Sunday, October 19, 2008

Still enthusiastic: interview with Ewan Pearson

Ewan Pearson, as you may probably know, is a well known, respected and demanded producer, remixer and DJ. The list of musicians and bands that he has worked with is impressive and quite long, including many instantly recognizable names from the both electronic and popmusic worlds, such as The Rapture, Gwen Stefani, Tracey Thorn, Ladytron, Chemical Brothers, Depeche Mode etc. But not the commercial merits is that makes a producer interesting per se, rather the way he expresses himself through his work and his attitude. In both of these aspects, Mr. Pearson is an interesting and quite unusual person in the circles of electronic music production. His own productions and remixes typically have no-nonsense uplifting and melodic qualities that I would call balearic. Whereas, judging from his solid academic background (he has studied for PhD in English literature, philosophy and cultural studies, plus he has co-written the book “Discographies: dance music, culture and the politics of sound”) and his refined and witty written expression (see his Enthusiasm blog), I imagined him to be a smart, intelligent, yet open-minded guy, which absolutely proved to be true when I met him in person.

It happened few months ago while I was visiting C/O POP festival in Cologne (here you can read my short review of C/O POP). Mr. Pearson had been invited to DJ at Kompakt Total party - one of the central events of this festival. We had a chat about clubs, the art of remixing, his plans, living in Berlin and, of course, music.

To begin with, could you please tell what you are doing at the moment? Are you mostly DJ-ing or being busy with productions?

A bit of everything. It's a high summer, so there are a lot of DJ gigs, but I'm trying to be quite careful to keep DJ-ing down to 5 or 6 gigs in a moth, unlike some people who play 3-4 times a week and they are always away, so I can still do a studio work as well. I've just done a few remixes actually, remixed Hot Chip and a band from UK called Foals - they are something between Battles and Bloc Party, very good musicians, very tight, but groovy... Basically it's Kompakt remixing Foals - Supermayer has done a mix, and I've done a mix.

So, it will be released on Kompakt?

It will be released as a vinyl on Kompakt and as a digital single through Foals' label Transgressive. It's a proper collaboration. Foals are really big electronic music fans and loved Kompakt for years.

Since you do quite a lot of DJ-ing, how do you find balance with working in studio. Do you also work while being on road?

Sometimes I work on my laptop, but you know I have to take time to be in studio. And if I make production, I have to take time out of DJ-ing. When I'm working, I really don't have much of personal life, I'm just working. But it's good. I'm really happy to have this job. Very few people are lucky to be self-employed musicians, so I don't take it for granted, and I would like to last as long as I can.

You're mostly known for your remixes and production for other bands, how does it actually happen - those are bands, their managers who address you asking for remixing or other way?

Almost always. Occasionally I ask if there's a record I really love. I've done a remix for Feist, which is on her first album. I was given a copy of album before it went out and I absolutely loved it, so I spoke to the record company that I would like to do a remix...

How about Cortney Tidwell?

I know the guy who signed her, and I loved the record and heard her couple of times playing, and then friends of her came and suggested that we do a remix of... or I can't remember if I suggested, I think actually I said that I really liked "I love Stars" and I would like to do a remix, and they agreed.

I just remember that you were quite enthusiastic about her music on your blog.

Yeah, I think I asked that one, and it was for free, because I liked it... She has just finished the new album, just heard it, which is amazing, so I could do another one... we'll see.

But it's mostly about finding music that I really like. I'd rather do a remix for free of something that I love than be paid to remix something that I hated. I never do a remix for things that I don't have any connection with. I've turned down a few quite big acts, it's not like I wouldn't like to do pop... I remember I turned down a Shakira's remix for the first single from her last album, unfortunately it wasn't "Hips Don't Lie", if it was "Hips Don't Lie" I would love to remix it, but I just couldn't hear the way to do a track. I don't have a problem with pop, I love pop, but it has to make sense, it has to fit with what I do and have to fit with what they do, there's no point in doing a remix they gonna hate or a remix they would like but I wouldn't.

In this regard, don't you feel like a craftsman sometimes?

No, I do, I'm interested in crafts much more that the art, I suppose. But I still have to feel it's representing what I do. Obviously, that's why DJ-ing is good, because DJ-ing provides me with basic income. That means that I can basically choose the projects purely on musical grounds. Which is good, but it probably means that I'll probably never gonna be rich... [laughs]. But I gonna be happy, which is much more important.

Well, still you are doing remixes for big names.

Sometimes, not so much at the moment.

In your view, what's the purpose of a remix in general or what's your idea about remixing? Pure functionality, adding beats, something else?

It's different. You can look at it in almost the disco way, just doing enough to make it work in the club context, which is often what I do - I try not to change it too much and use quite a lot of original parts, or if it's a song I try to include the entire song. Sometimes you can do a complete transformation, it's a rich area, there's a lot of different methods, approaches to take. I think that some of the best dance music it's been people remixing other things. It's a proper art form in its own right. So, I'm very proud to be continuing in that tradition.

Some of your favourite remixes?

Oh God, yeah... I don't know, going back to like Patrick Cowley's mix of Donna Summer's "I feel love" or...

What about your own ones?

Oh, mine, that's for people to decide. There are many that I like.

At what point did you realise that you would just make music for living?

I made the decision and tried to switch about 8 years ago when I'd already released an album for Soma, made like 5-6 singles and started to do quite a few remixes, but I was still in university, still doing a PhD.

Wasn't it a hard choice?

Yeah, it was, but at the same time I'd have rather tried and failed than be disappointed that I'd never tried. I know some people who started doing it and then decided to get a proper job. But I've worked hard and for a long time, it's been a gradual building, it wasn't an overnight success. It just makes me happy to do something creative and work for myself, deciding what I gonna do on a day-to-day basis.

Anyway, regarding DJ-ing, doesn't it get boring sometimes - just another night in another club. How do you avoid feeling that this is just a job?

First of all, it is a job and it is tiring sometimes, not all the gigs are good, but it's a great job, and people are usually nice. It's OK as long as you play in clubs where you can play the music you like. The problem is when you get into a situation when you feel that you have to play a certain track or sound.

Do people address you sometimes with some musical requests?

Sometimes they ask you to play faster or harder or do this... But at the moment I'm actually playing quite techno.


I'm quite enjoying, I'm slightly embarassed to admit that I'm enjoying some of the most successful commercial techno at the moment.

Like what?

I don't know, like Dubfire's remix of Radio Slave which is that "Grindhouse" record. I think it's a tremendous record. Some of the sounds getting quite obvious, all kind of "ssshhhh..." sounds and certain elements, but technically it's so well put together, and when you playing something like that and everybody gets crazy, it's exciting. But the thing is to mix things up, you can't just play big obvious records in a row. There's so much stuff I like at the moment, from disco to slower records, but the difficulty is putting it all together so it makes sense. But sometimes I like just banging for couple of hours and playing hard. People forget that I used to record for Soma and I used to go out with them and used to hear them playing tough Chicago and Detroit stuff, the stuff like Jeff Mills, that sort of minimal techno, I grew up listening to that, so sometimes I quite like... ergh banging :) It's like trying different hats, tonight I gonna wear this one...

So you prefer improvising in your sets, you don't have prepeared playlists?

No, it's more about having an instinct.

Is there a difference between a live mix and a mix to be released on CD?

It is different. With CD it's got to have many repeated listenings... I want to tell a story, I want to go through different styles, to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Well, it's quite similiar with DJ-ing. The only thing I don't like is when you just hear one groove, one style, one sound for 2-3 hours. Whatever the style is, I just find it boring. I like sort of wander around. Sometimes peoples don't get it though.

Are there any particular clubs where you are always happy to return?

There's a bunch of favourites: Robert Johnson in Offenbach, Pulp, which sadly shut last year, in Paris, and people from there like Ivan Smagghe who is one of my oldest friends in dance music, and the woman who ran Pulp... I met there people like Jenny Cardini and Cloé, people with whom I one day DJ-ed in Paris and now they've become international stars, awesome. You make friends with these people years ago when nobody knew who any of us were, and it's quite strange that something like 8 years later we all are travelling around the world. It's great, but kind of amazing - how we got here, it's very weird sometimes.

Don't you think about making your own live stuff?

I did it once, when I recorded for Soma. Now, I like DJ-ing, playing other people's music. Sometimes I play my own records. No, I don't think I will go back to play live.

What about releasing your own solo album?

There's gonna be more stuff from me... I'm doing that Partial Arts project with my friend Al Usher for Kompakt, although he is about to have a baby.

Is he also based in Berlin?

No, he's in London. We actually don't get so much time to work together. However, we are currently working on the next Partial Arts record.

Will it be released on Kompakt?

Yeah, hopefully. And I've got a couple of rough ideas in my head, but I'm not quite sure which one I gonna do first... Well, it will happen when it happens.

How have you met the Kompakt guys?

I'd been a big fan of the label for years and years. Actually there's a track of mine on the Michael Mayer's first "Immer" CD, like a shuffle track. I think it was the only non German thing there. I met a guy called Jon Berry, who worked for Kompakt, he's Canadian, at Sonor [festival]. He just told me how much they liked what I do, and I told him how much I liked their stuff.

OK, there's no strict connection, but still...

It's more like a sensibility, you have the same kind of attitude.

A bit of pop sensibility?

Yeah, absolutely. I think we have similiar tastes, influences in commmon. We had this track we wanted to put out ourselves, called "Trauermusik", and then I met Jon and I thought that he should hear that, so gave him a CD and we ended up as Kompakt artists. And now I'm so proud about playing here.

Is it the first time playing for Kompakt?

It's the first time oficially playing at their event. When they sent the flyer to me I had a bit of a lump in my throat, it's a big honour to be on the list with all these guys.

Even the festival is called Cologne On Pop :)

I don't see why I should be interested in just supposedly underground music or pop, maybe that's what I share with the Kompakt guys. My heart is in independent, self-produced music, that's a kind of post-punk attitude, doing things yourself... Even if I remix a big artist it's still with this kind of attitude.

Are there any new music styles or ideas you find interesting?

I have a really diverse taste. My favorite record this year, apart from dance records, is a guy from Mali called Toumani Diabaté, the best kora player that Mali has ever produced, like Ravi Shankaar of kora. Incredible.

Traditional music?

It's actually a kind of mixture, something between folk music and chamber music, really modern and ancient at the same time. And the band Fleet Foxes from America, which I adore. My dad used to sing in a folk group, maybe that's why I like harmonic music. There are also reissues of Volgang's Gas project and other really amazing electronic music at the moment. And then house music again, like Matt Edward's Radio Slave, there's loads of stuff.

What kind of things inspire you?

In terms of inspirations it's also hearing other music, it's not really competition, you just wanna make something that makes someone feel as that record made feel you. It's kind of trying to put something back... I wanna make others feel like what I felt when heard Andy Weatherall's remix or New Order's track, whatever. You wanna create the same effect. But also I read a lot, I'm trying to keep my brain active, cinema and various other art forms. Just being interested in things and curious.

Will you ever write another book about music from theoritical point of view?

You never know, but it's hard, because I haven't been keeping up with academic reading... But I could go back to school, you know, I started PhD but didn't finish it, I'd love to go back to school at some point, but maybe when I'm older. Well, I'm writing a bit - a column for Groove magazine, but that's a little silly opinion column, that's not a proper theory.

Huh, that manifesto thing was funny.

Some people took it a little more seriously than I intended, although I agree with the most of things that I wrote. It was partly for fun, to tease people.

I didn't get the point about EPs, if honestly.

I'm not even sure that I agree with that, because there are records I love where you get that B2 track which is a bit weird or different. Sometimes I'm just a bit bored hearing 3 or 4 mediocre tracks. What you should do - throw away 2/3 or 3/4 of what you do and only put out the stuff which is really good.

I think it's quite common in the dance music in general - there are many albums with just few good tracks and the rest feels like just filling gaps.

I'd rather make one single in 18 months but it'd be something quite different or special than trying release an EP every 2 or 3 months and it would be just a bit dull. When I did the record for Soma, I through so many tracks away. I started with maybe 30 tracks but just 11 or 12 came out at the end.

But also in general there is too much music being released.

Definetely there's too much music at the moment. Brian Eno in his diary was complaining that he had a feeling like there was too much music in the world and everybody should tap some time off, but this point was also about doing something else. It's just good to be more rounded person, to do some other things that influence you in different ways.

Following about quality, sometimes I've got the feeling that music listening turns more and more into consumption, rotation is faster and faster, more and more records coming out and if you don't sell them immediately you don't sell them at all. That regards also people listening just to new records. As far as I know, you're not happy with all the illegal downloading and file-sharing. But in this context and given that there is so much bad music, perhaps it just doesn't deserve to be sold at all?

I don't think that people who download music actually think - ok, this one is really good, I'm going to pay for this. But of course there are so many promos and stuff coming out that sometimes you just feel drowning in music, and also sometimes it's hard to hear good stuff, to pick out a good track. Just being bombarded with too much music. Still there's so much interesting music, we just have to go through so much more to get it.

You work a lot in clubs, so you see people who come to parties. In your opinion, is it just entertainment or there's something more that attract them?

There's nothing wrong about just dancing and having fun, in the sense that provides very important function in people's life. I get really annoyed when people talk it's just the escapism. The idea is to provide a space for people, to go somewhere else... I don't wanna sound too over top, but kind of transcedent experience, even if it's only for few hours.

A ritual? Spiritual ritual?

Yeah, i don't know if spiritual but they go somewhere else for a little bit, experience this state of jouissance. It's a little vacation from yourself, from your ordinary life, I don't think it's a bad thing, unless you don't have anything else in your life. It's for people to take as seriously as they want to. It can be done for a couple of years or to be a lifetime passion.

Are you sometimes going to clubs when you don't have to DJ?

I love dancing, I'm one of those DJs you'd see dancing to other DJs.

Quite exceptional, huh?

Well, maybe it sounds surprising but I know quite many DJs who like dancing.

Maybe that's Berlin? So many DJs out there...

DJs in Berlin are like rats in New York, you know they say you're never more than a meter away from a rat in New York, so I guess you're always never more than a meter away from a DJ in Berlin [laughs].

The full interview (however, in Latvian) will be published in Veto Magazine, which is due to come out in the beginning of November.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

minimal punks and disco freaks @ EXIT

The American indie music label The Death From Above or simply DFA is undoubtly one of the icons of the modern dance music, especially when it comes to live rock bands playing disco and electronic music influenced stuff. Immediately after releasing the breakthrough albums of the Rapture and James Murphy's own LCD Soundsystem, the DFA established itself as one of the most interesting and original labels at that time. In attempts to describe the DFA sound, critics even coined the term disco-punk or punk-funk. As the time went by, many bands with similiar approach appeared - and now, in the era of nu rave and bloghouse, despite all this rock'n'roll 4 a dancefloor hype, the DFA bands and projects still sound quite outstanding.

This was just a small introduction to the DFA and you should know it all, unless you're not alienated to the current streams in disco music. So, I was quite excited when learnt that a band and couple of DJs from the DFA camp would perform at Exit. As the first one, Prinzhorn Dance School gave an amazing performance. They are not your avarage dancepunk or singer-songwriter act. There are just 2 persons in the band operating on a fancy setup: a girl on bass and stomping two pedals for kick-drums, plus a guy playing chords on guitar, with his legs operating with snares and occasionally hiting toms and cymbals with a stick furiosuly. So, basically they both were operating on a single modified drum kit, which supposedly requires very good interaction, which was in a way very physical. Naturally, sometimes the guy missed a snare beat slightly, but it just gave some extra swing and that special lo-fi feel. In two words I'd describe their music as a minimal punk.

Afterwards, a guy from Mock & Toof had a great and groovy disco set. Their original productions are well crafted disco- and funk-infected house tunes. Apart from working with the DFA, they also have releases on a very recommended label from UK - Tiny Sticks Records.

He was followed by a DJ set from Tim Sweeney - the official DFA's deejay, who also hosts Beats In Space radioshow on NYC's WNYU (however, you can hear his shows on his BIS page too, tune in). The set was amazing mixture of disco, house, italo, some acid house and everything in between and beyond - very groovy and refreshing from the omnipresent Berlin's techno/house or nu rave sound.

Well, there is no big point in describing DJ sets, it's enough said both DJs were great, and I can just advise not to miss them if you have a chance to see them around. See you!