BMG and Erika let us in on the secrets behind their raw, hardware-powered take on the Detroit techno sound
From babysitting Carl Craig’s modular rig to starting the legendary No Way Back party series, Detroit duo BMG and Erika, collectively known as Ectomorph, have deep Midwestern roots. Going to college in Michigan provided them with centre-stage access to a number of life-impacting shows and DJ sets, and the city’s machine-loving heritage has had a strong influence on their music. After an eye-opening trip to Tresor in the early ’90s, Gillen saw the reach that techno had already exhibited and was determined to make it his course in life. But while many of the DJs born from Detroit’s scene turned to Europe to build their careers, Gillen knew that he wanted to make music that would resonate with those who still called Detroit home. This approach paid off; according to Planet E, Carl Craig’s long-running label, “Brendan M Gillen is part of the history of Detroit as much as the acclaimed superstars”.
Gillen, who worked at Planet E at the time, shared a collection of tracks with Craig he had produced with then partner Gerald Donald (of Drexciya), but Craig passed on them, claiming they were too gritty for what his vision entailed. Gillen seized the opportunity and started his own label, Interdimensional Transmissions in 1995, and its slow and steady growth – in large part due to the No Way Back parties hosted in Detroit and now elsewhere – means it’s a reliable source for dark, full club-ready tracks.
Early Ectomorph tracks would combine 808 drums, blunt and forceful bass motifs and little else. With Erika joining the project, Ectomorph’s focus shifted to an ever-evolving live show that saw the two pairing a Verbos-heavy modular with live sequencing and improvisation. Capturing that in-the-moment approach was the main concern of
Stalker, Ectomorph’s first full-length album, released this past Halloween on IT. The cover, emblazoned with a black gloved hand on a rubbery background, works as both visual and metaphor for Ectomorph zeroing in on what they do best – taut, rhythmic exercises that leave little room for detail or error. Future Music spoke to the pair about their latest work, touring the world with a case full of analogue hardware, and which monosynth still stands up to this day. When you started out was there anyone playing live who inspired you?
Brendan: “Seeing Parliament Funkadelic play, when I got a backstage pass, and standing behind Bernie Worrell, seeing how he used the wah, seeing how he used the pitchbend and what knobs he turned – that blew my mind. I also remember seeing Himadri and Khan perform at a Hardware party, and their improvisational approach made for some of the best music I had ever heard. That was really inspiring for me. There were also a lot of DJ sets around Detroit that really blew my mind, and then hearing the
Spastik record by Richie Hawtin was really important for me.
“But I remember the thing that blew my mind the most was around 1996 seeing Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir perform on just a Kurzweil K2500, and with only five buttons and one fader, he made me feel all the emotions that you can feel from a live show. I was screaming, crying; it was so incredible. That helped me realise it’s not the equipment that you’re using, it’s the approach that you bring to it. All of the equipment becomes a subset of you.”
Erika: “I think of the Sardine Bar parties when I think of techno live shows that I was really into. When we were at university, we were getting tickets to things because we worked at the radio station, and one cool thing we saw was the Whirling Dervishes, and the idea from that which I really got into was the idea of time meaning something completely different in music, and the idea of a trance state in music. And that’s a place I’ll try to go to when playing live and even DJing more so, because DJing is more physically repetitive. When you’re playing live, you have to pay attention to 15 things at a time, whereas DJing is such a deep listening experience.” What was the first piece of gear you found?
Brendan: “The very first thing I bought was a 303, and I paid $300 for it and I thought I was getting ripped off. I really was – I paid $100 too much at the time. Then I bought a 909 and I didn’t realise I couldn’t hook them up to each other, so I had to buy a 707 so the 909 could control the 303 in real time. I finally learned that older guys used a device called the KMS-90, the Korg sync box, so that’s what started it. I got the 909 and 303 and I learned how to program with them.” Where were you finding this gear at the time? Obviously this was pre-Craigslist and eBay. Brendan: “I started by putting out an ad in the
Trading Times, which was really where you would buy a used car or a used appliance, stuff like that. One guy called me up and said, ‘Hi, I’m a lounge musician and I have this Sequential Circuits Pro-One. It has a lot of knobs and I mainly use it for left-hand bass,’ and I’m thinking to myself, what is left-hand bass? He wanted $100 for it and I took it home and that was my introduction to synthesis.” What was your impression of it when you got the Pro-One home?
Brendan: “I think the Pro-One is one of the most underrated keyboards of all time. It’s practically a modular with all the routings available, and it’s got a filter CV in, which was pretty advanced for a cheap, monophonic board. It can do tons of different kinds of sounds and I remember I only had a 101 and a Pro-One, as well as an 808 and a 909 when I started, and I would take my music to Carl Craig to see what he thought about it, and he would always guess the 101 and the Pro-One incorrectly, which made me feel so good that I was doing synthesis so well that it was fooling Carl Craig!”
Were these instruments hard to find back then or were they readily available?
Brendan: “I started a little bit ahead of the curve so it wasn’t as impossible for me to find them as it was for people who came later in the ’90s. Because I had gone to Tresor in 1991, I knew this was what I was going to do with my life. When Dan Bell found out I had a Pro-One, he and I would trade gear – I would lend him the Pro-One and he would lend me something else when he would go on tour. Some of his famous records, like Losing Control and Phreak feature my Pro-One.
“Through him, I met Mark Ernestus who runs Hardwax, and he had told me he always wanted another 909. So he told me, if I could find another 909, or 808 or 303, I could sell it to Hardwax. So I could find 909s, 808s, and 303s and sell them to those guys at a totally fair price, but I was getting a great deal and that allowed me to build up my own arsenal, so I could afford to buy more drum machines and more effects, and I ended up with a library of monophonic synthesisers. Eventually it did become harder to find these things but because we released records and we did live shows, people would be aware that we were using this gear, and more people would bring us equipment, or offer us equipment because they thought what we were doing was special.”
Erika: “That’s how I ended up with my 101 and Pro-One; we’re still talking about these pieces of gear but those were the first synthesisers I owned and probably to this day, the two synthesisers I know the best.”
Brendan: “The community of people knew that we were actually making music with this stuff, which is a big challenge for people. Getting the equipment, and then learning how to make a song, and then having the guts to perform it on stage – that takes a will of iron to stand onstage and potentially totally mess up in front of a bunch of people you admire.”
Erika: “And we definitely messed everything up in those early shows over the years.”
Brendan: “Which is why the live show now is so good!” So, Erika, when you first got your 606, what were your impressions of it? Were you underwhelmed by its minimal sound choices?
Erika: “I thought it was really fun to take to bed with headphones. It was pretty entertaining and I actually liked how simple it was because I got to learn about drum programming first in a really simple, straightforward way. We knew this guy, Chris Johnson, who modified mine in a way that made the kick drum thicker. And since then I’ve done the Quicksilver CPU upgrade, so now it’s super modern and I can trigger it. Originally I had the 606 and then I got the Pro-One and the 101, and because I could trigger it with the 606, I was really happy with those few little things. I very slowly over the course of the next ten years started accumulating one thing at a time and it wasn’t until mid to late 2000s that I had a little studio of my own at home.”
Brendan: “It wasn’t until 2003/2004 that you were finally showing me songs, and at the beginning of the new decade, it was clear that she was getting somewhere. I think the crucial development was when [Erika] chose to invest in the Octopus sequencer, by Genoqs.”
Erika: “Yeah, that thing came out in 2005 or so. At the time I was working at my advertising job, saving my money, and stalking that thing on the internet, because the right sequencer was really the thing that was missing for me. I was working all day in front of the computer and the last thing I wanted to do when I came home was click on Ableton. I had been using Ableton since the very beginning in one way or another but I never really fell for its sampling capabilities or making audio loops; I always just wanted to use it to program my machines. A hardware sequencer really changed that for me. Using the Octopus, I can make layers of sequences and send them to different channels and have different pages controlling the same instrument. It’s very deep.”
Brendan: “We have to incorporate that with the Ectomorph live shows because that’s her primary instrument, no matter what she sequences with it. It really is this Octopus that is the brain. So, for example, one keyboard line in a song will be seven sequences Erika is triggering, but it’s the way that the sequences are triggered, which makes the part. It’s playing the sequencer like an actual instrument.”
“I see the modular like a big adult toy puzzle that you’re constantly solving”
What are you controlling with the Octopus in the live setup?
Erika: “I have a little collection of boxes that I’m using with it currently that I’ve developed working with Brendan and for the Ectomorph live shows. Using the Octopus I can talk to all my machines at once. So, I’m sequencing the Moog Voyager and Minitaur, as well as a Waldorf Blofeld and Pulse 2.” Your side of the setup, Brendan, seems to heavily revolve around Eurorack. How did you find yourself going down that rabbit hole? What was your introduction to that approach?
Brendan: “I studied modular synthesisers for about three years before getting anything at all. I was in Carl Craig’s studio in the summer of 2015 and he was going on tour for a couple of months and he offered to let me use his modular during that time and try to learn it, to see if I could make any music with the thing. There were two Doepfer cases full of what he would bring to a live show. He had invested a lot in the mid 2000s, so he had a lot of the green Cwejman modules. The way they were laid out led me to really understand them easily; I could really relate to those modules. Back then, I was using a (Roland) MPU-101 to sequence it, and that spit out four CV/gate signals, and I got hooked.
“Having been a mathematics person and loving science, toys, and puzzles, it was just perfect for me. I see the modular like a big adult toy puzzle that you’re constantly solving. The amazing thing about modular is that it allows you to imagine something and then create a device about that idea. I developed a two-case system to do a live show that has one case with all the drums, effects, and a mixer, and the other box is three monophonic synth voices. It’s all based around the Verbos modules because I saw a video of Mark Verbos at NAMM announcing his initial line of five modules and the ideas in there had a lot of the Buchla concepts that I was really inspired by but it seemed like they could also do Jeff Mills techno too – it seemed like that had been in his thought process. So I really dug that. I find his modules to be the best and easiest for performance because of the tone quality and the size for human hands. A lot of modules, I feel like you have to have baby hands to use them. I was so shocked after watching videos of modular to actually have it in my hand and for it to be so small!” What are you using in the live show besides the Octopus for sequencing?
Brendan: “The live show is currently driven by an Arturia BeatStep Pro, which is a really simple sequencer, but it allows me to use it in real time and perform with it very smoothly. So within one year of getting the modular stuff, we were performing a full modular live show at Panorama Bar. It was pretty quick for me because I had made music for so long [before getting into modular], and this allowed me to be myself but to make some new ideas. If you’re working with a Pro-One for example, you’re always trying to find a weird anomaly with it, and within the modular system, I’m playing with a series of anomalies. You have to listen to it. It’s not just going to repeat itself at every show. You’re working with this ever-shifting landscape, and I find that to be really challenging but sonically interesting. There’s a whole era of my modular productions that the world will finally hear in 2019.
“I think it’s really important to approach your gear with respect. You have to learn it to get to know it, and you should go through that learning process at home, in private. Get to know your machines with great patience, so that you can learn to speak through them. Machines are just little boxes of human ideas, with many different humans inside of a single box.”
Erika: “It’s sort of like a bunch of little people that you have to maintain relationships with, and have conversations with, to actually make the music.”
Brendan: “You have to learn how to talk to the machines before you can talk through them, so that you appear, and not just the machine. A lot of these tools, you turn it on and it’s going to sound awesome. But how does it reflect you and what’s coming from you?” What were some of the lessons learned from all those years of doing shows?
Brendan: “There were a lot of little things we learned. Learning how to manage patches live took a while. At our first shows, we had clipboards and it looked like were accountants, or like someone was checking the stock in your store or something. But we basically looked like little science nerds, and it took a while to put the patches on the machines in a way that was nondescript.”
Erika: “Now it’s just a piece of tape on my sequencer with a few numbers and that’s the minimum amount of information I need to do transitions. Things have certainly gotten easier for notation.”
Brendan: “I keep notes to reference for the show, but that can be on an iPhone in your pocket. But I try to memorise the whole thing so I can go through the whole show without looking at the notes so it feels fluid.”
Erika: “No one wants to look at a screen in the middle of a show. The focus changes and all that light makes it awkward.”
Brendan: “Staying focused on the sound allows you to stay inside the sound. Early on, I would get nervous and I would go through the songs too fast. Or I would worry that people were not liking our crazy, reduced sound palette. But they were loving it, they just hadn’t heard it before. So it just took a while to learn that you should always do a full show with all your heart and soul, even if it was three people in the audience with their backs to you, because that might be how they listen. You can’t make that judgement, you’ve just got to do the show, and you don’t know – there might be someone you can’t even see who’s listening to the music and it’s changing his or her life. You don’t know. So we’ve learned how to actually do a show instead of being a nervous person with a lot of equipment who just brought it to a strange place.”