TEN QUESTIONS WITH: DEEPCHORD and SOULTEK
Having recently issued four 12-inch volumes of The Coldest Season and a corresponding full-length under the ‘Deepchord presents : Echospace' guise (all of the material entirely produced using vintage analog equipment), Rod Modell and Steve Hitchell now offer a fascinating master class in the merits of deep listening, mastering the binaural beat, moving forward in reverse, the significance of psychotropic highballs and emotional thunderbolts, and numerous other key concepts. It's all about, to use Rod's own words, “feeling the pressure zones shift.” A huge thanks to the two producers for providing such an in-depth and revealing look into their working methods and beliefs (note: due to the compelling nature of the material, we've extended the normal 'ten questions' format to twelve).
1. Given that one of you (Rod) is based in Detroit and the other (Steve) is in Chicago, and given that the production details include the note “Engineered by Stephen Hitchell & Pre-mastering by Rod Modell in Detroit, USA,” would you mind clarifying exactly how you collaborated upon The Coldest Season and what your respective roles were in creating the material?
ROD: With The Coldest Season, I prepared most of the source material used in the tracks, and Steve did most of the assembly. It was an old-fashioned process of sending audio CDRs back and forth. Seeing as how we don't use a computer as the studio centerpiece, it was necessary to sample each other's parts with old hardware samplers, add to them with analog synths, and then send what we'd done back for further additions and manipulations; it was slow and tedious. Then periodically, there were personal get-togethers to figure out final mixes, etc. We've been exploring updated ways of working on the new material that will simplify things.
2. The material could be characterized as a meeting ground between Berlin (mastering and cutting was done by Loop-O aka Andreas Lubich at Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin), Detroit (Modell), and Chicago (Hitchell). Is thinking of the project in this way merely a convenient journalistic hook or is that a legitimate way to look upon it? If it's more the latter, could you elaborate upon the music's Detroit- and Chicago-related dimensions?
ROD: I was in Detroit during the birth of techno in the mid-to-late ‘80s. Charles Johnson's Mothership landings (10 pm) and his Midnight Funk Association were rarely ever missed. I experienced the Music Institute first-hand, and was buying tons of vinyl at Buy Rite Music years before Record Time sold a single techno record. I was there. Ditto for Steve in regards to Chicago. He personally knows many of the original purveyors of the Chicago house and acid sound. I think it would be impossible to ignore the obvious fact that there is some definite significance to this allegory. We are all a product of our experiences whether we want to be or not. The things that we've seen are part of our fabric. Chicago House is part of Steve's makeup, as is Detroit Techno for me. Add in the Berlin element, and you have the holy trinity of underground dance music represented.
STEVE: I too believe we're products of our environment. I've been collecting records since 1987 and always seemed to end up buying a lot of what was happening in the city where I live, Chicago. Back then, most of what you would find out there was cutting-edge: Chicago house, jack tracks, warehouse cuts, deep house, freestyle, acid house, and Italo imports. Sure, I was hugely influenced by Chicago; it's a great city to have grown up in musically (throughout the early 90's though), but I really turned to Detroit artists as a source of my following and for about 75% of my record collection. Don't get me wrong; Chicago certainly has been a huge influence on me musically. I remember going out to numerous clubs as a kid with some of my older friends and being introduced to a lot of the pioneering acid house legends (Adonis, K Alexi, DJ Pierre); I remember talking with them on a few occasions about gear and studio methods which eventually lead me to modify my own gear and gave me a lot of inspiration in the studio.
In the early ‘90s, deep house had a huge impact on me, especially artists like Chez Damier and Ron Trent who started the balance and prescription label; I instantly fell in love with it, and to me it's house music at its best; the deep stuff has always stuck with me more than anything else. When I found Maurizio, Main Street, Basic Channel, and Chain Reaction, they gave me a deep feeling which is what I've always adored most about their work. The common ground in the Chicago, Detroit, and Berlin axis involves deep emotional productions, like in renowned collaborative efforts such as 3MB with Juan Atkins or Eddie Fowlkes, and Ron Trent and Main Street.
3. Much has also been made of the analog gear that was utilized for the material's production. What makes analog rather than digital such an appealing choice for this music?
ROD: Steve and I like analog because it's alive. I used to love putting my old Korg MS-20 outside in the cold garage for a few hours during the winter months. I would then bring it inside the warm house, power it up, and program something simple with a SQ-10 sequencer, and that little twelve-step sequence would mutate for two hours. Constantly changing. It was amazing to me. You would leave the room, and come back and it would sound totally different. So organic and so alive. Its personality would change as it warmed up and became more comfortable, just like a human being's would.
This ‘life force' is why we love analog. Digital (including computers) does not have this life force. With digital, it's either on or off with no in-between. Also, much of this analog gear has (so-called) flaws that make it sound more interesting, like the aliasing ‘problem' on the SCI Prophet VS, for example. But in my opinion, that problem is the only reason to own it. I haven't found two Prophets that sound exact ly the same; even the same model instruments have different personalities from serial number to serial number. It's more like buying a pet rather than a musical instrument; you learn its personality for months after you get it. When you buy a software synth, you can pretty much understand its personality in fifteen minutes.
Also, this old gear generates amazing harmonics and overtones that I've never heard from a computer. Even algorithms designed to emulate this analog side-effect fail miserably. These elements add up to a sound quality that's impossible to achieve without this old gear and, as this sound is an integral part of Echospace, we don't have an option: it's either use the old stuff, or don't make music. How would a virtuoso violinist who plays a 100-year-old Stradivarius feel about trading for a shiny new Yamaha electric violin? It would never happen.
On the other hand, a computer does have it place. It serves as a good tape recorder, and, due to airline restraints that prohibit traveling with bulky or sensitive analog gear, it's the primary method for bringing a live show to an audience.
4. Given the music's pronounced dub dimension, how much of an influence do Lee Perry or King Tubby wield upon this project? If they are influences, can you elaborate on what specifically you drew upon from them?
ROD: Steve drew much more inspiration from dub than I did. I have complete respect for dub and dub musicians, but wasn't as influenced by it as I was by more old-school electronic music like Manuel Gottsching and Tangerine Dream. I think this balances out the Echospace sound. We each provide a different piece to the puzzle.
STEVE: Rod is correct; I adore dub, ska, reggae, dancehall, two-step and blunt burning grooves for the masses. I fell in love with the soothing sounds of the islands long before techno was called techno, many, many years ago when I was only nine or ten years old. My uncle spent a great deal of time in Jamaica doing deep sea dives and getting glued to a massive 45 collection of some of Jamaica's best. I remember listening to an old Burning Spear 45 from back in the ‘70s when I was only a child. The music stuck with me and most of my days now are spent listening to ‘70s-era dub and reggae records. Lee Perry is a legend in my eyes (as well as in most of the dub world), and what he did while producing Bob Marley and the Wailers is immense. His music and most of what he produced at The Black Ark studio are some of the most amazing releases of the time; he gave birth to a sound all his own. Winning “Best reggae album of the year” at the Grammy awards a few years back was something long overdue.
In my book, King Tubby is legendary too; after all, the man made his own effect units and gave birth to the genre of dub music. He also invented the whole concept behind a remix so I think many, many people out there should pay their respects to this gone but never forgotten icon.
5. Given the cavernous depths of The Coldest Season's material, I'm curious as to whether you have strong feelings about the differences in sound quality between vinyl and CD? I can't help but think that, if ever a project was born to live exclusively on vinyl, it's this one, as vinyl captures so vividly the immensity of the tracks' sound (I'm thinking of a particularly awesome piece like “Aequinoxium”). Of course the CD allows for a different kind of immersiveness—more horizontal than vertical—but even so it strikes me as the lesser format of the two.
ROD: Very interesting question. I guess I haven't really thought about this one much. In general, I prefer the warmth of vinyl. More organic. But I like the convenience of the CD format. And it's more difficult to play 12-inch singles in the car.
STEVE: The album was mixed together and was initially meant to be heard as a continuous listening experience in whatever format would support it as such. Vinyl didn't give us the opportunity to slowly open up and develop the songs in their many stages and were edited down to match better with the vinyl format. My original intention was to have it listened to as a whole rather than in parts but, due to the vinyl mastering limitations, we had to separate the album. I think it is most absorbed when listened to as a whole; the songs blend together and make for one constant listening journey from start to finish. We ended up editing and removing some of the songs for the vinyl releases, so people who get the CD will understand the concept of this project as a whole rather than the sum of its parts.
6. The aforementioned “Aequinoxium” is thirteen minutes but could seemingly go on forever. What is it that dictates how long a particular track should be? Also, what prompted you to opt for the maximum 80-minute running time for the CD presentation rather than a more svelte 50-minute suite?
ROD: If it were up to me, every track would be six hours long. I'm a big fan of long players. I like to sleep to my music. With many Deepchord tracks (Deepchord 10 comes to mind), I would drop out the percussion, and let the loop go for days around the house. I love this. I need sonic ambience around me all the time. I have Marpac white noise generators throughout my house, and constantly play stuff like Brian Eno's Neroli or Distant Rituals by Chris Meloche. Steve is the sensible one who will let me know when a track has gone on long enough.
7. Rod, you've been producing music since the mid-‘80s and have a discography that lists as many as sixty releases. It's also known that, in the earlier years of production, your music leaned towards electro-acoustic, musique concrete, and field recordings. Can you highlight some of the ways that the Deepchord sound has evolved over time?
ROD: I learned quite a bit from making the earlier electro-acoustic stuff. I learned to listen well. This is very important. There is a lot about this in my favorite book, The Mysticism of Sound by Hazrat Inayat Khan. So much music seems rushed. I like music that unfolds in slow motion, so the listener doesn't miss anything. I like to show my listeners a frame-by-frame scan. Time-stretched to see the details. Pull apart the fabric of sound so you can see what's in between the grains, and zoom into (normally) unheard realms. Musicians like to play it safe and stay in familiar waters. I've spent many nights sitting outside with my eyes closed, DAT machine running, dummy head mic off in the distance. Sitting and listening to the air moving. Feeling the pressure zones shift. When you listen deeply, you can start to comprehend a world of sound beyond typical reality.
The Deepchord sound has evolved over time. The atmospheric elements have become more important. In later Deepchord records, I moved away from synthesizers and more into sampling because I was having a difficult time getting the otherworldly sounds that I was seeking out of synthesizers. I was sampling strange cosmic sounds, like those of the sun, and strange atmospheres of places that people rarely go (like Turkish bat-houses and metaphysically-charged forests). You can't get sounds like those from a synthesizer. You hear bizarre stuff like that in later period Deepchord (deeply mixed in and processed). In the beginning, it was more about making a groove. I don't really care about that so much anymore. I prefer to concentrate on emotional charge. A chord should drive an emotional thunderbolt through the listener's heart. It's about raw mood now.
Steve brings strong musicianship to the table. He's an exceptional musician who has played in jazz bands for years. I consider myself more of a producer. I understand the science of sound. Steve can blow you away playing the piano. It's a great combination at the end of the day. The Deepchord records are a little more experimental. I try to make endless loops, and with Steve we make songs. The Deepchord sound is like watching a film that's out of focus, but has really bright, fascinating colors moving around the screen. Still very nice to watch. In this context, Steve focuses the projector a little. Deepchord is a very dadaistic art form. Echospace isn't. It may be difficult to believe it when listening to drift-tracks like “Aequinoxium,” but Echospace is far more focused than Deepchord: more clearly defined lines; more of a defined sound in mind prior to hitting the record button.
8. Deepchord is listed as including you and Mike Schommer but Schommer doesn't appear to be involved in The Coldest Season. Can you clear that up too?
ROD: Mike is keeping busy these days with his family. He has three beautiful children that occupy most of his time, and unlike 99% of parents today, Mike is a very active participant in the lives of his kids. He will have no regrets about ‘not being there' to experience these amazing moments, something for which I give Mike the highest respect and admiration. He and his wife Tarah are exemplarily parents in every way. Unfortunately, this type or dedication is time-consuming, and leaves little opportunity for making music. This is the crux of why Mike isn't as involved as he once was. Deepchord is Rod Modell and Mike Schommer, and always will be. He's one of my oldest (and best) friends. I welcome the time when Mike is able again to give Deepchord more attention. I think that will be a great day, but for the time being, he needs to do what his heart tells him to do, and family comes first.
I think Deepchord has become somewhat of an artist identity for me. Not officially, but here's the reason this has happened. Most of the Deepchord records didn't have any artist names (a few exceptions), and this is the cause of this ‘artist name or label name phenomenon.' Initially, our goal was to keep the artist's identity hidden, so now what happens is it all gets classified under the Deepchord name. I guess if we pushed an artist name more, I would be able to use that, but under the circumstances, people only know those records as Deepchord. One artist name that I did use on a Deepchord record is A601-2 (the name of an old Ampex tape recorded that I was using at the time). Who knows what A601-2 is? No one. If I say A601-2, people look at me funny and have no idea what I'm talking about; if I say Deepchord, then they know. Imagine if The Coldest Season came out as A601-2 presents The Coldest Season. It would have no significance. It was never a conscientious decision to use Deepchord as an artist name; it just happened out of necessity.
9. Steve, can you update us on what's happening with your Souldubsounds label?
STEVE: Souldubsounds is still very much alive and well but taking a small break for the moment. Distribution problems have put it in this inoperative state, but new releases will be coming out soon, most likely as a sub-label of Echospace. I still have full intent on releasing the debut I album, a project conceived by Sweden's revered Erik Moller (Unai, Spinform) whose talent I couldn't summarize in words. This album needs to be heard by the masses as it's really something special and unique, but I haven't found the right opportunity or moment to make its release a reality. Currently, I am in discussions about licensing the album out to a major (more news on that as it develops). I will still be releasing the singles on wax but the album on CD most likely not. The next single is called “Lone Runner” and it's really something special; my personal favorite from the album, it will feature exclusive new mixes from Echospace, Soultek, and CV313 sometime in the winter months.
10. Many artists understandably prefer to keep their working methods close to the vest, so to speak. Even so, I'm wondering if you might consider guiding us through the stages that would be involved in creating one of The Coldest Season's tracks? In purely listening terms, I'm totally in awe of the material but, at the same time, I have very little clue as to how the material is produced from start to finish. Would you mind granting us a peek behind the green curtain?
ROD: Much of the sounds in The Coldest Season are sourced from my midnight recording sessions: running around with a portable DAT machine at 2 am in the drizzle. I take many non-musical sounds and tune them into a musical tone. It's all about the sounds that I use, and how they're manipulated. The sounds are taken out of context, and (during mixdown) are removed from the mix before anyone can determine their origin. Every sound that we use has a very specific shelf-life, the amount of time that the sound is allowed to live in the mix. Some more obvious sounds are only allowed to swim around for a second or two; others are allowed to breath longer. But every sound has a very specific life cycle. Synth tones help to glue it all together; synths are the bonding element that turns these abstract sounds into songs.
Also, sounds in my library are graded in terms of brightness and color. I have files of green sounds, red sounds, brown sounds, etc. Sometimes the mix will call for a green sound with a brightness rating of three, sometimes a green sound with a brightness rating of nine is necessary. Sometimes I listen to a mix and need a red four to complete it. Friends who see my system are always freaked out. Sound isn't always sound. It's floating globs of sensory-manipulating dark matter. It's all about the overall physiology of tone and understanding how to assemble the pieces into a psychotropic highball.
STEVE: The Coldest Season came together from two years of recording, sending files back and forth, and taking some long drives. The concept circulated around drone-like ambient and field recordings Rod made years ago. We layered these elements and fine-tuned them with numerous vintage signal processors, various tape echoes, and old spring tanks. We made all of the music during cold, isolated winter months in Detroit and Chicago; we felt the season and time of year was very important to convey the organic sense of the music. This was achieved by using hours of custom sound designs, dummy head microphones, and a wide array of field recordings which captured the sounds of the lake rushing in on the shore and others of the harsh, cruel winter winds. The most important aspect of this album, though, is in the use of analog hardware, vintage signal processors, and most importantly, threading up reel-to-reel tapes and pressing record. We used just about every form of Synthesis in this album from Wavetable, FM, Modular to Subtractive—just about every form is present. One of the most important pieces to the puzzle of Echospace is what I would refer to as the “Echospace box” which is a customized Prophet 2002 sampler; it has numerous Mods to its circuitry and many additions which make it produce some very unique textures of sound.
11. Can both of you tell us a little bit about some of the other projects you're working on at the moment, and perhaps what's coming up in the future? (Tell us a bit about releases like Rod Modell Plays Michael Mantra,Vantage Isle, and others.)
ROD: Rod Modell Plays Michael Mantra is a project that I did that contains two thirty-minute tracks. More ambient than most Deepchord. It's a sonic emulation of a late-night train ride. I love this one. Good for drifting-off to. Like a dream state. With tracks by my good friend Michael Mantra (the undisputed master of the binaural beat). Mike understands the deepest levels of sound.
Many more projects with Steve are on the way (this is my main focus for the near future), and maybe some installation stuff. I have some half-finished pieces that I'm designing for art gallery orientation and would like to finish in the near future. I also have an album coming soon on PLOP Records in Japan called Incense & Blacklight.
STEVE: I have some new material out and coming out on various labels, including numerous Soultek releases: Analogueheart, a forthcoming EP Holding Onto The Feeling on Soundshift [Detroit], two new EPs, Lighter Path and Dreaming Under A Starlit Sky, and a new Echospace release Sonarous, all coming out on the UK's Fortune 8 label who have releases with In Sync, UB313 & Black Dog. Of course, we have our own Echospace Imprint in which we have two forthcoming releases, Deepchord Grand Bend with remixes from Echospace and CV313, and also the follow-up EP from CV313 titled Spatial Dimension, which are both stellar and could easily be described as the deepest material in the catalog to date. We also just re-released remixes and the original of Model 500's Starlight (which was believed to be co-produced by Basic Channel's Moritz Von Oswald but was only credited for engineering) by the godfather of techno himself, Detroit's legendary Juan Atkins; it features remixes from Soultek, Deepchord, Echospace, and Convextion and has been the greatest honour in the world. We are also working on a follow-up album for Modern Love, possibly a second look at The Coldest Season which should come out sometime in the winter months of 2008. We are looking to incorporate a visually-effected and self-produced film and have it released as a DVD / CD split with the visual elements taking on more of the frontal characteristics and the music the underlying element.
12. Given Chain Reaction's present state of inactivity, are you at all surprised that you alone seem to be representing this incredibly deep dub sound, or are there others also working in the genre that I'm unfamiliar with? Given that there seems (to me at least) to be such an obvious need for the sound, why are you alone the ones doing it?
ROD: Interesting question. Not really sure to be honest. I guess I don't really keep up on what's happening with the scene too much. I do what I like and hope someone likes it too. But, some observations that I have noted: many people who jumped into this sound weren't really as into it as deeply as they thought they were. The repetition seemed to get to them. I don't know what it is, but I knew several artists perusing a similar direction, and when I bump into their latest musical efforts, I'm always astounded at what I hear, usually something completely different than this style. Lots of guys got into the (emotion-free) DSP-music/clicks & cuts style. Some went back to three-minute pop songs, and one friend is doing rockabilly (!!). Not sure what to make of this. Maybe they weren't passionate about the sound in the first place. Maybe they are more advanced than me. Don't know.
I've been into minimal electronic music for 22 years now. It's all I listen to. It's my complete and total reality. It's in my blood, and will never be removed. Maybe this dedication is shining through. I started making this sound in 1985. Some of my musical peers weren't even born then, which really makes me feel old. I love this music, and would still be doing this if there wasn't a single dollar involved. Some people like to go fishing to relax, some like to go bowling. I like to play with electronic noise makers. I hope someone wants to listen, and if not, I'll still be up at 3 am making sequences in the dark, drinking coffee, and burning expensive incense. I think the biggest problem with musicians and DJs is focus. I know so many DJs that will do a set and play everything. Those people are already done. If you can't focus on one style, and make it yours, it's all over. Same with musicians. I refuse to believe you can play in a rockabilly band three days per week, and make quality electronic music. If you don't submerge yourself 110% into one style, it's impossible.
STEVE: There are plenty of guys out there experimenting with dub, minimal, and Detroit techno, maybe not flirting as much with analog gear but certainly the basis of the dub sound, artists like Vladislav Delay, Pete and Rene with their Scion Versions label, the Echochord label, Styrax, and certainly can't forget ~scape. I think the Echospace work might be the closest thing to the missing presence of Rhythm & Sound, Main Street, Chain Reaction, or Basic Channel material but you can certainly hear in most of these aforementioned artist and labels Basic Channel as an underlying element and influence. Rod and I have a similar love of one thing, analog equipment, and our methods of working are very similar as we both share a love of vintage sequencing.
I think of the Echospace material as “moving forward in reverse.” The main elements to our productions are analog, from field recordings on beta tapes, to writing most of the material on very old analog sequencers and 12-bit sampling equipment. I think one of my personal greatest past-times was playing keys in a local ska / dub band in which another band member opened my eyes to older tape and hand-crafted echo units; he taught me that the dirtier and grainier the effect, the better the sound. It was also my first introduction to home-made spring tanks and Orban ‘60s-era EQs and reverbs; he was my link to the dub information highway. I was more drawn into the effects than the actual music, to me the effects were the music. I could just solo out the Aux Send Bus and have a whole recording of 8-bit modulated returns and tweak an EQ for three hours; it was warm, always changing, and ever-evolving music which was probably discovered by accident. The ambience and magic is stored in the effects, for one sound can evoke a multitude of emotion, an ever-evolving mood that drowns you in atmosphere and spatial dimensions; you see this is where it all begins. I think these sorts of methods of working and our passion for analog are what give us that constant comparison to Rhythm & Sound and Basic Channel as I have heard they also recorded all of their material 100% analog and always achieved a unique result. With our Echospace material, our loyalty will always stay true to vintage hardware units and older tape machines; it's something programmed into our genetic code.
‘Listed' with Rod Modell and Steve Hitchell
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