Have you ever felt like you’ve woken up inside a dream, or that you regained consciousness while still actually dreaming? For California-born techno artist Jamaica Suk, these metacognitive states of awareness, known as lucid dreams, are not only a regular occurrence but a source of musical inspiration.
From her early days as a Bay Area jazz-musician turned DJ, producer and event organizer, Jamaica has gone on to establish herself as a familiar face within the global techno community. Having dedicated much of her time to crafting and developing her studio productions, Jamaica has become widely known for a steady output of contemporary music, interlaced with distorted avant-garde melodies and pulsating industrial grooves.
As part of this month’s XLR8R+ edition, Jamaica Suk is releasing her new track, “Dream Delusions”. We met up with her for a talk about the inspiration, techniques, and creative strategies used to produce the track – and she has shared a download of her Live Set for a direct look into her process.
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Please note: this Live Set and included samples are for educational use only and cannot be used for commercial purposes.
Jamaica, thanks for meeting up with us today. You’ve said in the past that you draw inspiration from a wide range of music, from shoegaze, psychedelic rock, and metal to various dance genres like happy hardcore, jungle, and trance. Would you say all of these influences contribute to the music you make today?
All of these influences have inspired me and perhaps you can hear some of this in my music. It depends though. My production is minimalistic and involves contrast; there’s often darkness and light. There’s probably more influence from bands in my production rather than other varieties of music that I’ve drawn inspiration from. Drums in techno are similar to metal music and heavier rock because of the high intensity in the kick and the bass and melodies evolving over time. I want to fuse more of my influences into my music and I know this will be a life-long process. One of my live sets incorporates my bass guitar which is played through a modular synth. This set is more experimental/ambient and reflects some of my band influences. It is challenging for me to reflect those influences into my techno productions and DJ sets, I feel that it's easier to show them in an ambient/experimental setting rather than a full-on driving techno set.
With such a broad and diverse musical background, what was it about techno that got you so hooked?
I heard it and I fell in love with it. The whole idea of repetition is fascinating to me. Once you get pulled in, you may think you’re just hearing a loop, but then you realize all of these patterns are changing and evolving over time and it makes your head spin. It’s really helpful for disconnecting. Dancing and listening to techno is like transcendental meditation.
Before you started making electronic music, did you have any prior formal training as a musician?
I trained and spent most years studying jazz. I played bass guitar in jazz bands for my college, my high school, and small jazz groups. I also played upright bass in a symphony for two years.
Do you think there is a place for classical/jazz music within your techno productions and do you still find yourself still drawing on that early training?
For melodies, yes. I love melodies and I add them to my productions and DJ sets. Sometimes I try to skip that and just focus on drums, but it’s difficult. I especially love avant-garde sounding melodies. Some melodies I write are dissonant at times and that reminds me of jazz. I love jazz scales that include dissonant notes, the ones that make your hairs stand up on your arms, you know?
Clockwise, by Jamaica Suk
When writing a track, do you have a feeling or emotion that you hope to convey in the hope that other people may feel that too?
I know that not everyone connects to every track and I like the idea of there being something out there for different listeners. I also know the music I make is not for everybody. For the people it does reach, I hope they can connect to my feelings. I don’t write soft music, it's often moody and includes a lot of emotion.
In a typical week, how much time do you spend making music, and what motivates you to keep going?
Music is my therapy. I have to write music, it’s a part of my lifestyle. I write music at least five days per week for at least five hours per day. I try to write something new for twenty minutes a day.
It's an interesting concept that you try to work on a new idea for twenty minutes a day. So much of jazz music is about jamming and improvisation, do you think this daily ritual has any connection to your roots as a jazz musician?
Perhaps, yes. Before, when I played jazz every day, I invested hours into studying scales, playing improv’ bass, and jamming, so that is pretty similar to the idea of allowing time to jam daily and see if some magic happens.
Let’s take a look at your Live Set. Can you tell us where the inspiration for the track came from and how you came about naming it “Dream Delusions”?
This track reflects that lucid state of consciousness when you wake up in a dream and find it difficult to realize if it’s real or not. If you do realize it is a dream, you can try to control aspects of it. This is lucid dreaming. I have a strong level of lucid dreaming. My dreams can feel like reality for a while until one or two things happen that could not happen in real life. Hopefully, by this point, I realize it's a dream or I wake up. This track reflects the battle of reaching a lucid dream state or waking up from an intensely vivid one.
Was the track made with any specific space or audience in mind?
I did have the club in mind. I wanted to create a track that could be played in a DJ set that was still dreamy with an avant-garde melody and a bit dissonant. Often when I’m creating tracks they come from a really good jam or a cool sketch that I expand on. I don’t think about where the track’s going or what label it’ll maybe get released on, I finish the track for me.
When describing “Dream Delusions” to us previously, you labeled it as deep and groovy. How important is a groove to you in your productions? And how do you go about creating this?
Groove is very important to me. Some techno can feel mechanical and soulless. Groove is something personal that you feel deep inside your body and soul. Connecting to the rhythm of a track is important in machine music, although it’s easy to write something that lacks groove, especially if you don’t add shuffle to percussive elements.
One noticeable thing about the track is the warmth and timbre of your kick and sub-bass section. Can you walk us through your process?
The kick drums are layered. I recorded one of the kick sounds from a module called the Basimilus Iteritas Alter and another from my Elektron Analog Rytm. I can’t remember where the last drum sample is from. It’s probably a combination of my Roland TR8S and TR9 running through a Rat distortion pedal and a small bit of internal reverb from my Allen & Heath Zed 22 FX console.
The Stutter Kick is from my Erica Synths Techno System running through a Vermona distortion and WASP filter module. It reminds me of metal actually because it sounds like a double kick.
Your hi-hats appear to be a combination of layers and patterns. What did you use to create those?
I used a VST called Drumazon for 909 hi-hats. I like this VST from D16, it has an authentic sound. For the ride cymbals, I recorded my Roland TR-9.
Jamaica Suk used Drumazon, by D16 to create 909 style hi-hat patterns
When it comes to creating the melodic elements in your tracks, what are your go-to techniques and workflows, and are there any favorite synths you like to use?
For this track I used Hive; a VST by U-HE and I’m sequencing it with the Mono Sequencer Max For Live device. I like using the Mono Sequencer and I’ve found it great for sketching ideas quite quickly. When I’m traveling and producing on headphones I’ll often start with the Mono Sequencer for melodies. In the studio, I record analog gear through my console and sequence it with a Dark Time sequencer by Doepfer. The Mono Sequencer in Ableton reminds me of the Dark Time sequencer because it’s almost like rolling the dice and you can randomly select musical notes. This reminds me of my approach using the Mono Sequencer which is why I love these two sequencers. It’s all about using your ears. I know this might be a scary approach for some producers but for me, it’s cool because I can just listen, roll the dice a bit and then go in and tune everything according to what I hear and envision in my mind.
Jamaica Suk uses the Mono Sequencer Max for Live device to create melodies with software synths like Hive, by U-HE
When you talk about rolling the dice, do you mean working with concepts like probability or randomization?
Yes, as well with musical notes but it’s not something I’ll do 100% of the time. I’ll often use this approach as a starting point and if there’s something I hear and like I’ll expand on it. When I regain control, I’ll tune the musical notes, adjust velocities and other parameters to what I envision and hear in my mind.
There’s a distinctive lead track called Keys Hook in the Live Set, which sounds almost as if it was recorded in a cavernous space with water dripping from the ceilings. Can we open this up and see how you made it?
So as I mentioned I used the Hive synth by U-HE and there are some pretty effective filters inside this VST. I recorded this hook live with automation in real-time. Those watery sounds are from a layer inside the patch. When I picked the patch that I liked for this hook, I adjusted the parameters so it’s not 100% sounding like a stock preset. This is pretty important to me as a producer. If I use a preset on a synth or VST I’ll alter them before using them in a track.
You’ve also recorded some fx sounds with your Dave Smith Mono Evolver. One of them sounds almost like ghostly voices shrouded in radio interference. How did you create this?
That was recorded live from my Dave Smith Mono Evolver processed through a Line Six DL4 pedal, Rat Distortion Pedal, and my Eventide H9.
There are some interesting swelling pads, made with Absynth and Live 11’s Echo device. Is there anything you can tell us about them?
Absynth is a classic synth that sounds amazing; it’s pretty timeless. I wanted to emphasize the drop with something not too crazy sounding. With the Dave Smith Mono Evolver, it’s easy to achieve weird sounds, but if I want something more pad-like I’ll use Absynth or my Prophet 12.
You have some stabs which when soloed sound almost as if they are from a different piece of music, in a different key. When played together with everything else it completely works. Can you tell us anything about them?
That sound comes from my SYNC 0.5 module by Michigan Synthworks. It’s a percussive module that can also sound a little bit like a synthesizer. The sound then goes through my Veromona distortion module. The stabs really cut through the mix, they have a very distinct sound, it doesn’t sound like something I could have created with any of my VST instruments. I quite like the combination between analog recordings and VST instruments.
How long have you been working with modular synths and what inspired you to move over to a live performance mostly devoted to them?
I’ve worked with modular synths for about three to four years. Before that, I used live looping pedals, drum machines, and synthesizers with Ableton Live. When I started performing live sets I used Ableton Live. It’s less stressful for me to perform with Ableton because I can see everything in an organized fashion and this is helpful. Lately, I have been focused on performing analog live sets, but I do see the advantages of integrating Max for Live, and the CV Tools devices with modular synths. This is how a few other producers I know perform live sets and I’m considering if I should change my live performance to this.
Jamaica Suk’s Eurorack modular instrument setup, used in her studio and live performances
When it comes to mixing down your music, is your process very clinical and precise or do you prefer to do things by ear?
I do 50% of my mixing using my intuition and 50% hopefully following rules and techniques I’ve learned in audio school and have developed over time.
A lot depends on my setup and if I’m used to my studio and room. “Dream Delusions” was mixed in my old studio, where I was pretty aware of the translatability of my room. Since I’ve had a new studio, it’s taken me some time to get used to mixing in a different room. I find it interesting that it doesn’t matter how nice your setup is, what gear you do have or lack – it’s all about being comfortable in your environment, understanding the translatability to different speakers, your home system, or headphones. You can check a mix on laptop speakers for instance, and then it’s a case of knowing how to get back into your studio and make adjustments while doing these A, B, and C tests. This way, you can achieve a proper mixdown.
Does mixing go hand in hand with the creative process for you, or do you prefer to do the creative work first and mix everything down at the end?
It goes hand in hand, but I’ll do both. I’ll sculpt the sounds initially and develop the sound design during the creative process. After that, I go into arrangement mode and finally spend time mixing down in the final stage.
You’ve said in the past that as an artist you’re always finding different sides of yourself, different personalities, and developing your sound. Where do you see yourself taking things next?
I’m still very much in love with techno and I’d like to continue releasing more of it.
Since the pandemic, I’ve had more time to focus on other types of music like ambient and experimental. I’m pretty excited about how this has evolved and I’ll continue to pursue this. I’m not sure if everything will be released under my producer name or an alias. I’m excited to see what happens.
Keep up with Jamaica Suk on Facebook, Instagram and jamaicasuk.com
A version of this article appeared on XLR8R+.