US producer John Roberts has only a few releases to his name, but this hasn’t stopped him from putting out one of the finest albums of 2010, “Glass Eights”, on Dial. Inspired by classic deep house, Roberts also brings his own raw, musical sound to the album. PlayGround caught up with him to discuss Chicago house, life in Berlin and the significance of the number eight.
John Roberts - Glass Eights
You’re from Cleveland, Ohio, a city known for its rain and overcast weather. Do you feel that Cleveland had an effect on your work - maybe lent it a certain otherworldliness?
I'm not entirely sure if Cleveland itself has had much of an effect on the music that I'm making right now as I haven't lived there for ten years, but I think maybe some things that happened in Cleveland, or as a result of living there, have had a significant influence on what I'm doing. I used to go pretty frequently to a record store there called Grand Poo-bas to look for records or to buy mix tapes that they sold from Chicago. That was kind of my introduction to electronic music… I used to really look forward to going there. I also listened to the radio pretty regularly, mainly 92.3, the hip-hop and R’n’B station at that time, and also WCLV, the classical music station.
You said you got into electronic music by going to the local record store and getting mixtapes from Chicago - what year was this? Also, were you aware of the techno scene in Detroit, Michigan, or even places like Minneapolis at the time? Were you into techno at that time?
I started buying those tapes around 1998. I was definitely aware of the rave scenes happening in Detroit and other cities in the Midwest. At that time I was going to parties as often as possible in Cleveland and sometimes in Pittsburgh, but it was a bit difficult for me because I was still pretty young and couldn't drive yet. All of the parties that I went to then were extremely diverse. There were always multiple rooms, each one devoted to a different sub-genre of electronic music. At that point I was just really fascinated by the entire culture. A lot of the music was new to me, so I felt like I had sort of uncovered a completely new world that had existed for years without my knowledge.You have moved to Berlin - do you find the city has had an impact on your music? Has it changed the sounds you use, or your overall mood and approach to music making? How do you find life in Berlin - is the way of life and the culture hugely different to the U.S.?
I think Berlin has only really had a limited influence on what I'm trying to make because I don't feel completely a part of any scene here. I really like going to see some of the DJs at Panorama Bar and Berghain (especially the residents) sometimes, and I'll occasionally go to smaller disco parties, but beyond that I'm not really immersed in the city's club culture. Although I guess sometimes the amazing thing about Berlin is ending up at a party with music that I'm totally unfamiliar with and seeing how audiences react to that music in comparison to the places that I'm playing.
As far as Germany is concerned, it is hugely different from the United States in some ways, and in other ways exactly the same. It's tough to say though, because Berlin is a total anomaly in relation to other German cities. It is hugely international and fed mostly by the entertainment industry, so it's also tough to realistically compare it to any other city that I've lived. It can be amazing but also totally depressing at times.
Do you think that there are too many producers from abroad in Berlin and that because of this maybe you get less attention? Might it be more beneficial from a creative perspective if you were somewhere that wasn't at the centre of things?
There are definitely lots of producers living here, but I've never felt that it has affected me negatively. I think it's sort of great actually. If you need to borrow equipment, get a second opinion, technical advice, etc. there is always someone around to help you. Even though there are a lot of producers here, everyone is sort of involved in their own little scenes and cloistered away in their studios, so I've never felt any sort of negative competition or over-saturation here. I never really think of Berlin as being “at the centre of things” because it completely isn't for me. I really like living here, but again I wouldn't cite it as inherently influential.
One of the greatest aspects of your album is the use of live string instruments / woodwind - do you find it important that your music brings these kinds of warm sounds to the fore? Has house music generally become too dry, too digital-sounding?
Thanks, I was really excited to use live instrumentation on the album. I had studied the violin and drums when I was younger, so it was really fun to revisit those instruments and put them to use. As far as warmth goes, I guess I like listening to records where you can hear a bit of the process in the recording, not just a polished final product, so I was really open to error when recording everything. I remember reading an article when the first Devendra Banhart album came out about how he recorded it on his answering machine, which I thought was so great. I'm not sure if that was actually true or not and that's an extreme example, but I think it's okay to have some honesty in the final composition. So, I guess that is my major qualm with some contemporary house and techno music; it can sound a bit like it was recorded in a vacuum. There are all of these VST software instruments that are available now, which is great, but I think people forget that they were modelled after actual instruments. If you create everything in the computer without interacting with the real world it sounds like you did exactly that, so I guess that is what I personally try to stay away from as much as possible.
You could argue that techno/house are meant to be otherworldly, or at least removed from the normality of day-to-day life. This was the rationale that producers like Derrick May and Juan Atkins applied to their work - is it still a valid approach?
Absolutely!The other aspect of your production I love is the rawness, either in the beats or in the surface noise hisses that are audible on some of the album tracks - is this important to you, that house music has a rawness, an edge?
Thanks, I'm glad you like it. In a lot of the tracks on the album I sampled records on a turntable with a ground cable that wasn't working so well so you can hear an audible buzz on a certain frequency range, or sometimes I would use my friend's broken Roland 707 which barely worked, so you can hear some crackle from that that I decided to leave in. Like I mentioned before, I think it's just nice to have some evidence of the recording process in there.
You have previously referred to your love of hip-hop, The Smiths, Dance Mania and Chicago house in general. Do you feel that these sounds are audible in your productions or do they wield an influence in a more subtle way and underpin the approach of your music making?
I'm not really sure that I can answer that so well from my perspective. I always think that what you create is a sum of all of your influences in some way whether you notice it or not, but it's tough to tell how overt that is. I would guess that some influences like Chicago house are maybe more obvious than others. I can definitely say that when I'm working on a track I sometimes think, “okay, I really want this kick drum to sound like this Lil' Louis kick drum from blah blah blah track” or something like that. So in that way I am conscious of my influences.
You speak about your influences from Chicago house - what do you make about the current wave of Chicago-inspired artists, the Creme Jak series, Kink, Neville Watson, the Hour House is Your Rush label, JTC; 2AM/FM; Traxx?
I think it's interesting, I'm not following it that closely but I listen to them when I'm at the record store. I always pick up the Hour House is Your Rush records to listen to. I think it’s great that Chicago producers like Tevo Howard are getting attention from them, and I really appreciate the House of Trax reissues that Rush Hour is doing. The pressings sound really good and it's nice to have things available to the public that weren't before, like that unreleased version of a Jamie Principle track that they put out a while ago. You also mention Traxx though, who I think deserves to be in his own category completely. He is an amazing DJ and producer and I think a great example of someone who has extremely strong influences and is using them to make something totally new
I’m guessing – please correct me if I’m wrong – that music’s past and history is important for you. Given your relative youth, do you spend a lot of time researching, finding out about and generally tracking down old music?
As far as the history of music is concerned, I've always thought that it's somewhat important to know what has already been done so that you can build upon what is already there. But at the same time, I think it's equally important to reject what already exists, meaning that you should never think, “Okay, this is the structure for a rap song” and work solely within that framework. It's okay to be aware of those formulas or structure, but I think it's better to use it as a reference rather than a recipe.
I try to research older music as much as I can, but that searching always kind of goes in waves for me. I will be really intent on learning everything about a certain genre one day, and then try to find all of the best tracks from it, decide that there aren't that many that are amazing, get disheartened, and give up. Then a month or two later, I'll try again with the same genre and find 10 records that I have to buy, so I still haven't really figured out the logic to that yet. I guess its just chance“Glass Eights” reminds me of deep house from the mid to late 90s, by U.S. artists like Chris Gray and Chris Bran (before he had a chart hit as Wamdue Kids) and further back, Larry Heard. Do you feel that there is a connection to these artists, or do you take it as a compliment that such comparisons are being made?
I would happily embrace any comparison to Larry Heard, as I think he is one of the best producers that I'm familiar with. I think over the years he has had a really intense range of creativity and new ideas and that's why he has the reputation that he does. He experimented a lot under different aliases and wasn't afraid to do so, which I think is important. I also like that not all of his records are amazing. Sometimes you can sort of hear him working through a new idea that doesn't completely work, but other times he really happens upon something amazing. As for references to Chris Gray or Chris Bran, I am less familiar with them so it's tough for me to say.
In one of your recent interviews you said that your favourite albums are the ones that take you on a journey. Do you feel there are electronic music albums that achieve this effect - which ones would be your favourite “journey” albums? Also, did you try to achieve a sense of journey with your own album?
I honestly couldn't name any purely electronic “journey” albums, but I'm probably the worst person to ask. I don't have the most encyclopaedic knowledge of music unfortunately. When I was really young I used to listen to Pink Floyd's “Dark Side of The Moon” a lot. Maybe that, or “The Wall”, is one of the best “journey” albums of all time. I also really liked the added visual aspects that those two albums offered. With “The Wall” you had a movie version, and with “Dark Side of The Moon” you could sync it with “The Wizard of Oz” (although I guess that wasn't originally intended). I also one time went to a “Dark Side of The Moon” synced laser show which was sort of all right. But also on rap albums - I think it's nice when they have interludes and skits to tell a story too. The end product never really blows me away, but I really like it as a concept.
I don't know if with my album I was really trying to achieve something as grandiose as a journey, but It was important for me that it was cohesive and that it had a narrative arc in some way. So the ordering of the tracks was very planned, but they were not created in that order or meant to tell a specific story. I'm always more interested in what someone listening may get from it on their own rather than trying to guide them so directly.
You mentioned rap albums that have a narrative - do any particular ones spring to mind?
The only one that springs to mind immediately is the first Kanye West album. The others that I'm thinking of are much more incoherent, but I feel like that one has a pretty steadfast narrative. I think that album is a pretty amazing achievement overall actually.
The album sounds and feels like a deeply introspective work. Were there any personal events that inspired you when you were recording it?
I tried to use writing the album as a catharsis for what was happening in my life at that time. Or I guess I wanted it to in some way mirror what was going on. I don't know if that is something you can hear though.Was it a good or bad period in your life - did you find that music making was a relief, that it helped you overcome maybe some of the personal challenges you faced?
Sure, definitely. I'm not really interested in rehashing all of experiences that led up to making the album but I think that the process of making it was definitely beneficial for me personally. It was pretty therapeutic.
Generally, do you find that music that is made as a catharsis is the most rewarding?
I think that listening to cathartic music can be rewarding because it's comforting to know that there are other people going through the same things that you've gone through. It's a really nice exchange. The listener and the artist can both benefit from it.
One of the things I love about “Glass Eights” is the fact that it manages to make sadness sound uplifting, like there is a happiness running through the album. Is this something that you did deliberately, or is it your personality coming through? Are you someone who alternates between being happy and sad a lot and do you enjoy spending time on your own?
Thanks, that’s nice of you to say. I'm not sure if it was deliberate, but I think it is definitely directly reflective of my personality. I am always oscillating between happiness and anxiousness. Maybe everyone is sort of like that though, I don't know. I only really enjoy spending time on my own if I know that I have the option of not being alone. So I love to spend the day locked in a room if I know that there is someone in the room next door.
What does the title mean – are you a numerologist and believe that certain numbers have special attributes? Or is there a different meaning to the title?
I am more interested in someone else's interpretation of the title than my own. I'm definitely not a numerologist and don't believe in numbers having special power really - but I had a friend in Chicago who once told me that homes that have the number eight in the address always sold for significantly more in predominately Chinese neighbourhoods (I think he said that eight was the luckiest number in Chinese culture). This is completely unrelated to the title of the album, but I like the story anyway. I have always preferred the numbers eight and eleven personally, mostly for the way that they look.
You previously mentioned that your recording set-up is rudimentary – do you feel that ideas and flair are far more important to production than having expensive equipment?
I've never had lots of expensive equipment because I've never really had the money to buy it. I think sometimes the more options you have for creating something, the more daunting the task can seem. I also think if you allow yourself to use tons of different equipment you run the risk of ruining what could otherwise be a pretty clear personal aesthetic.
Have you been surprised by the reaction to the album and to your music generally – do you worry that your music might not have been appreciated?
I am extremely thankful for all of the positive responses I've received so far. I'm really grateful. It feels really amazing that someone would take the time to listen to something that you've created and sometimes take the time to write about it. As far as being appreciated goes, I think there are always going to be people who understand what you're trying to do, and people that it doesn't make sense too, and I'm completely fine with that.
You are remixing Superpitcher and Darkstar at the moment - what else are you doing production-wise?
I have really been enjoying focusing on remixes at the moment. It's a nice break to sort of work with someone else's ideas and make them your own rather than creating everything from scratch. I've also been really lucky to be asked to remix some artists that I consider to be in different musical realms than I am in, so it's exciting to see what the response is from their audiences. I think it's a great opportunity to reach a lot of people that might otherwise not hear what I'm doing.
Are you a fast worker, or would you much rather take your time? Are you a perfectionist?
I am a very slow worker and a perfectionist. I got very lucky in releasing my album with Dial because they never pressured me to finish before I was actually done. So I am just now learning what it's like to work with deadlines!
John Roberts - Porcelain
John Roberts - Ever Or Not