RelevantBCN: The Module Hunter - Lackluster Interview
Written by Guillermo Cimadevilla
If you're looking to feed up your brain with complex melodies, futuristic hip hop or cool (and warm) ambient drones, or maybe just relax and let yourself go with the sweetest IDM music out there, then you're looking for Lackluster. Hailing from the arctic city of Helsinki, Esa Juhani Ruoho has been producing electronic music for more than a decade (starting on the demoscene back in the 90's), releasing on several labels and also making remixes for a big variety of different artists from all around the world. A deep and interesting personality, who is also an activist of medical marijuana and HEMP. Interesting, right? last year his remix for Anodyne (which was released together with remixes by Autechre and The Black Dog) was featured on Bleep's 100 Tracks of 2010. I say we must keep an eye on him and his works, and that's the reason for this interview.
What were your first steps in music?
My first steps were loading Fast Tracker1, I believe in 1994, and toggling on the record mode and zooming around the 64 row pattern, pushing keys and pressing cursor-down a few times and hitting some other keys.. and then pressing play to hear what happened. I didn’t really see the correlation between the rows and the sounds, I knew everything was off-kilter, but wasn't really able to focus on the pattern data. The interface really turned me off - after a year or so, someone recommended trying out Screamtracker3 (a finn-developed tracker), and the interface immediately clicked. So, I basically just loaded samples from other people's modules and tried to do something. Eventually, I sampled some sounds from toy synths or actual synths and used some DOS-based sample-generation software to come up with sounds. A friend was coding simple one-cycle wave-generating software, some others were mucking about with turbo pascal. Obviously from the BBS, I had access to any bunch of samples that I liked, but it wasn't in my interests to rip someone else's aesthetic off, so I didn’t really go there heavily. I spent some time gathering samples and going through samplepacks, and some friends were nice enough to either sample me something or give me access to their samples… And it kind of went on from there. Everything else was incremental, learning a new effect-command, learning to loop samples, getting more comfortable with the tracker patterns, hearing new music...
Your first productions came out more than a decade ago, right? How would you describe the scene back in those days compared to what's going on nowadays with electronic music?
Yes, it has been a while since the first few things came out on Monotonik, back when they used to release tracker modules, I think it was in 1997-1998. Back then, it was all pretty new, especially when they switched to releasing MP3’s only, a completely new frontier opened. There were growth pains though, unmastered 56 kbps mp3’s, 112 kbps, 128 kbps, and so on. A lot of that stuff was very splayed on the high end. Looking back at it now, it was very daunting, suddenly anyone with a load of hardware gear could jump in and get something released, and you couldn't hide under the banner of "it is just a module with 35kb of sample data", the tracks had to be decent too. It didn't take long until everyone was starting up netlabels, and that’s when things got a bit all over the place. It was a smaller scene back then, maybe tens of netlabels, now it's probably closer to thousands?
What's going on nowadays with electronic music?
I don’t think anyone who makes music which has electronic parts in it ever wants to answer that question, it’s either really vague "well, there's electricity" or a full 30 page negative rant about digital download labels and so forth, let’s not dwell on this.
I've seen that you were a SysOp for a music BBS for almost a decade in the 90's, guess you might had lots of music discoveries from those days, right?
Becoming a SysOp and configuring and running my BBS for a total of 8 years was pretty much the most major thing I did during 1992-2000. At first I started running one, it's gimmick was that it had different versions of archival software (PKZip, Lharc, etc) - but I quickly gave up on it as it made no sense. Then I moved towards collecting productions from the demoscene (demos, intros, diskmags and so forth), free/shareware music software and, of course, tracker modules. Modules became the focus of my BBS and I just stuck to that. I hunted far and wide for every single module I could find of a very specific selection of tracker musicians, and that was the main point of it. I purposefully steered away from the guys who had no flair with tracking, only gathering modules by those who knew how to do subtle stuff, and pretty quickly you could notice who was doing actual music. I also hosted some music-competitions on the BBS, some of which had amazing entries.
But yes, I "discovered" (for myself) that anyone who knows how to create clever and original samples, could use the amiga .mod 4channel limitation to do pretty much anything they wanted (if they were inspired). Some of those are still, frankly, amazing. Enjoying trackermusic is an acquired taste, but what in life isn't? So first and foremost I was the guy listening to tracker modules, and cd’s and vinyls were on second place. I believe my sound is heavily influenced by hearing trackermusic and using trackers.
Is there any aspect that you miss regarding those days compared with information being shared online nowadays?
Yes. I miss BBS's dearly. I miss the ability of the SysOp to create a completely new, and sometimes unique, world, stylistically and attitude-wise. I miss these places where a SysOp would create and curate to his heart's content, like your personal file-selector, only making stuff available that he thought was useful or somehow brilliant.
How's your setup when producing and playing live?
My setup for doing new stuff or remixes tends to vary depending on which software I feel like using. I might use outboard gear, or maybe a bunch of software ReWired together, or just a singular piece of software, playing samples and/or softsynths. For gigs, however, the setup has stayed pretty much the same for the past 7 years, the only changes are either specific new efx, or finding out that there was some feature that I could use in gigs all along. Nowadays my gig-setup is starting to change too, thanks to rewire and some pretty stable stepsequencers. Since switching machines I've also dabbled into recording stuff from audio inputs or softsynth outputs on the fly, and so on. It's a pretty fast and loose mechanism and not necessarily as stable as it could be. But somehow it works.
Why the aka Lackluster?
As I was running the BBS I was very aware of who did what kind of quality of music in which group. Groups like CNCD and Orange had amazing tracker-musicians. I was then a member of Orange, and felt inferior to the other musicians in the group, such as Dune (Lassi Nikko - whom you'd know as Brothomstates), Sulphur (Veikka Erkola - whom some of you know as 1/3 of Brothomstates, and some others as Ercola and as a producer), and others. Thusly in 1996-97 at one of the peak years of the demogroup, and those and other musicians, I decided to simply have a small group of my own, and I found a name in a novel written by Terry Pratchett, a name in the form of an adjective which was one of the first adjectives I hadn't known for quite some time, I looked up the meaning of it and decided that that very word would be a very apt, and descriptive name for what I was doing back then. - as, put next to, well, the cream of the tracker musicians on the demoscene, they were rough, unpolished, or raw diamonds without the precision, flair, subtlety and finesse that other artists displayed. The decision to go from Distance/Lackluster to Lackluster wasn't actually fueled in any way by mr. Dj Distance (Planet Mu), but instead was related to the "Distance to..." compilations, and maybe also because it was a clean break from the demoscene (after a fashion), a new name, and maybe I preferred it around in 1998/1999. The creation/compiling of CDR#1 & CDR#2 were basically the catalysts in using only the moniker Lackluster.
A while ago you mentioned that a track could take you 2 or 3 days of work, and then aproximately a week of listening to it. That you don't tend to take old projects and work again with them, is the process similar nowadays?
Very similar, I still don’t really tend to take old projects and work on them; the sounds of some old project might be completely unattainable and unobtainable. Instead of recording a couple of rough drafts every day and eventually having them released, I might take a few days nowadays on something, leave it in an okay form and move onto something else. Although, I've been listening to some old 1995-1998 unreleased tracks and might take either samples or segments of them or continue with them but with a better understanding of what I was trying to accomplish back then but had no idea how-to. But there will never be any Starcell U.K. 2011 versions, im not Jarre (or Plug).
Which would you say are the main differences between the process of producing between your first works and the last ones?
First works were more unconscious and, obviously, with that joy of discovery. I sometimes manufacture that artificially by either rebuilding and re-configuring setups, borrowing a bit of gear (or using someone else's hardware when I’m travelling to/forth from gigs), trying a completely new program, or switching from a computer to either another, or some hardware sequencer (which happens, unfortunately, pretty rarely) or maybe some portable electronic device.
But, as with everything else, once you've done things in specific ways, and have tried some kinds of ways and things, you've kind of carved out a space for yourself, it only takes a while for any new approach to either bleed into old mannerisms or methods, or for it to prove to be either too unstable or too untrustworthy, or maybe not that much fun. I tend to do a load of remixes nowadays, and sometimes do a track of my own too (or at least a loop). Back then, with the first works, if I wanted to release something like that, it would go out as, say a .s3m or a .it format file, and people could see directly in, they could see the sample data, and the pattern data, and how it was put together and all that, so I suppose there was a bit of a different approach or attitude towards it. You could compare that level of access to some artist you've heard of, releasing .midi files and the original samples that were triggered; i.e.: giving you the keys to his car, as it were.
I dont think many would necessarily do that anymore, as giving out a .mp3 is far easier and, well, you're not giving the raw data that will always play out the same song in the same way, and the exact samples used to create all the sounds.
I guess the main difference between first and latest works is that there's not a lot of technical discovery going on, anymore (example: it's not the first time you've ever used a microphone, or the first time you put on a new bit of gear, or the first time you discovered that some bit of software or maybe a soundcard has this or that feature or enables you to think in a completely new way and see new possibilities).
I've read you're an activist with medical marijuana and hemp, and actually our country is in the middle of the process of decriminalization of the consumer. How is the situation where you live, are you having activities regarding this?
Now that's a hard one. I've made it my aim to donate money to Phoenix Tears (http://www.phoenixtears.ca/ ), they are trying to popularize THC Hemp oil as "a natural healing agent", which attacks quite a load of different illnesses and diseases, amongst them cancer. I think Rick Simpson's efforts (through PhoenixTears) to, well, basically, provide a medicine free of charge for those who need it, need a load more support than what he has gotten thus far. Last I read he was actually stuck in Europe, for if he went back to Canada they would put him in a prison cell. Sure, a lot of countries are slowly deciding to not really react to someone possessing weed, but that's only halfway there. There's a lot more going on than meets the eye, most of it, weirdly enough, somehow pooh-poohed by, f.ex. journalists. If you look at the way hemp-based products are covered in the media, you discover that there seems to be a general agreement which could be (possibly negatively) paraphrased into roughly this: "let's try and see how many puns we can fit into every sentence relating to a new process of using hemp to, say, produce concrete-like substances, be, maybe, used for an electric car's innards and chassis, or anything whatsoever." It's an interesting phenomenon, but, while the journalists are getting their minor puns out to a decidedly *tumbleweed* crowd, the actual uses of the plant get put on the wayside by both stereotypical and stereotype-led journalism, and - slightly unfortunately- the stereotypical inactivity of those who still light it on fire. I’m sure it’s difficult to get medicinal marijuana going on in the U.S. I've looked at NORML for quite some time, maybe from 1995-1996 onwards or something, and I do see that way more states are giving in, and more and more articles get written about the possible, or proven, increased income-based benefits that states face and have to either accept and treasure, or ignore…
But for all the jars o'weed and nice pastries, there's still massive, nay immense potential which isn't yet even spoken about as a whole. There's a load of little glimpses of it, and I do hope that eventually hem(p)crete, THC hemp oil, hemp paper, hemp plastics (I've got a really dinky hemp DVD case, and saw at least one place packaging pressed CDs to hemp-plastic CD jewelcases), hemp gasoline and hemp alcohol will be as well-known as hemp-clothes. But also way less fringe.
Here? I can go into a number of organic shops and buy hemp clothes or shoes, maybe some hemp tea, hemp seeds, hemp flour, hemp candy, I can go to a fastfood shop in Helsinki called Vegemesta ( http://www.vegemesta.com/ ) and eat a hemp-burger. Maybe buy some finnish hemp seed oil manufactured by a company called Finola, and there is, of course, some talk every once in a while about the "massive amount" of growers in Helsinki and how it's all getting out of hand. (personally, doesn’t really look like it). And then some more hushed talk of the few patients in debilitating pain, who get Bedrocan (dutch-produced medical-grade weed) from a few pharmacies, and then this guy Timo Haara from Keitele, who grew 2 hectares of hemp, and got into quite a bit of trouble for it, but also managed to get into at least the leftfield media to air out his opinions. But yeah, I don’t see anyone making Fukuoka seedballs by the tons and spreading them everywhere, or anyone, anywhere at all in the world, renting a plane and just simply flyin around and throwing hempseeds all over the place. I guess one would have to build a house made out of hemp, eat hemp fiber and hemp seeds, wear clothes made out of hemp, run their hemp-built car with hemp-gasoline, travel around providing THC hemp oil to those in need, and distributing hemp fastfood and hempseeds so people can eat or start their own plantations. I guess THAT would be a hemp-activist. Everything else is just pipedreams.
Well, I do hear that Jack Herer was working on a book that would have mentioned Rick Simpson's THC Hemp oil medicine, but unfortunately Jack Herer passed away before he finished (and published?) his follow-up book for "The Emperor Wears No Clothes". Either way, I guess, no government is going to embrace all the possibilities, not even the Netherlands (What’s up with that?).
When Centrifuge, a british netlabel asked me for a track for their compilation which was going to try and raise money for the Macmillan Cancer Support-charity, I gave them two tracks, one of them was retitled to "The Cancer Biopathy" (which is the title of a book by Wilhelm Reich) and the other one was titled "Liop Mehch’t! Nosp Misc Kir". I guess it might as well have been called Rick Simpson's THC Hemp Oil Cancer Cure, but I thought it would've gotten culled from the compilation, or maybe the Macmillan Cancer Support wouldn't have necessarily liked it. So I wrote it backwards, which went a bit far at hiding the title of the track, but for some reason I felt it necessary to hide it, which is a bit of a shame.
What kind of music do you enjoy listening nowadays? Tell us what’s the latest thing that you’ve discovered and enjoyed in music.
I started listening to a lot of Floating Points and Flying Lotus. Now I’m looking into the works of Kyle Hall and Oriol. I've mostly been checking out the Hospital Records podcasts and any stuff that is pretty shuffly or 2step-py. Trying to find that vein that Landslide was tapping back when people were releasing a load of westlondon brokenbeat stuff. Oh, also, was going through heaps and heaps of Todd Edwards, found out about his stuff maybe about a year ago and have been pretty hooked ever since. I'm basically just looking for something that's musical, melodic; sounds like the person doing it had fun and didn't just go "meh" throughout the making of the track. I'm so glad some new (to me) people are starting to pop up, and it gives me great hope. Warp is, in my mind, completely dead, apart from Flying Lotus.
Thanks a lot for your time Esa, we really appreciate your music, as a last question we’d like to know if you have any future plans/releases for this year?
2011? Well, I'm actually waiting for a couple of things to come out, like this remix I did for Elephant Pixel (should be out march 2011), another remix for Metamatics (no release date), a compilation track for V/A: Mindfield (Psychonavigation, should be out Q1/Q2) Bleep's 100 Tracks of 2010 ( http://bleep.com/index.php?page=release_details&releaseid=27660 ) featured my remix of Anodyne - which was quite nice from Bleep.. The plans currently are to tone down releasing on netlabels for a while, and to focus on delivering my side of the Kaneel/Lackluster split for Awkward Silence, getting it mastered and getting it out.
The rest of 2011 - and these are early plans - will be spent in hibernation, doing tracks and learning software - it all depends on if I still have a job around q3. Let's see if I'll be performing live in '11.