Exotica 2.0: James Pants updates the tiki bar with the fantastical Savage

We check in with the Stones Throw prodigy James Pants about Savage, his first album in four years and an exotica record for the future.

When composer Martin Denny released his 1957 album Exotica, the catalyst for the genre of the same name and the soundtrack to countless tiki bars, realistic emulations of world music were never part of the plan.

“Pure fantasy” by his own description, Denny’s records were never concerned with reality – and neither were the people buying them. Simply put, teens weren’t the ones pushing Denny’s work to number one in America. It was the older crowd, the crowd that had lived through World War II and the Korean War; a demographic that probably wasn’t particularly interested in experiencing an honest portrayal of the South Pacific. It’s the same phenomenon that gave a certain nobility to director Alexander Korda’s early-40s storybook portrayals of India (The Jungle Book), the Middle East (The Thief Of Bagdad), and Egypt (The Four Feathers) through his London Films studio. Escapism sells – duh – but it’s not easy trickery. This fills a very real human need.

The same escapist spirit found in exotica has been reborn in recent years through a handful of artists exploring their own worlds of “pure fantasy” on the internet. The same way composers like Denny granted us an escape to an imagined Oceania, a producer like James Ferraro can transport us to the Windows 95 idealization of the future through Far Side Virtual, while Vektroid provides the imagined lobby music for a fancy Japanese hotel with 札幌コンテンポラリー. For James Pants, it’s a connection that’s always been there, but only now with his brief, beautiful new record, Savage, does it feel explicit. While tired arguments over “the authenticity of exotica” might as well be updated to “the validity of vaporwave,” Pants uses the lilting language of both to say a whole lot.

Though Pants is a core member of the Stones Throw Records roster (the story of his discovery by Peanut Butter Wolf is the stuff of modern legend) he has spent most of this past decade living in Cologne, Germany, working as a web designer. After relocating for work, he was left with limited equipment but a whole world of sounds (and samples) to explore through Soundfonts and MIDI. Choosing to work in brief vignettes, he built up a collection of over 100 one- or two-minute long pieces, eventually pulling 14 of the best. The result is Savage, a fantasia in the truest sense of the word, which bridges the gap between Denny and Ferraro with the kind of excited glee that has always been present in Pants’ work.

Recently Pants (in Cologne) and I (in Stones Throw’s homestate of California) braved what he refers to as “the worst time difference” to talk over Skype. In addition to discussing his move and the new album, we talked about his current “little bit shlocky, little bit weird” live show, and how he narrowed down his record from over 100 different songs. What will happen with those leftovers for now remains tantalizingly unknown.

How’ve you been?

All good, kind of laying low for some years now.

When did you move to Cologne?

It’s been four years now. Almost exactly frou years ago.

Nice, how do you like it there?

I really like it. Berlin is like, whatever, “the hot city”. I really like Cologne. For me, I was from this town Spokane, Washington, so this is like a major step up from all that. It’s like a million people or whatever. Lots of good record stores and we get all the good shows as well, so no complaints.

What’s living in Germany been like with Stones Throw?

I’m definitely not as in touch with them as I used to be, but not in a bad way. The Germany to LA time difference is kind of brutal. I think it might be the worst time difference. In a way I have a better appreciation for some new stuff that I would never have gotten into if I stayed in the US.

So when did Savage start to spawn in your mind?

Savage started right when I moved here. I’ve always been recording, but because I had this day job, which I haven’t had with any of my records, I had way less time and you underestimate that. You get home from work and it’s like you really don’t want to start. I found myself making tons of products, more than ever, but they were all like one-and-a-half minute long songs. I just didn’t get into the zone to want to extend it at a later date and I was also really into The Residents so I was like, ‘You know, I should really do an album of one-minute songs’. Like The Commercial Album. So the initial idea, it was going to be twice as long with really, really short songs. I got really into the short song phenomenon. I have a lot more, like 100 more songs that could have been on the record that I’ll do something else with.

It’s interesting, because despite that huge number of songs the album is pretty brief.

It’s really short. I don’t even know if that qualifies as an album.

I mean, the definition is kind of skewed at this point.

Yeah, it’s shot these days. I think the first round of the album was 45 minutes. All my other records, I’ve given a handful of songs — like twice the amount — to Peanut Butter Wolf and he’s picked the record. Which has worked out really well. But in this case I just kind of picked the record myself. I don’t know, I thought it was more powerful being shorter.

Yeah, I definitely think so too. What’s your process been to narrow that down and get the flow right?

I actually can’t do it, I physically can’t. I rely on friends. I gave a handful of friends that I trust their music taste and said, “Here’s 75 minutes of music, what would you pick if we want to make this a 30-minute record?” I ended up taking the ones that everyone gravitated towards and maybe one or two filler things.

You recorded most of Savage on just one Portasound keyboard. What drew you to that?

Yeah, it’s a lot of Portasound and then MIDI as well, which I’ve never done before so it was kind of fun. A lot of it was necessity. I have a lot of keyboards still in the US, but none will work over here because of the voltage. I moved with basically nothing, it was all I had really. But then I got really into it. I feel like I finally got with the program that everyone has been on for a while and it was fun to use Soundfonts. It’s really fun to load up a sample and have it spread out on your keyboard. Trivial stuff everybody does, but for me it was a new thing to get into those kinds of sounds. Just Google Soundfonts, there’s all these libraries that pop up where you can just get all this stuff. And Soundfont is like 16 kilobytes or something, it’s nothing, but it’s just amazing what you can do with that. And so I had this one keyboard that lo-and-behold ran on European power as well. So that was the one.

When I first got sent your album it mentioned Martin Denny, which led me on this obsessive binge of early exotica records. I get that same feel from Savage, especially in all the animal sounds. It feels like the same structure, but built from more modern materials.

Yeah, the exotica stuff — just the common exotica stuff, I’m not like a rare groove exotica dude — just the standard Les Baxter, Martin Denny. It was kind of a wild time, the late 50s, early 60s. It was like pretty straight white dudes playing what they imagined to be “savage music”. There’s something exciting about that, just total fantasy records.

Is that part of where the title came from?

Yeah. It was that and there was a former employee of Stones Throw who was nicknamed Liger many, many years ago cause he forgot to cut his fingernails, and everyone was talking about how he’s like a savage or whatever. He’s the one that drew my Seven Seals cover and a number of covers for me, and he’s a good friend. And he’s definitely a savage. So it was also a tribute to him as well as the forgotten island, but for the digital century. I wanted to make dated sounds with an island vibe but with like a 21st century high speed internet song structure. I don’t know. [Laughs]

One of the things I love about this record is also something I’ve loved about this decade. It’s felt like there’s been this artistic reclamation of Muzak-type things. You’ve got James Ferraro, and those early vaporwave records. Savage feels like a part of that canon. How have you felt about some of that music?

It’s weird, ’cause scenes pop up so fast and get some traction and publicity and suddenly that kills it. I thought it was really interesting stuff, because I’ve always been legitimately into that bad mid-80s fusion, and not in an ironic sense. Ferraro was super interesting to me as an artist. Him, Oneohtrix, Dean Blunt. I’m really happy, I think there’s a lot of stuff right now that feels finally relevant. I think what happened when I was living the US – even if I was never part of the scene – it’s easy to get caught up in like trying to sound like old records or trying to sound like songs from 1988 that never happened. It’s just really refreshing, because there’s a ton of artists right now that I would consider are making music that sounds like it’s from the future or from now which I think is a good thing. I think underground music really suffered for at least a decade from an identity crisis a little.

Are you gonna be trying to turn this into a live show?

Yes and no. I have this live show that I’ve been doing mostly in Europe because I haven’t toured the US for some years now, and it kind of works. To be honest, I don’t like playing live anymore, I really don’t. I don’t know why. Just my core, I feel like I’ve lost a month off my life after I play a live show. Even if I’m really happy and oftentimes it goes really well and it’s a nice feeling, but still I have that nagging feeling like, “I can’t do this shit anymore”. But I have kind of a one-man show so to speak. I don’t think I’ll do a band tour again mostly for financial reasons, it’s too tough for me because I’m not an aspirational artist where I want to play 500-capacity or 1000- or, god forbid, 5000-capacity. I really like the 100, 200, 300 kinds of places and that’s just not feasible as a band and expect to have any money at the end of the tour. So I kind of made do with this one-man show. I have that bad cruise ship singer persona going and try to do an entertainment variety show that’s a little bit schlocky and a little bit weird.

That sounds amazing.

It works like 60% of the time. When it fails it goes down hard – the ship sinks – but when it works well it’s kind of a victorious feeling.

If you ever do come back to these parts I would kill to see that.

I’m overdue, so it’ll happen.

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