John Roberts Peels Away His New Album, Plum

Shawn Reynaldo catches up with the Brunette Editions boss about his surprising new LP


Asked by Carsten Jost, Pantha Du Prince and Lawrence to be the first American artist on the influential German imprint Dial Records, John Roberts’ work has received major accolades for its distinct, refined aesthetic. His debut album Glass Eights and follow-up Fences proved that Roberts is an artist with a vision, able to spread his experimental sonics across the LP format to create a rewarding and danceable listen. That same vision also helps shape The Travel Almanac, a print publication he co-founded which explores the mobile lifestyles of artists, filmmakers and musicians. In 2015, he started another venture, Brunette Editions, a record label which will soon be releasing his third album, Plum. To mark the occasion, Shawn Reynaldo caught up with Roberts for RBMA Radio’s First Floor show to talk about all things Plum and his unorthodox plans to present it to the world.

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Listening to the album, I think the main reaction most people are going to have is, “Wow, this sounds really different. It has hardly any nods to house or techno music.” Where did this particular sound palette spring from?

I don’t listen to much current music. I have strange listening habits. I listen to the same few albums that I really like over and over again. I have a Suicide album and the From Brussels With Love compilation which I listen to on repeat. When I’m listening to my own music, it’s rehashing these things over and over.

My only way of getting new musical input is through radio. If I’m working in the studio and I need a break I go out, make lunch and listen to Hot 97, or one of the pop stations. I guess that the structure of pop music probably had an influence on this album. I like the idea of distilling down as many ideas as possible into as concise a package as possible.

John Roberts - Six

I noticed that the album is 29 minutes long, and that most of the songs are around three minutes long. Do you think that listening to pop music helped take you in that direction?

Yeah, definitely. I think it’s interesting to have these concise packages of musical information. You can can digest them one at a time or listen to it all the way through, but I like the idea that you can come into a longer piece of music at any point and get the general feel of what it’s about. I like how concise and impactful pop music is. It’s a lot for the senses in a short period of time. That’s been appealing to me lately.

When I listen to the album I kept thinking about grime and UK bass music. Those are sounds that I would have never associated with John Roberts. Is there any chance that you’ve been listening to UK bass music?

It’s not so coincidental. It’s not something that I’ve been listening to recently, but it’s one of the first genres that I stared buying on record when I was a teenager. I got really into 2-step garage and would listen to pirate radio streams. That proto-grime sound, that eski sound – that was super interesting to me. Those UK genres are always in the back of my mind.

I know that you do both DJ sets and live sets. I was wondering if any of these tracks developed out of you performing live, or if playing live has affected your production methods?

This album was a rejection of DJing and playing live. I had the realization that I don’t enjoy being on stage and that I’m tired of the idol worship of music performance. I didn’t think about how I was going to perform [the album] live while I was making it. I was going based off of what I was feeling in the moment. In the past, I always felt like having to get things ready for a live performance was a step in the wrong direction, because electronic music is so complicated and I spend so much time producing these songs in an intricate way.

It didn’t make any sense to then try to break the songs down into simplified parts that I could reproduce on stage. It felt counterproductive. I’d rather be spending that time making a new visual project or working on new music. I made a conscious decision to spend my time doing that rather than doing live performances or DJ gigs in abundance.

Now that the album is complete, are you planning to stop playing live and DJing?

I’m going to be working towards redefining what those things would mean to me. I still, of course, want to find as many ways as possible in which to connect with as live as an audience as possible. That’s always been my goal. I’ve never wanted to do anything exclusive. I don’t feel that comfortable being on stage, so I’ve been exploring other options. I’ve been working on a film which is an accompaniment to the new album, which I’m planning to show at a festival, in gallery settings and online. I thought that it would be a nice format for getting the music and the video work out to as many people as possible.

When you’re presenting the music, wherever it happens, will you just be showing the film and playing the music? You won’t actually be on stage?

That’s totally correct. It would play just like if you went to a movie theater to see a film. I’m doing the premiere in Berlin at this great multimedia festival called Pop-Kultur, in a theater called Passage Kino. That’s on August 31st and I’m super excited about it. It’s a really wonderful and historic theater. I’m super into movies and I spend a lot of my free time researching and going to see them, so it’s a mode of presentation that makes sense to me. It was fun to spend my time filming and editing this movie project to go along with the album, rather than spending my time breaking down the music I’d already produced in order to present it in a semi-live way.


Before you started Brunette Editions you had a really long-standing relationship with Dial. Whenever someone works at a label for a long time and then branches out to do their own thing, there’s a question of, “Oh, did something happen?” Are you still on good terms with Dial and do you think that you might work with them again?

We’re still great friends. It wasn’t about anything negative. They gave me so much control when I was working with them, but I also came in at a time when the label had a defined sound of its own. I started to feel that there was an expectation of me – not from the label, perhaps from the listeners – to progress in a way that was appropriate for the label, or something like that. I mean, that could also be something that I imagined, but it was important for me to move forward and have an open forum to do anything that I wanted to do, without having it be tied to any previous context. It was really freeing for me and a super positive thing to start this label. There are no expectations and I could go in whatever direction that I want to go in. Dial have been super supportive and are excited for me.

By Shawn Reynaldo on July 19, 2016

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