Nostalgia’s a weird thing these days, especially when you’re a twenty-something looking back at a jumbled 1990s full of Aaron Spelling, weird toy and technology commercials, cartoons, late-night Sega Megadrive sessions, and other televised consumerist imagery. It gets even more skewed when you’re thinking back even further, to the 1980s.
Los Angeles duo Speculator map out these plastic and perhaps “half-remembered” memories into a day-glo, electronic, and responsibly recycled type of pop. In a resourceful and low-key West Coast lineage of DIY artists like dANA, Luke Perry, Geist, and CH-Rom, as well as more well-known American experimenters like Ducktails and other Underwater Peoples-type artists, Speculator craft hypnotic and melodic pop with transcendent synth-pop climaxes stretched out under tape fuzz.
Tiny Mix Tapes talked to Speculator about the relevance of this type of digging and the trappings that come with it.
So you guys just moved to Los Angeles; do other bands want to be friends with you? Why/why not?
There are a lot of sweet bands playing out here. Sometimes they want to be friends with us.
How’d you arrive at such a blown-out sound?
The first tape I put out was all samples, looped and put through effects on Audacity. I only made 20 or 30. I sampled from some super-famous jams, like “Jump,” “The Mark of the Beast,” and Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” — some real classic radio stuff. On that tape, I did my best to obliterate the source material, to make it impossible to know where the sounds originally came from. I guess the blown-out sound came out of that, as a strategy to put some distance between the Speculator songs and the bands I sample.
What instruments do you use? Did you buy them/find them?
I play my beater Mexican Fender Strat that I’ve had since I was 16. I use a flanger, distortion, and delay on the guitar. Live, I have a tape deck with the beats on it. Everything goes through a Radioshack mixer that has a very nice microphone echo built-in. The mic line runs through a distortion pedal before going through the mixer. All the sound goes through the PA, which helps blends the different elements together.
How much of your songs are samples these days?
Usually the sample is the beat or groove that fills out the song. Then I sing and play guitar over it. The mix tries to blur everything and make it all sound the same, like one organism. I’ve been making my own beats recently, so some of the stuff is all original, but since I don’t really have all the gear or knowhow to make the kind of beats I want, I just grab them from other places.
I’ve noticed that a lot of bands (mostly from the 1980s) had really amazing first four bars of songs, but after the intro the band starts singing and the music changes dramatically. “Too Shy” by Kajagoogoo is a great example — love the synth/drums intro, and what a killer bassline!
“I don’t think it’s lazy to be inspired by a certain aesthetic. I think the laziness comes in when bands start being lumped together just because they share some (at times) superficial traits, like a colorful aesthetic or a lo-fi sound”
That’s so true, possibly the truest fact of ’80s synth pop especially! And why not pick and choose these parts when there’s so much to choose from in music and history … Do you ever get stifled by how many things you could possibly sample from?
The only limitation I put on my sampling is I try to not sample songs that are too good or too famous. I also prefer sampling songs I’ve never heard before. When I’m making a beat, I don’t listen to the whole song before my version is recorded. I don’t want to be too informed by the original, since the Speculator songs should be their own things.
Do you ever feel like you should be playing music without samples?
Sometimes I think that maybe the sampling is just a lazy way of doing things, that if I was really resourceful, I would be able to make the kinds of beats I want on my own, with whatever crappy, free drum-sequencing program is available to me (I use an 8-bit music program called Pixel Tone). But I do really enjoy taking a sample from some Top of the Pops jam and making it mine — molesting it until it stops being a Red Box or Nona Hendryx song, and becomes a Speculator song.
A lot of you and your pals seem to employ Melrose Place and other 90s televisual cultural relics as some grand narrative. Is this deliberate? Also, lots of motifs of palms, malls, beaches; do these things feature in your lives so much?
I’ve definitely noticed that too! It’s starting to seem like people are equating a certain sound quality with a certain aesthetic. Which makes a lot of sense since so many groups are drawing on that kind of summer/surfer/tropical/idealized vision of Miami vibe. I definitely think it’s a form of escapism — we’re all aware of two overseas wars that have gone on for many years now; the palm-tree aesthetic seems like a way to put some distance between oneself and certain realities that aren’t too “chill.”
Also, a lot of pop music from the 80s has a really lighthearted feel to it that I think appeals to a lot of people, considering the serious, almost uptight vibe that I feel was pretty widespread more recently. I mean, from “Rip It Up” to Whitney’s “How Will I Know?” even “Jump” and “Hungry Like the Wolf,” a lot of the pop music from back then has a super fun, unpretentious vibe, listening to it now.
As far as the 1980s/90s thing goes, I feel like they do have a big influence on this culture today. The 1980s was visually a very engaging decade in terms of popular design and advertising. I think we’re probably more into it given the sleek and polished look that seems to have taken over. A lot of advertising these days seems to take place in a Matrix-like space populated by flying blocks of text that gyrate and dance. Compare that with even the “Mentos Fresh” campaign (or better yet, beer commercials), and I think the consumer nostalgia starts making sense.
At the same time though, it seems like people are very ready (almost eager) to pin the barely articulated label of some sort of retro-80s aesthetic on the more colorful/neon pop/psych of today, even if it isn’t always going for or even really that informed by it.
“On that tape, I did my best to obliterate the source material, to make it impossible to know where the sounds originally came from. I guess the blown-out sound came out of that, as a strategy to put some distance between the Speculator songs and the bands I sample.”
Do you ever think this usage is lazy, then? Tapping into the 80s or 90s, which are potentially superficial in essence and using them in a pastiche sort of way that doesn’t have a relevance or anything?
I don’t think it’s lazy to be inspired by a certain aesthetic. I think the laziness comes in when bands start being lumped together just because they share some (at times) superficial traits, like a colorful aesthetic or a lo-fi sound. I also think that the 80s aesthetic can be used as a way to get people to check out your music. People like palm trees, they like beaches, they like surfing and that whole idea of “chill culture” is, and has been, very cool for years. In my mind, there’s nothing wrong with using that aesthetic to lend your stuff a more fun, accessible vibe. Just because you’re using a certain look doesn’t mean you have to be commenting on it.
Those 80s/90s ballads you might sample from might hit onto a transcendent or timeless kind of feel; maybe it comes through their having been around a while, but do you find it is hard to create those moments? And do you strive to? The reason I ask one of your tracks like “We don’t give a shit” has a really end-of-the-night kind of feel.
Sometimes I will sample a song and know right away what kind of feel the song will have. “No Scene” and “We Don’t Give A Shit” are like that. I’ll also try to make songs with a certain feel that might be lacking from a live set, like a good closer or a good opener. Usually though I find a sample that I think can support a song, then work out a guitar part that fits and eventually lay vocals on top. I’ll give it a day or two and then try listening to it again. Usually by the second time I hear it, I’ll know what it needs or if it’s worth pursuing.
I was wondering about the idea of context as well and how much you guys think about that, like with the friendship bracelet compilations and blogs in general kind of erasing or displacing the context of a band (i.e., does it really matter to someone who downloads a track of yours if you’re from LA or NYC?). You seem involved in both sort of real world and very “online” type of scenes; do you feel these mingling or changing in different ways? And do you think more people hear about you guys from online or playing shows?
I’m not sure how much I feel like I’m part of a scene. You can draw a line between my music and some of my friends’ music, but I think mostly that’s because we’re interested or inspired by the same things.
The internet has changed the idea of ‘a scene.’ The blog environment is much more organized than any geographical scene could ever really be. Instead of groups being linked because of their existing in the same neighborhood or city, blogs tend to curate certain sounds, according to the blogger’s taste. Honestly, I’m glad people are hearing my stuff no matter where they live, although shipping tapes internationally is kind of a bummer.
What do you do in your spare time?
Right now I’m working on getting this label I started with my boy Henry who does the blog Ear-Conditioned Nightmare off the ground — we just put out the Speculator/Luke Perry split, which has been done since May. We also have very excellent tapes out by my good friend Andrea, a.k.a. Polyester Raincoat, and the very talented and awesome Sparkling Wide Pressure plus Cruudeuces. Deep Magic, Chris Riggs, a cassette in the works and one straight out of Albany by guitar-shredding Jack of Burnt Hills.