In August, 2009, Dan Lopatin compiled a kick-off compilation for his CD-R label Upstairs, titled Radio Scenic Glow Vol. 1. He called it “a bouquet of jams whose stems are entwined.” Lopatin sold the hand-marked discs for a year, before letting Upstairs go dormant. He insists it isn’t done, just on hiatus while he tends to Software, the new label he started with longtime collaborator Joel Ford in February 2011.
Like Upstairs, Software—an offshoot of Brooklyn’s Mexican Summer—is an experiment in electronic music with a mission to present a diverse array of sounds united by common tools and a vibe of comfortable weirdness. Following the success of That We Can Play, Ford and Lopatin’s 2010 EP recorded under the name Games, Mexican Summer founder Keith Abramson invited the duo to produce records in his studio, a music nerd’s idyllic playhouse hiding on a tree-canopied block in Greenpoint. They accepted.
Like archeologists and alchemists, Ford and Lopatin unearth historical artifacts, interpret them and then experiment with them. Explaining a new Software release they’re working on, Lopatin breaks down this pseudo-science. “It’s Laurel Halo playing piano, plus acid house, plus singing. It’s like the most inappropriate thing ever and it fucking works.” Then he compares another project to goo. Ford admits the duo’s 2011 computer funk LP Channel Pressure is an album people can dance to, but insists Software is not in the business of making party records, and Lopatin backs up that claim. “Electronic music has this rap of being really austere and far away from people. Or it’s practical, for dancing, cars or having sex. That confuses me because that’s not how I absorb it. Having a label, I want to raise up stuff that stimulates me and expose people to it. I hope there are other people like me.”
Ford and Lopatin found each other at middle school in Boston. They drew tape covers for dreamed-up bands, until Ford actually started a real band and wouldn’t let Lopatin join. “I just thought his technique was unprofessional,” he says. Both moved to Amherst, Massachusetts for college, Ford at UMass and Lopatin down the road at the freakier Hampshire College. Lopatin began recording alone, mounting what eventually became his solo project, Oneohtrix Point Never. Over time, OPN songs have become increasingly structured, but their gentle, ambient synths once sounded like an obsessive attempt to digitize the ocean’s crashing waves.
After school, Ford moved to New York to pursue his band Tigercity. Lopatin followed a girl to Boston, got a desk job, and kept recording, playing the results for Ford but few others. When the relationship ended, Lopatin moved to New York and started, at Ford’s nudging, to share his efforts. At a time when self-launching a career via Tumblr is maybe more feasible than finding success through a major label deal, self-trained bedroom producers with full stylistic control seem better off on their own. But Ford and Lopatin hated making music at home. “We made the Games EP in my bedroom,” Ford says, “and it was like, Let’s spend two hours setting shit up on my bed. And then an hour taking it down so I could sleep.” Now they’re able to jam for hours with no pressure, recording themselves and others in Mexican Summer’s studio, providing them with gear, time and an opportunity to refine their sound. “Working with other excited people keeps you engaged,” Lopatin says. “Software, for me, is a matter of growing up, like, I better work really fucking hard, because that’s actually a good way to live.”
Al Carlson, a cassette-obsessed stoner savant, is Software’s primary, in-house engineer. This year, he learned how to play a baffling 20-knob effect box called the Sherman Filterbank after tweaking with it for two weeks, three hours a day. That achievement’s not magic, but to Ford and Lopatin it might as well be. “Al’s just super passionate. We’re all really passionate about what we have here. You just get into, like, a meditative zone down there in that windowless space. There’s no internet. We’ve gotten so attached. We’re in love with that room,” Lopatin beams. The team worked 12-hour days during the Christmas season recording Channel Pressure. At one point, they got snowed in and locked down in sweatpants for 36 hours straight. When the blizzard ended, they’d arranged 30 songs.
But even the most obsessive need to air out sometimes. Ford is leaving New York, after almost seven years, to live with his girlfriend in North Carolina. “When you’re not on tour, it’s nice to not be in a bar, or a venue,” he says. But he has plans to come back, for as long as it takes, to help Software artists record. “It’s amazing to connect with those people and realize their days are like my days. Without having to even say much, there’s this like-mindedness. It’s a new kind of interaction for me, being with people who are excited and giving them the chance to share it. Pretty simple idea, but it feels good.”
Rescuing core elements like vintage synthesizers, filters, and samples from the internet and turning them into well-crafted sweeps and splats may feel straightforward to Ford, Lopatin and their growing family of musicians, but the resulting library will be good as gold.
Oneohtrix Point Never, Replica
Oneohtrix Point Never has always been about long, droning visions. Replica, his best work, is about bursts of ideas churning in congress.
Airbird, s/t 12-inch
Airbird is Joel Ford’s solo project and it has hippie vibes. Ultimately this is beat-based music, but it lives in a pretty, crystalline world.
Harmonizer, World Complete 12-inch
It’s easy to imagine Harmonizer as a duo of hip monks, silently studying texture. World Complete is spiritual white noise with handclaps.
Ford & Lopatin, Channel Pressure
Channel Pressure is Software’s funkiest release, slap-bass and a junk store’s worth of outdated synths. How this record came from two chin-stroking music geeks is anyone’s guess.