"For people who have just discovered me via TNGHT, it's gonna be, 'The fuck is this?'"
Ross Birchard, the 29-year-old Scottish producer better known as Hudson Mohawke, is nearing the release of his second full-length solo album, Lantern (out June 16th on Warp.) It's an adventurous, at times impressionistic departure from the club bombast he's built his name on, and includes some real capital-S songs with vocalists like Antony and Miguel. And he's fully aware and candid about how the festival kids might take it. But when I spoke to him at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in New York, he was even more anxious about the debut of the Lantern live show in 24 hours at Irving Plaza — a full live band performance featuring Two Door Cinema Club drummer Ben Thompson and British musician Redinho on keyboard. It was a riskier, more labor-intensive way to debut his new material, but something he says it was important he take his time to get right.
And at this point, Birchard knows how to take his time — perhaps better than one would expect from a producer known for his straight-for-the-jugular bangers. It's been six years since his exhilaratingly playful debut album Butter, and he's been DJing since the age of 15. But the last three years have been a lurch into hyperspeed — getting the Kanye West stamp of approval will do that for you. Birchard, who is signed to West's G.O.O.D. Music as a producer, provided the signature horn-throttle of Yeezus' "Blood on the Leaves" as well as 2012 Song of the Year contender "Mercy," off the G.O.O.D. compilation Cruel Summer. But it was his collaboration with Canadian producer Lunice as TNGHT — the duo largely credited for the rise of the now-ubiquitous EDM Trap sound — that made him a festival tent staple.
Talking to Birchard, it's clear that sound is a blip in the big scheme of his goals as a producer, albeit a very enjoyable blip. Birchard refers to tracks — even some of his biggest, most recognizable hits — as "songs": "The 'Kettles' song," "The 'Chimes' song," "The 'Mercy' song." It's an endearing bit of linguistic downplay, but also speaks to the huge catalog of music in his head and his near-constant perspective checking about the realities of the music industry and his place within it. I spoke to Birchard about playing the long game, never-ending squabbles for credit, and how to, in his words, "make 10,000 people fucking go into a mosh pit or some shit like that."
I think it's safe to say that the majority of your audience in the states has found you via Kanye West. Do you feel like there's a big difference between how people have discovered you here versus in the UK, and thus what's expected of you?
Yeah, I guess — it's just the way of the world. If I'm booked to play somewhere in the UK or a European festival or something like that, even just DJing, people are aware. Whereas [when I play in the US], maybe I haven't really done the sort of groundwork out here to build a full profile. But that's what this show is about, and that's what having this new record is about, because I feel a lot of people came across me just via TNGHT, particularly in the US.
I can't remember who it was, but some reasonably high-profile magazine the other day was talking about me gearing up to release my first debut album. And I'm like, "My debut album came out like six years ago."
Yeah, and journalists and writers can still get very stuck on the idea of an album as being this legitimizing body of work. But you've been plenty busy since Butter — so what made you want to do another full-length album all these years later? And how is the approach different, compared to doing an EP or a one-off track?
There's something about EPs where you're less precious about it, because it's just "Get this out," or maybe [it's a way to release] some of these songs we banked for like a year or two. But as far as a full-length record, that's in your discovery feed forever; you don't want 10 years down the line to be like, "What the fuck did I do that for?"
Is it that much different? It all ends up on the same Spotify page or Soundcloud feed.
Of course, but as far as something setting together as one succinct project, I wanted this new record to just represent a full range of my tastes — rather than just make a record of club songs, which I'd be happy to do, but not necessarily on a full-length record.
Musically, what were you able to get into on this album that you'd been missing in the last few years?
I think just melody. This is also one of the reasons why we decided to release the Chimes record before this record. That's the reason why that song isn't included on this record — obviously I really like that as a club song, a fast and loose song — but it's not necessarily something that I'd like want to put on a full-length album.
So, it's getting more into what I see myself as — a more melodic, traditional producer — rather than like, "I'll make a load of club bangers and just fucking do it." It's not the last bit of [the club material], because I'm going to return to that; the TNGHT project will return to that. But as far as solo material, this project is something that I really wanted, specifically working with Antony, working with Miguel. It's a little bit more restrained, [compared to] the first record and the EPs.
I think the track on Lantern that defines that for me is "Kettles." That big, exaggerated horn sound is such a part of what you're known for now. And "Kettles" uses that sound, but in a much more lush, orchestral context.
I think it was just more sort of me experimenting as far as what I really want to hear, as opposed to what's going to make 10,000 people fucking go into a mosh pit or some shit like that.
Is that — the mosh pit thing — something you feel like you can target consciously at this point? Do you finish a track and think, "Oh man, people are going to freak out to this?" Or, "Apple's gonna totally put this in a commercial?"
I mean, ["Chimes"] was made quite a while ago. The final version wasn't made until last year, but the original version of it was made in 2013 or something like that, so it was, I guess, it was before there was this sort of "EDM trap" thing. That sound wasn't as prevalent then, and I just sort of made it ... it wasn't really meant to be anything.
It was just a sketch, sort of?
Yeah. But again, I guess it's sort of those types of songs that end up becoming ones that people [latch on to].
Do you find it more challenging to work on something where there's not one specific goal or context for the music?
Yeah, of course, it's more challenging for me. But having said that, I want it to be more challenging for me, because I can't fucking make another 10 "Chimes" songs. That's fun, and then what? I feel like if you're not really challenging yourself, what's the point of the whole thing? So that's another thing I was going for with this record — as you're saying, the "Kettles" song, it's the same palate of sounds, but it's not a club song or something like that.
So how did you kind of take that approach when you were working with vocalists? How did you go about making a sound that's specific to Jhene Aiko, Antony, and your other guests?
Well, a great deal of it is learning to not go over the top with the instrumentals in the first place. Because I've done a bunch [of tracks], I guess more so around the first record, where I wasn't yet in the situation of being able to go into the room with certain artists and play them music. So I was just sending stuff to the managers, and most of the feedback I was getting was "this is too complicated, there's no space for anyone to sing on this." So I think learning to have less going on and leaving space for vocals is something I've worked on learning over the last two or three years.
You're working with artists who have very distinctive voices, too. There's sort of a tendency in mainstream EDM tracks to just throw any old vocalist in there, knowing the voice will be processed anyway. But it seems like you made the choice to bring in people who really sound like distinctive human beings.
It was something that was a big consideration for me when picking the guests for the record because he was like, do you go for the big, huge A-list names? But potentially at the risk of the song coming out and basically [credited in the press as] their song, and not your song. So the people I picked to work with were people who I really admire and that I've been wanting to work with for a long time, but at the same time not people who would necessarily take away from the fact that it's my record, or collaborative song rather then it being like an A-list artist on my beat or something like that.
Sometimes I feel like it can get a bit muddy with production and credit, too. There are tracks where I see your name in credits along songs with 10 other people, and it's not always clear what specific elements were "yours."
It's a funny thing — I guess maybe this is something that is potentially my own fault for not putting my foot down more — but people will take credit for like, one word in a song or something like that, and other people will get an equivalent credit for doing like most of the song.
And it's difficult, specifically within the hip-hop realm of things, everybody wants their credit whether they did one word or whether they spent five weeks. Obviously there's a lot of ego involved within the hip-hop world, so are you going to argue for your credit on such-and-such? A lot of people don't know that I was involved in the "Mercy" song in the first place. But a lot of people are listed in the credits, so unless you specifically go in the credits, you're not going to know that. And I'm not the sort of person on Twitter like, "And I did this! And I did this!" I'm just like, well, if you go on my discog, you can find out [what I've done]. But I'm not going to be shouting about it.
Because I just don't really feel it's necessary! If people want to do the Googles, then... [Laughs]. But I don't want to — it's the same thing as not wanting to be the guy out in the street handing out demos and shit like that. It's just not me.
Is that kind of also the reason why you're taking a break from a sort of traditional DJ-booth, "I'm the boss" show setup?
Yeah, the last two shows, Chicago and the Movement Festival in Detroit, were DJ shows, and I still love doing that. But you know, as far as credits on major label stuff, I feel like it's more [about] sort of building yourself up the ladder. It's really more about cutting your teeth within that world to the point where your managers don't have to get into a chain of 10,000 emails about where you get credited. I don't fucking care about that. You prove it yourself with your work.
And as I said, I've only been involved in that sort of level of things for maybe two or three years. I think 2012 was the first major label thing I was involved in, and in that period there have been so many people who were tipped to be the next fucking massive thing, and just disappeared. So I'm just working my way toward it.
So you've completed this kind of solo vision quest with Lantern, but you've been involved with the new Kanye album, and you're continuing your work producing for other artists. Do you like the continual change of pace, or is there a way you prefer to work?
Previously, my preferred mode was working entirely alone, in like, the middle of the night. But now I really feel like I've flourished more in the collaborative environment, because I certainly have the tendency, if I'm working on my own, to sit and go overboard and just work forever and be like, "Oh, it's not good enough! It's not good enough!" Whereas, if you work with a bunch of people, it's much easier to [let things go].
"It might be fucking terrible. But it's something that I wanted to try."
I guess one of my first experiences like that was doing the TNGHT project because the whole thing came together so quickly — we were really like, "Okay, we just made three songs in three hours." And it was more about the atmosphere and the vibe of the working environment versus [stressing over] "how can I make this better?" And it's more of a hands-on thing as well, because one person is on the keyboard here, another person is working there. It's more organic because you have more "mistakes" that end up becoming part of the song that weren't planned for — you just kind of fuck around, and all of a sudden it becomes part of the song.
It's the same for the new live set that we've been working on, because we have all the individual parts of the song, and we can sort of deconstruct them and build them into something new. And everybody has their own input.
And do you think this is going to be kind of the show that you're going to be doing for a while now?
Well, I'm still doing the DJ shows at the same time, and I'm not going to stop doing the DJ shows because they're still so much fun, but in terms of challenging myself creatively, this is something that I wanted to move toward. It might be fucking terrible. But it's something that I wanted to try.