Your new record, Swim, is much more of a dance record than your previous albums—what inspired the change?
Over the last couple years, I've been more interested in dance music, going out to see DJs. I mean, even on Andorra, this was starting to be the case. I've been DJing more myself. Also, Theo Parrish was DJing every month in London, flying over from Detroit, and going to see him was a big part of what influenced the record, too.
Where was that?
That was at a little club there called Plastic People.
I read recently somewhere that club was in some trouble of losing its license.
Yeah. I don't understand why, because it's the most unobtrusive club, but somehow they got a bee in the police's bonnet. Hopefully, they won't get shut down.
How long have you been living in London? And how, if at all, has it affected your music-making?
I've been living there 10 years. But I think it's only affected this album, really. The climate for dance music is really exciting in London at the moment, and there were all these particular things I probably wouldn't have done if I hadn't been in London. In the past, I'd always thought my music was location-less, in the sense that it could've been made anywhere. In a sense, this is the first London record that I've made.
I see that some of the album was recorded in the UK and some in Canada?
It was all recorded in England except for the guest vocals from Luke [LaLonde] from Born Ruffians and some horn parts were recorded in Canada, and it was mixed in both Wales and Canada. It was almost all made in my home in London.
What's your recording setup like? Has it changed over the years?
It's remarkably similar to how it's always been. I've got a computer and then a pile of instruments and a pile of records. Some specific things have changed over time, but in general, the room that I'm working in looks very much the same as it did 10 years ago—the same sort of pile of crap.
If the setup is the same, has your recording process changed?
This is the most varied album in that respect. Andorra was the first album where I composed things in advance of recording them. For this album, I did that, but I also made music that just sort of started as a loop or started as an instrument. Maybe it shows in the results, but it's been the most varied process in terms of making the tracks.
What's that very first sound you hear on "Odessa," the kind of trembling, squealing sound?
That's actually a tiny, little sample from a Bollywood soundtrack.
It reminds me of ESG's "UFO."
Yeah, it's got that creaky [might've said "freaky" –ed] quality to it.
What sort of stuff were you listening to while making this record?
Lots and lots and lots of different dance music. I was just buying a pile of records every week—whether it be dubsteppy people like James Blake, Ikonika, Burial and all that bunch of young London-y dance music producers, or James Holden or classic Detroit guys like Theo Parrish, Moodyman, and Carl Craig, or [Ricardo] Villalobos's weirder stuff. I guess just any kind of eccentric dance music was what I was interested in listening to.
But at the same time, hopefully, I consciously avoided direct input from the music I was listening to into the album. I was more trying to take conceptual ideas from the music rather than saying, ooh, I like that snare sound, or whatever.
To me, Swim sounds like a darker record than your previous albums—do you think that's a fair assessment?
Yeah I do, for various reasons. Right from the start, I liked the idea of making kind of sad dance music, which is by no means a new idea. Lots of music throughout dance-music history has been a combination of euphoria and sadness. And then that also matched some of the lyrical things going on in the album, just different themes that came up in my life or in a lot of the people around me that are reflected in the music—divorce, not mine but somebody's close to me, and my grandparents passed away while I was making this record. I was reflecting on longer-term things going on in my life rather than only being thinking about music. Other parts of my life filtered into the new record.
In its mood, and also in some of its treatment of vocals and instrumentation, it kind of recalls Arthur Russell at times. Is he an influence?
Yeah, I mean, in terms of hearing the Dinosaur L stuff for the first time a bunch of years ago, and then when all his music started being reissued again five or six years ago. But again, the intention was not to make music that specifically referenced this or that. The most interesting thing to me about him is that he's this unique character at the crossroads of various different things going on in dance music and New York City at that time—the disco stuff, and the avant classical stuff, which I think people know less of perhaps, and then the folk music. All of these different streams that he connected make him this really interesting character with an interesting place in music. I'd love to inhabit that same kind of space, connecting a bunch of different things.
What's your musical background?
I started playing piano when I was young, did classical training, became obsessed with jazz music and improvisation, played in crappy indie-rock bands and made crappy electronic music in high school. I mean, I grew up in a pretty small town, so whatever was available to be done, I was interested in and excited by just having some way to participate in music.
People often talk about the cognitive links between music-making and math. You're a mathematician and a musician, do you notice anything in how you approach one discipline that influences or carries over into how you approach the other?
I don't think it's a case of one influencing the other; there are commonalities I like about both. Mathematics becomes much more imaginative and creative and intuitive at a certain point, in research or in education, which unfortunately is after high school, after most people's experience with mathematics ends. And those are the things I also like about music—they're both emotional things in the sense that you get some gut instinctual feeling about whether something's working or not and you respond to that. Rather than, I think people's perception of mathematics would be exactly the opposite.
Yeah, I imagine most people might think it means you'd approach music-making really analytically.
No, not at all. I find it strange that people might hear the music and—I mean, obviously there are parts of that side to my personality as well. But, you know, if I was making music that sounded like Autechre or something, I could understand that more. But music to me, it's clear that the whole point of it is that it be emotive and to connect emotionally—to me while I'm making it and to other people. It's about that, and it's not a rational process, it's a process that's intuitive.
What's your live setup like for this tour?
It looks similar to the last time we toured. There are four of us onstage, there are two drum kits and keyboards and guitars, etc. Having made this album, and with electronic music always, the challenge is how are we going to play this live? How do we do it in an intuitive, spontaneous way while maintaining all the electronic instruments? But we've all been pleasantly surprised with how technology has moved on in the last two, three, four years, to an extent that now it really is possible to have all those electronic elements in a spontaneous, improvisatory way. It captures all the sonic electronic ideas but allows us to play them in a way that's spontaneous and captures the best aspects of being a live band.
Everything onstage is performing a number of different functions, whether it's a pedal that triggers some sound but also changes something in the video, or a drum triggering a digital sound as well as the acoustic sound, or hitting a key on a keyboard changing an effect on someone else's instrument. My impression in the past was that all the electronics limited what you could do as a band, but I'm finding now that it augments what we can do.
You're playing two very different shows when you come through here—one regular club gig in Seattle and one at Sasquatch!, where you'll be playing outdoors at noon on the main stage. Do you think you'll play two very different sets?
I guess we vary what we play and the way we play the songs every night. And, as you're implying, the tone of those two shows will be very different, one being at noon in the middle of the day, outside, hopefully in the sunshine. It will affect what we want to play and how we play.
Swim seems like a much more nocturnal album than your past work, do you think that contrast better sets you up to play these different kinds of shows?
It feels like there are lots of different places and venues we can play. We played in maybe the world's premier techno club, Berghain in Berlin, and it was amazing, and it properly felt like we were playing club music. And then we can play a dive bar or a big, summery festival and get a different kind of excitement. It seems to work everywhere.