Blockhead, a.k.a. Tony Simon, is a collage artist in the truest sense of the word. With 85 percent of his sound coming from samples, his is a different kind of talent: It takes a finely tuned ear to fit together dozens of sonic puzzle pieces that weren’t originally made for one another.
It also requires a lot of patience and skill to get sounds from various sources to lock in place and form a totally new composition. In Blockhead’s case, he made it particularly difficult on himself by setting harsh limitations, including a “no time stretching” rule.
But then he fell in love with Ableton Live, and his whole process changed with his fourth solo album (he’s also done production on eight Aesop Rock albums), The Music Scene [Ninja Tune]. “I’ve never used time stretching before until this album,” he says. “It was a lot of trial and error, but I got it tuned over the years to really pick out which sounds would sound good with what.”
Using Live, Blockhead opened up a world of possibilities. “I thought by using time stretching, it takes away the skill of what I’m doing,” he says. “I purposely wasn’t doing it in the past because I thought it was cheating. But on this album I was like, ‘I’ve proven that I can smash samples without cheating, so let me try to take this to a new level.’ Why be held back by constraints that I’m putting on myself that don’t apply to everyone else? And it made these songs sound bigger and more epic.”
Blockhead still limits himself in terms of what he samples, though. “I don’t really mess with stuff that’s made after like 1982,” he says. “I just think that’s when the sound of music changed, and I don’t really like that sound in sampling so much.”
He used to go to the 99-cent bins for records, but these days, he’s searching online because he says obscure records are out of his price range. Lately, he’s found a wealth of fodder on rare-music blogs. Mutant Sounds (mutantsounds.com) for example, has a blogroll that led him to other sites. “It takes a lot of snooping,” Blockhead says. “An hour later, I’m 20 steps away from where I started at something I’ve never seen before.”
Now he weaves together whole sections of sounds that previously had nothing in common. “I could make my whole album one song if I really wanted to,” Blockhead says. “That would be awful, but I probably could do it.”
Instead, he’ll try meshing two or three separate beats together (each one containing various musical and rhythmic samples), using one particular sample as an anchor, then pitching and changing the tempo of the other samples to fit the main sample. But even when he can get two sections in key, if the vibes don’t match, he moves on.
Blockhead still edits, pitches, and tweaks samples with his Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler (using floppy disks). To stay organized, he labels potential samples for different purposes, such as “transition” or “shift/tempo change.” “I sit there with a pen and a pad and pretty much map out the songs like an equation,” he says. “It’s funny that making music, at least with samples, is a lot more mathematical than you’d ever think it should be.”
“The Daily Routine,” “It’s Raining Clouds,” and “Farewell Spacemen” are examples of three-part Ableton smash-fests. “It’s Raining Clouds,” which features a menagerie of samples and styles—flute, sitar, horns, synths, piano; drum ‘n’ bass, rock, jazz—started from a scratch sound and backwards vocal, and kept building from there.
Blockhead also had his friend Damien Paris record bass and guitar, and Wilder Zoby from the band Chin Chin played/sang a DigiTech Talker vocoder through a Moog Liberation on “Four Walls.” Then Blockhead took his computer to producer BabyDayliner’s house, dumped tracks into Pro Tools, added more parts, and mixed it using plug-ins such as Joemeek Meequalizer, Tel-Ray delays, and Trillium Lane reverbs.
But they didn’t get too heavy with effects. The emphasis was on EQ. “Sometimes samples are tricky because they can have a wide palate, frequency-wise,” Baby Dayliner says. “You might find yourself dipping certain EQ ranges of a sample in order to let other stuff be heard better in the mix. We definitely wrestled with that issue a bit.”
Overall, Blockhead kept the wrestling to a minimum. “It’s funny because mixing has always looked like this thing that’s so anal, like, ‘Let’s spend an hour on this snare and get it to sound right,’” Blockhead says. “And I’ve never thought that way. I don’t like to dwell on a sound for hours and hours because really it’s the overall package that I’m looking at.”