TL had the privilege of catching up with the back-to-the-future mastermind behind a project that is surely going to make a big impression on music in the very near future. Andrew Fox more formally known as Visuals had some very insightful cues to feed us on his own influences, the creative process, and the intricacies of finding your own identity as a musician within a plethora of cultural sounds and vibrations that we call music.
The NY native and Other People label signee who now resides in the artistic mecca of Berlin takes us on a ear opening sonic journey through his own alluring influential music selections as well as perhaps one of his own unreleased works concocted into a mixtape below and then continues to break it down for us ever so eloquently via and impressive Q&A.
First off, always a bit of redundancy to the question of how you describe your music or categorize it, but can you give us your take on how you’d describe your sound?
Spaced age beat pop for introverts.
Give us some insight as to what exactly your musical background consists of?
I started off playing and singing folk songs on guitar, and became really interested in chords. Just the magic and math of chords, that led me to start playing jazz, but I was never a shredder, just wanted to write songs with those beautiful sounds. Picked up bass and drums and some keys along the way, and when I moved to Brooklyn originally was playing a combination of all those as utility man and back up singer. The fact that I was a jack of all trades led me into a production role, which in turn got me interested in electronic music.
Where/when did you first acknowledge that you wanted to be a musician? Instruments you play? And how did you evolve from that point forward?
I picked up my mom’s guitar at around age 8, but music and instruments were a constant in my life since I was very young, aged 2 playing drums to the Who on a cookie tin. But I think around 15, I started getting into recording demos and realized I could combine my various artistic ambitions within the life of a song.
Can you name a handful of artists both contemporary and not of today that influence what you do as an artist?
The first electronic artist that made me realize that’s where I was totally headed was Gold Panda, his Brazil EP. Before that I had a definite appreciation for electronic music, starting in the 90s when I first heard Tricky’s pre Millenium tension… but at that point I had no idea that where I was developing sonically would be towards drum machines and samplers and synths.
I listen really broadly though; I like to alternate UK guys like Luke Abbott or Andy Stott with Nina Simone’s late 60s covers or super early ska. Warm and cold sounds, up against each other. I tend to listen to the past for songs, and to the present for compositions and textures.
How did you get connected with Nico and Other People? Can you talk a bit about Nicolas and the whole Other People movement and what Nico has been able to create through his against the grain appeal and vision?
I have been friends with and bandmates with Dave Harrington for the better part of the last ten years, so when he started working with Nicolas, we were introduced. I had a lot of respect for Nicolas’ music and vision, its so clear and intense and has definitely switched many people on. But my favorite side of Nico is like, eating fried chicken with him. He and Dave are hilarious, they are some of my favorite people to get weird with, which is why I think we have an ease connecting musically. When I ask Nico to replace my guitar solo with a Gamelan record, he knows how that works.
Other People artists – if I were to classify, I would say have a healthy disrespect for the boundaries of genre. Dave plays country one night, and then does some experimental electronics the next. Will ( High Water ), is like the ghost of Albert Ayler on sax but makes such sweet gospel ditties. Valentin Stip – he’s the deepest selector I know, but also plays piano like a true French romantic. Then you have guys like Mode, who blend a new age mysticism with super hot 80s bangers. Its a real testament to Nicolas’ palette that all of these people are able to find a sonic home together.
You were born in NY…did that take effect on you and your musical direction? Also, what brought you to Berlin where you are based now —if my resources serve me correctly?
The New York thing. Well, I look to a lot of the NY greats, but particularly, I am a 3rd generation New York Jew and the Jews have such an enormous history in song in the city… from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway to Lou Reed to the Ramones and so on. I don’t really identify religiously ever, except when it comes to being part of this songwriter tradition. As far as being born in NY, and not just living in Brooklyn as a twenty something, that history sticks with me.
Berlin though, my decision to move here was because it has such a strong creative atmosphere, artists from the whole world are here, and yet the city itself isn’t violent. By violent I mean the energy of this city – its not really about getting ahead or getting over. The announcements on the UBahn are soft. The energy here is both so calm, and yet, the people will literally party for an entire weekend straight. There’s enough time to sit and enjoy life without feeling like the meter is running.
Let’s talk a bit about your creative process…
Is there a particular method to your songwriting? Do you usually start with a guitar in hand and then build a structure around that, a beat, a melody, or does it happen in different ways?
At this point there’s a lot of ways into songs for me. Actually for the better part of this year I didn’t have a guitar at all. Usually though, what happens is that I get a feeling for a set of chords, on guitar or piano or through a melody in my head. Then I just chase that feeling down. Play it over a 100 different beats until it reveals itself. I love to start with beats too, but those end up being more of a study, a trick to keep in the back pocket.
Your music clearly has rock influence but it also seems in my opinion to crossover into minimal electronic elements (i.e. with the beat, some synth work here and there, and especially on Pixel (your collab with Nico and Dave). Where do those two worlds meet in your process?
It definitely starts in my listening process. While I grew up on classic rock and then later punk and indie, in the last 3 or 4 years electronic music started to resonate more with me. A good amount of UK guys. Gave me more of that art feeling, where you just natively sense that something is fresh and defining the moment. So I try and combine warm and cold sounds, minimal repetitiveness but then also live and emotional sounds. I see the electronic side as kind of a spine – it allows me to explore canonically non-rock textures and spaces while still working with more or less traditional song structures. Love a good ABABC.
What DAW do you work within? What are a few of the instruments, plugins, etc that are crucial to your process?
These days I am only using Ableton, because I find its so playable…it behaves like an instrument and I never feel like an engineer while I am writing. I make a lot of my own sampled instruments, I like to sample my voice or take bell like sounds and stretch them impossibly long to make textures. Number one instrument: the voice. Keeping that in tune is the most crucial thing.
Mix/master yourself or dish off to someone else? I know that producers spend so much time with a song prior to the stage of mixing & mastering so often times it can beneficial to have someone else mix/master at that point? Can you discuss this?
Having mixed a lot of other musician’s material at this point, I feel its pretty critical to be able to hand off your tracks to different ears. I definitely have a DIY instinct, but I just know that for one thing, the ears have a tolerance point and you stop hearing certain frequencies after about 3 or 4 hours in a session. You have to stop. But also, for my songs, I can get so concerned with them working as a song, that I lose sense of lets say, the low end separation. Also I can spend a lot of time tweaking a reverb or running things through tape, but also I try and limit the amount of time I am working a song technically because John Lennon never worried about a 12db vs 24db cut off. And of course I am really lucky to be around people who are technically more adept at that stage of the process… even though I know how to side-chain I’m still just the singer.
How long does it usually take you to polish off a song from start to finish? Do you tend to see songs through once you get going or do you put ideas aside and revisit them down the line, what’s your take on this?
Songs definitely need time to mature. Theoretically I can make a song from tiny idea to polished production in a month, but in reality I prefer to perform it and let it live a bit before I commit to the final mix. I come from a live background so I like to know what songs mean when I am in front of an audience as much as in front of my laptop screen.
Big picture and more…
What is your thought process about being unique and distinct in your sound and not conforming too much to music that surrounds and influences you?
Actually I like the idea of purposefully absorbing certain influences, going to certain places because they have distinct sonic identities, while working towards a group of songs. At this point I trust that the gears in brain will distill the raw elements. But of course we are surrounded by so much raw data all the time; the challenge is to curate your inputs. They will be specifically yours. No one really feels your pain, or your joy, but you can compare notes.
In the scheme of making music, artists make a lot of songs and then decide to release some and not release others…how do you know when you have something that is compelling enough to release?
If you can play a song low, on laptop speakers, listen to it down the hall and you don’t question it – press it.
What advice would you give to any aspiring musicians looking to break through into the music world and be discovered?
Listen widely. You can become like the ones you admire. In fact you are better, you are fresher and your Soundcloud has sicker art.
What can we expect from you as far as new material (ALBUM??), touring, etc, in the near future?
Im pretty deep into the process of a full length right now. I can’t be specific about the release, but I’m a Gemini. Touring this winter through the EU, and I’ll be back to play the States once the record is done and out.
Some more playful questions..
What’s your favorite film?
Lately its been PT Anderson’s The Master. Brutal soundtrack, incredible images, and it put me on a Scientology kick for almost a year.
First album you remember listening to?
There’s video proof that it was a Pete Townshend live record, I think I was 2.
Do you have any guilty musical pleasures (i.e.. listening to TOP 40, pop, Drake)?