By any alias, he's making a name for himself
Mixing old and new technology, Herren creates his own niche
The practice of spinning through the radio dial has become as outmoded as physical records themselves, so it feels like an oddly retro approach to reach for that constantly churning, searching effect in sequencing an album. That’s essentially the experience that glitch-hop artist Guillermo Scott Herren, a.k.a. Prefuse 73, perfected last year on “Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian,’’ a tapestry of 29 genre-randomizing and globe-trotting songs, many of which clock in under one minute long.
The music is equal parts live instrumentation put to analog tape and progressive-electronic computer wizardry. Hip-hop beats are stacked and unstacked on the fly, each snare hit kicking up its own dusty halo of static. Bursts of glitchy dissonance coalesce into moments of melodic coherence and exotic funk grooves. Synth washes and crate-digging samples are snatched from the ether and crackle briefly around a unifying concept before being cut into moments of devolving noise. At its best it’s an efficient listening experience for the genre omnivore who has little time to sit through three or four records at a stretch. At worst it’s a fractured and schizophrenic psychedelic trip.
“Ampexian’’ was just one of Herren’s ambitious projects of 2009. The prolific producer released “Ice Capped at Both Ends,’’ under the name Diamond Watch Wrists, another of his myriad aliases. In its more traditional song-based approach and largely organic instrumentation, “Ice Capped’’ was roughly antithetical to “Ampexian.’’ Herren also found time to drop a third record of Catalan acid-folk called “La Llama’’ under the moniker Savath and Savalas.
For new listeners approaching his music, it’s a lot to take in, especially since “Ampexian’’ was like nothing else he’d ever done, says Herren, who’ll bring Prefuse 73 to the Middle East Downstairs on Wednesday.
“It kind of naturally did fall under the you-love-it-or-hate-it category,’’ says Herren, 33, who has issued five full albums as Prefuse 73 and more than a dozen under other names, not to mention production and remix work he’s done for other artists. “Some praised and heard that it was different. There’s nobody behind that record to steer anyone in a particular direction. It’s basically up to the listener. A lot of the criticism that I picked up along the way was that these songs are too short and once you get into them they just end. It’s like, you know, there are a lot of songs on here. If I let them all run, it would be the opposite criticism.’’
The recording process, too, found him wading in uncertain territory. “Everything hit analog tape, as opposed to just doing it digitally. I used outdated stuff, broken stuff. I kept a lot of things implied rather than hit you over the head. There was a lot of progression on my part too, not putting the kick and snare where I normally would and just holding back on a lot of stuff. I learned a lot working on that record. It sounds nothing like the rest of the [stuff] that I’ve done. It’s a huge departure.’’
Presenting those songs in a live setting brings its own set of challenges. But the learning process itself is largely the point, he says. A concert gives him and his band a chance to expand upon the templates put down on record.
“I wouldn’t want to play a show if it didn’t involve an effort to change up what’s prerecorded and fight against the machine that made it,’’ he says. “We’ve been changing the intensity of the songs. I’ve been using two microphones rather than relying on the computer for things, creating things out of vocal loops straight on the fly. We got ourselves out of that boundary of presenting electronic music live, which is the whole point.’’
When you play it too straight, he says, it’s like creating your own cage. Audiences want to see how he’s creating sounds on stage as well, so there’s a bonus to flying closer to the edge.
“I used to do things by the book, but now I don’t,’’ Herren says. “I feel like there’s a lot of programs and ways to make music where everyone can get their hands on them a lot cheaper than they used to, so therefore you have a lot more people doing stuff that are gonna end up presenting the same type of shows. I like all this new music, but I don’t want to do the same show.’’
That improvisatory spirit means dealing with the occasional snafu. “Of course I [mess] up all the time. But . . . sometimes it ends up with some weird hidden beauty that only happens one time.’’
Or regularly over a decade-plus career.
“Those accidents that happen are kind of the foundation of what I started doing with Prefuse. I started thinking about hip-hop, using the same machines and same mentality that I had, but just working backwards and sort of deconstructing it then reforming it again. It’s unintentional a lot of the time. The mistakes can become a whole song of their own. I think that applies to all music as well.’’