Rod Modell may be best known for his faultless collection of DeepChord records; the short-lived label issued some of the most cerebral variations on dub techno that stand up proudly beside any of the first-wave artists from the German strain of the genre. Others may know him from his part in the duo that gave us the haunting resonance of his and Steven Hitchell’s immaculate The Coldest Season album, which was just the beginning of the multi-layered, sonic-textural delights that Echospace have thus far been responsible for. Before these forays in the world of subconscious mind-mood rhythms, Modell issued a series of ambient releases, all of which were held in just as high esteem as his better-known DeepChord or Echospace affiliated work. Little White Earbuds got in touch with Modell to find out where that love of spatial communication comes from, and learned about his earliest inspirations, what influenced his move into beat-based rhythms, and why he doesn’t see himself as a musician. Not only did the producer provide us with a stunning mix of deep, dub-wise atmospherics, but he gave us an incredible look into how he approaches his art form, a read which is by turns compelling and inspiring.
LWE Podcast 113: Rod Modell (61:28)
01. Brock Van Way, “I Knew Happiness Once” (Intrusion Mix)
02. Intrusion, “Reflection” (Atheus Reshape) [echospace [detroit]]
03. Blir, “Untitled” [Raster-Noton]
04. Joel Tammik, “Sume” [U-Cover]
05. Sub Made, “To Be Different” [Koax Records]
06. Koss/Henrikson/Mullaert, “One” [Mule Electronic]
07. Intrusion, “Seduction” [echospace [detroit]]
08. Oliver Deutschmann, “Alfama” [Vidab Records]
09. Quantec “Yage” [Echocord]
10. DeepChord, “Oude Kerk” [Soma Quality Recordings]
11. Mike Huckaby + Pacou, “Echo Mix” [Cache Records]
12. Andy Stott, “Hostile” [Modern Love]
13. Claro Intelecto, “W6” [Modern Love]
14. DeepChord, “Tangier” [Soma Quality Recordings]
15. Undr-P, “Bicycle Frontal” [Koax Records]
16. Vita, “Porsl” [Force Inc. Music Works]
17. Vasily, “Neuralgia” [Rampe D]
18. Vita, “Amin” [Force Inc. Music Works]
19. Mike Dehnert, “Two” [Fachwerk]
20. Marko Furstenberg, “Rosengarten” [Thinner]
21. Claudia Bonarelli, “Avenue” [Mitek]
22. Claro Intelecto, “Dependant” [Modern Love]
23. Blir, “Untitled” [Raster-Noton]
24. Intrusion, “Tswana Dub” (Brendon Moeller Mix) [echospace [detroit]]
25. Intrusion, “Reflection” (Area Version) [echospace [detroit]]
You’re primarily known as one of the foremost exponents of dub techno, though you’ve also released highly acclaimed ambient albums and further back than that I understand you were involved in more industrial sounds. Can you give us an idea of how you got involved in music in the first place and some of the artists who influenced you?
Rod Modell: Ever since I was a child, I was always unhappy with mainstream sounds. As long as I can remember, I hated everything on the radio. In fact, sometimes I wonder if I’m a music lover or a music hater. I’m still really not sure, because I can’t stand music that is too musical [or] structured. I think I like listening to sounds better than songs. One well-designed sound can be more emotive than 100 songs. When we hear musical structure, the brain understands it is music and processes it as such, but a good sound bypasses this analytical module of the brain and plugs directly into the psyche. We hear it, but don’t have to listen. So I like to design sounds rather than music. I don’t really view what I do as songs. So because of that, I’m not really too influenced by musicians much. I think I’m more influenced by nature, air, water, and the night sky more than any music. I can go out into the woods at 3:00 AM, and be inspired to record new sounds. I haven’t heard music that inspired me like that in years.
I view what I make as a textural smear of sonic events that all bleed together and cause aliasing where they overlap. The actual “art form” for me is creating interesting forms of aliasing by choosing the correct textures to overlap. I was probably more influenced by the Environments series (a collection of field recordings issued by Syntonic Research, Inc. between 1970 and 1979) more than any artist. When I was a child, I would sleep to an AM radio tuned between stations. There was so much to hear in the static. Solar activity, earth noises, storms, cosmic occurrences. The static has a grain, like different wood surfaces have unique grain. This AM static was far more influential than any musical artist.
I understand you have been a big fan of field recordings. What sort of environments are your favorite to record and how do you typically apply them to a piece of music (i.e. are they left unadulterated or do you play around with them a lot)?
Big time. Actually, I haven’t really played much music in my house over the past few years. My recent in-home playlist is practically all field recordings. Music is too one-dimensional. I like field recordings made in places that I like to be. I don’t really like “middle-of-the-day beach recordings.” I like something dark, but not evil. A “soothing dark” rather than one that makes you depressed or on edge. Like hearing a night rainstorm recorded at 2:00 AM outside the apartment window in Amsterdam. Or sitting in a courtyard in Barcelona at midnight recording wind in the trees and distant voices. These recordings are erotic. The degree of processing applied depends on the situation. Sometimes they’re drenched with processing, and sometimes raw. Lately I’ve been favoring unprocessed. More pure.
You’ve recorded some amazing material with Michael Mantra. How did you first meet, and how long was it before you were making music together?
I was/am big fan of Mike’s musique concrète. He creates alien sonic landscapes with field recordings that he captured. In the mid 1990s, I was really inspired by old musique concrète, and thought Mike was producing a modern variant. I was talking to Kim Cascone on the phone around this time, and expressed my enthusiasm for Mike’s work, not realizing that Kim and Mike occasionally run into each other. On one of these run-ins, Kim informed Mike about how much I like his work, and gave Mike my phone number and address, so Mike started writing and calling, and we forged a nice friendship. Maybe after a year or so of talking, we decided to try recording something, and it worked out great (Sonic Continuum on Hypnos).
What can you tell us about your Plays Michael Mantra album?
That was a funny one. Mike released a CD called A/B on Silentes, and I was contacted about remixing this one for an A/B Remixed release. I’m not sure if Mike contacted me or Stefano [Gentile] at Silentes. I started working on this remake of A/B, and a month later, I had music that was so drastically different from the original that it couldn’t really be viewed as a remix [or] remake. It was a totally new life form. Stefano at the label suggested we call it something other than A/B Remix since there was almost zero semblance of the original, but since Mike’s A/B influenced what I made, it seemed appropriate to credit Mike also. So Stefano suggested the Plays Michael Mantra title, and I liked it. There were other influences on that one too — trains and weather come to mind.
When did you start becoming interested in more dance floor-oriented rhythms?
I think it was when I noticed a problem with dance music that I was hearing in the mid 90s. I remember Mike Schommer and I were in a club in Detroit, and we noticed that every song started out really nice. Just a simple rhythm and bass line with some noises floating in and out. Perfect! Then some other element would fade in, then another, then another, then… the music was totally ruined at this point. We couldn’t figure out why these artists didn’t just leave well enough alone. They had a nice thing going and totally convoluted it every time. They destroyed it with too much complexity. Mike and I were interested in “trying to make a whole record sound like that beginning 45 seconds” of these other records. We wanted simple tracks that weren’t convoluted. I think this was the core premise for our experiments. Also, around this time, there were a couple records from a band called Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia (PWOG) that I thought were fascinating. I was in a record store, and picked up one of their CD’s and noticed a warning on the back saying, “This CD doesn’t contain finished songs, but rather structures for DJs,” or something similar to this effect. This was profound for me. Making sound without actually making songs? I thought this was great. So I thought, “Yes, maybe it is possible to do what I want.” Also, around this time (early 1990s), I was fascinated with the way Bandulu (from UK) were introducing dub influences into techno. I thought that when you combined dub with techno, you got something stronger than dub or techno on their own. They temper each other well.
What do you feel that making tracks in this nature offered you that your ambient material did not?
I always thought beats opened up my ambient music to a bigger, different audience. I really always considered my music to be ambient, even if it had dance beats. It was just ambient music with a pulse rather than free-form without a pulse. Not much difference to me. In fact, if you drop the kicks and hats from a DeepChord record, you still have a pretty good track. Sometimes better than with them. The beats are purely incidental. As a matter of fact, many times I made alternate versions of DC records without the beats for listening to at home. I remember a show that Steve and I did in Ghent, Belgium. It was at a club called Limonada, and was during the Resonance Festival in March 2009. We were doing a sound check before the show, and the music that we were playing was relatively “pounding,” dance-oriented material. Someone from the club came over and asked us, “Is this what you’re playing tonight? Because we asked your booking agent for a more atmospheric set.” I was totally overjoyed! I told them “no problem,” and turned down channels one through six on our mixing console (the channels containing all the rhythmic elements), and we did one of the most amazing sets ever. We used the channels containing atmospheric elements with effects and filters, and produced a soundscape of huge, weightless, billowing clouds of sound. It was religious. I mean seriously amazing without the distraction of the beats. Something happened during that set that I still can’t explain today. I think the sounds induced some sort of (positive) psychological reaction in the audience. No joke. Numerous people commented after the show, and via email later also.
How did you first meet Stephen Hitchell?
Steve was sending demos to me when I was running DC (the label) with Mike Schommer. I thought Steve’s demos were the best I got, and thought if we were to release someone other than our stuff, this would be the guy. Unfortunately, we never branched out and released music of other artists. There were plans to start a sub-label, but it never materialized. But Steve and I became friends, and talked often. At one point, the suggestion of trying to work on something together arose, and the outcome was The Coldest Season. Mike was extremely preoccupied at the time with refinishing an older home and starting a family. I tried to get him re-inspired to make music for about a year, but he had too much going on to consider it. It was around this time that Steve and I were discussing a collaboration, so the timing was perfect. One thing led to another.
Is there any difference in theory between your Echospace and cv313 monikers?
Actually, we’ve never released any information regarding the members behind cv313. It was always intended to be undisclosed. All accounts to that end are extraneous, but one night while walking around Barcelona (El Raval), Steve and I met two strung-out “characters,” and they gave us an extraordinary demo CD-R, and those guys might somehow be involved.
To some people a genre-like dub techno can end up sounding very “samey.” How do you keep things moving and interesting for both you and your listeners?
Good question. Not really sure. I think it’s intuitive rather than something clearly contrived. We try to do things a little different from album to album, but I found that any time you go into a studio with a preconceived notion of how you want things to sound, it never happens that way. I think you have to just get in there and start working, and what happens happens. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. But I think it’s important to take chances with the sound. Playing it safe, and merely repeating a tested formula over and over gets you nowhere. I’d rather take a chance and bomb rather [than] do the same thing over and over.
Many times, a reviewer will say a new release sucks because they had preconceived notions, and you were different enough to disturb what they anticipated. Half the negative reviews out there are the result of bad reviewers, not bad albums. I never read reviews anyway. I can’t be concerned why some guy doesn’t have the mental scope to comprehend someone’s art (or not). I’d rather hear a description of the work from the artist. The whole premise of music reviews is insulting anyway. It’s art, and in art, there are works that speak to you and ones that don’t. The ones that don’t are equally valid to someone else, maybe just not for the person reviewing it. I take reviews more seriously, where a reviewer describes what they’re hearing without bias, and doesn’t assign the artwork a point value.
When you’re in your studio do you ever explore music outside of the genres you’re known for?
Recently, yes. Hip-hop music a little. I think I have a unique take on hip-hop. I think a huge hip-hop artist should let me produce their next album. I’d give them something no one has ever heard before.
Are there any artists you’ve recently discovered who have really excited you?
I really haven’t been overly excited about any new releases for years. I wish I could say differently. I desperately want to be, but am having a difficult time. I guess the most interesting thing I’ve heard recently was the Mordant Music releases. I really think they are great, and have loved all of their output. Also, some Hyperdub releases. Even the Hyperdub releases that don’t move me immediately are still obviously brilliant and unique. Some of their releases are unlike anything I’ve ever heard, and that seems an impossible accomplishment in 2012.
There’s an obvious debt to the likes of Maurizio in your Echospace and Deepchord productions, but are there some less obvious influences in these records too?
I think influence seeps out in mysterious ways. No artist with integrity consciously copies another artist, but we all tend to regurgitate things that have influenced us over the years. It’s a natural process. I don’t think there is a single artist who hasn’t. It’s never ending. People always say, “It sounds like this,” or, “It sounds like that.” Most of the time, they are showing their ignorance when they do that. I remember when Nitzer Ebb released That Total Age in the 80s. I bought a copy and thought it was good, but I had a few friends that said it sucked because it was a blatant DAF ripoff. It never ends. People have to liken new music to something that already exists or else they can’t wrap their head around it. To me all rock and roll sounds the same. But to someone who’s really intelligent about rock, there are vast differences from release to release. I can’t comprehend the differences because I don’t understand rock. Likewise, people who say one electronic artist sounds like another electronic artist maybe doesn’t comprehend the subtleties in the music.
I really don’t see myself as a musician, so I’m not really influenced by music or musicians. When I’m sitting with a bunch of musicians, even electronic musicians in Berlin or whatever, I think, “What the fuck am I doing with these people? We have nothing in common, and really don’t have anything to discuss with these guys.” Probably my least favorite subject to talk about in the universe is synthesizers and studio gear. But if I’m sitting with a sculptor, painter or glass blower, I can talk for hours and feel like I’m in the correct company. I just use audio material to create my art rather than paint or clay. But it’s strange how I feel more a part of this group rather than a group of musicians. Maybe because I went to art school after high school. But I find that my soundscapes are much more interesting when an “arrangement” is influenced by a photograph or statue rather than other recorded media. These sort of non-musical influences are more inspirational to me than any recorded sounds.
What can you tell us about your most recent DeepChord album, Hash-Bar Loops? What relevance does the loops in the title have?
“Loops” refers to audio loops. For the most part, all electronic music is composed of loops that are created by the artist using drum machines, and sequencers (or audio loopers like Oberheim Digital Echoplex and Electrix Repeaters, in my case). I called the loops on this project “Hash-Bar Loops” mainly because I was staying in Amsterdam for several weeks, and recorded this album in that environment. I had a couple friends that enjoyed hash, and spent a lot of time with them. When I was trying to name the project, I kept thinking back to Amsterdam, my friends, the craziness going on etc, and “Hash-Bar Loops” just seemed appropriate. I liked the sound of it. These were the loops that were continuously repeating in my apartment during those several weeks in Amsterdam. I was making atmospheric backdrops to relax to rather than consciously recording an album. Then at some point, I collected all the fragments [and] loops, and thought they all flowed nicely, and decided to make them a unified whole. Maybe that album sounds differently because of this.
For me, it’s a sonic photo album. It’s the place that I feel the most comfortable of anywhere I’ve been. I feel like I’m home when in Amsterdam. Ten times more than Michigan. I had an apartment there in the center, on the Singel Canal. I would often put a small WAV recorder on the windowsill of my apartment, and record out the window, almost exclusively during the middle of the night. Voices, bikes passing, boats going down the canal. These “windowsill recordings” are in the background of Hash-Bar Loops almost start to finish. Sometimes quite low, but almost always there.
What can you tell us about the mix you’ve put together for us?
I think I pay more attention to the atmosphere in a mix rather than the beats. I just like a laid-back groove rather than danceability, I think. Maybe more “head music” rather than “feet music.” I just start picking out tracks that seem important to me at the time I start a mix, and it can vary greatly from day to day. This one, though, is spacious and relaxed, I think.
What can we expect from the many sides of Rod Modell over the next year?
Actually, lots going on, but too soon to really discuss some of it. Some new DeepChord material is nearly done, and Steve and I have been working on some new Echospace material also. Also, I’ve been preoccupied with video lately. I’ve filled up several hard drives with high-def video in the last couple years. I will be presenting a massive video installation piece, projected on ten video screens in Naut Humon’s (touring) CineChamber sometime in 2012 also.