Sounds are Sounds: An Interview with Strategy

Posted by on June 18, 2014

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Over the past decade and through labels ranging from Kranky to 100% Silk, Portland, OR resident Paul Dickow has been behind some of the most forward-thinking music to beam out of the Pacific Northwest. Between his involvement with experimental  jazz- and kraut-influenced bands like  Fontanelle and Nudge, co-operating the Community Library imprint, recording dubby and drippy dance music that’s both atmospheric and dancefloor-ready as Strategy, Dickow’s been a quiet expert of various sounds, largely revolving around an idea of “boxy music” or “boxology.” We caught up with Dickow over email to discuss his earliest inspirations, his recent flurry of output including the recent Peak Oil-issued Pressure Wassure 12″, and the Portland music scene, among many other aspects of his 10+ year-long career.

Bobby Power: I’d love to hear about your influences. Can you think back on what first inspired you to start paying attention to and making music?
Paul Dickow: I started playing music when I was so young I almost can’t remember. My father is a professional musician, a professor of music theory, composition, and electronic music, and an avid music listener. My parents listened to classical music, modern composer music, a wide variety of folk and traditional music, it was just in the atmosphere. Playing my dad’s synthesizers from 1984-or-so onward was essential. I was drawn early to any synth or dance music, including rap, I absorbed everything I could from After-School Yo! MTV raps to the weirder ends of Top 40 radio and then college radio. I started making music on my own in high school and I think the real catalyst for making music was being able to buy old synths and drum machines for really cheap and getting to DJ at the amazing college station (as a high school student), and explore the decades of underground music in its library, along with guidance from the college students who sought to nurture my experimentalist-leaning tastes. I sometimes feel I can credit a few caring KUOI-FM Music Directors with ensuring my obsessions in underground music would really take root. I would say that these environmental factors have more to do with my development than any specific band.

Playing music kind of snuck up on me. I tried various instruments as a youth, but never learned to read music. I just played music for fun, both with people and alone. It was not in the game plan to do music so seriously – after college, I expected my path to be one of a music critic or music writer, taking what I learned from my art history degree and applying it to my musical interests (as a DJ and record collector). It was easier to play music than become a critic, so I joke that I am a musician who is secretly a frustrated music critic – the reverse of an occasional stereotype about critics, maybe – but really it’s basically true! What if I was sending you these interview questions!

But in this universe/timeline it happened this way, and now I play drum machines. In the neighboring universe… Paul Dickow is emailing questions to an underground electronic musician, preparing a story to be published on the internet…

At this point, Strategy’s sound has evolved from spacious, dubby sounds to tight, modular dance studies. But your work with proper bands has been on the jazzier end of the spectrum. Is it a challenge to juggle so many projects and sounds?
I have no problem juggling projects – it’s very easy for me to change one hat for another. Even within Strategy’s work, I’m often working on tracks with completely different emphases, e.g., dance/club vs. ambient noise, and I’ll just switch between them based on my mood. No real trouble there. What is tough is juggling musical activities with the rest of my life! Particularly as my work/professional life has become more of a major time suck. Juggling styles is not tough, but learning to do music faster and maximize shorter stretches of free time in a new and productive way – that’s the real challenge.

“I know artists who reinvent themselves periodically with a ‘never look back’ attitude. I’m more like the little guy in the video game Katamari Damacy. He rolls the ball around the world, gradually accumulating objects in its path – and the ball just gets bigger and bigger. That’s me with process: it’s a cumulative, snowball effect.”

Within a two or three month span, you’ve put out three Strategy releases. Was all of this material recorded around the same time?
No, the material on Boxology was done from 2012-2013 with one track that dates all the way to 2003. Pressure Wassure was recorded from Dec 2013 – Jan 2014, so, a separate phase of work.

You mentioned in an interview with THUMP that on ‘Water Pressure’ you wanted to focus on four immediately recognizable drum breaks and use them in a fresh way. How did you select each of the four breaks in particular?
To clarify, there were four examples listed in the THUMP article, but those are only a few among many that were used overall. In addition to breaks I used other sounds (stabs and one-shot noises from famous tunes). Selection was not really intentional, guided instead by easy access to either the original records or from the internet. Curiosity was the guiding principle. To me the samples are all equally “tasty” and the final result is just a product of trial and error – seeing how things worked when kind of atomized things into smaller pieces (there are not really any contiguous loops used of the original breaks) and then fit together with other sounds.

Which were you not able to include, and/or which did you steer clear of and why?
There are some samples on many past songs that are inspiring to me, but I still haven’t identified the original source! Without that thread to follow, some sounds evaded me and could not be incorporated. I used things as I could find them.

Do you think you’ll revisit them in the future?
Yes – I’m careful to rarely completely abandon a method, style, approach, or source material once I’ve incorporated it into my sound. Ideas always come back around, like a comet. “Sampling classics” will be revisited. I’m doing more new tracks in this vein now, actually. I know artists who reinvent themselves periodically with a “never look back” attitude. I’m more like the little guy in the video game Katamari Damacy. He rolls the ball around the world, gradually accumulating objects in its path – and the ball just gets bigger and bigger. That’s me with process: it’s a cumulative, snowball effect. I never clear the slate, really. So old ideas with life left in them just sneak back in after some time sitting on the back-burner, and I don’t fight it, try to do something new with the recurring theme as it lands again.

How did relying so heavily on existing or source material affect the way you normally write and record?
Using plundered source material, especially “often used” source material, didn’t change the way I work at all. Making tracks is making tracks for me… sounds are sounds, they are made of the same stuff. There were a lot more moments of just laughing out loud during the composition process, the sheer fun of using these sounds. I could see why people kept using them. Incredible and puzzling fun to work with as raw material.

Can you define the concept of “boxy music” and “boxology?”
Electronic musical instruments are mostly box shaped. I felt I’d become something of a boxologist the past few years. In fact, I’m an expert in playing electronic music boxes, and I do so professionally. Boxy Music is another among many invented genres that sound cool in name but don’t exist. It also sounds dangerously close to the name of a famous 70’s band so I hoped I might productively confuse some poor soul out there with my record.

I hear your new work drifting towards House music. Was this a conscious decision?
I’m actually moving farther away from House at the moment rather than closer to it, though the Boxology tape might lead someone to believe it’s my current focus. I find the purist attitudes around re-creating vintage House tiresome, of course there’s amazing music made from people doing that idea (I buy and mix some of those tracks), but as a producer/composer I’m feeling saturated and ready for a shift to my other interests. Syncopation is very important to me so I am gravitating towards forms of dance music right now that embrace syncopation. House can do this of course but as many people conceive of it, it’s sometimes not welcome.

I am very conscious to never abandon a musical style that I’ve once embraced, so I will return to focusing hard on House tracks again later. I’d be so embarrassed to be “too cool” for something I used to do, you know, “I used to do techno but now I just make [FILL IN GENRE]”. If I once embraced a musical form, I’d like to think I did it for a good reason and it’s not something I have to disown later. Every kind of music can be done new again, so I like to keep trying. I’ll tell you my fairly informed opinion that Rock and Roll is not dead, as proclaimed.

Earlier Strategy music had a certain watery and aquatic, almost drippy effect that drenched everything, even up until the self-titled LP. Did you actively abandon this sound?
A temporary shift away from extreme drippiness was accidental. Pressure Wassure in particular is less drippy than usual, just as a test to myself to do something sparse that didn’t lean on that type of dubbed-out space effect. Peel away the paint, see what the bones look like underneath. I didn’t give this move much thought, it was just a lark I think. Dripping spacious/acquatic dubbing basically a constant for how I interact with my studio – it’s always there. Actually there will be some music released later this year that is “drippier” than anything I’ve done for a long time!

You’ve had material released by a number of labels with a variety of sounds, from Kranky and Audio Dregs to Audraglint and Southern Lord, and more. Do you identify with any one label more than the other?
No, I don’t identify with one above all. All the labels have been a good home. Strategy does a lot of different styles under one umbrella and I don’t expect one label to represent all sides of Strategy, and so labels have gravitated towards whichever of my tracks feel most interesting to them. For some labels like Peak Oil that’s broadly defined across a spectrum of surprises, and for others it’s more narrowly defined to certain output I produce. Like ZamZam are a dub label, so naturally they focus on my dub tracks.

You’ve worked with Peak Oil and 100% Silk twice in a relatively short amount of time. What is it about those labels that made you come back for more?
Having the right material at the right time, proximity to Los Angeles, encouragement, enthusiasm, and their sense of adventure! I should add, one of Peak Oil’s founders, Brian Foote, has been helping me with Strategy since I was making bedroom tapes and giving them away, 15 years ago, so the long-term friendship and his championing of Strategy since I was basically a kid, is a big component of my work with them in particular.

What’s the current state of Community Library?
Solenoid’s Talking Acid 7” came out on the label last winter, it is awesome and people should buy them from our website and play them really loud. We do a couple of projects a year, as we like. We’re not in any hurry and making money is not the point. Now that David Chandler, my DJ and label partner (a.k.a. Solenoid) and I are moving through some time-consuming life milestones (house, marriages, job shifts, etc.) the label has become a much bigger priority this year. Though I can’t say we have any desire to be aggressive, we’re satisfied to thoughtfully plod along with a “less is more” attitude. I can say that after our next couple of album projects are out, we may focus on our DJ series again (12” singles of adventurous music), but the future’s wide open.

“If I once embraced a musical form, I’d like to think I did it for a good reason and it’s not something I have to disown later. Every kind of music can be done new again, so I like to keep trying.”

Our next projects are a very experimental and fun full LP from Reanimator entitled Damaged Bads and an LP/CD project containing unreleased and private press music from Jan Steele and Janet Sherbourne, partners in life and music whose work crosses boundaries between jazz, classical music, and improvisation in the context of modern, minimalist chamber ensembles. This is a long-term effort and a dream project for me.

How has the Portland scene changed over the years?
Portland as a city has changed and it has impacts to the music scene. It’s a combination of cultural and economic factors. I used to dwell on how the music scene has changed when I realized that the music scene is just individual artists and bands, and it’s their (our) “ecology” that’s changing, and artists are forced to respond.

When I first moved here it was embarrassing to be “local,” as a band. When my first band’s first record came out in 1998, the woman at my local record shop refused to put it in the “local section” of 7” singles because she said, “it didn’t sound local.” That was meant to be a big compliment, like “hey that’s great your band sounds so interesting it’s almost like hard to believe you’re from this sad little town.” But I was disheartened. Knowing that I’d be stuck here for the rest of my adult life, I thought, “I sure hope things get more exciting here so being a local band is not such a stigma.” Not only did my wish come true, but now it’s the extreme opposite here, like nothing is cooler than being from here and putting the Portland badge on your forehead is the big deal. It’s sometimes even hard to get local audiences to stay and watch out of town bands! Being a Portland band is now a “thing.” The pride and the cred sometimes feel extreme, but it’s better than that low self-esteem Portland grunge vibe of the 1990s and all the BS that went along with that.

I think of 1999-2005 as a golden era of fervent experimentation in the local music community, born out of the pure boredom of living here. It became a point of pure necessity in music to push the boundaries and have fun doing it. I’m not taking credit, it’s a thing that happened and I chipped in. It wasn’t organized, it was organic. This contributed to Portland having cachet, which led to economic change. The music community will always be great here even with shifts. I feel really proud to say there will always be visionaries here doing whatever they want no matter what anyone thinks! Trailblazing.

strategy paul dickow 3But it will be a challenge for them, because Portland has drastically changed economically, with huge impacts to the arts community. Gentrification has exponentially increased the last 3-5 years, many cultural producers are leaving now because they can’t afford it. The market of “Portland is über cool” that the local music vanguard helped create 10, 15 years ago, ironically contributed to the “gold rush” of people moving here, which is great for local developers, but TERRIBLE for low-income residents, the arts, and diversity. I believe the music scene will suffer from this San Francisco-ization of the place, but probably not be utterly destroyed. The danger is that the current Portland economy will favor artists who are of privilege, and ultimately that may result in a whole bunch of boring art and music. I trust the locals to keep a fire lit under it, and to create havens for outsiders so blandness does not take over like invasion of the body snatchers.

The mischief appears to be continuing with a new generation of musical weirdos, though how youths hustle with rents this high is beyond me. I am fortunate and grateful that now they are “discovering” Strategy and other local long-timers as sustainably raised free range veteran local music gurus that they can book for underground local shows. They can say, “Whoa, that guy is old enough to be my dad but he’s STILL GOING. LISTEN TO HIS BEATS THEY ARE SO WEIRD.” The saga continues. I will tell them stories around the campfire, and I will collect their records if their records are good.

There’s one big constant about Portland’s music scene that has not changed whatsoever during the past 10-15 years, which is that many DJs here do not beat match the records they are mixing, even many of my friends. Yo, Portland DJs, including my friends: Learn to mix – IT IS ENDLESS FUN! It takes practice but like learning to ride a bike, once you get it, you’ve got it! And it sounds so good!!!

What’s next for Strategy and any of your other projects?
I usually don’t have a clear map ahead, but this year is an anomaly in that I know the list of forthcoming releases:

Seeds of Paradise, vinyl LP – Idle Hands
Pods of Punishment, vinyl LP – Entr’acte

Work in progress for a tape release on Field Hymns and vinyl release on Kimochi Sound, and others to be announced.