There’s hardly a deficit of young pretenders making koanlike electronica – but it’s probably fair to say that none of the new school are doing it with quite as much class as Henry Laufer, alias Shlohmo.
After pleasant enough beatmaker beginnings, Laufer now does an excellent line in crunchy, wistful digital jams. You can hear the ghosts of FlyLo and Samiyam in his percussion/death rattles, but there’s an attentiveness to atmosphere and timbre that sets Laufer apart. Last year’s Bad Vibes – gauzy, glitchy, groggy and (occasionally) groovy – showed how far Laufer had come, and pointed to a voracious musical imagination (cf his 2011 FACT mix, where Charles Manson, SALEM and Sinead O’ Connor all bump uglies). This year’s Vacation EP, by contrast, offered a much sparser variation on the token themes. FACT caught up with Laufer at MUTEK to talk about the economic woes of the itinerant musician (and Beyonce, of course).
“It was me and the computer and nothing else.”
Vacation struck me as your most focused release in terms of the sonic palette you were using. Was it a deliberate choice for you to hone in on a particular sound rather than being more wide-ranging in your influences?
“It’s funny, because the tracks actually started – the first two tracks of the three – on a tourbus, and it was more of the necessary means of making something on a tourbus as opposed to being in a studio with all my tools and shit. It was me and the computer and nothing else, so everything that I did had to be MIDI-oriented or sequenced. Before that, the intention behind the structural aspects of the songs…where Bad Vibes is really maximal – it’s basically me just adding and adding and adding and adding until it felt right – on Vacation I wanted to strip down as much as possible. There are only a few elements for each song, like four layers. It was definitely a minimalist attempt, combined with minimal means of making stuff, and I think it just worked. Definitely something that I hadn’t tried in years, just making something with only a few parts and focusing more on structure. Making enough things happen between the elements where they play off each other as much as a more maximal sound would. I think that was the only real idea.”
“All the music that I really love has an atmospheric quality to the recording, to the actual space of the song.”
Tourbus electronic records are almost like the equivalent of lo-fi records for guitar acts. Partly through necessity, and the romance of being on the move too, they give you an opportunity to pare your sound down. Was that the first time you’d recorded on the move?
“Yeah, that was the first time. It was my first real big tour, it was with Daedelus and TOKiMONSTA, and we had a lot of downtime sitting on the bus. It’s funny what you say about the lo-fi stuff, because for me the lo-fi sound is desirable. When I’m at home, and I have all my gear, I’m like, ‘How can I make this sound as bad as possible? How many things can I do to this? How many means of recording this can I go through before it gets to the final recording?’ Whereas on the bus, it’s just the computer. So instead of being in a band and having a guitar and a recorder, just having a computer tends to make things sound way cleaner. So it’s the opposite for me when I’m in the studio.”
It’s interesting what you say about processing and reprocessing, and having a ‘maximal’ quality to what you do, because your music is unusually tactile and textural. There a lots of sounds that are rough, that engage the body when you listen. Do you strive to do something more physical than contemporary producers?
“Definitely. I don’t know about more than other people, but it’s definitely something that I look at. For me, all the music that I really love has an atmospheric quality to the recording, to the actual space of the song. To me, I like filling that space and making stuff sound like a place. Creating an environment of sound existing for that little bit. Pretty much all the music that I really love has a certain sound quality to it that maybe other people don’t listen to as much as I do, as opposed to the actual song. Which might be kind of shallow for me in some respect, because I tend to listen to how things sound spatially as opposed to the music a lot of the time. I’m trying to get better at it.”
“Old cassette music, old Three 6 Mafia – it wouldn’t be good if it didn’t sound as bad.”
Do you listen to field recording/sound artists? Is it an influence on you?
“Definitely. I went through a huge period of only listening to really experimental stuff and atmospheric, ambient stuff. Now, I’m kind of bored. I listen to a lot of pop music too, so now song structure for me is one of my…it’s harder for me to make a song than it is to make a texture and an atmosphere, you know what I mean? I think that’s what I’m not necessarily good at, but what comes easy for me is making texture and making that space. Making not necessarily a pop structure, but some kind of melodic song structure that takes you somewhere musically as opposed to just texturally, is something that’s way more difficult for me. I hadn’t thought about making stuff until the last album. I guess a lot of the music that I was listening to, and that I’m still listening to and I like texturally, is not even necessarily field recording or weird music, but even just old dub and old reggae stuff. How the mics sound. There’s never been anything that sounds like old dub studio stuff. Old cassette music, old Three 6 Mafia – it wouldn’t be good if it didn’t sound as bad. It’s more that stuff that gets to me than just purely atmospheric music.”
Something that links acts like dub artists and Three 6 Mafia, and then the Vacation EP in particular, is vocal manipulation. Pitching down, pitching up, mangling vocals – what was your rationale for using vocals in the way you did?
“I think ideally I’ve always wanted to work with singers. Not always, but there’s something obviously really important and beautiful about the human voice. It’s a texture that you can’t get with an instrument. I didn’t have a singer lying around, so I had a bunch of old R&B a capellas. I grew up on that kind of stuff, and I love late 90s, early 2000s R&B stuff, so that’s the singing style I really get into. Beyonce, Mariah, Aaliyah, stuff like that. That’s what I was taking from. In terms of the chopping and pitching down, I’ve also been a huge fan always of Screwed music. I just love that sound. Even pitched down hi-hats. I realized only recently that the main thing I love about Screwed music is the fucking pitched down hi-hats! So even in regular tempo songs, I’ll just start pitching down the drums to give it that quality. Same shit we were talking about before, I like certain sounding things. That’s definitely a big part, chopping and screwing certain vocal parts.”
“Originally they wanted to book me for my real big live set, the Bad Vibes thing. I only did it once in LA, and it’s such a bitch to move around. It’s just me, but there’s a guitar, a bass, a loop pedal, an SP404, a space echo, my computer and a synth. So I’d need a shit-ton of money: not to get paid to do such a thing, but to travel with all that stuff, ship it, have enough people to carry it with me. It was just too much for their budget! So they ended up just booking for less for a standard Ableton set.”
The basic package!
“Yeah, yeah, the basic package. It’ll be the same set I’ve been playing recently, but I haven’t played it here yet. And definitely some newer stuff too.”
“I realised only recently that the main thing I love about Screwed music is the fucking pitched down hi-hats!”
Clearly from that Bad Vibes set, you’re thinking hard about how to replicate or elaborate what you do in the studio in a live setting. Do you have pipe dreams about what you’ll be able to do live with the right means?
“Totally. Ideally to have somebody else playing with me, at least one other person. There’s not that much that you can do as a one man band. I had a bunch of predetermined loops already set up, and the rest I was trying to recreate as much as possible on the spot. But there was only so much I could do. So definitely, to have somebody else. Again, it’s one of those things – I just don’t work that well with other people a lot of the time. Not that I get really controlling or mad, I’m not one of those kind of people – I just know exactly what I want to do, but I’m really bad at communicating, so ideally to have someone that’s a good friend of mine would be rad. But right now all my friends are fucking travelling musicians or whatever. Hopefully soon. I’m not getting paid that much for whatever, so I want to be able to have an incentive for somebody to play with me. It has to be a viable option first of all to have someone travel with me and play. Pipe dream, long-term goal is to have more of a real live setup that I wouldn’t be scared to do by myself.”
I’m right in thinking you’re New York-based now, right?
“Yeah, though I’m actually going to be back in LA soon.”
As a corollary to that: for a few years now, everybody’s been writing about the ‘LA beat scene’, and it’s become something very different to what I imagine it’s like working there as an artist.
“[with some vehemence] Yeah.”
“I think it can definitely be helpful in a certain sense for people that have never heard certain artists before. If someone’s never heard me and they like Flying Lotus or something like that, and then they get turned onto this whole scene…I grew up there, so it’s kind of inevitable that I would be influenced by all that stuff and the same stuff that they were influenced by. It helps in that sense, in that it helps people find music. In another sense, I never really aspired to be only a part of that and nothing else, you know what I mean? When I get boxed into that, I don’t necessarily feel I fit into that category. A lot of what people think about when they think of that scene is electronic versions of Dilla beats, which totally has its place, and I listen to all that shit still. But the music I make, I’m not like, ‘Oh, I have to break away from this! I don’t want to fit in the box!’ – I’m not trying to do that. But the music I like to make doesn’t necessarily fit in with all the LA stuff that’s still going on. It’s neither here nor there – I think finally people are starting to see it as something outside of that also, which is good. I like that, because I want to play in a band, I like to play guitar and stuff like that – I don’t think that would be a widely accepted thing at Low End Theory. It has its good things and its bad things.”
“The music I like to make doesn’t necessarily fit in with all the LA stuff that’s still going on.”
[Following throat-slitting signals from the publicist] I’m sorry to do this to you, but considering we’re out of time: your new record. Three adjectives?
“Honestly, nothing to say yet because I don’t even know what I like and what’s going to be on there. I don’t know what the album is, I don’t know what it’s going to be called, I doubt there are even any songs yet. I’m guessing it’s going to be a while. Hopefully later this summer I’ll have some time to sit down and see what the adjectives are.”