June 5, 2017

deadboy

A year ago, Local Action producer Deadboy packed up and moved house from London to Montreal, seeking new surroundings and inspiration. Just over a year later, he released Earth Body, a hypnagogic pop record that feels like a sharp left turn from his previous dance music missives, but nevertheless builds on the eclectic, cross-genre catalogue he’s been building over a decade of production. Wondering just what he was doing in my hometown and how the record came together, I met up with Deadboy in the Mile End to discuss pop, production, and kitchen tables. —Son Raw


You’ve been living in Montreal for a year now and Earth Body’s been really tied to that move. What inspired it?


Deadboy: It was mostly my girlfriend’s idea. We applied for these Visas a year before and we actually got them, so we basically said, “Let’s go then.” It was literally just that. I’d never been to Canada before and wanted to go somewhere else. We couldn’t think of anywhere in Europe that we particularly wanted to live in and Montreal and Canada seemed like a good bet.


What did you even know about the place before?


Deadboy: Nothing! Absolutely nothing. I didn’t even look at pictures before coming over. I knew a few people that lived here who were friends of friends—you and a couple of other people—but no one I’d actually met or had spoken to. It was a bit of a blank slate. I think it’s always better to be like that because I’ve visited tons of cities before and if you have an idea ahead of time, it’s never like that. So I try not having an impression of what a place might be like before going there. That way you can never been disappointed.


Had you started Earth Body before the move?


Deadboy: No. I’d started one track. One track from the album I’d made in London but that was a long time ago. The rest of it was made here. I think coming to Montreal, I had the time and the disconnection from everything to make the album. I made it in a really short amount of time, like a month or two. I had lots of time and space which made it ideal. It’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time, an actual pop record and this finally gave me the impetus to do it.

I’d tried to do it a few times before—I made one or two tracks and dropped it and never followed it through. Here for some reason, I was able to do it all in short amount of time while I still had the motivation. And being away from my friends in London also helped, in the sense of not having anything or anyone around that would judge what you’re doing. It’s hard to get a microphone out and sing on a record. I need to be in a certain frame of mind with a certain isolation, which you can’t get if you go down to the pub with your mates before singing on your little pop record! You need a bit of alone time to do that.


The first thing that hit me regarding the vocals—in terms of arranging them, there’s a load of effects and most singers have one set of presets, they know what they want to sound like. Your voice and how you treat it varies substantially over the course of the album. How’d you come to that approach?


Deadboy: I think it came from experimenting over the course of the record. I didn’t really know exactly what I was going for but I kind of did. It was mostly the process of trying to work out how I wanted it to sound which made it come out different on each record. I took a different approach to each track to find a certain sound and I settle on what worked for each track.


I guess that’s where your production background plays in. You don’t get a lot of producers on the mic. Someone who knows that background side of recording, apart from someone like Bjork.


Deadboy: I think it’s just, stereotypically, people who produce aren’t going to stick themselves upfront and center. They’re typically backroom kind of guys and I am too, but it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. If you’ve got the ability to, why not?


That aspect of playing the back actually adds to the record in my opinion. Lots of singers tend to be attention hogs, so to get a vocal record where that isn’t the case and you can both pay attention to it and let it sink in.


Deadboy: I think that comes from the kind of pop records I’m into and the general vibe. The records I enjoy are by Scott Walker and Sade you know? Not the stuff you’re going to put on at a party or on the radio but something you’ll put on in your headphones. So I was never going to write a party rocking tune for this record.


No party all the time?


Deadboy: Album two!


It’s funny you mention Sade in the context of not being on the radio because she was probably one of the only black artists* that got play on mainstream rock radio (which for better or worse, was pop radio) in Montreal in the ’90s. Unintentional Montreal connection! That hazy mood also plays in with the lyrics.


Deadboy: Writing the lyrics was very much an unconscious thing. I think it’s best not to try too hard when writing words because it’s very easy to drift into cliché. Usually a phrase or a couple of lines would come into my head and then I’d just keep writing. There’s a general direction for what it’s about but I think it’s very much automatic writing and the unconscious. That’s something I’m very interested in—ideas by Carl Jung—I think it’s a good exercise rather than trying to site down and “write.” I’m not a writer.


It works with the music where there’s a lot going on but there’s no one element that’s super distinct.


Deadboy: I definitely wanted it to be a hazy, blurry record. The vocals are buried and I didn’t want them to be super upfront so everyone could understand every single thing I’m singing. That’s definitely intentional.


Is that a challenge? Balancing that pop side—having it be a record someone can just put on—and having an experimental side.


Deadboy: That was quite natural. At no point was I thinking that this was going to be a big radio pop record or something. There was no real struggle between the experimental and pop aspects. I think I was trying to make an experimental record within a pop framework. It’s fun having some basic parameters within which to work, so that’s what I was doing.


In terms of actually making it, you left behind your studio in England – what kind of kit were you using?


Deadboy: It was a very basic set up. A Mac, a microphone, one synthesizer, and some plugins. It was very much done inside the computer. I have access to a lot of synthesizers and proper studios out here but I didn’t want it to be overworked and overwrought. I wanted it to be something I could throw together without too much thought. I think the best music I make is the stuff that I’ve thrown down in an hour, not the stuff I labor over for days and weeks.


If bedroom pop wasn’t already a genre that sounds radically different from this record, it’d be a good genre tag.


Deadboy: Kitchen table pop.


Any plans to perform it live?


Deadboy: I’d like to do that at some point. I think I’ll do one in the UK soon, but nothing’s properly planned yet. I just need to figure out how to do it. I don’t want to go on stage, sing the songs and that’s the show. I want to figure out how to do it live so it’s not some boring thing where you go and stand and watch a guy sing. I want to rework them into stuff that will be engaging live.


Which brings me to another surprising part of the record: the de-emphasis on percussion and drums on the record. That’s very rare in terms of pop records.


Deadboy: I think on most pop records, the drums are pretty redundant. If people aren’t going to dance to it, I don’t think you need to drums in there. And I wasn’t making a record for people to dance to. The ones that do have drums on them are more of a considered instrument than an obligation. I hear so many decent pop records that are ruined by some boring drum beat that’s stuck on the top because, “You know, we gotta have a drum beat!”

I just think, “No one’s going to dance to this. You should have left it off. It’d have been a far more beautiful song.” That’s just my taste, I guess.


To bring it back full circle, considering you said you moved here and were able to focus on this record, have you gotten out much since?


Deadboy: It’s been pretty good living here. I go to record shops fairly regularly, have gone out to nights and have met lots of people. I’ve felt welcomed and accepted so there’s no plans to leave yet. I think I want to start doing some nights here though, because I think there’s definitely a gap and room for it, especially now that certain spaces have closed down. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough being done and I’m probably not the guy to do it but…

*Sade and Seal. With the occasional novelty rap record by Coolio on the pop leaning stations. Whitney Houston was probably on Adult Contemporary but I can’t speak on that.