Building From The Ground Up: Lorn Interviewed
, August 31st, 2010 05:41
Angus Finlayson talks to the man born Marcos Ortega about his relationship with Flying Lotus and being a natural performer
The first thing that struck me when listening to Lorn's debut album was the melodies. They're everywhere, swelling up through crisp hip hop breaks and snarling basslines like milk diffusing in tea; enlightening, enriching, deepening. They're direct, memorable and surprisingly powerful, lending the producer's music an emotional piquancy which few in the sphere of electronic music can claim to achieve. First garnering interest through the global scratch beat scene of the early 2000s, the man born Marcos Ortega has come a long way from the teenager assembling 8 bar loops for enthusiastic turntablists to scratch over.
The producer's major breakthrough was being picked up by Flying Lotus' hugely influential Brainfeeder imprint last year; though the resultant album, Nothing Else, eschews the sinuous soul often associated with the label and its adherents for something cleaner, more direct and altogether more menacing. Ortega exists at the fringes of the Los Angeles-based crew, being the only member to have no association with the city (he's currently based in Milwaukee); a fact that seems to go deeper than mere logistics, as he presents himself as a habitual outsider, broadcasting musical signals out to a global scene which he seems hesitant to step fully into.
Nonetheless, the album has been extraordinarily well received since its release earlier this year. And quite right too. Nothing Else is a heady mixture of the unbearably brooding and the curiously uplifting; a refreshingly direct statement of intent in a landscape populated with oblique references, samples-upon-samples, smoke, mirrors and the all-pervading haze of vinyl crackle. Not to say that that stuff doesn't have its place, but Lorn blasts cobwebs out of corners, and his very presence suggests a questing, on the part of FlyLo and his compatriots, for parallel worlds beyond the post-Dilla microcosm which they were instrumental in creating.
In conversation, Ortega is earnest, considered, thoughtful - in many ways a predictably reserved exterior for somebody whose music is so emotionally forthright. Currently based in London for a performance at the Rhythm Factory this coming Saturday (4th Sept), the final date in a month-long European tour, here he speaks about his upbringing, the genesis of his sound, and his approach to performing live.
I thought we'd start from the beginning; could you talk about where you were brought up and how you got into music?
Marcos Ortega: I was born in a town called Normal, Illinois. I have an older brother, and my mum of course - we moved around a lot in central Illinois, where there isn't much going on. Very working class - or struggling class - families.
Were you exposed to music at that point?
MO: Yeah, my mum used to have a bunch of uh...[laughs] it's weird saying a bunch but...I remember there being DJ boyfriends in her life, because my father wasn't around. So there was a lot of funk and early hip hop and classic rock, and even late '80s pop music; I was born in '86.
At what point did you discover electronic music as something that you wanted to be involved with?
MO: I think I was maybe 9 or 10. I'd moved around a lot in the midwest and I eventually moved to Chicago with my mother and her new husband, and on the radio there was a station called WNUR, and late at night - I was in middle school around this time - they'd have drum&bass and old electro and some - for the time - modern techno and stuff. So I was really drawn to that, and I remember my mother brought me home this archaic computer, and I started rebuilding that from the ground up. I started messing around with freeware programs, started making beats with Microsoft Wave Recorder [laughs] and something called HammerHead. Shortly after that I was at a friend's house and I heard Aphex Twin's 'Come To Daddy'. As soon as I'd heard that, everything was for sure.
You were involved in the scratch beat scene in the early 2000s. Am I right in saying that was a scene primarily built around an internet community?
MO: Yeah for sure. That whole thing is very strange - the whole scratch turntablism thing - I guess eventually people got tired of going out and buying records and searching for instrumentals. I for one wasn't feeling any of it, so I had taken what I had learned at a younger age and I started making beats to scratch to. I'd give those out through the internet, through forums and instant messengers, to people all over the world - UK, France, Japan. There wasn't really much of it in the United states.
Do you think that being a part of a scene like that, which lacked a geographical hub, has had an influence on your approach to music since?
MO: Absolutely. I lived in Chicago again when I was like 18, and then I lived in New York for about 3 years, but I never really felt the need to become part of any kind of scene. It always seemed like the music found its way anyways, even in a small way. The internet was big, and back then dubstep didn't exist and glitch-hop didn't exist, and whatever new genres are happening now. It's kind of strange because [in the scratch beat scene] all of those elements were there - that 140 tempo was there, we called them double-time beats. And even things like wonky - that off kilter sound - I remember that being around. It's weird being re-introduced to these sounds years later and this whole community is based around them.
How did you get from making scratch beats to the kind of music you're making now; was it an organic process?
MO: Yeah I think so. Eventually you get tired of working with 8 bar and 16 bar loops. I was like 14 at the time, and skipping school a lot, and was never doing my homework; I just really wanted to make beats and explore this music. So I just kept these things going, and eventually the tracks got longer and they turned into songs, and I would redo them or break them up and add them in with other things, until eventually I had a tune - my first tune was called 'Wake Ups', it's like some straight IDM shit, but with hip-hop elements. And I sort of took it from there.
If we can step forward a bit, I wanted to ask how you first became involved with the Brainfeeder crew?
MO: After a while I'd started making more tunes and I got in touch with [LA producer] Nosaj Thing - Nosaj and I have had a dialogue for a while. I sent him an early version of a tune called 'Tomorrow' from my album, and he sent that to The Gaslamp Killer who used it in a Mary Anne Hobbs mix. I think around that same time I had sent the same tune to a radio station in Australia called RRR; so either through GLK's mix or the radio show, Flying Lotus heard it while he was on tour in Australia, and hit me up. We got to talking, I sent him some more music, and then I played a gig in LA at Low End Theory, where we met up and he invited me on board.
The record seems to stand apart somewhat from the accepted Brainfeeder 'sound'. What do you think it was about your music that appealed to Flying Lotus?
MO: I remember he specifically mentioned how dark it sounded. I think a lot of the other Brainfeeder stuff is more...I don't even know what it is! But my sound has this darkness to it; I'm definitely that guy in the group, you know what I mean? For the album [Flying Lotus] kept asking me to just 'go as dark as you can'. Maybe he was going through some rough times - I know his mother had just died and everything - but I had already built Nothing Else. It was already there, and I guess he was OK with it.
One of the most striking things about Nothing Else is the melodies - something you don't necessarily expect from an instrumental hip-hop record. Is that a conscious focus for you?
MO: Whenever I'm making something it either starts with the drums or a melody, or chords; and it eventually gets to the point where everything, together, either feels necessary or it doesn't. I find myself getting to this point when I'm making a track - it happens a lot - where I just start humming something or mumbling gibberish, and so I lay it down. But there's something about the two to me that's very important; the contrast between break drums and these melodies that sort of find their way through them. It just feels right.
I wanted to ask about when you perform. It's a live set rather than a DJ set, right?
MO: Yeah, when I play out I try to make it as live as I can. DJ sets are cool but the whole live thing...even though I'm using [live performance software] Ableton Live and all my tracks are broken up and I can do this and that with it, it's still not as live as I want it to be. I see these people travelling with a band and it's like 'fuck, you can redo everything!' When I play live I try to capture the bigger bits, I guess. And of course it's typically a club setting, so most of the time people don't even want to give a shit about the smaller things, they want to dance and have a good time. Which is also something strange to me because I'm not making pop music - I'm not making dubstep or house, uplifting kind of things...I don't know. I'm still kind of searching that realm.
So when you made the album, you didn't have the club in mind?
MO: Yeah, I never considered a club. When I was finishing the album up I was stuck in a basement room at my Grandfather's house and there was a blizzard out every day and it was freezing cold - it felt like that kind of thing, rather than 'damn I wonder how people are gonna take to this tune when I play it out on a Funktion 1 system' - you sort of lose track of that!
So are your live sets partly about refiguring the music so it works in a club setting?
MO: Yeah, refiguring it, and also...sometimes I just have to forget where I am and let myself go; I guess just sort of do my thing. I'm pretty frank with the crowd to be honest - when I fuck up I'll let 'em know. If there's a tune that isn't mine playing, I'll let 'em know. I'm not out to make some kind of live image, like some live perfection because, to be honest, there's none of that in the record, and there's none of that in me.
Do you think you're a natural performer?
MO: Natural performer? I don't know who is...I don't have to work for it, but I don't know man... I'm kind of a shithead. I make music and I go play it out for people. [laughs] If that makes any sense!
Finally, what have you got coming up? I gather there's another EP on the horizon?
MO: Well there's this this whole EP thing ['None An Island', taken from the album and due for release on Brainfeeder in September]. I also just did some music for a Darren Aronofsky film called The Black Swan. I'm a big fan of his. Also my roommate, Adoptahighway, and I have a project together called Omega Clash which is some really dense stuff, and we're just finishing up our second EP. What else... I don't know, I've just got to get back in the studio man! I feel ready to start my second album already.
Lorn plays at The Rhythm Factory this Saturday at Dark Matta alongside Al Tourettes, Patchwork Pirates, Kanji Kinetic and Wagawaga. 10pm-6am. Prices: £7 (Advance) / Before 12am - £10 On The Door. For more information click here.