When we last spoke to Bogdan Raczynski, he blessed us with what’s undoubtedly the most exceptional edition of our 5 Things I’ve Learned About Music Production series that we’ve ever published.
Describing gear-obsessed producers’ preoccupation with music-making equipment variously as a “trap”, an “infinity mirror of diminishing returns”, and an “intestinal worm that will eat away at your musical joy until it's an empty barrel filled with mouldy scraps of tattered refuse”, we’ll admit that he almost prompted this editor to have a minor existential crisis. After all, what purpose does MusicRadar serve on this earth other than to chronicle the advancement and exploitation of music technology?
Once we’d had a cup of tea and calmed down, we realised that Bogdan makes a pretty good point. You know how the old adage goes: it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it. Bogdan knows this better than anyone. Railing against the “exclusionary sense that you need x gear to do y”, he reminds us that a fixation on studio equipment too often leads us to “absorb ideas as essential constructs, rather than coming up with our own ways of doing things.” In other words, the tools we use to create can render us less creative.
We may have a slightly more generous view of the value of musical gadgetry here at MusicRadar, but we’re in agreement with his fundamental point; a point that was amusingly underscored by Bogdan’s response to our request for a ‘studio shot’ with a picture of himself reclining on the beach with a synthesizer. Perhaps it’s a necessary reminder that in (occasionally) renouncing the materialist fervor with which we pursue the newest, shiniest and noisiest machines, we might better recall why we embarked on our creative journeys in the first place. Perhaps we could all learn a little something from Bogdan, toes dug into the sand, on the beach with his Bastl Softpop.
We digress. Our conversation with Bogdan was prompted by the release of ADDLE, his first album of new music in 15 years. In a career that’s seen him work with Björk, remix Autechre and directly inspire Aphex Twin, (who described him as “underrated” and cited him as a key influence behind 2001’s Drukqs) Bogdan has marked himself out as a true individual. His gloriously unhinged beat experiments became a staple of Aphex’s seminal Rephlex label, before landing on the equally venerable Warp Records, Ghostly International and Unknown To The Unknown.
On his latest release, Bogdan returns to music with a collection of eight new tracks that find him in a decidedly more contemplative mood. The manic energy and heady experimentalism that defined his early work still remains, but the chaos has been channeled into abstract collages that forgo anarchic breakbeats in favour of wonky dub and pensive ambience, underpinned by themes both personal and environmental.
We’re told this is your first album of new music in 15 years. What prompted you to return with a new release after so long?
“It was just long enough for me to forget that my output is of such a caliber that I will likely fail at making a living off of music. Honestly, my sense of self is so woefully out of touch with reality that it took me years to no longer feel the bitter sting of my failed attempts to be successful.
“People love to serenade about how it’s not about the money, blah blah, but my goal was always to make enough from my art to be able to subsist comfortably specifically so that I could continue doing nothing else but music. I am not shy about saying that nor should anyone else be. I also think humility in the context of one’s inability to lift off is critically missing from the conversation, but I’m digressing entirely.”
Have you been making music consistently during the time between your earlier work and your new material?
“In between alright! and ADDLE I made an album full of epicly melodic tracks; the most fantastical journeys of pure, melancholic and joyful music; fast, fearless, an abundance of notes and emotions. But I haven’t attempted to release it.”
How has your approach to music-making changed over that time? What have you learned as a producer and artist?
“My approach hasn’t changed. I think if you’re truly honest with the sound you make and set out to please yourself first and foremost then the only things that really change are the dressing.
“The style, instrumentation, tempo, timbres, and all of these technical details are really just fads. In 500 years, if the anthropocene hasn’t ended humanity, today’s music will sound like fuddy-duddy orchestral nonce. But if it has some soul or heart to it then that aspect has a chance of surviving and reaching the ears and hearts of our descendents.
“From a technical point of view I’d say the same. It’s shocking how little I know. I still recoil when I see the word MIDI; it’s arcane magic as far as I’m concerned. One day when I’m older I will write a book about how I absolutely blagged my way into whatever humble modicum of a career one might call this. I am a shining example of the power of persistence and perseverance.”
Could you talk us through two or three pieces of equipment that were fundamental to the making of the new record?
“I don’t usually like to big up gear or software because people cling to this kind of thing too much and at the end of the day it’s all quite superfluous. Also, mentioning specific bits can be a detriment because it creates this exclusionary sense that you need x gear to do y. But you asked so here we go.
“Bastl’s peculiar Bitranger rings out in various capacities on some of the tracks on the album. But in many ways it had an offline application too - I would use it to flush out my thoughts by just flooding my ears with noise; an aural enema.
“Landscape’s Stereo Field made an appearance in similar ways, a controller not just for aspects of the sound but a way to cleanse my palate. Aside from these two pieces which are as much art as they are instruments, I use a small 2-octave MIDI keyboard.”
If you used one for this album, what DAW were you using?
“I admire the basic version of Bitwig because it’s for Linux and what I can afford.”
You’ve stated in a previous MusicRadar interview that gear is “an intestinal worm that will eat away at your musical joy”. How do you put this into practice in your own work?
“I practice this religiously by staying away from interviews like this one! This isn’t too hard as I generally have no clue what producers are talking about most of the time. Gear forces you to make many technical choices - syncing, key combos, interfaces, workflow, and the like. This headspace is so laden with biases and methodology that you invariably absorb ideas as essential constructs rather than coming up with your own ways of doing things.
“Example: what if I drop a bunch of cables on the Landscape Stereo Fields, connected to the Bitranger while turning the circuit breaker on and off in the room and then time-stretching that out and using it as an intro to a song on the album.”
“Up until the last couple of years I have stayed away from gear because I try to be as intentional as possible with the tools I use to ensure that they don’t interfere with my creativity. It’s useful because it’s more cost effective, but also practical because I have so little time to make music. Instead of futzing with troubleshooting I just hit record as soon as I sit down. Also, until recently, I couldn’t stand cables. Power cables, audio cables, midi cables, the disorganization gives me the heebs.”
Could you describe one or two production techniques that were fundamental to your music-making process on this record?
“Time, involuntarily and otherwise, was probably the element I drew from most. Crudely, as a way to play with oddly quantized hats and syncopated rhythms, but it was also very metaphoric too - things constantly going in and out of sync as a symbol of how you yourself go through phases in life.”
“Then, in another sense, time played a role on account of me not having vast amounts of it. ADDLE took me 7 years to do, and when you work on a track over such a wide span of time its soul can really change and that span of time ends up playing an invisible role.”
The track names on ADDLE are anagrammatic. Does this have any relation to their content? Are the tracks composed of the same or similar material, but rearranged?
“That is a great concept! But my idea was entirely literal - a token of a very addled stage of my life. The track titles are jumbled up because you know, sometimes you lack the words. Also, I tend towards abstract track titles because I understand and honor the fact that the authors’ story is secondary to that of the listener. Leaving things vague gives space, and beautiful things flourish when you give someone’s mind and heart room to breathe.”
Many of the tracks have quite a loose structure, changing constantly with little repetition. Is this the result of spontaneous jamming or improvisation?
“That’s an interesting take because to me they all sound very repetitive. I try to strike a balance between meticulously shuffling sounds and not overthinking it. Looking at the compositions crudely, literally, it’s a direct analogy of how we trudge along as our lives diverge.
“Things start out brashly, you struggle to find your place and can’t even sense whether there’s a place for you. But as time goes on you notice a singular pattern peeking through, and then your place becomes clearer, until you are in sync and part of a wonderful, beautiful system. So in this way, each track has a similar trajectory, and the album as a whole has a similar path as well, starting out hazy and eventually progressing into something sensical, hopefully enjoyable.”
In the press release, it’s mentioned that this record is about the experience of being “addled, out of flow, seemingly untethered”. Does this concept relate to the field recording of the storm that appears at the end of the album?
“I read somewhere that in order to be considered for a Grammy your release has to be in the 35-40 minute mark, so I thought I’d let the storm play out to ensure that I qualified. Fingers crossed!”
We know you’re a big fan of trackers. We’re keen to find out what you love about them and why they appeal to you in contrast with other ways of producing?
“In my personal experience trackers suit me so well because I am more comfortable with and better at communicating through computers than with people. Trackers are an empowering platform that predates DAWs, but even in the age of the DAW they co-exist in their own space.
“To be perfectly honest though I didn’t get into trackers because they were the optimal production tool but because they are free. That they clicked with my personality in the way they did at the time is pure chance; right place, right time.”
What is it about the banana that makes it such a fruitful avenue for creative exploration…?
“One of the first tracks I ever did was a stupid techno acid stomper where the chorus was me gleefully shouting out “mmmm, chicken!” It was the most absurd thing I could think of at the time, and I distinctly remember playing it in a big room where my high school band practiced. There were about a dozen people just milling around and I will never forget the joy I got from simultaneously confusing people and making them smile.
“It’s dangerous to stereotype, but my general sense of EDM is that it’s so serious. Frankly, it’s so fucking boring. Everything’s trying to be “future” or “2.0” where the album art is filled with zig-zagging lines and seeing who can out-glitch everyone else. The machismo and one-upmanship are so transparently on display that it leaves nothing to the imagination.
“Where is the joy? Where is the smile? What happened to the heart? Bananas are just a simple symbol; they are sweet, bright, delicious. If you don’t smile at the sight of a banana then perhaps you are beyond saving.”
Tell us about your sample pack for Erica Synths, Pollution. We understand you used pollution as a source for generating sounds, could you tell us more about how you achieved this?
“The basic concept is to utilize either a source of data or actual recordings, electromagnetic, ephemeral, or otherwise, as the basis for approaching composition. In the case of the Pollution pack for the Erica Synths Sample Drum module I used both hard pollution data and EMF recordings to generate sounds as well as controls (ie, quantizing, gate, placement, etc).
“This was an incredible opportunity that led to work using similar methodologies and mindsets for sample packs and collaborations with 4ms, Bastl, Modbap, Polyend, Shakmat, Squarp, and others.”
Do you believe that music has a role to play in advancing environmental causes?
“In my humble opinion, music has the best chance of unlocking this self-destructive loop we’re stuck in as humans. If you believe that music has the role of soothing us, then it is not a big stretch to say that music has the capacity to jostle us awake into seeing that we’re sleepwalking through a climate catastrophe.
“ADDLE is critically a messenger for this change. The sounds specifically dance in and out of sync as a key if you will, attempting to unlock you from this trance state we all seem to be in; I’m trying to shake us all awake, gently, but sincerely.”
You advised our readers in a previous interview to avoid listening to music that’s similar to their own, in the hopes of preserving originality. Was this tongue-in-cheek, or is this something you actually adhere to yourself?
“I have a lengthy take on this in relation to how the music industry has pushed us into looking at musical success as a pyramid rather than a flat localized phenomenon, and will be expanding on that in a book I’m writing. But yes, I 100% adhere to this rule. I haven’t heard much from the scene I’m lumped in with, past or present, and I intend to keep it that way.”
If other music is not an influence, where do you find your creative inspiration?
“There are endless sources of inspiration. You could transcribe the brick or stone patterns on your daily walk. Perhaps today’s bird call can be recorded and tweaked. For me though the main source is not knowing. It’s not so much that I actively try to imagine myself being in a musical scene that doesn’t exist, I consciously make myself aware of some parameters in divergent techniques and then attempt to zoom in on the blurry parts.
“Imagine leaving your home and traveling thousands of miles away, knowing you will never come back. During your final years you try to recall what life was like back there, how the people spoke, the customs, the day to day. In that practice, your mind will naturally create an interesting patchwork in an attempt to bridge your memories. There is unbounded beauty in this periphery.
“I find that the less things make sense and the less you try to make sense of things, the more creative you are. Put another way, the more you listen to what pleases you as opposed to attempting to please external rules, the more joyful the result.”
What were you listening to while you wrote the latest record?
“Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber, and testing out early versions of my own tracks. This brings me to another rule that I expand on in my book (looking for a publisher, by the way) - truth is always stupider than fiction.”
If you were shipped off to a desert island for the rest of your days and could only bring one music-making device or instrument with you, what would you take and why?
“My laptop and the latest builds of Bespoke, Bitwig, ChucK, Csound, DIN, Max, NoiseCraft, nuPG, Orca, Pure Data, Sonic Pi, SuperCollider, and TidalCycles. I think the reasons are quite obvious, really? The shocking potential for sound exploration is mind bogglingly delightful; send me off to this desert island!”
Do you have any advice for music-makers early on in their creative explorations?
“Regardless of what stage you are in your journey, stay close to the people who tell you occasionally that your art sucks. Honesty is the whole point of art. Conveniently, this applies to all facets of life; having people around who call you out on your shit is critical to making the world a better place.”
What else do you have planned for 2022? What are you working on currently?
“For the last couple of years I have been working on my next album with an instrument I’ve built using modules from my collaborations with 4ms, Bastl, Erica Synths, Herbs & Stones, Modbap, Plinky, Polyend, Shakmat, Squarp, and System80.
“After the compositions are finalized I will be recording live in various, impromptu, locations around the world for free. Think of it as a live electro-yazz busk featuring background chatter, birds chirping, feet shuffling, glasses clinking, breeze blowing, leaves rustling and also those sources playing a direct role in shaping the sound. Think of it as a performance controlled largely by the environment. If you see me around with my banana yellow case feel free to stop and listen or say hi - you can be a participant.
“Progress is going well on two music books I’ve been editing slowly over the last 15 years. I am also slowly building up a livecoding/algorave community at clang.gg and a cat-focused eurorack modular synth site at eurorack.cat. Join me!”