Jason Letkiewicz’s Discogs page places him somewhere between Howard Marks and Lionel Hutz in the fake identities stakes. In addition to the Steve Summers, Confused House, Malvoeaux, Rhythm Based Lovers, Sensual Beings and Alan Hurst solo endeavours, there are the Innergaze, Two Dogs In A House and Manhunter collaborative projects. Although this has allowed the New York based producer to work unencumbered by the restraints of a single moniker, it also means it’s taken longer for people to appreciate Letkiewicz’s true talent; the same can indeed be said for fellow analogue house fetishist Danny Wolfers aka Legowelt.
He has a close affiliation with many of the most promising artists and labels emerging from across the US; Ron Morelli and his Long Island Electrical Systems imprint, Andrew Field-Pickering and Ari Goldman aka the Beautiful Swimmers, People’s Potential Unlimited chief Andrew Morgan and Daniel Martin-McCormick (aka Ital) are all friends, and in some cases, collaborators. With Letkiewicz finally starting to get his dues – especially with his work as Steve Summers – we thought it was time to send our man in NYC, Nik Mercer, to chat about the unexpectedly important role professional dog walking has played in his musical development, and much more besides.
(Scroll to the bottom of the article for a gallery of images taken around Jason’s apartment by photographer Shawn Brackbill).
You are closely associated with Future Time production duo Beautiful Swimmers. How did you link up with those guys originally?
Ari [Goldman, one half of Beautiful Swimmers], I’ve known him since he was 16. He was in this glam band and I was in a sort of stoner alternative group. Our bands played together and we started hanging out. Eventually, his band broke up and he joined ours. We started making weird noise music and experimenting for a while, which eventually turned into getting more rhythmic and dancey. During that period, we met Andrew [Field-Pickering]―he lived a block up the street from us. So, we were doing our thing, buying records in Baltimore – lots of good finds – and through dog-walking, we met this guy who said he had a friend with loads of crazy records, and it turned out to be Andrew Morgan (of People’s Potential Unlimited). We were very fortunate in that there were lots of really good records to be found in our area, but not that many people were into it. Me and Andrew and Ari and this other guy, we all lived in this house and had parties and DJ’d nonstop and made music. That was what we did for years. That and walking a lot of dogs. And [the dog-walking] was really crazy because you’d have dogs stay at your house and [the money you made from that] would pay your rent.
You only moved to New York in March last year, though, right?
Yeah. In 2006 I moved to San Francisco and stayed there for a little over a year. Then I moved to Portland, and then I [went back home] and met [my girlfriend, Aurora Halal,] and we started making music immediately. That’s when we started the Innergaze thing. And taking the bus [from Maryland to New York] for months was just, like, not sustainable. I was actually living back at my parents’ in the suburbs [laughs] so coming to New York was great―it was time to get out.
I can imagine. But backing up, what motivated the move to San Fran?
Well, Ari and I did a tour with Q And Not U and we got stranded there for a couple of days. We were supposed to play Portland but we never made it. We actually stayed with Daniel [Martin-McCormick] who does the Ital stuff. We were all friends from D.C. as well so everything just kind of… triangulated. It’s good to have Daniel in New York now. Shortly before I actually moved to S.F., I went out and visited and, again, stayed with Daniel, who, at that point, was in Mi Ami with Damon [Palermo]. We hung out a bit, and when I said I wanted to move, he randomly had a room open, so I lived with him. That’s how I know Damon. He’s great… we actually sent him one of the tracks that came out on the 100% Silk 12”, “Shadow Disco,” and he played live drums on that. And that record was engineered by Phil [Manley] from Trans Am. [Laughs] So funny how it just all comes around.
I have to ask―what’s going on with all the cameras here?
Aurora Halal: Oh, that’s all my stuff.
JL: I don’t know if you’ve seen the videos she’s done, but she made a couple of the Beautiful Swimmers ones and lots of other stuff.
AH.: That’s our studio, but there’s no room for me in there [because of all of the keyboards and equipment].
JL.: She’s doing all the videos for Jeff & Jane Hudson now. They were a synth group in the 80s; now they’re doing a reunion and she’s making their show videos. It’s pretty sweet―we’ve always been really into them. Otherwise – let’s see – the “Shadow Disco” video, we did that together and shot most of it in this living room.
Jason, do you have a background in film at all then, too?
No. We started dating and we were doing the music, but decided to shoot a little video around my neighborhood. That kind of got me into it―I really like shooting original stuff and working from scratch.
Cool. So what exactly is your background? What’d you go to school for?
Oh, I actually have a degree in marketing. I was already involved in music, but my parents―and especially my dad―were against me going to school for music. They told me to do the exact opposite so I went on the business track, which took five years―those were pretty miserable times. My dad is a musician and he was always recording in his pretty full-on basement recording studio. He taught me how to play the bass and we used to jam together. We had a piano, too, so I learned how to play that as well. But then when I started doing stuff with Ari, it was like this slow evolution of figuring how to make sounds. And as we learned more, our [collection of equipment] became less a bunch of random stuff and more a selection of very specific vintage gear.
Your studio is impressive! What’s your recording process like?
Well, I record everything onto this Adat 24-channel mixer. We just do live mix downs of everything, and that’s been the process for years. I started off using Ableton, but my computer got shitty and died so I moved into hardware. I really like it, though it can be pretty painstaking at times. I just like the live sound more.
How did you accrue all of this gear?
Dog-walking. [Laughs] I mean, that was the thing―during those years, walking all those dogs… we weren’t really paying rent, so we just saved up. Also, you used to be able to get all this stuff for a lot cheaper. US$100 for a 707, $100 for a PolySix. There’s a lot of good new stuff being made now, too, but it’s just hard to let go [of the old]. Especially if you play out live, once you use something, you think, well, I might need that later on.
What are you working on right now?
The past month has been mostly devoted to finishing up some songs. I’m working on a couple collaborations, but I had several records come out in September and October so now I’m just taking a little bit of time to regroup. I did a thing with Terekke, too―you should really check that out. I guess the last thing I worked on was the Professor Genius remix that just came out on L.I.E.S.
Where did you come up with the name Steve Summers?
That was actually given to me on the Q And Not U tour, when we were in Cleveland. We played at the Grog Shop. So, we were playing with this band, the Apes, who’re also from D.C., and the girl, Amanda [Kleinman], just randomly after the show told me I didn’t look like a Jason, but rather a Steve Summers. When I got back from tour and started working on stuff, that was the working name.
It’s a good name.
Yeah, except there’s apparently a glam hair metal dude with the same name who’s super active on the internet. (Note: the name of the band is Pretty Boy Floyd.)
What was your first dance music endeavor? And what was the motivation to begin it?
The first dance oriented project I had was Manhunter, with [Beautiful Swimmers’] Ari Goldman. It started out as more of a noise/experimental project but over time transitioned, somewhat naturally, into dance music. This happened due to the fact that we bought some new gear, the EMX-1 and ESX-1, and also started to discover early Chicago and Detroit records through Soulseek. The first dance track we ever made was called “North Pole” and actually came out on the vinyl only version of Ghostly International’s Idol Tryouts 2.
Why do you change your identity so much? What does each name do for your creative process? That is, do you just keep switching it up to keep things fresh or is there an actual identity behind every moniker?
(Laughs) Well, with the exception of Innergaze, Two Dogs In A House and Alan Hurst, everything else was conceived of and created in 2005. I was just beginning to record music on my own and experimented by making a lot of tracks with different influences as a guiding vibe. Not limited to but just as a jumping-off point. I wanted to see if I could create multiple music worlds that were distinct but still connected. Really, it was all just for fun, though. I had no thought that they would ever be released. I bought a website called confusedhouse and would upload new songs from time to time. In general, though, I switch up because its fun to take a vacation from one project and explore another. I usually find that time off from one project yields interesting results when I come back to it. It also allows me to keep making music without feeling burnt out on one particular thing. There are certain feelings more than identities that are behind every moniker. I can hear what they are but not necessarily articulate it to you.
The Malvoeaux stuff sort of stands out from the rest, at least to me, in that it’s way more of a straight-up house thing. What’s the story with the L.I.E.S. and 100% Silk releases?
Malvoeaux was the first solo thing I ever did and the tracks found on both the L.I.E.S. and 100% Silk 12″s are from 2005. It might stand out to you partly be due to the fact that it is predominantly a sample based project whereas the other ones are not. I played the tracks to Ron when we were on tour in 2006 and he expressed an interest in releasing them on a label he was thinking about starting. Five years later he started L.I.E.S. and put it out as his first release. As for 100% Silk, I had just done the Innergaze release for them and thought they might be into the Malvoeaux stuff since it was both dancey and druggy.
How do you know Ron Morelli of L.I.E.S? You do the 2 Dogs In A House project with him, too―tell me the genesis of that endeavor.
I can’t remember exactly who introduced us but I’m pretty sure it was through mutual Philly friends. In 2006, Ron asked Manhunter to join a tour he was putting together that included himself DJing and Novamen. Ari and I were big CBS nerds and were very familiar with Novamen and the Dutch music scene in general. Needless to say, that tour was epic. Ron came down to D.C. to DJ a pool party with me and Lovefingers in September of 2009. I think we stayed at Future Times HQ that night and the next day I drove him out to the deep suburbs to my parents’ place where I was living at the time and where my studio was. It was rare for Ron to be down in the D.C./Maryland area, and since we had always kind of talked about jamming, we went for it. I’m pretty sure we made both “Scream In the Night” and “Next To You” that day.
You seem to gravitate towards a certain variety of label―100% Silk, L.I.E.S., Future Times, and so on. Are those relationships the result of being friends with the owners or do you consciously seek them out? Or is it a mixture?
L.I.E.S., Future Times, and FrequeNC were more the result of being friends than anything else. I met Jon and Charlie of FrequeNC on the Novamen tour and got to stay at their amazing place in the woods in North Carolina. Charlie contacted me a year or so later when I was in S.F. and said he wanted to put out a 12″ of Rhythm Based Lovers tracks. Around the same time, Andrew was looking for a second release for Future Times and asked me to do the Rhythm Based Lovers 7″. Both of those records ended up on the Clone site and by way of that I became involved with them. Serge checked out my website and asked if I wanted to do something for the new Jack For Daze series. Some of the labels I’ve worked with like Echovolt and Construction Paper have come to me but are exactly the kind of labels I would go to… so its works out nicely. Nation is the most recent label I’ve become involved with, which was exciting for me because I had been a fan of the releases. I just did a track for them on the Modern Electronic Element Part 2 compilation that recently came out.
I love the Alan Hurst LP you did… it’s really kraut-ish and not something you hear much of these days. What was the impetus to produce that one?
I had been living in Portland for about a month and wasn’t feeling particularly inspired to make dance tracks. I decided that I wanted to make more soundtrack oriented and beatless songs on a 4-track I had laying around. I also decided upfront that it would all be hand-played without any MIDI, sequencing, etc. I would start with a bass line, jam for a few minutes, and then jam on that track and so forth until it felt like a song. The other thing to mention is that all the tracks were recorded over the course of a few days while I had a bit of a fever. My whole memory of the session is a bit dreamlike. There’s a new Alan Hurst LP coming out in February on Emotional Response. It’s made up of the tracks I did for an episode of Hamilton’s Pharmacopia on VBS called “Nzambi.” The show is basically a video drug adventure/diary and this particular episode was about zombies in Haiti. In particular, it focuses on trying to obtain the drug that supposedly turns people into zombies. It was a weird working experience in that I was asked to do the soundtrack but never got to see the documentary until the night it premiered. I basically made the music about this drug and the idea of being caught in a state between sleep and awake without seeing any of the footage. I was really happy with how the music turned out.
In terms of touring, how do you decide which identity to use? Or do bookers ask for specific ones… like, “I want a Steve Summers performance and not a Malvoeaux one?”
I actually just did my first tour this summer in California. I did Steve Summers, Innergaze, and Rhythm Based Lovers. It came about because I got asked to play a live Steve Summers set at a rave in the woods of Northern California in a town called Belden. Larry Heard also played that weekend, which is totally crazy. Usually bookers will ask for a certain identity.
How did Innergaze begin? How did you meet Aurora Halal?
Funnily enough Innergaze formed the exact same weekend that Two Dogs In A House did. Aurora randomly came down to New York the day before the pool party and came to this other event that Ron, the Future Times crew, and I were DJing. We had met before but never hung out one-on-one. I was dog-sitting three standard poodles that weekend for the producer of Natural Born Killers―no joke. And that house happened to be near Aurora’s parents’ so I offered to take her home. We hit it off and ended up jamming a couple days later. By the end of the month, we were officially dating and had finished all the tracks that eventually came out on the We Are Strange Loops LP.
How do you switch from one name to the next and maintain distinctions between them both while still using the same space, the same set of tools and pieces of equipment?
All hardware, lots of hand-played parts, live mixdowns; really just trying to keep it live sounding and invite happy accidents into the tracks. With respect to switching names, using different combinations of gear helps. My mood going into the studio also plays a big part: sometimes I go into it wanting to work on a certain project and other times I just jam and figure it out later.
How do the videos tie in to your music? Are they just fun things to produce or do you see them as integral parts of the tunes you put out?
They are definitely fun to produce but I also hope that they add another dimension to the music. Aurora and I approach them with a similar mentality to the way we work in the studio. We try to keep it hazy, raw and psychedelic.
Interview: Nik Mercer
Images: Shawn Brackbill