Interview: Slowpitch

Interview: Slowpitch

In the opening moments of his latest record, Toronto composer/turntablist Slowpitch recreates that quintessential sci-fi experience of leaving the rocket to explore a planet for the first time: the clunk of shuttle doors pulling back, the wail of emergency sirens, the hiss of hydraulic mechanisms. There’s a cinematic, first-person immersion to Cheldon Paterson’s sound design, and THK SKN is so clearly the product of a life spent amidst the exoplanetary splendour of science fictions films and TV shows.

Paterson has always threaded his turntable experiments through the fabric of alt-reality (see his Alice In Wonderland-inspired record WNDRLNDED, or the improvisatory deep space of Biosphere Stargaze), although there’s often a subtle real-world pertinence to his work. The intersection between nature and technology is a common muse, while THK SKN invents a planet that has started to rebuild after devastation at the hands of environmental and sociopolitical crisis. Even music set in a far-off fictional galaxy can be made to feel incredibly close to home.

Below, Cheldon and I discuss the new record, the origin of his experimental turntablism and his collaborations with dancer Libydo.

How do you feel about doing an interview in the morning? Most of my interviews with people in Canada or the States take place around mid-afternoon your time.

I’m a late-riser so this might be a problem. I don’t drink coffee or anything, let’s see what happens. Today’s a wet/snowy kind of day here in Toronto so no help from the sun.

Great weather for making music then.

Totally. I love it when it’s raining out. It’s the perfect recipe for making music.

Are you the type of person who works late into the night? 

I really am. One of the long-running jokes with my friends is that I don’t remember what a sunrise looks like because it’s been so long. It’s a love-hate thing. Sometimes I’m tired but I just don’t want to go to bed yet, I like the later hours because everything just shuts down and there’s much less noisy distractions. It’s a nice time to properly listen to music and get deep into my thoughts. There is the odd time however when I wake up and check back on what I’ve done and think to myself “what that heck was I thinking?”

Some of my most profound listening experiences have been at that time. It’s probably a mixture of the world just leaving you be, and your mind slipping to the edge of sleep. I’m much more pliable to any music that might trigger vivid imaginative imagery, you know?

Right, that makes a lot of sense.

Your music definitely falls into that category, and it seems that creating soundtracks for imaginary films is a recurrent theme in your work. What is it about these imagined worlds that really appeals to you?

I guess it takes away the barriers. I can just go wherever I want and create a whole new world. I’m really inspired by movies about robots, mystical creatures, the distant future and things like that, because somebody has thought of these things and turned them into reality; it keeps reminding me that there are no limits to your imagination. You can really push it and create whatever you want.

You seem to have a particular interest in sci-fi. One fascinating aspect of sci-fi films is how some of the most far-fetched sci-fi fantasy worlds can be poetic analogies to events back on planet earth. Is there an underlying real-world pertinence to THK SKN? 

It’s partly based on what’s happening on earth. People are talking about Trump and all the crazy social issues going on and meanwhile the earth is dying because of the environmental issues being covered up. Sadly the focus isn’t on saving the planet everyone calls home. Mainstream media isn’t talking about the nuclear plant in Japan that’s still leaking or the oil spills and leaks that are happening now.

THK SKN is another place I’ve created that’s already gone through all of this and is now in a state of rebuild. The idea was that the listener would put on their headphones – almost like putting on a sort of “space suit” – and they’re exploring this place and assessing the situation, seeing how they might be able to get something good out of it – taking a negative and turning it into something good again. I always try to have a theme for my albums, whether it’s technology taking over with RPLCMNT, or environmental issues and other things. I always come back around to this “nature and tech” thing.

Is creating this music your means of comprehending all of this? Or is it merely a reflection of what you’re thinking about? 

It’s more of a reflection. I’m not super outspoken when it comes to issues; I just embed them in my music. That’s how I put them out there. It’s the stuff that’s just in my head and the stuff that I’ve talked to my friends about, and then it just flows into my music.

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You mentioned the idea of the music being a “suit” of some sort, which I really like. It makes me think about all the times where music has acted as a suit in my life; as a protection against times of anxiety for example, and a means of stepping out into the world and feeling safe. Where does this suit analogy come from?

THK SKN was definitely a play on words. One part is the science fiction part: it’s a suit that protects you from the harsh environment that you’re walking around in. The other part is real life: there’s all this stuff to do with race and environmental issues, and it’s about building up a thick skin to get through life nowadays.

The beginning of the record is wild. Your depiction of being released into that harsh environment is so vivid and intense. I imagine that it was a lot of fun to put that together.

Oh yeah, totally. I really want people to have a reaction to it, and that’s where I force myself to do it differently. Over the years I’ve been doing that “imaginary filmscore” thing, but this time I put so much more focus on the sound design in THK SKN to really pull the listener into the world. I was creating the sound of doors opening, crazy robotic sounds, alien insects, electric forests and more…that was fun.

How did you generate all of the sound effects? 

A lot of it is made up of fields recordings I’ve collected over the past while. The robotic doors are actually from my neighbourhood grocery store doors [laughs]. There are elements of Toronto sprinkled around the record, with other things added on top to make it a little bit crazier. I was able to do sound design through scratching and manipulating sounds as well, like taking little beeps from machines sounds and then rearranging them. I was watching this documentary about the making of Spiderman or something, and the creation of a lot of the sound effects really inspired me. It was so cool to see what they actually used to make those sounds. I just wanted to have fun with this album using sounds from around the house as well as outside.

I was listening to it just before I called you, and I was still picking up on tiny incidental breaths and crackles that I hadn’t heard before. There’s so much detail here – most of which is hidden by the music’s central refrain upon first listen, and then only reveals itself once I started “hunt around” the soundscape. How did you know when these pieces were done? Where do you draw the line? 

Wow. That’s a tough one. It took a while. I feel so comfortable doing these microsounds, because it was something I developed through the art of scratching. It taught me this idea of placement. When you’re scratching, you’re really just manipulating sounds – often tiny sounds – and placing them within the rhythm structure and half notes and quarter notes, things like that. Sounds get shifted around into different places. Sometimes it’s not acting as the main rhythm; it’s acting as the support to other pieces. I’ve just developed this balance between placing sounds in to support others, or as I call it “ghost rhythms” happening in the background. To answer your question, I just feel like I know when it’s done. It’s hard to explain. I usually just load things up and then I deconstruct it a bit to get the final, flowing song.

I hear you. Grow it tall and then prune the edges.

Yeah. And then through pruning, it usually goes from low to high and then dies away at the end. I generally have an idea of how I’m going to be pruning it. Mind you, I’m not saying that it’s easy to say “that’s it”. I do a lot of listening after that. I’ve listened to THK SKN so many times. It’s like…wow [laughs].

Are you listening to the record in different environments, through different playback methods etc? 

Yeah, I do. I listen to it in the studio, over headphones, through earbuds, in different places, quieter, louder…in as many ways as I can. Even after making the music myself, I end up hearing things differently in the different spaces too. It’s like, “oh! I didn’t even know that would end up being that way”.

When I did WNDRLNDED, I said “listen to it from a different angle”.  Anytime you’re in a different space, you get a different perspective. If it’s night time, it’s going to sound different to in the day time…there are all these possibilities, like jumping through portals.

I’ve watched a few videos of you performing live, and there’s often so much going on: you’re scratching with one hand, pressing a button with another…it all happens so fast. How does your live process compare to recording?

They’re very similar. With a record I’ll kind of perform it live first. Sometimes it’s a case of having a few ideas: I’ve got this rhythm with this sound, and maybe I’ll put this effect on it. Then I’ll just jam and start looping part of the main sample. It resembles how I perform live, where I’m placing sounds over beats and looping sections of the record. The studio stuff is a bit more polished as I get time to sit with it, and the live is more about me and my movements when I’m performing. I like that I can go back and forth between them; they’re similar but also very different. When I perform nowadays it’s an entity in itself, even with set design and stuff like that.

I see that you work with the dancer Libydo as well. How did that collaboration start? It seems that you’ve done a fair bit together. 

Yeah, it’s been great. Over the years we’ve been on this parallel path; we’d see each other at shows all the time and it was just like, “we should just be friends”. When we finally intersected, I found out that he was inspired by scratch music and turntablism. He would dance to scratch music, and at the time you didn’t really see that. Most b-boys were breaking to funk, soul and maybe some hip hop stuff, but not specifically to the scratching. Obliviously I’m totally into all of that. When we finally met it was like we were almost meant to perform together. It was a perfect fit.

Now we’re coming up with ideas for new performances. We’ve applied to a few grants that we’re waiting on so that we can hide away and just come up with something fresh. It’s great. I’m inspired by him in the same way I’m inspired by sci-fi movies to create this unheard and unseen thing. He does the same thing with his dancing and it’s really awesome.

When you watch him dancing to your music, does it lead you to hear your music differently?

It does. I see him do something that goes well with a certain idea and I go, “okay – maybe I want to do more of that”. With the shows it allows me to take it to another place in terms of keeping the audience engaged. Now I don’t always have to pump music to them so much; there’s this play between loudness and silence, and then Libydo adds loudness just through his movements. It feels like there’s more elements to compose with now.

So how does your collaboration work?

We send ideas back forth. Now we’re getting to a place where…I don’t know how to explain, but we’ve been tossing around the idea of making him into a musical instrument, having him be able to make sound with movements. I want him to do some choreography that involves me as well – stuff where I influence where he’s going and he influences where I’m going. It’s already something I’ve been focusing on but he’s a master of it. We’re trying to take ourselves to another level and fuse everything together. The dance becomes the music, and me performing becomes the dance. And we’re working with visual projections too.

That’s awesome.

Yeah, it’s wild. I like going outside my comfort zone and creating something new.

You mentioned that he brings a certain “loudness” to what you’re doing. One common problem with live performance – especially with music in the more “abstract” terrain – is that silences are so often misconstrued as conclusions. I’ve been in bands where I’ve had to be visually engaging in some way, just to communicate that the performance isn’t over yet. I imagine you’ve had experiences with that sort of kind of thing as well? 

Oh yeah, totally. Nowadays I can’t even play at a regular bar. I just can’t. I usually play in a seated, theatre-type setting for that very reason, because I’ve had a lot of shows where it gets quiet and conversation starts going crazy…it just takes away from the show. Now, I make that a mandate. It’s on my site and everything, like: “these are the spaces I want to play”. [laughs]

I’d imagine a seated venue lends itself to your connection with sci-fi and film soundtracks as well. 

Yeah, and there’s this funny thing that happens when people are sitting: they’re quiet. When they’re standing, they talk. We’ve been trained over the years to know that when you go into a theatre or you’re watching a movie, you’re quiet. When you’re standing, it connects with that idea of being out in a bar. Something happens there psychologically.

On the biography on your site, you talk about growing up in an environment where touching records was considered “bad”. Could you talk about how you moved from that original premise to where you are now?

Yeah. Wow…

Sorry – I realise that’s essentially another way of saying “tell me your life story”.

Yeah, it’s a big one. It didn’t happen in one bang. There was a temptation early on: I saw scratching on TV and thought, “let me try that out”. The turntable we had at the time was belt-driven, and if you put your hand on the record and stop a belt-driven turntable from spinning, the belt will tend to slip off. Quite a few times I had to frantically figure out how to open the thing before my mum got home and then put the belt back on, which was a total mission. Eventually I smartened up and thought “hey – let me make a slipmat out of a napkin or something”, which stopped me from having to open it up so much.

What kind of records were you scratching back then? 

I was scratching stuff like calypso records…my mom listened to a lot of country music, surprisingly. A lot of West Indians love country music. And then there were records by Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson…whatever was on vinyl that I could put on that platter and touch, I think I probably did. It was just fun to mess around with the vocals and different sounds. There was a period where that happened and it was like, “this is cool”, but I didn’t see myself getting the full setups I was seeing on TV. They were so pricey – it just didn’t seem feasible. So I took a break from that for a bit because I didn’t have access to better stuff.

Did you break from all creative activity? Or just scratching? 

I started writing rhymes. I was still totally into hip hop – I even did some breakdancing and started an after-school breakdance club. So I still kept engaged in the culture and community of hip hop, and later on the turntable came back. I think that was because my friend had one so I was like, “oh – there it is again”. It was a direct-drive turntable instead of a belt one so I could mess around with it. I had a new job and I was making more money, so I decided to get my own. I started scratching before I learned how to do a beat-match.

Do you think learning to scratch first was key, in terms of leading you to the type of music you’re doing now?

It’s key. Beat-matching helps me now in terms of timing, and how to drop in on the “1” and bring other things in. Even though I use the same tools as a DJ, I’m not doing what a DJ is commonly known to do, but it still requires similar things: a sense of timing, to trigger certain effects, to add certain sounds…I’m still thinking about volume and sound-blending, which is coming from a traditional DJ background, but scratching is really at the root of it for me. Maybe I should do a paper on it or something, but I wish someone could research the difference between someone who scratched first and got into music production as opposed to the other way round. I definitely feel that the understanding of time is different.

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What I love about your music is how it often steers away from a coherent metric and then veers back in, but it’s never beholden to it. At some points you’re stranded without anything to cling onto rhythmically and then it sweeps you up again. That dynamic works so well.

Yeah, it gives it life. Traditionally, with someone who samples to make beats…I’m not saying there aren’t people who can twist it up and stuff, but it tends to be a little more straight. It’s more linear. Having a good sense of timing and a confidence in warping a sound gives it more life. It makes it feel like it’s straying and coming back…it’s warping and moving on top of this thing but till on the beat somehow. That’s through the scratch. It’s not just about taking a sample and putting it on top – it’s about taking a sample and bringing it to life. That brings out the “instrument” aspect of the equipment. By learning how to manipulate that way, it gives this sense that it’s not so associated with electronic production. It’s a little looser. If that makes sense.

Yes, it totally does. There’s a real visceral quality to scratching. Unlike other forms of sound processing, you can often trace back the manipulation process to its point of origin. I was watching one of your video logs recently and you spoke, half-reluctantly, about bringing in a laptop along with you. I guess that’s the other end of the spectrum, in that the processing takes place “behind the scenes”; it’s generally more difficult to comprehend how a laptop is manipulating sound. What’s the relationship between the computer and the creation of your music?

I’ve found a good use for it where it’s not too hidden. I use it for rhythm and beats. I used the laptop to replace a device called an MPC 1000. It’s a standalone sampler, and it has pads that trigger whatever samples you put on it. You can do a great deal with it, but it doesn’t have that much memory. It couldn’t hold beats that use a lot of samples or long bed tracks, so it became a little bit limiting for me. It doesn’t have many effects either and there’s a bit of a process required to trigger them.

So the laptop obviously has much more memory. Through a program called Traktor, which essentially a digital DJ software, you can use your turntable as a controller. It’s perfect for me because it allows me to manipulate samples and field recordings; I can put the drum track into Traktor and then scratch parts of that and record it back in. I can also have a whole bunch drum rhythms and bed tracks on my computer and just call them up. I can hit the pads on my Traktor controller rather than tapping the keys or clicking the mouse, and have my laptop off to the side while I use this other device that keeps me engaged on stage. I’m still touching things and twisting stuff.

Is it important for you to be working with physical triggers?

It’s very important. I’ve found a way to use the laptop but have it off to the side. I’ve duct-taped it black [laughs]. People are like, “why would you do that?” It’s just something there, but you can’t see what it is. That’s how I won. I was like, “yes! I did it!” [laughs]

I was so against it. To be honest I was getting so annoyed with seeing the MacBook on stage so much. I would go to a show, and I’m sad to say that it would often be the breaker. It just gave me the feeling that I couldn’t tell what was happening, but it’s also this thing that’s taking over music. I was thinking of a laptop as something you use at home or at work, and…I don’t know. It just wasn’t making me happy to see the big Apple lit up. Such a distraction.

I get where you’re coming from. Occasionally it generates this barrier between the artist on the screen-side – who understands what is happening and how the music is being generated – and the audience on the other side, who are made to feel as though they should just sit quiet and listen. Having a laptop screen facing away from you…it’s like you’re being shut out. 

Totally, totally. And it’s the branding of it too. I’m like, “aaah…stop it! Just put a cover on it.” It’s like when I was younger where if you had Jordan’s you were cool, you know? Who cares? [laughs]

As well as the new record, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of stuff in the pipeline. What else is coming in 2017? 

I’m hoping me and Libydo get the grant, which would be great. We’d be able to just get a studio space, lock up and practice. We’re hoping to hear about that in the summer. In the meantime, I’m doing a couple of collaborations with a theatre company here in Toronto called Loose TEA Music Theatre. We’re working on a modernized remake of Carmen with some cool sound design and beat production and stuff. That’s slated for December 2017. I have some ideas in my head for other recordings, which is actually quite surprising – after I finish recordings I usually take a big break, but I’m actually feeling inspired to write some more right now.

Do you have any idea where that’s coming from? 

I think it’s just the way I’m looking at music right now. It’s going back to just trying to have fun, and I think that was the main thing with this album. I was like, “you know what? I’ve just gotta have fun and create what I want.” It’s why I made this an album with two long tracks as well; I didn’t want it to be lots of separate tracks. You’ll know from my past works that I tend to work with four big tracks or one long track, because…things have changed. [laughs] Some people still do the old model of track-by-track and that’s fine, but with the climate of music right now and how easy it is to grab music once it’s online, or how hard it is to make record sales right now…I just wanted to have fun with this, come up with new concepts and give it away.

That thinking has totally taken some pressure off. After putting something out, I used to get into these states of sadness or something. You build it up, you put it out and you just feel a little bit let down, because it wasn’t what you imagined or people aren’t responding to it the way you imagined. I’d just have these periods of total trash where I was so bummed out. Then you add that feeling to the fact that you’re burned out from making the record…you know? All the editing, all the listening…it just put me into a place that would last for a month or two.

But now it’s just about making this cool thing, having fun, experimenting, creating new worlds like in THK SKN, and sharing it…I just feel good. I had a release party for it here in Toronto, which was awesome. And now that’s out of the way, I’m like, “right – next!”