhouse Festival next week in Chicago!
Brennan White: Birdhouse fest!
Barclay Crenshaw: It’s at the plumber’s industrial toiletries Union! [sarcastically] Brennan White: [laughs] You’re kidding me!
Barclay Crenshaw: I don’t know where it is!
Brennan White: Everybody should be there regardless of where it is.
Barclay Crenshaw: It’s in a great spot. It’s where the Dirtybird festival was three years ago.
Brennan White: Okay, we’ll post that on the website [CLICK HERE FOR TIX!] . This has been Barclay Crenshaw, AKA Claude VonStroke. Thanks again Barclay, this was the Sonic Sanctuary show with Brennan White!
Barclay Crenshaw: Cool!
A complete version of the audio interview will feature on Sonic Sanctuary on the website on Sunday September 9th and on air from 12:00am to 1:00am on September 14th. Thanks for reading!
And grab your tickets for Birdhouse Festival right here! I will be there so you know it’s gonna be a fun time 🙂
Brennan White (Landon Sea)