From being a long-time mainstay of the Detroit scene to, at last, debuting a proper solo LP with Hexagon Cloud, the one word that can sum up Erika for me is, simply, “inspiring.”
And if Hexagon Cloud’s perfectly-calibrated analog sounds and imaginative musical frequencies indulge our futuristic sonic fantasies, here we get the chance to talk to Erika a bit about what lies beyond musical parameters, too. That ranges from Detroit (past the fetishization of ruined buildings, please) to the liberation of early-90s BBSing to the appeal of outer space.
You can listen to Erika’s work and revisit some reflections on the record in our previous coverage:
We Travel The Space Ways: Hear Erika’s Stellar, Synth-y, Space-y Solo Debut [Listen, Video]
Or bliss out to the music video for “North Hex,” combining Erika’s hand drawings with Rutt-Etra generative analog video:
But let’s also get to know the artist a bit better.
CDM: I love the sense of timbre; it seems almost classically-influenced at times. Can you describe how you went about conceiving sound on the record, getting that balance?
Erika: I like to focus on each individual sound, making adjustments throughout the process, from the quality of the tone to the position of the notes, always trying to make space for each part, each melody. These tracks were built by creating one synthetic tone or texture, and adding another, and another…
There is a feeling of real, effective restraint and minimalism. Was it an effort to pull back in that way; did you have to resist adding more? Working with hardware seems a part of that, but hardware still offers plenty of choice.
Much as I love minimalism and minimal music, restraint is very much an effort for me… I have a hard time knowing when to stop. Composing with hardware definitely forces me to make choices in the studio, and when I’m working on pieces for my live show, even more so, as I’m limited to the machines I can pack into my road cases — but I always seem to want to add another part. For Hexagon Cloud, I worked with BMG as a producer; he was a great help with bringing restraint into the process, peeling back the tracks to their parts and bringing each part out in the mix.
It’s hard to say why we associate certain sounds with space, even in 2013, but to me this is a wonderful, trippy reverie in outer space. (A cliche, but I’m enjoying going there!) Is that an image for you when you’re working? What do you do to keep things free and fanciful in this way, too, rather than overly mechanistic?
Hehe, well yes, I DO love space. It’s a great fantasy, I mean I get that the immediacy of it is quite dark and cold and quiet and it takes absolutely forever to get anywhere. But I like to think about the far future (or far past?) – faster-than-light travel, communication across dimensions, the rise and fall of civilizations extinct for millennia, artificial intelligences built on slow time, the life stories of nebulae … the truths of the universe we can’t access yet, and that I can only experience in my weirder, more epic dreams. I enjoy adventure and discovery, and not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next, and I try to bring that feeling into the tracks.
Tell us a bit about your rig. What hardware did you use in production here? You talked about emphasizing outboard hardware over software; are you just doing tracking and mixing to the computers and using hardware sources?
Pretty much. I use a hardware sequencer as the brain of my studio. It’s an incredibly engaging machine, very fast to work with, very expressive, very deep and complex in function. I have a handful of synthesizers and drum machines that it controls – mostly triggers and note values, but also certain parts of the synthesis, when working with a modern machine with full MIDI control. I enjoy knobs and switches quite a bit more than a mouse and laptop screen, so I do indeed save the computer for the end, when it’s time to record/mix/produce. I don’t have any sort of anti-computer stance, I just tend to use them for so many analytical and business tasks, that I don’t really feel like fixating on a screen anymore when it comes time to make music… I’d much rather step away, change my focus.
What’s your live rig like; when you play live sets are you using some subset of this studio rig?
The main difference is that I can’t carry around giant old fragile synths with me, so I have a set of smaller pieces that I use for the live show. I might write a track in my studio on vintage gear, and have to translate it to new analog boxes from Moog and Waldorf and the like for live setting. But still, the master controller of the live PA is the sequencer – I use it to build and sequence the tracks in real time, not really sure what I would do without it.
What does it mean for you to go solo on this album? We know you largely from collaborations – I imagine those remain important to your work, but why strike out on your own now? What are you plans as a solo artist going forward?
I guess the main difference is that rather than sharing space with other people, reacting to and integrating with things that are happening outside of my control, I’m sitting in my studio at home, working it out in solitary. It’s a whole other mindset; I go somewhere completely different when working alone, it flows in another way. I like sharing energy and ideas with other people, but I also really enjoy creating pieces myself. I’ve got more music to come; right now we are in the midst of recording new pieces for upcoming EPs on Interdimensional Transmissions, and I’ll be touring my live PA later this year.
You’ve of course been a long-standing part of the Detroit scene. I know you grew up in New York. What caused you to make your way to Detroit? Where are you living now in the city?
I’m living downtown Detroit, and wouldn’t really have it any other way. I wound up in Michigan because I went to school in Ann Arbor, and I stayed more or less because I love music, and rapidly became entrenched. It was in the filthy, amazing basement of WCBN that I met the people who introduced me to music in Detroit, including BMG, who also brought me into Ectomorph and has been my label and music partner for many years.
It seems that views about the city from afar are often extreme, or caricatures – you have some people who see the bankruptcy and just imagine it as a wasteland, others who idolize it as some sort of frontier. What would you want people to see of the city you’re in, and the musical scene that’s there?
I am SO so epically over the ruin porn photography, the way the city is portrayed to the rest of the world, as this sort of sad, dilapidated collection of victims interspersed with pioneering frontiersmen.
Of course, Detroit has a ton of really ugly truths about it. It embodies so many consequences of capitalism gone wild; it’s been systematically fucked over, and over, and over again, from the inside and out. And yet it has a truly amazing resident population – there are more talented artists and musicians and thinkers here than you can possibly imagine, and the city’s intense level of dysfunctionality really forces people to figure out how to make things work, at the ground level, and within their communities. Musically, Detroit is incredibly diverse, and unlike many other cities whose scenes are hip and siloed, people participate in and consume multiple scenes and styles…
Having myself started in the BBS scene (I was a kid just hanging out nerding out online with people in Louisville), I’m struck that you were a sysop back in the day. [Sysop: the people running their own BBS server on a dialup line or two, typically in their home.] What was that early community like for you, and is there any connection in what you’re doing now? (And… which software? Wildcat?)
That scene was a full-fledged alternate universe for me, and was incredibly influential on the rest of my life. I was a lonely 10- or 11-year-old kid when I started dialing boards, and suddenly got to interact with people in a whole new way, typing rather than talking. Chatting with sysops, writing on message boards, playing multiplayer games, sharing warez.
Being a girl — and a young girl at that — was a huge anomaly. I think maybe I met one other girl on a board once. (And she was somebody’s girlfriend/) I got accustomed to being the only female in a male-dominated field. I learned about staying up all night (had to wait for the parents to go to bed to start dialing boards again!), about taking computers apart and putting them back together (time to add 40 more megs to my board’s capacity!), about all sorts of things that don’t even really matter anymore, but heavily influenced my existence, like FidoNet and ANSI art and text porn and hex editing and Turbo Pascal and mod trackers and ray tracing.
My board had many iterations… I think I did run Wildcat (for the doors!), but for sure Telegard and Searchlight and Renegade and eventually my co-sysop wrote some custom software. What’s funny about Telegard is that it was my first relationship with 313 [Detroit’s area code], well before I found techno. It was written by a dude in Grosse Pointe (the first suburb east of Detroit) – I had to dial long distance to download it.
I thoroughly enjoyed your interview for localsuicide, and I definitely hear the need to get away from the computer – and sometimes, even, to get away from music during production to get some perspective. Since we so often ask only about music, what do you like to do to get away from the machine and the current track?
When I can’t hear anything anymore I turn to some combination of food, Star Trek, and bike rides. Detroit really is quite a good place for biking: it’s flat and there’s a lot of good, cheap food to bike to!
Now I live in Detroit with my drum machines and synthesizers. In my house you can find an 8×10 glossy of Nikola Tesla overlooking the DJ setup and my refrigerator is usually full with cold air. I enjoy playing video games and looking at pictures of cats on the internet a lot. I can spend hours turning knobs. One of my favorite places to visit is space, because it’s where I’m from!
On weekdays I sit in front of a computer and on weekends I usually get the fuck away from it.
Find Erika’s release at the label site: