Words by Luke LaBenne
All musicians are builders, assembling structures of sound into new creations. Some musicians choose to go even further, by building the tools that they use to create. In 2015 Sam Eastgate (a.k.a. Sam Dust) released his debut album as LA Priest and established himself as a one-of-a-kind musical craftsmen, blending writhing guitars and rubbery synths with intricate, driving drum beats. Not to mention, vocal sounds that make you question if they came out of a human.
Now, on the follow-up to his acclaimed debut album Inji, LA Priest introduces us to GENE, a drum machine he built himself over a two year span. GENE is the pinging and pulsing heart of this album, with all the pieces falling into place around it. This music moves in it’s own time and exists in a space all it’s own. The line between man and machine, between creator and creation, begins to blur and there is only GENE.
Off Shelf: How is your quarantine going?
Sam Dust: It’s ok. We live an area that’s very isolated anyway so it’s not that different for me as it’s been for people who live in cities. I think it’s been kind of crazy for them they can see change all around them but you can’t really notice it here. So I can’t complain too much because I’m usually sort of shut away recording stuff anyway. I’ve also not had a gig for like three years. I was about to do my first shows for ages. So as soon as I heard it was getting cancelled, at first I was really gutted about it, but then after a few days I was just like I can just adjust back. It’s just the state of mind of thinking you’re about to do this tour. I just reverted back. So I’m just kind of back to where I was only a couple of weeks before and it’s fine.
OS: It gives you more time to record and work on stuff. You can build another GENE.
SD: Well I already recorded an extra little bit of stuff in January and now I’ve got more time to record. I’ve got a few projects that people have thrown my way. It’s really lucky to have stuff like that waiting. This is a really harsh thing for so many people especially people who are self-employed. The first thing I thought about was what happens to the people who work at the venues or just any public job where you deal with people. I really feel bad for those guys.
OS: I saw the video of GENE on your Instagram and it’s very cool. It took two years to make it and you made it all yourself. What was that process like?
SD: The first that I did was just repair old stuff. I never learned electronics at school or anything. I poke something and it makes it work again. That was the very beginning, just like jamming a screwdriver into stuff and seeing what happens. There’s this one keyboard that I used to play with drumsticks on stage and I had replaced so much stuff in it. I just realized one day that I had pretty much rebuilt the entire thing and maybe I can build something of my own with that experience. That’s where I started to remake things I’d seen. I tried to make a drum machine out of a tape loop thing and that never worked. I still have that because it’s the first thing I ever tried to build. I didn’t even hook the power up. I didn’t realize that all the components in there needed power. I just stuck them all together and was like, “Why doesn’t it work?” So that’s just there to look at and laugh at. The first one was supposed to be my own version of one of these massive 80’s synths. I turned it on and all it would do is make a sort of screamy guitar solo sound. So I put that sound on the first song from my first album.
After that album, I needed something to write songs to, like a backing track, just to get a rhythm. I wanted to be able to change things really quickly on there, and I don’t like conventional drum machines. They don’t really fit with the sound of a guitar well. There just wasn’t anything out there. I wanted it to be able to do extra stuff that I’d never seen before. I’m not aware of another drum machine where you can change the timing of each beat in the rhythm. So if I could crack that then I would do it. I remember just walking around not doing anything for a week, just thinking, “How would you do that?” I had this epiphany. I ran back home and wired this thing together. The prototype I made that day is on this record. Towards the end of the album where you can hear this really archaic pinging. After that it was just adding tricks in this box.
OS: Is the plan to mass produce the GENE machine and get them out to the people?
SD: It was at that stage and I think I still could. The thing that I struggle with, same with music, is I find it really hard to know how many people will be interested in what I’m doing. Maybe five people or a hundred? I have no idea. I’m not very aware of my market or whatever you call it. That’s not my forte. I’m good at building stuff and putting it out but I’ve got no concept of the rest of it.
OS: Then I’m sure you’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people are interested in your music. I’m looking at seven million streams here on Spotify. That’s a lot of people.
SD: Definitely pleasantly surprised. If I meet somebody and they’re like “Are you famous?” You’re like, “Well a few people know me here or there.” What it takes nowadays to be a famous band, I’m not really sure what that is anymore. In the golden era of music it would be if you sold out a stadium everybody just knew you were a big deal. Now you’ll get bands that sell out stadiums every day and no one really knows them apart from that core audience.
Oh, I remember what my claim to fame was for ages. It’s that I supported Devo.
OS: That’s a pretty amazing one.
SD: There’s things like that where you’re like, “Alright, I don’t have to have any more ambition.”
OS: You said that everything on the album revolves around GENE. Was the process of building the song different from your last album, starting from the drum machine perspective?
SD: The way it would work with the first album is I would have a song idea, usually it was just a single melody, like a lyrics or something. Then the song would develop over months and months, just adding to it. I’d try different recordings out. I realized I keep starting songs over and over again from scratch because I wasn’t happy with, most of the time, the drums. So I knew if I started with the drums they would become part of the recording. They wouldn’t need replacing if I just build everything around them and it turned out to work really well. It’s just as much a time saving thing as a way of using demos. You can just keep producing it and make the final thing out of the original recording. That’s really good for the energy of the song.
OS: So the frustrations from making the first album, inspired this tool for the second album?
SD: Yeah, I’d say so. I didn’t want to keep losing the subtle elements of the first recordings. If you re-record something too many times you don’t really know if you’ve captured the original idea or not. You just lose perspective on it. So that was something that I learned from the first record.
OS: Do you think that’s because you start overthinking it?
SD: Yeah, too many options. I suppose that’s another thing about this drum machine is when you close the lid, that’s all the tricks that are in that box. You just use whatever is there. Also, I had this thing for ages where I would get intense headaches looking at the computer screen. I just got to the stage where I was like, “I don’t even want to look at a laptop for this album.” So that was another reason. There were just so many different reasons to do it and it worked really well.
OS: Are you the sole performer on the album?
SD: There’s a little bit of background vocals and that’s my wife singing in the background on one of the later songs on the record called “Kissing of the Weeds.” She didn’t want me to keep it in there but I just had to kind of fight to keep that in there. She’s a musician herself and she’s super critical of how she sounds, I am as well really. She sang a lot of the first record, but it’s always been just me catching her when she doesn’t know she’s being recorded. Apart from that I played everything. There are some real drums and the record and for while I was not sure if I wanted the drum machine on everything. I just thought, “No screw it I’m just going to play real drums.” Then they just got combined and merged in places. The first instrument I ever played was drums, when I was eleven or twelve at school. I got the school to buy a drum kit because I was adamant, I kept pestering them. It was the same kind of frustration that I had when I was a kid that got me back on to the drums this time. I was just kind of stuck indoors needing an outlet for my energy. I just needed hit some stuff, so I just flailed my arms around and got some stuff out of my system.
OS: So the drums were the first instrument you ever played? Listening to the first album I would’ve thought it would be guitar or synths. Are you returning to your early instrumental roots?
SD: Yeah. I never got very good at it. I didn’t really get very good at any instrument particularly. I just wanted to play I didn’t want to get good enough to show off or anything. I can’t play drums that well really I can just record. It’s easy when you get 20 takes.
OS: Now GENE can do the drumming for you.
SD: That’s the funny thing is there’s a side of me that always thinks a machines never going to be good enough. There’s a side of me that thinks real instruments are the only way. I don’t know. I’ve got these two sides of my brain that fight between man and machine. I’ve got this logical thing. The logical side of my brain wants to take over, so if I start building something it’s like my mind rewires to just be really logical. It’s kind of weirdly addictive but it takes ages for me to reorder my mind in a creative way afterwards. So it’s really bad for me. I won’t be able to write lyrics or anything. I almost become like a robot. It’s bad. I don’t know if anybody else has had that experience but I find it really weird. Literally, my personality can change.
OS: You start to become the machine. You talked about how sometimes a song will start with a lyric. Do lyrics usually come first for you or do they come last after everything already been created?
SD: I think all of the songs on this record were lyrics last, but that’s not always the case. For instance, “Beginning” I felt like I didn’t really have to write anything for it, so there are some words that aren’t even words in there. Most of it I just do on the fly, just make it up on the spot. So that’s half of it, just go with the demo lyric or mouth sound.
OS: So you sing a lyric, not really thinking about the meaning and then think, “I like the way that sounds,” and keep it?
SD: Exactly, and I always try and rewrite them, but 90% of the time you can’t write a better lyric than whatever you said at the time. Not that they’re particularly good, but nothing fits better than that first sound you made.
OS: You do some very interesting things with your vocals throughout the album. Specifically, on “What Moves” the vocals are almost rubbery how they bend. Did you use any effects to accomplish that?
SD: I didn’t really mess with it, I don’t think there are any effects. I just keep doing takes until I get the right take that sounds like that. There was something I did on the Soft Hair project where I recorded my voice and I thought it was the equipment I was recording on. I remember saying to Connan, “Hey, this piece of equipment makes your voice sound really bendy and plastic. Almost fake, like it’s been melted or something.” Then we tried to use that equipment again and it never did the same thing. I just realized that if I just try things enough sometimes I can do that. It’s all about your standard, what you think the standard is when you go to record something. If that standard is there for me, then I’ll just keep going until I’ve got something that’s got it. I think it’s just trying to get that little magical moment or that little extra weirdness and get it down on the recording. It goes from just you recording or singing and it goes to this other realm in a weird way where you hear something singing back to you that you don’t recognize. You hear the playing but it doesn’t feel like you anymore. That’s the kind of magic.
OS: “Rubber Sky” is probably my favorite song on the album. Why do you classify it as a “loner anthem”?
SD: It’s really hard to sum a song up so I think that’s kind of a cop out. I don’t think it’s necessarily about being alone, but it’s about people just kind of standing up by themselves and finding that inner push to do something.
OS: Like finding the spark inside to push yourself?
SD: I always like seeing that in people. It’s kind of playing a part. It’s not like these people are always super confident, but if you kind of play that part. It’s more of an entertainment thing. When you’re with friends and you’re entertaining each other, putting on a character or doing a voice or something like that. You just develop this kind of rapport. You don’t even have to be that kind of person and there’s something kind of magical about that. When I play live, as well, I’m not the kind of person who likes being the center of attention at all but I really love that kind of magic where it’s kind of brought out of you without you knowing why. So you’re suddenly just in front of hundreds of people grabbing their attention and performing, and it comes out of nowhere. It just makes people smile. Obviously, I don’t even need to say that’s what entertainment is all about. There’s just something that I wanted to convey in that song about that. It’s weird but you don’t hear that celebrated in music often. You hear songs about love and all these emotions about somebody else and they just miss that thing. I don’t know if it even has a name. We’ll just call it the spark.
OS: It’s interesting with lyrics because there’s so much swirling in your head when you write it. It’s like you’re conveying so many ideas, and it might come across as one thing but you were thinking of it a few different ways.
SD: Oh absolutely. That’s the thing, you can never know exactly what the track is about, or what the lyrics are about. If you do then there’s not that much in them. I think it’s better to never really know because I think that’s what art is. You don’t have access to your subconscious. You kind of find out later what it’s about. Your subconscious or your inner thoughts, sometime have a lot more knowledge than you have at the time. Later on you realize, I knew that all along. That’s why I think people who try to be too clever with their lyrics end up being stupid because they’re not revealing truth they’re just revealing their current way of viewing the world, which always changes. I don’t mess around with that trying to be too witty or political, for example. I think that we all want to change the world and improve the world but it’s arrogant to believe that you know the answer on any given day.
OS: Have you ever listened back to one of your songs, years later, and found a new meaning?
SD: It happens quite a lot really, but then that changes as well. So I’ll always be hearing a new thing every time. It’s good. I think that everybody, if they have an opportunity, should have some artistic or creative outlet like that because I just think you can reflect on a different side of yourself that is mostly locked away or out of bounds. I think it just calms you more than anything, it reassures you that you’re never going to have control of certain things. That shouldn’t worry you. That’s just the way the world is. I don’t know, it sounds scary but there’s something reassuring about it, that there’s this chaotic aspect to everything that you shouldn’t worry about trying to control.
OS: What do hope that people take away from listening to GENE?
SD: I hope that people don’t get dismayed if it doesn’t work straight away. I don’t care actually if they just throw it away it’s probably not for them anyway. I just want people to get that same feeling, that same burst of energy that I had when I was making it. I think it just depends on where they are and what they’re doing. I don’t know, I hope they like it.