Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol.1: Snap, Crackle And Pop

Transmissions from nowhere. Digests from the digital netherscape. They are trauma memories preserved in silicon and chrome. They are Chuck Person’s Eccojams.

Introductions done, now the exposition: Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 is a cassette originally released in 2010, in a run of just 100 copies, by Daniel Lopatin, usually known as Oneohtrix Point Never. Now available via YouTube and whichever file sharing program you happen to indulge in, it contains a series of loops taken from pop songs released between 1967 (The Byrds – Everybody’s Been Burned) and 2006 (JoJo – Too Little Too Late), slowed down and dragged with delay and pitch-shifting, with further sound-bending effects added on top. I don’t think those dates were picked with any design in mind, but their integration into the aesthetic of the album is quite revealing. 1967 was the explosion year for popular music – Radio 1, the Monterey Pop Festival, Sgt. Pepper’s, the first Rolling Stone magazine – while September 2006 was the month in which Facebook became available to non-student users, and less than six months later Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone;

640px-steve_jobs_presents_iphone

Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone. (c) Barry Patterson / Wikimedia Commons

arguably the two most important events in our current technological landscape. So what does it matter? Lopatin picks from pop songs during a forty year epoch before the Internet became truly social and mobile, when music was represented by physical media which had to be loaded onto a device to be played, rather than bits of data downloaded, and latterly streamed, across different platforms. The convenience of it all makes it tempting to think it has always been so for those that cannot remember a state of affairs before it, but it is still all incredibly recent. The UK Singles chart did not include downloads until 2005, and the first song to top it from downloads alone, Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, did not come until a year later.

As any vinyl bore will tell you, records have a memory bound up with their physical product – a Spotify playlist can’t be rediscovered in an attic. Hence the cassette release of Eccojams; with no track listing provided, it is self-consciously in the tradition of the mixtape: a portable selection of hand-picked songs, designed to be passed on to an intimate audience. 2006 is the year in which, arguably, pop culture stopped being an institution controlled from the top down, and where a consumer-led model of curation and creation began to dominate. Let us not forget in 2006 Time Magazine nominated its person of the year as ‘You’. For music, instead of buying those CDs (and at that time it was for all intents and purposes just CDs) and consuming those products as they had been engineered, the new paradigm was to download songs from iTunes, or listen to them slyly through YouTube, from all time periods. The vaults of history were wide open to scroll through and consume, instead of being held back for reprints and reissues issued at a label’s whim. Eccojams is in some ways a response to the phenomenon of engaging with pop, with its sense of a permanent present, as something archaic, almost geologically old.

Eccojams is the best vaporwave release (a label that doesn’t really fit, as that movement coalesced after the release of this album) I know of to convincingly balance corporate anonymity with a softer, lyrical side. Distorted by technology they may be, but these decontextualized pop pieces gleam with feeling in Lopatin’s judicious selection of material. The intimacy that a cassette engenders is further suggested by the themes of love, loss, and missed communication which emerge from the mix. Two of the songs sampled talk about letters – like cassettes, another medium which has been technologically superseded, but in so doing has stripped away technological necessity, and revealed the emotional core inherent to it. To craft a hand-written letter now is inherently a thoughtful act because it will take longer to compose than the electronic messages we send the rest of the time.

The pop songs ebb in and out of a distorted span of time: these gleaming, once futuristic-sounding mixes are saturated with delay and slowed down, giving them a more legged, static quality which represents how obsolescence inevitably catches up with them. Eccojams feels more like a discovered artifact than it does an album. It begins with a fairly straightforward treatment of Toto’s ‘Africa’, concentrating on a spiral keyboard pattern which gives the impression of a curtain being revealed to the main entertainment, which starts with the next track; the one whose structure most resembles a three part pop song. This is the same song which featured on Sunset Corp’s ‘Angel’ video, its name taken from the Fleetwood Mac song which provides the sample. It begins with some extreme cut and pasting of the sample, creating a syncopated dance rhythm through the speed of the edits as different sections of the loop overlap with each other. The second part of the track possesses that same quality of ‘forcing’ different music from the loop, this time by creating a new melody by pitch shifting individual notes. The song fades into nothingness, before it is leapt upon by a snatch of JoJo, which in turn gives way to one of the more underrated jams, a loop of Ian Van Dahl’s ‘Castles In The Sky’. The original song is a quite brainless Euro house anthem. The jam sounds simple but each repetition contains nuanced developments in the delay. Chugging away underneath it all is a synthesiser pattern which sounds like it is constantly ascending, utilising the quality of a loop of an unresolved theme to bring forward a quality of incompletion and tension. The ‘castles in the sky’ are like purpled retrofuturist takes on a forgotten utopia. 

The next track takes just one word from Michael Jackson’s ‘Morphine’, but a pretty crucial one given the circumstances of his death: Demerol. This is another jam originally released via the Sunsetcorp channel, less than a month after Michael Jackson died. Some peace is granted by the next loop, the oldest on the tape, from ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’, where the sustain of Roger McGuinn’s guitar complements the reduced speed and delay which Lopatin uses all over Eccojams. As the Jackson and McGuinn examples show in particular, the expression ‘cratedigging’ is not appropriate to describe the acquisition of samples on this album: there is a sensitive artistic mind at work behind it, one which can hear beyond what sounds good or unusual, and one which is in tune with its predecessors. By magnifying lines like ‘I know that door/That shuts just before’ which wouldn’t be considered especially deep on a standard play through, and repeating them multiple times, they obtain a raw emotional potency.

Janet Jackson samples follow, ones which emphasise the ability Lopatin has to preserve a surprisingly sincere emotional core – the only audible words for this one are ‘lonely’, ‘feelings’, and ‘hold on’. The next sample, from Aphrodite’s Child’s ’The Four Horsemen’ is the closest thing to a misstep on the cassette, though it functions beautifully in the album’s overall structure by bridging the heavily distorted Janet Jackson samples to the closer of the tape’s first side, a virtuosic breakdown of a loop from the end of Marvin Gaye’s ‘My Love Is Waiting’. Gaye sings ‘baby, baby, when I make you mine/I’ll be fine’, but the confident resolution to this 80s pop number is left to keep on waiting by Lopatin, making the singer lose himself in a wall of echo, and synthesised orchestral flourishes

6627322469_db3ebb0ee1_b

The man himself. (c) user: transmediale / Flickr

ring in almost sarcastically. Lopatin keeps distorting and chopping it, in the one instance of the tape where it actually sounds like a mangled cassette rather than effects put through computer software. Somehow, within the space of a seconds long sample, Lopatin manages to turn a sexually confident R&B track into a paranoid descent into madness, while also using the technology he uses to accomplish this to undermine the nature of recording in the first instance. If physical media are the bulwarks of culture, then Lopatin is positing what happens when those media decay and corrupt; whether or not their artistic centre and ‘message’ can be preserved when the physical shell disintegrates. The first side closes with a descent into white noise, where transmissions threaten to pop in and out. The bookending of the tape sides with these walls of static is a useful tactic in conceptualising the pop loops as found objects, like something that has been dredged from the bottom of the sea.

The second side opens calmly with a slick John Martyn sample, the glistening keyboards of which are fed back on themselves until they resemble a free jazz workout. Martyn sings about the ‘letters that you just don’t write’; more references to missed communication, compounded by technological fault. Segueing from that is one of the least manipulated samples on the album, and one which is the yang to the previous track’s yin. Samples are treated in two ways on this album: either degraded to artful destruction, or slowed down with minimal intervention, so that a single snippet of a pop song becomes a mantra whose profundity keeps hitting you like blows to the head. Kate Bush imploring ‘Don’t give up, you know it’s never been easy’ is an example of the latter, punctuated as it is with the capital letter of a cool keyboard at the beginning of each iteration. Another burst of screwed noise follows, before Fleetwood Mac make their second appearance in the form of ‘Gypsy’, where Lopatin cleverly shifts the emphasis to build to the phrase ‘lightning strikes’ rather than the word ‘gypsy’. This track is given some of the classic treatment accorded to ‘chopped and screwed’ tunes, as pioneered by DJ Screw in the 1990s: an immensely slowed down beat, and rapid crossfading between the record and one played one beat behind, to give the impression of a track skipping forward at the same tempo. The difference is whereas Screw’s technique accentuated the beats in hip-hop songs by slowing them down so they were palpably different, Lopatin’s technique affords this snatch of a soft rock song an impossible grandeur; growing from jaunty folk-rock to something which, in its references to ‘night’ and ‘lightning’, portends something about the destiny of civilization itself.

One of the more immediately recognisable jams comes next, with a sample from ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty, which lacks the punch of the rest of the album, though it does keep the momentum chugging along. The loop has a ‘sneezing’ quality, where the rhythm and completion of the loop is frustrated, without the benefits of danceable syncopation. The words – ‘just one more year and then we’ll be happy’ work well with some of the other dispossessed fragments on the cassette, but the whole package falls a bit flat. The momentum is picked back up straight away though for a glorious run to the end of the album. First Lopatin painstakingly re-assembles a sample one note a time, creating an otherwise nonexistent driving rhythm and pitch shifting up and down the frequencies, diving down before catapulting upwards into…Phil Collins. In a duet with Marilyn Martin no less, from the 1985 single ‘Separate Lives’. If you want to take it personally, there are hints of a heartbreak story hidden in this album, interrupted by these decaying transmissions, which is one of the reasons why it succeeds when a lot of anti-corporate vaporwave fails, as the artists don’t have the vision or ability to match personal and political threads.

The next jam is the most well-known, and could have a blog entry all on its own. It dates back to at least 2009, when Lopatin’s YouTube alter ego Sunset Corp uploaded a video titled ‘nobody here’, which features a continuous scrolling of a rainbow road type highway through an urban sky, all dimmed by a layer of video noise. The music is taken from Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’; the snippet of a chorus line ‘There’s nobody here…’ is extracted. Without the ‘…just you and me’ from the original song to bring it back to earth, the loop keeps on yearning and returning without resolve. Thanks to the waves of delay, the guitar possesses an anxious quality and the synthesiser sounds expansive and choral; the two in tandem paint the emptiness which DeBurgh sings about.

Following that drama, a chopped and screwed treatment of Tupac’s ‘Me Against The World’ feels a bit out of place, but demonstrates Lopatin’s sense of humour, if nothing else, to hear all the G-Funk tropes – sexualised female singer, swaggering synthesiser – have all their macho braggadocio sucked out the backside. Something Eccojams left as an influence on the nascent vaporwave scene was a penchant for treating samples with pitch shifting so that they sound much more androgynous. Talented producers like Macintosh Plus have developed this further.

What becomes apparent on the next jam, a rework of Heart’s ‘These Dreams’, is that using delay is not an artistic open goal, and sometimes the abundance of a particular sound creates phantom aural effects. Like the best artists, Lopatin uses this to his advantage, as the sibilance of ‘the sweetest song that I’ve heard is silence’ creates the sound image of rushing grass, with wind running through it; an astonishingly organic quality for something treated so abrasively through editing. ‘Silence’ is important – more indicators of missed communication. That’s a theme which is picked up in the final jam, a concise three part suite which opens with Jeff Lynne singing ‘Letter from…’ over and over, not saying ‘Letter from Spain’ as he does in the original ELO song of the same name. The letter’s sender is unknown, rubbed from history. Womack & Womack give us a jaunty bridge to the final sounds of the album, which come from ‘Woman In Chains’ by Tears For Fears. The last word on this album is one of the most plaintive on the whole cassette, and means that everything before it is qualified with that focus; hence my emphasis on the hidden love story suggested by many of these pieces.

That Eccojams remains difficult to classify exactly is a testament to its power and originality. I have even read opinion pieces which describe them as the peak of sampling as an artform. My view is that they present pop music, the forever dominant idiom, in photo negative: a style which relies upon sounding new, technologically innovative, and emotionally distinct, whittled down into a set of gnomic mantras of emotional ambiguity, all accompanied by a contextual point, arising after 2006, of how permeable and permanent pop music, transmitted as digital media, truly is.

Why It Works: Kraftwerk – Computer Love (1981)

The song most relevant to our times was released 35 years ago. 1981 saw the release of the first IBM PC, MS-DOS (the precursor to the Windows operating system), Minitel in France (a videotex service, a precursor to the Internet) and Kraftwerk’s Computer World, the musical prophecy of that year which somehow managed to identify the still nascent field of computing and identify the emotional strands of our interaction which would linger even now.

The title track’s three note motif initially seems quite disappointing, after the band’s previous album kick-started with spiralling synthesisers cartwheeling through the continent on the Trans-Europe Express. But it is a masterclass of artistic efficiency, channelling the pips and notifications which have become more prevalent in the app-driven technoscape. ‘Pocket Calculator’ seems charmingly out-of-date until you realise that the choice of device is merely a springboard to explore the mix of giddiness and ignorance which accompanies interaction with portable technology, the kind which follows us around all of the time. The song tells us more about our relationship with smartphones than their subsequent effort ‘The Telephone Call’ on Electric Café does.

‘Computer Love’ stands at the peak of this album, and possibly on the whole of Kraftwerk’s oeuvre. It is irrelevant to think about whether the ‘proper’ version of this song is sung in English or German. Even though some critics fairly point out that the scansion of the vocals at least suggests that it was written in English in first, it wouldn’t be Kraftwerk without the vocals sounding a bit unwieldy and computer generated. The band was built to serve translations of their work – to English, French and even Japanese. Their work transmits freely through cross-national boundaries, underpinned as it is by the technocratic globe which their music describes. By singing bilingually, they also ensure that at least one version of their songs will sound remote and unhuman.

The subject matter is ideally suited to Ralf Hutter’s deadpan delivery. The image he invokes is striking in its similarity to a situation familiar to most of us in 2016. Nights spent alone in bed watching TV (Netflix), bored by choice, swiping left and right in search of a ‘data date’; a soulmate mined out of big data. Each vocal line is offered twice, an indictment of the abundance and repetition presented by digital media, which leads to apathy as data repeatedly scrolls past. In a counterintuitive move typical of the band, the second half becomes much more revealing and more human when the machines take over. The instrumental section can be admired from a distance, like filigree wallpaper patterns, but you can trace even more by analysing it deeply. The synthesiser which punctuated the melody line between the lyrics in the first half and the synthesiser played during the chorus begin playing call-and-response patterns at each other, like distant male and female voices. They echo, tantalisingly overlapping near the end but at a slightly different rhythm before disappearing from each other again as the song fades out. The two users never connect. This is driven with an increase in tempo and a bass line which sometimes withholds or spits out extra notes like an impatient loading bar; all of which cements this concept of technological progress dampened by human stasis.

The second half of this song is the engine room of the Computer World album, and it deserves resuscitating when it was savagely edited for a radio version to serve as B-side to ‘Das Modell’, when it was almost entirely cut. The full version is inspiring and caustic, emotional and robotic; it is the satisfaction of seeing a new device welcome you into its grasp, it is the ignored message you sent to someone whose presence haunts you from SMS to WhatsApp to Facebook timeline. If Coldplay’s pilfering of the riff for their 2005 single ‘Talk’ has achieved anything, it is to demonstrate how their emotionally incontinent output has the earnestness and robustness of a belated birthday card. Kraftwerk, the automatons, hardcode emotion onto you.

Even without the technology generating the music, the song would reveal a lot about relationships. But now our world is built out of data, and it is what cocoons connected, yet alien souls in the night.