Thursday, October 14, 2010

Foundation and Empire

I'm staring here at five full college-ruled pages of notes from my conversation with Soundfounder, familiarly Andrew Brown, and wondering where the hell to begin. Before I get swept away perhaps it's best that I mention that Exploded Drawing 2 takes place this Friday, 10/15 at East Austin's Baby Blue Studios. This concert series cultivated by Soundfounder and fellow Austin musician Butcher Bear seeks to give original Texas electronic music its own stage. Six producers get twenty minutes apiece to present their own compositions. This week's installment will feature Multi-Tracker, Empireal Formula, Aaron Peña, Atarimatt, NickNack, and Chili.

Andrew's a serious guy who looks at things from a lot of angles. I usually have trouble maintaining eye contact with people I don't know well but after five minutes chatting  in Soundfounder's LP-filled walk-up I forget I am self-conscious. As much as I enjoy talking about music with people whose taste and views are similar to my own, I learn the most from musicians with a different approach. As a solo composer and member of the band Focus Group, Andrew's instrument is the MPC, an unassuming industrial-looking grey slab that resembles a pumped-up Speak and Spell but provides the basic sampling and looping tools to make any kind of music imaginable. The most famous MPC users are hip-hop producers, like the venerated J. Dilla, but the machine isn't any more married to a genre than a guitar or a piano. What music comes out of it is all up to what the user chooses to load into it, and how he stacks and orders his layers of found sounds.

I first wanted to talk to Soundfounder after seeing him play a low-key set in a backyard, noticing he took time between songs to explain just what it was he was doing. Musicians don't have to be open books about their creative process, but those that are make for better interviews! "People have a smoke and mirrors vibe in electronic," Andrew says. "They say 'I like that person,' but, well, what does he do? There's a lot of different things that come in. 'A DJ' has become a catch-all term." Electronic musicians can work strictly with turntables, with keyboards and triggers, with a laptop, with MPC's, or any combination of the above -- there's no right or wrong way to do it. Held in an intimate studio instead of a club, Exploded Drawing is designed to bring some more transparency to the process.

Andrew brings a bit of a rock and roll attitude to his sets. "I like to talk to the crowd, even when I do big shows... I got that from playing with Focus Group. When we started we had no mics set up to talk to the audience. The human element can be lost. I like to incorporate things I've seen songwriters do. Let people know that you are making music you are passionate about, that you're not just part of a huge blinking machine."

What fascinates me about musicians who work with samples, as opposed to twanging a guitar string or smacking a drum head, is how every piece of music they ever listen to could possibly contain elements of their next work. I could listen to Andrew talk about this all day. "I've been developing my ear for 10 years," he says, beginning as a hip-hop producer in high school in San Antonio. As a result he doesn't take in a new record in quite the same way as most listeners. "I am always listening for drums. Beginning, middle, end, or in a breakdown... final, full drums that you can move around." Picking a snatch of sound that you like is only the beginning. You can take a whole figure and loop it. You can "take tiny random chunks and see how they fit together." Or you can take just a little piece out of a well-known song and see what happens, see what new rhythms are created by the edit. "Lately, the stuff I call my own is less recognizable chunks, more stuff I have manipulated."

He was drafted into the category-defying Focus Group by his high school chum Donald Gallaspy, who moved to Austin before Andrew did and met the other band members at St. Edward's. The nascent Group had been experimenting with playing their more traditional band instruments along to sampled rhythms. Donald told Andrew it worked well, and Andrew said "If you like drum loops, let's play around." Andrew has a clear idea when he is working on tracks of what stuff will go towards his solo project and which pieces he will take to the band. "I know the kinds of things that Focus Group needs from me, for the most part. Sometimes solo stuff ends up working well with the band." Interestingly, the combination works even though Soundfounder doesn't have the same grasp of music theory that the guitarists and keyboard players have. "I do everything by ear, they know scales." When he cues up a tone that clashes with the sound of the other instruments, it has to be manipulated into pitch. As a trippy instrumental act, it might surprise a few Focus Group fans that there's not much improvisation involved in live shows. "We do our improv during the songwriting process. By the time it hits the stage we stick to what works."

"Electronic music is limitless. Once you have the laptop or sampler, the only thing that limits you is memory." All you have to work with is "anything the human ear can hear." Given that, how do you know when anything is done? While a lot of his job is collecting sounds, at a certain point Andrew has to sit down and shape what he's got into finished pieces. "I go through phases where I'm working on music a lot. I'm pretty close to finishing a new Soundfounder record. Time to go back and polish stuff I have and make it presentable." He's been recording his new material live to analog tape, which is something that might surprise a lot of electronica fans but makes perfect sense to me. In addition to modern acts such as Boards of Canada and Flying Lotus, Andrew finds a lot of inspiration in 70's rock... Randy Newman, the Kinks, Harry Nilsson. "That's why I had to record to tape!"

As a rock musician I spend a lot of time debating how much computer post-production is too much. The technology exists nowadays to clean up tracks and snap beats to grids so perfectly that even hard rock and country bands on the radio sound automated. Speaking to Soundfounder I learn that it's something electronic artists consider as well. "Perfection is attainable -- perfect time-wise, melody-wise, clean... if you want." But as he's gotten more experienced his attitude towards this has changed. "Things I would have considered horrible mistakes earlier" he now keeps, "allowing chaos to play a role." Listeners expect perfection, so Andrew tries to do the opposite of what's expected. That's an impulse to which any artist can relate!

When he first came to Austin, Andrew did DJ gigs, but what he wanted most was to play shows, original music for a crowd that's there to listen as opposed to dance. "That's one reason I took Focus Group seriously." That's also why he's working on making Exploded Drawing a scene fixture, since it's tricky for electronic producers to book rock and roll-style shows. It's puzzling being a musician doing anything outside the lines around here -- it's not that audiences don't exist, it's just that local venues, press, and promoters can be disinterested in the extra work it takes to mobilize potential fans of what's new and different. Musicians have to take the initiative. Soundfounder and Butcher Bear ("my ideal partner in crime") are trying to increase exposure for like-minded artists all over Texas. They know the interest is there. "After my opening sets for Take and Nosaj Thing, I let people know I was starting [Exploded Drawing] and got two pages of e-mail addresses," Andrew says.

So what can you expect Friday? "We could fill up the roster with just our homies, but to keep it interesting and fresh we must mix in people we don't know. 2 of the 6 at this next one I don't know." They will try to keep it diverse. "A good mix of pros and complete weirdos. Not all inbred, not all digital or all analog." If you are a producer who wishes to be considered for future Exploded Drawing shows, write and let them know where they can hear your music. "I love it when people send me links!" says Andrew. And remember, "we want pros and inspired amateurs." Some performers are well-established Austin DJ's with polished sets. Some are venturing out of the bedroom for the first time! Should be good.

Bottom line? "I'm part of a community I'm trying to build," says Andrew. "Austin has fertile soil to create a scene for these kind of performances." By using his talent and connections to build opportunities for other producers in the same boat, Soundfounder's personal gravity is rising the tide. Local rockers take note.

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