Smooth As Silk: An Interview With Ital

Daniel Martin-McCormick's debut album as Ital, Hive Mind out next month. In advance of its release he's given us a live recording to give away. Rory Gibb speaks to him about his approach to dance music and the debate around 'hipster house'.

As of late, DJs across the board have started digging deep into the history of house for dancefloor ammunition, and producers from all around the globe have started using the genre as a jump-off point for their own music. In addition to the UK dubstep diaspora, chief among them has been the collective surrounding LA’s 100% Silk label. A sister imprint to the much-hyped Not Not Fun, the last twelve months have found its ouput careering through a wide selection of (mostly retrogazing) house, techno and disco variations with infectious abandon. Foremost among them has been Daniel Martin-McCormick, whose music as Ital has been among the label’s more interesting and exploratory, willing to push further outside of established boundaries than most of his contemporaries.

When Not Not Fun announced the founding of Silk at the beginning of 2011, there was already a significant crossover region opening up between dance music and the dubby, muddy-fidelity pop and noise the label was known for. The prospect of a label dedicated to more fully exploring that space was an exciting one. For the most part that hasn’t completely happened – much of Silk’s more recent output, while a great deal of fun to dance to, has been determinedly backward-looking, drawing from a whole range of eighties and nineties club music (from Inner City to Thomas Bangalter). As a result it’s attracted suspicion from certain areas, and ‘hipster house’ has been regularly thrown around as something of a pejorative.

It’s easy to understand why. The use of Silk as evidence for some sort of ‘house revival’ ignores the fact that there’s been great house music being released since time immemorial. However, Martin-McCormick’s Ital music stands out among his labelmates. Thanks to a history in freer, noiser concerns – the jarring punk/synth salvoes of his band Mi Ami, and bracing solo noise as Sex Worker – his takes on club music refuse to remain pinned in place by existing dancefloor dogmas. Debut EP Ital’s Theme (the first release on 100% Silk) beautifully melded sun-wilted Skaters thought-loops to a steady rhythmic pulse. Though not overly concerned with serious dancefloor weight, the title track was deliriously infectious, and B-side ‘Queens’ was a club-centric vision of the tropical psychedelia of former Skater Spencer Clark’s Bamboo For Two album (released under the pseudonym Monopoly Child Star Searchers).

Ital’s upcoming debut album Hive Mind, meanwhile, is a culmination of his previous work. His most complete explorations so far of the Ital ‘zone’, its five tracks’ longform, loose construction lends it the feel of a series of live jams. Though it’s all digitally produced, by taking a fairly crude approach to sound processing – hacking at samples with Audacity, a simple free online wave editing software – here his source material simply dissolves into a dense soup of percussion and pop culture (the opening track audibly riffs on Lady Gaga and Whitney Houston). It’s also willing to toy with the cliches and embedded ideas of house music, twisting established tropes into subtly different shapes – the near-evangelical anti-internet chatter on ‘Israel’, for example, instantly bringing to mind the perennial monologue, "In the beginning there was Jack…"

Hive Mind‘s release through electronic music institution Planet Mu makes sense: the album at once erases any knotty issues around ‘authenticity’. the Quietus caught up with Martin-McCormick over the phone to speak about reactions to his music and the adverse effects of the modern world.

Ital has given us a recording of a live set to give away, which you can stream/download here:

Thanks to the fact that your first record was the opening one from 100% Silk, there was automatically a connection drawn between you and ‘dance music’. So the first thing I wanted to ask was whether you originally concieved Ital as a dance project?

Daniel Martin-McCormick: I conceived it as [a dance project], because I’d done a couple of other things that were already moving in that direction – four track experiments, fucking around on the computer at home – and then Mi Ami had done some tracks that were more like synthesiser things, with drum machines. So all that felt like incorporating dance music influence into something that wasn’t dance music. I didn’t feel like I wanted to do something that was ‘Ok I’m going to make dance music now, here are all these rules I have to obey’, but I felt like there were a couple of production things that I wanted to employ: not do it on a 4 track, have clear bass, not have vocals, stuff like that. That’s basically it.

Did it feel like quite a logical next step from where you were before?

DM: I’d been working on tracks with the same process on and off for a few years. I had done Ital-style tracks since 2006, privately, so it was like going back to an old friend. But also just from listening to so much dance music, all the time, it felt kind of dumb not to be engaging with it in a more realistic way.

To my mind there’s an interesting crossover region between dance and the music you were making in the past, so it seems really logical in a way to mine that space anyway.

DM: I know there are people out there that get into a new genre and learn all of its idioms. They’re like ‘This is the cool new genre for me, I was wrong before that I liked rock, and now I’m right that I like Detroit techno’. But it’s music – it’s only a couple of subtle tweaks of process and focus, and use a different set of tools, and it transfers over pretty easily. A lot of the same ideas are still at play. I’m not trying to escape the past or escape my previous work or something.

There’s this shared emphasis on the hypnotic element, and the physicality, which runs through from noise and more freeform stuff into dance.

DM: True, definitely. You could cite as grandaddies the Throbbing Gristle crew. They started off so raw and free, and slowly moved into pop music or whatever, but doing it in a way that didn’t feel like a watering down, just further exploration.

The Planet Mu connection seems a really good one for this record. There’s been a perception from some quarters around the 100% Silk stuff that it’s a bit shallow – and connecting with Planet Mu seems to make a statement about a wider connection to dance music.

DM: Conversations like that are always valuable. People make generalisations, so if you really want to be thorough about it you’ve got to judge artist-by-artist, piece-by-piece, and different people on 100% Silk are coming from different places. I’m not surprised that people would feel threatened, offended or dismissive – sure, you’ve been into dance music for a long time, you’re serious about it, you work hard at your craft, then all of a sudden this crew from LA turns up [laughs]. But at the same time it’s cool, because it does get people talking about what’s important and what’s valuable. And I think some of the critiques of the label – even though I might disagree with them – point towards values that I respect: wanting people to be serious about their craft, and not just be like ‘we’re going to do some 90s revival, and play on Ableton’.

It’s interesting because context is everything. People bow at the altar of Omar-S – and I’m guilty of that too, I love his music – but he’s got some tracks that sound like shit, man! So when people say ‘The mastering on this Silk record is a bit weak’, I say ‘Dude, I’ve got records out of Chicago that sound like ass’. But that gets a pass because it’s an insider, people say ‘That’s a sick record but the mastering’s bad’.

But in a sense you do need to prove yourself. If you show up and you have one record out, if people say ‘This is the shit’, it’s not necessarily the shit – it’s just a record some people are getting excited about. [This sort of critical discussion is] inevitable and probably healthy. It’s important because everything about making music is important. I don’t want to go to a show and hear someone just dick around, saying ‘I’m having so much fun with my $20 thrift store keyboard, hitting presets’. You don’t want to have your intelligence insulted or something like that, you don’t want to be pandered to.

Hive Mind feels like it has a very strong theme running through it. The title automatically brings to mind the internet and telecommunications, along with the almost archetypal house preacher-type monologue on ‘Israel’ speaking about the internet. Was that something on your mind when you were making the record?

DM: Yeah. The large theme of the record was just this feeling of inescapable – I feel funny talking about it, because I’m a pretty optimistic person – but the crushing aspect of society, just feeling the glacial onslaught of the world we’ve made for ourselves. The big inspiration for it was this YouTube footage from after the BP oil spill, and it’s just this guy walking down the beach in Florida, and all this oil is washing onto the shore and people are out at the beach. There was this one part that just blew me away – he comes upon this family and the kid is like ‘Mummy, get this oil off, get it off’, and she’s like ‘I can’t’, and the kid’s crying. That – if it’s not specifically oil, there’s so much environmental, informational, or whatever stuff that we intake that’s toxic, or unknown.

The Hive Mind thing was a combination. The immobility of the world even in the face of knowing that a lot of stuff is fucked up – we know factory farming, the ozone, cars, we know all these things are bad, but we can’t stop – and also the onslaught of information.

The LA Vampires collaboration [Streetwise] seemed to highlight a lot of shared space between you two – and I also saw you playing live onstage with her at Unsound, which was totally different, a lot more disco-ish. Was that material you’re working on together or just a one-off thing?

DM: That was one-off. But I want to try to work out something that’s maybe in between the record and that show. The record was cool to work on – she sent me all these slow loops, and that was how the songs got constructed, from gritty, slowed-down rap instrumental loops. The songs ended up coming out more like these vibe spaces, or jams, they’re not verse-chorus-verse. So I’d be curious to do something that maybe has some of the slurred quality, but also have it be in a structure that’s a little bit more dynamic.

Getting Hieroglyphic Being to remix ‘Culture Clubs’ seemed to make a lot of sense in light of what we were talking about earlier – he doesn’t really care if his tracks sound like they ‘ought’ to. How did you guys connect?

DM: I just wrote him. I thought ‘Oh God, he’s never going to want to talk to me’. But an hour later he wrote back and said ‘Send me the stems’, and I sent them when I got home that night, and the next morning I got this email to my phone, like ‘Here’s the remix!’

He’s great, and ridiculous. I’d heard his music not comprehensively but enough to know what he was about, and also this story I’d heard about his live set-up I found really inspirational. I heard he jams with two drum machines and no MIDI sync, like DJ mixing between them. Without getting super cliched about it, it definitely reminds me a lot of free jazz. I’m not going deep with any new free jazz records, I’ve pretty much got what I’m into and I’ll check out maybe one or two new ones each year, but in terms of the overall vibe and the intensity that people pursue – free, expressive playing – I always feel really inspired by that.

That makes sense, because your tracks often feel like quite thorough explorations of a set theme or a specific set of elements, working through and exploring these ideas – in, perhaps, a not-too-dissimilar vein from a jazz approach.

DM: I always feel like everything I do in a piece, I always try to keep it minimal, or keep it to things that are serving a purpose and worth exploring or elaborating on. The changes that you make should not just be arbitrary – ‘Now I need three more synthlines, just to make it sound big’ – but they’re related to something else, and have their own undertones that play out over the course of a track. That’s something I picked up doing improv stuff for sure. Even just listening to it – no-one wants to hear a procession of thirty ideas, that’s pretty much always going to sound like shit.

You’re playing live shows as Ital – how do those work? Are they laptop based?

DM: Nah. It’s just these raw, distilled versions of the track. I can’t really hope to approximate what I’m doing on the tracks [with a laptop]. When I start thinking about playing live, obviously I’m fucked, so I’ve just got this sampler and quickly strip it down to the bare essentials, and I rewrite some of the songs. I really like it, and I’ve started working on new material that’s either building up out of a live thing or turning something played live into a computer. The only reason that [I’ve chosen to] work on tracks the way I do is because even at certain times when I’m just sitting there editing audio, it still has this feeling of jamming. I can get into it in the way that’s familiar from live playing.

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