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Larry Gus: Psychedelic Beatmaker Crafts Complex Soundtrack From Dustbin of History

Larry Gus

Who: Born in Greece and based in Milan, Panagiotis Melidis — a computer engineer and obsessive listener with magpie tendencies — makes wild, plunderphonic pop under the name Larry Gus. The alias is a rough transliteration of “λάρυγγας,” the Greek work for “larynx,” but it’s something of a red herring: While Panagiotis does sing, he admits that it’s not his forte. “Most of the time I’m just improvising until I find the right voice,” says Melidis. “Generally I try to write vocal melodies that incorporate interval leaps, as though a guitarist were playing them. For instance, in “With All Your Eyes Look,” the final melody was directly influenced by Television guitarists Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine. But I don’t care about the words, and I layer a lot, because I don’t feel confident of my voice — there are four or five takes of the same melody line on top of the other. I was super-shy in the beginning. When I started playing music on my own, it was just instrumental for many years, because I was always thinking that my voice sucked. But after some point I was like, ‘You know, I should give it a shot. I can’t be like that forever.'”

Handling The Infinity: Sourced from thousands of samples and augmented with his own instrumental contributions, Larry Gus’ music takes after the paint-splatter swirl of artists like Madlib, the Avalanches, El Guincho, and even Animal Collective. Exploding with color and movement, it’s joyfully anarchic, like a riot viewed through a kaleidoscope. But there’s a painstaking method to his madness. For his new album on DFA, Years Not Living, Melidis assembled a library of some 4,000 sounds and began applying lessons he learned while studying with Barcelona’s Music Technology Group (the same sound-computing wizards that came up with Reactable). “I applied certain rules to different categories, and I built a kind of generative system, like an algorithm, that created different combinations of the samples,” explains Melidis. “I had 500 different combinations, and out of those, I would say, ‘Okay, this one is better than the other one.’ And then I would start building the songs. But it was extremely process-based. I was reading this book by Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual. He was with this French literary group, OULIPO, that was doing all this crazy stuff — writing poems with infinite verses just by recombining the different rhymes. And I was so obsessed with those people. It was really interesting for me how, with five sounds, you can factor all the mathematical possibilities to have different songs. How can you manage to handle the infinity, how can you contain all the infinite possibilities in all these scenarios. And I was very exhaustive — I didn’t finish recording until I was sure that I ran through every single sample to see which were its pairs.”

Feta Beats: After releasing his first album, 2009’s sketch-like Stitches, the beat-digging producer lucked upon a goldmine in the form of a hard drive full of samples sent to him by Egon, the former general manager of the label Stones Throw and current head of Now-Again. But Melidis’ raw material comes from all over. “In Greece, lots of our parents were into Italian music,” he says. “Maybe it had something to do with the Mediterranean. That’s how I got into Lucio Battisti and all that. But when I’m on my own, I’m just looking in flea markets for cheap stuff and shitty, like, library records, old jazz records, and really bad New Age stuff. I have a sweet spot for the ECM of the ’80s where they got a little bit cheesy and were trying to merge some electronic sounds in there, and they got really bad, you know. But it’s amazing!” The end product, though, “is always so layered that it goes somewhere else in the end. On Years Not Living, the average track has more than 90 channels.”

The Fourth Dimension: Melidis gets most excited when talking about the otherworldly results of his alchemical experiments. “When I sample drum sounds from records, they tend to have some overtones that are in a certain key, and they mesh. Like most of the toms are tuned to a certain key, and when you combine them with other stuff, you start hearing different melodies. When I was younger, I was so influenced by Brian Eno’s Before and After Science and how it’s so extremely layered. Even in Another Green World, you can even listen to almost, like, deleted drum sounds in there. I was really into how, when you have so many different sounds, when you focus on one, everything else gets blurry. You know these really weird, like stereograms [austostereograms], where you’re looking at a still picture, and if you look closely, 3D figures emerge from it? When I was listening to Fennesz’ Venice, back in 2004, this was the feeling I had. Like, if I keep focused on a certain element, something different will emerge. What’s funny is, with these pictures, I could never see the 3D image. Never, man, never, even now. It’s an amazing episode of Seinfeld though.”

Student of the Drum: “Generally I admire the musicians and artists that are not cryptic about their influences and references and how they tend to work and their process,” says Melidis. “I’m crazy about the process.” And he’s remarkably candid about his own inspirations. “I am obsessed with Shackleton, his drum sounds and the way he lays down everything. I don’t think it translates in my album, but there are tracks where, with the drum arrangements and the way I was using bongos and congas and all these percussive sounds, I was trying to copy Shackleton. I was really, really trying to do his thing. Because he was saying in interviews how he hates snares, like the actual notion of the snare as keeping the groove, and how he admires [Can’s] Jaki Liebezeit as a drummer, where everything is not so balanced, in a way. I was really trying to do that. With Madlib, I can say that I really studied his technique. I have some beat tapes where I’m just trying to emulate his style. But with all the other stuff, it’s just bits and pieces, and mostly it’s about concepts.”

Where Nobody Knows Your Name: “I love Milan, it’s perfect,” says Melidis of his current home. “It’s the most grey-scale town in the world somehow. It’s so monochromatic with the industry here, and people don’t give a fuck about you — compared to Barcelona, where you get this sense of community. Here, it’s totally different. In fact, I like it a lot — maybe because I’m a bit antisocial? I like the fact that I’m on my own here. I’m living with my girlfriend, I work all day, I go out for a walk, and that’s that, and I’m cool with it. I could never be part of a scene, you know? I could never live in London. I can’t stand the competition and I can’t stand being around people who are so good the whole time. I would feel crushed. I would be like, ‘I suck, I can’t do anything.'”

Fleeing the Financial Wreckage: Despite the ecstatic qualities of his music, there’s also a darker undercurrent. The title Years Not Living hints at the human cost of the financial crisis that plagues his native country. “We’re fucked up as Greeks, man,” Melidis says. “Greeks are the worst at this point. We’re doomed for life. We are doomed. Things are so bad. I could never go back to Greece at this point. It’s so bleak. We’re living in a dictatorship as if it was South America in the ’70s. The press is censored every single day. They kill immigrants on the streets for no reason. The police have extremely close ties with the neo-Nazis. It’s like, literally, as if you’re waking up from a nightmare and the nightmare is life itself. And nothing is changing because Greeks are fuckers and nobody cares. They’re still corrupt, they still don’t give a shit.” For those who can flee, any grass is greener. “I have many friends,” Melidis says, who have gone to “the Netherlands, the U.K., the United States. I sometimes feel like I’m escaping pain, skipping the difficulties, and maybe I should have been there to fight for it. But it would wear me down after two weeks. I don’t have the guts for it. If you’re in Greece right now, you have to be like a fucking warrior, you know? If you look around you, it’s like it’s not real what is happening! It’s fucked-up, it’s fucked-up, it’s really fucked-up.”