When Randolf Reimann, frontman of Tralala Blip, a group of differently abled musicians from Australia, started teaching experimental electronic music to people at workshops at a disability service, he never thought it would evolve into a band. But that is precisely what happened. Reimann, who characterizes music programs for disabled people as lazy and patronizing “singalongs”, wanted an approach to music that was deeper – something more complex and adventurous. He found it with the music workshops, a space that got Reimann thinking about the accessibility of modern musical interfaces, and how he and collaborators could help shape future instruments for differently abled musicians.
Reimann recounts that by 2007 he had acquired a bit of electronic gear, which he soon sold to finance a Mac Powerbook and Ableton Live. From his personal collection of electronic instruments, Reimann picked out gear that he reckoned would be fun and accessible to people with no previous experience making electronic music – hardware like the Yamaha Tenori-On, Korg Kaossilator, and Frostwave SpaceBeam. Later, he and the collective would incorporate Percussa Audio Cubes, an Elektron Monomachine, MicroKorg (as a MIDI controller), an iPad running TouchOSC, and a Novation Launchpad.
During the first week of jams back in 2008, Reimann heard a sound that resembled an admixture of early Animal Collective and Bruce Haack “on heavy sedatives”. Other early influences, according to Reimann, included Mouse on Mars, Anti-Pop Consortium, Depeche Mode, Hot Chip, and Warp Records artists. But he insists that the larger influence in those early days was each member’s relationship to their instruments and to each other.
“Doing something as intimate as creating music together, we definitely influenced each other,” Reimann says. As the lineup slowly coalesced into the current format of five members from the original 12-plus collective, Reimann was amazed by the self-expression that was free of ego.
“Ableton was always the instrument/DAW that held it all together,” recalls Reimann. “In those early days, I would set up multiple MIDI tracks in Ableton and use soft synths like Operator and Reaktor by Native Instruments, as well as the internal sounds from the Tenori-On, Kaossilator (tiny yellow version), the SpaceBeam and the MonoMachine.”
“I’d also have a bunch of audio tracks with Antares AutoTune in them for vocals,” he adds. “Singing was a very important element to these workshops. We would sit together first and collaborate on ideas for the lyrics for the song. Then using either the Tenori-On or the Monomachine, we would lay down a rhythm. Then I’d arm all the tracks ready for recording and we’d jam. After that, we’d all listen back and start working on vocal ideas.”
Those individuals that helped edit the jams into loose song forms later went on to form the core of Tralala Blip. As they began getting paid for performances and records, as well as for a theatre production about the band, My Radio Heart, each member began to acquire their own instruments. Reimann, however, says that the group’s studio recording and live performance setups are still constantly evolving. As each member’s skills changed, so too did their respective gear.
For their latest record, Eat My Codes If Your Light Fails, the group used a range of instruments. While the group used some vintage classics, like the Roland SH-101 synthesizer and Roland TR-808 drum machine, they also incorporated complex modern samplers and synthesizers like the Elektron Digitakt, Synthstrom Deluge, and Critter & Guitari Kaleidoloop.
Reimann says that by 2007, he began noticing that really interesting instruments and controllers were emerging, many with unusual interfaces unburdened by history and the expectations of a musical keyboard or piano setup. Gradually, there was no need to concern themselves with what was musically “right” or “wrong”. In Reimann’s experience, the connections that people made with these new technologies were often deep and fluid. He cites the Tenori-On, Audio Cubes, Korg Kaossilator, the Jazzmutant Lemur, and iPad with software as music-making devices that could be truly embraced by differently abled musicians.
“One thing they all had, because they lacked the black and white keys, was scale options, like Ableton has,” Reimann explains. “This meant that people who were differently abled, or had no desire to study music theory or no desire to get their keyboard chops up could still in fact be very creative and expressive, and still form deep connections with their tools.”
“I think it is because of the history and association and convention of that interface,” he muses, noting that in the past some disabled people were incredibly intimidated by the classic keyboard layout. “It also probably helped that I had a punk background and I would joyously encourage all manner of sonic chaos and abuse.”
For Tralala Blip, there were no wrongs. Sometimes things just didn’t work well together. Other times, Reimann says things were so wrong they transformed into something magnificent. “At present, we all use iOS apps as field recorders,” he says. “Often, someone will come to band practice with a sound on their phone that they find interesting. We’ll put it into Ableton, the Deluge, or one of the other samplers and see where it leads us. Mat is fond of an app called Everest.”
“Nearly all our hardware has some kind of scale or key function,” Reimann notes. “Most hardware sequencers have them. Our Medusa has some great scale layouts, all of the Elektron boxes, the Deluge. It’s a simple thing that was really key when I was starting the workshops.”
On Eat My Codes If Your Light Falls, Tralala Blip used Ableton Live and the Deluge as their two primary arrangement tools. (Reimann notes that Tralala Blip member Lydian Dunbar earned his electronic music diploma from SAE Institute in Byron Bay in 2016, with an emphasis on Ableton Live, making him the first person with Down Syndrome to earn such a diploma from SAE.) The group sampled loads of sounds in the studio, then recorded and edited in Ableton. Once the jams were in Ableton, Lydian Dunbar and Reimann spent months arranging and sculpting the sounds using many of Live’s plugins.
“At some point, the main stems of the tunes would be transferred to the Deluge and then we’d utilise its CV and Gate outs to sequence our [SH]-101, [MC]-202 and modular stuff,” says Reimann. “All of this stuff would be recorded back into Ableton for further exploration and sculpting.”
For Eat My Codes If Your Light Falls, Reimann says the band created close to 100 Ableton projects, of which some were more polished than others. While many tracks have their genesis at Tuesday studio sessions, other tunes are brought to rehearsal by individual band members. “Pub Talk”, written by Dunbar, has its origins in an experience he had at a favorite local pub, where he felt patrons weren’t listening to him.
“The recording of ‘Pub Talk’ started the morning after my shit night at the pub,” says Dunbar. “I wasn’t in a good mood but we had just gotten our grubby fingers on a friend’s TR-808, so I was feeling happier. Randy had just gotten a Digitakt, so he was excited too.”
“In the studio, it’s one of my jobs to plug the instruments into the MOTU and then set up the channels in Ableton to get it ready for recording,” Dunbar continues. “I first plugged the 808 into the Digitakt and then the Digitakt into the MOTU to Ableton. We recorded a bass drum from the 808 into the Digitakt and then tuned it to B flat. We then played with the Digitakt sequencer.”
Dunbar recorded his vocals using a Rode mic he obtained while at SAE, and Reimann helped him channel his anger into lyrics. “I felt much better that night,” Dunbar recalls. “The 808 bass smashed the anger in my heart. I was still a little bit angry, but a little bit better.” Reimann remembers this particular recording session as the moment when the band found the sound for Eat My Codes.
“We sent it off to Lawrence and he was like ‘holy shit,’” Reiman says. “After that, we had a focus of where the album would go. That was six months into the process, where we were feeling like the record wasn’t where it needed to be.”
The songs on Eat My Codes coalesced in this back and forth process between Tralala Blip and their producer, Lawrence English. The Brisbane-based ambient and experimental composer, and proprietor of the Room 40 label, served as a sounding board for the band’s ideas instead of the more traditional record producer role. Tralala Blip sent select tracks to English, who would send the songs back with notes. After getting their producer’s feedback, Tralala Blip got back to work refining the record’s eventual songs, which included adding effects and adjusting the length of certain tracks.
“We left the recordings pretty raw, but the editing of the song structure or the tweaking of EQ and compression, most of that was done on Lawrence’s end in his studio,” says Reimann. “The only thing that we really wanted EQ’d or filtered out was the vocals so that we could get them sounding how we wanted.”
English, who calls production a “curious beast”, says that for each Tralala Blip album his role has been radically different. As he recalls, the new record has its origins in the theatrical production My Radio Heart, when he and the band discussed the idea of how to morph other elements into their work. Around this time, Reimann and Dunbar were both exploring a lot of new rhythmic approaches, while bandmates Mathew Daymond and Zac Mifsud were pursuing other experimental angles. When Phoebe Rose joined, English says another perspective entered the mix—one that helped unlock new approaches and ideas, all of which served to plant the seeds for Eat My Codes.
English spent a good deal of time on the record testing out new techniques that would add depth to what Tralala Blip had already achieved. The band already had a distinct language. The new goal was to expand the vocabulary of their songwriting and explore new “articulations” of how to realize the new work.
“I think my job was to assist in developing those articulations and to help them discover the new ways that they could construct and deconstruct their pieces,” says English. “Before this record, the lion’s share of recordings were made live and edited from there. This worked well for the band, but there’s a limitation that eventually becomes evident, and I think everyone realised a change was needed to move things forward and allow the group to develop further.”
“With this record we wanted to try and unlock a more detailed and rich perspective that highlights their approaches to songwriting, harmony, and rhythm,” he adds.
To do this, English spent a lot of time working with multiple iterations of stems, stacking elements, playing with microtonal pitching, and other techniques to bring about some curious interplays between instrumentation and voicing. He and the band also undertook heavy edits of tracks to find the core of what the songs should be. “This was the first time it’d ever worked like that and I feel the precision of the songs comes to the fore on this record,” says English.
“The instrumentation was also something they all spent time working on across the process of Eat My Codes,” he says. “Individually and collectively, I think they all found ways of making sound and music that exceed their previous efforts. We’d often discuss additional melody or counterpoint rhythmic elements for various pieces, and this often started a chain reaction of additions that really made the pieces come alive. It was a very organic and fluid exchange, which made it a pleasure. In the process of searching for these sounds I feel as though a lot of critical ideas for the record were generated. It was an incredibly inspiring process to listen to and encourage.”
“I feel this record is the first chapter in a new songbook for Tralala Blip,” English adds. “They have opened a portal to a new dimension of sound that will carry them forward for the next decades, I suspect. I am so pleased to have had a small hand in this work.”
Reimann, for his part, estimates that the band spent more time sculpting sounds on Eat My Codes than on any previous record. And because many of the instruments used on the album were new to the band, there was heavy experimentation and a number of “happy accidents”.
“This time around we wanted to explore pop structure a bit more,” says Reimann. “On past releases, we would often jam over a simple 1 to 4-bar bassline, a rhythm, and maybe a chord or two, then in Ableton we’d edit out all the boring bits. This time around we spent more time thinking about and exploring different realms we could take a song into.”
Reimann and Dunbar spent a lot of time in a van listening to artists they like as they drove to and from surf sessions in Byron Bay. But Reimann says he rarely dissects music by the artists he likes. “I’m such a fan, and usually my listening time is purely about being immersed in that artists world, not trying to understand what or how they do things,” says Reimann. “I’m a fan first, so it was new for both Lydian and myself to consciously pull apart artists that we love.”
“We also deepened our connection with our instruments and worked with the ones that allowed us to easily explore song structure rather than just 4 bar loops,” he says. “The Deluge and Ableton are easy to work with to build longer phrases and more complex arrangements. Not that our arrangements are that complex – it’s just easier for us to compose songs on instruments that aren’t limited to 4 bar loops and menu diving to chain events.”
Sound design often set the tone for where Tralala Blip would take a song. The sonic capabilities of their electronic instruments typically served as the inspirational starting point, rather than listening to the music of the bands they admire. “I wouldn’t say these instruments dictate where a song goes,” says Reimann. “It’s more like a beautiful conversation between human and machine… Oh, yes, we are huge Kraftwerk fans.”
When Reiman first started wanting to host workshops, he took notes on potential instrument interfaces that would be useful and fun for differently abled people. Although the work of Tralala Blip has made it hard to actualize the musical interfaces of his imagination, Reimann remains committed to the idea of advancing music hardware and software.
“Theses ideas have always been sort of simmering in the background, to maybe find the time and the people to collaborate with,” says Reimann. “We’ve actually approached some people or they have approached us to do something.”
“I remember a couple of years ago we did a residency at ZKM in Germany – they asked us if there was anyone we wanted to collaborate with and on what kind of r&d we would like to do,” Reimann recalls. “And at the time, I was like, man, it would be really cool to collaborate with Bastl Instruments out of the Czech Republic. I had one of their Microgranny sample boxes and we were really using it, and I thought, let’s get in contact with these guys.”
Though this collaboration never came to fruition, Tralala Blip would still love to collaborate with hardware and software makers on accessible musical instruments. For Reimann and his bandmates, disconnecting from the computer to develop a new or existing track independently is a huge part of their creative process; which is why he thinks everyone in Tralala Blip now has their own hardware.
“It should have simple functionality, no menu diving, and not too small and fiddly like Volcas, but compact and portable,” says. “And affordable! It has to be very affordable so people with no experience will be okay to invest in one. As Tralala Blip collaborate and work as a band, MIDI, CV, and USB connectivity is super important. Mentoring and collaboration are just as important as the instrument, so that’s why all the above is important.”
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Interview conducted by DJ Pangburn, a multimedia journalist, electronic musician, and video artist based in New York City. DJ records and plays live under the name Holoscene.
Check out his tunes on Instagram and Soundcloud.