J-E-T-S aren’t content with retreading old clichés. Skilfully mixing genres to create a new sound palette – there's nods to '90s gospel music, R&B, early 70s synthesiser music, and hip-hop without being limited to that – the duo have crafted a monumental debut album under this moniker of theirs.
It's an album that exhibits the hallmarks of a collaboration done superbly: Jimmy Edgar (best known for material under his own name) and Travis Stewart (best known as Machinedrum) have crafted something that feels consise and exploratory. This hybridised beast is as danceable as it is mind-bending; treading carefully on the fault lines between far left-field music and rabble-rousing club bangers. A pleasure, then, to hear the duo, who are widely recognised as two of the past decade’s most versatile and chameleonic producers, deliver – or even surpass on the expectations laid before them.
J-E-T-S, who got the bulk of the album done at Jimmy Edgar's home studio in Portland, Oregon, are the type of people continually push themselves to learn and are driven by a deep appreciation for music, which surely has much to do with it. Their driven, curious outlook also makes them great, energetic people to talk to.
With much ground to tread, we begin the interview speaking about the technical musical accomplishments – with some surprising tips for the budding musicians among you. We move on to chat about the nature of the collaborations (Mykki Blanco, and TKAY Maidza, and DAWN [Dawn Richards] are among them) before hearing about their experiments with the occult and quantum physics, and how that helped shape the forthcoming album.
Ultimately, Jimmy Edgar and Travis Stewart give you, dear reader, the lowdown on an album we bet you will also fall in love with. So without further ado, here's J-E-T-S:
It doesn’t take three or four seconds of listening to realise the album has a level of craft that goes beyond conventional pop music – I certainly don’t feel I’m listening to something I’ve heard before. What special processes did you do?
Travis Stewart: I don’t know about Jimmy, but the process was new for me. The first day of album creation was just spent recording the sounds we were making jamming on Jimmy's super complex modular system. We were running different drum sounds through EQ's and outboard gear to give it a different sound. We built a whole sound pack based on those recordings which informed the sound of the album and made it a lot more fun. It was fun and easy for song craft and helped make the album cohesive.
What else can you recall?
TS: On 'Potion' and 'Water and Stone' we would both would sit down at the keyboard and I would play one chord then Jimmy would switch with me play the next chord and come up with a progression. We would then we would chop up that progression in to a rhythm and it just yielded interesting results.
JE: Also – Travis and I were learning some interesting theory like modal interchange and different kinds of chord voicing.
Any particular eras you were pulling in from?
TS: It wasn't a particular era, we combined it. For instance we were pulling from '90s gospel music and often using chord progressions that were popular in '60s minimal music.
Which ’60s minimal artist?
TS: It’s not a specific musician – the progressions used are called quartal harmony. It's been around for hundreds of years but it had a reinvention in the '60s with piano music and leading into early '70s synthesiser music. It's like a voicing; as opposed to playing a triad minor chord you spread it out in fourths. It creates a sustained chordal harmony which is not necessarily minor or major so you can use them interchangeably and they have an almost alien sound to them. It’s an untapped musical harmony these days.
There are some great vocal collaborations on there. Let’s start with Tkay Maidza, I really enjoy her tone. What do you see is special about her? And why did you wanted to work with her for this record?
JE: She brings such great energy – live and in the studio – and is an artist I really believe in. She can always really match the energy [of the track] without putting too much ego. Some artists put a lot of their ego in to a track. We were really respectful of which artists we chose to work with to make sure the songs kept their integrity. Instead of borrowing or appropriating another artist’s vibe, we wanted to do a true collaboration.
How would you describe what Kingjet did with the vocal on that track?
JE: He's hitting a lot of ninth notes on the scale. I like when a vocalist can get up that high. It’s a really important tone to hit for today's music.
TS: And Kingjet is a producer in his own right. He has a project called Two Fresh with his twin brother and so he's got this different approach as well. He has his own, unique approach to fitting to a beat with his vocals. He has that understanding of what goes behind beatmaking.
JE: That [vocal] track, in particular, was actually written on a different track that's on the album. But we ended up building an entirely different production around it which is kind of amazing because it still fit in to the album project. Travis and I were still on the vibe. We actually built that track around an acapella.
On ‘Firefly’ there isn’t a guest vocalist mentioned in the tracklist but there's loads of interesting vocal sounds coming in. Who is that?
TS: That's little fragments of Rochelle Jordan. She had recorded vocals for a completely different track but because we’ve a strong working relationship with her she's totally cool with us using her voice more like a sample if we want to. We felt the freedom to use her vocal and not source some old R&B acapella like we would have done in the past. Pretty much all of the vocals you hear, even if they're more samples style, are from friends we've collaborated with.
Mykki Blanco’s got a rugged sound and the energy of a rockstar. What was that session like? What got that energy out of him do you think?
TS: We had complete confidence that Mykki was going to match the energy of that track. It's a very aggressive beat and there’s a lot of distorted sound so we couldn't send that to any rapper. We wanted to send that to someone who is a bit of a performer. And that's who Mykki is. He understands dynamics, telling a story; being a character in a way. We feel all the tracks are their own little characters and we felt that one matched his personality so perfectly.
JE: We had been trying to work together for the past three years and we did sessions here and there but this one really felt like it was the one. And Mykki was all about it so we were super happy about it.
TS: He sent me us a demo, just him freestyling on his phone, and I just got so excited when he sent that over.
Were collaborators given any thematic direction?
JE: No, not at all. With collaborations we let the artists do exactly what they want. That's when they're feeling it the most. There’s also artists we tried to get things back but it didn’t really workout. We try and go with the creative flow.
You had to cast the net wide try different people and break it to some people that they didn’t make the album?
JE: Yeah one of the tracks had five different vocals and we just knew we were getting closer and closer and then it was there.
Which track was that?
JE: That was ‘Potion’, the one we did with DAWN. We’ve both worked with DAWN a lot in the past and she is one artist who can just deliver whenever.
What does DAWN bring?
TS: She’s professional and the way that she delivers is radio ready but interesting. She's always got some edgy quality to her lyrics. She has got the classic sound but also pays attention to modern trends with how she delivers her vocals. She is super inspirational to us and we were fortunate.
You didn't want any throwback sounds I guess?
TS: Definitely not. That was one issue we had in the past with vocals. Some were too ’90 or throwback. DAWN in particular I love her melodies she hears it instantly and just nails it.
Jimmy, I read about your interest in the occult and you didn't write lyrics on the music so I can’t try and decode it. So I wonder if you can answer whether or not this interest of yours manifests in the music somehow?
JE: That is a vast subject. What I can say about it is I am a student of everything metaphysical. My wife and I have hundreds of books on the subject.
I did recently get in to how metaphysics relates to sound and there are books on different tones and how they relate to planets. You can use them in magical rituals but I'm more interested in the power of these things and what's possible. I don't really practice it because those who do seem to want to manipulate time and space and manipulate people. I’m not in to that. We’re trying to create good vibes and make unknowns in the quantum field.
For example, when we were finishing the album – and before we went to it – we went to the isolation tanks with salt water. We believe that cleanses energy. It's kind of like how indigenous people use sage or shakers as they’re believed to break up negative energy in your aura.
It seems like you’re in a very controlled environment. I’m starting to see you treat it with the meticulous attention a scientist would do with a laboratory?
JE: We didn't want to be controlling with the environment and set out limitations. We wanted to open the door for creativity to flow in without saying we wanted something specific out of it. We both believe so long as you set the intention and have the emotion super high, we can leave it up to the energy around us to flow in that direction. Whatever comes out of it is what we manifest as opposed to having this very specific idea. We used things like incense and oils. We're trying to create an environment to get a good vibe to where we can thrive musically.
Did you do a ritual with psychedelics?
JE: For me, ritual is basically cleansing the environment to open the flood gates of creativity. Otherwise, you can go in to the studio with these past experiences and stresses from the day. I often look at everything through the trinity of mind, body and spirit. What we wanted to do was make sure we took breaks, stretched properly, stayed hydrated, and cleaned the environment the same way indigenous people may have done with nice smells.
Gigwise: In turn, you've created something... For me, if I wanted to get in to that space you were in I could by putting your album on. Do you think you’re passing that energy? Do you feel that happens with fans?
TS: Yeah, that's one of our intentions. Passing on positivity and fun and all those positive emotions that were invoked during the creation.
JE: I’m really into quantum physics and you can surmise – once you get into quantum physics and you bridge the gap between quantum physics and spirituality – that music is like FM radio: With radio you have this signal which goes out, which is a carrier. And then you have a modulator so you can tune in to the station.
So that allegory related to making music is: we put the emotion into it which is the modulator of music which is the carrier. And I believe quantum physics says that anything you say and anything that you think has this emotion modulator to it. So we wanted that we infuse a good vibe in to the music basically.
Then, from there, we tuned the entire album into an alternate tuning which is 432hz. It also, relates to Cymatic experiments, which are these experiments where they put salt or sand on to a metal plate and then run tones through it which creates a geometrical structure. And what they find is that the typical tuning of music today (440hz) doesn't have the very nice geometrical structure that 432hz has.
So in a way we have a visual representation of this organic nature of this tuning that can be plainly seen on these metal plates that make the structure with the sand.
If you make the leap to assume this geometry can be laden into the body, then you can see that there's a nice artistic geometrical structure that's being tuned with the music.
TS: They've done the same experiments with water as well. They've made these geometric patterns within water molecules and humans are made up of mostly water. So if you’re thinking about how these frequencies and tunings are effecting people, it’s a physiological change.
There’s this theory: People in power are afraid of the liberation the altenative tuning could cause. They suppose the standard tuning in pop music exisists because the alterative could liberate people out of a docile slump moreso. What do you think of that?
JE: I guess on that tip, I really don't like conspiracies about illuminati and things like that. My first conclusion to jump to isn't 'here is a group of men controlling musical tones'. I think there definitely could be a factor to that, though. But my understanding mostly is that humans are at a learning place. I don't know, it's my belief that you attract what you are. So I think humans could have potentially attracted and done this experience to ourselves. So right now I think we're at a turning point and a learning phase where a lot of these technologies and discoveries are coming out so we're able to improve ourselves. At the end of the day, the 432 hz thing is a theory, it's not scientifically proven, I haven't seen the papers. But what we do know is: it [Zoospa] sounded way better and we did blind tests and we just went for it. And given our beliefs we felt good about it.
Absolutely. time's running out so last question: It's interesting to see the album on Innovative Leisure. That’s a label I would more associate with guitar music. I know you have backgrounds on various labels like Ninja tune and Warp. What was the incentive to join IL?
TS: I did a Machinedrum ep with them in 2010. And the first record they put out was with this other electronic duo, who don't make music any more, called Lazer Sword. They are amazing. So their original roots are in electronic music. And I've known Nate [Nelson] from Innovative Leisure for years. I have bonded him in the past over electronic music. When they approached my management in LA, who had a good relationship with them, with interest in the album I thought it could be a unique opportunity to work with a label who are outside of the box as far as electronic music labels go. And having the history with some of the people who work at the label and knowing they have a deep appreciation for electronic music we just knew it would be a cool working relationship.
And the results prove it: The power of J-E-T-S’ new album out on 24 May via Innovative Leisure is incredible. The extent they went to to ensure they got their most definitive collaborative work to-date is just brilliant and the trail they've blazed with Zoospa feels exhilirating and is likely to become an inspirational source for listeners and musicians alike.
1. FAUNA SAUNA
2. POTIONS (Feat. Dawn Richard)
3. FIRE FLY
4. LOOK OUT (Feat. King Jet)
5. LOTUS HD
6. PLAY (Feat. Mykki Blanco)
7. REAL TRUTH (Feat. Tkay Maidza)
8. OCEAN PPL (Feat. Rochelle Jordan)
10. Q NATURAL
11. TEAM EFFORT
12. WATER AND STONE
You can pre-order it here