Three facts about Daedelus that neatly capture the expanse of their ambition: they were sampled by Madlib on the classic MF DOOM track Accordion, they’re part of the founding faculty of the prestigious Berklee College of Music’s electronic music performance program, and they’re an artist-in-residence at the SETI Institute, a scientific centre seeking extraterrestrial intelligence.
These three data points illustrate the scope of Alfred Darlington’s talents: as a beatmaker, producer, performer, professor, and innovator, they simultaneously inhabit the worlds of cutting-edge music technology and improvised, off-the-cuff beatmaking, demonstrating that in an increasingly borderless music world, there’s not all that much difference between the two.
Daedelus laid down the building blocks of their sound as part of the L.A. beat scene, a loose collection of artists and producers working throughout the late ‘00s and early ‘10s to connect the dots between forward-facing electronica and underground hip-hop, redefining both of these labels in the process. Since then, their extensive discography has expanded to encompass abstract sonic collages, jagged beat science, and hallucinogenic synth explorations.
Daedelus’ vividly realised music has long acted as a frame for ingenious lyricism, and their latest project is no exception. Made in collaboration with poet, spoken word artist and musician Joshua Idehen, known for his work alongside UK jazz luminaries Sons of Kemet, Holy Water Over Sons is centred around poetic meditations on race and identity that bleed into the edges of Daedelus’ restlessly shifting soundworlds, dissolving the boundaries between words, music and meaning.
Tell us about how this collaboration with Joshua Idehen came to fruition.
“He had come to some shows in the past - it's funny how the music world works. It's a very small scene in some ways. Fans become collaborators, peers become closer friends, this whole thing can happen. And indeed, I guess he'd come to some older shows and had followed me and my work. But I was woefully unaware of what he was propagating for a period of time. He had started to post some music and was really compelling and other friends had pointed out his unique take on the poetic voice.
“I know a lot of MCs. I know a lot of people who can kind of be nice with words, but it's different when somebody is both like, funny and verbose, but also pointed and meaningful. And he had struck a really nice balance, even with this kind of more dancey, bouncy kind of stuff. That's initially how I first came across him. So I think I'd followed him based on those kinds of projects. Then suddenly, here he is in my kind of DMs effusing about older stuff that came out years ago and it’s like, how does he know?
“Anyway, so there he was. And we just began to talk and say, hey, let’s figure something out. I thought it was going to be something in the dance variety, because that's what I was more aware of. Then he started to express an interest in the softer sounds. I had some of these files that have been ruminating in my not-finished section that became totally transformed by his voice. It was really just seeds that sprouted with him involved, and then that became the project.”
Tell us about your collaborative process with Joshua. Were you writing to his words, or was he writing to the instrumentals?
“Beatmakers might relate to this. I had a bunch of loops, a bunch of eight-bar, sixteen-bar, thirty-two-bar loops that weren't even with rhythms necessarily. It was so pre in the process, they were just these kind of pretty licks that I was like, this should go somewhere. And it just sat fallow in the field. And thankfully, he heard the possibility in it.
“He started to write and he wrote in this way, so - this is another beatmaker kind of thing - I looped it up for him to write to, but mostly in the way that he could just have it repeating, so he could write his 32 bar, you know, kick his verse or something, but he ended up writing for the entirety of the minutes.
“So I would loop something up for like, five minutes, and he would give me a five-minute long recording. Which is incredible, and again, verbose, and miraculous in some ways. But I had to then go and trim it back, and then start to really amend and add, because I didn't want his voice to sit unadorned, I really wanted to contribute more than just to be the beatmaker in the background. And he also was encouraging me to go kind of crazy.
“So we did a lot where the voice on each song focuses on a different vocal treatment. And this might not be super obvious, but like, a different kind of formant filtering, or a different kind of vocoding. There’s a lot of different techniques involved from a synthesis perspective, that could get very nerdy, but also hopefully make it so that it doesn't feel like he's alone. As much as he is mostly the solo voice. I'm hoping that I'm kind of responding in a way that really makes us feel collaborative, rather than just a producer and an MC."
We love how the vocal processing sounds on tracks like If We Must Take It - how did you achieve that particular effect?
“This one's an interesting one. This one's using specifically format shifting, based in a technique of circular LFOs. There is an amazing maker named Suzuki Kentaro, who has these third-party Max for Live plugins, and specifically his take on LFO is incredible. Some of what he's operating in is this idea of like, of interlocking, but related, different floating LFO points. So it's as if you had six different consecutive Venn diagrams that would all kind of relate to each other.
“I'm doing that kind of technique to have different elements of the modulation relating to the music, but then also to the voice. So sending it around, sending around that information. And to get happy accidents that really feel like breathing, or get this humanised nature, but then focusing in on the most successful versions of that, because they are a little bit wild, they are a little bit moving and reacting to other audio input.
“And then finding those happy accidents, and then committing those down to the track. So it is just formant shifting, but with this way of really breathing into it. Equally it ends up sounding like pitch distortion or modulation, but it's not really, it's just kind of taking the voice up and down its natural vowel sounds, and distending it.
“I find oftentimes in electronic music we can be a little bit ignorant towards the very natural sounds that we can achieve in nature. Nature abhors a sine wave, right? Every actual waveform in the world is this complicated mess of inputs and side-long noises and all this other stuff. I love the perfection of a couple sine waves put together - it's obviously a hallmark of electronic music of how unreal and yet very real and visceral it can be - but I really wanted to achieve on this record something more naturalistic, even if entirely in-the-box.”
Could you talk us through a few key elements in your current studio set-up?
“I have this war going on in my studio currently. Part of that is because I have gone from a very comfortable setup that was honed over number of years of just kind of building and building this place where I could easily achieve the results that I could imagine, to moving to Providence, Rhode Island, where my studio is in pieces, it's totally piecemeal.
“Now I need to really work hard to make my memory space go that kind of easy imagination. But then, the accident of it, the wonderful part of that is that I'm now responding much more to the equipment, what it wants to do. The limitations of like, well, ‘I can't find the cable that connects it to that pedal that I know is so lush, and reverberant, or distorted and, and so I guess I’ll just have to work with what I have in front of me.’”
“A few years ago, I really got into modular and so I'm kind of in that scene, using mostly modular in the live context. But in this record, it did show up a little bit in terms of both modulators coming from external sources that are then fed into the computer, or indeed, taking the computer out. Taking the sequences out from the computer, going to the modular.
“I really adore, from a company called 4MS, a wavetable syntheziser that they put out called the SWN, the Spherical Wavetable Navigator. That's been my bread and butter for a few different releases recently. But that being said, there’s something also about just leaving it in the box.
“I didn't use any reamping techniques on this particular record. But I do adore that kind of thing, taking it outside your computer, mangling it, putting it through speakers, re-recording it and kind of flattening it that way.”
So this was quite a software-based record?
“Yeah, with a few exceptions of externalising some sequences through modular synthesis. But other than that, other than the very few instances of that, it's almost entirely in the box - partially out of necessity of moving to and from the Berklee College of Music campus, which is over in Boston, so it's only a 50 mile commute.
“But I do that almost daily to go and teach classes there, and then in my free time I would be on the train just trying to get a bop happening - basically the saddest bop ever. [laughs]”
Could you talk us through a couple of your most used plugins - what’s great about them, what you use them for, etc…
“In the Ableton context, I often find this particular set of modulators to be really important. So LFO Cluster by Kentaro Suzuki is my number one on this record, I use it in almost every track, and try to use it in both typical and unusual ways. LFO everything, that's kind of the motto of the record.
“Everything should really either be tremulous, or have vibrato. Some of that is indeed using the direct plugin, the new kind of chorus or phaser plugins that Ableton 11 provided. I’m trying to make everything move and breathe. Some of that is just having the LFO operating and cycling. And some of that is triggering it at the tops of phrases to return to an unexpected state and then have it kind of tumble out elsewhere. Even having it self-modulating, which is a nice function of these LFOs, you can actually take the mappable function and redirect it towards itself to make for really amazing reverses and fast forwards.
“In addition to that, there’s drum buss, which I think was instituted in Ableton 10, is the most useful plugin that Ableton makes as far as I'm concerned, because it is such an aural sweetener. It is such a presence maker. You just put it on and it already has some sort of perspective. There's so much in Ableton that wants to be invisible or unseen, so you really start to push it to its extremities. Drum buss is both like a comfort to me - it’s like a very nice blanket to be extended - or you can make it hellacious just by making a few instances of it and turning up the transients. It's a really nice thing to do.
“Another plugin that is really, really clever is Echo. Echo is their new take on their delay. It's a typical delay-style plugin, but it’s able to do ping pong or mid side. I would recommend adding just a gentle amount of mid side to everything you do, because it does make the difference. With the Echo too, there's a wobble function, under Characteristics. Even 10% of wobble tricks the ear into thinking this is something more human.”
What was it that led you towards Ableton initially?
“I had been a longtime Pro Tools user for years. I had been using it for a lot of my electronic productions, and I loved how it treated audio, but it was obviously always deficient in almost every other regard. Then I did Ableton’s Loop conference, some years ago, but I had always been using Max/MSP for my live set, so there was this difference between my production and my live set, being in totally different worlds.
“When Ableton gobbled up Max and made Max for Live, it opened up this portal: I thought, maybe Ableton is both being progressive and moving it forward. But they're also enabling and allowing third party users to kind of create their universes, in a way that Max or Pure Data had always been doing. And indeed, there was quickly a port that was made of the traditional MLR software that I use for my live set, developed by Brian Crabtree and from the Monome company.
“So Ableton became this way I can run my traditional live set, but it ends up being a vigorous kind of sample playback, distortion, indeterminant device. So I really started taking it seriously then in terms of production, it was a crash course. I was doing Ableton Loop and I was like, I really need to make sure that I'm not just using this as a pandering kind of thing, I really want to integrate this. And of course, now I teach it, and I feel like I've gone all the way deep on it.
“It is such a universe, it is such an incredible space. And I know there's some really clever things going on with Bitwig and some other companies that are making equally and easily entire whole spaces to become enamoured with, but Ableton 11 especially really reaffirmed my belief that this was the space I want to be spending my time.”
What studio technology would you like to see developed in the coming years, and why?
“I have a whole list that I often talk about to producers and makers. I love the modular scene, in part because you can just talk to the people, the engineers that are building things and be like, ‘hey, what about this?’
“But in terms of the wider space, I teach performance in electronic music, and it's interesting how the pendulum has swung away from live performance towards this idea that everybody's on the CDJ, that's the modality. Or you know, even now there’s more virtual systems, but very few people are really playing live. And if they do, they do similar kind of shapes that we see with a Porter Robinson or an FKAAJ where it's like, they're using keyboard-shaped things, even if they're doing more sophisticated things behind the scenes.
“So I want to see more gesture-based systems like what Imogen Heap has developed with the MI.MU gloves that Chagall uses. What we see with Binkbeats too, they’re making other kinds of control sensor systems. But oftentimes, they rely on a certain amount of willingness to dance on stage, rather than it being a case of, these are meaningful small gestures that you can do within a system that is already constructed. So that's frustrating, but also a huge opportunity. And it's a language that hasn't been developed.
“Someone clever is going to come along and develop a language of gesture that can be universalized, just like we saw with the turntable, and just like we saw with other non-traditional systems. When we saw these excellent pad users coming along and doing finger drumming at a really high level. It creates an expectation space that other people can fill and indeed, take further. I'm not gonna be the one to push this rock forward. I can just imagine these things, but I know the students I'm teaching, they indeed will be the ones to do something really meme-worthy or musically excessive and it's going to be the next wave. Absolutely.
“On top of that, devices that are MPE enabled, MIDI 2.0. Why are there five pins? We're still relegated to five pins. Even when it's been moved over to USB, it's still thought of as being basically pins. And that's just not acceptable in 2021. It's like a spec that was made in the mid to early ‘80s, and we're still beholden to it, we're still prisoners to it. So I'm expecting, you know, with something like the Haken Continuum already - it hinted at it so many years ago, but it took ROLI to do it badly. Keith McMillen to do it better. We're going to see so much more MPE, it's going to happen and it's going to be glorious.”
Do you find that your teaching informs your music-making?
“1,000%. Both because I'm forced to listen to things that I would normally not choose to - I mentioned Porter Robinson before, I like Porter Robinson. But half of my incoming class, they're all Porter-heads. I think it shows you that this is the music of their very formative 14-year-old childhood. They’re only 18 now, but still, that 14-year-old self has a lot to say.
“Porter is a very important musician in the electronic music scene, partially because they are doing something more than just the EDM shuffle. So it's meaningful. It forces me to think, well, what is yet to be expressed? Where's the music moving? Equally, all of my darker, rougher, louder, meaner, breakcore things, or whatever else you have running in my veins, there's so much there as well.
“But it's often not happening in the electronic realm. You see what's happening in rap. People like JPEGMAFIA, they are children of these harsh, noisy things. Death Grips too. These are all people who benefited so much from the experimentation happening in the electronic scene and took it to places that were never foreseen by some of these musicians. We're all beneficiaries of that.”
Do you have plans to translate this project into a live setting?
“I absolutely would adore to - so much of this project was done during the pandemic and so, you know, he's come to the shows, but I've never met him. It’s the weirdness of like, he's bared his soul in some of these tracks, like it's really visceral. And I feel so much for him conveying this message with us working together, but I've never looked him in the eyes and like known his truth in that way.
“So absolutely would love to play shows, absolutely would love to translate this in a way that people can feel so much more in their bones, but we'll have to just see what what the world wants to do. I've been playing shows around the states, and there's certainly some international opportunities, but it just feels like it all could be taken away so easily. Just a bad move, a new variant, and we might all have to hop back into our hidey holes.”
What’s next for you now the album’s been released?
“There's more material, that's the thing. We're really excited, there was so much more stuff that didn't make it on the record, partially because we had so much experimentation. I was sending him stuff that was sometimes like so ambient, noisy, and he would do his best, but it just didn't quite meet the cogency that the record achieved.
“I have a million other beats and tracks. I would like to think that you have some say in what gets expressed in our lives, but really in some ways, the lesson I've learned over the years is that when inspiration decides to whisper something in your ear, you're either available to react to it and move thusly, or you can do your best to store it in your back pocket, but it's just a simulacra. It's just like a pale reflection compared to what's possible.
“I've done my best over this kind of pandemic to meet it where I can, but knowing full well that just oftentimes, because of things that are outside of my control, I don't have access. So I got some music in my back pocket that I think is fun. We'll see if it ever sees the light of day.”