Dylan Ettinger: Interview
“I usually try to make music that doesn’t sound like it was made in any specific place or time.”
So, dig it: Dylan Ettinger is like the “spring snow at an hour after sunrise or before sunset” within all this “DIY,” quasi-underground music with which the internet is riddled. First tape I ever ordered was off of his old label El Tule, and I still have the package in my desk drawer. And his style as musician has preceded itself again and again. I personally classify his overall sound as dub-wave, but he insisted on sticking with synth music. Ettinger has a new album entitled Lifetime of Romance, and it’s coming out on mini-label mogul Not Not Fun late February or early March. Oh, and of course adventure ensues; it’s Dylan Ettinger for Moog’s sake! Without further ado (because I write profiles at my day job and can’t bear to put Mr. Ettinger on that level):
Now, you’re really Dylan Ettinger, right?
Dylan Ettinger is my given name. It’s the name I’ve scrawled on my homework assignments since kindergarten. When I began making music as a solo artist in high school, I tried a few different names, but they weren’t very good and they never stuck. It does give me some freedom since the title of the project isn’t aesthetically or stylistically related to the music I make in any way.
How do you figure your music relates to your living environment?
Living [in Bloomington, IN] can be very frustrating at times. You don’t tend to receive a lot of positive affirmation playing any sort of weird electronic music here. I made a conscious decision a long time ago to “drop out” of the musical culture in Indiana. I still go to as many shows as I can and there are bands here that I really love, but I don’t want to sound like them; I don’t want people to hear my music and say “Oh, he’s totally from the Midwest.” I usually try to make music that doesn’t sound like it was made in any specific place or time. Only Cutters has anything to do with Indiana. I barely reference the Little 500 bicycle race in Bloomington and also the movie “Breaking Away.” Even then Cutters’ focuses more on how it feels to be riding a bike and not time or space. I’m a born and raised Hoosier in every other aspect of my life, so it’s nice to step away from that for all of my creative endeavors.
These songs are about failed relationships and my own frustration about being generally unsuccessful in any sort romantic endeavor.
Stepping away, how do you distinguish human emotion in synthesized sound opposed to hollow-bodied/vibrated sound (brass, woodwind, string instruments)?
One thing that’s nice about the synthesizer is its ability to change in tone quickly and easily. It sounds cheesy to say this, but when you have a synthesizer that you know really well it becomes an extension of yourself. I have “become one” with my Moog Rogue. It’s easy for me to play live and tweak to get a wide range of sounds. If I feel like playing something sad, I can tweak the filter just right to get the tone that best reflects the mood I want to convey.
I also make it a point to play every line by hand, live or recorded. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of allowing electronic music to be sequenced and quantized to the point of lifelessness. I’ve found that allowing there to be slight imperfections makes the music sound more human and therefore more relatable. The most emotionally affecting electronic music that I know of is played by hand on hardware synthesizers and isn’t perfectly quantized.
What takes you longer: creating the melody or finding the right synthesis to scale?
They’re so closely related for me that I find it hard to separate the process. I usually develop synth lines and the patches at the same time, tweaking them both as I go to make sure they’re complementary. Sometimes I start with a patch, sometimes I start with a melody, but the other always follows closely and they grow together organically.
It seems you’ve been on and off with vocals in the Ettinger canon… Where does Lifetime of Romance with it? How does it progress your sound?
I was performing songs from Lifetime of Romance live as far back as a year ago. In my live shows through the years, vocals have always been more prominent. Vocal lines were getting more melodic and straight-forward. I noticed that I was naturally leaning in that direction and decided that I should be more conscious and deliberate about what I was singing and how I was singing it. The singing started out more ethereal, similar to the vocals on Lion of Judah, but as I played the songs more and more, I allowed the vocals to kind of take a definitive shape, becoming more prominent.
I think the main way it progresses [my] sound is in that it is more deliberate and focused than anything I’ve recorded before. It put me in a bit of an awkward position that New Age Outlaws is the recording I’m best known for, because I think it’s less indicative of my overall sound than any of my other tapes or releases. It’s a really long, spacious record and the songs on it were mostly improvised jams. I’ve released pop songs on tapes before and I have demos of straight-up synth-pop jams dating back as far as high school, so writing songs isn’t really as much of a new creative step for me as it is a noticeable aesthetic shift in my output. I guess Lifetime of Romance really just brings new aspects of my sound and personality to the forefront while tightening things up overall.
There’s a fragility when adding vocals in music related to telling and not showing; providing the listeners more direction in their musical experience. Do you feel this fragility has anything to do with the composer of Lifetime of Romance?
I wanted this record to be more personal than my previous releases. These songs are about failed relationships and my own frustration about being generally unsuccessful in any sort romantic endeavor. Around the time I decided to start working on this album I was involved with a girl who managed to piss me off to the point where I absolutely needed to articulate these ideas. I had the choice to either continue with my mostly instrumental recorded output or choose to write lyrics in order to more effectively explain my ideas.
I make it a point to play every line by hand, live or recorded. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of allowing electronic music to be sequenced and quantized to the point of lifelessness.
Where do you see Lifetime of Romance fitting in with the Not Not Fun creative-mission?
One of the biggest strengths for Not Not Fun is that they allow their aesthetic to change constantly. I think Lifetime of Romance still fits in with their overall vision, while at the same time trying something new and different for the label. The album is definitely still DIY and weird enough for the label, even though I wrote six pop songs for it. Honestly, if I had sent Britt and Amanda this album two years ago, I would have been surprised if they agreed to release it. Lifetime of Romance definitely fits in now more than it would have then.
What the heck is stopping you from revamping El Tule?
I just don’t have the time or money. I started El Tule more as a hobby than anything else. I released some really great music by some of my favorite artists. I’m still honored I was able to put out some of Russian Tsarlag’s music, I’m a huge fan of Carlos’ work. It just got the point where I would either have to put significantly more effort into the label to maintain any standard of quality and I just didn’t have the motivation or the time to pull it off. Instead of letting the label fester in label purgatory, I just chose to let it die a quiet death. Rest in peace, El Tule.
How do you see yourself in the future?
When I achieve my transcendent state and become one with the universe, I will travel through time and space and insert myself as an extra in the background in different episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I would mostly be seen doing something like hanging out in Ten Forward drinking smuggled Romulan ale, trying to pick up gorgeous green-skinned alien women. After I plant myself into the Star Trek canon, I’ll allow my essence to dissipate throughout the cosmos.