You are very prolific but do you ever have times when you don’t have inspiration and ideas? Do you still go into the studio and try and force it?
First question, yes. Second question, not anymore. I just came out of a little writer’s block and I learn more and more how to deal with that. It’s essential to put the focus on results (tracks) aside. This could lead to a change in my workflow. I could get rid of something that bothers me and messes with my workflow or add something new. The last option is the one I prefer the least as GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is a serious threat to creativity and can lead to unhappy feelings and restless behaviour. I know rationally that I could spend 2 lives learning and making music with my current gear. Emotionally I’m hungry for more and allow myself a gear snack every now and then.
Sound design is the best activity when stuck in a writer’s block or similar situation. You should force yourself to really delve deep into the equipment you have. For example, in my head I sold my Analog Rytm 5 times, now I rediscovered it because I started using it solely with my own produced drum kits. If things bother you, don’t use them or use them in another creative context. Organising my samples and presets is always a good activity, it’s very rewarding. Most of the time I’m stuck searching for suitable timbres and going through a heap of crap that I don’t use or sounds like a mediocre preset. Get rid of that.
Another trick to get inspired is “the new context with one piece of equipment approach” and letting go of the resulting focus, just messing around. If this doesn’t work, I just start working on other things besides music and audio. You need to clean your head then. Inspiration comes from tools but also from boredom.
To be honest, I was always a very unhappy person when I didn’t finish productions, It was addictive, I was really addicted to making tracks. I learn more and more to let go and find different ways of getting satisfaction. Sound design is the way to go, it’s just an endless inspiration. The problem in the studio nowadays is not “what you use”, but “what you don’t use”, especially in the world of software.
How is life in lockdown for you? Are you locked down?
When you are a lab rat studio guy like me, life in lockdown ain’t different. It scared me a bit when I came to this conclusion but after a while, it eased on me. All social pressure is now reduced to a minimum. I see people freaking out, not knowing what to do with their lives once they don’t have work… I don’t have that at all. I can be creative in a relatively small space, I was able to do so in my entire youth.
Now is time to connect with your loved ones as well. What freaks me out is that people use this world pandemic catastrophic situation for their own PR benefits. When doctors are saving the lives of the vulnerable and even healthy people, certain creative individuals are more afraid of losing their self-centred moment of attention for a weekend or two. Don’t get me wrong, it’s bad for everyone, club scenes, companies, self-employed people including myself who see all their income disappear in the coming months, it’s a disaster alright. It’s time to unite and support each other, with real hopeful initiatives. But yes, people try to survive.. 3 days in, I already saw labels and artists begging for money on their PayPal accounts from their fanbase. I would stay a bit more reserved, to be honest. I say this whole situation is a big wake up call if you’re not ill and have time to overthink life at least. We still don’t have any idea how long this situation will last. Many will be forced to re-invent their lifestyles, jobs and god knows what more for some time… It’s a test for people and I think nature receives it with loud enthusiasm. You see that society is still running for the most essential labour, this period already made me realise how much unnecessary luxury elements society holds. People with real essential jobs should get all credit right now. We still have groceries and fresh tap water.
How was the year before this broke out? What had been good for you?
For my musical career, things started to finally get a little better again. I had some good shows, one specifically at Tresor at the start of the year. I started picking up the DJ’ing stuff again and got rid of my screen, it felt good to do that. Gig wise however I think this scene has become a total rat race and not something I initially signed up for. You need a long breath to stay in, is my conclusion, especially if you’re not hot and happening.
Consistency is worth very little in a world where people are continuously addicted to the “NEW” stuff. Tendencies come and go faster than ever, I have a hard time to keep up with it. I learn more and more to focus on my own bubble, favourite artists and interests. One can only do that in times of total overkill.
Starting more sound design orientated projects was a good decision and gave me new energy, in the near future I also want to start doing online classes and finish writing my own tutorials about music inspiration, creativity and not so much the technical side of production. Currently, I’m developing this. Production-wise I had a long period of disinterest in making tracks so I forced myself to do other things like sound design, making patch libraries, recording loads of samples and organising my workflow.
Tell us about your new album ‘Manifold’ for 20/20 Vision – what inspired it, was there an aim for it from the start?
There was no intention to do an album actually. I had an album ready, something more downtempo and experimental but that was not suitable for 20/20 Vision. This is still in progress and will see the light of day soon. I made so many individual tracks in a short timespan when I got my hands on a Korg Monopoly. I sent this folder to 20/20 as a second option for EP’s, they were blown away by the tracks and said that it was perfect to release this as an album.
I had no intention in doing a DJ friendly electro album as I think there should be more variety on an album. I changed my opinion on that along the way and came to the conclusion that tracks worked really well together and formed a consistent piece. Hence that it was made in the same time period so things tend to have certain similarities.
Actually a completely new album was born out of a second folder with more beat orientated electro tracks, and then Ralph Lawson and I then made a selection. The title stands more for having different elements in one. It’s how I always like to approach albums, with a certain diversity but still coherent. That is always the challenge. Nothing highly conceptual this time, the focus is still more focussed on moods rather than distorted beats.
What gear did you use, is there a fav bit of kit that really defines your sound?
I would say that gear is not defining my sound, it’s always shifting. Your reference to sound quality is the most important. I always say: analog ears, digital production.
Lately however the Elektron Digitone (sound-wise my favourite Elektron gear) and the Korg Mono/Poly I also worked a lot on the super cheap Roland JV1080/2080. It sounds very lush and warm for pads, strings and anything atmospheric. It’s crazy how a piece of old digital equipment can still sound better than a 2019 VST plugin that is supposed to have the same functionally.
I was so motivated to program a full sound library for the JV1080 with mostly pads and ethereal sounds. A few weeks ago this was published at Gumroad.com/Conforce People can use my patch library now and make music with that.
Another thing I started to invest in is making my own drum-kits. I always struggle with drum sounds, I got really bored with all Roland drum sounds. Even my precious 808 is collecting dust. I decided it was time to make analog synthetic drum sounds myself on various synthesizers. It is a work in progress but I managed to already record several kits with the SH09, Nord Drum and Mono/Poly. It is a good way to learn your synth.
How do you work – do you just jam and record the sessions then edit them into tracks, or do you write parts or?
I never write down ideas and I never spend time writing down melodies before going into the studio. I love to do things on the fly and get in “the zone”, most of the time tracks just arise out of sketches or simple ideas where you’re messing around with a plugin or piece of gear. My way of working is very simple, when I’m playing with the outboard gear I just record all those on separate tracks. Sometimes the tracks are instantly done.
Another way of working is pre-recording all elements from your equipment into loops and then doing a live take on a mixer after you recorded the elements. After that comes post-production but I’m the type that already works on his mix during the production process… Before I wasn’t doing that. I was too impatient alright, now I have more patience and spend more time on my mixes. It’s a process that sometimes freaks me out and drives me insane. Especially bass drums.
When I’m producing fully in the box it’s sometimes very easy to get things done, it’s convenient but not always the most pleasing sounding result. I like the hybrid approach I guess. Use the best of both worlds. I take time to finish arrangements or takes.
Why did this one come under Versalife and not any other alias of yours?
I feel it instantly in the studio when it’s a Versalife mood, it’s just all about machine funk I think. Broken beats with evil bass and sometimes a certain melancholy. Some tracks are more retro-esque and others have a more contemporary edge to it. I would say Versalife is a certain mode. It’s really a switch in my head, I can’t really explain it properly but the music does so I think. I try to push myself with new technology and equipment to stay inspired. The character of an album changes with every new one but at the base, there will always be a Versalife soul.
My last Conforce album saw me adopting some of the influences from other projects but I think that is just a good development, meaning I’m getting closer to my own sound and not imitating other artists too much. Not saying that is a bad thing. Cross-genre stuff is the most interesting for me.
And how did it land on 20/20? What was it like working with them?
I found it to be a very easy going work process. Ralph Lawson works fast and was on point, at the same time you work on something highly creative but you also know it’s a business thing. I think we connect well in both worlds at the moment. I trust strongly on my intuition and feel Ralph is also allowing that with the music selection. His enthusiasm is much appreciated and I am a quick worker so all goes well. I can’t lean on projects for weeks or months, I lose my attention and interest. They are a dedicated bunch of people at 20/20. As a teenager, I was buying records from this label. I like their open approach to pure electronic music.
At the same time, they don’t put any restrictions on what I’m doing, I take their advice and suggestions seriously. Labels like 20/20 have a quality value for me, they know the biz model and also how to properly release an artist album. It’s not an easy market today for the type of niche music we’re doing right now. So far they do an excellent job.
What did you learn about yourself or how did you challenge yourself with this album?
I think it was an out of the box challenge, I would say that 80% is all produced out of the box and later slightly post-produced. One of the centrepieces on the album was a recently bought Korg Monopoly. It’s always interesting when there is new gear, you are completely fresh and start at zero. It’s really an interesting moment where you should record as much as possible. I have this mostly with outboard stuff, you invest in it, it grabs you or not and when it does you just want to get the maximum sound potential out of it and search for the real sweet spots. A lot of the tracks use this synth in a variety of contexts resulting in grumpy fat bass sounds, arpeggios, weird effects. I discovered this synth is really a great all in one electro machine, I could produce with this only. I even made a complete electronic drum kit on it and recorded that separately. If you force yourself to stick to once piece of equipment, that is where you start pushing and become pretty creative. I’m easily lost in a computer most of the time, thinking what to do, the options are endless…. It’s great if there is some hyperfocus.
What will be the first thing you do when the lockdown is over?
Visit some family mostly, get a big fix of nature and play a couple of previously cancelled shows after that. Hopefully, if they get rescheduled… I think I miss the musical interaction and social aspect of the touring artist life a lot. Things start to become linear at some point.
What else have you got coming up/are you working on?
I have been really productive in the last months on several free projects, the base is there for let’s say 2 new albums. Also, I had a good run in the studio again as Versalife during the self-isolation period. All I need to do however is make selections and look for the final pieces of the puzzle. A lot of sketching was done and it’s a matter of doing the takes. Hopefully, it results soon in a new Severnaya ambient LP, I’m still not 100% satisfied.
Besides music I’m very active with an online wine magazine together with my girlfriend, it’s called winemugs. We write about consumers, producers and all who love to spread a bit of the joy of life. We make articles, portraits and produce educational videos with a twist.
Words by Pete Downes