The Still-Attainable Marriage Between Man and Machine: An Interview With Rhys Langston and Pioneer 11

On 'To Operate This System,' each member’s contributions burst through the mix like individual rays of light.
By    August 30, 2023

Image via Emily Berkey

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Ross Olson is still waiting on that Folk Implosion “natural One” mixed with “Stupid Girl” by Garbage mash-up.

The inspiration behind one of the most whimsical tracks on To Operate This System – the collaborative project between art-rap polymath Rhys Langston and the psychedelic cosmonauts Pioneer 11 – started with a longing for affection.

If you have ever had a cat you’ll understand. Whenever Langston craves the attention of his tabby, Tahini, she’s wayward and grazing in the bushes outside. This condition sparked “My Kitty Left On a Rocket That Launched”, an aching lament that offers a window into the group’s creative synergy. The formula is simple yet impossible to replicate. Pioneer 11– consisting of bassist Alex Hastings and singer/guitarist Brian Gomez – deliver the central grooves and galactic transmissions, while Langston’s acrobatic musings on technology and human nature orbit around it. You’re left unsure whether to surrender to the spaced-out funk or ruminate quietly in the corner.

At first glance, the collaboration might seem a bit curious to the uninitiated. Aside from 2022’s Grapefruit Radio, where Langston outsourced most of the production and fielded guest spots from fellow indie rap iconoclasts, the Leimert Park rapper has largely operated as an uncompromising soloist. He executes the full scope of his artistic vision largely on his own with each release, whether that’s recording multiple instruments, painting cover art from scratch, or writing 100-page manuals to accompany the project. Deferring a large chunk of the creative process was going to be an adjustment. But after meeting Gomez and Hastings in 2018 at an anniversary show for Dublab, the POW labelmates quickly learned their creative tendencies could easily gel.

Known for their infectious cosmic odysseys, Pioneer 11 prefer to create in a more off-the-cuff, improvised style. They developed a looping rig to enhance their jam sessions, isolating specific riffs and grooves while workshopping different ideas around it. Never one to shy away from the unfamiliar, Langston jumped in seamlessly, experimenting with flow and melody while adding layers of synth and clarinet. Pioneer welcomed the opportunity to bring an emcee into the fold at their home studio, especially since the pandemic forced the group’s UAP project with Bryson the Alien to come together through online file sharing. What you hear on To Operate This System came directly from the looseness and freewheeling spirit of these jam sessions, where song ideas sprung to life and were recorded on the spot.

The ease of which the group oscillates between genre, style and time period is staggering. If the current streaming ecosystem were righteous and just, “Golden Hour” would be a mainstay on every summer-themed Spotify playlist. Each member’s contributions burst through the mix like individual rays of light. Hastings provides the percussive punch with a sleek bassline, Langston adds perfectly-timed clarinet licks between muffled guitar strums, and Gomez’s hook will surely be stuck in your head for days on end. The uneasiness of “The Walls Are Melting” evokes the crescendoed frustration behind living through digital isolation, while lead single “Amber Deception” contains one of the best multi-instrumental breakdowns on a song all year.

With automation threatening to upend the arts and entertainment industries, To Operate This System is a welcomed reminder of the still-attainable marriage between man and machine. Sequencing and looping mechanisms were integral in crafting the record, but so too were the artistic instincts dictating the rhythms, melodies and overarching narratives. Consider the robotic sculpture Langston constructed by hand for the album’s artwork. In an act of dexterous recycling, Langston stitched together items of digital waste to a welded bike frame, including an old car radio, video game controllers from the early 2000s, a fried hard drive, and more. The sculpture represented a hodgepodge of technological nostalgia, conceived by a creative risk-taker who managed to live in tandem with the devices upon their initial release, and the new ones of the present day.

I caught up with Rhys, Alex and Brian to talk about the recording process behind their new album, finding a way to coexist with technology, taking the idea of genre to new places, and more.

When did you guys all first connect? And were there talks from the beginning to make music together?

Bryan Gomez: We first met Rhys in 2018 at the 19th anniversary show for Dublab. We were both performing on like a POW Recordings block of time. And then we had just kind of kept seeing each other like at one of theLAnd fundraiser events that Jeff [Weiss] was putting together. So we had been talking, and just really got along well. And towards the end of 2019, we finally got Rhys over to our studio, and that was our first time jamming – like right before lockdown started.

Were you a little reluctant at first Rhys, because of the different styles? Did you have to be convinced?

Rhys Langston: I don’t think so. It was pretty good timing. At that point, I was more of a solitary creator. I would rarely collaborate with people, and even more rarely would it lead to something like an album, but there was a real synergy there.

Bryan Gomez: Yeah, that’s what birthed “On My Own.”

Rhys Langston: That was the first session. It wasn’t the whole thing, but we created pretty much all the elements there. I’ve been trying to to reach different places with the music and other genre’s, so I feel like it was just the right time for me to dip my feet in other waters.

So the chemistry had to be pretty apparent right from the jump if you guys made “On My Own” with one of those first sessions.

Alex Hastings (Pioneer 11): It really was. “On My Own” is one of, you could argue, the best songs that we made together, and we wrote it right away. Once the pandemic calmed down a little bit and we could go back to work, it was just easy. Stuff came out naturally. And you know, Bryan and I have invented this looping rig where we’re able jam stuff out in a moment and loop it live on the fly, which is easy for creating ideas. With Rhys, it was so awesome to have him over and jump right into that. He was able to hop on the synth and jam it all out with us, and it all came about super naturally.

Rhys Langston: Very supernatural.

Bryan Gomez: There was magic involved, of course.

Rhys, was it kind of an adjustment at first writing to live instrumentals as opposed to producing yourself or getting beats from various producers?

Rhys Langston: It was a happy medium. A lot of the rhythms are programmed, and fortunately there was no pressure to write things in the moment. If there was pressure to write songs in the moment – like to have fully formed lyrics and everything – that would have been the pressure that would have maybe not made it work.

But during the time that I was working we started working on “On My Own,” other things started to come into the picture. I was refining the Stalin Bollywood record, and finally finding comfort and instrumentation on my own terms. This project has been interesting. There’s been a lot of things that have lined up in very interesting ways in terms of where I’ve been traveling aesthetically. But also, where I’ve been traveling in terms of how the music is made from the ground up. It might be sample based. I might be hashing it out, layering things, pulling stuff out, pushing it one way. It was really a happy medium between live and something sequenced.

Would you just freestyle or come up with the melodies on the spot to the jams, and then refine the lyrics a little bit later?

Rhys Langston: The voice was just another instrument and layer. We would loop it on top of everything. At first, it would be nonsense words or a mumbled melody. “On My Own” was the only one that had the lyrics. And normally I’m suspicious of things coming that quickly, but it worked.

For a track like “The Story of the Three Surveyors,” I remember it was like ‘da da da da da.’ I literally said it like that. But I liked that phrasing, so I just matched when I took it home at a certain point and wrote to it. I matched the words to that melody, and then the verse has always come with a little more scrutiny. A little more time, just because I like to build an edit, you know, pretty meticulously.

Did it feel more kind of free to work in this manner? Just kind of throwing a lot of ideas out there live like improvising and kind of just workshopping ideas that way?

Rhys Langston: I keep saying, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Things had felt stagnant and we just began shooting ideas back and forth. Alex would make something that Bryan would lay down – it felt pretty logical. It felt pretty natural to do the next thing. They’re much more used to that process. But it was cool for me to be a part of.

Is that how you guys typically create Alex and Bryan, just does it start with mainly jam sessions and you build from there?

Bryan Gomez: We spent a lot of years trying to come up with this sort of looping rig that Alex mentioned. We’re always trying to get ideas written down quickly in the moment without really thinking about them – trying to work away from the laptop. That’s why some of the themes of the record ended up being kind of about technology, because it was a reflection of us trying to separate a laptop from the creative process until later on.

Alex Hastings: That really is the theme of this whole project: our relationship with technology. And how we’re both rejecting it, pushing away from it while also embracing it. So it’s, like, we’re like half-electronic. We sequence a lot of stuff. But all of these songs were created by jamming them live in a moment, and then we record everything live so a lot of times what you’re hearing on the actual album are the original recordings from the jam session we had that day, and then we kind of find the best parts and then chop it up later.

So it’s really capturing like an authentic flow. And then, you know, we try not to fuck with it too much.

The themes of this project seem to acknowledge that machinery is getting more advanced as automation increases. But you can also still be controlled by a human quality and human component behind it. Was exploring that duality part of the motivation for you guys?

Alex Hastings: That’s kind of the motivation behind any electronic musician at this point in time, where it’s to have a complicated relationship with the technology. People embrace it in different ways. And we’ve tried to wield it while not giving up our humanity in the process. That’s just our own personal ethos around this project. It’s live, but it’s got a lot of electronic components.

I love that kind of improvised feel – that looseness you get from listening to it. Rhys, did working with them make you want to write more like sci-fi or psychedelically?

Rhys Langston: I think a lot of my work has had elements of that, maybe more subliminally or or in the subtext. There are obviously a lot of references in my music. Here, it was a chance to foreground those themes, and take them from the margins to be the foreground. Around the time we started working together, my older computer failed and I couldn’t really record anything. And you know I was teaching on Zoom to kindergarteners for a whole year and got more addicted to social media. And I’ve always been kind of true to expressing my experience, even if it feels abstract and inscrutable.

Sometimes it really is, you know, just synthesizing – no pun intended – like a certain amount of stuff that I feel and I’ve experienced, and sometimes because I take the I and the me and the you out of it. With technology, I’ve been feeling it close in around me a lot and I wanted to find a middle ground between the themes that Pioneer 11 have created with this retro-futuristic kind of orbit of ideas and really find a way to like freak it within that.

I never want to do something that feels glued on top of each other. I just found somewhere in there where there was a natural progression that I was already on. But then I wanted to push it even further to join those parts of us together? : AndI feel like I found that, obviously there’s tracks that are more on the nose like “Door Dash the Basilica.” But then, you know, tracks about my cat and space.

I feel like working with Pioneer 11 probably presented the perfect opportunity to rap about something like that. How did you come up with that? It’s super unique. And it’s really sweet, too. You can’t go on until your cat comes back down.

Rhys Langston: It’s a bit of an allegory for my cat – a kind of half-outside cat. And it’s me being pissed off when I can’t just chill inside because she won’t come back inside. To lovingly express the moments when she’s hiding in the bushes. But that was just the inspiration. I had a whole other series of lyrics written to the same melody and the same kind of phrasing. And I was like, you know, this kind of needs to be grounded in something, because of the emotion of the track, the instrumental.

Those chords were just really evocative. And the lyrics I had previously written didn’t really give that mood justice. And for some reason, that small allegory or reference to waiting for my cat to come inside and come out of the bushes presented a good opportunity to like find that balance. I wanted emotion but also to keep it silly and making something unique. In my catalog, I don’t have a song like that, or I hadn’t before.

I love the breakdown at the end of “Amber Deception” too. You’re looking like you’re having a lot of fun with it, especially on the Dublab version. I think it kind of encapsulates that loose, freewheeling energy I get from the project. Was that kind of how it looked like behind the scenes?

Alex Hastings: Yeah, that’s exactly how it looked. We get a beat kind of up-and-running via an MPC or something, and we usually all kind of chip in, in terms of how to play something. Rhys would man the synth. Bryan and I would be on a basic guitar. And we have all these original recordings from there. They’re just jams and they were just natural. And they’re fun. It’s rare you get to do that. And the clarinet came into the picture really late.

Rhys Langston: I started to play that in like, June 2021. I inherited one. On the live version that we did that – the clarinet, I’m a lot more together than I was when we recorded that. I remember you guys spliced the shit up out of like four different takes. There was so much squeaking. It was a vibe, but it was like, ‘Oh, my God! That guy clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ But I got to the point where I’m at now. It’s cool. Things have gotten more refined on my end and collectively new things have been added to the arsenal.

Alex Hastings: I was impressed that Rhys just brought it over and started jamming right away, and it all kind of worked. It was pretty brave, and just like ‘I got this. I’m learning it, and let’s implement it immediately.’ And it’s now a distinguishing characteristic of the song.

I love that energy. “The Walls Are Melting” feels like one of the more vulnerable tracks on the album. It’s a face melter, but your lyrics hit home, especially the isolation of living in the digital age. What kind of place were you in when you were penning that one?

Rhys Langston: I had no idea how to write to that beat, I just knew I really liked it. So our friend Immortal Nightbody who’s a crazy, just really amazing rapper, incorporates a lot of goth influence and a lot of brutal techno and new wave into his music. Sometimes I need an activation point. In his verse, I just kind of intuited his tone more than anything, like the actual vocal tone I was really focused on. I actually wrote that on a plane heading back from Oregon to New York. And it’s funny because I was not really in a bad place at all. But I kind of could transpose those emotions in that moment.

I kind of lined up these samples in a documentary about the Berlin Wall falling because I can understand a little of the German. And so I just thought about the walls are melting,. For some reason, the little German I knew, I just put in little inflections of it. And I was like, just trying to make some brutal kind of German techno-influenced, industrial shit. It was a compartmentalization, for sure. You know, when I listen to that, I don’t know if I felt that in the moment, but I had to get those feelings out in some way. I don’t know where they were coming from.

Alex and Bryan, are you guys pretty comfortable working with any style of vocalist at this point?

Bryan Gomez: Working with Rhys was the first time we worked with another vocalist. When we started jamming back at the end of 2019 and then we started doing some work with Bryson the Alien for UAP. But yeah, this was the first person that really broke us out of our bubble which was just us working together in a room for a number of years.

But in terms of your question, of genre vocalist, yeah I think we are pretty comfortable working with anyone. We typically try not to put anything in a box during the creative process. Which is why I think a lot of the sense of freedom that Rhys, Alex and I all experienced while making the record, comes across with the freedom to bring the clarinet, and like there’s no judgment for what anyone can do. So I think we approach vocals the same way in that it’s about whatever serves this song.

When you were working with Bryson the Alien was that majority like kind of sending stuff back and forth to each other? Or were you guys in the same room at all?

Bryan Gomez: Oh, it’s completely remote. Yeah, never in the same room until after we were done.

Alex Hastings: It was like a pandemic collaboration. Initially, it just worked out well. But yeah, it was all digital cloud. And we thought we’d bring him down to L.A. and at one point meet him, but we didn’t plan on that at the start.

Alex Hastings: We had wanted to work with Rhys for a little bit, and I think he was more about maybe just finding out, the right way to go about it. We’ve always kind of toed the lines between psychedelic and hip-hop anyway.

We actually all have similar sensibilities. We’re very focused on our instrumentation in a similar way as Rhys is focused on his vocals and lyricism, so it just seems like it just made sense. We were able to dig into what we do best, and the product was hopefully greater than the three of us are individually.

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