Curious about Blockhead, the Ninja Tune label’s relatively recent signee — the New York-based, big-eared, hip-hop-oriented producer, best known for his work with Aesop Rock on the Labor Days album? Head over to his newly launched website, at ninjatune.net/block, which features audiostreams (on the “releases” page) of the majority of the tracks off his new Music by Cavelight full-length and all four tracks off his Insomniacs Olympics 12″. (A free download of a single track off that album, “Bullfight in Ireland,” was the subject of the March 12 entry, here, in Disquiet’s Downstream. And it’s still available.)
Month: March 2004
Hawtin Interview Stream
The BBC radio show of John Peel has posted a short’n’sweet streaming interview with leading techno producer Richie Hawtin. The Peel webpage for the show, with pictures, is here, and the RealAudio stream is available directly here. “I’m doing a lot of research and testing as I play these days with different computer software, different interfaces,” Hawtin says. “I have a special mixer I use now that has been modified with MIDI implementation.” In June, he says, he’ll be doing his first live show under the Plastikman name in almost a decade. The event is part of the Mutek Festival in Montreal. More info to come at plastikman.com.
Chachi Jones turns childhood musical toys, like Speak & Spell and Touch & Tell, into 21st-century folk instruments.
Chachi Jones bends circuits to his will. Well, not really. He does take sound-emitting children’s toys, such as Texas Instruments Speak & Spells and Touch & Tells, and mess with their innards. He adds switches to make them stutter, and to allow him to alter their pitch while they spell out, perhaps inevitably, dirty words. But what happens as a result is often as much a surprise to him as to his listeners. They may exude streams of complex, redolently random glossolalia atop his beat-driven blend of electronica, or squawk interminably despite his best intentions.
“The problem with performing with circuit-bent instruments,” he says, in a lengthy correspondence with Disquiet.com for this interview, “is that they are inherently unpredictable — which makes them a rich resource when you’re coming up with ideas in your studio, but renders them completely undependable as a live instrument.”
Still, he stands by his misfit toys, employing them on his Claustrophilia and Kayzio CDs, and using them live, much to the delight of intrigued audiences: “I think having them there really enhances the music, gives an element of chance and surprise both to me and the audience, and gives me something to do onstage besides click on my mouse and stare at my screen.”
Jones was born Donald Bell, and he adopted the pseudonym as a teenager. “I think on a scale of name rad-ness,” he says, “Donald is at a low point next to Hubert and Reginald and other names that condemn men to a lifetime of unintentional celibacy.” Now married, he lives in Sacramento, California, where he moved from nearby Fremont (“the last stop on the BART subway line”) to attend college in the mid-1990s, eventually earning a degree in English.
“I took off for college,” he says, “and three life-altering events happened: I got my first computer, an Apple Performa; a friend loaned me a Tascam 8-track Portastudio recorder; and I bought a copy of Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy. Once I realized I could make loops and noises on my computer, dump them down the 8-track and dub them with all my old guitar effects, I never turned back.” An entry in Disquiet.com’s Downstream section (here) discusses an entertaining and informative clinic he held, in January 2004, at the San Francisco music store Robotspeak, which sells his circuit-bent toys to sound-art collectors and working musicians.
To be clear, Jones doesn’t just perform with two Speak & Spells and a microphone. He uses them to augment his laptop, along with off-the-rack items like keyboards and mixers, and thrift-store finds like little plastic turntables.
Furthermore, he is, by no means, alone in his circuit-bending. Quite the contrary, it’s a growing field of pursuit, with active online discussion groups and accomplished exponents, notably Reed Ghazala, whom Jones and others describe as the originator of circuit-bending. The activity is of particular interest at a time when electronic musicians have, by and large, come to focus on the personal computer as their primary tool. The days of massive banks of equipment are seemingly long gone, and much of that early hardware, from synthesizers to sequencers to drum machines, is available today in software form; one can reproduce the sound, if not the feel and eccentricities, of an old Moog or Roland on a laptop. As the virtual studio becomes more and more commonplace, circuit-bending puts musicians in direct contact with the physical world — it keeps them grounded, so to speak. Circuit-bending reinforces the unique characteristics of physical instrumentation, without which discourse among electronic musicians might end up becoming little more than the sharing of home-coded subroutines (or “plug-ins”) for commercial software programs.
Circuit-benders, hackers by nature, thrive on the quirks of the devices they choose to retrofit, bypassing owners manuals in favor of experimentation. They generally keep the risks to a minimum, avoiding high costs and electrocution by working with cast-aside technology that is battery-operated. Circuit-bending is not to be mistaken for “overclocking,” in which computer enthusiasts push the upper limits of their machines’ processing power. If overclockers are like professional athletes, risking steroid use with an eye on the record books, circuit-benders have more in common with Dr. Frankenstein, piecing together new creatures with spare parts. “Circuit-benders are turning trash into sonic treasure, a concept that I feel is rooted in American folk music,” says Jones, who is quite eloquent on the topic. “I don’t think there’s anything else that parallels that tradition more than transforming dollar-bin thrift store toys into magically glitchy musical instruments.”
It’s a testament to his increasing stature that when a tour featuring musicians from Rephlex Records, the label co-founded by Aphex Twin, hit San Francisco in March 2004, Jones was invited to play. In addition to making music, he writes about it. Interviews with Bay Area conceptual-pop heroes Matmos, ubiquitous illbient collagist DJ Spooky, good-humored hip-hop outfit People Under the Stairs and others are featured on his chachijones.com website.
As a musician looking to get his music heard, he’s more than aware of the current glut of electronic releases, but he’s focused on the long-term bright side. “People who make music, no matter what kind of music it is, become more critical of the music they listen to,” he says. “So while the popularization of electronic music production will certainly result in an abundance of amateurish music being made, it will also create one of the most critical, informed and creatively hungry audiences for those musicians talented enough to make their own way and do something uniquely appealing.”
In the course of this interview, he talked about the role his circuit-bent toys play in his recordings and performance, about folk music’s value as a metaphor, and about how naturally computer music comes to his generation (he is 25 as of this writing). “It’s second-nature to a kid who’s had a computer in their home since kindergarten,” he says, “whereas learning how to play an E major scale on a rented trumpet seems as obtuse as learning Latin.” What appears below is a lightly edited transcript of the correspondence.
What follows is the lightly edited transcript from which the above interview was derived:
Marc Weidenbaum: At your January clinic at the Robotspeak store in San Francisco, you joked about how you like to make the Speak & Spell machines spell out “bad words.” I like the tension that exists in turning elements of our childhoods into the art-stuff of our adulthoods. Is this part of what’s on your mind?
Chachi Jones: Yes and no. My interest in collecting Speak & Spells began long before I became interested in circuit-bending. My wife and I were thrift store and garage sale addicts and I would always scan the toy bin for them. So in that sense the Speak & Spell has always appealed to me as this sentimental artifact of a childhood built up from E.T. and benevolent talking robots like C3PO. When I got into circuit-bending, my motivation for modifying the Speak & Spell wasn’t born out of some instinct to pervert or hot rod an element of my childhood into something abstractly musical, it was simply that I had already stockpiled the toys and was willing to sacrifice a few to my experiments. Plus, I honestly think that a properly bent Speak & Spell is one of the coolest sounding bent instruments you can have. It’s a very unique sound because the resulting textures and drones created by it are generated by cross-wired synthetic speech instead of a mangled musical tone. The sound is very rich and elastic — it can sound like anything from a Martian Tibetan monk chant, to chattering robotic insects. No other bent instruments that I’ve heard have the same qualities. That being said, I think the audiences I’ve played to usually respond to the bent Speak & Spells with an eye for its sentimental childhood appeal more than an understanding of its unique musical usefulness.
Weidenbaum: Is it a mistake to feel that in your music these toys, the Speak & Spell and Touch & Tell, are more about texture and background than about foreground?
Jones: My circuit-bent instruments get used in two different ways: song production and live performance. When I’m making my music in my bedroom studio, I’ll often take interesting noises from my circuit-bent gear and record them into my computer, where I can then chop them up, pitch, filter and effect them. The best example of this is my EP Kayzio on Crunch Pod Media. For the songs on that EP, I restricted myself to using just manipulated samples from my bent Casio Rapman keyboard, along with a simple little synth I used for the melodies. In my recorded work I mostly use the samples from my bent gear in a rhythmic context and you can almost always hear a sample dropped in one of my drum patterns — but there are a couple instances where I’ve been able to make them into very melodic or ambient textures. On the song “Opal” from Claustrophilia, the opening instrument sounds like this combination of a bowed string and clanging bells, but it’s actually a sample from my bent TI Touch & Tell, which I applied granular synthesis to in Reaktor and sequenced into something resembling a melody. It’s one of my favorite sounds on that album. I did a similar technique on the opening to the song “Taking You Out,” which is on that same CD.
When I play live I’ll bring out a few of my favorite bent instruments and incorporate them into my songs, usually in an ambient way — sprinkling little textures of white noise and glitches throughout my songs. The problem with performing with circuit-bent instruments is that they are inherently unpredictable — which makes them a rich resource when you’re coming up with ideas in your studio, but renders them completely undependable as a live instrument. The sounds that they produce can be as unique as snowflakes, so the songs I perform live never depend on my bent equipment, but I think having them there really enhances the music, gives an element of chance and surprise both to me and the audience, and gives me something to do onstage besides click on my mouse and stare at my screen.
Weidenbaum: At the Robotspeak event, it was clear that for many of the people there, making music is a hobby. On the one hand, this is exciting — I long for the kind of casual music-making culture that probably hasn’t been common since, certainly in urban areas, the era of the parlor piano. On the other, I wonder if it just becomes another form of consumerism — i.e., what new tool, gadget or piece of software must one buy next? What do you recommend to people who want to start out, but want to do so inexpensively?
Jones: It’s pretty remarkable how many people are getting into making electronic music. I think it’s a very positive thing on the whole, especially for this generation, considering how much funding has been cut for music and art education in public schools. I don’t think there’s been a large-scale music movement since grunge rock that has inspired kids en masse to pick up and learn traditional instruments and arrangement styles. The appeal of computer music production is that the instrument is something this generation already understands implicitly — that is, cutting, pasting and manipulating information on a computer. It’s second-nature to a kid who’s had a computer in their home since kindergarten, whereas learning how to play an E major scale on a rented trumpet seems as obtuse as learning Latin.
The other appeal is how quickly you can make a catchy song using some of the “paint by numbers” music software out there. I think that immediacy is what makes some people dismiss the whole of electronic music as disposable, because one of the tools we as consumers and critics use to judge a song’s merit is how difficult it was to achieve the results. Even if we hate opera, we appreciate Pavarotti simply because we have some concept of how difficult it would be so sing like him. Unfortunately, popular musical discourse hasn’t quite caught-up to electronic music production techniques and musicianship — so most people don’t have a framework in which they can judge the difference between an intricately step-programmed Squarepusher beat and a straight out the box Peaches beat, they just know that their stoner roommate is making trance music using presets in Fruity Loops, so it can’t really be that tough.
So the really good consequence of this generation adopting computer-based music production as their preferred hobby means that they have had their shot at sequencing a beat or a bass line, so they’ll be more musically literate in a contemporary sense and understand the radical differences between Aphex Twin and Moby that otherwise they might not have noticed. To put it another way, people who make music, no matter what kind of music it is, become more critical of the music they listen to. So while the popularization of electronic music production will certainly result in an abundance of amateurish music being made, it will also create one of the most critical, informed and creatively hungry audiences for those musicians talented enough to make their own way and do something uniquely appealing.
For musicians starting out who are unsure of what kind of music they want to make, I think the best investment you can make is to get a decent computer you can afford — Mac or PC, doesn’t really matter — plus a sound card with input and output, and a basic two-track sound editor, like SoundEdit 16 for Mac or CoolEdit for PC, plus if you have an instrument to record get a standard mic like a Shure SM57, or whatever you can afford. After using the editor for awhile to pull samples from CDs, record your guitar, or make loops, eventually you’ll figure out what direction you want to go. Either, “Man, I need ProTools so I can multitrack my huge glam drum set,” or “I could really use a virtual synth studio like Reason so that I can create my acid house anthem.” Either way, you’ll never outgrow the two-track editor and it will teach you a lot about handling and editing audio. Personally, I would stay away from hardware synths and samplers. They are a huge investment, plus each year something comes out that’s better, and honestly the software is at a point now where it’s just as good, or better, and just as easy to use, or easier. Plus, when you get ready to promote and share your music, the computer is the best marketing tool you could ever ask for.
Weidenbaum: I loved how you compare your circuit-bending to music made with jugs and washboards. Could you talk about that a little more?
Jones: Yes, there’s two distinct views in the circuit-bending community with regards to the practice of making and/or selling circuit-bent instruments. One thought is that when someone bends an instrument that has never been bent before, that they essentially “discovered” it and while others may be encouraged to duplicate the results, the original bender should be the only one to profit from that particular bent instrument. People understandably feel a lot of pride over their work and get very protective. The other view on circuit-bending is that creatively altering an existing commercial product is inherently an anarchist pursuit — like hacking computer software. In that sense, everyone’s experiments are like open source code that you can pick and choose from to incorporate into your own works — and if they’re good enough to sell, then go for it.
The other metaphor I’ve used for this is American folk instruments. The instinct to make music with jugs, musical saws and washboards is an instinct that takes the abundant, inexpensive artifacts from your life and transforms them into something roughly musical. I don’t think there’s anything else that parallels that tradition more than transforming dollar-bin thrift store toys into magically glitchy musical instruments. It’s really like a 21st-century junkyard band aesthetic. I think this generation is particularly reluctant to acknowledge the phenomena, possibly because many of the toys that are subject to the transformation — like the Speak & Spell, Casio SK-1, Touch & Tell — still have this aura of childhood futurism. It’s as if admitting that these toys are obsolete is to admit that the promise that they held for us in childhood is no longer relevant today. The reality, however, is that circuit-benders are turning trash into sonic treasure, a concept that I feel is rooted in American folk music.
Weidenbaum: I like what you say about folk music as metaphor. For all the “folktronic” music we read about, the influence of folk music tends to be more literal: song form, hurdy gurdies, pastoral sounds. I like a lot of that stuff, but your work often reminds me more of the idea that was long floated about hip-hop being a kind of folk music, because of its street origins, and the rudimentary nature of the turntable as a jury-rigged instrument. Is this folk metaphor along the lines of the individual musical ideas and experiments that you describe, or is it a broader sense of how and why you make music?
Jones: The idea of electronic music as a folk music of the 21st century is an idea taken directly from DJ Spooky, to whom I owe a lot. The rationale is that because we are the first generation historically to be immersed in a complete saturation of digital media — cable television, high-speed Internet, downloadable music, movies, 24-hour news — it makes sense that we would sorta cope with all this stuff by deconstructing it and recycling it into art. That’s a very “folk art” concept. It’s like how in Mexico you can buy these bright colored coin purses constructed out woven surplus plastic grocery bags — it’s taking something that’s worthless and abundant and in your face and applying creativity to it to make it into art.
Now, while I think there’s a lot of truth to the folk art analogy being applied to electronic music, I’m not sure I stand by it one-hundred percent, mostly because when I think of folk art I think of it in the context of regionality. So like, if people made those woven plastic bag purses everywhere and they all looked the same whether you bought it in China or Arkansas, they wouldn’t seem quite as special or “folky” because it’s globalized and homogenized. I think electronic music has from the start been a globalized and increasingly homogenized kind of music — it’s a borderless music. Whether the music is being made in Detroit or Berlin or Peru, you could probably mix the songs seamlessly at a house party and tell people the songs were made next door and they would believe you. That’s not a criticism of electronic music, and it doesn’t necessarily conflict with Spooky’s analogy, because things like media saturation and the Internet are global conditions now and so the artistic reaction to it is global as well, the world has gotten considerably smaller in just the space of a few decades. The result will be that the idea of a strictly “regional” art or phenomena will eventually disappear.
That aside, at Robotspeak I was talking about how circuit-bent instruments are like 21st-century folk instruments, and I think that’s a much more defensible claim. When most people think of folk instruments they think of “olde tyme” instruments like fiddles and jugs and musical saws. But if you think about why those instruments came about, it’s because people back then had jugs and saws around the house, or birch trees they could carve fiddles from — again, it’s taking what’s around us and abundant and recycling it into art. Today we don’t have extra trees to chop down or storage jugs lying around, but we do have piles of obsolete technology one step away from landfill that we can’t even give away. In that context, taking a 1980s toy keyboard you found in a thrift store dollar bin, and rewiring it to make outrageous, unintended musical noises, is really a textbook example of a folk instrument — as much or more so than hip-hop’s assertion that turntables are a folk instrument.
Weidenbaum: I thought I’d focus on two tracks off Claustrophilia, and look at them a little closely. There’s this stereoscopic pounding of drums that fade into an elegant, bleepy denouement on “Taking You Out” — that final part is one of my favorite things I’ve heard of yours. Where did this recording occur on a timeline, and in terms of your own education as an electronic musician, relative to the more singularly glitchy work of Kayzio? I imagine it came after Kayzio, because the tracks have more of an arc to them.
Jones: “Taking You Out” was completed in January of 2002. I began work on the Kayzio EP later in October of 2002. What happened was that I had sold the Claustrophilia album to Lunaticworks, but they had lost their distribution and it was looking like the album was going to take a while to be released, if ever. So I went about creating a new EP that I would self-release and use as a demo for shows, because I wanted to show people new material and I hadn’t released anything for awhile except an odd handful of remixes.
I had just developed a new technique for processing my drum tracks that involved effecting them hit-by-hit in a 2-track editor, so I set up the Kayzio EP to be an outlet for me to really push the new technique as far as I could take it. To keep it interesting for me conceptually and keep it so that the emphasis sonically stayed with the drumming gymnastics, I set up deliberate restrictions for myself and used only samples taken from my circuit-bent Casio Rapman keyboard for the drum sounds — hence the glitchy sound — and some basic Reaktor synths for the melodies. I think I composed all the songs within a week, but spent over a month doing detail work on the drum tracks alone using that technique.
Claustrophilia was composed with much more care given to the compositions themselves and more of an ear for things like melody, mood, atmosphere and a concern for it to be somewhat broadly appealing. Kayzio was really just a way for me to get some new music out quickly and at the same time push my production style and show my capacity to make music that I felt would fall on the more experimental side of IDM.
Weidenbaum: On “Colors” in particular, I appreciate the influence of hip-hop. That’s such a remarkably spare cut, with its off-kilter beat, occasionally tinged with dub, and the barely audible vocal. It’s also a long way from Kayzio‘s ecstatic IDM. Is this sort of stillness where your head is currently at? “Cowboy” also has this mix of stasis and hip-hop. It’s an unusual combination.
Jones: At the time I was composing those songs, late 2001, I was equally obsessed with the sounds I was hearing from the artists off the Warp Records roster and DJ Spooky’s “illbient” genre, which was a synthesis of breaks, dub and unsettling atmospherics. In hindsight I can see how much Claustrophilia was an artifact of my tastes at the time. What’s more interesting is that now I can hear the parts of that album that are uniquely my own style and which parts are a product of my attempts to imitate the music I was listening to — which is a little embarrassing, but also really comforting to finally have a sense of that ambiguous thing that connects all my music somehow. I think every musician goes through that. As far as where my head is currently, that’s hard to say. I’m not so much into using chopped-up breakbeats the way I did on Claustrophilia. Sometimes dropping a break into a song will really pull it all together, but more often it feels cliché or just limiting. Putting a drum break in your song can sometimes feel like being in a room with an elephant: it takes all of the listener’s attention and you don’t have a lot of room to move artistically.
Weidenbaum: What was your musical education? Did you come up playing rock, or just start out with electronics?
Jones: I took about three years of piano lessons in grade school. The only thing I remember about that experience is playing a horrible rendition of the theme to Karate Kid II at a private recital. In eighth grade I became obsessed with skateboarding and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, so I took up the bass guitar and started taking lessons so I could play like Flea. I actually kept taking lessons on bass for over three years and became pretty good. I played in countless high school garage bands — everything from grunge, to death metal, funk and surf punk. In 1996 I took off for college and three life-altering events happened: I got my first computer, an Apple Performa; a friend loaned me a Tascam 8-track Portastudio recorder; and I bought a copy of Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy. Once I realized I could make loops and noises on my computer, dump them down the 8-track and dub them with all my old guitar effects, I never turned back.
Weidenbaum: You mention that hearing Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy was a strong early impetus for your own work. And now, you’re on the bill for a Rephlex show in San Francisco, the Rephlex label being, in part, Aphex Twin’s concern. I imagine you’re pretty excited. Does this feel like it’s come full circle for you?
Jones: Yeah, it’s exciting. After playing for years to audiences in Sacramento, where my friends and I have invested our time, money and self-respect into fostering a scene that is by all measures microscopic, I think the most satisfying aspect of playing this Rephlex show is not so much the label-affiliation but just the chance to play to a large, receptive audience that’s out to be challenged. I think the “full circle” analogy is more from the Rephlex point of view, seeing as they started a decade ago making music no one else would release and are now witnessing a generation of kids who have grown-up on their music and now want very badly to be on the label so that they can help inspire the next generation. It’s probably the best thing about running a music label, is that if it works you have the opportunity to leave a legacy and keep people inspired.
Weidenbaum: Having played traditional instruments prior to working with a laptop and your misfit toys, do you bring any of that instrumentation into your recordings — playing live guitar, entering melodies on a piano-style keyboard, that sort of thing?
Jones: I have a lot of respect for people who do that, like Manitoba and Four Tet. I do play most of my melodies into Cubase using my little Oxygen8 MIDI keyboard, but it’s usually just sketching out a melody that I clean up later in Cubase’s MIDI editor. So honestly, I really do nearly all of my work within the software. Which is not to say that I’m not applying traditional ideas of chord progression, scale and song structure. I don’t think about my songs like a DJ, where I would be conscious of things like “lead-in,” or places where you could mix in or out easily, or making your measure count predictable and consistent. That stuff bores me to death and that’s just not where I come from. I think about traditional elements like chorus and verse and bridge, just not in ways that are easy to pick up on, but that’s the framework in my mind when I construct a song.
Weidenbaum: At the Robotspeak clinic/show, you talked a little about how the Evolution box has changed the way you work with Ableton Live software. Could you talk about your experience before and after employing the Evolution tool?
Jones: Yes, the Evolution UC-33e USB/MIDI controller is a pretty fun device. Basically it’s just a box full of knobs and sliders that can be mapped to any MIDI-controllable software function. For a program like Live, which is a program literally designed by and for electronic musicians who want a degree of improvisational ability when they perform their music live, the UC-33e box really maximizes the program’s functions. It gives the user the ability to adjust a channel’s volume, effects, tempo, as well as trigger samples, mute them, and do it all in real time. Whereas with a mouse, you’d have to perform each task linearly, one-by-one, which is fine when you’re in the studio and you’ve got all the time in the world to tweak your song to perfection — but in a live situation you appreciate having the flexibility to mute the drums, effect the bass and cue a new sound all simultaneously in one pass.
It’s something people with analog recording gear take for granted — that is, the immediacy that hardware control gives you. I mean, when you reverse the equation and think about how ineffective the mouse is as an expressive, dynamic instrument, it’s just laughable — yet the mouse is probably responsible for programming, cutting, pasting and editing 99 percent of today’s commercial music. I’m sure the guy who invented the mouse had no idea it would be used for anything more than punching data into some mainframe.
Weidenbaum: I noticed you use an iMic. I’m amazed more people don’t use these, or something like them. I think it was in conversation with Hrvatski or Greg Davis, or both, that I first learned about funneling sound through USB instead of RCA jacks. Are there other such simple recommendations you have for people who use computers to make or listen to music?
Jones: Yeah, people usually laugh a little when they see I’m using the iMic because it is such an inexpensive little USB audio interface. I’ll admit that there are tons of better USB and Firewire audio interfaces out there, but for the money, about 30 dollars, the Griffin iMic makes a dramatic improvement in sound quality — in my opinion. It’s also ridiculously portable and it’s never given me any problems. The audio jack built into your laptop was probably built by the lowest bidder and is really fragile, which sucks when you’re playing live and a cable gets tugged the wrong way, because it can rip the jack from its socket on the motherboard and be expensive to repair.
Weidenbaum: You yourself have interviewed musicians. What have you learned about your own music-making from these interviews, that’s different from how these individuals might have influenced you simply through their music?
Jones: I think the most instructive thing I’ve learned from interviewing musicians is an understanding of what motivates them to make their music. I think with any art form, there’s an amateur stage where people get inspired by someone else’s art and begin to imitate it, and it works for a while. But for your art to develop it has to get ritualized and has to give something back to you in order for you to keep at it and advance your art. So finding out that special thing that motivates an artist to become disciplined enough to compose on a regular basis is a very compelling reason for me to interview them.
It’s been different for every artist, really. Matmos, for instance, has this Brian Eno-like interest in setting up interesting musical ideas or experiments and then executing them. So first they’ll have this idea like, “Let’s see if we can make a song out of a Latex T-shirt,” and that idea will drive them and keep them interested in the composition. Someone like DJ Spooky is really motivated by ideas of juxtaposed elements and alchemy, an idea rooted in his DJ experiments and SoundLab events in New York. So his musical satisfaction seems to come less from finding new sounds, than from the interplay of disparate sounds and textures. People Under the Stairs are looking for that perfect L.A. afternoon joint-rolling beat that takes them back to their idea of 1992. Whereas an artist like Manitoba is dedicated to searching out the perfect interplay of melody.
The point is that ideas are what motivate all the really interesting music out there and separate it from the copycat commercial crap. A good idea will keep an artist disciplined their whole life. If James Brown hadn’t gone on a crusade to find the perfect funky beat, I shudder to think what contemporary music would sound like. For me personally, I like to set up each song like an experiment. If a song doesn’t have an idea that brings me to it, a goal that I’m trying to accomplish, it usually suffers or the results never feel satisfying.
Weidenbaum: What do you think of the growing phenomenon of “netlabels,” like Stasisfield, No Type and Kikapu, which distribute music for free?
Jones: I’m honestly just now discovering them. It makes sense though, I think, at least for independent artists. When you put it alongside my current situation where I have an album out on one of America’s largest music distributors, BMG, yet it’s still lost in the mix of the overwhelmingly cluttered record store bins and even if it started selling really well, my cut would barely be enough to buy me lunch. It’s disheartening to admit, but getting your CD on the shelf at Best Buy doesn’t make an artist any richer or more legitimate, unless they’re Nelly or something. What’s more, unless you’re Paul Oakenfold or Fatboy Slim, electronic music will likely not make you wealthy, or even pay the rent — and even those guys probably make their real money from touring and selling T-shirts, not CDs. So I think that if a netlabel can put you in touch with an audience who will value and enjoy your work and maybe even come out to see you if you’re playing in their town, then that’s really the best you can ask for as an artist.
Weidenbaum: The inevitable question, what’s next for Chachi Jones?
Jones: Let’s just say that at this point I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of what’s good and bad about laptop-based, stand-and-deliver style performance. Unemployment has given me a great opportunity to invest my time in taking my performances in another direction that I think will connect better with audiences and be more rewarding for me. I don’t want to sell it too much, because it remains to be seen if I can pull it off at all. No matter what, you can count on plenty more music coming out this year.
Weidenbaum: Could you take a moment to identify some of the musicians who are your community in Sacramento and the greater Bay Area?
Jones: The musicians that form my support group here in Sacramento are Tycho (tychomusic.com), Dusty Brown (dustybrown.com), tha Fruitbat, Faster Faster, Park Avenue Music (parkavenuemusic.com) and a lot of the unheralded experimental community here involved with Noisefest (norcalnoisefest.com) and EMRL (emrl.com). Every one of us has poured a ton of time and energy into trying to rally an electronic music community together in Sacramento, with greater and lesser degrees of success. They’re all really great artists who’ve paid their dues many times over. We all deserve a medal or something.
Related links: Disquiet Downstream entry on Chachi Jones' January 2004 clinic at Robotspeak (disquiet.com). Chachi Jones' website, chachijones.com. Lunaticworks Records webpage, lunaticworks.com. Crunch Pod Media webpage, crunchpodmedia.com. Robotspeak store webpage, robotspeak.com. Yahoo! circuit-bending discussion groups: benders and benders anonymous. Informative interview with Chachi Jones from the SF Bay Guardian. Electronic Musician magazine article on circuit bending.
The new album by Scanner, Double Fold, on the Slovenian record label rx:tx, is apparently inspired by Nicholson Baker’s excellent book by that name, which was an alarming study of how libraries have forsaken their duty as custodians of our literary heritage, focusing in particular on the failures of microfilm to do justice to print newspapers. Two-minute RealAudio streams are currently available (on the posteverything.com site, here) for two segments of the album, “Microfilm” and “Ultrafiche,” both sprightly yet irritable stretches of glitchy minimalist momentum. Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud) writes of the project, on his own site (scannerdot.com), “Fold is one extended elastic track focusing on a pulse, 128 beats per minute. The book is an exploration of the dismantling of the greatest archives of our recorded heritage, paper as a resource now too fragile to store our history on.” He explains that he built the album as a collage of hundreds of fragments from his domestic tape archive.
Skalpel Musical Erector Set
It has long been standard operating procedure for 12″ versions of singles to include both the instrumental (which is to say, vocal-free) and vocal (which is to say, instrumental-free) edits of the title track. The rapper Jay-Z made the vocals off his entire Black Album available sans backing tracks, and deserves credit as a result for midwifing the cut’n’paste magic of DJ Danger Mouse’s infamous Grey Album. Not to diminish Mouse’s achievement, but Jay-Z’s open-source beneficence did free Mouse up to focus on constructing a bed of sound from the Beatles’ White Album.
Just about every hip-hop 12″ offers both “a cappella” and “instrumental” versions, from Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” (which is fairly lackluster without his Gollum-like emotional switcheroos) to Public Enemy’s underappreciated “Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need” (which, in its vocal-free form, works toward a rewardingly chaotic close). Acts including De La Soul and Deltron 3030 have released some of their entire albums in vocal-free versions, making for fine instrumental hip-hop. At a time when the beats of producers Timbaland and the Neptunes are routinely as recognizable as the voices of the singers who float atop them, it’s surprising that collections of their raw tracks aren’t readily made available in commercial form. A CD full of Neptunes productions, minus the singers? Now that’s what I’d call Behind the Music.
In any case, more than one-upping those readily available 12″ B-side treats are the occasional opportunities to download all the individual constituent parts of a given song — not just the vocal and the backing tracks, but each separate looped snippet: say, the drum track, the bass line, the piano, etc. This is exactly what Skalpel, the Wroclaw, Poland-based production duo, has done for “Break In,” off its recent self-titled Ninja Tune Records album. Skalpel, true to its name, has segmented “Break In,” a jazz-fusion electronica song, into 27 individual pieces, a veritable home-studio erector set. It’s part of a contest they’re running (details here), asking fans to produce remixes of the track. The due date is April 23, 2004, so get your laptop fired up. (The prize is a trip to Warsaw, though the details appear to limit the offer to intra-European travel. A winner living in Duluth or Kyoto may incur overseas travel as an out-of-pocket expense.)
The 27 “Break In” parts range from a half dozen drum tracks, to bits of string, piano and bass playing. (They’re all in “wav” format, which most MP3 players can handle.) Tellingly, the longest track by far is a 47-second segment named “ambient,” a bed of jazz-ensemble haze (and which makes good listening all on its lonesome). The track next closest in length is less than half that, a funhouse assemblage of reverb-enhanced vocals, like a sound check at Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Seven of the “Break In” tracks are so short that they’ll register as 0:00 on most MP3 players, but they’ll still play properly.
Oddly, one bit is missing from the “Break In” sample hoard: the intro vocal that intones, on the Skalpel record, “Hello everyone, I’d like to take you on an imaginary trip. … Pretend you can see everything happening in your mind.” Anyhow, fans of Skalpel who listen to the remix-ready sample wav files will gain a deeper appreciation for the duo’s skills. To hear the original version, check out the stream on the album’s webpage on the Ninja Tune Records site, here.