LWE Interviews John Tejada

John Tejada has been known a talented producer for so long, across so many projects and records, that he’s almost easy to take for granted. The Austrian-born, Los Angeles-based producer has given dance music fans no reason to believe he’ll the steady stream of thoughtfully crafted house and techno tracks which began in the mid-90s will end anytime soon. Whether on his own Palette Recordings or for a vast range of prestigious labels (Kompakt, 7th City, and Historia y Violencia for starters), with a stable of regular collaborators (Arian Leviste, Justin Maxwell, Josh Humphrey, and Takeshi Nishimoto), through driving techno to more tender house, Tejada has been an inexhaustible font of creativity. His recent LPs, Parabolas and The Predicting Machine, venture even further afield but each feel cohesive in their own way. These alone are reasons to keep checking in with the laid back producer. In advance of his performance TONIGHT at MUTEK 2013, LWE spoke with John to find out more about his frequent collaborations, the quality control mechanisms of this prolific producer, and how his new live show finds him reworking parts of his back catalog.

You have collaborated with a lot of people, so I’m curious, what makes you decide to start up a collaboration?

John Tejada: Let’s see, I think going back to ’91, when I first sort of — a long-time, strong collaborator was and still is Arian Leviste. It’s just kind of friends I’ve made along the way, and a lot of friends I meet through music and them being musicians themselves, and it’s just sort of natural to hang out and then — it’s just kind of inevitable. Like, “Hey, why don’t we try making something?” Having said that, it has not worked many times, as well, because I think collaboration, at all times, there’s a compromise to made. I feel like a good collaboration kind of trusts each other, like Justin Maxwell and Josh Humphrey. I trust these guys to kind of — you know, we’re both taking the idea the same place. And even if that doesn’t happen, it’s not that big of a deal. But the short answer is it’s just kind of the way I hang out with good friends, you know? And most of the things I’ve learned in the studio I’ve learned this way, so it’s been just kind of good all around.

Can you tell me, person by person for at least some of your more long-term collaborators what they bring to the table, individually, that you really like about collaborating with them?

Yeah, no problem. That’s a pretty easy and fun question. So I met Arian in ’91 when people were having these moments with Aphex Twin. I have this funny story with me telling a good friend, “Listen to this; it’ll change you’re life!” And he’s like, “Well, I’ll listen to it, but it’s not going to change my life,” and then it’s like, you know, “Oh my god, it changed my life.” [laughs] There were kind of these great moments in ’91; I could just rattle off about all these sort of mind-bending, life-changing albums. But in LA at the time, things were very different. So meeting Arian, we both had a love for Chicago acid house and Detroit sounds and Aphex. That just wasn’t something that was easily shared between people out here; even though they kind of had a scene, you wouldn’t really hear that sound. So to find somebody else, it’s just like, “Oh my god, best friend!” which is still the case these days. We’re actually working on a new EP, even though we’ve kind of all slowed down our output a little bit. So that’s the way things started with Arian. I met Takeshi Nishimoto probably in ’97, and I think all these stories meeting someone, it’s always kind of similar. It’s like, “Hey, you two should meet because I don’t understand either of you, so maybe you understand each other.”

Justin Maxwell was a similar thing, and Justin is really sort of — where what I’ve learned from Arian a lot is a lot of music theory and that sort of stuff, Justin is sort of like a walking manual and just text-book kind of engineer and sound designer. He’s really just given me a ton of knowledge about getting into the deeper side of synthesis and understanding it. And same with Josh Humphrey, and he was working at a synth shop and is also just an incredible sound designer. Going back to Takeshi Nishimoto, this was a similar idea, except with acoustic music, and it was sort of like this whole range of bands that I love with drummers and guitar players. His style — just going to see him play was very unique, to me, and it was the same thing. Like, “Hey, why don’t we get together and try something?” That initial interest, that sort of hint of creativity or something is kind of enough to — you can almost, right off the bat, how close of a friendship you’re going to have. There’s also Jimmy Tamborello, who I’ve worked with for quite a number of years, but we haven’t had a huge amount of output. I’ve done a bunch of remixes for him and helped him on his James Figurine thing, and we’ve been silently making a lot of tracks together. We’re kind of finally nearing the stage of us doing something with them. They’re literally scattered through years, and we just finally are figuring out what to do with them.

Does your role change based on the collaboration, or do you find yourself playing a similar role in most of them?

A little bit. I think one of the important elements is it has to feel 50/50, and there has to be some trust. There have been some where it’s kind of like, “Oh, you don’t know how to do any of this.” You know, and that doesn’t really work that well. But I think sometimes with me and Arian, because he’s so knowledgable theory-wise, I kind of put on the Justin Maxwell hat and get technical with things, where the role is sort of reversed when I work with Justin. So I think between all of us, we all do and are capable of making complete music on our own, but it’s just kind of fun to learn from people’s sort of strong points when collaborating. Because like I said, I’ve learned more than half of what I know through all this collaborative stuff.

Right. Are there musicians specifically who you’d still like to collaborate with who you’ve not yet had the chance?

Yeah, I don’t feel super comfortable mentioning it, but the great thing about being able to do this for a living is that — generally, as a rule, don’t meet your heroes; they’ll disappoint you. But I’ve gotten to be friends with a couple of my “heroes” and they’re almost like family. So that’s kind of a real treat when that works out. And with one or two of them, there’s a little talk of starting a little project, which would be kind of fun. But it totally hasn’t started yet, so I don’t want to mention it. But we’re always talking about, like — you know, there’s a Dropbox in my hard drive. There’s no finished tunes inside of it.

I would call you a pretty prolific producer, and obviously, as someone who does it full-time, you certainly have the environment to do something like that. How do you exercise quality control and you make sure that you’re releasing your best stuff? Or are you not so concerned about just releasing your best stuff?

It’s all perspective, and everyone’s got a different opinion, but it goes back to how did it feel to create and just generally where the sounds are sitting and “Are they the right sounds?” Because there’s nothing more frustrating than one bad apple in the bunch that kind of ruins the overall sort of palette of sounds. It’s a hard thing to describe, but that can really kind of throw things off balance. I’m trying to verbalize something that’s hard to put into words here, but when everything’s sitting clear in a certain space, or it least it kind of feels that way. Those are the ones that sort of feel finished and like they can sort of stand on their own and be released. Yeah, it’s a strange thing to describe. But then it’s also the less-is-more approach, and then just feeling comfortable not being cluttered and maybe something memorable’s in there. It can be a variety of things, depending on what the finished goal is. It’s hard to judge. Even after all these years, you just kind of get better at hopefully being able to judge that of your own work. And just constantly still learning even how to put sounds together properly. We’ll hear stuff from two years ago, and it’ll just totally irk me, you know? So it’s a constant process.

Do you find yourself revisiting you past material very much?

Yeah, in a way. The new live performance I’m gearing up for is going to be a hardware-only one again, which I haven’t done in a little while. I found this old drive that I thought was dead, and in it were all these sessions from 2002 to 2005 and quite a few that I thought were lost. I do play some older things in different incarnations of my live set. But this is a little more fun again. Before when I was doing the hardware-only thing, it just kind of got the better of me; it just kind of felt out of control. But now it feels like I can control it, and I found some really neat things that I’m excited to play and a couple for the first time ever. So in that way, I’m revisiting them, but it’s pretty rare that I choose to do like, “Oh, it’s the 10-year anniversary of this, going to do some remixes and do that all again.” Ghat has happened because of another label I was on, and I, in my mellow way, tried to fight it, but at the end of the day, I made the decision to trust them with that release, so, you know, fair enough. But I generally I just kind of like to move on and not do the same thing over and over.

That makes sense. Tell me a little bit about how the dance floor or the club has played a different role in your musical career, maybe in the past versus now.

My perspective has really changed in many different directions, and now the older I get, the more I’m concerned with the idea. I mean in my ideal world, I try to — I think with the last two albums — try to create a sort of broader perspective of how I feel, creatively, and also try to put the point across of how all these seemingly different tempos or moods are connected, you know? Because I’m more of a fan of music. I’ve never gone to clubs much to enjoy music. I was all about bringing home this album and putting it on and just staring at the cover and freaking out. But having said that, there is something pretty magical about when I watch one of my favorite DJs and just that kind of connection they can have and you do get this connection. So it’s a tricky thing, but my next release on Kompakt, for instance, is geared for clubs, which is something I haven’t thought about for a couple of years, maybe. So at times it is something fun to do, something that I can look forward to doing and see if I can get any reaction out of, you know? But then there are times I could kind of care less about that.

So when that does sort of enter your thinking — like, “OK, this is going to be sort of a club record” — how different is the calculus of how you’re building your tracks? Is it really wildly different from when you’re thinking, “I’m just making music”?

A little bit. I mean again, it’s all perspective, and I could have this completely wrong, but for me, the club-y stuff is definitely more drums and bass-based without — I don’t even know how to describe it. Because I mean it has sort of this tuned end of it all, which was kind of musical and did change around quite a bit, and that was sort of accepted, club-wise. So I might not be the right person to ask, but I think what I do enjoy is simple groove, and I can recognize that when somebody else is playing something and it just kind of grabs you like, “Wow, that’s a really groovy thing. I could just listen to that all night.” So sometimes I feel like in clubland, the simpler the better. But clever and simple, not just lazy simple. But I don’t know. That’s my sort of take. For this year, anyway. It always changes.

Your mother was an opera singer, is that correct?

Yeah.

Have you ever considered or actually recorded her and included her in any of your work?

We did a little bit of work. There was a compilation on Plug Research called Voices in my Lunchbox, and it was actually a track just under her name. Her first name is Carmen so it was Carmen Tejada, and I was just credited as production. And when I did some music on an older, defunct label called deFocus, there was a track on there where — I had this weird idea to have her do a track on there with my hip-hop friend Divine Styler. So he was sort of rapping and she was singing back at him in an operatic style. And there were two versions. There were two songs that had that theme going. And there’s something else that I’m forgetting about. But we always had the idea to do kind of a full project, and we unfortunately never quite got to it. But yeah, we definitely have gotten little sessions here and there.

In the music of yours that I’ve heard — and admittedly I’ve not heard it all — I don’t hear a lot of sung vocals. I’ve heard some spoken-word vocals, but not as much sung vocals, and I was curious if that was a conscious decision or if that was just something that just sort of ended up that way.

I haven’t used a ton of vocals at all, really. I think once vocals enter the picture it becomes a more — at least I used to think this — there was just more of a definite point being made. But now I’m kind of working on something with a friend who has appeared on a couple of my past things. And now I’m kind of appreciating lyrics, especially being such a Rush fan that, you kind of can’t figure them out at first, but it kind of doesn’t matter what they’re saying. And now I’m kind of appreciating this kind of vaguer, murky, interpretational dimension to vocals, which I think is pretty neat. So my thought on that is kind of changing, but at the same time, it’s been hard for me to find that sort of perfect partner who can do vocals. So a lot of stuff was just sort of spoken — stuff I did with Susan [Langan]. Even people who sang, like kind of talk-sang, like if Jimmy Tamborello sings for me, it’s kind of talk-singing. I think it just happened that way by accident. And then some of the things I’ve tried with full-on singing, they kind of felt a bit overbearing, to me, but that was fun to try.

So here’s an odd one for you: I would like for you to tell me what you think your most underrated record is — or maybe just song, if record is too broad — and what your most overrated song or record is.

[laughs] Underrated record…

Can I start? I think that The Toiling of Idle Hands is a great record, and I don’t think that it gets seen quite as awesome as it is. So there’s my starting point. Now it’s your turn.

Thanks. I appreciate that. Yeah, I’m thinking more single song — that’s really a hard question. But there’s an old tune that no one seems to know that I was always kind of quite proud of, and once in a while I’ll play it and I’ll get a question of “What the hell is that from?” There’s a track on my first album under my name, which was on an old label in the UK called A13, on an album called Little Green Lights and Four Inch Faders. There’s a track on there which was also on the single for that album, and it’s called “Pasadena Shuffle.” And I always have this little soft, sweet spot for that tune, and I don’t think anyone knows it, which is totally fine because why should they? And overrated, I mean that’s just — I don’t know. I’m so happy to have any success that I’ve had that I just feel funny answering that. I’ve been lucky enough to have tunes that maybe people have heard one too many times and then you kind of decide that you’re sick of it. So I suppose I’d say for any of those tunes, I feel really lucky that I’ve even had tunes like that. And maybe those would be the overrated ones. But I’d like to have more overrated tunes, I think. [laughs] I don’t know.

I suppose that’s a position most people would envy, you know? So tell me a little bit about LA’s electronic music scene in the past and maybe how you see it now. Where has it come from, and where is it at now, in your opinion?

I think with all the social media and everything making this scene kind of exist globally with everyone being able to communicate with each other. Sharing music and picking up tours, that’s just become a lot easier for people. So this scenein the 90s was really — I mean you had to go buy a magazine to find out what was happening. You didn’t just go on a website and have all the information in the world in 30 seconds. So I think because of that and all the music-sharing and mix-sharing and all the media coverage, it’s just really, really changed the game, and it’s made LA quite a global place now. You see the lineups that come every week, and LA’s still kind of a semi-disjointed place, as far as its layout. Because of that I’ll still hear about brand new things that have been kind of operating for quite some time and I never heard about them. To be fair, I don’t go out a ton. People like Droid Behavior have been able to do stuff on a really powerful global level and bring in all the world’s top artists, and then themselves have been able to tour and do releases and do that stuff all over the world. I think that’s the main difference in current times.

So just to sort of wrap up, tell me a little bit about what you plan to do at your appearance at MUTEK?

The MUTEK show is going to be part of the Kompakt 20-year parties. I am readying a new live set, which is going to be hardware based, which is kind of based on the Elektron instruments and the new ones they have, which make things more fun and compact and fun and easy. It’s been quite a process to — I basically have to reinterpret a lot of these songs instead of just throwing tracks into the computer and be able to do clever things with them. But it’s been really fun to revisit old things. I think this is the first time that I’m really revisiting them, as far as tearing them apart and building them back up, and not just sticking in phrases, but taking original sounds and replaying kind of everything. Sometimes in a new way, and replacing things that didn’t totally work. And it’s been pretty fun. But it’s taking a little bit longer than I thought so I have to be done with it soon, but I’m pretty excited about it. Just playing in that way is a lot more interactive and a lot more entertaining for me as an artist instead of pushing things around on a computer.

For sure. And what’s coming up from you in the rest of the year?

I’ve got some sort of half-finished things that I hope will lead to fully finished things, but the one solid one at the moment is the new single, which is called “Somewhere.” And that’s going to be out May 27th on Kompakt. Then I think I’m in the process of finishing the new Palette, which will be myself and Arian Leviste. And we have a cool name for it — well, the name might change, but it’s pretty rare to have a title early on in our creative process. So those are the two right now, and there’s something else with vocals that I’m slowly working on, but it’s too early to be able to say anything about that, really. Because we’re not quite sure what’s happening with that. And just as usual, kind of working on lots of things. I’m working on a bunch of new things with Justin Maxwell, and we just let something cool before we force it on anyone. And I’d like to start a new album at the end of the year, start writing something like that if I’m able to.

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