Pittsburgh Track Authority with percussionist Cottrell. Photo by Lindsay Danger
When reviewing Pittsburgh Track Authority’s first record on their own Pittsburgh Tracks label, I remarked, “It was like [they] sprung from the creative womb fully formed.” Because while the trio of Tom Cox (Pipecock to many), Preslav Lefterov, and Adam Ratana have been working together for only about two years, their music has all the cohesive maturity of lifelong production partners whose music is just seeing the light of day. Their first four releases bear a warm, well worn aesthetic informed by decades of musical fandom, often in the service of house music that feels timeless in spite of its recent release dates. Even more exciting is that they’re just getting started: future releases promise to bring the same classic sensibilities to harder techno, 2-step, electro, and whatever else their hearts desire. The promise of more collaborations, including with their resident live drummer, Cottrell, suggests there are few dance genre walls they won’t climb. LWE sat down with PTA in Detroit during Movement weekend, discussing the group’s surprising origins in drum and bass, the tribulations of being based in Pittsburgh, and their plans to conquer America as a live act. PTA also contributed LWE’s 124th exclusive podcast, a thrilling mixture of present and future releases demonstrating the breadth of their sound.
LWE Podcast 124: Pittsburgh Track Authority (62:25)
01. Pittsburgh Track Authority vs. Nice Rec, “Rotunda” (ft. Craig Peyton) [Pittsburgh Tracks]
02. Pittsburgh Track Authority ft. Cottrell, “Levitate” [Pittsburgh Tracks*]
03. Revelation, “Feel It” (Pittsburgh Track Authority Edit) [*]
04. Lerosa, “Ausgang” [*]
05. Anaxander, “Athenians” [Love What You Feel*]
06. Unknown artist, “Spotlight” (Pittsburgh Track Authority Remix) [*]
07. J Fine, “Bang” [*]
08. Kevin Reynolds, “Instruction” [Love What You Feel]
09. Pittsburgh Track Authority vs. Nice Rec, “Pittsburgh Rich” [Pittsburgh Tracks]
10. Pittsburgh Track Authority, “Crosstown Blvd.” [*]
11. TM EYE, “Exposure” (Steve Moore Remix) [Machine Age Records]
12. Anaxander, “Spartans” [Love What You Feel]
13. Disco Nihilist, “Telephone” [Love What You Feel]
14. Pittsburgh Track Authority vs. Nice Rec, “Get Out Of Your Head” [Pittsburgh Tracks]
* denotes tracks which, as of the time of publishing, are unreleased
Let’s start with the basics: What were all of your musical projects before forming PTA?
Tom Cox: I mean I’d obviously worked on my blog, Infinite State Machine, and I was DJing and working on trying to make music at my house, although not ultra-successfully. I’ve known these guys for years so we kind of hooked up like that.
Preslav Lefterov: I worked on a drum and bass project with Adam [Ratana] for about eight years, pretty much, right? Something like that.
What was the name of the project?
PL: It was called Sight Unseen. We had some records out on 31 Records, and we had some other stuff in the UK. We had known Tom for a long time so we had been in touch throughout the whole thing. I did that project and I’ve owned a recording studio in Pittsburgh for eight years now, also. So I’ve been involved with a lot of other local music projects ther. I had also just started our TM Eye project that I work on with another friend of mine, Phil Boyd, right around the same time we started PTA, so that’s what I’ve been doing.
Adam Ratana: I think Preslav’s pretty much filled it in as far as other projects that we’ve worked on. I also was involved with a record label called Technoir Audio — it still exists; we haven’t put out a release in probably about a year — with Shawn Rudiman and Jwan Allen. The only other thing I can add is that we all pretty much met through a mutual love of drum and bass and buying drum and bass records at this one record store in Pittsburgh in the 90s.
I didn’t realize drum and bass was what brought you guys together. That’s maybe a little unexpected, given the stuff you guys are doing.
PL: Oh yeah, it really was. It’s only unexpected because Tom tries to hide his past.
TC: I do not try to hide my past.
AR: He’s really into hiding his past.
PL: He likes to deny it, but he himself started DJing drum and bass in the beginning.
AR: Before you guys, even.
TC: That’s fine. I’m not denying that.
So obviously, that’s how you guys met, but how did PTA start — actually the making of the music and all the conceptualizing behind that?
AR: Maybe mention the name of the first project.
PL: Which one was the first project?
AR: “Some House Shit With Tom.”
PL: Yeah, that was how they were titled. What happened was, whenever we started doing this around two years ago almost now, Adam and I weren’t really feeling optimistic about whatever was happening with drum and bass and whatever was happening with the music we were making at the time. We had actually just at that time signed a track to Good Looking Records, which still hasn’t come out, actually, which — not going to surprise anybody — but so there were a lot of things that were kind of making us not really be super excited about it. I think Tom and I decided to just mess around in the studio one day, started a couple things, and they actually all ended up being on our first release on Uzur. We just kind of went from there. When Lerato [Khathi] from Uzuri decided to put out our first release, we had to come up with a name, and hence figured out what to call it, and PTA was born, basically.
AR: Yeah, I really can’t even remember the conversation that lead to us deciding to get together and do it because –
PL: I think we just wanted to work on one track or two tracks or something and then went from there.
AR: And I think as far as the drum and bass thing goes, I think if you do something for so long and you find yourself specializing more and more, it’s actually kind of, creatively, it’s putting yourself into even more of a box. It’s not really what we wanted to do with the drum and bass, though, which was kind of bring our love for house and techno and basically American-based stuff into that scene. At that point we’d done it for quite a while, and I think we made some things we were happy with. So I think the opportunity to work on other stuff as well just is — we were matured enough where we were able to even work with more people, and I guess that’s all part of it.
You guys have four records that are either out or about to be out, but there’s really no one sound you’ve coalesced around. Is that just a testament to the fact that you guys started doing other stuff and then got to this?
TC: It’s basically because we all started buying records and that was sort of the common thread, we just bought good records — of whatever genre. Even when we were buying drum and bass, we were still buying — the record store we met at was called HyperVinyl, and it was a label, as well, that started putting out stuff by Shawn Rudiman, Trevor Combee as The Instigator. And they stocked Planet E, Transmat, Basic Channel, all the Chicago stuff, Underground Resistance, and we just bought that stuff. Pittsburgh is notorious for digging for old records. So we were also buying old reggae records, old soul records, old jazz records, old funk records. And really, we just like doing different things, so any time we start a new track we’re like, “Hey, let’s try something different and see how it turns out.” And in general, the results have been pretty good across a number of different styles, so far. So we keep trying to do different things and see what happens.
AR: I have to mention that — since we’re here in Detroit — a core contingent of Pittsburgh folks have been coming here since the first one. We would get kind of an injection of all this every year, which is nice kind of inspiration. We’ve always had our ears open to pretty much everything. And like Tom said, we have Jerry’s [Records], which is, if you know if you don’t know a lot about music, which is probably most people when they’re 20, you can get a huge education just going to that store and just listening to stacks and stacks. So in terms of why there’s the variety, it’s because we have a variety of tastes. I don’t think there’s any desire to say, “Oh, let’s just do this sound,” because — we might buy the first two records by artists who do that, but then after that, it’s like, “OK, cool,” you know.
But a lot of people are not necessarily good enough that they can stretch themselves that far. You might have a variety of tastes; lots of people claim that, but trying to translate that into the music is rather difficult.
PL: Well yeah, I was going to say there are two kind of explanations I can find for that: One is that, again, not to keep bringing up drum and bass, but that happened in drum and bass a lot. As a musical genre, it was a situation where you basically had a tempo that was really defining the music. It wasn’t anything else. With drum and bass, you could have a record that was sample based and based on real instrumentation or you could have a more synthetic-sounding record and techno influence and house influence and funk and et cetera, and reggae and dub. For me, personally, since day one when I started DJing, it was always about different influences brought into one, you know? And the other one is, I’ve owned a recording studio for eight years, and Adam and I have worked on other projects that, whether it’s mixing stuff for people or remixes, we’ve always been directly in touch with other music. So that’s kind of how I see it. We try to always keep it open and not just do one thing. And I know that sounds like a very common thing people say, but it certainly was a conscious decision for us to never ever just try to do one thing.
TC: We also work with a lot of different people, which helps. We’ve had a couple releases now that feature our man Nice Rec, who comes from a hip-hop and soul music background. We’re working with Craig Peyton on some stuff on the new Pittsburgh Tracks and on another record that will be forthcoming on Rotating Souls. He was an electric vibes player on classic disco and boogie records, and he went to school at Berkeley for music, right?
TC: So he’s a crazy, sick jazz guy; and we get to work with guys like him and Phil Boyd, who does the TM Eye stuff, he was originally in the psyche rock band Modey Lemon, who were on Mute Records. You add all these guys into what we’re doing already, which is trying to do some different things and do all the things we like, and it helps. It might help something that we’re doing that’s a little different than what we’re used to come out a little better.
AR: I don’t think it can be overstated, the influence of drum and bass, just because for many people who don’t take that genre seriously, it really has been a melting pot of a lot of different influences. And, certainly in the 90s, if you weren’t following it, you were definitely missing out. Now that’s up in the air; but it’s one of those things that a lot of people write off, but it has something for everyone, and we’ve found that a lot of people bring a lot of different things to it.
PL: Not the least of which is the engineering and production aspect of it, which you said a lot of people don’t seem to be able to stretch themselves. Obviously we have a lot of learn and I wouldn’t call us, in any way, experts at production, but that was part of why — it’s a genre of music that definitely pushed people to be engineers and producers to the max. Whether or not the taste was always there is a separate discussion, but technically it was always, you know, a very –
AR: I think if you engineer something well, then you can express something better. It’s like if you don’t add salt and pepper to a steak, it’s just a raw meat, you know? I also want to mention that Shawn Rudiman, a Pittsburgh guy, has been there for us, too. He has basically a synthesizer and sampler museum. We’ve always seen the way he works with stuff in sort of an organic matter, and that definitely influenced us as well; because we might use a computer in some respects, but we also use all of the other equipment, as well. So that’s definitely a big factor.
So if there’s one adjective I could use to describe your sound, it would be “classic,” and I just wondered if that as an adjective resonated with you at all when you’re thinking about what you’re trying to express musically.
TC: Clearly, as diggers, we all like old music, but we all like new music, too. I really think what it boils down to is that I like new music that has a connection to its past, that’s not just something that is trying to be out there and on its own and pretend like it’s not part of a larger continuum. I like things that advance in interesting ways through the history. I think we try to do that; we try to add something new and add our twist to something that’s much larger than us that we’re a part of.
PL: If I try to think about what happens when we start new music, a lot of times it’s not something that’s specific to a dance floor or something that would work strictly in a DJ set. I always like to make things that go beyond that, that people can just listen to in their car or when they’re sitting at home or doing their work. For me personally, a big motivation is to make music that isn’t just — because if I told you how many records I bought when I first started DJing that were just records that you DJ once or twice and you never listen to again, and I just don’t want to do that. I’m not really interested in making music that people just use once or twice and never listen to again.
AR: To speak to the sonic character as well, there’s certain records we like tend that have stood the test of time. You look at a lot of otherwise good records from, let’s say, the 80s where the productions values or the trends of the time have kind of ruined what otherwise would be good music. We tend to like stuff that, if it’s records from the 70s or 80s or 90s — records that have not given in to whatever was the hottest gimmick at the time. It’s always a matter of taste, I think. Whether something is classic or modern, I don’t know how people label things that way, specifically, but I think it’s more just the palette that we use is probably broad but also less in tune with what everyone else is doing right now, like, this second, with click-y drums, or whatever it might be.
Making classic-styled stuff or old-school-styled stuff is very in vogue, but your stuff doesn’t necessarily sound like that, but it shares that same sort of characteristic. How do you go about making music that has that connection without sounding like people who are just trying to emulate
TC: Part of it is that we do use some of the same old equipment that has been used on some classic records, but, you know, when you combine the equipment — the analog equipment, the drum machines, all that — with the versatility that the computer allows — for mixing down, for using effects, all that — you can really do something different with it that still is not super far away. It has echoes of both. You see a lot of guys who have a 707 and a 101, or whatever, and want to make tracks like it’s Chicago in 1986, and it’s not. The dudes who were making tracks in Chicago in 1986 are not making tracks that same way now. we like to mix it up. Take what’s the strong points of each technique and mix them.
AR: It’s probably one of those things where it’s hard to put your finger on whether something — and I’m going to use the word “cynical” — whether something sounds cynically done or not. I think we’re just, possibly, honest people, and we just like to do things in an honest way. And so even if it sounds like we might be emulating certain things by using the equipment, it’s really up to you to determine whether you think it sounds good or not. That’s really all we care about at the end of the day. It’s not, “Oh, I want to do this stuff because it’s hot.” It’s kind of stupid to do that. And no one’s ever going to tell you in an interview that that’s what they’re doing. They’ll tell you, “Oh, we’re influenced by this,” or, you know, “I was five years old listening to Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson.” It is just what it is.
“It is what it is.” Those are wise words to live by. Given how much you’ve already done so far, as far as how far the sound has gone, are there any styles you’re still looking to tackle?
TC: Right now we’re working on some stuff that’s a little harder, a little faster, a little more techno, I guess. A lot of the techno-y stuff we’ve done so far still has a lot of house-y elements to it and very deep elements. I think we’re trying to bang it out a little bit more. Not going crazy doing 90s-style drum-y techno or anything, but something a little harder, a little grittier, a little nastier. We like to try all different things, so once we do that we’ll move on to something else that sounds like an interesting idea and see where we can take that. You know, the Archipelago EP on Further Records is a sound we are especially interested in. We really like 80s digital reggae and dub, and I think that’s one we want to explore more and more in-depth and see what we can do with that. Mixing that kind of style and techno and house.
PL: I mentioned before that we like to make records or make music that can be listened to outside of a dance floor type of situation, but I also think that’s kind of a balance game. That’s why I think we’re trying to get more into the dance floor material, because I don’t think we want to go too far in the listening category either, because there’s nothing worse than going to see somebody with music you like, and then you see them DJ and it’s a snooze fest. We don’t want to end up in that. We’re definitely trying to work more on the dance floor stuff and like Tom said, the 80s digital stuff. Obviously we’re big Rhythm & Sound and Basic Channel fans, but we think that those guys, being purists, I think they could have potentially missed a few things. I think that could be explored more, you know? I think that’s something we’d like to mess around with.
AR: In the live show that we do we have a 303 and a 909, and it’s just so much fun. It’s just one of those things where I think our collaboration is still pretty new, and we just want to have a lot of fun with it. We like techno, we like house, we like all this stuff for various reasons, and they all affect us different ways — it’s kind of feel-based thing. It’s not like, “Oh, this month we’re going to work on this, and that month we’re going to — ” it’s more like, “OK, this project — this is 130 BPM, so maybe people will call it techno.”
So how do your songs come about? Are you guys jamming, or how do these come into being?
PL: A lot of times there’s some sort of an idea, tempo-wise or kind of vibe-wise, and then we’ll just play along, start with some drum loops or whatever. There’s nothing really special about it. I think a lot of times it’s just an idea for some sort of sound, ywe want to do something that is reminiscent of this, you know. And we go from there.
Is there any division of labor between you all?
TC: I think Preslav and I usually start almost everything. We’re in the studio Monday through Friday, we get there at about nine in the morning like it’s a job, and we start working on new things. So I think that usually we’ll maybe program up a drum loop on a drum machine and then try to get something going with it. We use a variety of different sequencing techniques and try and get something interesting going, try to refine, like, a bass line or a synth line or something going that we’re really feeling so then we can start writing along with it. Then we’ll try different instruments, try different things, and basically see what works and keep doing it until we have some parts written, and once we have strong parts, we move on.
PL: There is some sort of division of labor, but it varies from track to track. Essentially, we have two setups: one is at the studio we work out of and one is at Adam’s house, and we basically have almost identical computer setups. So we’ll just have ideas going back and forth a lot of times, and it makes it easier when you can’t be in the studio in the same time — that’s essential for us. Which is why we rely heavily on the computer for that. That’s basically the general work flow.
What is the biggest challenge that PTA has faced so far?
TC: Trying to come out of Pittsburgh is — it’s hard, you know? Clearly Shawn has had some success, there have been some other people outside of house and techno who have had some success recently, but people don’t really look to Pittsburgh as a musical city, especially for dance music. Dance music culture in Pittsburgh was not really like that; there was no house or techno scene that existed separately from the rave scene. Basically, house and techno became interesting in Pittsburgh when raving started. It was connected to that, and when that died, a lot of it died, too. And we stuck through the lean years of the 2000s, but there’s still no perception of what’s going on in the city from people from other places. That’s one of the things we try to do with the Love What You Feel label, is get people from outside there involved. We throw parties for our label group where we bring in some of our friends from outside. The first one, we had DJ Skurge from Underground Resistance, our next one, we have Protect-U from DC and Kevin Reynolds from Detroit. We are trying to help spread what it is that is going on because there’s a hardcore group of people in Pittsburgh who have been working for a minute, and we represent that; we are that.
AR: There is a group of people in Pittsburgh who are trying to elevate house and techno, as well, the Humanaut Crew. And they’ve really come along in terms of starting to promote a really nice blend of tastes, and so I think it’s looking up, actually. It’s a shame that people don’t necessarily look to Pittsburgh, because it has a rich musical history, especially in the jazz scene. There’s a huge jazz scene there with a lot of legends coming from Pittsburgh. It’s one of those things where people can overlook it, and I just think that’s a shame.
OK, so this is a two-part question. What’s one thing that you make sure that every PTA track has, and what’s one thing that you make sure every PTA track does not have?
AR: Is there even an answer to that question?
TC: We like big, fat kick drums. We’re a fan of those.
PL: I think if we could narrow it down, it would definitely be interesting effects. We try to make sure that we have that in every track.
AR: We like effects boxes.
PL: And for the most part, minus some of the edits that we do, we like to have at least one hardware piece be involved in everything that we do. We like to either use synthesizers or effects out of the box, or something. We try to, for the most part, not ever rely just on the computer.
TC: Yeah, effects box-wise, we’re especially interested in reverbs and delays. I think you can sort of hear that, especially — there are subtle ways that some of them are used, but other ones less subtle. But tape delays, play reverbs, all kind of crazy old and new stuff. We like to plug it in in different effects chains and see what comes out. See how crazy we can make it.
What about one thing that you try to avoid including in every track?
AR: This also ties into the first answer — I think the idea with having a lot of these non-computer elements, it allows us to create a bunch of happy accidents that add to the recording. So what’s not there is an extremely precise, exactness about every element. Or something that’s made completely, entirely in a sequenced computer fashion. It’s weird to define it by something that’s not there, but I think that’s really the key. There’s a certain amount of chaos we desire, so we tend to go for those kind of things that produce that chaos and avoid working in ways that reduce the chaos.
I know you guys have been doing a live set. Can you tell me a little bit about what your live set’s about and where you want to take it?
PL: It’s not something that was started as an afterthought. It was always something that was on the table, and within the firth six months there was an idea to do a live show for this festival in Pittsburgh called VIA, who have been a lot of interesting stuff in Pittsburgh. They asked us to play the closing party, so the live set’s really kind of been evolving since then. It’s definitely something that we owe a lot, again, to Shawn Rudiman, because his live PA is probably one of the best, as far as techno music is concerned. There’s only a few people who even do an all-hardware live PA, other than him. So we took a lot of cues from that. We have a live percussionist who plays with us. It’s basically a stripped-down version of what we do in the studio — just very few pieces of hardware and the live percussion. It’s definitely evolving. Where we want to take it is, we are looking to do more on the improvisational tip at some point. Right now we do a lot of versions of the studio tracks, but I think the ultimate goal is just take it more places. That’s really what we’re trying to do is get more exposure for it. We in the process of booking a New York show, so hopefully that will be the beginning of what we do next, and try to get it more out in the U.S.
TC: Really, we are interested in United States dance music, dance music from America. Be it electro, techno, disco, all that stuff is made the best here; we like to do those things and we want to take our live show and what we do to those cities. We’re down to hit the road and play other places, too, but we love America. We want to play Chicago, Detroit, New York, all over the place. Hit the road. It’s part of it, too, you know, being in America, going to these places, and we want to try and take it back.