Catching Energy Waves
For our latest feature we got together with Sam Haar and Zach Steinman from Blondes to discuss their philosophies and approach to making music. To hear the results of what we chat about then take a listen to their new album ‘Warmth’.
R&S: You both come from quite academic backgrounds – I’m curious as to whether you integrate any philosophies or theories in your practice.
We think a lot about the nature of creativity and what it means to make music. Music, and especially making music, for us is an exercise in losing yourself in a momentary sonic environment. That’s why we’re drawn to working within techno / dance music forms. The infinite loop sits there, statically, almost like a physical object in space, asking to be molded and shaped, built up over time. Done well, it creates that special feeling of the loop evolving and building and crescendoing and ultimately losing momentum, catching energy waves. In those moments you’re lost in it. I’m really fascinated by this talk by Jill Bolte Taylor.
She describes rational sequential ego based consciousness as centered in left brain processing and sensory input and the experience of connection to something greater as being based in the right hemisphere. Viewing music through this lens, I see that in the best musical moments, the ‘left brain’, individualized experience can melt away and you’re just witnessing and participating in a greater collective experience.
I was actually pointed to this lecture by an artist who we worked with a little in the past, Jesse Flemming. His work is interested in how different forms of collective action, like techno parties, sports games, and religious ecstatic ritual are used to inspire a loss of ego in the participants and form bigger broader connections with the collective and with present experience – more into the right brain self. This rings very true to me in how our music is a vehicle or a catalyzing input to a different state of consciousness, when we succeed.
Yeah, and sometimes it’s difficult to get to this place of losing yourself. This John Cleese lecture about creativity has been really helpful in formatting an idea of how to be creative and productive, and stray from cycles of being stuck in self-criticality. There are two modes humans operate in; ‘closed’ — defined as a task oriented mode, within which you’re doing some kind of preparatory slog— and ‘open’ — where you allow yourself to be playful and exploratory. A lot of times there are closed mode tasks that need to be done to make the time when you’re getting open creatively more interesting. A closed mode activity for us, would be filling sound banks on our samplers or finding new synth patches. Sometimes it can be hard to get into the open mode or to be open and really productive. The preparation that you do get into this mode is super important, basically so that you have exciting material to work with when you’re feeling playing. Another thing I’ve noticed is that closed mode activity can lead to procrastination. Whether because you’re overwhelmed by all you have to do, or you end up feeling like you’ve accomplished something, even though you really spent a considerable amount of time going through rubbish Russian Hip Hop Vocal samples.
R&S: Over time your music has evolved more and more into a dance floor experience, which draws on the deep wellspring of techno – could you speak on your relationship with the genre and how it’s effected you?
Our incorporation of techno or house forms and sounds has been a conscious decision to engage with a musical language. We engage with techno archetypes, but we approach our music with the sensibility of noise and the physical reality of shaping sound over time.
Something I love about techno is how the infinite loop is used. It can create a vertical structure to the tracks, which makes them more like states of being. Their identity in this way is more physical. Each track is a room that can be inhabited and explored, especially when it is being performed. If this vertical function creates a world unto itself, horizontally structured music is a trail or journey. Exploring this sound world is unique to techno for me, with the chugging intensity of the core of most techno tracks allows for some much freedom to form and layer a sound world within a space.
A lot of this record is sort of a love letter to techno ideas and tropes. Some of the tracks started with references or line ideas like the M1 perc organ bass, some polyrhythmic 4 against 3 patterns or some synth lines that have different durations and loop in phasing patterns, standard tropes among minimal and underground techno but made in our specific weird process.
R&S: It would be great if you could talk a little about your compositional process and how the album came together
We create music by playing it, it’s that simple. Everything is performed with our collection of gear strung together in a specific network arrangement – our instrument – and we record what we play. We build up elements and parts through improvisation and then record takes of us feeling our way through the music, catching waves and responding to each other’s actions. We create a sound in the moment, allow it to loop to create a static base to build from, and then mold and filter the elements over time to create energy dynamics. To listen to the music is almost the exact same experience as making the music – we record improvisations in the moment where we take the elements through an evolution, a spectral story and respond to what we hear. Any sections in the ultimate form come from our shaping and pushing the material into different directions to create different landscapes. But it’s all about sonic shaping and intuitive playing. We chop down the takes to find the best moments and create something better suited for the recorded medium as they’re never perfect, but everything comes from that intuitive playing space.
This record was put down kind of quickly in a marathon studio session. I think we tracked everything in one week. We just set up all our gear and plugged some shit into some other random gear we had lying around. We used this shitty shitty Alesis compressor that you can get on eBay for $10 and everyone hates it – best review was ‘best use is as a doorstop’ – but it just gives this snappy crack to percussion when used creatively. And we just hit record and played. Each track had around 30min of us playing it out in various ways and on various takes and then we cut down all the best parts into what’s on the record. I wouldn’t recommend this process for everyone but we’ve figured how to make it work with the way we play and with what we’re trying to create.
R&S: How does your background in compositional training / academia filter into the music?
I’m coming at techno after going off the deep end in experimental Cage-ian conceptions of what music can be. My solo project and practice is based around close and open listening, figuring out how to construct musical statements and expression out of abstract and disjointed sonic gestures but connected to a more popular language of electronic music. So to play in Blondes is to experience texture and sound and frequency in association with the rules and lexicon of techno… Which is why we often break those rules and sound off-kilter and experimental – it’s a way to push and allow that more experimental listening mode onto the dance floor and unite it with the muscle memory / pleasure center aspect of the dance music world’s conception of a beat .
R&S: Your music has always been unique and recognisable – modern yet drawing on classic themes – do you have any contemporary influences?
Gavin Russom’s Black Meteoric Star project has always been an influence on us since we saw her play in Berlin.
This project embodies the freedom you can have within the confines of an instrument you create — the matrix of sequencers, synths and fx, that make one’s greater instrument. Gavin’s music has this drilling intensity that leads one towards the psychedelic. The way she uses gear is akin to the system we’ve created for Blondes.
We’re also big fans of Peter Var Hoesen, Donato Dozy / Voices From The Lake and Levon Vincent amongst others – we really appreciate the way that they’re pushing the form in their own way. Similarly R&S has always been at the forefront of innovation within dance music which is why we were so excited to join the label.
R&S: It’s seems from the outside that since the beginning of Blondes, you’ve both gravitated much more towards hardware synths, drum machines and outboard effects than working within the computer – could you elaborate on how these devices aid your compositional practice?
We like gear because of the immediacy and the lack of the virtual screen space – there are only knobs in front of us to physically manipulate and we end up learning the instrument as an extension of the body – much like an acoustic instrument player has to.
In terms of specifics, Zach was using a Moog Voyager as our main synth for arpeggios and mono-lines, it has a fairly simple architecture and can’t do everything but what it does sounds amazing, buttery, warm and rich. Besides that it’s all about the network of gear we use. None of the individual pieces are that important, it’s about how it’s strung together to create a complex system of possibilities.
From the beginning I have always used a Memory Man delay pedal. It’s a powerful pedal that also has good reverb. I used to run our Juno 60 through it, but since we’ve both started using a mixer with fx sends, it’s a part of that matrix for me.
Also the Korg M1 contributed to a lot of tracks. The organ bass sound is the “idea” behind KDM. We wanted to rethink and respond to the incorporation of an M1 perc organ bass line, which has such an inescapable history in house music. Many of our tracks start like this, one of us has an idea and then we run it through our gauntlet of processing and improvisation. Just pushing the paint around until we start getting excited, building off of things.
I’ve also had the same Moog phaser pedal and delay pedal the whole time. I love the phaser, I mostly use it in weird filter and modulation ways now instead of just the regular obvious phasing effect, it’s a great way to add richness and complexity to a sound.
Every piece of our gear is routed through a mixer in a matrix routing set-up which then acts as the main instrument from which we improvise new and complex routings and feedback systems (we each use a basic analog 16-channel console, either a Mackie or an Allen and Heath). This is really important to how we structure our instrument so that we have the ability to really be playful and discover new things every time.
That being said, it’s important to stress that we’re not actually gear heads. When we add gear to our set-up it’s really about practical functionality – the most important thing is what you do with the sounds you have access to – I love that some of the best music has been made only on fruity loops. Equipment is only the raw material but the person, the creative mind, is what creates the art.
R&S: How has your various geographical locations effected your music throughout Blondes’s history?
Yeah, our familiarity with playing together is something we can jump right back into. We’ve both lived in different places around the country, but New York is really the seat of Blondes. We developed our craft playing shows all around the city in bars, DIY industrial spaces, and small clubs when we were first starting out. Having access to all those venues and the local thriving scene was a great way to gain experience playing and improvising in front of people. Since then I moved to Philly and then moved again to western Massachusetts, in the country a few hours outside of NYC. I was ready for a different daily routine, one that inspires me creatively and gives me more psychic space,with less constant input and financial pressure as well as easier access to nature.
I still live in NYC. I have to say that musically things are really healthy here right now – we love what Aurora Halal, Relaxer (formerly Ital) and Bookworms, are doing, The Bunker is legendary as a party bringing some of our favourite music and Bossa Nova Civic Club is a wonderful institution. It’s nice to have a neighborhood bar, with no cover, where you can be in a dark foggy room listening to good underground house and techno among a crowd of people who are really into it.
R&S: Do you have any tips for beginning composers who might be interested in following in your footsteps?
I would tell any new composers and electronic musicians to take their time and to really explore their instruments. Pick a standard set up, whether that’s a set of plug-ins in Ableton or hardware, and learn it like an instrument. After playing for so long I can take any sample or any sound and transform it into anything and use it any context. That’s the way to create something unique… But it all depends on what musical expression you’re after. A lot of genres and musical forms rely on a cannon of sounds and methods for using those sounds, and in that case I would recommend learning your form. The kind of music I make is about creating unique expressive music from all types of sounds. One interesting example was the way we went about making ‘Tens’ from the new record, we posed the question, what would happen if we tried to make a dub techno percussive spacious synth line out of vocal samples instead of synths? That was the starting idea and then we went from there with our process of experimentation and improvisation. I would also say play as many shows as you can, nothing will teach you how to play well in front of people more than just doing it.