Ask: Tell us about your background with music. Are you a trained musician?
Deepchild: I took guitar (classical and jazz), as well as violin (Suzuki and Classical Method) lessons for about 10 years, from the age of 8 or so. I also studied a small amount of music history and theory, the desire for which was well and truly rekindled in my mid-20s by a deep fascination with so-called Black Music and social-theory—largely by way of encountering Kodwo Eshun's fantastic tome, More Brilliant than the Sun (a reference to the incredible afrofuturism of Sun Ra and co) and more recently, by way of the incredible resources offered by collections like the Lomax Archives. I guess that you could say that I have an enduring love-affair with the tritone, and the harmonic series. I love the interface and subversion which can occur when forms interbreed, undermine and bastardize each other. I love the fact that the 'gospel' music sung in churches has deep routes with Haitian animism and ancestor-worship, for example. I'm fascinated by the social tradition of passing on lifelong crafts like a musical discipline—outside the cults of “music as commerce” which are charactered so ubiquitously by contemporary EDM/DJ-superstar culture. I'm deeply fortunate to have received a substantial amount of classical training—if nothing else, it's served to remind me that musicianship and its social value pre-dates recording technology and commercial concerns.
What influences propelled you into electronic music?
My enduring relationship with electronic (particularly 'dance') music is a complex and diverse one. When I first heard artists like Philip Glass, I was upended by the staunch, audacious minimalism of the ideas he was exploring—he was orchestrating humans to sound like machines. Ideas like repetition, minimalism, environmental music and linearity were a little taboo to me—and really seductive. People like John Cage gave simple 'sound' dignity—and reframed the sonic experience of the 'mundane' as somehow worthwhile in its own right—he helped me to hear their voices. Incredible! There's an interview with John Cage I find particularly moving, where he talks with such joy about the sound of his air conditioning unit. I aspire to have ears which can hear like this, I guess. Electronic music and minimalism were, in a way, like a middle finger up to a lot of the tradition I was schooled in—one which preferred ideas like virtuosity, complexity, narrative, lyricism and poise as most valuable—a sort of überhuman transcendentalist myth. I've never been a virtuoso.
"I loved the way the 'machine as musician' was a way of subverting and surviving the dystopian narratives of '90s neoconservatism"
When I first encountered techno and house music, I felt even really affronted—yet at the same time, deeply enamoured by what I was experiencing. There was something both exciting and profane about machine-made music, which felt like a giddy salvation to me. I loved (and still do) the way that the 'machine as musician' was a way of subverting and surviving the dystopian narratives of '90s neoconservatism, for many people—in which the machine was seen as the oppressor we should fear. The more I was told by teachers and students that drum machines didn't make 'real music', the more I felt that these machines were important. The more non-real the music I liked was branded, the more I wanted to press into its bosom.
Detroit techno remains a beautiful allegory for a lot of things I hold dear about electronic music, and techno, in particular. Detroit techno in a classical sense is music born from a particular set of ideas, a particular socio-economic reality, particular localized history—and reflecting the needs of a community in a particular context—in this case, during the '90s, a time of manufacturing boom and subsequent collapse, and a pervasive sense of cold-war paranoia. The '90s were overshadowed by this looming threat of new technology, of nuclear obliteration, of fear of a dark future where humanity was somehow razed (all very apocalyptic-evangelical end times narratives!)
"When I first bought a drum machine and synth and hooked them up to trigger random patterns and notes, I felt like I was communing with God."
Techno took these fears and turned them on their heads. It took, literally, machinery of mass-production, and coaxed a voice from its circuits. It showed us that the machinery of the new, shiny, hermetic middle class could be made to ache, and break, and sing. It betrayed its own demons, and offered an exorcism. I guess, somewhere between Underground Resistance and Philip Glass is a staunch mechanistic minimalism in which I, personally hear the 'ghost' in the machine.
When I first bought a drum machine and synth (again, early '90s) and hooked them up to trigger random patterns and notes, I felt like I was communing with god. I was, for a moment at least, relieved of the burden of authorship—not in the sense that I could just tell the 'machine' what to do, but rather that the 'machine' did what it wanted, and I could only coax it into a conversation. Ultimately, I become slightly obsessed by the histories and idiosyncrasies of these machines—why had a Japanese programmer decided to use “this” hi-hat sound? What does this tell us about ourselves, as humans… There's so much more I could offer here—and my roots in electronic music look rather different to my role as a 'professional' these days. Ultimately, machines were a way we could feel more human. And machine music was a way many of us could gather and commune around a central fascination which no one needed to be the 'center' of in order to celebrate.
What gear did you cut your teeth on making electronic music?
My first pieces of kit were a Roland 505 drum machine, and then later a couple of 707s and a couple of 727s. My first synth was a Roland JX-3P, bought for $200 in 1992 or '93. I also briefly owned an Akai S612 sampler, and then for many years an Akai S01 and S2000 sampler, and MPC2000XL, Roland SH-101, Juno-106, a couple of modded drum-machines (including a Korg Super Percussion modded by acid house legend Adonis)....oh, and a couple of JV-1080 synth modules (PCM samples!) and a Korg 03R/W module my father bought.
The list goes on and on and on… In fact, I bought the first generation Novation Bass Station in '95 too… and then owned the rather remarkable VS880 hard-disk recorder, which I still think is one the most brilliant, versatile and robust bits of gear ever made. I used to record all my work to the VS880, sequenced via the MPC2000XL—we had a family computer, but it was way too sluggish to sequence without glitching. So much gear… so much.
Is this hardware still in your collection?
At the moment, in Berlin, I've got a smaller hardware collection, but still a reasonable amount of it. I have an aging Elektron Machinedrum, Sherman Filterbank 2, Roland Alpha-Juno, Roland SH-101, Korg Volca Beats, Bass and Keys, MFB 522 drum-machine, Korg Kaossilator Pro, a bunch of Boss guitar pedals, old bucket-brigade analog delays, and a newish Allen and Heath ZED FX mixer to make sense of it all. There are more bits 'n pieces which my brother in Australia (also a producer) has solicited… as well as a Fender Rhodes of mine, far too heavy to transport…
What about the hardware you're using now?
So… these days I'm using the Korg Volcas for SO much. I'm really enjoying their tactility and noisiness—particularly when paired with a Boss Distortion pedal, or a simple hardware compressor. I've been generating a lot with the Beats, in particular. "Dirt Thief" is a great example of the SH-101—the central arpeggiated motif is just an SH-101 sequence, recorded and arranged in Ableton Live. I still prefer to use the 101's internal sequencer rather than external sequencers to trigger it. When I use hardware, I'm usually interested in the sound it offers when distorted, used inappropriately, or driven a little too far—I'm interested in the quality and kind of hum and noise it can produce, and the sort of programming restrictions it can offer. Gear like the SH-101 is wonderful in this respect—it's full of challenges and hidden sonic 'fingerprints' which make it quite intimate. I believe that the same sorts of restrictions can be built into a software workflow, but I'm far better having some arbitrary restrictions offered to me initially…old hardware also feels, to me, like a way of making sense of history and place.
"These days I'm using the Korg Volcas for SO much."
Generally, my process involves starting up a machine at random, and then exploring using it in a certain effects chain or configuration. I'll just write passages, loops, and record them off, and then file them away—with no need for any 'context' to place them in. All of my music is written in this way—trawling through archives of loops and passages I've recorded, and then throwing them together to see which elements 'sing'. Performing live is an amalgam of approaches—some fairly inflexible stems and tracks, combined with the option of synchronized hardware addition, or pure hardware jamming, depending on how things are working. The Machinedrum and SH-101 used to be central live-performance workhorses, but I'm currently trying to compact things a little—I'm trying to work out what I can do with Ableton Live, Push, and the Volcas, along with Fireface UXC offering multiple audio-outputs to an external mixer.
What about software? I believe you're an Ableton Live user primarily?
I use Ableton Live every day—and I tend to use it in a very basic, robust and direct way. To be completely honest, since my early experiments in the '90s with Cubase Score, I've always been quite timid around computer sequencing—inasmuch as I'm reticent to create overly complex patches and templates, and I always favor native plug-ins, rather than unknown third-party units. In this way, I'm a little antiquated! I've always found it really important to write material on the road, on the plane, on the bus etc.—so I've largely kept my use of Live as simple as possible. The Glue compressor in Ableton 9 is really lovely, and I use Live's Multiband compressor as a sort of hatchet to bash unruly samples into shape.
"The Glue compressor in Ableton 9 is really lovely, and I use Live's Multiband compressor as a sort of hatchet to bash unruly samples into shape."
In terms of third-party plug-ins, the two best investments I've made in my life have been the PSP Vintage Warmer and Xenon limiter. They are such a core part of my sound. I'm also a massive fan of the very affordable GSi plug-ins—a super simple set of really colored tape delay and spring reverb emulations. The SoundToys Little PrimalTap delay is also so fantastic—it's a joy to find plug-ins with their own odd character.
In terms of soft synths, I remain enamoured by Native Instruments Reaktor—the user library is bizarre, expansive and exciting. I love it so much—from the purely experimental to the tightly-tooled. FM8 makes and appearance from time to time, and I still use the Reaktor Player (discontinued) for a lot of go-to sounds. A lot of newer soft synths are a little 'over-programmed' to my ears—too many effects, too wide a stereo presence, etc. There are some gorgeous ensembles in NI Reaktor that offer things like a really usable square wave. Less is always more—which (as mentioned) is why pieces of kit like my SH-101 never leave my side.
You've recently shot a video course for AskVideo.com as part of the Electronic Artists Revealed series. Tell us more about what we can expect to see in the course and the direction you take in teaching your production techniques.
My AskVideo course, is, in many ways, quite a personal take on music-production. As mentioned, I'm no software genius, but I have a long-standing relationship with hardware production, and I'm quite defiant about the value of restrictions, randomness and intentional simplicity as a way to add value and direction to a production. For my course, I've endeavored to share quite a personal set of conventions, ideas, and tools I use regularly in my work, without needing to involve actual hardware. There are a series of tutorials which are prefaced with a quick discussion of pieces of hardware which have been seminal to my sound, or the various electronic sub-genres in general—and then an exploration of how we might approach adopting some of these sonic conventions in a software environment.
"I've endeavored to share quite a personal set of conventions, ideas, and tools I use regularly in my work, without needing to involve actual hardware."
I explore everything from ways to create basic, idiosyncratic sonic variations in delays and reverbs, to how to use units like a Drum Rack in ways in which they weren't really 'designed' to be used. Ultimately, I still want to feel like a kid in '93, playing around with a soldering iron and a cheap Casio keyboard, or hooking up a drum machine to trigger a randomized synth bassline for the first time. I'm hoping that my course can offer some tools and IDEAS to producers wanting to think a little more quixotically about their music ;)
Deepchild's new video course is well worth checking out: https://www.askvideo.com/course/deepchild-dirty-circuits-analog-sound-digital-tools
As well as the tech side of things, we'd love to know more about your creative process and what inspires you when creating music…
At its heart, creating music is one way I survive the onslaught of modern living. It began in the mid '90s as an experiment in finding a 'place' to belong, which was both entirely alien and deeply intimate. A secret language, a secret code. A music that (at the time) was intentionally non-commercial (because there was no 'scene') and also a means of exploring the interface between private and public space. This fascination of the nature of shared space (physical, spiritual) private experience continues to drive me. When I make music, I'm just toying with time and space—and it's toying with me. Sample-based music is also a way of filtering stimulus, of re-examining the past. I still return—time and time again—to sampling things like gaps of 'air' between drum-hits on an old funk record, or YouTube interview. I want to know what happens when we use music to explore silence… and I'm fascinated with music which explores silence, physicality and ritual.
"I'm fascinated with music which explores silence, physicality and ritual."
I find great value in physical exercise, yoga, meditation, and sleep as creative sources of inspiration.
I'm fascinated by 'new' pop and R&B music, not because it's 'new', but rather because it helps me better understand what aspects of the past people cling to, reframe and recast. So many genres (e.g. 'deep house', 'hip hop') have become revisionist parodies of themselves, and I often wonder why? When did 'real house music' become a thing? Why did the house music pioneers never seem to care so much about making 'real' house music? These sorts of binaries are ones I'm keen to steer clear from. I just want to make and listen to music which feels honest, or at least lies convincingly. ;)
Are there any artists you're listening to now that you'd recommend?
At the moment, my playlist is ranging from '80s recordings from intercepted shortwave spy-radio transmissions (The Conet Project) to Beyoncé's new album, to Donna Summer. Some names which are part of my regular fodder include Vladislav Delay, Nils Frahm, Robert Hood, a lot of the stuff on labels like 50 Weapons or ECM Classic Jazz, Drexciya, The Roots, Donny Hathaway, Keith Jarrett, my buddy Cosmin TRG, Amiri Baraka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Boards of Canada, older house/juke re-releases from Chiwax and Dance Mania. I spend a lot of time on the Alan Lomax Archives listening to recordings and interviews from late '40s of field workers and singers…
You're about to go on tour… but what's been cooking in your studio?
So much new material. Just released is a new 12” for Face 2 Face Records (run by my friend and incredible producer/mastering engineer, Tim Xavier) called “Haitian Rum Runner”… shortly after which will follow a new release for Thoughtless Music called “Slave Driver/Woman”, then later in the year another 12” for Danse Club Records/Armada Music by way of the UK, and then a couple of compilation releases later in the year. Lots of noisy techno, and a few secret side-projects. Meanwhile, I've been running a label called Seppüku Records, with my manager here in Berlin—it's our outlet for exploring more experimental, drone, shoegaze and ambient music. There's a rather large North American tour to get through first, and then the rest of the Berlin summer to survive. Holidays and long summer-days are not my strong-point, I'm afraid. There's just so much more I have to learn.
Check out Deepchild's videos on music production at AskVideo here: