CAPTAIN AO – A Conversation with Electronic Musician, DJAO

Alex Osuch, who records under the moniker of DJAO, is a member of the Pacific Northwest electronic music label/collective, Dropping Gems.  He is a relatively new artist making his way into the Seattle music scene, but with the release of his first solo EP, Wuhn and his more recent collaborative EP in the No Northwest series, he has been getting a lot of attention.  A promising up and comer, Osuch creates music that has a distinctive tone and that crosses genres.  Though he works with the tools of electronic music, he has a quality that appeals beyond his media.

Electronic music is not my genre of expertise, so it came as a surprise to me when I heard AO’s soothing and ambient tones on his solo release.  I had the good fortune of then, seeing him live at the Dropping Gems Showcase at Decibel Festival, where he was joined by friend and frequent collaborator, Zuri Biringer, whose lilting guitar riffs added a grounded sense of nature, invoking images of sky and water.  It’s impossible to listen to the Seattle native’s sound without being drawn to the beats.  However, while they ultimately drive the music forward, they aren’t the primary focus of the songs, which create a vivid mood through crooning vocals, guitar, and keyboard.  In combination with some incredible imagery that accompanied the performance, the set was nearly transcendent.

Not long after his show that night, I was able to sit down with Alex to discuss his development as a DJ and find out where he draws his inspiration from.  His ambient sound was a divergence from the sounds that I had heard from him previously and I had many questions.  Eloquently and in fascinating detail, he was able to give me answers to questions that I didn’t even know that I had.  To an electronic media newbie, like myself, I found him to be incredibly informative and insightful; even providing hints on where to start my own exploration of the vast genre.  In the end, he was even so helpful as to give a demonstration of how he creates his unique style.

The following is the transcript from that conversation.

PARVANEH: I guess my basic question would be, when did you get interested in electronic music and where did you see yourself going when you started?

DJAO: So, I don’t really know where to begin really.  I guess the first time that I ever heard an electronic music song that I thought, “Oh shit this is really incredible,” I heard- yeah, I guess it’s like the first track from the Beastie Boys album, Hello Nasty.  Yeah I heard it in like sixth grade.  We were sitting on a bus.  We were on a school trip and they had the CD and that was when that album came out, and I remember hating on it quite a bit.  -I’m sorry, I’m really OCD, I just need to make sure this is recording right.

[Checks on the recording]

Anyway so sixth grade on the bus?

So, sixth grade on the bus.  I remember I saw- I don’t know, it’s a long story, but I saw the Beastie Boys album cover and I was like, “I bet that sucks!”  and I was on this bus ride, and a friend of mine lent it to me.  I thought that them rapping was pretty cool, but the beat… everything about it was just so crazy to me.  It was like, “Wow, this is one of the hardest pieces of music I’ve ever heard”.  Up until then, I was just listening to 90s alternative.  I was really into Rage Against the Machine and stuff like that.  Then, through the Beastie Boys…  Their DJ is one of the best scratch DJs, his name is Mixmaster Mike and is one of the craziest musicians who uses a turntable, basically.  He’s really out there and really experimental and the crew that he’s from is really experimental.  They’ve done a lot of work.  They’ve released albums around turntables, using them to produce sound that I don’t think anyone’s really matched…  The whole turntable thing really died out.  That’s the way I really came to it, ’cause I really started DJing sophomore year of high school.  I wasn’t even DJing for people.  I was just, literally, in my room with the turntables just scratching for like ,two years probably…  Just scratching, listening to really, really weird beats made by other DJs and scratching with no purpose and no plan whatsoever.

Then I started DJing high school parties and dances and stuff, but I was still basically listening to all hip hop.  So, then I started DJing out.  Playing shows and stuff, just doing dances for friends at their houses and fundraisers.  You know, high schools.  Then, I went to college and I was still pretty much just listening to hip hop all the time and DJing and all that, and my style of DJing just started to get weirder -like the chopped and screwed stuff that I do now when I DJ, as opposed to my live show- started freshman and sophomore year.  I mean, it started in High School, but that’s when it really started to flourish.

And then, it was my junior year, when I studied abroad in London, where I really got exposed to-  Well, I was kind of eclectic, but when I moved to a different city where no one listened to hip hop, or most of my friends didn’t listen to hip hop, I suddenly learned about just so many different kinds of music and started to go out and see it live, which had a lot to do with me starting to catch on.  Especially when, around that time, that was…  that was 2007-2008…  That wasn’t when dubstep first started, but it was right when it was blowing up in-  Before it had blown up in America, but when it was becoming really developed and popular and a lot of people were starting to accept it as cutting edge and interesting.  And a lot of my favorite artists are dubstep artist who are from that era and who I saw live.  Like Benga,who I saw live before his album came out.  I only knew him through the internet.  I didn’t come to London knowing anything and, sitting in my room in London on the internet and realizing that all these super cutting edge dudes, who are so interesting and fascinating to me, are all in the city I was in, I was like, “Oh my god, I have to go to some of these shows”.  I remember, when I went to see Benga -I couldn’t find anybody to go with me- and, I remember I was just lying in bed that night and I was like, “Well, what am I gonna do tonight?  Am I just going to smoke and pass out, or am I going to go to this show by myself?”  And I went and, first of all, I met him and then, that is where I met my British girlfriend, totally randomly.

So it worked out well.

Turned out to be a good choice.  But I came back and my senior year just completely changed the music I DJed.  I started listening to electro, started listening to way more dubstep, and started listening to futurebeat.  Which is I guess is where you’d put me now, sort of.  But there’s a lot of words for it, like IDM.

What would that stand for?

That stands for “Intelligent Dance Music.”  It’s for like, experimental 90 beats per minute roughly.  It’s a pretty nebulous term.  It has a lot of connotations with music that came out in the mid-late 90s, or early 2000s.

I know when I saw you at the Baltic Room last fall, it definitely sounded like-  I mean, I’m sure it also had to do with the theme of the night, but it sounded much more dubstep-style.  A lot of heavy beats, but definitely pretty scratchy, do you feel like you were influenced by glitch at all, either?

You know, I think I was more influenced more by J Dilla than I was by any hard IDM or hard glitch, and I have friends who are really into glitch, like Calvin from Ghost Feet…  We did a Portland show recently and he drove me down from Olympia and he said, “You should check out this hard minimum glitch that I got from France.”  He said, “This stuff is so computer error,” and I was like, I like this stuff, but I don’t.  I don’t seek it out.  It definitely influences my music but it’s not like…

Not one of your main influences…

Not one of my main influences.  I think mainly it influences me through other artists that inspire me.  But that particular show was a DJ set, right?

Yeah

So yeah, I remember that set, that was really fun.  That was a lot of hip hop and chillwave and future beat and there was definitely some really crazy dubstep in there too.

*laughing* Yeah.

Yeah, the guy who booked me, Ill Cosby, is a future bass DJ and so, I pulled out more of my upper tempo- you know, strange, really mindblowingly arranged dance tunes for that one, more than I normally do.

I think…  I want to go back to that, too, but for your current stuff -like your Ep and the stuff you played at Decibel Festival- is much more low key, kind of with Zuri playing guitar and the singing aspect of it…  I’d been keeping up with your pieces coming out on the Dropping Gems compilations and, when your EP came out, I thought, “Wow, where did this come from?”  It sounded like a completely different style.  Was this something you were building up to, or was it something you didn’t really have the opportunity to do with the Dropping Gems Collective, or….?

Well all of that music is definitely like Dropping Gems music-

Really?

Yeah, because I make a lot of different kinds of music, but I have my more up-tempo stuff coming out on Car Crash Set in the middle of November, and I also have just straight dance music, like just regular dance music…  I guess it’s not regular, but to me it is, I just sit down and I think, “I’m gonna make a Baltimore club tune” and it just comes out however it comes out.  But, like the first song on the EP, “Underbrush,” when I sat down to make that, I thought, “I’m gonna make a dubstep tune” and that’s what came out…  So, I don’t always know. *laughter*  But, in my head, I classify it one way, but people…  But, that material is mostly over a year old.  Like “Green Lake” was a song I made right when I got a computer.  Like, I was in Seattle a while without a computer.

I guess I didn’t finish explaining…  When I graduated from college, I started working at a production company and started using the studio there and that’s how I actually started making beats.  I mean, I made beats in high school in the digital media lab on GarageBand and so, then using Logic -which is the professional version of GarageBand- which was at the studio I was working at, was not difficult.  And I still have tons of material from that time that hasn’t been released and I don’t know if it will ever be released and what I’ll do with it.  It doesn’t really matter, but all that stuff is really different.  But, I moved back to Seattle and, a couple months later, I got a computer; it was that summer.  Summer of 2010.  So, a little over a year ago.

So do you feel like you identify with some of the kinds of music that you’ve put out any more than others?  Like, do you feel like the stuff that came out on your EP was maybe stuff that expressed more of an individual style, or…?

Well, it’s hard to say with that, specifically.  I mean, all of that is really, really personal stuff, but, like I said, it’s pretty much a good record of the last year.  “Green Lake,” I made it last summer.  I made “Taigamoss”…  I made it last fall or winter.  “Underbrush” I’ve literally been working on for a year, at least.  “Moon Sun Ravine” just started as a beat with those voices, and that shit is really old too.  “Through The Field” is relatively recent, but couldn’t be any newer than the Spring.  The only thing that really I made this summer would be the second half of “Moon Sun Ravine” with Zuri playing the guitar, which I just made while I was living on Capitol Hill and I just called Zuri and said, “Man can you come over and play?  Bring your guitar I need to finish this goddamn EP.”

So how did the partnership…?

Yeah, the collaboration, the collaborative partnership

…the collaboration with Zuri come about?

We’ve just been friends for a long time- Man, when was the first time we jammed?  I don’t even know… the first thing that comes to mind is a song called “Forest,” which I played live at the Decibel show…  No, there’s another song, it’s called “Pacific City”…  Me and Zuri went down to Portland.  I think Zuri actually just came down to kick it, just the two of us went down to kick it with the Dropping Gems people.  This is like when I was first getting to know all of them.  And we just hung out and, at one point, we went to the Oregon coast and we went to this place called Pacific City, which was really, really, really incredible.  But yeah, at a certain point, he came over to the house and I had just put together-  Well, I think I might have actually, just done it all at once…  I just played some pads, played some noises, I had a couple different sounds, just a couple different chords on top of each other, or maybe just one chord, and I said, “Hey Zuri, just play some guitar over this” and a week later, I just went in and just chopped up what he had played and put it into a sampler and just played it.  And, because I don’t know how to play piano and I don’t know how to play guitar and, because like of all these things… collaborating with people who are really talented like Zuri, who is, first of all, unbelievably talented, but he’s also got exactly the same (well not exactly the same) but in the exact same continuum that I am, in terms of taste and definitely in terms of melodic sensibility, is great.

Of course.

And, during the Decibel show, he was really blowing me away.  He recorded that set -or, someone did- and I don’t know where it is.  I meant to record it, but was too flustered in the process of getting everything set up.  It just turned out to be just a really happy accident.  It wasn’t really an accident, but really an organic thing that I didn’t have to plan at all.  He would just come in and play over the things I made, I’d chop it up in the sampler and it would add so much.  We did a couple more songs that way and it developed into a thing that was just really, really fruitful from a production standpoint, and I realized, if we can do this in the studio, this would be perfect live, too.  He came through and played at the Electric Tea Garden and it was amazing.  It really helped my anxieties, ’cause there’s a general sense of anxiety when you’re playing music like this that is generally done in a studio ahead of time.  When you’re not like, just pressing play on an Ipod, which I have literally seen people do before…

Right *laughing*

So, having it be done as much live as possible is really important thing for me and I’m not anywhere near where I want to be in terms of that.  Like, I just do what I can at the moment and, as I get to be a better musician, I’ll add more.

Well, I think the stuff you’ve done with Zuri always sounds really natural.  I think, a lot of times, when people have another instrument come in, it can sound weird, but I was actually playing your EP with my boyfriend -this is kind of an aside- but he said, “God, this would be really great with some guitar over it,” and then all the sudden Zuri comes in and he was like, “oh! Perfect!”  So, I think it feels really natural and makes a lot of sense.  And, I guess I have a lot of questions, too, about how you put your music together on a technical level.  I mean, I have NO knowledge about the process of making electronic music; like what programs you use or how you put it together, but I guess I’ll save those for later when you show me how it works.

Having seen your previous show and having heard the stuff that’s been coming out on compilation CDs, I think I heard a much more obviously complex kind of a sound from you, like you were saying about the show that I saw; that you were really kind of throwing everything out there.  And it seems like a lot of your recordings have been showcasing a lot of different skills that you have technically as a DJ.  When you came out with your EP, or your stuff that you’ve been working on longer term, the sound seemed to be a lot simpler on the surface.  Though, seeing you live, I feel like I could tell the complexities in the beats, which kind of moved around a little bit, subtly changing tempos.  Why did you make that change in your sound?

Well, it wasn’t that much of a change for me, really, because that’s how I’ve always done it.  I just hadn’t released any of it, so no one really knew.  When DJing, I’m so eclectic and I’m drawn to so many different things…  The biggest distinction, though, is that I’m playing other peoples’ music and not, you know, not mine.  I’m not creating that stuff that I play.  Anyway, the thing about my live shows is that I don’t have a template or formula for making song, and I don’t have a formula for structuring songs in the middle of making them and, especially if I come back to something that I was working on… anything new that I do will be different than what I was originally doing.  It’ll be in the same vein, but… you can really tell on the fourth track of the EP, “Moon Sun Ravine,” there’s the part where the voice is and then, there’s the part with the guitar.  And they were both made months apart from each other.  And so, you can just tell.  And, for some people, the switch may be too much.  I know I had long conversations with people, in Dropping Gems specifically, who just said,”the guitar is too much, it’s too jarring.”  I agonized about that for a little while, but eventually, I decided to keep it.  But, in any event, the reason why tempos change and beats change is because that’s just what happens when I play the songs.

Right, I wasn’t meaning that in a negative way.  I really like that, actually.

Yeah.  No, I mean, I have plenty of thoughts about what to say like, “Well, you know, life is always changing.

*Laughter*

But seriously, life is never in a lock-step meter.  You know, every day could potentially be a revolutionary day.  Like, if something crazy happens and you have to upend your whole life… that’s kind of what this summer’s been like for me a little bit.  Things have finally settled down, but also there’s a lot of points on the EP and in my live set where there aren’t any drums at all.  It’s just ambient.  And then, drums come in and that’s kind of similar to the patterns of life, you know.  Activity and inactivity, or inspiration and depression, or whatever else you want to say.  So, the EP is also narrative, so it really has a specific narrative…  It’s like a trip, like a walk in the woods, you know?  And there’s stops and starts to that experience, too.  There’s parts where you’re walking down a hill and you might trip, or other times where things are just mundane and you’re trying to stay in line.

So, just to clarify, the narrative is the movement of someone through….?

Well, it’s just natural environments, forests, specifically.  Obviously, it’s not a specific place, it’s more fantasy-based than that.

I think you can definitely feel that in the EP.   Obviously, the names of the songs tend to imply that naturalness.  I guess that, to me as a listener, hearing some of your stuff that’s more rhythm-heavy and complex, compared to the ambient sounds that you have on the EP, it definitely seems to be much more reminiscent of nature as opposed to mechanics.

Yeah, definitely.  I mean, that’s the thing about… I love electronic music…  I was thinking about this the other day.  It’s probably the genre of music where the most exciting things are happening, just in general.  But, you know, there’s a significant history to electronic music and a lot of the pioneers…  I’m not like a hard electronic music nerd.  Especially with pioneer stuff.  I mean, I might get myself in trouble for saying this, but… I don’t like rigid, harsh, computer sounds.  I just don’t.  That’s what a lot of people make and that’s actually what’s popular, essentially.  Mid-range dubstep that has a lot of spikey computer sounds and huge over-compressed kicks and snares, it sounds like robots screaming and stuff.  There’s definitely a nice, enjoyable side to that music, but it seems like there’s way more bad than good and there’s way more inorganic electronic music.

Do they do that to put an emphasis on skill?

Well, not so much that, it’s just an aesthetic.  It’s a harsh aesthetic, and it’s an aesthetic that lacks a lot of mechanic rhythm.  It honestly, just has a lot to do with people partying.

It’s different for me, because I use a computer as my main instrument, but I don’t want to express robotic ideas or cold, synthetic ideas, or rigid ideas.

One of the cool things, I think, about the EP is that, because of the ambient sounds and getting away from the more mechanical aspects of electronic music, where the beat isn’t the emphasis, but has a large effect on the feeling of the music, it seems to have an appeal to more people who are outside of the electronic music world.  Were you intentionally trying to reach outside of that scene?

Well, not really.  It’s something I want, but it’s not something I’m explicitly aiming for in my head when I am making the music.  Part of it’s just that I have pretty eclectic taste and I like seeing a lot of different things live, you know.  I actually went to my first death metal show on Friday and it was a really extreme scene, but it’s really awesome, too.  I just got booked for a show in Portland and I’m playing right before the headliner and it’s just an indie band.  No one else on the bill is electronic and to me that makes perfect sense.  I don’t want to appeal to just one crowd and… there’s people I know I won’t appeal to, but…  I mean, I would love to appeal to everyone.  I guess I’m kind of insecure that way, you know, I’d love if everyone liked me.

*Laughter*

But, I don’t think that I want one scene or audience versus another.  And I like to make people feel comfortable and to communicate positive information and feelings, especially in a live setting where people are congregated together.  It’s nice to be able to communicate that individually to people through their headphones or whatever, but specifically when I’m physically there performing and creating sounds where there are a lot of people congregated to hear it, I really, really want what I’m transmitting to be positive.  I mean, I have a lot of music and I play these things that communicate a negative state of mind, but I try to do it in a way that’s enjoyable or at least uplifting.

There are a lot of artists, in my genre specifically, who are about being as harsh and nasty as possible and people go to those shows and are like “Yeah play the crazy shit!” and I totally respect that and sometimes I feel like that.  Like I said, I went to this metal show and it was awesome, but it was definitely some of the heaviest and most brutal stuff I’ve seen live.

Well, that kind of leads into what I think is going to be one of my final questions.  For you, what do you think are the advantages to playing a live show vs. a studio recording and vice versa?

Well, live shows are totally different, because (with) in studio recordings, I’m spending hours and hours and hours trying to find the right sounds and put them together correctly and getting them all mixed and balanced correctly, and to get the thing I’m looking for, which I only have the vaguest idea about and don’t really know it until I find it.  It just takes forever and it’s emotionally kind of harrowing and it’s just a mess and it takes a while.  And then, once I’ve found it, I’ve found it and it’s like a happy accident and I can enjoy it.  And in a live performance, it’s just about communicating that hard work to people in the most accessible way possible.  The most important work happens in the studio and the live show is like a celebration of what I’ve managed to find.  And I get to do some of it live, so it’s interesting to watch, but mostly it’s like, “Look what I found, guys!

I know you mentioned this earlier and you didn’t really have a chance to talk about this, but you brought up that there were certain people who (you) felt like witnessing their live shows was really influential to you and (I was wondering) if you’d like to talk about it and how it influenced you….

Well yeah, James Blake is the pinnacle to me, as far as this section of electronic music goes, and he is a polarizing figure, I guess.  But to me, he’s the only person who has taken, well… I mean, I read an interview with him once and people asked him, “What’s your live show going to be like?” ’cause he was still developing it, and he said, “Well I just want it to be like Mount Kimbie’s philosophy on it.”  They’re another British group and they’re similar, but they don’t take it quite as far as James Blake, which is for him to basically play every note live.  Which is… it’s electronic music.  It’s made over multi-track on a computer -he makes it himself in his bedroom- but when he tours, he has a guy playing the drums and a guy playing the guitar and using a sampler, and he’s singing and playing the keyboards, and every sound that you hear on the record (and it may be slightly different) is being made live and being produced live and, to me, that’s the ideal.

So, do you see yourself moving in that direction in the future?

I have so many plateaus I have to reach before I can do that.  I have to learn to play the piano, I have to learn how to arrange for a band and I have to find…  I think Zuri would be a perfect person to tour with, which is why I do, but I’d have to figure out where I fit in and how I could have control over the sounds that I want to have control over.

Flying Lotus is another person who tours with a drummer and Thundercat is a bass player from LA who’s like, amazing.  He’s at a computer consul doing stuff and controlling the sounds and letting the band members go wild, which is kind of what I do, but way, way, way less talent and control in my situation.

Mount Kimbie are another good example, but they run a lot of stuff off samplers.  They play guitar live and they play drum pads live and stuff, and they have a snare that they hit every once in a while, so they’re another good example of that.

Shlohmo’s newest album is really organic and he uses loops, which is another option potentially, but I like playing with other people.  It’s basically, translating what my really personal ideas are and having control over them and then expanding that to include other people.  It’s a tremendous challenge…

Also Brown Bear, who is in Dropping Gems, has a project where he plays with a full band.   And Toro y Moi, one of my favorite beatmakers, had one of the best albums in 2010, and now he plays with a band and his music is different, because he plays with a band, and it’s amazing, but it’s just not what I would have wanted him to do, just because I love that one album so much… but, it also reminds me that it’s just not something that I think I’d be able to do to full satisfaction for a few years.

Thanks so much for talking to me about this.  I think we should wrap up this section of the interview and head over to see how you make your music.

Sounds good.


After the interview, Alex let me come check out his studio, where he demonstrated how he creates a track from scratch.  It was a really great way to end the day and to round out some of my newfound knowledge of the electronic music artform.

[Unfortunately, the flip cam recording the footage doesn’t capture the bass very well.]

LINKS:

Find out more about DJAO from the following links…

DJAO on Facebook
DJAO on SOUNDCLOUD
DJAO Dropping Gems Profile

His EP, Wuhn, can heard and/or purchased by “name your price” through here: http://droppinggems.bandcamp.com/album/wuhn

His more recent release is an installment of the No Northwest series put out by the Car Crash Set Label.  The series is an effort to spotlight Northwest producers and is a split EP, which he shares with HxdB, a Vancouver producer.  Two of the tracks are from DJAO; one being a solo piece called, “Just For Today” and the other, “Meditation,” being a collaboration with Yuk.  It is his first “for-money,” wide-release EP and is available for purchase at the following links:
BeatPort
AMAZON
Boomkat

Photo Credit:

Header image taken by Parvaneh Angus.
All other images are provided courtesy of Lara Schneider.

Parvaneh

Parvaneh currently lives in Seattle, where she intermittently contributes to Monster Fresh and, far more frequently, can be found exploring photography. Evidence of her photographic efforts can be found at thesunsetseast.com.

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