Creative Technology? – Photonz Talks
Marco Rodrigues knows a lot about making music. He’s put out an impressive number of releases as Photonz with a discography going back over 10 years on labels including Don’t Be Afraid, Crème Organization and his own imprint One Eyed Jack’s but that’s only part of the picture. With a slew of side projects under different monikers, a busy schedule as a touring DJ and a fierce support of his local scene in Lisbon, his energy and enthusiasm is second to none. With a recent release under his Ursa’s Reef alias, and him coming to London on the 19th October to promote a party for Radio Quantica which he co-founded in 2015, I jumped at the chance to pick Marco’s brain about his relationship with his studio, and get some fantastic insights into his creative mind.
Tell me about how you first came into contact with music technology. Was it love at first sight or the start of a long and difficult relationship?
My first attempts at making music were actually with an acoustic guitar, trying to learn it by myself and being really mediocre at it; a few scales and chords, jamming with a friend, etc. Then did the rock band thing for a while playing electric bass. I was really obsessed about Brazilian music at the time and would try to learn basslines from tunes like Joyce's "Aldeia de Ogun" and tunes like that, but at the same time the band was gearing towards a lot of pop/rock stuff and when I started to experiment with computers I left the band. I was always into techno and house since I was a kid so I was really excited to move to making electronic music, and my first experiments were me trying to use the default audio program from Windows – can't remember the name of it now. It allowed you to do really basic things like adding two sounds, reversing them, stretching etc. Spent hours every day just doing the most basic little compositions. After that I discovered Cool Edit, which was a bit better; you had a mixer, decent FX, etc. It wasn't really a sound-generating thing, more of a sound-editing tool. This was around 2003, maybe. Toyed around with Sony's Acid for a while, looping bits of tracks and stitching them back together, doing edits of popular tunes I liked to play out and get a little "ah didn't know this version" reaction at the local bar. Then tried Fruity Loops and hated it, but after a while I became hooked and suddenly could do some decent things that eventually lead to my first release as Photonz, in 2006.
Describe the space where you have your studio. How important are your surroundings when you’re making tracks?
I have my studio at home, kind of in-between the kitchen and the living room next to a nice big window facing our lovely garden. Surroundings do play a part, but not as much as your state of mind and the places you're visiting in your head. I do a lot of my music inside the box, in my laptop and use the studio more to jam out with friends when someone's over, or to record synths to later use in Ableton. I make music everywhere, all the time, just need my Mac and my headphones. Background noise and silence influence the process greatly though; when I was living in London, all of my music was louder and more saturated due to higher background noise while in Lisbon my stuff breathes a bit better, and if I'm in the countryside the process becomes really enjoyable – silence makes everything better for me.
Is there one piece of gear or software that you feel you have a particular relationship with?
I feel like I have a special relationship with the Arturia Minibrute. Definitely my favourite piece of hardware that I own – but I don't own many. I'm not obsessed with hardware at all. I'm much more into compositional aspects, sound, ideas, etc. But I do have to say that the Minibrute is really addictive to me. The sound is really exciting and it's always a thrill to switch it on and twist knobs. The infinite range of sounds you can get from it, with all the modulation possibilities, and how everything is so direct and well thought out make it so absorbing. I do spend incredible amount of hours on it when I switch it on. All the tracks on my Ursa's Reef EP have various parts recorded on it and a lot of other releases too – like the Negative Cities I on 20/20 Vision and others.
You seem like quite a prolific producer – how often are you in the studio and how do you keep the ideas churning out?
There's definitely something therapeutic in it for me. I can only make music if I'm enjoying it and it's mostly about trying out ideas. I change my approach all the time otherwise I get stuck – I used to, a lot, before realising I was starting from the same rigid place every time. The worst enemy is having serious beliefs about how to make music. Prejudices against this or that, or forms of purism. I go through phases now where if I detect a prejudice against some technique or approach, like if I find myself thinking samples are cheating or some bullshit like that, I force myself to only use samples for a while. Or if I think using analogue synths is kind of pretentious then I'll force myself to record analogue synths for a bit. That way it works like a little game, nothing too serious, no absolute truths. When I do this I end up doing loads of music because there's an element of freshness and self-transgression where you keep things fluid and you're working to dissolve your own crystallization – which inevitably builds up when you do this for a while. I have two very different modes of music-making and I don't try to mix them up too much: I'm either in a starting-new-tunes phase and churn out 2 or 3 ideas a day for a week, or I'm in a finishing-tunes-and-do-arrangements phase and this is a more pragmatic, narrative, less-chaotic phase that lasts longer, where I spend more time with the music telling some kind of story or turning them into something that could work in a club experience.
Technology often allows people access to creating music who would never have had that before. But these days it often feels like having access to expensive gear and the feeling of authenticity that comes with that is becoming a barrier to the scene for people who might not have much money. How do you think we can open up access to music production so that we have the most talented people coming through rather than just the people who can afford a swanky studio?
Without wanting to sound too abstract or mystical, I don't think of music or production in purely rationalistic, materialistic terms, and I don't think expensive machinery will necessarily better a production. Music is the emotion and the idea, and even if you can find depth and meaning in the way a Buchla sounds, which you can, it' still all happening within you. The meaning isn't in the synth. Everything can have meaning and trigger emotion for you because meaning is in the observer. It is vastly more important that people have a chance at creating than building some sort of sonic standard that leaves out so many possibilities and emotions. I tend to feel that sometimes the way people talk about these machines comes from a place of gatekeeping, and if you consider how expensive they are it could even be considered classist! It's who's behind the machine that counts and how they can escape themselves, surrender to a creative trance and recognise it if something is good enough to work on.
Do you go into the studio with an idea already in mind or do you find yourself experimenting with your machines/software and seeing where they take you?
I do both. It happens in all kinds of ways to me, really. It can be just trying a musical thing or it can be a production idea – some different rewiring of a chain of fx or a new VST or machine. It can be a new sample I took from a record, or sound banks someone sent to me. A few months ago I had this phase of taking a sample from every crap record that I bought while digging in charity shops, just before donating them again to Oxfam or something, and I did that for a while, started loads of tunes like that. It changes all the time. it's like playing a game. Everything can be a pretext, really.
How much does happy accident come into your creative process?
Happy accident is everything. The more you expose yourself to it the more interesting things come up that surpass your own ability. All my favourite music that I made had accidents that made me take time to finish the tracks. It's stuff that happens that you couldn't replicate. Being surprised with an idea or outcome is an incredible way to keep excited and focused. You don't want to know the process too well, and when you do you need to change it up, so that more mistakes happen.
What is your worst habit in the studio?
Not sure. Probably losing track of time and ignoring things that need to be done or not really listening when someone's speaking to you, which is rude. Some procrastination too.
What is your best habit in the studio?
Coming up with different ideas, trying different configurations.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone starting out producing music what would it be?
Actively try to dissolve rigid notions you might have about what's the right way of doing things. If you think using presets is cheating, use them for a bit. If you think real producers use hardware then try only using software for a while. if you feel guilt in using samples then use them extensively. If you think only improvisation matters then try to write something meticulously from the ground up – the opposite works too. Transgressing your own limits of what's acceptable will keep the juices flowing.
Buy tickets to the Radio Quantica LDN Rave HERE
Grab his latest release as Ursa's Reef HERE
Check out Photonz on Soundcloud HERE