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Last Step: Going to Sleep to Make Music to Sleep To

Last Step

Writing in The Wire in 2009, David Keenan coined the term “hypnagogic pop” — “pop music refracted through the memory of a memory” — to describe artists like James Ferraro and Oneohtrix Point Never, who channel psychedelic tendencies through cultural memory. He was talking principally about a particular form of nostalgia; mapping the concept to the interzone between sleeping and wakefulness was purely metaphorical. (“Hypnagogic realms are the ones between waking and sleeping, liminal zones where mis-hearings and hallucinations feed into the formation of dreams.”) But what if you could actually create music in a hypnagogic state, the way some writers keep dream journals?


In fact, that’s precisely the way that the Winnipeg producer Aaron Funk recorded his new album, Sleep, released on Planet Mu under his Last Step alias. Prone to marathon studio sessions and loath, in fact, to quit working at all, he began turning out lysergic acid jams as a way of winding down at the end of a long day spent bashing out breakcore, lulling himself to sleep while still seated at his machines.

The results are far different from the music of Funk’s primary alias, Venetian Snares, known for a style so twisted, rhythmically complex and occasionally ear-shredding that it can make Aphex Twin sound like a softie, in comparison. (His sense of humor, meanwhile, takes after Kid606: consider titles like A Giant Alien Force More Violent & Sick than Anything You Can Imagine, Cavalcade of Glee and Dadaist Happy Hardcore Pom Poms and of course the classic Winnipeg Is a Frozen Shithole.) Instead of hyperspeed breakbeats and unconventional time signatures, Sleep slips down a rabbit hole of slow-motion 4/4 beats and plangent, slightly detuned melodies. Off-kilter but still somehow deeply intuitive, it actually sounds a lot like being groggy feels; its effect reminds me a little of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, which I used to fall asleep to on a nightly basis, when the sounds still seemed utterly alien to me.

I wanted to know more about how Funk actually made the record: It’s one thing to evoke hypnagogic states in your music, but actually working while falling asleep, as though sending messages from a parallel dimension, is something else entirely. We corresponded about his process, programming while drunk, and what Skrillex’s ascendance might mean for breakcore. (Spoiler alert: Not much.)

Could you expand upon the composition process? Did it take you a while to “train” yourself, as it were, to function in this way?
It wasn’t something I needed to train myself to do; the machines are all second nature to me. I suppose it’s a bit like driving a car — could be exhausted, ready to pass out at any moment, but you don’t forget how to drive your car, you just drive it. Luckily, in my case I won’t crash and die if I fall asleep doing tracks!

Is it something you would do every night?
Not something I do every night, no. Feels to me that that would be too regimented. It just happened by accident, really. There were a couple of days when I was working on more composed, in-the-box type tracks. More multi-tracked and edited stuff. I can work like that for 16 hours or so before I start to fade. I don’t ever want to stop, but at the same time, working on something more frantic, I don’t want to put that kind of energy into it. So I fell into doing the Sleep tracks instead of going to sleep. Had done a couple in that state when I realized I’d tapped into something I was really enjoying. I keep really strange hours from day to day, will wake up at 1 p.m. one day, stay up for 20 or 22 hours, wake up at 5 or 6 p.m. the next day and so on. So after having a couple of days where I’d been recording and then switched to doing these sleepy jams, it became a thing. I just do these Sleep type tracks when the situation presents itself. I never set out to do them, like wait all day until I’m really tired or something. Gotta come natural.

Did you ever just fall asleep at the machines and wake up hours later, drooling on your keyboards?
I have fallen asleep at the machines, yes — not for hours, though, maybe a few minutes at the most. Could be longer, but the longest nods feel like only a few minutes. Never know what time it is anyway, when I’m making music. There was a lot of falling asleep for a few seconds during those tracks.

Did you do a lot of editing and arranging afterwards, or are the cuts on the album more or less as you played them in real time?
The tracks on Sleep were recorded live to 2-track. I did a fadeout or two of them, but that’s really it. It’s nice to me that they maintain those moments in time without messing with them afterwards. They are kind of noisy as a result, but in a soft way. I actually really dig all that accumulated noise buildup from old machines and FX, mixers patched into mixers — has a life to it.

And did the process lead you to work in different ways?
That half-awake state really lends itself to recording on the fly with the analog machines for me. I find when I’m more awake I tend to think more of the structure and movement of a tune, abrupt transitions, etc.; things becoming more composed. With Sleep, the structure and movement presents itself more within the combinations of the sequences, feeling it out half in a dream. What a weird thing to be talking about, doing music half asleep — hard to put it into words. I love that about it, such a natural thing for me, but attempting to describe it is almost pointless. I almost don’t want to consciously understand it fully; it would take something away.

Were there certain machines or techniques that lent themselves to your approach? I would assume you used hardware, just because it’s more hands-on than software.
All hardware, yes, synced to a clock; all analog machines other than a 707. Used my modular synth mainly, and analog sequencers. The first track on the record, “Xyrem,” is all my modular. Sounds like some sideways Giorgio Moroder shit to me, that one.

The main sequencers I use just have knobs for the pitch, which can be set anywhere between two notes. So instead of, say, A and A# or D# and E, etc., you can have a pitch anywhere between those two notes. You get these new relationships between notes, new intervals. Most of the tracks start with some melodies playing on the modular in this way, and then I come to that with more step-style sequencers, like 303s, where it is more apparent what notes are being used. I really like having no idea what notes are playing in a melody and then stepping to that with something where I know what notes I’m using, and finding harmonies within that to tickle my ears. I’m really into dissonant melodies.

I have this 24-channel mixer with all the outs from an 808 and 909 patched into the individual channels. The beats are usually a combination of those two machines with loads of patterns programmed into each, creating new patterns when played on top of each other. There’s a lot of playing the faders and mutes on that mixer. Couple old spring reverbs patched into the sends. The beats on Sleep feel less like they are driving the tracks and more like they are there pulsing, adding shape and their own kind of warmth. You’d normally hear those machines in more dance-floor type tracks, but they don’t feel so much like that here. I don’t think this stuff would work so well in the club environment.

I love the immediacy of those old analog machines; it’s really inspiring. You just set them up to play and they go, playing the same thing until you switch the pattern. It’s really good in that sleepy state: Structure becomes really spontaneous and felt out rather than being rigid and composed. A nice, fluid flow — less like choices are being made and more just being one with these machines, between waking and dreaming.

Have you ever made music while drunk or on drugs?
For sure. For a while I’d get drunk on whiskey every day while making music. Kept blowing my speakers, because when you’re drunk, you just wanna turn it up and freak out. Went through a couple pairs of monitors and ended up buying a pair of PA speakers. The PA speakers were loud as fuck! Man, it was pretty mental using those in my house. Had to set up in a small area on the complete other side of the room. Never blamed the whiskey; I am an idiot. Got sick of the whiskey every day, and things ran a lot smoother. Doing Sleep tracks doesn’t compare with any inebriated recording experience I’ve had. It’s going the complete other way. Any other state I am totally hyper. Not big on making tunes wasted; I’d rather they come from where I’m at instead of where I’m at because of whatever substance.

You’ve recorded as Last Step before; what separates it from other aliases of yours?
I started releasing music under Last Step at first because I didn’t want people to know it was me, but that was pretty optimistic, because everybody recognized it as me anyways. I felt at the time it was so far from what I’d been releasing as Venetian Snares, it should really be its own thing. It’s not, though, obviously; everything I make is me. I’ve got a few aliases still that nobody has caught me on. Seems like when I’m using odd time signatures I get spotted, because that’s not a common thing to be doing in electronic music. I have no set parameters for what falls under Last Step; each record has a pretty different feel. What it all has in common is drum machines rather than breakbeats, and much of it is pretty slow. That’s not even completely true, the previous Last Step album has loads of live drumming on it. Fuck knows, aliases are a bit stupid aren’t they?

I read an interview where you lamented how our consumption of music has changed over the past 20 years. As a kid, you would buy a new album and listen to it over and over — once you’d spent your $8 for an LP (or $16 for a CD!), you were inclined to get your money’s worth out of it. These days, we’re surrounded by music, but our relationship with it seems to have decreased in inverse proportion to its availability. What I found interesting about your comment is that you’ve been such a ridiculously prolific artist, releasing dozens (hundreds?) of records in your career. Is it possible for an artist to make too much music?
Sign of the time, definitely. On one hand, it’s nice that there is so much music out there to take in, and it’s easy to find what you’re after. On the other, I think a lot of albums don’t really get the attention they need. Some albums really need time and care to get to know them. It’s definitely changed music and how it’s taken in. Becomes a bit disposable, all of it. Music is made to be something for right now and then disposed of. Basically, all music ever made is available: It fucks with history, cancels it out almost. Music that grows on you, is that even a thing anymore? Ha!

It is funny, me saying that, having released so much music in the past. I guess it seems like I have been releasing a lot of music, but it’s not been the case this past five years or so. Truth of it is, I started recording my music in the early 1990s, but none of it was released officially until the late 1990s. So by that point, I had so much of it kicking around, and people kept asking me to do records for their labels. It was really exciting for me at the time, just said yes to everything. Loved having a new 12-inch coming out every month. It must have seemed really strange to people. Seems like people thought I just put out everything I made, and that impression has kind of stuck now. It’s caught up to me by this point; I do release far less music. I sit on music for ages before releasing it. Sleep, for instance, was done in 2008, it’s 2012 now. I’m against putting out fashionable music for right now that won’t last. If I can create something four years ago that I still feel good about now, then that’s something to me. It’s also much easier to let go of, because when I release an album, most people won’t get it. It’s easier for me to overlook that if I don’t feel so close to it anymore. I don’t think it’s possible to make too much music; I wish I could make more. I try to stretch my days into 20-hour days just to do that.

I would assume you’re aware of The Wire‘s term “hypnagogic pop.” What do you think about that taxonomy, and do you think your literally hypnagogic music fits?
I’m not aware of that term. Sounds a bit pretentious, to be honest. I suppose this record could be hypnagogic pop: It’s melodic and probably could make you feel sleepy. I think, rather, it sounds better when you’re tired. I wish pop put me to sleep; makes me feel more sick than tired. It’s like making hamburgers, modern pop music, made to order. It’s meant to please people rather than show them anything new. Pandering dip-shits, I don’t want any of that in my ears.

Speaking of modern pop music, it recently occurred to me that Skrillex represents something once considered unthinkable: breakcore’s crossover into the mainstream (or at least, the crossover of certain techniques that originated with breakcore).
I thought Skrillex made dubstep? What do I know? I don’t know what breakcore is supposed to be, anyways. Seems like it became people using my records as a sample bank after a while, and I tuned out. Those people are probably make dubstep now, anyways, or whatever else they’re hopping on these days. Breakcore was cool in its inception; nobody in that scene really sounded like each other. I somehow got lumped in with that, but I’ve never set out to do a certain genre of music. I assumed I was just making really intense jungle. So I am gonna have to disagree, unless he makes breakcore now; then I guess I’ll have to agree. Didn’t he win a Tony award or something? Doesn’t get much more mainstream than Broadway!