Slightly Backstage at Sónar with Octo Octa

Christopher Mann

Octo Octa

All photos by Bianca de Vilar

The house music of Michael Bouldry-Morrison aka Octo Octa has always played off a particular sense of division. On one hand his bright synths, dreamy vocals, and woozy party vibes have also hidden a core of darker emotion and doubt. In the political world of the music business, he and his 100% Silk label mates have also struggled for acceptance despite being lauded at times for breathing fresh air and style into house music.

But the infectiousness and sincerity of Octo Octa’s sound and his success last year with his debut album Between Two Selves on 100% Silk have allowed him to transcend the obstacles and ascend to the big stage at Sónar, Europe’s premiere electronic music festival. Impose caught up with him before his show to talk about the dualities of work and creativity, small shows and big festivals, authenticity, and the past and future.

Impose wanted us to follow you around backstage at Sónar and see what you were up to, but as that’s not possible maybe you can give us a virtual back stage pass and tell us what it would have been like?

You would have seen me drinking a beer over here, another beer over there [laughs].

Have you been on tour or you just came for Sónar and head back again?

I was going to do more shows, but my job wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t take more time off as I only just started it. I was asking for a week off and they wouldn’t respond to me and then I asked for three days off and right away they said “of course” so I’m just here for this.

I guess it’s a lot tougher now to make music with a full time job?

Absolutely, because I just did music full time before that.

That’s why you are quite prolific then?

Yeah right. I used to write a lot and as soon as I started working, and I’ve only been working two months, I haven’t written anything [laughs]! It’s not even like a particularly strenuous job. Thankfully I finished a whole bunch of stuff before starting the job. I have two more records coming out this year and will have something on a compilation, so that will be enough stuff throughout the year so that people will think “hey that guy didn’t go away, he’s still doing stuff.”

What sort of gigs have you been playing then, a lot of festivals?

No! This is only the third festival I played. I did a festival in Madrid two years ago and then I did some weird Jägermeister festival in the Hague. It was very bizarre.

Why was it weird was it a squat party or something?

Well the guys before me were like a four man DJ team, but they only played one song at a time. It’s not like they were all technically working on something with CDJs and doing loops together. One guy would play a song and then another guy would come over and play a song. Three guys smoking cigarettes while one guy played! And then after me was Benji B who does hip hop and bass type stuff. I do some kinds of bass stuff, but it was just a weird place to play. It was just two small stages and a one night big thing where they had tons of people playing.

Normally you are doing both live shows and DJing right?

Actually I will be playing live today. I don’t know why they said DJ on the program. But I just started DJing about a year and a half ago. I’ve bought records for years and years and years, but I’m a pretty broke guy and although I like playing records I finally got two turntables a few years ago. CDJs are fine, but I like the tactile nature of playing records and flipping through records. On CDJs I can’t even put the USB in. I hate scrolling through a USB and opening folders. I still have to play off CDs and look at my little note card and see what all the tunes are on it.

Are you playing your own tracks when you DJ?

Yes, well no [laughs]. I don’t always and my wife gets really mad at me. I DJed two weeks ago for a Red Bull thing in New York. They did some festival for a month and I played the closing party there and she said “You need to play some of your records this time.” I played one of the tunes from my last 100% Silk record and the place filled up and then I played some more vocal house stuff again and the crowd dwindled down. Afterwards she said “See, you need to play more of your records! You’ll keep people there longer.”

How do you plan your live sets? Do you play new stuff mostly?

I try to play at least one thing from each release. From my first record I still play at least three out of the four tracks.

From the cassette release Rough, Rugged, And Raw [100% Silk, 2011]?

Actually I don’t play much off the cassette release anymore just because I wrote most of those tunes on the fly out of small loops and then added percussion. I didn’t save a lot of the files so I don’t have a lot of the loops because I just wrote it for the album and said “I’m good with this session” and then just deleted it.

I read you were starting your tracks off from loops, but I always imagined you were building up from the vocal samples as there is always a predominance of vocal sounds in your tracks.

Actually on a lot of the stuff I have written recently I have been moving slightly away from vocals, mostly because the a cappella tracks, they were like packs that I was working from, I already mined it of stuff that I liked. Actually on the album Between Two Selves my wife sang on a bunch of tracks. She’s great, but she works so much. I’ll be working on a song and tell her “I need you to sing on this” and she will say “Ok, we’ll do it tomorrow”. Then she’ll get home and be so tired and say “I can’t do this right now.” That’s ok.

You also did an album and a tour with Amanda Brown from LA Vampires on vocals?

That was a couple of years ago at the end of 2011.

You did the album Freedom 2K together and then went down the west coast together to Mexico right?

Oh that was recently, that was with my friend Damon Palermo who is Magic Touch. We did two shows in San Francisco, two shows in LA, Tijuana, San Diego [laughs]. San Diego was weird. I had a friend who lives there and he asked me “Where are you playing again?” I told him the name of the place and he said “I don’t even know where that is.” He looked it up and said it was in this weird part of town.

Like in a strip bar or something?

No, it was a super small bar, but they had a great sound system. It was in a new place, but not in some popular part of the city. It was a weird show, but still a lot of fun because the sound was so good.

Do you get much of a chance to do long sets?

It depends on the night. It also depends on the sound system because I do everything out of computers with Ableton. I don’t have any training in music stuff, it’s all self-taught. I’ve been on Ableton for like nine years or something, so the way I compress stuff doesn’t really come through on some sound systems. I’ll play on a sound system and if it doesn’t really have a sub, half my frequencies drop out and everything sounds really thin. So if I’m playing a set on shitty sound system, sometimes you feel like “of my god, it has only been 40 minute. Alright, we’ll do just a couple more things…” But if it’s a great sound system and you can really drive, then I can play for quite a while. For live sets I have a flow of stuff that I know is gonna kind of work together, stuff that’s similar, so I’m not jumping all over the place from a low key thing to something that’s way dancey, or a low key thing to some techno. For a while I did a lot of ups and downs in sets, and it worked. Maybe I was just naïve or not being exposed to a lot of club culture as I was in a noise art scene where you could just do anything? Now very much when I play I want to try and keep everything driving and have a consistent flow to everything that’s coming out.

What other vocalists would you like to work with if you could?

I don’t know…. When I did stuff with Amanda on that mini album we did together, I sent her five songs and thought she would pick two or something like that. She ended up choosing all of them. But that’s all I did. I wrote all the backing tracks and sent it and then she did the vocals and my friend Nick [Nicholas Crozier Malkin from LA Vampires and Afterhours] who did keyboards with them for a while just added some keyboards on top of it. I didn’t actually hear the final stuff until we went on tour together. I met them for the first time then too! So I met them and then I heard the songs I wrote for the first time. I was like “That’s nice, I’m glad it came out well.”

Talking about 100% Silk then, you just had a new single on Argot as well as a track on Permanent Vacation [on the compilation If This Is House I Want My Money Back Volume 3”]. Does that mean you are not going to be putting out stuff on Silk anymore?

I did electronic music for years and years and years. They took a chance in putting out my first record and they really fostered me. They said “We love this stuff, just keep sending us things.” They were really open for me to do stuff with them and now they are really good friends so I want to keep working with them. But also I made so much stuff that I want to send it out to other places. I mostly worked with them for a long time because nobody else was really asking for anything. I like them a lot so why would I not keep working with them?

What about remixes, are you doing more of that now that you have had success with the album?

I did some, but I don’t particularly like doing remixes. I don’t think I’m that good at doing them. I have had a handful of requests and now I just pick and choose every once in a while. I really have to like the track. I did one remix for someone when I didn’t really like the song, but I needed the money really bad at the time. I don’t think I would do that again. There’s no reason not to be more selective. Everything you put out is attached to your name and you want to have a strong…

Image, so to speak?

Yeah, I guess so. I put out a lot of stuff, but I want it all to be quality. There’s no reason to half-ass something and put it out just to have something come out.

Tell us more about the releases coming up.

I have two more EPs coming out, one on Skylax, I’m not sure when, and I’m doing one for Running Back that should be out at the end of summer.

You also just had a track on the recent Permanent Vacation compilation.

I once sent them stuff, but they weren’t that interested in what I sent them, but now they want to do some stuff! I write a lot, so I would send big demo packs of stuff to labels, like eight things that I really liked. Some labels would say they liked one track, but that they weren’t really into the rest. Inevitably, a month would go by and I would listen to it again and say “You know what, I don’t really like these other tracks either.” In the moment it’s always like “This is the jam, I fucking love this, this is great” and a week later you realize you were drunk and delusional at the time which is why you thought it was so good! You need to have a gap between stuff. I really like the first record I did a lot, which is why I play a lot of the songs off it still, just because they worked really well and they still resonate with me when I play them out.

Did you always make just house music?

It’s funny, because I used to do IDM and breakcore for a bunch of years. I didn’t release anything because I was just goofing around. I’m from New Hampshire which is a small state four hours north of New York. I was in this really small noise art scene. I was still the kind of the odd one out as I would do more dancey, beat type stuff. Nobody had labels or anything like that. At that time I didn’t really like house music that much. I love dancing, but it took me a long time to fully understand innately and to have that sense of pattern recognition and to feel and understand a four-four groove. Now it’s like my favorite thing ever. All I listen to now are house and disco. So much stuff has been written on such a simple drum pattern, but it must be a very innate human thing to feel that simple pattern.

So are you going out a lot more specifically to clubs to look for inspiration?

Dancing is my favorite thing ever.

Are you going out every weekend then?

No! When I’m at home, because my wife works so much, I don’t see her so much so I want to spend time with her. Every once in a while on a Friday night I’ll go out by myself or something. Definitely when I play a set, I’m not the kind of guy who will just come and play then leave. I get there right from the start and I leave when the promoter leaves. I stay there the whole night.

Do you get much chance to meet the public as well?

Sometimes. I play super small clubs, so anyone who wants to come up and talk afterwards if I’m outside smoking a butt or something are welcome. I’ll gladly talk to whoever. I’m sure I talk too much to some people as they’re always looking at their watch and telling me they have to go back inside [laughs]!

What sort of venues are you playing in Brooklyn? It seems quite different from Europe with all night clubs and after hours places.

Absolutely. Everything technically closes at four a.m., but the US scene is finally picking up to where people will go out to dance, and just to dance, and not to go and see the one DJ they want to see and go home. But 1:30 is always peak and then around 2:30 a whole lot of people will drop off if it’s a loft party, and as long as there is not a noise complaint. New York has been hard for people trying to do loft stuff or do illegal spaces because it just gets shut down really quickly.

There’s a lot of good, legitimate clubs around, like Bossa Nova Civic Club [in Bushwick] is a really great, small space with a great sound system. Output [in Brooklyn] of course is the new big venue with a Funktion One and it’s one of the only big rooms. I understand there’s like Sankeys and all this Manhattan stuff that I don’t know as much about. I live in Brooklyn and the borough where you live is kind of the borough you stay in. I never go to the bars in Manhattan because the drinks are like two bucks more each! Besides, Brooklyn is more fun. That’s where most youth culture is with the artier kids. Bossa Nova Civic Club is a very solid space, although it’s more like a techno room. I’ll come in and play some disco or vocal house stuff and it won’t always go over! I’ve played there sometimes and it’s been great although if I lose people I’ll switch over to some jacking Chicago house and people will come back and you think “Of course! The true believers of Bushwick, this is what they want right now they want hard acid tunes!” [laughs]

You’ve always been Octo Octa and playing house, but you never wanted to go back and make more IDM or get a new name and make techno?

I’ve been writing recently some stuff that I think is techno. It’s so weird, because I’ll hear the sounds of a classic house track and think “I want to make that.” Whatever I have released is me trying to do that. But now I’ve been working on some more dubby techno things, but it still sounds like me.

With vocals?

No, I did some without vocals because they didn’t feel like they needed it. There was definitely a time on the earlier stuff I did when a vocal really felt like it needed to be in there for me to personally start feeling the song.

The synths you use also sound like vocals sometimes, they have a really rounded edge to them and come out of the speakers like they are singing with the real vocal samples.

Yeah, it’s funny you say that. I write everything in Ableton using Simpler using single wave forms and building synths out of multiple channels.

So you don’t use real synths in the studio?

Everything I put out is all computer. The first time I went to Europe and people were booking me to do live sets they would ask my manager “What is his gear setup?” and she would say “Well he uses a computer and a controller” and they would say “No. It's OK. If he doesn’t have the gear…” Like I wasn’t a proper musician or something.

Did you ever get the same attitude because you were on 100% Silk and people thought you weren’t a proper electronic musician?

Oh yes! Absolutely! 100 percent. Not as much now as a couple of years ago. 100% Silk was born out of Not Not Fun which was not a dance thing ever. When I was really into noise I liked them and when I started doing IDM, I wanted to send them stuff, but I knew it wasn’t really their thing. And then they started 100% Silk and after only two releases I knew I would love to be doing something with them. But towards us there was very much an attitude of “you guys are not true house music.” Electronic music is all I ever listened to since I found out it existed. When I first heard something from some dumb commercial techno thing like DJ AM or whatever I said to myself “What is this? This is the greatest thing ever!” and then I just went deeper and deeper and deeper. So it always bothered me [to be judged as inauthentic]. Friends of mine also release on the label and they’ve been interested in electronic music for years. We are not all people who decided it was cool to be doing this right now. This is my life.

It seemed that 100% Silk got a lot of focus at the beginning, but then a lot of dance people turned their back on them a little bit and missed a lot of good stuff, especially last year.

Yeah, it’s so weird. The new Argot release I have is the first release of mine to come out in Hard Wax [electronic record store in Berlin]. Hard Wax for me is like where all the legitimate guys get their stuff put out [laughs]. Every time I go to LA to visit Amanda and Britt who run 100% Silk, they always give me a whole bunch of their new releases and so many of them are so good. I don’t know why people are not interested in these tracks? But they are also maybe too aggressive with releasing stuff, putting out too much and it is too much for some people. There’s too much to be buy-on-sight.

So you didn’t start out on guitars and bands, you went straight into electronic music?

No, I went straight into electronic music. I was 15 or something like that and in New Hampshire punk and hardcore was very much the thing and I never liked that music, ever. But they were the shows I would go to because it was the only live music or shitty boys doing funk music which is like the worst music ever. I would go and see my friends playing in punk bands. I have one friend who still does a whole bunch of hardcore stuff. Two of my friends played a show in his tiny garage and they had a microKORG, a computer and an Electribe or something. I listened to it and I said to them “This is great, I didn’t know you guys were doing this. Can I play with you?” The next day I went on eBay and bought and Electribe as well and went straight to their house and started doing stuff and that’s how I started music. Since then, that’s always been it for me. In college I had one dance band with a friend that’s because we had a couple of synthesizers and I had Ableton and so we did short, three or four minute poppy dance tracks that was very much like college party music, but it was still beat driven and synthesizer driven.

People dancing in the lounge room?

Oh yeah. We were in a big university with a small group of friends and have these obnoxiously large house parties and we used to play at every single party and everybody knew all the words to the songs and so everyone would be dancing and singing along and chanting and I would get lifted up in the living room and I would be on the ceiling with a microphone singing. It was fun, but very much being 19 years old and doing that kind of stuff. I don’t know if I could do it now.

What about doing more collaborations?

I would love to. I have tried a whole bunch of collaborations with people over internet, but it just never works out. I definitely need to be with someone in the studio.

What about when you were at Red Bull Music Academy did you collaborate with anyone there?

I did, but I just partied way more than I played [laughs]! I was working on a lot of stuff, but one thing that bothered me while I was there was that they said there would be a whole bunch of gear for us to work with and because I don’t have access to good gear I thought that this would be great. They spent a whole bunch of money on a big modular system, but it was a little above my head because I’ve never worked with something like that before. So I’d try patching and I understand how to do sound design, but it was a little too much. I just wanted to have a 909 to play with. Mostly it was people working on computer and I have Ableton at home, so I could do that at home anyway. I really only wrote one song there that was an 11 minute house jam with five other people, super late at night and of course everyone was drunk in the studio. There was something we had set up about the speakers so that they were bottoming out in just the right way where the bass sounded super thick and we were all really excited and did a live jam. It was great. When we listened to it the next day on the sound system in the interview place the sound system was different and all the bass was gone and it sounded so thin. They didn’t put it on the compilation and I can totally understand as it sounded like a thin piece of garbage and nothing like it did the night before.

You couldn’t mix it again?

No, it was the night before the last day, so it was like, let’s do it and do it right now! We had been working on stuff and nothing really worked out. We did a lot of jamming that I didn’t save. So all of Red Bull was meeting people and hanging out. I went to every show every night to see everyone play. Some people would be like, “I’m going to stay tonight and just work in the studio” and I’m sure it was great, but for me I just wanted to go and hangout. Growing up, I was the only person into electronic stuff. I was a huge drum n bass kid, I used to listen to jungle and breakcore all throughout high school. It was me and one other friend. Nobody else wanted to listen to that stuff. So being at Red Bull was being in a place where there was a common language of electronic music to talk about which was the most satisfying thing.

From a simplified outside perspective it sounds like you grew up in more of a classic American rock landscape. But what about now with EDM, do you thing this has brought a change where people can now talk about electronic music?

The thing about EDM is it is very much a commercial thing. I really appreciate that it is happening, but I don’t like most of it. I hear a lot of it and there are really just too many high frequencies and cut ins of squelches and it’s too much.

But seeing people who wouldn’t normally go and listen to dance music being out and excited for something really makes me happy because I think that they are going to go back to their town or city and they are going to see that some other kind of dance night is happening and say to themselves “I just went to the Electric Daisy Carnival and had a really good time there and I don’t really know these guys but it’s going to be dance music so I’m going to go and check it out”. I mean we are from the US and we did a lot of stuff, Detroit, Chicago. Last time I was in Europe I went record shopping and everything I was really interested in was all the US releases, new releases. It just seemed that people were finally getting back to it and embracing our heritage essentially.

I don’t like most of it either, but the thing with EDM is it potentially opens people to listening to new and quite weird music in a way because of the sounds being used.Absolutely. There was too much dominance of rock music for years and years and years. Small towns are always about rock music and punk bands and so EDM gives younger kids in smaller towns access to electronic music in a much easier way.

You can do it like yourself with only a computer, so once you have the exposure…

Absolutely. Just go and grab FruityLoops kids and start doing it. I’m not big into the beat scene stuff, but I keep seeing all these 17 year old kids doing this beat scene kind of music and I’m really excited to see what they are going to be doing in five or ten years down the line if they keep with it. They pick it up so quickly and they make all these interesting decisions and the choice of sounds they use. I don’t really like it, but I hear what they are trying to do and if they ever bring it into a more straight dance culture thing I’m sure some amazing stuff will be coming out quite soon.

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