INTERVIEW: CHRISTOPHER WILLITS The Secret Life Of A Beach Boy

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Posted on Mar 12th 2009 11:01 pm

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INTERVIEW: CHRISTOPHER WILLITS The Secret Life Of A Beach Boy

Guitarist and electronic manipulator Chris Willits is a pioneer and a teacher, exploring new methodologies for signal processing, while publicly sharing his techniques through the video series What You Talkin’ ‘Bout Willits? for XLR8R. The latest EP from Willits’ side project, Flossin, with Zach Hill from Hella, features a who’s who of experimental musicians, from Matmos to Strategy to Wobbly. Willits sat down with themilkfactory’s David Abravanel after a solo show at John Zorn’s New York performance space, The Stone, to discuss advances in music technology, what exactly ‘folding’ is, and whether or not ‘Flossin’ should have umlauts over the ‘o’.

First off, great show! Your setup tonight – can you describe what you were playing through? Is this a usual setup for you on tour?
This is a brand new setup, actually. I’m traveling with a different interface, to save some room, and some extra pounds on my body when I’m moving stuff around. I’m using an Edirol FA-66 [computer audio interface], and a new computer, which I’m stoked about. For the first time, I can actually do my audio and live video processing on one machine. I used to tour with two computers, which, again, was a load on the back.

So, you’re using Ableton Live for live performance, then?
Yeah.

And how do you process video on the same screen – do you use the split-screen function?
Yes. Right now, I’m using the beta version of [Ableton Live] 8, which hasn’t come out officially, and is amazing. Actually, we just did a new XLR8R video about the beta version, looking at the looper and some other new features that are in it. So, I’m using 8 with some customized plugins made in Max/MSP, and then the video side is all in Jitter [visual environment developed by Max/MSP-makers Cycling 74]. I’m running Max 5 and Jitter at the same time that I’m doing the Ableton stuff.

And your laptop can handle that load, all on one machine?
Yeah! That’s what’s so amazing about it. This is the biggest jump in processing power that I’ve felt since the late nineties; it’s super exciting.

Could you describe what you do with the visuals? Are they synced up to the music, or more their own thing?
They’re synced up, in a sense, because the math – the proportions – underlying different jump cuts and [audio] folding processes is similar. I can trigger stuff directly from hits, or cuts and folds in the audio, and make that go directly to the video, but I find it more interesting if I have a little bit of a gap between what’s happening with the video and what’s happening with the audio. People become more active participants, and sync it up in their minds with their experiences, instead of it being this one-to-one, all-filled-in experience with nothing to imagine.

Last night I did an image collaboration with Scott Pagano. We used these images we shot at the Botanical Garden in San Francisco, years ago. We’ve been stockpiling this archival footage, and making slow-morphs between the scenes, and blurring them out, and making them change really gradually over time.

You mentioned using a beta of Ableton 8. You’re also an avid user of Max/MSP and Pluggo,a program allowing users to turn Max/MSP patches into plugins. Have you worked with Max for Live yet? Do you think it’s going to change things?
Absolutely. Max for Live is like my dream come true. I’m working with Ableton, giving them feedback. They haven’t released it officially, but we got some taste of it at NAMM [National Association of Music Merchants trade show], and it’s exciting, because all the stuff I’m doing with plugins can now be housed within Ableton. We’re going to see an exponential curve in customized signal processing. There’s also ways now, with Live 8, that you can share you stuff directly through the interface, online with people. It’s going to be remarkable, how much stuff there is for people to use, develop, co-develop, and collaborate on.

Looking at electronic musicians, a number of artists like to ‘black box’ what they do – they don’t share their techniques or tricks for making music. You’ve taken an opposite approach, with your series for XLR8R. When you look at something like Max for Live, would you be willing to share your Max/MSP patches – just put them out there for people?
Yeah, for sure! Over the years – I’ve been making patches for ten years – there’s a bunch of stuff I’ve developed. Essentially, what I’m doing with the XLR8R videos is trying to kind of lift the veil of obscurity on a lot of this stuff. People don’t really understand what live, improvising electronic and acoustic musicians are doing, or what kind of tools they’re using. So I’m trying to show the ‘backstage’ of my process, that’s one of the big intentions of the XLR8R series.

People who work with solid-state electronics and circuits often argue that there’s an impossiblity to replicate signature, that digital is too ‘perfect’ or ‘clean’ to match. Do you feel one way or the other about this?
The materiality of the process is going to end up creating a different result; it’s going to manifest something different. So, it depends on what you’re trying to go for. There are things you can do digitally that are absolutely remarkable, and there are tones and timbres and warmth that you get with analog processing and solid-state stuff that you can’t get digitally. That’s why I’m really interested in using both. I’m interested in hybridizing acoustic vibrating strings and electromagnetic pickups, and then using that with the idea of memory and processing, and folding and decimating things in different ways. I think that broadening your sound palette is a wonderful thing to do, so my approach is to use it all.

Quick side note – in a recent XLR8R video you mentioned a friend of yours in [San Francisco post-punk band] Flipper. Are they still together?
Yeah! They did a tour with Bad Religion.

Do you think you might collaborate with them – is that potentially on the horizon?
I’m trying to get Ted [Falconi] in the studio. He’s one of my favorite noise guitarists, and he’s an awesome guy. I’m trying to get him in the studio; we’re just trying to work out our schedules. So, Ted, if you’re checking out this post, the heat’s on man, you gotta come through! [laughs]

Speaking of collaboration, you’ve just released a new EP as Flössin.
Yeah, on Overlap.org.

Are there umlauts over the ‘o’ on that? I’ve seen it spelled with and without them.
[laughs]Yeah, I love it when people say ‘yeah man, I love “Floosin!”’ We kind of do it either way. We realized that sometimes when we wrote it as ‘Flössin’, there’d be some weird character over the umlaut, so it’d be like ‘Floo-‘diamond’-ssin’. Everyone was just calling is ‘Flossin’, so we’re just kind of switching it. On iTunes, though, it’s still Flössin, but on eMusic it’s Flossin. So, we’re just confusing people [laughs].

Sounds like fun! The core of Flössin is you and Zach Hill from Hella?
Yeah.

And on the last album, there was a kind of power trio with the two of you and Miguel Depedro, aka Kid606. On the latest EP you’re working with Matmos, and you have remixes from Wobbly, Strategy, and Brad Laner. How do these collaborations come about?
Flossin is just about getting the family together, getting our friends together, and just making noise and improvising. We take our favorite parts and we put them out, at a time that fits in during gaps of releases from the rest of us. It’s about having fun, and making beautiful noise.

There’s something incredibly metal about it – maybe it’s just the presence of Zach Hill. There’s shredding in a way that I don’t hear on anything else that you’ve done.
Yeah, absolutely! All music, all sound is a huge influence on my work. Especially free jazz traditions – John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman. It’s really exciting for me to have a side project that can allow those influences to come out in a different way. There is a metal-y, jazz, cosmic rock thing going on.

One more thing about the name – where does it come from? It sounds like a hip-hop name.
We were thinking ‘flossin’, like ‘kicking it’. The name was kind of a joke, stemming from Hella, because ‘hella’ is a Northern California way of saying something is really cool. So ‘Flossin’ kind of stemmed off that. But Flössin, now that’s some new linguistic territory right there. We have the opportunity right now to actually coin that – get someone to write a false etymology.

It almost sounds like a portmanteau of ‘Foot Loosin’’
[laughs] Foot Loosin! That’s good.

There’s a rich scene of experimental electronic music in San Francisco, and you’ve worked with many of those artists. How long have you been ingrained in that, and has it been part of your development as an artist?
Absolutely. I went out to Mills [College] for grad school back in 2000, and I just felt right at home. In the bay area, there’s a rich improvising community of people doing electronic stuff, and noise stuff, minimal melodic things, chamber music – whatever. I’m really interested to try and just have fun, and make music from my heart, and bring people together that I have fun with. Who knows? The next Flossin record might be totally different; it might have an orchestra with me and Zach playing, or it might just be me and Zach as a duo.

Another collaboration – you did the album Ocean Fire with Ryuichi Sakamoto. I remember reading a profile about it that suggested he did most of the raw instrumental material, and you processed it through Max/MSP. Is that how it worked, or were you both working with post-processing?
We were both processing sounds through Max/MSP at the same time. I was using Ableton and customized plugins, and he was using MSP and different samples that he had recorded. We fell into this sonic meditation, and four hours later – ‘whoa, we have enough stuff for a record!’

So it was recorded live, in one take?
Yeah, we recorded about four hours of material in one afternoon, then took our favorite spots and produced them.

Was the ocean something you were thinking about when you recorded it?
Subconsciously, I think that’s what came out. There were moments where we were in this sea of sound, and we didn’t know what we were making. There were times when we’d look at each other and just start cracking up, just like, ‘are you doing that or am I doing that?’ We just felt like were immersed in this whole sonic wash.

Going back to you working solo, how do your tracks usually start?
That’s a good question. It’s a really mysterious process to me. It’s something that I’m always listening to and trying to pay attention to. Usually, the seed comes from a random study, or playing around with something, and then a pattern will emerge, and I’ll start playing with that, and before I know it I’ll fall in love with it, and develop it over the next couple days, then maybe put it on the shelf and come back to it. I have gigs and gigs of these seeds that have come from improvising and playing, that’s usually how it starts.

Listening to the process, the music actually starts to tell me more what to do than I feel like I’m telling the music what to do. Like the performance tonight, I don’t really feel like I’m in control of it so much. I might have some ideas of where I want it to go, but it essentially is telling me, and guiding me along the path.

Looking at early releases of yours, there are works like Pollen, consisting mainly of processed guitar, compared to Surf Boundaries, which was much more song-oriented and instrumentally expanded. Did you always think you would end up working more with instruments and expanding your sound?
Oh, for sure. Right now, it seems like the chronology is minimal growing into more maximal, but I was doing a ton of music even before [my early solo albums], playing in bands. I think that throughout my growth and evolution, I’m going to be changing, and doing a lot of different stuff. I would love to make another record like Folding, And The Tea or Pollen. I actually have a few different things that I’m working on now that are similar in structure – more straight up, real time processing of guitar. All of that process helped to germinate what it is that I’m doing now, and that’s also going to evolve back into those familiar forms in the future as well.

Speaking of Folding, And The Tea, ‘folding’ is a term that you’ve used a lot with your music. It’s a technical term – could you explain what it is?
It has a lot to do with time. I actually wrote a whole thesis about this, if you want to go to the Mills library and check it out [laughs]. It’s a very simple process of recording something to memory and then indexing at different points. But instead of it being a granular process [a form of synthesis in which a sample is separated into ‘grains’], I’m actually skating to different locations within this memory. So there’s this continuous rupture of time that creates these rhythmic patterns, so these melodic patterns start to emerge out of this time processing technique.

I don’t want this to be too odd of a description, but I dream a lot about stuff that happens in the future. I feel like a lot of the processing I’m doing, it reflects my nonlinear perception of time in general. It’s like the sense of déjà vu, when you know you’ve already experienced something. I get that a lot where I’ll remember the dream I had about a certain experience I’m having; I have no idea what’s going on with that. It reminds me of a similar musical process, where I’ll be playing something with my guitar, and then it’ll come back a little bit later in some type of different form or pattern. So, the idea of the fold is more like a continuous time rupture, as opposed to a granulation of sound. A lot of it comes from [Gilles] Deleuze, who has an amazing book called The Fold.

Lastly, can you tell me about Overlap.org?
It’s a project with Jon Phillips, who’s worked closely with the Creative Commons, Kenric McDowell, and Louis Rawlins – those are kind of the main players. Also, Lucky BK has been an awesome helper, helping set up the online shop and things like that. We’re acting as a record label. We’re an experimental label that is doing a lot more than a regular record label does. We’re doing a lot of community building events; we’re doing salons in San Francisco where people come in and show their work and share stuff. We’re doing listening events, parties, and we’re also providing people with a way to share their media online.

If you want to get out of Myspace, Pure Volume, or Facebook, there aren’t really great communities there of experimental media makers. We want Overlap to be a hub for people to, in a sense, have a captive audience to share their work and get feedback about it, and join up with other people who are doing it locally and globally.

In terms of Overlap as a record label, does the community of artists serve as a de facto demo pool for you?
Yes, exactly. When people submit stuff, there’s a Creative Commons license so that people can share freely, and then it also becomes kind of a demo for us to check out, and hey, we might do a release of it. There are five of us in the core of Overlap. We just started promoting it, and we already have a couple hundred users, so it’s going to be fun to see it ramp up.

Interview February 2009

Icon: arrow Christopher Willits | Overlap

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Comments (7)

7 Responses to “INTERVIEW: CHRISTOPHER WILLITS The Secret Life Of A Beach Boy”

  1. chrison 16 Mar 2009 at 3:31 am

    xlr8r is increbidly shitty. they DONT have a scene in san fran, they just have morons.

  2. themilkmanon 16 Mar 2009 at 10:26 pm

    woaw, that’s a pretty hateful comment.

  3. David Abravanelon 16 Mar 2009 at 10:39 pm

    chris – I’d ask you to elaborate on your opinions, but it seems like you’re more interested in trolling. On the off chance, though, I’d encourage you to at least check out Chris’s video series for XLR8R. I’ve found it very interesting, and a helpful tool for those looking to delve into electronic music production.

    As for there being a scene or not in San Francisco, I think it’s pretty hard to argue that SF just has morons.

    In any case, I hope this post accomplished the catharsis you seem to be looking for.

  4. Around the Net 12 | undomondoon 17 Mar 2009 at 9:45 pm

    [...] The Milk Factory interviews soundartist Christopher Willits about his collab with Zach Hill, Abelton Live 8, Max/MSP and music [...]

  5. Vitaminicon 18 Mar 2009 at 11:07 am

    [...] The Milk Factory meets Christopher Willits [...]

  6. Headphone Commuteon 23 Mar 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Excellent interview… I am looking forward to seeing Willits at Resonant Forms on April 3-5 in LA. It’s going to be quiet an interesting three days of live experimental music (including Chartier and Basinski!!!)… I’m excited enough to fly in across the country… See you there!?

  7. David Abravanelon 23 Mar 2009 at 10:54 pm

    @Headphone Commute-

    Well, I’m personally based in New York, so I won’t be able to make it, though it looks like a great lineup. Glad you enjoyed the interview!