Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
When working on a new project I also like to set up a new environment or try a combination of instruments that is new to me. I like to put myself in the situation of not being fully comfortable and familiar with the setup, because it’s in these situations that I can surprise myself and find the unexpected.
It’s less about searching than about creating an environment in which inevitably something will happen that I can’t foresee. In my album “Ay Ay Ay”, by only using the microphone and my voice, or in a dance track series that I produced called “El Rudo del House” by only using an app on my phone, or the peculiar setup that I chose for the beginning of the work on the album alongside The Desdemonas: “Sofarnopolis”.
All the tools offer you a certain way of working, but when I was a teenager the tools weren’t really made for what you used them for. Today, they are more streamlined to a dance music producer’s necessity for example.
The thrill for me was always the idea of using a tool in a way that was not the one of its initial purposes. Tools are made more and more comfortable to the needs, and stepping out of comfort zones for me, is crucial in the attempt to develop something. Computer-related work especially puts you in this cycle of having to update regularly, then needing a faster computer for the updates to work, etc… You find yourself in a cycle of consumption, in which the music software brands somehow suggest to you that your creative outcome will become better through “unlimited possibilities”. It’s nightmarish.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I can’t think of any record I’ve worked on that didn’t have a collaborative level. As soon as there is some kind of dialogue, it takes music to another level. I have a hard time with file-sharing and working remotely. I much prefer direct contact when it’s possible. Collaboration for me has taken shape in many different ways. There have been collaborations with producers or mixing engineers always, as - albeit having improved them a lot – I don’t consider myself to have great skills in doing that.
Giving music shape in that way is also collaboration, as well as the response of the audience; that dialogue is crucial for me in the process. I’ve also sung on many records by others, as backing vocalist or choirs, but also in a more prominent way at times, e.g. with Chris Baio or Battles.
“Rionegro” which was an entirely collaborative record that we recorded for our label Cómeme in the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia. I worked with a core of local musicians there - Gregorio Gomez, Sano and Natalia Valencia. But many more people joined in visiting us in that temporary working space we had, percussionists, keyboard players, singers etc.
I like the idea of developing a certain shared vision of a project and working towards it. It’s like working on a theatre play – I compare it to that because of my experience in theatre, I guess. In the case of “Rionegro” it was a collective vision, in the case of “Sofarnopolis” it was more an invitation to participate in a more personal vision. Gregorio Gomez was essential in giving form to this idea.
But also, I like to work as a producer in the more classical sense of helping others with their music and developing their tracks to get some result. Which is how we’ve been working most of the releases on Cómeme. And last but not least, it is important for me to do jam sessions and freely improvise with others.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My day to day doesn’t have much routine – as I am on the road a lot. If I’m not at home, or in the studio, in a cinema, the supermarket, a beach or the mountains, or touring with The Desdemonas, I’m maybe in a cab to the airport on my way to a DJ gig and speaking on the phone with someone. I drink an espresso at the bar and say hi to the bartender who sees me in the airport TXL every now and then. This time I am carrying a Walkman with a Sun Ra tape in it. I find it soothing to listen on cassette – I have the impression my brain doesn’t rest if I listen to a digital recording.
After years of traveling I don’t get bored of looking out of the plane window, there’s always something to discover. There are some buildings that form a triangle when you are departing from Berlin. I wonder how the people look who live in there and if their furniture has the same shape. I watch the shadow of the plane on the ground, and then mostly I start working on something. These days for instance, I’m drawing possible stage outfits. When I’m drawing on the plane, time passes really quickly and I’m almost annoyed when we are about to land if I am not finished yet.
While traveling alone I get the calm that I need, it’s relaxing for me. It’s my time and it’s like I’m in a capsule floating through the people. Usually there is someone waiting at the airport with my name on a sign. I like to talk to the people who pick me up most of the time. I try to speak their language and ask about the city. On arrival at the hotel room I first try to turn the air-conditioning off and open the window. I always felt AC relates to real air like decaffeinated coffee to real coffee, or like latex to real skin. And plus it’s very bad for my voice.
I call reception to ask for an iron, I go to sound-check, I am nice to the sound engineers and introduce myself to all of them and if there’s problems I try to stay patient and be part of the solution. Mostly there is a dinner afterwards and if it’s possible I try to eat something local. Then I either go back for some rest to the hotel or directly into the venue. I try to get the vibe of the night and think of how I should best start – maybe this time I will start singing directly? Or maybe I work it more from an intense rhythmical start towards a later moment where I start singing? Or I start from 0 with some slowly building up down tempo rhythms and nature sounds? Maybe I want to create a jungle with my voice by layering loops? Then I start.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I can describe it best from my most recent album “Sofarnopolis” as Matias Aguayo & The Desdemonas, because memories of the processes are still very fresh. I will focus on the track “Boogie Drums”.
When I started to record the album, I didn’t even know I was recording an album. I was at the harbour in Cologne in a little flat in a dark, mysterious room with the sunlight shining through tree branches and the window blinds. I was equipped only with a field recorder, a looper, a keyboard, a drum machine, some stomp boxes and a mic. I thought I would be able to do overdubs with the field recorder but I realised that wasn’t really possible.
So, I had to record everything in one take. I was playing a relentless beat with my hands on the pads of the drum machine. I started to loop it with the looper and kept on playing those drums so that it started to sound like several drummers playing at the same time, the same patterns, like Japanese Taiko drummers or the royal drummers of Burundi or something similar. That sounded quite intense so it felt interesting to juxtapose a very soft melody in contrast, so I started to play on the keyboard, some notes, but the sound I liked was monophonic – you couldn’t play chords, so I started to try and strum it like a guitar, but that wouldn’t really work.
Then I realised I could create the chords by passing it through the miniature version of the ultra harmoniser from Eventide, which was one of the stompboxes I had with me. It worked nicely and inspired me to sing that soft melody on top of that. In retrospect, I was probably inspired by some Daniel Melero records I was listening to when still living in Buenos Aires. It’s a very sad, personal song about watching a love inevitably fade, longing, but also dancing.
I hope the song describes the mood better as I can with words. In the drum parts I moved further away from the microphone and screamed stuff in a low-pitched voice, like someone in the drum orchestra yelling orders or so. Gregorio Gomez was the first one to step in to the whole process of the record. Greg tried out different things but stuck quite early to this extremely effected slide guitar with a lot of delay on it that would permit us to build a nice melodic atmosphere together with the chords, but also to get into crazy percussive stabs in the parts where the drums become more dominant.
When we attempted to record the drums to recreate that atmosphere but with a better sound, we did that in a studio in Berlin. It took several takes of Matteo Scrimali playing the drums for the time of the song and layering it with more drums. It was impressive to listen to on the headphones while we were recording him, and how precisely and with what swing he would slowly build up to something. After having those fantastic drum takes, we then recorded all the other instruments playing together, trying to reach for the perfect take in my studio. The vocals I recorded later, alongside Matt Karmil. I prefer to sing a song several times and understand it as a whole performance rather than assembling best-of takes for hours on a computer screen.
For me it was important to have the band touring before the release, so we started to play “Boogie Drums” in the gigs – to translate the drum layers into a live version I also had to play the drums – and sing at the same time, and with the time passing we improved “Boogie Drums” to an extent that the studio version felt much less dynamic than the live version. We were doubting if we should record the track again, newly, as all the other parts, guitars, synth, vocals, had been recorded all in takes that I felt quite magical.
But Matteo was insistent that we could do better. So, we recorded the drums again, in a much more dynamic mood, and passing it through a distorting and pitch-shifting effect. I would also play drums and percussion as in the live version. It started to get much more dynamic and interesting, although we somehow lost the “cloudy” atmosphere that the steadier drums of the initial version were creating. So, softly, in the background, we added the old drum-takes, that you can’t hear much but you can feel it and we found exactly the mood that we were longing for. That was a lot of work for Matt Karmil as it was layers and layers of drums he had to mix.