The path on which I discovered my musical identity was a little more convoluted than I would've liked. I spent a lot of years trying a little too hard, worrying too much about what other people thought. After mutating through several incarnations, I created Überzone. This was the project that allowed me to get out of the garage and onto the stage. It was born the moment I freely allowed my personality to invade my music. I'd always been fiercely individualistic and wanted my own sound; I just needed to look inside myself to find it.
It's easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm you may have for another artist's music and set about trying to re-create what they've done. Influences are fine, but it's imperative for your creative future that you find your own path. The more your individual personality is ingrained in the music, the more inherently interesting it becomes. With that in mind, I started going out to clubs, listening to what DJs were playing and thinking to myself, “What do I want to hear right now that they aren't playing?” I would also go to record shops and listen to all the new releases so I knew exactly what not to write. I've never been interested in making records that I could already buy.
There's this sense that producers need to quickly pump out “hits” before the traditional music industry implodes. They “flip” samples to create new hits, but it's not driven by creativity. How can we inspire producers to reclaim an innovative mindset again?
I have an analogy that works well concerning music creation: Do you want to be a chef or a cook? There are too many short-order cooks pumping out soulless music (or someone else's '80s hit) for profit these days. I'm personally sick of remade music and movies; it's as though innovation died 20 years ago and everyone is too lazy to try anything new. (Or worse yet, they fear they won't make any money.) I'd personally rather fail trying to do something original than succeed at being a biter. If the intention is to write artistically, turn off the breadhead. Commerce and creative integrity don't mix.
Be a chef: Start with the finest ingredients using the smallest elements available. A chef doesn't start with bottled sauce; he makes his own from scratch. So why would you start with an entire sampled beat? If you sample an entire drum break, you've just limited your ability to add your personality into the rhythm track. When you program your own beat, you'll pick all the individual elements — the kick, the snare, the hats, the feel, etc. It sounds esoteric, but there's a magic to being involved with the tiniest elements of your music. Don't eliminate the possibilities for expression by starting with whole chunks of other people's creativity.
Also, the creation of new sounds and textures is one of the most profound ways of expressing your own identity. Learn to program your synthesizers and samplers, and turn off the stock patches. Turn on Native Instruments Reaktor and make the sound your own. When you program the sounds yourself, you're programming your individuality into the sound itself.
How can you avoid biting other producers' styles?
Zig while everyone else is zagging. There's nothing wrong with a little defiance in the face of adversity when it comes to being creative. It breeds character. When I hear the next big thing is house, it makes me personally shy away from it. I'm always looking for a blank piece of canvas to paint on.
You are what you eat, so bring something new to the table. Allow yourself to be influenced by music outside the genre you're involved with. I listen to Tito Puente one minute and the washing machine the next, so when I start programming my beats I'm coming from somewhere different each time. Same with melodies: It's the by-product of all of your influences mixed with your unique perspective that breeds originality.
There's a great old movie called The Glenn Miller Story starring Jimmy Stewart (playing the famed big-band composer), and there's a part when he's going on and on about trying to find this elusive sound. In the movie, the trumpet player splits his lip, and it forces Glenn to rearrange the instrumentation in his song. It's this “happy accident” that enables him to find this original sound. Allow yourself time to experiment.
Be cognizant of what's going on but don't obsess about it. There's always going to be a “flavor of the month.” It's important not to get caught up in the media hype surrounding “the next big thing”; you'll only wind up chasing your tail. Write what you want to write, not what you think other people want to hear at the present time. Let the timing find you.
Is keeping up with new gear and techniques a big part of being innovative in the studio?
Not necessarily. I know quite a few producers who have all the new gear and, uh, let's just say it doesn't always lead to more innovative music. Conversely, I know some people who are using the most primitive gear and writing the most breathtakingly original music. It really is a matter of how well you use what you have. Take a record like Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. The gear used on that record was extremely primitive by today's standards, yet that record still sounds amazingly fresh today. I wrote my first big track, “Botz,” with extremely primitive gear, and it's one of the tracks that I'm still happy with today.
What mistakes should producers try to avoid making?
As much as I've focused on originality here, try not to become so obsessed with the concept of originality that you're being obscure for obscurity's sake. It makes for a very painful listening experience.
Never compromise your musical integrity in an attempt to make it more popular. Innovate over imitate. Imitation is the most sincere form of boredom.
Get used to Top Ramen and be okay with it. Don't confuse monetary success and music popularity with music quality. Some of the best music ever written never made it to the radio or MTV. Forget about money. If it's meant to come, it will.