For the better part of ten years, Toronto-based electronic musician Jacques Greene has produced a hazy and highly emotive type of dance music. Like Jamie xx, How to Dress Well, and many other artists of the last decade, he is known to blend elements of ambient, house, post-Burial dubstep, and R&B into a sort of amorphous, genreless sound. On past recordings, Greene (real name Philippe Aubin-Dionne) embraced the near limitlessness of laptop sound design and production – sequencing and editing hardware sounds and R&B samples into a reverberant, cohesive whole. But on his most recent record, Dawn Chorus (out now on LuckyMe), Greene flipped the musical script.
As Greene recently told us over a nearly hour-long Skype conversation, he wanted to bring live instrumentation and vocal performances into the mix – to do something highly collaborative. Dawn Chorus is not, however, some conceptual return to vintage recording techniques with live players, as Daft Punk did on Random Access Memories. Greene’s sound design and techniques are similar to past efforts, except this time instead of using samples from other musicians, he brought collaborators into the recording studio, or had them send instrumental tracks over the internet.
Amongst the select artists on Dawn Chorus are friends and frequent collaborators Machinedrum and Clams Casino, vocalist Juliana Barwick and Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon. Greene also worked on three tracks with musician and screen composer Brian Reitzell – a former drummer for hardcore punk band Redd Kross – after hearing his work with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields on the shoegaze-heavy soundtrack for Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
Listening to Dawn Chorus, there can be no doubt that it is a Jacques Greene album. The beats, melodies, and melancholic-euphoric atmospheres are undeniably his own. And yet, this new collaborative approach imbues the record with a sort of organic quality that makes it, as he told us, sound alive in a different way.
I was wondering if you could talk about how your process – that is, your songwriting and sound design – worked in the past, so that we can sort of set the stage for how you worked on Dawn Chorus.
To be honest, and for better or worse, I don't think I've really changed all that much in 15 years of making laptop music. [Laughs] For me, it was always this thing of like, I used to play like a lot of guitar, playing in bands and stuff like that. And the minute I kind of found out about electronic music, which was really through Amon Tobin, Boards of Canada, Bonobo, and that kind of wave of like electronica, I was really fascinated with the idea of being able to make music by myself. The computer was always a really important part, but it always felt to me like you need a computer and a couple of machines. And so, the very first year it was maybe a pirated copy of Fruity Loops and an Akai MPC.
But, very early on – it must have been Live 5 or something – it was really a classic story of a MIDI controller that comes with Live Lite, you know? It was always, “Okay, I need, I always need the software, but in a way the software was like the four track.” I’d get a couple synths and a couple of PCs, but even when I'm using the internal synths of a computer, it’s really just the computer as a sequencer more than anything else. As that went on, I guess I started knowing what I wanted to do. There's always been more programming of drums inside the box. But, for some reason, I can't really settle down on a synth sound or a melody even if I write it in the box; I almost need to track it to audio and treat it as a sample that I then chop up.
The infinite possibilities of sound of computer music fucking scare me, so I need to commit to a sound and I need to commit to a melody. But with drums I'm the opposite: I need to be able to shift the snare by a millisecond up until the last second. So, there's always been this very amorphous, organic, in-and-outside the box process. Even things that start in the laptop get bounced to audio really quickly.
So, you like to build a track on hardware and then sequence and edit it in Live?
Yeah, for sure. I have a couple of machines, like the TR-606, and there's something about the way those hi hats choke. And even as much as I try to be good when I'm tracking it in – just the hi hat, or just the snare – there's something about the way it sounds so shitty when the whole mix is together, it’s just so sick.
... and no matter what I'm doing with a synthesizer, whether it's a three-chord progression or not, I'll still track it for nine or 10 minutes with every minute variation, like the filter opening, the filter closing, or slightly slower attack. Then I start patching things together, like, “Oh, this is probably how open I want the filter to be for the intro section”. I really get in there and chop it up and lay it out.
Right. Getting into the minutiae, as you say.
Yes, and that hasn't changed. I would never sequence a full track within the MPC. I would chop a drum loop on the MPC and then put it into the laptop.
Since we're talking about beats, you worked with Brian Reitzell on this album, who is known for his drum work in the band Redd Kross, as well as his work with Kevin Shields on the Lost In Translation soundtrack. What was it like working with Brian?
Brian’s incredible. He used to be a punk drummer, so he's extremely inspiring to me. He’s become one of those people you kind of come across in your life where you think, “If I'm him in 20 years, I'll be okay”. [Laughs]
We set up three days for [recording] this spring. I couldn't afford to hire him as a co-writer or co-producer, so I had to come in with all my musical ideas. I guess I took on his services for additional instruments. So, I came into his studio with records that were essentially 90% of the way there, but they were Ableton projects and felt just like electronic music. We didn’t end up going fully shoegaze because that’s not where his head is at now.
For instance, this one track, “Sibling”, had a cool arpeggio synth line, but it’s just a synth, and I was wondering how we could blow it up. First of all, we ran the synths through very Kevin Shields-approved distortion units to give it a lot of those crazy harmonics. But, Brian said, “Oh, I have these robot arm mallets with rubber tips, and we can get them to single out the D sharp on this arpeggio and record it over here on this gamelan.” So, I exported the MIDI from my project into his box, and then we re-recorded every note on the arpeggio, so the robot is hitting every note [on the gamelan] but they’re real.
What other experiments did you and Brian explore?
There was a white noise on one of my songs, and Brian said, “You know what we could do? I've got this metal sheet and a bunch of fucking nails, and we can filter it and just use that.” And then I had a poly chord progression at the start of one of these songs and he says, “You should just play it on the CS80 instead”. And I'm like, “Yeah, okay, cool”.
What was it like playing the CS80 [the synth Vangelis used on Blade Runner]?
Honestly, it was unruly – it kept falling out of tune. It’s an old one, so it wasn’t in perfect condition. It’s very intimidating. A lot of the time working with him was like, “I've been driving these Mazdas and you've just asked me to pilot this Lamborghini”. [Laughs]
To be honest, I then feel inadequate because I can make my way around a keyboard, but I'm not a fantastic keyboard player, and obviously there's no MIDI on that thing. So, he’s tracking, and he says, “Play your chord progression”, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I can totally do that”. [Laughs] Honestly, I’m just sweating bullets trying to find a sound I like. It’s funny, the CS80 isn’t really front and center, it’s a background pad.
One thing Brian and a couple other older producer guys have really tried to beat into my head is, no matter what you do to your sound later, it’s always important trying to start with the highest possible quality recording you can. Try to have high quality drum samples, and if you’re recording your friend’s bass guitar, get it through a preamp into your computer. Brian was really upset with me when he realized I recorded at 48,000 kHz. He’s like, “Wait, you never recorded at 96?” And I said, “No, sorry, I don’t record at 96”. [Laughs]
While I am drawn to sounds that are a little degraded or treated, I'm trying to be more mindful about always starting from the highest possible sources, so there is actually something to degrade
We also replaced a lot of bass tracks on my record at his studio with the CODE synthesizer by Studio Electronics. It’s this insane rackmount synth. Only maniac guys use this thing – it’s a $6,000 monosynth. Brian brought it up because I was listening to Cliff Martinez’s score for Solaris, and he said, “You know that’s steel drum and all of the bass sounds are from the CODE?” And I said, ‘That’s crazy”, and he’s like, “It’s right over there”. So, okay, on these three tracks, let’s run anything that's low end through this $6,000 mono synth, because why not?
While I am drawn to sounds that are a little degraded or treated, I'm trying to be more mindful about always starting from the highest possible sources, so there is actually something to degrade. But, I do have an addiction to sampling vocals from YouTube, so I don’t know if I will ever really shake that.
That’s really interesting in the context of Boards of Canada’s recording techniques, who you mentioned earlier. Although they’ve changed over the years as far as sound and production, the really early stuff – particularly from the mixtapes – features a lot of samples that are incredibly degraded, and it’s hard to tell if the source was high quality or not.
Not to spend this entire interview talking about Brian, although we definitely could, while I was with him I kept asking, “How did you and Kevin do this thing?” And I told him I’d been buying a lot of guitar pedals and stuff like that, and he said, “Well, you know, there isn't a single guitar pedal on Loveless.” And I'm like, “What?”
Right, Kevin Shields used rack units on Loveless.
Yeah, it’s all just hi-fi shit and crazy microphones. Kevin is just a crazy, obsessive audiophile, so what you’re hearing is still so harmonically rich and dense because you’re not just running the sound through a shitty fuzzy pedal that’s going mono and making your sound small. It’s all really high end rack units, apart from the Yamaha reverse reverb stuff; but even that still had a broad frequency spectrum. That reverse reverb is on my entire record.
Yeah, it’s fascinating how Kevin recorded Loveless. He did a lot of sampling on the album, whether it was guitar feedback or found sound. But, I want to go back to the Yamaha reverse reverb for a moment. What is it about that rack unit that you like so much?
So much of my music is a lot of long pads and big, dense chords, so the Yamaha reverse reverb was used more at the mixing stage. Anything that's a long, drawn-out pad or something that’s staying within one harmonic structure, like a tight arpeggio or something, I just run at least a little bit of it into so there's always a cloud of harmonics feeding back into itself in the back.
On Dawn Chorus you worked with other musicians in the studio, a process that sets it apart from previous records. How exactly did these collaborations manifest? Were you alone and bringing musicians into the fold one-by-one?
I was kind of splitting my time between Toronto and Los Angeles over the winter, and it was more like, “I think I need this kind of thing from this person.” A lot of sessions didn't make it on the record, like a friend of mine, Kara-Lis Coverdale, a very talented composer from Montreal. She had to be in Toronto for the day, and I asked her to come over and write chords together and just have fun. Machinedrum, who is one of my best friends and is based in LA, came over to my studio, and we set up our laptops, which were synced in Live. I’d write a chord progression and he’d write a bassline over it, and that became the track “Let Go” – that was a total co-production. There are a few of those on the record, like track two, “Drop Location”, which is me and Clams Casino working together.
I’m always trying to open the palette beyond my capabilities. For what might be the simplest song on the record, the second-to-last track, “Distance”, I wanted to get this post-rock Godspeed You! Black Emperor sound. So, when I was in New York I got my friend Dan de Lara to record this big strummed, reverbed-out post-rock guitar track. And then I got Oliver Coates, who is this really talented cello player, to send me parts for that song. So, it wasn’t like I had a band in the room; it’s like, I know what I want to do and can you come in?
Was it the case that you wanted to bring some of Machinedrum’s and Clams Casino’s sounds or textures into your record?
Yes, I’m in awe of their drum programming and rhythmic sensibilities. Clams and I have a lot of similarities in our emotional sensibility of the music, and the textures and the melodies. We've made four or five tracks together over the years. He’s a great dude, and we try to set up a session every other time I'm in New York. He uses Acid Pro, so any time I’ve worked with him, I’ll write a bunch of melodies and he puts them into Acid Pro, and the next thing you know there’s a clap that’s pitched down eight semitones, and you’re immediately in this Clams Casino zone that’s really excellent.
It’s kind of the same with Machinedrum. What’s so great about Machinedrum is that we'll actually in some ways meet more in the middle over drums and even texture. I think I always end up trapped between euphoria and melancholy, and there's always this underlying tension to everything; whereas Machinedrum can really bring you to this floaty, kind of euphoric and uplifting place a lot of the time with his beautiful harmonies and stuff like that. But, I invited him to the studio without any plan. We were just like, “Dude, we've never worked on music together, so can we please?”, and we made that whole track in a day. It was exactly what I would've wanted a Jacques Greene-Machinedrum track to be like: it doesn't sound like something we would do on our own.
I think a lot of collaborations on the record are not people that are miles away from what I do. I think there were a couple of intersecting points, and then it was like a ballet as far as how do we kind of merge them and get something that is greater than the sum of its parts?
What was the process of getting Juliana Barwick’s vocal contributions for the record?
It’s kind of funny – a lot of my records in the past have featured sampled vocals. I really like having vocal banks so I can chop them up because I really like a human presence in electronic music; it kind of makes it feel attached to the real world or something. Nosaj Thing and I have done a lot of music together, none of which has come out, and one of those collaborations was this short little demo that we had done. He’s friends with Juliana, so he brought her in and she recorded this early demo scratch vocal for us. She ended up on the record by me making this entire thing from the vocal chops I’d made from her vocal. It was a very post-modern collaboration. [Laughs]
Would you say there is some sort of relationship or umbilical cord that exists between the solo artist sampling sounds from a variety of sources, and the solo artist getting friends and collaborators to provide them instrumental parts and vocals?
Of course. It's essentially a way of setting up the same workflow for myself, but wanting to have a bit more of a connection to the source material. But, I think it’s also partly just to avoid the headache of clearing samples, which is fucking horrible. I actually know someone that sings well, and I know someone that actually plays guitar, so I could actually just go get that. If there is a kind of umbilical cord, or a strand to all of those kinds of sources, then I think it strengthens those bonds. It means that now when I listen to those songs, there's a real connection; even if, you know, Oliver Coates emailed me his parts and I didn't record them with him. There were still long phone calls and emails and a kind of back-and-forth, and working towards a goal together.
All those songs are so much more meaningful to me because there's these human connections threaded through them. At times, it made the release of the record easier; but at other times, it was way harder because sometimes people have managers, and you’re also chasing down parts or you’ve got to get something a little different. There's all these different logistics that come into play, and at some point you definitely become more of a project manager. But, I found it to be so much more rewarding and edifying. And now, I look through the credits on the record or listen to the record and I'm just like, “Damn, there's a whole group of people that helped me do this”, and I'm so utterly grateful and it's so meaningful to me.
Do you expect to keep working in this way?
I’d like to, yeah – it definitely feels kind of like a no-way-back moment. There is an immediacy to making records on your own, but it's like this thing that I was talking about with Nosaj Thing over the winter: we’re all still bedroom producers, and part of what got us into it is definitely this joy of the creation from within – it really fully happens on your own. But, there is something to be said for human connection and building stuff together, and how that is greater than the sum of its parts.
And so if time and resources allow it, it's definitely a preferred way to work moving forward.
Interview conducted by DJ Pangburn, a multimedia journalist, electronic musician, and video artist based in New York City. DJs, records and plays live under the name Holoscene.