Interview: Deadbeat

The Canadian dub techno maestro chats about dub, space, and the joy of 133 BPM

Everyone from Montreal is super nice, even the local politicians, but Scott Monteith is just that bit supernicer. For over a decade the Montreal musician has been crafting crackly worlds of dub under his Deadbeat moniker, and has been featured on labels as diverse as ~scape, Wagon Repair, Echocord, Revolver, Cynosure and more. After moving to Berlin, he launched his own imprint BLKRTZ, in a move inspired for the most part by his past experiences with community-minded labels like ~scape, and spread his electronic vision to include uptempo rollers and bone-crushingly weighty minimalism on his Infinity Dubs series, featuring Paul St. Hilaire, AKA Tikiman, next to dubby ambience and decaying sonic narratives on albums like Primordia and Eight.

Earlier this year, it was announced that Monteith was raising money to release three long out-of-print albums in a deluxe vinyl box set. The campaign reached its funding goal last night, so fans of Monteith can rest assured that they’ll be awash in a lush, well-designed set soon. To celebrate, we’re presenting an edited and condensed version of Monteith’s interview with RBMA interview from earlier in 2014.

Was your family very musical?

My father was a United Church minister, which is a Protestant denomination of Christianity and, as a result of that, music played a pretty significant role in my upbringing. I was never particularly religious per se, and have gotten progressively less so over time. But certainly not just with the choir music, but also with the sort of youth activities and youth events that were either sponsored or created by the United Church in Ontario and also in Quebec. Particularly in Quebec, youth events run by the church were interconnected with that whole peace movement and kind of ’60s hippie business. The eastern townships in Quebec are really a hotbed of hippies who never left the ’60s. So, when I was young, I was involved in a lot of activities where there was a lot of singing and socially aware youth events.

Is there something that struck you with singing in the church and choir, with all the different voices layering and echoing?

Definitely. The earliest memories of really enjoying the process of making music with other people was exactly that. Church music is really simple for the most part, but as a child the realization of hearing alto parts and harmony parts being sung and being part of the mass of voices... That is a very strong feeling that quite literally resonates in your body. And that, of course, is a very early and very powerful memory about music in general.

But then you listened to music that was really stripped of that.

Sure. Later, when I was 12 to when I was about 14 or 15, I got deeply into skateboarding and discovered a lot of bands in Thrasher and Transworld magazine like Minor Threat, Slapshot, Black Flag, Exploited, and Subhumans and all of these sorts of things. So that’s about as far away as you can get from this beautiful choral music. I think that’s a fairly typical pre-pubescent or teenage trajectory for people from North America. I guess, in hindsight, the realization of the power and the glory of noise in contrast to the power and glory of all of this sung to the glory of God was an equally strong realization.

Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee - Down by the Riverside

Do you remember the moment you first picked up an instrument?

I had piano lessons when I was very young. A piano is still – even with all the developments we’ve had in music technology – an incredibly mind-blowing instrument and a beautiful thing to play. In terms of lessons, I never really had the patience and always learned to play things just from hearing them and learning them from intuition and repetition. And as a result of that, I didn’t get very far. During my later childhood when I was involved in these sort of social activist church youth programs, the primary instrument that everybody was playing was acoustic guitar.

The very act of dancing together is a very powerful thing in and of itself.

That proved much more satisfying in terms of learning things, because you just had to learn three chords and could play a song and lead other people in songs. I was reminded of that satisfaction a few weeks ago when I saw that Pete Seeger died and was watching a lot of the archival footage from the ’40s and ’50s of him leading people singing with a banjo and his two chord songs. The images of that are insanely powerful. In many ways, I would say it’s just as powerful as watching some guy like me standing in front of 10,000 people playing a record and making people freak out, you know? It has just as much weight, if not more.

You mentioned the peace movement which was very big and important in your youth. Is that feeling of community something that’s missing in electronic dance music these days? You seem to say it’s there, but it’s just not that obvious.

Yeah, I think that the goals or the root causes for why everybody is getting together and dancing together and being moved by this music are a lot greater, you know? I think electronic music gets regularly painted as this apolitical space where people go to forget their troubles, get wasted and dance, and remove themselves from the world. But I think that – especially if you start to bring in the whole idea of online solitude – the very act of getting together with people and physically interacting and dancing together becomes a very powerful thing in and of itself. I think that it’s – on its own – an act of protest against becoming mindless sheep who sit in front of terminals all day and interact by sending each other emoticons, you know?

Deadbeat - Jaffa Dub

I want to talk about your early days in electronic music. You were a software engineer originally, right?

I wasn’t a software engineer. I worked from 1999 to 2003 for a company called Applied Acoustic Systems. When I started with them, they had a prototype of their first product, Taskman, which is a modular environment quite similar to Max/MSP. When I came in, they were initially looking for somebody to build their first website for them. I had never built a website in my life, but when I read what the company was, I totally lied and did a couple of HTML tutorials before I went in to the interview and made them believe that I could do it.

Then, of course, I had to, which was a challenge unto itself. But over the time that I was there, I started building the website and doing customer service and tech support when the product was actually launched. And then started building instruments and patches for the software. I guess that’s quite typical for a start-up. When you’re only four or five people, everybody has to wear a lot of hats. But in terms of my own music-making knowledge, the most powerful thing that I took away from it is that I had access to guys who were both acoustics and mathematics Ph.Ds. Whereas some people might go to university, I sort of see that as my three years in university. That was my chance to have access to all those things and learn the roots of all of that stuff.

So were you looking differently at synthesizers afterwards?

Absolutely. I was listening to stuff I found recently, a whole box of CDs, a good portion of which were completely corroded and unplayable. (Which is another sort of ironic thing about that. Everyone always talks about the infinite, that digital information will be with us forever, but then you look at these CDs that are eight years old, they’ve got giant holes in them and you can’t read them anymore.) These CDs had whole banks of sounds and loops and recordings that I did at the beginning at Applied Acoustic Systems, some of which were previous to my first album and first EPs.

When I listen to them now, I have no idea how I arrived at that sound. And, if I had exactly the same piece of software, I have no idea how I would go about achieving that now. I think that’s a common comment for people with any technically-related skill, that as you learn the formalized ways in which to operate, you’re losing a certain amount of naiveté and this feeling of discovery.

Deadbeat - First Quarter

Are you still looking for the new?

I’m definitely still looking for new things and innovation, but I think that as time goes on, you start to look for innovation in less obvious places. So, as opposed to looking for new sounds or building a new drum kit every time, other parameters start to become more important. Like duration, for instance. The idea of something that you can listen to nearly endlessly without becoming bored has been a really strong focus.

What is your experience in clubs when playing stuff that might be regarded as too deep or slow for contemporary dance floors?

I think that’s something that I’ve struggled with in terms of performance for a long time. Trying to figure out how to play with that tension. There’s that cliff. And if you take things a step too deep, you’ll lose everybody and the dance floor will empty and that’s the end of it, you know? I’ve tried a lot of different ways over the years of playing with that, some more successful than others.

Space is another parameter – like time – that inspires me a great deal.

Right now Paul [St. Hilaire] and I are doing stuff at 133 BPM which in today’s techno terms, is very fast. Even the big techno guys are usually playing down around 124 or 128 BPM. The advantage to that is that you can half-time it and flip back and forth between this very slow half-time reggae beat and very heavy rolling techno mood. That’s one thing to have in the bag of tricks. If it feels like the dance floor is edging too close to that cliff, I can pull something back or shove something ahead.

Also, there is the really classic reggae dub effects approach that I like to use live. If you listen to anybody who goes to see a proper reggae sound system, they’re noisy affairs. All of those spring reverbs and tape delays can relate to a sheet of noise, which you can relate quite directly to the sort of typical EDM fare that goes on now. After the breakdown, the giant snare rolls or these giant sheets of white noise create this peak, this atmosphere. The advantage I found with having this sort of typical, very dynamic live dubbing effects is that you can create peaks in areas where they don’t exist. So, you can hit on the same groove for a very long time and, with the effects, create these giant mountains of noise and fall back into the same place that you were at the beginning and people have that sensation that they’ve climbed this giant mountain and come back down into the valley again.

Paul also has got an amazingly versatile voice. He’s a total chameleon and a really dynamic live performer that can go from not saying very much and just whispering for long periods of time, to growling like Buju Banton and really getting very militant and going for it, you know?

Deadbeat - The Elephant In The Pool

Can you talk about space for a little bit?

Yeah. I think that talking about space and music connects very well with the search of the new. Space is another parameter – like time – that inspires me a great deal, as opposed to thinking about altering an individual sound or looking for a new sound. Thinking about changing the air in the room that all of the sounds are occupying, or changing the size of the room that all of the sounds are occupying, or changing “the temperature” in the room that all of the sounds are occupying... I can pinpoint in a lot of music, particularly in dub and dub-influenced music – whether we are talking about something like Lee “Scratch” Perry or Muslimgauze or African Head Charge or Basic Channel – these moments where you feel the temperature drop in the room. Or you feel the temperature crank up in the room. Or you feel a breeze come through the room. Trying to create these sorts of indescribable non-musical experiences within this music is incredibly challenging – and incredibly gratifying, if you hit it.

Header photo: Seze Devres

By Arno Raffeiner on August 27, 2014

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