On the lead single from Dorian Concept’s new record, What We Do For Others, the lyrics are mostly inaudible, his vocals warped beyond recognition into an alien choir of pitch-shifted yelps and howls. The one phrase we can make out, though - just about recognisable within the freewheeling carnival of synths and drums - is the insistent imperative of the song’s title: “let it all go.”
This lyric seems to serve as a guiding philosophy for the project, which saw Austrian electronic musician and synth savant Oliver Johnson wilfully abandoning the impulse to deliberate over every detail of his compositions in pursuit of an elusive perfection. Instead, he chose to embrace the magic of the first take, channelling the initial outpouring of creative energy that often accompanies the birth of an idea into a fearless sense of spontaneity that runs through the entire album.
“I've always had this drive to do things 'properly' - to somehow strive for perfection,” Oliver explains. “But this is an album about me letting go of that urge - about understanding that there's something magical that happens in these first takes we often call drafts. A spirit is captured, and once you try to re-record it, the essence of the idea gets lost. So in a way I wanted to see how little ‘control’ I could exert on the music whilst recording it - to almost let the music make itself.”
As a result, What We Do For Others has a joyfully improvisatory spirit at its heart, one that recalls the spectacular one-take synth jam videos Johnson has been known to share on social media. The music feels satisfyingly loose and disjointed, as Johnson marshalls his ramshackle orchestra of monosynths into glorious unison over clattering live drums that lean backwards on a lazy, Dilla-indebted slant. Analogue squiggles, synthesized squawks and mangled vocals act like ad-libs, accenting fidgety, spirited songs that are fuelled by that initial, unforced creative impulse, the effortless flow that’s been captured in the moment.
We caught up with Dorian Concept following the release of What We Do For Others to find out more about how the album was made and his unique relationships with the instruments used to create it.
Could you tell us a little about the background to this project?
“When I look at my albums, the first one I released was 2009, and Joined Ends was 2014. The last one was 2018, and for this one, we’re in 2022. So there’s always a pretty big gap between them. Part of it is due to the label, or delays in pressing vinyl, or waiting to get a feature. But it’s also the creative process, departing from previous projects and getting into a new space for a new record. It naturally takes time to get in a new headspace.
“With this one, it felt more like getting out of a dead end, of sorts. The last record was very technical, very densely layered. A lot of variation, micro-editing, very detail-heavy work. A very kind of ‘flexing’ record, when I look back. But also joyous. There’s so many music genres where the technical aspect can become so dominant - fusion jazz, or technical metal, or even ‘90s IDM - but with this album, I wanted to liberate myself from this thinking and start anew.”
You’ve mentioned that you wanted to let go of the perpetual grasp for perfection and embrace the magic of a first draft or first take.
“Exactly. For me, it took so much courage. It might feel like a simple thing, as you're basically making your process a lot easier when you're taking the first thing and sticking with it. But for me, especially with this perfectionist approach that I was so accustomed to, it took double the courage to do that. To see purpose in the stuff that happens in these first takes, and to be aware that you're sometimes working away from the purity of an idea by perpetually changing things.
“A big part of it was to create a certain set-up, or a setting of sorts where I knew I felt comfortable to let go and find these little magic moments. And in my case, it was about defining a certain instrumentation or a certain group of gear. Almost like you're trying to get the band together. But in this instance, it was certain instruments and certain synthesisers that always felt responsible for certain roles. Like the Moog Prodigy, for example, always was the bass player. And the SH-101 always felt like the lead woodwind or brass player. So I went into it with this kind of ‘session’ approach.”
As if each synth was a band member, in a way?
“Exactly. That’s the vibe.”
Could you talk us through one or two pieces of equipment that were central to the making of the new record?
“A friend of mine, Marco Passarani - one half of Tiger & Woods and an amazing producer - showed me this YouTube video of an old Roland sampler from the year 2000, the VP-9000. It’s a sampler, pitch-shifter, time-stretcher… it’s a unit that got lost in between the era of beautiful retro stuff, and all of the soft synths and plugins we have now. I heard they used it on that Boards of Canada song, “In a Beautiful Place Out In The Country”, for those trippy vocal effects.
“I’ve always been into pitch-shifters and time-stretchers, and in my last project, I’ve always used those for vocals as well. On this album, though, I pitch-shifted entire tracks. This does a lot to the actual masters - a friend of mine thought I was crazy! The VP-9000 fascinated me, and it’s something I used for a lot of the vocal stuff on this album.
“The Roland SH-101 also had a really dominant role. It’s a very melodic album, and I haven’t really used any polyphonic synthesizers. I was thinking more in the sense of orchestration, by just using a lot of mono lines to layer things into harmonies, rather than just playing a chord straight away. A lot of the short, percussive, plucky sounds that have a pretty full range, they’re all the SH-101, just stacked in seven or eight layers.”
I was planning on asking you about the vocal processing. They’ve got a really fascinating sound. Was that all from the Roland VP9000?
“Yeah, exactly, the Roland. Another thing that I just love doing was recording the vocals in weird ways, with these little tricks. Sometimes I'll pitch-shift the entire track by five semitones, or I'll try to replicate a baritone bass singer and try to sing as deep as I could, but then pitch it up again. There’s all these little kind of gimmicks and methods where you can make yourself sound like a like a kids choir, or more androgynous.
“The idea I had was the multiplicity of inner voices, the different kinds of personalities we all have inside of us, and the idea that each one has their own little voice - how would they sound as a choir? Instead of getting different people to sing those, I did it myself.”
You’ve said before that your pathway into a new album often begins with one defining track, which the others are built around. Which track was central to What We Do For Others?
“It was a song called “Survival Instincts”, the fourth track on the album. The whole structure and everything was pretty much done in like two and a half to three hours. So all the layers were recorded, and everything was done in one take. I remember it was a Friday, and it was before me and a couple of friends were going out for drinks. And I was literally just thinking, maybe I'll just try to finish the track really quickly, so I have something to show them in the car later. But I forgot about taking it along, because I rushed out, and then I didn't go back to the studio for a couple of days.
“Revisiting it later, it was so interesting because it really felt like I had almost forgotten how I made it, and it was this very instantaneous, spontaneous song that I didn’t feel like changing anymore. In electronic music, there’s so many options, ways to change things, to overdub, to make things perfect. But with that track, the charm was in the imperfection, or the perfection of the imperfection. That gave me a bit of courage.”
There’s often something magic about that first idea, that first spark of creativity in a session. It’s sometimes hard to recapture that feeling when you return to a project after that.
“Exactly. We tend to want to control things that sometimes aren't in our control. Sometimes there's this little fountain of creativity, I believe, that just gives you little presents. You think it was your idea - religious people would speak of God, and maybe psychologists would speak of the subconscious or the unconscious - but it just feels like a little gift you sometimes get. You can alter it too much when you think it’s you doing it.”
You’ve said before that you “like working with presets so much because it feels like going shopping at Aldi.” Could you elaborate on that, and explain why you’re drawn to presets and stock MIDI sounds that others might dismiss?
“Yeah, that's true. That was in the context of the last album. As much as I have my own fascination with the technical, specialised side of music, I grew up with rap and hip-hop music. The Neptunes, and Timbaland, that whole era of production. Maybe this is just an assumption, but when you go to the Microkorg and you listen to certain Neptunes productions, you can just hear that they didn't really go deep into synthesis with that synthesiser, they were just literally using it as a keyboard.
“Or when you look at some old Timbaland videos, you can see him on these big workstations. Even with Scott Storch, he also has a Korg Kronos. In a lot of these instances, a lot of the hit producers, they just look for the quickest way to get to a result, and whatever gives them the least obstacles to get there is the preset, in a way.
“The Aldi comparison for me is that it just feels like a shared language. It’s the same with the TB-303, or when you look at certain gear that was used in dance music. Sometimes we just all seem to agree on certain things, and I love referencing these sounds.”
Did you experiment with any new studio techniques or processes on this album?
“The main thing was to get away from editing and micro-processing and changing things. Also to play throughout an entire song. Sometimes with click tracks, sometimes without. Making arrangements without editing, and even if it was for effects or something. That’s why the rhythm of this album is so unique, because everything is slightly always floating.
“Another thing was a sense of reduction. I often get associated with very dense harmonies and thicker chords, so I wanted to substitute that from my process. I tried not to think in harmonic structures but more in melodic structures. As I mentioned before, almost like an orchestral setting, like how four individual violins can create a certain chord. Thinking in monophonic lines, and creating harmonics through that, which makes such a difference. It’s so nice because with the timbre of different sounds, the harmony can feel different, even if it’s the same fundamental or the same instrument.”
It sounds as if there’s a lot of subtle detuning going on, which gives the record a really nice warmth and texture.
“Totally. The SH-101 has this amazing, randomized LFO. If you use it for the pitch, there's something about the random setting on the SH-101. It goes from fast to slow, from choppy to round, it's very unique. It would be interesting to see how they programmed that.”
Looking back a little bit now, how did you first get involved with music production and electronic music-making?
“When I was 15, a friend of mine and I started off with Magix Music Maker. It was also, as I mentioned before, through hip-hop production. We were fascinated by noticing that, DJ Premier sampled this track from the ‘60s, for example. Finding the source, and digging and finding certain songs that were used in hip-hop and rap music. This made us curious about finding our own jazz samples and making our own beats with that.
“I quickly moved over to Reason 1, then it just went from there. I was DJing in Vienna, and we had this night called Free Association, and we’d go from Mahavishnu Orchestra to Squarepusher to DJ Spinna or J Dilla, back and forth through a lot of very different music, genres and eras.
“I was producing music, and at the same time, we also had a band where I was playing keyboards, a good friend of mine Paul was playing guitar, and my good friend Clemens, who also makes music as Cid Rim, was playing drums. We were very ambitious teenagers in the sense that we were always trying to juggle these three things. It's something that makes me happy now that I'm older, that I got an insight into these three different areas of music.”
Are you still using Reason today?
“I’ve not used Reason since Joined Ends. I've switched over to Cubase. When I was working on Reason, at some point, I just got frustrated. In the early days of Reason there wasn't really a live recording option. So I always had to load samples into the samplers and then find the starting point, when I began recording more and more live instruments and playing keys live.
“I've never worked with MIDI. So I've always just used audio sources to record, and in the case of Reason I just used a sampler to sequence it. Now in Cubase, I literally just record sounds, then manipulate or compress and equalise them inside the software.”
What is it that led you away from MIDI and towards working exclusively with audio?
“It feels more direct to me, somehow. With MIDI - and this is obviously just a bad memory - but I’ve had latency issues, maybe 12 years ago. [laughs] It’s just a bad memory that’s stuck with me, but I’m always worried that something might not be working or, it just doesn’t feel as direct as just an audio output. There’s something instantaneous about being able to turn on a synthesizer, take the audio cable and know that whatever you’re recording isn’t being morphed in any way.
“It feels closer to what I’m used to, in the sense of being an instrumentalist and having played piano and being surrounded by the sound of something. Not needing a computer as well, as with a synthesizer you can just plug it into an amp and start playing. It’s maybe this hidden musicianship that always creeps through into my production.
“At the same time, I love that there’s a limitation to every device. If I play something on the SH-101, it’s like a similar relationship to a friend. There’s the friend that you go for if you want to discuss your depression, or the friend that you’d go for a beer with to forget about it. I love having a unique relationship with each instrument. Sometimes you have to say goodbye to them. The Microkorg for example, I probably won’t be using again.”
Which instruments stand out as ones that have stuck with you throughout your career?
“The Microkorg, but it’s a complicated, love-hate relationship, as is often the case with the first big one… it just leaves you with a weird feeling, but it initiates you. That’s what the Microkorg did. Having travelled with it so much and used it in so many tracks, up to 2014. It’s all over my production.
“A friend of mine had a Wurlitzer in his rehearsal room, with the band that we were in. That was always something that we loved hearing in records from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I always liked that it was a bit less popular than the Rhodes. The Wurlitzer is definitely an instrument that has a special place in my heart.
“The Korg Kronos, for my 2018 album The Nature of Imitation. It’s a workstation, where you have so many options. It mirrors the process, interestingly. Like Marshall McLuhan says, the medium is the message. With the options of all these instruments, it correlates with how the album sounds. The Kronos is such a beast, such a big workstation, you can do so many things with it, and in that album, you can hear how I’m just trying to explore all the corners of that workstation.
“Then the Roland SH-101 has been accompanying me over the last decade as well. I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into it, having heard it on so many amazing records - Selected Ambient Works, and ‘90s dance music - it just feels like a soulmate of sorts.”
You lean towards hardware when it comes to instruments. Is that the same for effects as well, or do you use any plugin effects?
“I definitely do dabble in plugin effects. What I've noticed also with pedals, which I've also gotten into a little bit - and some of the Eventide gear like the Space reverb - is that there’s a different feel. When you record a melody line and you have an effect on it, there’s something that I do differently timing-wise. You might settle for less than if you just record a line and add the effects afterwards.
“My computers have never been powerful enough for me to play stuff while I have certain plugins chained into them. I love recording things with effects, reverbs, delays, compression, already on it, because it creates an instantaneous sound. I like not having too many options. It's similar to analogue photography, when it’s dependent on whatever light you have there right now. You just take the one picture, and you hope that it's the one. I love capturing the spirit of a certain idea or a certain sound as quickly as possible.
“I’ve got the Eventide Space, I've got a Space Echo in my studio as well. I got the BOUM from a company called OTO. I really like that one. There’s a great filter on there and the compressor is really unique.”
How often are you experimenting with new gear?
“There’s under ten units, both keyboards and effects, that stay in a constant rotation in my set-up. Amongst these ten, there’s some that will be on the desk, some off the desk. I don’t know who said this in an interview, but they said they saw someone’s studio perfectly set up with tons of gear spread throughout the entire room, and they said it sounded like a nightmare, like: how can you be creative in a room where you’ve got everything? It feels to me that once you’ve got more than ten units, then you stop exploring the gear and you’re just fiddling around and distracting yourself from making music.”
Is there anything that’s on your wishlist at the moment?
“I’ve actually been getting into video gear and video synthesis, so there’s one thing, the Roland Edirol CG-8. You can’t really find them. I’ve been getting into the analogue video synthesis world. It’s the first time that I did a couple music videos for my own tracks, for this album.
“On the audio side, it’s the first time I’m happy. I’m more at the point where I’m willing to let things go. It’s interesting that you mentioned soft synths. I might try to dive into this world a bit. I had this idea of trying to find really old soft synths, or trying to work on really old audio software. Maybe with some stock MIDI stuff.
“We’re at a point now where it could be interesting to look back at older software. It must create a specific sound when you’re not always looking for the newest and best virtual instruments, but maybe when you try to see all the fun stuff that was there before, that you didn’t see the creative potential in.”
It’s an interesting idea. People fetishize old vintage gear, but you don’t really see the same thing in the software world.
“Exactly. That’s right. But we’re getting to that point. Maybe I’ll have to find someone who still has a functioning Windows XP computer or something. [laughs] It could be worth it - it could be a good story.”