Rich Panciera is a recording artist and engineer who released under the name Lloop in the ’90s and ’00s. Originally from Pennsylvania, he relocated to New York City in the ’90s and found himself involved in what came to be known as the illbient scene, performing on his own as well as within the group We™ alongside DJ Olive (Gregor Asch) and Once11 (Ignacio Platas).
With releases on Asphodel and The Agriculture, Panciera’s footprint in modern music may be small but its importance is by no means relative to its size. His first album, Bulbbs, is a fascinating experiment in loop layering and composition that, 20 odd years since its first release, stands the test of time and offers a unique insight into the foundations of the instrumental electronic music we take for granted today.
The following interview with Panciera, who currently resides in Vienna, was conducted as part of an oral history of illbient. It covers Panciera’s memories of the scene, New York City in the ’90s and the sonic and philosophical building blocks that underpinned his work.
You were originally an engineer in Philly. When did you move to New York?
Pretty much on New Years Day 1990.
How were the first few years in NYC?
For us, before illbient was a really rich time in Williamsburg. It was really exploding with creativity. It was like the perfect storm of really cheap, huge spaces and a lot of artists, getting out of Manhattan and coming to this one neighborhood and having hundreds, if not thousands, of really creative people interacting with each other with all the resources that you needed. Even if you didn’t have space to throw a party, the entire waterfront was abandoned and there were huge warehouses that were completely open and that you could go throw a party at any time you wanted to. Just jack the power off the lights. The neighborhood was so dead that the cops would just park outside these parties and they weren’t protecting them or busting them. They were just there… They weren’t a secret.
In this environment, the ideas exploded. It’s what they’re now calling the immersionists. The Immersionism scene and their ideas were… as far as creative, forward thinking ideas about what parties are and what creativity is and the function of art in society... It was just so completely over the top. So for us, eventually the rents went up, things started to come back down to the ground and the emphasis moved to Manhattan. Which was a bit better I think. When people from Manhattan were brought in, it brought people who knew how to market ideas. And… it was very insular in Williamsburg, it was a fantastic experience and there were a million ideas, but the rest of the world didn’t know what was going on.
Gregor [DJ Olive] mentioned a cassette label you guys set up in the early ’90s. The only release was from yourself and it later became the first release on The Agriculture label.
He’s talking about Bulbbs. I released that on cassette and it ended up being the first release on The Agriculture in the 2000s because no one is as bad at marketing as I am. I was producing a lot of material at the time. I just started collecting tape decks and dubbing them myself. I made about 500 copies of that tape. It was a studio project.
You’d stick a piece of paper into the keys to hold them down and keep them together running in sync.
What we did live, that’s where my name comes from. I was DJing with sample loops. This was before there were a lot of live gear rigs, especially on the digital side. It was a deconstructive process, where all the components of the music were on separate loops and it was kinda… you could plug this drum with this bass with this melody and they were all interchangeable, so you were very flexible with your sets. It was all from a sampler, which at the time was pretty extraordinary. I would stick pieces of paper or flyers in the keys to hold them down. You’d trigger them together, they were each triggered by a different key, and you’d stick a piece of paper into the keys to hold them down and keep them together running in sync. It was nice, aside from having to haul a lot of gear around.
We were also playing real mixers, like classic dub. I believe the sets were a lot more interesting. In a lot of ways that’s why I kinda stopped working with music, because the live gigs weren’t as fun anymore. Now you have a lot more outboard gear again. Back in the ‘90s it involved a lot of guitar pedals, we collected them. It was real dub, it was a real live dub show. And the emphasis was on dubbing.
Gregor said We™ came together when he was asked to do a track for Wordsound. He had no equipment, and so halfway through a session at your studio Nacho [Once11] crashed the party and the resulting collaborative vibe led him to think you’d all be good together.
We were all good friends, we did a lot of partying together within this organization called Lalalandia, which was in Williamsburg. Greg and Nacho were core members, and I was spending a lot of time with them… it was kinda like a cult. And… the reason I wasn’t a core member was because the first time I went to one of their parties… Let me backtrack.
I actually developed my live looping technique at Lalalandia parties, because they needed some beats for the dance floor. They had this area that was kinda like a dance floor but they didn’t want it to be techno or anything like that. Basically it was an open source DJ booth with lots of equipment. But they needed a back beat underneath, because it was just a cloud of noise. So I started looping beats, taking samples of breakdowns on techno or hip hop. And I’d loop beats behind it. And anybody who wanted could come up and play all of this gear.
They were really good at blowing things up for the benefit of the party.
The first time I showed up to do this, right by the entrance of the door there was a mound of destroyed stereos. Taller than me, 8 feet high, all destroyed electronics. Lalalandia were very good at destroying electronics. And I had a 3,000 dollar sampler. It was a bit of an unwritten rule that if you really become a core member of this group, everything you own is a property of the group… they were really good at blowing things up for the benefit of the party. So I never became a core member of that group because I was always protecting my gear. I was always a guest and eventually became what was called a satellite.
But that was when I began looping and they were always there in the development of that. Eventually I was working at a studio as an engineer and normally free time could be used to work on what you wanted. So Greg came with the Wordsound project and we took a night out and banged out a track, and then there was more Wordsound stuff and it kinda went from there.
Gregor said that he felt a similarity between the tension that can arise from sampling something out of tune and the inherent tension in life. It strikes me that this definitely is an underlying quality of what you all did to a degree. You pulled at this inherent tension in different ways.
It’s like when I saw Byzar do a soundcheck in France when we did this festival. They wanted distortion on the kick drum. And the engineers wouldn’t do it. It was a big issue. French engineers are the worse.
I always said, “I’m not playing the gear here, I’m playing the speakers and the sound system.”
But aside from that, there were a lot of things like that. It was a shared philosophy. When New York artists would go to California to record, the studio people would be really obsessed with making the cleanest, most reliable sound. A piano sounds like a piano. There was a shared idea in New York that it’s never going to be a piano, it’s a recording of a piano. It’s always artificial. For us, that was an abstraction, that people would be trying to make realistic recordings when recordings are synthetic anyway. There’s no reason why you can’t put distortion on a kick drum. I always said, “I’m not playing the gear here, I’m playing the speakers and the sound system.” Because it doesn’t matter how you get whatever it is you need to move the crowd. That’s the end point. It doesn’t matter how you get there.
Even as an engineer you didn’t have issues with more esoteric approaches to making the music?
Not at all. Music fulfils a place in our lives, our social interactions, we work to it, we interact socially to it, we party to it. All we have to do is fulfil that creatively. It doesn’t matter what you think… The best way I can describe it is that the piano will never be the piano.
It reminds me of a story I was told in L.A about how, in his early days – before Stones Throw had found their go-to mastering engineer – Madlib would bring his music to an engineer who was more like a rock guy, with no clue what to do with it or how it should sound. Finding someone who could understand the purpose of the music – and the process of how it’s made – seems to have been a struggle in the ‘90s.
You’re sampling off 50 year-old shitty cassettes that have hiss all over them. But you want the hiss. That was definitely a clash. There was a shared idea among everyone in New York that seemed hard to get people hip to outside of the city. Even in larger cities. We’d often go to San Francisco to record, and it was hard to find people who shared that vision. I’m sure there were people there, but those we were working with didn’t get it. We had to do a lot of reinforcement. The hiss is OK. Stop trying to remove it. We want it to sound like an old cassette, it fulfils its purpose, it moves and grooves with the hiss.
We were always trying to get it in the contract that we’d perform at the sound booth with the sound guys.
For us there were a lot of battles. On tour we’d always want to perform with the soundman. We didn’t need a soundman because we didn’t have any microphones. We were always stuck in a situation where we’re on stage but can’t hear what’s going on in front of house and this guy is translating for us. So we were always trying to get it in the contract that we’d perform at the sound booth with the sound guys. Because we wanted to hear what the audience was hearing and the audience can go up on stage and dance. They wanted to watch each other anyway. We were boring to watch. But the promoters wouldn’t have it. “We’re paying you all this money, we need a visual thing that you’re doing what you’re doing.” It was ridiculous to us.
Manny from Byzar said he felt that there was an intellectual side to this movement. There was thought behind the madness.
There was both. It’s possible to do both. We always egged each other on, there were always great conversations, while doing massive amounts of drugs and dancing your ass off. You could do it all, there was no reason not to. There’s no reason why you couldn’t have a lot of great ideas behind it. It’s another thing I find that’s lacking these days. But I’m an old man… it’s easy for me to say that kinda shit.
What was decentertainment?
It was a reaction to the idea that people want something on stage or that they want to watch people creating music. Because, as far as culture history goes, it’s a very new idea. The first theatres were in the age of enlightenment, 1500s, Europe. And especially for playing music, watching people playing music is a very industrial affair. Especially in our modern times, like a rock concert setting. Everyone pays the same amount of money, gets a certain seat, a little slice of view, and they sit and watch people on stage play music.
Eventually the DJs took position on stage and it never really made any sense to me.
Watching people on stage play music is boring as far as I’m concerned, and it really wipes out the whole social interaction side of it. There are other cultures where they would think that was an absolutely ridiculous idea. Musicians are necessary and live music is fantastic, but the musicians should be watching crowds do what they do, not the other way around, crowds watching musicians do what they do. So we were… not militant but adamant… although we weren’t very successful at promoting the idea or getting people on board to share it.
We were looking at it during a time that was moving past the industrial age and into the information age. And a lot of things in the information age tend to look more like indigenous cultures. The modern dance floor… in the 80s, when working in the clubs, DJs didn’t have booths that were visual. They stuck their heads out of little windows that were above the dance floor to monitor people. No club owner would devote a whole corner to a raised stage, turntable set up. Because no one wanted to look at the DJ. They would think you were ridiculous. DJs weren’t rock stars at that point. Their job was to monitor the crowd and keep them moving. And that was decentertainment. Eventually the DJs took position on stage and it never really made any sense to me.
What would you consider to be some of the early releases that would go on to be “illbient”?
Raz’s first Sub Dub releases. They’re important. We were all just very lucky. It’s not like we created anything that a whole lot of people know about. We were fortunate because we had a lot of great times and great friends. I remember, right when we started to get it together and come into Manhattan, I went to a show that I think had something to do with Bill Laswell’s studio or label. It was at the Cooler, an important venue for all of this. That was the first time I saw Sub Dub. It was right when We™ was starting to get on its legs, we were starting to gig, sitting around and talking about what we were going to do musically. For me, right around then a lot of paths crossed in the course of a couple months that would eventually continue for the rest of the decade.
What do you think happened once the name illbient got coined more solidly?
There was a lot of conflict. A lot of egos, every time you get involved in music. As with a lot of publicity, good or not, it’s derived from conflicts. But it’s never been my thing. I don’t give a shit about that. I don’t think that the battle over who created the name illbient had anything to do with the end of the scene. Every music scene is not without the ego clashes. A lot of the confusion came from us resisting a formula, and so much electronic music is about having a formula.
Where and how do you see the ‘90s experimental scene coming to an end? Some of the people I’ve spoken to mentioned the cleaning up of the city by Giuliani, the way events shifted to more of a commercial-driven factor, the tensions…
The changing of the dates, too. The changing of the numbers is a very subtle thing that happens in culture and it affects people. I saw a fast change after the millennium. ’80s retro hit really fast and hard. I think subconsciously we rarely recognize how hard it hits you. Every time there’s a decade change.
We had a core group and people who would come to parties, but to a certain extent we had to convince the average person who doesn’t think about music too much. And they take less time to think about which parties they’re going to go to. They’re the ones whose ideas change when the decades change. They’re more likely to say “I’m not living in the ‘90s anymore, I’m living now,” and they’d go to different parties.
Images: Marlies Panciera