Who Is…Marley Carroll

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 01.16.14 in Who Is...?s

File under: Melancholic electro-pop with psychedelic sample play
For fans of: Dntel, Caribou, Toro Y Moi
From: Asheville, North Carolina

Marley Carroll isn’t the easiest musician to pin down. A singer-songwriter who admires Four Tet’s sampling prowess? A former hip-hop turntablist whose warm, fuzzy first record evoked Sebadoh and Slowdive? All of these things are true of Carroll, a North Carolina musician whose recent album Sings runs from winsome electro-pop to sentimental neo-shoegaze to skittering bass music to trim, minimalist house tracks, variously recalling John Talabot, Akufen, Vampire Weekend and James Blake along the way. (He also provided some helpful tech advice to this reporter, who spent the 30 minutes prior to the interview struggling with the damage caused by a massive system failure.)

The son of an architect, Carroll grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and headed off to Los Angeles to study at CalArts. “I kicked around L.A. for a year or two afterwards,” he says, “but never really found my footing, never really fit in. At the time, there was a recording studio called Echo Mountain that was opening in Asheville. Gorgeous studio. I decided I would try to get an internship or a job there. I ended up moving to Asheville. It was supposed to be my decompression from L.A., but now I’ve been here for five years, living and working and making records. It’s a really wonderful place.”

It helps that Asheville, a city of 83,000 tucked inside the Blue Ridge Mountains in Western North Carolina, is turning into a regional hotbed for electronic music. Not only is it the hometown of Moog Music, founded in 1953 by the late synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog; Asheville also hosts Moogfest and the Mountain Oasis Festival, whose lineups balance populism with progressivism as expertly as virtually any other event in America. (This fall’s Mountain Oasis lineup featured Nine Inch Nails and Bassnectar alongside Mount Kimbie, Actress, Raime and Laurel Halo; next April’s Moogfest will feature Dan Deacon, Green Velvet and Wolf Eyes along with Laurie Anderson, Chic and Kraftwerk.)

“The Southeast has a reputation of having more burner, kind of hippie festivals, just to be frank,” says Carroll. “Now we have two major, really progressive electronic-music festivals in a town of 80,000 people. It’s pretty extraordinary. I still think the challenge is going to be for people to think of Asheville as a place to look for new talent rather than just thinking of it as a place to go see music. Right now we have an unbelievable amount of live music for the size of the town, but people aren’t looking to Asheville as the place for new music like you would look to Berlin.”

Carroll’s Sings — which he released, like his debut album, himself — makes a strong case that the local soil is nurturing promising new sounds. Philip Sherburne spoke with Carroll about writing songs, fixing laptops and taking private music into the public sphere.

On life in Asheville:

Right now there’s still a day job and music-life balance. I have a really modest home studio, and if I need to record drums or vocals in a more sophisticated way, I’ll visit a friend’s house. We have Echo Mountain, which is probably our most notable large recording studio, but most people around here are very DIY about it and have small, individual project studios. But my life in Asheville is really kind of relaxed. I work a couple days a week fixing computers when I’m not out on the road, and then the rest of the time I’m DJing and making music. I would say that it’s a small-stakes kind of life. Asheville affords me the time and headspace for creative exploration. I definitely don’t feel like I’m under a tremendous amount of pressure here.

On his day job as a certified Apple technician:

The way I came to fixing computers was actually through music. I learned computers purely out of the necessity from wanting to make music on them. I have no preternatural attractions towards computers; I actually think they’re pretty obtuse and primitive in terms of the way they work. They can be difficult to work with, and they have lots of problems — like your kernel panic. The reason I became a Mac technician was just falling into it from working with computers all the time to make music. Having to keep track of file management and replace hard drives and RAM and all that so that I can run Reason 2 — that’s how I became a computer technician.

On his writing process:

Everything is up for grabs in terms of experimenting with sound. Some songs will start with chords, some will start with melody. Most of what I write will start with one nugget, one sonic piece I think is strong enough to carry the entire song. The way I record, I do everything on my own. It’s just one track at a time, very piecemeal. My songs are a mélange of stuff that I play myself, and I will sample from records and outside sources if I feel like the thing that I’m sampling from is personal to me, but I try to avoid presets and sample packs. The flute in “Black Light,” for example, was from this really goofy exotic percussion record from the ’50s. And “Woodwork” is full of sampled work — some gamelan, and the drums are sampled from a Tony Williams record. But in every case I try to sample from records that I own. It’s one way of drawing borders around what I’m doing and limiting what my choices are — just trying to make sure every sample that I use has a touch of me in it, and I’m not just taking things from all different sources. I really want it to be unique. The producers who sample that I like the most are the people that have a very specific touch, something that’s only theirs. I always go back to Four Tet, for example — almost all of his music, from Rounds to Beautiful Rewind, is mostly sampled. But his choices and curation have his individual thumbprint. Everything sounds like one of his sounds, and that’s something that I wanted to try and emulate.

On fusing electronics and voice:

[The title] Sings was a way of driving home for people that this is all original music and it’s me playing guitar and singing and writing the songs. Having DJed, and having done purely instrumental tracks on the last couple releases, people have come to my music through different channels. I wanted to clear up the confusion and make sure people understand this isn’t just a collection of beats or sampled works; it is all original music. Also, pretty much every song on Sings has vocals, even if they’re sampled. “First Thought, Best Thought,” for example, those are still my vocals that are being sampled, and they’re my vocals being sampled on “Cedars.” It was a way of cluing people in that every song has a touch of my vocals in it.

On tying it all together:

It began as a collection of my best songs that I wanted to compile and then, later, when I was finishing up the record, I was thinking about it in terms of a complete work. I sort of stumbled toward the completion of the album, but when I was almost done with it, I was able to tie it up thematically, figure out what songs I wanted to put in it and in what order. For some people, the range might be a detriment, but for others, that’s something appealing about the record. I think when I work, at least at this stage, I’m very much in the make-whatever-I-want kind of mode. When I was making Sings, I was like, “You know, these songs sound like they’re from pretty disparate worlds, but I’m always thinking about what my best songs are, and sacrificing a little bit of consistency is a trade that I’m willing to make.”

On the decision to self-release his album:

I went back and forth about that, really. There wasn’t really a good fit at the time the record came out. I’m not opposed to putting anything out on a label. It’s not a stand that I’m taking; it’s more that at this point, having a label would put one more step between me and the audience. I can be a little more nimble with what I put out, and I can do exactly what I want. Also, because of the diversity of the record, it was tough for me to find a home for it. Every label has something of a signature sound, and with this record, the typical label conversation was like, “Here’s a couple songs,” and they’d say, “Oh, we really like this song, looking forward to hearing the rest of the album.” Then I would send the rest of it, and they would say, “This is sort of all over the place.”

On his turntablist roots:

If you do some digging on YouTube, you’ll see some battle videos and some proper scratch routines. I started with piano from an early age, and then it was drums, and when I was about 15, I got very heavily into turntablism. That sort of opened the door to producing my own stuff. The first things I ever made on the computer were these funny, DJ Qbert-style scratch compositions where you record one instrument at a time. I’ve been DJing for just as long as I’ve been producing. When I started DJing, it was all hip-hop. I was in a hip-hop group called Mr. Invisible for a number of years. We played with Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, DJ Vadim, Brother Ali, EPMD — it was a sort of indie hip-hop, backpack-rap kind of vibe. I’ve been doing turntable music for a long, long time. When I perform live, I still keep that element. It’s not a hip-hop style, it’s more a tonal, glitchy kind of vibe. But the turntable is one of the main centerpieces of my live setup.

On translating his records for the stage:

I make headphone music for people to dive deep into, and there’s a lot of subtlety. I think when I play live, I try to blow it up and do something that’s a little more visceral. Having toured with Emancipator and Shigeto and playing to bigger audiences, my live sound has gone from being something enclosed and intimate to something bigger. We’re not talking, like, Steve Aoki and champagne and cake or anything. It’s still Marley Carroll music, but it’s made more for the body than the head. That comes naturally from having DJed for so long, as well. I try to still block off things into songs, but I like to have a continuous arc to the night that feels like a DJ set.

It’s hard not to fall into [making your live set too clubby]. I think you can still carve out moments of intimacy without going full-bore and basically doing an all-beats set. But that’s the area I’m trying to explore. How do you provide an experience for somebody that takes advantage of the huge room and the sound, but how do you preserve some element of the intimacy that led people to your records in the first place?

On keeping one’s head down versus sticking one’s neck out:

I think may have a naïve idea of what it means to be an artist. When I think about what it means to work as an artist, I always think of somebody in a very solitary sort of realm. I think of great writers or great painters who are making their work almost entirely on their own, and that, to me, is incompatible with the pace and scope of the internet. That was really difficult for me to reconcile for a while. For a while I was nihilistic about it. You know, “Fuck this, I don’t need to participate, I don’t need to clamor for Facebook likes or reviews.” But after a while, that attitude simply doesn’t work, unless you happen to be Boards of Canada or Burial. I think the idea of the outsider artist that is quote-unquote discovered was really appealing to me. I’m obsessed with Boards of Canada and Autechre, and of course, to me, it’s like, “Well, these guys did it without following the traditional path.” And then I’m like, “Oh, wait, but that’s Boards of Canada!” This is not your average band. You can’t use Boards of Canada as a career model, like, “Step 1: Make one of the most significant electronic albums ever, and gain a cult following.”