Machine Gun: An Interview With Evian Christ

On the eve of the release of Evian Christ's punishing new EP for Tri Angle and ahead of shows at Field Day and Sonar, he meets up with Daniel Cohen to discuss physicality in sound, working with Kanye for Yeezus, and discovering the sweet spot between EDM and abrasive noise

‘Waterfall’, the closing title track from Evian Christ’s new EP, ends abruptly in a round of machine gunfire. (It could, less dramatically, be a CD skipping.) It’s the kind of moment that Joshua Leary enjoys: at first it sounds like a fuck you, something obnoxious to remember on the way out. But listen to it a few more times and it starts to seem silly, a deliberately exaggerated gesture, especially two minutes after the EP’s calmest, most introspective moment, when the heaviness briefly abates and a gentle piano breaks through (stream the EP in full at Leary’s website).

Online, Leary likes to play the joker, especially in his recent Burial parody, and it can sometimes be hard to see where this fits into his production. "I take my music very seriously," he says, even if he "can’t take himself very seriously as a person." Waterfall, is an intense, surprisingly tough listen – there is little respite, apart from that moment on ‘Waterfall’ – but much of the aggression comes with its tongue in its cheek. "I’m just trying to put things together that are serious and not serious," says Leary. ‘Propeller’, the EP’s third track, "might be the most abrasive of all of them, but on the offbeat there’s a dolphin sound." The degraded and demented ‘Fuck Idol’ is like the cartoonish soundtrack to some fairground ride that never arrives. Dancehall rhythms on ‘Waterfall’ aside, these songs are unruly cousins of much contemporary hip hop production, but with less repetition and simplicity. As the music keeps shifting it starts to seem less stable, and some playfulness sneaks out.

Leary’s songs first appeared on YouTube a little over two years ago, featuring signature, pitched-down samples of the rapper Tyga over strikingly serene beats, before Tri Angle released them for free online as Kings & Them. Leary was 22 at the time, living in Ellesmere Port, a town outside Liverpool, and training to be a primary school teacher. Since then, he has quit teaching and his sole release has been a limited-edition, 20-minute ambient mix, Duga-3, but his career has been transformed by a production on Kanye West’s Yeezus, the lust-soaked ‘I’m In It’. He has now signed a publishing deal with Kanye’s Donda company and is about to leave Ellesmere Port for New York so he can work with rappers and singers more easily.

It’s strange to think that, with Waterfall, Leary is only now getting round to his first proper release. To celebrate, he’s putting on a Trance Party at London’s Oval Space. Featuring artists as varied as the rapper Travi$ Scott, Millie & Andrea and Powell, it is the third in a series of nights that he has curated. Ahead of the EP and the night, the Quietus spoke to Leary in a Shoreditch pub about distorting the TV, receiving mysterious emails from the Kanye camp and why he likes Skrillex.

What’s it’s like to go from Kings & Them, which you weren’t necessarily intending even to be released in the first place…

Joshua Leary: Absolutely.

…to, two years later, a much, much bigger audience? How does that influence the process?

JL: It’s a much bigger audience because I know it exists. Just knowing that an audience exists regardless of the size of it makes it a completely different experience this time around. I’m really stressed about it actually.

Is that something that comes through now, when the music’s finished, or are you thinking about it when you’re making it?

JL: No, not when I was making it, because even though I haven’t been releasing much stuff I’m constantly making it. It’s such a common thing for me I’m never really thinking about it. And then increasingly, as the release date comes closer, it’s something that’s bearing away on me more and more.

It’s difficult, ’cause this is new to me just as a job or whatever. It’s hard having your work, your job, critiqued in public. I was teaching before I did this, and you’re critiqued by a lot of people: the parents, the kids, the staff, the headteacher. But my audience and people who ultimately decide whether they like my record or not, I have no idea who they are. I’ve never met them. There’s something inherently strange about that. And this is my first proper release, so I’m having to deal with it. I guess normally people do smaller releases and gradually bigger, and they can just do it step by step. I’ve kind of accelerated.

It would have been quite easy to imagine you making a big, shiny trap beat at this stage, which isn’t really what you’ve done at all. The record’s slick but it’s not glossy.

JL: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of people, when they make music, are concerned about the sonic quality of it at every stage. If you had something you wanted to sample and you didn’t have it in perfect quality, they wouldn’t do it. I don’t let those things affect my creative process. I sample stupid shit from YouTube, from TV adverts. When I’m making music I’ll set myself no boundaries for fucked up sounding things. Afterwards I’ll be like, ok, we need to refine this now and find a way to make those fucked sounds sound more polished. A lot of my stuff’s sample based, even the kick drums in ‘Salt Carousel’. The super square wavey, kind of grime–style bass is the sound of a guitar smashed, just ran through a shit ton of distortion.

Off YouTube?

JL: I think it was off a film. Whenever I’m watching TV I just record everything, and then the next day I’ll load it up into my software and pick things that sound interesting. For this record especially, I just hammered everything I recorded with distortion. I think that’s why you have that balance of it sounding a lot cleaner than the old stuff but not digital clean.

The EP is quite punishing. Was that a conscious thing?

JL: Absolutely. In contrast to the first record, which is not punishing at all – it’s not abrasive in the slightest, it’s quite easy to listen to. It was just a process of me going to shows and meeting other producers. Going to The Haxan Cloak at the Tri Angle showcase and being like, ok, this is pretty full on, I like this. Playing with Pete Swanson at Birthdays was another big one for me, that show was amazing. Seeing guys like Vatican Shadow and Ben Frost live and being like, ok, I don’t want to make completely avant-garde music, but there’s something inherently abrasive and challenging and physical about this music in a live context that I would like to seep into my own music.

It’s also funny because some commercial hip hop production can almost be unintentionally punishing, with the loudness really, really high.

JL: Yeezus is incredibly loud, all the way through.

Or even TNGHT or that kind of thing, which is so over-the-top. And it seems like you’re gesturing at that in some ways but also very much through the Pete Swanson…

JL: That’s absolutely what it’s supposed to be. Because as much as I’m talking to you about Pete, or even going to see Wolf Eyes recently in New York, which was super brutal. I was really into that. But also I love what TNGHT do. I’m absolutely a proponent for this cheesy rap, EDM stuff that anyone with any sort of taste seems to hate. There tends to be a high critical rejection of that kind of music on the basis that it’s very purpose-driven, there’s a drop, it kind of plays into its own tropes too much. But there’s something about those shows, something inherent to contemporary rap production, that makes people want to go crazy when you drop an 808 kick and have those skittering high-hats. It’s something that TNGHT captured really well because [at] their live shows, obviously people go insane. And people go insane at Pete Swanson shows. It’s kind of a no-brainer to me to draw lines between those. Even though those fan bases have no real mutual middle ground – there’s not many people that would go to a Pete Swanson show and go to a Skrillex show and enjoy both. But for me – Pete will probably kill me for saying it – it’s dance music, it’s loud, it’s super abrasive, people go nuts to it. And I think the record is somewhere between those two ideals.

It’s very hard to imagine anyone rapping over these songs. Partly because of their abrasiveness, but also their complexity: they don’t really settle.

JL: They don’t. Most of them started off as songs that I was trying to give to rappers and for various reasons didn’t end up being on people’s projects. I guess that’s probably why. In my head, when I’m making these songs, I’m like, yeah, this is a super easy beat to rap over. I kind of forget that this is not normal. When I go to studios with rappers and play them this stuff they’re just like, "no, hell no." It’s something I need to learn to balance. ‘Cause I’m really keen to do production work for other people – that’s why I signed this [Donda] deal, ’cause I wanna be in sessions with people, making songs with vocalists. But you have to hold yourself back a bit, and I wasn’t willing to do that with this EP.

When Kings & Them came out you talked about how you didn’t listen to a lot of music. It sounds like that’s changed in a huge way.

JL: Yeah, it’s had to. I felt very uncomfortable with being compared to people, being compared to stuff that I didn’t know existed. It just made me feel like I was simultaneously a part of this thing and had no idea what was going on. So I just spent a long time listening to a lot of music, going on websites. Show offers would come through and I’d be like, ok, this is the festival line-up and I’d just sit and listen to every artist at the festival and be like, ok, this is what my peers are doing. This is where I stand. For me to understand my place in this thing.

I talked to a lot of people about records I’d listened to that I didn’t necessarily understand. It was weird, that was basically what I did for two years to reach this point of being comfortable talking about music and having this be my job. ‘Cause there’s not many times where you’re in a job and you have no idea how that industry works.

Obviously I wanted to ask about Yeezus. I was really quite shocked when the production credits came through, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you to get the call.

JL: Pretty weird. Pretty fucking weird. I was just at home and Robin [Carolan, who runs Tri Angle] popped up on Skype. He was like, "I just got a weird email from [Kanye’s label] GOOD Music. It was really cryptic, I have no idea what’s going on. I’m gonna go meet him and see what’s up. Maybe they want you to work on the Tianna Taylor album or something." I don’t think either of us dared… We obviously both thought, maybe it’s Kanye, but we were like no, it can’t be. So we convinced ourselves that maybe they wanted a beat for one of their developing artists or something.

And then Robin came back and was like, "They want you to send some stuff for Kanye. You have two days." At that point I’d put out Duga-3 and I was just making ambient music, basically – just experimenting. I was super into Tim Hecker at the time. So I had no rap beats to send. I had two days to send beats to Kanye and I was like, fuck, ok. Cool! [laughs] I’ve never stayed up for as many hours without sleep as I did in those two days. I slept for like two hours when I just passed out, but otherwise I was awake for the entire time making music. I came up with eight tracks that I was happy with, that I’d fully finished, arranged, kind of mixed and mastered. I sent them off and didn’t hear back. And I was like, It was pretty cool to get asked. No probs. [laughs]

One day I got an email back. They were like, "Cool, we really like these. Can you send us the stems? We’re gonna start working on them." And I was like, woah, awesome.

How many had you sent?

JL: Eight, at that point. One of them was ‘I’m In It’. That was the first song I made, which is insane. After I’d made about a hundred for that record, the very first song I made was the one that ended up making it on there. We didn’t hear back again for a period of time and I was like, "Ok. It was cool while it lasted. It was really interesting."

Then one day – and it sounds like I’ve overdramatised it but I haven’t – it was 2am. I was about to shut my laptop and go to bed and I got an email. It was from Kanye’s engineer, Noah [Goldstein], who I’ve been dealing with a lot. He’s the best dude. He was like, "Hey, Kanye wants you to fly to Paris immediately. The next flight’s at 7. Jump on the plane, we’ll sort everything out. We’ll see you there." I was like, ok, fuck. I slept for two or three hours, got up and went to Manchester airport. Flew to Paris. They were like, "Here’s the address" – a really cryptic fucking address – "we’ll meet you outside." Got on a taxi and went there, and within ten hours I was sat in the studio with him, playing music, listening to stuff, working on stuff.

What happened once they selected ‘I’m In It’?

JL: It got changed about a million times. Up until about three weeks before the CD was literally in stores it was seven minutes long. And then they were like, we’ve made it three and a half minutes, it’s out in a week. I was like, "ok." [laughs]

Is that when Rick Rubin came in?

JL: Yeah, he came in and cut a whole bunch of shit off the record. I was very anxious. Cos he cut a load of tracks just outright. Big tracks, like a track with The Weeknd that was talked about as being a single at one point. Just like, "no, no, no, no." And I was like, "they’re gonna cut my song. I know they are." And when he did the listening party in New York, they played every song other than ‘I’m In It’. And I was like, for fuck’s sake. But then it turned out that they were basically changing some bits about it and that’s why they hadn’t played it.

I was so desperate to get a song on there. ‘Cause Kanye’s one of my favourite artists of all time. And once I’d got over the fact that he’d hit me up and I’d made a song and they’d used one for their idea of the album, I was obsessed with it being on the album. I wouldn’t have been able to get over it if it hadn’t made it on there. It meant a lot to me to get a song on there. But the process was completely insane. [laughs]

What do you think about Kanye’s approach of getting all these different producers in?

JL: I think normally it doesn’t work. It’s very trendy to do it and normally it makes for a completely disjointed mess of an album. I think it works because Kanye oversees everything in such detail. Almost every other major label project is A&R’d by multiple people. Whereas with Kanye, the content comes from him. The production tweaks come from him. All the ideas are his. The fact that he’s bringing in other people to do stuff is fine because everything goes through him – he’s like the filter. All this stuff comes in and it’s very inspiring music, I’m sure, for him, to have all these crazy producers send shit. But it always flows through him as a person, as a personality, as a musician. I think that’s the only way it can work.

Waterfall is out on March 17th via Tri Angle. The EP launch party takes place on Friday 21st March at Oval Space, London, with Evian Christ, Travi$ Scott, Millie & Andrea, Powell and more.

Evian Christ plays live at Field Day in Victoria Park, Hackney, on Saturday 7th June. He also plays at Sonar Festival, Barcelona, which runs from 12th-14th June –for information and tickets, click here.

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