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interview – riley lake

interviews have been a glaring feature missing from this website, and i’ve been trying to remedy this problem for some time.  i’m really happy that the artist to claim first dibs on this segment is someone that i’ve known for quite a few years.  riley lake, a twenty-one year old producer from claremont, california by way of rural wisconsin, is the elusive man behind the beats on milo’s recent mixtape things that happen at day, along with a slew of other smaller projects.  we were able to reconnect via email this past week, and the ensuing dialogue is the result.

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i had the pleasure of knowing you quite well throughout middle school and high school, and i remember during one of the last conversations we had before leaving for college, you mentioned you had gotten some new software that you were pretty excited about.  what initially sparked your interest in producing and making electronic music?

the most simplistic answer is that, senior year of high school, i found out our family desktop came with a copy of logic.  i made a song for a science project in ninth grade about saguaro cacti, which i guess is my first production effort.  in hindsight, it was kinda cool; i recorded some guitar, bass, and vocals and added a super wack bell sound in some bummy 20 dollar d.a.w. from best buy.  finished it off with some heartfelt couplets about the need to preserve the saguaro.

as someone who spent a lot of his youth playing other people’s songs, learning how to use a computer as an instrument was incredibly liberating, comparable only really to learning to play the guitar.  i could create things that i might actually want to listen to.  i think that has motivated my entire evolution as a musician and provided the impetus for my technical development.  the result to putting effort into music-making shifted from giving a good performance of a piece i probably didn’t even like that much to having this precious little digital copy of what i thought was the most beautiful way of putting sounds together at the time of creation.  rather than having to practice when i wished i could’ve been doing some other shit, i felt driven to sit down at my computer and make some corny beat.  that was cool.

all of the “beats” that I heard growing up were from the rap songs that managed to worm their way into my ears in the middle of the woods in wisconsin.  since learning computer music for me involved a lot of mimicry, i started out making pieces of music that weren’t meant to be instrumentals; i wanted someone to rap on them.  i didn’t know any rappers for a long time, so that kinda stifled that intention.  but then i met milo, we made a rap record together, and all of a sudden all i want to do is make rap beats again.

you relocated from rural wisconsin to a slightly more urban setting in california.  how did the change in scenery impact the music you were making?

it was everything. more important than moving from a rural area to an urban area, I moved from a place where i felt somewhat isolated to a place where i was flooded with like-minded individuals and the crazy set of interactions that happen when this happens.  i would say that a large bulk of the things that happened that feel really meaningful to me have happened over the past three years.  some things are certainly a result of my proximity to los angeles, like going to low end theory, but most formative to me are the experiences that i had as a result of being thrown into this crazy social environment and learning to navigate it.  i think those played a big role in my understanding of making music for other people as opposed to just myself.  it made me think of what i (and my contemporaries) do as art, a realization that has focused my creative process enough to create things that people might actually want to listen to.

also, moving out of the country opened up the world to me.  things that i once knew only through the internet were all of a sudden very real and tangible.  i think it broadened my scope in a huge way, and i hope i continue increasing my understanding of the nature of this strange life we lead together as i go through my time here. likewise with my understanding of music.

people familiar with your work know you as the producer behind milo’s mixtape things that happen at day.  how did that relationship begin?

i didn’t even meet the dude in person until december 31st, 2012.  he sent me an email after reading a review of open mike eagle’s latest record that I wrote and listening through my soundcloud in like, june of 2012.  i got home for the month of august and made him two beats, which ended up becoming “legends of the hidden temple” and “sweet chin music”.  After the “sweet chin” beat, he proposed things that happen at day, which was a counterpart to the already mostly-finished things that happen at night.  i had never approached a project anywhere near as long and conceptually involved as things that happen at day, so figuring out what the hell those beats were going to sound like and then actually making them was a really seminal process for me.  i made the beats during august, and then spent half the fall semester mixing the record.  i had no fucking clue how to mix a rap album, but through an epic process of trial and error, i managed to make an album that, after mastering, was actually listenable production.  milo is maybe the best dude ever to make rap music with, because you send him a beat and like, an hour later he emails you back with some crispy clean vocal stems.  that was how we bridged the distance gap (i was in california and he was in green bay as i was mixing the record), was by sending beats and stems back and forth through mediafire and facebook, etcetera. then i sent him like ten different drafts of each song on the album until i got it right.

since then, i’ve spent some time with milo in real life, and that’s been the coolest thing.  i respect and admire him a tremendous amount.  i’m a little baffled why a rapper as good as him likes my silly little beats, but i think we have a lot of chemistry together.  i am doing everything in my power to support his artistic intentions, which are monumental and important for people to place their ears upon.  i would love to be the 40 to his drake, so to speak.  we’re gonna have a lot of time in august to pick each other’s brains, which will be the coolest thing.

 

rumors swirl that you’re working with milo on his upcoming album cavalcade.  can you say much about that right now?

yeah it’s a thing, it’s done, and i really want people to hear it.  the lead single should be coming out very soon.  like, hopefully next week.

it’s a rap mixtape.  people on the internet occasionally like to say stupid things like, “oh this dude can’t flow” or “blah blah blah this is spoken word.”  the thing about milo is, if he wanted to put up the same facade as everyone else, he could certainly make a blisteringly effective “traditionalist” rap album.  instead, he chooses to unfold his narrative with this utterly unique style of lyricism and delivery that he believes is the best way to convey whatever meaning he chooses to code into a rap song.  it “unpacks” in a really really interesting way, which lets you listen over and over without getting bored (one of the qualities of a song that i treasure).  i wanted to make a mixtape that let him flex his more “rapperish” abilities in songs that had the same depth has his previous material.

it is also a record for his grandfather.  his grandfather’s favorite band is america, so at milo’s request, every song samples an america song.  from a production standpoint, that stipulation ended up defining the work that i did.  we agreed early on that it was necessary to distance ourselves as far as possible from “twang rap”.  as a way of avoiding that, i spent a lot of time taking the samples and recasting them to create a new musical object that was imbued with characteristics of the source material but felt at home in an entirely new context, that of the cavalcade song.  to do this, i created each song using one america sample and one other recognizable sample.  by using a diverse selection of other samples (everything from dvorak’s “american quartet” to james blake’s “retrograde” to heard ’em say) and a bevy of modulation effects to the samples, i was able – hopefully – to create a set of beats with as much cohesion and stylistic variety as those qualities will allow in the presence of each other.

having this menage of hip-hop production as a musical canon that influenced me, my rap beats have become this pastiche of pretty much every hip-hop style that has found some time in the limelight over the past two decade, and that is super evident in the productions on cavalcade.  it feels appropriate that our take on rap music is this amorphous, as to some extent, both milo and i approach rap from an outsider’s perspective.  it’s loud, roughly calculated, and flawed, but hopefully, a beautiful narrative that pulls on the listener’s empathy strings and makes you pause and think.

i also happen to know that you’re a classically trained violinist and cellist, and you know your way around quite a few other instruments.  do you find having a structured background in music particularly advantageous when producing tracks for milo or working on your own stuff?

i wish i could attribute any skill I may have at beat-making to some natural wellspring of talent, but that’s not the case. from the age of five and on, my mom sacrificed soooooo much of her time making me practice, and my teachers taught me how to think about music in a really interesting way.  at this point, i feel like my productions are a coagulation of all of the things i’ve learned about music over my life.  some of these things have been independent artistic discoveries, but a lot of them are things i’ve learned from other musicians.

speaking on the concept of structure, i think i was lucky to get out of the music world and not go to conservatory.  i have a pretty rudimentary knowledge of “music theory,” but like, i know what music theory is, and so i feel like i have created my own sort of music theory that is part traditional stuff, part weird cage-ian beliefs about sounds and context and looser definitions of music, and part mix engineering.

i love shlohmo; i think he makes beautiful music with a computer that has tremendous amounts of emotional power for lots of people.  if i am not mistaken, he had little to no musical background before he started making beats, but his past with visual art translates extraordinarily well into musical production.  i think there is a sort of sculptural aspect to making music with a laptop that has more in common with work in the visual arts than traditional music performance, what i was taught.

i guess what i’m getting at is that my musical background helped make my learning curves with music less steep, but it took time for me to develop and understanding of the potential of my macbook and other cool little electronic instruments.  it’s more than playing stuff in tune at the right time, which i spent much of my life trying to do.  the computer does that for you.  what i needed to learn was how little details of arrangement and mix engineering contribute to authorial style, vibes, these more ephemeral, hard to define concepts that really dictate people’s enjoyment of music.  these are more both artistic and technical concerns that i didn’t get resolved during my classical music education.

your twitter handle is an homage to philip glass, and you’ve name-dropped steve reich a few times.  what draws you to minimalist composers like the aforementioned?

part of it is a joke; the day things that happen at day came out, milo and i were talking about ol’ philly g and he told me to change my name to that.  it seems like a trope: that the kid who makes hyper-intellectual rap songs with a classical background would sit around listening to his collection of philip glass records (i don’t do that fyi).  it’s mostly just rapperish braggadocio, saying that i’m bringing this carefully studied, super conceptual style to the rap game.  it also kinda points out how little i have to do with the “rap game.”  basically, don’t take it too seriously.

i do really respect that type of composer.  i think a piece like “4’33”” is genius shit.  what a move as a composer, to mind-fuck an audience like that, make them listen to an audience listen as a piece of music.  i like those things that break down artistic conventions, make you realize that the standards by which you perceive music are absolutely constructed.  i’m really drawn to twentieth-century art because a lot of it was spent grappling with what art itself is rather than, like, painting some religious scene really really well.  i foresee a movement like that spearheaded by musicians, because, let’s face it, every kid with ableton is making supercomputer music that has the potential to break in a radically innovative way from what we now perceive as music.  synthesized music is in effect an abstraction, a representation of pleasing tonalities that arise from the totality of the western canon.  as people explore new frontiers musically, the results of this will become pleasing and i think music will become a pretty foreign entity within a few decades.  i think you can already see it a little bit in the rise of both textured and hyper-compressed (speaking of compression in the mix engineering sense) music.  or maybe i smoke too many spliffs and think too much.

i changed my twitter handle to “cavalcade producer” because, as a rap producer, i’m really into hiding behind the narrative expressed in the rap songs that i produce.  i’m almost happier if people think milo made his own beats. that’s kinda on some warhol shit.

 

what are you listening to as of late that constitutes more of a guilty pleasure than anything else?

well, i definitely have the whole power 106 (la’s mainstream radio rap station) memorized because i don’t have a aux cord in my car and i’m too far from long beach to get good reception on 93.5 kday (the classy old school hip-hop station.)  although i respect the musicality and understanding of pop music that goes into making those songs, it’s hard to deny that most of contemporary radio rap is completely vapid and has like less than zero value to society.  i still bump mikewillmadeit shit though.  also, really really hood shit.  i feel guilty listening to that because in reality i’m so unfamiliar with the existence that is being described that it feels touristic in an uncomfortable way, but at least i know that.

are there any upcoming projects you’re working on that people should know about?

umm, sort of.  right now i’m mostly mixing down other people’s stuff because it feels good to actualize someone else’s project and i learn a lot from, like, making someone else’s music sound good.  i’m gonna mix the hellfyre club mixtape which should drop by the end of the summer.  i’ve made a slew of beats that may or may not end up as rap songs.  i made a beat that is going to be on busdriver’s next album, which is sweet.

i’m getting a live set ready for a tour that i can’t talk that much about, which is really exciting.  i saw mount kimbie the other night and that was so inspirational because they do a tremendous job of translating their studio work into a live setting, which is really hard.  they seem like a band when they play; their performance has this element of visual musicianship and improvisation that i feel is lacking in a lot of really ableton-heavy live sets.  i’ve done a lot of performance in ensembles and doing solo stuff with stringed instruments, so it feels weird that i can’t “perform” my compositions in the same way.  i’m trying to overcome that barrier, but it takes some work since, frankly, there are so many elements in the beats that i make that it takes some considerable stripping down and re-arranging to get everything under my control.  at this point i’ve accumulated enough gear that, using an ipad as a control surface, i should be able to play my beats entirely with live-triggered samples, drum machine sequences, and live synth work, which will be a lot of fun.

oh, and my dad is an old folk singer, and i have a couple really cool recordings that he did way back in the day that have never been mixed or mastered.  i’m going to pick like four songs, do a faithful remastering of them, and then an edit of each one taking a bunch of creative liberties.  a sort of, long ep i guess.  finally, i’ve been working on a more vocal-heavy ep called architectures 1-3, which i may never finish.  i’ve got “architecture 1” done though.  it took me nine months to make.  the vocals are a combination of my singing and resampling of milo acapellas, taking words and phrases and then re-arranging and manipulating them to sound like a crazy, otherworldly new vocal element that still has some lyrical substance.

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all the talk on cavalcade is real; the album is done and almost ready to go, and word on the street is that a single will drop sometime next week.  we’ll have that covered for you when it happens.  in the meantime, check the links below for all things riley lake.

soundcloud
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2 comments
  1. by gar, gentmun, the large bulk of this interview is primo, also worthy.
    chuxter

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