Technique: Larry Gus - ‘Years Not Living’

The detail-obsessed sound designer walks us through the algorithm he used to create his psychedelic latest album.

On September 2nd, DFA released Greek artist Larry Gus' debut album, 'Years Not Living'. The album is a dense collage of samples woven into psychedelic songs, but where many sample-based beatmakers use only a rudimentary set-up to make their tracks - a record, a turntable, a sampler and their ears - 'Years Not Living' was made through a highly mathematical process. After collecting and organising a library of samples to use, Larry Gus used an algorhithmic model to create every possible track combination, resulting in a seemingly infinite amount of different tracks that were then wittled down and selected for the album.

Given that every track on the album was made using the same method, Dummy asked Larry Gus - real name Panagiotis Melidis - to go through the general method behind his unique music-making technique for this feature.

Melidis: "I started with the pre-production of 'Years Not Living' back in April 2010, while reading Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual. Those were some super intense weeks, where I was feeling that my life was turning upside down. This book was the main reason, and at the same time, it was the only comfort.

"I wanted to translate the feeling I had reading this book into music. It has a huge backstory regarding its writing procedure, but the stories are solid - even if you know nothing about the process, you can still enjoy reading it.

"Even DFA passed on the album initially! They only decided to release it after they spent two-and-a-half months listening to it. I wanted to make it rewarding for the careful listener." - Larry Gus

"There were so many different stories in the book, and the thing that really weirded me out was that there were details that were repeating in the different stories. A small detail in chapter 34 could be a huge thing in chapter 67 - the same way Jacques Tati did it in the 1960s, or even like in Arrested Development. I tried to do the same with the samples, in the sense that a small loop in a track could be something more prominent in a different one. 

"Perec had really really strict algorithmic methods to write the book - for each story he said 'I will have a main character, a second character, a specific setting, a reference to a writer, etc.' And he had this huge pool of things to choose from, and he found a way to go through all of them.

"I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write an album that would be extremely dense, with hundreds of layers and small details and sounds coming in and out of the mix. I wanted it to be over-the-top full - on the verge of being about to explode - with samples and sounds at any given time. But I wanted the melodies to be strong, and the songs to be as direct as they can be.

"I know that people get a bit weirded out by the album, and they can easily dismiss it as being over-the-top busy and frustrating, but even DFA passed on the album initially! They only decided to release it after they spent two-and-a-half months listening to it. I wanted to make it rewarding for the careful listener."

"The sessions started around April 2010. All recordings were done by late May 2011. The main instrument was the Roland SP-404. I used it to sample everything - I'd even re-sample some of my old recordings.

"I spent around three months during pre-production just gathering stuff for it on CF cards. I used about 25 CF cards, so around 2500 samples - some from records, and some from my own recordings.

"The next step was to export everything from those cards onto my laptop where I could do the categorising. I wanted to know where each sample came from, so each sample name complied to a certain pattern. For instance, 13H_05A means card number 13, bank H, pad 5, edited sample A. That way, I could go back to the sampler and mess with the sample a bit more.

"I had to find a way out of those infinite possibilites." - Larry Gus

"Then, I had to deal with categories. After I assigned all of the samples to folders, I tried to find a way to apply some extra categorising according to chords and/or keys. I was trying to find a way to cut some of the branches of the possibilites of what to do with all those samples. I mean, I couldn't start playing each one against all the others, I had to find a way out of those infinite possibilites.

"This is where Georges Perec came in handy. I found some parallels in the way he used constraints to narrow down all those ideas in his book and my album.

"To find the key of each sample I used Mixed In Key, and then Key Finder, and I was done in less than two hours. I was still in Barcelona then, doing my Masters in Sound and Music Computing, and I was asking people around how I could get this done in MATLAB or Python. I was extremely stupid, I had no idea that there were actual applications that could do that.

"I also decided only to calculate the BPM for the drums and percussion samples, because I wanted tempo to only affect my choices for the rhythms, not the melodies. 

"Another constraint I set pretty early on was the fact that I would not pitch up or down any samples at all. I would just use them the way they are, combining them according to their key/chord. I would try to beat match them of course, but no change would be done regarding their pitch." 

"This is where I realized that I couldn't do everything with my SP-404 as I'd hoped. Whenever you try to change the BPM you get some really fucked up sonic artifacts. I downloaded the trial version of Ableton, and I think that I bought it the very next day. I was anti-Ableton for many years, and I was making fun of all my friends that used it - the joke's on me, obviously.

"So, I started with the different combinations in Ableton. The normal course would be: choose a basis from the 'main' folder and then try to see which samples get along with it. That means that at times, I would audit more than 200 samples in order to choose the 50 that fit. And then, of course, I would do the same with the rhythmic parts.

"I wanted to be sure that I tested all samples that could fit, and of course I wanted to make as many combinations as possible. The amazing thing with this process was that there were samples that could be the main ingredient of a song, but there were just a really low volume layer in a different track. This alluded directly to Life: A User's Manual.

"I wanted the songs to have the same feeling as when you're woken in the middle of the night by a loud noise, where the moment you open your eyes you have absolutely no recollection of what happened and why you are awake, but you somehow feel it - you feel that a noise woke you up." - Larry Gus

"I had around 200 initial Ableton projects that made sense to me, and I narrowed those down to 85 choices. In the end, only 10 tracks made the way onto 'Years Not Living', and eight onto 'Silent Congas'. Meanwhile, while working on combinations, I was also recording draft vocals over loops and different chord sequences.

"I also spent a couple of weeks recording drum beats and rhythms, because it seemed super intuitive to do so in Ableton. I was deeply influenced by Shackleton, who doesn't really use snares, and I was trying to get some rhythms in the album without any snare sounds, just congas, toms, rims and hi-hats. The set-up that I used for these tracks can be seen in photos - floor tom, picollo snare, hihat, mfb-502 drum machine, bc8 synth, guitar effects (dod delay, ibanez auto filter, digitech digidelays).

"After I was done with all the combinations (which was quite a difficult decision for me, considering that I always had the feeling that there were samples that weren't explored properly...but I had to stop, I really had to stop) I had to start tracking. I was thinking that I could just track everything inside Ableton, but this way I felt that I would lose the hands-on feeling that I had when working on the SP-404.

"So, I started exporting all the separate samples that I had in each Ableton project in order to have them all in the 404. And then I did the tracking, as if playing each sample separately. I knew that I was fucking with the actual sound quality of the whole project (sampling in 404, then copying to laptop, then messing things up in Ableton, then rendering to WAV, then copying back to the sampler, then recording the sampler back to the laptop). 

"For some songs, I would just play the whole thing live, and for others I was laying everything down sample after sample after sample, sometimes leading to more than 90 tracks. I really liked it that way, because I was triggering everything weirdly, sometimes even using the on-board 404 effects, and the mistakes are still there. 

"With the exception of a couple of lines, there are no lyrics on the album. I'd never written lyrics in my life - I'm trying to change that right now, but I still find it hard. Most of the vocal lines were improvised, and then I had to write down the mumblings somehow, so I can say the exact same things when double tracking. 

"The original cover art for 'Years...' was supposed to be a map of the samples in the LP. Each song would point to the samples that it used, using different colours for the role of the sample. [above]

"After DFA decided to release the album, Jon Galkin sent me some notes about the tracks, and after I did those adjustments, we mixed it in New York with Ken Heitmueller and Phil Mossman. There was constant talk to cut down some of the channels in each track, but I was extremely protective of the layers. I almost felt stupid, because I knew that many of them are literally inaudible and indiscernible, but I wanted them to be there for some perceptual reasons. I wanted the songs to have the same feeling as when you're woken in the middle of the night by a loud noise, where the moment you open your eyes you have absolutely no recollection of what happened and why you are awake, but you somehow feel it - you feel that a noise woke you up. 

"Most of the song titles are from Perec's book. Pericles is the name of an amazing chicken restaurant in Veria.

"Right now I am in the middle of the process of trying to be much more simple with my songs and productions. I find it super hard, though." 

DFA released 'Years Not Living' on the 2nd September. Larry Gus will play at our Dummy AGM at London Fields Brewery later this month alongside Darkstar and Only Real - more information on that here. 

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