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Maxmillion Dunbar Talks Hopeful Vibes, Future Times, and ‘House of Woo’

Maxmillion Dunbar / Photo by Shawn Brackbill

These are bountiful times for fans of outer-limits dance music, so it’s saying something that Maxmillion Dunbar has recorded one of the headiest albums you’re likely to hear this year, on or off the dance floor. House of Woo, recently released on New York’s RVNG label, derives its machine pulse from old-school house, but any further similarity with the current explosion of retro-obsessed, identikit club music ends there.

Where other producers use watery, plinking chords as signifiers of “deep,” Dunbar creates a far more convincing illusion of depth, drawing you into a sound world of untold dimensions and whipping tangled phrases around your head until you’re not sure which way is up. Drum machines play fast and loose with the rhythm, threatening to topple it all to the ground with every bashed-out snare fill and stumbling kick drum. Miraculously, though, it never does come crashing down. That might have something to do with the unusually buoyant nature of the album’s sonics, held aloft as they are by soaring horn leads and glassy synthesizers and plastic birdsong. It’s an incredibly tactile sound, like something you could hold in your hand — a fistful of marbles and gravel and gummi worms.

Dunbar (real name: Andrew Field-Pickering), based in D.C., is one of the musicians behind the Future Times label, which alongside imprints like L.I.E.S. and WT Records is at the heart of a current renaissance in American underground dance music. It’s a scene that draws heavily from vintage house, the lo-fi contrarianism of Dutch electro, and punk rock’s can-do spirit. Where Dunbar differs from his gritty peers is in the peculiar sense of bliss that he conjures. As gnarly as it can get, House of Woo is ultimately all about easygoing vibes — vibes gleaned from classic hip-hop and the esoteric cuts buried on jazz-fusion B-sides. When he spoke with us by phone, Field-Pickering explained that recording House of Woo “was like making my own versions of those records I have with one crazy jam on them. I tried to make 11 of those.”

Not afraid to go deep, Field-Pickering talked with us about the D.C. scene, learning about dance music from I-F’s Cybernetic Broadcasting System, and why working in a record store is the world’s best job.

House of Woo is your second album. How long have you been releasing music now?
As Max, since about 2008 or so. The first Future Times was a 45 in 2008. I had some little bits on iTunes before that, but my favorite song from that stuff ended up on the 45. I don’t really deal with that stuff much in my memory banks, anyway.

How did you get your start as Maxmillion Dunbar?
At the time, it was kind of the thing that separated it from Food for Animals, because I was still doing a lot of stuff with that. I think Food for Animals had just gone to Japan or something like that — well, not “something like that”; it was awesome, we went to Japan — but I think that was right before the 45. But that was sort of my thing, just step to the side of that and do more beats, because I never made the music in Food for Animals. It was like a rap group. It was severely noisy at the beginning, but then we definitely inserted more and more funk into it as we were all getting into that stuff around here. It was the early 2000s, right after high school for me. It was more of an extension of a punk thing with an interest in hip-hop, at that point. Some sort of severely damaged psychedelic music or something.

Are you originally from D.C.?
Yeah. When I was way younger, I lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, like kinda outside of there in the woods, till I was about 12 or so. Then we moved to Maryland. I live in D.C. now.

When you talk about a punk influence —
I always had side interests, listened to all types of music, but the big thing was the punk scene in D.C. when I was in high school. That sort of had its awkward phase when a lot of the old guard of D.C. bands weren’t playing shows nearly as much, and even some of the young bands had gone on hiatus. Nowadays, D.C. has a lot of this sort of new-school, multi-genre, all-packed-in-one, DJ culture and stuff like that — maybe even borderline EDM — but that all came in at the same time too. There was a period around 2002, 2003 — it wasn’t like a wasteland around here or anything like that, but a whole lotta people stopped doing stuff at once. So there was kind of this new arena.

At the end of the ’90s, even beyond the Dischord stuff, there were other types of hardcore or noise or just intense punk around here. Baltimore, especially, you could go up there and get the more fierce show activity. I had plenty of things to go to in high school; I was always pretty satisfied. I would go to hip-hop things too. I don’t know what it was like before ’97 or so, because I wasn’t really conscious of it, but it felt pretty strong until about 2001 or so, and then it just petered out. There were only a couple bands around, like Black Eyes and Q and Not U, but that stuff petered out. And then there was a sort of void. Ari [Goldman], from [Beautiful] Swimmers, was also involved in Manhunter, who did some stuff on Ghostly. We used to play a ton of shows around here in that empty space when the punk scene sort of evaporated.

What was the thinking behind starting Future Times back in 2008?
I just had extra songs. I was starting to become less interested in the rap group thing and just trying to break away from that. Me and Ari were talking about doing something, and I was like, “Let me get together a little bit of money to start doing some things.” We had thought of Future Times as a name for something, like an event in the past, that we never did. The tracks were brewing. They kind of started a little bit slower, but it really got going once I met up with Mike [Petillo, from Protect-U], and the Protect-U tracks were going too. Steve Summers’ tracks were going too, with the Rhythm Based Lovers stuff we put out. I was living with Steve Summers in Maryland at the time. Me, Jason [Letkieweicz, a.k.a. Steve Summers] and Ari used to live together. People started having a lot more tracks, or people were trading tracks that weren’t just like, “Yo, check this out, this is something I tried to do,” or something like that, it was, good stuff, you know? We were kind of getting there. So it just seemed sort of necessary to get a little outlet for it. Plus, it was super fun. I had just moved back from Spain, and I wasn’t really doing much of anything. I was chillin’. So it was just some cool shit to do in between day-job stuff, you know.

Is there much audience for what you guys are doing in D.C., or is it all moombahton and Thievery Corporation fans?
There is moombahton and stuff like that, that’s a scene that definitely gets the place packed around here. But there’s a little bit of a vibe, for sure. There’s not enough of a vibe that if you do a one-off event on a Tuesday, it’s gonna be packed. It’s not an extremely poppin’ thing or some sort of huge thing here. But we put on a Friday, it’ll be packed out, people will be dancing, and there’ll be a lot of people down there to see us. It’s a healthy thing, for sure.

What kind of spaces are you playing?
We like to play U Hall whenever we can, because it’s got that nice big sound system, but there’s a couple other freaky venues that pop up around here. D.C.’s kinda prohibitive with the nightlife. It’s not easy to do warehouse things; it gets shut down by the cops pretty easy. After-hours get shut down. It’s a pretty staunch town. But whenever we get the chance, when someone’s setting up an event, there’s a few places around town besides U Hall. There’s this club, Tropicalia, that we like. It’s just kind of a little box with a nice sized room and pretty good system.

It seems like an interesting time in underground electronic music right now. Between Future Times, L.I.E.S., WT Records, and all your associates, there’s this sort of network of points up and down the coast.
For whatever reason, a lot of people have linked up that all come from similar backgrounds. A lot of people in the quote-unquote new U.S. underground or whatever are ex-punks or even people who were down with noise and experimental machine music and things like that. A little bit of that beginning-of-the-Internet crew too. Like the old CBS message board [Cybernetic Broadcasting System, a legendary website run by Dutch electro producer I-F until 2008] — I remember that was the source for a lot of things. A lot of people were on there that are putting out good stuff now. We used to listen to the top 100 every year like it was our job, you know? That was learning our shit. When I was getting heavily into way more disco and house and just ready to learn everything about that shit, we kinda fiended for the CBS. We’d go on tours with our bands and have CBS on the iPod.

I’d never thought of CBS like that, as a sort of resource for a generation.
I know Ron [Morelli, of the L.I.E.S. label] talks about it a lot like that, and it influences Ron’s sound a lot too, and us maybe less with the sound but definitely the vibe. A lot of that Bunker stuff was the shit to us. A lot of the I-F jams — “Space Invaders are Smoking Grass,” “I Do Because I Couldn’t Care Less” — that was some of the first shit where I was like, “Yo, this is a harsh world too.” You know, getting some of that same energy you got from punk shows when you were way younger. And those dudes have an interest in the brutal music they would make, but on CBS there was tons of Italo or way over-the-top shit, you know. I mean, a hundred songs a year, we would just hear ’em at the end of the year, check out the list, learn about some shit we didn’t know about yet.

Could you find those records in stores in D.C.?
I’ve been around a lot of places, and I would still put D.C. and Baltimore way up there in terms of being able to pull out records. We get all sorts of shit around here. It’s great. The combination of not picked over and pretty healthy.

So you could check out the Top 100 and then go pick up the records.
Yeah, except for the European ones, the Bunker white-label things or a Legowelt record here and there. We could not go get those from the shops. But any of the disco or any of what to them were DJ classics, but to us was brand new? Those records are here, still, by the million. [Laughs] Like Jimmy Ross’ “First True Love Affair,” a lot of these awesome disco jams. A lot of my first impressions of those was I-F’s voice over it with the accent, like, saying something hilarious. But we’d just go out and find them if they were American. Back in the day, too, I was right out of high school, I wasn’t in school at the time, what else is there to do? We would just drive around and get records. There’s 10-cent record stores here. And that was just the building blocks for a lot of our stuff. I’m still out there looking at these stores. I’m actually about to go work at Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring.

How often do you work there?
I work once a week when I’m around town. I just price dance records. It’s cool. You sit there, you price records, you make chitchat with people who come in, you show ’em shit that you like. I always wanted that job. It’s pretty sick. What else is there in this world, you know? It’s all you want.

Maxmillion Dunbar / Photo by Shawn Brackbill

Let’s talk about House of Woo. I get a really beatific, almost kind of spiritual vibe from it.

It’s like astral jazz with broken house rhythms.
Right. I mean, yeah, I definitely have that side of my record collection in mind from time to time. A couple years ago I went and stayed at Hunee’s house for a little bit, and we listened to a ton of jazz. I used to dig into heady jazz all the time, and for whatever reason, I kind of got out of that. But ever since that trip over to Hunee’s house where we pretty much didn’t listen to any dance music at all, it sort of got me back into it in a major way. That’s definitely present in my stuff. I even listen to things like Steve Hillage and Laraji and things that are almost on the edge of fusion. I love a lot of that stuff. Waldon Irvine, things like that. I’m not a spiritual dude per se, you know. That means different things. There’s a context for it that relates to music that I do vibe with, for sure. It’s one of the only things about spirituality that I vibe with is the music.

There’s a very expressive aspect to the record.
I’ve been talking about it with other people that have asked me about it. I think I was able to finally make things pretty quickly, like from brain to fingers. I’ve just gotten so in tune with Ableton and even beyond that — my working style, my preferences, what I like to push out of myself when I’m in the studio — and a lot of things were coming out really fast. If something felt like a quote-unquote mistake or too live or something like that, I would leave a lot of those in. I didn’t want this to feel purposefully like an anthology of all my vibes. I wanted more to use the newer ability I have to make things quickly. I wanted to make it quickly and focus on trusting my instincts. A lot of the stuff, I think, feels more expressive because of that, because I didn’t go back and edit it down too hard. ‘Cause I let a lot of different rhythms spiral out of control from each other. I was keeping those takes. It was really fun to make, because it was just, like, flowing out. It’s more of a snapshot of that than a statement, which I like.

You’ve got a lot of crazy polyrhythmic stuff going on.
I was just running a lot of different drums and sort of changing them willy-nilly, and I’d do big takes where I would do like 20 minutes of the song and then edit it down. For this album, I relied a lot less on samples than I had before. For the most part, I’d just have a few keyboards and some drum machines. I usually program a few things, some sort of bass and some sort of things that are hovering around that. Nowadays — I made the album around April, May last year — nowadays I’m making a lot of tougher things and drum tracks and things like that. But at that particular time I was just letting a lot things flow or loop for a while. Recording them as-is, then editing down from a two-track instead of worrying about getting it all perfectly perfect from a production standpoint. I would do runs where I would focus on just going apeshit with the effects, or just slightly tweaking it for a little while, having it drift around the stereo, playing with it, but not too much, then editing it down after that. Kinda just letting it go.

Because it’s an album, you have the freedom to go a little deeper. They don’t all have to be DJ tools.
I would DJ some of the songs that I think people are kind of thinking would not be for DJs. The right time of night, I’d be up for a lot of the songs. I have DJed them. And when I play live, it is pretty active as a live set. Pretty rhythmic. It sounds a lot more danceable when it’s way louder. And I think it has that quality where it can be way quiet too. “Coins for the Canopy,” for instance, I’ve DJed a few times. It’s definitely out there, but for the out-there moment at that tempo. Mixing things in and out of it is actually really satisfying. It’s like making my own versions of those records I have with one crazy jam on it or something. I tried to make 11 of those.

It does flow together, too, because of doing it quick. That might even relate to jazz music, where people had a lot more sessions. It’s kinda tight when people were putting out like six albums a year, because they were shifting a lot, making a lot of steps forward in their sound. I’m sure people could tell by listening to the record that I love, like, ECM records and shit like that. A lot of those dudes were putting out, like, 10, 12 records a year. You’re doing sessions. You’re treating it like a snapshot of the musician at that space and time. I like to think of myself as a full-fledged musician, so this album is more like a snapshot of where I’m at for a couple months in 2012 than me trying to put together what I think is gonna define something, you know?

There’s a really specific sound on this album — a bright, chiming, glassy sound. Is that a DX7?
Yeah, there’s a lot of FM [synthesis] going on, for sure. I don’t have a DX7 but I have a more, like, bootleg DX. [Laughs] I like it just fine. At this point, I’m making a lot of just drum tracks and shit like that, but for the House of Woo, it was definitely a lot of shiny stuff. I might have gone so deep on the reverb that I’m not as into using it now, but for then, I just wanted to smash it out. I was using tons of reverb, like, shiny sounds that were even more shiny because they were echoing out. One influence on the album is that stray horn sound from hip-hop records. Like you listen to like Heltah Skeltah or something like that, and once in a while you hear this like [mimics high trumpet noise] sound before the drums kick in. Like the beginning, when someone’s like, “Yeah, son, yeah, son, we about to get on some [wooooo wooooo wooooot].” That was a huge influence on the record. I was listening to tons of boom-bap hip-hop at the time. I still am kind of back in this little phase. That’s just my personal listening coming through. But I felt like that’s a tight sound that people don’t use as much, so I was ready to go for the trumpet samples and the sleigh bells. Just felt like it. Felt good. Felt kinda shiny. Some people tell me that it’s melancholy, but I don’t come at it from that perspective. If it’s at all melancholy, it’s more I dunno, the introspective vibe, the personal vibe. But it’s mostly happy and lovely in my mind.

To me it sounds very hopeful.
Yeah. I don’t think it’s very sad.

Maybe that’s what I identified as a spiritual vibe.
I mean, I can kinda vibe with that. That’s something that might even cross over to my personal life. I like that: What is it to be hopeful but non-spiritual in 2013? You can be hopeful about these logical progressions; it doesn’t have to be a spiritual thing with a capital “S.” I just tried to have this optimism. But when I repeat things in songs, too, I like that bliss-out vibe. It’s taking you to the edge of it or something. Things repeating for a while, but with that hopeful vibe.

There’s a ton of lo-fi, mid-fi, analog, kinda retro house out there, which I love. But what worries me about its success is that there’s going to be a ton of imitators who think that making noisy techno is really easy to do. So I appreciate the fact that House of Woo has a dimension that can’t be reduced to a gear list or a beat structure or a Larry Heard YouTube rip.
I appreciate hearing that. I don’t know if it’s overwhelmingly conscious, because I love me some decrepit, gnarly, underground house shit. I love L.I.E.S. to the fullest, for sure. I love deep, dark shit. But it ain’t me, really. I can’t really get into that zone of industrial noises with my techno beats, or some shit. I definitely didn’t feel like I need to add to the pile, because it’s already begun with the imitators and shit like this. People coming out of the woodwork to sign up everyone Ron puts out. It’s a thing for people. You know, shit. That’s cool. Everybody always knows who’s killing it and who’s not. But there’s a lot of imitators of that shit. I like to do singular shit if I can. I like to think of myself as someone who’s doing his own thing. It’s not me to go dark and deep at the moment. Maybe I was even unconsciously spurred on by doing the opposite. Because I also feel like a lot of people hit me up with the new age thing too, and that’s not as overwhelming an influence as people tend to believe. There’s a lot of that shit too, people making imitations of not-yet-released, obscure ’80s new-age synth things from the Outback in Australia. There’s a lot of that too. I’m just trying to do my thing, I guess! [Laughs]

It’s a tough time to be singular, because things get blown out so quickly. Oneohtrix Point Never comes along, and everyone wants to make New Age. L.I.E.S. comes along, and everybody wants to make underground noise house.
Singular becomes popular extremely fast these days. Even specific people have heavy amounts of biters. I think some of us come at it from an older perspective, too, where information wasn’t available to us and we’d hold things a little closer to ourselves. It might not even be intentional, people sweating the style. They might be really actively engaged in trying to make their version of it. I just don’t want to hear a lot of it, you know. It’s appreciated, but it’s kind of overwhelming sometimes. It’s borderline stressful how much new music there is to digest, because I do like to stay on top of it, but you can’t.

Do you balance your listening between old and new?
I would seek out new music pretty much at all times, if not for Future Times, then just in general. I like to stay up on what people are doing. I think people who do labels are sort of inevitably admitting that they like to be part of a music scene, and all this shit. I like to keep up with what people are doing, I like to vibe off new shit. I like to hear something that blows my mind. It’s not more so one than the other, I kind of get that from both. Since YouTube exists, you can blow your mind with some old shit, then check out a store and blow your mind with some new shit. And there’s, like, tons of it. I say it’s overwhelming, but it’s one of those good problems.

What’s that sound that starts the record? My wife always thinks there’s a cell phone ringing nearby.
It’s just one of the DX flutes that’s flying around in the song. I definitely did that on purpose when I edited that track down from a whole bunch of takes of it. Just, like, let’s put this at the beginning, cleanse the palate.

It grabs your attention.
It has a little bit of a ruggedness to it. I bounced it a couple times in editing it, and it has a little bit of that surface-noise vibe to it. I kind of like that: You put the needle on, and it feels like my record when I hear that.

House of Woo is out now on RVNG