BLUSH_RESPONSE: Dimensional Research

BLUSH_RESPONSE is the vehicle for Cuban/American musician Joey Blush's research into the sonic dimension. With a unique approach in sonic experimentation and a penchant for defying conventions, he seeks to both influence and harness the unpredictability of complex electronic instrumentation, with an effort to create a direct expression of his emotions. This sonic ritualism is exemplified in his prolific reporting of fractalized audio sculpture.

Eliza Aboltina interviews BLUSH_RESPONSE to explore his past-presence-future in music, the role of interplay between technology and artistry, and his process behind the upcoming full length album DIMENSIONAL RESEARCH, to be released this summer on Erica Synths and Kontaktor Festival record label KONTAKTOR RECORDS. The label is a further extension of showcasing boundary-pushing artists who fearlessly challenge the status quo of contemporary electronic music.

Fofo Altinell

- What was your first exposure to music that you can recall?'

BR: My mother said that she used to play Fly Me to the Moon (Frank Sinatra, 1954 - ed.) in the car and that I always wanted to sing it and hear it again. So that was my favorite song as a kid. And from there - on a more serious note, I'd say probably the first things I heard that really touched me were bands like Korn and Orgy on MTV when I was around 10 years old. Around the same time a good friend showed me the Prodigy and that changed my life forever. I believe I learned the term hard industrial rock very early on.

- Did that already come with an idea that music is something you want to do?

BR: No, I just liked it. What is this? It's so cool. Around the same time, my aunt was a raver and she gave me a rave compilation that had a bunch of cool stuff on it like LFO, Prodigy, Art of Noise.

I had no real connection to music in Miami. I started when I was 16 when my family moved to upstate New York. I had a lot of time on my hands, being bored in my parents basement. I was really into music as a listener for a while, but I didn't know anything about going to shows. So once I got into going to hear local bands in New York I knew I wanted to do it. I had been doing piano lessons, but I hated them. My stepfather had a drum kit, so I started teaching myself to play the drums. Then I discovered that you could buy synthesizers and by the age of 16 I got my first one - Korg Microkorg.

- If you had the power to go back in time, what would be the very first music you wish you were exposed to?

BR: Autechre. Maybe they're my favorite, or one of - I oscillate between them and a few other acts. But also, I like so much different music. Sometimes I might only listen to one random person for six months and then never listen to them again. But those six months were really important for my development.

- Do you feel like your path in music was rather fate or an active choice?

BR: 100% fate - if I hadn't found music I would have hanged myself.

I love video games, probably just as much as music. So it might have been cool to try to become a pro gamer. I experimented a bit with coding games and game engines for a future sound design project, and I'm not so into the coding side. So I don't think I can be a developer but truthfully, when I try to think of anything else I might do in life I see nothing. Maybe being some sort of scientist like a marine biologist...

BR in his studio

- Can you sketch a timeline of your development as a musician and cornerstone moments?

BR: I was 16 years old when I started to make music. At age 18 - right away I started playing with a band that was quite popular in America at the time. They were an electro clash / synth pop band called Dangerous Muse. My first real gig that I ever played was at the Out Magazine Out 100 Awards to a ton of celebrities. David Bowie was there.

That moment made me realize that music is something viable - as a means of career. That it's not just going to be me making noises in my room. And that is how I started to follow that path. Some years later my friends went to see Alan Wilder from Depeche Mode to his solo Recoil tour. For some reason he needed an MS-20 to use on stage (Korg synthesizer -ed.). And I had an original, it was before the reissue. And my friends called me asking if I wanted to bring it to Baltimore and hang out with him. There I met Rhys Fulber - he helped me a lot by bringing me in to do programming work on his remixes and so on. And then I worked with him on Fear Factory's record The Industrialist doing most of the synth work and a remix. It was a big deal to work with a metal band that sells 100,000 records. Then in 2013 I got to work with Joey Jordison from Slipknot, I went on tour playing synths for his group Scar The Martyr and then the next year I moved to Berlin.

- What happens in Berlin?

BR: Phase Fatale who had been a good friend of mine for a long time, right away upon my arrival brought me into his friend circle. I met people like Philip Strobel, who owns aufnahme + wiedergabe (record label - ed.) and other cool musicians and producers from the techno scene - Ancient Methods, Orphx etc. Everyone was super welcoming. I had written an EP called Future Tyrants just before moving to Berlin with the intention of pitching it to labels, so I gave Philip the EP and it was out eight months after I got here. I feel like I made all the right decisions that lead me here.

- So for you coming to Berlin was more about meeting the right people rather than being exposed to the sound of the city?

BR: I was always into industrial music, and more experimental electronic music like IDM, like Autechre who I mentioned before, or Somatic Responses, Phoenecia, Download, Venetian Snares, etc. I had never given techno a chance. And then somewhere around 2012 I heard Tommy Four Seven's track called Track Five. I felt like this sound was scary. And what is this? This is techno. Okay, I want to hear more of this. Because at that point I didn't know more. And another thing I heard was Kareem, a song called Tor. And both of those were so dark and weird. Up to that point I thought techno was stuff like Scooter. I was really into that dark sound and spent the next couple years just listening to everything. Orphx, Kangding Ray, Ancient Methods, SHXCXCHCXSH - lots of cool artists that really inspired me. I changed my sound because it felt very natural to me to do that. I started developing this approach of recording tracks live and playing them live. It felt it made much more sense than painstakingly editing on the computer. And that was music that sounded like it was made this way. It felt very natural.

- Can you elaborate on your relationship with sound and the means of production?

BR: I always found that the things I like most about records would be moments like a three second break where the delay goes crazy, or the drums make a weird sound and I would just listen to those. So early on in making music, I thought I have to write songs. And for whatever reason, I was stuck in this mindset. Techno helped me break it. What if that three second part was the whole song? In terms of the path of exploration it was really about learning everything I can about synthesis. I would open Richard Devine's Virus TI patches and go through all the modulation routings to understand how a particular sound was made that way. I would learn how to create sounds by reverse engineering Devine's and other sound designer work. I would pick things apart and try to recreate to learn the techniques to then find my own sound.

- Do you relate to sound and creative process via thinking about the experience it has on the listener or audience?

BR: It depends. I would say most of my music is quite selfish. It's expressing myself. I feel like I'm putting paint on a canvas in a way of sound. I don't mean this as a self aggrandizing comparison, but I think of Jackson Pollock action painting where it's very instinctive and not structured. Even though there is a rhyme to the reason it looks strange on the outside. I'm trying to find a natural form of expression for myself, sometimes I don't even understand it. What am I conjuring here? What emotion is this? Sometimes it's very clear to me what's going on. And sometimes I don't know what came out. And I can maybe analyze it later and think about what may have been on my mind. In terms of responding to the audience, I would say a live performance setting is most definitely where there's a give and take. And there's a lot of presenting something, seeing how it's working, responding to the audience reaction, developing it further or moving to the next thing, and there's a lot of back and forth. There's also kind of the wildness of live setting - it's really unplanned, a lot can happen. Recently, I played in Texas. And suddenly, my modular, completely muted - one module in the signal chain had died. I had to diagnose the whole thing on the spot. So I had my drum machine - Analog Rytm. I made a bass sequence on that and a new drum pattern in 30 seconds, just so that I would have something to play while I was able to diagnose what was wrong with the modular. I would say that some sort of demon was tormenting me from another realm that had nothing to do with me or the audience.

- When Xeno & Oaklander had a gig in Riga and Sean had problems with his modular during the soundcheck, he said playing modular synths is like playing with fire as you are creating music from pure electricity. I think it's a common notion of live electronics - for it to feel like dealing with a natural force.

BR: Exactly! I'm a huge fan of Martial Canterel (Sean's solo project - ed.) I think it's the closest thing to having some kind of superpower. Manipulating the elements.

- Where do you draw stimulus from? Do you seek inspiration from the outer or rather your inner world to create?

BR: I would say I'm constantly experiencing life in real time and I make music almost daily. Everything influences me in some way. But I do listen to a lot of music and a lot of music definitely has an influence on me - sometimes I can hear it in my music and whenever I do, I get pissed off, and I try to take it away. I do have this very vain struggle to make a vision of music that is uniquely my own, for better or worse. I've been fighting against it for years, because oftentimes, it'll be like, I've never heard anything like this. And then a month later, I'll hear exactly something like that, because there's so much music out there. Back then it was like, I want to make music no one has ever heard before. Now it's sort of changed to like, I want to make music that feels like it's truly me. I think it's a little bit better of an approach.

Fofo Altinell

- Being a musician and a part of an industry comes with complying to a certain playground, right? With electronic music becoming more and more popular in the past years, with social media having a major influence on who gets booked and so on, I think it has become more and more apparent that music often follows trends and the demand by the average consumer in result producing a very saturated field that often lacks authenticity. I would go as far to say that it slows down the development of sound by reproducing what sells.

BR: I think it's really dependent on what you want to do. Like, if you want to make a lot of money and make a product that sells to people, then chasing trends is probably a good route. But if you're trying to make a unique artistic vision, then it's a waste of time. I respect my fans a lot. I think they expect me to try and go the distance and present them something cool. If I were to chase trends, I would be doing them and myself a disservice. So whatever effect it might have on my career, positive or negative, I have to do things my way.

- Do you completely reject making a compromise between staying authentic to your artistic vision and decisions that might make your career more financially sustainable?

BR: It is definitely a hard balance. That's why I do a lot of other stuff like sound design, and my YouTube channel to diversify my portfolio. I really like dance music. I also like making really weird music. So the way I look at it is like, why can't I do both? Maybe one release might be super weird and another release might be 20 tracks of straight techno. It's fun to do both. I have no aversion to pop. As long as I feel that the output is true to me in some way, I'm okay with it. One day, I might be in the mood to make a piece that is 30 minutes of harsh noise, another day I might want to make a funky bassline and a really easy dance track. It's okay to do both. I don't understand the pretense of only doing one thing over another. With all that said, though, I try to make something that's completely my own. As I said before, that's what I expect of myself. I still haven't completely figured this out.

- What is your experience on dealing with promoters, agents, and labels and parts of the industry that aren't always a positive creative force but an inevitable part of it ?

BR: I've definitely had experiences with record labels telling me my music is too strange or too weird, and trying to change it, trying to get me to change it really aggressively. And I did not respond well to that. So I don't work with those people anymore. I definitely feel that my recent output has been maybe a bit stranger than what's acceptable in the techno scene. So it might have affected me. Probably. Definitely. It remains to be seen what happens next, I guess, but I have to follow the path that I'm on and what feels natural at the moment.

I did compromise listening to these labels, following their advice, which then became demands. Once they became demands, I understood it was never advice. By giving in, and I'm still happy with those releases, I realized that I was giving away my own expression in favor of a rubric. You know, for the club or one person's taste. And that's not at all what I want to do. Even if I ended up with no one ever listening to me ever again. I don't want to do that.

I think if you sign an artist, that means you want them and you have to be ready for whatever they bring to you. And it's okay as a label to not like it and say - this is not for me, that's fine. But if you say this is not for me, change it - now that is a problem. Some artists are willing to do this. And I don't understand it. I always see complaints about how music is becoming more and more boring. It doesn't try as hard, techno is so boring and formulaic. And a lot of that is because the techno artists and labels put pressure on each other to make it that way. It's so formulaic because they want it to be.

- And why do you think that is? Do you think that's the demand from the audience? Is the listener becoming less advanced and a certain formula / familiar simplicity is required in order to sell records?

BR: I think it's a bit of fear and maybe a bit of laziness. People are afraid to take chances because the gig economy is so fragile, as we’ve seen with covid. Also, I've heard puzzling statements that certain tracks of mine are hard to mix, because they might have something weird happening in the intro, or other reasons. But I have no problem mixing them. So I wonder, is it just because people are lazy? Maybe they are afraid to play something that will throw them off a little, but isn’t it exciting for things to go a bit haywire? I like things to be a bit unpredictable.

Asked to give an example of music from his discgraphy that would fit on the stranger side, BLUSH_RESPONSE names his NEUROSCAPE LP

- Do you think the same statements can be applied to listeners? Not talking about your fans in particular but rather in a general sense.

BR: I can’t speak for all listeners but I wonder at parties sometimes if the music is really the focus, or just the social scene. If the music is so in the background does it matter what is being played? I’ve definitely cleared a few dance floors with my sets before. I think it’s easy to play into what people want because the feedback is definitely instant when everyone walks away. I try to just present what I do and if people are into it I’m grateful.

I want to preface this by saying I really love a lot of techno, but I don't see much difference between the techno scene in Europe and the EDM scene in America. When you are playing festivals with thousands of people in attendance you are no longer underground. Big money is involved, and the same sorts of big money people come in to try and make money, which takes the power away from the underground.

There are DJs getting $50,000 fees to play one gig. That's money. That's business, and that's fine. I’m not against money making. But that sort of money implies mainstream attention. It is very far removed from Underground Resistance.

I also want to say that I’m not against “simple” music. Just because something is simple, doesn't make it worthless. There's a lot of great simple stuff. I’ve heard complaints of my own music that it goes nowhere. Well why does it always have to go somewhere? Maybe I just want to create a place I can park my brain in for some time. I really enjoy music that has no changes. A lot of noise music is extremely simple, but it's about how it makes you feel. But also oftentimes, I prefer to have my brain stimulated because I'm really pretentious (laughing -ed.).

- You said it's not underground anymore. Dance music and techno music in particular since the beginning of times has been political and has come with certain values e.g. resistance. Do you think there is any of that left?

BR: Sure there's a lot of politics in music and there has always been politics in music. I don't think all dance music has always been political, but I definitely think some has. And sure some of it is there. But you know, we're just in a different era. Back then you had to make a statement through art because that was one of the only avenues you had to express yourself. Now just share some memes or a status update about the new cause of the week. That's how it's done.

Fofo Altinell

- How do you see the evolution of the project Blush Response?

BR: I made three albums as Blush Response, where I was writing songs that I would sing on, and had full structure and everything. And I mostly cringe at those now, I wish I never released them. I would delete those if I could. But I also think it's wrong to delete history. That's what I did then. And it served a purpose.

Then when I discovered techno, I felt like I don't have to do this crap anymore and that this is in a way easier. I don't mean that as a bad thing but rather of it feeling like a more natural expression for me. And even when I was writing songs like that, what I really liked doing was just playing with the gear to assemble the parts, and then I would cut it up. I remember thinking wow, if only I could just play with the gear and record that. I don't know why I didn't think that it could work that way because I listened to a lot of weird music. And I knew that they're just playing with the gear. So once I made that shift, late 2014 - just before moving to Berlin, it felt like a new era. I then made music that was a signifier for a clean break of whatever people might have heard from me before and what is next.

- Speaking of instruments, you have a rather wide array of music instruments at your disposal. What is the relationship between music technology and music itself in your world?

BR: I think that music has always been a response to the technology available. When synthesizers came out in the 50s and 60s, they were in labs only as giant lab equipment, then we had Moog and Buchla, kind of simultaneously making the first home modular systems. And then keyboard synthesizers. Then every prog rock band had a keyboard solo, then in the late 70s, early 80s synthesizers took over everything. Then the development of all the 80s music, digital synthesis, which changed the sound of music. Also production techniques, like for example, David Bowie's Low record, the Eventide harmonizer, the very first one had come out and all the drums sound so weird, because Tony Visconti, the producer thought to put the drums through that. Always, as new technology comes, there's a shift in the sound. In the late 90s, early 2000s, every person sold all their hardware, because laptops were the thing.

- But this statement that every new technology changes the sound, do you still find it to be true to date?

BR: Well, what I think has happened now is we have access to all the sounds now. We have almost everything. So what's changing now is the method of control. Look at the concept of a wave-folder, waveshaper. They're quite common now. But 10 years ago, when I started building a modular, you could maybe buy three, and I had to look up YouTube videos of a Buchla or a Serge synthesizer (and there were like three videos) to hear what a wavefolder was like. Then in 1989, Kurzweil made the K2000, which had a waveshaper in it. But since no one had the patience to program those really, no one really knew it was there. Now we have better access to control the things which are previously incredibly difficult to do like FM synthesis. The DX7 and every FM synth up until like five years ago, was horrifyingly bad to use. I could use them, and I have used them, but now I have the Korg Opsix or the Elektron Digitone and other options from other people in modular and even the software synthesizers, it's so much easier to just get to the sound. I think we're filling the gaps of that. Granular synthesis, there had never been a hardware granular synth until this year, now there are five and 20 different ways to control them, which has never existed before, but the concept has existed. I don't know if there are more concepts and I'm not the guy to come up with them. Is that a good answer?

- In relation to this, how have your production methods changed over time?

BR: They have gotten more primitive, I would say. In my early days, I was heavily reliant on the computer to record and edit everything, everything was meticulously crafted and over designed - I was using plugins to shape the effects and mix and all. Once I started getting into modular I found a more instinctive approach, as I mentioned. I started to regress in a way that I don't want to overcook things and edit every little piece and work myself over the minutiae of the production. And I much prefer things to be meditation. In a way, I would say that my approach is quite anachronistic. There's always the discussion of whether I need all this equipment to make the music? I 100% need all this equipment to make the music because that is the way I like to make my music. I will go against everyone who says you only need a laptop. Because it's not just a laptop, it's a laptop filled with 5000 pieces of extremely powerful software. That's just your setup, that's a laptop with 40 synths - no one has just two plugins it's rather a million of them - either bought or pirated. It's not that different.

- At the end of the day it's also about a preference of a way of working - some people are willing to spend all their time on on a laptop, some people need that tactile interaction with an instrument.

BR: I think that MIDI controllers and mouses are horrible ways of controlling things - mouse because you can only do one thing at a time and a MIDI controller because you'll never have exactly as many parameters as you need. I tried too. I got tired of dragging my modular around for live performances at some point. So I wondered, what if I did this with a laptop? How would I do this? And I realized I would actually have to take more equipment with me, because I needed the laptop, the audio interface, the controller, and I could not find a controller that has 100 knobs, like my modular system does, in a small case. Then there's a ton of setup required to get those knobs to interact with Ableton or Bitwig and it's so much extra work, whereas the hardware... it just works.

- When it works.

BR: When it works... It can also break but it's always fixable. I've bought plugins that don't work five years later, because they're not updated for my new computer, and won’t be. So I wasted money. Or, for example, Native Instruments just discontinued Absynth, a synth I legitimately love and use a lot, so in some time it will be mostly gone forever. But my 40 year old E-mu Systems Emax still works.

- So perhaps in some sense, hardware can be regarded as more sustainable.

BR: Yes, also as an investment (laughing -ed.)

Erica Synths and Kontaktor Festival announces the upcoming launch of Kontaktor Records, a record label dedicated to exploration and promotion of experimental electronic music. Kontaktor Records is a further extension of showcasing boundary-pushing artists who fearlessly challenge the status quo of contemporary electronic music. Among 2 other releases in 2023, BLUSH_RESPONSE' latest body of work, full length album DIMENSIONAL RESEARCH will be released in 2023.

BR: Dimensional Research was written directly after my album Void In. Void In was my first exploration with generative music. A the time I was listening to, of course Autechre I was also inspired by SDEM and a lot of ambient composers like Robert Rich, Steve Roach. And so after doing my Void In album, I just kind of kept working. I would set up a patch on my modular that would generatively create drum patterns and melodies and all and then playing with those influencing them. And vice versa, me speaking with the machine directly, because my other tracks were very deliberate. And this time, I wanted to let the machine speak for itself in a way under my influence. There are definitely a lot of changes that happened throughout the tracks, because what I would do is I would set up in way that was inspired by Richard Devine - he said he would have multiple systems performing different parts of the track. And while I don't have 10 modulars but I have all these synthesizers, and all these modulars, so I would set up like, here's one section of drums for this part, here's the next section of drums to this next section of drums. And then this synth is doing this sound, which is the main part for the first minute then etc, etc, just using all of my studio at once, to provide dynamic change over time in these generative compositions.

Things ephemeral, beyond perception.

- Is this particular method of work the main influence behind the immersiveness of this album?

BR: Yes, it really was an inspiring period. In terms of the sound of the music, I did not see that coming the way it did. I was listening to it again this week and I was really happy with it. I'm not always happy with everything. But it felt like it had reached a certain level. I did an album in 2021 called Reconstitution, which I'm also happy with but I feel it's very straightforward. As well as Neuroscape, both of those are really about just going for the jugular immediately without much space to breathe. And that's cool. But Dimensional Research is a really pure expression of me, trying my hardest to make something beyond comprehension. And I think I achieved that in some ways. At least I hope so!

I'm not worried about the listeners' interests. Too weird has most definitely never been an issue for me.

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