Tri Angle Records signee James Kelly, was one of 24 artists asked to create new, and unique compositions as part of the Komplete Sketches range in 2016. Better known by his artist name WIFE, Kelly is known for his more obscure, and experimental bodies of music. Speaking to Native Instruments about his approach to Sketches, Kelly digs into why presets and plugins are the perfect production starting point for him.
How did creating your contribution to Sketches work for you?
Whenever I get a new set of software or plugins, I’ll have a notepad and write down the names of presets and instruments I like and stuff that I’m into. Once I identify those things, I try to either build on the sound that’s there or do some reductive stuff, like tweak it to make it more my own and less out-of-the-box, so to speak. It’s amazing when you find something like a preset or plugin that’s perfectly suited to your taste. It just means you can work fast and start developing an idea way quicker instead of painstakingly tweaking a sound just so you can get started. I know a lot of people who subscribe to the idea that you should get the ideas down first and worry about the sound later, but I can’t even get my idea down if the thing I’m working on—the kick or synth or whatever it is—doesn’t sound like how I imagine. I’ll just stop working on it. That kind of “design” is becoming a part of my work more anyway. I think the idea of writing a unique melody or a unique chord progression is almost redundant at this point. Instead, I think what’s starting to make some music sound unique and separate from other things is the sound design and the production quality. That’s why I need them to be right for me before I can start developing my ideas.
What have been the most useful things you’ve learned over the years? Is it more about specific techniques or new software? Are there any particular game-changers?
It’s kind of 50-50. On one hand, a really good piece of software makes you up your game. Some of the stuff that comes out of Polyplex is so good you’re like, “Damn, the drums that I’ve been programming sound like shit next to that.” The other part has been trial and error. Over time, you’re honing your craft and developing your skills and ideas a bit more, constantly writing, constantly trying new things. Starting to do paid commercial gigs made me step up my game a little. When someone’s paying you—whether it’s for sound design or composing music for adverts—you need to deliver something of a certain standard. It needs to be good.
Do you find that paid work needs a different approach than your own music does?
Yeah, absolutely. I put out an album on Tri Angle, and then basically didn’t write anything for WIFE for about a year. In the meantime I was working on these different commercial projects, and one of the things that taught me was that I am able to write quickly and turn out really good-sounding stuff when I need to. But when it comes to my own stuff, I have this classic mental block where I just can’t finish anything and nothing’s ever good enough. With the EP I’ve just finished, it was the opposite. I forced myself to work like I would on a commercial project and finish things more quickly. I put myself under the good kind of pressure just to give myself a deadline and get it done.
What was different in the process for this EP?
It was more about turning things around quickly and actually saying “This is done” when I felt it was done. If it’s commercial stuff, I’ll give myself until, say, Friday evening to finish it and then I may never think of it again. But if it’s my own stuff I’ll end up tweaking things until the eve of mastering. And I’ve definitely learned from experience. Some of the tracks on the album I did for Tri Angle were at version 53 or something by the end of it. You realize once you get to version 53 that the thing was done back at version five, but something kept changing and kept getting tweaked. If you’re at a point where you think your song’s not good enough because you need to change a snare drum, something else is really wrong. A snare drum isn’t going to change anything.
So I guess the difference now is that you try to keep an eye on the big picture?
Yeah, exactly. And just try to take a bit of an objective step back from it and let it flow as naturally as it should rather than completely overcooking it.
So how did it work with the last EP? Did you know you were going to do a five-track EP beforehand, or did you just do it track by track?
I just started writing. After a while I started to come up with things that I felt good about, and for the first time in a long time, I was in a good place about my music and my writing. I just wanted to write that feeling and get it wrapped up while I still felt good about it. I’m very lucky to have a partner who I can bounce ideas off of, and sometimes that’s what you need: an objective opinion from someone who can say, “You’re really onto something here” or tell you that you’re totally wrong and that it isn’t working. That helped me a lot, and I just kept rolling with it. In the end I had these five tracks that fit together nicely for me, and that’s how it ended up happening.
Do you like to show unfinished stuff at an early stage, or do you wait for it to be nearly ready?
I’ve gotten better. It used to be like everything was cloaked—I wouldn’t let anybody see or hear anything until it was 100 percent, and that’s a terrible idea in my opinion. I don’t know anybody out there who wouldn’t benefit from some sort of input. And nine times out of 10, the input you need is just big picture, objective input. Nobody ever steps in and says, “Your track would sound way better if you tweaked the EQ on that hat” or something. It’s never that kind of input; it’s always the bigger picture. I’ve definitely gotten better at knowing which of my friends I can rely on for constructive criticism and when it can be beneficial.
It’s really important to get the right ears on it.
Definitely. It can be a mix of reasons: insecurity, or you feel shy, or sometimes it’s to do with competitiveness. I remember when I was living in London I had a bunch of friends who were music producers living in the same house, and they used to only work on headphones because they didn’t want anyone to hear them. That’s crazy.
How do you know exactly when a track’s finished? Do you turn it into a time thing, where if it’s not working after two or three weeks, you move on to something else?
Yeah, I’ve definitely gotten better at that. It’s the same thing people always say. I think the best work gets done when that creative spark and excitement is there in the first half-hour or so. You know it’s worth the labor if you still feel excited, if it gives you a buzz every time you open the project and you still feel like you’ve got ideas to throw at it. But if it gets to the point where it’s like pulling a tooth and it’s barely changed after four months, it’s not good.
When you do get stuck, do you have strategies to get things moving again?
I’ve got to say, when I was just learning how to use Ableton and how to produce in general, I was on Dubstepforum a lot. They had a really cool producer Q&A thing, and one of the most beneficial ones ever was with Objekt. He gave a list of points about how he does shit, and everybody should read that. One of the ones in particular that I thought was great and that I’ve used ever since was about when you’re doing a mixdown: turn the screen off, put headphones on and take notes with pen and paper. I’ve found that really beneficial to do.
If you’re at a point where you think your song’s not good enough because you need to change a snare drum, something else is really wrong
There was one Q&A with him—maybe it’s the same one—where he said that by version 40, a track is going to have nothing to do with its initial version.
I’ve definitely been through that stuff. With this EP, some of the tracks stuck really close to their initial inception, and one or two really went in a different direction with only tiny relics of the original left in them.
There are a lot of tutorials on YouTube that teach you how to make every beat under the sun. Do you watch that kind of thing?
I used to. Back when I was reading Objekt’s Q&As I watched every single Red Bull Music Academy lecture and every YouTube tutorial. It becomes so satisfying when you’re at the point of not needing to do that anymore and you’re very intuitively connected with your DAW and the other software you use. And now I’m at a stage where if I want to do something, I can just dive straight in and do it.
So what’s your setup now?
It’s mostly Ableton, and then I use the Komplete Kontrol keyboard for a lot of things because it’s nice for automation and things like that. I like outboard effects units occasionally, mostly for vocals and things like that. And then I track a lot of my own voice and put it through samplers and things like that. The whole thing ends up being very much in the box, but a lot of the elements that end up in the box are recordings of instruments or my voice—different things like that. With this record I did a bizarre, tedious thing, but it ended up getting me the results I wanted so I can’t complain: I went to a studio to track all of my kick drums. I had them all in my DAW, then I went to a studio to send them through this big rig of Ampeg bass amps and track them coming into the room live. So there’s no reverb on my kicks. It’s like they’re being performed live in the recording space. Definitely tedious though. I got an email from Bobby, The Haxan Cloak, after I put out my record saying, “How did you make that kick drum?!” That’s another little success at least!
Many artists spend a lot of time in the digital domain trying to make things sound less perfect. So they might have this lush, beautiful reverb but spend a lot of time trying to make it sound like there’s something slightly wrong with it.
For sure! It’s really interesting how there’s a trend in electronic music at the moment where people are trying to fuck up the digital perfection more and more. That’s really cool. And again, that relates to what I’m talking about: with electronic music at the moment, I feel the most interesting factors are often cosmetic, more than actually in the songwriting.
2016 was really interesting for sound design. There’s quite a lot of artists about now who really focus more on sound than on melody and harmony.
I think I definitely moved more into a spatial thing with this EP. And as a writer, what’s exciting about that is that it builds up this massive spectrum within which you can express yourself, not only with a melody and with the drums but with the movement and the way you play with the listener’s perception of the song.
Not to be too skeptical about it, but I hope this movement doesn’t reach a saturation point where it becomes style over substance. I’ve seen that in metal. It begins as these really pissed-off people starting a band and screaming because they really have something to scream about—maybe they’re unemployed and living in a really shitty social situation or whatever. They really have a reason to scream. Then it continues on as a trend and at the top of the food chain is someone screaming who has nothing to scream about and is just doing it because everyone else is. It sort of catches on and the people doing it no longer know why they’re doing it.
I guess there’s always that danger of emulation.
Of course, and it happens so much in music. There’s so, so much interesting electronic music coming out right now, but these things obviously move at such a stellar rate. It’s crazy. And it can change so quickly. It’s really to my taste in that I come from a noisy metal background, and electronic music is getting to be the noisiest it’s been since Rusko was putting out tracks.
Who’s been really interesting for you this year?
I’m a big fan of all my friends and peers in Berlin; the Amnesia Scanner guys are amazing and super inspirational in a lot of ways. In terms of what I listen to at home, I’ve got a love/hate thing with that new Bon Iver. I think sonically it’s incredible. I’m still a sucker for songs, but I don’t know why. As much as I can appreciate a lot of the stuff that’s going on right now, I sometimes really crave a song at its core. I love Amnesia Scanner for that reason: they do the amazing sound design thing, but at its core is a track you can really lock into.
It’s funny how people have been saying, “It’s never been easier to make music” for the last decade or so. I’ve always found that to be a pile of shit because it’s always been easy to get a guitar or get a piano. And at the end of the day, the people who really have that drive in their soul to make it work are gonna do it. And I think every person I know at some point has downloaded some music software, loaded it up and given it a go. But they give up two weeks later because they’ve got a Karate class or whatever. Some people try these things and you know it’s just a fad, but I think the people who actually want to make music will always find a way to do it.
This article was originally published at Electronic Beats.
photo credit: Camille Blake