Let’s talk about Seattle’s USF for a second. Their new mini-album, SIMISM, is ecstatic and meditative in equal measure; there’s plenty to contemplate sonically even as the rhythms contained within summon the body to move. The duo of Jason Baxter and Kyle Hargus has been active for several years. SIMISM follows up their 2011 The Spray, which takes a cue from Jonathan Lethem. I’ve known Baxter for a few years now (his work on the comic Trip Fantastic is also highly recommended); I reached out to him and Hargus via email to discuss their new record, their literary influences, and more.
What was the process behind creating SIMISM? Did you find that it differed at all from working on your previous records?
Jason Baxter: We composed SIMISM in mostly the same fashion as all of our previous releases, using a kind “Postal Service” method wherein we email one another drafts of songs back and forth until we’ve sculpted them into a mutually-agreeable form. There are at least a couple of tracks on here, however, that were written more or less live in our practice space and, for the first time ever, we went into a studio to track instruments, mix, and generally mess around for every song on the album. Previously we’d done everything else on our laptops. I couldn’t believe what a difference using a soundboard and working with a professional engineer made.
Kyle Hargus: I’d say we let a lot less through the floodgates this time around, too, track by track. Not that we went “full Rubin” or anything, but where in the past we’d kind of let everything stick to the wall and songs became completely jam-packed with ideas and sounds, this time we strained a lot more to balance and manage various elements, in an attempt to really keep them lean and mean and let the melodies stand out without competing with each other.
How would you describe the mood of it, relative to The Spray or Universal?
Jason: Great question. Moodwise, The Spray was meant to cover a very specific spectrum based on what we both took away from the Jonathan Lethem short story of the same name. Overall, I think we were aiming for notes of ambivalence and resignation but we have a…tendency towards the ebullient even when we’re trying to bum out the listener. SIMISM was meant as a return to those comfortable, feel-good waters. We used the word “shameless” a lot when we were making it. We wanted it to radiate positivity.
Kyle: The Spray was definitely meant to be a pretty melancholy and insular affair, not that it doesn’t have its brighter moments. Universal served as more of a warm-up for SIMISM, namely in experimenting with new gear, and trying to push more complex and dominant drum programming into the foreground, while also dedicating a lot of time to sculpting non-traditional drum sounds.
I think the mood of SIMISM is intentionally coherent – it’s really meant to convey nocturnal movement, whether it be subterranean club hopping or a twilight drive through a brightly lit skyline. The six songs on this mini-album came from a larger batch of tracks we worked on over the same time period, and were chosen because they sounded most like moving through a city at night to us. The remaining tracks have a similarly cohesive feel, I think, but it’s a different vibe from SIMISM, so those will come out as a second mini-album and sort of companion piece to SIMISM later this year.
Jason, I know that you also write comics outside of the band; to what extent do your different creative works inform one another?
Jason: Generally, whatever I’m into at any given time will bleed into all of my creative efforts. I think it isn’t hard to draw a parallel between, for example, the blacklight sequence in issue one of my comic Trip Fantastic and the literally blacklight-lit album artwork for SIMISM. And I’m probably internalizing things from my years in USF (timing, pacing) that subconsciously inform my comics projects. After all, what is a beat drop if not the musical equivalent of a full-page splash?
In terms of the artwork: where did the black-light concept come from?
Jason: We wanted to suggest a kind of nocturnal vibe with the cover, and light it in this strange, garish way à la some of our aforementioned influences like Enter the Void. The “still life” composition was pretty spontaneously assembled based on a loose concept that I had, and when we saw the photos, I thought that we’d captured something very different than I’d originally imagined–but for me, the cover nonetheless feels faithful to the atmosphere and aesthetic we were initially trying to get across.
Kyle: The cover shoot was sort of cobbled together from elements that we thought vibed well with the music, limiting ourselves more or less to objects and lighting that were already in our possession. I originally wanted to try shooting a sort of posed scene along the lines of Jam City’s Classical Curves, that’s one of my favorite covers of the last few years, I find it really mysterious and beautiful. So we did our best to chase a similar feeling on a smaller scale, using black lights and a string of red Christmas lights and shooting in our basement practice space.
Have there been any other works of literature (or film, or comics) that you’ve been as directly inspired by as Lethem’s “The Spray”?
Kyle: I don’t think anything has influenced our work as overtly as “The Spray,” but we’re both big culture hounds so I’m sure we can point to a few things. We started working on these tracks in the fall of 2012, and at the time I was reading Simon Reynolds’s Generation Ecstasy and learning tons about how the late 80’s UK Rave scene got off the ground, plus getting really into tracking down some of the more obscure stuff he mentions that got left off the digital ark, tracks that don’t really exist on the Internet. Around the same time, I was also kicking off pretty deep obsessions with James Joyce and Prince. Both studio tinkerers of the highest order!
Jason: And despite its faults, the Gaspar Noe film Enter the Void–and in particular, its hypnotic vision of nighttime Shibuya–was a prevailing influence on me during this period. I longed to capture that strange, overlit vibe of nighttime in a dense, incredibly urban space.
For the second mini-album, how would you describe the feel of those relative to SIMISM? Was the intention always to have two mini-albums come out, or was the decision on organization more complex than that?
Kyle: We had originally planned on it being one album, but that our label brought up the possibility of splitting it into two releases, and we kind of jumped at the opportunity to go back into the bunch and strategically group the tracks.
Jason: The second batch of songs generally reflects our moodier, more atmospheric side, though there are some of the kind of jubilant dancefloor-ready moments that populate SIMISM occasionally as well.
At what point in your process do vocals (or the use of the voice as an element) become involved? The way they’re used in “Free ‘Til Midnight” is definitely coming to mind in particular.
Kyle: I had the skeleton of “Free ‘Til Midnight” sitting on my computer as a sketch for a while before actually playing it for Jason, and it was just a simple percussive rhythm with vocal samples and the main melody beneath it. At that point the rest of the record was done and we were looking to add one more track to SIMISM, since the run time for the second release was looking a bit longer. The original sketch was way heavier on the vocal samples, and they varied more as the song progressed. But Jason brought some really heavy and space-filling breakbeats in and we pruned back the vocal samples as a result, sort of letting the remaining bits repeat hypnotically and anchor the melody while the rest of the song’s elements are constantly changing. The synonyms cut out as samples were kept intentionally short and often I tried shaving off the first phonemes of whatever vocal phrase I was using to keep them as unintelligible as possible.
Jason: It depends. With “Outtamind,” that was a song we wrote with the intent of having Fatha Green sing over it, and we were incredibly fortunate when he agreed to step into the vocal booth. For “Free ‘Til Midnight,” the vocals were fundamental to the songwriting. If I’m not mistaken, those elements were composed before the bulk of the percussion was even devised. For many of the songs on this record, we actually worked backwards from the hooks.