Dusted's Dan Thomas-Glass exchanges thoughts and theories about Alias' Eyes Closed EP with the artist himself and also touches on the soon-to-be Muted LP in a long and unusual thinkpiece.
One Long Riff with
I’m writing this under the influence of The Dharma Bums and the Tortoise self-titled LP, and definitely Geogaddi by Boards of Canada, just for your reference. Dan Thomas-Glass asked me to do this, said Generally just whatever you want to write, I'm looking at this as a co-creative process, so write whatever you're into, maybe just some freestyled prose with the creative process of the EP as a general pathway or signpost or starting point, whatever length. I'll start working on my end of it, and then we can exchange them before coffee and riff on whatever's there for the interview. I'll be in touch, say late next week. That was a couple weeks back, a month I guess, it was an email, we’ve done the coffee and interview or whatever already, now I’m co-creating this end of it, trying to just sit back and remember how it went down.
Well, first it started, after we talked for a while about doing this, after that email, Dan sent me another email, I’ll just include the whole thing:
What's up man,,,
I hope you're enjoying the weather on this lovely Sunday. Just finished writing up my little thinkpiece on your EP, I’m attaching it below. Don't know where you're at with writing something or whatever, but I'll send you this, and you can send me what you have written when you have something. When is the exact release date for the EP? Ships July 21, so is it the 22nd? Anyway, it'd be cool to run this feature the day it hits stores, so that's more or less the timeline that I'm thinking. Again, what I had in mind was a short freeform piece on your part, just stream of consciousness, whatever, on the making of the EP, then we could sit down over coffee and riff on the two pieces, just go wherever with them.
Dan Thomas-Glass on Eyes Closed:
Twenty minutes. How often do we keep our eyes closed for twenty minutes, other than to sleep? Sitting in a familiar café in California, it wasn’t exactly easy. My eyes wanted to twitch open, to watch my hands hover between coffee and keyboard. But it struck me as the best way to get inside Alias’ Eyes Closed EP, all 20.3 minutes of it, five songs deep. Not just for the name, though. The music is so dense, so lush, full of tiny bleeps and plinks that it seemed like the only way to take it all in would be to fully focus on it at least once, to listen with all available senses.
And so the sounds of it leap into being. It is not a “normal” hip hop instrumental album – when I interviewed Alias earlier this year, he said he had not been listening to other hip hop instrumental albums, but rather electronic music of the sort produced by groups like Boards of Canada, and it shows. There are few recognizable samples – what there are seem to be mostly vocal snippets from news programs. Rather, the songs’ currencies of choice are severe tones and spacey effects, chops and edits and re-sampled samples, walls of sound, layers upon layers of echo and feedback, all punctuated by the blips and plenks, and of course, the drums. If there is a star of this show, it is surely the drums. When he first mentioned the EP, Alias called the drums “organic,” and he was right in more ways than I think he meant. The drums are of the same hard-hitting variety that we’ve come to expect from Mr. Whitney, cleanly chopped and heavy enough to break necks. But the programming of it, the raw sound of it and the way it plays off of the rest of the music, is on a whole new level. The only comparison I can think to draw is Sixtoo’ s Duration project, for their intricacy and originality, but even that isn’t exactly right. The drums explode out of the speakers on this EP, taking the quiet sounds and samples and painting them into larger than life frescoes against your eardrums. I have never heard anything where the contrast between the drums and the bass tones does what it does here: it doesn’t pull in either direction, but rather lets you sit at the eye of the storm, spinning you up and up until the whole thing meshes, and each noise, every tiny sound fragment suddenly has its place, and it all makes sense.
Eight minutes, two songs in. My eyes are still closed. I wonder where the inspiration for all this came from. There’s a significant political undertone to the album, a new thing for the recorded Alias. Perhaps it comes from watching CNN, as he’s mentioned he likes to do with part of his professional musician mornings. Maybe that’s what the whole eyes closed thing is about… On the title track, a woman reports, near fuzzed-out, on the wrongs being perpetrated by the Bush administration, the unsignings of treaties and American exceptionalism. On “must consume”, the topic is compulsive shopping and how anti-depression meds can cure you of compulsive behaviors. And then it’s the day after Christmas (coincidence?), on “December 26, 2002”, where a changeup in the drums at 2:23 will leave many a jaw on the floor. The sound is uneasy, complicated, and challenging throughout. Makes you want to close your eyes and ignore the implicit criticism: that we’re all consumers buying our way into oblivion, and no matter how far in the air your fist is, we’re all living this version of the good life on the backs of the world. Is there a pill for compulsive denial? What about self-hatred? I don’t know if that’s what Alias intended to do with this EP, but it is one result, and the reality of it is an intense experience altogether different than Through the Looking Glass.
16:36. Eyes still closed. “things got a little ugly,” the last track. As the drums shred the opening ambient sample, I want to say it’s the best of the bunch, but with only five songs it’s easy enough to say they’re all amazing and leave it at that. And as the drums drop out, and the last sample fades into the quiet hum of feedback, I’m struck by a thought: with your eyes closed you can avoid seeing, but you can’t help but hear.
Alias on Dan’s Piece
When I read this recollection, it was about a month ago now – it was the first review I had read of the EP up to that point, because it wasn’t out yet or whatever. It’s a good review I guess – it’s kind of hard to know how to interact with reviews in a way, but Dan seems like he gets more or less what I’m trying to do. I was glad to see that he noticed that changeup in “December 26, 2002”. In some ways I think that’s my favorite part of that EP, I was working to build up to it for as long as possible before switching up the drums… I really put a lot of time into that moment on there, so I was glad to see it stood out.
[More about drums. He went on for a while in the interview about drums, about respecting Sixtoo and Jel for their work with drums; he said that the drums are the backbone of it all for him, something along those lines, you need to convey how important that is to him. The piece is too chatty, too – you’re writing it as though it were an interview. Do you write like you talk? –do I? – you don’t. It’s supposed to be a thinkpiece, not an interview? – is it? – he shouldn’t write like he speaks. – does that make this impossible? ]
Anyway, once he sent me that, I started thinking more seriously about my side of the writing, all of this, how the EP came about, what was interesting about the process, and what wasn’t. I started writing a couple of different times, thinking about how best to frame it, I guess, or… I mean, I was a little nervous about everything surrounding this EP when I first started. I knew that I wanted to change up my sound, and go for a more electronic sound, but it wasn’t like a re-inventing myself thing, it was more like ‘Alright, I’ve already done this, let me try something new’. But I was a little nervous about how it would sound, and what people would think, that’s why I was putting up those free Mp3s on the anticon site for a while. I wanted people to understand where I was coming from, what this new direction meant or means. I figured maybe this writing, the interview, it could help with all that.
What Alias eventually came up with:
What really made the EP happen: It was the middle of December 2002, and I had just gotten back from touring the US and Europe with Themselves. I came back with a whole new inspiration and excitement about doing music. Don’t get me wrong, I always have a drive and passion or excitement about music, but something was different this time. I don’t know if it was seeing the Themselves set more than 40 times in a short period of time, or just getting to travel and be with Dose, Jel and Dax, but those guys helped kick something open in me. I came back refreshed and ready to create. Thing is, I had nothing to record on. I had always used Sole’s recording equipment for all my previous projects. I really felt that if I had my own equipment to record on at my house, something I could use while sitting in my underwear and a T-shirt, drinking coffee at 7a.m. without having to wake up one of my friends, I could be a lot more creative. anticon has never really given advances on albums... ever. Enter Baillie. Baillie is to anticon as Suge Knight is to Death Row, without all the death threats and beatdowns. I approached Baillie and told him my situation about how if I didn’t have something to record new music on, I would remain the Godfather of Goth-hop. Nobody wanted that. So Baillie hooked up an advance for me to get a little iMac G4, a Motu 828 firewire piece, and a new Korg keyboard. Sole put me up on Digital Performer. So on December 23rd, 2002, I went and bought the equipment. This was the first time I had that “Christmas” feeling since I was about 7 years old. You know that holiday feeling that disappears after you’re 8 or 9. You get real excited about that shit. I set everything up in my little music space, the Telegraph Hit-Making Closet. One thing though, my Mother-in-law and Sister-in-law were in town from Maine for the holidays. I couldn’t just bury myself in my room and not spend time with family. But the day after Christmas, my wife Jenn decided they were going to all go out for the day. I opted to stay home, of course. I had been just opening the door to my Hit-Making Closet and looking at my equipment, trying to determine if it was really there. So on December 26th, 2002, I made the first song in about three hours on my new equipment. I thought it would be kind of cool to use the old Yamaha RX-15 drum machine that my parents had bought for me when I was 16. I used to rap over those drums all the time when I was a teenager, so I dusted it off and programmed some drums. I really work in a frenzy when I do music. I don’t really stop and pay attention to much of what I’m doing; I just work fast and add stuff that I think will sound good. It’s kind of a haphazard process, so in return, I don’t remember much of how these songs were created. It’s strange to listen to music that you’ve done so recently, and not really remember how you did certain things, or where you got certain samples. All of the songs on the Eyes Closed EP were composed from December to March. I was watching a lot of news, waiting for this bullshit war to pop off. I have this horrible obsession with my past and remembering certain times of my life. In “watching water” I say, “I wish I didn’t reminisce so much,” but sadly enough, I still do. I like to look back at my music and try and remember where I was in my head at that point in my life.
Eyes Closed means a lot of different things to me. The first was that when I was on these tours, I would call and talk to Jenn everyday. Most times, I would have my eyes closed when I talked to her. It made things a little more personal, and brought her a little closer to me. Dose took a picture of me in a phone booth in Amsterdam when she and I were having an intense conversation. She was going to her full-time job and taking classes part-time, and I had been gone for weeks. We both missed each other a lot. I thought it would be fitting to use that pic for the cover. I also have a tendency to sit and close my eyes when I’m worried about something. That is why I used vocal samples about the war. George Bush sucks.
That seemed like a fitting way to end it. I was carrying all this in with me, these ideas too but I mean literally carrying it in on a piece of paper, when Dan and I met at Café Roma up on Ashby and College, the Elmwood district of Berkeley, pretty swank in an old Berkeley hippy way, not too Rockridge yet. It was Friday July 25th, we were already a bit behind schedule – that’s usually the way these things work out. I walked in, saw him sitting at a table against a wall, went and sat down. We said our hellos, then he hit record and the riffing began. I’m listening to it now, rambling its way, a dialogue soloing over the hiss and traffic noise of life. He started out simply…
DTG: (After glancing at Alias’ thinkpiece) I saw you wrote a bit there about what Eyes Closed means. I guess my first question is, um, why this move into specifically political commentary?
Alias: Basically the political thing was just a reaction to my environment. When I did all that music it was before the war had started, and they were talking about it on the news a lot, and I had just come back from Europe, the tour with Themselves, and I had been talking to different people about their view on America, and how we’re kinda bullying the rest of the world, which really affected me. I mean, I was doing an instrumental album, but I still wanted it to mean something, so I started having my sampler ready, to sample anything off the radio or the TV or whatever. I also work really frantically when I do music, and I liked the idea of sampling vocal samples of the fly, not really knowing what they were going to say.
DTG: What was the process like? Is it significantly different sitting down to make an instrumental piece?
Alias: It is. If you don’t have vocals there, you have to work twice as hard to make the music interesting. I found myself adding a lot more to the music, giving it more depth, and textures, and switch-ups. It was pretty drastically different than anything that I had ever done, ’cause I had all this new equipment that I had never used before, I was kind of learning as I went. It’s a completely different approach, doing music on a computer instead of using a mixing board that’s right in front of you, and having all the equipment in front of you, doing it like that on a screen with a mouse, I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t be into it, but I got the hang of it, and figured out how I wanted to do things.
DTG: Why an EP that’s completely separate from (the upcoming LP) Muted?
Alias: Because it has such a different sound than anything I’ve done in the past. It’s a lot more electronic sounding, so I wanted to prepare people, because I really have high expectations for the Muted LP, so I wanted to ease people into that sound, rather than just dropping a single. Plus I’m into the idea of doing little EPs, they’re easier to listen to than a whole album at times.
DTG: Yeah, EPs are their own class of listening experience. It sounded like there was a lot going on with this EP, instrumentally. Were you playing keyboard and guitar on there?
Alias: Yeah, there’s a lot of keyboard and guitar, and just sampling both of them, and running them through different effects, and trying new things. I tried to get away from such obvious sample-based songs, ’cause I’m starting to worry about that, now that I look back at how much I’ve sampled… I mean, some of the songs… They’re not like Top 40 music but I didn’t really do much to the samples. I wanted to get away from all that as well as be a little more musical with it. So yeah, there’s a lot of keyboard stuff on there. I got this big keyboard at the same time I got my Mac and digital performer and whatnot, so I pretty much just had a field day trying out different stuff.
DTG: Talk for a minute about some of the specifics of the process. How would it work? Did you get an idea, then put the whole song together, or work on something a bunch then let it sit for a while, or what?
Alias: I’ll start by laying out drums initially, then go from there. I work really fast though, I feel like I just go on autopilot. I’ll keep adding stuff, and if I like it I’ll keep it, if it’s not working then I’ll try something different. Then I’ll go back and listen to it the next day, and I won’t remember how I did a certain thing, or where I got it. It’s weird. It’s such a different approach. It seems like it’s so much easier to work on a computer, cause I can just work so fast, and everything’s automated, as far as… I can do a mix-down as I put the song together, and keep all the levels where I want them, so instead of using all this analog equipment where I would lay in all the music then go back and get a mix of it, then add vocals and try and mix that, with this (set up) I can do everything as I go, until it’s done, and then it’s just done. It’s weird. It’s terrible, cause I don’t remember how I put songs together, or where they came from. They just exist now.
DTG: Is there a feeling of disconnect from the music that comes with working all in digital format like that?
Alias: Yeah, I was leery about recording on a computer. Not to downplay artists who do this, but I didn’t want to rely on a laptop for a performance, and I didn’t want the computer to dictate how my music was going to sound. So I haven’t used any sequencers or anything that are on the computer, I pretty much just play everything live into the computer, and kinda lay it in, so it’s pretty much just a recording tool, I haven’t used it to compose music at all. I feel more confident, and more… I feel like the music has gotten better, because I have the ability to do so many things, but at the same time, I work so fast now that it’s hard to adjust to. I can look back at my older songs, and remember how I recorded them, which is something that’s hard for me to do now.
DTG: Let’s talk about “eyes closed.”
Alias: “eyes closed” was actually the last song that I did for the EP. The title of the song comes from a couple of different things… When I was in Europe, or when I’m on tour, I always call my wife Jen, and I usually close my eyes when I’m talking to her, cause it kinda brings me home, or brings me closer to her, or makes it more personal or something. Also, when I’m nervous or upset about something, I’ll close my eyes and just kinda rub my head or whatever… That’s where all the stuff about the Bush administration came from, just cause I really started paying attention to all the political issues after September 11. The cover of the album is a picture that Dose took, I was on the phone with Jen, I think we were in Amsterdam, and it came out all blurred, which gave it that dream-like feel.
DTG: So the vocal samples that are on that track, are they from CNN? Or NPR?
Alias: No, on that track they’re from… umm, 94.1 what’s it called? KPFA? So I kinda just jacked that. I brought it in and out and sorta did it haphazardly, just to see how it would come out.
DTG: Yeah, it’s an interesting effect. You get the impression of what she’s talking about more than the specifics of what she’s talking about, ’cause you can’t follow it in a narrative way. It reminded me of the experience of falling asleep in class, and listening with my eyes closed, sorta following a lecture, but it fading in and out…
Alias: The second track, “what used to be,” that’s from a record that I found, it’s a Native American guy talking about how the settlers came over here, and they lost their connection with animals and the Earth… I wanted the track to speak on that, but I didn’t want it to be preachy or whatever… He was talking about how it used to be for Native Americans, and how now it’s all fucked… How the European setters came over here and just tore shit up, just fucked everything up. I took the vocal samples of him talking and just cut it up and brought it in and out.
DTG: So would you say there’s a connection between those two, other than the white man terrorizing the earth?
Alias: Yeah, well, it’s kinda full circle, I think the Bush administration, what they’re doing is comparable to what was done to the Native Americans… What he’s doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and wherever else he decides he wants to go conquer and colonize… I definitely have strong feelings about all that, and I wanted to incorporate that into the music somehow. “must consume” is along the same lines… That was another vocal sample that happened by accident, I hooked my sampler up to my TV, and I was flipping through the channels while I was sampling. Then I got to CNN, and [the anchor] started talking about people who obsess over shopping. The way she was speaking about it, like these people were tearing their families apart or something, this thing that’s sweeping the nation. It’s just another thing for people to worry about, or be scared about… Then at the end, I put it in the song too, she said that doctors are prescribing anti-depressants to control compulsive shopping disorder, and I was just thinking man, this is the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen. It just ties all these things together, Americans do over-consume on a lot of levels, but then the fact that it was on the news, kinda to scare people, then they add that you can get anti-depressants… There were just so many different things that I couldn’t believe were all in one story… Watching TV, I don’t know, it makes you feel like you have to go buy stuff, and that you’re not right in the head, so you have to get medication. That kinda ties in with the first three songs.
The last two songs, they’re a little more personal. December 26 was the first day that I… like, I went and bought my equipment the day before Christmas, then I set it all up in my room, but I had in-laws in town, so I had to entertain them, I couldn’t go work on music, so I had all this new equipment that I wanted to use but I couldn’t use it, so I kept just going and opening my door to my little room and just looking at it, and making sure it was still there.
Then, "things got a little ugly," I had a friend… I’m not sure how to say this, and I don’t know how you’re going to talk about it…He was pretty much my best friend, then we moved out here, and we went separate ways or something. I became a totally different person, and he stayed the same, but I was thinking that he changed, as a person, and it created this whole weird vibe between us. Eventually he moved, and didn’t call anyone or anything, just left…
DTG: It seems like there’s a degree of tension throughout the EP, just in the sound of it, cause it has a very spacey electro sound to it, but the drums are very hard-hitting…
Alias: Well, for me, drums are like the icing on the cake. It’s the thing that jells anything together. That’s why, on a lot of songs, I’ll just bring in more drums, or keep adding drums, bringing them in and out, because I find that it can really change the mood or feel. You can have the same samples going, or the same melody, but when the drums come… Drums are…drums are the thing. I’m really into Sixtoo and Jel’s production, ’cause you can tell that it’s important to them.
DTG: Yeah, The Secrets that Houses Keep, the 10” [of Sixtoo’s], I heard that a few years ago, a friend had it, I remember hearing it for the first time, especially that beat that became “Crack Pipes,” for Sage, it fucking blew me away.
Alias: Yeah, that was crazy, when he made that he was living out here, we were living in the same spot, and he was like “I made this beat last night,” and I was like “oh yeah?” and he was like “yeah, you gotta hear it,” so he brought me into the studio and played it for me, and I was just like “dude, that’s crazy!” I love that shit.
DTG: There’s a certain level to which “it used to be” and “must consume” are sort of ironic, given that this is your first album that you’re really doing on a computer, and you’re moving towards this more electronic sound, and sampling some Native American dude on being more in touch in nature. I mean, you’ve got your Mac G4, and you’re commenting on over-consumption.
Alias: Yeah, I mean, that might be why there’s a level of tension to it, ’cause there’s definitely a certain amount of guilt that I have, you know… Americans consume so much oil and gasoline, but I need to go places in my car… It’s frustrating, ’cause it’s kinda unavoidable in some ways… And then there are certain things that you do, or you buy… Like, I buy stupid shit like Playstation games, like you know that you don’t need it, but you do it anyway because you want it, and it comes down to a matter of needs or wants. I got a computer, ’cause it’s easier to do music on. I could make music in other ways, but you know, it’s how society works… You watch TV, and everything’s trying to simplify everything for you, you know, like you need this knife cause it’s made to chop your vegetables a certain way, it’s an unavoidable thing in a lot of ways. So yes, it is ironic, and I definitely have a lot of guilt as far as all that shit.
DTG: I was talking with my friend the other day about that question, of how… I think for any liberal, progressive-minded individual, especially living in the U.S., there’s a constant level of guilt, because you’re never doing enough, you’re always taking part too much in the raping and pillaging of everything else, and everyone else. I have a friend who’s sort of gotten off on this monastic kick where he’s down on all possessions, and that’s great and all, and there’s a certain extent to which you deserve to be happy, and to make yourself happy, but it’s such a fucking fine line to walk.
Alias: It is hard. Knowing that you’re contributing to something bad, but on certain things, it’s something that you have to do to be a part of society, whatever that means. I could sell of all my possessions and go live in the mountains in a tent or whatever, but me as a person, I wouldn’t be happy. I want to play Playstation 2 games, shit like that, you know.
I’m actually really excited about the Muted LP. It’s got a song with Marcus Acher from the Notwist, it’s got pedestrian on there, I’m probably going to be releasing those songs as an A and B side single, probably a little after the album comes out. The Notwist song, when he sent me those files – ’cause we did it all through the mail, and he sent me computer files and whatever – when he sent me that stuff, man, I was tripping. I was sitting there working on it… And, like I sent him a beat, and he sent me the stuff back, and after I listened to it, I was like ‘man’… I kept the original melody, but I scrapped everything else and just totally reworked it. He played acoustic and electric guitar on it… I was getting goose bumps the whole time I was working on it. I’m really excited for people to hear that song. The pedestrian song too, man.
DTG: Finally, some new material from the pedestrian!
Alias: Yeah, I really enjoyed working on that song with him, cause he was really involved in the arranging of the song. It’s pretty cool. He was like ‘Dude, we gotta fuck with people’s heads on this song’, and I was like, alright. A lot of the song is about silence, like between conversations, and what’s contained within that. He’ll have like a four bar thing about silence, then we’ll just take everything out and it’s completely silent. So there are these three huge gaps of silence, it’s really weird, you’re sorta waiting for it to come back in, and then I moved the track so it doesn’t come back on beat, and it comes back in, and you’re waiting for it, and it’s like, what? After I finished it, and I played it for people, they were like, ‘Are you keeping it like that?’ Haha… I’m really really excited for it to come out. It comes out… October 21st, I think.
DTG: I remember hearing a while back that the pedestrian was going to be releasing an album on Mush [Records].
Alias: I think he might be doing an EP with them, but he moved his album, he’s going to be putting it out on anticon now. I think he’s got about 10 songs done. I did a beat for one of them. He wanted a jiggy beat, so I made some Neptunes-ish, Manny Fresh shit, and he’s doing a sermon about death on the whole thing. It’s really dope. I can’t wait for his album to come out. He used to do that like double-time rapping, but now he’s got this like 93-94 delivery, but his writing is just disgustingly dope, it’s so good.
DTG: What else about Muted?
Alias: A few people have told me that there’s a noticeable difference between the EP and Muted, and I can hear it too, not really sound wise, but it sorta sounds more focused, or something. It flows nicely. I had like 25 tracks that I did for the album, and then I just chose 13 of them. I sat for a while trying decide which songs I wanted, in which order, then got it mastered. The artwork is all photos I took, around my house, inside my house and out, and looking out windows and stuff. I can’t wait. Sole and I are going to tour in November in the States, and I’ll be doing an instrumental set, then doing the music for his set.
DTG: So do you feel like this is a direction you’re going to be heading in for a while?
Alias: I think I’ll probably still be doing electronic sounding stuff… I started work on a new vocal LP, it’s a mix between the two, I don’t know if I subconsciously feel that when I do a vocal album that I have to use the approach that I took on Other Side of the Looking Glass, or what… But, it’s kinda a mix between the two. I’ve only done like two or three songs… Also, new equipment to some extent dictates… I just bought an acoustic guitar yesterday, so hopefully I’ll be able to work that in at some point. I don’t know. I definitely like to keep things interesting, so… We’ll see what happens.
DTG: Okay, if you could tell everyone that was going to listen to your EP for the first time something to do, or a way to listen to it, like a set of instructions for listening, what would you tell them?
Alias: I think people have a preconceived notion of what music is or what it should be… Especially, I think, with anticon’s music… Like there’s all these kids bitching about Why?’s new album because it’s not hip hop. I’m like ‘No, it isn’t a hip hop album, it’s a Why? Album’. I just want people to listen with an open mind and to let go, it totally makes for a better listening experience.
One long riff.
written/spoken by Alias
written/spoken by Dan Thomas-Glass
By Daniel Thomas-Glass