MICHAELBRAILEY spoke to Kid Smpl, an electronic-music producer from San Francisco via Seattle, currently releasing forward-thinking music on the Kastle-helmed Symbols record label.
His musical landscape, ever-evolving, plays host to cindering, harmonic backdrops, foregrounding cold, serrated vocal fragments pressed firmly against intricate meshes of digital noise.
Michael Brailey spoke to Kid Smpl via Skype to discuss his relationship to dance music, the freedom of ambient music, the results of living in a digitally-mediated world, and more. Catch Kid Smpl's audiovisual version of 'Promise Emulation', a VIRTUALLYREALITY commission, at VIRTUALLYREALITY002 @ Texture, on the 26th April 2017.
[MB] I wanted to start out by asking about the show you played recently, a collaborative event between event-night Cameo and the label Symbols. How did that go?
[KS] It was cool. It’s a new party that’s just set up, and is definitely one of the more interesting, up-and-coming parties in LA for experimental club music. What’s really great is that not only are the DJs curated, but so are the visual artists, and there’s a big emphasis on them, too. They had multiple screens around the room with multiple artists working on different screens, which was great to see.
[MB] And who was also playing that night?
[KS] Kastle was playing… it was a Symbols and Cameo crossover. Basically, before Barrett [Kastle] met Matt [Matthew] who curates Cameo, Barrett had wanted to hold some sort of event at the same venue, called General Lee’s, and then it just happened serendipitously that this new night was starting which has a similar vibe to what Symbols does. As well as Kastle, and myself, we had Swan Meat who played a back-to-back set with DJ Heroin, Matt and Swisha who are the resident DJs for Cameo, another DJ called Maral whose set was really tight - I hadn’t heard her music before - and then the night ended with a surprise set from DJ J Heat…
[KS] Yeah it was cool, it was a big line up.
[MB] What sort of music and artists were you playing out? Do you have any go-to tracks or artists that you are really interested in at the moment?
[KS] Playing more clubby sets is really varied for me, because they always stay current, if you get what I mean - they’re changing constantly. I think I played a lot of stuff by WWWINGS, some of my music which sort-of functions in a club… I played some baltimore club, too, grime, even… it was kinda all over.
[MB] I only ask because a lot of your recent mixes for Symbols, KEXP and Beatgatherers on Radar Radio have been more ambient-leaning and would definitely not function in a club setting, so I was wondering how you transition into that environment as an artist, considering your recent mixes. I guess this leads me on to ask what your relationship to dance music is, and if you identify as a dance music producer?
[KS] Yeah… I don’t, but I’m obviously a fan of dance and club music, and it’s a constant influence on my music for sure. Whenever I make music, I’m never thinking of club functionality or anything like that. I guess there have been a few tracks in the past which could work in a club way, but in a very ‘situational’ club way. But in general, I definitely don’t set out to make club bangers or anything like that! I think my approach is definitely more in line with that of ambient producers, but it’s tricky to put it in that category, too.
[MB] What do you mean by that?
[KS] I guess what I mean is that I’m generally thinking of making headphone music, or home-listening music, and also my live sets tend to go more ambient. It’s not something that's really calculated, it’s just where I go naturally. DJ sets lean very differently, though, as I’ve just stated.
[MB] I guess that the label you are releasing music on, Symbols, has a very similar eclectic output, releasing club-ready music, more ambient cuts, and more grey-area music from the likes of yourself, and in the past, people like Kadahn and the aforementioned WWWINGS. I know you’ve moved fairly recently from Seattle to San Francisco, and I know Kastle is based nearby in LA. I don’t know if your working relationship sparked the move, or did you just need to get away?
[KS] Yeah, the move to San Fransisco was more because of a need for a change of scenery, change of pace, and some good friends live here, so it just made sense. I was working with Symbols long before the move as you know, but it is definitely nice to be closer. Kastle and I have been able to get in the studio together and work on music…
[MB] How was that?
[KS] It was great! I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say at this point…
[MB] That’s fair enough; it’s definitely a good working relationship to have, though. Why did you choose Symbols as a label to move to in the first place? I imagine it was quite a natural progression?
[KS] Yeah, it was natural. Kastle hit me up a while back, and we just talked for a while. We seemed to relate on a lot of things and we had similar tastes, so it just evolved that way.
[MB] But before that, going back to (well, not quite) the beginning, Hush Hush Records was where you were previously releasing music, a label based in Seattle, your home town. I think I’m right in thinking that Alex Ruder set up Hush Hush to champion your music, which must have been humbling.
[KS] Yeah, it was cool. Alex does a radio show on KEXP, which is a really well-regarded radio station in Seattle that has quite an interesting history, and he was playing music in line with what I was making. I just sent him a bunch of tracks, and he was like “yeah, this is cool” and would play it on his show, and then he started asking “when is this gonna come out?”, and I just kept not having an answer for that. I was sending demos to some labels and not hearing back, and eventually, he just said that he really wants to put them out, and so, it started from there.
[MB] How much did living in Seattle affect the music that you were writing, especially the music made whilst you were releasing on Hush Hush?
[KS] I think it’s kinda impossible to avoid your surroundings influencing your music. I was never consciously like ‘I want to make music that sounds like what Seattle feels like’, but I think it definitely influenced me.
[MB] Ages ago, I saw that KEXP live session you did, and the host DJ Sharlese said that she could hear the rain in your music…
[KS] …For sure, I can definitely agree with that, especially in the early Hush Hush stuff, as it’s really grey and dreary sounding, which is in line with Seattle. I also don’t think that’s left my music either, I think it’s always been there.
[MB] Also, in between your time in Seattle, and your time in San Francisco, you were accepted into the Red Bull Music Academy in 2013. Where was that taking place?
[KS] It was in New York that year.
[MB] What did you get up to?
[KS] Well, RBMA was definitely one of the cooler musical experiences I’ve ever had. So every day, there are lectures from artists or people just generally in the music industry, and then every night there are events. And also, in the day, Red Bull basically build studios for you to go into with other attendees, so it’s two weeks of non-stop creating and collaborating, and seeing amazing events and lectures. It’s one of those ideal experiences for musicians.
[MB] Who was lecturing?
[KS] Philip Glass lectured; that was crazy! Richie Hawtin… Blondie! Because it was in New York, I think they had a solid pool of talent to choose from to ask to lecture. FaltyDL did a lecture… Egyptian Lover… it was a while ago now, so it’s hard to remember everyone.
[MB] Did any of those stand out to you? Did any of the lecturers say something that has stuck with you since?
[KS] The Philip Glass one was really interesting. I remember him having some cool answers to questions. I think someone told him that one of his pieces was very emotionally resonant with them, and then asked him ‘what inspired him to make something so emotionally heavy?’, and his response was basically ‘that track isn’t so emotionally heavy for him, but that doesn’t make their interpretation wrong. It’s important to interpret music how you feel, and let it tell you something about yourself’, if that makes sense? I thought that was a nice thought. But there were lots of less philosophical things, more practical things, that I learnt about, too. I remember people talking about touring and navigating the industry in various ways, things that I wasn’t very clued up on at the time. I remember Seth Troxler’s lecture… I’m not too deep into the techno world, other than that I know he’s a pretty well-regarded techno DJ, but hearing him talk about his come-up, and how he maintains his whole career was really interesting; the lectures were good for those sorts of reasons, as well.
[MB] Who did you meet there? Who were the other participants?
[KS] There were a lot of people in my class that have done well for themselves. Evian Christ was in my class, Sinjin Hawke, Orlando Volcano, who’s gone on to do things for Mixpak; Benjamin Damage, who’s a pretty well-regarded techno producer; T. Williams… loads.
[MB] Wow, such great company! When considering your artistic progression from Hush Hush to Symbols via your experiences at RBMA in 2013, I get the impression that your journey as an artist is basically like a low-pass filter gradually being turned up. The ’Skylight’ album and the ‘Armour’ EP released on Hush Hush were really subdued and muffled, and as the years have gone on, from the ’Silo Tear’ EP on Hush Hush towards your second EP for Symbols, ‘Response/Ascend’, more high-end frequencies have crept in, your music growing in terms of aggression and abrasiveness. I wondered why abrasiveness and aggression began to appeal to you?
[KS] That started to come about after playing more shows. When I wrote the album ‘Skylight’, I wasn’t thinking about how to perform the tracks live, I was just concerned with making them. After playing out more, and seeing artists perform live who have quite physical live shows made me start to question my ethos. I saw Emptyset perform in Seattle, and whilst attending the Red Bull Music Academy, I performed alongside Bill Kouligas who runs PAN, and Oneohtrix Point Never, artists that both make really physical music. I’m so glad that Red Bull put me on that line-up, because it really helped me understand how my music relates to that type of music, and that started turning the wheels for my progression as an artist.
[MB] A lot of music, nowadays, seems to be going down this abrasive route. Why do you think that is?
[KS] It’s interesting you say that, because a lot of the new stuff I’ve been working on doesn’t really fit in that category, but yeah, it’s definitely really prominent now, especially in club music.
[MB] Why do you think that there has been this insurgence of upper frequencies in recent music, not necessarily your own?
[KS] I think it’s a little bit of a reflection on certain ‘things’. I know a lot of people are pissed off at the moment about a lot of things, and for good reason [laughs]. There’s a lot of room for it in that sense. I’ve also noticed that there has been a lot of music that is more meditative or contemplative. The PAN compilation that came out not too long ago is basically an ambient compilation, and I don’t think of that as noisy, but definitely reflective of the times.
"I think that’s what’s most exciting to me about ambient music - it doesn’t feel bound by structure, or bound by DJ-functionality. It helps to open up a lot of different musical
- Kid Smpl
[MB] Do you think you could extend abrasiveness into structural terminology? A lot of electronic music nowadays seems to be obliterating traditional electronic and dance music structures. I guess ambient music is the perfect outlet to do that, as you’re not constrained to any BPM, or beat, or form.
[KS] Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I think that’s what’s most exciting to me about ambient music - it doesn’t feel bound by structure, or bound by DJ-functionality. It helps to open up a lot of different musical possibilities.
[MB] In that case, could one argue that the traditional DJ set-up of two turn-tables could be rendered obsolete for some branches of electronic music? That’s a set-up that still conforms very much to the playing of one track, the seamless transition between the two, and then the other track…
[KS] I don’t know about obsolete, but a lot of new avenues have opened for people to explore, for sure. There’s nothing wrong with a techno DJ playing a set and using that equipment to its full capabilities, but there’s also been new developments in terms of technology for people who maybe want to break those rules, rules which they might think have stuck around a little too long. The classic reference for that is someone like Total Freedom, whose style has deeply influenced and changed modern DJing.
[MB] Talking about structure in this way is a nice segue into talking about DISPLAY, the new music series you’re curating. When asking producers or electronic music-makers to create a work for the series, your only constraint is that the final track must be between ten and fifteen minutes in length. When I was writing my track for DISPLAY, ‘Intimacy Negator (Feel Me)’, I was really glad to be forced to use my compositional head in order to reconsider the way I thought about structure in this sort of music.
[KS] It’s a good exercise. The initial idea for this series came about through a love of music that aspires to unfold over this timespan, and the journey that this runtime allows music to go on. A good example of this is Burial’s ‘Rival Dealer’, which is eleven-or-so minutes long; a lot of Burial’s recent music has been long, dynamic tracks that change over time. Another good example is the Rabit and Dedekind Cut collaboration. To be honest, I was just wishing that there were more compositions like this, and that it would be tight to ask artists that I knew to write music with that stipulation, just to see what they would come up with. As you say, it makes you re-think how you are going to structure a track. If you are coming from a discipline that doesn’t normally do longform music, and I don’t think a lot of people are, it’s a good thing to do.
[MB] ‘Promise Emulation’ was the track you wrote for DISPLAY, and even though it came out before your recent LP ‘Privacy’…
[KS] I made it after, if this is where you’re going…
[MB] Yeah! It feels like a departure from that album before you even reached it.
[KS] It’s funny when tracks get released out of order like that. I think that track is - definitely in my mind - more in line with what has come after 'Privacy'. I’m curious… what about it seems different aestethically to 'Privacy'?
[MB] For me, obviously, the presentation of an album and of this single track is very different, the album being much more cut-up into individual tracks, and this track being much less clear-cut. The way I’ve been describing the track to people I know is that it’s like different futuristic environments which gradually transition between each other; it seems a lot more seamless. You said you were writing a lot of new music at the moment - is seamlessness something that’s on your mind?
[KS] 'Seamlessness' is a good word for it, actually. The new stuff definitely feels like it’s shifting through environments that are musically anchored together. To me, Promise Emulation is quite musically minimal, and I think the new stuff follows suit.
[MB] How do you mean?
[KS] It’s a lot more environmental; it takes its time to unfold.
[MB] Does that mean you’re writing more longform tracks?
[KS] Yes and no. For my solo music, it hasn’t been longform, but if it were presented in the form of an album, it would be seamlessly presented and flowing from one track to the next. There’s some unreleased collaborative music which is quite ambient, and those tracks are around nine to fourteen minutes long, so it’s a mix of stuff at the moment.
[MB] To talk more about 'Privacy', which is an absolutely gorgeous album, by the way…
[KS] Oh, thanks!
[MB] …I wondered if you could sum up that album in a few words?
[KS] When I was talking to Kastle about it, I described it as being a meditation on the general digital anxieties of everyday life. You were talking about 'Promise Emulation' being very seamless, but I think 'Privacy' is very jumpy. It meditates on the overwhelming nature of digital life, and the simultaneous interconnectedness and isolating power of it. I was trying to find something sonic that evokes the emotion of being interconnected but also very distant.
[MB] I don’t know if you could pinpoint moments in the album where you think that is enacted?
[KS] I think the album shifts between feeling quite real to feeling virtual or euphoric. For example, ‘Limiter’ is a very drum-heavy track to start with, which then switches to an arpeggiating part which is quite uplifting and euphoric. I think that’s an example of the physical, textural reality to something more synthetic, more manufactured. It’s difficult for me to put it into words, but there’s definitely a lot of textural shifting like that in the album.
"These futuristic ideas are a two-sided sword; everything is hyper-connected and very intertwined, in a way where people can understand the world in a greater way, but at the same time, it’s very isolating, cold and distancing. Like I said, that whole idea is definitely something that is super relevant in the life-experience of today."
- Kid Smpl
[MB] I think that resonates with some other things I know about you, to do with your studio set-up. In conversation with fellow RBMA alumnus Kloke, you say that you produce almost exclusively on your laptop; to me, that feels like you’re embodying these views of hyper-connectivity and isolation in your own practice. You’re simultaneously connected to so much information, relevant and not, and sound material to glean from all over the web… Whilst we’re on this topic, do you ever source your sounds in the real world, or do you limit yourself to synthetic sounds and sounds sourced on the internet?
[KS] On ‘Privacy’, there’s nothing that I recorded myself from the real world. There’s a ton of stuff that I grabbed off of YouTube and whatnot, so those are technically coming through the real world but through digital filtering.
[MB] Was that a conscious decision?
[KS] Not really. I think it was something that happened very naturally. I was like ‘I have my laptop and I can make music on it. I also have access to the internet, in which there are a load of sounds I can grab’, right? But I think by doing that, it made me think about what that says about how I make music, and then it becomes a bit more conscious. I think it’s a very relevant topic for certain musicians nowadays. I’ve heard Holly Herndon talk about how the laptop is the most personal instrument, and that was a really important thing for me to hear.
[MB] In that case, would you identify ‘Privacy’ as being politically driven? Political not in terms of politics, but in terms of commenting on the wider world. Are you trying to say something about the way the digital world affects our interaction with the real world, or are you just taking the feel from that?
[KS] I think it’s impossible to avoid politics in music, because you’re always communicating ideas with your music, and behind them, there’s always some political driving force. That said, I don’t think of ‘Privacy’ being overtly political, but there are politics behind the issues it touches on. It’s very easy to distill political ideas from it, but I didn’t set out to infuse the music with them.
[MB] Another thing we’ve touched on a lot are issues of environment in your music. The prominence of this in your music is one of the reasons I asked you to create something for VIRTUALLYREALITY002, the event itself loosely themed around ‘location and de-location’. You've made a hauntingly beautiful audiovisual version of 'Promise Emulation' for the event; the visual work you’ve done for both ‘Privacy’ and ‘Promise Emulation’ was created in the video-game engine Unity. Could you tell us what you’ve done?
[KS] So essentially, what I’ve done is created a physical space, and within that space, certain elements are reactive to the music. That reaction comes about via linking Ableton Live to Unity through script, and then I recorded screen footage of the ‘game’ running, which I turn into video.
[MB] Do the tracks inform the elements you build in those environments?
[KS] For the ‘Privacy’ videos, I felt that ‘sci-fi’ was very in-line with the album. I was also drawn to religious imagery and the feelings that evokes, even though the music isn’t religious at all. With the video for ‘Riven’, it’s very symmetrical and structured in this shrine-type way, playing off of those themes. Technical limitations also limited what I could do, as running Ableton and Unity at the same time is quite taxing on my computer, so the environments had to be minimal.
[MB] I remember seeing teaser videos for the album; one of the teasers included the album’s opening track ‘With Wire’, and you have text overlaying the video. Do you include text in your live show visuals?
[KS] Yeah, I use text in my live visuals. For me, it adds to the cinematic feel of music, like title screens in a movie.
[MB] There’s a composer based in the UK called Jennifer Walshe who uses text in her visuals; her text is often concerned with online life, sometimes found text from various corners of the web. She describes her use of text as another form of information overload for the viewer…
[KS] Oh, cool.
[MB] ...because you're processing the sounds, processing the visuals, processing being in the space, watching the instrumentalists…
[KS] That’s definitely really interesting, but the way I’ve been using text is a lot more minimal. I don’t think it causes that, but it helps express the feelings that the piece wants to evoke.
[MB] What sort of text have you used?
[KS] Essentially, for post-'Privacy' stuff, I’ve been focusing on the concept of Hope, and trying to ‘find hope’, so I’ve been using phrases that relate back to that. Literally, one of the phrases I’ve used is “To Find Hope”, which goes through different typographical designs.
[MB] The work you’ve done in Unity on your own visuals links to the work you've done on the video-game 'Asemblance'. What was that like?
[KS] It was cool! 'Asemblance' is an indie game, first-person, very story driven. It’s based around solving puzzles to understand the story better; it’s really psychological, as well. I’d never done anything like that before, and it’s definitely something I want to do more of. It just came about because the developer was a fan and hit me up, and sent me clips of the game which needed music. Also, I sent over various edits of other tracks that I made for the game, specifically, and I also worked with another composer, Johnny Goss [from Seattle-based band Cock & Swan], who’s done a lot of scoring work in the past.
[MB] How was it different to crafting a release?
[KS] It was very different for me, as another person had created this piece and I had to help them further whatever they were trying to evoke.
[MB] I feel your music often evokes the kind-of artificial environments that appear in video-games, as well as the coldness of dystopian sci-fi. Similar to what you mentioned Philip Glass saying at RBMA, when you’re writing your music, are you seeking to conjure those feelings of dystopia, or artificiality, or do those feelings just happen to evoke themselves amongst listeners in your opinion?
[KS] It’s a difficult question to navigate. It definitely inspires my music, and I’m definitely attracted to sci-fi. Similar to when we were talking about ‘noisy’ or ‘aggressive’ music, I think a lot of people are making music inspired by that, and it just feels relevant to 'now'. But saying that feels weird because I feel like it’s been relevant for a long time.
[MB] In a weird way, dystopian themes are really ‘in’ at the moment. Dystopia and sci-fi, nowadays, are almost inseparable. With what you were saying about the all-consuming nature of digital life, do you believe that as a species, we think we’re all doomed to a cold, technologically-guided existence?
[KS] [laughs], well I hope not! It’s a big question. Dystopia is something that people identify with a lot now because of the way the world is going. Like I said, people are pissed off! These futuristic ideas are a two-sided sword; everything is hyper-connected and very intertwined, in a way where people can understand the world in a greater way, but at the same time, it’s very isolating, cold and distancing. Like I said, that whole idea is definitely something that is super relevant in the life-experience of today.
Catch Kid Smpl's 'Promise Emulation [A/V Version]'
at VIRTUALLYREALITY002 @ Texture on the 26th April 2017.