[Interview] Drumcell Takes Techno Back to Basics
So many electronic shows are just built out with lineups of artists who all the play the same style of music, but differ in terms of their fame or ability, or perhaps their history of production. I was so pleased by the progression that Speakeasy Promotions had planned out for their recent show at 529, as it allowed the evening to progress in a way that made the night engaging but approachable, especially considering the unusual style of performance. I was sad to miss Flohr’s opening set, but managed to see a good amount of Hypoxia, Drumcell’s ambient/drone alter ego. Playing over OKTAform’s spooky, lo-fi visuals, Hypoxia worked deliberately and patiently at a piece of synth hardware while little red and yellow patch cables formed a nest over the flat, neatly labeled, metal face of the instrument. The sound was gloomy but peaceful for most of the set, though it would boldly swell into snarls that sounded like they must require a hard reset, only to be brought back under control by the artist’s experienced touch.
Surachai took the stage next, his long black hair obscuring most of his face. Instead of relying on OKTAform for his visuals, Surachai created and performed his own visuals, pairing his brooding, aggressive tonal music with slow-motion video of women engaged in mysterious pagan rituals on a wintry beach. The scenes were filled with symbols which Surachai had designed and these were repeated on his album artwork and on patches, stickers, and buttons he had for sale at the back of the room. I very much enjoyed his performance, and found it deeply cinematic and epic. I would love to see what sort of show he could create with a bigger budget and some live performers. During his set, I met up with the headliner in the green room to ask him a few questions. Join us as we get to know Drumcell / Hypoxia.
Whenever I see someone working at a modular synth rack, I see someone weaving sound like a loom. Can you talk about why you love the physicality of synthesizers?
I’m not a hardware snob, by any means. I still use software in the studio. For me, anything that makes noise is an instrument and I’m usually willing to explore all of its possibilities. For modular stuff, I think I just like the tactile, hands-on experience of being able to make music with something, and sit down and experiment with it. For instance, with the Hypoxia material, it’s not even all modular, I usually just pick one hardware synth and isolate myself in the studio and see whatever I can create with it. That’s primarily why most of it’s ambient music, because I just isolate it to one particular instrument and explore the dynamics within that.
For the Hypoxia set, it’s a very similar patch that I use at all my shows, but I’m able to play with the notation and different scales to change different melodic structures for every different show. But, it’s difficult to play an all-ambient set in front of a crowd, you know, sometimes people just want beats. I think the modular synth provides me enough dynamics to create the drama that I need to keep people’s interest in what’s going on. It might have more it’s subtle, more melancholic or emotional parts, and then it just rises into a storm of noise… that usually keeps people’s attention. Those dynamics are what keeps it interesting.
My working definition of music is “sound, consciously arranged.” I’m curious what you think music is. Your Soundcloud bio says: “I make noise and organize it in semi recognizable patterns.”
It’s organized patterns, in semi-recognizable ways. There are two different mindsets. When I’m making techno, obviously you’re making music within guidelines. You’re making tracks that you want to be able to move a dance floor and keep a groove and keep people’s interest with it. Obviously with techno, it blurs the lines with a little bit of experimenting, but there is a structure that you have to work in. As a techno producer you’re essentially creating tools for other DJs to play. 12” records are tracks that start with a kick drum, a high hat comes in eight bars later, a bunch of weird sounds build up and build up; and then it subtracts over time. So, historically, it’s a tool for DJs to use and perform with. I think that’s why I have these other projects like Hypoxia, because working within those limitations gets kind of boring for me sometimes, and I like to just create music for how I feel.
For me personally, music is a very personal and emotional thing. I know producers that make music purely for output. They just want to have stuff to put out. It’s very constructive. For me, I feel like it’s a bit more of an emotional experience. If I’m not in the mood, I don’t really create a lot of music, and that’s probably why I don’t have 100 EPs a year. I usually minimize my stuff because it has to mean a lot to me. It’s very personal. I’ve never been the type of person to be able to verbalize emotions and speak about how I feel about certain things. I’ve always used music as my voice. So, if I have something to say, or have something I want to get off my chest that means a lot to me; I usually channel that through music.
A lot of people only identify with music that is pleasurable or if they can dance to it. I’ve really been discovering the ambient/drone scene this year? What’s appealing about the genre to you?
To go back to what you said about what people perceive to be real music as it being entertaining or not… I don’t like to adhere to those rules personally. With music, I like to provoke thought. I don’t always want to deliver pleasure for people. I want people to be challenged by music. I want them to step outside their comfort zone and pay attention to something that maybe they’ve never paid attention to before. A lot of what drone/experimental/ambient music is about is environment, really. If you provide the proper environment for people to listen to that music, that’s probably the best way to keep them intrigued. For me, as an artist, it’s important to curate an event to fit the music that I want to play.
For instance, tonight, I would have much rather had a room full of couches where everyone could just sit down and listen and see where that music takes them. Close your eyes, imagine something, and picture something. It’s not just about instant gratification and feeling some beat or some rhythm that makes your body move and dance. There’s an experience for that everywhere. You can go to a rave or a party and experience that there. But, for what I’m doing tonight, for instance, that’s not necessarily what we’re trying to achieve. I do plenty of that with the Drumcell project. I have my outlets to do both, and I appreciate both spectrums of it, absolutely.
Do you get tempted to make easy pop music? Do you think you are consciously anti-mainstream in almost a punk attitude, or you just like what you like?
I think a part of me tends to take that punk rock attitude and be anti-mainstream. I’ve always been swimming up the river, going the opposite way. As soon as something becomes popular and your local jock at your high school is into it, and all the kids are playing it; I just have this natural inclination to go the opposite direction. But then at the same time, as I get older, I tend to not give a fuck really about anything. For me, I’m just doing what I love to do. I’m trying to enjoy it.
I think as a musician, or as an artist in general, pleasing yourself must come first. You need to be true to yourself and be true to your own ideas and thoughts. As soon as you start trying to adhere or fit into another person’s bubble…
Well, there’s the desire to get paid…
Sure, I guess I’ve been lucky enough to do whatever the fuck I want and get paid with it, but I think honesty speaks true. It’s been 15 years of fucking fighting and working our asses off; just blood sweat and tears to get people to listen to what we’re doing. In LA, I lived in a city of glamour and glitter. It’s all Hollywood clubs and mainstream world, there was hardly ever an ear for any experimental, outside-of-the-world thing. But, we stuck to our guns and stayed true. We just did what we did and continued to put it out.
What’s coming up next for you?
We have another Hypoxia record coming out on a label called Make Noise. It’s actually a modular synth company, they make modules and instruments and they release music by people who use their instruments. That’s going to be in the early Fall of next year. Some Drumcell stuff will be creeping up towards the end of the Wintertime as well. Tour schedules are packed from Summer all the way up to December, playing as Drumcell. We’re playing Sydney and Melbourne, Germany, France… we’ve got some gigs in Chile and Argentina… so yeah, the weekend’s packed.
My recent experiences at Moogfest (read my review of Moogfest 2017 here) had intrigued me about the ambient/drone scene, and I had seen a few performances I found interesting, but nothing had demonstrated what a tool it can be for setting the mood and pace of a night. I might not have enjoyed the evening if it had been ambient from start to finish, but I found that the Hypoxia set perfectly primed the space for the long cinematic journey we were to embark on. Surachai kicked things up to a more structured energy level, while still maintaining long, howling notes that weren’t quite possible to dance to.
This cleared the way for the Drumcell performance, which was unrelenting techno, steady and undiminishing through to the end. Oktaform’s visuals were psychedelic and dark, pairing perfectly with the deep thumping heartbeat of the music. It was a techno show like none other I had been to. This crowd was engaged, focused, and alert as we all swam through the waves of sound together. As listeners, we knew that many of these sounds had been built directly out of circuitry in Drumcell’s laboratory of modular hardware, not simply being dragged into place in a software tool. The experience was more simple, more dynamic, and more pure than any techno show in recent memory.
Photos by Megan Friddle for Bullet Music.