Breaking sense

Born in the same year as house music, it seems fitting that Cleveland-born DJ and producer John Roberts likes to get his feet dirty in the grime and grit of the genre. Now based in Berlin, it's almost a necessity that Roberts also embraces, to a certain degree, the German precision of techno. But to say that Roberts' music is simply a combination of these two worlds is to grossly understate the unique style that gained him an invitation to become the first American artist on the influential German imprint Dial Records. Described as 'meticulous and loose, evocative and innovative' Roberts' music reflects his keen interest in music as a child that has distilled into a career built on curiosity and courageous musical decisions. Taking a cue from his electro-forefathers, Roberts works with analogue synthesisers, out-dated sequencing software and reel-to-reel machines to explore the possibilities and physicality of various mediums.

With many artists, who are active both as a DJ and a producer, there is a clear connection between their releases and the music they're spinning. With you, that link seems slightly less obvious. How do you see the relationship between your DJing and an album like Fences? 

I grew up listening to all sorts of music but probably participated most in the electronic music scene. I spent my younger years at raves and parties rather than rock shows, so when I am in that environment it is my inclination to play the electronic records that remind me in some way of my previous times in that world. I guess my DJing ends up being more of an explicit laying out of my influences, record by record, while the music that I produce is rather an amalgamation of influences melted together.

In a recent interview with Inverted Audio, you said that you've "always loved the idea of being able to look back on what you’ve done and see visible progressions and refinements over time." Can you tell me a bit about the challenges of recording Fences and the progressions you've made as a producer since Glass Eights? 

One of the biggest challenges of working on Fences was knowing where to start. I spent so much time in the beginning worrying about how it would sound and how it would connect with what I had previously done. It was only after I just started to stop thinking and start producing music again that I was able to actually make something that did make sense in the grand scheme of what I had been doing previously. In addition to changing in a number of ways that would be impossible for me to recount since 'Glass Eights', I also spent some time learning about studio and mixing techniques used for different genres of music. A friend of mine subscribed me to Sound On Sound magazine as a birthday gift, so for a while I spent a lot of time investigating pop production techniques, and trying to take away the elements of that which interested me and apply them to my own work.

To me, one of the things that make not just your albums but your EPs stand out, is that you seem to conceptualize them as immersive and coherent sound spaces from top to bottom. What were some of the aesthetic considerations and preferences with regards to Fences

Thank you. I try my best to consider each physical release from start to finish, no matter the length of the format. I've always been most attached to pieces of music that could be listened to from start to finish. I think it is a great opportunity to convey a more detailed perspective rather than just collecting a few pretty songs together on a disc. With Fences I originally wanted the album to function like a mirror. I had imagined that the first half of the album would build from silence into complete clamour and then turn around at the middle track and directly reflect what had already happened in the opposite direction for the remaining duration of the album. While this didn't end up happening explicitly in the end, I do think that that feeling remained, which I am happy about. Aesthetically, I did want to attempt to capture some of the memories that I'd had while visiting specific places over the last couple of years. I wanted to be sure to include sounds that triggered certain memories for myself, and that could also potentially trigger a number of other random memories for a listener.

What equipment, specifically, were you using for producing the album? 

I recorded violins, synthesizers, cellos, pianos, etc. onto a tascam four track as well as some atmospheric passages on a pocket cassette recorder and my mobile phone. I then did all of my final sequencing on old tracker software, and used some outboard effects like the Roland Space Echo, as well as some pedals from Boss and Jomox.

When did you start DJing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I started DJing when I was fifteen years old on a pair of Numark belt-driven turntables and a matching mixer. When I first began buying records at the local shops in Cleveland, I was randomly purchasing all different sorts of electronic music - from breaks, to jungle, to garage, before discovering an affinity for Dancemania Records, and the artists which regularly released on that label. Those records were the first that I passionately mixed and tried to mentally deconstruct, from a production perspective.

What are currently your main challenges as a DJ? What is it about DJing, compared to, say, producing your own music, that makes it interesting for you?

My main focus has been finding ways of implementing more interesting ways of mixing and more abstract ways of EQing lately. Although I've played records over ten years it has remained interesting to me as I've never felt that I was able to master it, and I don't think that I ever will. There are always new things to try and so many subtle changes to make that can really impact the way the music you choose to play is perceived.

What do you usually start with when preparing for a set?

I've never prepared for a set, and rather prefer to choose music instinctually, based on how I am feeling in the moment. Of course I try to consider what I would like to hear, what the audience seems to be looking for, and how long everyone's attention span seems to be in a given evening, but I really try to keep everything spontaneous.

How important is building a real relationship with the music you're playing for your own approach? 

Building relationships with the music I am playing is especially relevant when talking about playing physical mediums like Vinyl or CDs, which both take on certain characteristics due to wear and tear and a number of other factors as they are taken on planes, covered in dust and stained or scratched.  I more often identify my favourite records by the wounds that adorn them rather than the names of the songs contained on them, which I consider to be an identification method that is quite specific to a person's own collection.

When there's more music than one can possibly take in, it is becoming increasingly hard to know what constitutes an original and a remake anymore. What's your opinion on the importance of roots, traditions, respecting originals and sources? 

Well, of course I think it's important to be aware of what has come before. I also think it's extremely important not to be too precious or sacred about tradition. I think it's equally important to be comfortable breaking rules and experimenting with new ways of creation and modification, as these seem to be some of the best ways to help a creative culture move forward rather than becoming a stagnant series of rituals night after night.


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