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June 13, 2007
With so many aspiring musicians out there, as an artist it is painfully difficult to differentiate oneself from the crowd. That's part of why the efforts of those who actually do deserve recognition are so praiseworthy. The hypotheticals will always exist, too: How did they do it? What is so different about what they are doing?

Recently Portland, Oregon native Paul Dickow released a new album Future Rock
(LAS review) for the booming Chicago label Kranky Records, and with it set his Strategy moniker apart from the herd by employing uncommon recording and production methods, meticulous preparation tactics, a laundry list of instruments, and just silly good taste. For Dickow the excellence of his recent work is not a fluke, but instead the culmination of a lifetime of musical learning and experiences - he co-runs the Community Library label and also co-founded the DIY imprint Archigramophone, has played in both Nudge (still a member) and Fontanelle, has two previous full-length recordings (Strut and Drumsolo's Delight), and has remixed work by the likes of the Juan Maclean and Nice Nice.

It's easy enough to see that Strategy is the fruit of the efforts of a busy man. Fortunately, Future Rock, with its 20+ contributing sound sources and a wide variety of genre touches, is exceptionally cohesive and nothing short of outstanding. A short while ago senior LAS staff writer Josh Zanger cornered Dickow with a few questions about what it took to make Future Rock, being brought up in a musical household, and the awesomeness of the vocoder.

---

LAS: How long have you been involved in music? What is your artistic pedigree?

Paul Dickow: I've been involved with music in one way or another since childhood. Everyone in my family is musically active in some capacity. My father is classically trained and is a professor of French horn, composition, music theory, and electronic music. He is also involved in computer music and computer programming. I was also raised with folk music, particularly Celtic traditional music, Klezmer, and Appalachian music. I was not forced to follow a traditional (educated/music-reading-based) musical path - my family nurtured my interests which ranged from avant-garde music such as Sun Ra, John Cage, and others to pop music and particularly, synthesizer/electronic pop music when I was young.

I played music with friends during high school and, even though we lived in a small town - Moscow - in northern Idaho, I had access to really unusual music because I was allowed to have a radio show at the college radio station while I was still in high school. That being said, we didn't know what to do with the experimental sounds we were absorbing, because there was no real band or music or club culture to speak of where I grew up. As a result I immersed myself in improvisation, jamming, experimentation - I was passionate, but uninformed by ideas of how you start a band or program a dance track. It was just totally freestyle for the most part.

When I moved to Portland, I started to play in bands more and more, and with more of a vision. In Portland I went in every direction I possibly could, everything from ad-hoc free improvisation, to sort of marginal/art-punk music with the celebrated Portland band Emergency, to being a keyboardist in Fontanelle and a multi-instrumentalist in Nudge. There's a lot more as well: Strategy sums up all these experiences which would seem to tug in different directions, but don't really conflict for me. [Future Rock] is a look back at seeing how this jumbled set of experiences all jives together.

How long did it take to make Future Rock?

About three and a half years! The album was conceived based on one song that I would play a lot at shows, "Future Rock." A lot of experimentation and pondering slowed the process. Songs were done and re-done, three or more times each, during this period.

Explain the basic steps of the overall creative/recording process behind Future Rock. How were your ideas birthed, and developed into full-grown progressing songs?

A song's origin - well, it really varies. To a certain extent, a lot of the songs were started by creating a simple drone or backdrop noise or rhythm that was particularly compelling. A layering process, jamming along with a loop really, would sort of "grow" the song upwards like a plant. But in other cases I'd get a tune in my head, perhaps a riff or a keyboard sequence or some other musical concept... I'd let this loop in my brain, and then sit down and write the track from the ground up as closely as possible to what I'd been hearing in my head. It's only relatively recently that I've been able to access that. A few of the songs are even blatant what if band X jammed with band Y and got remixed by producer Z? games I'd do with myself. Usually in the latter case, the result would end up being really far away from its' original concept, but rewarding nonetheless.

What is the first step to creating a song?

Sitting down in front of my studio desk and thinking about making a song.

Some of the conventions you used to make this album are intriguing - vocoder for voice effect, spring reverb, samples from your band Nudge. How did you decide on what to use, and how to use it?

Vocoder and spring reverb have an expansive effect on whatever they are treating, a sense of pumping up, blurring the original sound. A lot of treatments were chosen for their ability to smudge and sort of paint with the sounds a bit. The dryness of a lot of electronic music is interesting to me as a listener, but not part of my artistic aims.

Samples from bands find themselves in a bit more randomly - I'd had a lot of source material piled up from a wide variety of situations and time periods, maybe just snippets of sound, but ones containing compelling kernels of ideas. The sounds just either work or they don't; it's a trial and error process, so in some cases I would decide to use something but it wouldn't work out. There's a lot of that.

Specifically in utilizing the band's live practice samples, why did this audio documentation become part of Strategy and not an eventual Nudge album? How did the process of including these clips work out, creatively speaking?

I didn't limit my use of past music samples to Nudge, some other friends' bands appear in there as well, plus samples from improv sessions and snippets of my own unused/unfinished past music. Discards, in a way. There's a sense of "anything can be recycled" with Strategy stuff; in Future Rock I wanted to maximize the "collage" aspect of the music, diversifying the sound sources as much as possible. I felt that computer music had a tendency to be texturally/tonally monochromatic - sounds made of the same "stuff" making songs that sound similar. I wanted something made from sounds that ordinarily wouldn't be all found in one place. Hence fragments from the past, musical time capsule moments that bring in a flavor not found in other musical sources. There is a lot of trial and error in this effort, as I said, because in some cases the sound quality or character of the sounds is either flawed or limited, so sometimes some fragment or song idea would just never pan out-too hard to incorporate with other material.

What was the goal you were aiming towards when putting all these seemingly odds-and-ends pieces - instruments, previous existing recordings, samplings, editing, et al. - together? How did it not just become a mish mash of sounds?

I'm not sure how I avoided a mish mash. Perhaps it is that the sounds are not ends in themselves but means towards achieving songs. I suppose in that regard, hopefully, the whole has turned out to be greater than its constituent parts. My goal was known from the beginning: to create a completely busy, chaotic work of art that incorporated almost every shred of my past musical experience into one cohesive whole. I had been doing these one off projects - singles, remixes, albums of a more narrowly defined flavor - and it was like each work existed in some genre ghetto. I wanted to prove that I could progress beyond this genre-hopping by creating one work that did all of it. Or a lot of it. The criteria was [that] it can't just be genre-mashing for it's own sake, any/all of the material has to work as a compelling song and not just something done to prove a point.

What was the creative game plan going into making Future Rock, as opposed to others? What kind of feel did you want to make this album have?

I had more trouble with this aspect. I would reach for some sort of plan for the album - to have this or that general mood, some ultimate-end result or another. Well, the game plan attempts kept changing, and finally I just took a few steps back and said, there doesn't need to be a game plan, there just has to be a certain number of songs that are all good and all sound good together. I did know that I wanted it to have an incredibly varied, collage feeling, and originality, but beyond that it was harder to pin down, so I just let the material lead me more and when it seemed done, I called it done.

I read a Q&A you did with Textura, and the interviewer was asking you about your songs and comparing them to different artists, aligning them within distinct musical subgenres. Do you think your music is most often considered within the context of a bunch of other artists and musical movements that came before it? Do you think someone who has no idea what terms such as Luomo, A Certain Ratio, and dub mean, could enjoy your music just as much as those who worship these somewhat obscure bands and genres?

I think that the music does speak well to people who are unconcerned with references, names and histories. I like to appeal to people who have this similarly obsessive background to me, but that's not a key to unlocking the music. These songs are there for everyone to enjoy, and people will interpret them based on their own experiences and that will be as valid or more so than any of the musicology I might have hidden in there. In that regard, even though this is so far my most experimental work to date, I think it is also my most accessible and I hope people don't feel excluded by any reputation that might proceed me as being a supreme-record-nerd or what have you.
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SEE ALSO: www.kranky.net
SEE ALSO: www.community-library.net
SEE ALSO: www.archigramophone.com

--
Josh Zanger
Joshua Ian Zanger, a native of rural Chicago, rocks many a world with his writing, style, and generally sweet aroma.

See other articles by Josh Zanger.

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