Monday, March 23, 2009

Interview: Speculator

Infinite State Machine, Mar 23, 2009

Photo of Speculator by Paul Langlade.

William Burnett is a man of many names in the electronic music world. Speculator, for his eclectic weekly show “Short Bus Radio” on New York’s East Village Radio. And there’s Smackulator for his ghetto house-inspired creations with Legowelt, who he also makes short films with. He’s released solo albums under the name Grackle, and as Galaxy Toobin’ Gang with Eliot Lipp. The native Texan and current Brooklyn resident is a jack of all trades and master of some, and has enough current projects up his sleeve to leave a less industrious fellow exhausted.

Burnett is the sort of guy who keeps his coat on in nightclubs, rarely making conversation with anyone that isn’t also a DJ or musician. Blond, bespectacled and quick with the crabby remarks, he seems like the quintessential elementary-school nerd cum skateboarder all grown up. He responds to most statements about girls with words like “gross” and is generally found with a smirk on his face. But Burnett isn’t all crotchety commentary and Southern prejudices, he’s a children’s swimming teacher, a chemtrails conspiracy theorist and knows more about synthesizers than you do.

So I know about Grackle, Smackulator, Galaxy Toobin’, the swim classes, are there any other past projects you’d like to highlight?

I used to be in a band called A Pair of Horseshoes. It was me and another guy I grew up with in Texas, we were a pop duo. He played Rhodes, organ, Moog and guitar. I played guitar and made weird tapeloops and stuff. We both sang love songs. We moved to New York and played a couple of shows. It didn’t work out.

What projects are you currently working on?

Well, I got quite a few, and maybe too many things brewing. There is a new Grackle coming out on Supersoul with really cool remixes sooner or later, Galaxy Toobin’ remix record with Lee Douglas, Lovefingers and DJ Overdose on Creme, some edit crap for Lovefingers, a remake of “Let Them Dance” with D.C. LaRue, remixes for Wolfram and led er est, PG&S with me and Professor Genius is looking for a label.

I started W.T. records to release some friends stuff. There’s Galaxy Toobin’ live tour for the summer, opening a musical instrument store in Brooklyn, and a bunch of other music projects (hopefully a Native American-themed record, a prog record, and more Toobin’ and Grackle).

I am also working on an indie project called Ex Vivian with this girl Krysten Ritter who is a movie star. She is in Confessions of a Shopaholic, Breaking Bad, Gilmore Girls and a bunch of other stuff. She wrote all these songs and I helped record them and played a lot of the backing stuff.

But first I have to go to Europe for 2 weeks to DJ and hang out a little.

Tell me about your projects with Legowelt. You guys have been working together for a while, what’s the story?

I met Danny Wolfers when the Bunker team came over to the U.S. for the first time. We all got along very well and they came over a couple more times. I went to Holland to visit and I ended up staying with Danny. He had the nicest and best-located accommodations of the Bunker team.
So we just made some stupid dancemania-style ripoff tracks cause that is what we were into that week and Guy Tavares released them on Bunker. Then somehow we played live at demf, a CBS boat party, Boston, and even a California tour. I think mostly because it was such an easy live set up, only a Boss DR-660, a pitch shifter and a microphone.

[Legowelt] always holds it down when it comes time to play, whether live or DJing. He really helped me a lot–I never would have gotten any of those gigs without him or any of those [Bunker] guys. When it comes down to it, I don’t have one bad thing to say about that dude, and I can say something bad about everything.

Somewhere along the line I gave him a CD of stuff that became the first grackle on Strange Life. It was really a strange CD and nobody liked it or would release it, but somehow it fit with Strange Life.

Your music, both with Grackle and Galaxy Toobin’, has been described as “cold.” Is this intentional or reflective of some sort of emotional repression?

No, I think it is because I record late at night and I don’t want to wake my neighbors. This definitely has an effect on the sound of my records.

If I knew I could be as loud as I wanted and no one was listening, I think I would make something totally different… or maybe [it's] because I like delay and reverb.

For a while there, you were offering free copies of the Galaxy Toobin’ for download. Do you feel that the promotion value compensates for the the possible loss of legal purchases/downloads?

The record had been out for a while, and I felt like people would like it if they heard it. i just wanted people to hear it. We were proud of that record, Eliot and I stumbled upon something special somehow.
He is very good at melodies and structure. I just added the mood and freakiness. I also have to thank Ralf Beck for the sound of that record. He and I spent 2 weeks in his studio in Dusseldorf getting the best sound possible. Besides, I never get any money for these things and I don’t think the label barely even gets their money back.

So yeah…better to have people hear it so maybe I can get some gigs. I wasn’t really thinking about promotional value.

Where did the name Galaxy Toobin’ come from? 

Me and Eliot were in my studio playing some shit on one of the first nights we started recording. He was all “it’s like we’re floating through space” and I was like “on an innertube,” and we were both like “Galaxy Toobin’.” And it stuck.

More about Short Bus Radio. How long have you been doing it? How much of your time do you spend on it? Still love it or is it annoying now?

I really enjoy doing it. Radio is super cool. No pressure to make anyone dance, just music.
I can’t figure out how long i have been doing it. Several years? Chupacabras and I started before the playlists started and the first playlist is on Jan 2005. I guess we did at least one show when East Village Radio was still pirate radio, so like 4 or 5 years. And the last couple of those were by myself, I don’t even know when Jeremy (Chupa) quit. A few years ago now.

The weirdest thing is when I travel around and people tell me they listen to my show. Crazy.

Tell me about your plans to open a music shop. Do you think the customer base is there in Brooklyn or do you plan to be an international operation?

I really have no idea what I am doing. We want to make it a really local thing. I am not interested in selling on the internet, it does not build community. I think the other guys feel the same way. It would be nice to really have a hang-out for all types of freaks.

There are like 6 million musicians in Brooklyn…think about it. Doesn’t everyone you know have a guitar, some shitty Casio, and a broken drum machine? We want to sell that stuff.

Do you think it’s possible for really boring people to have really good record collections?

Yes, those people probably have the best ones. Such a shame because all the records do is collect dust and get listed on Discogs.

Over time your music seems to have gotten more structured. Is this a conscious decision on your part or a natural progression?

It is totally a natural progression, mostly because of my gear setup. At first I was recording everything in one take, just freaking out and seeing what would happen. Then I got one of them fancy sound cards and programs so I could record a bunch of tracks at once and go through and edit them with ease.
Eliot Lipp (the other Toober) helped me to learn what I needed in my studio for that. I already had the synths, just not a good way to record them and go back and edit it more cohesively.

What film would you most like to soundtrack and why? What would it sound like?

Hmm…I don’t really watch movies that much. I guess it would have to be some kind of space Western. Like cowboys in outer space with Native American aliens or something like that. I think you could imagine how that would sound.

What can you tell me about the movie you are making about chemtrails?

Not much. We just wanted to make something and movies are fun to make. This is a subject I am recently interested in as there is much propaganda on the internet about it. I thought we could add just a little more.

You are programing your synths one day and suddenly they download you into the system ala Tron. In your digital prison cell you are allowed 3 tracks to listen to. What would they be?

I hate the thought of this. Only 3 songs? I have no idea.

I always like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles “Tracks of My Tears,” and I have been listening to Rodriguez “Sugar Man” a lot this week.

And probably Kraftwerk “Cristallo” because every electronic musician has to say they like Kraftwerk.