J of Jungle | Exclaim! | July 2014

Jungle

Music of the Mind

JungleMusic of the Mind

Jungle have become so proficient at the art of genre-bending that it’s nearly impossible to define their sound without referencing game-changing artists like Stevie Wonder, Daft Punk or Gang of Four. After writing songs for close to a decade together, the UK duo of J (aka Josh) and T (aka Tom) were approached byXL Recordings to record what would become their debut, self-titled LP. The resulting 12 tracks burn bright, as Jungle’s brand of funk/house/post punk has been washed over with a certain sun-kissed sheen that comes off wholly fresh and original. Chatting with Exclaim!, J talks about his group’s relationship with the press, turning images into music and their enigmatic origins.

Where am I speaking to you from?
I’m in a cab on the way to a photo shoot for the New York Times.

Can you give a bit of a background on Jungle?
Yeah, me and T have known each other for about ten years now, we’ve always been writing together, and early last year we started finishing tracks. We finished a track on the record, a song called “Son of a Gun,” which is one of the first songs we finished. It was that process of finishing something that gave us the confidence to go on and write more and finish more, and once we started finishing things you have that kind of belief, you believe that you can do it, that you can write more, more and more stuff that works and it was that that really started Jungle.

Probably back in February/March of last year we put a tune up on Soundcloud, we were quite reserved about it, we didn’t want to push it too hard or too fast in people’s faces, we wanted honest reactions — and if people liked the music, they’d react honestly to it — rather than posting it everywhere, handing out flyers and all that other stuff. It’s about doing it really softly and letting the music speak naturally and letting the art do its work, and if people like it, great, that’s a great connection to make, and if people don’t, they don’t, we’re happy with it whatever the weather, it’s just been cool to be part of this fun journey so far.

Can you talk a bit about your self-titled, debut LP?
We started in my room, that’s where it felt the most honest to do something. Me and T have been friends for about ten years now so we’ve always kind of worked where we worked. You know, wherever it works, it works. We started writing in my bedroom and we started making beats there and that felt like the right place to do it. You can always go into a big studio or you can rent like kings but it just doesn’t feel right, we just sort of made the most of the things at home, that’s how we made most of the stuff. In terms of producers, we just did it ourselves, it’s more fun like that, it’s less pressure as well. Then XL came on board quite later on and we fancied a little bit of a change, they have a studio, which we started finishing some stuff in, and that’s it really.

Your music has been identified as funk revival, but you say that you and T started out writing beats, do you relate more to electronic producers than you do to traditional musicians?
I dunno, I think we’re just producers, you know? We just appreciate good music, categories and genres don’t really come into it for us, that’s what iTunes does, that’s what the record stores do, they make the categories so people can find what they’re looking for. Ultimately, good music is good music whether it’s J Dilla or whether it’s Wild Beasts, it doesn’t really matter, it’s just about good rhythm and good melody. That’s what we love and that’s what we try to write, it’s irrelevant what comes out, it’s up to other people to categorize or pigeonhole I suppose.

Can you talk about your influences and how they’ve evolved over the years?
Well, our influences tend to be quite visual; we tried not to listen to a lot of music while we were recording the record. Instead we’d see places in our head and write tunes around those. For example, if we were working on “The Heat,” for us, that’s the beach, that’s the one where you can go and it’s just a carefree place, like a mix between Venice Beach, Miami and Copacabana, but we’ve never been to any of those places, so in our heads, that’s just an imaginary, surreal place. Once you can get those locations into your head you can use them to inspire a feeling to take you somewhere else that’s not a room in Shepherd’s Bush. We made a conscious decision to not directly listen to other people’s music because if you listen to other people’s music straight away and then try to write something, you’re going to be so directly influenced by it that what you will do in that session is somehow copy it. It’s better to let your influences seep through subconsciously, so something that you might have heard 15 years ago, the rhythm and the hi-hat might seep back into one of your tracks, rather than listening to a track and then directly copying it line for line, which as much as you’re not trying to do, it will happen because it’s so close to your psyche at that time.

There is a strong visual aspect to your group, with very striking and involved press photos and music videos already being released before the album came out. Was this also something you tried to avoid, absorbing ideas visually?
Yeah, we had images in our heads of what the videos could be or what they should be, whether it was just a starting point, it would just be something like “roller skating,” that would have been the initial kind of thing to think about or “body popping” — something like that. Then it develops quite naturally. Using the kind of references in the songs and the visual things that inspired the track, we take them and work them into real life videos.

The idea of videos is to keep everything quite simple and capture the characters and emotions in the most honest light. We worked with a friend of ours, a photographer who’s very much a part of Jungle, for us, he feeds off honesty and feeds off naturalism and working with him is amazingly fun, it feels very natural and honest. Our process is part of that collective, whether it’s seven of us playing on stage or 12 people dancing in a music video with a little girl doing a head-spin, it’s irrelevant, it’s all part of the feeling, the journey.

You’ve received a lot of attention from the press even before your debut album was finished. What’s your relationship with the press?
Well, we try not to read stuff about ourselves because you start to believe the hype. We’re really happy with what we do and that’s the most important thing. It’s just like a self-fulfilling circle within the creative process, it’s very easy to be influenced and second guess an audience based on a press response but ultimately we’re just making art, you have to ignore the opinions of other people, otherwise you’d just go mad with worry. That happens to everyone, it’s just not in music, it would happen to you if you were a journalist, if you were a football player. Human beings are just kinda influenced by their peers and that’s how it works, we’re social creatures. It’s just about looking at it and going, “it doesn’t matter.” But people are entitled to their opinions, whether you write something good or bad, that’s not my choice, that’s your choice and that’s what makes it beautiful. You can’t control that and you definitely can’t control it once it’s out. The only thing you can do is be slightly oblivious to it and get on with what you wanna do.

I know that, at first, you and T weren’t revealing information about yourselves and weren’t allowing images of yourselves to be released and the press picked that up and started to run with it. Do you feel that was starting to overshadow your music?
Not really, I think it’s irrelevant, I think people were still listening to the music and I think that people who actually listen to music don’t go on reading what people have written about you. My favourite bands, or my favourite producers, I’ve probably only read one article about them. If you think about Arcade Fire, I love Arcade Fire and Jai Paul but I’ve only read one article about them so whatever’s written about them or the continuing themes that are written about those people, I’m not aware of it because I’m just into the music.

The Soft Pink Truth | Exclaim! | July 2014

The Soft Pink Truth

On the Edge of Aesthetics and Ethics

The Soft Pink TruthOn the Edge of Aesthetics and Ethics

Photo by M.C. Schmidt

Drew Daniel is a perfect example of a 21st century polymath. One half of San Francisco glitch experimentalists Matmos, Daniel also fancies himself an accomplished writer (he’s a Pitchfork contributor and author of two books) and has spent part of the last decade teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and at UC Berkley. So it should come as no surprise to find out that this openly gay, Ph.D electro producer is also one of the planet’s biggest (and most informed) black metal fans.

On his third solo LP (and first in ten years) under the moniker the Soft Pink Truth, Daniel professes his love for the dark arts with Why Do the Heathen Rage? , transforming ten black metal songs (from classic acts like Darkthrone, Hellhammer, Mayhem and Venom) into clubby house anthems. Exclaim! spoke with Daniel about his decade-long layover, the importance of novelty music and his undying love of black metal.

It’s been ten years since you’ve recorded anything as the Soft Pink Truth. Can you talk about the layover?
I moved from San Francisco to Baltimore, became an academic, published two books, worked on Matmos records, toured a lot with Matmos and played Soft Pink Truth shows at noise warehouse parties in Baltimore, building up a different set of songs. I had made an album’s worth of Soft Pink Truth songs that were on a laptop that was stolen from our house, so I lost a kind of “album that might have been,” of which only some sketches and loops remain. I have been pretty busy for the last decade, honestly.

What was your relationship with black metal prior to the recording of Why Do the Heathen Rage?
From my days in high school as a punk and hardcore kid, I’d always been into metal too. I first heard black metal when my friend Kris Force’s band Amber Asylum signed to Misanthropy Records, which was Burzum’s label also. So I heard [Burzum’s 1996 album] Filosofem and it blew me away. I’ve seen many black metal bands live, starting with shows by Mayhem and Enslaved in San Francisco a decade ago, and an Emperor show in L.A. that I saw. So it’s been a passion of mine for quite a while. Living in Baltimore, I go to Maryland DeathFest whenever I can, it’s a huge bonus to living in this city.

When you were younger and listening to black metal, were there moments when you started to question the lyrical content or the comments actions of the musicians?
I was already politicized by being a hardcore/punk kid in high school and by being a philosophy major and a recently out gay man at Berkeley as an undergrad, so by the time I was listening to black metal, I was already quite familiar with the political tug-of-war that goes on in underground extreme music scenes around these issues at the border zone of aesthetics and ethics. The notoriety of, say, Boyd Rice’s flip-flopping around Nazi imagery/racist statements was familiar to me from industrial fandom since I already loved NON’s records but despised his political stances. So I wouldn’t say that black metal posed a new challenge on that score. In some ways, listening to Laibach and NON and Throbbing Gristle had already shown me a spectrum of ways to engage with totalitarianism that ranged from critique and parody to embrace and reification, so this was just more of that, but with longer hair.

Can you talk about the recording of the new album?
I record everything myself, at home in a studio in my basement. It was a very cold winter and I just shivered and stayed up very late at night obsessing about the bass lines and synths. It’s a combination of laptop soft synths and our own collection of analog synths. Owen from Horse Lords played some guitar on one track and I played piano on the Burzum cover, “Rundgang (Fuck Varg’s Racist, Anti-Semetic, Bullshit Politics Forever!),” a bonus track left off of Why Do the Heathen Rage?. I spent endless hours hiding weird little samples and audio “Easter eggs” into each song, little audio jokes for the careful listener to discover. For example, processed vocals from a health department official describing an Ebola outbreak are layered into “Let There Be Ebola Frost.” Doing metal vocals is hilarious, because you’re hearing the music on headphones and your neighbours don’t know that you’re singing along to music, so they just hear this freak next door screaming about Satan. I laughed so much the day I recorded Terrence [Hannum] from Locrian screaming the Darkthrone and Sargeist lyrics, they’re so fucking intense and over the top. For my vocals, I screamed into headphones and used the headphones as a microphone because you get this very gritty, shitty, lo-fi crunch sound when you do that, and it seemed to suit the vibe of Venom really well.

Why did you choose to work with Antony Hegarty, as well as Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak?
They’re both great vocalists with [an] incredibly human, vulnerable presence, but also, just as importantly, they’re friends of mine, people that I know well enough socially and from previous musical collaborations that I felt like they would immediately “get it” and click into place with this project. And they’re both people whose normal musical output is several galaxies removed from heavy metal, so the contrast was appealing. Martin and I have been playing in Antony’s band as part of this Robert Wilson opera, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, for several years now, and I’ve been hanging out with Jenn socially for several years too, and she also plays in Horse Lords, Baltimore buddies of ours, so it just felt like a comfortable collaboration.

Was it important to find a female to sing Sarcofago’s “Ready to Fuck” in order to disarm the song’s lyrics?
I had made about half of the album and Martin (aka M.C. Schmidt), my boyfriend and partner in Matmos, listened to it and said “It’s very male, you haven’t really taken it to that ‘diva house music’ place yet,” or words to that effect. And I realized that he was right, that I needed to press the point by having a strong female perspective on this music. The lyrics of “Ready to Fuck” are an absurd male fantasy of sexual power and so they’re pretty ripe for satiric flipping. There’s also something wonderfully odd about their use of the English language in those lyrics; “I will lick you of the feets til the head.” What? And I’ve always loved the breakdown in that Sarcofago song on a musical level, it’s such a great riff, so it seemed like a nice combination of strong material with a singer who can really fucking sing her ass off. Jenn really channelled that Donna Summer “Love to Love You Baby” way of singing, I was so stoked when I heard what she had come up with. It was jubilation.

When Terrance Hannum of Locrain guested on the album, did you ask for his opinion on any of the tracks?
He’s a friend, but I was still nervous that he wouldn’t be down, so I sent him my Beherit cover (“Sadomatic Rites”) as a kind of sonic teaser for what this record was going to sound like. I was so glad that he was willing to take part, because his shriek/scream has that elemental power that you need in black metal, and without him, the record wouldn’t be able to hit that. Aesthetically, I really respect his vision, both with Locrian and in his visual art. In fact, I own a multimedia work of his which is a “tape collage,” literally made out of black metal and noise cassette tape glued into a grid on canvas — it’s called “Decay.” Terence was very supportive early on and his belief in the album really reassured me when I was at a point of feeling real doubt about whether anyone but myself would give a fuck.

Can you talk about the opening piece, “Invocation for Strength”?
It’s meant to replace the black metal worship of Satan with an alternate form of pagan queer goddess spirituality that comes from a different context — the “Radical Fairies” subculture. It’s a poem that appeared as the epigram to the text “Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture” by activist and provocateur Arthur Evans. So in the place of, say, an invocation to Satan, you have this feminist rant against capitalist alienation that celebrates androgyny and Kali and resistance to male domination and patriarchy. I wanted something that would sonically resemble the intros of black metal albums, but with a radical queer content.

Thrill Jockey [initially didn’t] release images of the album art due to it being of an “extreme violent and sexual nature.” Can you talk a bit about the album cover and some of the controversy surrounding it?
Apparently it has already been rejected by German censors due to the extreme violence, and so the German edition is going to have to cover the artwork. I wanted the record to go to work on you as soon as you look at it. I had a vision of a queer sadomasochistic orgy of black metal guys in corpse paint sucking and fucking in a field of corpses. Happily, Mavado Charon made this a reality. All praise is due to him for his “can do” spirit! As for keeping it a secret, it’s because I’d rather have people see the real thing when it is available in record stores. I want it to be a material experience. It’s a dense image that doesn’t reproduce well if you shrink it down, it needs to be seen face to face — especially on vinyl with the reflective foil layer — in order for it to have that power.

Were you afraid that the album might be taken as a sort of gimmick?
I am comfortable with that category/accusation. I spend a lot of my time listening to things that are derided as “novelty music”: Perrey & Kingsley, Spike Jones, space age bachelor pad music by Enoch Light, and so that category is not a threat to me. I always think it’s interesting that there’s this sense that some music is not “real” or “serious” and to me those designators can be compared in interesting ways to the discourse that used to surround queer people — that queers were somehow “arrested” in their developmental progress towards mature heterosexual completeness.

You could argue that novelty music is the queer misfit within the world of music; it’s the abject music that refuses to comply with the protocols of high self-seriousness and musical expression that real music is bound up with. That said, I am hopeful that the detailed execution of the covers on a musical level should make it clear that I’m not a casual or contemptuous tourist here. I love and respect these songs as songs and the formal care that I’ve taken should, I hope, lead people to grant it some grudging respect, even if they hate what I’ve done. But really, that’s up to them.

In which ways do black metal speak to you on a personal level?
The obsessions with extreme scenarios of extinction, annihilation and mass death which surge throughout black metal are, to me, deeply congruent with the kind of scenarios that we know as a species that we are heading towards if we don’t deal with climate change and the effects of overpopulation and unbridled global capitalism. So for me, the dark fantasies of black metal are also a vision of our planetary future. That’s not “personal,” it’s species wide in its implications. I guess the feelings of rage and despair in black metal are, for me, familiar feelings too.

Trust | Exclaim! | March 2014

Trust

Dancing in the Dark

TrustDancing in the Dark

When Trust released TRST, their 2012 debut album, many critics and fans conveniently placed the Toronto duo into a specific category; synth-pop-structured, clubby electronic music created by a goth fanatic and a member of Austra. But with the release of the sophomore album, Joyland, Robert Alfons has seemingly broken down these misconceptions. Now the sole project of Alfons (Austra’s Maya Postepski left shortly after the release of the first album),Joyland is a rich tapestry of pop melodies and crisp production that seem more relevant for the dance floor in a pop-up club than the futon of a dark basement. Alfons talks the recording of his new album, finding his confidence and the merits of mainstream pop music.

Where am I talking to you from?
I’m in Montreal, at a studio. We’re in rehearsal right now.

Can you give us a bit of background on yourself?
Trust’s first performance was four years ago, which is crazy to me. I live in Toronto, I grew up in Winnipeg, which is a little different scenario than Toronto. My sister was a musician, my aunt listened to a lot of pop music, I guess these were my musical influences as a kid. I just sort have always been keeping those musical things on the peripheral.

Did you move to Toronto specifically to start a career in music?
Yeah, in a sort of not-linear trajectory. But I definitely moved there to try to figure things out.

Was it always electronic music that you’ve been playing?
I guess I’m like a piano player but I’ve always been attracted to electronic music and that’s been the most direct relation to how I make music.

Can you talk a bit about the new album? How is it different from your debut?
A lot of it was written in different places in the world while touring, which changes the energy of the song. Whereas the first album was written in Toronto, where every week we had a writing session, and this one, there was a lot of energy from the live shows, being in hotter climates and I think I had a boost of confidence as well, which allowed me to really go full force with releasing different characters and experimenting with my vocal range and that sort of thing.

The first album received much acclaim. Did that confidence help shape the energy of this album?
I guess those accolades helped me get audiences and to be able to play these shows. I can be really hard on myself, but especially with creative things, it’s so easy to never ever show anybody the song, or for me it is. So, it’s a miracle that I even worked hard enough the present the record, but it gave me enough confidence to continue moving it and finish these ideas.

Do you think that if your first album had went completely unheard and unappreciated, that the new album would have sounded any different?
That’s a good question, I never thought of it in that way. I think it’s just the support has definitely allowed me to continue doing it.

I guess this good fortune has presented you the opportunity to play with a lot of other musicians and artists. Did you take anything from these experiences?
Yeah, absolutely. Maybe not exactly just musicians, but I think I’ve made a lot of really great friends from around the world; like a friend who’s a booker, a friend who does graphic work. So, not necessarily musicians, but it’s really nice to see how big and yet how small the world is. But I guess you have all of these like-minded people all over the place. But, yeah, I’ve definitely made some really good friends around the world just from being able to tour and make music.

So, where did you record the new album?
I recorded it on the road, I recorded it last summer when I settled down in Toronto, yeah, mostly those places.

Now, with the latest technology, you can record right when those ideas come to you, as opposed to ten or 20 years ago, where if you had an idea it would have to sit with you and possibly mutate until you got into a recording studio. Do you prefer this new method?
Yeah, I think it’s brilliant that you can just get to the idea right away or just put down the idea and leave it for another day. I was reading this David Byrne book (How Music Works) and in the first chapter he talks about how space influences and shapes different culture’s music, which is way beyond what I’m doing but it’s so true. But if I’m in Argentina and I’m excited about everything that’s going on there and I want to make a song, if I wait until I’m back in winter, it’s not going to come out the way I want it to. And there were a bunch of songs I started when I went on a trip to Argentina and I think that vibe would have come if I made a note to come write that song later.

I think there’s definitely immediacy to the album. Do you think that’s what led to the pop elements being more prominent this time around?
I guess I just wanted to embrace that side of it a little bit more, I think it’s just that there’s a lot more pop music and dance music that I’m excited about and I wanted to just hit that influence.

Pop music is really prominent in modern electronic and underground music at the moment, which wasn’t really wasn’t the case 20 years ago. It seemed like there was more of a defined line between mainstream pop music and underground indie music.
But that’s not true, because Sonic Youth did (side project with Mike Watt) Ciccone Youth, they did Madonna covers (on 1988’s The Whitey Album), which is an awesome record.

Certainly, but I always looked at that project as irony. Do you feel that you can still make emotional, authentic pop music?
Yeah, none of it’s irony, for me it’s real. Some of my favourite moments of my life are dancing at a club, and it could be what some person might consider a guilty pleasure, but to me it’s just a brilliant song and I definitely lean towards emotional songs and melodies and that sort of thing. So, none of it’s irony, it’s total heart. I guess these things always happen, where things get overturned and then reinvented but I guess that there’s definitely vapid pop music, for sure. I mean, it’s definitely out there… and sometimes enjoyable. But there is also pop music that comes from a deeper place, or it means more. There’s been artists that have made poppier music and it certainly challenged the idea of what pop music is, or in my opinion it has, if I’m thinking of those artists. Yeah, I’ve grown up with pop music all around me and I think it’s just a real influence for me.

Do you feel that too many people are doing the same thing; incorporating mainstream pop music into electronic and indie rock?
I guess I could voice my opinion but I’m not super with on what’s going on all the time. It’s a trend, I guess? I know that not in any way, shape or form that this album is shaped by R&B and that’s a big thing. I know in indie music, a lot of people are inspired by R&B and hip-hop beats and I will certainly say that this album is not influenced by R&B or hip-hop, which I like, but I just wasn’t an influence.

Can you talk a bit about Maya’s departure from the group?
Yeah, it was something that was years in the making, I guess, because from the start she was already involved with another project (Austra) and they got signed, so it was always sort of second for her. Around the release of the first record is when she departed and a lot of those songs on the first record were old songs of mine so in a lot of ways it doesn’t feel too different for me. I kinda had a clear vision of what I wanted from that first record and again from the second one.

Was she more of an auxiliary player in the group?
Yeah, I think that we would get together and process ideas. But the start of the band was really me bringing old songs of mine. She’s an amazing drummer, I remember seeing her play live as a drummer and it was really exciting for me to collaborate with someone who understood that world better.

A lot of press you’ve gotten seems to mention your distinctive style of singing. Where does that come from? Because it’s obviously not your speaking voice.
Of course it’s influences, but also it’s an instrument. Like any other sort of instrument, you sort of have to figure it out and work on it. I guess I’ve always been singing and wanted to challenge it, but maybe the fact that I can sing in a super high range is maybe something that’s not going to happen in the next 20 years, maybe it’s going to change and it has changed over the course of my life too but it’s just an instrument and it’s my favourite instrument I guess.

That’s true. Production-wise, I find that you really bury your vocals sometimes.
Yeah, sometimes it’s not about the vocals and sometimes it is.

I find that you seem not overly concerned with verses in your songs, the vocals are usually pushed down into the mix, but I find that you like the choruses of your songs to be, vocal-wise, bombastic and loud.
That’s interesting, I never really thought of it that way.

Your singing voice has been described as “goth-y,” do you come across people who think that the person on the cover of your debut album was actually you?
Yeah, constantly, which I love.

Who is that person?
It was just a picture I took of somebody at a club.

Were you afraid that that photo would pigeonhole your music as goth-inspired?
I guess I didn’t understand what it would mean but I’m definitely inspired by a lot of goth and industrial music and it obviously comes through in the music. I just obviously loved that picture and it doesn’t feel as just a goth picture to me, there’s many more layers and I think it’s a gorgeous picture. I can see that the branding was putting it in one direction but if you listen to the albums from start to finish, you’ll see that there’s so many more things going on.

Tinariwen | Exclaim! | February, 2014

Tinariwen

Far From Home

TinariwenFar From Home

To call Tinariwen survivors would be a gross understatement. A group of nomadic musicians from the Sahara desert region of Mali, Tinariwen’s ever (r)evolving cast has endured extreme political strife in their homeland, the death of two of their members and the recent arrest of guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida, who was taken in for “playing the devil’s music.” Celebrating their 35th year as a musical group, Tinariwen have once again been forced to flee their country, relocating to Joshua Tree, California to record their stunningly ethereal sixth full-length, Emmaar. Bassist Eyadou Ag Leche spoke with Exclaim!, through a translator, about his band’s recent struggles, the transcending language of music and their mysterious ban from Canada.

Where are we talking to you from?
From Paris, we are just coming back from NYC and a full promo week there.

Although your band has found significant acclaim in North America, I find that most people still find Tinariwen very mysterious and exotic. Can you give some background on how your band was formed?
We’ve been always playing music, it is part of the Touareg culture, of our way of life. Since the early ’60s and the new borders, the political situation for our people has never been safe to live in peace, we have been facing long periods of exile.

Can you talk about the obstacles your band had to overcome to get your music heard across the world?
The obstacles of the current situation are not only towards working musicians but towards all of our community. We want our music to be help spread the message about our people suffering, looking for freedom and peace, but our songs have always been also about love, our environment, poetry… we want both messages to be spread.

Tell me a bit about the recording of Emmaar, your new album.
We recorded Emmaar in the desert of Joshua Tree, live recording in a house, as our Sahara was not secured for our crew, and choosing a desert was a natural choice for us. We invited musicians we met during our previous tours, same as we did with TV on the Radio for [2011’s] Tassili, our previous album. We invited Saul Williams, Josh Klinghoffer [of Red Hot Chili Peppers], Matt Sweeney [of Chavez], Fats Kaplin, and Vance Powell mixed the album. Recording far from home was new for us but doing it in a desert was a help for feeling good, thanks to the landscapes, and the freedom feelings.

Can you talk about working with these musicians?
We invited them as we met them on tour, it is always a pleasure to meet other musicians, sharing experience and music feelings and watching them getting into our music, we have great fun jamming and composing with other musicians.

Many of the musicians you played with can’t speak French. How do you communicate with them?
In our Touareg culture, in the desert, we are used to speaking with the eyes. Talking is not always necessary. Music is a universal language and this is through this language we communicate with musicians from other countries, which works great!

Where does the title Emmaar come from?
Emmaar means the heat of the desert breeze and the heat while approaching a fire camp; far enough to not get burnt and close enough to feel the heat. It is a metaphor of the situation happening in our lands; the tension before the war, the revolution. The album is about the situation in our lands, the freedom and peace we are looking for, and always about love, poetry and our environment; the desert.

A lot of North African music seems to be heavily based on American blues music. What is it about the blues that influences you and so many musicians in your region?
American blues themes are close to ours; suffering, love, exile. This music talk to our souls.

What would you say is the biggest misconception North Americans have about your band?
Maybe that our songs are only about the conflict in our lands. Our songs are also about love, nature.

Mali is currently facing overwhelming political strife, can you educate us on what’s happening and how it’s affected your band?
It all started in the early ’60s after the decolonization and Malian borders drawn by France. Since then, the Touareg community, Northern Mali, have been facing critical economical difficulties; no help from Bamako, no recognition of independence of our territory Asawad. Several rebellions happened, no evolution and the current conflict is the result of these past decades. Meanwhile, Islamists have taken advantage of the troubled situation while our community is only looking for freedom and peace. When not touring these past months, some of us have been staying in Southern Algeria; safer place, others moving between south Algeria, Northern Mali, Niger, Mauritania.

What was your impression of Canada and the Canadian people the first time you visited?
We always love meeting other cultures and their people. We were pleased to meet Canadian people of course. Unfortunately, we’ve banned from the country in 2011 and do not know the reason why.

Can you explain how you found out that you were banned?
We were supposed to play shows in 2011, several music festivals, while we were touring our album Tassili but we’ve been refused the visas. We never had any further explanations, and no ones knows if we could get another chance to come. It is sad, we want to meet again Canadians and many Canadians ask for it.

You were raised in the Sahara desert region where you were surrounded by open space. Your album artwork and videos often embrace that natural beauty. Do you ever feel claustrophobic touring North American and Europe?
We feel always nostalgic about our land and our environment. It is part of us; Assouf, our nostalgia.

Your band has written about “Assouf” on your last album. Can you elaborate on what “Assouf” means?
Assouf means the nostalgia, it is the thoughts of our people, home… linked to the exile.

You and your bandmates have experienced and witnessed much strife in your homeland. How does your band stay positive and hopeful in the light of this peril?
We want to spread the message that our people have been suffering for a long time now, it is important for us and our community that the world knows about it. We hope political agreements will be found soon though, but nothing is done still, we only want freedom, peace and respect for our rights and our territory.

bEEdEEgEE | Exclaim! | December 2013

bEEdEEgEE

Structurally Sound

bEEdEEgEEStructurally Sound

For the last 12 years, Brian DeGraw has been steeped in Brooklyn’s hearty experimental music scene, starting out in Washington, DC noise band the Cranium, before participating in a number of projects that would ultimately lead to the formation of indie dance avant-gardists Gang Gang Dance. As keyboardist and spokesperson for the group, DeGraw helped the five-piece become one of the most celebrated and beloved bands to come out of this burgeoning underground movement. With, SUM/ONE, his first official solo LP (recorded under the moniker bEEdEEgEE) DeGraw strives to push his craft even further, bringing in a number of guest vocalists (Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, CSS’s Lovefoxx, electronic artist Douglas Armour and Gang Gang Dance vocalist Lizzi Bougatsos) to help him craft this collection of highly structured and melody-infused songs. Brian DeGraw spoke with Exclaim! from a noisy Manhattan bar to discuss being a workaholic, flying solo and Gang Gang Dance’s year-long hiatus.

So, you’re talking to me from a bar?
Yeah, I just did an interview and then my battery died, so I had to go to a bar and charge it. I’m at a bar on the Lower East Side [in Manhattan], it’s a bar I’ve never been to before, it’s called Clockwork, I guess? It’s right around the corner from where I used to live, it used to be this reggae bar called King Size but now they’re blaring the Clash or something.

White reggae.
Yeah.

Why did you decide to record a solo album?
It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do in general and Gang Gang Dance has been on hiatus for the past year. The time was there so I just decided to start working on it. I’ve been making music whether or not it’s going to turn into a record and it got to the point where it started to become enough stuff to release. I talked to [4AD] and they said they wanted to put something out, so after I talked to them I started working on stuff with the idea of a release.

What was the impetus for the hiatus? Was everyone just tired from touring?
We had to realign some things in the band, there was some personal relationship stuff and yeah… exhaustion from too much touring… and a lot of things, but basically, we just had to stop for a minute and figure out a different way to approach the band that doesn’t rely so heavily on touring. But we’re still trying to figure out how to change that.

Are any other Gang Gang Dance members pursuing side projects right now?
Lizzi [Bougatsos] has her band, I.U.D., I don’t know if you know about that one. it’s a drum duo with our friend Sadie [Laksa from Brooklyn band Growing], they both play drum kits and sometimes they have our friend Spencer [Sweeney] playing guitar, they’ve been playing for about a year while we’ve been chilling with Gang Gang. Tim [Dewitt], who’s our original drummer who I started the band with, he’s being doing a lot and he’s about to put out a mixtape of beats that’s going to be really incredible, it’s one of the things that I’m really looking forward to.

Has anyone left the band?
Uhhh… yeah… but I really don’t want to talk about that. Yeah, we’ve had one band member change in the band, for sure. For some reason that’s been talked about, internet-wise, that we’ve changed drummers once again.

But, though this break, you’ve kept working. Do you feel that you’re a workaholic?
I have to work or I go crazy, yeah. With Gang Gang, we stopped about a year ago, we decided to take a break and I spent maybe a few months taking advantage of that time and just chilling but I feel really uncomfortable if I spend too much time not working. I guess I would consider myself a workaholic. I don’t feel comfortable if I’m not involved in some project, be it visual or music.

Do you feel you’re going through an extra-creative time in your career? Did the songs come to you fairly easily?
Yeah, it was pretty easy but it’s a drastically different process than I’m used to with Gang Gang. For obvious reasons, with it being by myself, but also process-wise, with Gang Gang it always stems from improvising, being in a room with other members and just playing for hours and hours and then going back and recording and listening and sitting around and finding things that excite us and seeing if we can recreate those parts, and if we can we start building those into more structured pieces. But with this [SUM/ONE] it was more of just a straightforward tracking process where I was just by myself, just going in a studio and putting it together piece by piece on a computer with one synth or one drum machine, just track by track, going back and using whatever parts I thought were good and then adding bass, adding melody and blah, blah, blah, you know? I guess it’s a more traditional approach, it’s a big difference from what I’m used to and I’m thankful for that because I’ve never made a record that way and I’ve always been interested in trying that.

Can you talk a bit about the album’s guest vocalists? How did you alleviate that expectation for them to come in and try to sound like they’re performing on a Gang Gang Dance album? Because, for example, the song with Alexis Taylor [“F.U.T.D. Time of Waste”] really retains his musical personality.
We’ve been close friends for awhile and when I started making tracks for the album I had a lot of instrumentals and I had this idea to get other vocalists, people I don’t know, people that I’ve admired or that I find interesting. I started to do that and then I was just like, fuck that, I’m just going to go for nice people. Alexis is one of those people, he’s just a go-to person for me when I think about what kind of vocals I want on something, so it was just natural in a sense. As far as how it sounds, there’s no goal to make it sound a certain way, I really didn’t have an expectation of it sounding like Hot Chip or Gang Gang but that particular song, I asked him to send me an a cappella of a song that he had already made that was unused, that already belonged to a track that he made at home. I told him not to send the music, so I wouldn’t have any sort of reference as to where the vocal belongs.

Are there any plans to release that as an A-Side/B-Side with the flip side being Alexis’s original song?
I’m not sure but I know that he makes so many songs that I think a lot of the stuff he makes ends up sitting around and he figures out where it belongs, it could have potentially been a Hot Chip song but he has his own solo project and he has another band called About Group, so it could have been for any of those things, or nothing.

Your sound has become more structured and less primitive over the years, is this due to a change in musical tastes or have you just improved in your craft?
I think it’s a bunch of things. Part of it is that I’ve held an increasing interest in my producer role and structure is pretty foreign to me as a musician. I’ve been learning that as the years go by but Gang Gang started as a completely improvisational group, no structure whatsoever, completely improvisation, and then around 2005 we started incorporating elements of song structure. And ever since then it’s become more and more interesting to me, basically because it’s not natural to me, I really don’t consider myself as someone who has that in them. What comes naturally to me is just improvising, being intuitive and spontaneous in music, and once I started messing with structure I became obsessed with it. I see it as this challenge, how to crack that code. I really started to enjoy figuring out those elements of music because I never really thought about them before. And this gave me the chance to explore a little more, because I was working by myself and basically I was just exploring this one little entity of my brain of entertaining pop structures.

Noah Pred | Exclaim! | December 2013

Noah Pred

The Transplant

Noah PredThe Transplant

Noah Pred was born in Northern California before his parents transplanted the family to Vancouver. Moving to Montreal, then to Toronto, to pursue a career in music (and start his own label, Thoughtless), Noah has recently found himself among the dozens of musical expats who have relocated to Berlin. Luckily for Pred, it’s this dichotic combination of restlessness and commitment that makes his sophomore full-length such an engrossing experience.

Absorbing his new surroundings while finding inspiration with his label’s roster, Third Culture is a rare electronic album that strives to look inward. As Pred became more immersed with Berlin’s electric club scene, Third Cultureremains an emotional and tempered piece of art; a heavy-hearted wallflower situated within the world’s coolest party. Talking from his flat in Berlin, Noah Pred talks to Exclaim! about his new life, the importance of being confident and the meaning behind the title of his latest album.

I know you’ve moved around quite a bit in your life, so did you find the move to Berlin easier for this reason or did you still experience a bit of culture shock?
It’s funny, that experience of having moved around a lot earlier in my life was definitely helpful, it wasn’t my first experience moving somewhere new and I thought I would have experienced more culture shock than I did. It’s the furthest I have moved away from home and there’s a new language here, but to the contrary, there were so many people already living here; friends I’ve made from Canada and the U.S. through living in the same cities before or from meeting them on tour or from working together on music projects and being on the same label, it really was quite an easy adjustment.

In fact, as soon as I moved here there was already a bigger social network community waiting for me than I’ve probably ever experienced in any other city so it was not quite the experience you would assume it would be.

Do you ever feel like surrounding yourself with North Americans is, in some way, holding you back from experiencing the true culture of Berlin?
Yeah, it’s my first opportunity to relate to that immigrant stereotype of people keeping to their own and I definitely hang out with the other Canadians here, but I straddle a few communities in this town. I have a few Australian friends and American and British friends and some great German friends as well.

There are people that hang out in specific groups but it’s not totally insular, everyone seems to be interconnected on some level and I just find that everyone is quite busy, so even people that I really love, I might not see for a year, then we run into each other somewhere and it’s as no time has passed and it’s a good time to catch up, but it’s not an avoidance or not wanting to see each other.

So I think a lot of the social groups here in Berlin are based on proximity, the people in Friedrichshain hang out with the other Friedrichshain people and the Neukölln people hang out with the other Neukölln people more than Canadian hanging out with each other, or Americans, or whatever.

Have you landed a DJ residency?
No, there’s some possibilities cropping up, but I’ve been trying to hang back and picking my spots. If you play too often here, it can be a bit of a trap with the bigger clubs not being interested anymore. So I’ve been selective, maybe to a fault, but my focus for the next year is going to be to get some more label parties going here.

On your new album, can you point out one or two things that artistically represents the last two years living in Berlin?
Moving to Berlin, one of the cool things that happened to me was being in the proximity of [music software company] Ableton; the company is based here and they make the software that I use. I was able to test their new software version and their new hardware before it came to market and a lot of that was quite instrumental in the production of the album. That applies to the entire album, really.

And “Ghostbusser” has some field recording from here in Berlin that are pretty subtle but [they are] taken from the traffic on the street that that track title is sort of a joke about. I didn’t want to make the stereotypical “Berlin” album that’s all dub techno, Berghain warehouse techno or whatever. I had my own thing to tell and moving around a lot over the years helps to go against the grain of the popular styles. I didn’t consciously set out to make it “not a Berlin album” but I definitely wasn’t trying to.

I really did take that from the album, the fact that it strives to sound more timeless.
Wow, that’s the biggest compliment someone can gear towards music, that someone can make something timeless. I’m glad, but maybe the jury’s still out, I’ll check back in a year and you can tell me if it still sounds timeless.

It takes a certain amount of confidence to move to a new country and a certain amount to teach an evolving software. Do you feel that your sound comes from a place of confidence?
Teaching Ableton sort of happened by accident for me but I’m certainly happy about it. It’s my life, and the move happened out of necessity so I don’t know if those things came out of confidence. And the record I put out on my own label [Thoughtless Music] was just about having to do things my way and not having to answer to anyone about how the music’s presented.

I suppose it does take a certain amount of confidence to put yourself out there, to sort of bare your soul or whatever cliché we can use. But you also open yourself up to a world of criticism.

Was there a level of frustration that came from making and releasing albums in Canada that ultimately led you to move to Berlin?
In Canada, it’s a much smaller population. So, running a label, I felt a responsibility to the artists. That said, every move I’ve made from one place to another have been due to a very fixed set of circumstances and that was definitely the case coming here to Berlin. A few opportunities came up and all the signs were pointing to coming here, and that’s what I did, but it wasn’t a repudiation of the Canadian scene, it’s just a natural step for me.

I know your label has really taken off since your relocation.
Yeah, we’ve definitely gained the attention of a number of Europeans, including artists we have lined up for the coming year. We have a lot more European mixers on the label since I moved here and a lot of that is from meeting people in Berlin, so a lot of that comes up organically. A lot of it is about representing new artists and continuing to representing Canadian artists going forward, that’s always going to be part of the label. But most of the new names on the label fall into the “mixer” category, because the emphasis remains on Canadian talent.

Can you talk about your new album? What’s the difference between this album and the last one?
The last album was a very different process. I was like, “I have a label, and I’m going to make an album.” This time around, some people were really encouraging me to make an album but I wasn’t convinced it was time. I’ve gone through some really intense stuff in the year prior to that and I was working on music a lot and I was really thankful to have my music as an outlet to process all of the stuff I was going through; with the move here and with losing my father, which was really sudden and unexpected, it happens to everyone but it was still a bit of a shock. So I was working on arguably more intense and emotionally resonant material.

The idea for the album came out of this collection of tracks at that time, mostly last year but also going this past winter. I continued working on them but I also had a few trusted people, friends here in Berlin, that I was able to bounce the tracks off of and get their opinion on things… and some other friends back in Toronto and Australia were also part of that process as well.

When you run a label, it’s very easy to put out your own music and it could be total garbage and nobody would tell you not to, I didn’t want that to happen and I had some trusted people to give me some feedback so the album started to take shape, I started to identify the tracks that were strongest and also fit together and tell a story. Once I saw how they might fit together — adapting them and editing them a little further — in the context of trying to put them together a little further into a coherent album, it definitely ended up as a much more involved process this time around.

Can you talk about the significance of the title of the new album, Third Culture? It’s based on a book by John Brockman, correct?
Yeah, there were a bunch of authors who contributed to that book. It’s a collection of essays and articles. The album came together, musically, before I found a title for it. It wasn’t like I had this title as a driving concept. The title came after but it applied to a number of things. The John Brockman reference — that book is sort of about the future of human culture based on a synthesis of science and art, and I find it really interesting that electronic music is an art form that couldn’t exist without science. As raw as people try to make it, as far away as they try to get away from technique, it’s fundamentally technological, so right there you have this meeting with science and art. And as an Ableton teacher, I have a strong technical background which I try to use as an advantage.

On the other reference from that title; the sociological term, it recently refers to children whose families have moved to a new culture when they were younger and have this difficulty explaining their sense of identity in simple terms. It’s always like, “Well, I was from here and then I moved there.”

My parents moved to [Vancouver], Canada [from the California Bay area] when I was 11, and although it wasn’t a huge move, I definitely experienced that sort of transition in my life and have continued to since then and even here in Berlin.

For other people like me, who have moved around a lot, there’s a distinctive feeling of being slightly from the outside mainstream culture here and that sense of not quite belonging was expressed throughout the album in many ways.

This dichotomy between your role as a label boss and your life as a transplanted citizen seems to come across on how you work with your guest vocalists.
It was pretty collaborative in all the cases where I had rough versions of the tracks, which I submitted to them, half with lyrics and half without, and all of the recordings were done remotely in the vocalists’ studio. They would send the tracks back and I would choose what was best for me from what they submitted and then figure out how to integrate that into the song as a whole and then once they sent their parts. Maybe there was a lot of back and forth in some cases but y goal was to integrate the vocals in such a way that they did feel cohesive.

This album sounds a lot more pop-orientated, in the classic sense of pop. Do you find it harder to write something that’s melodic than to write something that’s textural? Pop music seems like it can be more calculated.
I think that if you craft it and you calculate it, it will come across and it won’t really have the same impact. For me, all of the melodies are really intuitive; I try not to force things. I felt like there were some things that I wanted to convey in the music to as many people as I could but I didn’t set out to make it more commercial. When you have a meaning you want to communicate, which I often do — even with my instrumental music — it’s so abstract, so it’s difficult to get that meaning across. But with the vocal components, it’s still open to interpretation.

But I love music and that’s the problem with a lot of dance music, there’s no music there. Not that everything has to be over-the-top melodic, but what I look for in electronic music is colour and interesting ideas and music, if that makes sense.

Machinedrum | Exclaim! | October 2013

Machinedrum

Fresh Start

MachinedrumFresh Start

Best known as one half of beloved bass purveyors, Sepulcure, Travis Stewart has spent the last decade-and-a-half churning out album upon album of left-brain techno under an array of colourful monikers. But it’s under the name Machinedrum that Stewart has delivered some of his finest and most enduring work. However, throughout his many incarnations and incantations, Stewart has never allowed his musical persona to come off too comfy or predictable. With his recent relocation to the electronic music mecca of Berlin and signing with the legendary Ninja Tune record label, Machinedrum’s latest LP, Vapor City, finds the North Carolina native acting as a digital conduit for the unbridled energy and rich musical history occupied by his new and invigorating environs.

I heard you moved to Berlin. Can you speak a bit about your experiences and impressions leaving the U.S. for Germany?
In my last year living in New York, I found myself broke in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I found myself getting booked more and more in Europe. The shows were bigger, more fun and honestly, better paid. I had friends that lived in Berlin and every time I visited I loved my time and experiences there. The fact that it was so cheap to live there made me quickly reassess my current situation in Brooklyn.

Initially it was quite easy to assimilate to the Berlin lifestyle. I found myself going to clubs like Berghain, Panorama Bar, Maria and Horst and absorbing myself in the rich and versatile electronic culture. There is an air of relaxation and overall laid-back nature to Berlin, matched with a creative and artistic grind going on, which I really needed when I moved.

Do you currently have a residency at any of the clubs in Berlin?
No residencies, although I do frequently play the Leisure System parties and the now-defunct Sub-Stance nights at Berghain and Panorama Bar.

Can you talk about how it has influenced your music?
Seeing people play extended three-four hour sets in these clubs really inspires me in the way I approach my shows now. Rather than assault you with as many songs as I can in a set, I try to let things blend a bit more and let people’s favourite tracks ride a bit longer rather than tease people too much. I think this approach is definitely inspired by sets I have seen at these famous Berlin clubs.

I know that there are a lot of electronic musicians, a handful of them being Canadian, who have moved to Berlin from North America, like Richie Hawtin, Marc Houle, Colin De La Plante. Have you made friends with any of these people?
None of the people you have mentioned although I am mutual friends with loads of Richie’s friends. I have become good friends with Christian XI and Noah Pred from Toronto. Otherwise most of the ex-pats that live in Berlin I already knew quite well before moving there.

Which musicians living in Berlin do you consider your friends?
I’m good friends with Jimmy Edgar, Scuba, Lando Kal, Chris Clark, Noah Pred, Kuedo and others.

Have they, or the city, changed the way you look at or approach your craft?
The city is laid back, which is something I needed after living in NYC for 5 years. It’s good to have so many successful and busy musicians around me to keep me motivated so I don’t slip too far into the Berlin chill zone. [laughs]

Do you feel that electronic music as an art form is infantilized in North America in comparison to how it’s consumed and made in Germany?
Not necessarily. I think electronic music has reached a worldwide acceptance at this point that is undeniable. It’s become an integral part of modern pop music everywhere. Historically, Germany is definitely richer in club culture and the amount of electronic music that has been made over the past 20 years, but this doesn’t reflect the maturity and diversity in electronic culture that has blossomed in America in the past decade.

Can you talk a bit about the new album, Vapor City? What is different about it than your last LP, 2011’s Room(s) and EP, 2012’s SXLND?
Vapor City is essentially a more refined version of a new approach I’ve been taking to writing and producing music in the past few years. With Room(s) I was experimenting with writing songs and getting ideas out as quickly as possible. I was trying to avoid over-thinking my productions and focused on tapping in to inspiration from an immediate, otherworldly and supernatural place.

Can you talk about the concept behind it?
The Vapor City concept is based on a recurring dream I was having before I moved to Berlin. I kept revisiting the same city over and over again in my dreams. I saw the same districts, buildings, clubs, restaurants and even amusement parks. I decided to make a soundtrack to this imaginary city and the result was Vapor City.

Have your dreams about Vapor City continued after you started to write and record the album? Did your dreams change after that?
I had the dreams while I was writing the album and in between moving out of Brooklyn and moving in to Berlin. After I got settled in Berlin the Vapor Citydreams pretty much immediately stopped.

Considering that the concept behind the album is so detailed, is there any plan to turn it into a multimedia project?
The live show is more or less a multimedia version of Vapor City. I’m working with a visual artist called Weirdcore that is putting together his own visual representation of Vapor City, district by district. There are plans to do more installation-type projects along the way as well. The website will also be quite interactive as well.

How did you hook up with Ninja Tune?
Ninja Tune reached out to me last year about working with me. I had already been fully invested in working on Vapor City at the time. I’m super excited about the amount of support that Ninja Tune has given me to fulfill my vision and concept. They have given me more freedom to do what I want than any label I’ve ever worked with before.

Perhaps more than anything else you’ve released before, Vapor City feels like it’s influenced by ’90s Ninja Tune and Warp artists. Have you been going back and revisiting this stuff of late?
Yes definitely. I’ve been revisiting a lot of my older influences in the past couple of years, although I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe in order to stay fresh I needed to stay in touch with where I’ve come from to understand where I am at now.

Can you talk about your success with Sepalcure?
Sepalcure was definitely an eye-opening experience. It was meant to be just a fun experiment in making so called “bass music” that we were listening to at the time. Our experiments lead to a different kind of approach with my own solo productions. I had so much fun trying to make music that not only worked in the club but also at home that I tried to stick to that as an ethos of sorts. As long as Praveen and I are friends, Sepalcure will remain to be an ongoing collaboration.