Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
It was only after months of extensive touring that David Psutka really discovered what the Egyptrixx project was all about. Following the release of ‘Bible Eyes’, his 2011 debut album for Night Slugs, Psutka found himself worn down by the international gig commitments, which would see him play an ambient set in an art gallery one day and a techno rave in a warehouse the next, and returned to his hometown of Toronto, Canada, to regroup.
“I got a little burnt out,” Psutka says, talking over Skype from his home, “I took a bit of time out, mostly working in Toronto on some other records.” Psutka occupied his time recording and performing as one half of psychedelic noise group Hiawatha, and behind the boards for groups like LA post-punk outfit Bestial Mouths, while he reconsidered what he wanted to do with Egyptrixx. Naturally, it was through these other creative and musical endeavours that everything else began to fall into place. “It’s really interesting,” says Psutka, “As soon as I stepped away from Egyptrixx, the whole concept became really clear to me.”
Psutka set to work on new music, collaborating with Berlin-based artist Andreas Fischer, aka A.N.F., who created a visual counterpart to the tracks that make up new album ‘A/B til Infinity’. Psutka and Fischer’s vision for Egyptrixx was one of simplification: together, they devised a set of processes and principles that could be shared across both media, emphasising atmosphere, repetition, and texture over exclusively musical notions of melody, song structure, and progression. In the video for Ax//s, Psutka’s relentless, repetitive techno is the hellish complement to Fischer’s boundless, molten planet.
Before the release of ‘A/B til Infinity’, we caught up with Psutka to talk about the processes that make the record, the importance of boundaries, and the music scene in Toronto.
Did the visuals come first for this album?
Psutka: “It was basically simultaneous. We set a couple of rules, and outlined a basic process, at the beginning, then tried to apply the same rules to both of the media. We tried to emphasise repetition and deconstruction, so it was important to take a lot of things out as opposed to putting things in. There was more of an emphasis on texture, something that could be applied to both video and sound, as opposed to melody, which is more of a traditional music angle that you can’t apply to video.”
It’s interesting that you’d want to try and do away with melody, given your formal musical education.
Psutka: “I’ve been involved with music since I was a little kid; I went to The Conservatory for a number of years. But I actually found this to be a really refreshing way of working. When you’re writing a record, it’s a series of a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand forks in the road. You’re constantly having to make these decisions – left or right? – and having these more abstract rules was really helpful. It’s something you can fall back on whenever you have some sort of difficulty making a decision.”
"Andreas and I are trying to describe a place that exists in our imagination, a very tangible, specific place. I’ll use whatever tools feel natural to me – it could be a melody, or a synthesizer, or a field recording. But to me it's a real place, and I want to describe it in as much detail as possible." – Egyptrixx
Why did you want to make the record in this way, then?
Psutka: “I think with this project – with Egyptrixx – it’s now a realm of my imagination more than anything else. It’s not what I do all the time; it’s not a vessel for all of my goals and objectives in music, it’s just one little slice now. And it always seemed like a very visual thing to me. I feel like what I’m doing with Egyptrixx is soundtracking my imagination, so to add a visual component seems totally natural.
"I worked with Andreas on the first record – he’d done a few videos, we’re close friends. Alex [Sushon, aka Night Slugs label head Bok Bok] mentioned once that Andreas’s style had now become the default motif for Egyptrixx – he’d unintentionally provided the natural visual complement. I think that’s totally true, I think that there are a lot of similarities between his work and the Egyptrixx music. I don’t know if our ideas have come closer together naturally, or if it was some sort of subconscious, deliberate act.”
There aren’t many kickdrums on the record. Was that part of your limitation and reduction?
Psutka: “I think that was the direction that I wanted to go in with this record. All of the songs, at one point, existed in different forms. Some of the ambient and drone tracks at one point either had drums or didn’t. The aesthetic I wanted to convey didn’t really need drums on every track. I know in electronic and club music there’s a bit of a fixation on drum patterns and tempos, but we went at it from a different angle.”
You use some real world sounds on the album too, like sirens and rain. How do those sounds fit into the general concept of the record?
Psutka: “There are some field recordings in there from around my place. As I said, Andreas and I are trying to describe a place that exists in our imagination, a very tangible, specific place. So the more I can articulate this location, the better, and I’ll use whatever tools feel natural to me – it could be a melody, or a synthesizer, or a field recording. But to me it’s a real place, and I want to describe it in as much detail as possible.”
I noticed that some of the sounds recur frequently across the record, too. Was that because of the process?
Psutka: “Yeah, the way that Andreas and I worked on this record was extremely defined. The first stage was to come up with lots of rules, and lots of parameters, and one of those parameters – probably the most important one – was the sound palette. I had a very narrow sound palette, so once I’d gotten past that part of the process, there were very few decisions for me to make in terms of sound, equipment, synthesizers – whatever. And that’s probably why the record sounds so homogenous sonically. There’s actually only about three pieces of equipment on the whole record.”
"A little bit of time away was perfect. Everything crystallised, and now I have a very clear understanding of where I want it to go.” – Egyptrixx
So how were the parameters and processes devised?
Psutka: “We had a few rules, some of which were more literal in terms of the equipment that we used, or the textures that we used. But then there were some other more process-based rules, like deconstruction. But it was really important for us that, when we came to a point where we were having a hard time making a decision as to whether something stays or goes, we push one another over the edge so that we wouldn’t spend too much time trying to decide what’s. So there was a lot of momentum; we didn’t really spend too much time thinking about anything."
So there’s a visual for every one of the tracks?
Psutka: “Yeah, there is. In terms of a music video, sequenced format, there’s only the Ax//s video, but we have a body of non-sequenced videos which we’ll be presenting in an A/V performance. We did the first one last night, actually, on the Boiler Room, and I think it went well.”
How else has the live show evolved besides this visual element?
Psutka: “The Egyptrixx project is kind of funny, because it exists in between a couple of worlds, so I get a pretty diverse array of show offers. Sometimes I’m playing at more experimental or ambient shows, sometimes at techno raves. Depending on the show, the performance is going to be a little different. The ‘A/B til Infinity’ set is a pretty specific thing – last night was a sort of test run, but I was happy with the result. Our goal is to do something that’s more environmental and immersive, and less of a typical ‘spectacle’ A/V performance. And so far so good!”
You did a lot of touring for ‘Bible Eyes’, but after that a lot of time was spent back in Toronto, producing for other bands and recording the Hiawatha album…
Psutka: “There was a time towards the end of the tour where I was getting pretty tired; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep doing this project, or if I had any new ideas, or what direction it was headed, because it was kind of all over the place. A little bit of time away was perfect. Everything crystallised, and now I have a very clear understanding of where I want it to go.”
Has doing all of these different projects on the side limited – and I mean that in a positive way – what you can do with Egyptrixx?
So do you feel that you’ve come to appreciate the restrictions? I guess it gives you free reign to diversify with your side projects.
Psutka: “I’m actually involved with, like, I don’t know… seven or eight different projects now? And I think I get my creative kicks from all of them collectively. I get frustrated with artists who do everything they want to do creatively through one project, and mangle it into something unrecognisable and meaningless.”
And so having that definition for Egpytrixx is important.
Psutka: “I think so, I’m a lot more happy about it now. The projects that I really love, just as a listener, are usually pretty narrowly defined. It says the things that it says more strongly, more concisely, and I think that’s important.”
"The one project that I’ve done the most on is pop music that I’d be interested in. We’re just getting going, but the artist I’m working with is crazy talented." – Egyptrixx
How do you feel that relates to the rest of the stuff happening with Night Slugs? Obviously they’ve been doing things like the Club Constructions series, which feels like exactly what you’re saying, that really narrowly defined idea of what it should be like.
Psutka: “I don’t want to speak for Alex, but I think that if you asked him, he’d probably feel the same way as me about all this stuff – about doing less, about being concise, about being clear, and focusing on giving yourself parameters and giving yourself rules.”
You mentioned being burnt out from touring – when we spoke to you a couple of years ago, you said that there wasn’t much of an electronic music scene in Toronto. Having been back for a while, do you feel that’s changed?
Psutka: “It’s really funny you should say that, because we’ve just done this Boiler Room night, and a lot of people were gushing that it was some sort of moment for us, the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Lofty things were said. I mean, it’s a big city – there are a couple of million people living here, so there are lots of people making good music. I think in order for me to consider something ‘a scene’ it has to be more than that.
"I think of scenes as something that has an apparatus – a venue, or a label, or a neighbourhood, or a central. That doesn’t exist in Toronto, to be honest. It’s not nightlife culture city; it’s a traditional, conservative city, I’d say. That said, there are lots of great artists that live and work from here, and put out records, but I probably feel exactly the same way I do about Toronto as I did a couple of years ago. I don’t mean to knock it, but to say that it’s some sort of creative hub is not really true if you’ve travelled.”
How do you feel about the progressive meltdown of Mayor Ford?
Psutka: “It’s been amazing. Maybe don’t put this in the interview, but… [Egyptrixx says a lot of things that definitely can’t be included in this interview] Yeah, he’s a total fuck-up.”
You also told us that you’re working on a pop project. How does that fit in with everything else you’re doing?
Psutka: “[I’m working on] a couple, actually. It’s cool. The one project that I’ve done the most on is pop music that I’d be interested in. We’re just getting going, but the artist I’m working with is crazy talented and easy to work with. It’s been great actually; I don’t think it’s an unnatural reach for me to be working on this project.”
Night Slugs/Last Gang Entertainment will release ‘A/B til Infinity’ on November 26th 2013. You can currently stream it in full on Pitchfork Advance.