“Did You Hear That?” – Giant Claw Interview

After an extended hiatus, we’re proud to bring you the latest installment of our interview series, “Did You Hear That?”. In this series, we play three tracks for an artist that are related in some way to their output then ask them a couple of questions about the tracks.

Joining us for this installment is visual artist, producer, and Orange Milk cofounder Keith Rankin, aka Giant Claw. I talked with Keith over Zoom following the release of his essential live compilation, “Millennium Bug Live 2o18-2021“, out now via Prague-based label Genot Centre. Our wide-ranging discussion touched on free jazz, harsh noise, shitposting, and everything in between.

It’s pretty unusual for an electronic artist like yourself to put out a live album. What was the train of thought behind putting this collection out?

I had been playing those songs since around 2017-2018 and felt like the live set had become its own little album, even though I was using pieces that were on other albums. It felt enough like its own thing to get out.

I also wanted to personally remember this period of live shows. There was a period of time before these shows where I had this whole live set that was distinct from any album, but I have no decent recordings of that set. So I have a real sadness that that whole period is lost to time forever.

So starting with the track, “Dab” by John Oswald. There were two reasons I picked that track. First, the use of micro-sounds.

Keith: When you say micro-sound, do you mean just the tiny clips of sound?

Right. I watched this YouTube track breakdown of your song, “Mir-Cam Online” and it seems like a lot of the micro-sounds you use in that song are produced via keyboard performance. Is that correct?

Yeah, the last few years I’ve been doing less sampling and more editing of midi keyboard performances and then a lot of computer editing after that. Like in that tutorial you watched, I’ll just find sounds that have that quality. Like the string sound has this “click”. When you play really fast, its almost the same effect as chopping up a sample. So its almost like finding natural ways to get that sort of effect.

A lot of people are really attracted to that “micro-sound” or “pointillistic” quality. What attracted you to that texture at first?

To go to the John Oswald track for a second, the samples and the arrangement choices are pretty bold and barren. There’s not a lot of reverb or embellishment. It’s all right there, laid out. That idea started to really appeal to me because I grew up in Dayton, Ohio which has a big harsh noise scene. So I was hearing a lot of that and ambient music, and even rock music. Stuff with a lot of reverb.

I think I was craving just a more direct idea. Something dry, just one sound hitting repeatedly, these little points laid out without much embellishment. Obviously I’ve strayed from that a lot over the years but that idea really appealed to me and I still really like hearing that. When I hear things like this track, I like the starkness of it.

In your recent output, between “Mirror Guide” and “Millennium Bug”, a lot of the sounds are quite dry even though you’re known for being part of that wave of OPN-Holly Herndon-Arca-esque music, which is often pretty processed or obscured. Was that an intentional choice?

Yeah, the dryness is definitely very intentional. Its just something that I really enjoy hearing. I guess years ago I wasn’t hearing it much, though its a bit more common now. Basically, I was filling a void with sounds I wanted to hear more of.

Aside from the use of micro-sound, the other connection I noticed to your work was that “Dab” is kind of memey. 

It’s an early shitpost for sure.

Exactly.

Funnily enough, that part of the song is what I connect to the least. When you can hear Michael Jackson singing “bad” in the song, that’s where I disconnect. I don’t know if its just because I really love that song. When you can discern the chorus so clearly and starkly, it takes you someplace else. Which is probably what they wanted.

With that deliberate use of a cultural artifact in mind, I know that you sample less and less these days. When did your relationship with sampling change?

I feel like I stopped using as many samples when my records started selling more and more money got involved, essentially. My personal philosophy is that I don’t like to take from people who are in shittier positions than I am. I don’t mind sampling from huge pop artists, like billionaires or whatever, but it feels weird to me when I sample a peer or something like that.

But aside from the money aspect, I just had other ideas and had already done a lot of sampling stuff. And like I was describing earlier, I was still interested in stuff like micro-sampling. Like, the aural effect of that but trying to achieve that using different means, like using specific sounds or making sounds with a digital instrument that were evocative of that same effect.

Do you have any memories of artists who initially turned you on to sampling?

I guess rap music was the first sampling I heard. For a lot of American kids who grew up in the 90s and 2000s, a lot of it was coming from there. Honestly though, when I was young I wasn’t hearing that stuff as explicitly “sampled.” It’s hard to explain because on one level you knew it was a sample but I was so removed from the process of recording that it just felt natural.

Moving on to the Bill Laswell and Milford Graves track “Sonny Sharrock”. I picked this out because I hear a similarity between your composition style and free jazz drumming. They both have a quality that’s very frenetic yet fluid. Are you influenced at all by live drummers or percussionists?

I think drums were actually the first instrument I picked up. And I was always really drawn to the freedom in that style of jazz playing. I remember when I was pretty young, there was this hippie guy who lived down the street and I would go over to his house for guitar lessons. We would just sit around and he would show me music from the ‘70s. When you’re that young, an early teen, it was amazing to have someone like that in your life. I would go down to his basement and he would have this crazy shit like Mahavishnu Orchestra playing. Songs like “Vital Transformation” with Billy Cobham playing this crazy future drum beat. It totally blew me away. I had never heard anything like that.

So that got me hooked on jazz-fusion stuff. Then I was a little older I got more into free jazz drumming. What you described, it being very frenetic yet fluid, is exactly what resonated with me. There would be certain moments in the improvisation where they’re so in sync but still so frantic. It’s like heaven, these moments of exhilaration. I guess the flip-side of that is that sometimes the improvisation can bore me a little bit. Like maybe if they’re not feeling it? (laughs) But when they really touch on something or sync up, there’s really nothing like that in music for me.

And are you familiar at all with Bill Laswell?

Not really. I’ve heard the name but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Bill Laswell record. But I love the sound of that fretless bass. That bass sound combined with a synthesizer pad and a beautiful open 7th or 13th chord. That’s one of my favorite sound combinations ever. It’s just so beautiful.

There’s this Weather Report live album with a song called, “The Orphans”, written by Joe Zawinul. When I heard that track it was mind-blowing. It’s a very beautiful open-chord feel with a  children’s choir behind it. It’s very unlike other Weather Report tracks; it almost sounds like something from Ghost in the Shell. He wrote the song about his experience growing up in Austria and seeing orphaned kids after WWII. Then he got this children’s choir to sing, “No more, no more”. It’s just like, “Holy shit, Weather Report is getting really deep on this track.”

Drumming and editing are often thought of as opposite ends of the musical spectrum, with editing being very disembodied and drumming being very physical. Do you feel the need at all to reconcile these approaches or do they just feel natural parts of the process?

To me, the end result justifies the process. Sometimes I will use a really clinical, edited approach to achieve a really free, frantic, gestural sound. I feel like you can arrive at either sound using either method, if that makes sense. But when I’m making music, I don’t really think about it. I’m just thinking about how I want it to sound and using whatever method is easiest or feels most natural to achieve that. Sometimes its just about what I have at my disposal. Sometimes I’m working at night and the only option I have is to edit stuff in a DAW using the midi roll.

But with the drum pad, I’m often just using that as part of the live performance. I’m kind of dissecting things I’ve done on the computer and adapting them for the drum pad. But in the future, I want to use more percussion or drum-playing in the recording process. I think I can push it even further.

Was it liberating at all to re-engineer these songs for the drumpad? Did it help you to see them in a new light?

A little bit. Number one, it is a pain in the ass to chop the tracks up and sort through my mess of a project file. After a while, I start to think, “I don’t even know how the hell I put this together.” You get weirdly disconnected from how it even happened. A lot of the time I’m not sure if I could recreate it. It’s almost scary; I’ve done this thing but I don’t know how I did it.

Do you ever have that experience listening back to scrapped music? Like, who made this?

I think its an effect of the culture we’re in. It’s like there’s always an invisible hand. There’s so many other factors that go into what your music sounds like than your own ego. Sometimes time passes and you’ll listen back to something you did and you’ll hear parts of yourself that you weren’t even cognizant of at the time. You’ll hear trends or parts of culture that make you think, “Oh, I was part of that.” Time allows you to have a bigger perspective.

But when I’m recording, I often listen to the music so often that it’s just drilled into my brain. It’s too familiar, really. I was talking to Foodman and he mentioned something that I wanted to try. He said he works on a track until it reaches a point where it feels good, or even a little not-good, and he just stops. He starts something, finishes it, and never listens to it again. For me, I spend three weeks neurotically stressing over tracks. Going back and forth in my mind between, “Is this good?” or “Is this trash?” I’m not sure I could do what he does.

Moving on to the last track, “Erin” by Joan La Barbara. Are you familiar with her at all?

I’m not, but I really loved this. I immediately got on Soulseek and downloaded the album. I’ve heard similar voice-only pieces and this sound just hooks me. I just love the device of editing and overdubbing your own voice.

To my ears, this is like the “live” version of your editing or composition style. Does that ring true for you at all?

Yeah. When I heard this, it’s almost like it’s something I wish I had made. I noticed midway through the track a similarity to the soundtrack for Arrival. They definitely took that from this song. That’s my favorite part of the Arrival soundtrack, that vocal part. Hearing that was cool.

You’ve used a lot of vocal material as Giant Claw. Considering that, what’s your relationship with our own voice like? Do you ever use your own voice in your compositions?

I do sometimes use my own voice. But I have a weird disconnect with my own voice. It’s not what I want it to sound like, basically. But I love vocals in music so much. Someone else asked me recently why I was attracted to synthesizers, and it’s because of how a synth can morph a sound, like how a filter can start in one position and morph to another place. With the human voice, you can just do that. That’s a built-in feature. There’s so much range and possibility, so many textures you can get with the voice. It’s also weird because we’re just drawn to the human voice, like how a baby is drawn to their mother’s voice when they’re born. It’s just that undeniable familiarity or warmth in hearing another voice.

So when pieces like this do what they do, it’s so beautiful to me. Just to layer things and use the voice in that way, using the full range and texture of the voice. It’s really appealing and I wish I could do that more with my own voice but I just don’t like the way it sounds. Even if I was to process my voice, the digital artifacts are still so present. I would like a very clean sound. Maybe we’ll get there eventually.

Given your attraction to the human voice, have you ever considered arranging or composing for a live choir or vocalist?

I would love to. I’ve thought about going to a music school just to utilize the performers there. I’ve written some pieces in midi thinking of the voice. On my last album, “Mirror Guide”, I worked with a vocalist, Tamar Kamin, who has classical training. We just sat in a room and talked out ideas. I just had her make all kinds of noises, swooping things and glissando that you can’t get any other way but with the human voice. So I tried to include a lot of that on the album but I’d like to push it more and work with a full choir or ensemble of some sort.

I’ve talked to a lot of musicians who were a part of a choir when they were younger. I wonder if the tendency to layer the human voice in dense ways is a nostalgic thing, an attempt to position oneself in an imaginary choir or community. Is that true at all for you?

Yeah, the community aspect is a whole other thing for me. That’s extremely important and part of the reason to be involved with music at all. It’s a big factor in why I still make music and run a record label. But, there is something about making music in a group. I don’t have any choir experience but I was in bands when I was younger and that feeling of collaborating is kind of addictive. I do miss that pretty often. I’ve definitely considered putting together some kind of ensemble or live group.

Well, that’s all we have. Thanks so much for sitting down over the internet and going through these tracks with us.

Yeah, those were all amazing tracks. I definitely want to download all those albums.

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