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Interview: Dave Aju

Dave Aju is Marc Barrite, a producer whose music definitely defies categorization. His 2008 album, Open Wide, aptly released on the eclectic French imprint Circus Company, was constructed entirely of his own mouth samples. The album garnered much praise by dance music aficionados, and earned a coveted spot on Resident Advisor’s Top 20 Albums list for that year (it placed at #17). MUTEK called him “a fan favourite and highlight discovery” when he performed at the Montreal festival in 2008, and invited him to return in 2010 where Juno Plus contributor Helen Luu caught up with him. In this interview, Dave Aju tells us about how his hip-hop past influenced his present day music, why he likes to use his voice, and the concept for his upcoming full-length album.

Can you tell us a bit about your music and how you would describe it?

I guess I would say it’s a highly personal take on electronic music. My father was a jazz musician. I grew up listening to 60s and 70s jazz. And one of my brothers was a DJ and he kind of schooled me on hip-hop and hip-hop culture, and as I got older, I went to school and learned a little bit more about 20th, 21st century classical stuff – John Cage and things like that. Then when I started going to clubs and underground parties in the Bay Area, I learned more about acid house and techno. So I think in the end, it’s just all those influences colliding. It’s sort of a long-winded answer but it’s probably the best way I can describe it. I can try to put genre tags on it and say it’s kind of funky, sort of minimalistic, acoustic house… but really, it’s just personal. It’s me. It is what it is.

I was looking at your MySpace page and like you mentioned, your music influences are really varied. I was surprised to see Sun Ra, Matthew Herbert, David Byrne, Lee Perry, Madlib, Tortoise… pretty much every single genre you could possibly imagine, except country maybe…

[laughs] Yeah, I have a few Johnny Cash and Hank Williams records.

Okay, so that’s in there too. You talked a bit about this already, but judging from your eclectic tastes, I’m thinking that there are obviously key moments in your life that helped to give rise to you, the artist sitting before me in 2010. Can you tell me about what has helped shape who you are today? Are there any specific key moments you remember or anything like that?

Well, yeah… starting from when I was a kid, the most obvious one was just being a baby, running around the house, and my dad and his bands playing, like jam session stuff. I always just found comfort and solace in the idea of gatherings and music. So, he’d have friends over and their friends would bring their wives, and my mum would be there, and my brothers and sister would be there. This sort of communal feeling via music was always inherent, so I think that’s the most natural beginning of why I’m doing what I’m doing now. And then I would say the next couple crucial milestones would be when I decided to kind of take on dancing. I was in a couple dance crews, a couple b-boy crews, doing this kind of thing. What was really cool about that was that it was a clear path difference between other options that we had. You know, you could basically be getting in a lot of trouble or you could be doing something kind of even healthy… sort of physical and positive, like dancing. So, I think that was a huge choice. I mean, you could be a gang banger, you could deal drugs… or you could join this dance crew, and so I spent most of my evenings after school and weekends doing that. And of course, by dancing, you are drawn to dance music. And then I think the last major milestone for me was that I started out doing underground hip-hop with friends in San Jose, and at one point, it just kind of popped in my head that I wasn’t enjoying the atmosphere of that music and that scene like I used to. I still like the music, I still like the content, but the social experience of going to the shows and seeing some of the negativity and violence that was happening… and well, quite frankly the reduction in the amount of women that were at the shows too. I mean, it just became a very male-dominated, kind of angry scene, really. I think it was at that point when I decided to spend more time with my friends who were house music DJs. Down in San Jose, everyone kind of gets along but there are distinct crews… there’s hip-hop guys and there’s the house guys. And so, going over to their house and starting to play records with them or going to their events, I was like, “oh look, people are smiling, people are hugging”. I think that was a huge turning point for me because I was thinking in terms of longevity and as far as what’s sustainable in my mind. To kind of be aggro-competitive is not really in my nature. For the guys that can do it, right on, but it’s not really my thing… whereas, making people smile, making people dance, it’s a lot more gratifying. So I think that would be the last major turning point.

“Taking up dancing was a crucial milestone…I mean, you could be a gang banger, you could deal drugs… or you could join this dance crew”

How long ago was it that you kind of made the switch?

It’s probably been about 10 years now. Probably right around 2000, I think. The end of the ’90s, definitely.

In 2008, you played at MUTEK as well. How have things changed for you over the past two years?

A lot has changed, definitely a lot has changed. I’ve undergone some real big personal changes, actually. My father passed away last year, so that was kind of deep and it’s had a big effect on the way I think of emotion, and the way I refer to music as a function in my life… so that was a big difference. There are some things that I was doing two years ago that I’m not doing now, and vice versa. Mainly, thinking about my position and my role in music, and what it is I’m trying to bring. I think overall, the last two years have been an emotional ride and I think the music is starting to show that, both in darker sides and in lighter sides. Like, you know, compensating with this positive music as much as possible. That’s the main thing. Getting to know more people and hearing a lot more great music being made. I get greatly influenced by a lot of my peers. Two years in this kind of music is like a hundred years in anything else. It’s been great though.

You performed the other day with Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts as a vocalist in his band, The Side Effects. I’ve been noticing what seems like this movement towards more live instrumentation in electronic music lately. Even at MUTEK in general, I was noticing all these acts that are bringing that into it. And then also, in your stuff… I was reading that you’ve been using more organic instrumentation, sampling it more and that kind of thing. So I was just wondering why you think there’s been this movement, or if there even is one?

I don’t know if it’s a movement per se, but I would definitely say that a lot of the veteran producers that I know are making conscious efforts to diversify their sounds and sound sources, and basically try to reintroduce some of the more kind of organic and natural tonalities that other kinds of music have. I think that’s one of the things about electronic music – on some level, it gets stigmatized from other types of music. I’m from America and there’s definitely a distinction – there’s people who like it and there’s people who don’t, and it’s very divided and that’s it. So I think some of us are maybe not consciously, but at least subconsciously taking it upon ourselves to remind people that there is music in electronic music. You can put a guitar in it, you can put vocals in it, it’s just like anything else and I think it’s important. Yeah, and a lot of guys are doing it now. I think also the sampling law situation is kind of playing into this. For a while, people were using synthesizers instead of sampling, which is cool, but now that software synths are so dominant and everyone is just playing synths, it’s like, “Well, synthesizers are nice but hey, a piano is nice too, and so is a guitar”. There are so many amazing instruments that exist out there to use or take advantage of. So, I think more and more, especially the people who have been trained – I mean, I wasn’t actually classically trained… I played a few instruments kind of haphazardly for a couple of years – but some of these guys like Guillaume or Nicolas Jaar, they can actually play and, you know, smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.

One thing that you’re using is your mouth a lot as well. Your last album was all mouth samples, and today, you were singing during your set which is pretty different from what most producers in house and techno do. So, I was wondering how you got interested in singing and bringing that into your music the way you do?

That’s a perfect dovetail to the last question because I just said “smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em”. I basically thought more and more about what it is that I can deliver that would be a contribution to what is out there. I’ve always been kind of… not necessarily stubborn, but definitely kind of have that iconoclast edge where if I’m not hearing enough of a certain thing, that’s what I’d be doing. In other words, you could probably bet that if everyone was using their voice, I probably wouldn’t be. So there’s a little bit of that, but it also works out because like I said, I was in hop-hop before, so I’ve had some emcee training and it’s my instrument, you know. I mean, I’m not a great singer… I don’t have perfect pitch or anything like that, but vocal delivery. I’m also a huge fan of language, like when I went to school, I got an English degree. I’m just really into verbalization of things, storytelling, I’m a big fan of the oral traditions. So I felt that if it was my addition to my music, that would be my strongest point. That’s basically how it came about. Plus, I’ve always wanted to do an album just with my mouth, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I thought I was skilled enough as a producer to pull it off, basically.

Did you used to emcee or were you producing hip-hop?

Both, actually. I definitely wasn’t like the best emcee of us but we all did it, and it was great training. That is what’s kind of cool about doing it now – a lot of what I’m saying and singing over these songs aren’t written. It’s not in the song, some of it – it’s ad libbed, freestyle – so it kind of keeps it exciting too. So, if at any point I feel like I’m under-stimulating myself in a set, I have that which I can do spontaneously on top of the instrumentation… so it’s a good deal.

You’re from San Francisco. Does that appear in your music in any way?

Yeah, I definitely think so. Mainly in that the Bay Area especially is kind of a huge melting pot culturally, and all the music that’s ever happened there has always maybe kind of had a bastardized sound… not in a bad way, but really sort of an irreverent blend of things. We don’t necessarily have the geographic anchor that a lot of places have, like “This is New York house,” or “This is Detroit techno,” or “This is LA hip-hop”. There are certainly some sounds and there are some artists that have done that, but I think especially for this kind of music, most of the people from the Bay Area kind of champion a hodge podge blend of things, and I think if I lived anywhere else, my music wouldn’t sound the same way.

“To kind of be aggro-competitive is not really in my nature. For the guys that can do it, right on, but it’s not really my thing… whereas, making people smile, making people dance, it’s a lot more gratifying”

What’s next for Dave Aju? What can we expect in the next little while?

I’ve got a side project single – it’s a two tracker coming out on Circus Company. It’s a little experimental percussion thing that I did with The Soul Percussion Ensemble… it’s a six-piece ensemble. So, that should be coming out soon. I’ve also got the next album – the full-length that I’m working on right now for them, which should be out by the end of the year. And then I have an EP that ‘s still waiting… it’s produced and ready to go for Matthew Herbert’s label, Accidental. The label underwent a lot of changes so it’s been held up for awhile, but we’re hoping to see it soon. Hopefully, that will happen for the summertime.

Is there a concept for your new album that’s coming out?

Yeah, actually, it’s all samples from records that I inherited from my father’s collection. My brother and I split his record collection, basically. It’s gonna be all samples from that, so it’s a personal tribute album.

Interview: Helen Luu