I think the strength and weakness of a lot of super-produced music is, like, it all sounds kind of weird on home stereos. [They sound] massive in a club and are really effective but lack a certain fuzzy, tactile, song-structure vibe that you want when you’re, like, chilling at home or at work.
Since hitting the scene as Ital last year, Daniel Martin-McCormick has seen his solo career explode. Before shacking up with Not Not Fun’s dance music imprint, 100% Silk, and dropping his debut long-player, Hive Mind, on Planet Mu, Martin-McCormick was best known as the guitarist and vocalist for S.F. noise-meets-dance group, Mi Ami. We sat down with the Brooklynite (he switched coasts in late 2010) to chat about how he juggles his own work with that of Mi Ami, how he landed a deal with Planet Mu, his unorthodox recording techniques, and his outlook on the world of dance music in this day and age.
Ital will perform at the unsound festival on April 20.
Since I met you in San Francisco, I guess we’ll start with that. What brought you out there to begin with?
Well, the city itself, I had been there a couple of times, visiting with my mom and also on tour. I think D.C. is kind of a bone-dry city―no frills!―and when I went out to San Francisco as a teenager, it blew my mind. I didn’t realize it was really small [at that time in my life], but it seemed like so much more of a city. There were so many freaky-looking people hanging out and I was, like, 15, and got it lodged in my mind that it was the place for me. Every time I went back I had a great time.
Also, Washington, D.C. is just a city, not a State, so there’s no viable [college] education. There’s one university and it almost lost its accreditation. So… if you’re from D.C. and you want to go to a State school, your only option is the University of D.C. and it’s terrible. The solution is you set up this grant where the government pays the difference between your in-state and out-of-state tuition for any school in the country! I was living in D.C. and playing music and didn’t have any formal training. I was at this point of crisis and realized I needed something more than jamming with the four guys. So I was, like, I’m going to go out to San Francisco and change my major from literature to classical guitar. [Laughs] I worked at a sheet music store in D.C. and the woman who owned it, we had this sort of contentious relationship. We’d always argue about whether or not [formal training] was valid and I was always like, No, it’s bullshit. Anyway, I came to her finally and was like, Alright―you were right, you were right. What can you teach me? I want to move out [to S.F.] in nine months. And she gave me just enough to barely pass my audition for probably one of the worst music programs in the country but… it was sort of just what I needed.
You went where?
San Francisco State. It was totally perfect and also not at all what I was looking for. There was almost nothing that would’ve been engaging to me musically about what I was learning there. But I got all this raw information that I could find weird uses for.
I feel like a lot of people don’t put enough emphasis on classical training. And unless you’re really fortunate and can’t navigate through music production simply with what you’ve learned on your own… you eventually hit a wall, I imagine.
Yeah, what was interesting to me was that, a lot of the stuff I learned [at school] was stuff I’d already taught myself but you see how there’s a system to everything. And instead of having all these little crumbs of knowledge you’ve picked up there’re patterns and, like, a matrix of knowledge; you see how everything relates.
I understand why people are cagey or nervous about theory because, instead of using analysis to understand what you’re doing, you plug into someone else’s system and then are [making music] “wrong.”
You could apply that same qualm to a lot of the software that’s out there right now. Like, if you don’t have any sort of training and use a program like Ableton, you’re subscribing to someone else’s system and their little world. And if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll wind up making music that sounds like all these default settings put together. So the nice thing about musical theory is that it transcends all of that… it’s an umbrella that applies to everything no matter what instrumentation you have or what program you’re using.
Okay, so you were in S.F. and you eventually met your bandmate in Mi Ami, Damon [Palermo].
I was super isolated during my first year in S.F. I was dating this girl who still lived in D.C. and she was going to come out to live with me in San Francisco. So that took, like, a year. And growing up in D.C., like, I started going to shows when I was in high school and I think there’s a certain way you’re sociable [at that point in your life], where you make friends when you don’t even realize you’re making friends. Eventually, it’s just like, Oh… I know everyone here! But when I moved to San Francisco I was like, I have to make friends!? I don’t know how to do that! And it just took forever to actually feel comfortable there.
One day, I met this really awkward art dude and he was having an opening at Adobe Books [in the Mission]. And I guess that since he didn’t have any friends he asked me to play. [Laughs] Also on the bill was this trio, of which Damon was a part. I did my set, which was terrible, and then Damon came on and he had, like, plexiglass with a contact mic attached to it and all these wind-up toys wandering around on it. We wound up taking afterwards and really hit it off since we both found we were into disco and house and stuff. So we decided to jam. He said he was a drummer. So we started jamming and slowly put together a drum kit for him―we started off with a snare and another drum… and then we ordered some tom off eBay and eventually got a kick. The next spring, his chops had warmed up a bit and the dude who used to be in that trio with him came and was like, What the fuck!? Damon is a drummer? And he’s good at it!?
I can totally see him neglecting to bring that up. [Laughs]
Yeah, totally. So that’s basically how it started, in mid-2006, early 2007. Once you sort of have a band you start telling people and they’re like, Oh! Nice! It changes things.
He also did the Jonas Reinhardt stuff, right?
Yeah, that came a bit later―in 2008 or something.
So… how did you come to NYC?
I came over in late 2010. Life sort of took me here. I’d been wanting to move for a while and I was dating this girl and we were both sort of itching to move. And she had a career opportunity. Basically, I went to Damon and asked if he wanted to come since I really wanted to go. He said, No, but you should. If he had asked me to stay I would’ve. But he didn’t want to put tons of pressure on and was probably thinking, like, If you love something, set it free. I felt really nervous about it, though, because I had this whole life and structure in San Francisco and within the band. And while I had been making Ital tracks throughout 2010 it was only during times when we weren’t practicing as the band.
We were playing a lot and touring a lot and were on Thrill Jockey. But it’s tough, sustaining an intense level of energy with a group of people.
Tell me a little about the Ital thing… and, like, when you actually applied a name to it since I get the impression you’d been working on your own for a while before you came out as Ital.
Yeah, before I met Damon, I’d been working on these tracks that were sort of, like, bootleg… but that was sort of my “in” with the band. I was like, I’ve got these tracks that we should work on live. And that quickly failed but we’d already set off on our way. [Laughs] Around early 2010 it just got to this point where all I was listening to, really, was dance music with a little bit of noise and modern composed music. That was the vibe. And I was like, This is stupid! I have friends who have dance labels and I should just make a track and see if I can get it out. So I made “Ital’s Theme” and sent it to Future Times.
Oh, cool. Do you know those guys from D.C.?
Yeah, from D.C. They liked it but they have a very specific vibe. Later that year, I’d made seven more tracks or so and Amanda [Brown] from Not Not Fun wrote me with this idea to do a dance label. She asked if I had stuff or if I knew anyone who did. And I was like, Actually, yeah―take these three. And that’s how they made the first record.
I know Not Not Fun and 100% Silk but I don’t really know the whole story…
Okay, so Not Not Fun is this married couple, Amanda and Britt [Brown] from L.A. They sort of share the workload equally but I think Britt tends to be more of the A&R guy… and Amanda is more about helping run the label. She wanted to do more dance-related stuff and decided to put out records that were more to her taste. So she started this Silk thing, which is still the two of them, but she’s more in touch with the bands.
I totally dig it but find it really fascinating how people without much understanding of or interest in dance music like it. Like, how it’s fostered by this Pitchfork appeal.
I think what it comes down to is that, yeah, while it is dance music, it’s not stuff that’s made for, like UK clubs. A lot of the people [involved in the label] aren’t, like, working DJs or producers but, rather, people who’re engaging with the style of music from a wide variety of backgrounds. I think the strength and weakness of a lot of super-produced music is, like, it all sounds kind of weird on home stereos. [They sound] massive in a club and are really effective but lack a certain fuzzy, tactile, song-structure vibe that you want when you’re, like, chilling at home or at work. You have to be really into techno if you’re just going to listen to techno, like, alone.
One of the things I find really odd is how people tend to put a lot of emphasis on the quality of production of a dance song even though that doesn’t tell me anything about the actual song. Like, it always sounds like a euphemism for “it’s kind of shitty.” If you’re in a band and the reviewer says something like, Well, clearly they know how to play the guitar really well… that doesn’t tell me anything about the songs.
It’s interesting because I just did an interview last week and the guy was like, Oh, you’re music and Blondes’ is quite lo-fi… and I had to interrupt him because it’s not lo-fi. The fidelity of these tones is hi-fi! It’s just that there’s a certain fidelity that people are used to [when it comes to dance music] for, like, maximum club impact. It’s such a strange distinction to make since it’s incredible subtle. It’s the most nit-picky thing and, yeah, it matters if you’re a DJ, but, like… if you really like a song and you want to DJ it, there’s a gain knob and you can just turn that up if you need to. Something about that type of conversation… it’s like… what are we actually talking about?
I saw this interview with the Men and it got a little sophomoric but there was some truth to it. They were like, I don’t know why you have to say we embody all these different genres because we’re just playing music that speaks to us and it’s your own fault that you’re defining us in such a way. That’s your own fault, your own hangup.
Well, it’s true! People would say that about Mi Ami, too. And while in once sense it’s technically true or not inaccurate, it also feels like this top-down manner of understanding something. Like, I can hear 20 different genres here so they must’ve taken them all, throw them into a blender, and come up with this! And it’s like, No… we’re aware of all of those genres and ideas so, at any point, some of them will come into play.
Alright, so in terms of Hive Mind… how did you move from doing 12”s to constructing an actual album?
Well, by the time that I started the LP, all the 12”s were out or were about to be out. On the plane ride over to Europe for that tour I started the first track, “Doesn’t Matter (If You Love Him)”―the Gaga one. At first, I was just making the track and wasn’t sure as to where it was going to go. I got back and kind of had this bug up my ass to write to some labels and I went to Planet Mu and they liked [the idea of working with me]. By that time, I’d finished the track and had sent it to them along with the older stuff and we got started. We agreed that it’d be larger than a 12” since [Planet Mu]’s a legendary label and I didn’t want to release something that would float through the blogosphere and disappear. For the next couple of months that was all I worked on. It ended up with a different feel from the 12”s, not because I had a grand concept but because each song is in reference to the last one. When you make a 12”, it’s like, What do I feel like today? And each song is sort of meant to be consumed individually. With the album, a larger sort of emotional arch unfolded. I also wanted to take some of the techniques I’d developed in Audacity and push them further, stretch out technically.
Out of curiosity, did you get the Lady Gaga and Whitney Houston samples cleared?
No. My friend was like, You Should post “Doesn’t Matter” to Lady Gaga’s Twitter! She’d probably like it! I was like, Even if she listens to it and likes it, do you know how many lawyers are hanging out [there]? Part of me is slightly terrified that someone will read Pitchfork and [come after me].
It’d probably be worse for Gaga if she and her people went after you. Like what happened with “Weird Al” Yankovic. He wanted to do a cover of one of her songs and she wasn’t down. She sort of played along with him for a while and asked him to record a demo, which he never does, and when he finally submitted it to her she said he couldn’t put it out. I feel like that caused some sort of an impact that was worse than what would’ve happened if she’d just approved the thing.
Anyway… in terms of your setup, what do you use?
A combination of samples and loops [I make in] Logic and Audacity. It’s this kind of retarded process of laying out everything for 10, 20 minutes and then [sequencing all of it]. It’s a system that’s really idiotic… but I like it because I’ve tried to make tracks in Logic―which does sound better―but, structurally… you see everything [in front of you] and it automatically puts certain effects on, which you have to take off. It’s made to make music sound a certain way. Also, I didn’t learn it long ago enough so it feels like I’ve a lot of catching up to do. I feel like, No―I like how Audacity isn’t made for this. You have to work! You really have to go in there and.. it’s like a test for me, like the program asks me, Are you going to be lazy and present something serviceable but half-assed or are you going to do something kick-ass but do the extra work? Also, it crashes a lot… so you might lose parts or the whole file.
It’s easier than ever to over-produce. It’s so easy to just drop all sorts of bells and whistles into whatever it is you’re working on. It’s like… with great power comes great responsibility. The same can be said about bands that start self-producing and wind up creating really glossy music.
Finally, I was wondering about the artwork. What’s the story with that?
I worked with this graphic designer at Planet Mu whose stuff I really loved. We just sort of kept bouncing ideas back and forth but one of the big themes we kept coming back to was this idea of the world being corrosive and glacially oppressive. Like, being disgusted with the world while also being celebratory by making music. Like, even punk is super raging and angry but it’s exciting and makes you feel great! And with dance music… even the harshest techno is made for dancing. The designer sent me a few different drafts but the [one we went with] was the simplest and best.
It wasn’t actually Lady Gaga who was stringing Weird Al along, it was her manager, who never consulted her before saying “No.” But when Al went public with the refusal, pretty much the entire Internet rose up and with a single voice said, “Whaaat?”
And Lady Gaga gave permission to release the parody. It’s the lead single on Al’s most recent album, and now has a very disturbing and very funny video to go along with it.
Thanks for the clarification, Helen! Duly noted.