"Lots of Tight Jean Moments": An Interview with BT
Having just released a new double-disc album, BT sits down to talk about writing songs in code, Avatar, his 400-pound chrome pony, and -- yes -- those many "tight jean moments" he's prone to.
"I am as far beyond mutants as they are beyond you!"
-- Apocalypse (X-Men: The Animated Series)
BT is not your average electronic music producer. His Facebook page lists his genre as "Technologist/Composer", and on his newest release -- the double-disc epic These Hopeful Machines -- Brian Transeau's attention to detail can be heard right at the beginning of the album, where the mechanism switches on and the cogs slowly start up. Yet as the first disc fades out, we are left under a gentle rain with peaceful nighttime sounds, showcasing Transeau's love of nature and the elements. His music frequently represents a hybrid of cutting edge technology and spiritual relationships with nature, all of which converge on THM -- his 6th proper studio album.
As a musician, BT began learning Western classical music from an early age. In the 90s he became a pioneer in the electronic music world when his first album Ima broke new ground in the then-burgeoning trance sub-genre. His next two releases, 1997's ESCM and 1999's Movement in Still Life, gave him an even wider audience, especially in the U.S. which was just getting wrapped up in the late-90s electronica craze. The new decade saw the release of two compilations of his work and a fourth album -- Emotional Technology -- as well as the birth of his daughter Kaia. An emotional focal point, Kaia was a source of inspiration for BT's 5th album, an entirely instrumental composition called This Binary Universe. Mixed with his extensive film work, BT has had nothing short of a restless career.
As a technologist, Transeau connects with more than just his listeners. Now engaged in his software company Sonik Architects, he is reaching out even further. The masses have been given a chance to remix his songs on their iPods with his Sonifi application. For the studio masters, the internet is abuzz with anticipation that BT will be releasing some new potions to increase your wizardry level. The company may be making some of his signature effects like the "granular synthesis" or "stutter editing" more user friendly.
Recently, PopMatters had the good fortune to talk to BT about his nearly two-hour, double disc masterpiece and his software company, Sonik Architects. It is worth remembering that BT stands far above a DJ mixing songs for a crowd. Envision him making his emotional and engaging music because BT is a futuristic composer.
For your new album, These Hopeful Machines, why do you have two discs? Are the songs divided thematically across the two?
That's a great question actually. If they were putting out laserdiscs I would have put it on that but there's not room by Redbook standards on a single CD. In essence what I do is this very kind of elaborate protracted compositional thing. So I make these very long compositions and historically I've had to pare them back to fit them into 78 minutes and 55 seconds. I decided I didn't want to do that for this. I decided to try and make the songs, I thought about this during the process of composing them, flow together like some of my favorite classic albums and to make an A-side and a B-side like the records I loved when I was a kid. And so there is a very conscious effort in the compositional process.
So is there a theme for each side? Not necessarily, but they are designed to work together if that makes sense. There's not like a fast side and a slow side. It's me making an effort to bring the album back. So there are two tracks on iTunes, the A-side and the B-side.
I noticed you have two bonus tracks on the Amazon site. How come you've chosen to distribute a limited digital release rather than a limited physical release?
We have so much media to release, honestly. The album is 12 songs but when you look at all of the music together which includes reinterpretations, remakes, cover versions and remixes of songs where I actually reached out to friends and fellow artists and fans. Everyone from one of my favorite shoegaze bands -- Hammock -- to Armin van Buuren. It's 6.8 hours of music, so there is a lot to release over the coming year.
Having listened to your album, I can tell there are five tracks with your vocals out of the 12. But, is there another vocalist on "Love Can Kill You"? I recognize you have the chorus.
Yeah, that's me. There are lots of tight jeans moments on this record. Honestly, over the last two years, since touring with Tiësto and someone handing me a microphone and saying "go and do something meaningful for 100,000 people", I've just enjoyed singing more and more than I ever had before. I just felt really inspired to do some things that were actually out of my natural range and push myself. And so that's reflected in this new body of work for sure.
How did you choose Rob Dickinson and Jes [Brieden] as the guest vocalists?
I met Jes when I was on tour with Tiësto. Jes has such a unique and specific voice. She sounds like she's been chain smoking since she was 4 and she doesn't even smoke, which is weird. But she has this really raspy kind of sultry quality to her voice. But she picks the notes that I would pick if I was a girl singer. I love her instrument. She's just a beautiful vocalist.
And Rob -- I listened to [Catherine Wheel's] "Black Metallic" in high school, hearing that song and pulling that car over and actually weeping on the side of the road. That's happened to me in my life with probably three songs, where I have been actually moved to tears. I thought someday I have to write music with this guy. And I met him through friends and we really hit it off. The first time we got together, we drank two bottles of wine and we sat down and wrote "The Unbreakable" in a single night.
Chicane's done a remix for this album. Are you working with him for his forthcoming album?
He's someone that I've known for years and years and I absolutely love his work. I remember the first time I heard Nick [Bracegirdle]'s work and just being really blown away by the subtlety of the changes he uses harmonically against fairly simple rhythmic patterns but then collectively having this very strong emotional impact. We've just been friends for a long time. He's an amazing guy.
How come you just have two instrumentals on this album?
Well you know my whole last album was instrumental. There were no vocals on it. It's just that I felt like singing. This record is really a merging point of all of my works to date. So I think I took a lot of the production techniques and things that I learned from making This Binary Universe which was a completely instrumental record, and combined that with the songwriting stuff that I've studied and loved.
You released Movement in Still Life as both a UK version and a US version. Do you think the US audience is ready for longer tracks?
I'd like to think so. I'd like there to be some real kind of forced conversions here honestly. I'm hopeful that that's possible. I think that when people find an engaging piece of media they are willing to immerse themselves in it. So much media, of so many sorts now, is so nutritionally lacking. It's devoid of substance and meaning. That can be fun too, it's like a fun thing you sing along with in the car.
This is not that kind of music, its music that's meant to immerse the listener in a very active listening experience. There is enough ear candy. And the attention to detail in the songs is composed in a way such that it will engage people enough to keep their attention. I'm really excited to see.
You have such fine detail in your songs. Would you compare yourself to anyone? Who would be some of your peers as producers?
My peer group is all dead. [Laughs] There is such an incredible obsessive attention to detail in this stuff, that my friends that I may consider in related-vaguely, related-kind-of, ancillary part of peer group, they look at me and they're like, you're nuts. No one thinks this much about the detail of things.
Can you describe Sonik Architects and your custom laptop software [like "break-tweaker"]?
There's a limited amount that I can say about, because we are getting ready to make a big Sonik Architects announcement over the next several months. But I have been developing a lot of proprietary applications for years now that I use both in my own work and for live performance. We're gonna be sharing a bunch of those with people soon. I'm really, really excited about that. I think other people are gonna be extremely excited about it. We've taken things that are really, really high concept and very difficult to do on a production level and we're making them so they are easy for anyone.
Are you gonna be bringing your live show on the road?
Absolutely. I'm gonna be going out with a live band this year. Very excited about that. Late Spring -- early Summer, going out with a full live band. There will be some really exciting surprises. We're really focused on putting together a super kick-ass live show and Sonik Architects this year. Those are my two main focuses.
Will it be a world tour or a North American tour?
Its gonna be both. We'll definitely do a North American run and then we'll do a few shows out of the country as well.
Is the "Chrome Pony" going to make an appearance?
It may. Actually, it's funny that you say that. That thing, it's actually deadly how heavy it is. It is almost 400 pounds. It's in my garage right now. When people see the "Every Other Way" video they're gonna see some of my new-style stand-manhandling. I actually want to design a new one, so I think there might a sort of "Chrome Pony 2.0" making it out with me on the next tour.
Can you explain CSound a little? Do you write music in code?
CSound is a language that was developed by a Barry Vercoe from MIT. One of my professors that I studied with, Richard Boulanger, is one of the main progenitors of this language. He's an amazing teacher as well. There is a really cool community of people that script instruments and music using this language. I became really fascinated by this process and actually the first song on the last album "All that Makes Is" was written entirely in code.
It was a goal that I'd set for myself years and years before when I did the "The Hip-Hop Phenomenon" with Adam Freeland. I remember sitting on the ground on my clunker OS 9 laptop and I was working in CSound and Supercollider and he was like [mock British accent] "You're such a geek mate what are you doing?". I said, in a very sassy fashion, "You watch, one day I'm gonna write a whole song in code". And he's like [groans] "Oh my god get me a Guinness" beside himself. But I did it and it felt great.
Before This Binary Universe you had Emotional Technology. This album is These Hopeful Machines. What are you feelings about technology? Are we looking forward to an optimistic future with a mutually beneficial relationship with technology or a Terminator 2-like landscape?
It's a good question. It depends on if you believe in Ray Kurzweil's idea of "Technological Singularity" or you think Carlos Castaneda had it figured out with "The Quickening". There's a lot of different ways you can slice it. It's sort of like global warming.
I think that we're right at a moment right now that's defining what's gonna happen. I'd like to believe that human beings can use technology as a more effective means of communicating emotional ideas, communicating effectively at distance and that these objects and devices can become more integrated into our lifestyle and we can more respectful of the ball of dirt that we are living on. That's what I would like to see happen. But I think that the future is just that, the future. And we're just sort of making it up as we go.
Have you seen Avatar and what are your thoughts on that?
It's actually a beautiful film and it's the sort of movie that I'm really excited exists. It is really brave that James Cameron made that film and that they invested so much in making something that was so technologically advanced and has an incredible story. It's not just boobs and things blowing up. There is this astonishingly compelling storyline that really makes for a very holistic, powerful cinematic experience. I loved that film. I've seen it twice and I want to see it again. I think it's fantastic.
Do you have film scores/projects coming up?
I actually just wrote the theme for a new video game called Alpha Protocol and I did a short for Pixar for Cars. I loved the experience of working with the folks at Pixar. They are so of my tribe. They are people that are inventing new techniques and modalities and they are creating the software to actualize them.
I just found myself so at home with the visual artists there at Pixar and also too with the head of Pixar himself. I found a really sort of simpatico rapport with the people there so I'm hoping to do a lot more stuff with them. But this year really is focused on this album and on Sonik Architects for me. So it would probably be 18 months out before I did another film score.
What are some of the changes in the dance scene in America over the past decade? The Europe dance scene is obviously bigger than it is here.
It's interesting. It's hard for me to kind of keep the pulse of what's happening in the dance music community. There is a lot of electronic music that I absolutely love but I'm not really that up on what's happening. I just feel lucky to have engaged a group of people that resonate with what I do and they come to my shows. I have a very specific and unique experience with my audience that is not necessarily about dance music.