From dodging conscription in South Africa to an ecstasy-fuelled awakening to house music, New York-based Brendon Moeller opens up about his journey into electronic music production, his new live show and the making of Works – his new LP for Electric Deluxe.
Why did you choose to move to New York from South Africa?
It was a desire to produce electronic music, which became problematic in South Africa as I began researching the possibilities of getting the necessary equipment together to do it – synthesisers, samplers, drum machines. I was a schoolteacher at the time, making a very small salary, and the cost of getting that stuff was basically impossible.
It also coincided with the fact that at that time there was a forced conscription service for all whites in South Africa. I managed to dodge the army for seven years – four years spent at university getting my teaching degree and then three years paying back my student loan by teaching at government schools. However, after the third year I was becoming increasingly sought-after by them – threatening letters, and contacting my parents – so it became an issue of getting away from the country as well.
It was a particularly tense time; things had escalated quite badly there. Violence was erupting every day in one or more parts of the country, so I decided to sell off every thing I had and head to New York. I had a friend who said I could base myself there until I get my feet on the ground and get my own place.
So there wasn’t any particular pull of the city other than you had a friend, and a temporary base in New York?
I had quite an optimistic sense of America at that point – Bill Clinton was the president and things seemed to be heading in a much better direction – and obviously New York seemed like a great place for me being a massive fan of music, all sorts of music. Even though London would have made sense as well, the fact that I had a friend, yeah, who basically offered me a place made a big difference.
I never came to New York aware of any particular scene, I just knew there was going to be a lot of live shows by bands I wanted to see, particularly rock bands that I was into at the time – ranging from Dinosaur Junior to John Spencer to Helmut, through to the hip hop stuff I was into. I wanted to go out and see A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Ice Cube, you name it, and then at the same time also looking forward to The Orb, Primal Scream, Future Sound of London… So it was quite a wide thing and upon arriving in New York I wasn’t there trying to necessarily put myself into any scene, but rather explore.
It was in 1994 that I managed to run into a person – who became a friend of mine – who introduced me to the nightclub scene in New York at the time. I began going out to these nights, and that changed everything for me – typical clichéd story of dropping a pill and getting into house music.
Was house music, then, your first entry into a more ‘formal’ engagement with electronic (dance) music?
I was into electronic music in South Africa in a big way. I was aware of rave culture and there were clubs in South Africa playing the beginnings of house and acid house and pop-dance stuff but they were in no way anything like what I encountered in New York – these massive industrial clubs with huge sound systems and lighting – it was just something completely new to me. And I had not ever done ecstasy until I came to New York, so obviously that went hand-in-hand with it.
But that was the first time I encountered electronic music in the power that it has in the house and techno format. The electronic music I was digesting in South Africa was more your Aphex Twin and Orb, Future Sound of London and the early Warp stuff that was happening. And I was heavily into what was going down in Manchester – the ‘baggy’ scene, which was basically all these rock bands using break beats and hip hop-style samples.
How did Works and your relationship with EDLX first come about?
I was putting [Subterranean] together while in Bucharest. At the same time Speedy J and I had been talking – he had asked me to do an Echologist release for EDLX. In Bucharest I put this track together called “Connect”, which ended up being the first single I would do with the label. I was compiling Subterranean, back in New York, and sent it to Speedy J – not really ‘shopping’ it. I sent it to him looking for feedback and he expressed interest in releasing it. I had already made up my mind to put it out on my own label, but I would be honoured to put together an album for EDLX. So I agreed to start making some sketches which would go towards making an album that I felt would be suited to the ethos and sound of his label.
Once I had four-five ideas, I came back to Jochem asking how we should go about this, which is where we decided to use Soundcloud as the hub to bounce these ideas around. I asked Jochem if he would take on the role as producer in a collaborative sense, so that him and I could put together an album that would really work for both of us. I had so much respect for his DJ sensibility and his sensibility as a composer that I figured his input from a producer standpoint would be invaluable.
Can you delve a little more into the dynamics of the collaboration with Speedy J – how much input did he have over the project?
As much as he was prepared to offer up, I mean there were times when he felt he might be overstepping the mark with suggestions or comments, but I wanted him to feel free to offer up whatever – whether I ended up going with it or not. Some things I did end up running with to the point where he would call me up on them. But I felt he always offered suggestions that were based and rooted in his experiences, and really helped take these tracks from what they were to what they are now.
It was a great collaboration, hence our journey continues – even with my live set, we are constantly bouncing ideas off each other because we are both very musical people looking for ways to not only better ourselves and evolve but put together music live in ways that are pushing things forward. And over the last three months I really feel like I’ve had an awakening of sorts. I never thought I would move back towards a more hardware set up for my live show, but I am finding a desire to play shows that are completely improvised – programming, all elements of the music – in real time, on the spot. And the thrill and the adventure that comes with that is just phenomenal. So I am going to be moving further and further into this completely live, improvised techno.
Could you be a bit more specific about how this live approach will work, describing the new set up from a technical stance?
My current setup is firstly the laptop running Ableton. And in Ableton what I’m using are VST synthesisers, creating arpeggios in Ableton, in real time. Then I’ve got some loops from my tracks – my sort of catalogue of tracks – some elements, be it the occasional hook or the occasional atmospheric sound, or just signature parts. So those are the only loops I am using at the moment, and signature elements, and where I can I am just taking a sound or texture which I have used in a track, and then I will replay that live using the laptop. So I am really emphasising creating all elements of the live show on the spot, and trying to move away from loops.
I’ve got the laptop hooked up to an audio-midi interface, and I’m running a midi cable form that into a drum machine I have acquired recently called the Dave Smith Tempest, which in my mind is probably the best drum machine possibly ever. The emphasis behind making this drum machine was to create a tool that would allow you to jam and compose drum tracks in real time, without ever having to stop. So with this I have 909 sounds, 808 sounds and whatever other sounds I like, and I am able to tweak them and program the beats in real time.
Then I have a midi cable running out of that into an audio-midi interface for the iPad, which has become a real player for me in this game because of the touchability factor. I’m using an application called Bassline – which is sort of an emulation of a 303 synthesiser – to make basslines in real time. So the bass and the drums are completely improvised – I don’t go in with any prepared beats or basslines – and then I use the arpeggios in Ableton on top of that.
For you, what are main advantages for playing live in this way, over DJ-ing?
Things are raw, and it’s allowing me to be a musician – which is what I am. Coming from a jazz background and also realising the reason why I went to shows was to see a band do live versions of their tracks. For me, that’s a real thrill, and I would like to see more electronic musicians opting to take this route because right now there’s no excuse. There are things happening and instruments being manufactured that are very portable and very playable. Electronic music has always been about improvising on the spot and playing instruments – playing the drum machines, playing the synthesisers, and going with it.
And because I can record all my live sets, by performing these completely improvised I am building up a wealth of resources that I can compose tracks to potentially be released. And there is no greater test than being in a club and seeing how something works – or doesn’t work.
I assume this balance of hardware and software also translates to your studio set up as well?
It is definitely an even thing. When I first got to New York at the end of 93 (once I had saved up some money) I was buying synthesisers, samplers, drum machines and that is how I taught myself how to use all this stuff. So once everything moved into the software zone it was a fairly comfortable switch for me.
I think for me the most important thing is having the ability to jam and to play – going into my studio, plug in, get into the zone and just hit record and then run along with ideas. And then if you decide you want to make a track to be released on vinyl, or an album, you can take these applications like Ableton, Logic or Pro Tools and you put them together and edit them.
Do you have any work habits or rely on any standard methods when in the studio?
There are no formulas with me. There was such a unique process with each track [on Works]. I let things flow without any particular desire to cling to a formula or work habit. I’m more of an experiment, jam and then come up with a happy accident. I don’t come into the studio with a melody in my head, or a rhythm, I just get in and go about doing it. And I don’t write songs, I write instrumental music. If I were to write a pop song I would approach it differently.
You mentioned before about ‘running away’ with certain tracks. Could you identify some of these moments from Works?
One of the events that triggered this idea to do an album was a show I was doing in Amsterdam with Jochem. Jeff Mills was playing right after us and it was the first time I actually got to hear Jeff Mills play live, and I was just blown away by his approach. The first track I started working on is “Far Out”, and it was really me trying to capture the essence and spirit of what I felt that night while I was at Melkweg listening to Jeff Mills. And it’s funny, I sent that sketch to Jochem immediately, but the version I sent then is remarkably different to how the track sounds on the album. It just sort of developed over and over, and as you spend time with something you either get sick of elements or you think of new ways to make the elements better. That track evolved – I think it went through at least 24 different phases before we got to the final version that is on the album. And we have all those versions, some of which will be released [Extra Works EP].
Actually each track on the album went through a number of phases. Some tracks ended up getting combined – like the drums from this track combined with the bass and melodies of this track. “Take a dive into the sound” up until the very last month before the deadline for the album was actually two separate tracks – “Take a dive” and “The sound”. I ended up being a little frustrated with both tracks and was just like – lets throw these together, and before I knew it there was something great going on.
“Wander” is an example of where it became quite awkward. Jochem and I got to a point with the track where we figured this was pretty much the final version, and why don’t we use it as the first single. So we approached Jonas Kopp and Tommy Four Seven to do a remix. After they had done the mixes I had to live with my version, and when I got their mixes back I was completely dissatisfied. So I went back in. I didn’t make the track significantly different but there was definitely a new feel to it.
Do you find it difficult to draw a line under things – had you not a deadline, do you think you would still be refining Works now?
I think there never is an end to things, if you wanted to keep going you could (with music). There’s no end to the number of versions you could do of something, so it’s just about settling on something. And for me, the settling on this album was – here’s the cut off date, when the album’s going to mastering. So as you can imagine the last two-three weeks before that point were quite frantic for me. I was back and forth, and probably reinvented three-four of the tracks on the album in that period. Not drastically, but enough.
Are you happy with the final versions the album supports, and the outcome of Works as a whole?
I think so. I am now doing versions live of these tracks that I think would have been better suited, but it doesn’t matter. Ultimately my focus now is on my live shows. I never set out thinking I would be performing stuff live. I had always been a DJ, since 1986 in Johannesburg where I was DJ-ing vinyl in punk and industrial clubs. So DJ-ing was something I always loved doing, but I never thought of tacking my music out live. That has all changed since the internet has really stopped people buying music and stopped record labels being able to give artists advances for albums because they cannot recoup the money. So I had to make the shift to play live.
But now I love playing live, that is what being a musician is. Not a massive fan of flying and hotel rooms – but love doing the shows. I think it was Kenny Larkin who said: “I’m not getting paid to do the shows, I’m getting paid for the travel” – it’s the travel that’s the work.
The album gets into real dark and driving techno territory towards the end – quite a motion away from your ‘usual’ viscous dub sound. Is this a direct you plan to continue pursuing, for the time being at least?
Basically I have been on this techno kick, and having started to play gigs in techno rooms and the bigger venues, I’ve really had to think about how I present what I do, and obviously the dubby things – while they can work – there’s something about making a track that is able to be propulsive and to get people jumping up and down and going nuts, so I am quite sure I am going to be making a lot more dance floor-centred material for some time.