Xander Harris: Interview
“The average person does not give a shit about what you made music with. They want to dance.”
Justin Sweatt represents a unique position in electronic music: exploring the darker origins and early days of the genre, which itself was in a rather dystopic time period (the late 1970s). However, he presents himself in a quite different, more goofy light: His all-digital setup consists mainly of a laptop, sequencer, and synth. Rather than being based in Berlin or Chicago, he calls Austin home. His stage name Xander Harris comes from the cult vampire comedy-drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In person, he’s notably happy and boisterous.
That helps in his appeal by drawing the attention away from him and more toward his approach. His seminal Urban Gothic not only paid homage to the giallo leanings of forerunners Goblin, but also explored the dark and horrific undercurrents that most in electronic music now ignore, all while taking a critical assessment of what brought those elements into the fore in the first place. Rather than maintaining that course, he first released a far more straightforward EP to serve as a companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s masterwork novel Snow Crash, in celebration of its 20th anniversary last year. Then he released his true follow-up, New Dark Age of Love, this year. Here, Sweatt eschewed the horror for a more bleak and dreary outlook, reflecting his personal sentiments of an uncertain future. Despite all this, he can make even the most dark elements danceable and memorable.
Before playing a set in Oakland recently, I sat down with Justin Sweatt and discussed the new record at length, as well as gear fetishism, the need for exploration in music, and the issue of place.
Okay, first things first. Just to get this out of our system: How many Buffy jokes do you get on tour, or even with the press?
Honestly, not very many. Weirdly, I figured I would. A lot of people don’t catch it, and the people that do catch it are amazingly stoked. They don’t talk shit or anything, they’re actually very excited. They’re like, “You like Buffy the Vampire Slayer!” Whereas I figured I’d be like, “Oh fuck.” Honestly, it doesn’t happen often. So it’s kind of funny.
…And just to get this out of my system: Why no eyepatch?
Because I look stupid in an eyepatch. My best friend bought me an eyepatch when I first started playing live. We had played in a bunch of bands and everything, and she bought me an eyepatch, and she said, “Do it.” I did it for the first show, and it looked ridiculous. I just could not pull it off.
That’s understandable. I can see where you were going with that.
Also, I didn’t want to be that kitschy. It’s one of those things where it’s cool for Halloween. Honestly, for Halloween, I probably will. I thought that, if I do a Halloween show, I’ll probably do it. But I did not look good.
Moving into New Dark Age of Love, it seems like you were really quick in following up Snow Crash. Was that intentional? Did you already have stuff in play when doing this record?
Yeah. What happened was, New Dark Age of Love was finished in September, and the Not Not Fun/100% Silk roster just got kind of backed up and everything. So, Britt [Brown, head of Not Not Fun] wanted to wait to put it out, which I was totally cool with.
Snow Crash was a cool request. Mischka Records approached me and said, “The 20th anniversary of that is coming out. We really like your stuff. Would you be into doing an EP of a soundtrack of the book?” I said, “Sure, that’d be awesome.” That was done pretty quick, too. Then Desire Records came around and said, “Look, I want to put this out on vinyl,” and I said sure. It was a bunch of happy accidents that just rolled together. I didn’t want it to be so close together. But I also saw Snow Crash as a good way to promote… Desire is a European label, and it doesn’t have a lot of distribution here, and I thought it would be a good way to promote the new record, so it just kept me out there. I don’t tour that much, so it was one of those things that it was like, yeah, all right.
People have accused me of being a retroist, and I don’t feel like that’s the way it is. I just like the past. So I get people wanting to say, “Hey, try to push this forward and not work backwards.”
It’s quite fascinating that you built your EP around that book.
It’s one of my favorite books. I read it in high school. When they approached me, I re-read it, and I took a lot of extensive notes. What I did with that EP is I didn’t listen to any music the entire month I recorded that. I wanted it to be as pure and non-referential as possible. I mean, I have my influences and things like that. But I wanted it to have certain emotions sonically, and I jotted it down on a notepad to capture certain things I felt when I read that.
What makes that interesting, especially in comparison to Urban Gothic and the new record, is it had a much more straightforward element to it, which was fascinating especially with what came before it.
A lot of people were kind of weirded out by that, and I thought that it would be kind of interesting to take a more song-oriented approach to it. I think that people expected it to be this psychedelic, angelus, very ethereal composition. I didn’t really want to do that… I didn’t want to be lazy about it. It’s a book that I love. I’m very passionate about cyberpunk. I’ve read it for a really long time, and it’s a wealth of inspiration. So I wanted to do it justice. I remember stuff that has a good hook, and I felt that, in order to get you in when you read it, maybe if you remembered a hook that was in the song, and read along with that in the background, it might make you remember a certain passage or emotion. Melody sticks with me more than just weird, noisy shit.
Now, going into New Dark Age of Love, was there much of an agenda in creating the album?
I wanted to push myself. I wanted to do less horror. I wanted to make kind of a serious dark record that was also a love letter to certain influences that I have. I grew up on Throbbing Gristle and Skinny Puppy and Coil, that kind of scene. I wanted to inject my own personality into that world a little bit. The name of album comes from a Coil song, “The Dark Age of Love.”
Also, it meditates on the fact that we’re in a really weird time, where people are taking away rights and things we should have in the name of love and security, and all this shit. We’re in a really strange era of society, and it’s a statement on that. It’s sort of like the turn of the century, the 19th to the 20th. I feel like, with gentrification and other things, it could go two ways: We could achieve a Star Trek-like beautiful utopian thing if we really want to. I dunno, maybe. But there’s also a part of me that’s thinking it’s turning into this really dark thing where people are being used as a commodity, just like anything else. But these are things I’m thinking about whenever I’m making a record.
So many people move out to Oakland because they’re slowly being pushed out of San Francisco. A lot of us are worried it’s only going to be a matter of time before this city is next.
Where do you go? Why is it that you have to be punished as a creative? That’s another thing that really bothers me: America doesn’t really care about its culture anymore. It’s very interesting: When you go to Europe, and you talk to an artist or a writer, or even a painter or photographer, and these people are taken just as seriously as a plumber or electrician. Here, there’s a lot of really weird Social Darwinism about it: There’s this stereotyping of, “Oh, you’re a rich kid” or, “Oh, you’re a hipster, you’re gonna come in and make this cute little print shop and push this guy out of town.” Which is not true. We’re all the same. We’re the guys working kitchens just as much as anybody else.
So I’m scared of what’s going to happen to us. Where are we gonna go when people don’t want to pay us? That’s the case, even with the web: What happens when Spotify doesn’t want to pay for advertising anymore, to give an example? I’m worried about where we are as a sustainable society. I think culture’s important. I think a plumber is just as important as a painter. I think that everybody should have the opportunity to explore those kinds of things. But with the way our system is, people don’t want to fund the arts. People don’t want to think about that stuff. It’s hard. And it’s not like I’m pointing fingers at anybody, or blame this group or that. I feel like it is things that we are overlooking, out of comfort or whatever. Where we are today, we don’t look in the long-term: What is this going to do 10 years from now? What am I doing here? Do I see myself here in 10 years? Am I going to contribute to this community?
In reference to what you were saying earlier about stepping away from stuff, that’s something I definitely noticed with New Dark Age of Love, especially in comparison to Urban Gothic. I mean, I hate drawing this comparison, but I do think that it bears similarities to what the Flaming Lips did this year with The Terror.
Yeah. And it’s a great album. It’s one of the best I’ve heard. I like that record for what they’re saying. It’s good to be positive, but not to the point where you ignore serious shit you should probably pay attention to. And it was a natural extension for me. There’s a part of me that loves the horror, Goblin, and the goofy shit. But there’s a part of that too that was a serious meditation on violence in society and why do we watch these films. Not too much, though: I didn’t want to get too intellectual with it.
The general pacing, too, was different. It felt like it was much more in line with early 80s electronic. It was a decent change.
Thanks. I wanted to explore. I’m inspired by Not Not Fun and 100% Silk’s roster. I had gone to Europe, and I retooled some stuff with the record. That was in September, and I delivered the record at the end of that month. Initially, we wanted to put out the record in November, but then we decided to wait, because it was such a weird time. I just started listening to a lot of Frankie Knuckles, early house and acid stuff. But I was also listening to a lot of John Bender and Chris N Cozi, and a lot of stuff like that.
The thing I liked about a lot of those guys is they were able to straddle a lot of different genres. They’ll be like, “I’ll think I’ll do this kind of house thing, but eh, I’ll step over here and do this weird slow thing, and then,” etc. I liked that they were so exploratory, and I feel like a lot of electronic music these days is not as exploratory. Which can be a good and a bad thing. People have accused me of being a retroist, and I don’t feel like that’s the way it is. I just like the past. So I get people wanting to say, “Hey, try to push this forward and not work backwards.”
There’s definitely something to be said about that exploratory aspect, because I think that a big problem with it is that people can be exploring too much, in a way. They don’t want to make the effort to try harder with it. I see that with breakbeat, and I feel like it sort of works, but it would be better if you could take what you have and transfer it to all this older stuff.
I think that’s the way you should go. I think that we, unfortunately, live in a culture where it’s like, I’m gonna grab this thing that I like that not a lot of people know about, and I’m going to kinda-sorta bend it on its ear a little bit, and I’ll maybe reference the most popular or sub-popular thing of this scene that happened maybe 35 years ago, and then use it to my advantage. And then, as you said, they walk away from it, and never really explore it even further. That was one of the things with Urban Gothic: I was exploring Goblin, but I was exploring Carl Craig and trying to mix a lot of that, because if you listen to Carl Craig, he and a lot of those guys would sample Goblin and a lot of the early techno guys and stuff.
I thought, but what is it about Goblin that made these guys like Aphex Twin? They made an entire new genre. What made them want to sample this? How can you throw it back on itself, meet it in the middle, and be strange with it? I feel like a lot of people are thinking this what I should be doing, instead of what I want to do. They have to reference these older things. I just do it because I’ve been listening to it for forever. [laughs] And in five years, I’ll still be listening to it.
Also, it meditates on the fact that we’re in a really weird time, where people are taking away rights and things we should have in the name of love and security, and all this shit. We’re in a really strange era of society.
How much of your equipment and software has changed since Urban Gothic?
It’s all the same synths, it’s all digital. You know, it’s funny: A lot of people hear a sound and think it’s analog. But I don’t use a single analog synth on that record. Not one. It’s all digital synthesis. I did that for a reason: A lot of people have gotten into this habit, especially in electronic music lately, of being all, “I only use this piece of gear from 1985.” I find that ridiculously limiting. In 2013, you seriously can only make music with something that was made 30 years ago? I find that hard to believe. There’s a certain jock aspect to it, sort of like, “I only wear Nikes when I play basketball.”
I want to people to focus less on what gear was used and focus on the music. I think the whole gear thing is, it’s cool if you want to talk about it, it’s cool if you’re a hobbyist, that’s fine. But, I would love to see the synth scene move away from, “Check it out, I got blah-blah-blah.” The average person does not give a shit about what you made it with. They want to dance. They want to have something that’s memorable. I don’t really think they care about that stuff. They’ll find it interesting, but at the end of the day… My mom’s like this: “Oh I can dance to it, that’s really cool!” All right, then, I did my job…
So you have $100,000 worth of gear. If you don’t know how to write a song, it doesn’t matter. I have friends, like Samantha Glass. That dude has one keyboard and a 4-track and a bass and his voice. It’s powerful and it’s great, and I love it. He could have $100,000 worth of gear and I know he’s still going to sound the same way because it’s him that makes it sound good, not what he uses. To a certain degree, the better the gear is, the more possibilities you have. But if you can’t write a song, then what does it matter, you know?
You’re right. I mean, Holly Herndon only uses her laptop, and that’s fine.
I think it’s cool. She uses an instrument, she has this mic setup on Ableton and feeds it back through, and does this interesting thing. A lot of the synth guys have been weirded out by that, and I really believe she’s doing something different, she’s pushing it. She’s showing a laptop is an instrument, and that’s really cool. A lot of people are maybe turned off by her academic compositional approach. But that’s what electronic music needs. That’s what happened with John Cage and a lot of the stuff that started it up in the first place. It takes a Stockhausen to make that happen, and I think it’s cool.
You’re based out in Austin. Do you feel electronic music fits into the context of that city’s music scene?
No. But I like it. I like everybody. We’re all friends, we’re not competitive, and we hang out. They’re very inspirational to me. They make my life there… I honestly wouldn’t live there if those guys weren’t there, like the Hollodeck guys, and all that whole scene. We genuinely love each other, and there’s so much healthiness there. But I feel like we’re underrepresented in the city itself. It’s started to bubble up. But honestly, it’s a town of psych-rock. It’s a town of rock & roll, and we all knew that when we were going there.
What a lot of people should remember about Austin is that it is a very good city that’s kind of cheap. It’s a really good place in that I can put my stuff here, and I can get a cool cheap place to live, and then I can go on tour. My advice to people is, don’t try to do anything in Austin. Just use it as a home base. If you get shows, and it’s cool, then it’s great. But if it doesn’t, then it’s not a big deal. But those guys rule. I love all of them, they’ve helped me out tremendously.
Well, I guess I was going to ask what appeals to you about creating your music Austin, but I think you got that.
It’s really about the home base aspect. Plus, there’s not a lot going on, so I’m not as distracted. There’s enough where it’s like, I can go and see a good movie or show when I want to. But it doesn’t feel like I’m missing out too much if I stay home one night to make music instead. If I were in LA, I don’t think I’d get anything done. I love the city, but it’s too much. Even here, Oakland and San Francisco, I feel like I’d be out all the time.
I love people, I love music, and I love books, and I love culture. Austin is cool for that. We have certain times of the year where you can gorge yourself on that, and the rest of the time you can just tinker around in your laboratory and do your thing. That’s what I like about it. And the people there. I think, musicially, you’d be hard-pressed to find people like you do there. They’re the sickest musicians you’ve ever seen in your life, and then you can go have a beer with them and talk about hockey. They’d be your friends in real life if you didn’t have music in common. That’s really rare. I can list all my favorite bands, and about 12 of them are from Austin. [laughs]
Come to think, I’m wearing a shirt for an Austin band.
Oh! Which one?
Trail of Dead.
Those guys are awesome! I saw one of their first shows a long time ago. I know Jason [Reece] and those guys. Conrad [Keely’s] an amazing artist, and they’re one of my favorite bands. I love them, they’re great.
Yeah, that shirt decision was completely unconscious of that fact…
Austin has a great legacy of that. Trail of Dead, Spoon… I went to high school with the guys from Explosions In The Sky, and those guys are great. There’s so many from that era that don’t get a lot of love anymore, and they’re still releasing good music. Last Trail of Dead I thought was really great. I love Divine Fits. I think Britt [Daniels] does really good stuff. Explosions remains solid, especially for post-rock. That’s a hard thing to keep on top of! It’s hard to make that interesting for more than 10 years.
[Photo: Devaki Knowles]