We talk to Nick Weiss and Logan Takahashi, aka Teengirl Fantasy, about their new album on R&S Records, “Tracer”, and about the importance of the organic element and melancholy in dance music.
Teengirl Fantasy are one of the finest examples of modern electronic music and one of the bravest. We could see for ourselves when they played at Razzmatazz in Barcelona some time ago, just hours after talking to them. Armed with synthesisers, drum machines, samplers and FX processors, they play their music without a safety net, reaching levels of intensity that are rare in live electronic music today, where most of the artists are tied to the pre-recorded music they use on stage. In the studio, they become magicians of synthetic escapism, manufacturing moods of euphoric sadness based on ever evolving structures and exuberant textures, brilliantly keeping the balance between melancholy and hedonism. After presenting themselves with the magnificent “7AM”, they've just released “Tracer” (R&S Records, 2012). On this album, they omit the samples and build an evocative synth based epic with echoes of the dreamiest Detroit, while at the same time maintaining their unmistakable sound. We spoke with Nick Weiss and Logan Takahashi about, among other things, their preference for improvisation, the dream come true that was working with Romanthony and the symbolic value of releasing a record on R&S.
You met at Oberlin College. How did you decide to make music together?
Nick: We met right when we started going to university, it was a bit of a coincidence. We were attending the same programme and we met during the first orientation days. From the start, we were talking about music and we discovered we had both brought music equipment, so we said “we should jam together”. So we did, in the basement of our dorm, without the intention to form a band or anything.
Logan: Originally there were three of us; we started out playing with another boy...
"Unlike the previous album, when we would often start with a sample, this time we wrote the melodies ourselves"
And what happened to him?
L: We were going to do our first gig and he decided not to go ahead with it at the last minute.
N: He said something like “I see there's something special between the two of you”. The thing is, we recorded a couple of songs we had worked on for that party and we put them online. And that's how it all started. It was very spontaneous.
A lot of bands came out of Oberlin College. What is it about that place that so many projects start there?
L: It has a great conservatory. There always are a lot of musician studying there, a lot of interesting people in general. Also, it's kind of in the middle of nowhere, lost between the wheat fields, so there's not much to do. You have to organise your own cultural events.
N: The fact the conservatory is part of the college is important. Apart from members of many bands studying there, you can go to your friends' recitals all the time, both of classical music and electronic music. Inspiration is always in the air.
You also spent some time in Amsterdam, right?
N: Yes, it was only three months as part of an exchange program, but it was great. We went there to study, but the truth is we didn't go to class all that much [ laughs]. They assigned you a mentor - artists, people who make a living out of it - and instead of teaching classes, they would give you advice and shared their experience with you.
Let's talk about the new album. From the start, it feels much more dense and sophisticated than the first one. What was your starting point?
L: We started working with a bunch of songs around spring 2011, “Timeline”, “Motif”, and the song that would eventually become “Pyjama”. From the first moment on, we wrote every track with our own machines. Unlike the previous album, when we would often start with a sample, this time we wrote the melodies ourselves. That's one of the biggest differences between the two.
"Though obviously we use elements that are repeated constantly, we don't want to sound “loopy”, we like to constantly twist the sounds"
It makes the sound much more synthetic.
N: Yes, on “7AM” there were quite a few samples of organic sounds, but this time it's purely synthetic, except for the singers, of course. And about the density of the sound, I think that's because we started to use different digital synths, which have a much wider range of sounds than the analogue ones, which allows for much more room to play around with elements and layers. We also spent a lot more time on the songs and we focused more on the editing, working on the songs in parts, making them really dynamic.
I'm fascinated by the structures you're using on the album. They have the hypnotic touch of dance music, but at the same time they're very fragmented. How do you build the tracks?
L: Many of the initial ideas come from live improvising, we often start with one or two loops, but this time we definitely spent a lot of time editing them on the computer, automatizing things. Also, this time we were able to play the songs live as we were recording them, which gave us the chance to see what worked and what didn't, in terms of structure.
N: We never really thought like “we need a beat, a bass line, a melody”; we usually work from layers and layers of sequences, moulding them together. Though obviously we use elements that are repeated constantly, we don't want to sound “loopy”, we like to constantly twist the sounds, either with the synth pre-sets or with effects, so that they mutate with every bar. That makes it sound loose and flowing, organic.
"We definitely think about a kind of sonic universe for each song. I think we've always had this melancholic mood, sometimes very emotional"
Another difference is that this album sounds much more like a unit. It flows like one piece.
L: Oh, yes, I love that you think that, because that was one of our main objectives. We spent a lot of time thinking about the sequencing of the record. We also did with the first one, but this time it was really important to us.
Your songs have very particular moods. I would like to know if one that's something you pay a lot of attention to and where you get your inspiration for this kind of vibe.
N: It's hard to tell where the inspiration comes from. I think that on some of our first songs, you could feel we were in a cold basement, isolated in Ohio, surrounded by snow. Some of the songs on the new LP were written there as well, but there are others that we wrote in New York, in the summer, in a ridiculously hot and badly ventilated warehouse. I think that stifling sensation and humidity can be felt on some of the tracks. But it's not all because of our surroundings or the circumstances we're in; it’s hard to put my finger on it.
L: We definitely think about a kind of sonic universe for each song. I think we've always had this melancholic mood, sometimes very emotional. It's something we both identify ourselves with.
I think that combination of exuberance and melancholy is one of the things I like most in electronic music.
Both: Those kinds of tracks are the best.
L: We also like a lot of things like The Orb and The KLF and Aphex Twin's “Selected Ambient Works”. They are definitely an influence.
N: Many of the best Detroit productions - Derrick May, for example - are really sad. “Strings Of Life”, for instance, is exciting but it's also very dark, and that kind of feeling inspires us a lot. There's a lot of dance music that simply transmits unbridled energy, which is a great feeling, and it's fun, but I think that it's even better when something gets to the darkest corners. Maybe because it's easier to identify with them, it's more natural; it's hard to be happy all the time, even when you're partying. I think our music transmits that, in part.
Now that you mention Detroit, the album has a certain Detroit feel.
N: Yes, totally.
For this album you worked with a lot more singers. How did you get in touch with them? Was there a pre-existing relationship, or did you simply get in touch with them specifically for this collaboration? What was the working process like?
L: We knew Laurel (Halo) because she moved to where we were recording the record; we both lived there while we were working on our respective albums. She was working in the room across the hall from us, so we started to hang out, and in her case it was really organic, she simply crossed the hall one day and recorded her part. We met Panda Bear last year when we were touring with Animal Collective, so that was very easy, too, we sent him the instrumental by email and he sent it back with the vocals. Kelela we met through Dean from True Panther, and we clicked right from the start, so that was very natural as well. Romanthony was a bit more complicated, though he was willing to work with us from the start, there was a lot of emailing back and forth.
N: We sent him two of the album tracks, and he sent back vocal demos really quickly, he said he felt really inspired by the songs, which was very exciting for us. It was like a dream we had while recording the album, we thought “we need a house singer, who's the best?”, and he's the one. So it was great things worked out.
The two last songs on the album are more dance floor orientated than anything you've done before, not counting “Cheaters”. Do you see yourself making dance music one day?
N: Who knows [ laughs]. It would be fun. With the Romanthony track, for example, we wanted it to have a good intro, so that it's easy to play out. But it's hard to sit down and write a track going “it has to be like this”. Maybe if someone would order one from us...
L: Maybe if someone would give us a million dollars... [ laughs]
N: No, it actually would be great to do a dance single for R&S someday.
Speaking of which, how did you hook up with R&S?
L: Dan, who's directing the label, sent us a mail at the end of 2011 saying that he wanted to work with us. Which was very exciting, because we're big fans of the label's classic catalogue. In another interview the other day, the interviewer asked us if being with R&S and True Panther was like a circle closing, like a symbolic representation of what we're doing and the place we position ourselves in, a bit between two worlds. We don't see ourselves as an electronic pop band, or indie electronica, so working with a label like R&S is very gratifying.
N: At first, when they contacted us, we thought it would be for an EP, because that's what they usually do, but then they said they wanted an album. And that was way before we started writing one, so that was kind of what made us start working with an album in mind, to do something coherent.
We don't see too many live shows as “live” as yours in electronic music. How do you go about it?
L: We feel recording and live playing are two different experiences. We never play a song the same way twice, because we can't record all the pre-sets, so there always are some changes, and there are always things happening we didn't anticipate, but that gives you a lot of room to try out new things.
N: All the songs have been written live, so we don't need to “recreate” anything. The configuration of our equipment is the same when we record and when we play live, and because we don't record with a computer, we have to bring the studio setup with us on tour. Which is kind of scary, because, for instance, today they lost half of our luggage.
"The truth is I prefer Skrillex to be big over people like Nickelback"
Changing the subject a bit, as Americans making electronic music, what do you think of the whole EDM wave and its mainstream explosion?
L: Honestly I think it's great that someone like Skrillex can exist, it gives you some hope. The truth is I prefer Skrillex to be big over people like Nickelback. I've never been to any huge raves, I haven't seen Skrillex, but I would like to. [ To Nick] You have, right?
N: Yes, it was incredible. It's like the new pop, really. In the States, hip-hop and R&B have been the main pop music for the past 10 or 15 years, and I don't want that to get lost, because it's something I find very American, and there's some incredible stuff out there. And some of the things they're doing in EDM now sound like American artists trying to do something for the European taste, watering down their style to make it more ‘trancey’. That can be good if it's done well, but some stuff sounds as if they wanted to blur the local cultures and sounds, which is something that has been of great influence on our music. Things like Detroit techno, Chicago house, or New York and New Jersey house, things that are very specific, coming from specific places. Something similar is happening with artists in our vein, who come from very specific scenes with people doing similar things. And then there are the songs that are only popular on certain radio stations in certain cities, like club music from that place, and the possibility that that kind of stuff gets lost is one of the negative aspects of EDM, I believe. But I definitely like Skrillex a lot, and I like some songs by Avicii, I'm actually fan of any good song.
"I think most Americans still see techno as something for white Europeans, without being aware of history"
Now that we're talking about American culture, I've always felt a bit confused about the Americans' relationship with dance music. It's strange, because the country's been so important to the evolution of dance music, but when you go to clubs over there, you get the feeling the dance music culture doesn't exist like it does in Europe.
N: Yes, it's completely different.
L: I think most Americans still see techno as something for white Europeans, without being aware of history, but I don't know why that is. It's very odd.
N: It's as if history were being erased over time. But there still are some places where you can feel the old spirit. The other night on my way home in Brooklyn, a came by this place where they were celebrating a Gay Pride party, and they were playing deep-house, and it was rammed with thirty-somethings, people who had obviously experienced that era when that kind of music was popular in the clubs. They were singing all the songs, all the classics... So there definitely are people who know the history of American house and techno, but it's not the general public. EDM is how people see dance music now. It's all a question of age and what you've experienced and known.
Before we finish, I have to ask you about your website. What's with the Angelfire thing?
L: [ Laughs] We made it in our dorm room at Oberlin with our friend Cordelia, kind of as a joke. She was really good with HTML and we all loved gifs, so we started to upload all that stuff. We said “let's do a fake boyband fan site”. It's actually kind of based on a fan website Nick had for the band Blaque...
N: Yes, I did that web for real, when I was a teenager [ laughs]. But, well, the whole aesthetic we started out with as a band wasn't very planned out beforehand. At the time, nobody was using that kind of imagery, and now I'm seeing people using the same kind of primitive net-art. Like there are a lot of artists doing live electronica right now, whereas before that was more of a noise thing, maybe...
I think that's because on the American underground there are a lot of people coming from hardcore and noise, who are now making electronica. Like the people of 100% Silk.
L: Yes, it's fun because when we started we were both fans of Mi Ami, Ital's first band, and what they were doing wasn't purely electronic, but you could hear they were looking for something new.
N: I wouldn't like to think anyone would believe we jumped on some kind of bandwagon, because when we started we were in the middle of nowhere, obviously we had our influences, but in terms of other bands doing similar things, there were literally four of us and we met through the internet. Now it seems it has grown and some kind of scene has been formed, which is great.