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Hudson Mohawke distills life’s “profound ridiculousness” into perfect party music
The Scottish DJ demystifies the making of Cry Sugar, his first solo album in seven years, on the new episode of The FADER Interview.
Hudson Mohawke distills life’s “profound ridiculousness” into perfect party music Jonny Chambers

Hudson Mohawke may not have released a solo album in seven years, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy. Since the 2015 release of Lantern, he’s dropped a couple of ravey and romantic tunes with Tiga, scored a dystopian video game, and showed his versatility by working on albums by ANOHNI and Christina Aguilera. He also found time to revive the much loved TNGHT alongside Lunice, delving back into the candy-colored world of trap and EDM to deliver another batch of rowdy club bangers.

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Like plenty of others, HudMo also took time during the pandemic to indulge in a little nostalgia, sharing three mixtapes worth of early and unreleased material dating as far back as his teenage years in the mid-2000s. Those tapes — B.B.H.E., Poom Gems, and Airborne Lard, represented the past, a dose of maximalist electronic admin that paved the way for the future. Taking stock of the past has been a big part of the producer’s life these past few years, as he moved from London to L.A. and entered rehab after years of partying hard caught up with him. It would be wrong to describe his new album, Cry Sugar, as feeling like a debut — the fizzy euphoria that seeps from every track will be instantly familiar to all HudMo fans — but his third studio effort is the first entry on a clean slate. His love of the wildly high BPM club sound of hardcore is blended with soulful gospel samples and epic movie-score landscapes to create a project that’s irreverent, yet moving and hypnotic as well.

Days after Cry Sugar’s release, I spoke to HudMo about the path that led to its creation, getting sober, American decadence, and the ways he incorporates his playful, grotesque sense of humor in his music.

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Hudson Mohawke distills life’s “profound ridiculousness” into perfect party music Cry Sugar front cover art.   Wayne Horse Willehad Eilers

This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.

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The FADER: Cry Sugar came out on Friday. Did you manage to celebrate?

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Hudson Mohawke: I had a giant birthday cake cheesecake and a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne. It was great.

In 2020, you went into the archives and put out three mixtapes of previously unreleased material. Did that process of going back to your early days inspire the writing for this album at all?

People kept asking me for these old songs, and I didn’t think they were good enough to be on an album. They were never really intended for release, but they were floating around YouTube, radio rips from mixes, whatever. I thought, “I need to get these off my chest. I need to cleanse my palate, because I won’t be able to put out a new record until they’re out in the world.”

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I stopped doing shows around the end of 2016. I was just fucking burnt out. When you remove the idea of “I’ve gotta make something that works for this festival or this club,” it’s a more simplified approach to making something that’s just for yourself. That’s probably the primary influence here: being left alone to make a bunch of songs that make me happy.

It’s been seven years since your last album, and you’ve been busy in the interim. Were there any other reasons for that lengthy gap? Is making a solo record a process you enjoy?

I do enjoy it, but… I don’t have the urge [or] the source material of life experiences to draw on to just make another record every fucking year. There were seven years between my first and second albums as well, but that was primarily touring, and we did the TNGHT stuff in that interim period as well. But then I moved to America [at the] end of 2016/start of 2017, and it was this period where I hadn’t really taken stock of where I was at as a person for a long time. I was… not mentally in a very good place. [I’d] been overdoing it for quite a few years, and I need[ed] some help.

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I ended up going to rehab. I’m totally fine to talk about it, but I also hate the idea of people leaning into this fucking mental health/addiction aspect in interviews, because they’re not unique problems. It took me a couple years to maintain any degree of sobriety. I thankfully got a hold of that, but it obviously contributed to the gap as well. And I spent a great deal of it in the mindset of “I don’t know if I have another album in me. Have I missed the boat by just touring too much and being wasted all the time?” There was a lot of soul searching.

Is any of that journey reflected in the album?

I think so. I always talk about this with my music — for me making it, anyways — there’s those uplifting moments, but there’s this melancholic undertone of “everything’s fucked,” essentially, and “I’ve destroyed my fucking life and ruined my career.” All these thoughts that aren’t entirely true, but I’m certainly prone to going to those places. So [I’m] mourning myself, in a way, but also trying to find some sort of light through the profound ridiculousness of the bullshit that alcoholism takes you to and puts you through.

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You strike me as very self-aware and keen to avoid clichés. Were you reluctant to move to L.A., go to rehab, and become sober?

Oh my God, yeah. Being from the U.K., you have this condescending view on L.A., and it does seem like a cliché thing to do. On the other hand, my dad was raised in L.A., and I’ve always [felt I’d] kick myself if I’m an old guy [who’s] never even tried being over there and tried to wrap my head around what it’s about.

The first couple years here, I absolutely fucking hated it, like, “I’ve truly made the worst decision of my life.” Part of that isn’t even specifically L.A.: I’ve been coming to the U.S. for years and years for shows, but I think it’s a big culture shock being here every day. It takes a long time to wrap your head around and become accustomed to, and it’s certainly not for everyone.

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I’m in a place now where I really love being here. At this point, [I think] it was a good decision, because it ultimately got me back to a place of mental stability. But if I’d told myself I’d be in this position 10 [ago] — “You fucking move to LA and become a sober person” — I would’ve been like, “No fucking way. That’s the last fucking thing I’ll ever do.” For all my snarkiness and cynicism, I still have an element of throwing caution to the wind because I’m too curious to not experience it for myself.

As a creative person, did part of you ever think, “I don’t know if I can do what I do and be sober at the same time?”

I still wrestle with that. I have so many formative experiences that inform my creative work: being in dark, sweaty clubs; being fucking wasted and living for that environment; experiencing music with some good pills. I’m never not gonna miss that. [But] I take solace in the idea that a lot of the people I look up to have managed to carve a way through that and still experience and enjoy the nightlife aspect of it without the overdoing it aspect. I’ve [also] grown back into almost loving the creation side of it more than the nightlife side of it. I have this routine now where I’m at the studio working every day, and that brings me a great deal of joy. The partying aspect of it only came into play at the point where I started to get loads of shows. Prior to that, I just fucking loved sitting and making music, and I feel like I’ve relearned that aspect of it, rather than, “I’ll do a studio day here on the one day I’m home in the middle of this tour,” which isn’t the way to tap into anything decent.

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You cite “American decadence” as one of Cry Sugar’s influences. What do you mean by that?

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Being from Europe, it’s a real culture shock to just drop in at the deep end in America — how absolutely profoundly fucking ridiculous so much of what you’re bombarded with is. It’s like being in fucking Grand Theft Auto, these fucking insane disparities between essentially a shantytown and a Ferrari driving through. It’s a disparity we don’t really have, and it’s overwhelming. I’ve always had a fascination with American mainstream pop/rap/dance music, but it’s always been from an outsider’s perspective. It’s interesting to experience that first hand.

When the fucking Oprah/William and Kate interview was on, people [in the U.K.] were watching the U.S. television stream, and all the ads were for medicine. People [were] like, “What’s going on here? Why is there an ad telling you to ask your doctor about this medicine you’re seeing an advert for? Surely the doctor should be telling you what’s gonna cure you.” I tried to distill some of that “what the fuck is going on?” feeling into the record.

You strike a balance between things that are artistically informed but also have a comic edge to them. How hard is it to balance those elements, and why is it so important to what you do?

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As a wee guy, I remember BBC and Channel 4 had some pretty far-out comedy. There was Big Train, where Simon Pegg started out, and This Morning with Richard not Judy. [But] it wasn’t just wacky for the sake of silliness: It was coming from a culturally and politically informed perspective, but it wasn’t afraid to be dumb at the same time. We used to have a show in Scotland called Chewin’ the Fat which was pretty vulgar but not lowbrow, coming from people [who] are real masters at finding that sweet spot.

That always resonated with me, and I’ve always gravitated toward that sardonic sense of humor. I think it’s a UK thing. [I don’t make] joke music; it’s heartfelt. I try to make things that resonate with me emotionally, but I’ve always been turned off by the notion that if you’re making a “weird dance record” then, by default, it has to be brooding and serious and shocking and deep. That’s a cliche. A lot of the best dance music is party music, and the dance music I love is usually fairly concise and direct.

Cry Sugar’s artwork is a painting by Wayne Horse [Willehad Eilers] which features the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in a thong. Could you talk me through how that image came to be and what it says to you?

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I approached him about it. I’d spent some time living in Amsterdam. He’s Dutch, and they have a pretty irreverent sense of humor as well. I saw it in his work: these incredibly debauched scenes of full fucking Sodom and Gomorrah shit, but done in such a way that it’s initially shocking and funny but also genuinely sad and disturbing. I kind of think of that particular image as me five years ago, at the end of my partying career.

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Another key visual element of this album is the “Bicstan” video, which is directed by Patti Harrison and Alan Resnick. You and Patti Harrison have this love of the grotesque.

Yeah, I didn’t give her any brief, or anything like that. I gave her the music, and she fucking nailed it. There are so many things she’s been involved in — particularly I Think You Should Leave — that come from interesting, creative people who aren’t afraid to be shocking and silly at the same time. Patti can be a serious actress, and you often see her in situations that you might associate with high culture. I love that she’s finding that sweet spot as well — being quite prominent in the art world and in fashion, but still unafraid to do silly shit.

Intentions” and “Some Buzz” both feature gospel choirs. I’m curious how you feel about using overtly religious music. It feels euphoric in the same way that a synth drop on a TNGHT track does, but it also comes with a certain baggage.

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I certainly didn’t want to do anything overtly religious. I love sampling, and a lot of the music I’ve sampled over the years has tended to be soul, gospel — Black music, essentially. If you go back to the first beat tape I ever put out as Hudson Mohawke, everything’s chopped up, but it’s all soul samples. [They’ve] always been a foundational aspect of my music. [It comes] from DJ Premier and Pete Rock and Just Blaze — that [tradition] of sample-based hip-hop.

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You worked with Chad Hugo of The Neptunes on “Redeem.” What’s your relationship with him, and what did he bring to the process?

There’s a gospel sample on that — probably the most overt recording of a church ceremony [on the record] — that we worked on together. I came of age when The Neptunes were just starting to become a thing. These two guys were making this music which really shouldn’t work as pop. And over the course of a couple of years, [they became] the primary sound of chart radio.

I always rave about these guys Optimo, these two DJs in Glasgow who had this legendary club night on Sunday nights. People stayed out till five in the morning, even with work the next day. I remember hearing “Drop It Like Its Hot” as an instrumental in the middle of [their] set and [thinking] “This shouldn’t work in this environment, and it totally works.” I was always inspired by how they were able to do that.

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You often cite classic movie composers like Vangelis and John Carpenter as influences. What movies were you watching during the making of Cry Sugar, and do you feel that any in particular have made their way into the sound of the record?

There’s this piece by Max Richter called “On the [Nature] of Daylight,” and I remember hearing it in Shutter Island. It’s a real tear-jerker of a song, and if something can reduce me to tears, I fucking love it. I vaguely tried to do something like that on “Stump,” which is an instrumental synth track with no drums on it.

Is that an avenue you’re keen to pursue? Is that something we could see down the line, a HudMo film score?

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I’d like to do it. I’ve done some video game scoring, and I did the score for this hybrid live production of Jekyll and Hyde by the National Theatre earlier this year. The aspect of it that turns me off is these endless running changes, and the idea that you might really love something but ultimately it’s not your decision. That’s a selfish way to look at it. But speaking to friends who are in that world, it can be a pretty unrelenting, thankless pursuit. From a creative standpoint, though, I’d love to attempt something like that.

Hudson Mohawke distills life’s “profound ridiculousness” into perfect party music