Airbird interview: “Music has been a force in my life forever.”

30.05.12 Words by: Ruth Saxelby

“Let me show a secret world,” intones a wise old movie guy in Deep Dreams, Ltd, the slip stream intro into Airbird’s debut EP ‘Trust’. The solo project of North Carolina based producer and bassist Joel Ford, one half of Ford & Lopatin with Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin and co-owner of NYC label Software, Airbird’s secret world is one entranced by the gleaming rumble of low-slung digital funk. Having released a 12” on Software last September, ‘Trust’ is his most explorative articulation of it to date. While Girl resonates with an 80s music video aesthetic that fans of Ford & Lopatin will be familiar with, Royal picks its own path through pixelated flora and fauna, Trust glides beguiling into Pat Metheny-esque jazz-rock territory and Goodnight, the record’s most soulful moment, finds Ford atop a mountain calling to the stars. The earthy references are not for naught: Ford moved from NYC’s concrete jungle to the countryside of North Carolina last year and that experience’s fingerprints are all over the record. It was seeing him in live band mode at SXSW back in March, with Ford on bass and key, backed by saxophone and drums, that Airbird’s funk-rinsed vision clicked into focus. We recently caught up about the making of ‘Trust’, his favourite funk records and upcoming Ford & Lopatin adventures.

Hey Joel, how are you doing?

Hey Ruth! Doing well, thanks.

When and how did Airbird come into being?

I think Airbird started sometime in 2002 when I used an old PC mic from my parents’ mid-90s IBM to record the train next to my house in Amherst, MA. I took the sounds captured on mini disc and cut and sequenced them with my MPC 2000XL. This is my first memory of consciously making electronic music for Airbird. I have a box full of mini-disc recordings from that era that I can’t listen to because my MD player is broken…

What drives you to make music?

Both my parents were symphony orchestra musicians and music has been a force in my life forever. I played different instruments and sang as a kid, but was too distracted to master any one pursuit. I have so much to learn. I can’t play a single song on piano and I can’t read music for bass or guitar. I’ve always loved dissecting song structures and sounds, and I guess I’ve only really been trying to build my own from the ground up for a few years now. I figure things out by ear and mess around with outboard gear a lot (synthesizers and sequencers). I love collecting equipment and have recently been through a crash course in working with higher quality gear in ‘real’ studios. Making music is my true love and being paid to work on music is my absolute dream job.

I really like your ‘Trust’ EP. Can you tell me about the making of it?

Thanks! This record was made in my humble studio in Asheville, NC. I moved here in October of 2011 and the ‘Trust’ EP is the result of working on solo jams over the fall/winter. It’s also the first stuff I’ve mixed myself (aside from the track Goodnight mixed by Al Carlson). My friends Whit Palmer III and Jeff Gitelman also contributed on the title track. I had about ten tracks and Dan helped me whittle it down to the five that made the record. 

It feels like a departure from your earlier productions – much earthier, more human. Would you agree and what sparked that?

Yeah I’m happy that human element is shining through a bit because it was something I really wanted. I just moved from Brooklyn to North Carolina after living there for seven years and part of my motivation was to seek clarity of mind and better self-understanding. I really love being in NYC and most of my friends are there, but I ultimately need to be rooted in a place near mountains, fields and rivers. I wanted this record to have a more ‘human’ element to it than the City vs Mountains 12”, more air and more push and pull. Some of that was accomplished by sampling live performance and looping things that weren’t snapped to the grid / quantized. I think I could push this a lot further in the future but I’m happy with the results, especially on Trust. Tracks like Girl and Royal are pretty ‘computer-tight’ though.  

There’s also a lot of funk to your sound – is that something you grew up with?

Yeah totally. There was no ‘punk’ culture in my high school, aside from this one amazing dude who wore an Anal Cunt shirt everyday. The ‘weirdest’ music that I was exposed to was jazz/funk related. I realized sometime around age 15 that I sucked at guitar but was pretty adept rhythmically. I switched to playing bass non-stop and then was in and out of different funk bands for years. After wearing out our funk records, my friends and I mostly listened to rap and jazz. I still blast jazz-fusion records in my studio and at least every few months I’ll revisit my obsession with late 60s Miles Davis and Coltrane. Bill (Megafortress) and Daniel are probably the most encyclopedic music minds I know and have fed me jams for years. Bill is especially well-versed in free-jazz and out music. I’m in dire need of a deep listening session with these men!

What are your favourite funk records?

I was never really a serious roots-funk head although I love James Brown and the JBs records. I always gravitated toward progressive jazz and funk/fusion. Herbie Hancock records like ‘Thrust’ and ‘Sextant’ still sound fresh to me. At one point I had Gang Starr ‘Moment of Truth’ in the auto-reverse tape deck of my car for eight straight months and blasted it every single day. DJ Premier is the funkiest producer of all time. I also really love the angular drum programming of Mark Bell, especially on the Bjork records he did. The funk sensibilities of Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and Prefuse 73 continue to be huge influences for me.

I loved your set at SXSW, with live sax and drums. What drove your decision to make it a live band?

Thanks! Those were Airbird’s first live shows, and were a lot of fun. I’ve known Al [Carlon, saxophone] since third grade and he engineers and mixes almost all our Software productions. Greg was the drummer in my old band Tigercity. Tigercity toured incessantly for four years, and since that slowed down, I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting at a mixing desk. Really excited to develop the live ‘band’ sound for Airbird in the coming months.

Will you be touring as Airbird with the band?

Yes. I really want to tour extensively. Airbird is doing a run of US dates with Washed Out in May and looking to tour UK/Europe in the summer/fall.

Software has had a great few months. How is it going and what’s coming up for the label?

The Software experiment has totally changed my life. It’s been so rad thus far. I feel extremely fortunate to work daily with some of my oldest and best friends (Al and Dan). The ladies and gentlemen at Mexican Summer have been incredible coworkers and are great friends. A lot of un-announceable and super exciting things are happening soon, including some in-studio performance recordings / collaborations. A few Ford & Lopatin produced LPs are coming out this fall including Napolian and Autre Ne Veut.

Will we hear more Ford & Lopatin music in the future?

Yeah definitely. We’re gonna keep cranking out the studio productions. We’ve got some new stuff brewing.

And finally, any tips for Dummy readers of North Carolinian must-sees, must-dos and must-listens?

I’ll take this moment to shout out my new Asheville-based music friends Kovacs and the Polar Bears, Floating Action, and Smoke Hard. Also, right before tour, some friends and I are planning a lazy river-float on the French Broad River from 12 Bones BBQ to my studio. It’s about five miles and from what I’ve heard, and we’ll be traveling at 1 mile per hour…

Software released Airbird’s ‘Trust’ EP on 29th May 2012 (buy it here)

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