“I’m being super goth,” James Whipple deadpans over Skype from his Berlin apartment. “I can’t go outside.” He’s squinting in the bright rays of the heatwave outside his window, and plays with his hair constantly throughout our call while cracking self-deprecating jokes. You’d get the impression he was a bit shy, if it wasn’t for the brash Hollywood sheen of the productions he releases on experimental label PAN, or the rowdy DJ sets he plays at touring club night Janus, under the name of M.E.S.H.
Californian-born Whipple has been in Berlin for the past six years. After graduating college in New York and sticking out the city’s bustle for a year, he realized he “hated it” when a two-month vacation to visit friends in Berlin turned into a one-way trip. “In Berlin, there’s this feeling of sparseness, people can kind of isolate themselves,” he relates. It’s been good for him honing his own practice as an artist—he released his debut EP for PAN, Scythians, in 2014—but it hasn’t all been isolating. Alongside Houston’s noisy expat Lotic and Swedish mash-up lover KABLAM, Whipple also found himself co-founding and acting as one of the key residents of Janus, Berlin’s most unpredictable club night (the regular night ended in 2014, but the collective still occasionally host one-offs at clubs around Europe).
Janus is perhaps one of the few experimental spaces that would have given a home to a producer with a background and a palette like M.E.S.H.’s. After briefly dabbling in pop-punk bass guitar at the age of 13, Whipple moved on to making a mixture of noise, musique concrète and drum ‘n’ bass on Fruity Loops as a teenager, developing a sweeping collage style that can be traced all the way through to his idiosyncratic productions today. “I grew up in a place [Santa Barbara] that didn’t have a heavy electronic culture, so I was receiving things years late,” he explains. On his debut album Piteous Gate, out July 17th on PAN, he brings together everything from brittle hardstyle riffs to piercing trance motifs, classical samples, and an approach to hip-hop beats that’s like when you watch a movie on a screen so wide and hi-def it’s practically distorted. Add to that the record’s coating in blockbuster-worthy SFX and the fact it’s named after a place in a 1990s science fantasy novel by cult author Gene Wolfe, and you’ve got an intricate web of reference points that come together to form something uncannily familiar: the perspective of a introvert whose world is huge, thanks to the fantasy worlds of the 90s and the online worlds of the 00s.
In the midst of Berlin’s heatwave, The FADER caught up with Whipple to find out how all these things are related, and what solar eclipses, Prometheus and Renaissance instruments had to do with the formulation of his sound.
Can you explain what the Piteous Gate is and what it means to you?
[The Piteous Gate is in] a really enigmatic scene in the first book in the Book Of The New Sun series [by Gene Wolfe]. They’re just sick. It’s like a million years in the future, it’s on earth, the language is really dense—it’s supposed to have been translated from whatever future language back into everyday English, but also using archaic Latin and French words to describe things. It’s like reading Finnegan’s Wake. But there’s also lasers and shit. It’s really confusing, and the narrator is super unreliable, and it’s really hard to tell what’s happening from moment to moment. You’ll find mailing lists from the ‘90s with people arguing about different aspects of the books.
The title track just has this monumental feeling of crossing some kind of threshold, and this over-the-top, cheesy, Hollywood science fiction vibe. Like the way the record starts with that synth tone, that was kind of inspired by the first trailer for Prometheus. There’s this motif of this repeating synth drone, and that’s kind of what I was going for. It’s kind of high budget, kind of fantastical.
Science fantasy is an interesting genre to draw on—given the way it mixes science fiction with more archaic, old-fashioned ideas. It doesn’t exactly have the coolest rep.
When people talk about music like mine, it’s easy to talk about it being futuristic. ‘It’s so future,’ health goth or whatever. And to use that as a false dichotomy with music that’s more nostalgic or “dusty” or hardware-oriented. I think it’s funny to be futuristic but not; be a bit archaic at the same time. It's really boring to make music 'about' 'the virtual,' I would rather just enjoy playing some virtual Renaissance instruments. I would rather try to put my finger on a not-wholly-formed idea or feeling, and express it in a naive way, than make A + B = C music that proposes nothing new. I’m not trying to be so future, you know? I’m not that future.
How did Renaissance instruments find their way onto the record?
I’d been scanning these high-end sample libraries, of people that record different older instruments. I was working on these tracks that were really tight, really film production-influenced, and then I started really naively improvising with these fancy, expensive-sounding instruments. It just added this bizarre layer to everything, so I just went with it. One of them was like an imitation of an English theorbo, which if you Google image search it, it’s like a very long guitar. I left them pretty clean, so they sound full, not distorted.
The album is so spacious, and these contrasting elements are kind of in orbit together, very distinct from one another. What were the other key sonic areas you drew on?
When I’m producing, I draw from a lot of stuff that I’m interested in as a DJ. I try to make things really distinct and clean, lots of things interacting together in really subtle ways. It’s about letting these musical objects exist as they are, and combining them with other ones. Like on the title track, towards the end this trance or hardstyle riff comes in. Then, on the next track [“Optimate”], there’s the drums—from Baltimore or Jersey club, that kind of thing, deep drums. The third track [“Thorium”] has a bit of a grime syncopation or flow, but I played it by hand and I didn’t fix it, so it’s really sloppy; it doesn’t sound like grime, but it’s using that kind of sound palette.
Do you leave in those imperfect elements in your music to make it more ‘human’?
With this record, I recorded everything really fast. I would try something, and then record it, and leave the first take, building other elements around it. If I didn’t finish a track within a day or two, it didn’t make it on the album. So it does have this loose, ‘human’ thing going on, but everything’s really high fidelity, so in that sense, it doesn’t sound muffled or scratchy. It’s like shitty hi-fi. Sloppy hi-fi.
“If you’re going to add another signal to the environment, it should be worthwhile.”—M.E.S.H.
What was that intensive period of making the album like for you?
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I sort of inhabited this ‘tortured artist’ thing for a couple of months—which usually isn’t my thing at all. I was struggling a bit. I really wanted to find what was unique about what I was doing and build around that. I’ve internalised a lot of this talk about cultural appropriation in music that’s happened more and more over the last couple of years, and I feel like the way out of that conversation is to recognise your own specificity, and build on your own voice. As opposed to having that idea in mind of what you’re going to reference or copy. For me, it’s important to find what’s in the music that’s me. So often, people come along and borrow a sound in a way that’s really thoughtless, and just put their stamp on it, but in an arbitrary way. You don’t really get a sense of them as an artist or as a human.
What’s with that one sample on the record of a guy saying “there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance”?
In the past year or two I’ve started to DJ more in London and, as an American who grew up on electronic music, I’m obviously influenced by a lot of British electronic music history. But all the beefs tangentially around me, when it comes to club producers or DJs, I just find it very funny. I find it kind of charming, in a way. That particular sample comes from two professional [video] gamers. They’re like, beefing onstage. If I close my eyes, I can just imagine this grime beef. Coming up and being involved in club music, you experience a lot of territorial people. I just find it all so laughable—there’s something so sad about fighting over scraps. The less there is to be gained, the more bitter and angry people get. It can be like that, especially within smaller scenes or smaller genres, where there’s less of a commercial aspect, or less of a huge crowd. There’ll be in-fighting, but it’s for a share of a very small audience, which is very self-defeating.
What was it that Janus initially wanted to bring to club culture that was missing? How has that changed?
In the beginning, Janus had a really specific context in terms of Berlin; it was basically us, with Dan Denorch the promoter, booking people who don’t get booked in Berlin. We really wanted to have a space for music that just wasn’t represented as well. But obviously in the last three or four years that’s changed, those artists are being booked here. So right now it’s more about finding a different context for what we’re doing. Because we’re not like, a DJ crew, we’re not going back-to-back. In our own music, it relates on these levels that aren’t necessarily in terms of genre or BPM or whatever. With mine and J’Kerian’s [Lotic’s] music, there’s correlations between different tracks, but it doesn’t sound the same. And same with Kajsa [KABLAM]. So we’re all kind of doing our own thing right now.
And finally, which track on the album is most personal to you?
There are elements on the record that are really over the top and Baroque and theatrical. I made [“The Black Pill”] at a very meaningful time; to make it even more over the top, I also made it during the European eclipse. There was completely brown light in the city, and I could hear children screaming out the window, and it felt like some fucking prophecy or something. I say it all very glib right now, but I like to embrace this aspect of taking yourself so seriously as an artist—because I think that’s important, to stand on your own, and not be a clone and not mimic. So it’s like, taking yourself seriously, but also laughing at that artistic ego. I like that interplay. My own personality and my own social identity is to have a small footprint. To not step on people, and to not raise your voice above other people’s voices. But this record is kind of bizarre and theatrical. There’s a contradiction in character.
Being a producer that comes from club music, making this kind of LP is in itself a deeply pretentious proposition. I just wanted to embrace that as much as I could. But I wouldn’t want to put something into the world that didn’t contain its own reason for existing. If you’re going to add another signal to the environment, it should be worthwhile; I released this record because I wanted to make this music and share it with people, there’s nothing jokey about it.