The New York producer gets frank about the year of frustration that led to his beautiful new album 'Hardcourage'.
When I first interviewed Drew Lustman, the man behind New York-based house/garage producer FaltyDL, it was on his home turf at the end of summer 2010. He was building up to the release of his second album ‘You Stand Uncertain’ [Planet Mu, 2011] and we’d talked about patterns, about the pleasures in looking for and finding them in music and in words. He’d said he liked to make patterns when he made music but from a tactile point of view, picking out “symmetrical melodies” with his fingertips on his keyboard. Sonically the results would often be discordant and didn’t make any sense – no pattern discernible to the ear – yet he found the process gratifying. It says something about his approach to music making: a desire to be absorbed in the moment and a valuing of the output for the journey that took him there. It reflects his experimental jazz roots, a music that is deeply gratifying for those who have accustomed their ears to its introspective patterns and can find a way in. For up until this point FaltyDL has made grooves, thickly textured house and garage, crafted with undeniable skill but intended to create an inward mood, to get into a funk. They’ve served him well but there’s always been an inkling at the back of my mind that there was something he was reaching for but not quite getting.
‘Hardcourage’, released this week on Ninja Tune and his own label Blueberry Records, is that something. A big, warm album full of songs that beckon the ear closer rather than lull it into a trance, ‘Hardcourage’ suggest – quite literally – new patterns of thinking. When we chat over Skype in mid-January the change is written all over Lustman’s grinning face. He’s not long home from three weeks in Catalonia in north-eastern Spain, visiting his girlfriend’s family for the Christmas and New Year’s holiday. “They’re bakers so I worked in the bakery and made bread for two weeks with them. It was awesome,” he exclaims. “I needed it. I was just at the point where I was like, I need to get out of this city. I want to miss New York a little bit and want to come back and work again. I was sort of running out of musical ideas, and y’know. It was perfect timing.”
Over the course of 45 minutes or so, we talk about the ideas behind ‘Hardcourage’, being an artist versus being a producer, his move into sound design work, releasing records under his own name and how his growing confidence has led to an altogether different outlook.
I have to say I absolutely love ‘Hardcourage’, it’s my favourite FaltyDL album. It feels like the one I’ve been waiting for you to make a little bit.
FaltyDL: It’s weird because – I’m sure we’re going to get into this – I felt like I really had one foot in on this album solidly feeling that it was something I always wanted to make, and the other foot was feeling it wasn’t quite the album I wanted to put out right now.
What do you mean?
FaltyDL: Well, there’s a happy ending to it which is that I do like the album a lot now but I just found the process of going back and forward picking the tracklist really frustrating.
One of the questions I was going to ask later on – and it’s such a crass journalistic thing to say I read this in your tweets – but I definitely felt like over this last year you’ve been frustrated, whether it was the industry, system or whatever.
FaltyDL: You’re 100% right and it’s funny, I should probably be a little less open on Twitter. Especially if I’m stoned late at night, I’ll just tweet bullshit, y’know what I mean.
Don’t we all.
“I’m definitely aware that my life is pretty good as far as what I’m complaining about. But artistically I was stretched.” FaltyDL
FaltyDL: In fact, Ryan – Illum Sphere – was like, Drew, you’re too open on Twitter, you’ve got to cut down on that stuff. But no, you’re absolutely right – I was really frustrated this year. At the same time I was making this album and frustrated about that, I was dealing with a new relationship and another new apartment and leaving one label…there was just a lot of stuff that felt like world was just…a lot of pressure on me and I was trying to figure it all out. It’s all sort of good problems to have – I’m definitely aware that my life is pretty good as far as what I’m complaining about. But artistically I was stretched.
So what is the deal with Ninja Tune?
FaltyDL: I’ve signed three albums to them, and publishing for four albums. So I’m going to be working with them in some form or other for a long time. But it’s FaltyDL and actually at the moment I’ve signed one 12” under my own name, Drew Lustman, to 2000 Black which is that label run by Dego from 4hero.
FaltyDL: And actually – I think – I’ve wrapped up another album that I want to put out under my own name as well. But I want to wait a while with that.
So – back to ‘Hardcourage’ – it might have been a difficult birth but I feel like what you’ve got feels like your best work to date.
FaltyDL: Thank you.
The track with Ed from Friendly Fires, She Sleeps, just makes me want to spin round and round. But I think my favourite track is Re Assimilate. There’s a thing you’ve always done with your tracks with the rise and fall in the pace, you play a lot with pace, there’s this teasing push and pull, and that’s very much present but it feels like everything is hanging together in an easier way. Where did this album start?
FaltyDL: I think it probably started with Straight & Arrow, the first single, and deciding there was more of a house music centric album. Then She Sleeps was the second or third track we decided to put on it. I think there’s a polished sort of sheen to the production of those two tracks whereas on ‘You Stand Uncertain’, my last album, there’s a couple of tracks that are harsh and distorted with a different, dusty vibe going on. These are a little bit more polished. And then Re Assimilate, it’s the same sort of pace – but in a bit of nerdy term, I’ve done these triplets in the drums that make it sound a little bit faster and more energy. That vocal in the back in a sample from a piece we probably shouldn’t mention…
The choral bit?
Yeah it’s got a jungle, dubby vibe.
“I wanted it to be a loved-up sort of album, a dedication to my girl but in a tasteful way.” FaltyDL
FaltyDL: The drums themselves have a definite tribal feel. To answer your question, though, in the same way that the Planet Mu albums came together, I’m thinking what sort of works together but by the time I’m with the label and we’re saying, okay we’re putting together an album, I’ve still yet to have delivered an album on my own and been like, here’s the album. So how did it come together? There were 30 tracks over the year that we started picking from together. I think I wanted it to be a loved-up sort of album, a dedication to my girl but in a tasteful way that wasn’t so cheesy – and I think we’ve been successful with that. I mean it’s in the press release and everything which is kind of funny but… So maybe that dictated a lot of the track selection as well. Some of the tracks that didn’t get chosen for the album that I really wanted on there I’m now hopefully going to put on this other album of mine. So it could’ve been a completely different album, it’s just one of those things that this is what it ended up being.
For me it feels like there are a whole bunch of emotions on this album but you end with Bells, you end with this joyful note. But I can hear your journey towards that joy, to be corny. What’s ‘Hardcourage’ all about? What does that mean?
FaltyDL: The two main things that were going on – writing this album and this new relationship of mine – I had to work a tremendous amount for in the beginning. Nothing about either of them was easy in the beginning, whatsoever – but both were things that I definitely wanted and I felt like I needed to have a lot of courage because I could’ve given up on both things.
The album and the relationship?
FaltyDL: Yeah. But I ended up not doing that. I can’t have things be unresolved. If I’m in an argument with a family member or if I’m in the middle of starting a song, and everything in-between those two things, until it’s finished my mind cannot be focused on anything else whatsoever. I have a really hard time stepping away from things and just being okay with it not being done. I feel like I have this hard-headed thing about myself that needs to just be in control and know what’s happening and have things be resolved, y’know [laughs]. And of course, so is life – so I mean, the relationship is not perfect but it’s fucking incredible, and the album’s not perfect but it’s making me really happy too. So y’know, it’s life. I kind of feel like…I mean, I’m going to be 30 in a couple of months and I’m really looking forward to that. I feel like once I’m 30 I’ll be able to chill out. I won’t have to make excuses about not wanting to go out anymore or anything like that. I’m getting really close to being….not be grumpy, but being cool not doing anything.
It is all about all the shit that you go through to get to the good stuff, going back to what you were saying. You just know yourself better. Getting older is not a bad thing.
FaltyDL: I’ve been getting some early reviews in on the albums – and one theme has been ‘he’s matured and found his sound more and is more comfortable with what it’s become’ and I like that. That doesn’t come with a bad connotation. It’s not like I’ve settled into something easy, it’s like, ‘he’s settled down into something on this album but it sounds really good’ so that’s nice.
You’ve called it in your album titles anyway. Going from somewhere ‘…Uncertain’ to having this ‘Hardcourage’. It couldn’t have really been called better and I think that reflects in the work.
“I’m think I’m ready to completely just admit the fact that I am in an existential crisis playing it out in my artwork.” FaltyDL
FaltyDL: You know what I want to do now too is like.. I think in my mid-20s and a lot of other producers I see right now that are young, that are making dance 12”s and are sort of attempting the idea of making albums – I don’t know how many of them are really viewing what they’re doing as art, and whether they view themselves as artists. I’m think I’m ready to completely just admit the fact that I am in an existential crisis playing it out in my artwork. Yeah, being dramatic but like, I’m a fucking artist and I have a lot of emotions that I’m trying to get out there. It’s not just making a raging dancefloor track. I’m really trying to create some real art now. But it’s weird, though, I think because this is a bigger label and some of the tracks were a little bit more ambitious and had music videos and a big guest vocal, I get immediately thrown into that loop of Jamie xx and Four Tet in this bigger room house thing. It’s a little bit lazy I think to make that comparison but I guess I get it. It’s good company to be in.
‘She Sleeps’ with Ed from Friendly Fires feels like a natural meeting, tone-wise. How did you meet him?
FaltyDL: Their touring bass player a couple of years ago, this musician named Rob Lee – who also makes electronic music under the name Wax Stag – he and I were musical penpals sending tracks back and forth for a couple of years. So when Friendly Fires came over 2009 or 2010 I went to go check them out and then I would just see them every time they came. I was their guy in New York and we’d hang out. Over the years I’ve opened for them here and DJ-ed with them a few times.
What I feel is more confident about this album is your story-telling. Why I loved Waited Patiently from ‘You Stand Uncertain’ is because there’s this suggestion of a narrative. You never tell the whole story, you leave it open. That’s more confident on this album. You’ve given people the space to go off and fill in the colour.
FaltyDL: I don’t know if that was a conscious thing but it probably starts from a technical point of being like, I need to have a cleaner mixdown where I can hear more individual parts happening. Then in doing that I’ve not overloaded the tracks with layers and layers and layers of stuff. It becomes more simple. I think that in its simplicity it becomes more clear. And then it’s less sort of nerdy concept; it sounds more of a song to me. I think it being a song it allows for more people’s interpretation. I don’t know, I think I just went like this [makes a circular motion] in my head.
With your sound palette – like that squawk in Korben Dallas and the really playful sounds in Re Assimilate – it feels like you’ve suddenly opened up a lot more and thought more compositionally. Although, yes, you can still see you came from house and garage, you’ve moved more into song composition full-stop.
“The truth is as an artist you should go there whether you think it’s safe or not.” FaltyDL
FaltyDL: I think with there being a lot more crossover success in the last few years: Four Tet really getting a second wind, not that he ever went anywhere but he’s become a lot more popular, and then Daphni/Caribou blew the doors wide open on electronic music in the last couple of years. I feel like I can be more song-based. I feel like I’m not losing anything by trying to sit in-between more accessible music and abstract underground dance music. That’s a safe place to be. The truth is as an artist you should go there whether you think it’s safe or not.
FaltyDL: But it’s a bonus that it feels safe because I’ve seen people do it. I’m trying to do it in my own way. That’s sort of a tricky thing and that’s something I’m going to continue to explore.
Where is that squawk from?
FaltyDL: That’s one of the older tracks and in the middle section I somehow got that feedback, squawky noise from something else being distorted and I just took the audio from that and put it in the beginning of the track. It’s probably some sample that’s completely messed up – that is not the actual sound that I sampled, I’ve made it become that somehow. I’m not sure how I did. I’ll look into it for you [laughs].
What do you think you’ve learned during the making of this album?
“I have this fear of something not being good: my album or my relationship.” FaltyDL
FaltyDL: There’s been such a strong parallel between finishing this album and my relationship, again [laughs]. I have this fear of something not being good: my album or this relationship. I was talking to my best friend about this last night. He puts things so well to me and I’m going to butcher the quote – because he was probably quoting someone else [He later emails me to say he was talking about Pascal’s Wager.] – but it’s like, whether or not…faith in God is not something that you’ll ever be able to scientifically prove that exists but to live and believe that there is that faith is a lot better than to live in the fear that it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying I’m a religious person, I’m just saying that example was how he was putting it. It’s like if I believe that this album is going to fail or that my relationship is doomed, it’s a shitty way to live [laughs]. So what I’m trying to do is be more and more okay with achieving my own goals in music, and some sort of own fulfillment of success with it whether or not it’s critically acclaimed or people like it or not. Because either though it’s not a huge step bigger but like, I’m getting a worldwide distribution behind the album. It’s definitely the biggest campaign I’ve ever done and I don’t think I really thought about it till the last couple of months. I got pretty anxious about, jeez, it pre-ordered more copies in Japan than my last album sold worldwide. Which is pretty amazing. The sad thing about the last album is that it’s not a huge number but still, it’s pretty cool. I’m guess I’m still learning but I’ve set this blueprint to hopefully feel more confident – and like, maybe this an age thing or I’m not sure what, but like, really getting into…like, I’m don’t have dirty laundry lying around, I don’t have an empty thing of cookies right here and a coffee cup I need to clean out. My apartment’s clean and I’m trying to get on a real schedule and do things, y’know. It’s just all part of it. I’ve taken on other projects this year that I never thought I’d be able to do – some soundtrack work and stuff, which is really incredible.
Could you tell me a bit about that?
FaltyDL: I’m hesitant to talk about it too much yet but that’s the thing I tell my mother and my dad. I’m doing some real stuff now, y’know [laughs]. And I’ve done some work for two different artists for a Creator’s Project in the next couple of months. My friend Jamie who’s a sculptor, I’m doing some sound design for his project with them. And also Daito Manabe, the Japanese guy who did my Straight & Arrow music video, I’m doing some music for him for another project.
Do you feel like that is coming out of your own personal work, or feeding in?
FaltyDL: All I know is when I sit down and I can’t think of an original tune, it’s nice to know that I can work on something a little bit more…I don’t know if scientific is the right word. When I’m doing sound design-y stuff, it’s like more like playing around, no pressure of if it’s going to be on an album or not, because they want raw, weird, strange ideas.
In terms of this growth for yourself personally, in terms of like ‘okay, I’m not a producer, I’m an artist’ and actually feeling comfortable and confident saying this is who I am, I’m not going to be scared of saying that or believing that anymore, do you feel more at peace with the wider industry and scene?
“When anyone steps out and does something a little bit more ambitious or is a little bit more open about something, it’s met with a lot of different sort of opinions.” FaltyDL
FaltyDL: I think if I’m being completely honest it comes down to what I think other people are going to think of me for deciding to be more open about being an artist or whatever. ‘Cos I still play dubstep nights or whatever…and I’m still very keen on releasing records on Swamp:81 and things like that. But, I don’t know, when anyone really tries and steps out and does something a little bit more ambitious or is a little bit more open about something, it’s met with a lot of different sort of opinions – and I really should just not give a shit but if I’m being honest I still do give a shit what some people think about it. I don’t know, it’s just my own psychosis. I’ve had people be like, Drew get over it, don’t worry about it, you’re fine. I think I’m getting more and more confident though.
Could you tell me a little bit about that other album?
FaltyDL: I kind of still felt there were tracks that I wanted on the Ninja album that didn’t make it. So I centered it around them and a different sort of vibe. I am also aware that if I do something under my own name it should be something that I really believe in in a way… I was talking to a friend of mine who put out a bunch of albums under an artist name and then finally did an album under his own name and it was sort of this like IDM, geeky electronic-y music that he liked but he didn’t love so much and he wished that he had saved his name a different type of project. So I’m trying to figure out right now if there’s anything I’m making right now that feels extra close to home that I can maybe put on an album under my own name.
It’s almost like with your own name you’re one step more naked in a way.
“If it’s good enough it will eventually make it’s way out somehow.” FaltyDL
FaltyDL: Totally. I’ve got about 13 tracks at the moment. It’s a little bit too long but some of them are old too. Basically every time I come back from being away on a tour or a vacation, at some point I have another breakthrough – hopefully. I’m not expecting it but I would like to have another breakthrough. If I make music in the next two months, possibly it will be better than anything I’ve ever done before. Maybe not. But it will be something new and fresh and that’ll be a contender for the album maybe.
It’s so about those breaks. Even if it’s just reading a book or going for a walk. Suddenly things become clearer as soon as you step away. I used to be really panicky about getting things finished straight away but now it’s like, go to bed and when I wake up the piece is there. We live in such a speed culture and sometimes you have to ignore all of that.
FaltyDL: Right, right. Sometimes I think, my career could be doing so much better if I just put out this other album right now, it needs to get out there right now. It doesn’t need to get out there right now, y’know. If it’s good enough it will eventually make it’s way out somehow.
FaltyDL: So – patience, somehow.
FaltyDL: Yeah, and courage [smiles].