By Robin Howells
Seedy glamour and dystopian allure: hardly the first two things a casual observer would associate with Bloomington, Indiana. Deep between the cracks of the leafy Midwest college town, however, Dylan Ettinger's work is spilling over with both of these qualities. First putting out feelers in 2008 through his own cassette-tape label El Tule, Ettinger is part of an underground network of such operators. Like others he typically acts as a “lone wolf” (as he puts it) out of necessity and choice. Characteristically too, he opts for the convenience of basic, bedroom recording methods, in his case a four-track tape machine.
Thanks to file-sharing blogs and sites like Pitchfork’s Altered Zones offshoot, an overwhelming sense of proliferation currently accompanies this “explosion of small-scale DIY music”, as the manifesto of the latter would have it. Ettinger stands out by dint of the imagination he pours into his projects – unusually vivid and often dark – but also through his level of accomplishment. Despite the lo-fi set-up of his home studio, at times he realises ideas with a richness that even compares favourably to inspirations such as Tangerine Dream and Vangelis.
Accordingly his music has been cherry-picked for cassette and vinyl release by Los Angeles imprint Not Not Fun among others, in some ways the scene's big brother. “Cutters” (for Digitalis Recordings/Ruralfaune) was a catalyst for wider attention, an ambiguous projection of oceanic volumes and empty, outer-space distances. The LP ranges from an agreeable krautrock chug (inspired by bike rides and fellow cycling enthusiasts Kraftwerk) to soupy drifts that could almost have been composed by Raymond Scott on a dose of downers.
His most significant achievement so far is “New Age Outlaws” (Not Not Fun, 2010), a work of sonic fiction written around his own backstory, complete with characters and locations to set the tone of individual pieces. It's a “Blade Runner” like conceit of the tribulations of a hard-bitten ex-cop, battling sinister machinations in a New York of 2069. The results however, a kind of spectral, electronic prog rock, are closer to Tangerine Dream's work on “Sorcerer” than a Vangelis soundtrack. Repeated devices include pulsing guitar figures and whale calls refracted through layers of fuzz and delay, with moody, meandering bass guitar vamps underpinning the tension.
Despite the comparative success of that record, Ettinger has stated before that he's keen to move on. Early evidence of this was a single as Dylan Ettinger & The Heat, wrapping his aesthetic in the hairy context of an acid rock jam. This year's “Pattern Recursion” tape (an edition of 150 put out by Moon Glyph) is an exercise in “geometric minimalism” built up solely from square waves. His subsequent “Lion Of Judah” 7-inch on Not Not Fun shows his frame of reference ticking on through the 1980s, resembling the gothic dub-pop of Mark Stewart but in trippy, heavy-lidded form.
We spoke to Ettinger as he comes close to finishing his next album entitled “Lifetime Of Romance”, recorded for the first time in more professional studio surroundings and before he travels to Europe to tour and participate in this year’s edition of the Unsound festival in Krakow, Poland (this will be Saturday, October 15th, at the Manggha stage alongside Sex Worker, Maria Minerva and LA Vampires). Going further in the direction indicated by “Lion Of Judah”, he describes the aforementioned album as a “song and beat oriented” collection of pop, but hopes ultimately that it comes out sounding “warped” as ever.
Imagine it's the near future. You've just written a bunch of songs, but before you can record your new album, the despotic corporation that rules our lives outlaws your style of music. Of course you resolve to continue on the underground, but agents are already on their way to erase the songs from your mind and confiscate your gear. Do you use what little time you have to hide it all, so that you don't lose the character of your set-up, or do you run, so that the songs aren't forgotten forever?
This is a tough one to answer. I think I would make sure to hide my gear. Some of the equipment I use is home-made and would be impossible to replace. If they wiped my brain and only erased those songs, I suppose I could always write more. I also really like the idea of a forgotten song. The human brain is complicated, so I doubt they'd be able to erase everything. Trying to recover the songs from the recesses of my psyche sounds like something out of a crazy sci-fi novel and could lead to more awesome material in the future.
You've collaborated on occasion, but are you a solo musician (as opposed to being in a band) out of choice or necessity?
I started out as a solo act out of necessity, for sure. I began this project when I was still in high school in my home town of Warsaw, Indiana. I didn't have any friends who were really interested in playing a similar style of music at the time so I decided to do it on my own. I have remained a “lone wolf” because I prefer it at this point. I like being able to work at my own pace and not have to rely on anybody else to get things finished.
The quality of your recordings has a special warmth and murk to it. Do you have to work hard to achieve this, or does the technique simply comprise recording to media such as tape?
Most of my recordings are made with a very low quality cassette four track. I have continued to use it over the years because I like how it sounds and I know how to use it really well at this point. I also have always run my synthesizers through amplifiers as opposed to recording with a direct line-in. I think the combination of low quality equipment and using microphones to record the synth sounds gives my material that “warm and murky” sound.
Can you see your sound becoming cleaner and glossier as your ideas move on towards poppier formulations?
I'm already starting to lean in that direction with my upcoming album, “Lifetime of Romance”. I recorded with my friend John Dawson at his home studio, Magnetic South. We recorded to quarter inch reel to reel tape and spent a lot of time mixing it and making sure things sounded good. The whole time we were recording I made sure to keep things “loose and dirty”. I still wanted the recordings to have some character and not be too polished. I feel like a lot of electronic music is quantized and pitch perfect to the point of lifelessness and I still want my music to sound like it was made by a human.
Is it fair to say your music encapsulates certain notions of glamour? Is this because you lead a glamorous life, or is it for quite the opposite reason?
At times, absolutely. I don't think my music has a traditional Hollywood glamour vibe, but I'm definitely trying to tap into a specific, stylized sort of weirdo charm. My life is nearly devoid of any sort of glamour right now, but someday I wouldn't mind living a more lavish lifestyle. The whole, PBR drinking, broke-as-hell, college town lifestyle is definitely starting to lose its charm. I guess you could say that I'm “dressing for the job I'd like to have” in this instance.
If you could be Klaus Schulze, Lee Perry or John Foxx for one day, who would you pick and why?
Lee Perry, without any hesitation. Scratch has such an idiosyncratic style that I could probably learn the most from him. Especially since he works in such a different realm from me. I don't want to discredit Foxx or Schulze with my answer, but what Lee Perry does is way more foreign to me and I think it would be far stranger for me to live a day in his life.
How sympathetic are you to New Age beliefs?
Not sympathetic at all. I am in no way a spiritual person and I have no interest in any sort of New Age belief system. Any time I use the phrase “New Age” I'm referring to the Ash Ra Tempel, Berlin school meaning of the phrase.
Are you planning to try to score for film one day?
I currently have no plans to write a film score, but I would love to give it a shot. I was really disappointed with Daft Punk's recent “Tron” soundtrack and I couldn't help but think that I could have come up with something more fitting. I'd like to think I could contribute something unique to any film I was invited to work on.
Would you consider writing music for an advert if it was directed by Ridley Scott?
Absolutely. I would write music for almost anything if someone asked me to and gave me the necessary resources. I think I'd draw the line at doing any sort of political advertisement, though.
Do you feel Not Not Fun is helping to introduce something to music that was missing?
I think Not Not Fun is doing a great job of finding artists who have unique and warped ideas about music. They are helping many musicians from all over the world get some deserved exposure. Britt and Amanda have done a great job at curating the label and finding artists who they really enjoy and who offer some sort of new, weird sound.
It's nice that “Cutters” deals with the subject of cycling; arguably the last great musical enthusiasts of the sport were Kraftwerk. How did you go about translating some of the experience of cycling into the finished product?
I never learned how to ride a bicycle until I was twenty-one years old. Once I learned, I was hooked and I spent that whole summer on my bike. The songs on “Cutters” are based on my experiences during those months. I tried to capture the mood of different aspects of riding. One song is about riding at night after a rain, another is based on the feeling of coasting down a hill after climbing to the top. I wanted to make music that would hopefully inspire someone to jump on their bike and go explore.
What will your next record or cassette be like?
I'm already nearly finished with my new album “Lifetime Of Romance”. It is more song and beat oriented than “New Age Outlaws”. I wrote some pop songs, but hopefully they still come out sounding warped.
PlayGround is a media partner of Unsound Dylan Ettinger is making a transition; from lo-fi home-made electronics devoted to early German cosmic music, towards an experimental take on pop songs with a warped sound. This new age outlaw, one of the current underground heroes, tells us more about his world and his future.
Photo by Taylor Swaim
"Lion Of Judah"
"New Age Outlaws"