Is Chillwave Necessary? An Interview with Paul Duncan of Warm Ghost

Warm Ghost

Even a cursory glance at the major websites purveying in music criticism will show the veritable litany of classifications. Musical taxonomy is becoming increasingly complicated, as it seems that even the most unconnected of genres manage to refer to each other. Music in the electronic sphere perhaps falls most prey to the plague of over-classification; these range from house, dub, dubstep, glitch, IDM, EDM, acid house, synthpop, techno, trance, amongst others. A further glance at Wikipedia or the latest Pitchfork review of an album of any of the aforementioned genres would no doubt bring forth even more genres and sub-genres, with increasingly hilarious names (currently, the cake-winner of that award is “Ambient-Techno-Goth-Prog-Crossover”).

This is where the now-popular “chillwave” genre comes in. Toro Y Moi’s Underneath the Pine and Washed Out’s Within and Without, both falling under the label of chillwave, have been released to great critical acclaim, bringing further attention to this new genre that they supposedly fall under. The genre hadn’t existed for a long time prior to these releases; chillwave is a pretty new term. The genre wasn’t created by a critic (its etymology is reported to have its roots in the Hipster Runoff blog), but the term has spread around in critical circles like wildfire.

On one hand it’s understandable why critics often coin new terms and genres for sounds that they can’t immediately classify. Classifying artists under a new genre isn’t merely just a means of trying to comprehend the music that one is hearing; when new genres spawn as the result of a distinct sound, that classification serves very much as a tribute to the artist or artist’s creative ability.

At the same time, however, the often reductive nature of genre classifications can actually belittle artistic achievement; chillwave, on account of its heavy use of synthesizers, nearly always elicits comparisons to eighties synthpop, though it is not necessarily the case that all chillwave artists have Soft Cell and Japan playing on loop while in the studio. Whether chillwave will continue to grow as a genre or remain just a brief fad, only to be remembered by scattered, elliptic references in album reviews has yet to be seen. In either case, the damaging effects of trying to narrowly summarize an artist’s sound nonetheless remain.

Warm Ghost is but one of quite a few bands that has been pegged as a member in the up-and-coming “chillwave scene.” After releasing an EP earlier this year, Uncut Diamond, the band released their first full-length recording, Narrows, on September 27th. The debate about whether or not chillwave constitutes a necessary title aside, Narrows is a highly impressive debut that stands out well alongside the Toro Y Moi and Washed Out LPs; it might just even be better. All of the elements that make chillwave what it is are present on the record, but it’s brilliant enough that attempting to classify it, while perhaps good for descriptive purposes, fails to actually appreciate the music within. It is very often the case that critics, no doubt this one included, don’t take the time to actually listen to the record. Narrows demands a close listen, and it’s a reason why the record stands out as one of the year’s finest musical offerings.

PopMatters caught up with Paul Duncan (one half of the Warm Ghost equation; Oliver Chapoy is the other half) to discuss the artistic goals and values, and methods of the band, as well as the ever-troubling problem of classifying music, especially from the perspective of the person(s) making the music itself.

* * *

I was very struck by the artwork from which your band takes its name. Does that speak at all to the artistic direction of the band?

That’s an installation work that this German sculptor did; she did stuff around the mid-eighties. Her name’s Katharina Fritsch. It’s this piece I really like a lot; I think it’s from around 1987 or sometime around that. It’s this little kid in a sort of generic sheet that looks like a ghost, staring at a pool of blood on the floor in this giant warehouse space. I used to always see it when I was a kid, and it always stuck with me; that’s kind of where the band name came from.

There’s actually another place where the band name came from, the Creedence Clearwater song “Born on the Bayou.” There’s that line, “Chasing down the hoodoo there.” I remember hearing a line and never knowing what that meant; I found out later that it’s this old Creole term for a ghost. I thought that was a pretty striking image, this image of dogs chasing a ghost in a swampy bayou.

Narrows is a deeply artistic record; was there a particular aesthetic ideal you had when making the album?

Yeah, definitely. I’m not sure I can verbalize it all that easily, but it’s definitely an intentional record. The sounds on the album were something I had in my head; I started the band, so it’s kind of my baby. We’ve been a duo for awhile, and now we’re about to become a four-piece lineup. The band’s setup is changing a lot. Usually, when I make records, there’s a consistency to them, but the stuff I’m working on now has a lot of mixed song material that exists on a record but doesn’t have this conceptual content to it.

But Narrows is very art-directed and intentional. Most of the songs are about making connections with things that seemingly aren’t related. I remember writing the word “narrows,” and recalling that it means small channels that connect to larger bodies of water. I felt that metaphorically tied into what I was writing about at the time, those things that seem unrelated but are connected by the things we can’t see very well.

The record no doubt captures that well, due in large part to the layered synthesizer textures throughout the record. In light of the debate regarding whether to use analog synths or computer plug-ins, which do you prefer to harness your sound?

We use both. We recorded the record at DFA studios, which is James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem’s studio, so most of the music was done almost entirely on analog synths, though at times we would replace a certain synth with something on a computer. For the first two EPS, I did all of those sounds on the computer, but Narrows didn’t have any processing software at all.

Given that there are so many textures and sounds one can get from a synthesizer, how did you pick the right ones to fit the songs on the album?

That’s a good question! (Laughs) And a hard question. I don’t really think of that as a task necessarily. I’ve played around with synthesizers since I was sixteen years old, and I just now started fully making music with them. When I start writing a song, I have a sound in my head, so I don’t enjoy fucking around with a synthesizer actually, which is funny. If I’m writing something though, I usually sit down and I know what I’m writing, so I don’t need to search around. I just kinda know what sound will make sense with the song I’m writing for.

So it’s not particularly difficult to find the right sound even on a complicated instrument like a synthesizer?

It can be, but I guess I’m kind of lazy with it. For me, the song is more important than finding a sound that no one has heard before. So usually if it’s taking too long I’ll move on and find a different synth I like better. Oliver is actually better at playing around with synths, which really balances out in a way; he’s more the “synth-geek” guy (Laughs).

One strong distinctive of the record, along with the synthesizers, was the way the vocals blended in with those textures, as if they were another synthesizer. Was that deliberate?

Yeah, that was very intentional. With this project in general that’s been something that’s been pretty consistent. I’ve made a few solo records, which were very unaffected, very unprocessed, and I wanted to see how far we could stretch the vocals in a lot of different ways. So with processing and the way I sing and what I’m saying I just decided that this project should stand differently than the stuff I’d done before. We would, on a couple of songs, run my vocals through Oliver’s modular synth setup, which is really cool and allows you to set up a bunch of components and run audio through it. So, like for example the song “Inside and Out” is me singing through a synthesizer. And when we did use software, we’d also process my vocals through Reactor [a recording program comprised of multiple synthesizer interfaces] as well.

There are so many different sub-genres of music now; for your band, I’ve found an almost countless number of labels. Do you classify your music at all, and if so how do you classify it?

No, I hate the idea of classifying anything. I think it’s stupid. I know it’s necessary and I mean, if I put myself in your shoes, for someone who has your job obviously it’s necessary because you have to describe something to the people you’re trying to get the information across to.

But from my perspective, I don’t see the point. The think the role of my job is just to make music, to make songs that I think are interesting. As soon as I start trying to classify what we do or what I do, I just get… very uninterested. I’m not sure there’s a point in me trying to classify us, you know? To me they’re just songs, and on the next record it’s going to sound probably substantially different, so if I start classifying and give us a genre, the next record probably wouldn’t live up to the title.

For the very synthesizer-heavy type of music that’s present on Narrows, the comparison that’s used a lot is eighties music. Do you find any of your influences are from that period?

Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, we love The Cure, Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark, all the stuff that’s obvious reference points. I think one of the first things that people say, or that I’ve read (when I do read anything that people write about us) is Depeche Mode. I’ll probably take that; I think Martin Gore is one of my favorite songwriters.

But I also obsessively listen to Fleetwood Mac and Prince; with me, I’m musically all over the place. I remember someone who published this one review of the record, and this guy, he just did not get it, he was like, “This is schizophrenic music, it’s not focused, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing!” [Laughs] I mean, I can see that, our music does come from a lot of different places, so it’s not just eighties music. When it gets called that, it kinda bothers me. Not much else you can do, I guess.

Because Narrows is such a dense record, how do you plan on translating those sounds into the live experience?

We just played our record release show in Brooklyn last weekend as a duo, but we’re actually going to expand to add two other members around next week. When we played those songs live (I think it was only the second time we’ve played new stuff) some people really loved it. I had a lot of friends there, so the constructive criticism was like, “You guys were fucking great, you were at the top of your game,” but I definitely had a couple of friends be like, “Oh, it’s so underwhelming, like the record is so good, you just need to figure out the live setup a little better.” So, it’s not easy; it’s a process for sure. You make something that’s really dense, not taking into consideration, “Oh, I have to reproduce this for people over and over.” So we’re trying to figure it out. With more people in the band it’ll make more sense ‘cause, you know, the record doesn’t sound like two people to me, at least. It sounds like a band.

Do you think the music will change to enough of a degree when you move to the four-person lineup?

I hope so. I mean, I don’t want to be too much of a dictator about it. I do like to write everything, but I’d like to see how collaborative it can get with four people. I’m excited about working with a drummer; I really like working with drummers. I think just out of being economic I didn’t get a drummer in the band to begin with because it was easier to travel around and play shows. But now that we’re starting to get better shows and a booking agent, it’d be better to make it more collaborative. See if I can write with people, you know.

Is this your first experience in a band setting?

When I made solo records, I didn’t write with anyone, but I always had like an eight piece band, usually six to eight people. They had violin, cello, steel guitar, all kinds of stuff. I’ve been in a band before, but it’s always been sort of “all eyes on me,” and I definitely got tired of that. So it’ll be different, it will be a full band and not just my name like a solo project. That I haven’t done, I’ve started in a few bands with friends but we never actually went through with it.

When you decided to start Warm Ghost as a duo with Oliver, did you find there were things that you didn’t expect to happen in a duo dynamic?

Yeah, yeah, definitely. Obviously, he’s a really talented dude. He’s not so much a songwriter, I guess, in comparison to me. But he creates a lot of textures, he’s actually who we do use for computer stuff and software stuff; he’s just really good at it, he sits around and fucks with Reactor all the time. So if I have a sound in my head sometimes, I’ll just go to him and say, “Hey, this is what I’m thinking, do you have anything that might be that sound?” Then he’ll dial up the synth and it’ll be perfect. It’s a release; it frees both of us up to do what we do best, rather than when you’re making things by yourself and you don’t get to experience all the elements of making something.

There seems to be quite a music scene developing out of Brooklyn. Would you say there is a distinct music scene there, and if so what makes it a unique scene?

Yeah, there seems to be. When I first formed the band, we started playing DIY, really cheap warehouse shows so we could start playing. Our first show we played with these bands called Light Asylum and Kosovo. That night it really felt like there was a scene; it was really packed, and there were all these people interested in similar music.

I hadn’t really thought about it much, but when our first EP came out and named the band, I was kind of in hibernation mode, so I wasn’t really paying attention to anything. I didn’t know that fifty “Ghost” bands existed. So when I named the band, I realized “Oh, we’re another Ghost band.” So yeah, there’s a great scene here. It depends on your definition of “scene” I guess, but there’s so much music coming out of here. It’s pretty overwhelming.