It's not everyday you hear a band that makes music unlike anything you've heard before. When I first heard Dalek it made me feel really good to know that someone was making truly challenging music. When I hear that there are innovative and different acts like Outkast and NERD in the hip-hop community, I fail to be impressed after hearing how much farther Dalek pushes things. Combining the intensity and size of Led Zeppelin (the group is also rivaling them in debaucherous tour stories at this point) with the soundfield of My Bloody Valentine, all in a hip-hop context. It's like the first time you hear a group like Can and you realize how unbelievably natural it is for a group to be so different from what's going on in popular culture at the time.
The group's members, Dalek, Oktopus and Still, all create and produce music both for themselves and others. Dalek has worked with 2nd Gen, Funkstorung, Jett Brando, and the Lapse. Oktopus — a.k.a. Alop Momin — has recorded bands such as All Natural Lemon Lime Flavors, Chisel, Rye Coalition and Jets to Brazil. The group has just wrapped up the recording of their second full length, and recently released a 12" split on Matador with Techno Animal. This interview took place at Sweetwood Sound and was recorded on a Lawson L47MP into Sound Forge to get the true recording-nerd experience down.
What's a quick history of the band?
Oktopus: I'd been running this recording studio, Sweetwood Sound, here in Parsippany, NJ since '93, and I met Dalek at William Paterson College in '95. He had just started doing solo work and needed to record a demo. We just started talking and he found out I had a studio. So he came here to record it and we recorded about 10 songs where I was strictly engineering and he wrote all the music and everything. And that's why it kind of sucked. [laughs] We worked together on that for about a year and then we started drinking together — HEAVILY — and listening to the Beatles, Velvet Underground and My Bloody Valentine. We realized that we had similar things we wanted to say and do musically, so by the summer of '96 I started cowriting songs, engineering, as well as co-producing on the music. We were just developing our style. By '97 we had recorded Negro, Necro, Nekros which was our first album on Gern Blandsten. We started touring that spring of '98, and we've been touring ever since. His boy DJ Rek was the DJ for about a year and a half. Then one night we played at Swathmore College in Pennsylvania, and this kid Still got on the turntables and just blew us away. Rek wasn't into what we were going into musically, and he wasn't really serious about the group anyway, so it was a mutual thing when we let him go. Then Still got in the band.
So why don't you talk about the process in which your songs come together.
Dalek: Basically, my rough concepts for the musical element of the songs start on the MPC 3000 with samples from my record collection.
Are you sampling individual hits a lot of the time or loops?
D: Small enough parts that you probably could never tell where they came from, and if they're big I manipulate them on the computer later on, so you still can't tell.
What methods are you using to manipulate?
D: On the computer, using lots of plug-ins on Sound Forge and WaveLab. I'm doing my arranging on Acid. I actually even use some plug-ins on Acid if it doesn't crash on me. [laughs] I'll start from the MPC and create a basic loop, like drums, melody, bass line, ambiance, whatever. The MPC 3000 (not the 2000, the 2000 is shit) anyway for a basic, basis of the track idea. From there I usually dump it into Sound Forge, and make .wav files of it. Sometimes it's not even the sound at this point anymore, but the individual sequence of each individual track. Like what I did with each sample in Acid, drop that into Sound Forge, open it up so I can arrange it easier in Acid, add whatever more effects I want, or manipulate it more.
So Acid is really a multitracker for you?
D: Yes. I'll do kind of preliminary mixing as far as breaks and mutes, and level rides. It's preliminary just because there's no vocals yet, so I really don't know where the vocals go. Once I get it to a rough stage I'll start using Reaktor, and even though I don't know how to play keyboard I have a little MIDI control keyboard. I just kind of play around with it and come up with melodies, then I export that as .wav files and use those sometimes. It isn't this process every time, sometimes it could be me just fucking around on Reaktor coming up with a melody or something, exporting that to Acid and from there fucking around with the MPC, adding more sounds to that. Basically once it's in Acid and I get it to a point where I can't fuck around with it anymore. Sometimes I write lyrics to it, other times I already have lyrics in mind. Once I get it to a point where I'm kind of stuck I'll probably burn it out to CD or put it out to a Zipdiskor whatever, bring it over here [Sweetwood Sound] and he'll take it for a while and see what he can add or whatever. Can I also give a shout out to all my samplers and equipment? I have an SP 12 [EMU SP 1200] I use for grittier drums and nastier drum samples.
So you like the SP 12 for its character, not its ergonomics.
D: It doesn't have the sampling time and it's really a difficult machine to use. You're fighting the machine constantly, so I'd rather just use it for ornaments, character later on, instead of building a track on it. Sometimes if the drums are too clean I'll run the drums on the SP 12 instead of the MPC, and I also have an S900 and S950 that I use just for textural samples. I use them when I want to play the sample more keyboard-like. You can play the MPC, it has those 16 levels of pitch, but it's a different feel.
So when do you come in, Oktopus?
O: I guess basically when he hits it off to me it's just a mess. [laughs]
D: You could definitely say that back in the day it used to be more of a mess. We would have to bring the MPC here and manually punch in all the tracks. It was disgusting.
O: If I wanted to do a beat change, we didn't have the memory so we'd have to resample another beat and then punch it in on the tape machine for the changes. That was before we got an SMPTE lock up. It was like RUN DMC — it was ghetto. But the fact is the whole first album was strictly done on an MPC 3000 and an ASR-110, no computers. These days my job has gotten a lot easier and Dalek just brings a CD-R with a bunch of beats over. He'll bring over like 15, 20, sometimes 50 beats, and we'll go through them and whatever one hits me right off the bat...
D: And he'll assassinate all of them — maybe one will survive. Perhaps from 50 tracks a flute sequence will survive, so basically I just make tracks for no one but myself, really. I know that 50% won't see the light of day anyway.
O: It's a nice way of working 'cause he's creating all the time. When Dalek writes it's almost like found sound, in the sense that I'm just hearing the sounds or the ideas that he came up with. It might be completely different in my head as far as how it should sound in a song. It's almost like a puzzle, I'm just picking pieces out that I want to use or to play with, then it's almost like deconstruction or reconstructing from the ground up even though it was already at a certain stage. The before and after are night and day — you wouldn't believe what some of the songs sounded like initially.
D: It's not like this every time, other times there'll be the one.
O: Yeah, there's a couple of songs that we just left straight, they haven't been touched. "Spiritual Healing" — I didn't change a thing on that — maybe just the arrangement, but sounds-wise it was all the way it was. Generally after that I work on it a little bit, building a skeleton in Acid, because in Acid you can drop markers, it's almost like notation. You can see visually what the song is going to shape up to look like, and then I build a basic framework just of the changes. There might be spots where I think, okay I want a beat change here, I want to do a different bass line, I want something totally different coming in here, so I'll just leave it blank — but I can at least notate for those 8 measures. I can go back later on and find overdubs for the samples. I do more overdub stuff where I'll just go through beats and find the beat changes to add in — they're usually inspired from the beats that he initially brought over. After the initial skeleton is done usually he'll drop lyrics on it, after which we'll both just go in together and find records and kind of fill in the blanks, anything that needs to be filled in after vocals. I then usually drop it to the DA-88s.
Where do Still and Josh [Joshua Booth, Dalek collaborator and member of Then Ten and All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors] come in?
O: On the new album coming out Still composed one song — it's him and a guitar player he has. We have a new 7" that's basically all Still and Dalek. One song is 18-20 tracks of turntables and it sounds like Flying Saucer Attack if he was a DJ and not a guitarist. Dalek does spoken word on that and it was live, there were no loops, everything was just cut live in his room. The third album we started working on already and I think on that album you're going to see more of Still as far as cuts and sound collages that he does. Josh is the one that comes in and straightens everything out. He is the master, the secret weapon. On songs like "Praise Be the Man" and "Swollen Tongue Bums" on the first album, those were really all Josh. He's an amazing composer, he has a really great sense of melody. Between his sense of melody, our sense of rhythm, and our combined arranging it's down. I learned a lot of arranging from him.
So what does Josh actually do?
O: He'll do anything from sampling himself playing a recorder to actually laying down 28 tracks of guitars, guitar synth, piano, tambourine, you name it. This kid can do, and usually does, anything. We don't have him on every song, 'cause like I said, some songs just work themselves out — they're just what they are and they're great that way — but there's always a few songs where I can hear a bigger picture than I'm physically or mentally capable of without him. When we get him involved he's always able to get on tape everything I hear in my head, which is really a rarity. I've never really had that with anyone else, so he's definitely a key member. Then there's my cousin who goes by the alias Balthazar, he's basically the record junkie. Dalek is a record junkie in his own right, I'm more the CD guy, but Balthazar is unstoppable. He knows every sample on every record ever made. He could bring down so many roofs if he wanted to. Thank god he's on our team. Every two or three weeks, he brings over stacks of 45s, breaks, bass lines, you name it. Everything from jazz to fucked electronic, ambient or whatever. He always knows where all the breaks are so we just sit there and go through this. Then we have these things we call "Magic CDs" which are volumes of samples we just get in bulk. Those are the ones I keep as back-up for when Dalek gives me a beat, and if I need a drum line I can just go through all the drum samples.
And what happens from there?
O: We drop everything to DA-88 and then we'll take it to a bigger studio in the area where I can get a good rate and mix it to 1/2 inch tape, using Neves, Pultecs, all that stuff. We don't mix in the computer, so it doesn't have that computerized electronic feeling.
So you make sure you always go through a mixing board?
O: Always. I always make sure I'm using some kind of vintage equipment so the sound is just dirtier, especially Neve, those Neve EQs (1073s), they just really do something to our sound. Then I use across the stereo buss, 33609, and with that I can start to actually hear clicks and pops when I run it into the signal, which I love. Then we take the 1/2" to Alan Douches at West West Side and he runs it through a bunch of Pendulum tube gear and a GML EQ.
So you're not into mixing in the computer?
O: I think a lot of electronic records, like the All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors record I did, are very electronic and sterile, sort of cold sounding... It works for certain things. I like that sound, but it's not what I'm after for Dalek. We mix our records closer to a '70s rock record. I think a lot of our stuff sounds closer to the Bad Brains or Black Flag than it would to like a house record.
What characteristics do you feel records mixed in the computer are missing? What do you feel you get from going analog rather than staying in a computer? Everything sounds very flat to me, when it hits the speakers it sounds like it's stopping, it's not going anywhere, or filling the room up. I'll see some of that. You guys also use a lot of distortion — what do you use to get your distortion?
D: I like the mic pres on my Mackie 1402, it has a nice distortion sound.
O: I have a really old school DOD pedal, it's got an overdrive preamp 205. I also have a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, a couple of cabinets. I run drums though it. I have a bunch of shitty amps lying around like little Gorillas, Parks, that once you drive them too hard they can't handle it.
Since you both also work within the band and produce outside people and you both contribute musically a lot of the time to the other people you produce, how do you maintain objectivity when you're mixing your own stuff?
O: Actually it's really, really hard, especially this one. The first record was easier 'cause we did that one in 7 days — this new one we've been doing for 2 and a half years. So that's why I'm calling you in to sit in on the mixes. I need a different set of ears, someone with a different opinion... so I can remain objective. Initially we were trying to secure Alan Moulder to do the mixes, but being that we don't have a label for this new record, no money, no budget, nothing, that seems very far off, but maybe the next record we'll get him — who knows. I'll probably be mixing this new record myself with assistance from Dalek and you and anyone else who wants to participate. It's hard, but I'll make it happen.
D: Well, when I started, our old DJ Rek was the producer in my old hip-hop groups, so I used to be in a position where I had no say really as far as what the music sounded like. It was my job just to write lyrics and rhymes wherever I was told to, which is a very shitty experience. What I try to do with everyone I work with, like Odateee, is more like the two of us working together on his vision of his own album, and of course a lot of myself goes into that. I really try to make it as different as possible from what we do in Dalek. I do the same thing with Jett Brando. I'm more of a fan than anything else. I'm trying to produce a song that I would want Jett Brando to play, rather than a vision that I have.
So you guys have been doing a lot of remixes lately.
O: We're not remixers.
What do you mean by that?
O: I've heard remixes of some songs that are unbelievable. Black Sheep — I remember their single was the remix and I thought the original was wack after I heard the remix. Or even the Super Cat remix of "Ghetto Hot" I like better than the original. There's a lot of tracks like that, but when we do remixes I don't know that we're making the song better. We're actually just making it into something completely different — I don't know if that's a job really. I don't know enough about remixes to comment on it.
Well, it's gotten to the point where a remix is anything that says remix next to it. Half the time it doesn't have anything to do with the original song, or it's some idiot putting a break-beat under the song and thinking he's a genius.
O: I never knew really how to do a proper remix — with the Techno Animal one we heard some sounds on their track that inspired us to write a whole new song. It's weird, we just like to write songs and I don't know if we're great remixers. We just did one with Kid 606 and Dalek dropped lyrics on it, but again it was almost like we were inspired by some of the soundscapes in his original mix and more than remixing it we just wrote a piece based on it. He liked the remix we did so much that he's doing a remix of the remix, so it's getting a little disgusting. There's going to be the original mix, the remix, then the remix of the remix.
D: Don't forget the remix of the a cappella. [laughs]