Two weeks ago, I traveled to Decibel Festival in Seattle, and was happy to have the chance to to chat a few different artists affiliated with rising Portland label Dropping Gems. First up was Seattle's own Alexander Osuch, who makes music as DJAO, who proved to be not only a thoughtful interview subject but also a friendly face to encounter on dance floors as the festival went on. With releases on Dropping Gems and All City, features on thoughtfully-curated compilations from Los Angeles label Friends of Friends and Portland label Blankstairs, and an upcoming full-length album release, DJAO is definitely a producer we'll be keeping track of in the future.
I caught him performing twice during Decibel: first, during an evening showcase organized by Hush Hush Records, alongside Kid Smpl, Ryan Hemsworth, and Cyril Hahn, and later in a more intimate atmosphere at Dropping Gems, Hush Hush, and Ceremony's unofficial deck party that I wrote about in my Decibel highlights post. Each set was well-tailored to the atmosphere at hand, bringing a soothing, but never boring, ambiance to both the crowded club and the more laid-back afternoon happy hour.
Read on for an interview about DJAO's relationship with Decibel, his influences and inspirations, and his workflow for music production and performance.
EARMILK: Being from Seattle, you're probably pretty familiar with Decibel and all of the things surrounding it. What's your take on the festival and how it's grown and developed?
Alex Osuch: I'm from Seattle, but I didn't really go to Decibel when it first started because I was still in high school. I started going in 2010, when I moved back to Seattle, and I've gone every year since then. I've performed the last three years, and I went the year before that. It's incredible.
In 2010, I didn't get a pass, I bought tickets for like, five shows. There was this show at Baltic Room that was Untold, Ikonika, and someone else just totally ridiculous. Those are British artists, and they're not the hardest people to see in the world, there are other producers I'll probably never see live, but that was a chance where I could just drive fifteen minutes from my house and go see Untold play in a club for like twelve bucks or something like that.
No one else in this city would even dream of doing something like that, but Decibel makes it look really easy. It's a chance to see really top shelf musical stuff, you only really get that chance once a year. The feeling of being at that show is how I think of Decibel. It's also really fun now being an artist because a lot of people I know and people I've developed friendships and acquaintances with, all of them are suddenly in town.
But really, the core is going to see something I've loved my whole life and never seen before. Last year, I got to see a bunch of stuff I didn't know about and ended up liking, which is the other side of the coin, like last year, Ariel Pink was mind-blowingly good. But last year I also saw Byetone, which is some fairly intense techno, that was someone I'd liked for a really long time and assumed I'd never see live, and then I did.
EM: How did you first get asked to play?
AO: Dropping Gems got a showcase, and that year, 2011, was the year where we went from being a bunch of friends in a room with laptops to having put out a few fairly popular releases on our Bandcamp and gotten a bunch of attention. Decibel has always been really supportive of local and regional acts, in addition to having huge international stuff, so if you do well in this region, and you're not throwing dubstep or trap ragers, even if you are, in some cases, they'll pay attention. But we had just reached the point where our label as a whole had garnered enough attention that we got a showcase, and I ended up playing, which was really an honor, so it was awesome.
EM: And how'd you get involved with Dropping Gems?
AO: The guy who runs Dropping Gems, Aaron Meola, I went to middle school with him. He's also from Seattle. I didn't really talk to him all that much in high school or in college, and then I graduated college, started making music under DJAO, was still living in Baltimore, and we talked on Facebook a lot about Low End Theory podcasts and things like that. So when I moved back and found out he was starting a label, I was like, "hey, I'm going to come and check out your launch show," just to check it out. When I got down there, I had a bunch of music on a thumb drive and gave it to him to listen to. He already knows everyone else who's in Dropping Gems since they all went to Evergreen State, they were just like, "okay, you're in."
EM: How did you get started with making music?
AO: My entry point was that I took drum lessons in middle school, and did the whole thing where you play in cover bands with your friends in someone's living room or someone's garage. I also had a Casio keyboard that my parents bought me and it had drum patches on it, so it had like, four or five drum sets or something like that, where each drum is on a key, and I found myself sitting there playing those obsessively for hours. You couldn't like, sequence or anything, so I had to play it all live.
That's actually how I play all my drums, is all on keyboard, I don't use drum pads. I mean, I use drum pads now with Live, but when I'm writing music… anyway. That's the start. And then my high school had a studio, and I took classes where we made music in GarageBand. And so I just stayed afterwards and made music with my friends and recorded vocals and stuff. I DJed a lot in college, but I didn't start making music again until I worked for a production company where I could the studio late at night, and just went from there.
EM: What's your production process look like now?
AO: It's funny, there's actually a YouTube video of me just making a song, which is totally random, my friend's blog did it way before I was — I'm not popular now, but back then, I was even less popular.
I sit down, I write a melody on the piano, program drums, add vocals if they need it, that's just like a loop, then I start structuring, add variation, and picking where melodically it's going to shift or change, like, this is the chord progression for the first whatever, then it changes to this, then it's the outro.
Then once I have that basic structure, I listen to it 150 times, until I absolutely hate it. Then I change two things and it's done. It's kind of like, I've had friends and known people, painters especially, who are almost done with a painting, and then they wait two weeks to put one final dot of white in the corner, and then it's done. Or it's ruined, you know. [laughs] Yeah, I almost always start either with a drum track or with a piano chord, and I do everything by ear, so I literally hit the piano until I hit something I like. That's when I'm doing a DJAO song, that's what it's like. And I work in a basement in my house.
EM: When you're performing live is it more of a DJ set of that music, or are there live elements?
AO: So, hopefully someday I'll do something truly live, I think James Blake is my number one inspiration for what I think an electronic live show should be like, and I'm very, very far away from doing that. What I do is sing live, trigger certain samples live on a drum pad, usually drum sounds, and otherwise everything's playing itself. And I alternate between Serato and Logic. Serato is DJ software, Logic is like a work station so that's the program you actually make the music in. It's not really set up for live performance, but I've kind of jerry-rigged it.
Between songs, I have to play a song in Serato, then go over to Logic, then when I'm done, start a Serato track, close what's in Logic, open up something new in Logic, once the Serato track's done I go back, and yeah, I don't know what the number one thing people say: just sing, and get me into the music, and it's just me, my laptop, my microphone, and that's it.
EM: Other than James Blake, who else does live performances that you admire?
AO: For live sets, Grimes is a huge, huge inspiration for creating a feeling in a live set. If I could do that, I would be pretty thrilled. James Blake is number one, Mount Kimbie because they do some similar stuff live. Basically, where you see the artist like, literally just live the music that they're making on stage, which is a lot different from DJ sets, because with DJ sets, everyone looks the exact same. That's not to say I haven't seen some mind-blowing DJ sets, but as far as… who else, live?
Then, just like, a band, like a bunch of nineteen and twenty year old kids playing live punk is kind of inspiring, I don't know. I saw a world grand master accordion player play live once when I was living in London and that was super inspiring. But yeah, more on the live side than on the DJ side.
AO: When did you first start listening to more electronic-leaning music?
Until my junior year of college, I pretty much just listened to straight hip-hop and hip-hop-related things, so technically I would say it would have been in late middle school, early high school that I started listening to Qbert and Mixmaster Mike and turntablists, I guess technically they're still hip-hop, but that shit was way beyond hip-hop to me.
Then when I really got interested in electronic music was when I was living in London. That was back before dubstep became a nightmare, I got a pre-release of Benga's album and I was like, this is the shit, it still is the shit, that album to me is like the apotheosis of dubstep, and then I was able to go see him play in a tiny basement. And I would never get the chance to do that again, nor would I want to, but that was when I got an education, essentially. From there, it was just the internet that taught me everything, basically.
EM: And where do you draw inspiration from now for the music you're making?
AO: It's a combination of things. 50% of it is the same seven to ten albums I've been listening to for the last three or four years that I just listen to over and over again, they're endlessly inspiring. Causers of This by Toro y Moi, two Washed Out EPs, Bad Vibes by Shlohmo, the first James Blake album, Butter by Hudson Mohawke, Los Angeles, the Flying Lotus album, I don't know, there are others. That Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues. Then there are one or two others that I'm forgetting.
Then the other thing that inspires me is listening to a brand new single from someone I've never heard of, or something that someone on my label is doing, or that one of my friends is doing. And then the other stuff that I listen to, which is like, '80s R&B, like George Benson and stuff like that.
EM: Do you usually work on music on a track-by-track basis or do you focus on making an album or an EP?
AO: So I'm suffering severely from an inability to focus on this album I'm working on in a cohesive way, just producing way too much music and not fitting it together. So I work track by track. When I'm really working in a disciplined manner, the way a serious person would, I work based on releases. And when I have done that, I've been really happy. Basically, once Decibel's over, I'm full steam on the album, until it's done. I know roughly how things are going to fit together, but that's it.