“The Music = The Message”
I’ve been in distant observation/conversation with Michael Donaldson, a.k.a Q-Burns Abstract Message for a few years now, and to include him in this list of notable DJ/Producers creates breadth, passion and excitement to the form.
Between zany and abstract song titles, and carefully involved rhythms, I can’t say I’ve actually ever ‘gotten the message.’ There’s a logical conversation that happens from song to song, and yet an entire album could reverberate with a single sentiment or theme – or not. Oh, but don’t get me wrong – there’s a definitive method to his process.
For me, there’s a type of mental preparation that needs to happen before delving into Michael’s songs. It’s a beautiful balance of futuristic melody, and edgy feelings of unease. It’s deconstructive music at its finest.
It’s always refreshing to have artists reach out and acknowledge supporters and journalists; and I was very encouraged to have Michael generously share his side of things. He openly speaks about this year’s Winter Music Conference, the music industry, as well as his own music and processes.
I’ve posted the Q&A below – and I think you’ll learn quite a bit from the man behind the message.
I hope you enjoy it! 😉
INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL DONALDSON
Staffeen Thompson: How was your recent experience at the Winter Music Conference in Miami?
Michael Donaldson: I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. But, this was my 13th consecutive year attending so I’ve been through a lot of the ups and downs of the WMC. I may even be teetering on the edge of jaded! WMC has always had a bit of a “Dance Music Spring Break” quality but there was also a lot of business to be done. WMC in the past was a great chance to meet overseas label heads, license tracks, get remix work, line up gigs, and so on. I used to set up my schedule for the next six months every year in Miami. I didn’t really see much of that going on this year … just a lot of partying, which is great if that’s what you’re into. I’m not sure if the change is really a reflection on the industry, though. I feel the shift of all industry to Internet communication has made the business aspect of WMC less of a necessity. Now we’re meeting each other online and doing international deals via instant messenger. Though WMC is not exactly in sync with what I’m about these days I don’t mind that it’s become a big party. I’m just glad there’s a big dance music party going on somewhere.
ST: Is there something in particular you feel is ultimately missing from these events?
MD: There are a lot of magical parties every year in Miami. But I’d say a good amount of the events thrown now are done so with the intention to impress ‘someone.’ There’s a lot of ‘Look at me, I’ve started a label, and I’m throwing a WMC party,’ going on. The motivation of celebrating the past year’s accomplishments and showcasing what’s coming in the next has become a minority impetus. So, I guess, simply, the celebration of it all is what’s missing from a lot of events.
ST: What’s with the name, “Q-Burns Abstract Message?” Where did it originate?
MD: From a tiny town in central Louisiana that you’ve never heard of. It also originated at about 4 A.M. on a radio station in Orlando. A dash of Public Enemy, New Order, My Bloody Valentine, The Minutemen, 80’s era Butthole Surfers, and Derrick May helped out a bit. Also in the backroom of an acid jazz/hip hop club night that started in Orlando around 1993 and is still going on. There’s also the radio term of ‘cue burn,’ referring to scratchy vinyl on the air, which is now unfortunately archaic.
ST: I’m dying to know: “What is the message?”
MD: It changes all of the time and also doesn’t really mean anything which I guess is actually pretty ‘abstract’ … I could say that at the moment it was “Support Barak Obama” but that’s a bit succinct, not abstract at all.
ST: Your sound/style is very unique, how would you describe your musical evolution?
MD: I grew up in Louisiana, which is a bit of a ‘mutt’ of a state. It’s made up of so many disparate elements and cultures. Louisiana is so varied from region to region that different cities can have their own distinctive accents within the state. So with this you have a lot of meshing of cultures to create something new. This totally happens with music in Louisiana as seen in its history in jazz and zydeco. I didn’t realize the effect of this environment on my mindset until I left the state, but I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the idea of the cultural mash-up. I love the idea of putting two things together that shouldn’t logically go together in order to create a whole new thing that didn’t exist before. I find the notion quite exciting. Jon Hassell (frequent Brian Eno collaborator) coined the term “fourth world” to tag new music sounds derived from the merging of ethnic musics. As for me, the process can involve picking two or more samples from sources that don’t seem to work together thematically, rhythmically, tonally, etc. By finding a way to make them work I end up coming up with new musical ideas that I would never have thought of otherwise. It’s a lot of fun to work this way, too. So, basically, my musical evolution involves escaping Louisiana but somehow having it follow me home.
ST: Which artists have inspired your sound?
MD: The Velvet Underground. King Tubby. The Art Of Noise (when Trevor Horn was involved). New Order. Pre-90s Butthole Surfers. Cabaret Voltaire. My Bloody Valentine. The Minutemen. The Feelies’, “Good Earth” album. Krautrock in general. Oh, and the first two albums I was ever given as a child: Beach Boys, “Pet Sounds” and The Platters, “Greatest Hits.” I also think Neil Diamond influenced my love of catchy vocal hooks as he was the only thing played during my early years … Neil was my mom’s housecleaning soundtrack.
ST: Is there a specific process you have for naming your songs, they seem very literal at times. (Ie. Brainwormed)
MD: Not really. I just like the sound of certain phrases and words … if I hear something catchy I write it down and maybe use it someday. But often a phrase will come to mind while working on a track, or a current event or something happening around me will inspire things. That said, all of the songs I’ve down with outside vocalists (such as Lisa Shaw) were named by the singer.
ST: How has technology, (ie. Social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook) impacted the business of your music?
MD: I don’t have to hire a publicist so that’s nice. It’s a bit taxing to do all of this on my own when I should be working on tunes but, at the same time, it’s quite liberating that I can do it all on my own. I personally feel this is the best time in history to be an independent musician. Until recently all music releases had to follow the same path for distribution, publicity, performance, and commerce. Most of the time the bands that succeeded were the ones that had the most label money behind them. Now it seems that success follows the musicians who are the most creative and that’s totally exciting. It’d be much better to sit around and think of wild and creative ways to get one’s music out there than going over another label marketing plan.
ST: Has technology affected the way you create music?
MD: Well, technology got me into creating music. I always wanted to be a producer in the electronic realm ever since I became aware of that role. I believe that was when I was first exposed to Trevor Horn (Art Of Noise, Frankie Goes To Hollywood producer) when I was like 15. I just wanted to be him. So, yes. But, that said, I remain very instinctual in the studio and try to not let the gear dominate. I come from the school of exploiting limitation. I think my most creative recordings were made when I only had a four track cassette recorder, a microphone, a reverb box, and a drum machine. I also like the idea of getting to know a piece of gear intimately over time rather than constantly buying new toys. My main keyboard is still the Roland Juno-106 that I bought with my lawn-mowing money in the mid-80’s. I know that thing as well as I know my right arm.
ST: Who would you like to work with professionally?
MD: I’m a terrible collaborator. I get real antsy in the studio working with other people because I like to get in these weird creative zones … other people sort of distract that from happening. I can’t really imagine working with any musical person I really admire as I’d probably just be intimidated and would hold back. But, that said, I was just in Aberdeen, Scotland and started a promising cut with Funky Transport … we’re going to each finish versions separately. I’m also supposed to get together with Jack from Meat Beat Manifesto in a couple weeks to play around with some modular synths, but I think that’s just going to be for fun. But who knows.
ST: What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to offer your audience?
MD: Comfortable shoes and an open mind are great assets on the dance floor.
ST: Describe a Q-Burns fan.
MD: A funny story I like to tell is of when I was in my early 20’s and playing guitar in a popular regional shoegazer band. Like most young guitarists I was optimistic that my band membership would lead to a long line of female groupies. But after each show the only people who would approach me would be geeky guys with glasses who wanted to ask me about my guitar pedals. The fanbase now is a bit more varied, maybe because of the absence of said pedals. I’m happy to say I’ve noticed no one type of Q-Burns Abstract Message fan. I’ve also been told on more than one occasion that I’m sort of a “DJ for those who hate DJs.” That’s kind of nice though I don’t know why anyone would hate DJs.
ST: What’s in your iPod now?
MD: I generally use my iPod only when traveling, and actually mainly listen to talk-oriented podcasts. I guess I just need a beak from music sometimes. My favorite podcasts at the moment are Radio Lab (http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/), the always trusty This American Life (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/), and The Sound Of Young America (http://www.maximumfun.org/). I also like the Canada-based science podcast Quirks and Quarks (http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/). It’s no secret: I’m a bit of a science nerd.
ST: When are you coming to Toronto?
MD: As soon as someone books me up there. Know anyone? I’d love to make it back up again.
ST: Thank you for your time!
MD: Thank you!