Features I by I 13.05.17

Second Woman: The studio secrets and Back To The Future philosophy of their intense new LP

Joshua Eustis and Turk Dietrich are two veterans of the US experimental scene, but their current project, Second Woman, is some of the freshest electronic music of the past few years. Scott Wilson talks to the duo about time manipulation, escaping the limitations of modern software and how they create their high-fidelity, mind-bending music. 

“Future music” is a term that’s thrown around a lot these days, but electronic musicians that genuinely sound as if they’re breaking convention are all too rare. Joshua Eustis and Turk Dietrich however create music that’s genuinely unclassifiable. As Second Woman, the duo take influences as disparate as ambient and footwork and create beat-driven music that plays with time in mind-bending ways, recalling the precision of artists like Mark Fell and Theo Burt, but also the inky depth of dub techno titans Basic Channel.

Across two albums (2016’s self-titled debut and 2017’s S/W) and an EP for respected electronic outlet Spectrum Spools, they’ve carefully honed a playful, high-definition sound. On some tracks, metallic pulses bob and weave through monolithic reverb trails. On others, imposing chords loom large over sprightly kicks. Autechre is their closest musical cousin, but Second Woman’s approach is lighter and fizzier than the Warp duo’s dense, tangled beats.

Eustis and Dietrich have a fresh approach, but they’re far from newcomers: Eustis co-founded beloved IDM act Telefon Tel Aviv with Charlie Cooper back in the late ‘90s, and Dietrich is a member of ambient and shoegaze-influenced band Belong. The pair have been friends since they were teenagers growing up in New Orleans, where they rolled with a small, like-minded friendship group of experimental obsessives that also included Cooper. “We kind of insulated ourselves from what was going on in New Orleans,” Eustis tells me, admitting his ambivalence to the city’s rave scene at the time.

Early on, the pair were inspired by the ‘90s champions of IDM. “Hearing that stuff for the first time was kind of a lightbulb for us all,” Eustis says. Today, they’re less concerned with the genre and more inspired by more fundamental structures. The minimalism of artists like Steve Reich and La Monte Young are two influences, as well as dub and dancehall “that’s basically barebones, reduced to nothing”, according to Dietrich. “The studio is using effects — that’s an aesthetic Josh and I cling onto and love, and I think we’ll will always be super inspired by,” he adds.

Eustis and Dietrich might be inspired by classic studio processes, but their impossible music and ASMR-like effects sound as if they must be generated by some arcane process. Talking to Eustis and Dietrich shortly after the release of their brilliant second album S/W, I discover that while they prefer to keep the meaning behind their music oblique, Back To The Future’s George McFly is their unlikely spirit animal, and some of their studio tricks are more simple than you’d expect.

We’ve lit a lot of shit on fire in the process of making these two records

How did you choose your name?

Turk: One of the things Josh and I were talking about early in the project was other versions of self and things that can happen while you’re listening to music — crossing over, silly stuff like different realities, multiples, things like that. As we were figuring out what Second Woman was, I was rewatching this movie by John Cassavettes called Opening Night. In the film, Cassavettes’ wife is in a play called Second Woman and the idea behind the play was that as you live your life and as you get older, you take on different versions of yourself.

So in the play, this was the second part of her life. It was another version of herself as she’s gotten older. When I saw that in the movie it resonated with a lot of the things that Josh and I were talking about in relation to what we were doing with music. So it really does have nothing to do with taking on a female identity or referencing a mistress or anything like that — it’s more about these abstract ideas of different versions of self that we were discussing.

Are these ideas of self informing the concepts behind the albums? Are there concepts underpinning them at all?

Turk: We don’t want to put any imagery or attach any meaning to our tracks on these first few albums, because we kind of just want to leave it to the listener. This isn’t a new concept, Global Communication talk about it on 76:14, but I just think it made sense for this grouping of tracks to let the listener determine what they want from the music.

Stylistically, are you influenced by different things across the two albums? The second sounds like it draws more on footwork and contemporary club styles than the first.

Josh: Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that. We want everything to be rooted at least in the idea of dub. Because that’s probably the thing that both of us listen to the most. If you were to ask me “what’s the thing I’ve listened to the most in my life?” I would say the entire output of Moritz Von Oswald. I literally listen to him every day. So it’s DNA for me, and I know it’s DNA for Turk.

Beyond dub, is there anything else you’re interested in?

Turk: The other thing that we talk about a lot is the sample-based music of the ‘90s, be it hip-hop or hardcore or drum and bass. There’s something about non-musicians making music with samplers, not knowing the rules of music and breaking them, making things that trained musicians could never make because their brains are wired to not do certain things. So you listen back to some old jungle or drum and bass stuff, even hip-hop, and you’ll hear things that are kind of out of tune, almost like musique concrète sounds. There’s a lot of inspiration going back and listening to that stuff, because a lot of that music sounds more abstract than the supposedly abstract music of that era.

The opening track to the first album always makes me as if it’s messing with my perception of time by accelerating and slowing down. How do you create these effects?

Turk: That track is definitely the mission statement for Second Woman.

Josh: At least for this first grouping of records, where we really wanted to start exploring time distortion, time dilation, space dilation, these kind of ideas — that song is the mission statement. That is the sort of result you can get from some of the software devices that we’re working on and systems that we’re using.

Turk: Or just using the tempo knob as an instrument [laughs]!

Josh: Yep, that’s another way to do it [laughs]. That’s actually probably how we did that one. Just setting things up in a loop and then manipulating the sounds playing in the loops as they’re going, and just fucking with the tempo – that one’s really pretty simple.

What is it about manipulating time that you’re interested in?

Turk: We both felt that over the past decade we’ve become a slave to song structure, to tempo, to the grid — especially in genres like techno and house where everything is so rigid. That’s fine, we love that stuff and there’s beauty in that, but I think we missed some of the things that we used to talk about and do musically. Getting off the grid and working in the DAW without lines, without a grid, and having tempo be malleable, for me leads to a more interesting experience as a listener — I don’t know what’s coming next.

Josh: Yeah, we made a ton of techno together, and some of it may eventually see the light of day, but in working on it there was a point where we were in the studio together and I might have said out loud, “Goddammit dude, I wish I could take rhythm and tempo and light them on fire!” I felt like I was in a cage that I was being suffocated by it, and Turk started to get bored with having to follow all of these specific rhythmic rules and equidistant time divisions. So Second Woman is a direct result of that, or being completely liberated, it’s completely ecstatic, it’s completely free of all of those ideas.

I find it infuriating when people say “all the Boards of Canada records sound the same”… It’s a career arc, it’s a body of work

How easy, realistically, is it to escape the grid? To get out of that frame of mind?

Turk: It’s like what George McFly said [in Back To The Future]: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything”. Honestly, it’s not that hard. It’s just that what’s instantly [in the DAW] is so rule-based that it’s really hard to break from it. But if you set a rule for yourself and say “this is my discipline, I’m going to try to do this” then it can be done, even without the devices that we use.

Josh: For sure. It can definitely be done. When you look at mid-90s hip-hop, these were guys also that hated the grid, they fought against it. We certainly aren’t the first guys to get sick of the grid, but we’re just pushing back in a different way, maybe. It’s not difficult to do. I figured out how to bypass all Ableton Live’s timing mechanisms in a few hours using standard Max objects in a very simple device and I’m still very much a beginner in Max/MSP.

So you’re mainly using software to make your music?

Josh: Yeah, mainly software. There’s one song on the new record where we used a Korg Volca beats to make the drums, and then there’s one line on the first record that was done on a hardware synth, but the rest of it was done in software. It’s the same shit that everyone else uses: we use Native Instruments Maschine on almost every song, and use Max for Live and Ableton on every song.

About 80% of the first album was made with NI’s Razor synth. We like the idea of less being more, just finding tools that we like and then trying to get the most out of them as opposed to being a dilettante and grazing over a bunch of different tools and not really learning them.

Aside from a couple of bespoke devices that we’ve built or friends have built, we don’t have access to any tools or any piece of magic bullet hardware or magic bullet software. We use the same things that everyone else uses. There’s nothing arcane about our process. You can buy all the shit we used to make those records at Guitar Center for $1,000.

What Max for Live devices do you use?

Josh: The most important one is a device called Tragedy. It was something that I had tried to build for 15 years and could never create until Simone Fabbri from K-Devices hit me up and said that he could implement it. So a day later he sent me a prototype of this thing and it was exactly what I had wanted and hoped. It’s something very simple, it’s a polyphonic MIDI note repeater with a couple of other features that we wanted, such as synced or free repeating time.

Since then I’ve worked on a whole music system in Max. I have a version of it that’s based around a clocking system that throws out the idea of tempo or meter. It’s just a series of sliders that determine the length of a step. It focuses on the idea of the distance between two musical events and it can be constantly variable. I’ve got a version of this ported in Max for Live that lets you completely manipulate all of the timing in Ableton – timing, meter, all of it.

How do you manage to keep your tracks so short and succinct?

Josh: We do our best to censor ourselves, to not have tracks go on too long and not have sections go on too long. We try to get through things pretty quickly. A lot of stuff doesn’t make the cut. We’ve lit a lot of shit on fire in the process of making these two records, a lot.

Turk: We love minimalism as much as dub, and I think we both have this mindset of the fewer ideas the better when it comes to making a track, as opposed to jam packing it with three to four ideas. There’s value in that approach too, and other artists do that really well, but I think we’re the opposite end of the spectrum. We try to have as little in our music as possible.

How do you see the Second Woman project developing?

Turk: The second album is a direct continuation of the ideas we had on the first album. We took a very short break after the first LP, then made the second, which is actually over a year old now. The EP was made after that, so in our minds we look at the three releases as the first phase of Second Woman and the encapsulation of these initial ideas that we had. Does that sound right Josh?

Josh: Yeah. I’m kinda tired about thinking of a record-on-record growth. People use this argument against Boards of Canada all the time and I find it infuriating when people say “all the Boards of Canada records sound the same”. Why should artistic growth have to be determined on a record-by-record basis? I look at Boards of Canada’s output, everything they’ve ever done, and I see an arc. There’s small moves, there’s deviations, there’s variations, but it’s all definitively them. It’s a career arc, it’s a body of work.

I think for Second Woman we’re thinking of this first grouping of records that was done in a very short amount of time as the first arc. And then maybe there will be a second grouping of EPs and LPs that’ll be arc number two or arc number three, who knows. We’re trying not to think of it in terms of “well, the second record has to be completely different from the first one or we really have to change things up”. It’s not really about that, we’re just exploring these ideas and then when we stop exploring these ideas, we’ll start exploring new ones.

Scott Wilson is on Twitter

Listen next: FACT mix 596: Second Woman



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