Since bursting onto the scene in 2011 and inaugurating the 100% Silk label with “Ital’s Theme”, Ital, real name Daniel Martin-McCormick, has made plenty of waves through the world of dance music. Releasing two albums in 2012, involved in a handful of collaborations, and even landing a 12″ on the legendary Workshop, time has seen McCormick tackle house and techno from ever more penetrating vantage points. His sound has simultaneously concentrated and grown more expansive, and his latest album Endgame is his most potent and eye-opening to date. He recently performed as one of the headliners at the inaugural edition of Sustain-Release, a two-day festival at a summer camp in the Catskills, and his live set perfectly captured the immersive and surreal aspects of the event. LWE sat down with McCormick recently to chat about Sustain-Release and his latest album Endgame, and he provided us with a recording from the festival.
How did you approach doing a live set in the context of Sustain-Release?
Daniel Martin-McCormick: Aurora and I had been doing these combination live-DJ sets when we were in Europe over the summer, and the more I did that, the more I wanted the tracks in the live set to flow into each other similar to how they would in a DJ set. I had been using an MPC before, and each song would be something like an internally complete unit, but there would be abrupt shifts between them. I wanted to instead move through waves of tension rather than performing different songs. The drums in the live set, and to an extent on the record, are rather simple: the glue that keeps things together, whereas there are lots of synth parts and dubbed out bits orbiting the beat that you can loosen up off the grid or bring back and make really tight. I was focused on making it a larger whole rather than a sequence of songs, which is what I had been familiar with from playing in bands.
Do you allow for much improvisation?
Yeah for sure. I don’t write much while I’m up there performing, but I usually have spare sequences, or variations on bass lines, that I can play with.
Did you make any changes for Sustain-Release?
Well, it’s not like I threw in a bunch of forest sounds or something [laughs]. The subs were huge. When I got into the room and checked out the dance floor, I could tell it was going to sound amazing, but when I went on stage to drop my gear, I realized the entire stage was vibrating and making an overwhelming, clattering sound. The audience couldn’t hear it, but from where you were standing onstage, the sub wasn’t very audible and instead it felt like you were inside a huge maraca. The more you pushed the subs, the crazier the noise and vibrations became. If I hadn’t checked in advance, I would have been really stressed, but since I knew, I just let it ride. Any time I wanted the subs to really push, I would just nudge the deepest sound in my mix up a notch and the whole stage would sound like it was caving in. Apparently, while such an event was occurring, my friend Angelina pretended like she was getting blown over by the bass… and then actually fell on her ass.
When your first records as Ital were coming out you had mentioned most of your music was made in Audacity, which I imagine would make it hard to perform live. How have things changed?
When I started making tracks I had no idea how people made techno. I had been exploring Audacity for a bit because it was free, and by the time I started making tracks for real I already had some kind of flow going with it. I knew no one else was really using it, and I knew all these little tricks with it. You would hear things like how Jamal only used a Zoom drum machine, or some crazy records would only be done with some obscure piece of gear, so I decided that Audacity was kind of my DIY set up or something. Then I went on tour and didn’t want to bring my computer so I bought some gear to recreate my tracks, and at some point just started to hate Audacity. I had hardware now, so it really didn’t make sense to keep frustrating myself with Audacity; it was just like letting yourself move to a better apartment or something. The first record I did with hardware was the Workshop record, and you can definitely hear the change — not so much in the fidelity but just the process and the flow of the music. Hearing the music as you’re making it and making decisions in real-time rather than sculpting the music in the computer felt better to me.
I don’t find hardware versus software debates very interesting, and there’s certainly enough “raw” lo-fi live take things around, but it’s important to create situations that inspire you. Audacity was inspiring for me for a long time, but it stopped being at some point. I like returning to things, and building up a flow with machines. With Audacity, I would start working on something and then the track would be done when I was done arranging all the parts. There wasn’t really room to pull back and reflect on the process, to change the mix that much or whatever, since the program is so clunky. With this record, I spent a lot of time letting the loops wash over me, and then would zoom in and start working on the track. I multitracked everything so then I could zoom back out, move a section around, and then zoom back in and tighten up a small part of the mix. This was the process the whole time, using these live takes, bending and shaping them.
Endgame is quite different from your previous work. How has your composition process changed?
I was just DJing a lot more. You listen to, like, 30 tracks in a row while you’re playing, and they all work together in interesting ways, and then you listen to a song at home and it rules but you try to play it out and it doesn’t work, and you wonder why. I started DJing a lot more when Bossa Nova [Civic Club] opened, and was exploring other people’s music in a more practical way. There are so many tracks where there’s nothing going on but they work so well, and I was fascinated by that. With the records I made before, I was getting obsessed with house and techno records as “albums”, and listening a lot on headphones, but when I would try to play some tracks in a mix it would just feel weird. With this one, I wanted the songs to be very emotionally clear and immediate — like, as soon as the song starts you should understand what the feeling of it is, not do a long build up or something. There are a lot of new technical things I did for the record, but it was all to support an intuitive emotional space that I wanted. It was also very important that I could play these songs in a set.
You have a residency at Bossa Nova. How has that changed you as a DJ?
Before I would just DJ around town and play records I liked. It was just for fun — I don’t think anyone had big expectations since I wasn’t really being booked as a DJ anywhere big. When Bossa Nova opened it was pretty perfect: it’s small, dark, and lots of fun. I didn’t want to play the same records every month, and Lori [Napoleon], who I DJ with, is an amazing DJ, and so I really had to work harder at it. I get so much new music to play every month, and it’s a great incubation spot to try out new ideas. Anyone who has a residency anywhere is embarrassed to play the same records over and over, and so you try new things and build up a rapport with your audience.
What do you think Sustain-Release meant for the scene here in New York?
It’s interesting because the sets people keep talking about seem to be the ones that were from locals, from people like Patricia who you may have seen play like 20 times around New York. The headliners were all great, but the sets from locals felt especially charged. It was big and special, and it was upstate, and everyone was there together for two days, and that made everyone who had witnessed the build up of it over the years really excited.
Download: LWE Presents Ital, Live At Sustain-Release (52:17)