Multi-instrumentalist Joshua Ellis, who records under the name Red State Soundsystem, has just self-released his debut album Ghosts a Burning City. Ellis – whose music sounds like a cross between Paul Simon and Nine Inch Nails – recorded, mixed, and mastered the album himself. I caught up with him via instant messenger to talk about his music and DIY music production.
Klint Finley: Can you explain the name “Red State Soundsystem”?
Joshua Ellis: It started from a lame joke. When the band Cansei de Ser Sexy came out, I noticed everybody abbreviated their name to CSS. Being a Web nerd, I giggled.
I used to release stuff under my own name, but I dug the idea of having a sort of secret identity. Plus I wanted to maybe collaborate with various other people. So I wanted a band name. I started thinking about Web acronyms — HTML, PHP…RSS. What would be a cool name that could be abbreviated as RSS?
And it came to me. It just sounded cool and vaguely political and funny. Then I came up with my logo — the old red pickup truck in a field with bigass soundsystem speakers in the bed. And it just seemed perfect.
How has the response been to the name? Your music sounds a lot more global and cosmopolitan than I would expect from the name. Not that I don’t love the name, it’s just a little surprising I guess.
People seem to think it’s funny, I guess. Part of the joke of the name was that I wanted to invoke Middle America — which is where I basically exist — and also that exotic notion of Jamaican/African soundsystems, a weird juxtaposition. It’s like the idea of bringing the bigger outside world to Middle America. But yeah, the music is very specifically and intentionally globalist.
(Above: Joshua Ellis, photo by Danny Mollohan)
One reviewer, I can’t find the review right now, said that GIABC is an extremely Vegas album, that Vegas sun sort of permeates the entire album – something along those lines. As a total Vegas outsider – I’ve only ever driven through – I don’t hear that at all. Would you agree with that?
I don’t think of GIABC as a Vegas album at all. I wrote and recorded it while living here, but bits were also recorded while I was on various adventures elsewhere, and a lot of the lyrics are sort of my romantic ideas about living in a big, globally-connected world and traveling and nomadism and such.
And I really think of it as a night record, not a day record. For most of the year here in Vegas, we don’t go out in the day, because it’s one of the hottest places in the Northern Hemisphere. I’m very much a late-night person, and I think the album sounds like that.
Yeah, I didn’t get the “sun drenched” part at all. It sounded very “late night” to me.
I hate to ask any artist what any song is about, but “Berlin Floor Show” has me so curious I can’t help but ask – can you give us some hint as to what inspired it?
You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.
No, I’m happy to.
That started out as me trying to write a PJ Harvey song — like “To Bring You My Love” vintage PJ.
The lyric was inspired by a story I heard or read once, and I have no idea if it’s true or not. The story was this: back in the Weimar era, Marlene Dietrich used to do cabaret shows in drag. For one show, the stage was set with a double staircase, each side curving around the stage, and in the middle of the stage was a bed.
Marlene would appear at the top of the stairs in a coat and tails and a top hat, and a man would appear in drag. They’d be lip-syncing to a duet, but Marlene would do the male voice and the man would do the woman’s voice. They’d slowly descend the stairs, singing.
When they got to the bottom, they’d take off their clothes and get on the bed. Marlene would be wearing a strap-on…and she’d fuck the guy in the ass, still singing the song.
I have no idea if that’s true, and I don’t remember where I heard it.
But it made me think of the whole myth of Berlin — y’know, Bowie and Iggy running around with drag queens, the cabaret, all that — and the lyrics really just sort of flowed out by themselves.
At that point, I’d never been to Berlin. When I finally got there, I was totally delighted to discover that the ambience of the song was actually kind of accurate and fit the vibe of the city well.
I love that city, by the way. I could live there easily.
When I went to Berlin, I had no idea how to get to the hostel I was staying at. So I just got off the train at a random stop and wandered around. At first it seemed like a normal European city and I was all like “So this is Berlin?” I was looking for an Internet cafe to lookup directions, and I found one that was next to a fetish shop that was right next door to a kids toy store. I felt like I was really in Berlin then.
Exactly. Such a remarkable city, and very much a city of opposites. Wenders totally nailed that in Wings of Desire.
Any chance of Red State Sound System going on tour?
I don’t know. Even playing live is a logistical nightmare, because to do these songs as they appear on record would require an eight piece band. I’m currently trying to build stripped-down arrangements for myself and a couple of other people to perform live — my collaborator Aaron Archer on guitar, my backup singer Rosalie Miletich running loops in Ableton and singing, maybe a couple of other people. But it’s difficult, because I’m afraid that the songs lose something when you remove all the little textures and stuff.
Having said that, I’d love to tour. But it’s also a question of finance. I have a day job, and touring is expensive if you don’t have a label.
Have you learned anything new since you wrote your post “Things I have discovered in three days of selling my album online” that you’d like to share?
Since then, I’ve done some interviews and had a really nice feature in the Las Vegas CityLife. I think press gives me legitimacy — for a lot of people, it means that if I’m worth writing about, I’m worth listening to.
Other than that, jury’s still out. Sales are slow but steady. It’s nice when people blog about the album (like you!) and review it on iTunes and Amazon.
Warren Ellis gave me a plug on his blog and I probably sold a half-dozen records that night. So that’s lovely.
It’s hard to know how to promote the album — the whole world of MP3 blogs and online music ‘zines is such new territory. I’m kind of making it up as I go along.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered while recording, and what has been the biggest challenge on the business side of releasing the album?
Oh, God, recording is all challenges. I had a very hard time learning how to record and mix my vocals. I’m a baritone, so my voice doesn’t cut through the other instruments the way, say, Robert Plant’s voice does. So I had to mix everything in a really weird, house-of-cards kind of way so you could hear what I was singing. Another challenge was simply finding time and space to actually do the live recording. Some of this was recorded in my parents’ living room when everybody was asleep. Most of it was just in my spare bedroom, recording vocals at night after the planes stopped flying overhead. (The airport in Vegas is in the middle of town, about two miles from my house.)
Business-wise…simply getting the word out. I think there’s a market for this music, if people find out about it. But again, without a label, I can’t put ads in Rolling Stone or even Pitchfork, I’m not doing the talk show circuit, I’m having trouble affording to make physical copies to sell/distribute to reviewers.
Do you get complaints from your neighbors?
No, thankfully! I don’t sing very loud, and of course when you’re recording you’re wearing headphones to keep the tracks from bleeding. I mix mostly in the afternoon, early evening. But I’m lucky enough that my condo has good insulation, plus my studio’s in the front of the place, so it’s not next to anybody else.
Also, 85% of the album is all done in-computer. The only live instruments are guitar, bass and vocals, period.
Did you rely mostly on headphones for monitoring or speakers?
Speakers. I have a little pair of M-Audio nearfield monitors. But when I did the final mixes, I tested it on those, on headphones, on my home stereo with giant old 70s speakers, and on my iPhone. Just to make sure.
What key things do you think a beginning home recorder should invest in first?
The most important things, I think, are these: a good audio interface with minimal noise and high-bitrate capabilities, and the best microphone preamp you can afford. With those things, you can afford to be a little lax on other stuff.
Also, the most important investment is time. Learn everything you can. Listen to your favorite albums, figure out what you like about the sound, try to figure out how they did it. Read reviews of gear. Read magazines like Sound on Sound and Future Music. It took me a lot longer to learn how to record than it actually did to record the album.
You don’t really need high-end gear to make high-end music. Hell, I recorded the vocals for most of this album using a Shure SM-58 running into a $50 Behringer mixer. (Though the vocals are the one thing I’d really change about the album, so maybe that’s not a good example.)
(Above: Ellis’s home studio)
What are some good resources for learning to record?
Craig Anderton’s book Home Recording for Musicians is a classic. I was also extremely enamored of Daniel Lanois’s documentary Here Is What Is, which you can buy from his website. It’s basically a two hour movie about his recording process, with Brian Eno and U2 and Levon Helm. You could do worse than Lanois as a guru for recording. (I really love his production work, and also his own stuff, which is some of my favorite music in the world.)
I think that a lot of the stuff that seems more difficult to do in a home environment — like soundproofing and building a vocal booth — isn’t really necessary.
The more you learn, the more you’ll be able to do more with less, I think.
Trent Reznor wrote that all new artists should give away their music for free, but you’re obviously not following that advice and you don’t seem to be suffering from it. On the other hand, you weren’t a complete unknown since you’re known for other things.
Well, Trent can afford to say that kind of thing, frankly, because he’s in a position to be generous. I’d like people to buy my music, but I’m not fascist about it, and I don’t think $10 from my website (or less from Amazon, sigh) is unreasonable.
I think if I gave it away, more people would obtain it…but I also don’t think they’d give it their full attention. When you buy a record — when you commit your money to it — you’re more apt to really listen to it, because it cost you something to get it. You can download an artist’s entire discography off Bittorrent, but are you really then going to sit down and just listen to it, start to finish? You’re not appreciating, you’re archiving. I do it too — I’ll download somebody’s free album, listen to the beginning of like four tracks, and think “I’ll listen to this later”. And I never do. But if I pay for it, I want to hear it.
And I’m slightly known for my writing and for Mperia.com, but musically I’m definitely pretty obscure. A few people have heard and dug the stuff I’ve put out before, but I don’t think anybody thinks of me as a “musician”, though I hope GIABC will change that.
What would be your own advice to new artists releasing their first work?
I think the most important thing is to be absolutely assured of the value of your work. If you think your album sucks or nobody’s going to care, well…you’ll be right. But no matter if you’re a great artist or just an okay one, you’ve done the hardest thing: you’ve made something to put out into the world. That’s a remarkable thing.
Beyond that…if you think the hard part’s done, you’re in trouble. It’s going to take just as much work or more to get your music in front of people than it did to make it. You are no longer a musician — you’re a marketing person.
I’ve actually written a guide to establishing an online presence for indie musicians.
Back when you were running Mperia I recall that you said that you were surprised to find a lot more electronic musicians embracing Mperia than “indie rock” musicians. I forget why you thought that was at the time, but I’ve been thinking about it lately and wondering if it’s because most rock musicians have more opportunities to make money as performers than most electronic musicians. I mean, even those electronic musicians who have a means for actually performing their work seem to have more limits in terms of venues and audiences than rock bands.
Absolutely. But I also think it’s because electronic musicians, by their very nature, are more comfortable with technology. I think things have changed since then, though. More indie artists are becoming comfortable with the Net as a tool.
You’re definitely right about the performance thing, though I think there’s one exception: DJs. A club DJ can make a hell of a lot more money than a band, because a) he can work the same venue every week, b) he’s the only one taking the cut, c) his time/money expenses are far smaller.
I’m thinking about getting back into DJing for this reason. Hell, when I was the Friday night DJ at a bar here in Vegas, spinning Peaches and Bowie for the hipster kids, I was sometimes pulling in $250-300 each week, taking a percentage of the bar. And that was a small place! DJs at the big clubs on the Strip here in Vegas make fuck-you money.
Well, I think there’s a big difference between DJs and electronic musicians, but DJing is one way for electronic musicians to make money.
Right, of course.
It’s expensive to build up a good vinyl collection, though. If you’re still doing things that way.
How very droll of you. I have an iPod and DJ software.
I actually want to start using Ableton to do on-the-fly remixing in clubs. But that might take more time/focus than I can spare right now.
I actually wonder how purely electronic DJing will effect the ability of DJs to make a living, though. It really lowers the barrier of entry.
Especially if you just pirate all the music you “spin.”
Yeah, it does, and I know a lot of vinyl DJs who were/are resentful of it. But how much of a DJ’s ability/popularity is due to his or her skill with records, and how much of it is based on taste and ability to drop a kickass mix? I think people like me as a DJ because I’m not too weird, but I have an extremely eclectic sensibility — I’ll go from the Velvets to the KLF and I think it makes sense.
One of the various things you’re famous for is your essay/lecture “Grim Meat Hook Future,” and one reviewer of your album wrote “As the West’s happy facade falls, Ghosts is the proper soundtrack.” So do you think we’re doomed, or do you think there’s some way out of the hole we’ve collectively dug ourselves into?
I think that the world we’ve built for ourselves — the post-WWII globalist civilization — cannot sustain itself. This world is slowly ending. You see it every day and so do I. But I no longer believe that necessarily leads to horror and anarchy. People seem to be waking up, to be realizing that it’s possible to have less and still be okay. It’s slow, but I think it’s happening.
But there are going to be upheavals. They’re unavoidable. Las Vegas is a great example: this city is completely unsustainable. It’s a geographically-isolated place that relies entirely on long-distance trucking for its goods and long-distance travel to bring the tourists that supply it. When fuel prices go up, the price of living in Vegas goes up…and the city’s income falters, because it’s more expensive to come here. Not to mention that we have more foreclosures and abandoned property than any city in America except Detroit, and we run neck-and-neck with them consistently.
Now that may sound like a local problem…but if Vegas begins to turn into a ghost city, all the nearly 2 million people who live here have to go somewhere. And they are, statistically speaking, two million of the least-educated people in America. (Sorry, but it’s true.) So where do they go and what do they do? Talk about scatterlings and refugees.
And it’s not just Vegas; it’s the whole American Southwest that can’t sustain. You’re talking about fifty million people who, in the next twenty years, are going to be displaced. And that’s just one group of people who are relatively financially able to weather the storm. God only knows what’s going to happen in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, the developing world.
But here’s the secret: this is always happening. My point about the Grim Meathook Future was that it looked a lot like the Grim Meathook Present and the Grim Meathook Past. Human civilization is always in upheaval; one society stabilizes, another one elects a crazy strongman as leader and goes absolutely apeshit. This has been happening for ten thousand years.
For me personally, I don’t think I’ll be living in a tent in the desert eating rats and bartering my ass for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups anytime soon. But I may be naive in my thinking.
And yeah, the album definitely reflects a lot of my thinking in this direction.