Words by Sara Jayne Crow
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
As a music journalist of nearly 15 years, this quote oddly resonates with me: it’s absurd to want to use one creative form to interpret another. Prose is a nebulous conjecture as it relates to describing rhythm; nonfiction is spare fact, and poetry feebly swaps dressed-up, impotent rhyme for melody. The statement is especially appropriate when writing about the music of Jeff McIlwain (Lusine), a prolific Seattle-based musician whose output bears such depth and breadth that words can’t near approximation. Music theory can’t approximate. Smoke signals or cuneiform might serve better.
At club King King in Hollywood last March, Jeff effortlessly orchestrated a live set, laboring intently behind the subdued glow of his laptop screen. He made subtle adjustments, fingers deftly flitting among the buttons and knobs of his spare setup: a laptop running Ableton, a DSI Tetra, Evolution UC-33, and Novation MIDI controller. The speaker stacks radiated the warmth of his layered, painstaking sonic engineering. Jeff didn’t have an affect of ego or showmanship despite the worshipful crowd jostling for front-row stance. His unassuming nature, effortless control and modesty made live performance look easy.
Easy? It may be for Jeff, but that’s partly the product of his intuitive genius as a musician, and partly the byproduct of more than 20 years of toil as a producer. Jeff’s fluid performance and style have been honed by decades in the trenches.
Back in 2004, I saw Jeff at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Arts Center with Jerry Abstract and Obelus. Jeff performed fresh on the heels of his pristine Ghostly 12-inch release, Flat Remixes, featuring luminaries Dimbiman and Matthew Dear. His sound was polished while introspective, marrying innovative sequences of layered synth with good-natured electric quirk. I saw him during multiple Decibel Festival performances between 2004 and 2013, where he often unwittingly showed up some of the top-billed performers flown in from London, Berlin, and Paris.
Jeff’s prolific releases Language Barrier, Podgelism, A Certain Distance and The Waiting Room have progressively married the exponential possibilities of layered electronic music with an accessible ease of consumption usually reserved for other genres—say, pop or rock.
He’s also scored various films and TV shows. Most recently, Jeff co-scored the movie Joe directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, All the Real Girls, Prince Avalanche) featuring Nicolas Cage. Joe will be released in theaters this Friday, April 11.
I caught up with Jeff to discuss the waiting rooms that preceded The Waiting Room album, scoring for Hollywood, letting in a little bit of chaos, and what’s next.
Joe is your fourth film score, right? You’ve also scored Snow Angels, Line Watch and The Sitter; worked on the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack and had placements on TV series like The Real World, CSI: Miami, and This American Life. As an electronic musician living in Seattle, how did you start scoring for Hollywood?
Yes, this is the fourth film that I’ve scored or co-scored. I also wrote one cue for the recent movie Mud, which was scored by David Wingo. Back when I lived in LA, I programmed beats and did some sound design for composer Edward Shearmur on Charlie’s Angels, Blue Streak, and K-PAX. I’ve had some licenses for the TV stuff you mentioned from my discography on Ghostly, as well.
The work I did for Ed Shearmur was a great experience because these were big movies, so I got a pretty good idea of how to approach a film score without having to be thrown into the fire. I met him through Shad Scott, who ran Isophlux Records out of LA. Separately, I’ve known David Wingo and David Green for a long time, since our first year at University of Texas at Austin. David Wingo initially wrote the music for Green’s first three films, but I was asked to collaborate on Snow Angels, because he wanted some variation on the sound on that one. And since then, it’s been an ongoing working relationship.
Tell me about how you came to work on the Joe score.
David had this really dark, atmospheric film that needed some music that fit, and we had done some similar stuff for Snow Angels. I think he thought this would be a good fit, except this time, we went even a bit darker and heavier.
David and I have known each other a long time, and kind of influenced each other from the opposite side of the spectrum I think. I was much more into electronic music, and I think he was way more into the indie rock side of things in the early ’90s, so I think it was a very influential musical back-and-forth. And it made sense that, eventually, we’d work on music together.
To state the obvious, the Joe score is, uh, cinematic. It can also stand alone as a lushly textured, moody, and ambient body of work. What was your process for scoring the film? Did you set out to create a score that could stand alone?
I think we definitely had that in mind this time, yes. Because for this film, it was a lot less “descriptive” from cut to cut, and more about setting the mood for each scene.
Your recent Ghostly album, The Waiting Room, brings together a pop accessibility with the sort of left-field synth textures and innovative production I associate with the underground techno movement of Detroit and Berlin in the early ’90s. Yet it’s polished in a way that those 808- and 909-heavy productions weren’t. Tell me how you balance innovative and experimental production with what’s accessible and melodic.
Thanks! I definitely think I still come to my music with a more dance sensibility, but I’m constantly trying to branch out not just in terms of sound, but also in styles and musical progressions. I think a lot of dance music is pretty cut-and-dry, and it sort of has to be if you’re making it specifically for the dance floor. But, I kind of figured out a while ago that I wasn’t great at making music specifically for that purpose, so its enabled me to be a bit more diverse and focus more on what I, personally, would want to listen to in different settings.
Your productions are warm and refined, but they don’t feel over-produced. It’s hard to strike this balance. How do you allow for a little bit of chaos in your music?
I think some of that is still learning different production techniques. Some people really have their production down cold, but I think when I hear something interesting and try to replicate it that it comes out a little messier, but maybe a bit different, which can be interesting as well. On this album, I definitely wanted to loosen up a bit. So tracks like “Panoramic” and “Stratus” are kind of big synth sequencing jams that I edited together to make into tracks. I also recorded some live drums for this one, which gives the songs a bit of a different flavor.
Tell me about discovering electronic music in Texas in, what, 1993?
Something like that. I think I started hearing a lot of DJs on the radio in Dallas around ’91 and ’92. There was a station called The Edge that had a Saturday mix called “Edgeclub,” and that’s where I first started hearing techno and breakbeat. I really wanted to know how that music was made. When I started going to college in ’93, my friends introduced me to a lot of the music coming out of England and it really opened my mind up to “listening” electronic music. So, I guess I had that sort of dual interest early on. It inspired me to start trying to make it on my own with a drum machine, work station, and synth. A pretty basic computerless setup to begin with.
You started producing… 20-ish years ago? What did your studio look like when you first started?
Well, I had a Korg X3 workstation for sequencing, a Yamaha Ry30 drum machine, an Arp Odyssey, and a little mixer. I later got a little rack sampler and some effects, and that was my live setup for a few years, before laptops became a viable way to perform. I had a computer setup starting around 1995, but it was pretty difficult multi-tracking in those early years, so my first releases have a much more basic sound to them.
Care to talk about your studio?
Yes, here it is! It keeps expanding as the years go by. Kind of a mix of hardware synths, computers, and traditional stuff: guitars, bass, cello, violin.
Any production or creative tips you care to pass along to other producers?
Hmm… well, I think the main thing is there is no magic bullet piece of gear or software that’s going to get you there, but learning new instruments and new ways of doing things will only make you a stronger producer. I shared a few tips with XLR8R a few years back as well.
Tell me a bit about the recent past. You’ve had a busy few years getting married, touring, and producing.
Yep, it’s been a whirlwind. A lot of nice changes: finding a partner and best friend, learning how to be a Stepdad. Some difficult changes while dealing with some pretty serious medical issues in our family, as well (sitting in a lot of waiting rooms along the way). But it’s all been inspiring in various ways. I’m thinking about my place in the world and translating that musically.
What is it about waiting rooms that led you to title your album?
I think the title for me is kind of the idea that you have to find beauty in strange places. So, I think there’s a way to translate that musically. I like the idea, aesthetically, of finding warmth underneath the surface. One thing I always tried to pick out was some little symbol of humanity in the extremely temporary spaces I had to sit in, like a picture on the wall showing a kind of generic view of mountains, or even the patterns in the upholstery, or the streamlined look of the MRI machine. So, you know, a track like “By This Sound” is specifically about experiences my wife and I had, and it’s this sort of balance between a cold driving sound, but maybe some layers of warmth in the lyrics and textures.
You’ve worked with your wife, vocalist Sarah McIlwain, on The Waiting Room, correct? What is your collaborative process like as a couple?
Yes, it’s great. She is very supportive, and has some great ideas, but she’s also really patient in helping me flesh out what I want to do with particular tracks.
What’s next? Any new albums or tours slated for 2014?
A couple new remixes are coming out this month, one for Max Cooper and another for Isaac Delusion. I have an EP coming out early August called Arterial, which will get a digital and 10″ vinyl release on Ghostly. Really excited about that, and I have a really nice video to go along with it, directed by a really talented guy named Christophe Thockler.
Right now, I’m starting on a new album. I’m not sure how long it will take, but I’m just starting to formulate some ideas on what I want it to sound like.
Author’s note: the opening quote has been variously attributed to Elvis Costello, Martin Mull, William S. Burroughs, Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa, and Thelonious Monk, among others.
For information about author Sara Jayne Crow, visit Stray Poodle Media.