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In Extremis

Over The Edge: An Interview With Dead Fader
Angus Finlayson , January 11th, 2012 09:05

Dead Fader construct savagely abrasive dance tracks from molten blocks of noise and distortion. Angus Finlayson speaks to the duo's John Cohen about making synthesizers bellow

There was a time, a few years back, when the injection of abrasive noise into dubstep’s sparse chassis became an interesting creative flashpoint. Vex’d fired the starting gun - 2005’s Degenerate ran at a tangent to the core DMZ/FWD>> axis, seeming to signal a dystopian industrial future for the sound. But even among its core innovators, distortion became just another sonic territory for dubstep to explore, rather than a byword for dilution and misappropriation. While the formula might have been done to death by now, Coki’s ‘Spongebob’ sounded like nothing else around when it first emerged back in 2007 (before he rode the same style into the ground, that is).

The potential buried in this mixture has since been largely forgotten - at least in the critical community. Obviously there’s your much-derided Skrillexes and Doctor Ps, operating well outside the comfortable bubble of credibility, tapping more into the rabid hormonal imbalance of adolescence than any more nuanced conception of distortion-as-aesthetic. Then there’s those who’ve found an audience in the critical (but not creative, might I add) ghetto of the underground rave circuit - Broken Note, Kanji Kinetic - who have their own agendas to pursue. But surely there’s still potential in club-centric bass music for the degradation of sounds to form a more integral part of the mix - not just a flatulent extension of the bassline, but a sonic strategy which can permeate the entire frequency spectrum, a musical signifier with a life of its own?

Dead Fader - John Cohen and Barry Prendergast - take this idea and run with it. Compositionally, their tracks are uncluttered: machinic drums, a bassline and the odd bit of digital embellishment. But distortion is slopped on everything like a thick paste, vitiating but also homogenising, until the music coheres into a single, unbearably penetrating texture. This isn’t quite lo-fi though: a track like ‘Mud-’, from their 2010 album Corrupt My Examiner, expertly walks the tightrope between the crisp punch of dancefloor percussion and a deterritorialised onslaught of pure noise. As much as John from the band, when questioned, may claim the music is about ‘letting go’, your average Dead Fader track is a masterpiece of control, prying open a porthole into the yawning void whilst keeping a few toes carefully planted on the dancefloor.

In the wake of the duo’s latest EP Luckeeey, released through Kid606’s Tigerbeat6 label, the Quietus spoke to John from his current base in Berlin.

Could you talk about how Dead Fader came into being - were you both involved in other music making beforehand?

John Cohen: Both me and Barry were making a lot more noise music before that, drone type stuff. I’d been making beats since I was young, and thought that I was moving away from it all. Then I started to go out and listen to bass music on big soundsystems, and realised that I wanted to combine the two.

To what extent do you think the dubstep explosion was a facilitator in you starting Dead Fader, even if your beats don’t always reference it. Do you consider yourself ‘dubstep’ in any sense?

JC: I don’t consider myself to be part of the dubstep scene really. Artists like Vex'd, Milanese, Scorn, were a big influence on the first album. But then so was Rustie, HudMo, FlyLo, you know. I think it’s definitely a mixture of stuff. Maybe if you put it very simply it was a mixture of noise, hip-hop and dubstep. But I don’t really like having to describe it like that.

You manage to make your music sound like machines being subjected to punishment. Especially the synths - most of the time they sound in pain. Is analogue gear an integral part of your setup?

JC: I don’t use any analogue gear, it’s all digital. I think a lot of people are surprised when I tell them that. I spend a lot of time working on the timbre of sounds, I’m not sure if it matters that it’s analogue or not. You have to go into so much detail, to make it your own unique sound and not like anyone else’s. Guaranteed, it takes a lot more tinkering to make something digital sound fat and crunchy. But I think that’s part of the fun - you don’t want to ever have it too easy. But yeah, I love to push synthesizers to the limit of what they are supposed to do. Really freak out with them, and just jam sometimes.

Am I right in thinking you have a live show? Could you talk a bit about how that works?

JC: Live is a mixture of live noise making, live beats, programmed beats, and some improv stuff too, played very loud.

To what extent - if at all - do you think it’s important for your music to be ‘danceable’ in a live setting? Because in spite of its abrasiveness, it always seems to retain that sense of propulsion...

JC: It’s really important to me, because at the end of the day, I’m making beats for people to move to - if I wanted to make pure noise it would be a lot more static and crazy. I love beats, and groovy stuff, and I want to make people move at a live show. Not dance in the traditional sense of the word, but rock out. Mosh or something.

Perhaps you’ll disagree, but it seems to me like the Dead Fader sound is, on the main, pretty aggressive - do you have to be in that mindset to make it?

JC: Not at all, for me making music is a release of energy, like drumming or doing exercise. You don’t have to be in an aggressive mood - just an energetic one. You’re right, I don’t really see the tracks as being aggressive. I see them more as extreme energy.

Why do you think the music comes out that way - is it the product of a very focused aesthetic for this particular project?

JC: I don’t really think it’s about a focused aesthetic. In a way it’s the opposite, it’s about letting go, freaking out and jamming, not sitting with a mouse and programming your beats to the nth degree. Not being too rigid, you know. To me music has to have feeling, and have mistakes too.

Are there any particular artists you’d say are major reference points?

JC: Yeah definitely. I love the loose beats of Flying Lotus: they’re electronic, but they have such an organic feel about them. Pan Sonic are a great inspiration to me, such powerful noise music, brutal beats. And NHK, he's almost like a mixture of the two - hip hop-style beats coming from a noise background.

You’ve moved to Berlin since the release of the album, right? And the new EP is on Berlin-based label Tigerbeat6. Do you find the musical environment there more sympathetic to what you’re trying to do?

JC: Yeah I have been spending some time in Berlin recently. Probably not - there are some amazing noise musicians living in Berlin, but the scene as a whole is too orientated around techno and house music. Plus I don’t think there are many places where the musical environment is going to be sympathetic to what I’m doing. Possibly London, who knows. I like the music coming from London, it’s always streaks ahead in my opinion.

How would you say you’ve moved on, creatively, from Corrupt My Examiner to the new EP?

JC: The tracks have moved on quite a lot. They are definitely more minimal, less clutter. Simpler in a way too. The production has come on a bit since then. And also the new EP has a more hip-hop flow than the previous album.

Finally, what are the plans for Dead Fader beyond the new EP? Anything in the pipeline?

JC: Yeah, there’s lots of things in the pipeline. I’m releasing a small noise album under my own name [which is now available through the excellent Broken20 label]. Plus there will be some new Dead Fader vinyl EPs coming in early 2012, hopefully a new album soon as well. So keep eyes peeled.

The Luckeeey EP is out now on Tigerbeat6