Escape to Atlanta with 10th Letter

Posted by on January 17, 2017


10th Letter is South Carolina-born and now Atlanta-based Jeremi Johnson, a longtime producer/multi-instrumentalist with a brilliant flair for idiosyncratic beats and atmospheres. As I wrote last year, I first encountered 10th Letter thanks to the defunct Wigflip imprint out of Baltimore — a pioneer in “earthy psychedelics” operating at the strategic junction of 2009 and 2010, with a cadre of in-house experts that included the likes of Run DMT, Dustin Wong, and Mickey Mickey Rourke, among others. Following a pair of self-released albums in-between, Johnson has settled thoroughly into the Atlanta label scene with 2015’s Portals & Compasses via Harsh Riddims and 2016’s The Revenge LP for staple imprint Psych Army, now rounded out again by a tape pressing of his originally self-released Escape From Atlanta via Deanwell Global Music.

10th Letter’s pace for 2017 already seems unabated, announcing a new album last week, titled Reloaded. He’s also forecasting  a full length collaboration with visual artist and fellow Atlanta multi-instrumentalist Saira Raza, a regular collaborator since his self-released Corpus Animus album in 2014  — according to Johnson, she was particularly instrumental in developing some of the sounds on the conceptually rich The Revenge.  Thanks to him for answering a few of our questions over the holidays…

Dwight: Can you tell us a little about ‘Escape From Atlanta?’ 
Jeremi: Escape From Atlanta was an idea I had while working on The Revenge. Energetically I knew that the record I was working on for Psych Army was more downtempo and kind of brooding at times, so I wanted to put something out to give my listeners a little variety. As far as the concept itself, a lot of it came from driving around the city. At the time I had a work commute that was early and that took me through the downtown Buckhead area. At the time I would imagine the area in a post apocalyptic setting, don’t know why, that’s just where my mind would go. I would think of it like NY and LA in the Carpenter movies.

I’ve always been a fan of John Carpenter’s films, but something drove me back to his work at that time. The fact that he would do his own scores was always so inspiring to me, even as a kid before I had the gear to make my own music. I just wanted to make something to show my appreciation and also to show how a lot of that work has affected my world, and maybe even build a world of my own from the inspiration.

How did the new tape edition with Deanwell Global Industries come about?
Dean heard about the album through a mutual friend Eric Grantham who plays drums in my ensemble. He also makes these Atlanta based OSTs set in the 80’s so when I hear Escape From Atlanta it struck a chord. He reached out and we built on a lot of ideas, talked about the approach of scoring films as a backbone for making an album. He eventually offered to put the tape out and I agreed.

‘The Revenge’ had a very specific concept and image, like ‘Escape From Atlanta’ or older releases but more so — do you appreciate having that extra bit of foregrounding during composition? Or are your intentions still more abstract?
I really like having an idea to build on when writing an album. I like to have a concept for a good starting point. The concept usually informs the world that I create. What type of instrumentation to work with. It even informs the mixing and mastering. Some people aren’t into that, but for me, every album has to have a reason. If what comes out of the reason is abstract, cool, I just want there to be a narrative. I really like telling stories and I think I have found my voice in story telling with the music.

Do you have many other strong influences as far as directors or composers for film?
There are a few film composers I look up to, Ennio Morricone, Fumio Hayasaka, Masaru Sato, Kenji Kawai, Hans Zimmer, Yoko Kanno, Ryuichi Sakamoto just to name a few. I remember seeing a bunch of Disney animation when I was young. I loved Aladdin. One of the first times I saw something that made me just pause in my tracks was probably Akira, seeing that as a child flipped my wig. Also, as silly as it sounds, that remake of Romeo and Juliet with Leo was a revaluation for me. Also seeing films like The Professional, Hackers and Ghost World really flipped my head at an early age. Is it obvious I grew up in the 90’s?

What’s your favorite John Carpenter movie?
Probably The Thing… no, no, Big Trouble…. no, wait… They Live… I probably can’t answer that one.

You mentioned that you “like telling stories,” but how do you feel about performance?
Performance is definitely an opportunity for me to tell stories. Sometimes it’s a great place to explore the story further. When I perform (solo electronic style or with my full band) I use visuals to push the scenes and push the narrative that way.

You’ve handled a lot of your own artwork in the past — could you talk about your experience as a visual artist?
I studied film at the Art Institute of Atlanta, as well as photography and television broadcasting in my hometown’s local tri-County tech. A lot of the stuff I learned in school has come in handy, but mostly it’s left me with crippling debt. I’ve always been into visual art of all kinds though. I grew up drawing comics and always had a hunger for animation, but never really had the patience to learn. Maybe that will be my next venture…

What’s your studio situation like?
My studio is super low budget, ha. A few hand me down drum machines, a Korg synth, a few old Casio’s, my SP, a few controllers. I use Rokit 6 monitors and a MacBook Pro to sequence and mix.

What’s your background with Atlanta? Do you have any Atlanta labels or projects, venues or series you particularly enjoy at the moment?
Well, my background in Atlanta started with college. I moved for the art institute initially. I lived in every corner of the city in that small amount of time and met a lot of the people that I work with now. I eventually moved back to my hometown of Anderson, South Carolina but always stayed connected to Atlanta, doing shows there and collaborating with ATL artists. I’ve been back for a little over 5 years now and a lot of the people I’ve met are doing some pretty amazing stuff. It’s been cool to see what Awful Records has been doing, they were a great help to me in my early years of playing shows in Atlanta. I also have to s/o Harsh Riddims who have been really cool lately, and of course Psych Army is making some of my favorite stuff (check out The Difference Machine). I also really like Hello Ocho, Faun and the Pan Flute, Chew, Red Sea, Twins, Pyramid Club, Reverends, Jock Gang, No Eyes, Pamela and her Sons, just to name a few. As far as venues I frequent… I love The Mammal Gallery, Downtown Players Ball, Eyedrum, 529, Gallery 992, Aisle 5.

What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a record called Chroma Fields which may be coming out soon. I’m returning to the world of The Revenge early in 2017 with a cool little project. A few collaborative projects are on the horizon as well. I’m dropping a record very soon called Reloaded as well as a joint record with Saira Raza called Bhadda Saya. Stay tuned!