Future Music - - CONTENTS -

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.”

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