Diessa_album_front (Large)

Interview: Diessa

The music of Diessa exists in the margin between first-person agency and environmental flux; beat-driven electronica that weaves its way through the field recordings of Istanbul market places and stumbles over the cracks and crumples of imminent tape player failure, all while collecting the residue of low-fidelity streaming and niche internet paraphernalia on its jacket (which, for the sake of this metaphorical ramble, is a punk-patched denim number from former years on the house-show / cassette-home-demo hardcore circuit).

In other words, Diessa is the solo project of Cheltenham’s Josh Petkovic-Short, who also runs Gloam Recordings alongside Cam Phoenix. His latest EP is titled Breathe, Repeat, and comes after months spent hitting rubbish skips with hammers, collating field recordings of public spaces and negotiating the stubborn malfunctions of broken hardware. You can listen to the new single “Darling” right here. Below, we discuss his love of crackle and hiss, the perils and delights of working with equipment on the blink and the upcoming movements of Gloam.

So as you were saying before I turned the recorder on, you met a guy who introduced you to music beyond punk…

It was in part Joe [Craven] from Body Clocks. His band is really good: live down-tempo stuff with a lot of synths and drum machines but with guitar and double bass as well. He introduced me to some music that wasn’t scrappy lo-fi recordings of shitty basement bands.

Which shitty basement bands were you listening to?

I was really into “real” screamo stuff: bands like Saetia and I Hate Myself, along with a lot of lo-fi blastbeaty awkward punk stuff. Not great music. I still love it, but it’s embarrassing to talk about.

So Joe introduced you to artists like Caribou and Bonobo, right?

Yeah. By that point I was already dipping my toes in making my own electronic music, and I was always thinking that there was a genre of music that must exist, but I couldn’t find it. I loved the Icelandic band múm at the time and I thought, “this is cool – there must be other bands like this.” So Joe introduced me to more music like that. Then i found a lot of stuff on Erased Tapes as well, which I love.

Stuff like Nils Frahm?

Yeah. Olafur Arnalds as well. People who make neoclassical music but like electronic music as well; they’re not snobby about being “real” musicians. I’ve always liked the combination of technically proficient musicians with synthesisers. You get people saying that electronic music isn’t real music, but then you point to what [Arnalds and Frahm] are doing…

They seem to do a great job at avoiding classical music’s tendency to alienate most audiences.

Yeah, it’s very accessible. But Frahm does some very weird stuff, like that “Toilet Brushes” track. He plays the strings of the piano and starts the track with toilet brushes. It’s so cool. I’d love to see him but it’s expensive. He’s never in Cheltenham, surprisingly!

So how long ago did you start getting into this sort of music?

Probably about three years ago.

And when did this music start to imprint on what you were doing?

Straight away. It was an epiphany, really. That said, I think the music I was making was more interesting back when I had no idea about any similar artists. There was definitely a middle period where I was like, “I like these artists – I’m going to rip them off”. When I was naïve to that, it was pure and unadulterated. The music wasn’t very good but I kind of enjoy it. My hard drive with all that stuff corrupted; I wish I still had it. Throughout college I started making music on my own a lot more, and it’s just been a case of throwing away most of it and occasionally picking out small bits and pieces.

Are you like me, in that you pick out less and less “useable” material as time goes on?

Yes and no. I struggle with creative motivation. For someone that spends so much time making music, I don’t actually end up making that much music. I’ll have a creative drought for months, and then I’ll have a couple of weeks where I’ll make 15-20 tracks or something like that. In that time, there’ll be some particularly stand-out things that I can build from. There’s not that much that I actually hate but there’s still a lot that I don’t use. I guess you’re right – I use less and less [laughs].

Over the course of recording this new EP, I’ve started to feel more comfortable with the processes that I’m using and the music that’s coming out of it. I feel as though it’s more personal, which is good.

The other day we were talking about how you like to use broken equipment. A lot of your music seems to be compiled from crackles, individual samples and what might otherwise be considered “unwanted” sound…

I spent a lot of time focussing on “unwanted” sound with this release. I use a lot of broken stuff and hardware that doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. I like that. It’s almost creating something that shouldn’t exist. For example, I make tape loops by cutting up cassette tape, taping it together, recording something on it and then “playing” it with the faders on the mixer. I’m not very good at splicing it – my hands shake when I do it – so the tape always has a little hiccup in it. The tape player’s really bad too. It never seems to stay at a constant speed but it works.

It’s the same with sampling stuff. When I was at college, they’d say things like “if you’re sampling, you need to cross-fade the start and end of the sample so there are no pops and crackles”. I just chuck stuff in there. There’s one track called “Take Care” on Breathe, Repeat which is just filled with that. The samples are ripped from low-quality mp3s on YouTube, and there are crackles and pops and horrible bits everywhere. It’s one of my personal favourites. The track itself is very minimal and there’s not much going on, but to my ear…it’s all the intricate details, pops and things that shouldn’t be there that I personally enjoy. I think my music is quite self-indulgent in that way. There’s a lot of hiss as well. Every time I send off music for mastering, they’re like, “you do want that hiss on there, right?” I’m almost embarrassed to say yes.

What do you like about the hiss?

I think it comes from listening to a lot of lo-fi punk music. I used to listen to a lot of music that was home-recorded. That’s how I started making music: through home-demos…

Cassettes?

Yep, cassettes. There’s a two-piece band I really enjoy called Algae Bloom who played my house once. Really lovely dudes. The first thing they put out was a bedroom demo and I was really into it. I don’t know if it was recorded on a phone or something, but it sounds crap…all you can hear at the start of the track is just an amp hissing away. I just love that shit. I think I’ve brought that over. There’s another track on Breathe, Repeat called “Column Of The Goths”, which uses a lot of samples from when I was in Istanbul. It’s named after a Roman victory column in Istanbul. There’s an ending section that has this weird drum break thing – I bounced it to my broken cassette player and it sounds all horrid and smushed. It’s great. [laughs]

You mentioned the fact that you use low quality YouTube rips, which is interesting. Analogue forms of low fidelity are well established by now, but I feel as though the conscious use of low quality digital sound is still in its infancy.

I think that’s it. To me, it was a bit of a personal statement to use it. Analogue is very popular at the moment and it does have a very pleasing sound; I love analogue synths and I sample from records and tapes a lot. At the same time, I spend a lot of time consuming music through YouTube and digging through YouTube algorithms, and I think it’d be a disservice to ignore that. My memories of growing up don’t feature cassettes; I think of my dad’s Windows 98 computer and things like that. I grew up with the internet in a completely digital age. YouTube is just where I get my music from. Maybe it’s nostalgia. At the end of the day, I’m a bedroom producer putting stuff out amongst a whole load of other bedroom producers. I think the low-quality mp3 is just a way to acknowledge that.

Plus it’s just more accessible. I rip loads of charity shop vinyl and stuff like that, and that has a very specific sound. All you get in charity shops is the records of dead people, so you get the same “old people music” for want of a better phrase. If I find something good on YouTube I’ll often want to buy the record, but it’ll be some triple boxset record thing. Fuck that. A lot of the samples are from music I don’t even listen to. I’ll find it from digging through different artists and making a note of something I want to sample, and then after I’ve sampled it I’ll forget about the record. It’s not that I don’t like the music, but it’s just a snapshot of a moment: I find something, take it and chuck it away. Damn millennials. [laughs]

So how long have you been working on the new release?

I went to Istanbul in October last year. I took a Tascam recorder and my phone, and so a lot of the samples and track foundations are from there. When I initially got home I hated all of the samples; they hadn’t come out as well as I’d have liked, so I left them until about December time. Then I just started piecing the tracks together.

I got stuck in a bit of a rut with the percussion side of things. I work in a bike shop, so at one point I just started going around and recording stuff on my phone. We were having building work done so there was loads of shit I could hit.

What kind of stuff were you hitting?

A lot of it is me smacking skips with a hammer and stuff like that. I like that it was done with my phone as well; it’s the same deal as the mp3 thing. I haven’t setup my perfect recording equipment and run it through my beautiful analogue desk – it’s just what it is.

And what kind of things were you recording in Istanbul?

Mostly people. There are a few buskers on there where I’ve taken snapshots of melody, but it’s mostly markets. It’s a beautiful place. One immersive part of it for me was not being able to understand anyone. It wasn’t that long after the airport attacks and there were no tourists around, and I was just walking around among people that I couldn’t understand. It could have been really mundane conversations about dinner or the market, but it was just interesting to me.

All of you’ve got is the phonetics, the intonation…

Exactly, yeah. A lot of my tracks are based on a found sound being looped. In “Column Of The Goths”, it’s just kids playing around a fountain. I try not to make those samples too rhythmic; I just cut them and loop them, and it almost generates some polyrhythmic stuff when the sample does crop up, which is kind of cool. I just tried to be less of a perfectionist with this EP. I just chuck stuff down and see if it works. If it doesn’t I try something else. I don’t worry too much about perfectly aligning everything.

Was that an issue previously?

Yeah. When you first start making electronic music, it’s very easy to fall into that grid. When you’re playing with a band you can speed up and slow down and interact with other musicians…I think there’s various ways you can get that with electronic music, but one of them is to stop caring about everything perfectly lining up.

How are you achieving that? Are you playing the samples through a keyboard?

I line everything up using a mouse. I drag them into Logic or ProTools and arrange them. It’s not necessarily the most immediate way of doing it but I like it. With the percussion that I’ve recorded on my phone, the samples will have so much noise in them that I just cut them randomly, and the transient isn’t necessarily at the start of the sample. A lot of the samples are of me dropping stuff – I’ll drop the tool I was using to hit stuff with, and that becomes the more interesting sound. It almost has a rhythm in itself.

Sounds like there’s a lot of “letting go” of your own composer inclinations.

I think that’s it. Generally I quite like neat things. I like symmetry. Sometimes you’ve just got to let go of it and see what happens. When you’re using broken equipment, you have to just let it do its own thing. I’ve got an Altai Echo Chamber delay I picked up in a charity shop for a tenner, which is completely broken. The delay is completely distorted, and it self-oscillates at about 7 o’clock on the dial. As soon as you turn it up it’s going away from you. I use it a lot. It just does its own thing and you can’t really tame it.

It’s the same with the title track on the EP. It’s just one tape loop. It was really annoying; I’d built this tape loop and was really happy with what I’d recorded onto it, and then that sound came out instead. I was like, “for fuck’s sake”. That’s the only track on the album that’s a one-take thing. I just recorded the tape loop and I had one of my synths set up. I started trying to play a bass line, but accidentally I had the arpeggiator on, so instead of this bass line it just sounds like a windscreen wiper. When I was sending the track to people to critique it, everyone was like, “I don’t like that sample”. I liked it because it did its own thing. It wasn’t me making the music. Maybe that’s why. It’s my lack of talent. [laughs]

I want to play it live, but I’m really worried about breaking the tape. I’ve already taped it together once, and you can only tape it back together so many times. It already sounds slightly different to how it used to sound because I haven’t taped it perfectly. I think I’ll just have to give up and not use the tape machine live. Especially a broken one.

How does your approach to playing live compare to your process for composing your records?

I use Ableton. Given that I put together a lot of beats on the computer and use a lot of sampling that’s not on a grid, that’s all just played back. I mess about with delays and reverbs, and do a lot of self-indulgent modular stuff as well when I play live: lots of obnoxious patches and feedback loops. I have this Avalanche Run pedal which has a feedback button, and it…I don’t know what the fuck it does, but it loops and feeds back the snippet of sound and does its own thing. It’s like my own version of the feedback sections of some weird hardcore demo.

I have a module called Clouds in modular setup, which is this granular processor that buffers a sample that you play, and splits it down into these little grains of sound. You can reconstruct it and drench it in reverb. That does its own thing as well.

Do you worry about ever understanding too much about what you’re doing? It sounds like a lot of your music hinges on a degree of unknowing.

I like being able to stop and start it. I’ll let the equipment do its own thing, but I’ll know how to utilise that. There’s no “knowing” to the techniques I use. I know what happens when my tape player’s broken – in fact I could probably fix the thing – but as long as you know how to utilise the techniques, then that’s the beauty of it. I don’t think anything I do is like, “what the fuck just happened?” It’s more a case of “ah – that just happened. I’ll go with it.” With that windscreen wiper sound…even if I knew how to make that patch, I never would have done it intentionally. Accident and imperfection is the name of the game.

So is the new EP coming out on Gloam?

Yeah, through the label. I’m doing a residency at the Wilson in Cheltenham, and then a tour with a band called MOONOVERSUN in June. We’re putting out a 7” of theirs and a 12” of mine. MOONOVERSUN are a great band. They play pop, but in a really obnoxious way; catchy vocal melodies over weird displaced drumbeats.

They’re on your compilation, right?

Yeah.

The compilation was a nice idea. I see you’ve had three releases so far, and the compilation features several artists that you haven’t released. As of yet, anyway. So was the idea of the release to lay out your field of interest?

Yeah, that’s it. Maybe “compilation” is the wrong word…it’s more of a ‘what we’re listening to’. When I played a festival in Berlin, we found a record by this artist called Lord Akton in a back street record shop. We really liked it and ask him if he’d give us a track. All of the tracks have been released before; it wasn’t exclusive tracks or anything. We wanted to show that the label is a diverse amalgam of sounds; we’re not a techno label or something.

I like that you present the compilation as two long tracks rather than as individual pieces.

One problem with digital releases is the lack of immersion. When a band posts something saying “we’re on this compilation”, people go and listen that one track by their friend. I always do it. Even if it just means that someone has to scrub through to find their friend’s track…

Yeah. It generates an awareness of the context.

Or maybe they just think, “ah, fuck it”. Based on the Bandcamp plays, that’s probably more accurate [laughs].

It’s like releasing music on cassette. It sets an expectation upon your audience that they own the means to play it, and acknowledges that the medium is going to play a role in the sound of the music.

Yeah. I think there a lot of people who think cassettes are just for ‘hipsters’. I see that on internet forums a lot. But it’s cheap. I can put out a run of 25 in a physical format – after all, I think people like something tactile to separate from their cash. We’re not trying to be edgy, and we’re well aware of the limitations of cassette. People act like these labels don’t know, and are like, “why don’t you release this on CD or vinyl?” But we know. We’re aware. [laughs]

You released a record by R.Ariel too. Her stuff is great.

She’s brilliant. She had a few problems on her UK tour which was a massive shame, but hopefully we’ll see her again.

How did you get involved in releasing her album?

Just through the internet. We were thinking of starting a label, and I somehow made friends with this guy, who knew someone, who recommended her, that kind of thing. We approached her and asked if she wanted to do a UK thing. It didn’t work out at all well, but the release is really good.

So you started up Gloam in order to put out the R.Ariel record?

Yeah. We were looking for a first release, so the idea was to put that out and see where it went from there.

So along with the MOONOVERSUN 7” and your new 12”, what else have you got in the pipeline?

We’ve got no money [laughs]. We want to get some vinyl out as we both listen to a lot of records. We’re both massive hipsters and have Crosley record players we bought from HMV [laughs]. No, anyway – we thought that putting out a record would be a cool thing to do. After that we’re focusing more on our live events and self-promotion with our current lineup of releases so that we can actually sell some stuff. We’ve been short on time recently, so it’ll be nice for people to buy the releases from an actual person – we sell so much more when we put on a show compared to the spaces between our shows, because you can actually talk to someone about it. I certainly prefer it.