Much of the rhetoric around songwriting erases how much the process can be driven by forces outside the artist’s control. The term “songwriting” itself suggests a creative process not unlike transcription, with a musician plucking fully formed melodies right from their mind.
Not so for electronic producer and DJ, M.E.S.H. (aka James Whipple), who insists his latest album Hesaitix, is the next step in his pursuit of combining the club and abstract electronic worlds. His first album, 2015’s Piteous Gate, felt more like a collision of those influences, with them rarely if ever playing nicely with one another. So Hesaitix arrives as a part of a process, the result of Whipple working towards a sound and identity, but on a path that’s more instinctual than predetermined.
The music on the album feels appropriately immediate, never calculated or ponderous. Opening track “Nemorum Incola” is a tour of a vast expanse that moves in unpredictable ways. It’s like an establishing shot of a landscape used to set the stage before the album focuses in on the driving details, like the insistent beat of “Mimic” or the frenetic bass heard on “Diana Triplex.”
Whipple had his first gig as M.E.S.H. in Baltimore in 2008, but the project really didn’t pick up until his move to Berlin a year later, when he and some friends decided to found the Janus party night there in 2012. He says his residency DJing at those parties is what helped him hone what he was doing and became the motivating factor behind the project.
Still, he admits he struggles with how to incorporate his varying ideas, which is where our conversation started, but eventually brought us to what he thinks the best rave in Eastern Europe is right now, what that album title even means, and resisting the well-worn tropes of IDM.
What’s your relationship like to dance music? Do you consider what you make to be dance or club music?
Yeah, I mean my background is as a DJ and producer, so I have this awkward split track in terms of what I do. I’ve released a fair amount of somewhat functional club music, and I have a DJ background, but it’s always a struggle finding a way to present other aspects of what I do, whether it’s in an album format or whatever.
So do you use your albums to do things you can’t do live?
More and more I do. With this record, it’s me figuring out a way to integrate all of the stuff I’ve been doing as a whole; figure out a way to perform it in a way that’s less in an experimental, artificial medium. This release is more structured, more musical, and it feels like its integrating a lot of older ideas into a whole.
These last four to five years has been about those two really different audiences I have in a way. There’s people that follow PAN who are record collectors and they’re really interested into different, diverse types of music, but at the same time, I really value being a studio guy, being a producer that also DJs. Figuring out that interface between the studio and the club, but also not wanting to let go of other musical interests that don’t conform to that.
Do you workshop songs live?
Well for this record specifically, as I was finishing things up in June and July, there’s this really good rave that happens in Kiev, in Ukraine, called CXEMA. It’s been going on for a couple of years now, but it’s really exploded, it’s like the best party in Eastern Europe right now. I got a chance to play live at that rave in June. I DJed there a year before.
The promoter, really wanted me to do a live set this time, and I was kind of reluctant to do that. But basically I put together a live set that fit in that big sea of crazy ravers. It was a really good way to experience this music at a high decibel, in this weird social setting where people maybe didn’t know who I was or hadn’t heard the music, and just figuring out how to make it work instinctively. That was really helpful for me.
You talked a bit about the opposite poles of your DJ and producer background, but this album seems to be steeped in the sounds of the natural world. What’s your relationship to nature like?
That’s an interesting question — I actually think about this a lot because I grew up in Southern California. I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest. I really feel that alienation in Europe. Even if you’re in a train and it goes by a forest, you know it’s one of these managed forests where every tree has an ID, and is tracked in some log somewhere, and gets harvested every thirty years or something like that. Everything feels like that, and I miss that feeling of wilderness and horizon. Which is also false. The western US is a false idea, obviously that’s all managed too. But I miss seeing horizons and mountains and oceans.
So those feelings are working their way into the album?
I never really thought of that. When you’re working in this digital environment, not to get into this weird binary between artificial and natural or whatever, but on the first track, there’s this field recording that almost feels like a stock field recording. It’s almost too good. I didn’t record it. There’s a macaw screeching, the rain, it’s very Hollywood in a way. It situates these very harsh digital sounds in that space.
Every piece of music I do, I have to find the space that’s like the stage or the canvas or whatever before any musical idea can come out of that, which is a really ass-backwards way of writing, but, I somehow can’t write a melody until I’ve figured out the timbre of the synth I’m using. It’s like sound design and mixing come first, and the musical ideas morph out of that.
What does the album title mean? When I’m puzzled about a word like that I often will throw them into Google Translate just to see what comes out, and the results indicated “Hesaitix” was Mandarin/Cantonese for “Jose Reminded.” I don’t think that was what you were going for, right?
Uh, no [laughs]. This goes back to what you just asked me, because I was thinking about this word in psychoanalysis, “cathexis” which is an over-investment of libidinal energy into a certain object, a feeling or a drive of some kind. Either to an unhealthy degree or not, but it kind of reifies that. And I was thinking about making music on a computer, and say you’re using software like Ableton, this is really arcane and maybe boring, but everything you do is in this decision space of the software. And it’s even tracked in the history, which is the undo history.
So everything you do has an undo. Every decision you make concretizes the sound in a certain way. You back yourself into these different corners working in this way. All of these decisions, every decision you make in that environment lessen your ability to make a different decision, and also makes the sound more concrete in a way. I was thinking about that, and so “hesaitix” is an anagram of that. Almost, not quite, because it’s missing a letter. It’s not a big concept but for me it works.
I guess thinking in that way might make you hesitate, or overthink your work.
Yeah and also realize how much freedom an artist has to define what the work is. Being skeptical, in making instrumental electronic music, about what you can ascribe to a sound. Whether you’re overloading a sound with meaning or you’re not doing that. There’s always your ego as an artist trying to do a certain thing, and there’s the determinism of your tools that are feeding back on that.
Do you have a concept in mind before sitting down to make a record, or as you’ve suggested with the album title, does it evolve as you write it?
Definitely the latter. I’m always of the opinion that when you’re making something, you’re a sponge of ideas — what you’re watching, what you’re experiencing. For me, I don’t feel like any of my work is conceptual. In terms of specifically talking about conceptual art, defining almost like a formula of A plus B, so to me it feels more instinctual and weirdly romantic in a way, versus conceptual. There’s no structure that I put on before I start writing it.
Speaking of romantic, the final track seems really baroque, a stark contrast to the rest of the record. Like a nice comedown. What made you want to end on that note?
Yeah, I write a bit of music like that just because I love it. I don’t know, there’s a lot of conversations that pop up, especially relating to me or similar music that talks about things in terms of being “apocalyptic” or “dystopian.” All these throwaway phrases.
Like any kind of “dark” electronic music tends to get described with that language.
Yeah, and fair enough, because it’s abstract and it’s instrumental music and describing it is a challenge in itself. But I just wanted to get away from that reductive thing of making scary sounds to reflect this scary world we’re living in. This like cheap zeitgeistyness. I’d rather that my albums be reflective of a full experience of being, versus some kind of drab innervating statement. This record definitely reflects more about and feels closer to my personality — there are parts that are funny, weird, sentimental, hopefully empathetic, but also jarring at the same time. To me, I feel like that’s just me opening up more in a way, and not just being experimental electronic music, which is not what I want to be spending my time around.
Yeah that last song definitely throws you for a loop, showing that your music operates along a wider spectrum of sounds.
That’s interesting that you say that, because when people talk about electronic music, they talk a lot about signature sounds of artists. I feel like I always have this problem that affects me a lot, where people can recognize that they’re hearing my music but it’s in the harmonics, songwriting choices or texture of it. But I don’t feel like that’s something I necessarily have control over. Every time I sit down to write music I’m less in control, but I have certain tendencies that accumulate and turn into a sensibility. It’d be a lot easier for me if I got really good at one thing.
That’s a refreshing thing to hear, because it’s not a popular narrative when you talk to people about making music. It’s always “this is my idea, this is my intention, and this is exactly how I’d planned it” but does it always work out that way? Probably not.
I think artists should be more willing to be humble about what art is. Not in a regressive or conservative way where they say ‘music is being too political, I’m just doing it to express this very abstract idea.’ No, you want to live this very real experience and try and understand the world and then you sit down to work on your art or music and you want that to come out in a way where you’re finding a form that expresses that, versus having this arbitrary form, but then you talk a lot around it. I’m trying to be more instinctual about how I do things.
Hesaitix is out 11/10 via Bandcamp. Pre-order it here.