LWE Podcast 178: Bookworms

PODCAST-178-1
Photo by Evan Weiner

Rare is the record that goes for upwards of $100 second-hand only a year after its release. Bookworms’ white label debut for L.I.E.S. is one such record, following a similar story from Terekke; and its tracks “Love Triangles” and “African Rhythms” blew up dance floors with their loose-legged grooves and mélanges of both recognizable and totally obscured samples. Nik Dawson has since ramped up his production game, both on his own and with his roommate Steve Summers, unleashing a slew of new material in 2013 that takes his sound further into hypnotic terrain. Dawson has also earned quite the reputation as a live performer — evidence of which can be found right here in our exclusive 178th podcast, a live set recorded in Chicago. We caught up with Bookworms recently to discuss everything from Playstation to his recording process to badass DJ names.

Download LWE Podcast 178: Bookworms (55:05)

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So where are you from?

Nik Dawson: Where did I grow up or where was I born?

Where did you grow up.

I grew up in a town called Lake LA, about an hour and a half south of Los Angeles. Just like, the high desert, weird desert. Not quite a suburb.

Is that when you started getting into house music, or was that later?

No, it was probably later. I moved a little bit closer to LA. A proper suburb, I guess. It was called Santa Clarita, and that’s when I started getting into electronic music. Maybe not house just yet, but started trying to make, like, drum and bass and breakbeat kind of stuff and weird ambient, downtempo stuff.

What were you listening to at the time, and how about how old were you?

Like 17. I guess I got into drum and bass when I still lived in Lake LA because all the skaters in high school listened to drum and bass and Aphex Twin, and that stuff was cool for some reason with the skaters. So when I got into high school in the ninth grade I just kind of started becoming aware of that stuff. Later, when I moved away from all my friends, I was just really bored and babysitting my little brother all the time in the house and just started sequencing, because my friend had this Playstation software called Music Generator that you could sequence with. Starting to mess around with stuff on the computer, too. I was probably listening to… Aphex Twin, Goldie, DJ Shadow, just like underground LA hip-hop stuff. New York hip-hop like Nas or something — stuff like that.

And you were starting to make music on Playstation?

Yeah, on Playstation, and also I used Fruity Loops at first, I think. Just downloading free software and this sample editor called GoldWave.

So how’d you get from there to getting into house music?

The day I turned 21, I moved to San Francisco — or I moved to Oakland and was staying with my dad for a while because he lived in Oakland. And then moved into San Francisco and then just through meeting people and going to parties out there and talking to people. I moved there wanting to do more electronic music, but I hadn’t really played out. I’d played out once since in Southern California at this crappy rave.

I was more just making stuff in my room and then moved to SF, started playing out, and finding out about all kinds of different genres and stuff. I had an Electribe before I moved up there, but learned how to use it more like a sampler and how to make a live set and relying on the computer less around that time. I never had a laptop so I couldn’t do a live set with a computer. I was just into everything, like ambient stuff and weird, you know — Black Dice and shit like that. Jazz and Eno and all kinds of stuff.

About when did you make the tracks that you eventually put out first, “Love Triangles” and “African Rhythms”?

I made that stuff in SF around 2008, just on my MPC.

And that was kind of a natural progression from what you were talking about? Just kind of going out and listening to music and getting to know your gear better?

Yeah, totally. You know, starting to listen to more house stuff and wanting to try that. I was getting more comfortable on the MPC; I’d had it for a few years, but I got it in probably, like, 2006.

What were you thinking about when you were looking at records to sample? Were you starting from the record and saying, “Oh, I want to sample this,” or were you kind of like working on music and then grabbing things to sample that you had sitting around?

I used to do hip-hop production stuff. Like, make beats for rappers when I was in high school, and that’s at the same time when I was trying to make drum and bass or ambient breakbeat, or I don’t know what the hell it was. Some of it was just fucking noise because I didn’t know what I was doing. I could just build stuff up from samples — how to layer them and stuff and put weird effects on them. By that point I was getting into using some things as tones. I didn’t have a synth, but I feel like I was almost kind of emulating synths by that point, by sampling little bits of things and playing them at different pitches, or maybe putting an LFO on it or something, or just layering different breaks and stuff. It’s just a way to construct a song, I guess.

What prompted the move to New York?

I had been in San Francisco for a long time at that point, and I had wanted to live in New York since I was really young, even before I started making music. From watching skate videos and just being into hip-hop or different kinds of music, New York is a Mecca for a lot of stuff. So I just figured, “Hey, do I want to stay in California for the rest of my life, or do I want to try to see what New York is about?” Because I visited once and stayed with my friend Brett [Winans] for a couple of weeks, and I liked it but didn’t really know what it was about. I had been in California my whole life.

And then how’d you meet up with Ron?

Well, I’d met Jason [Letkiewicz], aka Steve Summers, in San Francisco because he was living there around, like, 2007, 2008. I actually recorded an early version of what became “African Rhythms” at his house trying to use his mixer and with him kind of engineering it. But then I think there was some confusion, and I was not used to working with someone else, even though he had a sweet board and he’s talented and stuff. I just went home and recorded it with an MPC and a DJ mixer. And that was the version that came out. But we just knew each other through going to different shows out there and so then when I moved out here, he had been out here for a couple years and we just started hanging out again. And through him, I met Ron, or ended up hanging out with Ron.

Were you familiar with the label and knew what you wanted to send him, or did you just send him stuff as a friend to see what happens?

I think Jason had played him some tracks because I was like, “Oh, it would be cool to put some stuff out.” Then we hung out and he just asked me — I think maybe he saw my SoundCloud after he had met me. So then I just sent him a bunch of stuff and those were the tracks that he picked. There were some newer ones in there and he didn’t really know when I’d made what, and he just picked those two tracks and it seems like people were into it, so it was a good starting point.

Those early tracks were really sample-based, and it seems like lately mostly of your music has been a lot more hardware-based.

I bought a synth. [laughs] I bought a synth. I was really against it for a while because I felt like maybe it was my life’s work or something to try to get as much as I could out of samples. It was kind of a silly idea, but I was like, “Oh, you can do so much with samples,” and I was kind of emulating synths by sampling a short tone from a record and then pitching it differently, or putting some effects on it, or doing some kind of envelope thing, or modulating it with filters. And then I was like, “Oh, maybe I could do more modulation if I had a synth and fuck with the sounds more and have flow more and maybe have more life to them.” So I kind of took this side journey, and learned MIDI and got a couple of synths and was stoked that I could interface those with my MPC — adding to what I already had. But I definitely use both. I’ll still use samples, like, on the new record there’s some samples, but it’s more subtle.

Do you find that it’s changed how you make music?

I guess I’m just writing the stuff more than just working with existing material. So maybe I could start by sitting down at the synth and just play something and develop it from there, do more modulation. I guess it just changes where you can go. Like, you can layer things differently. I just got into MIDI and the stuff you can do with that. But I really like integrating the two: samples and synthesizers.

How do you start a track usually?

That’s the thing that’s different. It could start with a sample, or it could with start with just me sitting down and playing a sequence or a drum beat. Every track is different. Or I’ll have an idea that I want to do. — like, “Oh, I want to make a really drony track.” And just go for that.

How does this play into what you do live?

I guess I make a live set the same way I would make a track, only it’s supposed to be longer, and a lot of times I’ll layer multiple tracks together so that they’re all kind of one huge sequence that has three different zones that I can get into, but also it can bring in different things at different times. I use a lot of the same stuff that I would use to record a track. I’ll bring out the same mixer and the same synth a lot of the times, the same MPC. But it’s just stretched out more like a DJ set, mixing it and starting to mix in a new track and bringing in different parts, like hi-hats, and then bring in the synth and the take out other things that were going from the last track and then just keep moving.

Do you allow much room for yourself improvisation-wise?

Yeah, definitely. It can change pretty drastically. Just depending on the crowd and the situation. It’s different every time because you can decide what not to play or decide what kind of effect you want to put on what sound at what time, so that changes every set. And then sometimes I’ll just overdrive everything if the sound system’s really bad, because you can’t hear and it’ll make it sound more crunchy and distorted. Or sometimes you play on a nice sound system and you can hear everything pristinely. I played at Output and they have a Funktion One, so I could hear everything more clearly, whereas, if I played on a shitty PA and had to red-light everything just to be able to hear it. But I like that element of chance, and yeah, I try to leave it open so there’s different ways that I could go. A lot of it’s just improvising with effects and arrangement and layering.

Do you ever DJ out?

Yeah, I DJ. For sure. Yeah, we have a night at Bossa Nova Civic Club, me and Jason, called Confused House. We DJ there every month. But I’m more known for doing live sets, I guess, because that’s what people ask for. I haven’t really got my name out as a DJ that much. But I’m trying to work on that.

How does playing live change what you’re able to do? When you’re in the studio, you can have the luxury of time, and you have the luxury of having everything around you that you want. When you’re playing live, you don’t quite have that ability.

I try and simplify it and maybe just have one synth and sampler. Just one synth and my MPC. I use different synths sometimes, but even when I do tracks, there’s limitations. I only have so many tracks on my mixer, so I can really only have so many things going at a time. But you don’t really need to have 10 synths going at a time, really. You just see what works live. I’ve been playing live for a while, so I kind of know a middle ground between what might affect people or what people might move to or keep people interested, but also just doing whatever the fuck I want. All the stuff I record is recorded in real time, too, so it’s kind of like a live recording, just at home.

Do you ever play tracks that you’ve released? Or do you try to keep the live set kind of its own thing?

A lot of times I’ll make a set specifically thinking about where I’m going to play and trying to imagine what it’s going to be like. Or if it’s been a place that I’ve been to before, imagining the space — keeping the space in mind. I try to think of it like a site-specific installation. It doesn’t take me super long to work out a live set. I just make a bunch of parts and improvise off those. But if I’m working on something, sometimes I’ll bring out the sequence and play it out live and then kind of go back and re-tool it a little bit. But not as much now. I guess I used to do that more with the “African Rhythms” track, I definitely played that track out for a while before I recorded it. I kept taking stuff away because I felt like there was too much going on. So that was definitely helpful in that process.

You do a lot of collaborations with Jason. How do you approach that differently from how you might approach your own music?

I guess when I work by myself I’ll just spend more time fucking around and zoning out and maybe fucking with a synth tone for a couple hours or something… just kind of lose track of time. Or listening to a sample for a really long time and trying to see if the repetition works in this kind of way. But then when I work with Jason, we’re both just throwing shit out there so you spend less time fucking with a sound and deciding whether or not it’s good before the recording. I don’t have to do as much because Jason’s going to probably do 50 percent of the sounds in the track, so I know I can do less, in a way. I don’t have to focus on the whole track. It’s like being in a band. We don’t really talk about what we want to do or the structure. We just get some parts that we like going and then say, “Let’s record it.”

A lot of times I end up doing the drums. Like, he’ll definitely help out with the drums, but a lot of times I end up doing more of the drums. And I’ll do the arpeggios a lot or just more sequenced synth lines. And then he will do maybe more pad sounds or chords and stuff like that or just weird, filter-y noise sounds and stuff. But I feel like those two things layer together really well.

The music you make with him comes out on a label Confused House, which is also your nickname for your apartment that you share together. How important is the space to what you make?

It’s super important. We each have a studio in our room, and then we have the record setup in the living room, with little crappy speakers that I bought. And so we’ll just record some shit in my room and not really think about it that much and just record a few tracks and maybe come out here and listen to it later and see how it sounds. And think about what we want to put out, because we record a lot of stuff. We’ll just smoke and talk about that. Just, like, DJ out here, have fun fuckin’ around with records. And borrow each other’s gear sometimes.

It’s definitely a cool atmosphere, and I feel like that’s shaped the sound of the last record I did on L.I.E.S. I used a bunch of Jason’s equipment as much as my own. The Confused House stuff is just the sound of us hanging out at the apartment all the time and making tracks and listening to weird tracks and being inspired by some abstract shit or some weird movie and then just go record stuff.

You put out your first record last year. And so there was one record in 2012, and you’ve had so far about five or six records this year. To what do you owe this increase in productivity?

Part of it is just because Ron took a chance on putting my shit out. I’d always been working on a lot of music, but a lot of it wasn’t released. It’s not increased productivity as much as an increase in having avenue to put stuff out. But also, working with Jason, we do record a lot of stuff since we moved in here like a year ago. I’ve always just been making a ton of music since I was a teenager.

Tell me about running the Confused House label.

Well, I mean I’m more of an ideas, music guy and Jason is more of a details guy. So, it’s kind of more on him, in a way; but I’m definitely with him on pretty much every step. But it’s cool to get a bunch of records shipped to the house and try to carry them up the stairs and get them shipped out. I guess Jason will have the final say, though. It’s more his thing that I’m a big part of, I guess, to be honest.

You’re not the one calling the shots?

No, not so much. I’m more just the music dude at this point. Or just ideas about what shit should be called, or what should come out next. But it’s not just going to be us. The first three records have been me and him, but there’s going to be some other people introduced to the label pretty soon, so I think that will diversify it a little bit more and maybe make it seem like it’s not just Bookworms and Steve Summers records.

The initial concept was that me and Jason starting jamming a lot when we moved to New York, but then we also jam with different people, like with my friend Bret, who goes by CB Radio. He comes by a lot and will jam with me and Jason in that same kind of style. Or, like, Matt [Gardner], Terekke, lives pretty close, and he’ll come by and jam. So I think we have a record with both of them that’s going to come out soon.

Is this apartment the constant that ties the whole label together?

For now, yeah.

You don’t want to close up the label when you move?

No, I guess it would just move somewhere else. Jason had used that name for some things before and wanted to make it as a label. I think it was the name of his website. We did the Unknown Artist record on L.I.E.S. with me, Jason, and Aurora [Halal] and our friend Damon [Palermo], who does stuff as Magic Touch. Jason said that was one of the first ideas for the Confused House thing of friends improvising and just having fun and hanging out in a room and recording off the cuff and seeing what happens. That was like a Confused House thing, but I guess it’s just the name for Jason’s studio, and I’m just a part of that. We played live together once as Bookworms and Steve Summers. I guess we’re going to play some shows together in Europe in October as a duo. And we’ll do the same thing, just improvise like how we do in the room and not really talk about what’s going to happen — just have a beat going and sprinkle stuff on top of it.

So what else do you have coming up?

I just did the Japanese Zelkova 12″ on L.I.E.S. a couple months ago. I guess that’s pretty much gone now. I just did a record under this name DJ Bookworms.

What makes this record a DJ Bookworms instead of a normal Bookworms record?

There’s only drum on it, so it would be really good to mix. It’s kind of a DJ tool, although I don’t know if it’s super DJ-friendly because it’s really fast and distorted, but I think one of the tracks you can play at — you can slow it down from 45; it’s cut at 45, so you can play it at 33. One time Legowelt played one of my tracks in a mix, and he put me down as DJ Bookworms for some reason. So I was like, “Hm, that kind of has a ring to it,” and I kind of wanted to use that for something.

Where did the name Bookworms come from? Are you a big reader?

Not a big reader, but I usually have a book that I’m reading. You know, one or two. But maybe I used to really like naming tracks after the titles of books because I thought it was really epic or something, and I wanted to kind of evoke — I don’t know if I want to say “cinematic,” but some kind of imagery with my music. When I came up I was pretty young, but it was kind of like “bookworm” is the opposite of DJ Eliminator, so kind of like the opposite of the tough DJ name, like the badass DJ name. I felt like a lot of people had really cool names, cool hip-hop names or DJ Dopefresh, or something like that. Or DJ — I don’t know, even like DJ Shadow. That’s a cool, kind of dark, mysterious name. I feel like Bookworms is kind of like, [affects nerdy voice] “Hey, what’s up, guys?” So it was kind of like a joke on that, that has gone on for way to long, but I still feel like I’m that guy.

What else do you have coming up besides the two records that you just released?

I did a split with Greg Beato on this new label called Russian Torrent Versions, that should be out soon. Confused House 003 is coming out very soon on Confused House with me and Jason. And probably do some more shit on Confused House and some more shit on L.I.E.S., for now.

You don’t want to necessarily do stuff on other labels, at the moment?

I mean it’s cool, but it’s nice to know the people that you’re working with, to some degree. Even the thing I did with the people Anómia in Barcelona, I’ve known the girl Ivy [Barkakati] for a long time because she used to lived here — or she used to live in SF. So we talked about doing something for a long time. Since I did the record on L.I.E.S., the first record, people will write me and ask me for tracks, and I’ll be like, “Oh, I’ve got some tracks.” But then a lot of times they’ll be like, “Oh, can you change this?” and “Oh, I kind of like this one, but could you change this?” I’m just like, “This guy that I don’t really know, that I’ve never met, is asking me to send him tracks and then telling me to change them, when I don’t really even have the means to do that because I record all my shit to a live take.”

Working with Ron or Jason, I never have to change anything. There’s a rawness to it, and I look at it kind of like a picture without Photoshop. That’s how it really happened, so it’s not going to be completely perfect, or there are still things that could be different or whatever, but that’s what makes it what it is. So if that’s working, I don’t really need to go elsewhere. I don’t really want it to just be like, “Hey, man, give me some tracks.” People are into what they’re into, and I’m not going to change my process too much because it’s just freestyle at this point. But who knows in the future? I don’t know. I mean, just throw a bunch of money at me, and we’ll go from there. [laughs]

What can you tell us about the mix?

It’s a live set recording from my first time in Chicago. I played Smart Bar and it was so sweet and heavy. But the recording is from the night before — I played this loft party that Daniel Smith set up out there. It was packed with kids and hella sweaty inside, but still freezing outside. The smallish PA \speakers were melting when I played and you could smell it and see them glowing… and I think you can hear that in the recording. You can also hear Beau Wanzer’s DX 100 which he let me borrow. (Thanks, Beau!) I had never used one before but I just sent all my MIDI sequences through it and hoped for the best, flying by the seat of my pants. Beau and Huerco S DJed that night too. Good night for sure.

jordan  on September 30, 2013 at 1:14 AM

bookworms is the man!

Sebastian  on September 30, 2013 at 3:54 AM

nice interview and dope set of course.
looking forward to his Berlin show.

t  on October 1, 2013 at 1:59 PM

that party in chi was insane! big ups to the whole pineapples crew

A.H.  on October 2, 2013 at 1:55 PM

great recording & interview! I smiled so much reading it.

Glowsticks  on October 3, 2013 at 10:35 PM

brendon moeller  on November 19, 2013 at 3:37 PM

great podcast! love what this man is doing with sound and rhythm.

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Bookworms – LWE Podcast 178 | The Hipodrome Of Music  on January 14, 2016 at 8:25 AM

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