Rusty Santos has recorded, mixed, mastered or produced some of our favorite music of the last five years: Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs; Born Ruffians’ Red, Yellow & Blue; Panda Bear’s Person Pitch; White Magic’s Day, Twilight, Night EP; and many, many more, including his own solo albums. So we were obviously pretty excited to hear the results of his new band The Present, with friends Jesse Lee and Mina. Those results are, unsurprisingly, both challenging and totally jamming. The Present’s World I See extracts all the weird details you didn’t even know you loved from the aforementioned albums and turns them into six songs that shift between spare piano twinkles, ambient noise experiments and hazy surf guitar, as evidenced in the eponymous track downloadable below. We are planning on listening to this record every time we need to clear the air this fall, but first, we wanted to talk to Rusty about how it went down and what he’s been up to. And since New York is the most synergistic city in the world, our former editor-in-chief, Alex Wagner, has booked The Present for tonight’s installment of the New Museum’s Get Weird series.
So read the interview, go Get Weird, and buy World I See when it comes out next month.
Download: The Present, “World I See”
Interview by Maud Deitch
Hi how are you?
Very good, how are you?
Thanks for writing about us.
Oh yeah, it’s our pleasure. How are you doing?
Pretty good, I just went and got some iced coffee, I’m moving today so it’s like my last day in my old neighborhood so I’m going to the spot I always get coffee at.
Thanks for talking while you’re moving. I was really into your album with The Present, World I See. It comes out in October, right?
Yeah it’s gonna be October 7th, I think, here. It’s really nice working with a British label because they’re more responsible than I was when I was trying to release stuff here on my own so it’s great.
How did you all start playing together?
Jesse [Lee] and I have been playing together for a long time and then with Mina for about a year. Before that Mina and I started a recording project together and then instead of having two bands, one with Jesse one with Mina, we decided to combine it all and made the full band.
How did you decide on the name?
I think what Mina originally thought was ‘Presence,’ like with a double meaning, like to receive a present but also the time, the present, but we kind of had reservations about that because it sounds like “presents” not “presence” and this way its just “the present” or just “present” because I thought it would be kind of awkward to have a name like “presents” because then on the flyer it would be like “Presents Presents” type of thing.
I read that all of your compositions and material are recorded stream of consciousness style, is that true?
For this album, sure.
So how did you do that, did you just get together and jam with a mic on or what?
It was really unintentional, even the recording process was unconscious. We would be in my apartment or at some studio—we did a show in Germany and rented a studio in Berlin afterwards where we recorded a couple songs but then we spent a couple days recording jams, I guess you could call it, and we ended up not releasing any of the songs but using parts of the jams on the album and combining different sessions from different days. There was no clear intention of where it was going to go while we were recording the material. And then mixing it became as much a part of the process as recording it because we would do things to change the sound and change the timing and combine the parts and the sequencing. It’s mixed more like a DJ would mix a set. There were just these little threads that seemed to connect.
So did the three of you do all the mixing and the production together?
Pretty much. I think Jesse was more involved with the playing and less with the mixing whereas Mina and I were really kind of working together on the mix but we were all involved. And also sometimes I would work on material on my own for awhile and then show it to them and take it from there.
Do you prefer working on your own material or producing other people’s?
I definitely prefer working on my own material, but I learn a lot from working on other people’s stuff. One process informs the other. But I never really intended to become a producer or whatever, it just kind of happened on accident because my friends would have me help them with their mixes or recordings but it’s given me a lot of opportunities to check out different studios and different types of equipment and beyond that just approaches to recording. I think it’s been really important for me.
How did you get into music in the beginning?
I started off as a musician—Jesse and I were in bands together as teenagers, punk bands, hardcore metal tinged stuff from like the mid to late 90’s.
Where are you from?
I’m from California originally.
Where in California?
Dead center, Fresno, California. It’s like the Champagne of California. There was a cool music scene in Fresno but it never left Fresno. It was like everything was an island there—a land-locked island—and I moved out of Fresno the day after I graduated from high school because I had to move on.
Is that when you moved to New York?
No I moved to the Bay area. I did a lot of traveling too and I was still pretty heavily involved with the west coast underground counter culture, like punk scene and stuff like that, traveling through alternative means and whatnot. But we used to play the Bay area but around that time I got really bored with the possibilities left to playing in a band with guitar and drums and bass and kind of went off on my own. I was in Berlin going to record stores just hearing the different types electronic composition and what was possible using those types of tools led me to a new direction in music. I immediately decided to move to New York and start making tracks without a band. It felt like in New York there were a lot more possibilities and people were a lot more open minded to new types of music. Even pop music—it seemed like ‘pop’ was a bad word on the west coast at the time.
The Present is guitar, piano and drums, right?
So I it seems like you’ve gone back to having a pretty traditional set-up, but it doesn’t sound traditional at all.
Yeah it’s weird because we’ll be doing something with these instruments and it’ll sound really organic, but maybe the idea that caused it originally was very synthetic. Or we even sometimes play to sound like it’s a loop but it’s not a loop.
And what about working with a band like Born Ruffians? That’s way more straightforward than…
That’s super straight forward! I felt like for that, more than anything, I was paying attention to the performance of the singer and the band and then was just trying to find the right performance and get that onto the recording. I find that with recording there’s times when it sounds good and times where it’s extra special—something beyond the sum of the parts is occurring. Whenever I try to make an album I want it to be as much those extra special, indescribable, beyond the sum of the parts moments as possible.
Did you feel that your influence ever caused it to be less straightforward than it would have been otherwise? Maybe in general when you’re working with a band, how much do you think your influence can actually change things?
It really depends on the project. With Born Ruffians, I think that band was really open to hearing new ideas and changes to the sound, so that kind of made it more fun for me. When a band is open to doing something new with the sound that’s not just going to sound like what they play live it’s great.
On a less music-specific tip, what have you been up too this summer? Have you been watching the DNC?
The summer’s been busy. I did this album for Paw Tracks and recorded it in Mississippi. He’s a southern crooner who plays the Ukulele named Dent May and that was an interesting experience. We were just down there with very limited tools so it was total performance space production where we were just trying to get the right takes on everything and kind of did a lot of combining of different takes. The album itself sounds like it could have been recorded in the 50’s, it’s really straight forward.
Did you like being in Mississippi?
I liked it, I’d never been to that part of the country before. They’ll probably get mad if they hear me say this, but the bugs were insane. I got completely eaten alive down there. They smelled a Yankee, or so I was told. If I went outside for five minutes I would get covered in insect bites, so that was a little intense. It doesn’t happen to me in New York, but I guess they’re different in the South.
Sounds like you’ve been busy.
Yeah. And that band TV on the Radio asked me to do a remix on their song, so I did a really fast remix—well fast for me—it took like 2 or 3 days, but completely reworked one of their songs. But I’m not sure if they’re going to use it or not.
It’s one of the songs off the new album?
Yeah it’s for the song “Golden Age.” But the record company told me that the section they were going to put the remixes on, they’re actually going to include additional original material and then maybe somewhere down the line release some of the remixes.
That’s kind of a shame.
Yeah I thought it was kind of a cool take on it. I just focused mostly on the vocals. He’s a good singer and the vocals seemed kind of complete on their own. So hopefully that’ll end up getting released. I think it sounded pretty cool.
What have you been listening too?
I am, as always, listening to minimal techno. I listen to a lot of German esoteric stuff like early Cluster albums, things like that are kind of calming to hear in the background because there are no vocals. I’ve listened to the Brian Eno album that he put out in 2005, Just Another Day on Earth, so many times. I also always listen to a lot of British post-punk stuff, I’ve been really enjoying this one band Royal Family and the Poor. They have a lot of cool home-recording style sounding stuff. Almost like Ariel Pink or something but a little more production value.
Do you find that when you’re recording a lot you listen to different things than you would if you weren’t, or, I mean maybe you’re always recording…
I’m usually recording a lot but I’ll try to listen to a completely different style of music than what I’m working to erase what loops are going around in my head. That’s one thing that’s kind of annoying about recording is that you get songs stuck in your head constantly. And a song that a normal person would listen to maybe once or twice, I’ve actually listened to it fifty or sixty times, and that can drive me crazy. So I’ll escape from that by putting on a completely different style of music. And actually the best cure for that is going out and listening to friends or even non-friends DJ—when you can hear somebody else’s taste really loud it kind of erases it all.
Do you do a lot of live DJ sets?
I do sometimes. I DJed at a wedding this summer and that was really difficult because they asked for standards and I have no standards. I mean like you know like songs like The B-52’s or whatever. I don’t have any of that. One of the big hits of the night was that Hercules and Love Affair song. It seemed like every generation was able to get into that.
Have you been following politics?
I have been and I think I should just stop following it because it’s driving me crazy.
Because I already know who I’m going to vote for and that’s not going to change. And it just gets annoying. But last night I was talking to this guy who was explaining about all this inside information about Barack Obama’s people that was disappointing.
Like Mason connections with that guy Joe Biden, big war game plans with Russia and the Persian Gulf, I mean I’m sure McCain is a lot worse but…
How had this person found out about all this stuff?
He’s just obsessed with it and he does his own research and everything. He had a list of 9/11 conspiracies too.
Oh. Well that’s a little bit dubious, I must say.
Well I remember a week before 9/11, my friend and I were in Williamsburg looking at the World Trade towers and my friend mentioned something like, “someone’s going to blow up those buildings soon” and it happened like a week later. It was really in the air at the time. I was mentioning that to this guy last night and then he went into some astrology connection to that but it went over my head so, I don’t know. But yeah, I already know I’m going to vote for Obama so I can just leave it at that.
Are you bummed to be moving out of your neighborhood?
The new apartment’s not that far but it’s kind of a different vibe. It’s a lot quieter down here. But I ended up getting a better apartment up there so I’m just going to go for it. We recorded “Heavens on Ice” in my old apartment which was right under the Manhattan Bridge, and you could actually hear the train going over through that whole song, there’s this rattling, and I thought that was really cool. It’s a big part of the sound.
I have to go back and listen to it again.
Yeah that apartment was crazy, I got a lot of work done in there but it was just the loudest place ever, it was over 100 decibels when the train would go over.
How did you sleep?
I got used to it, it kind of sounded like the ocean to me.
Did your apartment shake?
Yeah our building was almost directly next to the bridge. We almost shared a foundation with it. They actually had to put support braces on the building because the foundation was sinking into the bridge. For the last few years I’ve always lived close to the Manhattan Bridge so it’ll be kind of strange to leave this neighborhood.
Do you think it’ll be hard to sleep in the quiet? Was it hard when you went to Mississippi?
Oh yeah, that was insane. I had a kind of haunted feeling, it was too quiet. But the stars were beautiful and then, the place, they have an abundance of space down there and where we were recording was maybe a ten minute walk from where I was staying and I had my own cabin down on a plantation, and the walk to the cabin was through this wooded area that was completely dark at night and I’d be walking threre at 2AM and there’d be no other sounds and you just get that creepy, empty feeling.
Very different from New York.
Yeah, I like living in New York, I like the noise.
You’re going to stick around?
Yeah, I don’t know what else I would do in another town. But then I’ve always fantasized about going to Switzerland or something and attending some conservatory classes, music theory, walking by beautiful lakes and slowly composing pieces. That would be great. Maybe that’s a good idea for when I hit my thirties.
Well, cool. That’s great. A good note to end on.
I hope it’s not too much information.
No don’t worry there’s no such thing.