bEEdEEgEE on loop experiments and producing SUM/ONE
3rd Feb 2014 | 12:09
New York based musician and Gang Gang Dance member Brian DeGraw talks synth loops, vocal experiments and beating writer's block
Brian DeGraw approaches making music as a process that is far more instinctual than it is technical.
As a keyboardist and producer in Brooklyn's phantasmagorical rhythm séance Gang Gang Dance, DeGraw has been one of five mediums channeling raw, joyous, empowering reactions. Working with a custom mixer, DeGraw has melted digital synths and organic samples into hazy, disorienting collages and jagged electro-pop for over a decade.
At the end of last year DeGraw released his solo debut, the nine-track SUM/ONE, on 4AD. Recording as bEEdEEgEE, DeGraw has made a logical transition from Gang Gang Dance's tribal, grainy, shimmery ethno-funk sprawl to assemble equally blissed out, ghostly and glazed melodies atop dubby bass and scruffy beats.
Speaking from W0RMB1N - his attic studio in the Catskill region of New York state, where he jumps in creeks and navigates tributaries of patch cables - DeGraw discusses compiling his psychedelic glitches, sculpted grooves and cathartic arrangements.
Let's get physical
Do you set up each track with a textural result in mind?
"I think maybe about midway through I start to steer it in a certain direction, but when I start I really enjoy just playing and waiting for something to stick, recording that, and continuing the process.
Are you playing more in the sense of chords or in the sense of sound design in those initial stages?
"A lot of times I start by sequencing on a Korg Electribe [EMX-1], a really basic sequencer. I did a lot of that with this record, messing around and coming up with rhythmic ideas, and a few melodic ones. If I'm going to start with the drum track, I begin there.
"And if I'm not doing that I'll just start with one of my keyboards on a simple preset, like a piano sound, and come up with a melody that sounds good to me and I'll figure out where I want to go from there."
What's a go-to synth for sketching?
"I usually start with a Korg M3 [keyboard workstation], which I use for almost everything melodically based. I'm a big fan of presets; I'm not much of a sound designer. I embrace presets and see where I can take things.
"A lot of times I find myself starting with the vocal and choir sounds; either that or straight piano... or bells."
What about the resonance of those appeals to you?
"I think I like melodic aspects of what I do to be somewhat ethereal and airy, so the vocal sounds are good for that. And bells work the same way in that they are long, sustained sounds.
"I use the more drawn-out sounds rather than something percussive like a marimba. They just feel good immediately; they have a satisfaction to them.
"There are times I'll manipulate those presets by using an Eventide Harmonizer, which is great for getting those sounds closer to how I imagine them in my hand. Digital delays, big reverbs and that one Eventide Harmonizer get used a lot, though I didn't use the Eventide much on this album.
"It's all very rudimentary outboard gear, but I prefer that to going in synths and programming all that. I'm pretty adamant about being as physical as possible with my instruments, even the ones designed for the opposite of that. It's just how I learned to make things I make, and I'm still stuck in that realm of being less technically inclined."
Home taping is killing writer's block
Do you ultimately end up live tracking these signal chains or do you spend more time in pre- and post-production?
"I'm always more physical with things. The only times I've ever used MIDI is when - and it's very rarely - I'm super confident about a melody, but not the sound, so I'll track a MIDI sequence to have the option to change sounds. But I don't do any MIDI syncing between machines.
"I don't use programs like Ableton, just Pro Tools, and with this record it felt the most like a tape machine as it ever has, as I wasn't doing a lot with it until the mixing process. I did chop things up to structure the songs, but mostly I was pressing record, rolling 'tape' and jamming.
"It's intentionally a more straightforward, direct-sounding thing."
After you have a functional rhythm track or melodic backbone, what's next?
"It's always different, but with this record I did a lot of trying to keep the songs to a minimal length, which I don't usually do. I'm usually about 10-minute jams, but for this one I started that first round by taking however many bars of the rhythm or melody I had done first and looping it to the length of roughly four to five minutes.
"After that I'd usually play the looping thing and think about where I got bored and I'd mute a few bars and then start jamming and improvising on the next track to figure how to fill it in. I'd just do that until the song is a song."
If you've got the Korg Electribe and M3 for the first part of song drafting, where do you turn next in terms of gear?
"Once the structure of a song is somewhat complete - in there but dry and clean – I approach it in a lot of ways.
"One would be to take the drum track from the Electribe and physically chop it up, maybe cut out a kick drum, and I'll go to find a different one to replace it with. I do everything probably an absurd way that would be easier if I was technically inclined, but I'm not.
"So I might record one drum hit of the kick drum and replace it piece by piece. And I'll build like that till each element is where I want it to be. Sometimes I'll find a snare sound, or if I want a bigger, more reverberant hit I'll go find a sample for that rather than use a plug-in. So there is a lot of adding, erasing, etc.
"Recently I use the Roland SP-555 [Creative Sampler]. A lot of times I won't even make something specifically designed for the initial melody track, I'll just go through things randomly already in the sampler.
"I find the best results from coming across stuff rather than confining myself to creating something to specifically fit the melody. That keeps things from being predictable. So I find things made for other songs, or samples randomly in there and I'll find a way to play them along with the melody track."
Are there ways you treat parts to give them warmth or ambiance?
"Sometimes I'll do that with my sampler, using these cheesy vinyl simulation effects reprocessed through something else that makes it less noticeable but adds some air. A lot of times I also just use really subtle washes of sound, like field recordings of slight breezes from outside my house to open up the sound in a way.
"But there are things in mixing that are similar effects I want to have. A lot of times I'll make a song, think it's great, and when I give it time I realise it's not what I want it to be, so I might burn the entire song, burn it to CD and put it in a CDJ and play with it, messing with the looping on it, the pitch shifting, reverbs and delays.
"The song Overlook comes to mind, because that was a much different thing but I wanted it to go to more places so I did that process. Using the CDJ I found new directions by playing with the cues and the looping and retracking that, then going back and replacing parts of the loop with new percussion sounds.
"There are drastic differences in some of the breaks and a lot of the dynamics of that song were created by that process."
So when it comes time to incorporate vocals, how do you approach editing and processing those?
"It was pretty different for each song. Some made more sense as a straightforward lyrical presence, and I had very little to do in those instances. I had made a fairly complete instrumental track and I passed it off, like on the songs Flowers and Empty Vases.
"Those two songs I just had faith because of the nature of the vocalists [Lovefoxxx of CSS and Douglas Amour, respectively]. And I didn't have to go back and do much to those except for mixing and a little bit of editing.
"Then there are other ones, like [(F.U.T.D.) Time of Waste] with Alexis [Taylor] from Hot Chip, where I asked him to give me an a cappella of a preexisting song he wasn't using... I didn't know what that original song sounded like, so I got to make my song around it.
"And the one with Lizzi [Bougatsos] singing on it [Like Rain Man] was much more in the style of how we work in Gang Gang, where she came over and I just started running loops out of Pro Tools and she jammed vocals on those for an hour or so.
"That was probably the loosest of the vocal contributions in terms of the process. Then I went through that hour-long jam and found bits I could treat as samples and I erased what I had played her and I built a new song around that."
Are there any particular challenges that the vocals presented in mixing?
"The song Flowers was a mixing nightmare. The vocals were recorded just in GarageBand and maybe not meant to be the final take, but we tried to do one in my studio and I preferred the demo performance. So I was working with that and I had to work forever to balance the dynamics of that lo-fi, muffled take into the song. I ended up layering it a bunch of times, treating each layer differently, doing a lot of drastic EQing of each layer."
So what sonic real estate called for the most tweaking?
"Low-end stuff, really. I feel like I am naturally best at midrange sounds. Those always seem to instantly gratify me. But I'm a huge fan of low end and want big bass and drum sounds, but I guess I'm still figuring out how to make them work right."
What's your favourite method to get your sub bass?
"On this record I used [Dave Smith Instruments] Mopho a lot for that, and also the Electribe. I've got this synth bank I've been working on in there for years that contains these descending, dipping bass sounds that I used a bunch. For the more melodic bass stuff I used the Mopho a lot, but without altering the presets a lot."
How has your relationship with stereo changed over the years?
"I usually leave panning and working with the field till the very last minute. And a lot of times I get stuck in the land of mono because I don't like working in headphones.
"I wanted this to be more of a room-filling record. So the last thing I do is put the headphones on and pan percussion elements to one side or the other, and maybe some of that with the melodic elements to open those up.
"I also pay attention to how things sound from a laptop now. I have a new appreciation for the challenge of getting things to jump through those speakers. All the percussive stuff, the rhythm tracks... a lot of what I've learned to enjoy are those so I did a lot of testing, bouncing tracks and listening through the laptop. I wanted to get more high-end percussive stuff to jump out and get me grooving."
Listening to the finished album, what philosophy rings throughout the end result?
"It sounds strange, but I don't consider this record a spiritual record, especially in comparison to other stuff I've made, but that was an intentional thing. The past year or so of my life has been intense for personal reasons, and I spent a lot of it being forced to look deep inside at these things about my personality that were slipping, falling apart or coming together; just a lot of change was going on.
"It was so draining, even though it wasn't all negative, so I've realised this record ended up being a reflection of trying to escape depth in a way. This record is polished in a way I don't usually make things, and it doesn't go to this certain intense place, but that was a very intentional thing because I was so tired of going so deeply into myself.
"I even spent a lot of time listening to shitty pop radio and I just wanted to escape this super-intense place and not have it be a super-heavy trip. It was an escape in that way, and the music does reflect that.
"That can sound like a pretty weird way to back my own record, but it's important to me that I did that. It was an essential thing I had to do to escape all this intensity going on within myself. In ways it was a listenable math equation rather than a prayer or a spiritual journey."
bEEdEEgEE's SUM/ONE is out now via 4AD.