“House is our pop music”: Exploring the hybrid sounds of South Africa’s electronic scene
“I didn’t realise this when we sequenced it but it’s in the order I made the songs. So it’s like each one has certain ideas from the last song that it seems to be posing new questions to.” Daniel McCormick, or Ital, pauses in a jokingly dramatic way for a moment. “I won’t say what they are!” he finishes with a laugh. He’s talking about his forthcoming album ‘Hive Mind’, out on Planet Mu this February. 2012 is still young but ‘Hive Mind’ is already one of the year’s most important releases. It might be only five tracks long – although most of them are over ten minutes in length – but it’s saturated with ideas, a progressional narrative that draw you in with a strong physical pull. It’s a visceral listen, as raw and to the point as any of his other work, both under the Ital name, and also as DC hardcore band Black Eyes in his younger days, or Mi Ami later on, or his two albums as Sex Worker released on Not Not Fun, the sub-label of which, 100% Silk, has until now been responsible for Ital’s output.
“I don’t think the most exciting part of music is gear or whether you’re using Ableton or not. It’s ideas.” Ital
“I kind of wish I didn’t have a lot of names. But it’s all just under one big umbrella,” he says when asked about all these various aliases. Speaking to McCormick on the phone from his loft in Brooklyn it’s clear he’s someone with a lot of ideas, someone who’ll jump on a new tangent of thought and take it to interesting places. “I never understood people who are like, OK I’ve got this project and it sounds like this. Because when you start a band or a project you don’t really want to know what it’s going to be. You can have a good jumping off point but then where’s that going to take you? That’s the interesting thing, the unknown.” Of course the difference with Ital as opposed to his other work is that it consciously began as a dance music project. He talks about deciding to make tracks, and when he was approached by Amanda Brown about 100% Silk, the Not Not Fun sub-label geared towards club sounds, it made sense. Ital’s Theme and Only For Tonight were the resulting 12” releases, and are definite highlights in the label’s back catalogue. They show an approach to club music that’s raw and emotional, guided by thoughts and feelings rather than clinical DJ-centric, dance-floor precision. “I just don’t think the most exciting part of music is gear or whether you’re using Ableton or not. It’s ideas,” says McCormick. “If you have an idea you should be able to translate it through any piece of gear. Sometimes you have an idea that’s related to a specific bit of gear, and it’s cool. I don’t begrudge anyone who’s really into that. I think it’s great. I want to in a sense get more into it. But when people are getting hung up on whether you use Ableton or not it’s like, fuck off! It’s not where the talent lies,” he says, half joking.
“Before I studied formally I did not know what a key way. I needed to know just how music works, fundamentally.” Ital
As well as doing time in hardcore punk band Black Eyes, he’s also had a more formal musical education, at one point taking a “detour”, as he calls it, into studying classical guitar. It was a key part of his development, and perhaps part of the reason why Ital balances strong production values with emotional impact so well. “Before I went and started studying formally I did not know what a key way. I knew the names of the notes I was playing but I didn’t know how music was organised. I needed to know just how music works, fundamentally. So, yeah, it hugely influenced. If I wanted to write something that would have a poppier melody I could do that.” Modern classical music also became important to him (as evidenced by Ital’s brilliant mix for Little White Ear Buds), with its focus on the big picture and taking inspiration from big and weighty philosophical ideas. “There was just this explosion of really intense ideas. You could really see people sinking their teeth into these huge questions about what music was on a fundamental level. What sound is and stuff like that. I was really struck by Morton Feldman’s music and the way he wanted his music to be really physical.”
Ital – Doesn’t Matter If You Love Him
That physicality of sound grounds ‘Hive Mind’. The album’s first track Doesn’t Matter If You Love Him is built up from a Lady Gaga sample, the positive message of the original context of the sample warped through repetition into something more sinister. “I was taking that and making it nihilistic, like nothing matters. It’s an idea I go back and forth on, between thinking love is the most powerful emotion in the world and then thinking that nothing matters and everything is fucked.” The darkness is brought to light in the insistency of the repetition, the song’s hypnotic groove building it into a pulsating emotional abyss, but it’s also a powerfully kinetic and danceable groove. One of the most intriguing things about ‘Hive Mind’ is how well it balances the contrasts of mind and body. I ask him if there is a message or key idea running through ‘Hive Mind’. He describes it as “maybe a juxtaposition of a lot of the grossness of modern life with the excitement of just enjoying life. I mean a lot of people could listen to the tracks and dance and really feel it, but at the same time I felt like the world presses on you in really intense ways.” That darkness and intensity is something McCormick always sees as lurking behind his songs: “Black Eyes were a band during the first Bush administration, and living in DC where things were really bleak. A lot of heavy police presence and a really kind of menacing feeling. And then Mi Ami’s music seemed to focus on a lot of feelings of desperation, on not necessarily feeling safe in your own body because of larger social structures.” On ‘Hive Mind’ he brings these ideas generally associated with punk music – or with earlier human-versus-machine electronic music such as Kraftwerk – and takes them onto the dancefloors of 2012, heavily conscious of the fact that everyone on them is at the same time feeling the pull of the internet. “I feel we’re so over stimulated with a lot of screens, and this screen is hypnotic. And I feel like everywhere in our lives there are these screens, and they draw your eyes. It’s like this mass hypnosis of our world.”
“It’s a juxtaposition of a lot of the grossness of modern life with the excitement of just enjoying life.” Ital on ‘Hive Mind’
‘Hive Mind’ plays intriguingly with that old ambivalence of human bodies being connected to machines that has always been so apparent in electronic music. Privacy Settings is very obviously dark, awash with growling synths and samples of what sound like howling wolves. A song like Floridian Void, though, is more ambiguous. It sweeps along blissful, transcendent, but it’s also enthused with melancholy, a weariness in its grooves. “I think a lot of the music I make comes from some kind of social alienation or bodily dissonance. Uncomfortable feelings,” says McCormick. ‘Hive Mind’, then, is about the changes in our mentalities as a result of technological developments in recent years. There’s fear in it dancing side by side with the excitement. “I feel like there is a rise in environmental hypochondria where people are really freaked out about what’s in their food and water, and rightly so. It’s like being afraid of what you’re consuming. Is it an over-reaction? I’ve known a lot of young people in recent years who have become really sick, with cancer and other things, and obviously there are environmental factors that are intensely effecting our bodies.” That tension comes through on Ital’s album. It’s a work of technology as powerful as all those things it seems to critique. However, it’s not about staring into a screen, but delving deep inside a mind. The strength of ‘Hive Mind’ is that it resonates with the here and now, but it’s also got the power to pull beyond. Ital asks us to turn away from the screens, close our eyes and move.