A Wizard’s Tale: The Daedelus Interview
When I try to imagine a young Daedelus, what comes to mind is Harry Potter. The smiling one from the book covers, not the serious one from the movies. “I was a pretty fat kid,” he says shattering that image. Were there any fat kids at Hogwarts? Of course young Alfred didn’t attend Hogwarts, though the happenings during his school years were just as magical.
“Everyone could pick an instrument,” he says, recounting his introduction to music through the elementary school youth orchestra. “People were picking, violins and flutes and that kind of stuff. But I really wanted to play the bassoon.” It wasn’t the typical choice for a child his age, nor was it necessarily practical. The instrument itself would have been almost twice his height. “They were like, ‘no no no, you’re too young, you can’t handle it. Pick up the clarinet and we’ll get you into it.’ They never switched me over.” He shakes his head as if the disappointment were still fresh. “So I did the clarinet, eventually got into bass clarinet, I really wanted to play those bass instruments. Then I made my way to the double bass. So I got my way,” he says this with a tone of redemption, then changes it. “I found my way.”
Daedelus grew up in what he considered a creative household. His mother was a visual artist and his father an experimental psychologist, which he notes is “kind of an artform in a weird way,” with a smile. His eye for the visual, inherited from his mother, is self evident in his appearance. He has an affinity for the Victorian Era, and ritually dresses to fit the part. His father’s influence is, perhaps more subtly, in the way he presents himself intellectually. Behind the lamb chop sideburns and those eyes that are at once intense and comforting, is a mind that would be a psychologist’s playground. Or perhaps, one that finds a psychologist’s mind the playground.
His parents facilitated music lessons on his choice of traditional instruments. A more unstated musical influence however, was a next door neighbors uncle who managed George Clinton. “He had all the Parliment and Funkadelic records. But I didn’t understand. I didn’t know all the sex and drug references. I was just like, ‘computer games, awesome!’” The seed was planted lured by the visual to the aural, but it wouldn’t all start taking shape until his first vinyl purchase, early Belgian electronic group Front 242. “It was weird, and I didn’t like it too much, but I was intrigued and that was enough. You know it’s always about gateway drugs.”
Growing up in Los Angeles there were a lot of opportunities to indulge the vinyl drug, though, true to form, his account falls a bit left of center. “Los Angeles is pretty cool,” he says straight faced. “A lot of people move there when they get old, and then,” without skipping a beat, “they die. So their records come up for sale and… well, it’s amazing.” I can’t help but chuckle. “I’m a grave digger straight up,” he says in response to my laughter, smiling as if to let me know it was okay to laugh, but the seriousness hasn’t left his face.
“I’ve been so fortunate in this way. When it’s a thrift store thing and they bring a whole collection in, I really feel like ‘I know this person’.” He is gesturing with his hands as if conjuring the memory of it through them. “I feel the Elton John collection and I’m like, ‘okay’. Or the crazy psychedelic rock collection and it’s like, ‘this person was deep’.” He looks up to see if I’m still following him. I am. “You really get a sense of someone, and it’s crazy but I get a feeling like I can actually eulogize them. It gives me a little more responsibility with the records, because, I’ve gotta preserve this person’s memory.”
There’s an eeriness too it all. This supernatural connection to the records. The same eeriness you get the first time you are exposed to what he does with them. He brings the records alive, but the records it would seem, bring him alive too. “I always had more aggressive friends, in terms of digging. Always the funk and soul sections they would corner off, like ‘these rows are mine.’ I was stuck in the children’s section and soundtracks. That’s how I got my sound – I couldn’t get in the other crates! Now it’s a gift because, they all sound the same, and I get to sound a little more like me.” There’s the same tone of redemption as with the bassoon.
While unique crates have helped Daedelus separate himself, equally active in that has been his approach to samples themselves. “It’s funny,” he says without the smile, “somethings I won’t sample. It’s done, it’s like a complete object. It doesn’t need any more reference. I feel that way about like a lot of Sun Ra. I know a lot of people touch it and I’m totally cool with that. But for me, I’m not going to do it. As much as there’s totally room for “More Bounce to the Ounce” or whatever, I’m just going to sully it. I’m going to leave it less than what it already was.”
Nevertheless, it was the found sound approach to digging that brought Daedelus to production. His catalyst was UK Hardcore artist Acen and his Trip II the Moon Part 1. “When I heard that, it totally flipped my wig. He was putting breakbeats, Ultramagnetic MC’s, early Prince records all together in this menagerie of sound which had rhythm and melody. I just knew that, even though for years and years I tried to do other things, I was trying to get back to that sound.” That quest led him to the LA rave scene in his early teens, where he saw artists like Vitamin D and R.A.W. “I was a little too young. I didn’t do drugs at raves. I went there for music. I was like the only one that went there for the music.”
The music had been calling him since the first vinyl, and as soon as he heard what he could do with that call, he was in Merle’s Music, in Santa Monica, purchasing gear. “You could buy anything, and then trade it in (minus tax) for any other equipment in the room.” A touch of gear lust roses his cheeks at the memory. “I went through so many random synths, mixing desks and monitors just because, you could take it back. The one that really stuck with me though, that I’ve kept this whole time, is the SH-09 made by Roland. Amazingly fat sounds. Only later did I learn that it was the precursor to the SH-101 which was a classic rave synthesizer.”
As inspired as he was becoming by the rave scene, Daedelus wasn’t going to be making rave music. “I followed the progression of rave music onward. Rave music splintered into a bunch of different factions: trance, tech-house, deep house, breakbeats. I followed the breakbeats route through drum and bass. I thought, ‘this stuff is marvelous. I’m going to make drum and bass.’” He shakes his head at himself. “All my failed experiments man. I had so many crappy ‘Amen’ work outs,” referring to the classic breakbeat “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons. “But it was really important because I got an idea of, okay this is rhythm and started to see how they were making those tracks. It was all a mystery at first. I had no idea how I could possibly make the music sing and dance like that. At that age, I just knew how to play some jazz chords, which is not that impressive when you really want to make breakbeat music.”
Those breakbeat roots can be heard on Portrait of the Artist, his first EP release, and indeed continues to exert its influence to this day. But even in his debut, there is something audibly different about the way Daedelus both approaches them, and dresses them up. It has evolved over the years. Walking the thin line of familiar and strange, with sampled dialogues narrating his id, Daedelus has managed to carve a path for himself and others pioneering what would become LA beat scene. While that might seem like a marked departure from rave music, in many ways it is a continuation that only a handful of artists like Daedelus could have bridged.
Developing his sound at first pulled him away from the live setting where he was first influenced and into the studio where all the music was being born from within. In recent years, however, he’s been able to connect the dots between the two. “I always knew that [live] was an aspect that I wanted to access. I mean, my jazz background, I like improvisation. I felt that when you’re really working it right, the studio sings. The studio is like a live instrument you’re trying to jam with, it just happens to have a different time period to work in. I always had live in my mind, but it was really unclear when I first started as to how that could be attacked, how that could possibly be achieved with sample based music. I had no idea how that problem would be solved.”
Enter the Monome, an open hardware controller developed by a DIY team out of Pennsylvania including good Daedelus friend Brian Crabtree. Daedelus would be the first public beta tester for the device, that uses a series of buttons and lights in a grid as the interface for infinite sonic possibilities. “It was one of those things where, it’s funny, the little things that goes into it. Fingers on keys. What fingers go where. The distance of the hand. Little things that you wouldn’t imagine. It’s no joke. On the piano the distance of the male hand is supposed to be an octave. There for a reason. On the monome, 16×16 grid is roughly the distance of a male hand. They were thinking about that kind of stuff, and I was just so pleased to be a part of that.”
His public involvement helped push Monome into the spotlight where it has become the cutting edge of the latest technological wave. Since its introduction, hardware and software developers alike have all been taking notes, and changes to their product lines reflect the direct inspiration. While much of the credit for this can be attributed to the ingenuity of the device itself, Daedelus constantly seems to be at the beginning of these types of innovative movements. He was there at the beginning of Dublab. He was an early Low End Theory resident. And then there are the labels. Daedelus is the Kevin Bacon of the scene, separated from every artist through the labels he’s been on by far fewer than six degrees.
“I really appreciate the fact that we live in an age where I’ve been able to bounce around; I’m not signed, in the servitude of one label.” It is fitting. Trying to contain the creativity spawning from his full blown affairs with experimentation under the vision of one label would be impossible. “I feel like every label has it’s own personality. So as I’ve had the chance to be on a lot of labels, I’ve had a chance to express the different sides of what I want to stand for. Be it Ninja Tune where they’re kind of uptempo, jazzy, fun electronic sounds, to Plug Research with their more emotional electronic music, to Mush with their kind of out there, weird version of hip-hop. Every label has its own center, its own core.”
Add his own Magical Properties imprint with Alpha Pup to that list. “As much as I want to define it, I want it to be defined by the musicians that are there,” he says humbly. The musicians he speaks of are the first Magical Properties signees, Amir Yaghmai and Jonathan Laroquette, of the group Jogger. They forge a sound with elements of electronic, elements of indie folk, that while quite different from Daedelus’ work, fits well into his vision for the label. “I want to have emotional electronic music. With my label I want to reflect that. I want to put out complicated deep music that you can totally wig out to. There’s a lot of people who want to dance, but also want to really listen to something. They are engaged with music. They always say that people are only listening to music on a surface level. Now that they are basically soundtracking their lives it’s not as deep. I don’t know about that. I think they are listening more than ever, and they know more references now than ever. So they’re ready to go deeper than ever. It’s that simple.”
As talk turns toward his personal mission, aside from the label, the tone changes. “I think you always have to pick a battle. If you’re battling everything, you’re going to lose the war. If you pick one thing, you can do it well. My personal battle is to have romance in electronic music. Not necessarily the kind of romance where everything is good. The kind of romance that’s turbulent, butterfly’s in the stomach and throwing up because you’re so sick in love.”
His own romance led to a marriage both in matrimony and music with his better half Laura Darlington. Last year they released the self titled album The Long Lost in which the delicacies of Laura’s voice and songwriting fuse with a combination of Daedelus’ electronic and traditional instrument talents, to create a forward thinking folk sound which, like all of Daedelus’ work, carries an emotional weight. The overall tone is different from his last solo release Love to Make Music To, but they both continue his theme of romance in the machine.
His most recent effort however, harks back to the fact that despite the romance, there is still a battle being fought. The battle takes on literal overtones with Righteous Fists of Harmony for Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. “FlyLo really wants to push some limits and I’m happy to be a part of that battle. It’s the same thing I’m trying to fight for to a degree. His vision is very clear, he’s on to really good things and he’s a solid individual. So it’s really wonderful to fight for his army, for a minute. Not to get all war like.”
Yet as he continues, it becomes clear that the war does have its role to play. “You do get this feeling these days, like there’s a lot of B.S. There’s a lot of hype and other stuff. We’re musicians. There’s way too much stories. Way too much press releases. I mean hey, I love concepts and I want that to be there. At the same time, if the music isn’t solid then the music isn’t solid. That’s the focus. That’s the goal.”
Righteous Fists of Harmony goes high concept, perhaps further than any of his other works, and yet somehow manages to maintain that focus on the music. “I wanted to make a soundtrack to the Boxer Rebellion, which was a brief uprising that happened between 1898 and 1901. It also marks part of the Victorian empire, the beginning of the end of that time.” His own interest in the Victorian era is what inevitably led him to the subject matter.
“It’s pretty morbid. There were like a hundred thousand trained martial artists who believed they had magic powers that were felled by British gun and cannon fire, then forced to be subjected to foreign rule for thirty years until the start of the communist revolution. So heavy, heavy subject matter. I feel like this is what electronic music should be though. It shouldn’t be just about drunkeness and dance parties. The capabilities in this music to touch on much more significant matters… let’s go there.”
‘There’ seems to be the place that reaches deeper into the human reality as opposed to exploiting the fantasy. But that reality for Daedelus, which includes magic and the occult, is more than what lies on the surface, and in choosing his subject matter for this project, he is able to explore just how deep things can go. “It ties a lot into technology. You have the British who, due to the technological advancements of their age, led this huge expansion of their empire. Yet there was also a downfall because, something like in India, where Ghandi overcame the British Empire through the simple act of will. Guns mean nothing against the will. It’s the same thing with these Boxers. They were all fallen, but it also symbolized the end of the Empire. On the flip side though, the Boxers believed in these magic potions and spells that would actually make them resistent to guns, and cannons, as if they could fly. All these supposed magics that they were embued with, that obviously didn’t work.”
His laugh about this is somewhat half hearted. When it comes to magic he is no novice to the subject. The failure of the Boxer magic for him does not represent a denial of its power. “I was reading this book on The Order of the Golden Dawn which was a magical organization started in 1875. This wasn’t just some discussion group about esoteric things, I mean they were doing magic,” his eyes light up. “There were all these accounts of them going to Mars and Venus, and psycho-sexual rituals. All based around secret society stuff that already existed for hundreds of years. But one of the things that marks them, and really spurred my interest was that they weren’t coming from a Judeo-Christian magic tradition or an Egyptian magic tradition, which is where a lot of the Victorian secret society stuff was. They were coming straight up from an eastern tradition. They felt they were receiving direct messages from these Mahatmas that were in Tibet. And as I got deeper and deeper into the stuff it was like you know what, this is not just a story or moment, this is like an epoch.” A century later, Daedelus scores the soundtrack for this epoch, including the epic “Order of the Golden Dawn” where Laura Darlington’s vocals bring all of the influences together lyrically.
Yet as much as it is about the past, it is also about today, where the magic is technology, and the technology produces magic. “We lean on this technology stuff a lot,” he says. “You know – I lean. I mean, not to say that I believe that this whole 2012 thing is going to go on, but hey I’m an electronic musician. Turn off the electricity and I’m done. Straight up, I mean, I don’t have much more to offer the universe and I’m very keenly aware of that. Like I’m very happy that music is working out right now, but in a different situation, in a different life, I’m someone’s snack.”
As he says this something clicks, like the final piece of the puzzle. I think to ask, “did the Order of the Golden Dawn ‘turn off’ the Boxer magic?” But as if he can read my mind he smiles and in a blink is gone.