“I Guess I Want to Do it All but More and Better”: An Interview with Instupendo

Lucas Foster speaks with 17-year-old producer Instupendo about boarding school, soccer practice, and being a young producer.
By    September 26, 2017

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Instupendo makes mood music for people who aren’t old enough to have words for the moods they are experiencing. His is the type of ambient and non-orchestral IDM that seems to cling to the air in 30-somethings-populated-coffee-bars. However, his sparse percussion often features obvious nods to hip-hop’s most forward-thinking artists. It’s rare to find a producer with Soundcloud’s #ambient tag who is both musically mature beyond a “guilty pleasure” listen and is populating your teenage niece’s stream; maybe that’s why seventeen-year-old Aidan Peterson is perhaps the most intriguing artist quickly working his way from playing around with a mixer in his bedroom to having his music played in both every bedroom where weed is smoked and every microbrewery where graphic designers pay too much for beer.

Gliding through his Soundcloud is a beautiful surf through a brilliantly colored tapestry of melodies and textures. He already is using his subdued and mellow approach to electronic music to set moods and evoke emotions that artists twice his age are never able to reach. I was lucky enough to watch his growth as an artist after a friend suggested I follow him a few years ago. My initial envy of his talent quickly evolved into an appreciation for his insane precociousness and beautiful melodies. I recently called him early one Saturday morning, and we talked about his creative diversity, what shaped his development as an artist, and what it’s like growing as a star DJ before receiving a high school diploma. —Lucas Foster


Where are you these days?


Instupendo: I’m at home. Came home from school just now for this call. Home is outside Philly, about 30 minutes out from downtown, in a suburban kind of area.


Have you always been from the suburbs of Philly?


Instupendo: I’ve lived in the same house all my seventeen years.


Damn, so you’re still only seventeen? What is it like growing up out there?


Instupendo: Umm you know, I guess I had a pretty chill upbringing, pretty regular. I went to the same school for ten years and then for high school—I’m still in high school) I go to a boarding school, which isn’t quite regular I guess.


So how are you making music at the boarding school?


Instupendo: Well, luckily there’s enough space for me to fit all my equipment inside my room. I can pretty much produce from anywhere as long as I’ve got my laptop, but I can keep my whole set up at school, which is pretty sweet.


What’s your school set up looking like at the moment?


Instupendo: My laptop, some headphones, and a hard drive is all I really need, but my full set up in my room at school is 2 Yamaha HS8’s monitors, an Apollo Twin audio interface, an Audio Technica AT4040 mic, and a tiny little KORG Nanokey midi keyboard. It’s truly the best purchase I’ve made. I also have a Maschine MK-2, which is intended for production, but I prefer it for live stuff because it’s fun. And a shit ton of cables.


So what does your full whole home studio set-up look like?


Instupendo: It’s not so different from my dorm set-up, actually. I have a really long IKEA table that has enough room for everything that I have in my dorm right now, plus an Audio Technica turntable. I also have a portable hard drive for holding project files that I bring everywhere, and then I have a huge four hard drive box with all my project files, stems, drum kits, synthesizers, and everything else. It has saved files from over the years and it’s super fast and backs up everything. And of course that’s all working with FL Studios on my Macbook Pro. I also have an Epiphone electric guitar and an upright piano at home.


How’d you develop an interest in making music?


Instupendo: When I was starting middle school my oldest sister started going to shows where Skrillex and Bassnectar and artists like that were playing, and I immediately wanted to make music like that because it was simple to make; all you really needed was a laptop. I thought it was so cool that you could just make it anywhere.


Were your earliest original compositions and recordings like some straight-up WAH-WAH-WAH dubstep type stuff?


Instupendo: Haha, yeah, it’s funny really because that’s what I was going for. I was trying to make melodic dubstep type stuff, because I was a 12-year-old and I thought that was just the coolest shit out. I didn’t have the technical knowledge, though, so it ended up being melodic and chill with some trap influences, and it just kinda stayed that way.


You say your music is chill, but how would you describe it? Would you put your music into a genre? Are you making ambient music?


Instupendo: I mean if I had to—it’s kind of hard because I try to switch it up, but I’d say the themes that I follow are probably ambient and indie-electronic. Those are the genres that I get placed into most often I’d say. I don’t really like sitting in one sound box forever though ’cause I get bored pretty quick. Frankly I don’t think anyone would be interested in my music if I didn’t switch it up.


I find for lot of musicians, their music is reflective of what they are listening to, so who are you listening to on a day-to-day basis?


Instupendo: Oo—uhh let’s see, right now I’m listening to a lot of Zach Villere, a lot of Teen Daze, a lot of Rejjie Snow…a LOT of Rejjie Snow. Rejjie if you see this, hey man I love you. Also Rostam’s new album is lovely.


Outside of that sonic landscape, what other genres would you say you pull from?


Instupendo: Funnily enough, I listen to a lot of rap music. I saw your write-up on Tread Music, and it’s funny because I listen to a lot of the artists that you wrote about. I wouldn’t say that they influence my music that much, but I definitely get down to some guys like Black Kray, Starfoxlaflare, Cyrax!, and Lil B. Definitely, production-wise, it opens your mind up a lot when you listen to something that’s produced with a completely different intent; y’know say, Brent Rambo producing for Famous Dex.

It’s a totally different type of music than what I’m making, but just listening to that and hearing, “Oh, they did it this way for this reason,” keeps my mind open to new production techniques or approaches. Listening to such radically different methods keeps me from becoming stale. Then also, I listen to James Ivy and Good Intent, not because they’re necessarily similar to me, but because they’re my bros, making super good music.


In North Philly, the Working on Dying kids are doing, on FL, the literal polar opposite approach to electronic music or hip-hop. It’s interesting, that geographic and sonic duplicity there: North Philly, uptempo drill, South Philly, downtempo ambient. Your sound, when I listen to it, it’s pretty amorphous in a way, it has a broad appeal. I play it at my grandma’s house and she vibes out to it, or I could play it to a bunch of graphic designer guys drinking craft beer and they’d vibe out to it. so do you intentionally curate your music for mass consumption?


Instupendo: Well, umm, I’d say as far as mass consumption goes, I do like to make it palatable but not in a calculated way. I guess it becomes palatable through my process, without me trying. I make so much music, but it’s actually very rare that I’ll sit with something and keep on working with it past the initial stages. There’s a lot of trial and error. I’m mostly making music for myself, but I also take into consideration how others enjoy it. If I’m having trouble with something, like if a melody line sounds off, I’ll listen to it a few more times, maybe show it to my mom or something to get a different viewpoint. ‘Cause, I still could like it a lot and other people could not like it. So far, the public has generally liked what I like.


Yeah, totally, a lot of artists can get caught in their own head, and it’s refreshing to hear someone answer that question so honestly. So how do you picture your average Instupendo fan?


Instupendo: That’s hard to say; I don’t think there is an average Instupendo fan. Like you said it could be your grandmother or it could be a bunch of indie bros graphic designing and drinking craft beer, it could really be anyone.


So you’ve basically been messing around on FL for five years; you’re about to be a senior in high school, so how were you able to get this large and dedicated fanbase before most kids can even make their own bassline in FL?


Instupendo: Right, well the thing that people don’t take into account when they look at someone’s fanbase is, as you said, the five years of work and learning and making connections in all different places. I think most important for me and what has pushed me hardest, is definitely the friends I’ve made. Friends that I’ve connected with, collaborated with, or did a show with that helped me to reach new fans. It’s really a lot of behind-the-scenes work that people don’t see.


Definitely, but then, listening to your music, the way you’re able to use melody, or ambience to set a mood or evoke an emotion shows a lot of maturity. Do you think that was something that came naturally to you?


Instupendo: I think it’s definitely just time spent figuring out what I like. I just write a lot of melodies. I probably write 100 melodies a week, and I keep maybe one or two of them, so it’s definitely time in and practice, almost like a sport or something. At the same time, I think a certain amount of maturity was definitely part of it, just ‘cause growing up I listened to a lot, A LOT, of different kinds of music. So I definitely owe that to my parents. That sort of musical maturity.


So what were you listening to growing up?


Instupendo: A lot of Sting, a lot of ’80s music, and my Dad loves Nora Jones, a lot of female vocalists like that, a lot of Jazz as well. Pretty much anything from the Propeller Heads to The Weepies, Cat Stevens, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Gigi, Ella Fitzgerald, John Mayer, David Bowie, Nick Drake.


How important is sampling then, to what you’re making now?


Instupendo: Initially I was sampling a lot in my songs, and I would kind of pick a sample and build around it as many producers do. But, then, when I started to distribute my music, putting it on Spotify and iTunes, I realized that it wasn’t gonna be easy to legally clear samples, so I was kind of put into a situation where I was having to produce completely original material. Now I don’t use samples at all any more. Maybe in the future when I have the money to get samples cleared I’ll go back to them, but people don’t realize how expensive it is to get them cleared.

But, on that note, many people know about my Long.Live.A$AP. remix. Until just recently it was only available on SoundCloud, but my manager and I worked with this service called Dubset. They ingest remixes into their system and digitally identify who all the rights holders are and try to clear those samples for you. So, luckily for me, they went to Sony and Sony/ATV and licensed their catalogs, and got that A$AP Rocky sample cleared in return for all the publishing and most of the streaming royalties. Now it’s about to be available on Spotify and Apple Music. So that’s an example of sampling gone right.


On that note of the A$AP Rocky remix and that network that you were talking about, how do you think that network formed? To me, it’s formless but it’s visible. You can see a lot of young kids your age working in a similar area musically, but it’s all online and there’s no real definition of a scene, you feel?


Instupendo: Yeah it’s actually really cool how the electronic music scene comes about, ’cause it definitely evolves in cycles. When I started making friends and stuff it started out on Skype. You would just get added to a Skype group chat with 100 different producers from SoundCloud or Bandcamp or what not, and you would just make friends by talking about random stuff with them. Two years later you’re all out doing shows, making music with your teenage idols; all sorts of cool stuff you never pictured yourself doing back then. It’s cool to say that it all started on Skype.


How do you see your sound developing over the coming months or years? Do you see yourself going in a more danceable direction, or working with more rappers, or still working in that ambient space?


Instupendo: I think all of those things. I’m not really picking one lane. I’m working on a few songs that are more danceable, definite head-bobbers, and then I have a few songs that have no drums and are just completely ambient. So I’d say my music in the immediate future will just be a better version of my old work, if that makes sense. Just trying to evolve and take it to the next level. In terms of working with other people, I’ll be working with some rappers, and also with electronic producers, and artists like Lontalius and Roy Blair.


So then, where do see yourself moving in the music industry? You have a huge profile for a producer; there’s a million talented producers out there, but close to none your age that have your level of name or face recognition. How do you see yourself navigating in the industry or navigating the world as a public figure?


Instupendo: I’m definitely looking forward to just working with more people because one of the things I love most about music is collaboration and seeing how I can be pushed by another person or push another person when we’re working together. Also I really enjoy performing and I really want to further develop my show and abilities there, hopefully playing out more during school breaks and such. But still I want to just keep making a lot of music. I guess I want to do it all but more and better.


What do you think sets you apart from the average bedroom producer besides just networking? You have this dedicated fanbase and you have people watching you make moves as opposed to just being a DJ tag or a name on a Soundcloud stream. What sets you apart?


Instupendo: Right, well, I’d say, to reference a prior question, what sets me apart is definitely the accessibility of my music, the fact that you can listen to it with your grandmother, or your kid, or your dog; you can listen to it with anyone. It’s not just something that you have to listen to with your friends, the more “hip” friends, or whatever. People definitely seem to connect with it on an emotional level.


You have so much going on in the music world, are you still doing normal 17-year-old kid shit through all of this? What’s your day-to-day routine like?


Instupendo: Well, yeah, since I go to boarding school I’m pretty much doing normal 17-year old stuff. On a typical day at school I wake up five minutes before class, throw on some clothes, go to class, and then I have classes for two hours, three hours during the day. At the same time I get credits for making music. At my school we’re allowed some flexibility in independent study so I got approved to do that with electronic production; so I have time slots, like an hour a day, where I’m making music for school. I’m also captain of varsity soccer for my school, so after classes are over I have to go run practices for that.


You’re moving up so quickly within the industry at such a young age; we’ve seen a lot of kids blow up at seventeen, eighteen, however years old, and there’s a lot of stuff in the electronic and hip-hop scenes that can be a distraction. Are you worried at all about fame coming at your age?


Instupendo: Ummmm, I’m not really too worried about that kind of stuff. I tend to take things pretty slow, and I’m usually able to keep an eye out for distractions; plus I have some really great people supporting me. So I’m really not concerned about all that.