Co-founded by Emch in 1999, Subatomic Sound System is a collective of musicians and others with a focus on combining the new and old technologies of music, as inspired by Jamaican dub studio work and sound system culture. Collaborations with Lee "Scratch" Perry began over 12 years ago, and in 2017 their joint release, Super Ape Returns to Conquer, proved to be a worthy slab of reimagined reggae/dub experimentation. GS
When I listen to what you're doing with Lee Perry, it's still dub mixing. It's not Skrillex-style dubstep.
When we did dubstep remixes in 2007, Skrillex didn't know what dubstep was. I actually ended up living with some guys from SMOG Records in L.A. for a little while, and they were telling me how Skrillex showed up to their shows – they were already playing dubstep. He was like, "What is this? Teach me how to make this!" That was years after we had already done dubstep remixes based on what was evolving with Lee. The funny thing was coming to New York – being into drum 'n' bass, hip-hop, and electronic music – we were doing something that we didn't have a name for. Dubstep was what we were already doing, basically. We annexed some of those names because people recognized it as a certain type of sound. We had those same influences evolve into something different. Working with "Scratch" was cool, because it makes sense for him to be involved in all that. Everything I just mentioned, he's at the root of. The interesting thing about this album is that it came out of us playing it live so many times. I'd be listening to our shows in the car, driving around, and we heard it evolve very naturally. Then I recorded Lee after a bunch of the guys in the band got their parts down in New York. I went down to Jamaica for a week and half, and we recorded all of his vocals. We actually recorded so much more at his place than [what showed up on] the album. In a way, when we were getting the album, it was like, "Yeah, let's get this out of the way." We'd been playing it for a year, and then he wanted to record a bunch of new music and do remixes of what we had on the album. Even though we were already thinking past it, we were like, "Let's put out what we've been doing. Something that's more representative of the live show." To him, playing live is so important. The album is a good representation of it, but there's something about Lee's physical presence. The show is about creating a vibe, a connection, and a communication between people. That's why it is like a religious type of experience. When you get to the root of music throughout the history of humanity, it's always been closely linked to peoples' religions. There's no religious ceremony that doesn't have music, throughout all of history. In this day and age, a lot of people see a separation, especially in America where people are generally not very religious. Reggae is one of the few forms of music that has a very strong religious component, but people don't think of it as they would Christian rock. People don't call it Christian reggae! When you go back to a lot of the influences on Lee's music – Africa and the drumming – it's like, "Why did we configure the band this way, with the horns and the percussion being almost lead instruments?" That's the core. The drum and bass are the heartbeat for him, but the horns and percussion on top of it are such important elements in his music.
It's a human need to feel. I think that's why many people are religious; to have that communal experience.
I don't know if you've ever been to Burning Man, but I feel there's a lot of artificial spirituality there. A lot of people grasping. People are struggling to find meaning to their life. The interesting thing about Lee's worldview is that Rastafarianism is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but he's got this whole idea of being connected to nature. It brings it all together. It's more of an Eastern view. I studied a lot of philosophy, and Asian philosophy tends to view more the interconnection between people and society, that we're all interconnected, with the web of nature being tied in. It's the whole reason Buddhists are vegetarian. Lee, being vegetarian, said to me once, "People think if they eat the animal they're going to get the energy of the animal, but that's a fallacy. We've got to respect the animals. They are our brothers." That's an enlightened, global, universal worldview. That's underpinning the music. I said to him, "I can't believe how everywhere I go, I find reggae is popular." People who are into it are super dedicated. Reggae hits on something universal. Connecting your heartbeat and soul to something spiritual, that people can get no matter where they are. With his music, I feel we can incorporate other styles into it, and even get rid of a typical band format. I was afraid when we did that, even though he was pushing us to do more new music at first. We didn't go back to a lot of the old music, and I was afraid that a lot of fans of his would be disappointed. I wondered, "When we go play these venues where people are coming to see a reggae band, what are they going to think?" But they were receptive to it, because it hit the core of what they were about. You saw the show. My impression is that people don't think we're bastardizing the music by doing a dubstep version of Super Ape, or something that would make you cringe. We can incorporate elements, because it's an evolution of everything he started. Tapping into the wobble of a dubstep bass is getting into what he's trying to communicate. The ideas he talks about; what are the sounds that represent those ideas? That represent water? That represent being a fish? That represent the strength of the Super Ape?
It's amazing for you to have Lee's influence as you're making music in the genre. There's nothing more pure. It's a pretty unique situation.
It's a real honor for us, all the time, to be up there. It's not just inspiring because Lee created all this. It's inspiring because he's the most inspiring person in the room out of all of us. He's bored already because we're having a normal conversation. He's got to do something creative all the time. It keeps all of us on our toes. Being around him is a constant reminder of how important it is to tap into that part of your soul and stay inspired. That's more powerful than anything he could ever tell us, like, "Play this note," though he does that sometimes. Last night he was telling Troy ["Shaka" Simms], and sometimes he'll tell Larry [McDonald], "Do this beat and beatbox for people." He'll have me make up beats or bass lines right on the stage. He has no boundaries during our live shows, in so many ways. He'll stop the show in the middle and write a song or change the whole set list. Sometimes he'll even be like, "That show was perfect. But tomorrow night we're going to do this different." It can't be perfect the same way. He definitely got mad a few times when we were doing the Super Ape tour. I said he had to do it in the order of the album – that was over pretty quick! [laughter]
I love that you're doing shows on a laptop, with such a minimal setup.
A lot of people think if you're using a computer you have to make music that sounds like a computer. Bleeps and bloops; an Atari or something. It's just a tool. With this band we're trying to have interactive improvisational chemistry. Using the mixing board the way Lee was doing it is using it as an instrument; like the conductor of a jazz band. Too often you see the computers up there as a backing track and everyone's playing over it. But that's boring. It's not playing off the energy of the crowd or the other musicians. The amazing thing about studying what he did on the Super Ape album, and trying to get some of the sounds, there's so much power in a lot of simple tools. As Lee was saying, you start out with four simple tracks. What do you have on a basic mixer? You've got the EQs and the sends. I teach music at this school called Dubspot – we've had Lee visit before. It's "dub university;" all these kids coming, inspired by the music. So many people come in and say, "Oh, I don't have this plug-in or that plug-in! I won't be able to make my music sound like this." What you get with a laptop now is infinitely more powerful than what Lee had in his studio 40 years ago. He proved that with simple equipment you can make world-class music that will last an eternity. The music he made there people are still like, "How did he do that?" You're only limited by your own creativity and inspiration. That's something that a lot of people don't get. On the song "War ina Babylon" – he has this sound in there. The bass line is [low] and this sound is up high, like a Motown guitar doing "that" note. I'm a guitar player. I'm very familiar with getting all kinds of guitar sounds, but I could not get this with filters or wah pedals. I know he does a lot of crazy sounds with horns. I thought, "He'll never tell me what he did. I think that's a horn!" I started messing around with a trombone. "Oh, my gosh, that's a trombone that's filtered." It's just the way he used the EQ. He didn't have any filters back at the Black Ark, just the mixing board and the EQs. What most kids these days are trying to learn with computers is to take synthesizers and do all this filtering or subtractive synthesis to do sound design. Lee was basically doing sound design on real instruments, instead of using a sampler or filter.
As it was going down!
I don't think anyone was thinking that way, at the time.
It's real mixing. The mixing is as much of the art as the making and recording of the music.
"Scratch" redefined the whole role of the producer. Nobody ever thought of a producer as an artist. He was the first dude whose face was ever on the album cover, just as the producer. How come the producer's on the cover? Because he elevated the production to being part of the art! That's pretty mind-blowing. In this day and age, when you look out at the landscape of hip-hop or electronic music, guys like Pharrell [Williams], Kanye West, as well as some of the biggest artists in the genre, they are producers. They came up as producers who are artists. Lee is the prototype and blueprint of that. He started out as a singer and got into production. He came up as a producer and made all these hits for everyone else, but he's still doing his own thing. If you look at Pharrell or Kanye, that's exactly what those guys are doing. The idea of a producer becoming an artist and doing all his own production in a home studio, all that surrounded the creation of the Super Ape album. Now it's 43 years later and it's commonplace. We found when promoting the album to people that they almost didn't get how big of a deal it was, because it's so common now. They couldn't conceive of a time when no one did that, and how the guy sitting here revolutionized that. It was like saying, "This guy invented the wheel."
It's mind-blowing when you think about how it's influenced so many different genres, in terms of production, mixing, concepts, and songwriting. For the echo and reverb use alone...
And to be manipulated as it plays. The whole idea of controlling the [delay] feedback is one of the big differences between Lee and a lot of other people you mentioned. I do these dub festivals, and I've had a lot of guys like Mad Professor and Scientist perform. Lee created all the music and all the mixing. A lot of these other guys are producers. The Roots Radics were an incredible band, and Scientist mixed it. He had some great records with them. On his own, he's as good as the artist. But the thing about Lee is that he's a music maker. He's a singer, he's a producer, and he's doing all of it. That distinguishes him from other people. It's also very similar to what a lot of young musicians and producers are trying to do today. Most people who are into music aren't going out and learning an instrument. They're getting a laptop and recording software. They're writing all the music, mixing it, and doing everything. The days of getting a guitar, getting your buddy to get a bass, another one to get the drums, and then forming a band; it's unfortunately rare. I grew up doing that when I got into recording with 4-track cassettes. As a kid, living in Seattle, I was very inspired by Jimi Hendrix, who was very into the whole production process. I've always been interested in producers.
You mentioned the 4-track. Was that your first machine?
Yeah. In the late '80s, I had the 4-track, some guitar pedals, and a delay. I remember taking some John Coltrane, looping it with the pedal, and sync'ing it up with a drum machine.
It's a less "traditional" path to learning to record. We're seeing more of that with people like Luke Temple [Tape Op #126], Mac DeMarco [#120], or Richard Swift [#120]. From lo-fi bedroom 4-track recording to recording and producing careers.
The next step is going to be some kid's going to produce a hugely successful album on his cell phone. But many people are working on their own, and they're forgetting about the chemistry of multiple band members. The chemistry of people interacting on a stage is what makes for an interesting performance. That made it hard for hip-hop to gain popularity at first. If you go back to the blueprint for dub and what Lee created, bringing that out of the studio – which technology allows you to do – that could be used to cross any music genre. The whole style of dub mixing could be used in performance to make performances dynamic again. After we played this one venue, with a balcony behind us, my friend said, "I was watching what you were doing, and I was so nervous! You could fuck up at any point." It's true. It's one of the reasons I don't smoke or drink on stage. It's like I'm flying a spaceship. There are a lot of knobs; it's easy to hit the wrong button and then it all ends. But it's okay if it does. You make it work. People appreciate that. That's how they know it's not some prerecorded, totally preset thing. It's from the heart.
There's an element of danger to the music, if the artist likes that.
When I taught DJing to people at Dubpsot, one of the big controversies was beat-matching with computer software. Now it's basically the push of a button. You can set the BPMs for a track, hit a sync button, and it lines up. You have to have some musical knowledge to make sure it lands on the one, but it's pretty fucking easy compared to what it used to be. A lot of people say, "Oh, anyone can DJ now, because the software has ruined it." It's like, "No! All these tools are making it so you can focus on other aspects." But, at the same time, when I hear someone's mixtape and everything is "perfect," I think, "Well, maybe this is just a Pandora playlist. It doesn't sound human anymore."
People want a human interaction, especially in an age where everybody's on their smartphone.
I think about that a lot; the idea of two turntables and a mixer, and someone playing around with that. Being able to turn that into a performance. Record scratching and turntable performances turned into what heavy metal guitar solos were in the '80s. The idea that you can take a mixing board and use it in a different way – it's an instrument now. You can push creativity in many different ways. With computers, more people need to push themselves to do something that's fluid and inspiring – not be limited by hitting play and letting it run. It's very important as a music-maker to DJ. You learn a lot. It's interesting to play your own tracks back with other tracks that you love and see how people react. You see how lining up tracks in different orders helps. In the live show we do with Lee, I think a lot about energy flow. His music has dark and light songs. Major and minor; trying to go back and forth between that. I gravitate more toward the dark and mystical, but you can't have the dark without the light.