Name: David Psutka
Occupation: Sound artist, producer
Current Release: 'Grey Matter AR' Snapchat Compositions . Available from the ACT! Bandcamp page.
Milford Graves: A Mind Body Deal
Hirokazu Koreeda: Like Father, Like Son
If you enjoyed this interview with ACT!, you can find more information on the project on David Psutka's soundcloud account or the instagram of his record label Halocline Trance.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I’ve been around music in one way or another for most of my life; bands, the conservatory, studios - in my late 20’s it became a full time thing. I’ve always felt an electricity from music that is unmatched, and now It’s hard to imagine doing anything else. The lifestyle suits me perfectly, I really enjoy the work.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Replicating other styles of music always felt difficult to me, it’s probably easier now with youtube tutorials, but I never had the diligence to faithfully rebuild something - it’s total heavy lifting.
My early material isn’t exactly original, but it’s definitely not facsimile either. I’ve always enjoyed the exploratory, playful aspects of writing and production, while not having much stamina for recreating. In terms of workflow, I’ve modelled mine around various ideas from other artists. I do a lot of improvisations and experiments, and then slowly cobble scraps into clear ideas. Working this way, it’s surprisingly hard to focus on a specific reference the entire time, and I’ve never been all that excited personally about rebuilding someone else’s thing (although that hasn’t stopped me from getting a million random copyright infringements on soundcloud).
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Early on (and still) I was just trying to make things that were coherent and fun … hopefully engaging. I’m usually looking to bring some creative sound ideas into the music, but ultimately the goal is a nice experience or sensation for the listener. Balancing the urge to experiment while still making music that’s relatively concise is the crucial balancing act.
Lately I’ve tried to be more patient in general to allow ideas to evolve gradually. I’m on a kick to work slower and develop things more fully - creatively and technically. My process is almost completely DIY and I usually have multiple projects on the go. On a lot of it I’m doing most stages of the process: conceptualization, writing, recording, production and mixing. It’s a nice way to work but also requires managing fatigue and excitement around a project.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I’ve mostly had small workspaces/project studios that revolve around a few good pieces of gear. I try to work quickly, so generally avoid stockpiling gear or over-complicating things, equipment gets purged if it’s fussy or sitting around for too long. Right now I have a few good synths (JD-800, DX7, Waldorf, modular system), a bunch of guitars and various FX boxes. Everything is set up in a way that makes transposition and routing super easy - i’ll do a lot of conversion, mapping, re-amping etc. The dialogue between the formats and pieces of gear is important to me.
I have access to some bigger spaces - I’ll work out of Jeremy Greenspan’s Barton Building Studio sometimes, which has a big collection of gear. There I can play around with new equipment or different mixing workflows, but my own space is really about speed and functionality, and where I do most things.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I try to be selective about new gear - there is so much that it’s easy to get derailed. Lately I’ve been into simple utilities for bridging different formats or generations of gear; good midi/cv tools, audio/midi convertors, ABY splitters etc. Stuff for the workflow.
I think the easy answer to the second question is that humans conduct the machines, but with all this cool generative and algorithmic music technology, I’m not so sure about that anymore. More and more, making music seems like an semi-autonomous and unpredictable dialogue between people and machines.
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?
I use DAWs in a pretty straightforward way; recording, editing and mixing audio. Computer screens are like paralysis devices for me, so it’s hard to feel creative while staring into them. There are amazing VSTs available now but I usually work with hardware instruments - I prefer the tactility and expressiveness of physical objects.
Automation ideas and DAW specific processes are interesting, but I have a fairly low stamina for screens. Especially during the pandemic.
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?
More and more, I think of collaboration as its own creative discipline - it’s a unique thing and requires a specific headspace. In this insanely isolated time, I’ve really been energized by collaborative projects. In fact, in the last few years Halocline Trance has evolved into a somewhat sprawling collaborative tangle, and that’s been a real pleasure to be a part of. I think successful collaboration requires humility, trust, openness, and skill-sets that are complementary.
Depending on who you’re working with, your contribution could be very different - sometimes it’s total co-creation, other times just refinement or problem-solving / tweaking - the key is to develop those instincts to know what to contribute and when. I know great musicians who are terrible collaborators and vice versa.
I feel quite lucky to have a talented and loving crew of artists and friends around me. There is a deep and constant communality to everything I do now.
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?
I have a rigid schedule now, partly due to the pandemic but also because of a heavy workload. As a parent and with a busy label, I need to have structured days. I wake up early, around 5:30am and do my creative work in 1hour blocks throughout the day - I’ll do my administrative + label stuff around those blocks, and ideally finish up by early evening. The pandemic has been a productive time but I definitely miss regular social contact!! I’ve been listening to all these terrible bozo podcasts just to create the illusion of banter and group-hangs … sad!
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?
The main compositional idea of ACT! is the fusion of musical and non-musical sound. Most of the songs, including the ‘Grey Matter AR’ soundtrack, hinge on a balance between ‘raw sound’ and ‘music’. I’ve always been fascinated by the characteristics of sound - its timbre, shape, colour and texture - it’s what drew me to club music, and loud music, in the first place. Making these tracks usually involves a lot of improvisation and studio explorations, then heavy editing, and overall refinement of the song.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For me, good creative work comes from a place of calm and openness. I like to feel relaxed in the studio. During the pandemic I think we’ve all been a bit more mindful of routines and distractions.
I have a few things that work for me: I rarely use social media and limit my time online as much as possible. No phones in the studio. Early morning sessions are nice too, I feel more focused when it’s early. A solid studio setup is important too - having too much gear, or gear that is prone to breakdown is a major headache. Analog workflows are nice, but I find constantly troubleshooting breakdowns or complicated patches can totally ruin my momentum.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Live shows have an atmosphere and immediacy that are hard to replicate in the studio - the way a song works for a crowd (or doesn’t) is concrete. The social backdrop of gigs is really interesting too (I miss that).
Studio work has its own gratification and arc; the genesis of the idea, writing, recording, production and finishing. Depending on the project and the live performances, both things really spill into one another and give shape to the material.
My starting point for almost everything is improvisation - most of the ideas for songs come from jamming, so there is a lot of crosstalk between playing, writing and recording.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
A lot of my solo material is fundamentally synaesthetic and revolves around texture, colour and weight of sound. In particular, my collaborations with ANF were done as cross-media soundtracks; one person responding to the other and so on.
Sound design is the most fun part of writing for me, it’s a real indulgence. I’ll usually follow my instincts with timbre and then sculpt the sounds into the framework on the track.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Great question. I’m not sure I have a great answer but i think this speaks to how my basic understanding of music has drifted over time from seeing it as a sonic medium, to now, an experiential one.
For example, when I’m writing a record I’ll usually be building the live-show visuals, sketching out artwork for the albums, and drafting or making other assets at the same time. To me, it all feels connected, like different corners of a single shared experience.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
This might sound lofty, but I definitely believe that music can be an agent of change - broadly but also in small, ultra-local ways - and that the experiences created through music; solitary, creative, and communal, are crucial.
As a musician, I see the work as being built on generosity and an exchange of ideas, and there is a really simple morality to it all. 2020/21 has been an insanely chaotic year, but I think a lot of the best guidance and messaging has come from the artistic space. Despite having lost so much, musicians are still organizing fundraisers, donating album sales, doing virtual gigs - it’s incredible.
Meanwhile, the corporate and political class has been totally gross in so many ways. We have big, complex problems in our future and I have more faith in the ideas coming from artists than politicians or CEOs.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
It’s been interesting to see a lot of the established mechanics of commercial music fade away in the last few years - not that I feel especially connected to that side of the industry, but it’s definitely happening. The flexibility of digital format is allowing a drift from traditional album + tour cycles and a general state of disruption in the space. Personally, I feel like fluidity is a good guiding principle for right now - rappers seem to have embraced it already with loosie culture, constant output, twitter drops etc.
Covid19 has been brutal for artists and the music biz, but I’m optimistic about what will come next. When the smoke clears, I think we’ll be in an exciting moment for music and art in general. ACT! is my main solo project but I try to be fluid with project identities, monikers or any kind of artistic brand identity. Vague, diffuse brand identities work for me; I like to spread ideas across different projects or mediums, and eventually would love to do scores for industrial settings, public transit systems, airports, or something like that.