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15 questions for... Ya Tseen: "I have a healthy synth obsession"

ya tseen
(Image credit: Press)

Nicholas Galanin is an indigenous Alaskan, also known as Tlingit and Unangax, and a contemporary artist who channels many of his beliefs through both art and music.

As well as taking part in direct actions like the excavation of the shadow of the statue of Captain James Cook in Australia - in a call for the burial of such monuments - he has also produced pieces like Land Swipe, a deer hide painted with the NYC subway map, noting the sites of police violence against black youths (and called “one of the most important art moments in 2020” by The New York Times).

As Ya Tseen (meaning “be alive” and from his Tlingit name Yeil Ya Tseen) he released Indian Yard last month (on Sub Pop). It “explores love, desire, frustration, pain, revolution, and connection,”  across 11 varied “no genre” tracks, and all produced with a huge range of synths - just you wait - and software…

1. How did you get into music?

“My father is an artist and musician, and was a DJ for the local radio station. His love for music has been handed down to my brothers and I as if it were a necessity.

"By 13, I had my first guitar and around the age of 18 I realised I wanted to understand more about the process of making music. I performed my first open mic in London while studying at London Guildhall University.

"Music was and continues to be everything: connection to the world and internal reflection, dreams of new futures and stories of the past, a way to bring the community together, a tool for sharing and seeing the world… So much unknown alchemy in the process of collaboration with music; it still brings wonder and infinite possibility!”

2. How do you balance your music with your visual art?

“I’ve always tried to clear any boundaries or borders which compartmentalise my creative voice. I’ve been travelling the world heavily for over 15 years now and music has folded into that [visual art] work naturally - performances would often align with other creative work.

"It is not necessarily the traditional band touring process, though - I think these alternative spaces are important. Success for me is waking up and being able to create daily, working in creative fields on projects and exploring mediums and processes. What a joy.

"I am truly grateful for the community that engages with this work. As for success and larger support, this Sub Pop release is certainly something I couldn’t have imagined as a youth spinning Sub Pop records.”

3. What is your overall philosophy or approach when it comes to music?

 “I’ve always relied on feeling and instinct; exploration and sovereign creativity are important parts of my approach. Collaboration is also something that I have so much respect for: the alchemy that takes place during collaboration is something that you have to trust and be open to, the result of it is often worth the risk. Willingness to explore the unknown; it’s a channel you have to be open to.

"My process usually includes a few stages, from capturing and writing on the spot to editing further down the line - both of them are just as impactful and important.”

ya tseen

(Image credit: Press)

4. When and how did you discover the route to computer music making and how has it changed the way you work?

“Early recordings I had made took place on 4-track tape players or 4-track digital recording devices. I had made the leap to Ableton and home studio recording years back

"The amount of access to sound, instruments and textures can immediately become overwhelming if one is trying to consider all possibilities. As of now most of my studio space is digitised in controllers, patchbays etc, though all of the equipment is analogue.”

5. Tell us about your studio gear?

“I have a healthy synth obsession and have been building a space that gives me access to these beautiful beasts. In no particular order I have a Tascam 388, Yamaha CS-60, Yamaha DX7, Sequential Prophet 10, OB-6, several synthesizers.com modules, Wurlitzer 206 Student Model, Roland Strings RS-101, ARP2600 TTSH, Antonus 1601 Sequencer, 2 x Moog DFAM, 2 x Mother 32 and Moog Subharmonicon, Moog Spectravox, Moog Matriarch, Moog Grandmother and 16-voice Moog One, Helix rack, Rupert Neve Portico II, Moogerfooger pedalboard with seven pedals, SuonoBuono nABC compressor, Elektron Digitakt, Genelec 8040Bs, UAD 16x, UAD x8p, ISLA KordBot, Roland TR-8s and TB-3, Soma Labs Pulsar 23, Soma Pipe, Ableton Push, Roland Space Echo 201, Echo Fix EF-X2, Soundgas Type 636 (Grampian) spring reverb, TC Helicon VL3 Xtreme and various guitars and MIDI interfaces plus a recent upgrade to the new Flock Audio patchbays which I love.”

7. Wow! And we’re guessing you have as much software. Try and detail your best five plugins!?

Cableguys ShaperBox 1 and 2: “For rhythmic effects, I’ve been loving these bundles, auditioning new ideas or pushing synth drum percussion loops further with them; a secret weapon so use it wisely.”

Arturia ARP2600 V: “I have several modular and analogue synths in my studio, though you can’t always bring them with you on the road. So I love writing new melodies or synth lines, auditioning or capturing ideas with software synths. It’s easy to save settings and translate them back to the analogue instrument when I’m back home in the studio.”

Universal Audio Neve 1073: “It’s a great preamp and EQ and I love the clarity. I’ve got a Portico II in my rack [to compare] and these plugins are on fire.”

UAD plugins (other): “I’ve also been loving the Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder. I recently picked up a Tascam 3800 tape machine, although these UAD plugins are really something else; drum compression without all of the maintenance. UAD, can I get that sponsorship discount?”

Valhalla VintageVerb: “It’s a must-have in the studio workspace. It’s lush and lively and tends to make it into most tracks.”

ya tseen

(Image credit: Cable Guys)

7. How does one of your tracks typically start out?

“I like to keep this process fresh which means it will always vary. Sometimes it will start with a drum loop followed by some chords and synth layers, other times live drums and guitar riffs or live basslines.

"If I am working in the studio with others, then I like to give needed space for outside ideas to grow. This last record process meant we had more than 40 tracks to filter through. Some of the songs finished themselves, others we really had to work for. The transformation that takes place from initial idea to completed songs is often major. 

“I’ve been loving splice.com for mobile collaborations (though nothing beats sharing time and space in person); these digital services are incredibly useful, also useful for documenting versions of songs and backing them up on the cloud. I’ve lost projects in the past to theft of computers or hard drive failure, so these cloud services really change the game. 

“Once a song has its structure, chords and vibes, I’ll write vocal parts. Though these vocal parts can come earlier, too, I have found that remaining open to changes and trying different ideas out is necessary to my process. Entire vocal sections could flip, or get scrapped in this process; it’s best to remain unattached to all ideas along the way. Attachment can also hinder the process.”

8. How do you know when a track you’re working on is finished?

“It’s a feeling. Also, some things just can’t be captured again, and those moments are also worth realising and keeping in the process. I have finished song sections in first takes where I’ve tried to exhaust other ideas or explode versions of it only to come back to the initial piece which had proven to be irreplaceable.

"A finished song’s definition will vary depending on what has been captured, what is achieved or what one is seeking to achieve through that song. This last record really felt like it had multiple stages and processes to finishing not only the complete piece but each individual song. 

“I thought of this as sculptural at times. I am trained in visual arts and the process of sculpting. There are many steps and stages one must take to get to a finished form, though each step alone may seem incomplete or even disconnected at times to the finished form. When looking back it might at times hold enough wonder to make you question how we got to that form. Remaining open to channelling sonic feeling is a truth-telling process.” 

9. Talk us through at least one of your production tricks…

“I don’t really think of the process as trickery; the process is real to me. I think it is important to trust instinct and feeling going in, also to allow for work to breathe.

"You have to come back to it from a different angle sometimes. I think ‘No Genre’ is the definition and scope of this project and that means being free in creating what is felt in the moment. The trick is in forgetting what you think you know, or even in what you think you may want.”

10. Were you involved in many collaborations for the album?

“I love collaboration. It’s so important and vital to my process - different ideas, perspectives and abilities, feelings etc. I feel like the longevity of the project expands in my ears with collaborative input.

"For Indian Yard, the collaborations were incredible, some legends in the game including Ish (Shabazz Palaces, Knife Knights and Digable Planets) to Nick Hakim. I had flown in some artists for a few months pre-Covid to come to my home studio and work.

"I live in a small community in Alaska. It’s a destination for some, I suppose - the island living, the quick access to the ocean, mountains and trails. It’s a special, powerful place. We eat well, I live a life of subsistence harvesting and when we work in the studio I am usually cooking up meals in the kitchen at the same time too. It’s a special process.”

11. What is on your wishlist for studio and recording gear?

“I’d love to get some more microphones. The mic I have now was supposed to be part of a barter and trade from actress Carrie Fisher’s (Princes Leia) brother Todd. He sent me a mic and I sent him some art he had wanted, though he sent the wrong mic and bailed on his side of the deal, leaving me hanging.

"Other gear… I’d love to expand my effects racks, and my compressors and I will always leave space on these Jasper Synth stands for more analogue instruments.

"I love all the SOMA synth projects - they’re vicious. Someday, I'd like a Roland Jupiter-8, and I have my eye on the ULT Sound DS-4 Custom.”

12. What would you like to see in terms of gear development?

“I want to see a USB rack hub that powers USB equipment and syncs with no issue to a Mac. It seems to be a huge battle, or maybe I’m not looking in the right place?" 

13. Do you have any advice on playing live or performance in general?

“What is live music these days? Take note from the best. Badu changed the game with her quarantine live concert series."

14. Tell us about Indian Yard?

“Ya Tseen is a new project working alongside OCnotes and Zak D Wass and many collaborators. Thank you to Sub Pop for believing in us and for sharing this project with the rest of the world!”

15. Finally, what do you have planned for the near future?

“This year is crazy. I feel like several large projects that have been years in the making are about to be shared with the world: a new American monument, some new publications including two new books via Minor Matters Books, a collaboration with poet Adrian Matejka. Some new visual art installations with my partner Merritt Johnson and the Anchorage Museum are in the works. A performance film piece in the works. But right now I am just excited to share this new record with you."

The album Indian Yard is out now and available on Sub Pop

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