It’s impossible to trivialize the impact of The Tracks Are Alive, Dave Pezzner’s 2010 album on Freerange Records. A key catalyst in pushing Deep House back to the top of the underground music scene, Tracks also turned Dave into dance music’s latest “overnight sensation”.
For those reasons alone, Pezzner’s follow up album – Last Night in Utopia – is going to have people talking. I had a chance to listen to the album, set to drop November 8 from Systematic Recordings. By the fourth track, I was certain I was hearing the album of the year. It’s astonishing.
At a time when everything good is a throwback, Pezzner’s exquisite sense of sound design brought me back, alright – back to the era when I first heard House Music and had no idea what an 808 or a 303 was, when every click & bang seemed to come from some celestial organ rather than a piece of machinery or a plug-in. A horn sample, perhaps from a disco record, becomes a low, guttural growl, distorted until unrecognizable. Breaks appear in the most unusual places. The simplest tracks, like “Bell & Whistle”, somehow become the most complex.
We talked to Dave about an album some two years in the making – a process he dubbed “easily the longest art project I have ever involved myself in.”
The Tracks Are Alive remained in circulation for an incredibly long time when you think about how short attention spans are. For one thing, our scene as a whole sounds a lot more like Pezzner than it did before. Why do you think Tracks had that kind of staying power, and can you introduce us to Last Night in Utopia?
There was some pretty magical energy going on when I was working on The Tracks Are Alive. I think it was a perfect storm of inspiration. Around the time I was working on it there were big changes happening in my life. I was learning so much and I really felt like I could do no wrong creatively. The writing process was quick and songs came so easy. And at the time Tracks was released, it was the perfect time for what I was doing. We were just starting to see a proper House Music revival, and I felt like my music was an abstraction of that.
This album is very different as far as writing is concerned. I began writing Last Night In Utopia around the time my daughter was born, and my creative time at home was very short. If it used to take me a few days to write a tune, now it takes me a couple weeks at best. I found myself needing to save my inspiration for the times I was on tour. So more than half of the album sketched out during my tours – on trains, hotel rooms, airport terminals… anywhere I could, really.
What’s the meaning of the title track, “Last Night in Utopia”? If it has an apocalyptic meaning, the album certainly doesn’t sound hedonistic, in that blissed-out “Let’s Go Crazy” kind of way.
No. There is no apocalyptic meaning. The idea is that it’s more like a recount of the good and bad that happened last night, in “Utopia”. We can leave the rest to the imagination – whatever you think Utopia would be.
Listening to “One-Up”, I kept coming back to the sound of Alan Parsons and the big arena synth-rock of the ’70s. Is there a story behind the song?
“One Up” is one of those songs that came together in the most perfect way. If any part of this LP is going to be my prized piece of work, it would be the montage of “One Up” and “Drop of Fears”.
Once in a while – and I mean very occasionally – I’ll sit down to work on a tune and the song will write itself. It’s almost like the music has its own life and is pushing itself to come into out, and I’m just the song’s vehicle. As an artist, I am always trying to get to this point where the art takes control. It’s the only way I can explain it. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t play any instruments, and I don’t have really any training in music. If you were to put me in front of a drum, I wouldn’t even be able to hold a beat. I have a terrible sense of natural rhythm, and if it weren’t for the sequencer, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. I get so jealous of pianists and percussionists, because what would take me days to write – [like] a 3 minute synth and percussion solo – might take a genius like Alan Parsons just 3 minutes.
That said, “One Up” was written in Rome. I had about a week of free time between cities on a tour in 2011. I was just back from an amazing night in Moscow, and settled in the apartment I rented in Trastevere. I set up my studio in the living room, opened all the windows and spent a couple of days writing “One Up” note-for-note on my laptop.
This was when I first contacted Amina about collaborating. Amina is a crucial piece of the puzzle when it came to “One Up” because without “Drop of Fears”, “One Up” has no resolve. I sent her the tune and first she sent me poetry for “Drop Of Fears” – which, by the way, is some serious stuff. My heart nearly stopped when I read it. A couple weeks later, she sent me the vocal recording, this truly heartfelt enactment of that eerie bit of poetry.
What Amina brings to the table creatively is so much more than just being a quality vocalist. When Amina sings she comes from a very surreal and sometimes dark place, and you can tell that she’s not just writing and singing from just her imagination, but she’s actually speaking from her own experiences. This was the first song I wrote with Amina, but there will be plenty more to come.
I noticed that those two songs were linked – actually, that all of the album is linked. I was asking if the new iTunes auto-mixing was that good or if the album was continuously mixed, because it flowed from one track to the next in a very sublime and clever way.
Yes, in writing Utopia I took the entire LP flow into consideration and wrote some of the songs to sit next to each other on the LP. So the songs weren’t just compiled into a list. I laid out the entire playlist in the studio and produced the entire thing as one project, and this way I had full control of the transitions. The beauty of compiling my LP like this is that it allowed me to create these small bits and interludes that never would have come out in the individual songwriting. I’m pretty sure this is how all of my LPs will be compiled from here on out.
You know, we’re talking about art but there’s still a groove to this, man – it’s NOT sterile dance music. How much are you thinking about an audience? Do you think, ‘This one’s cool for the guy with his earbuds, but now I need one for the DJs…’
The awesome thing about the album format is that you don’t have to worry about the DJ audience so much. It’s whatever-goes. But of course I love to DJ, and I love the whole dynamic where the audience gets feedback from the DJ who gets feedback from the audience. So when I write, it’s hard not to close my eyes and picture how this tune will go over on the dance floor. I’ll picture myself in a club like Panorama Bar, and imagine myself in the audience and try to listen as if this is the first time I’ve ever heard this song. Then I take note of how the song works and produce accordingly. I suppose the direction of my music is really driven on where I want to put myself at that time.
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] Everything in life comes in waves and has peaks and valleys. At the height of the initial “new guy” attention I was getting, I felt it was important to keep reminding myself that what goes up must come down. [/quote]
I’m curious of your philosophy on keeping up with musical trends. I think everyone that writes about you is bound to mention how “forward thinking” you are. But as a DJ, for instance, there can be a tension between being the best “you” that you can be and your role as an entertainer.
I occasionally take on private students in my studio. I tell almost every kid that comes through that if they want to make their voice heard, if they really want people to listen, they need to experiment and try to find a new sound for themselves. If you spend all your time chasing the trends, where’s the “you” in your art? What is it about what you are doing that’s going to compel people to care at all? You need to have your own story. I think if your art reflects who you are, simply being “you” should be entertaining enough.
DJing is a little different. DJing in clubs is about making people dance. But also, if people are there to see you, it’s important to do your thing and not just play what is popular. So I think there needs to be a balance between keeping people engaged and taking the risks that make you the artist that you are.
A few years ago, you experienced the onset of outrageous popularity, where everyone in the world suddenly became a longtime fan and I bet they became your best friend, too. It must be unreal, but you seem to have come out of that surreal experience okay. Did it change you?
Well I can definitely say there is nothing that will keep you grounded like having kids. I think it’s important to keep my head about things. At the height of the initial “new guy” attention I was getting, I felt it was important to keep reminding myself that what goes up must come down. Everything in life comes in waves and has peaks and valleys. Things will go fast, and for no reason at all they will slow down. Periods of happiness are followed by periods of sadness. Periods of inspiration are always followed by periods of stagnation. So for me it’s important to remember that. These days I spend the majority of my time with my little 2 year old girl and I’m like, 60% stay-at-home dad, so my focus has definitely changed.
There also doesn’t seem to be a “Pezzner, Inc.” building up walls around you. You’re not a hard guy to reach, and you seem to be involved with labels big and small, in genres one wouldn’t expect.
That’s probably another result of just following my own inspirations. When I sit down in the studio, I do what comes out and I try not to force anything. As a result, I get a pretty diverse range of sounds and styles. I love to make experimental noise just as much as I love to make disco house or rock. Also, being that house music is such a big part of my career, I don’t discriminate too heavily on whether the label is big and small. If a project comes in, I take it and I put my very best into it.
Dave Pezzner’s Last Night in Utopia will be released on November 8 from Systematic – check it here at trackitdown. You can reach him via soundcloud.com/pezzner; for NA bookings contact aptentertainment.com.