Bok Bok and Girl Unit: A Conversation

Two Night Slugs talk future directions, formal experiments and timeless pop.

Night Slugs has grown into one of the most exciting dance labels operating today. Founded by Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990 in 2010, it’s become a locus for pushy, inventive music, equally concerned with sonic experiments and brutally effective floor-fillers. Canny selectors and producers both, Bok Bok and key player Girl Unit have burned up the underground over the past half-decade, leaving a trail of heavy tunes and sweaty dance floors in their wake. We caught up with them before a late June gig in Toronto to discuss future directions, formal experiments, and timeless pop.

Bok & Trago - Pussy Trak

I want to start out by talking about club architecture. Alex, you said something recently in an interview about how dance music has this macho culture that’s expressed through the language – referring to new songs as weapons, “mashing it up,” stuff like that. I’m wondering if you think the built environment of a club can contribute to that image as well.

Bok Bok: Yeah, I guess it can do. I mean, if you go somewhere that is very dungeon-y or something, it can have an effect on what I’m going to want to play. If you’ve got a garden in the club or something like that, then you play another kind of music.

Girl Unit: Yeah, I think if I’m playing outside it tends to have a real effect because you kind of adapt to the surroundings.

Bok Bok: Playing outdoors definitely makes you play a certain kind of stuff, especially if it’s hot.

Girl Unit: Something about a certain aesthetic that will lend itself to the material, and you really want to play to that.

If you had carte blanche, and you could build a Night Slugs club, what does that club look like?

Bok Bok: That would be a good project, I’d spend a bit of time on it. If someone’s got the funds, we can talk, for sure. I can’t tell you off the top of my head because it’s a big undertaking. I don’t know, it’s nice to have a variety of different places. It’s like what Phil was saying just now about bringing out different styles. Actually, me and J [James Connolly, AKA Night Slugs co-founder L-Vis 1990] have talked about this once or twice. But those ideas might be a bit out of date by now. We’d have to rethink that and revisit the plans.

Girl Unit: It’s almost like once you get past the technical and everything like that, you don’t need that much else. You don’t need the whole lighting system.

Bok Bok: No, you don’t. We actually keep it simple. Outside of a little bit more of the imaginative side of it, what we need is a dark space. And good sound.

Maybe the ideal is just a black box, a blank slate.

Bok Bok: Maybe. I don’t know.

Helix - Whoosh Ice Dispenser

Let’s talk about the Club Constructions series a little bit. What have the submissions been like so far?

Bok Bok: I’m a little bit out of date because when I started this tour... Shit, I can’t say that, can I? I don’t want to comment on it at the interim. I think a lot of it is going to be feedbacking to people, as well, trying to develop some of the ideas that are coming in. It’s a long-term thing, the way we’re looking at it. I won’t really be giving interim updates about the quality or the style of the things that have come in. I just think we have to wait and see. Me and James are going to be writing to people, making those connections, and stuff like that.

The manifesto is a huge part of the project. How important do you guys feel restrictions are to your work, your music?

Bok Bok: The funny thing is, you see where you made your track, Phil, that we did on Club Constructions and there wasn’t any of that, anyway. It just happened to fit [this set of guidelines]. But it does help. The reason why we put that out there was to try to structure people’s efforts a little bit. I think it can help. It’s definitely worked in other media in art history, where people set out guidelines. It helps the style to coalesce somewhat. For me as a DJ, I like it because it makes things a bit more cohesive. It gives it a sound.

You’ve said that the idea behind “MJT” was to take something kind of lovely and sort of abstract it by repeating it and turning it into something unrecognizable and ugly. Do a lot of your tracks come from formal experiments like that?

Bok Bok: That one helped me to go in the direction that I then worked on in my last record. But before that... I think it varies, to be honest with you. I don’t want to say that it does because a lot of the time it’s just playing with the sound and messing around with the equipment, with samples. But when you’re onto something, then you think, “Oh yeah, shit, this kind of makes it.” It’s almost like those ideas come at the same time as the creative process.

Hysterics - Pleasuredrome

How about you, Phil?

Girl Unit: The first track that we put out [on Club Constructions Vol. 5 as Hysterics] was kind of based on a remix that didn’t really go as planned. I ended up taking everything from the original out and it just became this thing on its own. And I guess that kind of inspired the B-sides to it, because I was beginning the start of a new moniker, a new side project, so I had to define what the sound for that was going to be and then try to build tracks accordingly. So, I guess it was the first time I was really working around specific guidelines, even though the manifesto wasn’t really written at that point.

Bok Bok: I think it kind of happened in tandem, honestly. What you had done contributed to what we’d written. But everyone since then had it before making of their release. Phil’s one wasn’t really... even the B-side was a coincidence too, right?

Girl Unit: Yeah, I guess. I suppose the model was around the first one. I even tried to carry on with the full forthcoming Hysterics release, but by that point I’d already deviated.

Bok Bok: That’s a good thing. Things have to develop and change.

Girl Unit: So that’s why the next one won’t be on Club Constructions. I still think I’d like to do another one again in the future. It’s nice to stay within the constructs sometimes.

Circle Children - Zulu - Strictly Rhythm Records 1994

Maybe we can talk about your upcoming stuff a little bit. Phil, you and Jam City interviewed each other a couple of years ago. The textures and sounds you were talking about, I was like... “I can’t wait to hear that.” What can you tell us about your forthcoming stuff?

Girl Unit: I guess it has manifested in a different way to how I discussed it then because then it was just, “I’m doing this album project.” And I am, but in the meantime I am doing a second release as Hysterics on Night Slugs’ main series. A lot of it is... these takes on various aspects of house music. Some of the tracks have a more tribal feel. It’s owing to stuff like all the Armand Van Helden side projects, like “Zulu” by Circle Children and stuff like that. And also Henry Street, that New York label with all the Robbie Tronco stuff. And then also DJ Duke, the Sex Mania label. I really love acts like Sound Stream, some of the Roulé stuff.

Yeah, Thomas Bangalter’s old label.

Girl Unit: So it’s got a tough edge to it, but I like it. We just finished mixing it. It’s kind of nice and all-around. It starts off very harsh and ends very soft. But it still has a lot of the trademarks of the previous one, just having a hollow, metallic environment – aspects of noise with kind of a gritty, industrial feel.

To what extent do you think humor is important as a producer of dance music or as a DJ?

I definitely get put off by over-serious music.

Bok Bok

Bok Bok: Yeah, it is important. I can think of so many examples, even in the stuff that I love to play. I don’t know, I love having a smile on my face in the club. It’s a good feeling. I definitely get put off by over-serious music. I know that a lot of what I play probably sounds like that, but at the same time I guess it’s about balance, just like life. All of it is connected. There is quite a dry side to electronic music that is probably devoid of a sense of humor. It’s definitely good to keep that in mind. Also, when you listen to the roots of the genres that we love, they all have so much fun involved.

Girl Unit: Even serious themes are approached a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Bok Bok: Exactly. And that’s what is great about it. You can leave your stress and worries in life. Like that track, “Dance My Pain Away” by Rod Lee.

Girl Unit: Even with rap and grime stuff...

Bok Bok: Grime’s got a crazy sense of humor!

Girl Unit: And especially with rap, the grandiose nature of it. It’s just theatrical. There’s definitely a sense of humor in that. So much of it is based on sampling melodies from horror themes and stuff.

Yeah, the legacy of Three 6 Mafia.

Girl Unit: I don’t want to say it’s camp, but it’s theatrical, and there has to be some kind of tongue-in-cheek, from a production standpoint.

Speaking of Three 6 Mafia – Juicy J played a free outdoor show a couple of weeks ago and he played his Katy Perry song twice. He did it first a cappella and then did it again immediately afterwards with the beat. It was something that I had no idea I wanted to hear, but as soon as I heard it, I totally wanted to hear it.

Girl Unit: I love it. I love whoever is in charge of putting Juicy J on that track.

Bok Bok Ft. Kelela - Melba's Call

Phil, there’s another bit of that interview that you and Jam City did together where you referred to “Call Me Maybe” as a timeless piece of shit. I thought that was a perfect phrase. I was wondering if you guys could unpack that for me. What exactly does “timeless piece of shit” mean to you?

Bok Bok: [laughter] Now we have to justify it.

Girl Unit: I never, ever, ever thought this would come back to bite me.

I thought it was perfect.

I think it would be too pompous to try to strive for timelessness.

Bok Bok

Bok Bok: Rather than explain the comment, I’ll just tell you the story of how that came about. I was in Detroit at DEMF and I was having a really good time, but I probably had heard only techno for a while. I was on my own and it was a pretty quiet place in Detroit, even during DEMF. I was walking past a car park and I heard it, and it was the first time I really liked it. I think I might have heard it in a taxi, in the back of my mind, but this track was just blaring. And the strings were flying through this open space. And I was like, “What fucking is this?”

Girl Unit: It’s so loud, those strings.

Bok Bok: It was so crazy. And I was thinking, it’s the juice I needed. Obviously the track is what it is. I probably enjoyed hearing that more than most other tracks I heard in the club.

There’s something about it. LOL Boys did an amazing edit of it.

Bok Bok: I don’t want to come across as sneering down at pop in general. That’s really not the point. I don’t know about the piece of shit part of that comment, that sounds really judgmental. It’s just something I wrote in an email.

Girl Unit: “Timeless piece of shit,” I think, is still a compliment.

Yeah, I do too.

Girl Unit: I think the timeless part outweighs it. It’s like a pop song, so it’s disposable or whatever, but it’s so not as well. Also the production of that song doesn’t owe itself to any trends. That’s what is weird about it. I guess it kind of sounds like a Katy Perry song, but the strings are so goofy.

Bok Bok: It’s so funny. [laughs]

Girl Unit: That’s why I think it works, that’s why it’ll stay kind of timeless.

When you are working on tracks, do you strive for immediacy, something that will connect in the moment? Or do you try to make stuff that is going to have longevity and still be fresh in 10 years? Or is that not something that crosses your mind at all?

Girl Unit: I would find that too hard to achieve. And even doing music for not long, four or five years or so, it’s impossible to predict the direction in which things go.

Bok Bok: That’s the wrong way to think about creating music, anyway. Creating music is like repeat practice. Some things stick and some things don’t. You never know what those things are going to be until you make them. And even if you make them, sometimes there’s a sleeper hit. You just never know. Even with “Silo Pass,” I didn’t think people would care about that song. I wasn’t even going to release it. There’s a lot of different things like that. I think it would be too pompous to try to strive for timelessness.

Bok Bok - Silo pass

This may be more of a rap journalism thing, but it’s become this trope where a record will come out, and if it’s really good, the argument is always, “Is it a classic?” Why do you think we privilege the idea of the classic, the idea of a record that people are going to love forever? Versus something that is immediate and perhaps disposable?

Girl Unit: It’s nice to give something a rest for a few months or a year, and then you come back to it and you’re, “Oh yeah.”

Bok Bok: I don’t know about classic. It’s weird, because in dance music there’s a lot of tracks that are only going to work in context, connected other tracks. So it’s kind of a funny one. I guess it’s distinctiveness.

Girl Unit: I guess people want to listen to things again firstly through the context of it being fresh, but also have the same feeling through the eyes of nostalgia. And if your track does both of those things, then...

Bok Bok: Yeah, right. That’s kind of the formula.

Girl Unit: But you can’t predict nostalgia.

Bok Bok: You also need to be getting that feeling again and again. Some things wear out and some things just don’t. There’s all these different combinations and some of them are going to resonate for a long time.

Girl Unit: That’s what I think is the most maddening thing about producing. You’re thinking about the idea of magic, and at what point do you create or destroy that when you’re making the track?

Bok Bok: And then mixing the track as well.

Girl Unit: Yeah, in mixing the track you might lose all the magic. I think if you do start to really think about that stuff, then you might just go down.

Bok Bok: You might just go crazy. You just have to go with whatever feels right at the time and then do it again for another track.

Bok Bok - Greenhouse (Night)

You guys are both really good at describing music visually. I was wondering if you could describe each other’s sounds visually. In that FACT interview you did recently, you were talking about the progression of your work into the Your Charizmatic Self EP was a move from metal to wood. I don’t know if you remember saying that.

Bok Bok: Oh yeah, I was talking in terms of us using internal and outboard gear.

And, Phil, again, for the interview you did with Jam City you were talking about how you wanted to use buzzsaw synths but treat them so they sounded like silk. I thought that was amazingly evocative. So, if you can give it a shot, could you try to describe each other?

Bok Bok: It’s kind of easy for me because I always thought Phil’s music was blue, like a lot of brushed steel and blue LEDs. But his very recent things are different. I don’t know, I need to from the right imagery for that one. There’s definitely new textures creeping in and stuff like that. Today it’s more... Girl Unit it’s, like I say, very brushed steel and blue LEDs, and the finishes are all perfect. But Hysterics it’s more like the walls are rough.

Girl Unit: We already joked about it being steam punk. I mean it in the sense that it’s like...

Bok Bok: Manpower.

Girl Unit: Yeah. I suppose I always hear in your music... there’s definitely a sense of stuff being flattened. I just mean stuff is matted out. Especially with the new one, there are these bursts of excitement and then there’ll be a corresponding thing that will kind of flatten it out.

Bok Bok: Like calm it down.

Girl Unit: Yeah, you kind of have these little funk riffs, but then there’ll always be some kind of square wave that’ll steamroll through it.

Girl Unit - Cake Boss

Have you guys ever put out something that you felt was completely misunderstood?

Girl Unit: There’s things that have signaled the start of something else... I always think that “Cake Boss” was the start of Hysterics.

Bok Bok: One hundred percent. I was going to say that to you the other day.

Girl Unit: But it’s in the context of where it is. It didn’t fit because it was just... it kind of added a weight to what I wanted to put on it.

Bok Bok: Exactly, yeah. No, that’s the wrong thing to say. It did have a place on the EP, but it definitely was the start of Hysterics, that’s for sure. And you didn’t even know it. That’s what’s so cool about it. I don’t think I have had anything. People have pretty much been game.

Last question: what’s your favorite sound?

Bok Bok: Sound? 808 cowbell.

That was fast.

Girl Unit: I don’t know, I guess I still like the LM1 rim, the low rim, the Prince rim. I know it’s really obvious, but whatever.

Bok Bok: So’s the 808 cowbell, they’re classics!

By Adam Wray on July 28, 2014

On a different note