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

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.

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