By Jena Ardell
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"I have a lot of fashion rules," says Daniel Martin-McCormick, the 28-year-old musician who makes up half of the rock-gone-electronic duo Mi Ami and the sole member of Ital—the latter of whose head-turning debut, Hive Mind, was released last month by Planet Mu. He's explaining a couple of things at his kitchen table in Williamsburg. It's his living-room table, too. God bless New York real estate.
Martin-McCormick points to his watch. "Malcolm X, who's my hero, always said that he didn't respect anyone who didn't wear a watch," he says. "And my sunglasses are just Clubmasters, but they remind me of his glasses."
Sure, but those items are style classics. The real question mark is the awkwardly rendered guy who sits smack in the middle of Martin-McCormick's slim chest.
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"I try to exclusively wear Bob Marley shirts," he explains. "It just makes me smile, you know? In Mi Ami, we got really into Bob Marley shirts."
Martin-McCormick laughs. Sure, his solo moniker is a Rastafarian term for wholesome food. But please—he knows precisely how recherché a Bob Marley shirt is in 2012, how (for lack of a better phrase) in-your-face hipster it is. (He's not kidding about Mi Ami, either—the same Marley image from his T-shirt is at the top of the group's MySpace page.)
He elaborates: "I don't know if I need to reclaim Marley because I never claimed him, and he wasn't taken away. It was maybe just claiming the little part that I like. He's a logo or something like that—a lifestyle accoutrement. But for someone who [had] hated him, his music is actually kind of sweet. What you hate is the culture that surrounds the idea of Marley."
We're drinking water. When I got here, Martin-McCormick felt bad—I'd shown up in the middle of a protest about charter schools occurring directly in front of his building's door. He'd offered coffee. Yes, sure.
"Oh, wait," he said as he looked at the coffeepot. "I haven't cleaned this since before I went on tour."
When did you go out on tour?
"January 11." It's February 16.
Martin-McCormick just got home the day before—two days before Ital headlined 285 Kent—and the press rounds are still going. He's personable, quite alert, and friendly, and it doesn't feel like a chore. He gives the sense that he's exactly what he wants to be right now.
And why not? Martin-McCormick is becoming popular by doing just that. Hive Mind is getting good reviews—a Pitchfork 8.0, most obviously—and Ital's show on February 17 at 285 Kent demonstrated that he could cultivate an indie-crossover audience. Not a mainstream one—though given Martin-McCormick's rather cheeky flip of a Lady Gaga vocal sample on Hive Mind's opening track, "Doesn't Matter (If You Love Him)," which hangs over the track like a cloud, that's probably not entirely out of the question, either.
It's early days yet for that, though. Indie is a more natural fit, given Martin-McCormick's obvious subcultural affinities, not to mention his head start with Mi Ami. The larger broadening of the electronic dance audience works in his favor as well. As electronic dance music surges in popularity, spawning one hilarious misunderstanding after another between pop fans (who, dance partisans huff, don't get the cultural norms behind house, techno, dubstep, and their fellows) and DJ-music geeks (who don't get why people with day jobs like their music short, hooky, and to the point), more and more rock musicians are beginning to make the leap.
Skrillex, of course, is the big one, applying the morphing basslines and synth squeal of brutalist U.K. dubstep producers such as Caspa and Rusko to what is essentially nu-metal under a different name. Needless to say, more self-consciously artistic club-music types have recoiled in horror. In England, for instance, many dubstep-identified artists have been moving toward house music's more basic four-to-the-floor pulse. Take Scuba or British dubstep producer Paul Rose, who runs the influential Hotflush label (which issued Joy Orbison's "Hyph Mngo," 19th in the 2009 Pazz & Jop poll) and has a residency at the storied Berlin club Berghain. Last October, Scuba issued a volume in the DJ-Kicks mix-CD series that contained far more 4/4 kick-drum leading the rhythm than subsonic-cum-supersonic bass pressure.
This is hardly the first era in which rock musicians—understandably unconvinced with the relative health of their home style—moved toward DJ music. But more of them are doing so with real conviction, from Jamie xx—whose DJ sets, album of Gil Scott-Heron remixes (We're New Here), and dubstep-leaning 12-inch for Numbers, "Far Nearer," have earned praise from hardcore dance quarters—to Friendly Fires, whose first two albums were punctuated with a house CD, Suck My Deck, for Studio !K7. Then there's Radiohead, whose last album, The King of Limbs, was remixed by a slew of hip dance producers: Four Tet, Jacques Greene, Lone, Blawan, and SBTRKT, whom lead singer Thom Yorke is rumored to have remixed under the pseudonym SiSi BakBak. (Yorke has not addressed the rumor.)
Martin-McCormick's path is closer to those lines. The crowd he played for at 285 Kent wasn't the kind that wants to rage all night but rather something more collegiate and collegial—more indie. As much as Martin-McCormick is a rock guy wading into dance music, so is much of his audience.
But the people in attendance weren't content folding their arms and tapping their Converse, either. They were a large, expectant Friday-night crowd, after all. They wanted to dance. When Ital came onstage, they were instantly buoyed. Ital's records tend to unwind for a while: Hive Mind contains five songs, three of them more than 10 minutes long. But they play like compositions rather than meandering beatscapes. Bent over his sampler keyboard among the bright graffiti on the walls of 285 Kent, triggering the shiny, pointy synth riffs of Hive Mind's "Floridian Void," Martin-McCormick gave them plenty to shake to.Martin-McCormick was born in Washington, D.C., and apart from three childhood years spent in Belgium (his government-worker dad had an assignment), he stayed there until 2005. He was a fitful music fan until freshman year of high school.
"I was researching for a project about the history of rock and roll," he says. "I found out about punk, and I was like: 'Holy shit. Here it is.' It just was this click-on. That's when I started to really devour and go into music, as opposed to just my favorite things on the radio or whatever. Shortly thereafter, I found out about [D.C. punk]. It was pretty easy to find out about Minor Threat back in '98. Pretty quickly, Dischord [Records] and all that other stuff kind of came into the forefront."
Although he always liked other kinds of music as well—he was buying D.C. go-go tapes at Tower Records alongside Dischord's punk- and post-punk-heavy catalog—the dance-music bug first bit Martin-McCormick hard via the Takoma Park duo Manhunter, who performed sequenced-and-programmed dance tracks live onstage before members Jason Letkiewicz and Ari Goldman split up. (Goldman is now the Beautiful Swimmers; Letkiewicz, who lives in Brooklyn, goes under a few aliases: Malvoeaux, Rhythm Based Lovers, and Steve Summers.)
"They had this band [in] 2004–2005 that did live techno," Martin-McCormick says. "I think [it was] a lot of people in the punk scene's first experience of that. I remember my friend said that he understood [why] people who saw Bad Brains back in the day thought they were the greatest band because it was like, Manhunter was playing ridiculous, energetic, sort of awe-inspiring music for this one scene, and it was like everybody was in it all together. I didn't know anybody that was a techno head. But everybody listened to some electro or some funk or was into a little disco. Music was around. It wasn't just like everyone was punk, punk, punk. But [with Manhunter], it was like, all of a sudden, 'Ahhhh.' After that, I started to dive in deeper."
This is not an unfamiliar narrative. In some ways, Martin-McCormick's revelation mirrors that of a similar time-place narrative on the opposite coast, in Portland, Oregon. It's easy to make Portlandia jokes (whatever you think of Portlandia's jokes), but the city's dance scene was basically nil until the mid '00s, when Glass Candy and Chromatics—both helmed by guitarist-songwriter-conceptualist Johnny Jewel—began mixing electronics with rock and turning a new generation of rock kids onto beat-led synths. It makes sense—the abundance of media access has opened dance music up to younger kids for whom it doesn't necessarily have the same kind of bad connotations it once did.
"Definitely the stuff that I was hardwired into earlier was experimental, weird punk stuff, like Boredoms," Martin-McCormick says. "Fugazi was a huge thing for me—I remember realizing that you can experiment with music. If I want to claim something as a steady focal point, it's not a genre; it's this DIY, wide-spectrum thing."
In 2005, Martin-McCormick left D.C. for the Bay Area. "It was really a rock-and-roll town for sure," he says. When he moved to San Francisco the same year, he caught the tail end of the turn-of-millennium laptop-IDM scene spearheaded by smart-aleck producer-remixer Kid606 and his label, Tigerbeat6.
"The dregs of that was still going on when we first started playing in 2007," Martin-McCormick says. "There was a couple of big clubs that were really focused on Burning Man–style break[beat] music and that shit. You'd get Derrick May to play, but he'd be on the huge stage, and this shitty guy with frosted tips would be opening up for him. It would be a bottle-service-style place or Mr. Fingers DJing at the worst fucking place, and no one even knows who he is there. There was this one place where they would have warehouse shows that were always kind of crazy, but it was just because the crazy warehouse people wanted to go party. There wasn't this feeling of new energy or that it was really the most relevant thing. What you got wasn't close to what you were looking for."
A similar kind of torpor had crept into his day-to-day life. "San Francisco is, in some ways, quite rough," he says. "It's really expensive, and there's a lot of drugs. So I had some grit—it wasn't just all laid-back. [But] after a while, you get into this groove. It's like this parallel world with a chill job and gourmet ice cream. You find the cheap room where there is not a lot of tension. At the same time, you find that there's no real sense of accomplishment. You're sort of floating. Actually, I had four chill jobs: two different clubs, at a farmers' market selling smoked salmon, and at a science museum one day a week. San Francisco was really comfortable—too comfortable. It's like you're living in a palace garden. You have to step out, feel a little push."Between paydays, Martin-McCormick was gigging steadily with Mi, which began in 2006 and is still an ongoing concern; the same year, he started messing around with beats. "I started just doing it for fun," he says, but he soon grew more serious—in large part because dance music, which had dead-ended both commercially and creatively in the mid '00s, had begun to surge again, thanks to the creative energy being cooked up in Berlin, where a large number of techno's movers and shakers had moved.
"I remember in 2006, you would go to Amoeba [Records], and it was just tons of [German techno labels] Cadenza and Perlon minimal stuff," he says. "There was definitely some awesome shit. It felt weird that it was all from Europe. It was this weird feeling. It just felt so far away. In one sense, that doesn't matter, but in another sense, there is something about this music tailor-made to a set of concerns that aren't yours. You lack that pride thing. You feel second-tier or something like that."
That changed in 2008, when Martin-McCormick heard the Detroit house producer Omar-S, whose sound was both roughed-up and soulful and whose attitude is captured best by the title of his 2011 album on FXHE: It Can Be Done, but Only I Can Do It.
"It was, 'Fuck, yes,'" Martin-McCormick says. "Omar-S was all the parts of this thing that I like transferred to this punk-ass American vibe. That was the big tipping point where I was like, 'OK, it's not all just espresso-sipping house. There's some fucking raw shit here, too, that does all the things I like about that so much better.'"
Martin-McCormick began to get serious about his tracks. In January 2010, he made a New Year's resolution to release a 12-inch by the end of the year. "I want these to be viable as something you could DJ," he says. "About midyear, Amanda [Brown] from 100% Silk wrote me: 'I want to start this dance label. Do you want to do a record?'" Martin-McCormick wrote back: "Funny enough, I have some tracks."
"I basically founded the record label around a lot of the conversations we had," says Brown, who also co-founded the L.A. label Not Not Fun. She had been friendly with Mi Ami from their shows at punk venue the Smell. "I ran the name by him and everything." (She also adds: "He definitely wears Bob Marley shirts a lot. I've seen him in other things, of course, but he's got a few." She laughs and says, "They look good.")
"I didn't think I was going to get any reception," Martin-McCormick says of the Ital 12-inches on 100% Silk. "I thought it was going to be this little vanity project or something—basically, people who are into the band and also into dance music would be like, 'cool,' because I've seen a lot of stuff like that: Excepter side projects; there was an Animal Collective one, I think—things where people go for it with a techno thing, but it doesn't have any weight in that world."
To both Martin-McCormick and Brown's surprise, 100% Silk gained dance-world cachet. Remember Scuba's DJ-Kicks mix CD from earlier? Martin-McCormick is on it, with a track he'd made as Sex Worker for Not Not Fun—a new version of Corona's 1994 dance-pop hit, "The Rhythm of the Night."
"It flips a classic piece of dance cheese on its head into a lo-fi, almost sleazy, desperate-sounding cry for help," Scuba says via e-mail. "Somehow, it makes perfect sense."
Emboldened by the attention, Martin-McCormick approached London label Planet Mu. Originally the vanity imprint of Mike Paradinas, a/k/a µ-Ziq (µ = "mu"), Planet Mu has become one of the most consistent and highly respected contemporary dance labels—and one of the few that focuses on albums rather than singles. "[100%] Silk was doing mostly 12-inches," Martin-McCormick explains, "but I also felt kind of like 'go big, or go home' a little bit."
He has clearly had a change of mind since: Decade, the new Mi Ami album, comes out on 100% Silk on March 20. "Mi Ami is its own thing for sure," says Brown, who praises Martin-McCormick's "unique voice and lyrics" and drummer Damon Palermo's "sense of timing." It's congruent with Hive Mind, though the two don't sound much alike: Mi Ami bends toward DIY rock-with-electronics.
Something of that band feel carries over even to a solo project like Ital. "It's not that often that you encounter the looseness and dynamic 'liveness' in the sort of demos I get," Paradinas says via e-mail. "It sounds like he is performing the tracks there and then, even though they are just programmed to sound like that."
That in-the-moment sensibility was a large part of Hive Mind's making as well. "Each track is in response, engaging with the last one," says Martin-McCormick, who programmed Hive Mind's songs in their recorded sequence. "To me, it has a very distinct feel from the other 12-inches and is consistent throughout. It was made to order."Martin-McCormick created "Floridian Void" on a train trip home from Toronto. "It felt a little bit like poufy-scarf, you know? Scandinavian," he says. "I felt it should be darker, have more teeth than the way I had started it, which was a little too effervescent. Then I did the 'Privacy Settings' joint and felt like I need to get out of this dark zone. It started off dark and then got darker, and when it reached this ambient track, I decided we need to come out of this. I remember thinking when I was making the track 'Israel,' the chords were sort of washing up on the beach."
The big reason he went for Planet Mu, Martin-McCormick says, is that he's a fan of its releases by Chicago footwork acts such as DJ Rashad, DJ Nate, and DJ Spinn, who make fast music built on cheap drum machines and directed, as the name says, at intricate dance moves. Footwork's gibbering samples inspired Hive Mind's opening track, "Doesn't Matter (If You Love Him)," the first thing Martin-McCormick had finished when the deal went through.
"I was really inspired when I heard it," he says. "It just felt like, you think there are rules?" He laughs. "There are no fucking rules."
Ital plays the Knitting Factory on Wednesday, March 21, and the Unsound Festival edition of the Bunker, at Warsaw, on Friday, April 20.