With an extensive track record of hit songs over a twenty year career, BT is arguably one of the best electronic music producers alive. Across his half dozen albums and over two dozen film scores, he holds multiple platinum albums and a Guiness world record. BT is the type of person that revels in the intricate enigma that a musical composition holds rather than the vanity of it, which is palpable throughout his work. In an interview with MXDWN he reveals some of the methods of his definitive production style as well as his latest endeavor in creating music software.
Outside a coffee shop by the illustrious Troubadour Theater, I find BT and his entourage. The sky is dotted with gray clouds in what is an atypical California climate. As sprinkles begin to fall to the earth, this reporter, music producer, and company walk hurriedly down Santa Monica Boulevard in search of a proper shelter to share a few words. Swapping jokes and stories along the way, we eventually find ourselves in a busy grocery store café, the only accommodating place within proximity.
BT, how are you enjoying yourself in beautiful Los Angeles?
Really great, thanks for asking.
I want to talk about your software company, Sonik Architect. Software design isn’t something you see a lot of musicians dabbling in. Where did the idea come from?
I got into computing, synthesis and electronic music at a really, really early age. Between the ages of eight and ten is when I really started to get into computing. I also started learning programming language around that time.
What sort of software were you using back then?
I was using DOS and writing basic A. Then eventual Pascal and Cobalt, then object oriented languages specifically for music, like Super Collider and Max MSP. I taught myself some C++ on my own. I can prototype whatever I want to prototype and rebuilt with a group guide.
Are you unsatisfied with modern music production software?
Unsatisfied is a pretty strong word. I would say more challenged in a negative direction. There is such an imposed work flow with mostly all of the commercially available software applications It’s kind of inherent that I’d be making a transparent tool, which is pretty impossible, honestly, and if you do that you’re going to be making a something that only appeals to a certain amount of people because they would have to build something from scratch all of the time. There is this amazing program called Numerology; it’s a sequencer, but it doesn’t start with any tempo, it doesn’t start with any objects, it doesn’t start with anything. You build a sequencer every time you open it. There is another program that reminds me of that… gleetchlab, where you can’t save parts. You open it, you build something, and what you make you can’t save. So that idea of building something like a transparent application, it’s cool in theory but basically a lot of the commercially available applications have an imposed work flow that I don’t like. There are so many things I want to build and achieve so I had to build my own software to do it.
What is the Sonifi application you came out with?
Sonifi is an application for the iPhone. It’s also the first app to use open GLEX 2.0 on the actual device, which is a big spec hurdle. It was really exciting for Apple because we made it this 3G app. Basically it’s a music remix engine for the iPhone. It uses the peripheral axis of the iPhone to do stutter editing, to go forward, backward, left, right, up, down. You can do different kinds of easy multi touch point surface, low-fi and filtering effects. It’s pretty incredible.
What’s the next project for Sonic Architect?
We have two things that are more professional oriented audio applications that are Mac based coming out later this year. One is a granular micro-rhythmic composition tool in surround for making beats, it’s called Break Tweaker. The other does live stutter editing effects for vocalist, guitarists, or laptop DJs, called Stutter Edit.
Are these more mobile applications?
No, these are for computers.
On this new album of yours, These Hopeful Machines, which was released in February, what is different on it as opposed to the other albums?
Just in length, the amount of material on it is massive. Two hours of music. There was an extraordinary amount of music to create in terms of the density of the track. It’s the first time I’ve incorporated some of the molecular rhythmic figures with more traditional song writing. So it has a lot of vocals and a lot of production tricks that I came up with in a special kind of way.
How have things changed since the release of your last album, like your fan demographic or their reception of your music?
I have different eras of fans; people who have come in at different times. There are definitely a lot of newbies with this one. But fans from all different time periods seem to love it; the response has been really, really positive.
So with the release of this album you’ve scooped up another generation of fans?
The neat thing is that the album I made I know for a fact were an inductor for many people new to electronic music was Movement in Still Life. So many people have said to me, “That’s how I found out about electronic music.” I feel like this album is the same thing but for people that are ten years younger. So I expect that in ten years from now I’ll hear a lot of people say, “This is the one where I discovered the whole culture.” Because there are things that can reach and speak to people where dancing is not their thing, but there are some through line that make sense for a bunch of types of music.
Broadening the borderline genres.
Over the years you’ve worked with lots of talented artists. Who are some of your favorites?
I think my favorite, favorite is Peter Gabriel. He’s been a great hero of mine my whole life. But there have been a bunch of people; Tori Amos is definitely one who was great to work with. I really enjoyed working with Sting. He’s a pretty disarming, bright guy who is engaging. You can sit down and talk about literature with and then he picks up a bass and you’re like, “Wow, that’s Sting.” [laughs] Sometimes you forget. But there have been a lot of people that are really good to work with.
Do you have any future collaborations planned with Peter Gabriel?
I would love to do more stuff with Peter. We keep in contact, so it could happen.
Obviously you’re renown internationally over the course of your lengthy career. Why do you think it is that a lot of people in America are fans of your work but don’t actually know you by name?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I can answer that, honestly. For instance, someone like Tiesto, that just makes sense. You don’t have to explain that, it’s a single sentence description. Bottle service, progressive house, fashionista, new money, club life. It’s a very simple thing to explain. It’s great and people love that. People know what they’re getting there. With someone like me who has had a twenty year career in electronic music culture I’ve taken so many diverging paths and experimented in so many different arenas. At the beginning of my career the first thing that happened was I made this record called Ima. It didn’t sound like anything that had ever come before it. This was twenty years ago; I wrote the bulk of that record in 1989 and it came out in 1992. People heard it and were like, “This is a whole new type of music.” They called it trance and they were like, “Okay, you make trance because you made it up.” So that went on for awhile. Then I started experimenting with break beats. People were like, “What the hell is this, oh, you do break beats.” I think that many people in my peer group, and there aren’t a lot of people who have been doing this as long as I have, but people that I consider peers have done the same thing over and over, that’s cool for them but that doesn’t appeal to me.
You’re more interested in exploring musically uncharted territory?
Yeah. That makes it inherently more confusing though. [BT leans back and smiles smugly.]
Are you proud that you didn’t sell out?
Well… yeah, kind of, I am. [laughs]
Is there any area of music that you would like to dabble in but are intimidated by because of the challenge it may present to your fans or their reception of it?
Sort of. Not really intimidated, but I’m really excited to explore. And yes, a little hesitant because it might freak out some of my base. Classical music. Over the next fifteen years I really want to start composing stuff. When you write music for a movie the music needs to fit the picture and aid what is happening visually, but I’d very much like to write music for an orchestra. I have really open minded fans though. But that’s definitely something I’d like to do.
Go for it. It’s definitely an accomplishment to undertake. So if you have unlimited resources what massive musical project would you undertake?
If I had unlimited resources? [BT laughs while considering the idea] I would be building shit all day long. I would have a warehouse with 200 people in it and someone to properly manage the 200 people who are constantly building compositions and software and everything. Not to release it, but just because it needs to exist.
Good answer. Can you make any predictions on music trends in the next generation?
I think dub step is going to have a really big impact on all aspects of music in the future. That’s one of the most exciting things I’ve heard in awhile, honestly.
You can see that taking shape right now with the rise of trip-hop in modern music.
Tell me about the book you’re writing.
I’ve been drafting this thing, quite literally, forever. It started out as a book of production techniques that I’ve used over the years, like stutter editing and time corrections. But there is this almanac that I picked up at a used book store two years ago written by Benjamin Franklin. It’s amazing, this book was riveting for me because it’s basically an almanac with all these weather predictions, but then there is all this free writing. It’s very inspirational – not necessarily prose or poetry, but it’s almost like blogging, honestly.
Benjamin Franklin, the pioneer of blogging. Who would have thought?
Yeah! So it inspired me. When I do complete this book what I’d like to do is take something that seems fairly esoteric and weave that into a production technique over a chapter.
What do you mean something fairly esoteric?
Just something about life. Like a big broad thought about language or neuroscience, or physics, or philosophy or metaphysics. To take a concept and take it and talk about it and distil it down to something that explains it.
So can we expect a BT book of prose to follow?
[laughs] Maybe. I don’t know.
Tell me how you have the patience to create these long, elaborate tracks that seem very labor intensive.
It takes a long time. A friend of mine who makes tracks really quick has an immediacy to make something and it’s done. In a way I find the thought of it thrilling but it’s just not the way I work. I am just a patient person. I am one of the people you see at the Getty, when most people run through a gallery, I’ll sit for like three hours and appreciate what went into a piece, and my work flows like that too. What interests me in what I do and what other people do as well is intricacy, craftsmanship, and their intent.
Not the final product?
The final product as well, but in pieces, if that makes sense. I am interested in what went into making something.
Patience is a virtue and it certainly paid off in your case. What roles do math a science play in your compositions?
They are important and something that deeply inspire me in my compositional process. I use them on my work, quite simply. Like the Fibonacci Sequence that I base off a lot of things. A big one in my music is the relationship of three to two I think is really interesting. It’s a perfect fifth, it’s a fascinating thing that occurs throughout nature and all the while aesthetically pleasing. I think math is beautiful.
They say math is the language of God.
Yeah, that’s cool.
Thanks for chatting with me, BT. I look forward to reading your book of prose while listening to your classical compositions.
[laughs] Thank you.
As BT and I part ways, the rain begins to pick up. I run for cover in one direction while BT and his crew scamper off in another.