UNCHARTED is Chart Attack's showcase of independent Canadian artists we think you should hear. This month, dark, minimal techno producer Egyptrixx talks about how his music straddles the lines of experimental and electronic music, and why that should no longer be a problem.
Egyptrixx's David Psutka is misunderstood. Too weird for the club set, too dark for pop, too dance for the experimental scene, the Toronto electronic musician is subversive almost out of necessity. All the genres he flirts with - techno, drone, art, noise, metal - have very specific rules and rituals, and Psutka is in a whole other arena.
So, five years since he started Egyptrixx, he's taking the power into his own hands. On the verge of his third full-length Egyptrixx album, the visceral, pitch-black Transfer of Energy [Feelings of Power] (out February 9), Psutka has started his own label, Halocline Trance. Though he has nothing but good things to say about his former label Night Slugs, he feels that that label's very specific "London dance" sound was giving people the wrong idea about Egyptrixx. And Psutka has a very specific idea of what Egyptrixx is. It has its own rules.
Psutka discovered those rules in part by working on other projects. He's joined up with HSY growler Anna Mayberry on her droney folk project ANAMAI, produced some songs for former Modern Superstitions singer Nyssa (who sings on Transfer of Power) and released a heavy psych album with Thrush Hermit bassist Ian McGettigan as Hiawatha.
But Psutka says he doesn't feel like part of any specific music community; instead, as always, he's on his own wavelength. But, increasingly, he argues, distinctions of geography, genre and venue are becoming irrelevant. He voices his dismay, for instance, at being interviewed by the "Staff Electronic" writer of most Canadian publications, which he says is a misunderstanding of the current climate of music.
Egyptrixx records seem to be embraced by two very different worlds. I don’t think of that as a negative thing or a problem. It’s a strange project and you’re going to have strange results when you’re doing strange things.
Psutka has thought long and hard about what it means to be a musician in the age of the internet, and, five years into his electronic career, he's finally ready to reap the artistic rewards in full.
"It’s all the same kind of stew now. There’s so many people who aren't confined to a particular sound or a particular scene and now indie rock guys are doing techno sets and drone people are experimenting with pop sounds. That’s the most exciting thing about music in 2015, in my opinion. It's kind of a crazy, exciting time."
Over the course of our fascinating hour-long conversation, the question of "rules" came up over and over again: what it means to set them, who gets to define them, and how you go about breaking them.
You're celebrating the fifth year of Egyptrixx and Transfer of Energy [Feelings of Power] is the first release on your new label, Halcoline Trance. Are you looking at this as a new phase, or a fresh start?
Psutka: Yeah, that’s about right. Five years feels like a long time, especially in the era of internet music microcosms. But to me it still feels pretty young. I have a pretty clear understanding of what I want to do. I’m getting better as a songwriter and engineer, definitely as a touring musician. The label will allow me to achieve the things that I want to achieve more easily or with less resistance or less bureaucracy.
What kind of things?
Dealing with any label with other artists on it is always going to mean waiting for things. Night Slugs is a great label, but it’s very small too. They’ve always resisted expanding and hiring more staff, so it’s a very small group of people which means it has a lower business or functional capacity. And then the other labels I’ve worked with have always been major disappointments. So your question was "does this feel like a new chapter?" Kind of, yes.
So is the idea to put the control into your own hands?
For this project and the other ones I have pretty specific goals which may seem a little strange to conventional labels, so just practically and artistically made the most sense.
Have you often found that your ideas are met with resistance from record label and industry people?
Well, not with Night Slugs. I had a really positive relationships with Night Slugs and I think Alex Sushon [a.k.a. Bok Bok] who co-runs that label really helped me shape the identity of this project. But I’ve worked with other labels where I’ve had much worse experiences with Egyptrixx and with other projects. And I get a lot of pitches that are clearly the result of people with very different visions of what the project should be. You know, pop songs, pop collaborations, shit like that. I just don’t do that stuff. That's not what Egyptrixx is.
So would you say you've been miscategorized or misunderstood?
Well, it’s funny because the Egyptrixx records seem to be embraced by two very different worlds. Some dance and club music people will pick up on it, and then experimental, noise music people also pick up on it. I’ll do very different shows now; I’ll be doing like a drone set at an art gallery and then the next night it will be a techno festival, a DJ set. That’s cool though, I don’t think of that as a negative thing or a problem, really. If anything it’s just something that I had to learn to understand, especially when I started touring. I made a lot of mistakes. I played a lot of bad shows where I was trying to do the wrong thing in the wrong place.
So there were a lot of people scratching their heads?
Oh yeah. Or worse…
"We wanted to dance to this!"
Yeah! But that’s cool too. I think it’s a strange project and you’re going to have those kind of results when you’re doing strange things.
But those worlds seem to be bridging more and more. Like, you’re seeing artists Arca, Oneohtrix Point Never, Tim Hecker and Andy Stott making waves, even in mainstream publications. Those are also electronic artists who could play a club or an art gallery. They have feet in both.
What can you do? That’s the music business. If something is cool, someone’s going to try to get famous off of it.
Although it probably has its own rules.
And I think it probably took me a while to understand that too.
You're in ANAMAI now, which is more of a folk project, and you have Hiawatha, which is more "rock" oriented. Are you consciously sorting your ideas into different projects?
Yeah, totally. That’s exactly what it is. I almost made the mistake of making Egyptrixx this catch-all for every single musical idea that I had. But I realized quickly that that wasn’t the way to go. Now it’s pretty tightly compartmentalized. And really as I’ve gotten older and worked as a musician for longer, I feel like I really like the idea of rules, defining things as narrowly as possible. It’s more pleasing aesthetically, in my opinion. And at the same time as a listener or a viewer, as someone who likes movies and music and books and visual art, I’m also drawn to things that are more concise and refined. So I try to mirror that in my own work.
So what are your rules?
Well, I think each project is pretty narrowly defined. The Egyptrixx project is kind of based around the mechanism of taking the elements of club music, which I think are really powerful ingredients, and laying them bare, almost to celebrate them or worship them for their own sake. I’ve always been obsessed with the things that make up club music. There's this feeling in club music that is really interesting to me where you’re always toggling between really intense, violent, concussive moments and really tranquil, lush positive moments. And to me that’s the fundamental idea behind Egyptrixx, expressing those things in a minimalist, deconstructionist way. Hiawatha is a little bit more of that feeling immersed in sound, immersed in resonance. It’s a bit more melodic and vocal.
And when you’re live, you just play drum and bass, right?
Yeah, exactly. All of the stuff we recorded for Hiawatha this past couple years has been really noisy and guitary, feedbacky.
What about ANAMAI, how'd you get involved with that? Wasn't that the solo project of Anna Mayberry from HSY?
Originally it was definitely a solo project of hers, but through the album process it took on a new kind of identity. I started out producing her solo material, but then things just kind of drifted and eventually evolved into a project that was equally represented by both of us. And we recorded an album, we’ve been playing shows. It really kind of floated into a band.
And that’s obviously pretty different from the stuff you’re doing on your own, right? Like, it's more of a folk project.
Yeah, well you should wait until you hear the album because it’s quite a bit different from the stuff that’s been put out so far. It’s different instruments, but I’ve been playing guitar since I was 10 years old so it's just as familiar an instrument to me as anything. But I think there’s actually a lot of arrangement ideas and structural ideas in ANAMAI that are in all of my projects. I would say there are a lot of consistencies between all of the projects.
How would you define those consistencies between your projects? What's the throughline?
I think I’m into clean and minimalist structures and arrangements. I’m interested in ideas about resonance and texture of sounds and that’s definitely represented on that record. Saturation, simplicity. I think there’s a lot of serenity on the ANAMAI record which is something that kind of exists in the Egyptrixx stuff too. But Egyptrixx is more specifically about dance and club sounds.
When you're talking about deconstructing club music, that turns it into more of an intellectual experience than a physical one, which seems to be the opposite of what the club ritual is. Doesn't that change the idea of "dance" music?
I don’t think that having a concept that is that conceptual or heavy prevents me from enjoying the music in a visceral way, which is kind of what it’s all about. I mean obviously when you’re doing a project and it’s part of your job there’s a little bit more seriousness and assessment of it. But I like the idea of appreciating the single elements of club music for what they are because I think they’re so powerful and I think they’re so strong. When I do shows, especially more minimalist shows and especially when they’re really loud, it still feels exciting to me.
You're also coming out of black metal and drone, so that has a whole other set of rituals to it - the space that it’s performed in, ways of listening to it. Are you bringing those elements into the dance/club side?
Yeah, I think there are elements of black metal, maybe structural elements that’s in my stuff as well. There’s lots of use of repetition in black metal and I think there’s lots of intentional simplifying of melodic elements which I think in turn make them a little easier to get hooked onto and a little bit more powerful to the listener. There’s more emphasis on ambience and atmosphere and repetition versus overly busy song structure or lots of changes, which is maybe something you see more in thrash or death metal.
I found an early interview you did with NOW Magazine where you described your music as "proto-house, dubstep." Now "dubstep" seems to be such a dirty word.
Oh yeah, it’s definitely been sullied.
Or at the very least, it means something different.
Oh yeah, that’s the understatement of the year. It’s a pretty blatant gutting and commercialization of an interesting movement in music in my opinion. And, yeah, it’s not the first time. It’s been happening since the industrialization of music, basically, to everyone. I think the real tragedy in it was that it prevented really fun shows from every happening. There was a point where these kind of shows just had to stop because anything with the word "dubstep" in it would attract a completely different group of people who were about something very different. And then also, unfortunately, it scared a lot of really good artists away from making those songs anymore. That’s too bad because a lot of those guys were making amazing music and they got kind of chased away before the music reached its full experession.
What do you think that full expression of dubstep would have been?
Who knows? I mean, some of those producers were really amazing. Some of those early records were so weird and interesting and powerful. Listening to that music live on a big sound system the way it was supposed to be presented is such an intense experience. I was lucky on my first European tour to get to see Mala and the DMZ guys and Loefah and all these guys playing Plastic People. It was insane, totally awesome. In my life, it was one of the more powerful presentations of music I’ve ever seen. But what can you do? That’s the music business. If something is cool, someone’s going to try to get famous off of it.
So if you've refined the sound of Egyptrixx to a core set of rules or ideas, how do you then avoid repeating yourself from album to album?
Each record is unique and it has specific ideas or specific instruments or concepts that I want to run through the parameters that exist for the project. This one was kind of a sequel record to the one before. It’s a lot of leftover songs and ideas. The way I work is usually in a progressive way, I take what I liked from the last record and try to add to them and improve them and refine them, instead of wiping the slate clean and starting over.
So then is every record a crystallization of what you were aiming for on the last one? Would that make Transfer of Energy [Feelings of Power] the fullest expression of Egyptrixx? And then the next one would be an even fuller representation?
In some ways, I would say yes. I can’t think of a scenario with a subsequent Egyptrixx record that’s going to sound completely different from the one before it. If people are waiting for some drastic departure from the last record, if they want to hear a radio pop record or a ska record, they’re going to be disappointed. I like the idea of sticking to a concept and taking a while to really refine it.
I have three albums now, which isn’t nothing, but it’s also not an exhaustive discography. Some of the artists that I like the most have taken years, decades to make great albums. Swans is a great example. They’re now in their fourth decade and I think they’re finally making their opus.
Yeah, and they’re also at their most popular.
Yeah, totally. And it’s still the same seed idea that they’ve been using since the very beginning. It’s this little stupid idea, these little two note melodies, these simple grooves, and just living in that space. And that’s amazing to me, it’s a really beautiful thing. Maybe to some people the records don’t sound different enough or they’re not open enough, but that’s not really my goal.
So what you're saying is you're going to make your opus in the year 2050?
I hope so.