Interview: Eric Copeland

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 08.06.13 in Interviews

Joke In The Hole

Eric Copeland

“I don’t actually know how to do Skype,” says Eric Copeland, warily, by phone from New York. That’s not a huge surprise: Copeland’s no Luddite, but his solo releases are resolutely lo-fi affairs, soupy with tape hiss and slurred frequencies. They count as “electronic music” insofar as they employ samples and loops and the telltale buzz of arcane hardware gizmos, but they don’t sound much like electronic music as it’s conventionally rendered; they sound like pause-button tapes made on busted boomboxes, using stray shortwave signals as their source material. Copeland’s sound is clearly related to that of Black Dice, the New York noise band in which he has played since 1997, but his is a lumpier, chunkier sound, like Black Dice remixed by Rammellzee, mashed up with Raymond Scott, and fed through a gummed-up tape deck at the wrong speed.

Copeland’s new album, Joke in the Hole, is the fullest exploration of his aesthetic yet, a riot of screwed dance rhythms and cartoon outbursts; extended listening may require a dose of Dramamine on hand. Fittingly, strange background noises frequently cut through the interview — yelps and squeals that sound like either a horror movie or Ren & Stimpy is playing quietly in a corner of the room (or maybe both at once). “I live in front of a grade school that has a day camp,” Copeland explains, when asked just what the heck all that ruckus is. “It’s a heavy traffic street, and there’s kids on the playground. I’m surprised the ice-cream man hasn’t come by, like the final nail in the sound coffin.”

Philip Sherburne spoke with Copeland about seasick sounds, dance beats and making tape rips off YouTube.

I’ve been listening to your album on constant rotation for the past few hours, and I’m feeling slightly twisted. It’s a strange world to immerse yourself in so deeply — although I suppose maybe it’s not so strange for you.

Welcome, man, welcome.

Did you have a a specific intention going into this record?

I knew I wanted to spend a lot of time on it. I’ve been working really fast for a couple years, and I like that; it’s real satisfying, and a certain kind of result comes of it. But for some reason, the first couple songs I started, I was like, “I’m just going to spend some time with it, take time to get away from it.” And so I spent about a year, which is the longest I’ve ever spent by myself on anything. In one way, that was my intention, just to digest it a couple times over, so there that would be nothing I would want to change, or would feel that I hadn’t thought about a hundred times. Everything on there I feel like I can stand behind. But I finished it a while ago, so it’s strange to listen to it now, because I don’t hear a lot of the decisions I thought I made. In my mind, I thought I was making a bigger decision, and now I realize it was extremely subtle nuances that I probably don’t catch any more.

Did you make any big changes in terms of process on the new album?

This was the first one I recorded entirely on a computer. I don’t really compose on a computer, but it was the first time I had the chance to take it the next step further. Going to the studio and requiring time there kind of puts the pressure on, because you have to plot out those decisions beforehand, and if they don’t work, you’re kind of stuck. But I also was able to take it to a studio that Black Dice had worked in where I really liked the way the guy treated low-end sound. It was nice to take it somewhere and have a kind of dialogue with someone, like, “Make this sound beefy,” and he understood. Where I have holes in my frequencies, he could fill them in for me, which was nice. It felt like the first time I’ve taken something from beginning to end as properly as I know how. Other times I’ve enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t change any of it. But, again, I was working really fast, and that was part of the idea, part of the method at the time.

Did you enjoy working on a computer?

Yeah, totally. I never shied away from it, and as far as I can remember, every recording session I’ve done used the computer at some point. There are things I don’t like about it, but it does make a lot of things easier. Not having to press “rewind” a lot — that sounds stupid, but it takes up a lot of time. Being able to work on multiple things at the same time and change between them really quickly, it felt like a helpful tool for me. I can sort of get, not lost, but stuck if I’m just focusing on one thing. So it was nice to be able to go through and work on multiple songs at the same time. I enjoyed the computer.

The album sounds very spontaneous; I had an idea of you in the studio, just jamming on samplers and loop boxes. So it’s interesting to hear that it’s constructed differently than I imagined.

The computer was really just used for recording and some editing. For the relationships between the parts and how they fit, it’s a very slow process for me, and the tools I use are not sampler-based. The samples, even the drum machines, somehow need to be played into place. It takes a long time to find the sweet spot that can just last a minute or something. The slightest variation starts throwing off the rhythm, the groove of the relationship. In some ways, I think the way you hear it is probably pretty appropriate. There’s things being played at different times, but they have to be played at the right moment, and there’s definitely some, like, jammy spontaneity or some chance in how everything’s going to fit at the end. The computer doesn’t line things up for me or do anything like that, it just takes the sound and puts it with the rest of the sounds.

Are you doing much sampling?

Not as much as I have in the past. There’s some, but it’s scary to admit that you’re doing that, because I feel like it implies you’re taking somebody’s thing and using it in this very direct way. When I’m comfortable with a sample, it’s usually because I’ve taken something that’s really small, like one guitar hit and a drum, and changed the speed, changed the pitch, added something else to it. To me, I’m just taking two sounds, and I try to take it as far away from its origins so I don’t feel like I’m using somebody else’s idea.

The reason I ask is that so many of the rhythms feel to me like African rhythms that have been manipulated and slowed down and layered with something else.

Oh, no. That’s real far from my source. [Chuckles] I have such a stupid process. I work in the Black Dice practice space. We only have a cassette player there, so I have to tape from YouTube onto the tape, and that’s what I use as my source sound. So it’s kind of degraded in a way. I’m trying to think of something that…I don’t know, like that Ting Tings song or something. That’s the type of stuff I’d be into sampling, because it’s so well-recorded that on a cassette it still sounds pretty good, whereas an African record on a cassette just sounds like a bunch of fuckin’ hiss.

How much were you thinking about dance music or hip-hop when you were making this record? Many of the record’s rhythms and tropes seem informed by those genres, albeit loosely. “Grapes,” for instance, sounds a little like the Bomb Squad. How much are those references on your mind, and how much is accidental?

Maybe as much as you hear. I think those styles do things I’m trying to do, like maintain one thing for a long time. I think they both succeed in throwing a beat unchanged for two and a half minutes, but they also have a location that they exist [in], or someone singing or rapping or something over the top. I don’t do either of those things. I think of those styles as successfully doing what I want to do, but I know that my ingredients are really different. I think sometimes there’s a reference to them, really just like a drumbeat that goes on a long time, but I definitely don’t feel like I’m contributing to those conversations directly. I feel like they’re kind of like a tangent, where they both meet. I feel like I’m from a live music mentality.

You’ve talked about the way that Black Dice is a touring band, which means you need to be able to play your songs live. Does your solo work give you the freedom to experiment in the studio without having to worry about being able to reproduce it on stage?

Yeah, for sure. I grew up with a four-track, which Bjorn from Black Dice didn’t, and it’s always kind of been a point of departure for us. I enjoy spending my days doing what I’ve done since I was 13 or 14, just sitting with whatever crap you have around and making something you like. Sometimes it goes nowhere, and sometimes you’re able to share it, and sometimes you figure out how to play it live. Black Dice, we jam it out, and that’s how we write. But by myself, I like making records. It’s kind of how I think of my ideas, you know. And for a live representation I try to add something different, make it a little bit more than the changes in the recording. Just take a little part and play around with it in a different way.

When did you start working with a four-track, and what attracted you to being able to do audio collage?

I didn’t start doing stuff like that until I was in my 20s, I bet. I think my mom got me [a four-track] for my birthday when I was 13 or 14. It was a two-input, Fostex cassette one. It was real basic, I don’t even know if there was an EQ on it. I had used one at a friend’s house. I’d spent the night there, and we’d spent most of the night playing around. I didn’t know anything about them before that. So I started doing that, and I had one until I was maybe 21, and then I didn’t really record anything for five or six years, for whatever reason. I came back to it maybe five or six years ago, when I was like, “Aw, I miss this.” And then I started doing more.

A lot of your music has a very tape-heavy aesthetic — lots of fuzzy, warped sounds, like a cassette that’s been melting in the sun. What attracts you to that effect?

Maybe it came about just trying to figure out how to make things last a long time. I think Daft Punk’s an easy example where they’ll have this one sound going, but do these filter sweeps so that it feels like it builds for a minute. It’s really just one sound going, but they’re turning this knob, and dropping this beat at the end of it, and it’s really satisfying. I think that’s sort of their tool for making repetition have some movement. There are a lot of ways to do it. The drum machine, you don’t just put on a certain BPM, you sort of have to play between two BPMs. So that, for a second, you’re a tiny bit ahead of the beat, and for a second you’re a tiny bit behind the beat, and you also kind of have that moment where everything hits at the same time. Also a lot of samples are detuned in a way, so it sounds sort of sickly to a lot of people. I don’t think I do it any more, but I know what you mean. It’s sort of like playing a detuned guitar.

There also seems to be a kind of cartoon sensibility in your music — bright colors and bold, exaggerated lines.

I definitely try to have a sense of humor with it. I see a lot of one-person electronic bands, and it’s very sample-based and everything locked in this one way, and I think the presentation comes off really slick. I don’t really meditate on these ideas, but coming from a punk rock culture: that’s the straight world and this is the fuckin’ cool world. I think it’s cool that people are doing what they do, but sometimes the result feels really straight to me. I want to have some seriousness, and demonstrate some things I think are really important and maybe hidden in it, but then I want it to be attractive in a stupid way. I don’t think there’s something bad about having something be dumb or idiotic or really basic. I don’t know if that’s cartoony, but I think it share a cultural space with it.

Is it kind of a trash-culture thing? Finding redemption in cultural castoffs?

I think that’s definitely part of it. Not the entire thing, but part of my intention. I think there’s a lot of everything right now. There’s a lot of music and movies and people and horrible stories, and it sounds really basic, but this is what I do with it all. I’m not political, but this is my way of dealing with that stuff, in some ways. It’s not my entire M.O., but I like to think that what I don’t like, I try to work with instead of being a bummer about it. If I don’t like something, I feel like I can add something to it to bring it back to a place where I like it.

That kind of trash-culture utopianism played a big part in a lot of the underground music from Providence, where Black Dice got their start — bands like Lightning Bolt and Force Field, and the Fort Thunder space.

I was really young, so I have a hard time even now — there’s a big separation because of my age and what was going on there. They all seemed very adult and smart to me, and I was living with my parents a lot of the time. I’m sure it has an influence, but I’ve never really given it much consideration. But I definitely think of [that scene] as being kind of fine-art in a way that I flirt with, but that’s not where my head is. That’s a world that Black Dice can play around in, but Bjorn exists there much more. They all seemed like fine artists to me, just living, like, kind of extreme.

But again, Bjorn was going to school there and was more part of that conversation and brought it to Black Dice. I feel like there’s one degree of remove from my approach to that, just because I took it from Black Dice’s aesthetic rather than coming upon it [for myself], because I was just a kid.

Your work has such a murky, gnarled aesthetic; have you ever wanted to do something clean and hi-fi?

Yeah, I’ve tried to do things like that; there’s smaller projects I’ve done that were more traditional sounding. I’m trying to say “yes” to things [like that] because in some ways, you sort of paint yourself into a corner at a certain point. I like the idea, but I’d want to find somebody who could do it with me, instead of figuring it out right now. I have a way of working that I like, and it changes based on really basic things like a new piece of equipment. I’m not like chasing that sound. I think it’d be a curious sort of addition to the story, but that’s not the direction I’m heading. Just, sometimes I want to get in that orbit and take off again.

When you’re working in the studio, is part of the creative process in the way that you wire the studio? I’m imagining you in there routing machines through lots of obscure hardware boxes and seeing what comes out.

Barely any. It’s like, I use two effects: I use a pitch-shifter and a delay unit that has another sound on it. Sometimes I’ll use a phase box. But for the most part, my tools are really basic. Gear guys have no interest in my tools. I’m not part of that scene. I actually think you could probably have done what I did 30 years ago. They’re that primitive. It’s not longer ago, it’s not early ’70s; this shit’s really stupid. There’s nothing cool about my gear.

Who did the record cover?

You know, I did. I was kind of under the gun. I like it; the criteria I wanted for this one was just that you could see it on a computer screen really small and it would communicate big colors. But then after I turned it in, I was like, “Aw, this just looks like a really B-rate Broken Ear Record.” It’s just stripes and an ass. Too late; that doesn’t matter any more. I think it’s cool. It does what I wanted it to.