Photo by Mclean Stephenson
Before it became an iTunes tag, “electronica” was a dirty word in the dance community. Much like EDM today, it meant everything and nothing, acting more as a marketing buzzword than a true genre descriptor. For Australian producer Null, however, it served as a jumping-off point for exploring the manifold ways in which electronic music has developed in its short, but striking history.
On Almost, his recent EP for Acéphale, he delves into the constituent styles that made up “electronica,” flitting from cavernous breakbeats to spaced-out IDM with a light and humorous touch. Always reverent, never cynical, Null’s love letter to the past also acts as a manifesto for the future: you’re as likely to find trap and footwork as ’90s jungle and UK garage among the EP’s seven songs.
This week, Null drops the video for “Oil Run,” a hypnotic standout from the EP with a killer “Degrassi” dialogue sample. Created in collaboration with design firm Oval-X, it’s a hallucinogenic throwback to ’90s visualization software with enough strobe action to leave you dazed at your desk. We caught up with the Melbourne-based wunderkind to get the low-down on where his head’s at.
“Electronica” was a pretty maligned term back in the ’90s, much as EDM is now. Do you feel like you’re rehabilitating the genre?
“I’d very much like to play a part in doing that. I think there was a lot happening on the fringes of electronica back in the ’90s that was never really allowed the freedom to ferment and come into its own. With Null, I’m hoping to bring those elements back into the conversation of modern dance/club music in an earnest fashion; I’m not setting out to provoke nostalgia nor wink at a time passed. I feel like we all missed out on something because electronica became ‘uncool’ and was buried by indie-dance, so now I want to talk about it and show people what would have happened if they hadn’t switched off.”
Your music draws from a variety of ’90s sounds, but still feels futuristic. Do you think you’re creating a sense of futurism from the past?
“The idea that we’re constantly recycling culture movements—be it in fashion, music, film—is certainly not a new one. With regards specifically to dance music, I get frustrated when I hear hyperbolic and crass references, which caricature a culture from the past. It’s rarely handled in an interesting way and to me is the musical equivalent of name-dropping. What’s totally interesting for me as an audience member and as an artist is the notion of taking something that’s familiar to a completely new frontier. It’s really important to me that what I’m doing is not just re-treading old ground—it’s definitely about birthing something new and futuristic from my influences and points of reference.”
You’re flipping artists like Omarion and Bow Wow into something menacing and futuristic— how do you go about picking your samples?
“With vocal samples, the number one goal is for it to sound foreign to my ears. As a listener, when I hear a track and I can instantly place the sample, it jolts me out of the experience of the song. That Bow Wow and Omarion song that I sampled on ’40’ is a track I’d never heard before. It’s important that the sample doesn’t color my work with its own pre-existing context. For short, rapped vocals like in this instance, I look for a male voice that can be pitched up a little and down-sampled a touch. The inspiration here comes from early ’90s hardcore records, which often sampled two bar phrases lifted from hip-hop acapellas, pitched from 105BPM up to 135 BPM and then run through a sampler. Generally the samples are only two bars long and at a low resolution, due to the small storage space on old samplers from that era.”
What’s the sample on “Dhash?”
“That’s a Redman sample—I had a lot of trouble with that one because the source material has an insane amount of swing on it. [That’s] pretty typical for mid-’90s rap, but I’m really happy with how straight it sounds in ‘Dhash.’”
You have a complex, dark and futuristic sound, but there’s also a distinct sense of humor, like on “Oil Run.” Do you feel that humor is lacking in contemporary dance?
“The sample in the introduction on ‘Oil Run’ is funny, but it’s also very real to me. The sample of a young first generation Canadian girl being told by her traditional father that she isn’t allowed to go to the school dance because it’s essentially a gateway to promiscuity; you can take whatever you want from that 20 second grab of dialogue, but to me it’s all about the urgency with which she delivers her argument: ‘When I’m older, it will be too late. The dance will be over.’ That shit stings me because she’s right. You can’t get those moments back. People take MDMA and stay out until 8am trying to get back there, but it’s never going to be the same as it was. As for whether or not a sense of humor in dance music is important to me? I love all of Mr. Oizo’s records, so yeah—I guess so, but it’s humor told via texture, tone and timing that I gravitate toward, rather than Bill Hicks quotes spliced in-between breakdowns. Having said that, I do ride hard for Neil Cicierega.”
How do you combine vintage gear with contemporary tools?
“With the super vintage, analogue stuff that hasn’t been retrofitted with MIDI ports, I just play parts to the best of my ability and let the software correct the timing for me—the audio artifacts and unexpected results encountered via this process are more often than not welcome departures from the tedium I sometimes feel in the studio. With gear from the early ’80s up to late ’90s, I control their parts from within my computer sequencer rather than a hardware sequencer like an MPC. The automation is always performed live on the instrument itself while tracking it into the computer. There is such a thing as too much control, and I hope I never figure out how to automate the filter cutoff on my Nord Lead from within the computer because I’m certain it would be detrimental to my sound.”
How does that work in a live setting?
“In previous incarnations of this project, I’ve made a point of bringing way too much hardware along to live shows. I would sync all the machines to a laptop; the show was focused on me running around like crazy trying to keep all the levels on each machine just right, changing presets when they needed changing. It was fun as hell, but something about having your mouth on an envelope knob, an outstretched bare foot reaching out to change Ableton scenes and your right arm trying to tweak some fully sick acid line produced a lackluster audio experience. So nowadays it’s an MC-505 from ’98 for drum sounds, more trance, synth moments, a couple of outbound FX units and a mixer—all of which is slaved to Ableton, which has the other 80% of stuff happening inside it.”