Interview/Exclusive: Production Unit

14 Nov 2012 — Henning Lahmann

Like its acclaimed predecessor ICU Tracks, Dave Donnelly aka Production Unit’s latest work There Are No Shortcuts In A Grid System puts heavy emphasis on concept and coherence. This time however, the Glaswegian producer abandons the bleak, skeletal techno that characterized the last album in favor of an unexpected turn towards withdrawn, glacial hip hop. The piece is composed of two parts that both reflect on the idea of being forced to operate within the confines of a predetermined structure, and each new track is conceived as a remix of its preceding one, taking up recognizable elements of its precursor to mess around with and manipulate – an ambitious concept that works out marvelously. With its sparse beats and gritty synth pads, second track “Further Uncounted Steps” thereby sets the tone for the whole, truly fascinating operation. (co-premiere with Ad Hoc)

Read an extensive and immensely insightful interview with Dave Donnelly about his album after the jump.

There Are No Shortcuts In A Grid System is out November 19 via Broken20, digitally and as a strictly limited collector's edition on a customized USB stick featuring additional content. Pre-order now over here.


What was your original intention behind There Are No Shortcuts In A Grid System?

Dave: At the very start it was meant to be a simple hip hop beat tape, just short two or three minute jams for release on Broken60, our tape sub-label, but after I'd written the first couple of tracks I realised that I wanted what I was making to flow naturally so I shut off the idea and just wrote whatever came to mind. Historically I've tended to work with certain codifications for a project or given myself a particular stylistic remit, and I wanted to break out from that. Conceptually I thought of it as a hip hop album until I'd finished the first half; when that was complete I was able to take a step back and realise it didn't quite fit that mould, but I had to deliberately stop myself from applying some other overarching theme to it. I always do that and I end up straightjacketed.

Once the whole thing was written it seemed obvious that it wouldn't sit well on tape - there is too much 'digitality' and it needs a clear high end. We're determined not to release music on tape that isn't proactively embellished by the format, so we looked into digital formats instead and settled on a custom USB stick.

It's quite different from your earlier works, and you had told me on Twitter that it was basically “just for yourself”. Did it start as some kind of personal exercise or etude?

Dave: Maybe more of a meditation or conversation with myself than an etude, like a conversation I'd have with myself to figure out what I was like, though I only started to realise that was what it was once I was already in that mode. As soon as I'd done those first tracks I resolved to write it just for me - the way I described it to myself was that I'd write something on the false precept that the only ears that would ever hear it were my own. I suspected that no-one would like it as a result, and I resigned myself to that. As it turns out there have been some good reactions so far, so maybe there's a lesson there, but it's important that I don't fixate on other people's positive reactions any more than I would have on their negative ones. It would be pretty hypocritical otherwise. I wrote it for me and if anyone else finds some worth in it then that's great for them but I don't want it to colour my understanding of it. "I don't own your ears and you don't own my brain" is the way I've caricatured it.

The two parts or sides to me feel musically rather detached from each other. What's the connecting narrative for the two parts and for the work as a whole?

Dave: That comes back to the original tape format - I wanted it to have two 'sides' and once it was written that way there was no undoing it. For me the connecting narrative is this idea of understanding myself better by switching off the exterior forces and letting my subconscious make the decisions for me. There are definitely some strong autobiographical points in there, but I'm not sure how much relevance they'd have for other people. For example, I used to count my steps in groups of four when I was a child, just really as something to occupy my mind and perhaps also because most music is in groups of four beats so it's easy to do if you already have an internal soundtrack (and I have perfect pitch so there's always an internal soundtrack). I included the four looped counting steps in the intro and then returned to that at the end with single counted steps of "one, one, one" to signify my approach to most things now - work on what's in front of your nose at all times, basically. Deal with what's most immediate, the first step first, and everything will be taken care of. There are lots of personal elements like that in it. There are also tracks that seem to me to be deeply imbued with particular people's personalities but again that probably holds little relevance for other people.

They're definitely separate though, the two sides. The narrative for the first part follows the title 'There Are No Shortcuts In A Grid System', and for me is about working within the confines of a structure - in this case, the way of developing each track from the former track. I guess it also signifies the process of learning my trade, that is how to produce music and create something that's listenable. The second half is subtitled 'There Is No Grid' and for me is a bit more esoteric. There's much less quantisation, use of microtonal tunings at points, a general feeling of looseness that attempts to convey something otherworldly. Hence the title is about what happens when you take the rules you've previously learned and consciously ignore them. I was reminded of something in the Roth book 'Everyman' where an art tutor gets angry at students who all want to paint abstracts. He thinks that you first have to learn about form and precision before you create abstracts, to prove that everything you've put in that abstract is expressly intended and not just a lazy way of explaining sloppy work.

You've said that each track is a remix of its preceding track - how exactly do I have to imagine the recording process? What was your starting point? What kind of alterations did you employ, and with which aim in mind?

Dave: Well I've always really enjoyed remixing, even though I don't tend to be asked all that often. It's a very easy way to get started on something because the canvass isn't blank from the start, so I applied that to the writing of an album. I would either take something from a previous track and mess with it until I had the basis for a new track, or else (more often) I would have realised when I was finishing a track that there was an element I could manipulate in a certain way. I had a fairly clear idea of the arc of the album from early on so I was able to plan ahead in that way to an extent, sometimes adding bits to a track because I knew they would then lead on elsewhere, like the sub-bass line in 'The Next Step' that becomes the basis for 'The Next Ish'. I didn't employ a regular method of moving constituent parts from one tune to the next, there were various ways - keeping some of the drum sounds, putting chords from one into some sort of sound mangler, or at times just using one old part untouched in another setting.

There are some musical references in the press release. However, could you elaborate on the hip hop influences that are prevalent in the first part? What role does hip hop play for your music or has played for your development as an artist?

Dave: I didn't want those references in the press release at first, as I prefer music writing to be done more evocatively, but my writing process was a bit like "this could do with some Req-style beats, some SND jagged melody would work well here" so it was right that the PR reflected that. Hip hop is probably the one genre I've consistently listened to for longest. Some others I've fallen out of favour with and then returned to semi-nostalgically but hip hop's been a constant. I love Req, I think he's the most underrated producer in the world and I could listen to his stuff all day long. It's got a real humanity to it even though on the surface it's these b-boy MPC jams. He was also really inspiring when I read an interview quote from him, something along the lines of "you can never delay making music on the basis that you're getting this new toy next week or that bit of equipment soon; you need to work with what you have now or you'll delay it forever." I've made loads of hip hop influenced tunes in the past and the influences are many: RZA, Bomb Squad, DJ Krush, Neptunes when they're not trying to get you into bed, Anti Pop, Depth Charge, a guy called Kaman Leung who should get more love, older Timbaland, and El-P, who's the man.
I try to add a bit of cutting and scratching to my DJing so it has some of the energy of hip hop. Something like a techno set really benefits from that sort of a boost, or so I think anyway. I generally abhor smoothness in music, I think it's the most unfairly feted aspect of all. People are all the better for their imperfections so I don't see why music should be any different. I like some grit usually, in whatever form that takes, and that feeds through into our label ethos at Broken20.

What about the titles of the album and the individual tracks, did you come up with them before or after recording the tracks? They come across almost as some kind of operating instruction, some advance concept to follow.

Dave: Glasgow has a city centre that's built on a grid, and local legend claims that New York was based on its grid system. I perpetually annoy my long-suffering wife whenever we walk through town by using the phrase 'There Are No Shortcuts In A Grid System', but it's true - you can zigzag all you want, you still have to go the same amount side-to-side and up-and-down. I started to like it as a signifier of pragmatism or acceptance of the simple way things really are even when it seems there's a more complicated story, and chose it for the album title after I had the first few tracks down.

I came up with the track titles just as I was working though the writing process. Track titles aren't generally that important to me so it's usually a reflection of whatever's in my field of vision or consciousness at the time, but I wanted these to flow in some way so there's an evolution of the words as it progresses, and so that it depicted my growth through the writing process and the album's gradual gestation throughout its length.  I would never previously have come up with a title and then written something to fit it, but I did have an idea of the way the album would flow so I had an inkling of how the titles would pan out too. Once I realised that it was moving towards the William Burroughs phrase that "nothing is true, everything is permitted" I knew how I could shape the end of the work, so really it all formed concurrently, words and music.

What kind of music has inspired you in 2012?

Dave: I had a terrible year as a musical consumer in 2011, and I really struggled to name ten things that excited me when asked. I had really railed against the notion of being a customer on a hamster wheel, constantly trying to keep up with "the new", and eventually I realised that as an artist it was counter-productive and as a person it was no fun. I decided to step out of that system and not buy so much music, and it's made me a much better musician I think. I'm certainly happier too. I felt like I was using up my money and energy just to hear yesterday's old new sound, such was the pace of change.

So in 2012 the short answer is "not that much". I love Shackleton, though, and his double release was a joy. It was great to see someone take on a grand project like that and really deliver. I'm generally very wary of grand gestures, having been guilty of trying to commit them myself in the past. Mark Fell is also a hero and I've loved everything he's done this year. He makes me poorer and happier with his prolific output, and although his influence is all over the album I hope I've managed to put my own slant on it as well. I've loved the two El-P albums this year, his own and the stunning Killer Mike album, and this year I got Req's 'Car Paint Scheme', which I'd always wrongly assumed was a compilation of stuff I already had on singles - picture my fanboy ecstasy when it turned out to be mostly stuff I'd never heard! Shabazz Palaces are a revelation because they're creating something different with hip hop that doesn't follow the mainstream and also avoids golden era cliches.

What's next for you, both with Broken60 and Production Unit?

Dave: For Broken60 we're moving onto TVO's 'Red Night Variations'. It's remixes of his 'Red Night' album, four by TVO himself and four by Covered In Sand. After that I think it'll be the beat tape along the lines of what we originally planned for my album, a split release between DJ Votive and Dour Tonic Input.

For Production Unit, I'm not actually sure. I'd like to release another techno EP because I really enjoyed making 'ICU Tracks' and I think there was a dry, restrained sound there that I can develop. I have about five tracks written but they don't quite sit together yet. I have some things planned under pseudonyms but I don't want to jinx them yet and one in particular will take an age to make it happen. I can see myself being dragged back towards the album format soon too, but for now I feel like I invested a lot of myself into 'There Are No Shortcuts In A Grid System' so I need to recharge those batteries a bit first. I've also been working on a live set so I'm hopeful that I can get that finished up and get some opportunities to play. I'm trying to build a performance environment whereby every set is written on the fly and therefore completely unique, but what that takes is practice, practice, practice. I used to do 'live' shows where I'd essentially press a button every four bars to bring something in or take something out, and I want it to be much more than that. Given my new resolve to make music for myself, I need to feel that a live set is really live so that I enjoy it as a creative endeavour. As long as I get something out of it I'll be happy, but by merry coincidence that seems to be when other people get most out of what I do so I think there's the root of something there. We'll see.