Mid­west­ern rave icon, Lisa Smith – formerly DJ Shiva and now re­named Non­com­pli­ant – chats with Leo May­mind about work­flows, cross­ing the DJ-pro­ducer di­vide, and not look­ing a giftMachine­drum in the mouth

Future Music - - IN THE STUDIO WITH -

Lisa Smith is a charis­matic in­di­vid­ual, both be­hind and in front of the decks. Part of that ap­peal comes from her deft mix­ing and deep knowl­edge of un­der­ground ’90s techno, much of which was on dis­play at her re­cent b2b with Cour­tesy in Paris for Red Bull Mu­sic Acad­emy, as well as on mixes for Res­i­dent Ad­vi­sor, Dis­c­woman and Slam Ra­dio. But an­other part of that charisma comes from her out­spo­ken na­ture on all things re­lated to mu­sic and life in the US, in­clud­ing her pure and con­ta­gious joy for the art and magic of DJing. Start­ing out as DJ Shiva in the Mid­west rave scene in the late ’90s and even­tu­ally tak­ing on the nom-de-plume Non­com­pli­ant, Smith’s path has seemed to col­lide with ev­ery­one who has ever dragged a 1200 out into a field un­der a Mid­west­ern moon.

While Smith’s skills as a DJ are now tak­ing her away from her home base of In­di­anapo­lis on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, she’s also a ded­i­cated stu­dio head, with a small arse­nal of drum ma­chines and ana­logue syn­the­sis­ers that she reg­u­larly puts through their paces, as can be seen on the many live jams cat­a­logued on her In­sta­gram page. Like a slew of pro­duc­ers that came of age af­ter the golden era of Roland drum ma­chines, Smith first tried her hand at pro­duc­tion on a friend’s copy of Re­birth, and even­tu­ally Rea­son, steal­ing time when she could at her graphic de­sign job.

Seven years later, Smith has built up an im­pres­sive discog­ra­phy with re­leases on Ar­got, Dark En­tries, Detroit Un­der­ground, Flash Record­ings and Va­lence that all demon­strate Smith’s im­pres­sive knack with hard­ware. Her taut, clear pro­duc­tion style is coun­tered by a play­ful ap­proach to sound de­sign that hints at a mul­ti­lay­ered mu­si­cal past. In­formed by watch­ing what did and didn’t work over two decades of throw­ing down ‘booty-shak­ing’ rave hits, a Non­com­pli­ant track man­ages to al­ways move for­ward ki­net­i­cally, even while push­ing el­e­ments on the sonic fringes to head­ier ter­ri­to­ries. Fu­ture Mu­sic went deep with the In­di­anapo­lis na­tive on what she does to get in­spired in the stu­dio, her favourite live acts, and how a group of friends and fam­ily came to­gether to gift her a piece of kit that’s be­come a stu­dio sta­ple. You started out as a DJ and then started pro­duc­ing, right? “Yep.” How long have you been pro­duc­ing? “I think since about 2004, with some gaps in there when I just stopped for a while. My first record re­lease was in 2005. I got fired from my job and vowed to learn how to pro­duce and have a record out in six months. And I did.” What was your re­la­tion­ship to pro­duc­ing like be­fore then? Was it some­thing you had al­ways wanted to get into or was it not on your mind at all when you started DJing? “Well ac­tu­ally I did start out play­ing in­stru­ments. I played vi­o­lin first. Then gui­tar and bass gui­tar. A lit­tle bit of drums. I’ve been play­ing mu­sic since I was a kid. I played in string quar­tets and punk rock bands in Evansville, In­di­ana. Started DJing in ’95. Moved to Indy in ’96, and when I say ‘started DJing’, I mean I fi­nally got turnta­bles. I was play­ing just ran­dom rave CDs in punk clubs be­fore that.” Were there any live acts at all? “There prob­a­bly were, but I didn’t see many back then. There were def­i­nitely peo­ple play­ing live. Ron S, Shawn Rudi­man, Paul Birken. It just wasn’t a big thing at the time. At least not in Indy. I mean, we are so close to Chicago and Detroit that we were see­ing the best of the best DJs all the time. And I was pretty damn poor at the time too, so buy­ing mu­sic gear was not re­ally on my radar. Es­pe­cially since any­thing that ate into my record buy­ing habit was a no-go.” So, your first record, your first pro­duc­tions – what were you us­ing when you started out? “When Re­birth came out I spent a lot of time at my graphic de­sign job play­ing with it. That’s re­ally the ori­gins of me try­ing to make techno. So then my buddy Adam Jay and I started mess­ing with Fruity Loops. Just ca­su­ally at his house, since I still didn’t own a com­puter. I didn’t have a com­puter un­til 2002, and it was a hand-me-down from him.

“And I started learn­ing Rea­son on that. I got to play with drum ma­chines here and there. My friend Devin (Craco Saca) from Louisville let me mess with the 909 and a se­quencer. And I was re­ally re­sis­tant to pro­duc­tion for a long time, too. There was a lot of out­side pres­sure to pro­duce mu­sic ‘in or­der to get DJ gigs’ and I thought that was a stupid rea­son to make mu­sic, so I wouldn’t do it.” When you were mess­ing with Rea­son and Re­birth, how fa­mil­iar were you with the in­stru­ments and drum ma­chines those pro­grams were em­u­lat­ing? The 909, 303, etc. “I mean, yeah, I knew about the clas­sic Roland ma­chines. I didn’t know much. I just knew those were key el­e­ments. I only re­cently re­alised how key the SH-101 was to techno. Be­cause I played with the That seems to be a com­mon thread among peo­ple we’ve talked to – the idea that DJing starts when you get turnta­bles, not that it starts when you start play­ing mu­sic for peo­ple, re­gard­less of for­mat or where it’s hap­pen­ing. “Yep. Well, for years I wanted to get turnta­bles and buy records, but I knew. I knew I would be ad­dicted and it would never stop. I was cor­rect.” So when you were DJing in those early days, did you have any idea that you wanted to get more in­volved in pro­duc­tion later down the road? Was that in the back of your mind? “No, I was re­ally ded­i­cated to DJing. It was when the Mid­west rave scene was re­ally at a high point and DJs were re­ally the fo­cus there.”

SH-01A and I heard all the sounds and weird legato bends that you could hear in so much Detroit and Kala­ma­zoo techno.” So this is a good bridge to drum ma­chines in gen­eral, as you have quite a few in your stu­dio now: the Dig­i­takt, the Machine­drum, the Ana­log Rytm, and the DFAM, right? “Yep. And that’s all be­cause of Adam as well. With­out me know­ing, he set up a crowd­fund­ing page and a bunch of my friends and fam­ily bought me a Machine­drum for my birth­day. I thought I was com­ing over to his house for cake. I did get cake. I also got a Machine­drum! I stud­ied that man­ual like I was study­ing for a physics exam. Be­cause, when 36 of your friends and fam­ily buy you a drum ma­chine, you should prob­a­bly learn it and make mu­sic with it, right?” How was it, sud­denly hav­ing the Machine­drum? “It was hard to grok in some ways. I had been mak­ing mu­sic with Able­ton for a while be­fore that. So I un­der­stood ba­sic 16-step se­quenc­ing and all that. But then sud­denly I needed a sound­card. So I had to fig­ure that out. And then once I started to fig­ure it out, you need a monosynth to play along, right? And this is all sound­ing fa­mil­iar be­cause this is al­ways how it goes. So af­ter I got the Machine­drum, I got a Mi­croBrute. And I started to un­der­stand syn­the­sis much more. I could al­ways bum­ble into cool noises. But un­der­stand­ing how to do it made things much more im­me­di­ate.” Did you like the Mi­croBrute? “I did! It was re­ally fun, but I didn’t like that I couldn’t save patches. The good thing was that I would just jam live and record whole five-minute jams. But then I would kind of get stuck and that’s all I had. Then came the No­va­tion Bass Sta­tion 2.” So you had the MD and the BSII. Were you do­ing a lot of jams with just those two? “Yeah, the Air­lessS­paces EP is mostly those. I just synced them up with MIDI. And some­times I did some sim­ple se­quences with the Machine­drum MIDI ma­chines. The BSII is a great synth. Adam al­ways re­minds me that when I’m stuck, go back and make some se­quences and just jam with en­velopes and knobs with that one, and some­thing cool will come of it. I re­ally love en­velopes with slid­ers. It’s re­ally nice to have that vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tion to work with.” Did you find your­self mak­ing dif­fer­ent mu­sic when you got more hard­ware? “I feel like there is more of an el­e­ment of play to it for me. I still do a lot of ar­range­ment in Able­ton. But I can find the bare bones of a tune by play­ing and record­ing it all. It’s more im­me­di­ate when I can sit down and rat­tle off a beat quickly and then just pick a synth and play with sounds. It feels more ex­ploratory and less like I am just mak­ing a spread­sheet. And it also im­poses some form of lim­i­ta­tion. Even though these in­stru­ments can do a lot, there are, with each one, cer­tain lim­i­ta­tions. I’m not scrolling through end­less lists of sam­ples. Or pre­sets. I just sit down and make noise and some­times that’s all it is, which is fun and ed­u­ca­tional on its own. But some­times out of in­choate noise some­thing hap­pens and be­gins to take shape. And you find its shape and then you add some­thing else around it. And it’s just… fun.” Are you al­ways record­ing in the stu­dio or some­times just mak­ing noise and not wor­ry­ing about cap­tur­ing it? “Both. I do a lot of just mak­ing noise. But once I feel some­thing has a form to it, I will record. Though, I’m kind of re­assess­ing my work­flow lately. I want to do more bare bones ar­range­ment on the ma­chines.” Where do you find your­self start­ing when you are get­ting into the groove with the ma­chines? “I’ve been ter­ri­ble about work­ing lately be­cause I’ve been pretty smashed for time. But I try to do at least three ses­sions a week if I can. Just go sit in the stu­dio. Even if all I do is re­wire shit, or learn a new thing, that’s progress. My stu­dio is in my house, so that makes it easy. I might be think­ing, ‘Oh, I won­der what it’d sound like if I se­quence the SH-01A with the Dig­i­takt se­quencer’. Maybe it’s in­ter­est­ing. Maybe it isn’t. So what hap­pens if I add a trig­ger from the Machine­drum? A lot of this is

“Us­ing hard­ware feels more ex­ploratory… less like just mak­ing a spread­sheet”

ex­per­i­men­tal. Some­times it’s less so. Some­times I am like ‘I want to make a re­ally bru­tal beat and run it through this thick-ass tube plugin.’ I start with what­ever I want to play with that day. If I want in­sta-techno, I start with the DFAM.” Do you ever find your­self on the dance­floor think­ing about the pro­duc­tion of a track you’re lis­ten­ing to? “I don’t get too thinky about it, re­ally. I might won­der, ‘Oooh, how did they make that sound?’ and try and fig­ure it out later. Or if I am strug­gling with basslines, I might pay more at­ten­tion to basslines and how they work in a tune. Or hi-hats. I’ll lis­ten to hi-hat pat­terns and vari­a­tions just out of cu­rios­ity and think­ing about how to make vari­a­tions of my own. So, maybe I do get thinky about it? ‘Do I con­tra­dict my­self? Very well, then I con­tra­dict my­self, I am large, I con­tain mul­ti­tudes’.” Do you ever think about how ‘func­tional’ a track is when you are in the stu­dio? “I mean, as a DJ, I kind of do. I don’t have a prob­lem with func­tional mu­sic. I like tracky tracks that are just meant to be lay­ered.” Your decades of DJing mean you’ve seen a lot of pro­duc­ers come and go. What do you think a pro­ducer needs to do to stand out to­day? “Not try to sound like ev­ery­one else. There’s a lot of samey stuff these days. I sift through tons of mu­sic.” Do you think it’s be­cause more peo­ple are do­ing it these days? “I mean, the tech­nol­ogy has be­come much more ac­ces­si­ble. Just lots of peo­ple mak­ing this kind of mu­sic for rea­sons of get­ting gigs, as you said be­fore. So you take the good with the bad. Yay! More peo­ple can make mu­sic. Boo! More peo­ple make the same kind of mu­sic ev­ery­one else does. I have of­ten ques­tioned my­self. Like, am I just putting more crap out into the world for other peo­ple to sift through? I made an en­tire EP based on that called Con­sumer Prod­uct EP, which in­cludes a song called In­sipid

Mar­ketFod­der. I was like, ‘Am I just adding to the noise?’ Yes, the an­swer is yes. But… here we are. I still want to make mu­sic.” What are your thoughts on col­lab­o­ra­tion? And, have you ever thought about putting to­gether a live set? “Yeah, Adam and I have col­lab­o­rated a lot. We did a cou­ple EPs to­gether a few years ago. He’s still my go-to lis­tener when I am stuck or just not feel­ing a tune. He can al­ways suss out what’s not work­ing. I love col­labs. I am work­ing on some stuff with a few peo­ple now. As far as a live set, I would be bored to death lis­ten­ing to an en­tire set of my own mu­sic. When it comes to play­ing out, my skills are as a DJ. I am OK with that. Plus, hon­estly, I don’t want to drag all my gear out and travel with it. That sounds an­noy­ing and po­ten­tially ex­pen­sive. I ad­mire peo­ple who do. Es­pe­cially peo­ple like Shawn Rudi­man who is so im­prov with what he does. Or KiNK, who looks like he is hav­ing the time of his life.

“But no, to hear me play techno is to hear me play techno in the con­text of the whole genre, not just my lit­tle sound in it. I love techno so much, I want to play it all.” What would you say to your younger self? “Don’t worry so much about the sound en­gi­neer­ing. Pay some­one else to do that. I quit for years be­cause I was spend­ing 50% of my time be­ing cre­ative and 50% try­ing to make ev­ery­thing sound per­fect. And I got frus­trated be­cause I just didn’t want to be a sound en­gi­neer. I mean, I learned a lot. But it stopped me for years. You don’t have to know ev­ery­thing. You don’t have to sound per­fect. Just write good mu­sic. Let some­one who is re­ally good at en­gi­neer­ing help you. Women are cau­tious about that be­cause so many times their work is then cred­ited to any dude whose name is con­nected to the mu­sic. But I would rather take that chance than quit mak­ing mu­sic out of frus­tra­tion. You don’t have to be per­fect. Just be you. Make what you like. En­joy it as much as you can.”

“I’ve no prob­lem with func­tional mu­sic. I like tracky tracks that are meant to be lay­ered”

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