George Fitzgerald
Photo: Steve Gullick / Courtesy of Domino Records

How George FitzGerald Defied the Algorithm By Stargazing

In lockdown, George FitzGerald’s studio became stale. Yet a love of stargazing and the conversion of images into music resulted in a dynamic new album.

Stellar Drifting
George FitzGerald
2 September 2022

When NASA unveiled the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, George FitzGerald was in total awe. However, he had some constructive feedback.

“I thought it was amazing,” marvels the UK-born musician. “I think the really interesting thing about that is that it looks incredible, but it’s also taken from infrared, so in order to make these things consumable for the public, there’s a slight ‘Instagramification’ of these. I’m like, ‘Whoa fuck, these things are amazing,’ but they weren’t originally in color.

“It’s interesting ‘cos I don’t think that detracts from the scientific importance of it but just on a superficial level,” he continues. “It’s like ‘Well, in everything we do now, things are jazzed up visually, otherwise it doesn’t cut through.’ I thought it was an interesting question that even fucking NASA, images of time travel from four billion years ago, infrared images of light that’s only arrived in our orbit, literally a modern wonder — they still jazzed it up with a filter. Even NASA has to worry about the fucking algorithm! It just made me chuckle.”

The images of space have proven to be inspiring to FitzGerald, who lush, colorful images of galaxies, planets, and stars and fed them into new programs that converted them into sound. These new universe-expanding textures helped build the basis of Stellar Drifting, FitzGerald’s third full-length proper and one that has already been delayed quite a few times.

“As Omicron swept across Europe, we thought we were going to release the album in the first half of the year (2022), and that’s why that single came out,” says FitzGerald, referring to his 2021 pounding anthem “Ultraviolet”. “Then there were some obscure sample clearances that just took ages which is its own story (I could talk about that for an hour but that wouldn’t be a very fun interview). That just took quite a long time and then Omicron happened. I think there’s a thread to all these tracks, but if anything [“Ultraviolet”] to me contains the most samples of these sounds that were built from oscillators of images of space. That’s the whole point of releasing the record: it’s not really yours anymore. You’re relying on people to connect the dots.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to re-evaluate a lot of life decisions, FitzGerald’s time was spent dealing with a crushing and overwhelming sense of boredom.

“It was pretty shit,” he laughs when asked about his time in lockdown. “I didn’t have any headline pieces of misery as compared to a lot of people. Nothing really happened to me, but this album isn’t a pandemic record at all. Yet it’s impossible, having spent two years of the pandemic writing, for the pandemic not to have left its mark on it emotionally. To be honest, like so many, I’ve had people close to me pass away or people who struggled with addiction and serious mental health issues. People’s lives became somewhat hemmed in, and I feel like that kind of piloted the record.

“For the pandemic, there’s not much else to say about it,” he continues. “It’s a piece of connected trauma. What’s interesting now is that I notice that there isn’t as much discussion about it. I mean, people in the UK are a bit more repressed in general [laughs], but I think people so want it to be over; one of the things I’m noticing is how people are just ‘over it’ and not wanting to be rocked by it. It’s going to take years for people to sort of unpack these extreme experiences they went through. For me personally, I have a really young family to look after, and I was doing the thing that loads of creative people in live music were worrying about, which was ‘Will I be able to do my job again?’ There was a sort of six-to-nine month period of ‘Do I do something completely different, or do I just hang in there?’

“It sounds really prosaic, but I think those things are a bit more acute if you have a family, ‘cos you’re like ‘Am I being selfish being like ‘No, I’m going to continue being an artist!’?’ Even if being an artist isn’t too clever at the moment, George. Those things run through your head. I’ve never really considered giving up, but all of that is swimming around. But this thing I love doing (live music, clubs), does it no longer exist? The more realistic scenario that everyone has lived through is that every industry has changed enormously.”

Before the pandemic, FitzGerald was an adored talent. A former record store clerk who turned to house music, his early EPs garnered attention and even some fame, but to hear FitzGerald tell it, he wasn’t happy.

“When I started off, I was incredibly underbaked as a producer,” he admits. “I was a kid with a laptop. The amount of software compared to now is absolutely minuscule. If you listen back to [my] EPs, they sound like shit. Some of the ideas are working, and I stand by them. But somewhere in the middle of that, there was a two-year period of my career where I had a little bit of success and had written a couple of house tracks, one in particular [that] people were into, and I got in this pigeonhole of ‘Oh, you’re gonna do house stuff. We’re gonna get you playing in Ibiza,’ and I was just fucking miserable.

“I was absolutely miserable. I’m not a sunshine DJ. I’m from that era of the Mount Kimbie and things like that, and I aspired to write records. My heroes were a different set of people. I make no value judgments on those things. It was Squarepusher and things like that. The thing I regretted was allowing myself to sort of drift for those couple of years.

“Looking back on it, it was probably necessary. In some ways, I was lucky, but I was also proud that on the outside, things were going well, and I was playing all these massive gigs and was externally successful. I’m very proud, in retrospect, that I was able to say, ‘ This isn’t for me.’ I want to be able to stand by my musical output. When I put out Fading Love, I played it to people before it came out, and they thought, ‘George, you’re committing suicide with your career.’ Especially the promoters who were like, ‘What the fuck is it? You’ve written a record about hating the life of a DJ and your mental health.’ That’s literally the feedback that I had. And I was just like, ‘Fuck it, let’s put it out, let’s see what happens.’

“It wasn’t a runaway success but I think that record means something to a lot of people still. I will never not do my own thing from now on. You really have to be able to stand by what you do, and I say that as somebody who’s personal period wasn’t happy with what he was doing musically. I’m not preaching: I understand how people can get into these situations, creatively. But I’m proud of the fact that I’ve managed three records.”

While Fading Love set FitzGerald apart from his electronic instrumental contemporaries, 2018’s stunning All That Must Be showed the depth of his artistry. Over immaculately constructed instrumentals and emotive guest vocals, FitzGerald found a beating human heart pulsing through lines of computer code, creating a record that was as compelling as it was chill, as cathartic as it was empathetic. PopMatters named it 2018’s Best Electronic Album, even.

FitzGerald toured with a live band, hitting small clubs across the world. It was a far cry from his house music days playing in crowded rooms, but he sees the importance of both types of concert experiences.

“I go around and I love listening to people,” FitzGerald beams. “I don’t always reply to people but I find it super interesting when people so politely say what they like and they don’t like about things. So for every person, when I was touring the last show, went round and was like ‘I love the singer that you had and it takes the show to the next level.’ I had quite a lot of people being like ‘I just want to hear it like it was on the record.’ They were more the kind of EDM fan — I don’t mean the in the pejorative way, more like a generational thing — they kind of want to hear like a ‘plus-plus’ version of what they hear on the record. Other kinds of music fans are OK with things being reinterpreted where it’s like ‘It’s not the same singer and the drums are different but I like that.’ You can’t please both of those people, so you just kind of pick one, whichever is more appropriate.”

Yet when the pandemic hit and touring ceased, FitzGerald felt he was back at square one. “Since I moved back to the UK, a lot of shit has happened,” he notes. “It feels like one thing after another (Brexit, Boris, Trump), but this isn’t a political album; I felt like a lot of what was going on was quite depressing. The mood in the UK has been trending downward for quite some time.

“So there was all of that and then the pandemic, and I think at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people were like ‘I’m gonna write my masterpiece now,’ and then they realized it was going to go indefinitely. Then it was like, ‘What really is the point of all of this? What does electronic instrumental music have to say at the moment? I’m not a rapper, I’m not a poet, I’m not Bruce Springsteen.’ I really wrestled with that for a long time. Like, ‘Should I be writing overtly political music? Should I be referencing climate?’ But then it was like, ‘What the fuck does an instrumental piece of music about climate even mean?’ I’m not saying instrumental music can’t say things — there are so many examples in classical music in that — but you have to think about how the form of instrumental music can speak [to things].

“I had run out of things in the studio and had become creatively bored,” he presses on. “Starting to look at these [NASA] images and becoming interested made me go, ‘What if the sound, even if they didn’t know what they were listening to, does that make a difference?’ It’s more like posing a question; I’m not like, ‘Ah, this is now the solution to instrumental music having a meaning!’ For me, this made it more interesting. On a technical side, I just sat in the same studio for years with the same equipment. ‘This is a bit stale for me, so I need to start using different building blocks to start some of the music in different ways.’

“I stumbled across people in forums who wrote software synthesizers where you can drop in images, and I thought ‘I could just start dropping in celestial bodies to the oscillator!’ Actually, some of them sound like shit. There’s always a simpler process for these things. If you think of what a waveform is, these synths do it from the dark and light of a photo. If you imagine of a photo of a star, with all the space around it, where it’s dark dark dark dark light, it makes quite a nice oscillator. It makes for a nice challenge.”

Stellar Drifting is a melodically different beast than what FitzGerald has given us before. It is colder and more methodical, more reliant on grooves than traditional song structures. He says it’s not a concept record, but building his tracks out of newer NASA-inspired synth sounds has altered his songwriting DNA. Tracks like “Retina Flash” pound, skitter, and elevate, filling the listener’s lungs with a lunar chill while ensuring your heart is pumping.

“A lot of this was amalgamated,” he says of the album highlight. “The way I write is that I write down sketches and then revisit them: the drums will be for one thing and the bass will be for another thing. I kind of go through the process of sampling myself. I find that sometimes, especially in the pandemic where you’re locked down for two years with no new experiences where it’s me in a room just day after day, collaborating with yourself is quite nice. Essentially what I was thinking with that one was that I wanted to create a sense of openness and grandeur with the drums. Just a massive splash on those big cymbals. That might be my favorite one. You always have strange little favorites.”

While FitzGerald has always had great collaborations on his albums, including the likes of Bonobo and Tracey Thorne, Stellar Drifting feels almost like a victory lap, featuring spots from SOAK, his frequent collaborators London Grammar, and Panda Bear from Animal Collective. The last one especially was one that FitzGerald was excited about.

“That was a ‘shoot for the moon, it’s a pandemic, everyone’s doing crazy stuff [kind of moment],'” FitzGerald gleefully recalls. “Unsurprisingly, my path has never passed with Panda Bear or Animal Collective. I’ve been a fan, especially of Panda Bear’s solo stuff. With that one, I really fell in love with … my pandemic record was a record by Teebs, the LA beat guy, and Panda Bear was on that. You have these serendipitous moments, and in my kitchen, this record I’ve been listening to over and over came on, and Panda Bear was a feature on it. I was like, ‘Oh shit. I’ve been meaning to ask for ages to see if I can get Panda Bear to sing on something.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh, he’s probably at home. [laughs] Everyone’s at home at the moment, right?’ And we share a label, so I asked to be put in contact with Noah, who is amazing, and we had that deep, long, over-months collaboration.

“It changed, it moved, and he was really amazing about it,” he continues. “This is the thing about remote collaborations: it does take longer and ultimately a lot of the decisions we made would’ve been done over two to three days in the studio. It just would’ve happened quicker. But with the timescale, it’s not like anyone was in a hurry. We had some initial ideas, I went back and remade the whole instrumental and we shared some ideas about arrangements of different parts of vocals and stuff, and then we just built it. It was a real change of sound palette for me. There’s just something amazing about his vocals.”

FitzGerald wants to do Stellar Drifting proud, finding a nice balance between the stop-start rhythm of a live band show and the continuous mix nature of a DJ set. He’ll try to hit as many venues as possible, often with late-night gigs, with the stars out and shining down. Some of those celestial bodies likely became unwitting collaborators on the album he’s performing.

FitzGerald gets somewhat existential when describing the space images that inspired him the most. “You look at those things, such amazing pieces of escapism, and there’s just something that I really appreciate that makes you feel incredibly tiny and insignificant, while at the same time just reminds you how small your problems are. There’s something reassuring about how insignificant you are when you look at things like that. We’re part of this flow of everything we can imagine.”

As Stellar Drifting proves, his imagination is flowing stronger and brighter than ever before. Nothing at all insignificant about that.