Streetbass mastermind talks extensively about his new album, dubstep, and his own labels Seclusiasis and Slit Jockey

Interview: Starkey

Photo courtesy of Backspin Promotions
Interview conducted by Andrew Ryce

American artist, producer, DJ, remixer, singer, label manager and now singer Starkey (aka P.J. Geissinger), is one of the biggest names in electronic music right now, heading up the Streetbass crew and sound in his home base of Philadelphia, PA. A North American ambassador for UK-dominated sounds, his music encompasses hip-hop, grime, dubstep, house, and everything between, all united by an unmatched ear for melodies and colourful, almost psychedelic sounds. He’s been getting tons of attention from all over the place (his recent feature on the ResidentAdvisor Podcast series felt like a triumphant coup for the bass-inclined), and deservedly so: after a string of singles and EPs for a number of labels, Starkey landed on Planet Mu in 2008 with his debut album Ephemeral Exhibits, a record that blended the aggressive dubstep styles of Vex’d and Skream with a distinct hip-hop influence and an undeniable pop sensibility. Appearing on Mary Anne Hobbs’ “Generation Bass” special in 2008, his profile skyrocketed and he released another string of massive twelves, culminating with the grimy one-two punch of his Badness tune “OK Luv” on Planet Mu and the astral starscapes of his “Rain City” single on Rwina Records. This past month Starkey has just released his long-in-the-making second album Ear Drums And Black Holes for Planet Mu.

I spoke with Starkey for an extensive and in-depth analyzation of his new record, as well as his thoughts about music in general in 2010 and a fantastic primer for what he’s got coming on his own two labels Seclusiasis and Slit Jockey.

How does it feel to be in the middle of album release blitz right now? Do you feel more pressure?

I’m just kind of having fun with everything, doing interviews, uh, the mixes are getting a bit much, there’s like two or three unheard mixes that are still gonna drop in the next week or so… mixes are time consuming but everything else is pretty much just fun.

So, first, a little bit about the new album. Where does the title Ear Drums and Black Holes come from?

It comes from me having an interest in science fiction, the ‘black holes’ part, and ‘ear drums,’ obviously the word ‘eardrum’ is one word, so I split it up and made it like ‘ear drums’ you know like drums for your ears, beats for your ears, a kind of play on the words. I think it worked as a title, as an idea for the whole album. The whole black holes thing, there’s a lot of titles that reference science fiction and space and things like that, so I thought that I’d just pipe in an overall theme to the album.

What about the artwork?

The artwork was done by Ben Curzon, who also did the video for “Stars,” and basically I came up with this idea of like, I wanted a guy in a business suit as the main image, the idea, of the album, and he came up with the zebra idea, and the wolf head thing kind of came off this idea of listening and ears and hearing, and all that stuff, and I liked it — at first, the wolf head was bleeding, and I was like ‘nah, not into that.’ So I was like ‘why don’t we make it look more like a mask or something’ and that was the concept he kind of ran with in the video as well, the guy with the ears coming out of his head, the wolf guy. It worked, so I was like ‘fine, cool,’ as long as it looks cool and plays into the idea. But the overall design of all the releases, the singles, even if you go back to the “Knob Twiddler” 12” they all kind of go together, “OK Luv” starts it, the kind of black-and-white, jagged print, zebra thing. I just like how everything turned out, all pretty good.

This album feels a lot more varied than Ephemeral Exhibits, was there any theme you were going for?

I knew I wanted to work with vocalists on this album, that was the first decision I made, was like ‘well, I have to have some songs and come up with vocalists,’ so once I had some ideas down I kind of new which songs would be instrumentals and which could have vocals. I think “New Cities” was the first track where I was like ‘yeah, this is a vocal tune and this one could work on the album’ and then probably “Murderous Words” and “Club Games” came along after that, and I was just like ‘alright, I gotta figure out who would be good to work with and who would be interested in working on this kind of a record.’ A lot of vocal albums where there’s a lot of guests on, they don’t sound like — it sounds like a bunch of different people, a bunch of different bands playing together, it doesn’t sound like an actual artist album, and I still wanted to keep that feel. So I worked with a bunch of people that could lend a hand but also still fit, almost sound like a band or a group, they sound like they could be part of ‘the act,’ if you will. It turned out pretty nice, I think, I’m happy with all the vocals we chose. There was a couple other tracks that were in the running, demos that had been done, that just didn’t work, the vocal for different songs, like maybe the beat was too busy, or the vocal just didn’t ride the beat correctly, or the music just didn’t fit, the vocal just didn’t work — the vocal was amazing by itself, but you never know what’s going to happen until you actually hear the person on the track. We made some decisions to pick ones that we thought really worked, and I think we made some good decisions.

Why so many vocal tracks? What made you want to work with vocalists?

Well, I love vocals, I mean, being from Philly, Philly’s like a big vocal R&B nu-soul hip-hop city, and I grew up on vocal music, most of the music I — my favourite albums of all time, they’re all vocal albums, and vocals are such an important thing and it’s like what people key on to, you don’t hear much instrumental music on the radio, so vocals are like a human element that people can latch onto, people remember lyrics and melodies a bit more. It’s just the next connection or the next step in the music I was doing. Not that I dislike instrumental music, because obviously a lot of is instrumental still, but I like the connection that can be made with vocals and how it adds another dimension with the lyric, and I didn’t want to do that much sampling, like ripping up other people’s vocals and messing with them, I did that a little bit on this album but not much, which was the kind of direction that most of my stuff had gone on in the past, so I wanted a lot of original lyrics and actual song structures that felt like real songs instead of ‘beats’ or ‘drops’ like a lot of dance music is. IT was just a decision to move in that direction and I’m gonna continue writing vocal music and instrumental music and do both simultaneously because I think they both speak differently to the listener.

One thing I’ve wanted to ask since the album was announced — why is “OK Luv” instrumental? I love the Badness vocal on that track.

Yeah, me too. [laughs] It wasn’t my decision, that’s all I can say.

Okay. [laughs]

I mean, I wanted the vocal on the album, but some other people didn’t — they felt that it didn’t work on the album, so, you know. Emails back and forth, bunch of phone calls, and yeah, I had to tell Badness that the vocal wasn’t going to be on the album. He was cool, he was all like ‘yeah man that’s cool, it’s out there, I still I want to do a video for it,’ he’s real hyped and happy to be a part of the project, and the song was great. I still feel like it’s part of the album, because it’s on the series set. I really would have liked to have the vocal on there, but yeah, just wasn’t gonna happen.

“Numb” is probably my favourite track on the album — did you create the beat for P Money’s verse? The lyrics fit the song really well, how did that one work out?

I wrote the beat and I knew it was a vocal track because it’s pretty sparse, and then a bunch of names were being thrown around, who would be interested or who would be good to vocal the tune, and basically I talked to the guys who do No Hats No Hoods a lot, like Robin, Magic, those guys, ‘cause I’ve done a couple remixes for them, and they are pretty well-connected with a lot of guys in the grime scene, so P-Money came up and he was interested in doing the tune and I was like ‘yeah, he would work really well.’ I’ve always been a fan of his since like his first mixtape, or second mixtape, I don’t know which one it was, but I was a fan, and I just thought he’d really kill this track, so, I sent it over, and it worked. That version that you heard was like the first thing he did, there were no revisions to the song, I didn’t really do much except copy and paste a few chords at the end, that’s about it — but it’s a pretty raw track and he did a good job of flowing on the beat. It’s kind of an odd rhythm, the snare falls in weird places, and he just smashed it.

What made you do a full out ‘ballad’ with Anneka on “Stars”?

You know, that song, originally I wasn’t sure, I thought someone could spit double-time over it, you know [imitates rhythm] over that beat, and it just.. we didn’t know who to send it to, I actually sent it out to a couple people, and then Anneka’s name came up. I had met her through Ital Tek in Brighton two years ago or something, and I was like ‘yeah, she did that track with Vex’d’ — no one had heard it yet ‘cause it hadn’t come out — but i really liked that and I thought she had such a nice soulful voice that I’d send it to her and see what she says. Lyrically she asked what to do with it and I told her theme of the album and to run with it, and she just wrote all the lyrics and sent back the initial demo, and that was basically just as good as the lyrics that ended up on the album. I really did very little with it — she’s just got such a great voice and I thought it would be great to send it to her. She did all the formatting, the song was basically in that format when I sent it over, it was pretty much done as an instrumental, and she just did her thing and it worked really well. A lot of people have said in the press that they weren’t sure why we released it as a single because it maybe doesn’t have that necessarily ‘radio friendly’ sound or whatever, but I’m like ‘I think this is a pretty good song!’ That’s why! We knew we could some people to do some good remixes, like Slugabed did an amazing remix, and there were a couple other ones by Few Nolder, Ital Tek, and a couple others, great remixes with it, so — her vocal is unbelievable and she’s just going to do really great things in the next couple years.

My last question on this note is about yourself — what made you want to sing and why you did you go with the Autotune approach?

I sang before on albums and records, people just don’t really realize it; like, if you listen to Ephemeral Exhibits, the vocal in “Marsh” is me, on “Creature” the breakdown is me singing. There’s other ones too. It’s just I never actually sang lyrically, where you could understand with verses and stuff like it. To be honest with you, it was “Club Games” that made me do it, I’m obviously listening to a lot of hip-hop and R&B, and I like autotune, I love T-Pain, I like The-Dream, and I like a lot of big R&B and hip-hop records. It’s just a tool, in the past I haven’t used Auto-Tune, I used to play in rock bands and I sang in a boy choir for like six years back when I was a kid. I come from a singing background, but I like Auto-Tune, I just like the sound of it — so, you know, got me a copy of Melodyne and started messing around with it and just wanted to have fun. For “Club Games” I just had an idea for a lyric that I thought would fit the song, and basically talked about the things that people do in clubs to try and pick up girls, guys, whatever, I just thought that would be kind of clever to have this vocal kind of poking fun at that club dynamic. I just had the idea for the vocal, I wrote it in a day, and I tracked all the parts out. I sent it to a couple people with just the chorus on it, and they were all like ‘yeah this is really cool, I like it a lot’ ‘cause I didn’t know how people would respond. Then I got in touch with Cerebral Vortex, I told them about the tracks and went over it and they said ‘we love it, we’ll go off that vocal’ and they wrote their parts. When I did “Alienstyles” I wasn’t quite sure what people would think but that was just how I wanted to express myself that day — I think I wrote that song last spring and I was just sitting in the studio and thought ‘you know what, I feel like singing’ so I wrote some vocals ‘cause I was listening to a lot of R&B and hip-hop vocals and I thought ‘why can’t I have proper vocals on this track’ because it would work. I went with Auto-Tune because I like it [laughs]. That’s all, I like the sound, I like how it feels, and I just wanted to do it — I’m actually really surprised with the reaction for the most part, people have said they really like it and they like the vocals on the album. I was a bit nervous about what people would think, but in the end you have to make yourself happy before you release something and be happy with the output. The initial reaction from Mike [Paradinas] and the guys at Planet Mu was ‘Wow, this is great, this is should be the single’ and I was like ‘No! You can’t release that as the single [laughs]‘ I was a bit nervous that day, about what they might think, you know maybe like ‘Okay, forget your album, we’re not gonna do it!’ but they all loved it so, that’s all good.

You’ve said that this one feels more like an ‘album’ to you as opposed to Ephemeral Exhibits. How is it different?

Well, Ephemeral Exhibits was put together from… I had been sending tracks to Planet Mu for a while and Mike finally responded, it was the day that I sent him “Striking Distance,” he was like ‘wow, we need to a record, a twelve-inch, then it turned into ‘we need to do an EP’ so I kept sending him more music and he’s like ‘alright, now we need to do an album, now we need to do two albums’ [laughs]. And that’s how that all came about. That first album was kind of ‘put together’ I basically sent him all the songs I’d been working on for the past two years, and he made an album from it, and it works as an album. But this album was written from scratch with the idea ‘Alright, I’m making this as the next album’ and that whole process, thinking about it that way, knowing that I am making a real album, it had a different feeling from the start. Before, I was writing songs and trying to get bigger labels’ attention — ‘cause I had done some stuff for smaller labels — but this album, I knew it was going to be released and I knew that I was trying to make something that was cohesive. So for me, personally, it feels like a more solid listen from start to finish.

Did you do the sequencing yourself, or did Planet Mu and Mike Paradinas help you with it?

Between me and Planet Mu, the idea of which songs would make the cut, we whittled it down from 27 tracks to about 20, and then 19, and then a couple of tracks they wanted to put out as b-sides, so in the end we finished up about 19 or 20 songs for the album. Tracks like “Millennia” and “Starting Gates” they liked but didn’t want to put on the album, so they put them out as b-sides for the “Stars” single. A couple of the other tracks, some of which no one’s heard — I didn’t play them out, didn’t play them on any radio show — on purpose, in case we decide to put them out so they’ll be fresh. I kind of gave them all the tracks and Mike just sat there and tried to figure out what songs worked in what order, which obviously matters for the CD and the digital somewhat, but for vinyl, you can’t do it, you have to put songs in different order and make it work for the format. But nowadays, a lot of people don’t listen to music in order, they put it on shuffle, they listen to single songs. But I still like the idea of having a CD or digital download or whatever ‘album’ that flows and I think he did a really good job of working it out.

Why an album? What about it appeals to you?

I think that the album format is really kind of difficult to judge nowadays. I’ve read some reviews of the album where people are like ‘Well, I like this and I like this but there’s no big ‘tune’ on this record’ or people go like ‘there’s no club banger’ but that’s what singles are for! An album is made to be listened to from straight to finish, I want people to enjoy it in a car, on their ipod, on the train, and also have tunes on there that people can play in clubs. I’ve pretty much played every song on the album and know lots that others have played, some of the more random ones have gotten a really good response in the club. The album format’s interesting, some people have said it’s dead with digital and that people only listen to things on shuffle, but I think it’s still important to make albums. When we talk about music a lot of the times we don’t talk about tracks, you know, we talk about great albums, and I just wanted to try and make what I thought was a great album, one that you could listen to and not get sick of — I wanted to make my Kid A.

Do you consider your music ‘dubstep’ and do you care?

I don’t care at all actually, I don’t care what people call it; but yeah I guess it fits the music more than any other genre. The word ‘dubstep’ doesn’t really have much of a meaning anymore; it used to, but I’m not really sure what it means anymore. If you compare people like Burial, that’s like the far end of the spectrum, to someone like 16 bit or something… both artists are great, but they’re completely different. Dubstep is kind of just like a tempo now, really, just full of experimentation. Even comparing someone like Joker — what Joker does is more grime to me than dubstep, but I don’t really like putting labels on things, which is why I just call it streetbass, doesn’t mean anything, it’s just an attitude, a style, an approach — it’s about the music, it’s not about genre. We’re in kind of like a genre-less time — even what people like Untold and Bok Bok are doing, how do you explain what it is? It’s not Funky, but it’s more house or Funky than dubstep, it all kind of gets lumped into a Wot U Call It kind of thing, you know back in the days of early grime, you know, what is this music? I think it’s exciting. But people tag things; it’s all about your point of reference, who you first heard called dubstep, that’s your point of reference. Some people hear that Vex’d is dubstep, and they think ‘oh, so Vex’d and things that sound like them are dubstep’ well then how do you explain something like Digital Mystikz? How do you explain what Mala is doing? It’s very different music.

In North America at least you’re often associated with dubstep, but I find that dubstep is usually stuff like Caspa or Excision and Datsik, so what do you think of the sudden popularity of the midrange wobblers and the way it seems to be headed in North America?

Electro-house and things like hard club music is really popular in the states, so I think that kind of midrange blast-in-your-face is going to be popular. Plus also the fact that a lot of people are coming from the drum-n-bass side of things and drum-n-bass has kind of moved in that direction, so it’s easy to like something that’s in your face and out loud and intense, and crazy, it’s easy to like that. I’ve tried to be a bit more challenging, I guess, I don’t want to sound academic but my music and the sets I play… I do play a little bit of that stuff in my sets, people like DZ get lumped into that category, and I love his music, I think that he’s so much more advanced than a lot of people doing things similar to what he’s doing, and he also has a soft side to him. But his music mixed with what I’m doing and people like Bombaman – he’s doing that strange housey hybrid, I don’t know what to call it – but that kind of vibe streamed into that loud, noisy stuff that I go into and then hip-hop records… you know, I play the new Usher record, just whatever fits, whatever I feel like: colourful and interesting works for me. In that sense, that’s what keeps some people from ‘getting’ my sets, they’re just like ‘Whoa, this changed a lot’ — but if you just blast people with heavy tunes the whole night I think it’s boring. I think you still need to feel challenged or have something that’s like changing the feel of a set.

Tell me about Seclusiasis, how is it working out as a label and a collective and what’s coming out soon?

Seclusiasis is run by me and Dev79, it kind of took off in the past two years, before that it was just us dabbling in releasing little things, and when we started really pushing and doing some vinyl releases and the Streetbass Anthems series, that’s when the label kind of took off. Things are going well, we have a nice collective of people that are repping the Seclusiasis brand, if you will, around the globe, who are interested in and down with what we’re doing. We also have a bunch of DJs in Philly who play as Seclusiasis DJs so that’s cool. We also have Slit Jockey records in the Seclusiasis family, which El Carnicero runs with me and Dev79, and that’s slightly different. It started off with us making grime and basically making it like a North American grime type of label, but it’s kind of expanded off of that now. When we started signing people like Numan and Sduk who are from the UK, obviously, that idea of North American grime didn’t really make sense anymore [laughs]. The two labels are slightly different. With Seclusiasis we’ve got a Mestizo EP, a track [“Let It Spray”] produced by RX with a bunch of remixes from 6BLOCC, Siyoung, Dev79, Innaspace, then we’ve got a Kastle EP, B Rich’s new project which is absolutely amazing. We’ve got an EP from him, some people working on remixes: NastyNasty, myself, a couple of other people. We’ve just released BD1982’s first album available on CD on Seclusiasis, which is exciting, and that’s kind of like the hybrid funky/dubsteppish thing.

We also have on Slit Jockey, Sduk’s Clunge EP is out [now], kind of a split with Numan, we also have Kaiser from Bristol doing an EP for us, Sduk’s album is gonna be on Slit Jockey hopefully at the end of the year, he’s working on it right now, so that’ll be the first full-length album on Slit Jockey. Plus we’re doing Slit Jockey Mixtape Volume 2, working on that and collecting songs for that, it’s been a couple years in the making. The labels are picking up! It’s just a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of energy, to push records and kind of make people aware of what you’re doing, because the marketplace is flooded. My promo inbox is just ridiculous, so much stuff coming out, so trying to make a brand or a name that some people recognize as quality control is important. People doing something slightly unique or different.

What are some producers outside of Seclusiasis/Slit Jockey that are really exciting you right now?

Bok Bok & L-Vis 1990 are really exciting. BUt I’ve been friends with them for years. I like Rustie — Rustie’s done a remix for the 8Bitch EP we’ve got coming up on Slit Jockey as well, but yeah Rustie and the whole LuckyMe guys, the Blessings EP is really nice. All that stuff, Hudson Mohawke, Mike Slott. A lot of stuff coming out on Planet Mu I’m really big into, Swindle, Terror Danjah, Slugabed. I’m looking forward to the new Jamie Foxx album. I’m a big fan of Stagga, he did a remix for the OK Luv single. I like what Monkey’s doing, he’s from Wales. I like what the Lazer Sword guys are doing out in San Francisco and that whole scene. I think I’ve given you a good idea — there’s so much music, I don’t just listen to this kind of stuff. The new Brad Mehldau, I just saw him and Josh Redman play last week, that was really amazing. I listen to a lot of weird jazz, classical music. I like the new Autechre album. My listening is pretty eclectic.

I know you just released an album — but what’s next from you?

In the immediate future, I’ve got a remix for Foals coming out next month, on a 7” for their new single. I did a remix from Inner Party Systems, a 7” as well. I’m doing a bunch of remixes for Slit Jockey and Seclusiasis releases, I’m gonna do a release on Seclusiasis at some point, hopefully by the end of the year — an actual artist release, not a Streetbass Anthems thing. I’m doing an EP for Civil Music as well, the people who I did the Kotche release with, and they’ve released things from Debruit and Reso and etc. And that’s it for right now, that’s all I have officially in the works. I plan on doing a lot of demos for vocalists and MCs and R&B singers, I’m really into more production for other artists. And shows as well, playing lots of shows this summer.

Where are you touring this year?

I’m playing in Montreal next weekend. Two weeks I’m over in Europe for three weeks, then I’m back in the states for a little bit at the end of May, then going back to Europe in June, doing this crazy event in London called Kreatures, with animatronic robots and music. Me and Untold and Milanese are playing that, I’m gonna do my first live set in years, you know like generate MIDI sounds that cause the robots to make certain gestures, should be pretty crazy. Then I’m gonna be playing festivals and shows in the states from June to July, and then I’m back in the UK for the festivals in August, none of which have been announced yet but are all being planned. I should be pretty busy in this summer.