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...
this time we
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.
think about a
kind of sonic
each song. I
always had this
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.
Albums Teengirl Fantasy - Tracer
Albums Teengirl Fantasy - 7 AM
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