(Though we typically cover tangents of hip-hop, funk, and soul, it’s fun to diversify here and there. The following piece is from Gabriel Ramos, a San Francisco native and musician who records as Ssleeping DesiresS. Here’s a rather in-depth q&a with fellow upcoming SF-based electronic troupe, Water Borders. Thanks Gabe! – DM)
By Gabriel Ramos
I first learned of Water Borders in late spring of 2009 while working in a warehouse. One of my co-workers was Amitai Heller, a member of the group. One morning, before the work day officially begun he handed me a CD-R wrapped in torn newspaper with “Water Borders” scrawled on it and said something along the lines of: “Here’s what I’ve been working on. Give it out to as many people as you want.” I tucked it away in my bag and threw it on shortly after arriving home. The first track “Even in The Dark” immediately entranced me not even 10 seconds in. “What is this?” I thought.
It was inevitable that I wouldn’t be the only one captivated by their music. It seemed like a blink of an eye between my introduction and the group unleashing a slew of carefully crafted releases on a myriad of smaller but much lauded labels. A 6-song release on witchhouse epicenter label Disaro, a 12″ EP on the blog 20 Jazz Funk Greats’ label Hungry For Power, and a cassette on Skrot Up. And in October 2011, they released an official full length on one of the UK’s most prominent up and coming labels of the year, Tri Angle Records. In addition to this prolific output of material, simultaneously Water Borders released free mixes and remixes through their Soundcloud profile and a variety of blogs and online magazines.
In early February I had the pleasure of interviewing the two men behind this murky electronic project. Comprised of Amitai Heller and Loric Sih, both formerly of gothic art punk collective New Thrill Parade, Water Borders, in a short span of existence, have carved out an impressive and significant niche for themselves within the darker regions of the electronic community.
I wanted to start from what I imagine would be the beginning. I was curious about the transition between your past group, New Thrill Parade, to your current one, Water Borders.
Amitai Heller: We were in a suburb of Atlanta, on tour, doing karaoke, it was someone’s birthday. We were on a grueling two month tour.
Loric Sih: Grueling.
Was it the last New Thrill Parade tour?
A: Yeah it was the last New Thrill Parade tour and a lot happened that led us to serious fatigue. We decided that once we got back from tour we were going to start this project with the goal of consolidating control over our music. With New Thrill Parade there were too many disparate voices trying to be heard at the same time.
New Thrill Parade was primarily a post punk band using classic organic instrumentation; what led you to make the decision using computers from the beginning?
L: It was in order to have less people be around to do it. How can we do the most with just the two of us? Neither of us really knew much about making music with computers. When we first started it was like: “oooh I think we can do a lot of stuff with a computer” and not have to have ten different instruments being played.
A: Yeah. I definitely think that was the reason why. For me when we started I was always imagining this was something that we would flesh out with a live band eventually but that never happened. A lot of the initial songs were written on guitar. We figured out the chord progressions and translated them to computer. But slowly the process became using actual tools on the computer to create the music and using the computer as an instrument instead of a recording tool. Then it became kind of impossible to translate.
Do you guys still do that now? Or do you try to shy away from that and focus on more organic writing outside of computers?
L: I feel like honestly it’s further and further into the world of computers for me.
How calculated were you in terms of what you wanted to accomplish with this band?
L: The conceptual aspect of the band and the way we wanted to direct the band in general was very thought out. We talked about how we wanted to sound, how fast or slow we wanted to move.
A: There was always some sort of rough map we were trying to follow. To a certain extent we followed it and the result is whatever you know about us now. I don’t think anything ever happened by chance.
Would you say that thus far this project is successful?
A: I vacillate between how I measure success so that’s a really hard question. When Tri Angle said that they were going to put our record out I felt that we had achieved some form of success. Loric do you think that you’re successful? What does your dad think?
L: I think this might be the question that you get the most different answers between me and Amitai. Also something that changes a lot. I do think about myself as an artist. A lot. And that leads me to a lot of vacillating opinions about “Am I doing something that’s successful? Am I on the right path? Am I on the path that’s going to lead to self gratification?” and that changes a lot.
In terms of your releases so far, Disaro, Hungry For Power, and specifically Tri Angle; how did you go about looking for those labels? How calculated was that?
A: We sent an email to Tri Angle. We had some mutual friends so I knew Robin would at least listen to it. Besides that, people just asked us.
L: Those were kind of the frontier wild west days of witch house.
A: The gold rush.
L: Labels were just scooping up anything that sounded a little bit like it.
When I was doing a little bit of research and trying to find reviews of the record the more unfavorable ones seemed to be outside of San Francisco, outside the west coast.
A: I think there’s some homer-ism with local music critics. They know they’re going to see us out.
Do you think that’s what it is?
A: Partially. Here’s a fairly arrogant statement to make: I think our music goes beyond ratings. In the sense that we’re doing something that we do extremely well and you either like it or you don’t. It’s completely an aesthetic decision. I think our execution is perfect. That’s how I feel. If you don’t like the sound you don’t like the sound but you can’t criticize the execution. People are like: “I don’t like the vocals, the vocals are over the top”. Well yeah, the vocals are over the top, that’s how I want them.
If you don’t like that you just don’t like it from an aesthetic stand point or it’s not currently in vogue. I think the response that we get from the music, the negative response and the positive response that we get, all the reviews have been based around: how does this fit within the current trajectory of popular independent music? Rather than what is the content of this music? What is actually happening with the music? What are the songs about? I think they take these two disparate things and put them together and create this. People are more interested in fitting it within the chronology of popular music especially since it’s on Tri Angle, which is a taste-making label.
L: I think that’s kind of the state of popular underground music. That’s where everyone is right now. We’re at a point right now where music is less about musical content in a technical musical conversation than it is about context within a cultural conversation. It’s more about cultural context now than it has been before. At least that’s what it seems like to me.
So what is the next step?
A: We don’t have any shows coming up. I don’t know if or when we will have another show.
L: In making this last record we worked full time on music. It was like straight workaholic mode. It’s almost crazy for me to think about it now. How often we were in the studio working on stuff. At the moment we don’t have that crazy insane bug-eyed up all night drive.
A: That being said we do have a ton of new material. This next batch of songs that haven’t been released yet have taken longer to make. Loric went away for awhile to New York and then we focused on figuring out our live show, we added a new member, Matt (Rogers). So there’s been a lot of the rethinks happening plus other interests have come into our lives outside of the band. I will say the new material is really good. It’s really different.
Different in what respect to your other material?
A: I guess it’s not that different.
L: To us it’s incredibly different to someone who listens to radio hip-hop it sounds exactly the same I’m sure.
What is your process? Briefly take me through the steps of how a sketch becomes a song.
L: One of us just brings some pallet of sounds or rhythms or melodies and then it gets traded around a lot. The general equation is: someone comes up with something, asks the other person to put their unique twist on it, since we have such a very clear idea of each other’s musical tendencies. Then it gets worked on from there.
A: And then we listen to it together and edit together, and if we have live instruments we do that together.
So it’s totally collaborative, it sounds like.
A: Yeah. There’s a couple songs that were all me and a few songs that were ninety percent Loric. It varies. As long as it’s something that represents both of us it becomes a Water Borders release.
Did you use Matt with the new material?
A: He’s on it.
L: It’s definitely still mainly the two of us on all these tracks. There are pieces in each song that I can pick out as belonging to Matt. We’re still trying to figure out how working with a three person dynamic is. Like we were saying at the beginning, a lot of the creation of this band was to cut down on the number of people and to come to a more harmonious group dynamic versus the seven that we had before. I think even with the two of us it took awhile to get into the right groove. What is our intra-personal dynamic? Even though he’s a really close friend of ours who’s a great musician, figuring out how does that work int terms of how do we collaborate as three people instead of two. But yeah, that being said, he’s on some of these tracks. He’s not just there for live.
So then the same collaborative effort with mixing a track as well?
A: The best way to mix these days would be to just listen to a 30 second section in the middle where the wave form is the fattest, decide if you like it or not then turn it off if it’s not good. That’s how everyone listens to music. That’s how we digest. Or just skip around from track to track, see if it’s buzz worthy and if it is then you’re keeping it. Find the drop, see if the drop’s heavy…
I wanted to talk about your influences. Pretty much if you read any description of your band it references Rinse FM and Coil. Is that deliberate?
L: I think that again goes back to, people are more interested in the context culturally of where music fits in than they are about what music sounds like.
A: I will say that before that was written I didn’t know what Rinse FM was. Loric certainly knows and was shocked I didn’t know what that was.
What are your non-musical influences?
A: One movie I like to think about when I write is “Knife In The Water” by Roman Polanski. I think that movie would make a really nice piece to go along side some of our music.
That movie takes place predominantly in a boat, on the water, Water Borders, on a surface level is that correlation unconscious?
A: Yeah unconscious for sure. I hadn’t considered that until right now. I just like the mysterious art with vague resolution.
Yeah it’s basically just a vignette.
A: Yeah you’re right. Vignettes. Lyrically by far my biggest influence is…well Phil Ochs is my favorite lyricist and all existentialists. That’s my favorite literary theme to explore.
Any other themes you tend to incorprate?
A: Like certain humorous failures. Like in that picture there’s shaving cream everywhere but…we’re clearly doing a bad job of shaving, which is one of the overarcing themes of all the lyrics. The acceptance of failure, both personal and systemic.
L: Both of those songs and maybe some large portion of our lyrical content deals with some sort of variation or aspect of the mundanity of daily life. Personal hygiene becomes a good evocative way of talking about that. At least in waldenpond that’s definitely where a lot of that comes from.
How did the name Water Borders come about?
A: The idea of water borders. There’s an absurdity in creating borders of water because water is fluid and so it touches upon some of my lyrical themes which have always been the same since I was 15 and started writing music. It touches on the inanity of creating borders when they’re unnecessary for anything beyond commerce or capital. And then it also sounds like water boarding which was a little more prescient when the band started. Thankfully so. Actually I’m sure people are still being water boarded all over Gitmo.
L: There was some kind of thing with Michelle Bachman talking about water boarding in the last few months.
A: Oh yeah and Herman Cain too. They all supported water boarding.
In my opinion, the genre you guys are working in specifically, it definitely seems more like a sonic texture, it’s not really meaningful. It just kind of peppers a composition as oppose to being the basis for something.
L: I feel like it goes deeper than that.
In what sense?
L: It spans wider across the whole of music. A lack of attention towards lyrics or a lack of value in lyrics.
Why do you think that is?
A: You can point everything back to the internet.
L: I think you’re right. The world of music has changed more in the last ten years than it has in the previous thirty and it’s because of the internet.