“New York City, 2069. A new form of crime has evolved. Only one hard-as-nails ex-cop has what it takes to get to the bottom of their plot and stop the new age outlaws from finding the alien artifact and destroying earth as we know it.”
Reading these words, you might assume them to be culled from the back of a Commodore 64 game or a yellow-paged, sour-smelling sci-fi novel found in amongst a pile of Danielle Steeles and Stephen Kings in a provincial car boot sale. They are in fact the blurb for New Age Outlaws, an album released by Dylan Ettinger on Not Not Fun last year.
Originally issued on cassette and then subsequently embellished and reworked for a superior ‘Director’s Cut’ vinyl edition, New Age Outlaws is one of the most absorbing and oddly moving records to come out of the US synth underground of late. The music is only the half of it: Ettinger takes as much pleasure in sketching out his own fictional universes as his fans take in exploring them. We’re talking about an artist who thinks about “plot”, “storyline” and “theme” when creating records. Titles come first. The music arises out of imagined settings and dialogue between characters. “I actually wrote up a few pages of a New Age Outlaws novel,” Ettinger explains. “I had more parts in mind before I kind of had to move on and leave that world behind.”
New Age Outlaws forms part of a loose trilogy with Botany Bay and Smokin’, all released in 2010. They’re set in the kind of future worlds imagined in the pulp movies, video games and literature of the 1980s, and of course strongly coloured by that decade’s own aesthetic fetishes and predilections. The spirit of Ettinger’s work resides in, and thrives on, that slippage between imagined past and imagined future. He’s hardly the only artist to be exploring this territory in 2011 – the cop-fixated creations of Cameron Stallones (Sun Araw) spring immediately to mind, and there’s a more tangential connection to the time-travelling occultism of Belbury Poly’s From An Ancient Star and the cold war sagas of Danny Wolfers’ myriad Strange Life projects – but he’s found his own niche within it.
At once luminescent and world-weary, New Age Outlaws is the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist, but which really should: one colliding the cyber-punk flamboyance of Liquid Sky with the macho existentialism of William Friedkin and Michael Mann’s classic cop thrillers (To Live And Die In L.A., Manhunter, etc). It’s interesting to imagine what someone casually encountering this record in a second-hand-store in 2040 will think. Will they look at the title and the bairbrushed artwork and assume it to be a genuine 80s artefact? The soundtrack for a real VHS obscurity? Will the degraded synthesizer laments contained in its grooves sound more or less futuristic to our browser’s ears than the clean lines and sharp angles of 70s and 80s records that inspired it? Or will the whole package simply scream “TEMPORALLY CONFUSED NOUGHTIES”?
The point is, Ettinger’s releases are works of imagination. The glistening, retro-futuristic cityscapes that he sculpts in words and sounds are a world away from his own hermetic working life in the “poorly lit, damp basements” of Bloomington, Indiana, and it is perhaps this very diametric opposition that gives his mental conjurings such passion and piquancy.
Musically, New Age Outlaws reminds us of that strange but true 80s alliance between European synthesizer music and the Hollywood dream machine, specifically invoking Tangerine Dream’s scores for The Sorcerer, Risky Business, Near Dark, and of course Vangelis. But where TD’s work revelled in its own sequenced slickness, Ettinger’s loose, cassette-crunched compositions offer a little more grit, a little more humanity – he wanted to evoke the sheer exhaustion of a cop with the whole world against him, and he’s succeeded; at times its sounds like his actual instruments are going to collapse from a lack of sleep and a lack of leads.
Ettinger’s new material, beginning with current NNF single ‘Lion Of Judah’, takes a slightly different tack. It represents his vision of pop music, leaving behind the clotted ambient pulsations of NAO in favour of a cleaner, crisper synth-pop sound derived from Kraftwerk, John Foxx and The Human League (‘Lion of Judah’ and its B-side ‘Baptism’ bear a striking resemblance to the work of early League in particular, not to mention their previous incarnation, The Future. There’s also a concerted dub feel to these tracks, with Ettinger citing Augustus Pablo as a continual source of inspiration (interestingly, John Foxx considers his own stark synth-pop masterpiece Metamatic to be a kind of dub album, its radical minimalism and spatial arrangement directly influenced by Lee Perry). In this interview, Ettinger talks in depth to FACT’s Kiran Sande about his new album, provisionally entitled Lifetime of Romance, and the tortuous but picturesque route he’s taken to get there.
“I wanted to evoke a sense of weariness and hopelessness.”
“NAO was a project that kind of had a life of its own. From the start until completion, it just kept growing and mutating into what was released as the final LP. I thought I had finished the tape and I sent the recordings to Britt at Not Not Fun. But I wasn’t really satisfied with how some of the songs turned out and I didn’t think the album sounded complete. Shortly after I sent Britt the original mix, I went back and recorded a new song to start off the album, re-recorded two tracks, and added new synth lines to other songs. The biggest change was the addition of the interludes that helped tie the different songs together. I was hoping I could get things wrapped up and sent to him in time to release the actual ‘final’ recordings on the tape. It took me a little longer than expected, so we just went with the original mixes. When I finally showed Britt the ‘director’s cut’ tracks, he really liked them and wanted to do an LP.”
“The new songs are far more personal and I actually sing real lyrics that aren’t about cyborgs and law enforcement.”
You’ve talked elsewhere about how as you’ve grown older you’ve tended towards cleaner sounds and more song-oriented contributions than your early forays into psych/noise. Can you talk a little bit about your changing attitudes to instrumentation and recording in this sense?
“I think I’ve always been a pop musician at my core. Even when I wanted to make ‘noise’ music or whatever, I had to struggle to suppress my melodic tendencies. I feel like a lot of the changes in my songwriting and instrumentation are subconscious. I’ve slowly started to find my own ‘voice’ in the way I use my synthesizers and in how I construct melodies. I’ve always liked lo-fi recordings for a multitude of reasons, but I have mostly recorded to tape out of necessity. I’ve used the same four-track for years now; I got it for free from my college roommate’s cousin. I found out after using it extensively that the recordings sounded far better if the material I recorded was more minimal in composition and if the different sounds and lines were more distinct. So I focused more and more on cutting out the fat and stripping down a song to its most important constituent parts. After a while this approach to recording kind of seeped into my songwriting methods and I stopped making wall of sound synth jams like Bread of the Dead and began working on more melodic material like Cutters, New Age Outlaws and The Botany Bay.
You mentioned to me prior to this interview that ‘Lion of Judah’ indicates the direction of your future material. Although in some ways the change is obvious from listening, I wondered how exactly you’d articulate it?
“‘Lion of Judah’ is my first serious foray into pop music. I wanted to take a drastically different direction after I finished New Age Outlaws and what felt most natural to me was to start writing pop songs. I’m currently working on the follow up to NAO and it’s shaping up to be comprised mainly of songs similar in style and tone to ‘Lion of Judah’ and [‘Lion of Judah’ B-side] ‘Baptism’.
“The new material is definitely pop music; one of my new goals is to be more concise and to get my ideas across more efficiently.”
Can you tell us any more about this upcoming album?
“I’m working with a very flexible deadline. I hope to have finished writing the record in the next month and I hope to have it recorded by the end of the summer. I have no idea when it will be released, there are always a lot of delays with the pressing and artwork, so if it comes out before the end of 2011, I’ll be really surprised. The new material is definitely pop music; one of my new goals is to be more concise and to get my ideas across more efficiently. ‘Lion of Judah’ is really a good indication of what direction my music is heading. The songs are far more personal and I actually sing real lyrics that aren’t about cyborgs and law enforcement. The album will be called Lifetime of Romance.
What influences would you say have fed into ‘Lion Of Judah’? It feels a more bass-wise, minimal record than its predecessors…I really hear some of that dusty, loping digi-dub feel of the LA Vampires & Zola Jesus album from last year – was that an important record for you at all?
“I’ve actually never gotten a chance to listen to that LA Vampires and Zola Jesus record, I have a hard time keeping up with contemporary music. Most of what influenced and shaped the sound and tone of ‘Lion of Judah’ is English synth-pop from the late 1970s like Gary Numan, John Foxx and the very early Human League material. I’m also a big fan of Augustus Pablo, so when recording, I half-jokingly asked my friend Drekka to break out his melodica and lay something down. We both loved how it sounded and decided to keep working with that in the song.”
Am I right in thinking that Drekka isn’t the only guest musician you’ve employed on your releases? Are there many like-minded people in your neck of the woods? A scene even?
“My friend Clarke Joyner plays saxophone on NAO and he plays with me live sometimes, as well. Other than a few friends like Clarke, Drekka and Rob Funkhouser (all of whom I have collaborated with), I feel very isolated in Bloomington. People here tend to be more caught up with horrible rehashed 90s indie rock than anything that I’m remotely interested in. I’ve been playing music with this project in Indiana for around five years and only now are people here actually starting to realize that I even exist. There just hasn’t been a real audience for weird electronic music in Southern Indiana.”
What came first with New Age Outlaws, the concept or the music? How “thematic” are you with your recording projects in the first instance?
“The concept behind NAO and the music developed together. I knew I wanted the album to sound like the soundtrack to a lost cyberpunk sci-fi film, but beyond that, I hadn’t developed the story at all. As I kept recording, it helped me to imagine specific settings or exchanges between characters for each song. I started to think, ‘Well, who is Gordon? Where does he live? What is his world like?’ and when I started conceptualizing the record like this, the story fell into place. Almost always, I start with a theme or concept before I start writing or recording. I come up with the title first and then work from there. I knew what I was going to call my next record before I had written a single song for it.”
“I knew I wanted the album to sound like the soundtrack to a lost cyberpunk sci-fi film, but beyond that, I hadn’t developed the story at all.”
Tell me more about how you settled upon the theme and storyline of of New Age Outlaws. Had it been gestating for a long time?
“The plot of NAO was something that developed slowly along side the recording process. For the songs, I had come up with characters like Rico, Gordon and Shandor as well as settings like the waterfront or the pawn shop. I really didn’t begin fleshing out the story beyond that until after I had finished the album completely and still wanted to articulate some of the ideas. I actually wrote up a few pages of a New Age Outlaws novel and I had more parts in mind before I kind of had to move on and leave that world behind.
In placing such emphasis on storylines and concepts in your work, do you ever feel you’re making it impersonal?
“In the past, that wasn’t really something I concerned myself with. The way I asserted my personality was through my melodies and the patches and synth tones I used. I have a favourite set of patches on one of my digital synths that I tend to come back to regularly as a source for sounds. So by using a set of similar sounds on multiple recordings, I’ve sort of developed my own personal batch of idiosyncratic sounds that pop in and out of various recordings. These days, I’m focusing more on certain aspects of my life as a source for inspiration, so I guess the self is being brought to the forefront.”
“New Age Outlaws is the soundtrack to one man’s defeat.”
When did you first become conscious of music as having the potential to be a kind of “sonic fiction”?
“I don’t know if there was a specific point when I realized that potential before I started working on the album. Like I said earlier, the story for NAO developed as I was working on the music and I originally used it as a kind of personal guide to help me get a better feel for the tone of the record. I knew going in to NAO that I wanted there to be a sort of narrative form to the recordings in the way they flowed and with the sprawling sense of space. I never really planned on how far the story would develop before I started or that one of the larger purposes of the record would be to help tell a story.”
There’s a very elegiac feeling to NAO, at least to my ears; it feels like a sombre, rueful record, almost like it’s in mourning for something.
“I wanted to evoke a sense of weariness and hopelessness. NAO takes place in this huge, overwhelming futuristic metropolis. Gordon, the main character, is at his wit’s end. He’s been working as a detective for a long time in a city that’s constantly bombarding him with sensory input. As he starts to uncover the mystery behind Shandor and Tech Firms, he’s continuously beaten down and given no time to recover. He keeps pressing on and doing his job, even after being fired from the force. New Age Outlaws is the soundtrack to one man’s defeat. Gordon’s downfall.”
Can you tell us about your writing and recording conditions? Where do you work, and does that immediate environment impact at all on the music you make?
“I’ve worked and recorded in a lot of different spaces. While in college, I moved around a lot and many of the places I live didn’t have adequate space to set up and practice. I would take all of my equipment home with me for the holidays and record in my family’s empty old house that was up for sale. I’ve recorded most of my work there because I was able to isolate myself and just see the task through to the end. I do most of my practicing and writing in the basements of my friends’ houses. I’ve always felt like the natural habitat for my music is in a poorly lit, damp basement. I don’t know if I can really say how that’s affected my music because it is kind of the only way I have ever done things. ”
The success of New Age Outlaws has perhaps overshadowed your other 2010 offerings: Composed By Dylan Ettinger, Interstellar Pleasures and the magnificent Cutters. Can you tell me a little bit about the origins and orientation of each of these releases?
“Cutters is my cycling-themed album. It’s named after a team that races in the annual Little 500 race here in Bloomington and it has a cheery, summer feel to it because I was spending a lot of time riding my bike while recording. I was inspired by a lot of [fellow cycling enthusiasts] Kraftwerk’s driving, electronic, motorik beats. It was originally going to be a cassette, but Digitalis and Ruralfaune teamed up to co-release it as an LP.
“I’ve always felt like the natural habitat for my music is in a poorly lit, damp basement.”
“The music on Interstellar Pleasures was kind of like a practice run for New Age Outlaws. I recorded those songs right before I started tracking NAO as a way to sort of figure out what I wanted as far as tone and style. These two pieces ended up sounding pretty different from NAO and I sent them to Brad Rose over at Digitalis and he loved them.
“The companion cassingle to NAO was recorded at the same time as ‘Lion of Judah’, actually. The A-side, ‘Geology’, is another piece to the NAO story and the B-side is a cover of one of my favorite Human League songs, ‘Being Boiled’.
Your work has been released variously in cassette and vinyl form. Are you an avid fan/fetishist of any format in particular?
“I mainly listen to [vinyl] records. It isn’t really a case of object fetishism so much as it’s the only way to acquire a lot of the music I’m interested in. I do own and listen to a lot of cassette tapes, but records are definitely my preferred format. I find it hard to give my full attention to anything I listen to on on mp3 and I haven’t had a CD player in a while now.”
How would you say [The] Botany Bay fits in the scheme of things? Is it a transitional record between the Ettinger of NAO and the Ettinger of ‘Lion of Judah’?
“I conceptualized The Botany Bay as taking place in the same fictional universe as Smokin’ and NAO. Smokin’ is set in the past, in the 1980s, fast forward a little while and you have New Age Outlaws, which takes place in 2069. Beyond that, you have The Botany Bay, set hundreds of years into the future and light years away from Earth. It’s me closing that chapter and allowing myself to move on to new and different things.”
The Tangerine Dream influence really comes across on NAO, not to mention various 80s Hollywood soundtracks with an electronic bent (Michael Rubini’s Manhunter score comes to mind). Are you a fan?
“I’m a big fan of Tangerine Dream. Their records Exit, Rubycon, Phaedra, and Zeit were all reference points when coming up with a sound for NAO. I was also heavily inspired by some of the more synth-based pieces by Vangelis. At the time, [Giorgio] Moroder was also a very important influence. I love the poly-rhythmic interplay between different synthesizer tones on tracks like ‘The Chase’ from Midnight Express.
I also feel like there’s some kind of techno influence – conscious or otherwise – running through your recent work. I was thinking of some of the more drifting, reflective recordings of early Carl Craig, Drexciya, Juan Atkins and other Detroit artists. Do you have any conscious connection to their work?
“I’m not actually familiar with techno. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anything you mentioned…sorry.”
“I remember one of my friends who was more established in the noise scene telling me, ‘If you use a synthesizer, nobody will really take you seriously.'”
That’s interesting, because the Detroit school was variously influenced by Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, John Foxx, Vangelis, Human League and other artists you’ve mentioned, and in quite a big way. To a significant degree, their own early musical endeavours were straight-faced attempts to emulate those artists, and the mutant, lopsided sounds that came out were what came to be called techno. Do you think of your music as a kind of “mishearing” of the past in this way too?
“I don’t know if ‘mishearing’ is the right word to describe what I do, but there definitely is some sort of internalization of influences followed by a bit of reinterpretation. I guess I never have made a conscious effort to sound just like a specific overall influence, but there are times where I think, for example, ‘Oh yeah, I really like the way Kraftwerk does this in “Europe Endless”, I’d like to try something similar.’ Somehow, when I try to emulate a certain aspect of a specific song or sound like that, it ends up sounding like something completely different and weird, yeah. ”
“I feel no affinity towards hypnagogic pop. I don’t think there is anything slightly hypnogogic about what I do other than that it is recorded to tape and is aesthetically based on music from the past. I don’t really sound like James Ferraro or Ducktails or anyone else The Wire decides is ‘hypnogogic’. Didn’t they say that Emeralds and Pocahaunted were also “hypnagogic pop”? These bands don’t really sound alike at all. I feel like there is some sense of cheesy irony that is implied with the title of hypnagogic that my music lacks (with the exception of Smokin’, maybe). It’s a buzzword that has very little meaning and has been used as an umbrella term to describe music that has nothing in common beyond the fact that it is lo-fi and ‘trippy’.”
“I don’t really know how to explain it. The synthesizer has been my focus since I was in high school, so it’s been weird to see people’s attitude toward the instrument change in the past few years. When I first started playing, I was going for more of a noise and drone type sound and I remember one of my friends who was more established in the noise scene telling me, ‘If you use a synthesizer, nobody will really take you seriously,’ like it was some kind of faux pas to use a synth to get crazy sounds. I guess groups like Emeralds kind of started in this noise scene where it wasn’t necessarily cool to use synthesizers and their stuff kind of caught on, which made it okay for other people to start using synths. I’m happy that synthesizer music is becoming more widespread; there are a lot of amazing synth records being made today. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by people like Steve Moore, Rene Hell and Martial Canterel who are all making fantastic new synth records.”
Do you think of you’re work as psychedelic? Do you think of your work as escapist?
“I wouldn’t say my music is psychedelic in the traditional sense. I don’t do drugs and I’ve never been a huge fan of traditional psychedelic rock, so any weird, spacey aspects of my music are clearly coming from a different place than most psychedelic art. It is definitely escapist, though. I’ve always liked music that sounds like it wasn’t made on this planet. That’s part of why I’m so drawn to synthesizers and electronic music. Most of the European electronic music in the 70s was very transporting; it was focused on describing different times and spaces. Even a lot of the early English synth-pop was looking toward the future. More than anything, I love music that sparks my imagination beyond just thinking about what I’m hearing in musical terms. I want my music to have the same effect on people as listening to Throbbing Gristle, Cluster or Kraftwerk has had on me.”