By Lori Kennedy
HAVE YOU EVER FOUND YOURSELF AT A LOSS FOR WORDS WHEN TRYING TO
describe a particular artist’s sound? Are you struggling with phrases like “It’s sort of
dance-rock mixed with old-school Willie Nelson, Kraftwerk, and Jay-Z”? Welcome
to modern electronic music, where genre bending has become the norm.
Enter 21-year-old Brooklyn producer Alec Feld (a.k.a. Expensive Looks), who
delivers chopped up and looped-out Chicago house-psych-garage-soul-pop that’s
as danceable and funky as that description suggests. Feld has been compared
to M83, and while there are similarities, Feld’s style is much grittier. All the tracks
are perfectly restrained, as though he took a bombastic Chicago house record,
injected it with blissful pop, then ran it through an overdriven fi lter. Keyboard got
the inside scoop on this beautifully dirty dichotomy.
Did you use analog synths to create Dark
Yeah—it’s half synths, half software. But I used
the Korg R3 a bunch. I started out making music
using synths. A friend of mine wanted to trade
synths for a record player, and so I took her up on
that and ended up with a Minimoog Voyager. It
was about two years ago when I got the Voyager,
and I began by mashing keys on it and recording
percussive samples through the built-in microphone
[on my MacBook] into Logic. For me, it
was just about seeing what all these different
knobs did. Opening synths, circuit-bending
them, and ruining them—all of which I regret.
Then I got into modifying toys—a friend of mine
circuit-bent a Furby, and let me tell you, I’ve
never heard an instrument like it.
I want to take a thousand of them and steamroll
right over them! [Laughs.] I also circuitbent
a top that spun around and had LED
lights. When you spun it, it played a MIDI version
of “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop. I decided
a few months later that I should invest in
something other than a toy. So I got the Minimoog
fixed, sold it, and got a Korg R3. Then,
about a year ago I picked up [Cycling ’74] Max/
MSP. I integrated it with Ableton Live using
Max for Live. The album is a combination of
the Korg R3, Max/MSP, some traditional DSPs,
and a bunch of different samples.
Can you talk a bit about the samples?
I didn’t really know how to sample. I used to
simply sample two seconds of a song and then
loop it over and over again. But I started using
Max/MSP to manipulate the samples. I took
some garage-rock samples—stuff I’d find on
odd compilations or on dirty vinyl from the
weird record store run by some guy who really
misses the Replacements [laughs]—and
I’d slow them down, cut them up, or rearrange
them. Then I’d take them into Max/MSP
and manipulate them. On Dark Matters, the
samples were done using MIDI keyboards—I
use an M-Audio Axiom 49—in terms of cutting
them up and triggering them from keys or using
my Livid Ohm64 grid controller.
If you can build your own hardware and software,
there really aren’t any limits to what you
can do. I’ll take part of a song and cut it up into
eight, 16, or 32 pieces and use those as cues. In a
way, I’m using all those one- or two-second bits
as my “synth.” I also use the vocoder input on the
Korg and run samples into that—then you get
some really weird s***.
What do you use for drums and bass in
I have this ridiculous 10GB folder of drum
samples, and usually pick something from
that. Same with bass. I use a bunch of different
Max patches that I run into Ableton,
which is at the core of everything I do.
I use the Ohm64 to cut up a lot of samples.
There is this awesome patch written by Trent Gill
in Melbourne, who performs as Parallelogram
[parallelogram.cc]. He made a sampling instrument
for grid-based music controllers called
MLRV. It takes a grid controller and turns each
row of buttons into a line of samples. You can
take a half-second of a song and get eight steps
to it—then you can screw around with the eight
steps. But it’s all done by hand and by ear. A lot
of Dark Matters is completely atonal. The amazing
part about atonal samples and making atonal
songs is that it sounds like I’m doing something
“wrong,” but then I get this weird, awesome feeling
that it sounds so right.
How did you construct “Nothing More”?
I took a sample from an early ’60s beat track
and made it the whole background sample—
that weird, meshy thing. I sped it up, slowed
it down, cut in half, and then warped it some
more. The background drums are also samples
from a ’60s or ’70s psych garage-rock track. The
rest of it is synthesizers and vocals using Max/
MSP. After I created the samples, I laid down a
bass line, then the vocals.
How did you record your vocals for
I used an AKG Perception 220 mic and ran that
into an [Avid] Mbox. This is the scary part: I do
all recording, arranging, mastering, mixing, and
final rendering in Ableton. Everything is done
in Ableton. There isn’t much vocal processing—
there’s some compression, EQ, and a little reverb.
What gear is in your live setup?
An Akai APC40—they’re so inexpensive and
awesome, especially if you’re working in Ableton
Live. The songs are very sequenced, and with 40
layers going on, it’s almost impossible control
each layer live, so a lot of it involves pre-programmed
channels. I can make a bunch of twobar
loops and then trigger them. The APC40 can
handle eight tracks, and I use all eight and assign
a bunch of different stuff —one will be kicks, one
will be snares, one will be synths, one will be bass
lines, and so on. If I get shot dead onstage, it will
keep going. [Laughs.]
I have everything running in Ableton on a
MacBook Pro. I’ve got another MacBook Pro that
also runs Ableton, plus visual software. With
a lot of ad hoc wireless networking, I’m able to
use the Livid Ohm64 to control Ableton and the
APC40, along with all of the visuals running on
the other Macbook Pro. I MIDI-mapped a Max
for Live patch in Ableton on my main laptop.
That patch is networked with a duplicate of itself
running in Ableton on the second computer.
Whatever information that patch gets is sent to
the VJ program. I have an enormous network of
patches for my live show, as my visuals are automated
based on what sound is coming from my
rig. I also have a Roland SP-555 for some basic
samples. I think I need a bigger table!
Musically, Dark Matters is upbeat, but the
lyrics deal with depressing subjects. Was
that dichotomy intentional?
This is the most depressing album I could’ve
ever created. [Laughs.] To answer your question,
yes. If you look back at Chicago house, you see
a lot of competition: Who can step it up for the
dance floor better? But a lot of house tracks talk
about the most downright depressing stuff . The
comedian Pablo Francisco would say, “People will
dance to anything, even if the lyrics are “kill myself,
kill myself!” A lot of the tracks are 120bpm,
so they’re dance-y. But who said upbeat has to
mean happy? Most tracks on this album are
about frustration in the pursuit of happiness. I’d
say I’m a reasonable pessimist. [Laughs.]