Constructive Listening: An Interview With Rabit

Before he releases his debut album tomorrow, the Texas-based producer talks to Christian Eede about how Communion was informed by teenage beat-nerdery, gender energies and a steadfast refusal of instant gratification

Texas-based Eric Burton asks a lot of himself when it comes to motivations, or at least that appears to be the case as we meet to discuss Burton’s, better known as Rabit, debut album. Whether it’s his proposition that more producers, particularly those starting out, "should question why they’re doing what they do" or his lauding of Tri Angle label boss Robin Carolan’s dedication to encouraging Burton’s development, the producer, originally from Philadelphia, certainly has no interest in sitting back. Why the development from a collection of 12" releases to a debut album? "It’s a challenge to say to yourself, ‘If you think you’re good, make something better than this.’"

That album, entitled Communion, conjuring up a range of connotations particularly in light of his upbringing in a Catholic family as a queer male, offers up some of the most highly charged, heavy artillery and industrial sounds committed to a record sitting within the electronic music axis this year. Its roots lie in years spent quietly honing his craft from studied listening and early geekery in ’90s hip-hop beats, including reading specialist magazines devoted to the producers behind some of the genre’s finest albums from that decade, and, naturally, on to his own attempts at recreating those sounds that so fascinated Burton in albums from Mobb Deep, Ghostface Killah and many more. Eventually, after a prolonged period of experimentation and years of keeping his work to himself, a self-imposed exile in parts but one also born of a lack of dedicated social media platforms and knowledge of music forums to connect with likeminded people, Burton began to share some of his works with others.

Releases on labels such as Diskotopia and the Dublin-based Glacial Sound followed in 2013. Listening through tracks such as ‘Wolf Spider’ and ‘Sun Showers’ from this era, it’s immediately audible that these productions are of a somewhat more minimal disposition than the scattershot sounds of smashed glass and gun assaults found through much of Rabit’s 2015 output with Tri Angle, firstly with the Baptizm EP earlier this year and now with the producer’s debut full-length release. Communion is anything but an easy listen – not only is it littered with bulky beats and all manner of samples, unrelenting in their force, but it is also somewhat difficult to categorise, the producer having spent much of the last few years being lazily, well, boxed in by some with instrumental grime movements like Boxed, despite drawing on a wide array of sounds sitting on the broad spectrum of what we call electronic and club music – Rabit’s music is highly physical, but aside from that, it’s hard to nail down exactly what it is, and that is how he seems to prefer it.

Listening to some of your early productions, it seemed that a lot of people tried to tie your work in with what was being called an instrumental grime movement. Did that ever make sense to you or do you think it was more a matter of circumstance, where some sonic ideas were perhaps similar and so the comparisons came about?

Eric Burton: I started talking to Paul [Purcell] who runs Glacial Sound in around 2012 and I think he had a radio show – I don’t even remember how we started following each other – but the scene was a lot smaller then. There was the stuff Keysound was putting out, but at the time there wasn’t much development in that area, so it was a really small group of people who even cared and were working on that axis. It was never really intentional. Recently, these people reviewed a track of mine on BBC radio on this roundtable show and they were saying "this guy’s from Texas and he’s obsessed with grime, he’s a grime artist" and that is what it is because people tend to just say what they immediately see. It’s definitely reductionist but it seems to be something out of my hands.

Obviously there’s that geographical element in that grime is a form of music heavily rooted in its East London background.

EB: For sure. I think part of the disconnect is that people will pull up a track like ‘Black Dragons’ as an example of me as a grime producer, but the rest of the [Double Dragon] EP is not something that a grime MC would spit bars over. The EP for Diskotopia [Sun Showers] is not grime either and there’s so much unreleased work on my laptop, too, so for me it’s hard to categorise myself as anything. I understand that people have to get their clicks and hits though.

Focusing on the album, I wanted to talk a little about your background, particularly your time in Texas, and how that has gone into it.

EB: Well, I was born in Philadelphia and only moved back to Texas around ten years ago and sometimes it seems the connection to that state is slightly sensationalised because there are so many stereotypes: big hats, horses, guns. Where I live it’s more downtown and a cityscape environment. Just starting on production simply came out of the sounds I was appreciating as a music fan.

What music was that?

EB: I was obsessed with beatmakers even before I started producing myself, like MF Doom’s production, which I think is just as good, if not better, as his lyrics. Pete Rock. Pretty standard backpacker hip-hop, but it was quite some time after this music had originally been out there. I was always very into the production aspect while, of course, appreciating various MCs and rappers. I was always interested in the mystique of how certain sounds and beats had been created. A couple of the Ghostface albums were mind-blowingly good to me beat-wise, a couple of Mobb Deep albums had me like: "What?" ‘Nighttime Vultures’ with Raekwon was a particular track. I was mostly into quite dark sounds. They were quite medieval, lots of bells and flutes, some quite cheesy synth sounds layered with kung fu samples over it. That’s how I got into it really, through being obsessed with hip-hop beats.

There was this American magazine called Blaze; it only survived for around a year but it was all about beatmakers. It obviously didn’t last because it was quite a niche interest but it was really cool to me. It would help me filter samples that people like Pete Rock used – this was way before WhoSampled was a site – and find out how it was all done. That was just me as a fan, so it was only natural that eventually I would look at trying to get some of these machines to make music myself.

Would you say your technique was more formed through digital or analogue means in terms of the tools you were using to produce early on?

EB: The first piece of kit I got was an MPC, so I just had that, a turntable and an Akai rack sampler, so that was what I would source my sounds from, as well as drum kits that I found on the internet. I studied Stone’s Throw records to work out how to make bass tones. When the first Quasimoto CD came out, that was intense because I was really into tripping then, so I got some synths to work out how people would layer a bass note under a sample and have it work. It was quite secretive, almost, because you couldn’t find out directly from these people how they do it, so it was just a case of messing with this equipment.

I had some experience close to me growing up though. There was a family friend of mine who produced under the name Megahertz. He produced a track on 50 Cent’s first album [Get Rich Or Die Tryin’], some stuff for P. Diddy like ‘Bad Boy For Life’. I remember I was at a friend’s house and we would listen to stuff like Ghostface’s Ironman and it just made me a super beat nerd, but even then at the age of 14, I would hear the production on that album and be completely drawn into it.

Do you think there tends to be too much focus with electronic music, which is admittedly a fairly broad spectrum, on there being a right or wrong way to produce, like the people who favour hardware over software for example?

EB: It’s almost archaeological to be like, "Oh, this is made with a 303, a Roland 9000 and a toothpick", so that can be a problem with dance culture. It’s not necessarily glorified but there’s this fantasy behind using hardware. It’s a nuance that most listeners can’t tell – they won’t pick out what makes certain sounds. There’s nothing inherently wrong with focusing on that but it might be quite telling that some favourite producers of mine at the moment will mostly use their computer, like Arca, M.E.S.H., Chino Amobi, ANGEL-HO, Lotic. None of these people really use a whole studio full of gear. Maybe that will be the new thing, people like, "This was made on an original MacBook Air." Who knows?

You mentioned ANGEL-HO and you of course recently set up your own label, Halcyon Veil, and released an EP from him through the label. What was the main drive behind setting up that label?

EB: I had the idea for a label a couple of years ago because there were so many people and close friends that I had connected with, mostly online, who were giving me so much good music. A lot of them weren’t really into the whole ‘networking’ thing – it doesn’t come firsthand to everyone. So, I wanted to create a platform for all this good music and it seemed like a no-brainer. There’s definitely no clearcut sound or guideline. The next two releases will probably be a lot more varied than what people might be expecting and that’s part of the fun of it to me. There are a lot of really good labels but some can tend to have this umbrella where all the artists can be loosely attached and I’m more interested in labels that have a wider array, like even indie labels that I’ve bought music from growing up: Matador, 4AD… What I like about it is that they seem like a smaller, independent version of a major label. For me, the fun of putting music out is in spontaneity and the element of surprise. As of right now, there is no MO for the label.

I feel like one of the label’s strongest points, especially with who you’re connecting with and the people whose music you’re sharing, such as ANGEL-HO on NON Records, is that it’s pushing sounds from people who perhaps aren’t represented so much as they should be in both mainstream and underground circles and are doing things in their own way – has that element of self-sufficiency in music always been important to you?

EB: I went through a definitive phase of being really into the DIY scene; going to see bands that would tour out of a van and go back to a job when they’re finished rather than those who would be like, "When we go on our next tour, we want to have this and this." I went back to that after the album, thinking about how much that scene was important to me, like Minor Threat and Dischord [Records]. These are people that do what they do because they really like it and it is their life. There can be this notion among certain scenes that if you’re not getting certain things quickly, it’s not worth it. People seem to expect instant gratification quite a lot. More people should question why they’re doing what they do. Say you release a project and nobody’s particularly interested and the reviews are all negative, are you still gonna want to do it? I had around ten years of constructive listening before I began to produce and I feel that with the availability now of some tools, people can download certain programs, make something in five minutes and then be sending it out like, "Let me know what you think." But, you should always ask yourself what you think of it. It’s really important motivationally to remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing.

I try to take press releases with a pinch of salt because it’s often hard to tell whether the producer’s true intentions have been represented in that form, but one of the most notable aspects of the text for the album was the mention of drawing on gender, sexuality and the feeling of being trapped in one’s own body. Where does that draw out on the album?

EB: From my own personal reading, I found the idea of masculine and feminine energy, even if you remove those notions from theory, interesting and so my production is often a way of feeling around that. Nothing was ever made with the thought process of "I’m gonna sit down now and make a song about being queer" or in some hyper-masculine mould. Gender perceptions are very divisive and can stifle progression. It’s definitely a stereotype that if you do some kind of angelic melody it’s seen as feminine and if you do something that’s abrasive and industrial, it’s described as super masculine. I like to play with that, though, and I think somebody like Lotic is a good example of messing with that too, because he can make very abrasive sounds and place them alongside completely opposite sounds that people traditionally term as feminine.

You namechecked Lotic there and he is of course another producer releasing through Tri Angle. What drew you to the label, especially as a home for your debut album?

EB: I really appreciate all of the people who’ve put out my music and who I have worked with but I think what [Robin Carolan, who runs Tri Angle] did differently was say to me "you’re trying to do X here, but what if you actually did X". It’s rare that somebody would be able to spend that time with people whose music they release, because it’s not as cut-and-dry as sending your music out and then somebody instantly signing it. The album came from a couple of years of sharing ideas and then him giving me the confidence to believe in it and help me to develop as a producer. When you appreciate how much collaboration is important in this field, it can open your mind up to other possibilities that exist elsewhere outside of your immediate experience.

I know you come from a Catholic background and there are obvious connotations around naming the album Communion, so could you talk me through that titling process a little?

EB: Part of it involved me playing around with the naming of the [Baptizm] EP which preceded it. It could be perceived in a lot of ways and I like to try to leave things in an ambiguous area sometimes that allows people to perceive certain ideas in a way that they want to. I feel like you can sometimes limit what people can get out of something if you specifically state "this is about this". It’s trying to tap into some of that mystique that I felt when I was coming up as a fan and going to the store, buying CDs where the only thing I had to read about it was the liner notes. A little bit of that is missing now besides the fact that people don’t really buy anything now [laughs]. When you tell people how to interpret something, you’re almost boxing up your project from the start. It is only natural that whatever the album ends up being is an extension of my personal growth at the time it was made. There’s plenty of music I like where I just think that I don’t need to know anything about it and can just say "this is sick". If I’m like, "This is a queer album" or, "This song is about a prison industrial complex" – those things are important to me – I could be limiting it too much.

Would you say that making this album was a means of exorcising any negativity in any way?

EB: There is a lot that went into it. Some of it is quite horrible and I find it quite difficult to talk about, not necessarily because it’s a downer, but because I’m very conscious of sharing other people’s private business. I mentioned something in a past interview that’s already out there now about a friend overdosing and it’s not that I don’t want to share information about myself but I don’t like to direct people’s attention to further negativity when there’s already an abundance of it [laughs].

Communion is out tomorrow on Tri Angle. Rabit plays Different Circles at The Victoria in London this Sunday, November 1; for full details and tickets, head here

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