(photo: Chris Herbert)
TEN QUESTIONS WITH: STRATEGY
Portland-based provocateur Paul Dickow is understandably busy—as a DJ, label head, Strategy recording artist, and Nudge member how could it be otherwise—though thankfully not so busy he couldn't accommodate an interview request from textura. The one-time Emergency drummer and Fontanelle keyboardist is presently channeling considerable energy into his new Community Library label (like its latest 12-inch, Solenoid's “Night Beach/Sam Clam's Disco”), Strategy-related activities (overhauling The Blow's “The Love That I Crave” as well as working on his in-progress kranky album Future Rock), and DJ residencies. The ever-genial Dickow, whom The Portland Mercury dubbed “Portland's laptop prankster/meister of disquo,” waxes passionately on a range of topics in this month's 'Ten Questions' session.
1. I often hear the term 'Cascadian Dub' mentioned in articles about you. What does the term mean? Does it accurately describe your current sound or does it no longer apply?
This is probably meant as a playful reference to my role here in the region, more than as an adjective or official genre term to describe my sound. There isn't really any such thing as 'Cascadian dub' within any known terms; I mean, there is dub here but it's not connected necessarily in any way other than being from this region, which we refer to as Cascadia.
Regionalism for us started I think as a humorous way to defy the sheer disgust at living in the United States, which is corrupt in domestic administration and is imperialist abroad; it sort of cropped up amongst the ORAC community of artists/friends/DJs across the cities of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver BC. I definitely decided I would rather print 'Cascadia' than 'United States' on any of my releases. 'Cascadian Dub' therefore refers to my sonic idiolect (unique to me) rather than a dialect (regional variant).
2. The Strategy sound has changed considerably from Strut to Drumsolo's Delight to World House. How would you describe the evolution of your sound through these three releases?
The fateful question. I am a bit self-conscious about the notion of all my work sounding incredibly different, so different in fact that my own touch might not be apparent. I dislike virtuosic music because at times the very skilled musicians or producers can imitate any sonic voice they like, and so they don't develop an idiosyncratic, very expressive one. I always worried I'd be perceived as a 'chameleon' or 'Zelig'-type artist, always taking on new styles without leaving my own imprint.
That said, if you listen from Strut to Drumsolo's Delight to World House you can see I often work in similar chord progressions and structures. The difference is in the tools and the way the tools render sounds. Strut is all based around a hardware-electronic music setup: sampler, hardware sequencer, synthesizers, and various analogue modular devices, all working in tandem—mostly entirely improvised. Drumsolo's Delight marks a shift of interest to computers. There is actually an album which preceded it (deleted by the label that was going to release it) that's even more ambient than Delight: totally beatless, tonal clouds of granular synthesis-derived sound. The computer can handle processes like granular synthesis and vocoding very well and these are indistinct areas, less edge-oriented in the way sounds come out. The tracks on the World House single represent an application of the computer-processing knowledge I've gained to sounds generated from hardware electronics plus live instruments and non-musical source materials too. The reference now is to style, not to working process, and the tunes could be perceived as passive/ambient, or active/rhythmic/physical.
The tension is always the same in my work going back to the very earliest stages: between song form and improvisation, between noise/problem and melodicism, between relaxed, ambient backdrops and their rhythmic, twisting underpinnings—I can't seem to get past these juxtapositions. In hindsight, Strut is not very ambient because of the limitations of tools; Delight is almost too much so, very relaxed sounding due in part to my blue mood at the time and in part to letting the DSP music tools lead me a bit much.
The next album, Future Rock (for kranky), is a more perfect midpoint between all these sounds and I hope ties it all together and resembles World House, though the album tracks rely less on any house or techno reference. I told kranky I wanted to conquer this 'uprocking ambient' paradox, and I think I'm getting well along (2/3 done) at this. It is quite varied overall in its moods, and resembles my other work in being dense, polyrhythmic, and very full of detail.
3. You referred to a 'totally beatless' album which preceded Drumsolo's Delight that was deleted by a label that intended to release it. What was the working title and will any of its material see the light of day?
The label in question was set to release Strategy At Beacon Rock, a 'plunderphonic ambient' CD I created around 2002, when it was releasing music with a 'pirate music' mentality I found inspiring. I took the idea in a different direction by running favourite songs through a granular synthesis process in order to render ambient music based on that material. Though the element of copyright infringement was present, I wanted to show that ambient music could be as plunderphonic as hip-hop mashups or breaks. But the label was releasing too many titles per month and their P&D distributor said, cut your release schedule, so I was cut.
That summer I just was going through some bad stuff so I stayed in my room and ran my turntable through the ambient machine. At that time Tim Hecker's Haunt Me and Fennesz's Endless Summer were rocking my world (if memory serves) so when I listen to the album I feel this kind of zeitgeist of the time. The Beacon Rock tracks ended up getting used as a demo but, when Kompakt and kranky wrote back, I was way too intimidated to send more music to Mike Ink so I just froze on that; kranky approached me with more concrete goals and they signed Strategy and Growing at that point. We collectively decided that Strategy At Beacon Rock as an album included too much risky copyright infringement to be released on a label as high profile as kranky. Having said that, it's completely impossible to identify the source material for some of the material on Beacon Rock, so I may consider releasing them but it seems a shame to split up the songs.
4. World House presents a pair of remarkable tracks, the title epic and the soul-funk cut “I Have To Do This Thing.” The title piece in particular almost seems like a manifesto for your current approach, with elements of African juju, dub, and house all mixing together to form one incredible vamp. As a representative Strategy piece, I'm curious as to how you created it. Is it primarily samples or is it multi-tracked live playing by you or were you joined by friends in the studio?
World (a band comprised of Honey from Nudge and Adam from White Rainbow) left their gear in the Nudge studio while they were on tour as part of Jackie-O Motherfucker. Brian offered to play engineer while I directed a recording session based on some things I'd been imagining for quite a while. He played some guitar and bass and we just had a field day with all this stuff: beautiful old guitars, tablas, percussion, etc. I took the source material home and recorded more parts, created small loops of sound that I could use as samples in a live performance patch in my computer, and then recorded myself playing that patch. This is the way most of my work happens now, including most of the Future Rock material: total hodgepodge of live instrumentation, sequencing, computer-generated audio, etc. World House just happens to reference styles in the most obvious, instrumental way.
5. What's in the works for 2006?
As already mentioned, work on the massive Future Rock album project. A collection of ambient, very experimental tracks I've accumulated during the last 2 years that are literally my 'procrastination tracks'; I get sick of Future Rock's editing process, so I improvise using field recordings or other live input sources and combine these with some interesting vocoding processes and other experiments. I'm working on loads of remixes, with a remix of a Juan MacLean song for DFA just completed.
My confirmed releases so far for this year include: The Blow's The Love That I Crave (Strategy & Caro remixes) on Audraglint/Holocene Music (as close to a minor club hit as I'll ever get, I think). I took The Blow's IDM-pop and turned it into a classic House or Freestyle Electro track that people seem to not be able to get enough of (one writer called it “the most astonishing electronic pop track of 2005”). Also, a new song (“Fields of May”) on ORAC this spring, featuring a B-side track plus a Secondo remix of the A-side. I am very excited about this record, which continues in a “I Have To Do This Thing” or “Super Vamp” sort of angular deep house style.
6. The more dance-oriented music you've issued on Orac sounds so good, I'm wondering if there might be an Orac full-length in the works?
I just don't create dance tracks at a fast enough rate to create an entire album, but I think that once my next kranky release is out it might be wise to assemble remastered ORAC A-sides plus some newer, highly focused dancefloor cuts into some kind of album (eventually).
7. With so many independent labels shutting down for any number of reasons (Merck, Neo Ouija come to mind), what inspired you to take the plunge with Community Library and how is the move working out so far?
Community Library is an attempt at a label that is not bound to strict genre guidelines. Perhaps labels like Merck or Neo Ouija are limited in lifespan because they are both quite specialized (and I mean 'specialized' as a compliment to their focused visions and interests). But if you wed yourself to a highly specific style or genre, you are potentially doomed as audiences swing back and away from the genre in which you choose to reside. Electro is a good example, where it's now in its third wave of being disliked after being overhyped as Electroclash. Solenoid often uses it as an example of a genre that undergoes really strangely extreme multi-year cycles of acceptance and rejection and back again. Certainly many labels over-invest in styles that eventually undergo rejection; electro seems to perennially return to the fore, yet other styles just get buried.
I think a label that invests in its artists based on quality and shared approaches but is diverse in genre/scope has greater staying power and that is part of my mission. I don't believe in this 'death of format,' 'death of the album,' 'mp3 hegemony' stuff. There are plenty of ways to keep people interested in hard copy, album-length releases. The flip side is that tokenism in labels can be superficial or politically-correct seeming (maybe one band from this scene or that town, this style or that) so I want to make sure we are very invested in each band's style as much as we want to have bands of diverse styles.
People seem to be responding to what my friend John calls 'collectable eclecticism' and all the audio is dope, so I think I am on track with the label's initial missions to prove that it can be done this way. Within the electronic music world people either seem to love the 'surprises' that ComLib brings or else they dislike that the label does not have 'a sound.'
Ultimately the similarities between artists are surprising. Sawako creates ambient sound art experiments and Eats Tapes makes techno, but there are a zillion comparisons between them: they both improvise, are interested in the creation and modification of sound-making tools, both combine humor and seriousness, and both have a somewhat irreverent attitude while still giving the listener bold references to known styles that give audiences something to hang onto.
8. What's the current status of Nudge and Fontanelle and are there 2006 releases in the works for these bands too?
Nudge is active, though spread over several cities (bandleader Brian Foote moved to Chicago in August 2005). We've gotten together (Honey, Brian, and myself) and recorded a wealth of new material for new songs. I don't think Brian is particularly happy reworking that material alone (our working process is based largely on shaping bits of improvisations into performable song forms using postproduction and sampling techniques, a bit like World House here but even more song-oriented) so at some point this year we would be wise to get together for a week or two and get a new set of songs together. From there, I think we will have a better understanding of a direction for a new album.
Fontanelle broke up about a year ago, but we're only now beginning to resolve questions about what will happen with the hundreds of hours of quite amazing in-studio improvisations that were recorded. One of the guys is putting all of these onto hard drives that will be distributed amongst the former members. It'll be hard to say whether we'll end up having the time or focus to create a 'final' document of the band, but there's so much material to work with it would be a shame not to try. In particular, I feel our albums were over-refined and did not convey the improvisational fire of the band as well as the really developed vocabulary we had. I don't think our albums nor the band were well-understood by the public, and so I think an album of largely un-edited, raw recordings of deep in-studio excursions would maybe be a good final statement for the band.
9. Tell us a bit about your various DJ residencies. What kind of stuff do you like to feature and what seems to go over strongest with your audiences?
One of my favorite things is to create themes for DJ sets, either spoken or unspoken. Community Library Club is all about these themes, where we literally pick all songs about one thing; last week I did 'electronic communication,' mainly songs about the telephone, and DJ Brokenwindow did songs about lies and lying. Even when I play dance sets I like to combine songs. I have a whole mini-set of tracks that rip off or reference “Funkytown,” for example, and this can tell a little story about a song's impact and history.
My residencies have been in a state of change these days. I've taken up a new night at a club called Crush, which is mainly a gay bar and is very happy with our combinations of really new dance music (house/techno) with older styles (disco classics). In all cases I'm trying to bring out some lesser known things or stuff people shy away from: ZYX label releases (what some people might call 'Eurodisco' or 'Hi-NRG'), Pet Shop Boys, Bobby Orlando, Italo Disco—records which can be found everywhere for about $3. I love to mix classic dancehall 45s whenever I can. But clubs here and audiences are not always friendly to reggae; in fact, I left a recent Friday night residency because the bar owners asked me to not play reggae (among other reasons).
10. Your work evidences a refreshing openness to not only fashionable genres (dub, house) but also others which might be considered less 'safe,' like disco (I'm especially thinking of the Orac EP Super Vamp). How do you account for such open-mindedness and do you have any particular disco, dub, and house favourites? Finally, even though you've no doubt experienced your fair share of setbacks, an irrepressible joie de vivre comes to the fore in everything you do. How do you avoid becoming jaded?
As for the open-mindedness question: well, when something strikes people as cheesy or corny, I tend to think that it is not that they 'dislike' it, but rather that they 'love to hate it,' e.g., that there is something appealing, and people wish it didn't appeal to them so much because maybe it reflects naiveté or seems uncool. Personally, I think when something is cheesy, it's just ready to be reclaimed and refined, hence my interest in DJing and producing disco-influenced music. And anything can be fodder for revisiting; no type of music is 'dead' and the idea that “Nothing more can be done with it” should be discarded too. People say, you know, casually, “Rock music is dead”; rock is not dead as a kind of music, but maybe there is a lull where there aren't musicians innovating in the genre. So my open-mindedness just comes from an inherent belief that there is always room to explore, no genre or style is sacred, and the outdated is almost always pretty fascinating. Some other 'sometimes unsafe' genres are Fourth World-style ambient, corny early-‘90s ambient techno, and it could be said that IDM is in pretty serious disfavour in some measure too. Oh yeah, Portland's musical cognoscenti hates jungle and drum and bass, which is just totally stupid; I will probably start producing IDM and jungle-derived tracks accordingly.
House: Sterling Void's “It's Alright” produced by House original Marshall Jefferson, and made famous through a Pet Shop Boys cover. For more modern house, my favorites include Detroit producers like Moodymann and Theo Parrish.
Dub: I'm actually listening more to reggae and dancehall these days, almost too much to take in; favourites include ‘70s Joe Gibbs Productions label 45s: Kojack & Liza, Trinity, Culture, Prince Far I, Dillinger, especially anything that uses the original “Tribal War” track as riddim.
Disco: My favourite stuff has been the super-cheap-and-available-everywhere ZYX label; again this is where Pet Shop Boys originated before they became major label stars, and almost any of these 12-inch discs' somewhat anonymous tracks yields something fun, funky, and dramatic that crosses over well stylistically with house and techno.