Fly Fishing In The Digital Sea: Joel Ford Of Airbird Interviewed

Joel Ford of Airbird, and one half of synth-pop doyens Ford & Lopatin, tells Laurie Tuffrey about his new EP, trawling the internet's 'ocean of recombination' and finding inspiration in the American wilderness

Joel Ford’s new EP, Trust, the first under his Airbird moniker, is the latest addition to a rapidly-growing body of work. If you’re going to be one of those musicians who has a prolific work rate – putting out records under all manner of guises, dabbling in some production and curating a record label on the side – you run the risk of having some of that output being compromised through sheer overwork. Ford is thankfully one of those artists who manages to sidestep those potential pitfalls, releasing consistently great records. He’s got a couple of long-players, Pretend Not to Love and Ancient Lover, with 80s revivalist soft-rockers Tigercity, and then there’s 2011’s excellent Channel Pressure, by Ford & Lopatin, his electro-pop duo alongside Oneohtrix Point Never’s Dan Lopatin. He’s also working with Lopatin at Software, their subsidiary imprint of the Mexican Summer label, putting out releases by the likes of Autre Ne Veut, Salva and Megafortress.

The new EP adds to a couple of previous releases as Airbird, continuing his work in melodic, sample-chopping synthwave. Last year, Ford put out a two-track 12", City vs Mountains, and earlier this year he dropped ‘We Used To’, amounting to a trio of tracks so fresh and inventive something longer was virtually necessary.

Trust is a partial move away from pop-influenced material – whether that be Tigercity’s high-sheen guitar-wielding type or the cut & paste busy-ness variety of Ford & Lopatin – into something less song-shaped and more hazily atmospheric. First track ‘Deep Dreams, Ltd’ is a case in point, where a swelling synth motif sits under sampled voices, forging a subtly poignant opening, which segues in again at the end of closer ‘Trust’. There, Ford covers a frenetic beat with sweeping classical guitar samples and melismatic vocals, which, resolving back into those ringing chords, lends the five-song EP a beautifully complete-feeling close. In between, there’s a touch of Ford & Lopatin-esque retro-glancing in the tumble of drums and reedy keyboard that open ‘Girl’, and the slow jam-like ‘Goodnight’ – which you might have heard already – where Ford maps his own distant vocals onto a sinewy rhythm. In short, we’d recommend you take a listen.

Ford gave the Quietus an insight into the background of the new EP, and reflected on striking out on his own and making music in an age of hyper-connectivity.

First things first, names: why Airbird?

Joel Ford: Airbird is a moniker I came up with a long time ago for my bedroom experiments with keyboards, sequencers and field recordings. It’s been resurrected recently for my new solo output.

Why Airbird specifically though? It’s a cool name – kind of 80s vibe going on.

JF: To be honest I can’t really remember. I know at the time I was exclusively listening to ‘classic quintet’-era Miles Davis, so I doubt it had anything to do with the 80s.

On the Trust press release, it mentions that you’re fixated on the "dichotomy of big city culture versus the solitude of the American wilderness". How is this playing out in your process of writing and recording?

JF: For the last year or two I’ve either been in the city working on records or in the country fishing and camping. Jumping between those two environments exclusively, has been super inspiring for me. NYC cooks my brain to a crisp every time I’m there, but I still crave it. When I’m standing in the middle of a river fly fishing I wonder why I ever decide to go back to the city. I guess I’m just trying to find a balance. I’d like to think that all of my musical influences and life experiences make their way into my creative output.

Have any of the songs on ‘Trust’ been specifically influenced by fly fishing? It’s kind of an under-represented area in music.

JF: I think the act of being alone in the woods or on the river definitely influenced this record. Being alone, having physical and mental space to sort out new thoughts and ideas helped me get into a new vibe.

It sounds pretty great out there in the country. Were there any other artistic influences – music, literary, film – influencing this fixation on the American wilderness?

JF: No, I’ve always been into fishing and camping but was stuck in the city and/or band van for years so I’m probably over compensating at the moment. Certain records do remind me of being in the middle of the woods though. Gas – Pop, Fennesz – Venice.

How did the EP come about?

JF: I’ve always been more of an editor and a producer than a solo artist, but it’s something I’ve wanted to put more time into for a while now. I started Airbird a long time ago as a moniker for my bedroom experiments. Considering the origins of the project, it’s pretty shocking to be on stage messing around in front of a crowd.

It sounds like with Airbird you’re moving away from the 4-minute, pop-influenced material you’ve produced with Tigercity and Ford & Lopatin onto more soundscape/texture-based tracks. Was that a conscious decision? And how did that affect your working process?

JF: Yes and no. I sing on ‘Goodnight’ which is loosely a pop-influenced track. But yeah, everything else on the EP is more about a mood and feel rather than pop format. I do want to incorporate more sampling of live, in-studio performance. This happened on the title track ‘Trust’.

What do you make of the current fairly mainstream resurgence in self-consciously 80s-influenced music? Given that you’re using sound sources and textures that hark back to past eras – while successfully managing not to sound particularly retro – how do you go about avoiding simply absorbing from your influences, and push your music forward into new spaces?

JF: It’s pretty easy to get caught up in retro vibes, especially when you’re using vintage gear. Keeping things varied and juxtaposing different sounds and references is definitely a good start to finding a new sound. I think I have a long way to go but the idea of chasing a new aesthetic is really exciting.

What other sources do you look for, musically or otherwise? On a track like ‘Rotating Cloud’ from the City vs Mountains 12", for example, it sounds like there’s a gamelan-like motif going on, while on ‘Girl’ you’ve got pitch-shifted vocals, which are quite common in R&B and dubstep.

JF: Yeah, definitely. I listen to so much different music and I have so many brilliant friends that introduce me to new records every day. I’ve been on a reggae kick recently. I’ve always been obsessed with production-style and process rather than ‘music as fashion’. It seems like ‘The Myth’ is really important to listeners though, especially younger people. Its amazing how people fantasize about Dan (Oneohtrix Point Never) being a ‘dark lord of ambient’ or whatever, and were confused when we started doing Games tracks. The music I make isn’t necessarily lifestyle music like the Rolling Stones or any other rock band that lives inside their myth 24/7. I try to approach different projects as autonomous entities and dedicate myself to those particular aesthetics.

As well as the reggae, what were you listening to as an inspiration for Trust?

JF: Growing up, listening to jazz-fusion and prog is how I first blew my mind, and that still happens a lot. I love when artists bring those influences into the electronic music realm and I suppose I was trying to ease into that with these tracks. Since I finished Trust I’ve been working on new jams that are more overtly prog-y and dynamic.

The press release for Trust also talks about e-music. On the EP, there are the analogue synths of three decades ago mixed with the cut-and-paste vocals of more contemporary music, and these are both on top of the idea of sampling pre-recorded material. Do you find working with this kind of modern methodology, where it’s possible to collect different and diverse musical reference points together in a single track, inspiring?

JF: I saw Brian Eno speak at a private test run of his 77 Million Paintings installation at Moogfest this past fall. The one thing that stuck with me from the experience was his reminiscing about writing with Roxy Music back in the day. He was talking about how they only had 15 or so years of ‘pop’ music pre-dating their writing sessions, while they were consciously assembling pop songs with specific aesthetic references. That just blew my mind. 40 years later I sit in my studio with the internet and millions of records and genres to consider. The ocean of recombination and re-appropriation is endless! I think it’s inspiring though.

Do you think that because of this, there’s almost a danger of it going completely the other way for some musicians, and fetishizing one single sound or era in music? You have certain bands that, for example, are criticised for working completely in an early 90s, lo-fi slacker sound, without, like you said earlier, juxtaposing any different sounds.

JF: Finding creative direction gets easier for me when I clear my head and concentrate on what I like and what’s important. If [a band are] obsessed with that sound and dedicate time and love to recreating it, then that is their prerogative and no one can fuck with it. People will criticize you as an artist no matter what you do, so as long as you’re real with yourself and committed to your own aesthetics than no one can tell you otherwise.

It seems like with the internet throwing open the floodgates for people to hybridise their music with other forms, the boundaries between pop and so called ‘experimental’ or ‘underground’ musics are getting thinner and thinner. Do you feel a conscious interest in expressing your music as pop, or fusing pop edges with more exploratory sonic ideas? Or is it just something that happens naturally?

JF: When we were in the studio making Channel Pressure I think we all thought the record was going to be more ‘out’ because when you get down to the basic elements of what we were doing production-wise it’s pretty leftfield. In the end though there are songs with vocals, and melodies, and most people probably listen to the record and toss it in a pile with other ‘pop’ stuff. I love writing pop songs and Dan is an incredible pop writer, so I think songs just happened naturally with that one.

I do like riding the line with Airbird. I’m recording an LP this fall and really don’t know how its going to shape up yet with the songs vs not-songs thing.

Does the internet also encourage a sort of multi-tasking, where people are tending to not stick with one role – you’ve been the bassist of a rock band, a solo artist, one half of a production duo and record label subsidiary boss, for example?

JF: The sprawl and the immediacy of the internet instantly gives anyone the opportunity to get their music to millions of listeners. I’m at my happiest when I’m working on music all the time, so more creative avenues is a plus for me.

To follow on from this idea of multiple projects, how is your approach to Airbird different from the way you approach Ford & Lopatin or Tigercity material?

JF: Airbird is different because it’s just me steering the ship. I’m much more comfortable as a collaborator, so its been really daunting at times. At the end of the day I’m alone in my studio and it’s up to me to make things happen from scratch.

What was it that finally pushed you to go out on your own this time?

JF: I’ve just been pushing myself to write and record as much as possible and new Airbird music was a logical step. I’d been thinking about it for a while.

What about the actual recording process? The sounds on the record are so fresh-sounding – how much of it is endless sonic tinkering or is it more a case of plug in and play?

JF: The process changed from track to track, but I think my favorite experience was working on the title track, ‘Trust’. I recorded my friend Whit Palmer playing keys and chopped his performance up after the fact. Also Jeff Gitelman (Stepkids) shredded synth guitar and did some singing (remotely) and sent me the stems for chopping.

How’s it been running Software?

JF: I’m really proud of all the Software output. I think if I had to pick one though it would be Megafortress. Bill and I went through the wringer together with Tigercity, and to see him do his own music makes me so happy.

Amazing things coming soon from Software. An unreal collab just happened with OPN and an artist to-be-revealed soon. I was sitting in the studio with my mouth open the whole time listening to them jam together. In January and February we produced the next Autre Ne Veut LP which will be out this fall, and I’m going into the studio in June to work with Napolian on his LP.

Can you give us any further information on that OPN collab?

JF: I actually can’t right now. You’ll hear about it soon though. Amazing stuff.

Trust is out now via Software

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