DJMREX is a new project from Douglas J McCarthy (Nitzer Ebb) and Cyrusrex. Eschewing conventional song structures whilst using an analog modular synth system, Douglas’ pained vocals lend the Warp-influenced tracks a layer of struggle. They’ve only been together four months but in that time they’ve already written fifteen songs and played at the Stade de France with Depeche Mode. Whilst January 2014 sees them open for Skinny Puppy on their US tour. We caught up with the LA based duo to discuss the excitement of unpredictability, Aphex Twin and LA’s inherent darkness.
Thomas Gorton: You’ve got a lot of equipment in the studio and centre your sound around an analog modular synth system. Is it a problem to recreate that live?
Douglas J McCarthy: It’s normally the reason that we get rid of managers and tour managers, because we don’t want to play a lot of venues. When Nitzer Ebb first started, we’d turn up an SH-101, a floor tom, a snare and a cymbal. We’d do the soundcheck and they’d be like ‘so where’s the bass and guitar’. We’d say ‘no, that’s it, that’s all we’ve got’.
In the interim it’s gone to the other extreme, even in rock ‘n’ roll club people are now so used to people just DJing out of a laptop or the entire show comes from a laptop. We’re not like that, especially when we’re using the modular stuff. We also find that loads of sound engineers are permanently stoned too, I guess if you do thirty bands a week that’s the only way to get through it. Mostly they’ve got the best intentions but are all shit.
Thomas Gorton: How long have you been playing as DJMREX?
Cyrusrex: Actually, only about four months. We’ve had the intentions for about a year.
DJM: We’ve both got a fairly minute attention span. The way that we worked on this record was that we’d come in with a blank piece of paper, so to speak, and start with something completely fresh every day, get it to a level we were happy with and then come back to it. Sometimes it was recognisable, sometimes when we come back to stuff we say ‘what the fuck were we doing there’?
CR: We’ve recorded fifteen tracks in four months, we hadn’t really had the time until then, I’ve got a work schedule that means I’m travelling a lot. Even in that four months we’ve been away with Depeche Mode and Cold Cave, so actual studio time hasn’t been that long.
TG: How did you go down with Depeche Mode fans?
DJM: Yeah it was good. Depeche Mode fans are notoriously judgemental and difficult but those that knew anything about my background, there’s a lot of history between Depeche Mode and Nitzer Ebb. A lot of people still talk about shows from that Violator tour, come up to me and say ‘that’s the first show I ever saw and it’s not been beaten since’. They seemed to really like it, seemed to get what we were doing.
TG: Nitzer Ebb had a fearsome reputation as a live act. Do you feel that onstage is a place that transmits your music most honestly or on record?
CR: We’re trying to improvise a lot more, both in the studio and live. We’re revamping the way that we play live now to make it a lot more freeform.
DJM: We want live to be a far more involving situation. If people come and see two DJMREX shows back to back, we like the idea that they aren’t the same. We want to introduce a lot more of that loose feel, like we were talking about having that spontaneity in the studio, we want to have it live too. Even though we’re using precision electronics, we want each show to be tailored to the environment we’re in, the way the audience feels, the way that we’re feeling.
CR: I want it to be less contrived, have a bit of chaos and be dangerous. You can play with a laptop, everything will be precise and perfect, but I want that chance of things going wrong.
TG: There’s been a real return to hardware in electronic music recently hasn’t there?
DJM: Yeah, but things like The Tempest drum machine are essentially small computers without a big screen. We’re constantly looking at ways to eradicate the computer from our live setup. To try and get rid of structure is the goal.
TG: How does your creative partnership work? What’s the process, and how does it work in the gestation of ideas?
CR: It depends, it’s gone both ways. Sometimes Douglas will come in with a melodic idea on a synth, or guitar, or possibly even just a vocal concept and we’ll go from there. Or I’ll start patching the modular and while I’m patching Douglas will come up with something on the spot that proves to be the end result of the song, he’s amazing like that. So that’s why everything is very fluid and fast for us.
TG: When I was listening to [DJMREX tracks] Rules Of History and Avalanche Of Apathy I was really reminded of early Warp and Rephlex releases.
CR: Yeah, Aphex is a huge influence on me for sure, since I was fifteen or sixteen I’ve been into Aphex Twin. The whole style of Aphex’s writing is modular and classical with drum machines and synths, similar to the way I work, so there’s definitely a lot of the same tones. My favourite two records are probably Selected Ambient Works or Drukqs.
TG: What do you think of electronic music in 2013 and where do you see DJMREX fitting into that? Who do you think of as your contemporaries?
CR: I don’t really know of anyone doing the same kind of stuff, using vocals in the way that we do. We try and make each track different, it’s not all hard techno, or experimental electronica. I’m not sure who’s doing that right now. You see artists release a record using one style but we want to touch on a lot of genres throughout one record.
DJM: Our goal with all of the tracks is to treat each one as an individual entity, each one has to live in its own world and be complete. We see everything as a fragment within the whole world of DJMREX.
TG: I noticed that you’ve buried your vocals quite deep in the mix, it adds a desperation and a struggle to the sound, was this a conscious artistic decision?
CR: From the beginning, one of the main things that I talked to Douglas about was getting away from any past association from Douglas has done before, being a frontman. Any time I hear Douglas being talked about, it’s in relation to Nitzer Ebb. That can be frustrating. That’s why our first track has so few words in it, so that when people hear it we can say to them that this is something new that Douglas is doing that’s a clean break from the past.
DJM: There was a show we did in Chicago, a festival of industrial music. We played exclusively new DJMREX material and at first people were confused. By the end the thing that people were saying most was that they loved the sparsity of lyrics and that they concentrated on more because it was more infrequent, because it’s buried deeper.
TG: What else outside of music influences you?
DJM: We live in a fairly geographically dynamic part of the world. You have the ocean, the mountains and the desert all equidistant from where we live in downtown LA. It’s a hostile but incredibly beautiful geographical environment. On top of that you have the weirdness of what LA is. It’s also more or less all under construction. Everything’s turning into a new building. There’s a renaissance happening within the city.
Underneath all of this there’s all these amazing stories, the dynamics beneath the veneer of LA. When I first came out here in the 90s, what is now the most salubrious part of LA to live in was dangerous and dead. You can’t live in an environment like this without this coming at you all the time. There’s a book about LA called The History Of Forgetting about the geo-political, out and out racist, genocidal approach to neighbourhoods and the expansion of LA. That and the weirdness of the LAPD being fascistic all adds up to something you can’t ignore.
However, both of us firmly believe that there’s more creativity and artistic integrity to the people that live here, more so than London, Berlin or New York, places that are supposedly cultural hubs. We get more inspiration and are productive in LA than anywhere else, it’s a big influence on us.
TG: Where next for DJMREX?
CR: To go even stranger, into even weirder territories, with less song structure.
DJM: Less songs, more esoteric, more fun.