Looking back through the history of music, it’s often communities that incubate the most exciting developments in sound. Individual pioneers do exist and should not be disregarded, but most tangible musical movements are formed by people exchanging ideas and creatively spurring each other on. In the online era, these movements aren’t always defined by genre or geography, but by a shared philosophy that steers music into new, unexpected territory.
Around a cluster of labels including 3XL, West Mineral Ltd. and Motion Ward, there’s a collective of artists pursuing a vibrant strain of experimental electronic music that’s too amorphous to fit a particular genre. On any given release there might be beats, but they’re rarely crafted with formulaic dancefloor functionality in mind. The music is often beatless, but the deep wells of aquatic, dubby drone exist alongside dynamic, restless textures that reject the ambient tag. The leftfield spirit of the collective is compelling, but they cast self-serious experimental music aside and instead embrace humor as vital inspiration.
The number of artists feeding into this new subsection of electronic music is growing daily – the labels act as a magnet for like-minded children of the internet, for whom samples are sourced via deep-diving YouTube wormholes, rather than traditional crate-digging. We’ve connected with a few of the key instigators who shape out this shapeless scene, to explore the philosophies and approaches that feed into their unconventional sound world.
3XL is principally run by Special Guest DJ, otherwise known as Shy, who adopts myriad masks for different releases and has a tangled web of collaborations that criss-cross the scene we’re talking about. Originally from the US but now based in Berlin, he’s a prolific nexus for the music who also provides artwork, mastering and other elements that bind his label together. Among Shy’s many sonic sparring partners is Ben Bondy, a New York artist originally from Kansas City. Perila is a prolific artist whose career has touched upon labels like Shelter Press and Smalltown Supersound, as well as being intimately connected to the 3XL universe. The three artists cross paths in different projects, along with other key players like Ulla Strauss, Exael, Huerco S. and Pontiac Streator, but they’re all individual artists in their own right, too.
“It’s crazy how many different things everyone in my orbit makes,” muses Shy, “and also myself by extension too. We’re all on very different tips and wildly changing all the time, but we all share the same fried sensibilities, in some way.”
A fundamental aspect of the collaborations between these artists is jamming, whether they’re sketching out a stem to send remotely or improvising together in real time at home or on stage. There are no hard and fast rules to how they approach making music together, but they mainly work “in the box,” in contrast to the renewed focus on hardware in electronic music in recent years.
“I'm not a gear person,” says Perila, “and I sometimes felt a bit insecure about that, but now, more and more, I realize this is who I am. When I think of all the collaborative projects between us, I think the beauty of the processes we all have is that you don’t need much – it’s all inside of you.”
“I don't think any of us have really ever been able to afford hardware,” says Shy. “Every time I buy a piece of gear, I have to sell it – I get bored or I don’t use it. I’ve kept the Push, though, because the Push feels like maybe the only thing that is actually useful, because of its versatility.”
If anything, they’re more likely to pick up a guitar to feed into the mix, instead of using a synth or outboard sequencer. There’s a certain rock undercurrent that manifests in this music – this became more explicit with the virtualdemonlaxative album from 2020 on West Mineral Ltd., when Exael, Pontiac Streator, Shy and Ulla created a digital inversion of grindcore. Shy and Exael also drew on Deftones’ smoldering strain of nu-metal for their Hoodie project. The influence of trip hop and illbient also leads some of the artists towards more structured music, like Zakharenko’s R&B-tinted Baby Bloom release from 2022.
“I’m not really into repetitive beats in my own productions,” explains Perila, who is also developing a more song-oriented, shoegaze-informed collaboration with Exael as Baby Bong. “But when you look at the beats through a different prism like R&B or trip-hop, it's so much more vibey – you start grooving, and it’s a different way to use your voice, so I’m interested in that as an exercise and as a relaxation practice, because it’s low-pressure.”
Perila also lends her singer-songwriter tendencies to a track on Exael’s forthcoming, pop-flavored album, which Shy emphatically describes as, “one of the most lush, incredibly crisp records,” while Shy and Exael are releasing a final Hoodie collaboration with the singer James K. But much of the music they’ve released in the past three years – of which there is a lot – has been spurred on by instinctive improvisation. Critical Amnesia is the prime example of the crew’s collaborative spirit – a casual ‘supergroup’ made up of Exael, Perila, OL, VTGNike, Huerco S and Shy jamming in Shy’s Berlin flat. The resulting record on xpq? is a widescreen affair, unsurprisingly bursting with energy. The two jam sessions were long, relaxed affairs, with each artist following their own processes in sonic conversation with everyone else, all feeding into one mixer and eventually edited into six tracks.
“I loved Critical Amnesia so much because it embodied my perfect approach of intuitive jamming,” says Perila. “It was so free and loose. It's a completely different kind of music, and you can hear it is so potent, like a living organism. Everyone was using their own tools, and I love so much that it’s not like five techno producers that came together, but everyone’s coming from this crazy, super galactic space with a very open mind. I think there's so much beauty in it.”
“Critical Amnesia was maybe one of the most confusing records I’ve ever put out,” adds Shy. “I think a lot of my strength in those collaborations comes in editing and general production, mixing. I’m also kind of a bassist, so a lot of times I write basslines for things with my Push.”
Shy readily describes himself as someone who struggles starting with the ‘blank page’ of a new project, happy to respond to a friend’s stems as a jump off point to get into micro edits and minimal sound design. While he admits it might be helpful to build some project templates for more focused album work, the lack of organization also gives rise to the open-ended spirit of his music. That’s why blown-out alt-rock allure can sit alongside intricate electro-acoustic layering or avant-dub treatments. When it comes to jams, Shy simply starts with a sample and then drops in devices intuitively until something takes shape.
“I’ll build up long-form pieces,” he says, “and then the editing comes later. You find that chunk and then detail it – add effects, pull it apart, put it back together.”
That’s how the xphresh record came about, when Bondy and Shy worked together for the first time. The two had been in touch for years before, but it was around 2021 when they finally started sending each other stems and samples remotely. The resulting xephon 12” launched 3XL (as a merger of previous labels bbliss, xpq? and Experiences Ltd.) in a blur of dislocated jungle breaks, fluttering ripples and swirling ambience.
“For the first track on that EP,” explains Bondy, “I had sent Shy what felt like a completed thing that didn’t really have structure, and then he edited the fuck out of it and added a ton of shit, and really turned it into an insane, challenging club vibe. But that music was really coming from a place of romantic tension, honestly.”
“It started out as music we were making because we were friends,” he adds, “and then it became these love letters, like little messages in the form of certain sounds that was becoming a way for us to communicate things with each other.”
The sample-heavy sonic palette of xphresh is characteristic of a widespread focus on sampling amongst the 3XL community. Similarly to ZULI’s DJ-minded approach to creating new source material, Bondy is among those who will happily throw anything into DJing software and manipulate it until an idea starts to form. As he progressed into production from a background in bands, Bondy was looking for a medium that encouraged “brain-off” experimentation and found it in the popular entry-level DJ software, Virtual DJ.
“The Virtual DJ thing is funny because it seems to be this weird universal tool our friends use a lot,” admits Bondy. “It’s this vibe like you can make music from anything. Rory, Pontiac Streator, in particular is someone that really inspired me to do the Virtual DJ thing. He is the fucking master of Virtual DJ. He doesn’t have any DAW, doesn’t edit any of his tracks. He can’t mix his tracks, can’t EQ them – he finishes them, sends them to be mastered and they’re done.”
When Bondy and Streator worked together on the blessed kitty, some of the slippery rhythms you might associate with neighboring artists were made with the Virtual DJ approach. Streator would send a fairly rhythmic stem to Bondy, who would load it into Virtual DJ and record a take running the jog wheel back to create an initial layer of reversed percussive pulses. After bouncing that take and loading it back in, he’d repeat the process and then loop the resulting stem until the strange, polyrhythmic doubled-up beat started to create its own mutant groove. You can hear it on the track “boyfriend,” but it’s a production trick that crops up elsewhere, as on Perila’s track “Time Swamp” from her 2020 album Everything Is Already There.
“The crimeboys record is a crazy deep love letter to a really wide array of samples,” says Shy, referring to his recent collaboration with Pontiac Streator. “It begins with a sample of “Blade Runner Blues” by Vangelis as the first track. The first few bars are literally just an unadulterated pad from the beginning of that track. Then there’s Vladislav Delay samples, Burial samples, Grimes… it's just a wild sampling vibe.
“Ableton Live came into the end of the crimeboys project,” he adds, “because I was finishing all the tracks, adding details, adding basslines. I used Guitar Rig a lot from Native Instruments for certain effects, just to give it the density and atmosphere a lot of straightforward dance music doesn’t have.”
Beyond their makeshift take on the sampling process, the source material itself moves beyond well-worn conventions like sample packs or records to become a more personal, honest approach. Bondy has a self-described ‘anything goes’ attitude towards sampling, which draws heavily from YouTube, taking sounds from gear tutorial videos for equipment that remains out of reach. It’s an echo of the early days of sampling, when bedroom producers would get the sounds of high-end synths they couldn’t afford from the records in their collection. Equally, his sampling can just be a by-product of idle time spent swimming through the internet’s near-infinite resources, whether trying to find out “what the inside of a washing machine sounds like,” or running a quick screen grab mid-movie to get some crunchy sound design from a Hollywood blockbuster.
“There are so many different ranges of audio and audio quality I can find on the internet,” explains Bondy, “and now, jamming, it always feels like anything goes. I have my music library, and I have my downloads folder that has random stems or just random shit in it. That's where a lot of the pop edits I was doing last year were coming from. I have so many pop songs downloaded that I listened to all the time, just on the train or whatever, so that became my source material to add my own shit to.”
In the field
Field recording is also recurrent in the music orbiting 3XL. For Perila, it’s a process that’s deepened over time to take on an almost sacred dimension as she documents spaces she’s working in. While on a residency near Toulouse in France, which resulted in her recent Shelter Press album On The Corner Of The Day, she was able to access a gallery space in a rural setting that allowed her to focus on the acoustic qualities of her surroundings with heightened sensitivity.
“I was so inspired by the space that was given to me,” she explains. “I was recording a lot of space and singing in the space on my Zoom recorder. I was using an Izotope granular synth plugin a lot, recording a lot of vocal and snippets and processing a lot of live drum recordings from my archive. I was just jamming around and all these things started to sit together so perfectly, reflecting my mood and the space on these super sunny summer days there, playing with light and shadows.”
She started out heavily processing field recordings, but as Perila’s practice has turned more towards found-sound, she’s started to interrogate her creative approach. When a sound is captured, in a cave system for example, it comes with such a strong sense of place that she’s been less motivated to manipulate it into something else.
“Lately, if there was a very special reverb and acoustic situation, I like to use almost raw recordings, because it almost feels illegal to me to interact or interfere with them,” she says. “I want to explore more bringing the acoustics of real spaces into making music at home or during live performances – bringing other spaces inside the space you’re in.
“We tend to use so many effects nowadays,” she adds. “In [Live], it’s so easy, but I already have this process to start reducing effects and keeping my field recordings raw, and playing more with the reverb of spaces I perform in.”
Shaping the sound
Given the wayward nature of the music, it’s not easy to pinpoint the mixdown approach between all these artists and projects. Sometimes you can sense a gallery-like crispness, which speaks to the predominantly digital processes and Perila’s focus on space, while elsewhere bass and drums merge into the same blurred brushstrokes and the music is awash with reverb, but if there’s one consistent quality, it’s that the music is reliably warm. Even on Ulla’s 2022 album Foam, which Shy describes as referencing harsh, noughties digital production from the advent of DAW-based production, there’s a coziness that evades the music she nods to.
"At some point I got massively into the analogue warmth and complexities of Vladislav Delay,” says Shy, “and I also started thinking about textures differently, like record texture, and smoothness, and crispness, and how those sounds would be replicated on sound systems. I do mastering, and I always put a tube emulation on the high-end frequencies to smooth them, because I feel like it’s really important to have things that could sound harshly digital slightly rounded off.”
In the free-flowing state since their music first became public, Shy and the rest of the crew have naturally gained more knowledge about the subtler qualities of production. He points to the crimeboys record as having a more prominent low-end as he started to understand how to mix bass more effectively. Bondy has similarly expanded his approach since the early Virtual DJ days to explore sequencing and synthesis, most explicitly on his album for West Mineral Ltd., Glans Intercum. There is a risk, though, that learning these new skills might mean losing the essence that made the music unique in the first place.
“I’ll edit things and chop things or glitch things out,” says Bondy. “Filtering shit and panning things to make it more spatially interesting is something I now know how to do, which is cool, but I’m at a point where I’m trying to resist the urge to think and care about that.
“A lot of people have urged Rory in particular to work in a cleaner way,” he adds, “like, ‘you should work in a DAW because you’ll be able to EQ your tracks and mix things down and stem things out,’ and I’m saying, ‘you shouldn't do that, because that’s not why your music sounds like it does.’”
Rather than the fine detail of mixing, it’s the open-minded attitude to process that gives the music around this scene its impact. In the absence of rules, the space is wide open for any number of surprising ways to generate and manipulate sound. Shy references familiar methods such as phasing two duplicate pad sounds to create a hallucinatory, underwater effect, and he describes the rhythms he created for “Surface,” one of his standout tracks as uon, a prime example of a happy accident.
“The rhythms on ‘Surface’ were made with an app on my phone called Impaktor," he explains. “You put your phone on a surface and tap the surface and it makes a rhythm. I had a run-out groove playing on a turntable and my speakers turned way up, so the beat came from the run-out groove gained out into this phone app, which then created the arrhythmical structure. I get inspired by finding new processes, but then I find myself unable to repeat them so many times.”
"A lot of people in our crew are intuitive in that way,” he adds. “They just jam and then when they find something they like, they just follow whatever vibe that is and it leads them somewhere.”
Humor and community
Humor is vital to this community and the music it creates. Like any group of friends, there are in-jokes and references that are unlikely to translate to a wider audience, but this spirit of not taking themselves too seriously feels refreshing in a wider scene where a stern, joyless approach to experimental music is something of a standard. Humor in music is a fine line to tread without falling into pastiche, but the jokes are always backed up by exceptional sounds, whether they’re having fun referencing Y2K culture on tracks like “Tomb Raider” or deciding to sample the oldest piece of noted music in human history.
“I think a lot of people expect this ambient music or whatever to be delivered in a serious, academic way,” says Bondy, “but there’s actually an incredible amount of depth in stupidity and just getting dumb, honestly. I think that's also why jamming and Virtual DJ works for so many of us, and why we like working in a scrappy way, because I think it translates that ‘brain-off’ vibe really well.”
“There have been so many shows now where me, Rory and Ulla are playing and I’ll be using a sample from the same track they’re sampling in their set,” he adds. “One of the blessed kitty tracks has a Silent Hill sample in it, and then Hoodie sampled the same track, but a different part of it. It’s like getting to the show and saying, ‘oh my god, you have motocross samples in one of your tracks too?’ It’s a different layer of conversation – the more unspoken side of our friendship.”
Even with the near-familial bonds between some of the core members of this community, it’s no closed circle. The number of new names folding into the catalogs of 3XL, West Mineral Ltd. and associated labels show the group to be as open as the music contained within. Bondy puts it down to a shared philosophy over any particular musical compatibility, but even if everything seems casual and unplanned, there is a driving force of organization gathering this music together and presenting it to the world.
“I feel it’s just the spiritual mindset,” says Perila, “this approach of ‘open road’ as we call it, where there’s no limitation and a desire to constantly shift the boundaries of our perception. People like Shy and Naemi [Exael] are pushing almost some kind of future to the present, without too much saying ‘ah, it’s futuristic music.’ But in the approach to DJing and making music, it’s something from the future, slowly bringing it to affect people’s minds a little bit so they start also thinking a bit outwards, not just within all these limiting frames like ‘ambient.’ That's what I love when I try to describe my friends’ music, they all have their own individual style. It’s a very unique processing of reality through sound.”
Keep up with 3XL on Bandcamp
Text and interviews: Oli Warwick