An artist-meets-artist interview between Mark Smith of techno-duo Gardland and Eugene Ward, aka Dro Carey / Tuff Sherm…
The Sydney-based artist Eugene Ward (aka Dro Carey, aka Tuff Sherm) has become something of an archetype – one of those select producers who straddles the hazy border separating house and techno, subverting and resisting those genres while managing to expand their remit. His releases on coveted labels such as Trilogy Tapes and Opal Tapes deconstruct dance floor tropes, reassembling the raw materials in to music with a distinct character and a richly twisted internal logic. Listening to his productions, it is pretty hard to know for sure what is going on. Textures are typically rough yet neatly bevelled, structures are unpredictable yet tautly constructed – so getting the opportunity to go deep in to his methods was impossible to pass up. Not many producers are willing to provide an in depth account of specific techniques, yet Ward was happy to explain his music down to the finest detail, giving us rare insights in to the inner workings of one of house and techno’s most respected young producers. We talked about making static midi programming come alive, crafting a realistic sense of space, creating evolving structures, along with building the smooth workflow to make it all happen.
You said to me that your stuff is made 100% on your laptop
DC: Yeah it is. I do record some live instruments. I mic things. But I don’t have any synth hardware or drum machine hardware.
I think that would surprise a lot of people, because your music to me doesn’t inherently sound like it is totally in the box.
DC: I’ve been to other peoples studios and I’ve used drum machines and things and I’ve used hardware and I’m not against it at all. It’s actually more to do with the money side of things, and space. They’re the main reasons why I haven’t integrated any other equipment. Other than that, I’ve kept working totally in that digital environment for a while now so I’m fairly happy with the kind of sounds and mix downs that I can achieve. I hope that they do have something of an analogue feel to them and that it’s not totally obvious that it’s coming from a laptop. I hope that it sounds like that and I guess it’s a goal that a lot of people have working that way, to recreate that vibe. It’s funny how ubiquitous the trope of the ‘breakdown’ is in house and techno. Yet in the majority of your tracks anything that is remotely like a ‘breakdown’ has a much more fluid and expressive style to it that extends the vocabulary of the track in a more interesting way.
What is the workflow you’re working with on your computer to achieve that? Are you doing this by cutting things up meticulously or do you like to trigger things?
DC: It’s a combination of a few of the approaches that people take when they’re working with midi stuff. There are live takes where I’m playing a keyboard in to Reason or Logic and I’m playing a synth line or a bass line and then I will go in and quite selectively quantise things. In some cases I’ll quantise the whole thing but in terms of the more idiosyncratic stuff I do I’ll selectively quantise midi notes. More recently on some Tuff Sherm tracks I’ve tried not to use any quantisation and play everything live and then not edit it, and then also refine melodies or ideas by using the mouse to drag and resize the notes. That’s not even about rhythmic precision, that’s still at the stage of writing where I’m moving things around with the mouse to get to the idea I want to get to. Also entering values in the transpose field, moving things up a 5th or up an octave, making things a bit more unpredictable and contorting whatever it was that I recorded. I like to try things when there are two separate cells of midi notes where one might be a loop in a section of the song and the other is a different loop for the same instrument later in the song – I’ll do something like copy one of those midi piano roll cells and then paste it at some point within a different one so that you’re interrupting an existing riff or ostinato with another one that you never planned the melodies to go in to each other like that. But assuming that you’re working in a consistent key or mode you’ll potentially get an interesting new idea. Basically just chopping up midi sections and dropping them in to new spots that cut in to existing loops.
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Lets focus on the lead synth from ‘Groin Boils’. It seems like there’s some pretty constant subtle effect on the envelope, dynamic and tone which really enhances the musicality of the synth line – and again this takes a fair bit of concerted effort to do on a computer but it comes across as totally natural. It reminds me a lot of a Kassem Mosse track ‘OS2009’ where the tactility of the transients and variability of the envelope of this sound are so complex that it’s difficult to know whether it is synthesised or a manipulated sample.
DC: Kassem is a big influence on me. Combining samples and synths where it can be ambiguous in the final product where one begins and the other ends. Working with totally synthetic elements and sample based elements to create something that still has the tight structure of techno or house but you’re trying to give it that slightly rougher, more live and natural sounding edge to it. With Groin Boils it is pretty complicated… my girlfriends’ most hated title of anything I’ve created (laughs)…
It was originally a synth I played myself but it was then bounced as an audio loop. Then I turned it in to a Rex file for the Dr Rex loop player they have in Reason and then I opened that in this new project file. Once you’re dealing with something in that player you’ve got this limited range of things you can do. You basically have these transients assigned to midi keys. The idea of this module is to have loops that you can shift the tempo of without stretching them. It will wait some amount of time before triggering the next transient, so there’s a limit to the extent you can change the tempo. I’ve found it to be this interesting sort of tool when you want to deviate from the loop you’ve given yourself – you don’t have the option of all the notes in the scale, you’ve got whatever notes you played in the loop, so all the other variations of the loop are little chopped up parts. When you bend the pitch the sample get slower, so you have all these interesting limitations.
Then this sound has been very heavily EQ’d just to remove the bass and even a lot of mids. And those are kind of filled back out by a filter which is a preset for a Combinator patch called a Matrix filter. That’s what’s giving it a lot of its weird tuning and tonality – that filter I think adds these particular harmonics. I’ve used it on a lot of tracks. With certain instruments and certain synths it almost makes things sound a bit like a guitar. There’s an LFO on the Dr Rex player that gives it quite a choppy feel, but once all the reverb and stuff is added from the Matrix filter it fills in the space. I had some idea of a kind of woozy and drunk feel for this synth.
In a lot of house and techno rather than hearing space you hear the effect; you hear the character of a reverb or a delay rather than the spatial image these plug ins are meant to replicate. But in a lot of your productions I’m hearing space itself rather than a tangibly artificial version of space. I’m wondering if this is something you take a lot of time on. A lot of people are willing to slap a preset on a send and run with it.
DC: It’s something I tweak quite a bit especially working with reverb or delay. You know how when you get a synth or a plug in and there are preset libraries out there made by companies or third parties – when you go through all these libraries there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t immediately inspire you. To immediately listen to a lot of these synth patches the reaction might be that they’re not useable in terms of taste or originality – or even just having ridiculous sub bass frequencies or something. By the same token when you have a reverb plug in or module you’re going to have a lot of presets which are just not very useful and its really about finding the specific ones that work for you. The dry wet mix is something that I tweak and tweak for every instance that I opt to use reverb. It will always be a different ratio of dry/wet which is just dictated by whatever the song calls for or the part or stem call for. And there’s certainly a lot of presets I hear that once the sound ends there’s too much character to the reverb or delay. You’re meant to be hearing space but you’re just hearing the space designed for that preset and you’re losing the whole point of creating space in the music, because you’ve got something that you haven’t created yourself that’s interfering a bit. So I try to stay on a more subtle approach to reverb in most cases. Generally I’ll try to tweak the dry/wet balance to just the exact amount where I’ve created a sense of neatness but not at the expense of when the part needs to go silent.
A lot of the sounds you make inherently connote space. I think that has something to do with the spatial make up of your tracks being quite refined and neat. But at the same time your tracks generally have quite a lot of elements. In the house and techno field producers are often trying to make the best out of the least amount of elements. This approach has its attributes and works for some people, but also there are many with the fear of over cluttering things – everyone is taught to avoid frequency masking for instance – but your music has so much going on but everything manages to sit cohesively together.
DC: I’ve been thinking about it lately, what is it that influences me to construct things in that way, because I listen to a lot of classic house and a lot of older techno, and I buy a lot of records online and have big archives of very no frills stuff. Yet I can never really create that myself. I can never resist the urge to fill it out more and I think it comes from the music I listened to before really getting in to dance music. When I was a teenager I listened to a lot of krautrock, jazz fusion, free jazz; generally stuff that’s not quite as dense as an orchestra but at the same time not something where you could isolate the elements to the extent that you can isolate a rock band or isolate a drum track. Something in between those two where you have this abnormal ensemble, not ever knowing what might come into the frame. A bit of a jam band vibe where there could be a player you didn’t know was going to come in. And I think that is part of what influences me and part of why I want to pay attention to little details and little spatial things to try and create a dense kind of moment with the music, a dense character. It’s a common thing in a lot of online electronic dance music press, people deriding something as a ‘DJ tool’ if it has a specific function. But I think the experience you get making this sort of music reveals that these sorts of restrictions are actually an extremely interesting format to work in. Coming from a non-electronic music background especially, those strictures are something stimulating to work within.
It sounds like you’re getting drive out of making things work in that DJ context now.
DC: Yeah it’s definitely been a strong influence. I had done shows before going overseas in October of last year. I played a lot of my own stuff and it was good, I had that fun feeling of people recognising when something was coming on and generally it was well received. But compared to some of my favourite tracks by other producers I was just feeling like I wanted to almost… to conform is a dirty sounding thing for any artist to be saying, but I wanted to try to use some of that more purely club minded mentality to try and streamline what I worked on once I got back. Just to have an eye for it working in that context as well. And that was one of the big impacts of doing that tour. I basically felt, even if they weren’t for releases, I would create my own DJ tools.
I can really hear that in your side of the new Plastic World release. When I first heard that I was like ‘oh sweet, he’s totally going in to overdrive down that route now’. It’s so good when you can learn from all these different facets of how to understand electronic music and it’s been quite interesting listening to you embracing that club style but not really giving up any of your idiosyncratic tendencies.
DC: That’s a great comment to hear. I’ve been a bit anxious about potentially doing that. Sometimes I think ‘what if I stray too far from what people know I’ve done?’, or something, a kind of anxiety over the critical response. But I’m glad to hear you say that.
Check out this teaser video for Eugene’s latest Plastic World release as Tuff Sherm – a vinyl-only split 12″ featuring two songs each from Tuff Sherm & Cassius Select.
Well you’ve asserted your identity. Hearing that side of that record, it’s still in that same ballpark but it’s got more of a universal energy to it. This whole experience of going to Europe and playing shows and seeing the scale of what this music does, it’s a powerful thing – you should be confident going down that route because you’ll slay it.
DC: It was a direction I’d been heading in anyway but I was particularly encouraged because of the kind of label Plastic World is. It’s quite different to Trilogy Tapes or Opal Tapes. A lot of the labels I’ve worked with, if there was just one word to describe their overall catalogue or output, they’ve had quite an experimental side to them. With Plastic World, Vic and James are doing something that has live bands, something that has a broader remit than dance 12 inches. Not that I felt I was compromising anything but I felt particularly encouraged to make something quite energetic for that. Just to make something a bit, not even more accessible, but if it has that energy and funk influence then you can kind of use that as the way of bringing someone in, but then over the course of the track doing all the kind of weird idiosyncratic things that I would otherwise do. It’s a way in for a different audience.
I feel like what you’re describing is totally the sweet-spot of dance music right now, where it’s got these irresistible dance elements which get people in, but still retain a real subversive musicality that almost subconsciously takes people to a place that they wouldn’t have expected a minute and a half in to the track.
DC: Yeah, and as I think about that, exactly that, the notion of attracting them with certain kinds of signifying elements and certain levels of energy, certain genre traits, but then proceeding to take it apart and subvert it has really been the big theme of what I’ve been writing the last few months. Both with the Dro and Tuff Sherm projects for all the releases that are coming out this year.
Eugene’s latest release as Tuff Sherm is a vinyl-only split 12″ with producer Cassius Select, out now through the brilliant Plastic World records.
Our guest blogger Mark Smith is one half of ex-Sydney (now Berlin) techno duo Gardland. Look out for their next release in May 2014 on RVNG Intl.
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