Q&A: Digitalism On Working In A Bunker, Turning Into A Two-Person Band, And Not Dropping Julian Casablancas's Name
With the release of their second album I Love You, Dude (Downtown) earlier this year, the dance-pop duo Digitalism left a lot of people wondering if anything had changed. Their full-length debut Idealism, released in 2007, identified the German DJs as creators of expansive, electronic landscapes with a few outstanding club hits with synth-friendly pop affectations (and, in the case of "Pogo," a catchy, love-lorn hook) that aligned them with acts like Cut Copy, the Klaxons, and occasionally even Daft Punk. With their aesthetic carved out of such a nicheDigitalism was to Kitsuné what Justice was to Ed Banger at the timetheir next moves were regarded with some curiosity. But even though the times have changed, Digitalism has not. Their new album is reminiscent of their last; melodramatic synths roll over earnestly sung love-songs and uptempo drum-kits in a way that evokes nostalgia for, well, Digitalism circa 2007.
We caught up with the duo to talk about their new release, recording in an abandoned WWII bunker, and collaborating with the Strokes' Julian Casablancas.
Tell me about the name of your most recent album.
It's a completely random thing. We don't like to maintain clichés about us; we like to surprise people. So when we were in Australia a couple of months ago around New Year's Eve, in the middle of the production process for the album, we were on a break because we don't like to produce on the road. We were on a DJ tour and having a good time and that phrase just stuck in our heads. We were meeting loads of friends in Australia, we had been sitting out in the sun, and we just thought, why not name the album I Love You, Dude? It was a completely random thing.
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We like doing these thingssomething completely unexpected. The best part is that when some journalist gets the CD on their desk they have no idea what to expect from it music-wiseit's just so completely disconnected from the music. At the end it makes sense because the songs are much more about friendship and relationships this time. But, yeah, you shouldn't take it too seriously.
Were you trying to do anything differently than you did with Idealism?
First of all, we wanted to make a new album. Our main inspiration was all the touring we'd done over the last four or five years. We released the first album and then we were asked to play live and did a bunch of festivals. And, you know, we weren't used to that kind of stuff. During our first album, we were kind of just studio producers with a DJ background. Then we started touring live and played extensive tours and met loads of amazing people and saw loads of interesting places around the world. That was the inspiration.
At first we had a kind of "traveling" theme for the album too. But every time we start something we end up somewhere completely different because over time everything changes so much and so often. We're bored easily. [Laughs.] There's still a traveling theme on this album though. There are references to where we're from in Hamburg and there's obviously "Miami Showdown," and all that. It's pretty cinematic. But yeah we ended up with something completely different again. As opposed to the first album, which was made of producers, the new one sounds like it was made by a band. I think we've turned into a two-person band over the years. We just don't have guitars. Laughs.
About Hamburg: A lot of German producers tend to be more minimalistic, but you guys seem to actively resist that.
There are two main things that are really important about our music. First of all, we're from Hamburg, which is a very independent city. We have sixteen states in Germanyit's a federal stateand Hamburg is its own state. Over centuries it's always been kind of a rich city with loads of embassies and merchants and all that. Everyone's always been kind of independent and doing their own thing.
The second thing is that we produce in a World War II bunker, so we're very isolated from the outside world. It's kind of timeless there, there's no outside windows. The result is that we don't get involved with people too much. We don't belong to any scene or hang out with any certain type of people enough to get biased by the minimal sounds or anything. I think when you make music in that bunker, it just makes you imagine things and makes you super creative. It kind of makes your mind travel to a different place. I know that sounds cheesy, but it's that kind of thing. We've always been interested in doing our own thing.
Working in an abandoned WWII bunker sounds very creepy.
No, no, no. It's okay, really. We've gotten used to it. We actually moved bunkers because Hamburg's full of civilian bunkers. They couldn't get rid of them because they would have had to blast whole neighborhoods, because they're made from pure concrete. They look like houses but they haven't gotten any windows and they have three-foot thick walls. So, yeah, we occupy one floor in a six-level bunker. It's okay, we got used to it. I think the first bunker that we had the studio in year's ago was more creepy. We still had some leftover ammunition and stuff in there. This one's a bit nicer, it's in a posh neighborhood and everything. You step outside and you're in Little Paris. It's very weird.
You used to have this odddly self-assembled computer you were working with to produce. Have you upgraded?
We did upgrade. We still have the old computer, though, and it's still open. I'm not sure how much we have on there. We transferred a lot to the new computer, but the thing is that even though we bought loads of new gear, nothing has changed really. Even though we've got loads more synthesizers and stuff we couldn't afford back then. Our old computer was so limited in computing power that you always had to think about how to achieve a certain result or it would have been overloaded and shut down. Now we're still working the same way even though we have more powerful equipment, which is quite cool, I think.
What was it like collaborating with Julian Casablancas, considering you and your partner are usually so secluded while producing?
We tried out something new. We always come out with the music first and then write stuff on top. This time we wanted to see what our friends from other bands would come up with if they heard our stuff. We sent out a couple of demos to X, Y, and Z, including a demo of "Forrest Gump" to Julian Casablancas. We just thought maybe it could be something for him because, at the time, he had just finished his album which was kind of experimental and electronic as well. At least the studio version was. To our surprise he said "Yeah, that sounds interesting. Yeah let me think about something for this." We didn't expect anything to come of it.
Anyways, because he was running out of time, he sent us a thirty-second recording sketch with a couple of guitars and such. It was a great honor that he wasn't like, "Fuck off. I have a kid now. I have to write a new Strokes album. I'm on tour." So he sent us something that was really nice and we didn't know what we were going to do it. It was one of those things where he just sent us something without knowing what we were going to do with it before we sent it back. We incorporated some of his ideas into the song and at the end of it he approved it, which was great. We didn't really sit down with anyone and try to come up with things. That's not really our style. We had loads of other great idea spectrums from some other big names but at the end we thought we should do it ourselves because it's just more "us."
We've got one more, which is the real feature. "Just Gazin" with a girl from Hamburg. You know, we never wanted any features, which is why we put Julian Casablancas in the writing credits only and we didn't want him to sing on "Forrest Gump." We didn't want to do loads of namedropping. The only real feature is Cithe, this girl with a bit of an alien voice and a discovery we made in Hamburg. She usually sings in German and stuff but she has this kind of voice which can be really rough and really sweet at the same time. We thought it would be something for the world to discover.
You've done quite a lot of remixing but haven't allowed anyone else to remix your stuffwith the exception of Errol Alkan and that Moshi Moshi Japanese promo EP you put out. Why is that?
When we started we were young and had very, very, very strong opinions about our work. We thought that we could do all the remixes ourselves but over time we got too busy and wanted to get other friends involved like Errol and the other guys on the Japanese EP. Now we're trying to get everyone involved. We're looking at friends whose work we like and also keeping an eye on up and coming talents. It took us a while but it's basically about growing up. Now we're much more open to it.
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