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Photay on Being Terrified by ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ and How to Mess with Song Form

Welcome back to Soundfly’s new interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft.

On his latest release, Onism, Photay’s Evan Shornstein combines his study of West African percussion with a heavy grounding in ’80s and ’90s beat-driven electronic music. And in the process, he diverges from popular, tried-and-true song form through a series of irreverent arrangements, arresting textures, and a radical withholding of the conventions of the “drop” and “release” that the uninitiated might expect from contemporary dance-inflected music.

Shornstein’s charge is, as he says, “to explore unfamiliar musical realms,” and he manages to do so with respect and reverence for the myriad traditions he’s moving through, resulting in music that’s both “incorrect” and deeply informed.

Photay’s Onism is out now via Astro Nautico.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Jeremy Young

What is Onism to you?

To me, Onism is the shocking reality that as one human, we will not see and experience everything. We are limited to one body and one reality. This is met with both frustration and peace.

How did you want this philosophy to transmit through the music on this release?

Over the past two years, I wrote the LP with heavy feelings of wanderlust and a shifting perception of where I wanted my home base to be. I expressed these feelings by way of exploration in contrasting timbres, rhythms, genres, and moods. Musically speaking, I think one can hypothetically combat Onism with music’s power to transport one to different places, mind states, and experiences that physically exist far, far away. I wanted the album to be a meditation on this feeling of Onism, both acceptance and rebellion against the current reality.

“I remember my music teacher in second grade playing our class ‘Flight of the Bumblebee,’ and it scared me to death! I had these strong visions of being chased by a silhouetted figure through stairwells. I love that piece now…. It no longer scares me!”

So, okay, how did this album come together technically? What gear are you using predominantly here?

I used Ableton to sequence and arrange this record as I have with my past records. However, I recorded with more hardware and analog gear than ever before. This includes the Korg MS-20, Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 sampler, Zoom H2N, Korg’s Minilogue analog synthesizer, and an Electro-Harmonix Cathedral Stereo Reverb.

In the box, I predominately used convolution reverbs via Max For Live, Ableton’s stock synths, and a Diva VST synth.

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Why does the polyrhythmic groove of African music speak to you in particular?

The polyrhythms in African music are constantly challenging the Western rhythmic orientation I grew up with. Despite my parents playing international music in our house growing up, I think I still have a deep Western rhythmic orientation by nature. This gives me never-ending excitement when challenged by another culture’s rhythmic emphasis. I’ve spent the most time with the 3:2 polyrhythm while studying and playing West African percussion.

Is it difficult to coax that sunny, rhythmic feeling of African-influenced music out of the cold, digital environment of working with drum machines and synthesizers?

Sometimes!

There are days or months when I’m looking at a synthesizer and only experiencing the knobs, the faders, the parameters. I’m just focused on the specifications and the technicalities of the sound. Then there are other days where I’m strictly focused on the sounds emanating from the gear and the way these sounds make me feel. I suddenly couldn’t care less what the source of the sound is.

“…It’s hugely beneficial to be as open as humanly possible to whatever opportunities, people, or music come your way. You never know how great things will manifest, and the music world is unpredictable and forever in flux.”

This music has kind of a retro feel to me, and, in fact, I hear a lot of, like, mid-’90s sounding electronic music in it — Mr. Scruff comes to mind, as well as the obvious ’70s disco-era sound world. What are your influences, and was sounding like this music is coming from another era intentional at all?

Absolutely! I grew up on a lot of ’80s- and ’90s-era electronic music. Artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre, DJ Shadow, Meat Beat Manifesto, and Orbital were my heroes in late elementary school. In high school, I was into late-’70s and ’80s hip-hop as well as the disco/funk breaks being sampled. I’ve also been DJing a ton of disco and house music in the past four years.

I’m always trying to insert this influence in my music. As of recent, Harvey Sutherland has been a huge influence for me in this realm.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Any sound can fit into a piece of music. Learn how to sample the sounds of the world in your DAW with Making Music From Everyday Items, a free course instructed by YouTube star and beat-maker Andrew Huang. 

Photo by Jack Tumen.

What do you do that you consider to be wholly your own thing?

Hmmm. I suppose the balance of being both experimental and accessible. I mean, by no way am I the first one to do such a thing, but I’m striving to find unique takes on it — to bring different worlds together, whether sonically or culturally, and both challenge and comfort listeners.

What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

Well, my entire first EP was clipping! Fader levels well in the red. If you were to analyze those mixes by academic standards, they’d be wildly “incorrect.” But secondly, I am also a sucker for song-form diversions. I often write music with “incorrect” song structure. I think back to the song “Monday” off my last EP. It embodies a lot of characteristics found in pop music but I think the song structure is pretty “incorrect” by radio-edit standards.

On the Onism LP, quite a few pieces divert from classic club music formats mid-way through the song — the beat drops out too long, there are too many layers of sound, a challenging rhythmic change occurs, etc. A certain type of DJ might consider this “incorrect.”

“Incorrect music” is a great term.

Growing up, what kinds of musical experiences shaped you as a listener?

As mentioned earlier, my parents raised me on a diverse mix of international music like Gregorian chanting, African percussion, Celtic folk, Mongolian throat singing, and Balinese gamelan. I attended a unique school in Woodstock where I was able to participate in an African drum residency as early as age 7. Around age 9, I was part of a modern dance company led by a teacher who choreographed pieces to composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

During this time, I had a teacher in grade school who was also a DJ and spotted my growing interest in turntablism. He encouraged my parents to buy me two turntables and a mixer for my tenth birthday. Moving forward, I spent all my free time in high school playing drums in punk bands, reggae bands, indie rock bands, etc. I was simultaneously experimenting with computer software and DAWs on the side.

A quick anecdote, I remember my music teacher in second grade playing our class “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and it scared me to death! I had these strong visions of being chased by a silhouetted figure through stairwells. I love that piece now.… It no longer scares me!

And how did these early musical experiences help lead you to where you are now?

The early exposure to musical diversity and traditions really instilled within me a deep appreciation for musical exploration. My experiences growing up continually propel me to explore unfamiliar musical realms.

How did you end up working with Astro Nautico?

I started attending their monthly parties at Brooklyn’s Free Candy while I was in college. I ended up connecting with one of the three founders, Bennett Kuhn, while at their parties. We had a really friendly exchange, and I gave him a silly Photay card I had made at the time.

Bennett took the time to go back and listen to the music I had self-released online. Shortly after, Sam Obey, another member of Astro, reached out via the internet about releasing my music on vinyl, and things quickly escalated into a meaningful creative, working and personal friendship. I couldn’t feel more grateful to work with such thoughtful, patient, and intelligent lads!

What would be your advice for emerging artists looking forward in their careers?

Based off my own experiences, I think one of my big priorities is to build personal connections with other people. No matter what the end goal may be, it’s important to treat people as people and not just stepping stones for one’s career.

I also think it’s hugely beneficial to be as open as humanly possible to whatever opportunities, people or music come your way. You never know how great things will manifest, and the music world is unpredictable and forever in flux.

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a music business guru and loves giving advice to young, emerging bands on how to make their tours more effective. He also plays guitar, publishes audiobooks, runs a record label, and is an artist working in sound media. He has performed and released material throughout Europe, Asia, the US, UK and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.

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