(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Recording review - Whiskey Blanket, From the Dead of Dark (2013)

Artistic risks pay off on this spaghetti Western concept album

Brothers and sisters, would you willingly throw away your crutches? The hip-hop band Whiskey Blanket has built a unique sound around their quirky mix of beatboxing, orchestral instruments, and atypical backing music.And it was just that gimmicky blend that initially hooked me to the group. Their newest album, From the Dead of Dark, shows off the band's self-confidence as they blithely discard two of those three elements: no rapid-fire beatbox rhythms and a complete absence of street-classical mashup grooves. With well-founded faith, they rely on their solid raps and musical vision to carry the album. Their last project, No Object (2010), offered a growth spurt of lyrical continuity and production over 2007's Credible Forces. But on their latest drop, they've raised their sights and created a concept album tied together with a pervasive musical thread while they continue to tap into a surprising set of genres for their backing tracks. Where No Object emphasized a jazzy feel along with the classical touches, From the Dead of Dark draws on spaghetti Westerns and Eastern European jazz elements for a cohesive sound.

Shadows fill the album, with moody music and horrorshow touches of zombies and ghouls. The embedded storyline -- three of the tracks are explicitly identified as chapter one, two, and three -- is oblique, but interesting. The first track, "The Story Unfolds (Ch. 1)", introduces a boy who becomes cynical about people and turns towards darkness. Several songs later, "Hell & High Water (Ch. 2)" tells the story of a woman who breaks her lover out of prison to save his life. Finally, "City of Shadows (Ch. 3)" rounds out the triptych with a tale of the zombie apocalypse where the hero dies, but passes on his torch to a mysterious, bloody "angel". The narrative thread may be hard to find, but musical motifs tie the pieces together, allowing the listener to draw their own connections between the three.

From the Dead of Dark stakes out its ground from the start. A simple piano vamps through the changes, ornamented with a whistled melody and light harmonica. "The Story Unfolds"? Well, it unfolds patiently as the band builds this into a full blown soundtrack layered with guitar, horns, and choral accompaniment. They drag the instrumental introduction out for almost two minutes before letting the lyrics drop:
We start life not knowing much,
Unaware of what it's like to be grown up
This story unfolds with a boy and his soul
And an idea that would play a poisonous role
Now he's not your typical archetype
Lost child, brought up on bibles and market hype
Nah, he's the antithesis of orthodox
Who's seen the dissonance of people livin' in Pandora's Box...
This opening is delivered loosely, rhymes slipping into place with just a little room to move. Once the rock beat kicks in, the lyrical flow picks up speed, jumping between the rappers and pulling the words into the beat.

The next track is more unsettling, starting with a trippy, back-masked loop before locking into steady beat with retro easy-listening vocal touches and a scratched and chopped musical track. The album really wakes up, though, on the Euro-jazz inspired "Blotto Nox". The rap revs up right out of the gate and never slows down. With a freestyle flow, each of the guys take their turn kicking the mic, chaining internal rhymes and overwhelming the ear. Gypsy violins and turntable scratches lay down a wonderfully exotic groove that provides all the syncopation and rhythmic complexity an emcee could ever need.

The next track, "Dinner With Ghouls", adds its own musical twist, blending early jazz with a bit of big band: "This is zombie surf-punk, hip Goth, Gypsy pop/ Indie rock, traded in the synth for a Lindy Hop". The delivery is slower paced, but that gives the audience more time to appreciate the clever phrases as they roll by. This song also features a sung chorus that contributes to the big band feel while it shows off the band's harmonies.

Next up, jam-folker Bonnie Paine (Elephant Revival) reprises her guest role from No Object to sing "Hell & High Water (Ch. 2)". The lonesome Western arrangement complements her sultry voice, which summons up the ghosts of missed opportunity with the tagline, "It's too late, too late, too late/ Now the deed is done." The band's artistic decision here is telling. From the Dead of Dark is indisputably a hip-hop album, full  of solid, textbook rapping, but although this track sets a hip-hop beat behind the moody music,  it lets Paine's singing take center stage. Surprises like this push out some boundaries, but that's not the band's end goal. Instead, it just flows out of their off-beat aesthetic of building interesting backing tracks and bringing them to the foreground.

Whiskey Blanket's creative risks were definitely worth the effort. From the Dead of Dark doesn't limp along without the band's crutches; it dances and breaks. Throughout it all, the boys show off their emcee skills. The chemistry between the three members offers plenty of change up, but their parts are carefully crafted to join in perfect balance. I'm still hoping for their classic stunts during the show, like Funny Biz's one-two beatbox-cello punch, but I'm happy to hear them develop their sound. This is a band that deserves much wider distribution.

For a taste of the dark, enjoy the album trailer.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Recording review - Elvis Costello and the Roots, Wise Up Ghost (2013)

Don't fear the remixer: a solid collaboration of spirit and flesh

Who exactly is the Ghost on this project? Both Elvis Costello and the Roots have done their own background fades while collaborating with other artists and styles, but neither side hides their light on Wise Up Ghost. Instead, the album resurrects a collection of specters from Costello’s songbook, recasting lyrics and melodic references in an updated setting. Sometimes this teases out new meanings but for the most part, it just shows how relevant his words remain. This concept, though, is worrying on the surface. None of Costello’s fans want to think of him tossing integrity to the wind, finding a young group of hipsters to harness and then rearranging old songs in a desperate plea for relevance. They already know that he’s not a Frank Zappa, constantly stealing from himself to create a web of contextual references, so there’s been some concern about his creative direction on this project.

But none of that distress is justified. Instead, the album captures the best elements of its collaborators. The Roots’ deep dedication to a centering groove is honored across all these songs. Although their MC, Black Thought, is not present, ?uestlove’s steady syncopation and the band’s sparse arrangements create a hip hop vibe that is designed to support and exhibit the vocals. Rather than trying to play rapper, Costello steps in and takes advantage of the space, letting his phrases wander across the beat the way he always has, whether the genre of the moment is new wave or country. Furthermore, Wise Up Ghost has a dystopian tension running through it and a yin-yang balance of bitter and sweet lyrical themes that place it squarely in the median of Costello’s discography, even if the production and music favors the Roots’ aesthetic approach.

It turns out that this isn't Costello’s attempt to redefine himself. Rather, the album arose from impromptu jams when he performed with the Roots on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”. During their early meetings, bandleader ?uestlove asked Costello if he’d be interested in “remixing” some of his older songs. This led to new versions of “High Fidelity” from Get Happy (1980) and “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” (This Year’s Model, 1978). Based on those successes, the two sides started thinking about working together on a larger project and this remixing approach must have seemed a natural starting point.

The reworking leads to some strong mood changes for the material. “Stick Out Your TONGUE” stretches out Punch The Clock’s “Pills and Soap” like taffy and jettisons its scathing urgency for weary cynicism. Similarly, “She’s Pulling Out The Pin”, an extra track on 2004’s The Delivery Man, becomes “(She Might Be A) GRENADE” and transforms from a snapshot moment of personal desperation to a CSI-style incident analysis, encouraging a more literal reading of the lines.

The stand out example, though, is “WAKE Me Up”, which appropriates lyrics from two different songs. The spare funk groove is bruised and brooding, with the dark imagery from “Bedlam” (The Delivery Man) perfectly balanced by a chanted refrain of, “Wake me up, wake me up…/ With either a slap or a kiss,” from the title track of River In Reverse (2006). Costello’s lyrics and trademark vocal tone is complemented by the Roots’ rhythmic treatment.

As intriguing as it is to play spot-the-reference, Wise Up Ghost offers all new material, too. The album opens with “Walk Us UPTOWN”, which is a vibrant sign of the group‘s collaborative mindset. The Roots lead off with a noise funk intro that sets up a 2Tone ska groove. The lyrics have a repetitive power, driven by Costello’s sneer. Lines like, “Will you wash away our sins/ In the cross-fire and cross-currents/ As you uncross your fingers/ And take out some insurance,” demonstrate how his phrasing naturally reflects the rhythmic complexity of a rap to fit with the Roots’ backing. The modern production style emphasizes the beat while the band references Costello’s past use of ska, like in “Watching The Detectives” (My Aim Is True, 1977). Horn stabs, guitar chank and reverberating echoes and fills offer plenty of interesting detail without over-crowding the track.

In addition to “Walk Us UPTOWN”, Wise Up Ghost often alludes to Costello’s musical past, but his wide range of styles and influences means that the songs have no problem finding unique angles. “TRIPWIRE” blatantly steals much of its melody from “Satellite” (Spike, 1989), but the Burt Bacharach style ballad features new veiled lyrics that make a plea for tolerance. Another track, “SUGAR Won’t Work”, blends band approaches, with a chorus that falls in line with Costello’s earlier work interpreting R&B and verses that could have been lifted from a Charlie Hunter jazz-funk session. The album closes out on a soft piano ballad, “If I Could Believe”. After the darkness and misanthropy of many of the preceding tracks, Costello’s vulnerable delivery is a poignant ending.

Supported by the apparitions of his creative history, Costello dominates Wise Up Ghost, but the Roots played a strong role in summoning these spirits. The album has a vitality that reflects a good artistic partnership, where risks were taken and everyone was challenged. Fans will find plenty of what they love about Costello or the Roots, along with new facets to enjoy.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Interview with Eric Kleptone (The Kleptones)

Producer “Eric Kleptone” has released numerous album length mashup collections over the years. Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots was his first salvo, building on The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with a dazzling number of rap acapellas and other sound samples. His concept album release 24 Hours served as “a day in the life,” matching sounds to the turning of the clock. His thoughtful, artistic approach creates mixes that can be appreciated on a number of levels.

This is part of a Mashup Artist Summit. Highlighted sections were mixed with other interview segments to create a conversation between several producers.

Jester Jay: The first thing of yours I came across was Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots.

Eric Kleptone: That was pretty much the first thing that came out. That was nearly ten years ago now. I thought it would date really badly but it seems to have kept a little bit of momentum. I see people on Twitter that discovered it. They’re listening to it and it’s new to their ears, so it’s kind of pleasing when they don’t say, “Oh man, that sounds so ten years ago.” It’s kind of as timeless as the components, really. Although, I listen to it and I hear technical crap, basically, because I was learning when I was doing that one. It was kind of an educational period for me.

JJ: If that was your first project, how did you get into it?

EK: I’ve always made music. I played in bands when I was in school. I played bass and played guitar badly and I used to work as a sound engineer. When I went to University, I did a degree, but at the same time, I was moonlighting. I kind of fell into doing sound engineering and lighting, initially just to get into the gigs for free. One club, I used to go there so often, eventually they said, “If you turn up a bit early and help the band in with their gear, you can get into the show for nothing.” I was happy for that. And that developed. They showed me how to mic up a band, how to mic a drum kit, how to operate a mixing desk. When I finished my degree, I went and worked there full time for about three or four years.

Then I started doing sound for local bands and stuff like that. At the same time, I was seeing people do one-man electronic shows and that was the sort of thing I was interested in. The bands I was in were falling apart, so I kind of thought I should buy a sampler. It was something I always wanted to do. I really loved things like Art of Noise or Negativland and the whole kind of dance culture, rave culture that had developed here in England gave a me bit of opportunity to kind of pursue that. I put out a few singles under names that don’t matter now and we sold a few thousand copies. I started traveling and I got the bug and learned how to DJ, which I had never really thought about doing before. But that was how you promoted yourself. I wanted to do live shows, but it was a lot easier to go and DJ, so I taught myself how to DJ.

But the mashup thing, it comes from sampling. I’ve always been totally into samples. I used to make pause button edit tapes – not necessarily like beats and stuff like that, but just trying to get things to juxtapose, to make really good mix tapes. When I was a kid, I really prided myself on this. If somebody asked me for a mix tape, they didn’t just get a bunch of tunes thrown on a tape, they got little interludes, little bits and pieces.

JJ: Mix tapes were your gateway into mashups?

EK: Well, it was just moving towards doing it. It’s really fun to mix things together. It’s like I was waiting for the technology to develop so I could actually do it without having thousands of pounds of equipment. The whole mashup thing, when it exploded, which was like 2001/2002, immediately I knew, “That’s exactly the sort of thing that I’ve been waiting for.” The first tune I did, the mashup happened in my head, which rarely happens. It was a mashup of “Ray of Light” by Madonna and “Cannonball” by the Breeders. I could sing one over the top of the other in my head. And I wondered if those two were in the same key. They were, but I needed to speed one up. So, I gave it a try and it worked. I put it online and I didn’t get stoned for it.

About the same time, I found the instrumental copy of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. I was a massive Flaming Lips fan from way back to their first couple of albums. As soon as I got hold of the instrumental for the Yoshimi album, I thought, “This could be a project. This could be turned into an album.” I’d heard Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, which is okay, but it was very hip hop. It’s very American. There’s an English perspective on mashups vs. an American perspective – English mashups always tend have a lot more humor and there are more weird, oddball elements thrown in. American mashups like The Grey Album kind of weld something into a hip hop formula. He’s used The Beatles, but it could have been any source material. Guys have done the same with the Beach Boys, with Pavement, with loads of different artists. When I hear it, I can always tell it’s an American album because they kind of weld it to a hip hop beat.

That’s one way of doing it, but that’s not really where I’m coming from. Whereas I was using The Flaming Lips as the music and not sampling them to make it a hip hop version of The Flaming Lips. There’s something and I think that a lot of mashup producers would agree, there’s something quite magical about getting two pieces to align perfectly without getting the welder out. You can cut things up to fit. But it’s better if you don’t have to cut them up, if they fit perfectly. For instance, if you have two tunes and they both go into the chorus at the same time and the change in key and the change in pitch is perfect, you just sit there and listen to it and go, “That doesn’t need anything done to it, does it?”That is a source of magical moments. The sum is greater than the parts, if you know what I mean.

It’s long-winded and kind of roundabout, but that’s the background for how I ended up doing this sort of a thing.

JJ: That goes a long way towards describing your definition of an ideal mashup.

EK: Yeah, it’s that. But it’s one thing creating it and another thing listening to it. I find it really hard to listen to other people’s mashups because I can’t help but pick them apart technically. If there’s something in there that I would have tweaked or I would have changed, particularly if you’ve got two whole songs and one goes up into a chorus and the other one doesn’t change. To me, that’s a killer. I want the changes to kind of work perfectly. A lot of people do sort of a dance mashup, where they have a dance track that just hits one note all the way through. But the vocal is a song, so it has verses and choruses and a bridge. They don’t try to carve the backing track to match the song.

JJ: You want that structure…

EK: Well, I like that structure. Bear in mind, what I think is a good mashup is not necessarily what anybody else thinks is a good mashup.

I have no interest or pleasure in mashing up 95% of modern chart pop music. It doesn’t really do anything for me. Also, there’s stuff that I won’t really touch. Like I don’t use The Beatles very much because it’s a little overused and you’re not really going to come up with anything that is a fraction as good as the original. Although I’m sure that someone who a massive fan of anything could say that about a mashup. I always try to feel like I add an artistically viable slant on something, if you know what I mean.

JJ: I know it takes a lot of work to make it come together, but how do you reply to the criticism that dismisses mashups as a derivative thing?

EK: Well, “derivative” – it’s based on other people’s music, so you’re never going to get away from people saying that. The reason I mentioned my background is that I don’t really see it as different. The only difference between mashups and any other kind of sample-based or appropriation-based music is that finally we have the kind of technology to be able to use a four or five minute chunk of music. Mashups came because people could use an entire acapella. They could use four minutes of a tune and four minutes of another tune and still add more drums and bass or other bits and pieces. I don’t know that it answers your question, but I think it was an already an artform before it was known as a mashup. It’s just collage and appropriation and a means of expression, as much as picking up a guitar and playing the same three chords that 80% of guitarist play when they pick up a guitar.

JJ: So, mashups as an extreme form of sampling. I can hear what you mean, like the Beastie Boys sampling David Bromberg’s “Sharon” for “Johnny Ryall” on Paul’s Boutique.

EK: Or like Prince Paul on Three Feet High and Rising. Apart from the few sort of pop hits, I didn’t really get into hip hop. I didn’t get into hip hop at all until I heard Straight Out Of Compton by N.W.A.  and Three Feet High and Rising, both came out the same year. They completely blew me away musically because Straight Out of Compton had the attitude, but Three Feet High and Rising was such a perfect blend, such an awesome record, and it had everything on it from sampling Otis Redding, Steely Dan, and Multiplication Rock and all of the little spoken word bits and skits. They were funny. They were fucking hilarious guys.

That related for me to stuff I liked, like Negativland. I found that stuff by accident when I was about 17. John Peel played a couple of tracks by Negativland and I used to do all the things that nerdy kids do. I sat up on a school night, under the covers, with a finger on the pause button on the tape deck and if he played something that sounded vaguely good, I would just whip the pause button off and tape it and end up with these compilation tapes. And a lot of the weird things that he played ended up on Kleptones albums as well because I never throw anything away. I digitized all those tapes. So, he played Negativland and I went and bought Escape From Noise which I still think is an absolute masterpiece. But it had the humor, it was radical, it was sampling conservative preachers and all sorts of stuff, but cutting up the words in a way that we find now with Cassetteboy. But 25 years ago, you had to sit there with a pair of scissors and some tape and actually cut the stuff up, word by word to make the sentence.

JJ: That’s like Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. It’s the same idea.

EK: That’s it. If they wanted a section, they would play it long form, record it from one cassette to another. A lot of that stuff, David Byrne had on cassette. So he would find a section, and he would play the cassette over the top of what they jammed as a band and try and find a section that worked well. Then they’d copy it onto the multi-track. It was sampling in its rawest form. He didn’t have the ability to do what we do now. I can put a spoken-word sentence into Ableton and move the syllables so they line up a little bit closer to the beat. Maybe I don’t want them to fall exactly on the beat, I still want to keep the cadence of the real speaker, but I can make it fit in four beats and make it hit one or two of the beats, or one of the beats and an off beat. So, even though it’s spoken word, it falls into the rhythmic pattern of the track underneath it. Little things like that are so cool to be able to do.

It’s very easy to get blasé nowadays; you can do anything to anything. But I’ve got to remind myself that, at the end of the day, you still need a good idea. You can have some amazing technology at your disposal, but if you don’t have a reason to use it… The problem nowadays is that we can do absolutely anything. It makes artistic judgment for me more important. That’s why I haven’t really put quite as much out in the last couple of years. I’ve got maybe a couple of hundred demos of tunes. I came very close to putting out an album last year, but it didn’t sound any different to the last one. I kind of like to feel that I’m progressing with what I‘m doing, to feel that I’ve  learned something with everything I’ve made. I don’t know if that matters to other mashup guys but it does to me.

JJ: I’ve noticed that you’ve always focused on releasing whole albums.

EK: I spit out little individual tunes and they’re kind of cute, but everyday you have maybe 20 YouTube clips, a couple of hundred links that you click on. I didn’t really feel comfortable putting out tracks that would just get watched once or listened to once and then get consigned to the dustbin of history. Partially because I spend a little bit too long making them. Making albums gave me an opportunity to make a body of work. To make something that had some flow to it so I could use it show some of my personality, basically. When {Hip-Hopera} came out, it really blew me away because I got it just about right. At that time, it was a little bit of a novelty for someone to give away a whole CD’s worth of music and people would listen to it without fast-forwarding. When I first put out A Night At The Hip-Hopera, it came as one long MP3. I resented splitting it for quite a long time, which was pretty belligerent on my part. But I really wanted people to listen to the whole thing. I wanted to tell a little bit of a story.

The same thing happened with Hip-Hopera [as Yohimi]. I found a double Japanese CD of Queen karaoke, which took three months to arrive from Japan. When it turned up, I thought, “this will be fun, I’ll do something,” Because I love Queen: the second record I bought was “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was like, even if this doesn’t work for anybody else, I’m going to enjoy listening to it. But it developed into a story; it took on a life of its own. Throwing in all this stuff about copyright, it was self referential to the whole mashup thing. But it blew me away that people actually listened to the whole thing. And it still does. So, that’s why I kind of pursue the albums. It’s the best chance I’ve got really. 24 Hours is the same. Again it goes over the top; it’s like maybe three hours long. But it’s like an audio film.

JJ: The idea behind 24 Hours is really cool, tagging the tracks to the time of day.

EK: That’s the thing. After the Yoshimi thing and Hip-Hopera, I wanted an idea. I didn’t want to tie it to one band, because I got really lucky with finding Yoshimi and lucky again finding the Queen stuff. There wasn’t a source of instrumental music and vocal acapella music of another band that fit the bill. But I was building up a collection of other stuff. And I thought I’d like a structure. I’d like to find something I can hang all this stuff on that isn’t just a collection of tunes. I can’t remember exactly where the sort of eureka, bingo moment hit, but I kind of sketched out the day, the 24 hours. Put it on a massive piece of paper, a flip chart on the wall. I carved it into sections: so this is the wakeup bit, this is the going-to-work bit. I’m going to come home from work, go to the pub, go to the club. Then, floaty-floaty. And we’ll see what happens if I can get that far. I had about six or seven tunes that I’d already written and it was like, “That could be the morning tune. That’s kind of about work. That’s sort of about drugs.” I could see it in that sort of context. The tunes would get tailored so that they fit the time frame a little bit closer every time. I would just go ‘round. I had a folder with 50 tunes in and I’d work a little bit on each tune, then go to the next one and work a little bit on that one. Some tunes got thrown away. Until, by the end, there were two or three gaps. Then I really put the nose to the grindstone and just wrote two or three things that were very specific, which was the hardest bit: to just do the slog, to get it all to lock together.

I’m really proud of 24 Hours. I think it took me about 6 months, but it nearly sent me insane doing it. I’m quite lucky. I was still doing a full time job at the same time, but I didn’t do anything else. I didn’t have a relationship or anything, I would just get up in the morning, go to work, come home, work on 24 hours for six or seven or eight hours until two o’clock in the morning, three o’clock in the morning. Then I’d get five hours sleep and get up the next morning and go back to work. I got so locked into the idea that I thought that even if nobody else likes this, I’ve created something I’m proud of. One of the things that keeps me going about the stuff I’ve done, is that every single album has its fans. I have Yoshimi fans, I have Hip-Hopera fans, I have Uptime/Downtime fans, and 24 Hours fans. And even some From Detroit to J.A. fans.

I like the big ideas, that’s the thing that inspires me to make something. We are surrounded, more so than ever. The internet is chock full of stuff. Ideas are now the most valuable currency. If you’ve got a really strong idea, you can attach things to it that, maybe on their own, may not have such good strength. It’s like hearing a really good song in a film. It augments it. If you just heard that bit of music in its own right, it may not have the same impression on you, but in combination with a narrative… So, the album structure, the narrative, the concept – they’re a way to try to enhance, put fairy dust on what in effect is quite basic. A mashup is a pretty basic thing at the end of the day, but so is paint on a piece of paper or whatever.

JJ: Have you ever been contacted by the artists whose material that you’ve used? Not necessarily threats, but…

EK: We got lawsuits for Hip-Hopera. I didn’t, but Andy Baio who runs Waxy.org mirrored it because my poor, old feeble website died when it got popular. He put it up and he got the “Cease and Desists” and stuff like that. I’ve never actually been personally contacted by anybody. Flaming Lips, I know were kind of cool with Yoshimi but they wouldn’t go on the record. A friend of mine used to work with other bands on the same label. He was in America, talking to Warner Brothers and they were listening to it in the office. So, that’s The Flaming Lips’ record label.

Brian May, from Queen, notoriously hated it, because he didn’t get any money for it. He made a big point about it, that someone sampled him and he made a comment about how he didn’t get paid for this one and this was just at the point where Hip-Hopera was reaching its notorious peak.

The man is plenty rich enough. You can see the different ways that artists handle their legacy. For example, the way that The Beastie Boys just put their acapellas on their website: “Don’t feel the need to rip them off from whatever source. Here they are, have some fun with them. We’ve had some fun with them. You can’t possibly duplicate what we did. But you might come up something really cool.” It’s a way of connecting to the artists. Queen would only do that if there was a financial gain involved. Despite the fact they’re pretty rich, they’re still very greedy.

JJ: Related to the idea of mashups, what do you think of cross genre cover bands?

EK: Yeah, there was a band about 20 years ago or so, Dread Zeppelin

JJ: I remember them. Their lead singer was Tortelvis.

EK: Exactly. I saw them. They came and played at a club that I used to work in. They were fucking unreal. We’d already heard bits of the album, but we were like, “Can they actually do this live?” And they rocked. Some of their tunes… there was like “Heartbreaker Hotel”, a bit of “Heartbreaker” and a bit of “Heartbreak Hotel”. There’s a mashup.

JJ: To wrap up, where do you see yourself going from here? What do have in the works? What are you looking to head to?

EK: I don’t know. It’s a big question for me at the moment. I’m doing far more non-music related work right now. But taking it on limits the amount of time I have to dig into making more music. I think the problem at the moment is that what we were doing maybe seven or eight years ago is now far more commonplace. It’s like a button on Photo Shop. The mashup button, you know? And in the Photo Shop of music, you’ve got the punk button, the distorted guitar palette, the psychedelic button, the rave button. A bunch of guys have created this thing, the mashup button. But now, there’s far more acapella material and instrumental material out there. Now, mashups are really mainstream. It takes quite a lot of effort to make a mashup that can shock people or grab people’s attention because they’ve pretty much heard it all before. And people like novelty, which is fine. I’m not saying, “Boo hoo. Our five seconds of fame are over,” but the challenge now is to come up with something that I think is artistically viable, that’s a good idea. But a good idea now, as opposed to what would have been a good idea ten years ago. In the same kind of way that film or videos developed, sound has to develop as well. So, I have no idea. I’m kind of looking for the idea. If I find it, I’ll do something with it. If I don’t find it, I’m not going to do anything in the meantime. I have more fun making mix tapes at the moment, more than anything else, to be honest.

JJ: I’ll close out by saying that I really have enjoyed your work and thanks for your time. You and the other people I’ve interviewed have come at this from a number of different directions.

EK: That’s cool; who else are you talking to?

JJ: So far, I’m talking to Mark Vidler from Go Home Productions and Tom Compagnoni from Wax Audio,

EK: I’ve met Mark once or twice. The Wax Audio guy, I’d love to meet. He’s Australian, isn’t he?

JJ: Yes.

EK: He’s been traveling around, doing a thing. He does stuff in the similar vein to me and he’s also got an equivalent sense of humor. I wish more people would do albums. I’d like to see Mark Vidler do an album. He kind of sticks out little EPs and little tunes. But I know he’s got a real love of psychedelia and I’d love to see him really cut loose and make something really quite extreme with his style. I would love that.

Interview with Max Tannone

Max Tannone used to release his mashups under the name Minty Fresh Beats, but has now switched over to his own name for his projects. Most recently, he’s been moving more towards remixes and music production, but his mashup catalog stands out for using unexpected music samples like punk, dub and reggae. He’s tended to release whole albums of related material, like his Jamaican take on Mos Def, Mos Dub, or his earliest release, Jaydiohead, mashing Jay Z with Radiohead. We talked for almost 40 minutes on the phone for this interview.

This is part of a Mashup Artist Summit. Highlighted sections were mixed with other interview segments to create a conversation between several producers.

Jester Jay: Hi, Max. My introduction to your work was Mos Dub, but I later came back to listen to Jaydiohead. I really enjoyed that. Your mashups seem to be very fluid and natural sounding.

Max Tannone: Thanks a lot!

JJ: Listening to Mos Dub in particular, when I compare Mos Def’s original to your mix, it sounds like you’re fine-tuning the phrasing to fit the beat better.

MT: Yeah, definitely things are slid around a little bit to make it fit better or to make it sound for effects. I cut the vocals apart, and then I can take a certain word or phrase and have the effect on that portion of the audio. The end goal obviously is to make it on-beat with the music behind it.

JJ: On “In My Math,” the rhythm on that and the flow of the lyrics sound cleaner on your version than the original. It was sweet.

MT: Thanks. It wasn’t a conscious decision to make it that way. I never thought that the original wasn’t quite on beat; it was just that I make the backdrop, the music track, first and then I fit the block vocals in and then go back and tweak the music. I’m glad it sounded good.

JJ: On that track, the original beat is a little stuttered, so there’s more syncopation, where that rhythm doesn’t always mesh with his flow. It’s not bad, but yours is a thing of beauty. With the reggae groove, the vocals sit right in the pocket. 

MT: The original track was done by DJ Premier, one of my all-time favorite producers. I believe I read that that original track actually had a different beat and they couldn’t get sample clearance. So, that he made that one for the final version. I could be totally wrong on that, because I know that’s happened with a lot of songs, but I do think I read that somewhere.

I love the original and I love DJ Premier. DJ Premier and Mos Def together is a dream team for me. I was just happy to put my spin on it.

JJ: I listened to your latest project, Mic Check 1234!, and, once again, the meshing of flow to beats was natural. “Definition of Blitzkreig” made me wonder why no one has mashed up “Blitzkreig Bop” by the Ramones before. 

MT: That was a fun project. That was definitely the most challenging of any of the mixes that I’ve done. Generally a punk song is really fast, so the main issue is that you have all these songs that are 120 or 130 beats per minute. That really narrows your scope of acapellas that you can use over the track. I had to find fast rap songs to use or a slower punk song. Of course, there are fast rap songs and slow punk songs, but in general for those genres, it’s a fast punk song and a medium to slower tempo rap song.

JJ: I know you’ve covered this in other interviews, but our readers might not know. Could you tell us how you got started making mashups?

MT: Originally, I started just making music on my computer, just for fun. I was doing beats and putting sounds together, having a good time. Then I deejayed for a while growing up in middle school and high school, doing whatever parties, school dances, stuff like that and continued to make beats. I knew what a mashup was, I was familiar with The Grey Album [Danger Mouse], but I never tried it. Then, one night, I don’t even know why, I just looped the Radiohead song, “I Might Be Wrong” from AmnesiacI looped that up and then,  a few years later I was listening to Jay Z’s American Gangster album and those acapellas had come out. They were easy to find on the internet. So I just grabbed the acapella to his song “Pray” and put them together because they had the same vibe going. Lyrically and musically, it just made it. Everybody was on MySpace at the time, so I put that on MySpace and people liked it. I didn’t have the name Jaydiohead yet, it was just called “Wrong Prayer Remix.” A few weeks later, I did another Jaydiohead, what became Jaydiohead, track called “Ignorant Swan.” I was listening to the Thom Yorke solo album, The Eraser and I really liked “Black Swan.” So, I thought “Let me play with that.” I chopped that up and looped some pieces from that and put on another Jay Z vocal. I had those two songs, but they just sat for a long time, a year or nine months. Then, one day I was driving and I thought, “I have those two tracks. It might be fun to do a whole project of these.” I was listening to a lot of Radiohead at the time and I just came up with the name “Jaydiohead.” I thought it was really funny and catchy, too. I did 10 songs and everyone seemed to like it and I had a lot of fun doing it. So, I just kept going from there, seeing if I could do a few more of these projects. I’ve done a couple of them since then.

JJ: So, a one-off or a couple of fun things motivated you to dive in all the way. It looks like most of your mashup projects have been full, album-length collections. Is that what you enjoy doing the most?

MT: Yeah. I like to do groups of songs to really get into a theme. I like to explore a certain theme. Mos Dub and Dub Kweli [based on Talib Kweli] were probably my favorites because I really enjoy that type of music and it was an excuse to watch hours of crazy soundsystem videos on YouTube from the early ‘80s, under the guise of research. But throughout this time, I’ve been also been making beats and doing remixes for other people that might have sampled elements or not. It wouldn’t be considered mashup music. This is actually what I want to focus on, going forward.

JJ: Your site has a Nora Jones track and a number of other remix tracks that you’ve done. Are those authorized remixes? If you don’t mind me using that word…

MT: The Nora Jones is kind of an in-between thing, but it boils down to “no.” They were never released officially. The Nora Jones is, essentially, a bootleg remix, but I don’t think too many other people actually got the acapella. That wasn’t sanctioned by her or at least it wasn’t released by her. Whatever other mixes are on there…Well, there are a few that I did with an artist. I have a remix for Duncan Sheik, the singer/songwriter. That was an official remix that was on his album of remixes. But everything else is pretty much a case where I liked the song and I found the acapella or I knew a friend who’s in the band of the person that I’m remixing. Or I find someone online and reach out to them or sometimes people reach out to me on the internet. Usually it’s an artist and, if I have the time and I’m interested, I’ll just do it to do it.

JJ: So, you’re doing more remixes than mashups these days?

MT: Definitely. I want to put more focus on that and also on original production in general. I just finished a project with a rapper in New York City, his name is Champagne Jerry. We just finished his album and we’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to release it. I did like 12 or 13 songs on that, making beats. It’s not a mashup.

The lines get a little blurred, too, because even when I was making all these quote unquote mashup projects, at some point I’d wonder if it was a mashup or just a beat that heavily samples a dub song. You know what I mean? The same sort of track released by someone else might not be called a mashup, especially if it had original lyrics. It might just be an album heavily sampling dub. So, I was trying to blur the line. I wasn’t just taking a song and putting lyrics over it. I was really interested in adding more elements and doing all kinds of stuff to it.

JJ: Your work stands out, because your production is not just a simple beat and a vocal track. Like on “History Town” from Mos Dub, you’re getting some scratchy effects by chopping and sampling the source material. That focus on production seems to be key to your style.

MT: It’s gratifying that other people pick up on that. I was intentionally trying to make it sound cool. If something is simple, just putting the two tracks together and matching up the tempo… if I really thought that sounded the best it could be and that adding stuff just detracted from the overall feel of it, then I would leave it simple. But it’s all about the end goal. I was just trying to make it interesting and put my own style onto it. There’s so many mashups because it’s easy to do. Just because it’s easy to do doesn’t necessarily take anything away from it. On the contrary, that’s one of the cool things about it. But I just thought it was fun to take it to a new level.

JJ: I know it’s a matter of taste, but what qualities do you think define the perfect mashup?

MT: I don’t like things that are super crazy necessarily. Not to take anything away from artists like Girl Talk, I think he’s incredibly talented and obviously, the guy has a lot of skill. Personally, I don’t listen to that type of music, with tons of samples flying in and out from different songs. It might be fun at a party I guess, but it’s not really my thing. I stick to a simple idea that’s executed consistently and makes sense.

I don’t listen to a lot of mashups by other artists, but there’s an album of Bob Marley and Mobb Deep mashups. I was super into that. But again, they’re really similar to what I try to accomplish. There’s a lot of extra stuff happening and I really like that project. Anything that makes you think, “Wow, I never heard this song in this context…” It makes sense, it’s really cool and it makes the person want to go and explore the catalogs of the source material being used. That comes into play, especially when you’re using obscure music that you’re sampling from, which I’ve done several times.

I know I’m rambling a bit. It’s something that doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, but it makes you realize that it’s a new context and it’s not necessarily trying to do too many things at once. That’s just me. Some people might like the sort of more frenetic style, which is cool.

JJ: Part of the joy of listening to Girl Talk is trying to identify the track before it goes away in the mix. It’s more about flow than it is about a simple idea.

MT: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I can see why that would be cool. And it brings me back to Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys. The lyrics were obviously new, but that’s essentially a mashup record. We get into these technicalities of is it a mashup or what, but it’s just sampled music that samples are flying in and out. That being said, it’s one of my favorite albums. I guess in certain contexts, it can be great.

JJ: How would you respond to critics that dismiss mashups or even remixes?

MT – Everyone likes what they like. I can’t speak for how other people see it. I see the argument that, in some instances, sampling can be really “lazy”. But it can be really interesting and inspiring. I would point to artists that sample incredibly, like Four Tet. He’s an electronic musician that does incredible work with samples. He’s an electronic guy, but definitely hip hop influenced. He’s really amazing. He’s not strictly sampling; he plays a lot of instruments. Or take Beck for example; listen to Odelay. Or go back to Paul’s Boutique or De La Soul. To me it’s really interesting, seeing how different elements are put together. It’s cool if some people don’t like it or want to deride it.

There are a lot of examples that can support the use of sampling. I think that if John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix were alive today, they would be super into sampling and all of this crazy computer manipulation and remix culture. They wouldn’t have to because they can play instruments really well and write songs, but I feel like they would be into it because it’s a new twist and it allows you to do things you couldn’t otherwise do. I could be wrong, it’s pure speculation. But to invalidate it just because it goes against your viewpoint. – it’s kind of a blanket statement, “Sampling is bad, anyone who does it has no talent.” That’s like saying anyone who plays guitar isn’t a real musician. It’s the same argument in a new era.

JJ: Another factor could be that a lot of mashups are seen as novelties; the idea is often humorous or ironic. But you seem to take a more artistic approach rather than using humor.

MT – I don’t strive to. I guess because I start the projects from an idea coming from sounds. So, I want to do a project with… then insert some kind of music. For example, I want to do a project with African funk music from the ‘70s because I think it sounds amazing. Wouldn’t it be cool to have somebody rap over this if it were done a certain way? It’s coming from that. If I were trying to be intentionally funny, like an album of Kanye West and Taylor Swift together, I guess it would be cool, but it’s just not…I have to be interested in whatever I’m working on. Otherwise, I’d never finish it. I probably would never be able to start it. There’s nothing wrong with going for humor, I think that’s great. It’s just not what I’ve done thus far.

JJ: Your mashups are all hip hop focused. Have you considered doing stepping outside of that?

MT: I’ve thought about it but most of my experience has been within the hip hop world, and it seems like it’s easier to find rap acapellas. Maybe it’s because I’ve only really been looking for them. There’s a lot of rap acapellas, so there’s a lot of source material to work with.  Also, it’s easier to use a rap acapella compared to someone singing because you don’t have to worry about melody so much. You don’t have to worry about the key of the music that you’re sampling, for the most part.

JJ: But even on Mos Dub, you have some lines that Mos Def is half singing and you made that fit with the tune.

MT: That was a conscious effort to make sure that would sound like that. He had some melody there. Obviously, you have to worry about tempo, but now you have the additional complexity of pitch. You have to fit the key of both elements.

JJ: What’s your favorite project out of your own collection? What are you most proud of?

MT – If I had to choose one, I’d choose Mos Dub. Not because of the way it turned out, but because of the process when I was making it. It was the most enjoyable and I learned the most from it. Which I guess is not really, “Which one do you like the best?” But I can’t really separate the creation process from the end product. I really enjoy how that project got me into that kind of music super heavy because I ended up doing a follow up with Talib Kweli’s lyrics. And still, to this day, I listen to it all the time.

JJ: Aside from that Bob Marley/Mobb Deep mashup, are there other producers you really respect?

 MT: I’m trying to think. Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of anyone. I don’t listen to that type of music a lot. I wish I had more. I’ve checked out stuff over the years. Not a lot, but here and there you hear about something. That one example is the only thing that comes into my head and I still listen to that today. That was hosted by Swindle, I guess that’s a DJ, but I don’t know if that DJ put it together. [note: it was Jon Moskowitz and DJ Swindle]  I wish I had more interesting recommendations.

JJ: Thanks for talking to me, I really appreciate your time.

MT: Thank you for the opportunity

Interview with Bob Cronin (dj BC)

Bob Cronin, professionally known as dj BC, not only produces great mashups and remixes, but he serves as the host DJ at Atlanta’s monthly mashup party, Bootie ATL. He has a fondness mashing The Beatles with The Beastie Boys, creating several albums by “The Beastles,” with the most recent being Ill Submarine. He’s also produced a series of holiday themed albums with the help of numerous other mashup producers.

This is part of a Mashup Artist Summit. Highlighted sections were mixed with other interview segments to create a conversation between several producers.

Jester Jay: A friend of mine turned me on to your work. I think the most pleasant surprise in your catalog was Another J on Earth. What inspired that? That is such a wild combo. I haven’t heard anybody else use Brian Eno…

Bob Cronin: I have been a Brian Eno fan for a while and I did a record with Phillip Glass and different hip hop artists [Glassbreaksand I was like, “All right, I want to do a mashup album.” After I did the Phillip Glass thing, I did one that used a lot of new avant garde electronic, early electronic performers and composers. That was kind of like that sort of thing. Using something more abstract and being able to use them as samples, with a beat, to create something really groovy out of something a little more far out. Then a friend of mine posted a YouTube clip of the song “Another Day on Earth” by Brian Eno. And I had never heard that specific record. And it was a little more recent than some of his other ones I had heard. It was really groovy stuff. I really liked the progressions and the sound quality and the rhythmic sense of it. And I thought I could use this.

When I started putting it together, it just happened. It was surprising to me. It was so natural and fit so well and so easily. I could cut things up and move them around, but it just fell together and sounded really good and these thematic matches seemed to be happening naturally. I was able to find vocal samples that worked really well. I was really proud of how that one came out. It didn’t really get a lot of attention, I think because there have been so many Jay Z mashup albums, with lots of Jay Z acapellas available.

Maybe Eno doesn’t really have a huge fan base, but I really appreciate you noticing that because that is one I really enjoy listening to myself.  I don’t always listen to my own stuff, you know.

JJ: The spoken word stuff, with Eno talking about style, added another dimension that I enjoyed.

BC: One of the things I liked about that, and that I dig about mashups in general is when two things are juxtaposed and it really throws something into a different light or makes it sound really different. Have you heard pomDeter’s “Call Me A Hole” mashup with Carly Rae Jepsen and Nine Inch Nails (“Call Me Maybe” with “Head Like a Hole”)? It takes that pop song and the Nine Inch Nails song and combines them. It gives that Carly Rae Jepsen thing a hard, aggressive drive and they work so well together.

In the case of Another Jay on Earth, the cool thing about it is that Jay Z’s vocals sound almost plaintive. The bluster sounds a little bit thinner. The music might have sort of a melancholy or sad vibe to it and it makes it sound like Jay Z’s being introspective about his situation, about what it’s like to be a black male in America and getting mistreated and those sorts of concepts. Or when he’s doing the bragging thing, you’re kind of like, “Well I can see that this is a device he’s using to protect himself.” I think it’s really cool. It works well. Maybe you can understand what he’s saying because the vocals are a little more up front of the music than the original mix, so you can pay more attention to the lyrical content.

JJ: I know exactly what you mean. On “Sweet and Clear,” he’s laying down this whole “should I be ashamed of what I’m doing?” riff and…

BC: Right, right. He talks about his nephews and what they’re going to be when they grow up.

JJ: I think you’re right, the lyric starts out a little bit introspective to lay that out, but in the original track, he’s pumping it out. Like a little bit of chest beating, maybe. Your mix changes the feel.

BC: Yes. That’s what I’m going for, so I’m glad to hear that that comes across. I think that’s sort of the same thing with novelty mashups, too. There’s a certain surprise; it’s usually a smile factor, where it makes you laugh. That’s one of the things I think is a lot of fun about mashups. The humor is a part of it that makes it healing to people and makes them smile or pay attention for a second.

But in the end, the track has to be good. “Call Me A Hole” is a perfect example of that. You can say, “Ha ha! He’s making fun of Carly Rae Jepsen by playing this really hardcore vocal over it,” but it’s so much more than that. It just works perfectly. It really rocks and it makes you dig the Carly Rae Jepsen. It makes you think, “This is cool, I like this version” and it sounds like its own song, basically.

JJ: It’s something like how cross-genre cover songs work.

BC: Like bluegrass guys doing Snoop Dogg or something like that?

JJ: Exactly.

BC: Yeah, I really like those kinds of cover songs. It is really similar. I think with those songs also, in the end, the tune has to be good and the players have to be good enough to pull it off well and have it be a good song in its own right and not just be a gag.

So, that’s what I hope for. My tracks can stand on their own as productions that are as good as stuff on the radio.

JJ: That’s a great set up for my next question. What’s your favorite mashup that you’ve made?

BC: It changes. I love them all and whatever I’ve just delved into is usually the freshest in me. I’m a little burned out on “#666666 Submarine” and the Beastie Boys right now because I was paying a lot of attention to it before I released it. But I’m really proud of The Beastle stuff, obviously. I really like Another Jay on Earth.

I really like the Santastic projects, the Christmas CDs I do as well. Those are compilations I do every year. I do one or two Christmas mashups or Chanukah mashups and then get a whole bunch of people to contribute and then release the whole CD compilation in early December or around Thanksgiving. Those are great, because I really like Christmas music and they’re a lot of fun. It’s cool to have a whole bunch of people doing it, because they all come at it from different angles. I’ll also do a Halloween one this year. I’m taking the reins back for a thing called {Monster Mashup} that I started back in the mid-2000s. Somebody else was doing for some time, but I’m going to be doing it again this year.

There is a lot that goes into it. I’ll have a website and I need to get somebody to do artwork. It takes a little bit of work to set up, if you want it to be something good, that has a cool feel and look and has a good cover and it’s easy for people to download. It takes a little time to coax tracks out of everybody and stuff.

JJ:  How did you get started creating mashups?

BC: I made mix tapes in high school, often for young women that I was interested in and friends. Then I made party mixes and mix tapes in college. Sort of pre-DJ music. I’d check out this equipment: speakers and an amp and a tape player. This was just before recording CDs became something you could do easily. I would play a tape and hover there and flip the tape over after 45 minutes. And then be ready with the next one and put it on, doing that for like 6 hours. Doing those gigs made me always want to have something that was new, that somebody hadn’t heard before. Then, I started making my own music and doing hip hop and electronic music in the studio with a four track. Eventually that led to using a four track to put a hip hop acapella over a reggae track or something like that. I wasn’t calling that mashups at the time, though.

Eventually, I went online and I found this website called GYBO – Get Your Bootleg On. At that time it was mashup oriented and McSleazy ran it. He’s a Scottish mashup artist, DJ and remixer. McSleazy’s website was huge. I was a lurker there for a long time before I posted anything. I was making my own mashups at home and figuring out what software  I needed to get to start doing it. It was like I had come home. It was a totally natural medium for me. Sort of like a DJ, but I also wanted to manipulate the music. I was influenced by sample-happy bands like the Beastie Boys and De La Soul, Prince Paul and Pete Rock. It just sort of took off from there. I made some tracks and people seemed to like them and it was really hip hop based. Then I started doing stuff with more vocals and whatnot. I cooked up some remixes for bands that were original, officially licensed stuff. So, it’s been cool. It’s been really a kind of fun ride.

JJ: Who have you remixed officially? Do you want to name drop a little bit?

BC: The band that I’ve worked with the most is Big D and the Kids Table, which is a ska-punk rock band out of Boston. They’re on Warped Tour right now. I did a couple of albums with them. The most recent one mixed Big D’s Fluent in Stroll record with Moe Pope’s vocals. He’s a rapper out of Boston. It’s good shit. It’s called Fluent in Moe. I was proud of that project. I should have mentioned that as my favorite thing. Because it was a real, legitimate release and I can get behind this being one of the best things I’ve ever done. I also did a record for them called Strictly Mixed and Mashed before that. Then we did a thing called Rude Remix Revolution, where the band and I got different bands to remix tracks. It’s been a lot of fun working with those guys. I also did a thing with the AKA’s who are like a Philly punk rock band. We had Travie McCoy from Gym Class Heroes on that remix. And I did a thing for The Human League, from the ‘80s. A remix of one of their Heaven 17 tracks. That’s most of the official stuff.

JJ: Have you experimented with longer form mashups like Girl Talk does?

BC: I’m usually focused on doing a track, a song that is. I’m not sure why, because I’m not usually on the radio. But stuff that is three to four minutes long. A song and albums of songs held together by a common thread of some kind. Either they’re sampling the same record or something like that. I have done a couple of longer things, like I did an ‘80s mix that was 9 minutes long and took 30 something songs that’s all ‘80s stuff mixed together. But, honestly, it’s not really my thing.

I like a lot of different kinds of music. I like jazz and classic rock and blues and whatever else, but the stuff I’ve grooved on is hip hop and punk rock, so it’s stuff that’s really structurally coherent: verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus or intro-verse-chorus. So, a lot of times I’m just knocking out songs and that just sounds right to me. It sounds right to me to attend that sort of a structure.

JJ: How do your measure your own success when you look at the things you’ve produced?

BC: That’s funny. I don’t know how to measure that. It’s tough to say. Some things, I’m really happy with how they came out but nobody else paid any attention to them. Like Another Jay On Earth: it didn’t get any press coverage at all. Even if I was talking to a journalist about something that was directly related to it, and I mentioned it, usually they didn’t even talk about it. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe Brian Eno is not that popular, but I thought that was really a cool thing. A lot of people said that they liked it, so I think that it has a limited audience. But I felt that was really successful.

Obviously, I like to have a reach and it’s cool to say that I know that at least 40,000 listened to something. I did this Cannonball Adderly remix with some drum and bass samples and it’s one of my most downloaded tracks ever. If you look at my monthly statistics, on a month when there’s no Santastic downloads and no Beastles, that is a top downloaded track. And it’s all Asian countries where jazz is big and jazz remixes are more popular than they are in other places. Maybe it’s something with the Asian MP3 search engines and how they crawl the web. If they’re searching for Cannonball Adderly, it probably comes up. I always thought it was really good and it didn’t get a lot of attention on message boards and yet it gets more downloads than anything else.

JJ: This next question is a more sensitive topic. Understand that I love the whole idea of mashups, but some people see them as a very derivative art form.

BC: That’s fine. You know what? That’s been said about so many forms of art over the years that it’s not even worth worrying about.those folks. Who cares, really? They may be totally right. It may be a lesser, derivative art. But you can say that punk rock was the same way. It was primitive and non-complex and it used basic structures and therefore it was a lesser form of music. People said that about the blues and African music. They said it about turntablism and electronic music: that they’re just programming it or moving a record that someone else recorded. In the end, everything is derivative and it really doesn’t matter. In my opinion, if people are doing something and they find it rewarding and somebody else enjoys it, then that’s cool. It is something different than making an original rock and roll song, but it also has its own challenges and rewards. It’s something that people find interesting and sometimes meaningful. What are you going to do? It’s not like anybody can get rich off it at this point.

I appreciate that question.

JJ: It’s interesting, too, that when you listen to jazz and sometimes rock, the solo might include a reference to an earlier song. In that case, it’s seen as a little tip of the hat but it’s the same thing. Those are live samples that expand the context of the main tune.

BC: When it’s done well, it makes you even question your own presuppositions about music. It makes you say, “Maybe I was wrong about Carly Rae Jepsen.” Maybe that can be kind of a cool track. Sure, it’s a more commercial version with the way the vocals sound and how they mixed it, but when you hear it mixed with Trent Reznor’s vocal, it kind of sounds cooler. It gives you a bit of perspective into the fact that context and prejudices and suppositions about artists and genres affect it and they can be thrown out the window and exploded. I can say that I like that Carly Rae Jepsen song and I’m not ashamed. And I like it even more with the Trent Reznor vocal. It’s cool because you can bring in so many things. It’s fun and it’s the opposite of snobby.

JJ: Can you name any other mashup artists whose work you really like?

BC: Yeah, there are a lot of them. Ones that I’m really digging right now are Mikey Mike from ParisFrance and DJs from Mars from Italy and DJ Schmolli from Austria.

JJ: I love him.

BC: And he’s still producing tracks, but these are the guys that I know and that I’ve heard more recently. DJ McFly from Boston has good stuff. DJ Earworm, obviously. I’m also always going back and playing stuff by A Plus D and Go Home Productions and DJ JR. The old classic GYBO stuff. Lobsterdust is always good.

JJ: You mentioned Go Home Productions. I talked to Mark Vidler in an earlier interview.

BC: He’s great. I’m glad you did. I would have suggested him. He’s a really amazing mashup artist.

The guys who are really good at what they do…it’s much more than sticking A over B. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it, tweaking, and additional elements brought in and fragmenting the sound source. It’s pretty impressive sometimes what people can come up with.

JJ: Bob, I really appreciate your time.

BC: Nice talking with you.

Interview with Tom Compagnoni (Wax Audio)

Tom Compagnoni’s day job is being the Executive Producer of Video and Audio at Australia’s national newswire. He’s honed his audio skills developing a host of viral mashups under the name Wax Audio. His three Mashopolis albums collect a host of great tracks, including “Lady Judas” (Lady Gaga vs. Judas Priest). He has also created a set of politically oriented, spoken word/music mashups under the “Mashed Media” umbrella name. He was gracious enough to answer an emailed set of questions for this interview.

This is part of a Mashup Artist Summit. Highlighted sections were mixed with other interview segments to create a conversation between several producers.

Jester Jay: What was your first mashup project?

Tom Compagnoni: Before I'd heard the word "mashup," I used to call what I do "Cut & Paste Music." I created my first digital "Cut & Paste" project in 2004, a 5 track EP called WMD …and Other Distractions. The content was almost entirely political and anti-war themed. I cut up speeches from politicians of the time and mixed them with various beats and multi-track components taken from recordings of a band I used to play in. For a while, Wax Audio was as much a part of the anti-war movement as it was an art project. It wasn't until about 2007 that I did my first mashup - a blend of two distinct songs - Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." The track is called "Whole Lotta Sabbath.

JJ: What's your favorite piece that you've created?

TC: The piece that means the most to me and that I'm proudest of is 9 Countries. It's an album I produced by taking the skills I developed as a mashup artist and applying them to a huge archive of sounds I recorded whilst travelling across Asia. I used a Minidisc recorder and stereo mic to capture street ambience, temple bells, chanting, traffic, animal sounds, random interviews with people - everything. Using these sounds as my raw material, I sculpted them into original compositions. A single looped beat would comprise sounds from a procession in Indonesia, temple drumming in India, the bell hanging around a goat's neck in Tibet, monks chanting in a monastery in Laos, street hawkers in Myanmar, etc. The whole project took me about 4 years to produce. It's probably the least heard work that I've created, but the few people who have taken the time to listen have told me how much they like it and it's by far my favorite.

JJ: What music do you listen to for pleasure?

TC: Looking at the CD spines on my shelf, the most featured artists are AC/DC, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Bjork, Black Sabbath, Dead Can Dance, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Iron Maiden, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Pink Floyd, Queen, Van Halen and Frank Zappa. There's plenty more I like to listen to, but these artists are a pretty fair representation of my tastes.

JJ: What qualities define a perfect mashup in your opinion?

TC: The most important things are rhythm and pitch. If either of these are not perfectly synched, it makes the result sound amateurish and even painful to listen to. The only clash I want to hear is a clash of genres. If you can take two or more completely different genres and make them fit, rhythmically, harmonically AND thematically – do the lyrical themes or song titles compliment or cleverly contradict each other? – then you've got a perfect mashup.

JJ: How do you distinguish between mashups and sampling?

TC: Sampling, in the modern musical sense, is the act of using a brief snippet of a recording and inserting it into an otherwise original mix. The sample is used like an instrument. Great examples of this practice include Public Enemy, Nine Inch Nails and Portishead. In a mashup, there is usually no original material. It's a deliberate blend of recognizable source materials or songs, combined to give the impression of something totally new.

JJ: Which comes first for you? Is it the satisfying concept of a particular combination or the recognition of an overlapping sound?

TC: It's different every time, there's no formula. I collect bits and pieces: isolated vocal tracks, instrumental tracks and multi-track elements. I always try to work with music I'm familiar with or like. When I'm ready, I play around, layering things on top of each other. Sometimes the idea pops into my head long before even getting to the computer. There are a few mashups I've composed in my head, then gone to the computer to find the elements and see if it works. Two examples of this are "Thunder Busters" (AC/DC vs Ghost Busters) and “Enter You” (Bryan Adams and Metallica).

JJ: Have you set yourself a particular challenge as an artist? How do you measure your success?

TC: Most projects are a deliberate challenge - I decide in advance what the grand vision is, usually a concept for a complete work like an album. The 9 Countries album mentioned earlier is an example. I set the parameters before I started, deciding I would limit myself exclusively to that particular library of sounds. One project I've worked on for years is a mashup album created entirely from music and sounds from the year 1984. That's not finished yet and may never be. If I finish a project and am pleased with it, that's a success in my book.

JJ: Howard Stern had a lot of criticism about your piece "Sad But Superstitious" and other mashups. How do you answer critics who dismiss mashups as inferior or derivative art?

TC: I don't really have anything to say in response; it doesn't bother me at all. Mashups aren't for everyone. Most people are dismissive of lots of styles of music and art. I'm just happy he plays my mashups on the air. Despite his commentary, many of his listeners seek my stuff out afterwards and tell me how much they love it. I'm happy with any exposure. A former member of Nine Inch Nails recently called a mashup made with one of his songs "an insult" ("Call Me A Hole" by Pom Deter). I thought it was a brilliant mash, and the reaction just amused me.

However, there is the unfortunate fact that the vast majority of mashups posted on YouTube and elsewhere are poorly produced and amateurish. So unless you go to some effort to seek out the good stuff, you're left with the impression that mashups are mostly rubbish. What sets me and others like me apart is that I've spent hundreds of hours making the mashups you hear on my site. I've paid enormous attention to even the finest little details. That's what sets a good mashup apart from the hastily produced crap you find flooding the internet.

JJ: What do you feel you owe the original artists whose work you build on?

TC: Nothing, really. I appreciate their music. I credit them fully. I don't make any money from the mashups I make with their work, which is an important point legally. I've had positive feedback from Yoko Ono, Jim Vallance, AC/DC, Rob Halford, Herbie Hancock and Robin Gibb. I've not had any negative feedback from any of the artists I've mashed so far. So there seems to be a happy truce going on between my apparent lack of regard for their copyright and their apparent appreciation of good, free publicity.

JJ: Can you name some other mashup artists who you respect?

TC: There are several, but I'm hesitant to name names, there'll be people who feel left out! I will mention one though - The Who Boys were a mashup band from London. They've stopped working now, but they put out several albums of mashups and originals. Some of the funniest and well-executed audio lunacy I've ever heard. Highly recommended.