Catching up with Lord Echo

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music
img_Mike-Fabulous_Daniel-Rose-Photography-2Lord Echo collaborated with fellow New Zealand musician, producer, and DJ Julien Dyne earlier this year for an EP titled LORD JULIEN. He talks collaboration, his follow-up to 2013’s Curiosities, and the Sydney Festival.

Mike Fabulous, better known as Lord Echo, is a gifted multi-instrumentalist, meticulous producer and generous interviewee. Free-spirited, his music blends ideas rooted in funk, jazz, early disco, and worldly rhythms, captured with ’60s production techniques. His 2013 release Curiosities explored these sounds with finesse, and two years on, he returns with LORD JULIEN, a collaborative EP made with fellow New Zealand musician, producer, and DJ Julien Dyne. An exciting intersection of early disco and hip hop forms the base of the two-track release. Disco-keys propel the lively percussion in ‘Shades’, while slow-burner ‘Tennis’ layers jittery synths and drums into a dizzying finale. It’s imaginative and much like Fabulous himself, inviting. Speaking with Mike on Skype from his Wellington abode, I find him down-to-earth and humorous. He talks with an awareness of both the joys and pitfalls of life in music, and does so with an engaging sincerity.

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JAMES MANNING: Let’s start from the beginning. How did the LORD JULIEN E.P. come about?

LORD ECHO: Essentially, we just really like each other and wanted to make some music, because it’s fun. I like Julien as a person and respect his work ethic. He’s an active painter as well as a producer and DJ, and to be honest I don’t know how he finds time to do it all. Part of the fun was being able to make an album cover, which we did but we didn’t end up using.

JM: It must have been invigorating, collaborating with another producer, going strength-to-strength over two tracks.

LE: I loved it. We made everything and we played everything. I engineered the sound and Julien took it away and made it what it is. He would send it to me and I’d be able to say, “no, no, do this different.” He did all the end work, and I really liked being able to throw in my two cents and not have to do anything [laughs].

JM: It sounds like the duties were split evenly, then?

LE: I think in terms of hours, they were more on Julien’s side (laughs). But he has the patience for that kind of thing. I do too, I definitely spend ridiculous amounts of hours fiddling with things, but he has a different way. If there’s only one or two main ideas in a song, he’s very good at creating lots of little sounds to keep your interest, I find that very difficult. I focus more on structure, on the overall shape of things. That was the kind of thing I was adding in terms of feedback. “Where’s it going? You take us there, and now we need to go somewhere else.” A journey-like structure is one of the things I always pay attention to.

JM: Well you can definitely recognise that in the E.P. I enjoy its base in beat music and the unravelling dance-heavy rhythms. Any key influences on this one?

LE: Really early rap music, when people were still rapping over disco breaks played by real musicians.

JM: Like Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash?

LE: I don’t know that period of music well at all, I just know random songs. It’s a band playing, and the music is heavily rooted in late ’70s disco. There’s a particular drummer called Pumpkin [Errol Eduardo Bedward] who played in a lot of those records, whose [respective] fields I really love. I’m certainly not well versed in that music by any means, but when I hear it, it kinda turns me on.

JM: The record was specially released as a 12-inch on boutique Japanese label Wonderful Noise, which both you and Julien are signed to. Releasing it this way was always the intention?

LE: Yeah, that was the intention, hence the DJ, dance-oriented nature of the music. It’s certainly more clubby than anything I’ve done. I find it amusing, because in the past—especially as a younger person—I was really very anti-dance and club music. I was more into the guitar-oriented music. Noisy, jazzy stuff. I don’t listen to dance music, or what you might call ‘modern electronic’ club music. I’ve danced to it on acid, and that’s about it. The other thing is that I really love the idea of putting out 12-inches because they are the ultimate, serious music format.

JM: Wonderful Noise—the second label you’re signed to, alongside Bastard Jazz—sound very supportive.

LE: Totally. The thing about Japan and Wonderful Noise that’s really different to New Zealand—and the rest of the world, I might add—is they have always had a strong culture of appreciating music and buying it. They still buy music in its physical formats, way more than the rest of the world. In Japan, Wonderful Noise can put out 300 12-inches and people can buy them. It’s not such a risk on their end.

JM: As the first release since 2013’s critically acclaimed Curiosities, is this a sign of things to come?

LE: Yeah, I’m still working on another album. I’ve just come back from DJing in Japan and I definitely got the hard word put on me that it needs to be finished. I think the delivery date is the end of April. Unfortunately for me, and anyone else interested in my music, is that it takes me a long time to make something that’s good, which is frustrating. But I can’t make music that I think is good, quickly.

JM: Making something of value always takes time…

LE: I keep thinking I’m getting quicker at it. But for me to do something that’s as good as something I’ve done in the past, I need to have these periods of reflection in between phases of working. Generally when I’m in the middle of working on a tune, I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done, that it’s going to change the world. Then, I’ll hear it the next week and think it’s just an absolute disaster and a complete waste of time. I’ll have to go through the process multiple times, until, upon reflection, I’m like, “oh, that is as good as I first thought.”

JM: Does that come down to the adrenaline of creation?

LE: Well, in the initial stages of making something, there is a certain euphoria you get. That’s the fun, nice bit. Actually finishing something is most of the work and just awful [laughs]. So thank goodness for the euphoria part, because that’s why I do this.

JM: You’re playing the Sydney Festival this January alongside Screechy Dan and Deadly Dragon Soundsystem. For the uninitiated, can you explain who they are?

LE: I do know of Screechy Dan, he’s a New York-based MC, and I was at a party in New York this year that he was MCing at. He’s good. Deadly Dragon Soundsystem is—and I may be wrong—based around a New York reggae record store. That should be a great night. They’ll be straight up, hardcore reggae [laughs].

JM: Are there any particular New Zealand releases that have stood out for you this year?

LE: I thought that Kody Nielson’s last release, Silicon, was pretty fucking fantastic. Those brothers are very clever and very good, but I thought that this record really came together on a number of levels. I’m liking Julien’s new stuff that he’s working on for his record. I really liked the Leonard Charles E.P. [ABRACEREBLEX], also on Wonderful Noise, which is Jeremy Toy’s [of She’s So Rad]. A really clever guy.

JM: You’d also note Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Multi-Love, then? They bring the goods live, too.

LE: I’m taking my son to see UMO and I always really enjoy seeing [Ruban] play as a guitarist. It’s always great to watch someone perform that has qualities unique to them.

JM: You’ve been making music for about 15 years now. Between the DJing, the touring, the creating and producing, your schedule must be overwhelmed at times. Which is the most challenging?

LE: The hardest thing is when you’re making a record. Let’s say I’m going to be working on this thing, spread over four months. When you’re making that record, no one’s paying you to make it. The money will come back later, but essentially I have to work for nothing for four months and try and make that work, which means I need to be saying ‘no’ to other things that would be paying me money. It’s a difficult balance to prioritise the time to make something when you’re not getting paid for it.

JM: Would having something regular on the side be helpful?

LE: Yeah, if I could do gardening three days a week or have some other thing that I did with my time, ya know? Just so I don’t have to solely make something up from nothing, that my competition isn’t the greatest greats of all time. It wears you down after a while, I think. Every day [you use] those same 12 notes to try and come up with something new, and it’s you in one corner, and the entire history of recorded music in the other.

JM: It’s a heavy battle…

LE: And you’re never going to win. It’s a heavy thing to be doing all the time. I hope at some point that I’m able to balance it out with something a little more straightforward. But right now it’s my job.

JM: Putting yourself up against those greats, is it partly to strive to that level?

LE: Well, it’s pretty obvious if you’re not utterly brilliant, or that you’re not going to change the shape of music of. You’ll go, “okay, well I’m not going to be able to do that.” But at the end of the day, it’s not about producing stuff and making things. It’s about, on an individual level, exercising the creative muscle. I just think it’s a really important part of being human. One of the characteristics of humanity is that we can choose to create things, and I just feel that that’s worth doing. For everybody, in whatever way you can find: do it.

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Lord Echo performs alongside Screechy Dan and Deadly Dragon Soundsystem as part of the Sydney Festival’s live music programme on January 23, 2016.