BACKTRACKING WITH STRATEGY'S FUTURE ROCK
Portland MVP and Community Library co-manager Paul Dickow has blessed us with numerous wonderful Strategy recordings to date. Though his first two full-lengths, Strut (Outward Music Company) and Drumsolo's Delight (kranky), are amazing in their own right, Dickow scales new heights with his latest Future Rock. Dickow generously reviewed the new album with us, despite having a ridiculously packed schedule where DJ gigs, Strategy sessions, and innumerable ComLib-related tasks simultaneously vie for his attention.
So much of Future Rock sounds like you paying tribute to a global array of styles that spans multiple decades, something that makes the album, on the one hand, incredibly ambitious. Yet the music never feels overworked but instead retains a breezy, loose character. How difficult was it for you to maintain that balance between the epic scope of the material and an unpretentious presentation?
It wasn't a difficult balance to maintain; if anything, I felt like a burden had been lifted in the process of embracing referentiality. I think for a long time I attempted to bury references to older music in my own work. With the new material, I let nonchalance take over; ideas just flowed out of me once I got past the initial self-consciousness of being overt and combining wildly disparate elements. My previous two albums and many of my singles are all, I feel, very original and solid works, but I perhaps resisted the urge to be historically referential in them, to such a degree that they sound more ‘of their time'; you can tell what equipment was used, what contemporary albums I was listening to at the time, etc. Which is fascinating too, and an important project in its own right but, on this album, I wondered whether, if I just let myself be messy, dense, and as referential, would it be a more natural way of making music? It was indeed. I was no longer worried; I just let the ideas pour out and the songs started to take shape faster and faster as I grew more comfortable with the notion of that pastiche process.
Despite differences, there are natural connections between Drumsolo's Delight and Future Rock, with the latter harking back at times to the electronic-soul style of the former. How do the two albums compare in your estimation? Do you see the new one as a radical break, continuation, or major leap forward?
It's both a continuation and a major leap forward.
By contrast, there is an entire album of works that go in the opposite direction from Delight, into completely beatless, super free-form territory! Based on field recordings, it is even less referential than Delight, and is basically Future Rock's polar opposite; it was as if, in order to complete something as openly referential as Future Rock, I had to achieve something completely unreferential simultaneously: extreme ends of the spectrum, both continuations of a long-running story.
"Can't Roll Back":
There's a Vladislav Delay/Luomo influence throughout more or less all of my work, in part through staggered and fractured phrasing, obscuring of the central pulse at times, a layer of analogue delay, and also at times a kind of curtain of blue chords that is often suspended in the background. I don't know if I had Delay elements in mind when I wrote these bass lines; I think its one of the baseline (no pun intended) references that's always in the back of my mind, perhaps even when I don't know it.
I love how the track turns into a jam after the intro. There's vintage Weather Report percussion, a gorgeous Bootsy-styled bass part, swinging disco hit-hats, chicken scratch guitar, and even clavinet—all of which makes the song resemble a loving homage to '70s soul-funk and, even, at times makes the 'band' sound like one of Miles' incredible bands from the early '70s. Are you paying tribute to a particular era and artists here?
This track is just the densest one; it's hard to separate what elements are references to my own musical experience and what parts are tributes to music I like; it's all twisted together. Miles from the ‘70s, even the really brutal Dark Magus-era stuff, Sly and the Family Stone, and any Miles sideman projects are reference points, but so are funk-post-punk bands like A Certain Ratio, Maximum Joy, etc. Moreover, the jam part of this song relates strongly to one of the bands I'm a former member of, Fontanelle. In fact, Borg Norum, one of Fontanelle's early drummers and a longtime friend and former musical partner who contributed raw live drum set recordings, is on this track in looped form (layered up with my own drumming). Fontanelle: well, I think we are largely going to be remembered as kind of reserved, careful, and measured formalists, working a sort of crystalline, imaginary sound, I think due to the dry and highly-edited nature of the albums, but there's hundreds of hours of source material with up to seven people jamming really messy improvised funk with loads of keyboard abuse, interlocking riffs and loops. It tells a completely different story of the band, one with a lot of group communication, improvisational risk taking. Since that band ended I've brought my keyboard playing up a lot more in Strategy, because I still get so many riff ideas and that group outlet is gone.
This song I think is a really strong assertion of that band and my role in it, a reference not just to Miles or Sly Stone or Weather Report, but also exploring that role of being a keyboardist playing along with pre-recorded versions of myself. This was also the first track I've done with guitar parts I really like, and I was able to allude to some of the Factory, Y Records, Slits-type UK -post-punk-funk era scrappiness and channel some of my feelings about that. There are a lot of levels of reference in this track, which actually started life as a weird slowed-down tabla loop that reminded me of Tom Waits' "Hang on St. Christopher" from Frank's Wild Years. Oh yeah, and the rest of it is built on re-used source material from the World House single, with snippets of Brian Foote playing guitar. I can barely separate all the layers that make up this track.
How did you manage to so convincingly create the amazing live sound here and on "Future Rock" (as I'm presuming it's an illusion)? So much electronically-assembled material lacks the vitality that declares itself so strongly throughout these tracks.
I'm not sure. I think just playing live over tracks. Treating everything with spring reverb, which makes things sound sort of amped, or gives them a shared acoustic space. Not quite sure, to be honest!! Sometimes there's just enough swing in oddly-looped bits of instrumental sound source, that it gives the sense of inherent and pleasing instability (for lack of a better word) which is typical of non-programmed music.
Yes, this one I think is much more easy to sort of take apart. The song wrote itself in a day really, and after making it a staple of live sets (it's a good one for improvising) I was able to identify most of the influences. The wash and echo element are very Chain Reaction/Basic Channel and also related to classic dub reggae. There are some wilder parts that spin out of control, indeed, in an almost out-jazz sort of way. Some of these, like the squeaking resonant shakuhachi flute-sounding part, are actually a nod to Autechre and other 'generative' music; those are self-improvising, completely synthetic elements that have parameters, but with non-repeating variations in the notes. There are three drum parts, one that is a typical electro break rhythm, one that is a sort of afro-beatish hi-hat rhythm sampled from my own drumming, and a third part (me drumming again) that is almost a faked-up "big beat" type break. Breaks are sort of uncool in techno and house at the moment, but I really wanted to explore them. To some degree, the light touch created from making breaks out of my own drumming, reminded me of suspended, floating Can-type rhythms, where the ‘1' is difficult to identify. I don't know if it's a manifesto for the label concept but it certainly is the song that inspired writing the album Future Rock, because it opened the door to a pastiche/collage/mosaic/encyclopedic way of conceiving songs.
"Running On Empty":
I'm not as familiar with Jan Hammer; it's a coincidental reference but one that I'm happy about. No, I was trying to synthesize the effect that a corny guitar solo has in a track: self-indulgent, self congratulatory, maybe even macho. Later I listened to some Jan Hammer to learn he pioneered the ‘keyboard-as-cheesy-guitar solo' concept and was pleased at the congruity. I wish it sounded more like a real blues guitar.
There's a killer Justus Kohnke track, possibly the cheekiest thing Kompakt's ever done, that's sleazy house with a super slick blues guitar solo in it (I think on their Total 3 compilation). It's super-daring; I wanted mine to be like that, only actually meaning it and not a pure piss take. It's the pinnacle of bad taste, something that isn't welcome in serious electronic music, but nothing else made sense during this song's apex then a "guitar" solo, and I didn't have my own guitar at the time, so this had to suffice. I really wanted to go that extra level of saying that almost anything is welcome in this music. I did not, however, use any accordion, banjo, rave stabs, orchestra hits, or ‘frivolous out-of-context DJ scratching' on this album, so I guess some things were not as welcome.
I'm not sure. They were a way to make gestures towards sounds I had collected, that did not seem like they were going to become full songs. Maybe they just needed to stand alone? "Sunfall" in particular is a conglomeration of two particular archive recordings; one is Josh from the Audio Dregs band, Plants, who had multi-tracked some e-bow bass parts and the mini-disc stayed in my possession somehow. The second piece is me with the guys from Reanimator and Impractical Cockpit in a house we used to live in about seven years ago, working with a tape loop of me drumming. That was an early tape experiment and we processed it live on a PA system with digital delays. It's a direct reference to This Heat's "24 Track Loop," in hindsight, though at the time it was simply an effort for me to learn how to make tape loops. We recorded everything that happened in that house; that's one of my favorite sonic memories of the hundreds of hours of sound we recorded.
Good question; unfortunately, a technical answer. Most of the tunes on Future Rock have a heavily condensed feeling because I would record basic parts in Audiomulch (either direct out, or recorded outboard to DAT), and then I would bounce that material back into Logic to have overdubs, instrumental parts, and vocals added. Unfortunately, in the process, when the audio gets mixed down and digitally ‘summed' some level of—this is so hard to describe—‘separation' is lost. I have been trying to understand this in more technical terms now. But "Stops Spinning" was recorded, track by track with a lot of separation, entirely in Logic. No summing or mixing down until the end, so there's a broader feeling and a bit more detail; less flattening of the audio, more space. This song started with a series of chords done with a super-ancient Akai sampler, the first one, I think that is twelve-bit and has an analogue filter. It had a melancholic vibe but almost a year passed before the other part ideas came to me to add in. Some of the haze effect throughout the album is all about a spring reverb unit I have where the outputs can be made stereo by phase-inverting one of the two channels. The result is super, super wide, and sparkling sounding.
I may have goofed; there's my own drumming somewhere on most of the tracks, even if buried or secondary to another rhythm element or drum machine part. The natural sounding part on this tune is me, but it's chopped quite oddly to make that stuttering, almost-triplet rhythm that provides the swinging, sauntering feel. It's basically a happy accident, looping at the wrong point and then liking the result.
It's definitely the album climax. It was extremely difficult to accomplish this, because my computer is quite old and was not powerful enough to play back all the audio at the same time. I had to keep streamlining the work to get my computer to bounce down the audio. It was a real reality check that I need a new computer. It was also difficult because I wanted this crescendo effect, but there was so much sound it was clipping the audio the whole time. I struggled with learning my way through compression and limiting, and getting it to sound okay, for a couple months. It was difficult. I was complimented recently that it has the highly compressed, climaxing vibe that The Cure's Disintegration has. That made me really pleased, because a direct referent/model for this is actually the last song on The Cure's Wish. I love the way that last song builds and builds and then just cuts off (of course, it continues peaking in your mind after the cutoff). I love songs that just end.
"I Have To Do This Thing (Planete Sauvage Mix)":
The ‘string' washes and sort of reverbed noise/melody bursts are a granular treatment of "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" by Roy Ayers, basically .5 seconds of audio washed into a sustain. I used these sounds as the main theme parts in the dance track "I Have to Do This Thing" on Community Library. My songs often will take on ‘ambient' and ‘dance' iterations of themselves, so this was sort of the ambient answer to the dance version. Part of it, the wah guitar figures and clavinet, reminded me of the funk soundtrack to the French/Czech sci-fi cartoon La Planete Sauvage (Fanastic Planet in USA/UK- the soundtrack LP was reissued by DC Recordings a few years back and was given to me as a gift around the time this song was completed.). There is also a sample of the Portland psych band, Mome raths, playing a live show, the kind of rattling fourth-world part midway through the tune. (I think I forgot to put that in the liner notes. I knew something would be omitted by mistake.)
This song in many ways encapsulates the whole 'future soul' vibe of the album. Was that your intention?
Not quite intentional, though I see what you mean. I think the ‘future soul' element is a background to most of it in some way. It would be amazing to pursue that idea even more concretely; I loved the Georgia Anne Muldrow album that came out last year on Stone's Throw. Talk about ‘future soul,' Olesi: Fragments of an Earth takes the cake. I'm sure it sunk in as an influence, but I don't know to what degree I've consciously processed it yet.