Of all the different kinds of people to follow on Twitter, those who give you daily poetic fuel, however dark or intense, are particularly crucial. Copenhagen-based artist Tobias Lee—whose music as Why Be thrives on reconfiguring global styles like ballroom, noise, and Jersey club—is such a tweeter, as exemplified by this recent gem: “know that smell but can't tell whether it's rotten or newborn.” Lee is pretty much always that deadpan but, even at his most absurd or nihilistic-seeming, his words resonate because he knows how to tap into sheer human vulnerability. If you can imagine it, his music is the sonification of his Twitter: real doomsday stuff, dispassionately bathed in half-light. On his forthcoming Snipestreet EP for Texan producer Rabit’s new label Halcyon Veil, there’s an overwhelming sense that Lee is dealing with emotional scraps—feelings too irregular or unruly to receive conscious acknowledgement—that he combines to viscerally potent effect.
Lee has been bubbling below the surface of recognition for a long time, it seems. He did a mix for DIS Magazine called “Yellow Textures” back in 2011 under since scrapped alias Yung Bukkake. Before that, Fade To Mind’s Total Freedom uploaded a collaborative DJ set with him in 2010, and then earlier this year began his BBC Radio 1 mix for Benji B with a track off Snipestreet. Lee also helped produce a track on Virginia-based experimental composer Elysia Crampton’s 2012 record The Light That You Gave Me To See You as E+E. But if you haven’t heard of him until now, that’s in part because of his self-inflicted isolation—in our interview, he tells me he used to do everything in his power to avoid holding back his art by letting it be compartmentalized in a single concept, political attitude, or style.
This all changed last winter, though, when Lee went through a sea change after feeling lost in his freedom-at-all-costs attitude. Just when he began thinking some kind of structure could help pull him out of his artistic rut, Rabit came through with the opportunity on Halcyon Veil, which so far has only put out a couple things, including domination-exorcising sound art by ANGEL-HO and a collaboration between Chino Amobi and Rabit himself. Snipestreet is not only Lee’s debut official release, but it’s also notably all-original material, which differs in compositional approach from his usual output of remixes or mash-ups.
Unlike a lot of his peers who make contemporary club music that is unbound by genre, Lee's wide-ranging referentiality isn't absorbed into a streamlined product, in which culturally specific sounds lose their unique character in carefree, pop-aesthetic, musical globetrotting. Instead, he cut-and-sticks different sounds and scenes together in a way that highlights their dislocation, with bumpy, not-quite-right transitions or uncomfortable sonic disjunctures. Nothing is smoothed over on Snipestreet: all is scabs and scars, bloody and botched.
The FADER caught up with Lee via Skype from his Copenhagen apartment to find out how art school did him wrong, why electronic music has been so emotional lately, and how you have to be rich in order to be underground in today’s music economy.
How did your relationship with Halcyon Veil come about?
WHY BE: Rabit reaching out was definitely at the perfect time. I was aware—this is almost a year ago—that it was impossible to stay a Soundcloud producer-slash-DJ. It was kind of not happening anymore, in terms of it not necessarily being a sustainable way to carry yourself through the music business. I needed a release and also for the first time in those five or six years I've been doing it, I really wanted to do one.
Why original productions, after doing edits for so long?
It was timing. It wasn’t that I hadn't previously occupied myself with original production, it was more like I had never intended original productions to be in the format of an actual release. I had never thought about doing a release. Tracks would more just come and I would post them on a shady output site, which I would spread in my usual, viral way. But when Rabit approached me about doing a release, it was a point in my life where I felt like it was definitely something I had to try.
How was it making the switch to a more defined form, an EP?
It was very challenging and it was very scary to me. I come out of an artistically visual background where the schools I went to were always focused on having a lot of concepts as the foundation for any given project. It was a lot of project-based stuff. So when I eventually got into music, I did it old school partially because I was tired with the idea of everything being pre-thought or measured up already. It wasn’t interesting to already have something in a box or a frame even before I made it. Music would be more dropping all the concepts and just doing something. It's kind of stupid to me to call an EP a concept, but that's literally what it feels like when you sit down and it's like, now I'm going to make an EP. Doing this release put me back into something that I, for some weird reason, have been avoiding for all these years. It even got to a point where I felt like it wasn't even good for me to avoid it anymore; I ended up not really knowing where I needed to go. At the end of the day, after all of those years, I needed something to hold onto.
“Emotion is the foundation for everything I do. I wouldn’t know how to build a tune not from emotions.”—Why Be
Why do you think the idea of limits has been so repellant to you? Why Be: that’s literally a rejection of definition in itself.
What I started from was that my artistic intentions shouldn't be held back on any parameter, but that approach ended up being my mental cage, eventually. As much freedom as I tried to pursue with this attitude, it also ended up ... I mean, I still fucking got the cage. You can only go down the opposite direction for only so many years, but then eventually, you also build routines in that setting, you also build habits and approaches that can be hard to break. All this stuff I tried to not follow, it stopped making sense. Because then I was like, I've like been fighting this for so long that it doesn't even serve a purpose anymore. The freest or most challenging thing I could do was actually to try and do something that was "normal," or fucking do a release.
What other sorts of things aside from project-based art making were you rejecting when you were hardcore anti-definition?
Everything that needed any kind of explanation or reason. Not that I'm not political but that would be something I would talk about in a conversation—it wouldn't be something that I would make music about. If people got whatever meaning out of whatever piece of sound they would hear from me, that's totally legit but I would never try to force a certain opinion or idea through any piece of music ever. I was avoiding any political or religious influence like that as much as I could because I don't like the preaching effect of a lot of culture today.
That being said, I'm highly idealistic and I take the political situations globally super seriously and I read as much as I can. But when it comes to the actual music, I feel way more with human emotions, which definitely can be looked at from any of these bigger subjects. It's more like the personal emotion that comes from a specific political situation or a specific religious situation that I try to put into whatever sound or whatever vibe.
“What I started from was that my artistic intentions shouldn’t be held back on any parameter, but that approach ended up being my mental cage.”—Why Be
That reminds me of a line from Lotic’s Facebook post about PC Music and GFOTY's “ironically racist” review of London festival Field Day, where he said “for some people, music is still a medium reserved for genuine expressions of emotion or feeling (the last one?), as opposed to a way to explore a concept.” In experimental electronic music lately, there seems to be a real return to emotion—I think of Arca, Rabit, Lotic, Elysia Crampton—after a period of disaffectedness. What’s appealing about focusing on emotion in your music?
At the end of the day, I think that's the only thing I'm able to focus on. Emotion is the foundation for everything I do. It’s very honest, which I also find being a hard thing to portray through a lot of other tools that you could have in making art. Emotion is the core of human nature in a way. That's really all you have to go by when you do something. I wouldn't know how to build a tune not from emotions.
What was your life like when you were making the EP?
It was born at a time when I was homeless and I had lost the hard drive that I had started writing the EP on. And then I actually lost the second hard drive that I continued the EP on. So, the whole thing was just completely ... I was living on somebody's floor while trying to make my debut EP off of two broken hard drives.
One of my friends even said that that was probably the only way I probably could make an EP. Which was kind of annoying and tough to hear, but I kind of also saw where he was coming from and it definitely made me realize that I've been too stubborn or too whatever to do it the right way. But then, classically, when I actually try to do it the right way, then everything just naturally goes in this weird, negative stance where it just ends up like that. Even when I actually try.
“I was living on somebody’s floor while trying to make my debut EP off of two broken hard drives.”—Why Be
What does Snipestreet mean? Or does it not mean anything?
No, it's definitely something. Snipestreet is a reference to the street I was homeless on when I finished the EP under very teenage, broke circumstances. I lived with two of my very good friends there, but I was technically homeless and still looking for places. That street ended up defining the whole last process of finishing a lot of the music, because it was a very dysfunctional and upsetting part of my life in many ways.
Are you worried about maintaining your artistic integrity in a perhaps more accessible context, now that you’re doing an official release?
No, I'm not afraid of anything like that. I feel like I am super accessible already. But when you say integrity, do you mean money versus artistic interest in a given piece of work?
Yeah, although, it's not like money and culture are particularly easy to separate. There’s a blurring.
There’s a lot of blurring because the more you do this, the more you want to have as comfortable a life as possible. At the same time, you also don't want to sell out, but “sell out” doesn't even mean the same thing as when that phrase was initially created. That was more a golden age hip-hop kind of approach to a lot of things that are not current today. And also I'm not making hip-hop, so...
I have very few friends actually, even huge producers, that I could claim have fucked with their integrity. I see very little of that. Lack of integrity means to me that you have stepped on someone or hurt someone and I don't see that a lot, necessarily. I see a lot of maybe weird artistic choices or artistic decisions, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you have little integrity. It could just mean that you have bad taste.
“Today, you are the most blessed when you are able to make as few compromises in your music as possible and be as underground as possible, but somehow still blow up. There are so few people who can afford to actually be underground.”—Why Be
It seems like corporate involvement is a more accepted part of music today.
The way that it works right now is a very new thing. It’s not a set game with a pre-made set of rules. Even these few years I've been doing it, it's changed a lot. It feels like a very new economy, and as more and more sponsors get into it, there's a huge discussion, for example, on Red Bull's influence on music. Which I get, and I see pros and cons all over the place, but I feel like it's hard to say how this actually works because it's a very new thing that you could play a festival sponsored by a soft drink.
Today, you are the most blessed when you are able to make as few compromises in your music as possible and be as underground as possible, but somehow still blow up. Nobody wants to be a popular EDM DJ, nobody actually wants to be that. Today, it's about blowing up, but doing it in a very underground way. There are so few people who can afford to actually be underground.
What do you mean?
To be underground, you have to make enough on whatever underground stuff you're doing that you could resist the temptation of playing the Red Bull stage or the Absolut Vodka bar because it's sponsored by an evil corporate company. I'm definitely not rich enough to be selectively underground. I have to play stuff sometimes that doesn’t idealistically look the best. It’s not everybody who makes enough money to be underground.
How does an underground artist blow up today?
I read it in a way that actually gives me great hope for the future: I don't have two friends that have done it the same way. As long as there's substance, it seems like it's still going to happen some way or the other. Also, I've never seen it actually work when younger kids try to copy already established people. That definitely makes me feel good because that means that people still care about the individual behind the music, which is where it all comes from in the end.