Setec is one of my favourite Australian producers and songwriters. He does beautiful work. His Brittle As Bones album released in August last year is borderline genius and something totally unlike what anyone else is doing at the moment. By writing and performing in a vacuum of his own creation, he’s created a style unto himself within the Sydney scene. Complex vocal melodies and patchwork constructions of found-sound percussion and looped field recordings meet a considerable sense for brevity in his guitar playing. Combine this with a raw and brutally honest approach to lyrics. Currently working on his next album, he tells me it will involve a newly acquired double bass and something close to an adult contemporary sound, though less Harry Connick Jr.
Today he’s released his third single Glassworks from Brittle As Bones on Feral Media, along with four remixes of the track by Sep Nabi, Super Magic Hats, 0point1 and Lovely Head. I spoke with him recently about his musical process, thoughts on sample culture, Rick Rubin and the surprising benefits of working as a transcriptionist.
Who was the guy who did the cover art for Glassworks?
His name is Sepehr Nabi. He usually composes music under a different name but for this one he decided just to go under his name. I hit him up a couple months ago with a few ideas about a remix EP and every time I hit him up for ideas about art work he gives me a lot to work with and he has this real freedom to him. My biggest direction for him with everything has always been just improvise around a theme. It always ends up really well. We just have a good relationship like that. For two people who’ve never met. Likely never will. Unless I play a secret show in Norway soon.
So Sepehr has the opener on the EP.
He does yeah. I’d never really known that the dude was a musician until very recently when something came in my feed that he’d done a long time ago and it was really in line with my ideas. I was really blown away. I’m not even sure what he does day-to-day, but he just occasionally makes music that’s just so beautiful and layered. I love what he did with it.
We’d spoken just before about how previously you’d not been super into remix culture, so what inspired you to come and do this project now?
It was definitely a case of trying to see my music from the outside. Because when you’re composing, trying to listen critically and composing as well, you have this sense that you know what’s best and to go with your gut feeling. And then it gets a good reception and you’re really happy with that, but you still want to know how it affects people and how particular tones or lyrics will get to someone. So I liked the idea of giving someone a track and saying ‘Alright, what do you see in this particular track? Is there a lyric that strikes you or anything like that?’ And I gave no brief when sending them the stems for remixing. I said literally anything goes. If you want to write an entirely new song and relate it back to the theme of the track or if you want to just take the stems and add a sick delay to them – that is also good. Luckily that did not happen at all so it ended up very good.
Yeah that’s great. And it’s kind of a nice in-between project to be doing ahead of your next full length record.
Yeah absolutely. Because my last record came out in August. And since then I’ve been trying to kind of find my footing for the future of the project. More song writing, more production, trying to find new ways of expressing myself. And only in the last few weeks has that new project started to seed. And as that happened I became really motivated to get on this last single and really give the album one final push.
That’s cool. And so Super Magic Hats has done the second remix.
Yeah I really, really enjoyed the Super Magic Hats one. That’s one thing I liked about the whole project is that I didn’t expect so many wildly different interpretations of the song. Some of them go really dark and ambient, some are a glitchy, breakcore kind of thing. You’ve got some Gameboy sounds, some 8-bit synthesizers going on in a couple of them. Especially in the Super Magic Hats and 0point1 remixes. Which I really enjoy because they’ve definitely taken the vibe of what I think my production is and fused it with their own stuff. Especially 0point1. I feel like we have a very similar creative process but the music that comes out is wildly, wildly different. And I love that because we’re obviously two different people but we meet creatively.
That’s interesting. Do you know anything specifically about his process or just from hearing it you feel there’s a similarity.
Oh just from his compositional process. Just the way I see his music, I see things the way I wouldn’t put them together. I have a strange writing and recording method that when I listen to other people’s it’s always really interesting to divide that into its individual little processes and see what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. So just from listening, it feels like a different process went into it.
I hear his stuff like, I have no god damn idea how that guy did that. I don’t even know where he started with that.
That’s exactly what I mean. There’s so much going on. And I’m inspired by so many artists that have that very dense, sample-heavy, something going on in the left, something in the right. Every sound of the drum track is different, it’s a glitch here and it’s a snare and it’s a snippet of a kick. Something I love from drum n’ bass music or Venetian Snares or something. Like some samples will never repeat, they’ll just be in there as part of a loop. That’s what I love about 0point1. He’s got that real sense to him and I can’t compose like that. I think I don’t have the patience for it. It’s a discipline.
And then of course you’ve got Lovely Head on the final track.
I love the Lovely Head remix. Because her music is so beautiful and sort of vocal-centric I expected her to do nothing but sing over it or something like that because her production and her voice are kind of intrinsically attached. Especially when you see her live, like it wouldn’t make sense if it wasn’t so vocal-centric. But she sent me this really darkly ambient piece with no vocals in it. It just absolutely floored me. It’s nothing like anything she’s done and it’s just this very basic and bass-heavy beat that just works incredibly well with the track. It takes a lot of the darker elements of the track and makes it her own.
The track lyrically comes from an incredibly dark place and sending people stems from vocal tracks is a bit of a sensitive process cause when you’re a producer, everything comes together just so. And so when you deliver that to people, that’s a completed product. And so to strip that away and send tracks out to people not only gives away exactly what you’ve done with the production, but also exposes lyrics and vocal mistakes. So it can be a really honest process. For me it exposed a real sensitivity because one of my main things is that I’ve never really published my lyrics. I don’t speak about them, I don’t make a huge deal about them, I don’t write them in linear notes.
I love the idea of people hearing them in association with the music and also not quite being sure what I’m saying. I feel like some of my favourite pieces of music is where you hear them so many times and you sing along with them, and then years later you find out that what they’re saying is completely different to what you thought. And the one you thought they were saying was way better. That’s because you’ve made your own meaning. It might have been your mindset at the time, reading into things a little too heavily. Or just you mishearing something. But I think that can be a very powerful thing.
Yeah I like that. It’s better to have the mystery, at least as far as lyrics are concerned. You can make a fair bit of it out, it’s not like your production is muddy in any way.
Yeah it’s not buried. It’s not like super ambient reverbed trails into the distance. I barely write lyrics down, I listen to my demo tracks and I sing over them and that’s almost always how the final vocal tracks come out. My demoing phase and my final phase are the same phase. I record, mix and edit as I go. So I’ll never start out with a song idea that is complete or even partially complete.
Yeah do you ever sit down with a guitar and come up with some chords, start singing over that? Or that you’ll free jam or free play some stuff and then find something to cut out and loop and start building on that and then much later you’ll start singing once you’ve got loops and things? I mean do you ever have that sitting around with a guitar phase?
I did when I was about 14 or 15 and I was going through that singer-songwriter guitar phase and I discovered Elliot Smith and Sufjan Stevens and listened to a lot of lovely, wimpy boy folk rock. But these days, the way I’ll write a song, obviously it’s different every time but most often it’ll be picking up a guitar, setting up my microphone and just playing for 30 or 40 seconds on a particular theme, or a particular rhythm. Chopping that up in my program and then playing over it. And then getting to a point where I think there might be a melody.
So yesterday my newest song which I’m probably about 30% of the way into recording and writing, came about as a process of just wasting time. I had my microphone plugged in and I was playing with some harmonics on guitar and there was just a loop that looped accidentally cause I hit the wrong button on Cubase and it just kept going in and around itself, instead of continuously recording. It just happened completely by accident which I absolutely loved. I love that idea of improvisational but intentional at the same time.
A while ago you told me that potentially for your next full length record, you were thinking of getting various other musicians to come and play for a long time and you would record and go back through their stuff to find parts to possibly loop and build up from there. Are you still thinking of doing that?
Absolutely and I get more interested in that with each passing day. It’s something that really struck me this week and disclaimer, I’m pretty sure the record that comes out the other end of it will be pretty bad. So De La Soul launched a Kickstarter for their new album this week, which is big news for me cause I love De La Soul, you know I love early ’90s hip hop. I love all hip hop. You know De La Soul had three fantastic albums in the early ’90s. And the way they’ve launched this new Kickstarter is they’ve said ‘We’ve spent pretty much the last 20 years getting litigated and sued because we never cleared heaps of our samples.’
Really? I thought that was kind of in the grace period of we didn’t know that was illegal yet. Was it before or after Paul’s Boutique?
It was after. It was early ’90s and I think Paul’s Boutique was late ’80s?
Right. So people were catching up on the whole issue.
Yeah there was a lot of that going on. And there was a lot of retroactive stuff as well. So they didn’t see the law as ‘I didn’t know that was a crime’. And more of a ‘Well you were running a business, if you’re making money off something you should probably have someone vet that shit.’
We’re in hip hop, we don’t vet anything.
Vetting’s not hip hop. So they’ve launched a Kickstarter saying we’re finally out of litigation and we’ve decided to go and record hundreds of hours of our favourite musicians playing and improvising on certain themes. And in essence create our own sample library. They got jazz musicians and funk musicians in the same room and got them to improvise around certain themes and now they have all this material to draw from cause it was recorded really beautifully, and ‘In essence we’re sampling ourselves.’ And I really like that cyclical nature of hip hop now becoming this thing where we can’t just do it, we have to do it, record it and then sample it because that’s the hip hop sample culture.
It’s interesting as well, I think it’s that sampling culture and also the appetite for the sound that’s happening now. Look at the Kendrick Lamar album. He’s doing the same thing. He’s getting a lot of these old jazz guys to come and play because when these guys are getting big enough, they’re bringing it out of the sampler. So we want to sample stuff but we want real instruments recorded live. The live band thing is really happening. Like D’Angelo.
That’s probably the warmest sounding record I’ve heard in years. If you look in the linear notes it says ‘This record was produced and recorded on nothing but analogue equipment, including the mastering process. It’s best suited to being listened to loud.’ I just love that. It’s one of the only things in there aside from the short disclaimer about ‘So here’s why I called my album Black Messiah.’ You don’t see that in the notes for Kendrick Lamar’s album. I absolutely love To Pimp a Butterfly. The first time I listened to it I thought it was too dense. Then like so many things I love it just kind of hit me.
Yeah the Kanye record struck me as dense on the first listen. And I think it is to be fair. But certainly it’s far from being unlistenable.
No I think one of the best things about Yeezus is that they’re dense beats and they’re dense samples and they’re heavy. But there’s a lot of space between them. Like the beats themselves aren’t 180 BPM bangers. So the density of those beats has room to breathe. And I think Rick Rubin may have come in at the last second and demanded that.
Let’s take the banging down a notch.
Let’s remove 30% of the bang. That’s a real Rubin approach.
Have you seen the video Rick Rubin did for Rolling Stone where he went back to his old dorm room? It’s about the place where he used to throw parties back in the day and how everything got started for Def Jam. How his dorm room was just speakers and turntables set up with no books.
In my imagination, the world Rick Rubin perpetually exists in is 360 degrees of speakers and a couch in the middle of it. Potentially with an unlimited supply of pot, but that’s purely based on his hair.
Well based on that video he couldn’t fit a couch into his dorm room so it was just speakers and weed. The Rick Rubin Story. But anyhow before we lose the trail completely, we were talking about hip hop and live band recordings, and so for your own record you want to record your own samples.
Well that really hits me. To bring back that De La Soul point, that’s kind of how my process has always worked. It’s a process of sampling and where I couldn’t find an external sample to fit my needs I would sample myself. Doing my best to make that sound otherworldly and like it came from somewhere else. Because in a lot of the things I’ve worked with I have this attraction to very old sounding scratchy record samples. And it’s done to death but it still really hits me. As long as I’m making music that connects with me emotionally, done to death doesn’t really make any sense to me.
I’ll be writing a song and workshopping ideas for the melodies over it. So I’ll put everything on top of it. I’ll browse archive sites, use old records, pitch shift things up and occasionally one time out of ten nothing will come up. Not a single thing. And so I’ll figure out a way to make myself the sample and make it kind of sound in the same vein. I really enjoy that process. Not necessarily dating myself and putting a gramophone sample over me singing, but just more interesting ways of recording vocals. Like through a piece of tube or through cloth or through something far away sounding. I’ve recorded vocals through bowls, cups, plates. So much of my process comes down to what’s in immediate arm’s reach. That’s 90% of my process is coming up with a piece of guitar music that I like, looping it and then looking around my room for inanimate objects and knocking them, shaking them and generally making an enormous mess until I find something that reacts well with the track.
It’s like that Tom Waits quote. ‘Why would I use a sample of a kick drum when I can just use a two by four hit against a wall?’ Which I love. It’s very industrial sounding. I’m so drawn to acoustic and natural sounds. But then processed electronically.
(Checks the tape is still recording). It’s all good, we’ve still got plenty of time.
Oh well that makes me think of something. I used to have a part-time job as a transcriptionist when I was about 17, 18. And that was around the time when I was starting to compose my own music and I would often listen to ambient music while transcribing audio interviews because there would be hours and hours of listening to these grainy, horrible sounding audio interviews. I would have to pass the time and saw it as an excuse to listen to some really great ambient music. And I think in a way that was definitely the birth of the project because it was listening to really bad quality audio recordings of people talking about these really mundane inanities of their lives. And these interviews ranged from police people to teachers, children and anything like that. The only common factor was that they were all recorded terribly.
And so when I was transcribing this stuff I feel that a lot of my inspiration for Setec came about because there were these very grainy audio interviews and I was listening to music at the same time and I would eventually write to it. And I could never publish any of this stuff cause it was these very sensitive audio documents that I had to delete as soon as I received them. But I’ve always just loved the cadence of human speech. The weird rhythms that come out when you play beneath them. Underpinning rhythms and melodies to speech patterns is fantastic. It’s why I always loved The Books as I thought they had this great understanding of speech patterns and where the rhythms lie and what you can extrapolate from them. That was definitely the birth of the project. It was me coming to this idea that I could use samples, I could use ambient music and vocals on top of it and make this kind of collage.
Yeah that’s really interesting. Obviously that comes across in Brittle As Bones. There’s quite a few really nice moments where that’s happening. Like the record opens with Haunted and that gentleman’s voice, and at the end of Water or Concrete there’s the lady’s voice in there.
There was this long sample I’d found somewhere in the internet because people just go around recording day to day activities. There’s a whole culture of field recording in the world that I absolutely love. It’s just created this absolute mine of sample-able material. What I love about this one is it was this recording of these gypsies busking in … to be honest I don’t even know what country it was. They’re speaking this beautiful language and I never worked out what it was. Even to this day I’ve published it on my album having people talking in the background, don’t know what they were saying.
Something I love about the digital age is that there are so many people who are passionate about digitising old archival content. And so I’ve gotten a lot of stuff to sample and lot of stuff from people’s weirdest audio recordings. Like a 30-second recording of a dude just going through old books like ‘Here’s me testing my new microphone by passing things by the microphone’. Strange things like that and I’ll hear tiny little things in there that I’ll feel like I can turn into something.
Glassworks for example, which is what the remixes are coming out of, the initial theme of the track musically is a little saxophone tone. And that was like a 17-minute recording of some dude improvising saxophone on a beach somewhere and the recording was just completely covered in this wind. I don’t think he had a wind protection on his microphone or anything. And he’s playing quite atonally, like he’s literally taken his saxophone up there, possibly playing it for the first time. And so in this entire 17-minute thing I managed to find this one-and-a-half second sample that formed the entire basis for the track.
That’s really cool. Cause I really like that song and I really like that theme.
And it came out of nowhere as well. It was one of those things where I didn’t have an acoustic version of that song I was playing around with. It’s something where the very beginning of that was that weird saxophone improvisation. I looped that. Looped myself hitting the guitar in a few different ways for a draft rhythm and because I’m lazy often times the draft will end up being the final rhythm and percussion samples.
There’s something about catching the energy of a particular day. My process is so often, start, middle, finish in one day. I think it’s true for a lot of people. If you don’t finish it in that day and you go back to it, it feels different, the energy’s different. You’re not in the same place so you can’t quite figure out what’s going on. Almost feels like remixing your own song. Which is another reason why I like different people remixing my songs because different interpretations lead to incredibly different tangents on a theme.
Glassworks was released today on Feral Media. It’s available for Name Your Price download.