The Dead Fader project has mutated quite a bit since it’s origins. Originally a collaboration between John Cohen & Barry Prendergast, the duo’s early material mediated distortion drenched dubstep with static-heavy, bitfucked techno and noise.
Since taking the project solo however, Cohen has eased the project to something less tinnitus inducing - albeit gradually. Perhaps the biggest signifier of this came from Deaf Arena, a solo LP released under his own name of smouldering ambient soundscapes. Last year we were also treated to a double release of LPs from the Dead Fader project, Scorched harking back to the earlier, more roughtrod Dead Fader Sound, and Blood Forest exploring haunting tape-warbled soundtracks for an imaginary film.
With a new LP due out on Robot Elephant shortly, we decided to catch up with Cohen to discuss Sci-Fi, the digital revolution and the beauty of imperfection.
So what’s your connection to Brighton? You living here before moving to Berlin right?
Yeah I was living here for about six years, I like coming back to Brighton but it feels as if the club scene has kind of plateaued recently, I don’t know has it? Maybe that’s just because the press is so London-centric, it can sometime seem like that’s the only place where music is happening. I grew up in Bedford and there’s basically nothing there, it’s really shit. There was a couple of people making some really weird breakbeat but that was it.
I guess that’s the thing with those insular towns — you end up getting quite weird music coming out pure because you have a lot of people with nothing else to do than sit in their bedrooms making weird music on their computers.
Yeah in Bedford I started really young, my brother used to work at the studio in his University and we stole the installation discs for Reason and Cubase et cetera. I guess when you start making music at like 12, your influences are ultimately limited to pop music. I started off making this cheesy chillout and drum & bass and then when I was about 15 it changed a bit; a friend of my brother heard some of the stuff I was making and said “oh you should check out Squarepusher…” so I went completely mad on Squarepusher basically. Then I started getting into static noise stuff before going off to clubs and hearing dubstep on massive sound-systems. I don’t think anyone who went to those early dubstep nights didn’t take something from them. It had a mega impact.
I remember first going to those nights and having the realisation that sub existed - it wasn’t that I didn’t think synths were capable of low frequencies, but I’d never really heard them used creatively before.
Yeah it was the physical presence of the bass too; you didn’t really have to dance, you could just move to the bass, and that was the thing the really influenced me. It was the first time I had really heard live music sounding that powerful.
What kind of stuff do you feature in your live set at the moment?
I try and keep it quite current to be honest, playing stuff I’ve made in the last couple of weeks. The last thing I want to happen is to get bored on stage. It depends on the context too, sometimes I want to play soundscape-y stuff but sometimes a promoter will book me to play at a party so I sometimes just go along with the party vibe now and then.
We were watching the Loplop thing before we got here with C_C, how did you make contact with him?
Oh yeah his music is amazing. We did a recording together in Paris and I think of everyone that I’ve worked with in the past, I get the best results with him. The Loplop stuff is all hardware, like drum machines. I do more digital stuff now, like with the new record, pretty much all the sounds are made using hardware, but the effects were all digital. I’ve been buying bits of hardware for a couple of years now - I’m not very technical so it took me a while to get used to them, but I love the sound of them. There’s no syncing or sequencing, and you make a lot of mistakes with them, which is really inspirational.
You can drive yourself crazy editing stuff on a laptop too - it’s nice to have a cutoff point when you’ve recorded something that marks the end of practicing the piece or whatever.
Oh yeah that’s bullshit - even with the laptop I would try and replicate the live sound as much as possible; record it in, make a couple edits then I’m done. I really don’t like overproduced electronic music, the scene is flooded with it and it’s too perfect — I can hear perfect music instantly and it bores me. I see music as being all about capturing energy: if you spend five months on a track, then all the energy is dispersed into different places and you totally lose that ‘of the moment’ feel that is so central. A lot of the overproduced stuff comes from a place where people feel pressured to make generic music with an intro or a drop et cetera but you don’t need any of that.
Do you have a time limit on your tracks?
No the track takes as long as the track takes. But I always find the ones that takes just 20 minutes are the best ones because they work in every aspect and all the elements come together. Ultimately, you’ve taken a snapshot of musical energy and it’s all contained in this simple piece. Sometimes I find myself struggling with loads of tracks for weeks and out of nowhere you’ll make something in ten minutes that’s way better than anything that has taken you a couple of weeks work.
I personally quite like it when you hear mistakes or sounds that shouldn’t be there. Like with vinyl or whatever, the pitch warbling technically shouldn’t be there but it’s a nice sound.
Yeah same goes for tape — so many people try and replicate that tape warble now, like the Boards of Canada sound, it’s really beautiful. I find the whole digital/vinyl debate so ridiculous anyway because the quality of a vinyl doesn’t sound ‘better’, it can sound ‘pleasing’ sure but people get confused about it, it’s just taste.
I’m into 192kbps’ myself.
(Laughs) Yeah that’s the thing, digital distortion and the sounds we don’t like with digital files now will probably be replicated widely in the future.
I remember reading Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine saying about their new album and how it doesn’t really make sense to press something digital to wax.
Yeah exactly if you’re going to be a purest about it, do it from the start. I feel like in the digital era too, everything is quite transient; you can’t hold on to artefacts in the same way, and we feel nostalgic about those objects. So the revival of vinyl is an effort to go back to that feeling again I think.
I’m having a recurring argument with my flatmate because I have some of my 12”s in a frame, and he was like “why are you putting a record on the wall? It wasn’t designed for that.”
But it was because you have the beautiful artwork that someone has thought hard about.
Yeah, his response was ‘why don’t you put a jam jar on the wall? Someone’s thought hard about that too’. I sort of understand his point, but… he’s a dick. (laughs)
I don’t know if I do get his point, sometimes I check out an album just because I like the artwork. Why not buy a fucking record and stick it on your wall? I don’t like that militancy about what you can or can’t do with a product. I’m also not so sure that vinyl really is having a resurgence, you know. Because it’s a bit trendy at the moment, there’s loads of major artists releasing stuff on vinyl that wouldn’t have before, so on the whole it looks like sales are going up, but I’m not sure if it’s really the resurgence that people are making out in the underground scene.
You can buy vinyl from places like Urban Outfitters now , so I bet a significant chunk of the sales are coming from those places now too.
Yeah exactly — and Record Store Day is a weird marketing ploy too. I’m not sure if it’s true that there has been this spike in sales for small shops recently. It also annoys me that the media tend to only review vinyl releases. It seems like people still don’t recognise releases as valuable if they’re a free download. There’s an attitude that if it’s been pressed to vinyl, then it must be worth something, at least. That is so backward I think.
What things have influenced your new record?
I don’t know really, maybe it’s too soon to tell what has been influencing me. But when I was making it, I was getting all kinds of images in my head. I think it’s quite a cinematic feel to it, quite a spacey Sci-Fi feel.
Are you into Sci-Fi?
Oh yeah I’m a massive Sci-Fi geek, and the funny thing is I only just realised in the last couple of years. I’m not into watching Star Trek all the time, which I guess is the stereotypical idea of a Sci-Fi geek, but all of my favorite films and animes and the imagery that I seek out it all tends towards Sci-Fi stuff. I don’t really know why…
I feel like Sci-Fi — particularly anime — and electronic music have certain things in common. Like they’re both heavily mediated by computers and there is an attitude of exacting the idea you have in your head, being very precise with your editing and so on. Whereas other films that use cameras I guess are more susceptible to ‘real world’ variations.
Yeah I think you’re right. I think Sci-Fi also gives you a big scope for imagination; you can create things that are heavily abstract, which is a quality I look for in music too.
I suppose Sci-Fi and ambient music both aim to create atmosphere at the end of the day. Have you ever tried scoring a film with your own ambient stuff?
I’ve been wanting to do it for the last couple of years. I’d love to do it with something new but I don’t know any amazing directors, so I’d like to try my hand at re-scoring something. I was massively into that Interstellar film. A lot of people thought it was cheesy but a couple of months after I saw it I found myself constantly thinking about it and that’s when I knew it was a great film. I’d love to score that or some anime like Akira. But I guess the problem with that is that you’re in really dangerous waters because the soundtracks are already fucking amazing and everyone knows it. Ben Frost did that recently, re-scoring Solaris. I think if I was going to do it I would definitely do it for a film where I knew the music had something to be desired. Otherwise you’re just fighting a losing battle.
How has being in Berlin shaped your musical output? It’s obviously a very club-oriented city but your stuff is moving away from that. Do you feel isolated musically?
Yeah I think I’ve always been a bit isolated to be fair. I’ve always been a bit of an outsider. There is some great stuff going on in Berlin, but part of the problem is that there’s just so much stuff there that you can get easily lost or spread out across all the different scenes. There’s a lot of techno and house so if you’re into that then it’s awesome and it’s a great place to be.
I suppose back in the ’80s and ’90s house and techno was quite avant-garde music but now it’s all over the place. It’s weird to think of somewhere like the Berghain now being mainstream.
Yeah it totally is — I got a real sense of it when I was on a flight to Berlin and I was chatting with some random guy on the flight, and he was talking about Berghain and I realised that it’s now a tourist-y super-club for most people. But the interesting thing about it is that they have this crazy door policy. It’s essentially still a gay club: they don’t let everyone in, and you hear all these stories about tourists going there and getting turned away which is kind of funny.