In David Foster Wallace’s unfinished tax accounting epic The Pale King, a Jesuit professor presents the following argument: that all the information the world needs has already been made and that the new frontier is classifying, organizing, and presenting it. “The pie has been made—the contest is now in the slicing.” Given this worldview, Matt Papich as the world’s master pie slicer.
Though he’s best known for his angular guitar acrobatics as one half of Ecstatic Sunshine, Papich has put down the six-string in favor of a sampler for his latest project. Working under the name Co La, the red-haired Baltimore native takes the music that already fills our world and uses it as a raw material, reorganizing it into something completely new. His latest album, the stellar Daydream Repeater, is built from hundreds of samples taken from a dizzying array of sources. The record is a massive collage pulling from everything from Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack to Jamaican rock-steady beats to early 60s girl groups. The result feels like a whirlwind tour through the record collection of a seriously omnivorous audiophile. Emerging from these track’s instrumental loops, clipped vocals, and intricate melodies are stunning juxtapositions that build on each other to create their own organized logic. If that all sounds academic, just listen to “Egyptian Peaches.” Sure, the track’s creation took a meticulous eye for detail but the result is nothing but effusive fun.
I caught up with Papich inside the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, DC where he was set to play alongside Oneohtrix Point Never as part of the museum’s Lunch Bytes series exploring digital culture.
What’s the event happening tonight? How did you end up at the Hirshhorn this evening?
The event is part of this series called Lunch Bytes. I know the back story on it in a way. It’s been a lunchtime lecture series and this event is stepping outside of that style. Doing a thing at night, combining speakers with music. The theme is the digital world.
I think that makes a lot of sense considering your music.
Yeah, me too, me too.
Are you going to speak on something specific?
Ha ha. I’m just playing, thank God.
Do you consider you music to be particularly informed by technology or the internet?
Definitely. My music cannot exist without technology. I think it can exist without the internet, but nonetheless it’s very informed by it.
So how does it happen? I don’t think I quiet understand how you put together your songs.
The process has changed a little bit over the last year or so. In the beginning, I was doing things completely sample-based, 100% from .WAV files or anything of highish quality that I could find. Now—especially in the last couple months—I found that I’ve become more interesting in recreating things that I would otherwise be samplings. Like if I were interested in sampling a vocal verse from a Neil Sedaka song. Instead of trying to sample in and EQ it all out, I’ve actually just been finding good singers and recreating it that way. Which I feel like actually twists things even more into a weird knot, which I’m interested in. Like, taking the words away from the voice and keeping the melody.
That was something I was actually curious about. All the vocals in your songs are really chopped up and disembodied. Why did you arrive at that technique?
Part of that is really practical in that oftentimes there are small moments when the vocals are clean, wheres there’s not another sound happening. I’m usually focusing on those moments. But also, I’m not interested in lyrical content or poetic content in a way songwriter would be. I am interested in the words. I feel like that’s how I came to this chopped style, where it can be more disconnected from it’s context.
Is that the way for all your samples? When you hear a sample you want to use, do you try to incorporate any of the original context or tone, or do you try to completely try to build it into something else?
That depends from piece to piece. Some tracks I feel like I’m really honoring them. There’s a track that’s new that I’m going to play tonight that’s based on a song by Psychic TV called “Suspicious.” I truly love that song and I really tried to make a loving version of it. Other times I’m not so interested in that, in paying homage. I’ll be more interested in just taking away, maybe finding little moments that are a little special in an otherwise awkward or weird vocal performance. There’s a lot of jazz stuff I use, too. And it’s the same as sampling vocals: I’m just picking things out that I connect with and trying to build a heightened version of whatever that element is.
Like distilling it down to what you like most about it?
I wanted to ask you about last time you were here. I think you were at the Black Cat. Tonight you’re at the Hirshhorn. Do you think having such a different setting will effect of people approach the music?
I do think that place matters a lot, especially for my music. Going from a rock club to a museum space though, in this case, I don’ think it will be that different. For this show, yeah it might effect how people might react to the sound, but it a large sense it’s going to be up to the audience. It’s more how they decide to react.
So there’s not an ideal setting for listening to Co La music?
No. I actually think I try to make sounds that are pretty versatile, that you could use in a variety of situations. I don’t think I always succeed in that, but I hold that as a goal.
In terms of—I don’t want to say influences—but there’s something about your songs that recalls the exotica music of the 50s. Does that at all factor in?
Oh, definitely! I love that music. I’m really interested in how that music came about. You know, there are problems with exotica music. It’s patronizing. It’s a kind of good example of late colonialism. It’s also music that was mostly made by record labels; they were pushing for these big band guys to make this kind of music. But taking it away from all those things—the very real world detractors—it’s really beautiful music with a high potential. It has a dreaminess that can be transportive. I feel an affinity to that.
Do you feel there something fitting about this—the way exotica was made by appropriating bits from other cultures and now you’re sampling from that product?
Completely. Completely. I feel like the sampling thing—some people find it aggressive, like it can be seen as “taking away” something from the source. That’s never my intention. I know it happens some times and people can react to it that way. But now if you go back to that music, that concern is not at the forefront of the listening experience. It’s just fascinating music.
When you do use samples, do you work through a personal connection with them or is it more like choosing paints from a palette, just using them as tools?
That’s a good question. I don’t really paint. There are examples of both. Sometimes I am choosing samples for a personal reason like this song I mentioned before, “Suspicious” by Psychic TV. It’s a song I truly love. But for the most part it’s based on the formal qualities, the sonic things—yeah, like a choosing from a palette.
Has it been getting easier to harder to track down sources to use?
The last couple years accessing music has been so simple. I feel like that is changing right now, in terms of getting easy access to free music.
You think it’s getting locked down more?
Beyond literally getting locked down by some of the companies that own the music, I feel like there is also a growing—not necessary resentment—I think people are starting to wonder again about how they get their music, who benefits from how they get their musics, and making ethical decisions again about what they pay for and don’t pay for.
Have you seen what happened earlier this week, with the NPR intern?
Of course, yeah. I thought that was a fascinating moment the way that what’s really not a story became such a big moment for journalists. I was fascinating by that. I read a lot of responses in addition to the piece.
Where did you come down on it?
What did I feel about that? You know [long pause] I do have to pay for a lot of the things that I use because I’m seeking out high-quality files. Oftentimes I’m paying for them in a third-party way to have a membership to a service to download stuff. In this new conversation that really started last week, that distinction became more pronounced for me. I read a piece by the guy from Camper von Beethoven that was tracing this really logical economic way of looking at free music and paying for music. I was really fascinated by that. I honestly don’t know whether I have a hardline option yet. [laughs] but I do think about it a lot.
Obviously. You must need to have access to a huge pool of music to even make nine or ten Co La songs.
Totally, totally. A lot of times what I’m doing is buying CDs, which feels really weird to do right now.
It does seem really archaic. But I’m oftentimes buying CDs from either online or at the Sound Garden in Baltimore, where they just have a ton of music. Then it’s your file. There’s something good about that when you make music like I do.
You feel a little more free to use it?
Yeah. You have the hard copy. I really enjoy that. I spent a fair amount of money buying secure DCM records in the last year or so, just going down this rabbit hole ambient jazz. I’m really glad at some of what I got my hands on; they’re gems.
Are you done with the guitar forever? Are you ever going to go back to anything like Ecstatic Sunshine? What was the reason for the switch?
I actually have no urge to touch a guitar these days, but I can’t say I’ll never touch a guitar again. I just don’t know what I would do with it, to be honest.
What was the reason behind switching over from playing guitar to doing what you do now?
I feel like Ecstatic Sunshine for me was about deconstructing how a guitar can be used and I just hit a wall eventually. I felt like I got to an endpoint for me. By the end I was using the guitar more as a necklace and less like an instrument. You know, more like a decoration that was slung over my neck than anything I really needed to make sound. So many of the sounds I became dedicated to on the guitar toward the end of Ecstatic Sunshine were sounds that were mimicking synthesizer sounds or percussive sounds. It made more sense to transfer to those instruments to be more direct.
One other thing: Why Co La? It is just awful to Google you.
Yeah, that doesn’t bother me so much. I could care less about Google. I was interested in using a word that’s just he most basic branded thing and cutting it half. The name is more to me about the snip between the O and L than the word at all.
How does that relate to the rest of the project—through the disconnect and cutting up?
Yeah, exactly. That’s what it was for me. I wanted a name that references this taking something that’s common—you see the word cola all the time, you ask for cola everyone knows what you mean—but I wanted to cut it in half in a really direct way and make it into a new thing. Since I’ve done that though I’ve found some things named Co La that are cool. It’s sometimes an abbreviation for Cost of Living Adjustment, which is how employers decided whether to give you a raise or not. No one does these cost of living adjustments anymore. I also didn’t know this but it’s also the name for a large bud of weed. I love smoking weed and I had no idea! But was it it was ultimately about taking this large branded word and cutting it in half—that space is what the name really is to me.