Name: Calum Lee
Occupation: Producer, sound artist
Current Release: PLMN004 on bandcamp.
Recommendations: Kåre Tveter’s beautiful arctic landscapes, and Deep Listening by Pauline Oliveros
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Paleman, visit his bandcamp shop for more music or his facebook profile for current news and release updates.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I think the emotional power of sound drew me to it, the endless moods and perception altering effects that sound can deliver is a fascinating and mysterious phenomenon … even after studying and analysing why and how and working with sound for many years, it still amazes me.
My musical journey began with playing the drums and the guitar. Around age 10, I was listening to a lot of metal and rock music, I decided that I wanted to learn the drums properly and I began taking weekly drum lessons with Luke Flowers (a phenomenal jazz drummer). Luke turned me onto both playing Jazz and listening to Jazz music and I began performing and gigging around Manchester will local musicians.
At the time I lived with my parents in a flat so I couldn’t play an acoustic kit but instead I practiced on rubber pads, and then progressed onto an electronic drum kit age 12. This electronic kit began my journey into recording and arranging and producing music. I bought a 40 pound midi interface and began recording drum solos and processing the recordings, jamming along to synth loops, and producing weird experiments on GarageBand.
When Burial released his first album in May 2006 (I was around 14) I got a copy of the album from my Dad. This album undoubtedly began my journey into producing electronic music seriously, it sparked a new curiosity in sound within me that had previously been restricted to acoustic instruments and Jazz music. It was totally new to me and completely alien - I had no idea how it was made - texture, mood, groove, otherworldly sounds and new landscapes of sound. The ability Burial has for creating spaces and zones within my head sent me down a wormhole. I wanted to do it too, and I wanted to make moods of my own and attempt to affect people in the way his music affected me. A friend gave me a copy of Reason 4 and I began properly practicing and writing music with synthesis and drum programming and more traditional electronic music making methods away from recording my drums. I continued onwards from there …
I have gone through many obsessive phases along my musical journey via and in conjunction with my studies but also in my explorations of electronic music. The works of Arvo Part, Ravel, Debussy and Bartok have definitely influenced me in terms of their harmonic and timbral moods, drummers like Brian Blade, Bill Stewart and Philly Joe Jones for dynamics and groovework alongside Ghanian and Cuban rhythmic studies at university. With electronic music, early on I was hugely inspired by DMZ and Burial and then the post-dubstep movement shortly after. More recently I’ve been inspired by experimental early electronic composers such as Roland Kayn and Éliane Radigue and alongside that, sounds orbiting the more modern avant garde techno world and music within the ambient or drone sphere. The list of obsessions and influences is ever changing and very long!
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 the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I think that from my studies in Jazz music, the value of analysing, transcribing and recreating solos and techniques and licks from master drummers was always stressed to me via my tutors as a vital way to progress on the instrument. A good pathway to forming your own musical voice can include exploring the pathways others took to finding theirs. This must be done carefully and as an exercise so to avoid total replication and outright copying and I do believe that you can form a voice without doing these things - but for me, this played a big part in learning the craft both of production, and composition and performing within Jazz and Electronic Music. The exercise of copying, studying and emulating experienced musicians alongside repeating the basics of the craft daily helped me hugely in the formative years of both disciplines.
With my productions in the the very early stages, I was aimlessly creating little sketches, not really listening to much and just messing around (which isn’t a bad thing). However, once I encountered electronic music that really moved me I began to treat it more seriously. I became disciplined in studying electronic music and as an exercise attempted to copy sounds, loops, drums and baselines. Inevitably this leads you down pathways where you begin emulating someone, but perhaps get it wrong, or get sidetracked and you end up with something original. I think through repeating this process, balanced alongside pure experimentation and exploration without referencing others is how your own voice is carved out. One quote from Miles Davis is “sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself”…
You smash together all your influences, you fail at copying others because ultimately you’re better being yourself, and then you work to accept what it is you do that is unique, and hone it (all without thinking too much!) … I’m still working on this one. At some point you have to drop your obsessions with other people’s work, or you can lose sight of your own strengths, it is a balancing act. I have battled with hating my own sound and hating the natural inclinations I have within my productions, but accepting this is another stepping stone on the way towards your own voice. You can never be someone else, you must be you, but you definitely includes your influences too. It’s confusing sometimes, but also quite simple.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Every year along this constant journey seems to be dotted by a small handful of challenges for me on a technical and creative level. The early stages it was basic things like navigating software working out EQ, kicks and subs working together, or layering, filling out the mix, using FX - the foundational stuff that needs to be learnt in order to create a track that works alongside other tracks and also works well on a sound-system. I struggled for a while with dynamics - I was taking squashed music to be mastered but I didn’t realise! I honestly feel I have only just begun to understand compression and limiting recently, even after using these tools for almost a decade. Alongside this, on a less technical level, keeping track of what I truly want to be doing, not getting too deflated or negative about my own sound, and trying to just remain positive and blocking out too much external noise via social media has been a challenge for me. I’ve taken steps recently to manage this and I’m seeing positive results.
More recent technical challenges have included switching to working on hardware, and the act of physically learning how to work the machines was a learning curve but I feel much more comfortable with it now. Within my music, I have been working on deepening my textures, more tangible sound quality, audio perception techniques and trying to refine how accurately I can execute what I'm attempting to capture from my imagination - things like capturing more tonally ambiguous moods within my music, or balancing energy with subtlety.
In the beginning I wanted to primarily focus on making my music as physical as possible for clubs and making things exciting and powerful was the main driver for me (it still is in someways). That still plays a part, but I now want to try and make things exciting on a sound system but also intimate when listening on headphones, or full up with texture but minimal sounding. There’s always a new challenge around the corner.
I still work daily on the basics too, improving my EQing, subs, kicks, processing, watching tutorials and studying other people’s music. In some ways a lot has changed, in other ways nothing has changed. I guess with experience the things you want to express or the techniques you’re employing become a little more nuanced, but the trick is finding ways to execute complicated things in a simple way that stay true to your intentions and remain unique.
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?
My first studio was my bedroom at my parents flat, my dad’s hifi speakers, a laptop, headphones and Reason 4. After I moved out, age 19, I finally bought monitor speakers, a soundcard and upgraded to Reason 6. All of my earlier music was made entirely on Reason. In 2015 I abandoned it and switched to Logic Pro X, mainly because of the restrictions I found with Reason and also I wanted to move to using hardware and recording again, rather than purely working in the computer, I needed a change and a new challenge. I now source almost all my sounds from my modular synth, a few pedals from Strymon, some EQs and a mixing desk with a cheap compressor running into Logic X.
I made the switch to using modular synths after visiting Boddika in around 2018 and watching him in his studio and learning about producing with hardware. I was blown away by the sound quality, flexibility and creative unpredictability of modular and hardware synths and began to slowly fill up a small case with modules with the idea of creating a synth that I could make everything on - drones, drums, textures, synths and also some FX processing. I’m still working on finding a good balance between it all but I feel I’m slowly carving out my own sound with the machines. Some of the most important pieces of gear for me at the moment are the modules I own made by Make Noise and also Erica Synths and also my Furthrrr generator made by Endorphines, I couldn’t work without my Beastep Pro for sequencing either. I love working with hardware, but also still enjoy the detailed processing work I can do on the computer using plugins by Fab Filter, Nomad, UAD and I also really like the stock plugins with Logic X.
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 like this question … The relationship between technology and creativity and the ways in which machines work with humans offers has recently become a bigger part of my creative process. I find that, for example, with the modular synth sometimes I am guiding the machines to a vague destination and the machines make suggestions along the way … Other times I have a set destination and I force them to go there with no compromise. Sometimes I will stop at the destinations along the way that I feel the synths are suggesting, other times I continue on determined to get to where I set out to arrive when I began. There definitely exists a duality of suggestions where a lot of the time I meet with the machines in the middle. Humans excel at ideas, machines excel at following instructions. Somewhere in-between the worlds there is a collaborative beauty whether it’s with hardware synths or software. There is some fantastic music out there based around these machine-human feedback loops.
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?
As I mentioned earlier, there is sometimes an element of unpredictability to the tools I am using. Maybe I make a mistake with a patch, and the machine springs to life in a way I didn’t expect, other times I guide the machine to a rough area and when I arrive it is different to what I expected but inspiring and useful. I feel sometimes I’m led by the machines I use and other times I am leading them. We work together!
I am slowly noticing and have had some comments from friends and fans that my music has taken on a slightly new but still recognisable timbre in recent years, I like to think this is down to inviting the machines into my workflow, and their influence over the sound and texture and also my decision making process. I have also chosen to restrict myself to only a small amount of hardware equipment, I think this contributes to my compositional process and allows maximum creative with restrictions in place. On the contrary, the detailed, controlled and almost infinite environment of using software on the computer massively helps me when I need to control what I'm doing without out injections of randomness - this also lends a helping hand to my creative process when things need to be focused and controlled.