“The Music Became a High Again”: An Interview with Channel Tres

Sam Ribakoff speaks with the Compton native about sobriety, straddling the worlds of pop and dance, gospel music and much more.
By    February 21, 2023
Photo: Grant Spanier

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From seemingly out of nowhere, Channel Tres emerged as a fully formed artist when “Controller” dropped in 2018. His smooth talk-rap sprechstimme over sleek, nocturnal Detroit and New York style house grooves, was both a callback to old school hip-house and the electro-hip hop of the 80’s of his hometown of Compton. It was immediately clear that Channel had an interesting and specific vision – whether it was the music or his personal style – crisp slacks and button ups mixed with heyday hipster vintage big jackets and beanies – or his well-produced early videos that were mostly shot locally, and highlighted the vibrancy of one of L.A.’s most resource-neglected but culturally rich sections.

But Channel didn’t just come out of nowhere. He worked first as a songwriter and producer for Wale and Duckwrth, then as a solo artist, building and expanding his sound and image over singles and EPs, picking up on and synthesizing strands of Black electronic dance music from techno to Chicago house, British broken beat, funk music, hip-hop, and pop. Lately, he’s infused the gospel music that he grew up in and around.

As the music got deeper, Channel quickly gained a devoted following, including one fan by the name of Elton John. He opened up for big name artists like Robyn, Vince Staples, and Childish Gambino, and released several EPs, including last year’s refresh, an album of instrumental, Low End Theory-style hip hop-meets-dance beats.

Channel’s sound sutures various underground Black electronic dance genres into tightly constructed pop, helping to pav the road that two of the world’s biggest pop stars, Drake and Beyonce, drove down – to much critical acclaim – last year.

Recently, Channel has introduced an even slicker dance–pop element into his music and headlined an international tour in advance of this Friday’s Real Cultural Shit – an EP of big funky Moog-gy bass lines, gospel-house inspired emotional moments, and even some horns. We caught up with Channel over two days over the phone to talk about dancing, being sober, and bringing the soul and feeling of gospel to electronic music. Sam Ribakoff

Do you have like a working schedule? Are you working consistently on stuff?

Channel Tres: It comes in waves. I try to make something everyday, or I try to do something that’s going to be geared towards me when I do sit down to make something. Whether that’s like, I know I’m going to make something in January so, right now I’m, probably just like writing things down, or if I have an idea, or leaving a melody on voice notes, you know, talking to people, having conversations. If my brain is thinking of something, having a conversation and writing it down, so I can go back to it when I’m songwriting or something like that. After this tour is done, I’m going to start creating stuff. That’s kind of how it works for me.

You’re scheduling periods when you’re just going to be working?

Channel Tres: Yeah.

Does that come with creating the visual components that come with the music? The videos, and the dance in the videos?

Channel Tres: Yeah. It includes visuals, it includes choreography. It includes just sounds. Specific phrases. Like I might just test out how it sounds, like with whoever I’m kicking it with.

Do you do the choreography for the videos?

Channel Tres: Yeah, I do the choreography with the help of one of my choreographers. Yeah, we going back and forth together.

You have choreography on stage too. Can you talk about the importance of having dance in the videos and on stage?

Channel Tres: I’m a fan, so I really just incorporate what I would like to see when I go to a show. I’m a fan of hip hop and a lot of things, but when I got to a show, I found myself, sometimes, being distracted when it’s just someone on a mic. I don’t have a band right now, maybe that’s something I’ll get into later. I think dancing is a great way to keep people entertained, so people don’t have to look at me the whole time, they can look at one of my dancer’s, or see what’s going on on the screen and how the lights go with the dance moves. It’s more just like expounding upon myself as a storyteller, but you know, telling it through movement and like showmanship. I just like follow my own convictions with that. I’m a fan of shows, like Dua Lipa and Kendrick [Lamar], and Harry Styles. I went to their shows and I’m just like “yeah.” I love the whole pop element to everything. It’s just a show. I just love a show.

You’ve opened up for a lot of those types of big name pop performers on tour. Did you learn about presence and stagecraft from that experience?

Channel Tres: Definitely. One of my favorite shows I ever opened up was Robyn a couple of years ago. That really taught me a lot about showmanship. If you ever open up for someone really good, it’s always good to just watch to pick up things. Even just like little things like how their team is moving. I’ve been pretty lucky to go on tour with some great acts and just pull what I can pull from anybody.

There’s kind of a set trajectory of success in the pop music world and the dance music world. You’re kind of straddling the two worlds. Does it feel like you have to kind of chart your own trajectory through both worlds?

Channel Tres: For me, I do both. I have a personality that’s very underground. I’m a DJ, so I’m a fan of music. I’m always spinning records. I have private records that I make of remixes that I probably won’t ever release. They’re just things I make to put in a DJ set. My show is very mainstream. I feel like it’s going to get to pop level at some point. That’s my other personality. I’m able to float through both of them because I can appreciate both of them, and that’s a lot of my personality as well. That’s something I feel fortunate that I’m able to navigate in my career. It’s really fun to, you know, put on makeup for a show and then just go and DJ, and just lay back. I just love both.

I watched one of your Mixmag DJ sets. The last song you played was this Floorplan track, this huge gospel house track. I understand you grew up in the church, but did you grow up playing gospel?

Channel Tres: Yeah, I grew up playing gospel. It’s something I had to do, especially living with my great grandparents. It was something that really shaped me musically and how I thought about music. I didn’t really want to go to church all the time, so it was something that helped me get through it. Music was just always there, and I enjoyed it.

What instrument did you play?

Channel Tres: I played the drums, and then I was in the choir, and then I was a piano player.

Is that music still meaningful to you?

Channel Tres: I think just being Black in America, that’s the roots. Gospel music birthed some of the greatest musicians in the world. Although I’m not a religious person anymore, I still like to feel the soul in the music. It’s just a great thing to play. For some reason when you play a gospel-house record, everyone just loves it. You can really feel that community aspect in the room. I can’t really explain why it works. It just works. I sometimes feel kind of weird playing it because I grew up like that, but you know… my great grandmother would probably be like “what? How are you playing stuff like this in this kind of environment?” But you know, I think it’s cool. I think it’s beautiful.

You don’t have to be religious to feel the emotion in gospel music.

Channel Tres: Exactly. I like music from other cultures. I’m not necessarily a part of their religion or culture, but I can feel the love in it. I think the same way about gospel music.

Is it something you can see incorporating in the music you make, not just your DJ sets?

Channel Tres: Maybe. I do sometimes incorporate it, maybe the knowledge… but I don’t see myself going gospel in terms of the music I’m going to make at all. I think maybe the feeling, the feel good aspect of the music. That’s what I want to incorporate. The feeling. Making you feel something.

The second part of the interview was conducted about a month after the first half. Channel had just gotten back to Los Angeles after playing a DJ set in Mexico.

Last time we talked everybody was a little sparse about your new project and the new music. Can you talk a little bit more about it now?

Channel Tres: It’s just a new EP of some songs I did. I just really wasn’t ready to drop a full length yet, because I’m still processing it. Still working on some things. This music is just music I’ve been performing, music I’ve been working on and I just want to put it out because some people have seen it live. I recently got into a newer situation with RCA, so I’m just learning to work that situation, and you know, just getting used to it.

What do you mean by “a new situation”?

Channel Tres: I was just signed to them last year. I was in the middle of working on something, and I got a little more access to some things that I want to do, so my ideas have kind of changed.

In terms of access to people or equipment?

Channel Tres: Equipment. Some people. Producers. Rooms.

What specifically do you have access to now that you didn’t have access to before that changed the direction of the music?

Channel Tres: Let’s circle back. Maybe that’s not a proper way to word things. I would say like, so with this project, those songs were done and they were made out of a certain emotion I was in at the time, and the people I was working with at the time. So now, since I’ve done a lot of shows, and I’ve just gotten a lot more experiences under my belt, this project felt already like it was done. It was like, ‘okay, it’s finished, so now I’m going to put those songs out.’ It turned out not to be a full length project, and now that I’m in this new situation, and you know, I’ve finished off my first North American tour, I hit some goals as far as like performance wise that I’ve been wanting to hit in terms of choreography and just sound and different things. Now the music I’ve been making, I think it’s going to fit better with where I am. So I just turned new chapters in the middle of the year.

Was there anything in particular, music, or art, that inspired your new music?

Channel Tres: I think the biggest thing is sobriety. I started off last year, in January, I just wanted to stop drinking and doing things and other drugs. It was like a new year’s resolution, and then it turned out to be something I did for the whole year. I started to feel different during the first month, and I just wanted to see it out. What happened was, the way I created it and thought about music started to change. I started getting back to the essence of why I first started creating music, which was just for pure fun, and sort of like an emotional comfort and to just like reach that goal of doing what the people I look up to did. What happened was, I just started creating different songs. I necessarily wasn’t trying to trauma vomit on my records anymore. I don’t think people see that side of me anyway, because those songs usually never come out, but I’m just more intentional because the music became a high again. The stage became a high again.

Rather than me trying to get high before I got to the studio or go on stage or something like that. It kind of switched my priorities. I started getting more intentional with the music, and it became fun again, and it also became me enjoying the work again, and not having to take myself out of it to get into it type of thing, because before, in this music business, before the business part, you’re just doing it, and you don’t really care. Then when it becomes your livelihood, then you have people counting on you, you start feeling pressure, and I don’t work very well under pressure, and that’s why I used to drink. But now, now I kind of like the pressure because, also, I don’t give a fuck either. I’m here because of being me, so all I have to do is just continue to be me. I thought the drugs and alcohol got me closer to that, but really it took me away from that. Last year was just a time of me getting back to who I truly am, which is just someone who loves to dance, loves to make music, and loves to entertain people, and I love traveling.

Congrats on being sober for a year. That’s amazing. What’s the gear shift you had to do to allow you to stay sober?

Channel Tres: I was just done. I’m 31 and I just was tired of waking up with headaches. I was tired of not working out. I felt like I was missing out on my life because I spent a lot of time recovering, and not getting up and being active.

You mentioned earlier that you also took some inspiration from artists you look up to. Anyone in particular?

Channel Tres: I take inspiration from George Clinton, from Prince, from James Brown, from Andre 3000, from Pharell. I take inspiration from Johnny Cash. I take inspiration from Quincy Jones, and Terrence Martin. Thundercat. I take inspiration from a lot of people.

What about them?

Channel Tres: Everybody has different things that I take from. Specifically George Clinton, it’s just like… the funk. It taught me that the things that are the most ugly about me are the most beautiful. Be yourself. You know. There’s no wrong notes. You know. It’s all good. You know. Prince… just the dedication of being an artist and living that truth and still being sexy and being really deliberate about the things you create, and always working. You know. He seemed like he had a dedication to music. He knew what he was supposed to be doing. I also want to have that unapologetic energy in my life where I know that this is my passion and what I’m supposed to be doing, and that’s what I want to do. That’s just a couple of examples.

Just to circle back to something you were saying earlier about the “trauma dump” songs that you make but don’t release. Why not release those?

Channel Tres: I think that sometimes they don’t sound good, honestly. They’re usually just for me to get a certain emotion out. Sometimes I’ll take some of those songs and fix them and make them sound good. But if they came out in their raw form, I don’t think they’d be very listenable. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t really put them out. It’s really vulnerable.

They’re just for you to exorcize those emotions?

Channel Tres: Yeah. Sometimes they can be 20, 30 minutes. They’re just stream of consciousness. The beat will start someway, and then at two minutes I’ll just flip it and start a whole new other thing. Kind of like… Earl Sweatshirt put out like a 10 minute freaking song. I can’t remember what it’s called, but it was a long time ago [Ed note: “Solace” is the title both interviewee and interviewer were searching for.] It’s like a stream of consciousness type thing. It’s kind of like that. Or when you go online and hear Kanye’s demos. You know, the words can be mumbled, they’re like demos.

My song “Brilliant N—-” was a trauma vomit song, but then I found the message in “Brilliant N—-.” That was something that felt very important, and so I produced a song and made it good and made it listenable.

Is there an overarching theme or idea that this new EP is about?

Channel Tres: Well the title of it is Real Cultural Shit. The songs that are on there just represent to me what that real cultural shit was to me at the time. The term real cultural shit is just about, you know, when you get with a group of people, over time you just develop your own culture. You guys have words, you guys have emotions… [Channel’s Zoom cut out for a couple of minutes before he was able to get back on.] Oh yeah, so you guys have words and different mannerisms that you develop and in those studio sessions that was something that was happening. I would just say “real cultural shit” at the time a lot because the things I was saying were the things that were reminding me where I grew up and certain sounds that I was referencing, that was just the word I would use, so I just decided to name that project that.

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