Around this time last year, Los Angeles based producer Shlohmo, aka Henry Laufer, made headlines for his vocal opinion on the corrupting influence of social media on artists. FACT excerpted the interview and published a few quotes under the headline “Shlohmo bashes the entire music industry.” But upon reading the interview in its entirety, one walked away believing that Laufer’s primary target wasn’t the music industry as much as social media and the constant, crass self-promotion it often brings out of artists.
Months later, after completing an extensive tour, Laufer went absent from social media. Amid a series of deaths and major illnesses within his inner circle and a protracted legal battle with Def Jam which saw his highly anticipated collaboration with experimental-leaning R&B crooner Jeremih shelved, Laufer retreated to his newly built home studio to focus on his third solo album Dark Red, a symphonic layered, densely textured album that draws influence from hip-hop, IDM and stoner rock — as well as scoring and sound design.
For Laufer, grief and creation became intertwined. The end result is a deeply immersing album, containing only one feature from longtime friend and WeDidIt labelmate D33J. While Dark Red could easily double as a soundtrack for a Korean horror film, it’s thematically significant in its embrace of seclusion and isolation in an age of constant connection. A few weeks ago, I spoke with Laufer on the phone about how he managed to avoid the corrosive side of social media in preparation of Dark Red, as well as the personal drama that inspired the album, upcoming projects from his WeDidIt imprint, and the details behind his conflict with Def Jam. — Aaron Frank
How was New York? I heard you just got
back from a short trip out there.
Shlohmo: Yeah. Just label meetings and we had a little listening party, which was crazy. Björk came.
Crazy. So what was the listening party like?
Shlohmo: It was trippy as fuck actually. We did it in this weird Chinatown arcade. It was really dark, and we unplugged all the sound from all the games and brought in a system. And I literally just played it off an iPod, and we smoked it out and brought in lights and stuff. And Björk was there. It was weird.
What was that conversation like? I take it you’re a fan of her music.
Shlohmo: Yeah. It was very non-musical actually. She just like offered me a chocolate almond, and we sipped some champagne that she just pulled out of her purse. And we just shared some champagne and talked a little bit. It was just really trippy.
Sounds like that was probably the highlight of your trip then.
Shlohmo: Uhh, certainly.
I’m glad to hear people are reacting so positively then, considering it sounds like this album kind of came out of a crisis period in your life.
Shlohmo: I’d say it was less of a crisis and more just confusion with the circle of life. That constant shit. It certainly was a strange period, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a crisis. It just felt like I was living and learning.
With regard to style, the leap between Dark Red and Bad Vibes is pretty stark. It seems like you were really conscious of trying to integrate new textures into your older style. Is that accurate?
Shlohmo: It felt like I was building off of the Bad Vibes thing, but kind of with a new mood or something, or maybe with a new way of saying it, since the times and the context have changed. But I intentionally wanted to make everything much more intense and abrasive, like unforgiving. Whereas, I think Bad Vibes is very subtle and has a lot of undertones, and this is just really concrete and in your face per se.
This album definitely has more of a lo-fi, analog feel, as opposed to the lush, organic tone on Bad Vibes. How did you go about expanding your sound in that way? Was it mostly just changes in equipment?
Shlohmo: I’ve always hated digital sounds, but I think in the last year or so, I’ve been compromising a lot in terms of production for other folks. And I’m able to range myself a little bit, but when it comes to solo shit, I just really want things to sound affected and found and raw, as if they existed in another point in time or something.
So I basically achieved that through old synths. This old Roland Jupiter-6 was kind of the mainstay for this one, and pretty much running that and every guitar part or synth part through the old Roland space echo chorus machine and having nothing grounded. All the wires were kind of old and running through an older mixer before putting it into my computer, so everything has this kind of naturally analog, blown-out quality. You can’t get that shit with digital at all.
It’s funny you use the word “found,” because songs like “Buried” almost have that found footage feel of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers or some random low-budget horror film.
Shlohmo: That’s the kind of stuff I’m inspired by, like the shittiness of reel recording quality or the imperfections and mistakes that go into tapes and magnets and all the reel-type recording.
“Beams” and “Fading” are probably better examples though, because they both really exhibit a willingness to expand and try out new styles like jungle and drum’n’bass. Do you ever intentionally set boundaries for yourself when trying new things like that?
Shlohmo: I have a lot of weirder tracks that I made around the same time that are just pure IDM and drum’n’bass experiments, but they felt like they weren’t cohesive to the record. They might get put out at another time, but I also have some full-on techno shit that I just don’t do anything with.
It’s not necessarily to maintain an identity or anything. It’s more for myself. I’m really protective when I make a piece of music. I just want it to be as perfect as it can be in my own eyes. All of these tracks just felt like a good culmination for me, and it didn’t feel like I was hindering myself.
You really struck a nice balance. It shows a lot of growth, but your distinct style is still there, especially in the guitar parts. How long have you been playing guitar now?
Shlohmo: I’m not too good at it actually, but I’ve been playing since I was like 12. I dropped it for a long time. Once I found turntables and scratching and beatmaking when I was 14, I left guitar alone for a long time. But I never stopped listening to rock, so it’s always in my head still. I think Bad Vibes was really the first time I picked up the guitar for a long time, so since then I’ve just kind of been noodling.
I don’t know how to read music or anything, but I’ve slowly been learning through band practice, because for this new tour it’s going to be all live. It’s me on synth and guitar and sampler, D33J on synth and guitar, and a drummer on electronic drums and live drums.
How have the practices been going so far?
Shlohmo: Pretty amazing. We’ve been practicing for a little over a month. A lot of it is just tedious programming with the drums, because with pretty much each track there are so many different samples, so we have to split up each drum sound for a different pad, and that alone took two weeks. We’re literally in there everyday for 10 hours, but I’ve been feeling better playing guitar with them.
Photo by Aaron Frank, shoutout to dude staring directly into the camera
I’m kind of learning how to read music again slowly. It’s mad interesting actually, because I’m learning that all of the music I make is very non-traditional in terms of theory. I don’t think about whether it’s in A-minor and the first chord is A-minor second inverted, or if it’s an F7 open inverted. Like, I don’t know what chords I’m playing, but I know what they sound like, and I know that I like them. “I like how these notes sound together” is usually how my music comes about.
So you’re essentially going back and notating these songs that you created in the moment for the first time.
Shlohmo: That’s exactly what I mean, and it’s amazing, because the drummer is this dude Bill we just recruited, and he’s like full-on into music theory. He went to college for it and everything, and he has a book just full of drum tabs. This fool wrote out every fucking drum pattern, so I can look at this book that I don’t even really understand as everything that I’ve made. It’s really crazy learning how I actually made these songs. It’s been a fruitful process.
At some point, you probably could’ve taken more of a commercial direction though and gotten more features and gone the DJ Khaled route. Did you ever consider doing that?
Shlohmo: Nope. I want to keep those things very separate. I can be versatile as a producer, but I don’t look at my albums as production. That’s me trying to make a painting. It’s my heart. It’s always about what I’m trying to say and not compromising, and that’s always what’s most important to me is really being honest in what I put out, as opposed to features and doing the whole thing. It’s not necessarily trite. It’s just very different. It’s an industry approach.
Getting a feature sucks. It’s not like, “Hey. This happened so naturally with this artist where they paid me $50K for this song.” And when you don’t have that kind of input on your own song, it becomes a different thing, which there’s totally a place for, because I’ve made that kind of shit too with other people, and I love the radio, and I love pop music. But this just wasn’t the place for it.
But when you were working with Jeremih and Def Jam, was that ever a possibility for you or WeDidIt? Were you offered any other collaborations or distribution deals or anything?
Shlohmo: People hollered. People don’t holler a lot, because we’re very protective. People are interested always, but they don’t want to talk to us because they’re scared of us. They don’t want to step on toes and be weird in approaching us, mostly because they know we’d turn them down I think. But I just don’t ever want to be owned by anybody else or owe anybody shit. That’s like my least favorite feeling in the world is waking up and knowing you owe somebody something.
I think there are ways to make certain moves and still maintain your identity and your integrity. And I think those are the things we’re looking for. We’re not looking to do anything dumb, like make a random partnership and get sponsors. Distribution and stuff like that, where it’s just like this is your service and we pay you to give our music to people, that’s fine, but nothing where we’d ever have to give up a piece of ourselves or the company.
It’s also because of our experience with majors in the past and especially with the Def Jam thing and what ended up happening with the Jeremih project, because they didn’t even release it.
I remember asking you about that at a show last year, and you seemed pretty bummed about it. I think I asked you when it was coming out, and you just kind of threw up your hands like, “I have no idea.”
Shlohmo: Yeah, because it was literally being shelved. They were shelving it for no reason. They just cleared house in the middle of the whole thing. Totally unbeknownst to anybody else, they just fired everyone and re-hired a whole new upper echelon staff, and then everybody just forgot what they were doing. People were running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to keep their jobs with this as their lowest priority.
They’re worried about Chris Brown and Rihanna. They’re not worried about me and Jeremih. Meanwhile, Jeremih is writing all of Chris Brown’s songs, but Def Jam came up with this weird excuse where they were like, “We don’t have the legal authority to release this music.” And that didn’t even make sense, because we replaced all the samples, and Jeremih is their artist, so they’re the only type of people with any legal say-so.
So, on this meaningless basis, they were just going to shelve it, I guess because of other promotional shit they were working on for Jeremih. And I don’t even think his team knew what was going on until we were like, “Hey. Fuck this. Let’s just put it out,” and they were like, “Hell yeah.”
So was that considered an official release or just a free download?
Shlohmo: We just did it for free off of a bootleg website that we made so we wouldn’t get sued.
And you never heard anything from the label about it?
Shlohmo: Nope, and that’s something they could’ve made money off of. I don’t really understand. It was just a lot of bullshit.
Well at least it actually came out. I think that was everyone’s main concern.
Shlohmo: Yeah. That was the most important thing. It was done for six months, just waiting though. So ever since then, we’ve just been like, “Hey. Let’s not do that anymore.” Like, if we ever collab with people, it’s either going to be on their terms or our terms and not a labels’ terms. I’m not about that shit.
Getting back to the album, the fact that it was so dark wasn’t as surprising as just how immersive it gets at certain points. That darkness is so heavy it’s almost overwhelming on tracks like “Relentless.” Were you dealing with any kind of grief or loss within your family while making this record?
Shlohmo: Yeah. It was just a bunch of funerals and being in hospitals a lot. Just fuckin’ life. Everyone spends some time at the hospital, and everyone goes to some funerals every few years. It was just one of those periods where I was just figuring shit out. It was kind of the first time where people that close had been ill, so it was a weird time, and I think it was just inevitably going to pop out in the music no matter what.
When I start making stuff, it’s never like, “This is what it’s going to sound like.” I just end up making shit, and the first however many tracks just end up having this overarching sound, and I can start to hear that.
Do you think you retreated to the studio more often when you were trying to make sense of or process that grief in some way?
Shlohmo: I was actually partying a lot to be honest. I was getting pretty fucked up and then just spending more time in the studio when I wasn’t doing that. And I think that probably had an effect on it too, just feeling like shit whenever I was in the studio.
In an interview last year, you discussed your contempt for social media and the way it figures into the music industry now. I don’t want to retread the same subject, but I want to ask you about something similar, which is the personal side of social media and peoples’ interior lives that they don’t talk about. As an artist, do you feel like processing those emotions like grief and loss is more difficult with this separate identity online that you feel bound to uphold?
Shlohmo: Of course. 100%. I just feel my own brain chemistry changing based on how much time I spend on the phone or whatever. I feel different than I did four years ago, because I’m looking at a screen way more than I used to. There’s also that real problem of the Internet personality disorder, the kids that will talk endlessly on Twitter about anything, and in-person they just can’t talk and don’t have any opinions.
It’s almost a bizarre sense of authorship over yourself, of presenting yourself in a certain way that is almost universally fake now. Like how often do you look at someone’s Instagram page and say, “Yeah. This person looks real as fuck.” Normally, it’s like, “This person looks fake as shit. They’re just saying all the key phrases of the week or whatever, like “ratchet” or “turn up” or “turn down.”
And it’s like, “Oh ok. You’re cool. You’re part of the herd now since you’ve successfully employed these keywords.”
Shlohmo: It’s like, “Yeah. This person gets it. For sure.”(laughs)
But with grief and loss, it feels harder to process emotions like that when you’re pulled between these two worlds of having these distractions and this identity to uphold online and then setting aside time to actually feel emotions from things happening in real life.
Shlohmo: Totally. It’s just bizarre, and I think I was dealing with this shit too, like I don’t want people to know about this shit. Like I don’t want people to be talking about it. So I just retreat off that shit, because whose business is that? I don’t want to be talking about it either.
And the thing is you don’t have to. Like you shouldn’t feel like you have to.
Shlohmo: Exactly. I clearly shouldn’t, but it’s also something that I am thinking about in the back of my mind stupidly enough. Like what if I did tweet about this shit? And then I catch myself. I’m like, “Wait. What the fucking am I thinking?” You know what I mean? That’s fucked up. I don’t want to be thinking about that in times like this.
It’s so trivial relative to everything else.
Shlohmo: It’s so trivial. Just sometimes you don’t get those chances to realize that there are other important things. It’s weird dealing with real life at the same time that everyone thinks you’re killing it.
It was cool how you managed it though, because once I noticed you were off Twitter for a while, I sort of knew something big was on the way. With the home studio you built for yourself, did you have Daddy Kev or anyone help with the setup?
Shlohmo: No. This was all just me in my room. Since I moved back to L.A., I’ve moved in with my lady, and this is the first time I’ve had a place with another room for a studio. It’s the first time the studio was not my bedroom, which was pretty great, and I was able to set up everything. So everything was pretty much just made in-house.