Daniel Martin-McCormick has made a music career out of being different. From DC post-jazz punk band Black Eyes to his latest incarnation Ital, whatever he touches tends to span genres, styles and is usually pretty noisy.
Ital isn't much different. The debut Hive Mind can lazily be categorized as house music but one listen and it becomes immediately clear this isn't your run of the mill Euro-House. Instead, Hive Mind is a dark, messily psychedelic deconstruction of dance music, with a punk approach. It's one of those records that doesn't allow you to be indifferent, but demands an opinion, for better or worse.
In person, Martin-McCormick is surprisingly laid back, unlike most of his music. He offers you a slice of melon before the interview and takes the time to answer your questions with deeply thoughtful answers. Recently, we sat down with him in his sparsely-decorated Brooklyn bedroom to discuss his latest record and why he likes his music weird.
What makes good dance music?
It’s a lot of things. Sometimes it is really intense and abstract. Sometimes, its cheesy and over-the-top. It can really go in so many different directions. I think that stuff that really grabs me has a body hypnosis and some sort of emotional resonance too. I don’t get down with a whole lot of super minimal techno. It can be cool in a club but that’s because it has a depth in sound that really activates the body. Then on the other end there is like YACHT, which I think is awful, where there is all this emotiveness but no engagement with the reality of the body, which is kind of abstract and dark. You know sometimes you just feel angry or violent and you need to consume and excrete and sometimes you have to move. These things are the realities of your life and sometimes I feel like they are best expressed in dance music or dance in general.
So these realities are expressed through the music?
Well, it activates your body and the question is; what is it expressing specifically? You point out songs that are sad or triumphant and these are specific emotions. However, a lot of house music or dance music doesn’t seem to have an easily identifiable emotional zone. Nonetheless, it is still really engaging because it touches on this physical nature of your existence which can be just as real as a headier, more emotional state. I think when it [dance music] has a foot in each of those worlds, I usually enjoy it the most. It’s almost holistic at times.
Do you think its difficult to differentiate between those two worlds -- the physical and the emotional -- when listening?
Yeah, it’s definitely a more “in the club” or when you hear it sort of thing for me. Or take the best of Italo, it hits this sick groove and is really hitting hard but its also just overblown emotional state. And I think the worst of it also has this overblown emotional state but just has a shitty groove. Or the best of Detroit techno always has some crazy strings on it and nothing else. I don’t really care for all jacking. Sometimes I do but its not day or night.
In past interviews you’ve professed your love for “weird techno.” Why avoid that sort of safe and clean sound?
Well life isn’t safe and clean. I don’t relate to it. Life is messy and I am more excited by something that is going to take you somewhere that you didn’t know you could go.
That’s interesting because I feel like that maybe part of the interest in the bands coming out on 100% Silk or NotNotFun is because they are approaching dance music from this sort of punk background opposed to a techno background. Your answers seem very punk to me in terms of the emotion of it and wanting to “feel” the music.
Well you do want to feel it! You always want to feel it. Even more than the punk thing, you know, in America its not normal to always be in a club and hear house music. Some people are working DJs but it’s not the same as it is in Europe, there isn’t this need to have your music fined-tuned to a certain club frequency or whatever, it’s not as urgent here which makes it harder to deejay but also allows people to go off on their own imagination a little more. Which I think is what people respond to most with the 100% Silk stuff and the Future Times guys, may be more than the punk thing.
How are you received in Europe?
I’ve done a couple tours and people want to hear me live. They don’t want to hear me DJ. They want to hear the performance of the music, they don’t want me in a club context. Boogieman DJ's, Theo Parrish DJ's, they are sort of accepted as producers and then live they are DJs. So with me, the people are very welcoming in one sense, but they are still interpreting it as almost a concert, like dance-oriented but still about performance and semi-noise context. It gets a little bit of club action but its more approached like a show or concert.
Do you think that is because of your background with other bands?
I dunno. Probably partially...
Well do you think you could roll into Berghain and play a set? Do you think that would be well-received?
Maybe. I feel like the set up is rawer that something all on a computer. My gear is all hardware. I mean, I’ve seen some crazy stuff at Berghain so I don’t know really. I think people are still feeling it out.
How is it now playing live now that it’s just you and not a band?
The big difference, of course, is that you don’t have the interaction with other people which is a really special thing. It does feel very “live.” When I started playing live with Ital, I wasn’t... afraid. (Laughs) Seriously, though, I wasn’t because I have played hundreds of shows. To me playing live music isn’t about the gear or if the sound is working or if people come to a show. To me, its more like a stream. Imagine music like a river and you just got to get in the river. It’s always there, you can do it at any time. It’s just a metaphysical, ephemeral experience of life that manifest, most commonly, in sound. You can be out of tune and it can sound like shit and your gear is breaking and its still music because it’s music. I feel that’s kind of what music is about, that spontaneous moment, where you just feel it.
That seems to be a re-occuring thread in all the bands you’ve played in going back to Black Eyes where there is just this loose, spontaneous experimentalism to it.
Yeah, definitely. All the bands I’ve been in practice a lot, play a lot of shows and then when we go into record it’s pretty easy because we play all the time. I’ve never really enjoyed the idea of like booking three months in the studio, go in with a couple chords and building a record off of it. Fuck that. The best part of bands is that they play music together. It’s simple. That’s also why I will probably never play with a symphony or something. I just don’t have those grand ambitions where I need a symphony to realize my vision. (Laughs) I’ve always been content with a string preset and going from there. (Laughs)
Is it imperative for you to push boundaries and try and take the music somewhere different and new when creating music?
Not on some matter of principle where I’m like, “Hold up, I like this but it’s too normal.” (Laughs) I am not going to flagalate myself to make something weird, you know? Rather, I think that is just something that intrigues me. I am intrigued by the unknown but also just by not being in a “safe place” musically. I’m not one to just play music where I know how it goes and just do it. I was never schooled in tradition. It’s not like I learned blues guitar and then broke away from that. I’ve always been one to just try and figure something weird out. In a sense, I don’t know how to play normal house music. I didn’t like grow up making normal house tracks and then experimenting with it. For me, making an actual house track is the experiment.
Do you think it’s problematic that you don’t have that foundation?
No, because I’ve studied music. I studied classical guitar for a couple years. Not enough to shred or anything, but I did study theory and I’ve spent a lot of time playing music, so I feel confident when I am going somewhere musically and how I relatively get there. I don’t think it’s necessary crucial to come up through the ranks of a genre. For someone who has been deejaying or producing since they were thirteen, they probably have this other level of knowledge that is phenomenal and have probably experimented quite a bit. On the other hand, do you need that? No, I think some people have that and make good tracks and others don’t have it and make good tracks.
Do you think having that background and a firm foundation of a genre can be restrictive?
Only if your thinking is restrictive. I think everyone has a background that can restrict them. My background is sort of this pan-genre experimentation. In a sense, you could say or argue, that it restricts me because I don’t just make a good house track that is clean and normal with song-esque flow with chords and melody that I don’t fuck with. In a sense, you could say my thinking restricts me from doing that. In the same sense, it sort of frees me. It’s a give and take.
Were you trying to create a dance record with Hive Mind?
Yes and no. I was trying to create an album when I went deep into the... not to sound self-aggrandizing but into the “Hive Mind space.” Where the album would have less to do with my intentions and rather define it’s own space on the record. As I made the tracks I was like, “Yeah, this fucking grooves!” Now, though, I hear it and I am like, “What the hell is this?” (Laughs)
You don't sound happy with it?
I am happy with it. I like it, but I think the next one is going to be sicker. I started working on the next and I am pretty excited for it. I feel like the melodies are stronger on it. There was a bit of getting something out of my system on Hive Mind. I really got into the cut and paste shit and just made it sound fucked. I appreciate it but I also am not surprised that not everyone likes it. In the past I have made records and wondered why no one liked it but with this, I get it. On the other hand, I appreciate that people are considering it, at least and talking about it. That in itself can be as awesome as people liking it.
I’ve read two things: one, that you set out to make something ebullient and joyful with Ital. Second, that Hive Mind was loosely influenced by the BP Oil Spill and the horrific images that were being shot during that whole crisis.
Well, the joyful thing was when I made the first Ital track. While with Hive Mind, I don’t want to get into it too much, but this past summer was an intense time and I think that the songs wouldn’t start off that dark but then turn into something really dark. And then with other tracks, things went real dark. It’s funny because I recently made two tracks that will be on a split with Magic Touch and it’s like super happy again. (Laughs)
It’s cool that you have that flexibility, though. It’s rare to find producers and DJs who don’t seem to be restricted within their sound in some sense. Off the cuff example, I feel like it would be really hard to make a joyful dubstep album with house crescendos.
Joy Orbison kind of was able to do that. I think that sound is also sort of due to the transition from whatever “bass music” is becoming. I mean, I actually enjoy the term “bass music,” it’s kind of like punk because it’s like “modern electronic music that is sort of UK, but not quite anything.” And I’m like, “Okay, that sounds great!”
Well, who under that umbrella “Bass Music” term is catching your ear?
There’s quite a lot. I have friends in the UK who every time I am there just piles on the records for me. Vakula and Fred P are pretty sweet. There is kind of a thing right now that is maybe not influenced by Hieroglyphic Being but is kind of connected with him. Like I started hearing about him years ago and then started hearing about a lot of stuff that also occupied this collapsing, corroded, weird and deep side of house music. I think maybe people became more open to explore that as a result of like Hieroglyphic Being and Theo. There is a ton of stuff like that but to be honest I mostly just have been listening to Gospel House music lately.
How long have you been producing and putting together tracks?
I started fucking with a four-track my sophomore year of high school and then I heard about the concept of a “recording project” and I was like (funny voice) “What is that?!” So I started making ambient tracks and got a Yamaha keyboard that had drumbeats where you can press a button that says “House Beat” and then try to build a track on it. Back then I knew about Kraftwerk and I knew about Depeche Mode, so I was coming at it from this super pop angle but also being a punk and just fucking around with it. Then I started making tracks with the intention of them being electronic, house or whatever in 2006. And I was doing it pretty much the same way I am now.
Was this during Mi Ami?
It was before Mi Ami and I was just living with my girlfriend and a friend of mine. My girlfriend and I were just getting into the concept of making electronic music and so we downloaded Audacity. She was making fucked up ambient tracks and I was like trying to do house stuff. Then I met Damien and we were like, “Let’s try and translate these to a band” and it was basically an epic fail. We just became a rock band, basically. So with Ital I pretty much took this process I had been doing years before and decided to do it “for real” this time. The tracks I had made before were way too short and weren’t super melodic. I kind of consider them practice sessions. I was just trying to learn how to make a track in this totally imperfect way. So when I re-approached it, I asked myself, “What do I need to do to make something actually release worthy?” Then there was this super intense 24-hours where I didn’t sleep and by the end it was just …(makes explosion sound).
You put together some of Hive Mind on Audacity, correct?
I put all together on Audacity, actually. I mean the synths come from Logic and I just export them as loops. Then I use Audacity to structure it. All of Ital’s themes are structured in Audacity, actually, with their waveform generators. For example the claps are just me (claps) and then cutting it and looping it.
How is the remix process for you since your background really isn't in traditional producing and deejaying?
Well, the first remix I ever did was a Mi Ami remix for “Telepathy” and that sort of set the tone. I wasn’t that into the song, so I just took one chord hit and a kick drum and put it in Audacity and then we just jammed over it. Now I am just like, “Send me your shit” and then I just start scrolling through and take like one syllable I think is cool and one little thing over here and then its just go, go go and I just start making a new track out of whatever I can quickly grab. I don’t have the inclination to sit around and find the chords and then re-voice them into trance or whatever. It’s more about taking a few parts and then running them through what I loosely refer to as the “Ital System.”
Was the transition from creating Ital tracks into remixing songs by different artist difficult?
It’s cool because it’s a way to make work without having too much focus on it. When you make a remix for someone, people aren’t going to judge it as your main output. So it’s a cool way to try out different techniques and different stuff. I mean I’m not trying to fuck around, I try to make them all good. But like take Carl Craig who is like the epic master at the remix. I would like to do that but I don’t think it’s happened quite yet. Remixing has definitely helped me grow and just get out of my total comfort zone and try something new.
Last question, off-topic, but do you have an affection for Rastafarian aesthetic? Mi Ami’s Steal Your Face had Bob Marley on the cover. This project is called Ital and I walk into this interview and you are wearing a shirt of Bob Marley and a lion on it.
Marley is kind of this funny patron saint, especially with Mi Ami. It got kind of philosophical with Steal Your Face. We were always joking about Marley and The Grateful Dead but I think the thing underlined it that we were jamming a lot and sort of thinking of ourselves as this raging hippy band or something. Kind of like this Crass-esque hippy identity in terms of the fact that we were jamming and actually trying to get cosmic with it. And so I think those guys started representing this peak and also, an ultimate trough where, for example, Marley made reggae and he was super talented and the music was beautiful but then it also got really commercialized where his image and become this whole commodity in itself. The same goes for The Dead. I don’t like The Grateful Dead but I appreciate that they are this fucking bizarre avant-jam-band but then there is the culture that surrounds it. So we got into this idea of “the thing” that gets eaten by the culture that surrounds it. To me, wearing a Marley shirt is me personally repping the side of Marley I like while simultaneously mocking the bullshit that surrounds it. Like look at this shirt, Marley never kicked it with a lion. (Laughs) On the other hand, I appreciate the deep Rasta stuff a lot where, in a way, they do have this lion’s mane and its this deep spiritual existence. I admire it and, you know, sometimes I wish someday I could reach that. (Laughs)