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Shawnee for ‘Laptop’

When Brad Mitchell isn't homebrewing electronic music as Pocka and studying sound design, he somehow finds time to run the Kikapu netlabel.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Brad Mitchell, like a growing number of electronic musicians these days, distributes some of his crafts for free on the Internet, on so-called “netlabels.” These websites, such as No Type, Monotonik and Stasisfield, offer MP3 downloads of independent music at no cost to the curious listener, sometimes along with virtual cover art and liner notes. Mitchell also runs his own netlabel, Kikapu, which has provided a home for a wide variety of artists, including such midwestern American talents as Matt Borghi, Michael Kirson-Goldapper and Brandon Reid Huey. Mitchell is from Missouri himself, but he recently relocated to Vancouver to study sound design.

What distinguishes Mitchell amid the crowded online-MP3 field is the understated richness of his music and the consistent quality of the releases on his netlabel. His own tunes often mix digital and acoustic elements to melodic effect — sweet maudlin constructions of mis-plunked guitar and videogame riffs, spacious soundworlds scattered with fizzy noises and percussive marginalia. Pocka is the name under which he releases his own music these days, though there’s a track on Kikapu Gold Standard, the 50th Kikapu set (yes, 50th — as of this writing, there have been 57 releases on the label, including four proper CDs for sale), on which he, brazenly for an electronica figure, uses his own name.

During the past two months, two batches of Pocka recordings were singled out in Disquiet.com’s Downstream section, which recommends free music on the web: a pair of tracks at 8bitrecs.com and a five-song EP on the Please Do Something netlabel, titled Chronology Brought. But for all the free music he has out in circulation, there wasn’t much available in the way of biographical information, let alone a discussion about his music, how he constructs it, and where he’s headed artistically.

Shortly after his 23rd birthday in late January 2004, he filled in some of these biographical blanks in an email correspondence for publication on Disquiet.com. He summed up the spirit that lends his work distinction: “a feeling of all of these different sounds and feelings juxtaposed together in an incredibly complex manner, all while being fun and happy and putting a smile on the listener’s face.” He also talked about Kikapu and the growing community of so-called netlabels. “It isn’t competitive like other segments of the music industry,” says Mitchell. “It’s more like one big collective group of like-minded people, and I find that very exciting.” What appears below is a lightly edited version of the email conversation.

Weidenbaum: Songs you’ve released have ranged from what sounds like warped static — “Like Water in Water,” on your Chronology Brought EP — to work that is far melodic and composer-ly, like “Zero Inter Three,” on 8bitrecs. Is either of those tracks closer, generally, to where your head is at musically?

Mitchell: A track like “Zero Inter Three” is definitely the type of sound that I usually lean toward. Since I started recording songs under the Pocka name, in September 2003, the tracks have usually been fairly melodic, with a nice balance of electronic instruments and samples against acoustic elements, like my acoustic guitar, and for instance the bells I play in “Zero Inter Three.”

“Like Water in Water” was an odd track for me. The whole point of it, for me personally, was to create an intro track for the Chronology Brought EP that was wholly unlike the rest of the songs on that EP. I don’t know what the point of that was really, but that’s what I wanted to do: to start off in a completely opposite direction, and slowly fade and meld that song into the next song, which was very mellow and melodic and much more akin to my style.

Weidenbaum: Tracks such as “Zero Inter Three” make me wish they were several times longer. I’d love to hear that sort of work develop over 20 minutes, instead of just three or four. Are you pretty much settled on working in these relatively brief lengths, which are more associated with pop songs, or are you working on longer pieces as well.

Mitchell: As I write more songs, they tend to get a bit longer every time, and my goal is to actually write longer pieces in the future. “Zero Inter Three” is actually meant as an interlude track to a full-length album I’m currently working on; I was extremely happy with it, and thought it was a nice teaser to what my music sounds like, and that was why I decided to release it on 8bitrecs. But currently my songs usually hover around the 4-6 minute range, with occasional exceptions, obviously, but I’m working on stretching things out and incorporating more ideas into songs, and then mixing and melding different pieces into one another; so by the time I write a full album, the entire album will feel like one massive, organic piece of music that is ever-changing but slowly evolving throughout its course.

Weidenbaum: With a track like “Lauren’s Face Pressed Against a Xerox Machine,” off Chronology Brought, which has such a varied array of sounds, how much of that was planned in advance when you set out to record it, and how much came about as a process of experimentation?

Mitchell: The overall structure, feel, and sound of “Lauren’s Face Pressed Against a Xerox Machine” was definitely planned in advance, but a few of the elements within that track came about after a few days of experimentation with the original sounds that I began with. I feel that half of the time I am experimenting, though, because every time I write a new song, I learn something new.

Usually though, I might have a general idea of what kind of a track I’d like to write, and I’ll sit down at my computer, and tracks slowly evolve out of a lot of experimentation; “Lauren’s Face Pressed Against a Xerox Machine” was a definite exception as I pretty much knew exactly what I was going to write and I had envisioned how it would sound before I even recorded anything. The track itself is about my girlfriend Lauren, and I wanted to capture the feelings she invoked in me — a feeling of all of these different sounds and feelings juxtaposed together in an incredibly complex manner, all while being fun and happy and putting a smile on the listener’s face.

Weidenbaum: Who is Dan Weinhaus, who did the guitar on “Daniel Bradley Remixed” — and while we’re at it, who is “Daniel Bradley,” and who played the guitar on “Lauren’s Face”?

Mitchell: Dan is one of my best friends back home in Missouri; we met as roommates in college, and have worked on a few pieces of music together over the years, but not that much. This summer we had a grandiose plan of getting together and starting a new collaborative project between the two of us that would be a fun mix of electronic music — me — and pop-rock — Dan. Well, as things usually go, we ended up being very busy and didn’t have a chance to really work on much material, but we did complete one song. “Daniel Bradley Remixed” is actually a short remix of the track that we completed together; the full track will be on the upcoming album that I’m currently working on.

Anyways, Dan is one of the most amazing musicians I know, so on that song I recorded him playing a number of different sections on my acoustic guitar, and then I sat down and added all the rest of the instruments and actually put the song together. His guitar parts on the remix are in a more cut-up style than what appears on the full song we did. The “Daniel Bradley” in the title just comes from both of our names; I thought it might make a good title.

In “Lauren’s Face Pressed Against a Xerox Machine” I am the one playing guitar. In any track that acoustic guitar is featured in other than “Daniel Bradley Remixed,” I am the one playing guitar.

Weidenbaum: One of the nice things about this particular interview situation is that anyone reading the article can find most of this music we’re discussing online for free. Since it’s all that easily accessible, I thought I’d ask if you might single out a track or two, and talk about something in it you’re particularly proud of having accomplished — not the track as a whole, but something about the track, something people might listen for.

Mitchell: Of the tracks that I have online available as free downloads, my obvious favorite is still “Lauren’s Face Pressed Against a Xerox Machine,” as it’s still my favorite song that I’ve ever written. I think what I like about it so much, or what I am most proud of, is the huge amount of processing I did to all of the instruments featured in that track, namely the acoustic guitar. I originally recorded maybe one or two bars of notes, and then spent a few days cutting up the recording, rearranging it, adding some effects, and then rearranging it even more.

Overall, I think there are maybe three or four different instruments or samples in the entire song, but when you listen it is pretty complex and there are so many things happening in it that it sounds like there’s more instruments there. Plus I have a fairly basic and “pop”-y melody and bass line, which form a nice contrast to the cut-up guitar and rhythms.

Weidenbaum: What’s your general educational background — traditional, and musical?

Mitchell: I currently live in Vancouver, BC. I just moved here less than a month ago, and I am attending Vancouver Film School, to study Sound D esign. I was born and raised in Missouri, and have been living there most of my life, up until the past few weeks. I just graduated from college in December with a degree in Mass Media Studies, with minors in both Computer Science and Film.

As far as a musical education goes, it’s been a nice balance between what you would consider formal training, to some extent, and at the same time a lot of self-education and experimentation. I started playing the piano when I was around 10 years old, and started playing brass instruments when I was 13. I played the tuba mainly, but also trombone, trumpet, and the baritone very often for about five years, mainly in high school band and orchestra. During all this time, I taught myself — well, somewhat — guitar and bass. In high school I played with a few small local bands, nothing to speak of, really. I then went to college when I was 18, and I met Jason Garrett, who is still one of my closest friends today. He was really the first person to introduce me to electronic music of any sort, and he guided me into different genres and whatnot. Right at this same time, I came across some very primitive, basic loop-based software. So I started playing around with this software constantly, and within about a week I was bored with it and wanted to actually start recording my own sounds and samples, and create my own individual tracks.

So I spent about two years basically tinkering around with as much software as I could get my hands on and basically experiment with different styles and get a general overall grasp of electronic music. During these two years I also DJ’ed pretty extensively as well. The only thing worthwhile that really came out of those two years was a handful of single tracks, that I usually cringe at when I listen to today, and one full-length album. It was a sort of concept album — don’t laugh! — that was mainly ambient/downtempo soundscapes. Pretty weird stuff, but nevertheless enjoyable. And I made it with such awful software that I’m still impressed today with what I did with that software.

During the summer of 2001 I moved to Alaska, and lived there for three months outside of the world of modern communication, the Internet, television, etc. Over the summer I would have all of these musical ideas, and I’d write them down. So when I moved back to Missouri to go back to school in September of 2001, I had a notebook of ideas, but nothing to show for it. So, right when I got home I spent about half of the money I made in Alaska to buy high-end audio software, and spent that fall learning it. So I would say that I’ve actually been “serious” about my music for the past two years or so.

Weidenbaum: I wonder, since you’re involved in sound design now, at a film school, if you could talk a bit about how film sound has influenced your own compositional work. There are a lot of overlaps between ambient-electronic music and film these days, in terms of the increasing prominence of textural music in film.

Mitchell: Sadly enough I wouldn’t say that film sound and music has really influenced my music a great deal, though it is one aspect of audio that will definitely be more influential as I become more involved with my sound design studies. My interest in film is fairly new and hasn’t been as prominent in my life as music has, but over the past few years I have been studying film production and theory at the university level, and now that I am attending Vancouver Film School, I see that my interests in both music and film are finally meeting together into an overall direction with where I want to take my studies in the future.

Weidenbaum: Talk about about the Kikapu netlabel — how many people are responsible for it, what’s the response been like? It’s already got some 57 releases. Which are the most popular, and which do you direct newcomers to?

Mitchell: Well, a few years back I wanted to start a label, but being a poor college student at the time, I knew there was no way I would be able to start a label and get CDs and vinyl printed off on any kind of a consistent basis. At this time I was hosting a radio show on my college’s radio station, and as I was looking for music to feature on the show, I started coming across different netlabels. Then one day I found Monotonik, and that was the end for me — I fell in love with the label and it has been a huge influence on Kikapu and what I’ve been attempting to achieve with it for the past couple of years.

So anyways, I guess the point of it was to have a place to feature some of my own music and my friends’ music. This accounted for about the first six releases or so, but once it got rolling I started meeting lots of new artists, and over time more and more people became interested in the project, and sent music to me to release on the website. Generally speaking I am the only person responsible for the label, but I’ve had a lot of help from some friends, namely Brandon Reid Huey at Pleasedosomething.com, for server space and technical help; James Reeves of Red Antenna for graphic and design help; and then of course Scene.org and Archive.org for hosting all of our MP3 files themselves.

All of our releases garner their fair share of downloads; I think on average a release will get somewhere between 400-600 downloads in its first month. I think some of the most popular releases we’ve had so far were KOSIK’s Removable Pieces EP; both of the Dub Jay EPs; all of Brandon’s releases — as Crashed by Car, Red Lines and Jenglander, which was a collaboration between him and Stud; algorhythm’s the contingency EP was also a large release, as it was a split release between Kikapu and algorhythm’s own no logo records; and our 50th release CD compilation, Kikapu Gold Standard, has also been really popular and successful. These are also usually some of the first releases that I point newcomers to as well.

Weidenbaum: So, you work on Kikapu yourself, but your music has shown up on other netlabel websites, like 8bitrecs and Please Do Something. There’s that one piece, under your own name, not Pocka, on the 50th Kikapu compilation release, Gold Standard, but I think that’s it. Are you hesitant to put your own music on your own label?

Mitchell: Well, I actually started putting some of my own material on Kikapu under the Jizzello name when the label first started, and as the name suggests, it’s pretty odd, goofy music for the most part, mainly me just having fun and sampling as much material as I can into one song. I did one of the first Kikapu releases under that name, and put out a 3″ mini-CD release, and have had quite a few appearances on other netlabels and CD compilations over the past couple of years under that name. But after the 3″ CD I decided to not release any more of my own music on Kikapu, and I also retired that name, for the most part, after that CD; I think I was just too self-conscious about it. I really see Kikapu as a place to feature other people’s music, not really my own. It’s easy to start your own label and release your own music on it, but it’s more of a challenge to send your music to other people and have them put the time and effort into getting it released. I know it sounds silly, but it’s more of an ego boost to know that someone else enjoys your music and likes it enough to release it.

Weidenbaum: I did a little looking around, in regard to “Kikapu,” and came up with this reference to a native language of American Indians, Kickapoo, which apparently is thought to be “a corruption of a Shawnee word for ‘wanderers.'” Apparently Kikapu is an alternate spelling. Is this the source of the word you chose for the name of your record label?

Mitchell: It’s a long line of coincidences that the label is named Kikapu, actually. The name started as just a sort of online nickname I used; the title actually came from a mountain bike I drooled over for a couple of years during high school. Then a few years later, once I was in college, I lived on the corner of Kickapoo Street in Springfield, Missouri. Since I had been using the name before that point, and I now lived on that street, I decided to give that title to my netlabel as well. In Springfield there are many things named Kickapoo — the street, one of the high schools, and lots of other buildings. I believe the Kickapoo tribe inhabited the area that is now Springfield a long time ago. So overall, it was just a series of odd coincidences that the label came to be that name.

Weidenbaum: Do you feel the term “netlabel” does a good job describing what labels such as yours and 8bitrecs and others are up to?

Mitchell: I suppose it is, that being that we exclusively release our music on the Internet as free MP3 downloads. It’s a nice delineation between what we do and what a more “traditional” label does. What I love about the whole netlabel movement is that it’s really one big community of artists, designers and label owners. It isn’t competitive like other segments of the music industry. It’s more like one big collective group of like-minded people, and I find that very exciting. I also love the fact that it is such an even playing field, in that popular, well-known artists will have a release sitting right next to another artist’s first MP3s they’ve ever had released anywhere.

Weidenbaum: Have you encountered musicians who can’t comprehend that you put your music up online for free?

Mitchell: To be honest, not that often anymore. If you had asked that question a few years ago, I would say yes, definitely, but the netlabel community has just exploded recently, over the past year or so. There’s always been a good number of quality netlabels out there for years, for a much longer time than Kikapu has been online, but lately it seems that every day you see another netlabel site opening up. I think that over the past few years artists are finally realizing what a great purpose netlabels and free MP3 downloads can serve — as a great way to get your name out there and distribute your music to a great many people at one time. And even other artists who mainly release CDs and vinyl on other labels are popping up on various netlabels more often, since they see it as a way to release special singles, remixes, or whatever they feel should be released but doesn’t end up on their albums for one reason or another. But as far as artists involved with electronic music go, I think for the most part they see the advantages to MP3s and netlabels.

Related links: Disquiet Downstream entry on two Pocka tracks at 8bitrecs.com: disquiet.com. Disquiet Downstream entry on Pocka's Chronology Brought EP: disquiet.com. The Kikapu label's website, kikapu.com. Pocka's website, pockamusik.com. The Monotonik label's website, mono211.com. (As of December 9, 2007, the Please Do Something label's website is no longer functioning and the Red Antenna label's website is just a website for the related graphic-design group.)

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