Blak Emoji’s Future R&B

Blak Emoji is the project/band of producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Kelsey Warren. His recently released third album, Eclectro, is a fun and inventive listen, so I dropped him a line and we got down to chatting about how it was made.

I went back and listened to some previous Blak Emoji records, and this one has a little more depth to it. There’s more going on sonically.

I’d agree. I had more time.

Didn’t we all?

Yeah. That was it for me. I was already on the road to recording and working on ideas for new songs. I would sit and work on sounds for hours. The pandemic forced me to throw myself into this without interruption. It’s not a popular thing to say, but last year [2020] was a good year for me. I didn’t have anything else to do but music. I was on tour, and I came back here. I remember hearing, “You’ve gotta get back home! Everything’s going to stop!” And that was it. My production jobs were gone. My gigs were gone. What keeps me the most sane is making music and recording. I had more than enough time to marinate on songs and try different ideas. There are 12 songs on the album, 13 on Bandcamp, and maybe seven or eight of them were constantly on the list. The other four or five I changed so many times. I thought, “I’m pulling this off.” I had time to do it and not stress about having to tour or do anything else.

When you were working on the album order, was it more about the flow and seeing what fit together?

Yeah. There are probably 30 songs I recorded. There are some that feel like “singles,” but there’s a theme. I like albums. I love [Prince’s] Purple Rain, [Nine Inch Nails’] The Fragile, or [Pink Floyd’s] The Wall. All of those records have a common thread and a common sound, but many songs are different. It’s a roller coaster ride. That’s what I was trying to accomplish with Eclectro. I wanted a consistent theme and sound, but it’s still all over the place. There are a lot of different styles in there.

I was thinking of it as “future R&B.”

I like that.

I feel the focus is on the songs. The electronics are fantastic, but the songs are what we come to listen to.

Thank you. That’s what I was trying to go for. The album is called Eclectro because it’s an electronic base, but I feel that sometimes people pigeonhole electronic music. Either it’s EDM or Aphex Twin. There’s a song called “Every Mother’s Son.” I was asking someone, “Why aren’t there any protest songs in the genre of electronic music?” A protest song is a guy or girl with an acoustic guitar or it’s hip-hop. Electronic music is so vast. It’s Aphex Twin, but it’s also Kraftwerk. It’s Prince. It’s Nine Inch Nails. It’s Eartheater. All of those sound different. Prince and Nine Inch Nails are perfect for mixing sonics with songs. I love The Beatles as much as I love Ministry. Why not mix it up, if it can work? I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m trying to make songs that I want to hear.

That makes sense. It looks as if you’re at your home studio right now. What’s the place you did this in?

Here, in my little bedroom. Nothing fancy. I also started producing a little bit more for other artists, because I had the time. I’ve done that in the past, but I always wanted to do more. I couldn’t go to a studio. A lot of the people I’m working with, it’s a different thing. “Okay, let’s do something. Do you have something to record your vocals with that’ll sound clear that I can take and do something with?” It’s a whole different environment. With my previous record, Kumi, that was a mixture of my bedroom and a studio I went to in Brooklyn called Rift Studios. Good sounds, and great engineers. I’ll go there when a song needs big drums. I can’t do that here. Sometimes, I want that studio sound. Other times it’s, “Oh, whatever.” Here I worked at my own pace. Some songs came out in a day. Some came out in two. “Float” took a year. There’s no pressure from the other outside work. I don’t have a manager, and I don’t have a label. Of course, it’s a blessing and a curse. Like I said, there were eight songs that were always there and then I was changing them. If I was in a studio, would I be changing things this much? I’ve eventually got to set a deadline.

Where do we stop? That’s always the question with the creativity angle with recording.

Absolutely.

Are you working in [Apple] Logic?

Yeah. Strictly Logic.

The pulsing synthesizers and sounds, are those virtual instruments or outboard gear?

Both. Most of it is all in the box. I do have an M-Audio controller. I have a little Alesis Micron [synthesizer] that I used a lot on the Kumi album. Not so much this one. Most of it’s just me in-the-box, going through crazy sounds, putting it through some distortion. It’s fun. When I throw in a guitar, I feel it almost has more meaning than it used to for me because I’m more selective about it. I go through crazy freaking plug-ins to try and manipulate a sound to where you don’t know if it’s a guitar or if it’s a keyboard.

Is the mixing done by you?

Most of it. I produced and mixed all of it, except for three songs that Michael LaVaque mixed. He’s awesome. He’s out of Arizona. I met him last year through some other music cats. He did the mastering, too. I can get in my own head. I know my strengths. I know my weaknesses. Sometimes I’ll realize, “This is good, but it would probably be better if someone else mixed it.” I don’t have that much of an ego.

What changes did having someone else mix bring?

Oh, man; a sigh of relief. It really was. It got to a point where I was knee-deep working on Eclectro, but then I started working on other projects. I produced a couple EPs and singles for some other artists. I can’t do it all. It’s also good to take what you have and step away. Work on some other music and get that energy going there. “Can you mix this? Because I don’t want to fricking hear it anymore.” Then I’d get it back, and with him it’s easy. He knocked it out of the park quickly.

It’s important to find collaborators where you can get on the same page.

Yeah. It’s not easy. But it was easy with him. There were a few songs where I knew, “I can’t get that thing. Michael can do it.”

Did you send him notes about how you envisioned the song working, along with your rough mix?

I would send the rough mix and little notes about what I couldn’t get out of that.

Did you do many revisions or anything on the mixes with Michael?

Not really. “Mechanism” took a while. That was a weird one. I had three other people try to mix it, and it wasn’t to my liking. That one went back and forth a little bit with him. But the others were maybe two or three passes.

What microphone are you using on your vocals?

An AKG P220 [large diaphragm condenser mic], believe it or not. Not an expensive mic at all. I like it.

It sounds very clear. Detailed, but not ridiculously bright.

Yeah. My setup is so minimal and bare bones. I don’t have everything [sound]proofed in my room. I could have a very expensive mic, and it might sound like crap in this room. This microphone is awesome because it’s good for different genres. I could scream my ass off on it and it works, and it works for what I do with a very airy, breathy tone. I can add compressors and make it sound sexy.

And slipping into falsetto, like you do, is a different tone.

Yeah. I was surprised. I ended up using it a lot on a lot of different projects for different styles.

Blak Emoji’s Future R&B

With the projects you produced, especially during the pandemic, were those completely remote?

In the beginning, yeah. I remember doing a single with Karine Hannah. We were going back and forth, and I asked, “Can you just come over?” She said, “No, I can’t come over! The pandemic, man.” But little by little, as time went on, at least for the people around here, it’d be, “Okay, I’m vaxxed. Come on over. I’ll make sure everything is clean and safe.” Now it’s a lot easier. But, again, it’s a lot of people from France, Spain, and around the world I’m working with. “You have to make sure you can get a good sound.” I’ve had that issue with people before, where they’ll send me a vocal track and I’ll say, “You’ve got to record this over or I can’t do anything with this.” That can be a bit of a problem.

I’ve thought about having a kit to ship to people. “Here’s the USB cable and here’s the mic. I’ve set the preamp to a good level.”

Yeah. “Don’t change this!”

I’ve been doing lots of remote mixing. Once you’re able to get everybody in the room the communication is sometimes completely non-verbal.

There are things I love about recording by myself, and there are things I love about recording in the studio. I loved having the freedom here by myself on my own. I can wake up at three in the morning with an idea from a dream and start working. And then, after a while, I was thinking, “Oh, man; I’m tired of being by myself. I’ve been here for five months. Maybe I should see some people! I’m going to go to a studio.” That was challenging during the pandemic. I tried to have somebody else mix a song over at one of the studios, and they said, “We can’t do it now. We’re closed.”

You’re obviously a solo project but also a band. Did your bandmates perform on Eclectro?

On the new album, no. The new album is all me, except for the last track where I collaborated with Danos Ettrick. We were in a band [Pillow Theory] before this. He did the strings and cello parts on that song, and some guitars. Other than that, it’s all my fault! A lot of the Blak Emoji albums are predominantly me. Like how Trent Reznor will have someone play on a track or two [for Nine Inch Nails]. Our main live drummer, Max [Maples], is sprinkled all over [our previous album] Kumi. I just wanted to record. These were weird times.

When you’re producing, how do those jobs filter to you? Has your Blak Emoji work been a calling card of sorts?

Absolutely. I’ve been doing music for a long time, especially in New York. After a while people are like, “Oh, this sounds cool. I want to do something.” Something changed around the time of a single called “Lust Love Above” on Kumi. Once that came out, I started to get more calls for production work. Before Eclectro, I’d been talking about trying to put out a predominantly instrumental album for a long time. I thought, “I’m going to put my weird Flying Lotus/Aphex Twin thing into Blak Emoji.” I needed to do it to get it out of my system. I did Antidote in less than a month. I wasn’t expecting anything. Once it came out, I was getting DMs from people, saying, “This is great. How did you do this? How did you get that sound? Are you expensive? Can I work with you?” Especially regarding a song called “Quarantine.” That got me a different audience, I guess. Most of my favorite artists have albums that sound totally different. There are people who listen to everything. It’s not as segregated as it used to be. I listen to everything from Slayer to Joni Mitchell. That’s not as odd these days!

You were playing synth bass with the “avant-sludge rock” band Netherlands recently.

That is fun as hell. I’ve been a fan of that band for years. We played Saint Vitus Bar recently. It’s the metal club. I’ve seen so many shows there, and finally I got to be on that stage. I’m definitely going to be doing more shows with Netherlands. Before Blak Emoji, I was in predominantly hard rock bands. I loved going to shows back in the day and seeing Nine Inch Nails or Ministry. These bands where they’re in this electronic vibe, but they’re freaking heavy. There are crazy beats and ARP [synths], but the guitars are thrash. We don’t sound like that at all, but what I do enjoy with Blak Emoji is that I get to do it all. We get to have that element, but it’s still a live band. It’s not going to be a show where it’s just a laptop playing. I try to mix it up and try to be as authentic as possible, by just playing.

Any words of encouragement to Tape Op readers?

Yeah. Don’t always be a slave to the rules of the past. I can keep mentioning Prince and Trent Reznor forever. I’m sorry; I’m obsessed with them. But they broke so many rules. There are a lot of people who I look up to who did weird things, like Tricky or Björk. If you always go by the rules, you’re not going to go forward in music. It’s so much fun experimenting with sound. I love making songs. If you have a DAW, you can sit around for ten hours, and it’s the same thing as sitting around practicing your guitar in a room for five hours a day. It’s an instrument, but it’s so much fun.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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