LONG READ: AN INTERVIEW WITH RKSS
by Mollie Zhang
London-based rkss has released music on labels including Alien Jams and Where To Now. We catch up with them to talk about production, listening, and their process, focusing on their most recent projects.
Let’s start by talking about your most recent release with TOLE on Stoscha’s new compilation — ‘Five Vibration Intensities and Five Vibration Rhythms Give Diverse Pleasures’ — which is a really great name, by the way.
We copy-pasted it from a sex toy website.
I saw that video you posted of recording vibrators — can you tell me a bit about the recording process?
TOLE and I wanted to work together on a project of mine called ‘Queer Plastic’. He brought these two microphones, one of which was an electromagnetic microphone, which has a telephone pickup coil. It records electromagnetic signals from things that generate electricity. The other one was just a normal microphone. So we were recording plastic — we brought our respective sex toys, like vibrators, and then would pick up the electromagnetic signals from the sex toys, which create specific rhythms and stuff.
For this piece specifically, we didn’t mess with the recordings too much. We might have added a bit of processing, and maybe changed the speed of them a bit by warping them in Ableton but we mostly tried to keep them true to the originals. We didn’t add drums or anything — what I’d normally do is make a more percussive track around it.
The textures are all really interesting. What kind of processing did you use?
I think Martin used some specific plugins — he’s quite into that. But I’d just use the Ableton stuff — probably some convolution reverb on some of them. That’s pretty much it; I feel like all my work has been about sampling non-musical material, so it’s all about finding the right part of the sample and really listening. My process maybe features a bit of editing, and a bit of EQing to ensure that it’s in the space that I want it to be in.
So let’s move to Brostep in the Style of Florian Hecker — how did that idea come about?
I really love a lot of contemporary artists like Florian Hecker, Marcus Schmickler, and people like that. I really adore their music, but I started noticing that for a space that seemed so exciting, it was also overwhelmingly white and masculine. I noticed that there was a similar kind of ‘geekiness’ within specific dubstep scenes, like brostep, — “oh who can make a sicker synth?” I started noticing these parallels between these two scenes — one of which I’m part of and one of which I’m not. And the second part of that was also noticing how Florian Hecker’s later work, for me at least, seems very technical. He writes about the processes that he’s used and I don’t understand them; to me the music just sounds like simple motifs.
I imagined that I could use Massive, a classic brostep plugin, to recreate some of those sounds. I’m thinking specifically of that release on PAN, Hecker Leckey Sound Voice Chimera.
I kind of belong to a certain scene, which is computer music, so I wanted to know what would happen if I used tools or material that didn’t belong to this scene. I wanted to make computer music, but I wanted to use tools that would never be used by Hecker or Schmickler, who use really intense Max patches or hardware that I just don’t have access to. For me it was about collapsing that.
How did you find using Massive and the Loopmaster stuff? Was it a lot of experimentation/trial and error?
I’m not a synth-head. I’ve learnt some basic synthesis but I’m not someone who could go and make a specific sound, I’d have no idea how to. What I did was end up taking presets from the plugins, going through around 50 presets and trying to ‘break’ them as much as possible. What happens if I change all these different components? I just tried to find bits I liked and ended up with a bunch of sketches that I then put together for the final piece.
Am I right in saying that musically you’ve shifted from being more hardware-focused to software-focused? I feel like your earlier stuff features more hardware and is a bit more dance-y, and now it’s more experimental and software-based.
It’s really interesting that you bring that up. When I mentioned scenes before, my whole ‘thing’ was that I almost always do things on my computer. I have some MIDI controllers but I’m very laptop based. Around 2013, I got really into techno and large part of that scene was, again, this obsession with hardware. So a lot of my earlier stuff was me trying to make something as gritty but just using my computer. I wasn’t trying to emulate hardware or anything, but just create something that could sit next to a hardware track. Because there is still this value question, as if an 808 that’s been around for however many years is more authentic than a laptop 808 sound.
It’s interesting that you sense that even though I was working on a computer — I was definitely thinking more about hardware. I wasn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes or anything, it was just more of a question of means.
How did you start learning how to produce in the first place?
I was probably 17 or 18. I was just trying to find different kinds of DAWs — I was in bands and played rock music. I just started playing around with DAWs and seeing what I could do with them, and I always enjoyed being able to re-edit, remix and even resample stuff. For me, a lot of my music has come from other music, as you can see from Brostep. I was just messing around with stuff, really. I think it was just a question of having the time to do so when I was a teenager, and also the will to watch tutorials for things I didn’t know how to do. Which is quite typical of people of my generation.
I’d also say fundamentally a large part of learning was of course changing how I listened. I don’t mean this in a Pauline Oliveros sense, but just in a technical sense. Having a decent set of speakers is so important, and understanding what they’re doing when you listen to stuff on them. Maybe for me it helps listening to a range of music on the same set of speakers. I could go listen to Drake and then go make music, and there’s no going to a different headspace. I’d say listening to lots of different things was another big shift, and being able to listen and pull tracks apart. Even stuff that’s basic, like “oh that’s a hi-hat” or “that’s how you pan drums.”
On the topic of listening, let’s end on a cheesy note — who have you been listening to recently / who are you excited about?
I was just thinking about that today, I feel both very in touch with music culture and also very out of touch, in the sense that I know what’s coming out but at the same time, I’m not really listening. I think I’m taking a bit of a break from it.
The new MHYSA record is really good, I was quite taken aback by it. It’s a really interesting combination of things. Today I downloaded a Charles Mingus record — a piano record from the ’60s. I didn’t realize he played piano, and it’s amazing. A lot of improv stuff. I think that’s where my headspace has been more — not in that it’s in jazz, but rather not with contemporary music culture.
I’m trying to remember the last three things I downloaded — probably rap. I’ve been listening to a lot of DRAM. He did this huge record last year called ‘Broccoli’ with Lil Yachty. I’ve been listening to that a lot.