Subthunk are a California-based band who fuse electronica with elements of jazz, funk, and a variety of other styles. Improvisation is a key element, and at their live shows they firmly establish that a laptop computer can be considered a musical instrument. According to DEVO’s Mark Mothersbaugh, “The masses are asses who need subthunk glasses.” We recently spoke to Subthunk member Anthony Neely about the new CD (“Just A Few Notes Before You Go”), musical technology, and more.
Since you use computers and live instruments, I’m wondering which you do initial song writing on?
“It’s kind of a combination. With some of the tracks I’ll just hear a drum loop or something and that will give me a rhythm foundation to build from. And on some, I sit down with the guitar and come up with a melody or chord progression. I’ll have that in my mind but then re-create it on the computer, using my keyboards or whatever to program that in. It’s always written on the computer, but it might have been conceived on another instrument.”
Does using the computer like that pose any difficulty when it comes to working out live versions of the songs?
“When we build the tracks, I kind of do 2 simultaneous things. I have the version that I know is going to be on the recording, and we also set up the basic arrangements so we can put them onto our live laptops. It’s not too bad. It takes a little bit of fiddling around, because the laptops use software samplers and stuff like that. So we have to make sure the right sounds are playing. The conversion process is time consuming, but it’s not that tricky. Then of course the fun thing is when we get that in place, and then we get together in the studio and we�ll play over it and try different feels and ideas. The songs are definitely shaped when we add the live instruments to it.”
What kind of live set-up do you use?
“Live, we use Cubase and Vsamp, which is a virtual sampler. And we also have sound modules running from the computer. The way we’ve set it up, we try to make it as interactive as possible. We improvise. There are areas in the song where the computer will continuously cycle over and over, it might be a drum loop, or it might just be a click. We can control how long that will last for, we can turn it off, we’ll see what people are coming up with, what direction it’s going in, and when we get to a point where we think ‘it’s time to move on’ we hit a foot switch to turn it off. And we have tracks that are muted on the computer, and some nights we’ll turn them off, some nights we won’t. Our goal is to make it as an organic experience as possible, and approach things differently each time we play them.”
Do you find yourself limited at all by the current musical technology? Is there anything you’d like the gear to be able to do that it’s not capable of now?
“Little things like being able to control EVERYTHING from external gear would be great. Just silly things like opening files, we have to physically go to the machine and open the up. Obviously, that takes 15 or 20 seconds. So between each track, we use another device to play ambient music or something to tie it in. If we could have everything automated, like opening files and changing volumes…. if we could have a foot pedal to pan the speakers left to right live. Anything that would give us more control. At the moment, there just isn’t the software out there that has all of the capabilities we want. Other than that, there are a million of things I’d like to do. I’d like to have a Pro-Tools rig on stage, so I can play bits of guitar and as the song is progressing actually edit those bits with headphones and play them back. Basically, to spontaneously compose. There are a million things I’d like the technology to be able to do, and it will! It will catch up. The things that are coming out now are amazing!”
Has the computer ever crashed during a performance?
“Yea, and it’s really scary! We have a system where there are 2 computers; a back-up for if one goes down. And if all else fails, we’ve got an iPod that can play the tracks. Obviously, with that they’re a set length and not interactive, but we can get through a gig. One channel is the click, one is audio. And we’re all good musicians, so if it came to worst case scenario, we’ll play a song without the machines. We’ve never actually had to do that. The only thing we’ve had to do is occasionally switch out a Mac. We had it go down once during a show in San Diego, so we had to just try to cover it up and change it as quickly as we could.”
For those you haven’t seen you play live yet … how would you compare your live sets to your recorded music?
“Basically, we play the same tracks, we’ve got the same sound. On the CD, we had a bass player, but live we use synth bass. It sounds as it does on the record until we get to these primarily middle sections where we launch into the parts where one of us will come up with an idea and we’ll see where we go with that. But the rest of it, [what you hear on the cd] is pretty much what you’re going to get.”
I know you’re pushing to get your music used in soundtracks. Has anything happened with that yet?
“We’ve had music stolen, actually. He had something stolen for The History Channel. We’ve got stuff that Mark Mothersbaugh is trying to get into film at the moment. I’ve written for small independent films, but nothing particularly of note at the moment. But Mark is a really nice guy who really likes us, and he’s trying to help us out. So that’s good. We’ve got stuff floating around with a lot of other people. It’s a goal that we really need to pursue.”
Ideally, where would you like to see your music used?
“Oddly enough ….. I hate commercials, but I love car commercials. Especially non-American makes of cars. Ford or Mustang commercials tend to use rock tunes, whereas with a lot of European ones you have a drum ‘n bass thing going. Or Japanese manufactures. It seems that with non-American cars, you can use more electronica-based stuff. I really like a lot of that stuff, and I’d love to get stuff used in them. It sounds silly, but I’d love to do that. Film-wise, we’re definitely interested in stuff that has some sort of artistic weight. Morally we’ve got a lot of things we just don’t want to support, but a good well-written project … we’d love to be involved. Especially something that would involve a lot of different moods.”