Sahy Uhns’ new album Courtship Dances might seem anxious and jarring at first—harsh acid house textures, fringes of hip-hop beats, static curls—but as you get deeper and deeper into it, its core is swollen and soft, its layers are engulfing. The album is the work of L.A. producer Carl Madison Burgin, a guy who’s been making music since his early teens and who could probably describe his way around any piece of musical equipment you put in front of him. Burgin told me when we caught up recently that by the end of high school, he had amassed a “pretty sizable arsenal of instruments” built entirely by himself.
Every moment is significant on Courtship Dances; every pitch-shift or untethered beat stutter or low-end bass drag marks a change in the album’s dynamic. And Burgin takes words just as seriously. Talking about his record label Proximal, Burgin said “I don’t just want music that an artist made, I want their music.” There’s an obvious difference between those two things, even if it’s not an immediately obvious one. Burgin’s recognition of this subtlety is linguistic proof of the big shifts in little moments built into the structure of Sahy Uhns’ music. Stream all of Courtship Dances (out today on Proximal) below and then read what Burgin had to say about his self-built performance interface, curating his label and listening to stuff he doesn’t even like.
Can you talk a little bit about developing your own hardware/software? What kind of equipment do you work with?
My interest in building my own equipment started long before my music. My parents actually met at my grandparents’ lumber yard when they were growing up. While I was growing up I spent a lot of time in my garage, where we had a pretty good woodworking shop. I would build strange toys and devices that I dreamt up. The first instrument I remember building was a 3/4 size electric guitar that my uncle and I over-hauled out of a Toys-R-Us guitar. He was a guitar builder in the ’70s and showed me how they used to do it.
As I started making more music, I started focusing on building more instruments. One of the reasons I became interested in electronic music was because of my fascination with the equipment used to make it. Early on in high school I started circuit bending and making small synthesizers out of components I would buy at thrift shops or take out of old appliances around the house. The more I built and modified, the more I learned about electronics. By the end of high school, I had a pretty sizable arsenal of instruments that I was using to compose with and which also helped me get into CalArts. CalArts is where my more formal electronics education started as well as my introduction to programming, electronic sensors and a huge expansion of my synthesis and digital signal processing (DSP) knowledge.
Most of the synthesis and DSP work I do is using Native Instruments, Reaktor, which is a graphical programming environment. I really love working this way because it gives the user a graphical representation of the math and signal chain. This has really helped me in understanding complicated concepts. I also love Reaktor because I have practiced with it quite a bit and now I am able to quickly put together my ideas. I am very interested in coming up with generative systems and using them to create my music.
Also while at CalArts I built my performance interface, The Castro. It consists of eight 7-inch long touch strips and 16 push bottoms. I use it to control my Reaktor patches live through an interfacing software programmed in “Processing.” Although, right now I’m using my iPad instead with the Touch OSC app while I work on the new version of The Castro.
Courtship Dances is structured as a narrative. Can you describe your motivation for breaking the album into chapters, and parts of chapters?
For a long time I’ve been interested in musical storytelling. This is part of the reason why I’m attracted to simple song forms like bluegrass and doo-wop. I often will write tracks to score memories or in parallel to a story I am creating in my head as I write. I make grander compositional arcs to carry the listener through from piece to piece and to balance out my tendency towards freeform and sometimes sporadic smaller compositional ideas. When someone listens to my records, I want them to be heard as one artistic statement, rather than a grouping of separate ideas.
As an L.A. native, much of the time I spend listening to music is while driving. I often think of records in terms of the car and traveling. When I drive the windshield is like the lens of a camera and the music is the score that gives the view context.
You said you’re interested in creating “micro-perspectives built out of [your] own aesthetic biases.” What would you say are some of your aesthetic biases and how do they affect how you run Proximal?
It’s hard to quantify my “aesthetic biases” into a short answer. I really try to expose myself to as much music, from as many different perspectives as I am able too. Many times I’ll listen to music that I really do not like, over and over to try and figure out exactly what it is that turned me off about it. What’s funny is that the art I react very negatively to at first has a much higher chance of becoming something I love than something I just liked on first listen.
The same is true with how I curate Proximal’s catalog. I try and find artists that I feel are really striving for mastery of their craft, artists that I do not have to always agree with, but who expand my horizons through the quality of their work. I work with artists who have shown me their artistic integrity. I love a good debate, especially when I am proven wrong. I want to learn from everyone around me to improve my own work.
I guess one bias I do usually follow is, I am not as interested in “projects” or “monikers” that people have. I really want the music that Proximal releases to be the most honest that the artist can produce. I don’t just want music that an artist made, I want their music. And we have our beat stews and other mixtapes to try on other musical masks.
I saw on Facebook that you described this year as “the most creative year of your life.” What do you think contributed to that?
The record actually was not produced this year, but the year after I graduated from CalArts. While I was there I made my first record, An Intolerant Disdain of Underlings, but because I was in school it took me four years to complete. During my senior year, a lot of the technical concepts and musical ideas I had been focusing on started to click. Once I graduated, it was like an explosion of creative energy. All the information I had been internalizing during my schooling was being re-formed and applied to my tastes by my subconscious.
I felt like I was just plucking ideas from a box. All I really had to do was spend the time and the music wrote it’s self. I spent about 9 months on Courtship Dances, but during that time I made much more music than what is on the final product. This allowed me to refine and polish the record until it was exactly how I wanted it. It feels amazing to have a collection of work that I can unwaveringly stand behind. Since then I’ve mostly been focusing on all the work that it takes to get a record out and creating the album art.
Thump recently called you mysterious. Are you mysterious? You don’t seem mysterious. What are your thoughts on mystery?
Haha. Yeah. I saw that. I don’t think I’m very mysterious either. I’m a pretty loud and in your face type of guy. I can be pretty confusing at times though. The technical work I do might seem mysterious to people who haven’t had experience with that type of stuff. I guess the mystery might be more about my music than me. I try to focus my music on my sound and textures and not on musical genres or styles. I want my voice to be heard through any style or idea that I work with. This can make it hard to put a genre label on it. I want my music to cover the spectrum, from pop to electro-acoustic music and everything in between. Exploring as much musical territory as I can is how I continue challenging myself to sound like me. Sometimes it’s harder than others. I’ll finish my string-band/Americana record some day.
I do strive to make mysterious or magical sonic moments in my tracks. Creating sounds that have so much depth and intricacy that they seem other worldly or surreal. Their are still moments on my favorite records that I’ve heard a million times that can make my hairs stand on end. These are the type of visceral and psychedelic moments that I want to create.