Friday, March 30, 2007

Incoming: TV on the Radio, The Noisettes at Henry Fonda Theater, 3/30-31

There’s ample reason why tickets for TV on the Radio’s obscenely sold-out shows are the hottest this city has seen in eons. While the stunning headphone opus Return to Cookie Mountain ruled the Pitchfork Nation (and beyond) in 2006, there are still legions of freshly minted fans who have yet to experience the band live, especially here in L.A., where their only local appearance in support of it (outside of an Amoeba freebie) was a simmering campfire of a show at the Hollywood Bowl opening for Massive Attack (a fruitful match, as TVOTR’s production mastermind David Sitek is producing M.A.’s upcoming album). Their reputation as an incendiary powder keg live precedes them, and rightfully so. The world needs a band like TVOTR — who are equal parts art and heart — now more than ever. U.K. thrash-bashers the Noisettes open, getting down like a multiracial Yeah Yeah Yeahs, with singer Shingai Shoniwa as the black Karen O.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 3/07)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Incoming: Gym Class Heroes, RX Bandits, K-OS, P.O.S. at House of Blues, 3/26

With the stoned cadence of Sublime, a self deprecating sense of humor like the Pharcyde and that old-school hip-hop fun-time attitude, a band like Gym Class Heroes (pictured) breaking out was inevitable. It’s amazing there isn’t one on every American college campus. But few would be savvy enough to hijack the chorus of Supertramp’s 1979 smash “Breakfast in America” and flip it for the new scene, as they do on hit single "Cupid's Chokehold." Having Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump sing it for you helps too (the band is signed to Pete Wentz’s Decaydance label). For this “Daryl Hall for President” tour, GCH bring Seal Beach punk-poppers RX Bandits to make like Incubus for boys, while Canadian indie hip-hop hero/current blog sensation K-OS brings quirky but thoughtful raps to the party. Minneapolis punk rock rapper P.O.S. spits in the style of early Eminem over mosh-pit guitar tracks. Crazy sold out. Kids rule.

(originally published in LA Weekly, 3/07)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Incoming: Heavens, Boom Bip at the El Rey, Sunday 3/25

A collaboration between Thieves Like Us’ Josiah Steinbeck and Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba, Heavens (pictured) conjure dreamy post-rock rife with midperiod Depeche Mode inflections and subdued but tangible emo sentiments. Their latest, Patent Pending (Epitaph), has echoes of Interpol’s stark minimalism but is more deeply rooted in late-’80s alterna-pop bands like the Church and Echo & the Bunnymen. The title track even steps it up with an indie dance-floor stomp like Bloc Party’s second album never happened. Heavens would’ve ruled the second 60 of MTV’s 120 Minutes. Cincinnati expat Boom Bip generally uses electronics to imagine misty, organic re-creations of ’70s SoCal mellow rock with nods to Can and Fairport Convention. But previews of his upcoming One of Eleven EP find him raving to propulsive, post-Aphex Twin beats. Go figure.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 3/07)

Friday, March 23, 2007

LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver (DFA/Capitol)

Remember when disco sucked? There was a time when no self-respecting rockist would dare acknowledge any sounds directed at a dance floor. Drum machines were considered pure evil, and not in that cool, devil-horns Black Sabbath kind of way. It was serious business; Queen lost legions of American fans for writing “Another One Bites The Dust,” and KISS was crucified for “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy definitely remembers thinking disco sucked. And he’s very, very sorry.

There’s a particular liberation at the heart of Sound of Silver, the result of Murphy and his merry band of post-punk-funk disco infiltrators fully realized. It’s the sound of someone who didn’t discover the power and glory inherent in dance music’s finest moments until just recently. It’s the sound of someone taking E for the first time in their late 20s and hearing a Carl Craig record from the mid-’90s and having a genuine epiphany. When the tyranny of the beat strikes back, it’s one harsh mistress.

All reasons why Sound of Silver is the best dance record for people that don’t like dance music in years. Where LCD’s eponymous debut felt oddly restrained, as if Murphy was too self-conscious to really fly his freak flag (and was totally outshined by the bonus disc of his own formative singles), SOS is a sweaty, uninhibited shimmy and shake, like the drunken wallflower dancing like a fiend all by himself in the middle of the floor and going home with the hottest girl in the room.

Like any self-respecting music geek worth his 12-inch collection, Murphy’s reference points are both astute and a little obvious. He makes quantum leaps on the aptly-titled opening number, “Get Innocuous,” referencing a wide sonic swath that includes Lodger-era Bowie, Kraftwerk, and even his own music snob-baiting early single, “Losing My Edge,” in just over seven propulsive minutes. “Time to Get Away” rides a snotty, Jonathan Richman with a cool kid swagger attitude and gratuitous cowbell beats, while sure-shot single “North American Scum” turns the self-loathing hipster stance into a Jesus Christ pose and makes it sound like the best party ever. The jumpy, piano-powered “All My Friends” is the most majestic moment LCD’s committed to software yet, a slow-burning crescendo that crashes with the force of Arcade Fire at their most epic.

After a dubious but effective take on funky Gang of Four (the title track), Sound of Silver ends on an oddly earnest ode to Murphy’s home city with the wobbly ballad “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” like he’s the Morrissey of Brooklyn or something. Oh Williamsburg, so much to answer for…

(An abridged version of this review was published in the LA Weekly, 3/07)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I Was There: Amy Winehouse at The Roxy, 3/19/07

I guess you could call it pure, dumb luck. It just so happened that I heard about the Amy Winehouse show at the Roxy a couple of hours before my man Jeff Weiss informed me that she was also scheduled to play at Spaceland. Given my druthers, I would’ve purchased a ticket to see her in the much smaller Spaceland. But in my haste to secure a chance to see this notorious UK train wreck up close and personal like, I’d already laid my good money down for the Roxy show. In hindsight, I inadvertently made the right choice, since Ms. Winehouse famously bailed on the Spaceland gig.

I got to the Roxy a good 20 minutes before she took the stage, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen such an intense scrum up in that joint. It was packed to the back with an interesting array of Los Angelenos, skewing older than I’d expected.

Worming my way towards the front of the room, I found a choice spot maybe five feet from the stage, off to the right. A very drunk girl stumbles into me, pausing to take off her high heels. Oh boy, here we go. An older couple behind me is drunkenly making out, repeatedly ramming into my back. Really? The things I do for music.

When the lights finally dim and the curtains open, a surprisingly together looking Winehouse saunters up to the microphone to the strains of the Chiffons “He’s So Fine,” looking oddly sexy (skinny legs and all) in a blue prom dress that put her cleavage up front and center and showcased her bevy of tattoos. There were no signs of track marks or “meth skin” to be seen anywhere. She didn’t even appear to be drunk. What gives?

Backed ably by retro R&B outfit the Dap-Kings, our girl sailed through most of Back to Black admirably; her husky croon sounding even stronger than it does on the record. Her voice shined on mid-tempo numbers like the reggae-tinged “Just Friends,” but really soared on the barn-burners like “You Know I’m No Good.” What’s especially impressive is the way she attacks high notes, filling them with pure emotion, the total opposite of showboats like Christina Aguilera who completely overdo it with ridiculous trills and runs that never seem to stop.

Sliding in a verse of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” into “He Can Only Hold Her,” it was hard to miss the irony. Is Winehouse destined for a similar crash-and-burn like the one that beset Ms. Hill? Given her raw talent and limitless potential, I certainly hope not.

She’s comfortable and self-assured onstage. After announcing the evening’s last song to a boisterous chorus of “No!” she joked with the crowd:

“Well, obviously it’s not the last song. We still have to do the encores. I’m just playing the game up here, all right?”

There were a few other interesting, very human moments. She visibly got bored in the middle of a set-closing “Rehab,” only to dig deep and find an inspiration from who knows where to inject the song with a shocking blast of life. It was a moment that completely endeared her to me. She could’ve just as easily dialed it in, since the rabid crowd was eating up her every move, but she didn’t.

By the time I maneuvered my way outside after the show (bumping into Strokes drummer/Drew Barrymore’s ex-boy-toy Fab Moretti along the way), I found myself calling various connections to score a ticket for the Spaceland show. Amy Winehouse was nice enough to see twice. But we all know how that ended up…

(Photo courtesy of the one and only Marc Goldstein. Thanks Marc - you're a prince)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fascination Street: Robert Smith on Miami

"Over the years, we've always had a great time in Miami. The Cure has a really strong following there. When we first started coming to America, we didn't play there for years, because certain promoters told us that no one would like us in the city. But when we did, the fans were really rabid and intense. It was overwhelming and we were amazed by the reaction. Now we make sure to play there on every American tour. A few years back, I spent a few days in an achingly hip hotel right on the beach, a quite famous one. I think it was the Tides. There was a jazz band and people rollerblading outside. Everyone was beautiful and it really upset me [laughs]. The combination of pretty people and sunshine really does something bad to my self-esteem. I imagine the Cure would be a very different kind of band if we'd originated in Miami."

(Originally published in the Miami New Times, 3/07)

Just Like Heaven: Miami's Ultra Music Festival grows and surprises

While the American dance scene has in many ways cooled from the peaks of the late Nineties, it's also adapted to fit into the fast-forward culture of today. With mix CD and especially 12-inch sales virtually nonexistent, dance fans have instead emphasized the experience. Just ask anyone stuck at the back of a blocks-long line to get into a club featuring Paul van Dyk or Armin Van Buuren on the decks. Miami's eight-year-old Ultra Music Festival — which adds a second day this year — simply represents the DJ side of America's current festival fascination, a phenomenon in which fans have followed Europe's lead and now travel many miles and spend many dollars just to say that they were there. Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Ultra all benefit from this eagerness to turn the music experience into a sonic vacation.

"Back when we started in 1999, I was promoting big dance music events around town," says Ultra founder and executive producer Russell Faibisch. "I'd met up with my current partner, Alex Omes, who owned DVOX magazine, a nightlife/dance music publication. We became best friends and started doing events together. Through our passion for the music, we decided to do something really massive in Miami, which was the first Ultra, a beach party that drew 7000 people. Year after year, it's just blossomed out of control. From that first year, we grew to 15,000 the next year, then 23,000, to this year where we're expanding to two days and expect upwards of 50,000 people."

"It's the only festival like it in the States. There's nothing you can really compare it to," says Tom Holkenborg. Better known as the adventurous Dutch DJ/producer Junkie XL, Holkenborg has played Ultra several times and witnessed the event's evolution into a smooth-running production. With an obvious sense of humor, he notes that it wasn't always that way.

"I was playing the main stage at 8:00 p.m., prime time. It was maybe the festival's second year," he remembers. "I went on and everything was happening and the crowd was really into it. It was great. Then about ten minutes in, a certain bodyguard, for some unknown reason, decided that my set was over. There was a huge commotion, and he threw me with my equipment offstage. The crowd didn't know what was going on. The police were called, and in all of the hysteria the guard that threw me off ended up getting beaten up by a bunch of the other security guards.

"It was a huge, crazy scene," he marvels. "Let's just say that things at Ultra now are much more organized than that."

Now that it has found sure footing, Ultra has widened its scope to include more acts outside of the dance music mainstream, from last year's headliners the Killers, to this year's inclusion of such bands as Shiny Toy Guns, and the jaw-dropping and inspired booking of alt-rock legends the Cure to close out the opening night.

"Well, we were asked and we said yes," chuckles Cure frontman, Robert Smith (pictured), of the origins for this curious choice. "We're excited to play Ultra. It's a one-off, and we're treating it as a special show. We're going to do a special set for it, playing songs we wouldn't normally play. It's a challenge, and I think it'll be an enjoyable experience for everyone."

As Smith further explains, it's actually not that much of a stretch for the band to headline. "The connection between the Cure and dance music is and always has been a good one," he says. "Going back to the early Eighties, we've always had twelve-inch remixes and got lots of play in the hip and happening clubs. Then Paul Oakenfold remixed our single 'Lullaby' in 1989, which was hugely popular in Ibiza that summer. That's when we first really became aware of the DJ/dance movement as a thing. The following year we put out an album called Mixed Up, which was a collection of various Cure remixes. I was just really drawn into it, and have retained that feeling ever since.

"Not being able to dance has always hampered my true enjoyment of it though," he adds, laughing.

But dance fans needn't worry that Ultra is moving away from its DJ-driven core. "We'll never do anything to change our focus," promises promoter Faibisch. "The Cure are legendary, and we're honored to have them on the bill. But for Ultra it's about the DJs, which is why we've been fortunate to have Paul van Dyk — the DJ's DJ — close the festival every year since the beginning. It's a tradition we hope to maintain for as long as the festival is in effect."

At this point, all visible signs point to Ultra's longevity, with additional future events planned for Los Angeles and New York. And it appears as though it might even help to spur on other festivals in this country.

"I do know there are going to be a couple of new ones springing up here in America that are using Ultra as a model, so you can say it's become very influential as well," notes Junkie XL. "It's much closer to European fests like Homelands, Dance Valley, and all of the rest. Given that dance music is a much more underground scene in America, the fact that Ultra exists and is successful is really important and special. It just gets better each year. The crowds continue to grow, and the lineups have evolved to reflect the way music changes."

Ultra Music Festival takes place on Friday, March 23, from 4:00 p.m. to midnight and Saturday, March 24, from noon to midnight at Bicentennial Park, 1075 Biscayne Blvd, Miami. Tickets for Friday cost $59.95, tickets for Saturday cost $74.95, and two-day passes cost $119.90. Visit

(Originally published in the Miami New Times, 3/07)

Incoming: Sondre Lerche & Willy Mason at El Rey Theatre - Tonight (3/21)

It’s boys with guitars and emotions on parade when these heartfelt folkies come together. Norwegian jangle-maker Sondre Lerche (pictured) has been strumming his clever guitar pop for a few albums now, but his latest, Phantom Punch, is packed with surprises. Gone are the easy, gentle breezes of early tunes, replaced by a manic, borderline punk crunch atop his trademark melodies. Willy Mason is the current sensation, trading in the kind of classic, socially aware folk you’d expect from a kid raised by musician types on Martha’s Vineyard. He was discovered by the keen ears of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, and his worldly, husky croon already has the Brits calling him the latest “new Dylan” — none less than Radiohead handpicked him to open a series of dates. His recently released If the Ocean Gets Rough adds a warm, ornate edge that should further endear him to the NPR set.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 3/07)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Incoming: The Presets, Crystal Castles at the Echo's Ex_Plx, Saturday March 17

Just don’t call it “nu-rave” (didn’t we learn anything from electro-clash?). Wizards of Oz (as in Australia) the Presets are a frantic pair of funbots determined to make you dance your skinny little ass off. Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes started out as mild-mannered classical buffs at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music before the disco bug bit. It’s been a nonstop erotic cabaret ever since, with the daft duo crafting spastic blasts of dance commands and assailing audiences with notoriously energetic live shows. Their latest LP, Beams, percolates with fuzz-buster freak-outs like “Are You the One?” imagining the Faint soundtracking a Saturday-morning cartoon. Toronto’s equally electrified 8-bit babies (and potential show-stealers) Crystal Castles (pictured) can glitch and bliss out with the best of them, evidenced by their incendiary remix of the Klaxons’ “Atlantis to Interzone” and circuit-breaking track “Alice Practice."

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 3/07)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

El-P: The ISWYD Outtakes

After finishing my most recent piece on El-P for Remix, I had a few extra quotes left over. I thought they might of interest to his fans. Take it away, sir...

“I certainly don’t carry the mantle for justice in hip-hop, but I do feel like there’s a lot of bullshit out there. For what it’s worth, I bust my ass to try and make sure I’m coming up with something tangible that people can connect to. With (I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead), I tried to dig in a little further to capture a moment. Music, the whole entertainment industry in general, really is just not important enough in and of itself. It’s been kind of shocking to me just how much we pretend that shit is going according to plan, when it’s obviously not. I’m not here to bring gloom and doom to the world, but at the same time, I’m just trying to be honest about what I see around me. As a fan, I’m always craving for someone to stick his or her necks out as an artist. If I can do that to some degree I will, but I really want to hear it from other people.”

About the song "Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)":
That was something that came together with (Definitive Jux rapper) Cage. I forget what we were talking about, but I wanted to write a song that was incredibly dark and kind of humorous at the same time. We were just fucking around and for no reason at all I started singing the line “I found love on a prison ship.” That’s what sparked it off. We put ourselves in the perspective of a firing squad guy, and since everything already thinks I’m a sci-fi geek, which I am, we set the whole thing in the near future. For me, it was a way to make a political commentary without just saying ‘Look – the government is bad! George Bush hates you!’ He does hate you, but nobody needs me to tell them that. So we came up with this demented idea that in ten years, if there was marshal law and people were being rounded up, as there very well could be in my opinion, the good jobs would be the cop jobs. It’s kind of inspired by the movie Brazil. The idea that being an executioner in that world would be a job that a lot of people would want, the kind with insurance and benefits. Cage took the perspective of a guy that would enjoy the job, while I took the character of a guy that was involved in it, but started to feel bad because he felt some emotion towards one of the prisoners. I wrote the music to reflect those sorts of conflicting moods.”

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Incoming: Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. at the Echo, Tuesday, March 13

Maybe if James Joyce were alive today, he’d be making music instead of writing books, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man might sound a lot like the songs conjured by Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly on the fantastic album The Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager. This barely-out-of-his-teens Londoner was born Sam Duckworth before discovering his eye-catching alias in a Batman video game. The guitar-slinging troubadour pushes the singer-songwriter model into the 21st century, fully equipped with a laptop loaded with skittering, nervy beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Bj√∂rk record. He freely flaunts his personal as well as politically charged influences (e.g., Billy Bragg), but always with the uplifting, life-affirming optimism that comes with youth. Already a hit in the U.K., he’s one scene in Grey’s Anatomy away from taking America too.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 3/07)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

El-P: Apocalypse Now

“Brooklyn, fear, drug addiction, transition, hope, sex and flying.” This fragmented sentence (found on an artist blog created to document the final stages of recording) is an apt description of underground hip-hop icon El-P's solo sophomore album, I'll Sleep When You're Dead. Over four years in the making, the follow-up to his lauded debut, Fantastic Damage, reveals El's immense growth as both an artist and primarily as a producer. In between the two, he's established his Definitive Jux imprint as one of the premier indie-rap labels in the world and collaborated with everyone from TV on the Radio to avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp.

“I've been trying to make this album for almost five years and have had a couple of false starts along the way,” El-P (aka El-Producto) states from his home studio in New York the morning after some serious drinking with friends. “I would jump into it, only to get pulled away to handle other productions and label business. The album went through a bunch of title phases, and I'll Sleep When You're Dead [Definitive Jux, 2007] won as the most fucked-up album title I could think of. I figured it was probably the most threatening album title, that's for sure. There's definitely a theme to it that permeates the whole record. I wanted something I could dig myself into and come back to throughout recording. The simplest way to explain it is to say that the album title is what I imagine the city to be whispering in my ear. This really is my New York record, my post-traumatic stress record. It's been a weird time, and I really wanted to take a snapshot and chronicle some of the vibe that I've been encountering in the city since our world started to tumble down the rabbit hole, without being too heavy-handed or obviously political. I think that people are losing their fucking minds, and I'm one of them. I've gone through some dark times between the two albums, so the title fits.”

Indeed, as the album is an apocalyptic mix of meticulously crafted beats that find El-P's signature maelstrom of sound honed to a fine but brutally effective edge. Going beyond his usual comfort zone of collaborators, the new album brings contributions from the likes of such heavyweights as Trent Reznor, Mars Volta and Cat Power, among others. He's surprisingly talkative for this early hour, obviously excited and more than a little relieved to have such an ambitious undertaking ready to unleash on an unsuspecting public.

What inspired you to blog about the recording process of I'll Sleep When You're Dead?
It was just kind of spontaneous. I was fucking around and thought it might be something cool to do. I had the idea and in one minute created the blog. I hadn't seen that before. The whole blog community seems to circle around the critical, and it occurred to me to try something different. I see how people react to being let in a little bit more with MySpace and everything. No one had done a music blog that had a purpose and would evolve as a project was evolving, as opposed to the usual snarky criticisms of some writer.

There's a quote on the blog where you said the sound on this album is “less dense.” Now that it's done, do you still feel that way?
When I said it was “less dense,” I was full of shit. This record is definitely dense. Maybe a better way to say it is that it's less polluted. Where my production is now and where it was when I did Fantastic Damage [Definitive Jux, 2002] are two very different places. I tried to learn how to refine shit a little bit and to put everything in its right place. I think there are moments on this album that are denser than anything I've ever done, but in a more orchestrated way that melds together as opposed to crashing together. Although, there are a few moments that are complete train wrecks of sound, but what can I say? I like that shit. I'm noisy.

Something that definitely jumped out was the way many of the songs evolve from one idea into something else entirely different by the end, like “Tasmanian Pain Coaster.”

That song actually took me about two and a half years to create, probably because I'm insane and don't know when to stop. With songs, I always just keep going and picking away at them. What I wanted to do musically was to fuck with structure. Instead of each song being one vibe and having a bunch of different songs collectively creating an album, I wanted there to be movement and changes and drama. I kind of went there, for better or worse.

This album finds you collaborating with acts like Mars Volta and Trent Reznor. How did that affect your writing and recording process?

It varied. To some degree, the way that I did it was supercollaborative. For the Mars Volta guys, they actually came in and sang and played guitar over a song I'd written. But I ended up cutting it up on the PC to fit their part into “Tasmanian Pain Coaster.” Working with Trent Reznor on the song “Flyentology,” I knew exactly what I wanted him to do on the song. I sent it out to him, and he was really cool about it and made it happen. Trent is one of the people that I really wanted to make something happen with. I'm a real fan. His stuff is so heavy, which is attractive to cats like me. His productions are so hard and brutal but still melodic. That song seemed like the perfect fit for him.

How do you decide which artists will match up with a particular song?
The way that I use collaborations is much more about the moment or what the song needs. I don't want to do the extraneous collaboration, where it's just about having the opportunity to work with a certain artist. I tried to do it in more of a classy way. Getting their contributions made me look at the songs differently, even though most of them were created already. I would love to do a whole album with certain singers. I've never really worked with people outside of my circle of friends like Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif.

There's a funny quote on your blog about people overestimating the capabilities of Pro Tools….

There is this faction of the music pseudo-intelligentsia that has come up with the idea that there is a pure way to make music, and using Pro Tools is not a part of it. When I made Fantastic Damage, I listed the equipment that was used in the liner notes. One of the pieces was Pro Tools. Then I noticed in certain reviews these writers saying, “Clearly he's using the Pro Tools magic to make it happen.” I'm like, “What the fuck?” There's literally no one out here not using Pro Tools, except for the very few who can afford not to use it. There seems to be a weird fear for some people in terms of using technology in music. But mostly, those are people who know nothing about making music or what Pro Tools is really used for. I feel like anyone who's really into recording gets it.

Have you updated your gear between the two albums?

My whole setup has really expanded since Fantastic Damage. For one thing, I've moved up to a full Pro Tools|HD system, as opposed to the LE system, which was a maximum of 24 tracks at the time. So now I can make even more noise. I've got a bunch of different synths and things to fuck around with. They're all just tools, you know. But my main piece is still the Ensoniq EPS 16 Plus. That's basically my instrument. There are a bunch of other goodies piling up here in the studio. One of the dangers of addictively buying music equipment the way I do is that you tend to buy something and just use it to death. That piece of equipment will often have a sound, so an album or project ends up being defined by that sound. I try to stay away from having that happen and always mix it up in terms of sounds and machines.

What are some of those other keyboards that made it into your arsenal on this album?

I picked up the Korg Triton just for fun and to see what it could do. When I heard it I realized that's what it takes to make a Neptunes beat. I only wish I'd gotten one years earlier and beaten them to the punch. So now the challenge is to use the Triton without sounding like The Neptunes. It ended up on the record here and there.

It sounds like you're a serious gearhead.
I definitely spend a lot of my money on equipment. But honestly, I only moved up to the full Pro Tools rig because of a remix I was doing for the Mars Volta. I tried to open one of their song files on my old system, and I just couldn't. The file was so huge that my computer basically died right there. The new setup is the center of my studio now. The second I got it, my whole scope just opened up, like it bumped me into the real ball game in terms of production. I can play with the big boys a bit.

So in a lot of ways, remixing other artists had an impact on your own music.
My remix work was a huge catalyst for me. It forced me to take different approaches to doing things. I carried that into my own album. That's why my record sounds the way it does. I was doing remixes for rock groups, and the song structures they bring to the table are pretty different from what I usually do. It forced me to pick up different equipment as well because when you're doing remixes for major labels, you can't just be sampling the shit out of things. It was a big deal for me.

What song on the record most reflects this structural shift?

Probably “The Overly Dramatic Truth.” When I finished that song, I was like, “What the fuck did I just do?” It's very unlike anything else I've done, and I didn't know how I was going to sequence it onto the album. Mercifully, it ended up fitting somehow. It's a very unique moment unto itself. I'm a pretty obsessive-compulsive musician, and there's no phase of making a record that's easy for me, all the way down to sequencing. I enjoy it, but it tortures me. I contemplate the shit a lot. I'm sure there's some sort of medication I could be on to alleviate that stress. So it's always nice when the pieces of the puzzle finally come together.

Another song that really stands out on the album is “Poisonville Kids No Wins” with Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power). What was behind that collaboration?

I've known Chan for a few years now. We've always kind of said that we'd do something together. That song was completely done. I had something else happening at the end of it, but it just wasn't working for me. I couldn't figure out what to do. All I knew is that I wanted some sort of vocal there. So I bumped into her randomly right before I had to finish the album, and a couple of days later she came by the studio and knocked out a vocal ending for me. After we did it, I realized that, weirdly enough, I had written the words to a loop I'd made from her song “Love and Communication” from her album The Greatest. It didn't even occur to me until after we did it. Not to say that there's some mystical circumstance surrounding every song on my record, but that coincidence was interesting to me. It came out great.

Do you like to get your ideas down quickly, or do you find yourself digging and tweaking to make sounds and samples your own?
I do both. One of my methods for getting sounds down quickly is using MIDI. Playing bass and synth lines might need to happen the second they occur to you, but tweaking those sounds to get the final tone can take more time. Using MIDI notes allows you to go back and really play with the sound without losing whatever magic may have been in the original idea. I use a bunch of methods to tweak samples, and I use a bunch of samplers for different things. Good outboard gear is very important. Having a good tube preamp is the shit. You can play with the tube and distort bass lines, guitars or whatever until they come off differently. Once in Pro Tools, I will often use sends to put the sounds out to different outboard gear like effects pedals and such. Another great way to create new sounds or to layer them is by doubling something and putting one through different plug-ins, like amp simulations or effects. Once you have one you like, you can play with the balance between the original line and the effected one, as well as pan them in different ways to create a new sound.

In general, how would you say that an El-P song comes to be? Does it start with a sample or a beat or what? Do you have a specific process?
If I knew that, my albums would be made a lot quicker. Anyone who's witnessed me during the writing and recording process wants to put me in a straitjacket. There is no real process. I wish I were one of those cats with a really dependable formula. I'd probably be a lot happier and a lot more prolific. Every time I do a song, I kind of feel like I'm learning how to make music all over again. In some ways, it keeps me sharp. But it's not some philosophy that I want. There are days when I sit down in the studio and have no idea what I'm doing. I'll be staring at $50,000 worth of musical equipment and have no clue what to do with it. I'll spend weeks like that, and then two songs will happen in four days. I really don't know. I've been asked that question so many times, and I think I have to admit that I don't have a process. It happens when it happens.

So how do you know when a song is done?

Usually about a day before the album is due. I never know when something's done, so it comes down to deadline. I'm the kind of cat who at the 11th hour will completely change the entire beat or something. I'm getting better, though. One of the problems with doing a record is listening to the songs so many times. I start to lose perspective. My friends will have to yell at me, like, “Don't fucking touch it!” I have to force myself to just leave [the songs] alone. The idea of working more efficiently is my intention, but sometimes I think it's just a fantasy. I just turned 30, and my personal political view is that the entertainment industry is going to be radically altered in the next five years, so I'd like to get a few more things done before time runs out on this madness.

(Originally published in Remix magazine, 3/07)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Indie Hip-Hop Workout Plan

All Day: Nike + Original Run

Aesop Rock, personal trainer? Believe it. That’s the unlikely scenario proffered by All Day: Nike + Original Run, a 45-minute continuous track produced by the indie-rap enigma Aesop Rock, designed specifically for runners to trance out to on the road or treadmill.

Obviously, the only way to really surmise the album’s effectiveness is to put it to the test. And so I drag my sorry ass to Bally’s Total Fitness in Hollywood — the perpetually overpopulated gym that feels more like a sweaty mall for a colorful cross section of underclothed Angelenos. When I finally elbow my way onto an elliptical machine, I cue up the disc and start running (ellipticizing?).

The sound of someone running on gravel — much faster than me — pans left to right in the headphones over trippy, backward intonations reminiscent of Madlib. Aesop Rock’s inimitable drawl loops into a hypnotic mantra. An insistent, thudding beat propels me to pick up the pace. About eight minutes in, a funky organ kick-starts under a flurry of turntable scratches. Ooh, a grimy rock guitar line. Very Iron Butterfly. Okay, I’m sweating now. The mix is flowing effortlessly, evolving from a Funkadelic acid groove to a spacy electro-jam. A glistening, heavily tattooed Suicide Girl wannabe saddles up in front of me. I wonder what she’s listening to. Wait, where was I? Oh, yeah — sweating like Bobby Brown to Aesop Rock. Who knew? At this rate, the indie-rap set will definitely be ready for the beach this summer. Thanks, dude.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 3/07)